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: How the Xbox 360 Influenced the Xbox One

Following Footsteps: How the Xbox 360 Influenced the Xbox One

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This is the first 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 Xbox 360 and Xbox One.  The next article will deal with the PS3 and PS4, and the final article will discuss the Wii and Wii U.

Consoles are a major investment for a company.  When Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo sit down to start planning a new gaming platform, they know they will be spending many years and hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars on research and prototypes before the platform is completed and brought to market.  They have to make a plan, learning both from the lessons of the past as well as the trends heading into the future.  This article (and the two articles that will follow) examines the former, how a platform-holder looks at their previous hardware and decides what aspects are worth continuing into the next generation, and what past problems need to be avoided as they move forward.  Let’s start with Microsoft, examining a few major aspects of the Xbox One that were influenced, for better or for worse, by the Xbox 360.

If you buy an Xbox One and pull it out of the box to start setting it up, one of the first things you’ll likely notice about Microsoft’s new console is its sheer size.  It is a large (and hefty) console, noticeably bigger than either of its 8th generation rivals.  While there are a variety of reasons why this could be the case, perhaps one of the more interesting reasons is the large fan used to cool the Xbox One hardware.

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Xbox 360 teardown (two small cooling fans)

 

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Xbox One teardown (one very large cooling fan)

The fan that Microsoft’s engineers settled on for their new platform is substantially larger than those found in the PS4 or Wii U, and allows the console to easily cool itself down without making much noise.  The decision to include such a large fan can likely be traced back to one of the first challenges Microsoft faced with the Xbox 360.  In the first few years of its lifecycle, many Xbox 360 consoles suffered from a hardware problem (commonly known as the “Red Ring of Death” for the glowing red rings that appeared around the power button when the problem occurred) that caused the console to overheat to the point of rendering it inoperable; this malfunction made the Xbox 360 a far less reliable console than Sony’s PS3 or Nintendo’s Wii. While future revisions of the 360 hardware largely eliminated this problem, Microsoft’s engineers likely had this debacle in mind when designing the 360’s successor, and sought to ensure that it would not be a problem on the Xbox One.

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The dreaded “Red Ring of Death”

 

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Xbox 360 (left) and PlayStation 3 controllers

 

While the 360’s console hardware received some harsh criticism, its controller received near universal praise and was widely regarded as superior to Sony’s PS3 controller, the Dualshock 3.   The 360 pad was sturdier and generally more comfortable, and the presence of proper triggers (rather than the Dualshock 3’s gummy, convex buttons) made it the go-to controller for shooters.  PC gamers also gravitated toward the 360 controller for their own games, as Microsoft made it easy for people to set up a wired 360 pad to a Windows computer.  With all this praise for the 360’s controller, Microsoft knew they had to tread carefully when creating the controller for the Xbox One.  Rather than introduce any radical changes to the new controller’s design and risk fixing what wasn’t broken, Microsoft opted to play it safe, implementing a variety of more subtle changes to improve the experience that people had become accustomed to, most significantly a higher-quality D-pad (often considered the 360 controller’s one key weakness) and new rumble motors located within the triggers.  The result is a controller that maintains the comfortable, practical design of its predecessor and, most people who have experience playing games on the Xbox 360 or a PC should feel right at home with it.

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Xbox One (left) and Xbox 360 controllers

 

Throughout the lifespan of the 360 Microsoft frequently updated the console’s operating system (OS), adding new features and even dramatically re-organizing the dashboard as they did in 2008 with the NXE (“New Xbox Experience”) and in 2011 with their Metro-style re-design.  While the Xbox One is still too young to need a radical new dashboard, Microsoft has continued the trend of consistent updates with this console, releasing a new update for the Xbox One almost every month since the console launched in 2013, and often introducing new features that fans have been asking for on forums and on Microsoft’s own feedback website.

Perhaps one of the most controversial carry-overs from the 360 era to Xbox One is the Kinect, Microsoft’s peripheral used to track body motion and register voice commands.  The Kinect for the Xbox 360 sold extremely well at its launch in November 2010, briefly taking the prize in the Guinness Book of World Records as the Fastest-Selling Consumer Electronics Device. Dance Central from developer Harmonix and Kinect Sports from Microsoft’s own studio Rare became big hits for the new hardware, and Microsoft worked to integrate voice and gesture functionality into the 360’s user interface.  This early success convinced Microsoft to bundle a new, improved version of the Kinect with each Xbox One console.  Kinect became a key part of Microsoft’s early marketing campaign for the One, with many commercials showing off the console’s ability to switch between games and TV functionality using Kinect voice commands.

On the one hand, bundling the new Kinect with each console right out of the gate allowed Microsoft to build both the console and the camera from the ground up to work well together, making all the major features and settings easily accessible with a simple voice command or gesture.

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A demonstration of Xbox One Kinect motion-tracking

 

On the other hand, it also led Microsoft to lean a bit too heavily on the Kinect for navigating through the Xbox One operating system, as certain features were much more difficult to find if you forgot the proper voice command and had to search through the OS with the controller.  Price became a problem as well; bundling the Kinect forced Microsoft to sell the Xbox One for a steep price of $499, while Sony, in separating their PlayStation Camera from the new PlayStation 4, could sell the PS4 for just $399.  Consumers also reacted poorly to the Kinect-centric marketing, especially in light of Sony’s gaming-centric message coming out of E3 2013.  The consumer backlash (surrounding not only the inclusion of Kinect but also policies regarding the console’s internet requirements) was strong enough to convince Microsoft to start making changes to the Xbox One, and fast.

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Phil Spencer

 

Among the most significant changes was a shift in leadership, with Phil Spencer, the head of Microsoft Studios (Microsoft’s game publishing arm), taking a new role as “Head of Xbox” in March 2014, putting him in charge of all software for the platform.  Marketing quickly became much more focused on games, and just a couple months later the Redmond-based tech giant announced that the Xbox One would become available without Kinect for $399, matching the PS4.  In addition, Microsoft has added new controller-based shortcuts to help players find certain features more easily without voice commands, and to generally make the operating system more intuitive.

In the end, the lessons Microsoft learned from the Xbox 360 were a mixed bag. Early mistakes, including:

– Kinect being bundled with every Xbox One console

– The high market price

– TV/Kinect-centric marketing

…put Microsoft in a hole as soon as the console was announced, one that they have been climbing out of ever since.  Thankfully, Microsoft also made some very smart decisions going from the 360 to the One:

+ The Xbox One controller is a worthy successor to one of the greatest controllers ever made

+ The Xbox One hardware is far less prone to failure than the 360

+ The consistent updates bring interesting new features and keep the platform feeling fresh

Despite their missteps, Microsoft has built a solid platform on which to play games and enjoy other entertainment, and their ability to adjust to consumer demand very quickly (more quickly than one might expect from such an enormous corporation) will help the Xbox One remain relevant in the years to come.

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.

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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.

Review – Sunset Overdrive

Platform: Xbox One

Developer: Insomniac Games

Publisher: Microsoft

Genre: Open World, Third-Person Shooter

ESRB Rating: M – Mature

For many years, escapism from the real world has been one of the main draws to people who play video games.  In the world of a video game, the impossible can become a reality, letting you do things that could never happen in real life.  Sunset Overdrive recognizes this fact and embraces it.  This new open world shooter from Insomniac Games (best known as the creators of the Ratchet and Clank, Resistance, and Spyro franchises) lets you bounce off shrubs, hang from telephone wires, and shoot fireworks at robots.  In short, it’s absolutely ridiculous in all the best ways.

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Story

In Sunset Overdrive you begin as an ordinary guy or gal in Sunset City working a dead-end job for Fizzco, the giant corporation who runs just about everything in town.  Fizzco hosts a party for the city, inviting everyone to try out their new energy drink, Overcharge Delirium XT, before it gets shipped worldwide.  Unfortunately, everyone who drinks Overcharge turns into a raving mutant, and Fizzco cuts Sunset City off from the rest of the world in an attempt to hide its mistake and protect its pocketbook.  For you, however, this crisis is your chance to shred the rulebook, dress how you want, and turn the city into a playground as you seek to expose Fizzco’s plans.

Humor unabashedly drives the storytelling in Sunset Overdrive.  Your character routinely breaks the fourth wall as you interact with the game’s zany characters, who routinely send you off to perform menial, silly tasks to make them happy (such as retrieving a robotic dog for a preppy student who does nothing but text her friends all day).  All these characters are fairly one-dimensional, but more often than not their sincerity in the middle of such ridiculous situations makes them rather endearing.

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Gameplay

Traversal in Sunset Overdrive is very reminiscent of the old Dreamcast title Jet Set Radio, and is easily the most enjoyable aspect of the game.  Bouncing off cars and grinding along rails and powerlines are the quickest ways to get around town, and the transitions between all of the grinds, wall runs, bounces, and pole swings are fast and fluid.  The game further encourages you to get off the ground via the Amp and Style systems; Amps are upgrades that can be applied to the main character and to your weapons, and as you fill up the Style Meter at the top of the screen, these Amps activate and add additional deadly effects to your actions.  Some notable examples include an ammo Amp that stuns enemies and a character Amp that causes explosions when you bounce off cars and other objects.

As you bounce and grind through Sunset City, you’ll find plenty of enemies just waiting to put an end to your fun.  Mutants rely on their large numbers to swarm and overwhelm the player, while most human “Scabs” and Fizzco robots attack from a distance with guns or lasers.  The wild and wacky weapons at your disposal are more than capable of handling what the game throws at you, though, from the explosive TNTeddy to the chilling Freeze Bomb.  Different guns are more effective against different enemies, encouraging you to try out new weapons as you acquire them.

My only real disappointment with Sunset Overdrive lies in game’s the lack of difficulty.  Once you learn to stay on grind rails or bouncing into the air, enemies rarely pose much of a threat, even during the game’s later missions.  Bosses are just as silly and amusing as the rest of the game, but the ease with which they can be dispatched robs the player of the sense of accomplishment that should follow these climactic fights.

In addition to the main story missions, the open world of Sunset City is filled with side quests and other activities.  The friendly survivors have tasks for you to do beyond the main story missions, and there are a variety of smaller, timed challenges available throughout the city as well, such as smashing TVs in a back alley or delivering bombs to enemy bases.  Sunset Overdrive’s cooperative multiplayer mode, called Chaos Squad, tasks a group of up to eight players to tackle several of these timed challenges in a row, culminating with a round of Night Defense, in which the team protects vats of Overcharge from thirsty mutants.  Between the main missions and all of these optional activities, there is enough content in the game to keep you occupied for at least twenty hours.

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Presentation

Sunset City bursts with color and absolutely oozes style.  Bright blue skies smile upon you as you bounce and grind your way through the streets.  Mutants explode into orange goo.  The energetic rock soundtrack, which dynamically becomes louder and more complex as combat intensifies, complements the frenetic action on screen.  All these sights and sounds reinforce the lighthearted tone of the game, and they fit well alongside the silly characters and blatantly unrealistic gameplay mechanics.

Just as important as the appearance of the environment is the customization of your character.  In addition to selecting your gender, body size, hair, and facial features, you can also choose from a wide variety of clothes, ranging from the relatively normal (like jeans and t-shirts) to the downright insane (like a pair of briefs with a kangaroo head on the crotch).  All of these aspects of your character’s appearance can be changed at any time and slapped together into any combination you desire.  As you progress through the game you gain access to plenty of additional clothes, either purchased with in-game currency or rewarded for completing quests, so there’s plenty of incentive to go back to your wardrobe from time to time and try out your new garb.

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Conclusion

The bright, upbeat world of Sunset Overdrive invites you to hop in and just have fun.  Nothing is meant to be taken seriously, and that’s a good thing, because it lets you do all sorts of crazy, awesome things that don’t make sense in real life, or even in most other video games.  So go put on your best necktie and a pair of gym shorts; it’s time to blow up some bad guys and save Sunset City.

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.