Archives for category: Editorial

Ok, so I’m a day late, but I thought I’d wish you all a Happy New Year. I had been hoping to put up a similar post for Christmas, but unfortunately I was without power (and heat, and light…) for five days beginning on Christmas Eve. So ‘Happy New Year’ it is!

I also wanted to post an update on what’s happening with my Games of the Generation series. My original intention was to have them all finished before the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 launched back in November, but knowing how I write, that was probably a bit naïve. I have about five more that I’ve barely started, so getting those pieces up is going to be my plan for January.

There’s also the issue of my backlog; there are games I’m yet to play that I think may end up on the list, so I’ve decided to just keep writing about my favourite games of the last generation for the foreseeable future. The series will be done when it’s done.

Going forward, I also have an extra platform to cover, having bought myself a Wii U just before Christmas. I couldn’t resist the lure of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, a beautiful remake of a game I stupidly ignored ten years ago (despite owning a GameCube). Christmas always feels like a good time to play through one of Link’s adventures, and it helps that I also received a copy of excellent 3DS title A Link Between Worlds and the frankly enormous Hyrule Historia hardback companion to the series as gifts. It’s going to be a very Zelda new year!

For now, I’m going to focus on playing a few games as I missed out during Christmas. I’ll be back to writing next week.

witchban_editedIt says something about the The Witcher 2 that it’s one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played, despite the fact I’ve only experienced about half of it.

These days, many games offer choice to their players, yet how far-reaching these decisions are depends on the game; your choices in the Mass Effect series may dictate who lives and who dies for instance, but many decisions tend to be rather binary choices that descend into “if this, then that” scenarios that don’t tend to have a wider impact on the game world than who you take on a mission with you.

But The Witcher 2 goes a step further, one major choice effectively changing the entire course of the game. After a scene-setting prologue in which Geralt of Rivia (the titular Witcher) witnesses, and is subsequently framed for, the death of a king, he sets off with Vernon Roche, head of the deceased monarch’s special forces, to prove his innocence and hunt down the man responsible. His first lead takes him to the dreary riverside town of Flotsam, where he’s tracked down Iorveth, leader of a band of renegade elves that he suspects have helped the true kingslayer to flee.

Of course, this being a world made of numerous shades of grey, things aren’t quite that simple. Iorveth leads a group of Scoia’tael, bands of elven and dwarven guerrillas in a world where non-humans are persecuted, and to many he’s nothing more than a terrorist. As the saying goes: “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, and so the man you initially set out to hunt down becomes a potential ally. By the end of the first chapter we’re forced to make a quick decision: do we stick with Roche and tend to matters in Flotsam, or do we set off with Iorveth on the trail of the assassin?

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This single choice leads to two wildly different outcomes. With Iorveth, we end up in the Dwarven town of Vergen, supporting a young warrior facing off an expansionist king’s army while she strives to establish a multi-racial state. If we decide to travel with Roche, we’re on the opposite side of that same conflict, in a completely separate area with different quests, objectives and new characters that you’d otherwise never come across.

Portioning off masses of content like this is great for replayability (I still need to run the Roche path in a second playthrough), but is also somewhat risky; there are plenty of people out there who will only play the game once through and not even know what they’re missing, after all. It shows great confidence in their fiction that CD Projekt RED would offer such differing paths through the storyline of The Witcher 2, and even better is the somewhat-delayed nature of the branching paths in the game. Often, you’ll make a decision and think it’s had very little effect on your adventure at all. It’s only hours later that you’ll see the full repercussions of your actions, and this forces you to own your choices; you can’t reload and try out the other path (unless you want to lose hours of progress), so you just have to accept the fallout and move on, knowing that next time you’ll stop to consider your actions, conscious of the path you want to take through the game’s narrative.

And what a story it is, tackling mature themes such as racism, terrorism and political maneuvering, all through a dark fantasy lens. Following on from the first game’s excellent final cinematic, Geralt finds himself in the employ of King Foltest of Temeria as he attempts to put down a revolt, and later carves a path through the Northern Kingdoms in an attempt to uncover the machinations of a lodge of magicians, the disappearance of his one-time lover and the memories he has lost since he apparently returned from death. It’s an epic tale that plays out in a somewhat-muted manner, lending the tale a very grounded, human feel despite the dragons, the sorceresses and the mythical creatures Geralt earns his coin by slaying. It’s the perfect tone for the game to take, eschewing the usual AAA Hollywood-style theatrics in favour of something that better serves the multi-layered, mature story.

Combat has been overhauled from the first game. Just as in The Witcher, Geralt carries two swords – a silver blade for use against monsters and a steel one for more earthly foes – but here you have either a fast or a heavy attack rather than the previous game’s three stances. Replacing Geralt’s spins and pirouettes is a handy dodge-roll for getting out of trouble, and the first game’s magical Signs make a reappearance here as well. Combat certainly feels more tactile and involving than the previous game’s mouse-clicks-and-die-rolls system, and you really need to know how and when to use each element of the system to your advantage; risk a slow, heavy strike at the wrong time and you could be in trouble. Similarly, you don’t want to allow yourself to get surrounded, as this will lead to Geralt being bounced around like a pinball as all of your enemies take their shot at you, knocking you out of your attack animation.

If this sounds punishing, well… it is. Or rather, it can be. The best thing to do in The Witcher 2 is to play defensively, sussing out the enemy’s weaknesses, finding an opening and then exploiting it mercilessly. It’s exhilarating when you work your way through a group of enemies by sheer skill and quick thinking, because if you just try to hack and slash, you won’t last long at all.

There are a couple of minor irritations in combat, however. I mentioned enemies knocking you out of attack animations, and that’s a symptom of probably the most potentially frustrating niggle in the game – when you make a move, take a swipe or prepare a sign, you have to commit to it. You can’t bail out part-way through the animation to dodge-roll or block, so you really need to know how and when to move. Secondly, you can only use potions (concoctions that confer buffs on Geralt) before you enter combat, meaning you generally have to know (or at least suspect) a battle is coming up ahead of time. This is a change from the first game, where you could down a potion if you could manage to create a bit of space in a fight.

These minor issues wouldn’t really matter if the combat wasn’t occasionally uneven – there are some brutal difficulty spikes in the game, though generally you can get through them by thinking about the situation and trying a different strategy. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to see both these issues either tweaked or changed entirely in the upcoming sequel.

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Visually, The Witcher 2 is a beautiful game, even on 360 (the version I played, which seems to be roughly on-par with PC on medium). This is partly thanks to CD Projekt’s impressive tech and partly down to their excellent art direction. I mentioned Flotsam earlier, but it’s the surrounding forest that really steals the show in this early section of the game; dark, foreboding and densely multi-layered, it’s straight out of a Brothers Grimm folktale, with the canopies of huge trees blotting out the light, branches twisted into gnarled curlicues. It’s a fabulously atmospheric setting in a game that’s absolutely rammed with them – just wait until you first spy the quarry near Vergen.

And I haven’t even mentioned the characters, all of whom are well-defined and uniformly deliver excellent dialogue. It’s certainly a clear step up from the first game in that regard, even returning characters like Zoltan and Dandelion seemingly infused with more character. The absolute stand-out for me is the mysterious Letho, a man whose appearance belies his intelligence. In fact, I enjoyed his character so much that I made a decision near the game’s end that I wouldn’t have thought likely at the tale’s start. I really hope we see him again in The Witcher 3.

And speaking of The Witcher 3, it’s probably my most anticipated next-gen title on the horizon right now. All I need to do is play through Geralt’s first two adventures again beforehand, experiencing those paths less trodden along the way. CD Projekt have made it clear that the upcoming third game will bring Geralt’s tale to a close and, looking as impressive as it currently does, I think they’re going to leave us with one of the best trilogies in all of gaming.

Previous entries in Games of the Generation:
Dead Space 2
Tales of Vesperia
Halo 3
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy
To the Moon

xboxonePlayStation 4 may have launched a few days ago in the US, but here in the UK we’re less than a week away from the next generation. Microsoft’s Xbox One launches in just five days time (with the UK launch of the PS4 set to follow a week later) and in the build-up to the big day retailer GAME has been holding ‘lock-in’ events in their stores for eager gamers to try out the new machine. I attended one on Friday and thought I’d share some thoughts (and pictures!) with you.

Arriving outside my local store just before 8PM, a small crowd had already gathered. In total, about twenty people had turned up to try out Microsoft’s new box of tricks (not too surprising, considering the bitter cold), and we queued patiently for around 15 minutes before we could get inside to the blessed warmth, fending off the occasional question of “Oi blud, what game iz you waitin’ for?” with mumbled one-word responses.

When we finally got inside, we found six Xbox One consoles (complete with chunky Kinect sensors) lined up along one wall. Two were playing Ryse, another two featured Dead Rising 3 and the final pair of systems were running Forza Motorsport 5 and FIFA 14 (which was the only title that allowed a two-player game). We were eager to get to the gaming, but unfortunately we had to first stand through a barely-working slideshow presentation (featuring a few clips of now-ex Microsoft exec Don Mattrick – oops?) while some insipid Nickelback tune played over the store’s speakers. Thankfully, Nickelback was turned off mid-song, but we still had the slideshow to get through. Ten minutes later and we were free to avail ourselves of the next generation.

dr3sharkMy two friends and I decided to give Dead Rising a bash to begin with. I managed to play the demo twice over the course of the evening, which was handy as I couldn’t manage to figure out how to combine items the first time around (pro-tip: hold RB). I came across a van and a forklift truck at one point and stood trying to turn them into a combo vehicle for a few seconds; generally, I’d just try every button, but having to stand in one place in the midst of a zombie apocalypse isn’t really an option so I had to run away.

On my second attempt (having been told how to combine by a helpful staff member), I happened to come across a motorbike parked on a roof terrace by a pool. Quite what it was doing on a roof I’m sure I’ll never discover, but luckily there was a ramp leading off the building so I sped off the edge and landed right next to a steamroller. Yes. I built a rollerhawg.

The playable slice of Dead Rising 3 was a timed demo (I didn’t time it myself, but it felt about ten to fifteen minutes in length), and having watched a few videos of the game beforehand, I did notice that some areas that should have been accessible were cordoned off with high concrete walls – I’m guessing we were given a small portion of the world to roam around in. There were also no objectives to undertake, but then it wouldn’t have been possible to complete any in the time given so we got to focus on trying out a variety of weapons and costumes (I managed to dress up protagonist Nick Ramos in a big shark suit, a medieval knight’s suit of armour and a lady’s dress) and try and turn as many of the undead denizens of Los Perdidos into pulp as possible. The rollerhawg had me grinning like an idiot and helped me to amass more than a thousand kills. Also, hitting zombies with a baguette is not very effective.

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Next up was Ryse: Son of Rome, a game I’ve been rather unsure of. Since it’s reveal at this year’s E3 I’ve thought it looked astoundingly pretty. I also quite like the setting of the game and the fact that Crytek have gone for full-on performance capture, giving the game a blockbuster cinematic look. But I’ve been a bit worried about the gameplay; I think a lot of people got the wrong end of the stick after the E3 reveal when they started to complain about the game being nothing but QTEs, though I thought it was pretty damn clear that these were simply contextual execution animations. So that wasn’t my worry. I simply wasn’t sure it’d be much fun. Thankfully, I really enjoyed the demo.

The slice of gameplay on offer was the multiplayer colosseum combat we’ve seen plenty of footage of, though strangely it was only single-player – a little confusing, considering two consoles next to one another were running the same thing. I would’ve liked to try it in co-op with a friend. We were treated to some wave-based combat in a shifting arena that offered some mild objectives (destroy catapults by tipping burning oil on them, kill archers on a raised platform and so on), but the first thing that really struck me is just how beautiful it looked. At one point between waves, I stopped to pan the camera around the colosseum taking in the surroundings, the crowd baying for blood while multi-coloured confetti danced through the air. It was incredibly impressive stuff, much as you’d expect from Crytek, and I can’t wait to see the environments in the single player campaign.

Combat is pretty enjoyable, allowing you to settle into a decent rhythm of shield bashes, sword slashes, dodge-rolls and executions. Blocking enemy attacks is timing-based – tap ‘A’ too early, and your avatar will simply knock his sword against his shield in a taunt, leaving you open to attack. Hit the button just as an attack comes in, however, and you’ll deflect the enemy’s blow and instead leave them open to sword slashes. Of course, you can also dodge-roll out of the way if you think you’ll miss the timing, but you probably won’t get an opening in their defences that way. Enemies are quick to surround you and they don’t wait for you to dispatch their comrades before lunging in as Assassin’s Creed‘s hordes are wont to do, so you always have to keep an eye out to see who’s about to take a swipe at you and time your blocks accordingly.

When you’ve done enough damage to a barbarian, you’ll see a skull appear above their head. Pulling RT will segue you into an execution animation, with the enemy being outlined in a specific colour to denote a button press: blue for the ‘X’ button, yellow for ‘Y’. It doesn’t seem possible to fail these – missing the prompt seems to result in the execution playing out anyway, just with you receiving a lower score. It’s also possible to chain executions by injuring more than one enemy to execution states and then positioning yourself between them before pulling on the trigger. These sections are all about the grisly, slow motion spectacle and despite the lack of player agency they’re good fun.

Whether or not they will still be enjoyable after ten hours remains to be seen however, and that goes for game itself too. I thoroughly enjoyed my short time with Ryse, enough to put down a pre-order, so I do hope the campaign will be engaging across its length. I also think the multiplayer could be quite fun with a competent friend in the same way as most other horde/survival modes. At the very least, I’m sure I’ll enjoy the story, and Ryse is certainly a fantastic graphical showcase for the new system.

forza5
After hacking through waves of barbarians, it was time to drive a shiny car through some shiny environments in Forza Motorsport 5. I found this beautiful racing game to be the standout graphical showcase of the event – it’s genuinely stunning. I’ve watched plenty of videos of Turn 10’s next-gen launch title and marvelled at the visuals, but it looks so much better in person; the way you can see your car’s dashboard reflected in the windscreen is particularly impressive, as is the way the sunlight plays across the asphalt as you make your way around the course.

I raced a bright yellow McLaren P1 around a single lap of Laguna Seca and got to experience those new impulse triggers firsthand. They’ll take a little getting used to, but I enjoyed the precise feedback even if I struggled to stay on the road a lot of the time – I’m just bad at racing games. Forza 5 is one of my launch day games however, so I’m hopeful I’ll get better, and I look forward to seeing how other games implement those triggers.

As for FIFA? I didn’t play it. My two friends played against one another though, and I’m happy to say it looked like FIFA. Character models in replays did look rather special though. I haven’t bought a football game in years as I just don’t play them often enough to make it worth the money. Happily, FIFA will be coming free with my Xbox One, so I’ll be able to play those occasional matches without having to buy the game.

Back in my Eurogamer Expo piece, I noted down my initial impressions about the new Xbox One controller. At EGX, I only managed to use that pad for ten minutes during a bit of Killer Instinct, but at the GAME lock-in I used it far more. My initial reaction hasn’t drastically changed: I really like that controller. It fits well in the hand, I like the sculpted triggers and it just generally feels right, a clear evolution of the Xbox 360 controller. I did mention in that earlier piece that I thought the bumpers might be a bit more of a stretch than on the current pad and that the sticks felt a little loose, but neither of those complaints held true on Friday; while playing Dead Rising 3, using the bumpers felt just like the 360 controller and the sticks felt noticeably tighter than those I used at EGX – either some adjustments have been made or that pad had taken a bit of abuse. Either way, I really, really like the Xbox One controller, and I can’t wait to get my hands on my own one.

A quick note on the console’s dashboard: I did try to go to the dash once while Forza was loading, but unfortunately it was the development version that you can see in this picture so I couldn’t do anything with it. Interestingly, going into the dashboard also reset the Forza demo, so I had to wait for it to load again before racing my lap. It’s a bit disappointing, though not entirely unexpected, that I couldn’t try out the full release dashboard for myself, but I guess that leaves something for me to discover on my very own Xbox One when it arrives on Friday.

The only disappointment from the lock-in was the lack of Killer Instinct, a game I’ve been itching to play ever since that ten-minute spell at Eurogamer Expo. But again, I won’t have to wait too long to jump back into that on my own system. Overall, the GAME event has made me even more excited to sit down with my Xbox One in four days and get stuck into some shiny next-gen gaming. I can’t wait.

ttmban PLEASE NOTE: This is a piece about a heavily story-driven game, and as such it’s difficult to talk about it in any depth without risk of spoilers. That said, I’ve tried to remain as vague as possible and avoid revealing the bigger plot points. It goes without saying that if you haven’t yet played the game and want to go in a fresh as possible, avoid reading any further!

At first glance, To the Moon probably seems like an odd choice for a Games of the Generation list; built in RPG Maker XP, the game is styled like an old-school 16-bit top-down RPG and combines elements of point’n’click adventure, visual novel storytelling and puzzle games. Looking at screenshots, it certainly doesn’t scream “GAME OF THE GENERATION!”. Of course, screenshots don’t tell the full story, and ‘story’ is the strongest attribute To the Moon has. Indeed, the ‘gameplay’ parts are lightweight to say the least, but To the Moon is an experience that will stay with me for years to come.

The premise behind To the Moon is a technology that allows artificial memories to be created and placed in a patient’s unconscious. Unfortunately, as these new memories are permanent, they would conflict with real memories when the patient wakes, causing cognitive dissonance. For this reason, memory creation can only be performed on those that are on their deathbed, and at the start of the game, we meet doctors Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts as they travel to meet their latest patient, Johnny.

Johnny lives in a large house by a cliff, near to a lighthouse and with a clear view of the object of his desire, the moon. Living with him are his cleaner/carer and her children, and through them the two doctors find out a little more about Johnny and his deceased wife, River. Early on in the story, following the children to the lighthouse, Eva uncovers a number of mysterious papercraft bunnies, items which appear often throughout the story.

The doctors need to know the reason behind Johnny’s desire to go to the moon but he can’t give them an answer; he doesn’t know why he wants to go there, just that he does. With no pre-existing reason to build off of, Rosalene and Watts will have to travel back through his memories to insert the desire to go to the moon into a childhood Johnny, and then let his unconscious mind do the rest, creating a lifetime of false memories where he geared his life towards becoming an astronaut and finally fulfilling his goal.

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As the two doctors travel backwards through Johnny’s memories, we experience his life in reverse. We see a bedridden River beg Johnny to finish building their house instead of using the money to treat her illness, and we begin to get a feeling that River is somehow different; she has difficulty relating to and communicating with others, compulsively makes paper rabbits and continually asks Johnny questions about their past, seemingly not getting the answers she wants. Travelling further back, we learn that River has Pervasive Developmental Disorder, and it turns out that River’s behaviour became more obsessive-compulsive after Johnny admits to having approached her in high school because she was ‘different’.

Eva and Neil eventually reach Johnny’s childhood, but things do not go as planned and they are unable to progress any further into his memories; for some reason, a chunk of their patient’s memory is missing or corrupted. With a bit of hard work, the two doctors manage to uncover the mystery behind the blanked-out memories, a childhood trauma that his mother had tried to blot out with medication, creating a void in her son’s mind. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the only event Johnny had forgotten, and Eva and Neil are finally able to discover the source of Johhny’s desire to reach the moon.

This realisation is beautiful yet ultimately heartbreaking because, having moved backwards through his memories, we know what happens later on in Johnny’s life. Suddenly, everything that River had been doing after Johnny’s confession – the paper bunnies, the endless questions, the changes she makes to her appearance – make perfect sense. River tried, to her dying day, to communicate something to her husband in the only ways she could think to, and she passed away before she could make him see. Johnny is left confused, suffering from guilt, but his previously inexplicable desire to reach the moon now makes sense: subconsciously, he’s desperate to keep a promise he once made to River.

Seeing all of this coalesce makes it clear how incredibly well written To the Moon is. We begin near the end yet still have everything to learn, and it’s fantastically confident stuff from indie developer Freebird, teasing just enough details to make you think “this is important” while still managing to keep the mystery fully under wraps until you uncover the beautiful, heartbreaking, beautifully heartbreaking revelation at the bottom of the rabbit hole that is Johnny’s unconscious mind. Despite the mild sci-fi backdrop, To the Moon‘s story is fundamentally an incredibly human one, a story of a life lived and a love lost, and a story of a very human desire to connect.

Of course, it doesn’t end there. Having identified the reason for Johnny’s wish, the two doctors can then set about making his dream come true. Johnny can finally get his happy ending, yet for me even this is bittersweet. Eva and Neil manage to create the ideal life for Johnny and get him to the moon, but in doing so they must replace his real memories. The real life Johnny and River lived is lost to him, replaced by a fiction. In his mind, Johnny blasts off on a rocket to the moon, River’s hand clasped in his as in the real world he passes away, and while it is a beautiful ending, I can’t help but lament that life that has been lost, that real, tangible, imperfect life.

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To the Moon was released in 2011 but I only got around to it this year. In fact, it was not long after playing through BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us, and it was very coincidental timing. All three of these games are strongly story-based, and focus on an intense connection between two people. All three of these games also have, for me, very bittersweet endings. While they didn’t leave me happy, they did all leave me satisfied, if a bit emotionally drained. I find it interesting that a first-person shooter, a third-person survival game and a top-down visual novel could have so much in common with regards to how they make the player feel. If you’ve played either of those two games, To the Moon should feel like an ideal companion piece.

And I haven’t even mentioned the music yet, that beautiful, emotive score that perfectly fits the mood of the game. The best example of this is ‘For River’, written for her by Johnny and heard at various points throughout the game. The soundtrack as a whole is as much a part of the experience as the story, and I couldn’t imagine the game without it. Just hearing snatches of music from it brings back those emotional feelings I felt upon finishing the game.

There aren’t many games that I would say everyone should play. To the Moon is absolutely one of them, and its simplistic gameplay helps in this regard; not everyone is going to feel comfortable playing BioShock Infinite or The Last of Us and may thus miss out on those stories. But this is a game anyone can (and most definitely should) play. It’s one of the best stories in all of gaming as far as I’m concerned, and if you like strong, emotional storytelling in your interactive fiction, you absolutely owe it to yourself to play it. And if you don’t feel tears welling in your eyes by the time the credits roll, I’d question if you’re even human.

Previous entries in Games of the Generation:
Dead Space 2
Tales of Vesperia
Halo 3
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy

theatrhythmcharactersI’ve waxed lyrical about Theatrhythm before, Square-Enix’s curious little Final Fantasy-themed rhythm-action title that saw release on the Nintendo 3DS in 2012. I suppose part of my love for it is that it’s as unexpected a candidate for a game of the generation as I could imagine. Even as a huge fan of Final Fantasy and its music, I never thought I’d put eighty-five hours into a handheld rhythm game.

In the run-up to Theatrhythm‘s Japanese release, I had more or less ignored it – it’s exactly the kind of game I’d expect to never make it out of its home territory. So I didn’t know a great deal about it until a demo landed on the 3DS e-store. I had expected it to be a relatively lightweight affair, and the demo didn’t do a great deal to dispel that, offering a choice of two tracks to prod along to (Final Fantasy VIII‘s ‘The Man with the Machine Gun’ and Final Fantasy XIII‘s ‘Sunleth Waterscape’). But this was just a short teaser of the full game; I wasn’t about to judge the full release on a demo alone, and I’d already long-since decided to buy it – it had Final Fantasy music in it, after all.

It was lucky I did. Theatrhythm is a deep, deep game.

So, for the uninitiated, the basics: Theatrhythm first tasks you with choosing a party of four iconic Final Fantasy characters, before embarking on one of three types of music stages. In Field stages, your first character strolls through an environment made up of areas from the game that the music comes from, so during the aforementioned ‘The Man with the Machine Gun’, you’ll see such familiar landmarks as Balamb Garden and Fisherman’s Horizon scroll past as a note chart comes at you from the left. Do well enough in a specific section of the chart and you’ll summon a chocobo to speed you through the stage. Battle stages look much like a Final Fantasy battle of old, with your team of four standing along the right side of the screen, with various monsters appearing as enemies to be vanquished by your performance across four lanes of note charts. Finally, Event stages are note charts set to a montage of emotional cutscene moments. Final Fantasy X‘s ‘Suteki da ne’ is a particular favourite of mine.

Each numbered-series title up to Final Fantasy XIII has its own ‘playlist’ consisting of one of each type of stage, and you can choose to either work through a game at a time in series mode, or pick and choose single tracks to play in challenge mode. However, this being a spin-off from an RPG series, there’s more going on than simply swiping your stylus through fun songs. Each character in your party accrues XP across all modes, increasing both their level and their base stats (strength, magic, agility and luck), as well as collecting equippable skills, items and equipment to help you out in a tough situation. Every character has strengths and weaknesses, which means you need to put some thought into choosing the ideal party for the game’s real challenge: The Chaos Shrine.

This is where you’ll play Dark Notes, special pairs of songs – one field track, one battle – that can be far harder than anything in the other modes (think superfast note charts with spinning arrow notes – you’ll need to figure out which way they’ll be pointing when they reach you!), and it’s through Dark Notes that you’ll get the rare item drops needed to unlock new player characters. Each time you finish a Dark Note you’ll unlock a new one, which will often feature tracks not found in the main game. This is the part of Theatrhythm that will propel your file time into the double-, if not triple-figures. Best of all, if you allow the game access to Streetpass, you might just pick up a new Dark Note from another player – I picked up a ton of them when I took my 3DS to last year’s Eurogamer Expo.

Visually, the game is a real treat. Environments are beautifully drawn and saturated in bright colours, and landmarks and battlefields are easily recognisable from their host games; in Final Fantasy X‘s battle stage you can even spot pyreflies dancing away in the background. But it’s the character designs that are the focus here, with all your favourite Final Fantasy heroes, villains and enemy monsters reproduced in a cute super-deformed art-style. Chibi-Terra is my personal favourite. A word of warning though: this is one 3DS game that I wouldn’t recommend playing with the 3D slider on. While it offers a nice bit of depth to the backgrounds, the note prompts sit on a separate plane on top. This means two separate ‘layers’ are displayed, both moving individually, and trying to focus on one and ignore the other can really wreck your eyes. On the plus side, turning off 3D means you can play Theatrhythm for longer.

The 3DS cart comes packed with more than 70 songs to play through and Square-Enix also supported the game with weekly DLC for a fair while. In all, 52 extra tracks were added and I bought them all. What’s interesting is that they saw fit to add in songs from both Final Fantasy Type-0 and Final Fantasy Versus XIII. The latter has since been shunted to next-gen and renamed Final Fantasy XV, while Type-0 remains unreleased outside of Japan. Perhaps there’s hope yet for the PSP title.

Also stuffed onto the cart is a music player containing all the tracks in the game and a movie viewer, which allows us to watch those gorgeous cutscenes in all their glory, without the distracting note charts drawn all over them. Like the secret characters these all have to be unlocked, though in these cases via ‘Rhythmia’ – an ever-increasing total that you gather by doing well in the game. Also unlockable are ‘CollectaCards‘, effectively in-game ‘trading’ cards depicting characters and enemies. These cards cannot be traded between players, but can be levelled up by getting the same card a number of times as an item drop; at level four, cards become holofoil cards, and at level 7 they turn into platinums. In Theatrhythm, you’re always either unlocking something or working towards something, and it’s a great set of collectibles that keeps you playing for hours.

It’s not all about grinding out those collectibles though. Often, it’s the determination to get a perfect score on every song that brings me back to the game, and no doubt I’ll still be trying to nail down those ultimate perfects when the sequel, Theatrhythm Curtain Call, arrives with new songs, characters and even airships sometime in the indeterminate future.

Previous entries in Games of the Generation:
Dead Space 2
Tales of Vesperia
Halo 3

halo3_112621428_Full“Finish the Fight.”

So goes the tagline for Bungie’s penultimate entry in the series that made them such a force in the industry (it’s also a rousing track from that game’s soundtrack).

This, of course, was before Microsoft’s expensive new custodian of the franchise announced a new trilogy and a new antagonist for us to fight. But in the run-up to Halo 3‘s September 2007 release, we all knew we’d be ending the Flood threat one way or another and bringing (at least this part of) the epic galaxy-spanning space opera to a close. For me, it’s the perfect final chapter for a trilogy that has pretty much defined my last decade of gaming.

I’ve said before that I’m a massive Halo fanboy (behold my awesome Halo 3 and Reach Legendary Editions); I’m one of those strange people that has read (and thoroughly enjoyed) all the books, watched Halo Legends and Forward Unto Dawn multiple times and spent hours upon hours trawling through Halopedia entries trying to piece together the many and varied mysteries of the universe Bungie created.

Yet strangely, the first time I played Halo 3, I was a little underwhelmed. Not massively so – I still enjoyed it immensely. Perhaps I’d simply hyped it up too much in my head, imagining what would happen and where the story would go for so long that nothing could match up to the ideal trilogy-closer that I’d created in my mind. Yet subsequent playthroughs ended up cementing Halo 3 as my favourite game in the series.

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Halo has always been one of those games that you need to dig a bit below the surface to uncover its real depth. Sure, you can slap it on easy or normal and just grab a rifle and fly through enemies, rushing through the game to the final encounter much as you would in a Call of Duty game. But sticking to a single weapon means missing out on the variety of firearms at your disposal, a collection of weaponry where every gun earns its place and has a specific use. Similarly, running from encounter to encounter in Halo 3 without exploring off the beaten track means you’ll never find any of the game’s hidden skulls or terminals, secret items that respectively modify gameplay and uncover backstory from the distant past.

Adding to this combat depth, Halo 3 also introduced equipment into the mix. The precursor of what has since become Halo: Reach and Halo 4‘s armour abilities, equipment were single-use items that gave you access to, amongst others, a health regenerating field, a gravity lift to quickly reach higher areas and the now-iconic bubble shield. The first time I fought my way through the campaign, I played Halo 3 much as I had its predecessors, mostly ignoring equipment as it seemed like an unnecessary extra. Yet like everything in the game it has its place, and learning how and when to use equipment to its full potential takes time, experimentation and a bit of thought.

It was actually while playing through the level ‘Cortana’ that equipment really came into its own. Most people feel the level is the lowest point of the game (Halo 3‘s ‘The Library’, if you will); I always quite liked it for it’s creepy descent into the Flood-filled nest that High Charity had become, and because it meant Chief would finally be reunited with Cortana. I just found it a bit tough (on Heroic and above, because let’s face it, if you’re not playing Halo on at least Heroic you’re doing it wrong). Equipment really comes into its own in ‘Cortana’, helping you to overcome the swarms of tougher ‘pure form’ Flood that have infested what was once the capital of the Covenant’s interstellar empire.

Halo 3 also massively expanded the scale of encounters. The first half of the game takes place on a besieged Earth, as Master Chief, the UNSC and their Sangheili allies attempt to fight off the Prophet of Truth and his Covenant loyalist forces before they can reach the Ark, the Forerunner artefact that holds the power to activating the entire collection of Halo rings scattered throughout the universe. This setting gives the opening hours of the game a sense of continuity with the first handful of levels from Halo 2; granted, the environments are wider than those found in the second game, but Halo 3‘s beginning retains that undeniable sense of forward momentum that drove you through the more linear campaign of Halo 2.

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The encounters are certainly bigger though, and nowhere is this better exemplified than both games’ Scarab battles; whereas the sole Scarab encounter in Halo 2 is an entirely scripted affair, Halo 3‘s Scarabs (of which there are four) are entirely AI-driven. The Chief’s first encounter with one on Earth takes place in a large dust bowl arena with various other small vehicles swarming around the armoured behemoth’s legs, and the Scarab itself has free reign over the terrain. The larger scale and more open nature of the encounter also afford the Master Chief a number of ways to take the Scarab down.

Halo 3‘s best encounter, however, comes in the latter third of the game, in its finest level: ‘The Covenant’. The game massively opens up in the second half as we finally reach the Ark, the extra-galactic control station for the Halo Array, and it’s here that we find the largest levels and the biggest battles. ‘The Covenant’ begins with a beach landing and an assault on Covenant forces entrenched in Forerunner installations along the coast before taking to the skies for an aerial dogfight over the sea. Later, we’re bombing through a forest in a warthog, leading to a tank ride down a snowy mountainside. At the bottom, we’re confronted by a pair of Scarabs. This encounter, of which you can see a screenshot above, is the best battle in the entire game; there’s the Scarabs, there’s banshees and hornets buzzing overhead and on the ground you can jump into a mongoose or a ghost.

And how do you go about taking down those twin Scarabs? Well, you could fly overhead in a hornet and bail out, landing on the top deck, weapon in hand. What’s far more entertaining though, is to hit the ground, get in a mongoose and speed toward a conveniently-placed icy ramp. I’d played this encounter a number of times before I’d even thought to try this, and when I did it was glorious. Tyres somehow gaining traction in the powdery snow, I stormed up that ramp, flying off the lip of the slope and I soared. Here’s proof:

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I jumped out of the vehicle before landing, my momentum carrying me forward, and the mongoose hit the the Scarab before I did. It tumbled end over end on the top deck, rolling straight through that poor Brute chieftain as it went, removing him as a threat just before I hit the deck running. It might just be the best piece of player-driven inspiration I’ve ever experienced in a game.

Halo 3 also added a couple of major features into the series’ formula: Forge and Theatre. Forge allowed players limited map editing abilities; while the base geometry of a map could not be changed, each level has a budget that can spent on various pieces of scenery, weapons, equipment and vehicles. Once the community got to grips with this of course, it ended up spawning thousands of Rube Goldberg machines! I’ve messed around quite a bit in Forge on both Halo 3 and Reach (and though I’ve not yet tried it, the mode remains in Halo 4, having been made much more intuitive), and I couldn’t imagine coming up with something like the contraption in that link. And I spent hours in Halo: Reach‘s Forge World creating an enormous, multi-tiered bridge between all of the constituent parts…

Theatre mode is essentially a replay mode. Whether it’s in campaign or multiplayer, your latest play sessions are held in temporary storage for you to look through. You can save entire replay films, create shorter clips and capture screenshots (fun fact: every image in this piece was made by me in theatre mode from my own campaign runs) and then export them to your own fileshare for others to view. But Theatre’s killer app is its detachable camera; you aren’t tied to your player avatar in theatre mode, you’re free to completely ignore the carnage at ground level and float off to explore the parts of levels that you’ll never otherwise see, or capture birds-eye-view screengrabs of your own in-game exploits.

I have spent hours upon hours in Theatre mode, sometimes watching back some of the cool things I happened to do on a particular run, sometimes simply pausing the action and exploring every nook and cranny in the level, sometimes just framing awesome images like the two that bookend this article – both created from campaign runs. Unfortunately, campaign theatre has been dropped in Halo 4, which is an enormous shame given how spectacular the game looks; I begin to drool thinking about the screenshots I could capture in that campaign. Theatre remains in multiplayer modes though, which means I’m often saving films from competitive sessions where I managed to do better than usual.

There are many reasons why I love the Halo series; the minute-to-minute gunplay, that guns-grenades-melee holy trinity that leads to what Bungie call “thirty seconds of fun, over and over again”, the vehicles, the scope, the beautiful and mysterious sci-fi vistas, the story and the relationship between Cortana and the Chief, and the fact that, thanks to large environments and fantastic AI, encounters can often turn out wildly different each time. What makes Halo 3 one of my games of the generation though is how everything comes together to create such a dense videogame experience: from the trilogy-closing spectacle of the single-player to the fiercely competitive yet supremely balanced multiplayer, and the creative Forge and Theatre modes that allow any of us to create crazy and beautiful things, Halo 3 is one hell of a package.

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Previous entries in Games of the Generation:
Dead Space 2
Tales of Vesperia

vesperiacastI’m a relative newcomer to the Tales of series. My first exposure to the series was the 3DS port of 2005 PS2 entry Tales of the Abyss (which, if you haven’t played it, is fantastic), though a friend had previously urged me to buy a copy of Tales of Symphonia (the UK’s first entry in the long-running series) in 2004, and again in 2009 when 360 exclusive Tales of Vesperia launched. Both times I thought to myself that I’d pick up a copy at some point, and both times that proved impossible, as the meagre launch quantities sold through very quickly and no more copies were printed by publisher Namco-Bandai. The message was clear: buy Tales of games at launch or not at all.

Happily, the growth of download services this gen meant I got a chance to play Vesperia after all as it appeared on Xbox Live’s Games on Demand service in 2011. I finally got around to buying it around the beginning of 2012. And then, in the middle of last year, it suddenly appeared on the virtual shelves of various online retailers; after the success of Tales of the Abyss‘ 3DS port, and with Tales of Graces f on the horizon, Namco-Bandai apparently had renewed confidence in the series’ chances of success outside of Japan. When I saw the game available online, I was part-way through it and absolutely loving it. So of course I bought a physical copy too.

Tales of Vesperia begins in Zaphias, the imperial capital in a world called Terca Lumireis, and it’s here we’re introduced to protagonist Yuri Lowell. Yuri’s adventure begins with a crisis in the lower quarter, the part of the city set aside for the common people. Tellingly, the imperial knights don’t much care for the travails of the commoners, and so, when the power source for the quarter’s fountain is stolen, Yuri sets off to find the culprit by himself.

Yuri himself is a big reason behind my love for Tales of Vesperia; voiced by the now ever-present Troy Baker, he’s not the usual teenage male jRPG protagonist that gets in over his head before finding his inner strength and resolve to save the world. No, when first we meet Yuri he’s a twenty-something ex-Imperial Knight, already skilled with the use of various weapons and disillusioned with the way the world works. Instead of working within the restrictive confines of the system, Yuri wants to change things for the better, helping out those less fortunate along the way, regardless of the law or the personal consequences. This brings him into frequent conflict with his old friend Flynn, a knight rising through the ranks who wants to change the system lawfully from within.

Yuri’s a confident guy, though not to the point of arrogance, and has a cynical, sarcastic streak that plays beautifully with his sweet, charming yet endearingly naïve female counterpart Estellise. The interplay between the two leads becomes the game’s heart, the nexus around which the plot revolves, and the supporting cast that comes together around them is just as memorable; Rita, the teenage mage with an attitude problem, and Raven, the shady, unreliable guild member with a mysterious past are particular favourites, lighting up the frequent, and frequently hilarious, skits that pepper the game with funny one-liners and the occasional barbed quip.

The story concerns the overuse and abuse of a natural power source called aer and the secrets behinds it. Unbeknownst to most of the inhabitants of Terca Lumireis, the use of this power source, controlled via devices called blastia, led to calamity in the distant past, the specifics of which have been lost to time, even amongst the elf-like Kritya, whose ancient ancestors both created the blastia and sealed away the cataclysm its abuse wrought. Now, some thousand years later, forces in the empire seek to uncover the powers behind the blastia and use them for their own ends. There’s a strong environmentalist message throughout the game, a theme which is not only at the heart of quite a few games in the series, but also shared by many of the works of acclaimed animation director Hayao Miyazaki and his studio Ghibli.

Mechanically, the game is very similar to its direct predecessor Tales of the Abyss – unsurprising as much of the same team developed both games. So we get a refined version of Abyss‘ real time ‘Flex Range Linear Motion Battle System’, albeit with some embellishments; continually attack an enemy with a succession of similar strikes and a coloured circle may appear over the enemy offering the chance to do massive damage – especially handy when it comes to those boss battles with hundreds of thousands of HP to whittle down. The progression from Abyss also means we get a world map, something which later entries Tales of Graces and Tales of Xillia have excised. While I feel Xillia‘s field areas were vastly improved from Graces empty corridors, I’d still prefer a nice big open world map – you just can’t beat flying through the air on a boat carried by a whale-dragon-thing.

Visually, Tales of Vesperia is a beautiful game – I think it still looks better than the latest game Xillia. Like all entries in the series, both games go for an anime aesthetic, but I think Vesperia does it better. The flat shading and block colours make it look more like an anime than an anime-styled game (if that makes any sense at all), and Vesperia is also a more colourful game, saturated in vibrant greens, clear blue skies and the candy-pink of Estellise’s hair. Xillia, meanwhile, goes for a slightly cooler, more muted colour scheme that leads to a more natural look, albeit still in keeping with the anime aesthetic. Four years on from its initial release, Tales of Vesperia is still a visually striking game.

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The future is looking very bright indeed for the Tales of series. In the last couple of years, we’ve had Tales of the Abyss for 3DS, a reprint for Vesperia, Tales of Graces f‘s day one edition and a gorgeous collectors edition for Tales of Xillia. Next February, we’ll be treated to Tales of Symphonia Chronicles (which will have its own limited edition) and later in the year we’ll be getting the sequel to Tales of Xillia. It’s a great time to be a fan of the series, whether you were there from the beginning or just jumped in this year. I’m currently playing through my fifth game in the series, the PSP version of Tales of Eternia, and I’m really enjoying that too.

But it’s always Tales of Vesperia that I come back to when I think of the series, and it’s always the characters and skits that I think back on when I remember how much I loved my eighty hours in the company of the game and its cast. Well, that and Yuri’s Savage Wolf Fury mystic arte.

Tales of Vesperia. A game so good I bought it twice. And then got it signed by Troy Baker.
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Previous entries in Games of the Generation:
Dead Space 2

It’s November 1st. Later this month, Microsoft and Sony’s next generation consoles will be hitting the shelves and we’ll all be neglecting our previous gen workhorses as we get pulled in by the new shiny ones. I have been planning a Games of the Generation article for a while, and the original idea was for it to have a similar structure to my Games of the Year piece from last year, listing a number of games and writing a couple of paragraphs about each. The more I thought about it, the more obvious it became that that concept wouldn’t work; there’s just so many more games to choose from that I’d probably end up writing tens of thousands of words, and that’s just too much for a single article. No one would read it, and I wouldn’t blame them.

So I’m going to pick a game every couple of days (or so) and write about that. I’ll then link to previous entries in all of the following articles so that you can keep track of them all. Some ground rules: I’m counting games on 360, PS3, Wii, 3DS and Vita as well as any PC games that have been released since the 360 launched (I know the PC doesn’t have ‘generations’, but I want to include a couple of games from that platform). I’m not counting Wii U for two reasons: firstly, it’s Nintendo’s challenger to PS4 and Xbox One, and secondly, I don’t even own one yet. If the mood takes me, I might even throw in a PSP or DS game (provided it saw release after the Xbox 360 – that’s my cut off point).

One last point: I’m not putting these in any kind of numerical order. I’m listing the games I’ve loved throughout this generation of gaming, not ranking them. It’s often hard enough to rank the best games in a given year, let alone an entire generation.

So, without further ado, here’s my first entry. And considering what day it was yesterday, it’s a very apt pick.

Dead Space 2
ds2banI loved Dead Space when it launched in late 2008. Loved it. A stunning-looking new IP that melded the best bits of Alien, The Thing, Event Horizon and Resident Evil 4? Count me the hell in! It ended up being my second favourite game of 2008 and I immediately began pining for a sequel.

Dead Space 2 launched at the start of 2011, and unfortunately I couldn’t afford it at the time. Releasing it right after Christmas possibly wasn’t the best idea, and I had to resign myself to waiting a few weeks until I could get my hands on it (on the plus side, waiting three weeks meant I only paid £24!). In the weeks that followed release, I got to read a lot of other people’s impressions and it seemed that EA and Visceral had stuffed up. Apparently they’d taken out the horror and turned Dead Space into an action shooter! Dead Space 2 was Resi 5 in space!

Except it wasn’t. When I eventually got my hands on the game, I found these claims to be massively overblown; Dead Space 2 is largely more of the same, and that’s ok by me. The game begins with Isaac regaining consciousness and finding himself straitjacketed in the midst of another Necromorph outbreak, a horrifically gruesome scene playing out before him. Unable to defend himself, Isaac is forced to run, and we’re immediately back into familiar Dead Space territory; dark futuristic corridors, ambient lighting and sheer bloody horror. The first game’s excellent, immersive in-game HUD is back, as are the static-y, hurried radio communications we remember, and it’s not too long before we’ve recovered the now-iconic plasma cutter.

Sure, there may be a few more necromorphs here and there trying to tear your face off, and sure, there are some impressively huge Uncharted-style set-pieces such as that train ride or Isaac’s frankly insane space jump through a debris field, but they fit in with the tone of the game. Dead Space 2 is all about escalation; we’re not on a derelict ship in orbit around a distant world this time, we’re on The Sprawl, an enormous space station built on the remains of Saturn’s moon Titan, meaning that the threat in this sequel is right on Earth’s doorstep (relatively speaking). The Sprawl is a civilian structure, so it presents a number of different environments from the moody mining installations of the previous game, taking in shopping malls, hospitals, an elaborate gothic, almost Giger-esque church and even an elementary school. God, that school… For anyone thinking that Dead Space had given up it’s twisted horror roots for the second game, that school will quickly set them straight. And then promptly live in the space at the back of their minds where nightmares come from.

The atmosphere is there, too. That thick, cloying, suffocating mood backed up with excellent audio design and that maddening quiet-loud mechanic that spends as long as it needs to to get every hair on your body standing on end, your skin prickling in anticipation. Just like Dead Space, this is a game that you will play constantly on edge (especially if, like me, you play it in the dark with surround sound…). Like anything in the horror genre, familiarity can lessen the fear, and that does hold true for Dead Space 2 to a certain degree; you’ll never relive the first time you saw a Necromorph tear an NPC limb from limb, or disappear from sight only to emerge, slavering from an air duct behind you. But this is where the atmosphere and audio design come into their own, backed up this time by a greater focus on psychological horror; Isaac spent much of the first game searching for his missing girlfriend Nicole, only to learn she had died before he had even arrived. In Dead Space 2 he is haunted by crazed visions of her, and it is apparent that he is mentally suffering, visions seemingly seeping into the real world and making both player and protagonist sometimes question what’s real.

So Dead Space 2 isn’t the full-on horror-free action game I had been led to believe, and now, post-Dead Space 3, these claims do look rather overblown. I’ve since seen a parallel drawn between the Dead Space and Alien franchises; people claim that as Aliens was to Alien, Dead Space 2 is to Dead Space. I don’t entirely agree with that either; while both Alien and the first DS were claustrophobic sci-fi horror experiences, Aliens took that template and made a suspenseful, dark action movie out of it. Sure, there are more monsters and bigger set pieces in Dead Space 2, but it’s still a claustrophobic sci-fi horror experience.

There are a couple more things worth pointing out. Firstly, the original game’s zero-gravity sections return, but here they’re much more playable. Zero-gravity in Dead Space meant jumping from point to point and was handled almost entirely by the game; you aim where you want to go, press a button and zoom straight there. In Dead Space 2, you are completely free to roam around in 3D space thanks to the small boosters on Isaac’s suit, and it makes moving around the game’s zero-g spaces not only much more enjoyable, but more creative too. Secondly, though Dead Space was already a very good looking game, the sequel is an utterly spectacular visual feast for console players – it’s easily one of the best looking titles of the current generation, and I’m very interested to see what Visceral can manage in the coming generation.

Oh, and one final thing: Ellie Langford is a friggin’ badass.

Microsoft are going to be pushing SmartGlass integration in the coming generation, and many have wondered just how they’re going to make it anything but a gimmick. I’ve fired up the app on my PC, phone and tablet a few times and always wondered what the point was, but while playing The Witcher 2, and thinking of its sequel which will support the companion app, I think I’ve had an epiphany.

While I’ve been playing The Witcher 2, one thing has occurred to me; I’m not making the most of this epic RPG’s mechanics and content. My gaming time is a bit limited, so when I get a chance to jump into CD Projekt RED’s masterpiece, I don’t really feel like menu-diving for extended periods to read up on the lore, manage my inventory or sometimes even read the lengthy (though enjoyable) quest descriptions in the journal. I have to make myself do it every now and then, meaning I get less time to drive the story forward.

So I was thinking, what if I could do all of that on my PC or tablet when I’m not actually in-game? Imagine if SmartGlass could pull in all of your savegame information and let you access it outside of the game, letting you go through your inventory (equipping or enhancing weaponry and armour, dumping un-needed items, reading in-game texts), view your journal (the app could drag in all your current quests and their respective progress levels and let you read up on current events), view in-game maps and even develop your character by spending earned talents and mutagens. I’d love to have the option to do this stuff when I’m on my Surface, and then load up the game and have everything up to date and ready to dive in and carry on with the story.

I had a similar feeling a while back, when playing Skyrim. I found an app on my phone (Skyrim Guide) that listed walkthroughs and requirements for every quest in Bethesda’s open-world adventure, and while it was useful, I did wonder to myself how much better it could be if it had access to my save file and could track and check off those quests for me. It didn’t occur to me at the time that SmartGlass could be the thing to enable this, but if Microsoft can make their companion app powerful enough, it could enable some fantastic extras like this.

Of course, the thing that could scupper this would be a requirement for the game to be on before SmartGlass could connect with that particular title. But if Microsoft were to make SmartGlass a feature of the Xbox Live app already available on multiple platforms (which already displays your library of games, allows you to send and receive messages and track your achievement progress), I think this could work: You could load up the XBL app, flick through your library, find the game you want and then get all of that game’s SmartGlass integration right there – outside of the game, without the need to have your console on. You’d have one powerful, useful app instead of two limited ones, and at the same time enable a bunch of genuinely useful features for players.

Multiplayer games could also benefit from these features, especially when it comes to stat tracking. Back in the days of Halo 3 and Reach, halo.bungie.net was the place to go to see all of your Halo goodies: you could see detailed breakdowns on your weapon usage, game history, heatmaps and anything in your file share. Did you make a video or screenshot in Theatre Mode? You could view them there. This feature-set has now moved over to Halo Waypoint, which also offers all sorts of Halo media and lore, and apparently also has a feature that allows you to view live maps as you play a multiplayer game, allowing you to see the position of weapons and other elements through the app, though I have never managed to make this work.

I’m assuming Call of Duty and Battlefield have similar stat-tracking websites or apps, but why have disparate destinations for each game when SmartGlass could bring them all under one roof? If all of this functionality were moved over, we’d have one place to go for all our stat-tracking, journal-reading needs. And with this coming generation seemingly going all-out to bring massively multiplayer to consoles in new ways (just look at stuff like Bungie’s Destiny or Ubisoft’s The Division), you can be sure we’ll be seeing more and more game companion stuff to come. I can only speak for myself, but I’d rather have a nice umbrella for all of that content to come under, than have a folder of browser favourites or sit wondering if the app I need will come to the platform I use. I’m imagining being able to go into SmartGlass, send a message to a player I bumped into on a Destiny run, manage my inventory and develop my character for The Witcher 3, then watch some of my Halo Theatre clips before jumping into a chat with my Elder Scrolls Online party members to discuss our next excursion. All from the same app. I don’t know about anyone else, but that appeals to me.

The best part of this? SmartGlass is cross-platform. You can find it on devices running Windows, iOS and Android, meaning that it will have a pretty extensive reach, and if more people can use the app, hopefully more developers and publishers will push content for it.

It’s important to state that I don’t want the features outlined above to be stripped out of their respective games and shoehorned into an app that not everyone will want to use. I simply want that stuff as an option so that I can have access to it when I don’t have access to my console, freeing up my play-time for, you know, play. I hope SmartGlass will provide this, rather than continue to be the (mostly) useless thing it is today.

On Monday evening, Microsoft did everything right.

Well, everything short of rescinding their convoluted policies regarding game ownership and online activation. But before E3, they told us their conference would be all about the games, and they certainly delivered that; ninety minutes of wall-to-wall game announcements, trailers, teasers and demonstrations. They even resurrected the cult classic Killer Instinct franchise for their new console.

But then came the price announcement: £429!? As soon as those figures appeared onscreen (and did you hear the shocked silence that followed?), it was obvious Sony’s PlayStation 4 was going to be the cheaper console. A few hours later, at the end of an up-and-down conference, Sony buried Microsoft with not just a lower price (£349), but news that they wouldn’t be restricting used/traded games or requiring online authentication.

I’ve since seen comments online that Sony “destroyed” Microsoft at E3. I’m not sure I agree. For the average gamer, it’s hard to argue that Sony’s PS4 isn’t the better choice; rules around game ownership are far clearer on Sony’s platform, and it’s quite significantly cheaper. But if I was to compare the two conferences on their merits alone, I’d have to say that, for me, Microsoft had the better showing.

The Seattle company were lambasted for their May 21st Xbox One unveiling, and rightly so. It was a console reveal, so it follows that the majority of the people watching it were gamers, yet they spent most of their hour-long show talking about television and showing what the underlying OS was capable of. At the time, it was mind-boggling. In hindsight, it was probably a good idea; showing off all the extraneous non-gaming features at a separate event meant that they could focus entirely on games at E3. By contrast, Sony took time out of their conference to tell us about Music and Video Unlimited, Redbox and other stuff that no one watching was particularly interested in. It was a good half an hour before we got down to the games.

And to be honest, I’m struggling to remember many of those games now. The Order: 1866 looked interesting; a Steampunk adventure through Victorian London that features tooled-up people in frock coats shooting at things that might have been werewolves, the game is being developed by Ready at Dawn, they of God of War PSP fame. But the biggest hitters at Sony’s show, for me at least, were the surprise announcements of Final Fantasy XV, Kingdom Hearts 3 and The Elder Scrolls Online, together with the first gameplay footage of Bungie’s upcoming persistent world shooter Destiny. Have you spotted the pattern here? They’re all multiplatform.

Microsoft’s biggest crowd-pleasers were exclusive titles: Killer Instinct (originally reported to be free-to-play, since debunked); Crytek’s gorgeous (if a little button-mashy) Ryse: Son of Rome; Quantum Break, the next title from Remedy; Yukio Futatsugi’s Crimson Dragon (which is a serious, huge draw for a big fan of Panzer Dragoon); D4, the next title from Swery65, maker of the cult Deadly Premonition; Dead Rising 3, which is now an open world title with frankly ridiculous numbers of the undead on-screen; Project Spark, a very impressive-looking game creation tool; and Sunset Overdrive, a stylish blend of Pixar and Borderlands from previously PlayStation-exclusive Insomniac games. Seriously, who thought Insomniac would become independent, only to make an exclusive for Microsoft?

Topping all this off, we got a cameo from Master Chief in his dressing gown (though we always knew Halo would continue on the Xbox One, I don’t think many expected to see anything at this E3), and then a prolonged gameplay segment of Respawn Entertainment’s first game, TitanFall. This last one is a huge coup for Microsoft; since Jason West and Vince Zampella’s acrimonious split from Activision in 2010, the entire industry has been waiting with bated breath to see what the two former Infinity Ward leads would do now that they were away from Call of Duty. The result is a multiplayer shooter combining fast, agile, double-jumping humans and powerful yet nimble mechs, called Titans. I’m generally not that big a fan of online shooters (bar Halo), but what I saw of Titanfall really grabbed my attention; it looks like a mix between Halo and Unreal Tournament, only in place of vehicles we have huge mechs. The segment also showed cutscenes between characters, so it seems there must be a story mode of sorts in there, too. So a highly-anticipated game from the creators of the Call of Duty juggernaut is only going to be on Microsoft consoles? That’s got to sting a bit for Sony.

So I’m left feeling conflicted: for me, Sony have the better deal for gamers, but Microsoft have the better games. So while I’m here, perhaps I’ll take a closer look at what Microsoft’s policies actually are.

The concensus across the internet right now seems to boil down to the following:
PS4 = used games, trading.
Xbox One = no used games, no trading.

Except, Microsoft have kind of put a spanner in the works of this conclusion by stating that Xbox One games can be traded or resold. Granted, they’ve made a horrible fist of explaining it all which would undoubtedly lead to a lot of confusion, but I can’t help but feel some people are also just wilfully misreading the situation.

So the real issue isn’t that we can’t trade or resell our games, it’s that there are caveats to these actions; we can trade a game for free to a friend… as long as they’ve been on our friends list for thirty days. We can resell a game… as long as we do so at a ‘participating retailer’ and the publisher has allowed it. To what extent these restrictions will affect the average gamer remain to be seen, but with Sony not putting any restrictions in place, I can’t see any publishers really forcing the issue on Xbox One; they’ll want to maximise sales across both platforms, and if someone owns an XBO and not a PS4, they’re surely more likely to avoid a game than buy a second console to play it

Now, speaking purely for myself, I don’t trade games in, nor do I buy second hand games, but even though these restrictions are extremely unlikely to affect me in any meaningful way, it still leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouth. What I do occasionally do, however is lend games to friends, and it actually seems that Microsoft has a pretty generous system in place to facilitate this. From XBox Wire:

Give your family access to your entire games library anytime, anywhere: Xbox One will enable new forms of access for families. Up to ten members of your family can log in and play from your shared games library on any Xbox One. Just like today, a family member can play your copy of Forza Motorsport at a friend’s house. Only now, they will see not just Forza, but all of your shared games. You can always play your games, and any one of your family members can be playing from your shared library at a given time.

Well, that sounds good, but how do Microsoft define “family”? Could it be a friend? Surely they don’t require some kind of proof that you’re related? Not according to Xbox Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer Yusuf Mehdi, who spoke to Ars Technica:

Since its announcement, there has been some confusion over the details of sharing your Xbox One game library with up to ten “family members.” Mehdi couldn’t give comprehensive details, but he did clarify some things.

For one, a family member doesn’t have to be a “blood relative,” he said, eliminating the extremely unlikely possibility that the Xbox One would include a built-in blood testing kit. For another, they don’t have to live in the primary owner’s house—I could name a friend that lives 3,000 miles away as one of my “family members” Mehdi said.

You’ll be able to link other Xbox Live accounts as having shared access to your library when you first set up a system and will also be able to add them later on (though specific details of how you manage these relationships is still not being discussed). The only limitation, it seems, is that only one person can be playing the shared copy of a single game at any given time. All in all, this does sound like a pretty convenient feature that’s more workable than simply passing discs around amongst friends who are actually in your area.

So I can nominate up to ten people on my friends list to have remote access to my entire library? On their own account? Even if they’re in a different country?? That’s… that’s actually pretty darn generous! Obviously, only one person can play a game at a time, but this is no different to lending a disc – if I lend a 360 or PS3 game to a friend right now, I cannot also play that game, nor can I lend it to anyone else as long as that first friend has possession of the disc. Using this system, if a friend wants to try out a game, I can simply say, “It’s in my shared library, have at it,” and away they go to download a copy. It certainly makes sharing more convenient. Quite why Microsoft aren’t shouting this feature from the rooftops, I don’t know; perhaps it’s because they haven’t decided how these relationships will be managed yet (maybe you’ll only be able to change up ‘family member access’ every few months to avoid people massively exploiting the system?). Either way, I’d be surprised if Microsoft didn’t start championing this feature closer to launch.

This leaves me with only one real worry about the Xbox One, and again it’s one that’s unlikely to affect me; the need to go online once every 24 hours. Now, the reason I say it’s unlikely to affect me is that I can’t remember my connection ever dropping out for more than about six hours. On top of that, if my connection did happen to die for a few days, I could quite easily create a mobile hotspot on my phone, connect the console to that, sign into Xbox Live, and then disconnect again and continue gaming. What concerns me is that the possibility exists for my entire gaming library to become unavailable if I, for some reason, cannot connect. This is my main problem with the Xbox One, and it’s more out of principal than practice; just because it’s unlikely to happen doesn’t mean I should dismiss it.

The decision to buy an Xbox One was always going to be a trade-off between how much Microsoft’s policies bother you and how much you want the games. The policies the company have put in place for the new console probably won’t affect me at all in practice (and some, like the above-mentioned lending scheme, may even be positive propositions), but it does still leave me wary of the machine. On top of being cheaper (and possibly more powerful), Sony’s PlayStation 4 appears to have none of the faff associated with Xbox One – buy our console, Sony seem to be saying, and you won’t need to worry about how to trade in games, or where you can buy second hand; you won’t have to worry about your connection dropping out or wonder if you’ve been friends with someone long enough to give them a game – you can just carry on as you currently do this gen (with the notable exception of now having to pay for PS+ if you want to play online). That’s got to be an attractive proposition for the average gamer.

But these are games consoles, and as such, a decision comes down to the games. And I want what Microsoft are offering. So what am I to do?

I’ll probably end up with both.