For your gaming enjoyment and amusement, I have created a channel on YouTube for my videos. You can catch all the action here.
Sunday, November 24, 2013
I preordered the Xbox One Day One Edition just as soon as they rolled back their completely asinine policies. I had a few options available, many that would allow me to pick up the console on midnight of launch day. However, after attending the midnight launch of Halo 4 last year, I just feel like I'm getting way too old to deal with large, loud crowds for a video game. So I decided to preorder the console on Amazon.com and let them ship it to me. While it may seem trivial to skimp on shipping costs on a $500 item, money hasn't exactly been in strong supply lately, so I just couldn't bring myself to forgo the Super Saver Shipping. Besides, I rationalized, I could wait the extra 5-8 days, see what other people get and enjoy, and then pick up those games when my console finally did arrive.
I was fairly surprised, then, when the week of the console's launch arrived, and my shipping status updated to say I would receive my package the very day after launch. Maybe the fact that I had some other items on order had something to do with it — if they were ready to ship, Amazon's shipping algorithm might have just decided to release the Xbox One with it, since it was there and ready to go as well. In any case, it's not worth over-analyzing, because that just gets in the way of enjoying the fact that my Xbox One is here.
Setting the console up was pretty straightforward. The initial 500MB download completed a lot faster than I expected for being on the day right after launch — it was done downloading within 10 minutes. (Still, extrapolate that to a 35GB game, and that would be over 11 hours — which is why I would never go all-digital when discs are still an option.) Even setting up my family was a lot easier than I expected. The Kinect sign-in function is amazingly quick, about as good as advertised. Someone will walk into the room, and the console will very quickly greet them, no matter what else is going on at the time. (I haven't quite figured out how logging out works, though, because when said person walks out of the room, their icon still appears on the dashboard, and it doesn't re-greet them when they walk back in.) Time will tell how well the Xbox identifies who's in control and to whom it should listen, and if my boys will play nicely together or be involved in a constant power struggle over control of the system.
Snap is a very nice feature. The ability to have an app snap to the side is one I can see using quite often. In some cases, it's like having the Xbox Guide in a persistent sidebar, like when you snap party controls. You can see instantly who is talking (theoretically — more on that later) and switch in and out of party chat very easily. The console responds pretty quickly and seamlessly to voice commands. I was originally worried that it wouldn't be intuitive how to switch control from the main to the snapped screen, but the solution of double-tapping the Xbox button is pretty easy to pick up.
Besides snap, the voice commands in general react pretty snappily, though sometimes you do have to repeat a command. I've noticed that happens most often when you're talking to someone else, like the console tunes you out and needs an extra pause and insistent "Xbox" before it realizes, "Oh, you're talking to me!" It's actually a pretty good safety — I've been able to have a conversation with someone and tell them about some commands like "Xbox Turn Off" without the console mistaking that I was talking to it instead. Also, once it decides to listen, it's been really good at listening only to one speaker for that moment. I tried starting the "listening" state and having my son try to give it a command, and it won't listen to him until it "times out" listening to me.
Video recording is extremely simple. All you have to say is "Xbox, record that", and the last 30s of video are stored as a video clip for use later. (There is a snappable app that gives you more advanced control of recording, if you so choose; but I haven't played with that yet.) Right now, it seems that it is only able to upload to SkyDrive, but it's pretty trivial to go to a PC and share that out to YouTube, Facebook, or wherever. Like so:
My wife was really impressed with the Xbox's ability to control our 8-year-old stereo system. After I told my Xbox what kind of receiver I had, I could just say, "Xbox, volume up" or "Xbox, volume down", and the Xbox blasted the IR remote signal to the stereo. (Reports say it uses the Kinect to do this, which I find really impressive, since the Kinect is about five feet directly above my stereo and still has no problem controlling it.)
I only have two games for the Xbox One so far. Killer Instinct looks and plays pretty good, I suppose. I wouldn't consider myself an aficionado of fighting games, so I can't really say it looks amazing or disappointing. Forza 5, on the other hand, looks spectacular. It also plays really well, not requiring intimate knowledge of how downforce from a precisely-tuned spoiler affects handling to have fun playing. (The last Forza game I played was Forza 2, which seemed to go way over my head when it came to playing the game to its fullest potential.) The "Drivatar" system is a pretty cool idea; I've been able to race against a lot of people on my friends list. The game also really shows off the new controller features. Feeling a very specific rumble in a trigger as you accelerate around a turn or the antilock brakes kick in is very immersive.
Reviews of the console and the dashboard abound, so I won't go into too much detail about how it looks or works. It definitely looks nice, but it feels hard to find things. I think part of the problem is that it's rather familiar to the Xbox 360 interface, so mentally, I expect to find certain things in certain places. However, there are enough differences that, when I try to look for something, it's not where I expect, and I spend a lot of time trying to figure out where things are.
The Xbox One reports my network as a "strict NAT", which typically is not a positive when it comes to online gaming. I find this rather odd, though. My router has a uPnP service running, which should allow any device to request a port be opened for external connections. This service has served the Xbox 360 well — usually, the 360 only reports a problem if the uPnP service has crashed, and all I have to do is restart it for everything to be fine again. Indeed, if I check the log files, I can see that the Xbox One does request ports be opened using the uPnP service, and I can even verify that the ports do in fact get opened as requested. So why the Xbox One would think my NAT layer is "strict" is beyond me. It may or may not also be the cause of some of the problems that follow.
Party chat has been problematic. When I have tried using a party, selecting "Start Party Chat" will either put me in party chat but unable to talk to or hear anyone, or it will say "Cannot start Party Chat, try again later." It is nice that you can be in a party without requiring a connection to party chat, but the fact that it isn't working for me makes it difficult to coordinate a match.
Skype is definitely an option to work around that, except that it only appears to be half-baked. It doesn't appear as a snappable app, which means you can only use it on the main screen. It will, at least, run in the background, so you can use it to talk while doing other things. However, it does not suppress game chat while using Skype. That could be good or bad, depending on your specific situation; but when a friend and I were chatting with Skype and managed to get in the same multiplayer lobby, we were talking to each other both on Skype and in the game, and heard each other echo — not exactly ideal. And then there was the little problem that, after failing Party Chat and wanting to go back to Skype, it refused to start up, stuck on the "Skype blue" starting screen. (Perhaps the "blue screen of death" isn't gone after all.)
Speaking of half-baked and crashing apps, the Netflix experience has been less than ideal so far. The app itself takes an abnormally long time to launch. (Once, the Xbox actually came up and said "Netflix has taken too long to launch and will be shut down." Even the Xbox lost patience with it, apparently.) As the family and I were watching a few episodes of a Disney show, after the fifth episode, I got a message saying "Netflix has encountered a problem and will be shut down." Back at the dashboard, I tried to launch the app again, but it took only a few seconds before it apparently crashed and the dashboard reloaded.
We were able to use the Party feature successfully for joining the same Forza 5 game, but Killer Instinct refused to cooperate — although the console notification said the other player was added to the game, the game never seemed to acknowledge this. How the game permits this seems to be very game-dependent (Forza 5, for instance, popped up an in-game prompt asking if I wanted to join the game that another party member got into), so whether this is a system failure or a bug in the game itself, I'm not sure. It does seem like it's a little more complicated than the old system of just finding a friend and saying "Join Game" or "Invite to Game", like they tried to automate the procedure. From my very limited experience so far, it seems like it's going to be harder to deal with.
When Party Chat was failing, I reverted to sending a standard message to my friend to try to coordinate. I was a little surprised to see that I could only send a text message — the option to send a voice message is nonexistent. I haven't yet set up my network to allow SmartGlass to work, so I couldn't use my phone as a keyboard (my phone was in another room charging anyway). Some kind of predictive text entry like they have on the Windows Phone, or even Bing-powered voice-to-text (again, like they have on the Windows Phone), would be more than welcome here. I've gotten used to having my Xbox 360 Chatpad, and that doesn't work with the One.
There were a handful of launch games, but some of them were released digitally, like LocoCycle and Crimson Dragon. If these are representative of the future of digital titles, it makes me a little concerned. The games are $20 each, more than typical of what we've come to expect from the Xbox 360 Live Arcade (although those titles seem to have been migrating towards the $15 average instead of the $5–$10 where it started). What's even more concerning, though, is that none of them seem to offer a free trial. One of the benchmarks I used to use for XBLA games is that I would download the trial version, and if I felt myself continuing to come back to it over some period of time, I'd decide to buy the full version. Can't do that with any of these titles. Maybe demos and trials will come back when developers aren't rushing to get their titles out for launch, but it's not a good sign.
The software seems to take this idea of "apps" to an extreme. When I want to view my friends list, it's not a function I just call up and get a list on the screen; I have to launch (or snap) the Friends app, which gives me full-screen-sized pages of information. It seems like overkill. What's even worse are notifications and achievements. Get the bleep-bloop and want to see what it was you just did to unlock that achievement? It suspends the game as it pulls up the full-screen view of the achievement, downloading a full picture to display with it. It's very pretty, sure, but again, when all I want is just to quickly see the description of how I just unlocked whatever it was, it feels like I have to completely step outside of what I was doing to launch this full-screen app just to do that one little thing.
The Xbox One has a lot of potential. Being able to multitask and snap different apps, and a Party feature that is more aware of what game you're playing, gives just a taste of how well it can work. But it doesn't feel quite finished. Features are missing (like the ability to snap Skype or to stream gameplay), and some just don't work quite yet. Still, Microsoft has established a history with the Xbox 360 of being able to evolve and improve the console over time, and I think the majority of these complaints will just be early adopter woes long forgotten. And, to be honest, I knew I would be seeing these early issues by jumping in on day one. Still, I look forward to seeing this system evolving and getting more comfortable with it myself, and I can't wait to play Titanfall and Halo 5 on this baby next year.
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Electronic Arts has the dubious distinction of being named the Worst Company in America for two years running by The Consumerist. The company, as The Consumerist notes on the page announcing the award, is known for "treating [their] customers like human piggy banks" and "[putting] out so many incomplete and/or broken games with the intent of getting [their] customers to pay extra for what they should have received in the first place." Their response, titled "We Can Do Better", doesn't really sound like they're terribly apologetic or inclined to change, let alone that they resort to blaming their award at least in part on anti-gay protests against their homosexual-gamer-friendly stance (simple things like allowing players to choose their gender and the gender of their in-game romantic interest). Indeed, they're still going down the same old familiar road of treating customers like piggy banks and releasing buggy code.
I've been playing their free-to-play game on my Windows Phone called Tetris Blitz. It is, quite simply, Tetris, turned into a game that is a little more touch-friendly, with some gameplay mechanics that encourage speed. You are given two minutes to play a round, with the goal of trying to attain the highest score possible in that time limit.
In order to make it work well on a touch screen and not have to precisely hit a virtual control pad to place blocks, Tetris Blitz simplifies things a bit by giving you a choice of final positions for your block. You simply tap the position where you want the block to rest, and the game does the work of sliding it down and rotating as necessary. It feels just a little cheap, as if they've "dumbed down" Tetris, but it does help enforce the idea of speed. There are ways to override the position — you can tap the "Cycle" button to show a different selection of landing positions, or you can tap and drag to move the white outline to a new position — but neither of these are terribly helpful when you're trying to race against the clock — there's no way to tell how many taps of "Cycle" will be required to get what you want, and it seems to take a bit to acknowledge that you are dragging and not just tapping for an abnormally long time.
During the game, if you clear a number of lines in quick succession, the game will start adding rows of bricks from the bottom of the screen, with one piece missing. During this "Frenzy mode", you can drop pieces into these missing holes to clear even more lines. Frenzy mode continues as long as you can keep clearing lines, giving you a chance to get some extra points. At the end of the time limit, a "Last Hurrah" play drops all bricks into any open holes on the screen, usually clearing another few lines. The game also adds power-ups to make things more interesting. Some power-ups will give you a score boost, and some will create or destroy blocks in different ways. Finishers are special abilities you can select that will automatically play when the game ends, giving you the potential to clear some extra lines or otherwise boost your score. Power-ups and Finishers are purchased using "coins", fairly standard in-game currency that you earn by playing or can purchase using real-world dollars, like most free-to-play games.
But the cost of these items are a little ridiculous.
A single game typically earns you less than 1,000 coins, depending on your score. (I usually get somewhere between 400 and 700 on the scores I get without using any power-ups or finishers.) Experience points can earn you levels, and each level can give you a coin bonus roughly, though not exactly, 100 times the level (I think I earned around 1,750 coins upon reaching level 18). A "Press Your Luck" style board (though with only prizes, no Whammies), for which you can earn a spin 4 hours after you've used them up, can earn you some extra coins as well (usually one or two thousand, though 25-, 50-, and 100-thousand scores are possible). However, a single use of a finisher (such as the one pictured to the right) can cost between 20,000 and 40,000 coins! To entice you to spend more coins, using finishers multiple games in a row gets you a discount (usually down to around 14,000 coins), but it's very easy to run out of coins if you're not paying attention. A potential hazard to this is how the buttons happen to be positioned. Again, if you look at the picture, you can see there isn't a whole lot of distance between the "Deploy" and "No Thanks" buttons, and the negative button is also substantially smaller than the positive. To the game's credit, it hasn't mistaken my tapping on "No Thanks" as a tap on the other button, and I haven't been particularly careful about it either."Bonus Spins" just give you extra chances at the spin board (pictured left) without having to wait 4 hours per spin. (Each time you spin, that space is removed from the board, which resets every 48 hours; so 20 spins would guarantee you winning one of every prize on the board.) "Power-Ups" is where it gets really ridiculous. Each one costs an insane $6, except for one that is on sale for the week for half price. (Note that, for some reason, the "Sale" label is not on the power-up that is actually on sale — in the store picture, "Lucky Seven" is the one with the reduced price, even though it says "Multiplier" is on sale. A minor display glitch, I suppose.) For all ten power-ups, that would end up costing SIXTY DOLLARS. (If each power-up manages to go on sale, you could knock that down to a mere $30, spreading payment out over 10 weeks.) $60, for power-ups. And I'm not entirely sure you get to keep them. Tapping the "Power-Up of the Week" shows the screen pictured to the right, which includes the text "Add it to your collection now and use it FREE for the rest of the week!" I want to believe it means, when you buy it with cash, you don't have to use in-game coins to activate it that week, but you may have to use coins to activate it beyond that (even then, it doesn't seem like the cash purchase is all that useful, unless you really like playing that power up a lot); the cynical side of me thinks you only get to use it that week and have to pay cash again.
The final two entries are one to remove ads for only $5 (I guess ad revenue isn't worth that much to them, especially compared to the other prices listed), and an option to "Restore Previous Purchases", which, without any description available, I guess would make sure you got things you once paid for, if you had to reinstall or switch phones or something.
As far as bugs, the major one I found is that the game freezes quite often, anywhere from 2 to 15 seconds at a time, and occasionally freezing completely (and, on one occasion, freezing up the whole phone to where I had to pull the battery). I'm guessing it might have something to do with failing to tolerate network instability, as it happens much less when I'm connected to my home Wi-Fi compared to just running on the cellular network. The worst part about the freezing is, when the game recovers, the time spent frozen is deducted off the clock. Since each game is only 2 minutes long, you could easily be cheated out of a tenth of the game time. It's especially annoying when you get to the final few seconds and are trying to score points as quickly as possible, only to have the game freeze with those final seconds on the clock, and come back reading "0:00". When your game is based on time and speed, and your code is badly written to the point it takes time away in typical operating conditions, you've done something wrong.
[UPDATE 28 Oct] — A title update was published just this past weekend, and the freezing issues when running on Wi-Fi seem to have been fixed. The "macro-transactions" remain as costly as ever, though.
As-is, Tetris Blitz just proves what The Consumerist said about them: they squeeze their customers for every penny they can get, and the code isn't always worth it.
I will give Tetris Blitz some credit, though. As long as you ignore the pleas for spending money, and don't stress the inability to get the highest possible score thanks to losing out on several seconds of the timed game, it's not that bad. There are certainly worse ways to waste time on the phone. Plus, it's free, and since it's an Xbox Live game, it has achievements, almost all of them attainable fairly quickly and without an unreasonable level of effort.
[UPDATE 26 Nov] — a couple weeks ago, they updated it yet again, it looks like to fix some issues with some of the featured power ups. But the game is even more unstable than before, taking several attempts just to launch the thing, occasionally crashing on its own. Definitely not worth the download at this point. The only reason I'm keeping it around is that last stupid grinding achievement.
Saturday, September 7, 2013
I finally finished my quest to achieve 100,000 Gamerscore, well ahead of my original goal of the end of the year and even ahead of my "stretch goal" of the next Xbox's launch. I had hoped to hit the score exactly, but I decided not to stress that and just get over the score. I have to admit, though, I didn't quite expect to leap-frog it by such a large margin — the achievement that put me over the line was "My Hero" from Lego Batman 2, a 50G achievement that took me from 99,975 to 100,025. I knew I was coming close, but I admit I wasn't paying that much attention; I was going for a 35G achievement that I only expected to help by rounding out the last digit in my score (although at that point, it, too, would have put me over the mark by 10G).
What I found very interesting is how the ending achievements in Lego Batman 2 are laid out. There are the fairly standard achievements for collecting all red bricks, all gold bricks, and all characters. There are also achievements for collecting groups of characters (all heroes, all villains, etc.), which usually means you end up popping two achievements at the very end (one character that completes their subgroup as well as completing the entire list). The interesting thing about this game, though, was that there is one character that requires collecting all of the gold bricks. I suppose it's possible that you could collect all the gold bricks before collecting characters, but most of the characters are picked up quite easily (even those that are locked up behind gold brick gates, since most have a much lower gold brick threshold to buy them). It just seemed like I was encouraged to pick up that character last, so the fact that the "Girl Power" achievement (for picking up the last female character) popped along with "Team Building" (for picking up the last overall character) seemed more of an inevitability than a coincidence.
Even odder, though, was the achievement that put me over 100,000G. There is an achievement for collecting all gold bricks, but part of that requires saving all of the citizens in peril, as each one itself unlocks a gold brick — not too far off from the groups of characters. But what I find curious is that this achievement that is a stepping stone to collecting all gold bricks is worth so much. Achievements for the different groups of characters are worth 20G, and the whole collection achievement is 50G. However, the achievement for collecting the gold bricks tied to citizens in peril is worth 50G, whereas the achievement for the full collection of gold bricks is only 35G.
Friday, August 23, 2013
Over three years ago, Microsoft discontinued Xbox Live service support for the original Xbox. I hoped at the time that people would start to sit up and take notice about how tenuous digital content is, that whether you paid for it or not, it would take very little for a company to take it away, and you'd have no recourse. And people did, since Microsoft made the misstep of taking down some services a little early — although the matchmaking service was still operational, the content servers weren't, and people attempting to re-download some of their DLC for one last hurrah at playing them online, weren't able to.
Unfortunately, the notoriety didn't last, and people moved on, happy with their 360 service, and with the previous generation all but forgotten.
Now, it's time for another service to get shut down. Microsoft has announced that the Games for Windows Live service will be shut down in July of 2014.
The timing of this announcement was rather coincidental, as I had just decided to rebuild my laptop. I had not yet gotten around to installing all the games back on, but this notice was a good reminder.
Now, Games for Windows Live is not a terribly popular service, and there aren't a ton of games available for it, so I have to wonder if this will make too many people upset to begin with. But the thought of losing access to full, paid-for games really sours me on this idea of trusting some company to manage my game library.
It seems that the community in general has a pretty short memory as it is. If you read the comments on the announcement article I linked to above, there's one commenter that asks the same question I started asking as soon as the Xbox One was officially announced: "How long until the 360 XBox Live shuts down once the XBone is released?" The response from the site's "Community Manager" is just that it's "Different" and goes off on a tangent as to why shutting down Games for Windows Live is no big deal, like seeing the 360 get shut down is not an issue worth discussing. And yet, only three years ago, that issue very much came to life when the original Xbox service was shut down.
Indeed, I still hear arguments that the all-digital(-ish) Xbox One was a much better system when it was first announced. I just cannot understand that, how someone can actually be ok with letting a company decide when you're done playing and take away everything you've paid for. Anyone who argues that "they won't do that" are just putting their heads in the sand, because not only would they, they have and are doing that very thing. The best argument I've heard is that the promised "family sharing" feature, where you could share your library with up to 10 friends, was the best feature the Xbox One had, and everything else was worth it. I don't agree; I think the price they were asking for that feature was way too high, giving up way too many other things — let alone that I think the way they described that feature was way too good to be true.
As for me, I just have a few games that I now need to get moving on, if I ever want to play them again: Fallout 3 and all its expansions, Viva Piñata, Batman Arkham Asylum, the Age of Empires III collection, Microsoft Flight, and Game Room.
Part of what's kept me away from playing these games a lot so far, though, is that my laptop is my most capable machine, and that's not saying much. The last time I played Batman, I had entered a point where there was so much activity on-screen that my poor laptop was pushing maybe 5 frames per second — not the kind of performance that lends well to playing an action game. I had hoped that I would be able, some day, to have a machine capable of playing these games better, but now there seems like there's no chance of that (unless someone wants to donate to me a gaming PC within the next 11 months).
Of these games that I do have, most of them are digital downloads that I bought when the price was more worth what I felt (and what is being proven) was a lesser value. The only game I have on disc is Fallout 3 (not including the expansions, which I purchased digitally). When I installed that, though, it included the Games for Windows Live client (which Windows intercepted and redirected me to an updated version online — no telling how long that will remain available), I had to enter the 25-character key printed on a sticker inside the box (and let it activate online) when I first launched it, and the update was delivered only when I signed in to Live. It makes me wonder how functional even the disc-based games will be once the service is shut down.
As for the digital downloads, the Games for Windows Live client manages those; and although you can specify the directory it uses for downloads, they are not in a format that makes it obvious for making backups (a lot of GUID-named CAB files and TMP files). It does not seem possible, at the moment, to download any of my purchased content in order to make a backup before the service goes away and takes all my content with it.
Saturday, August 10, 2013
There's a post on Major Nelson's blog that describes how Gold will work on the Xbox One. It's well worth a read, as there are some nice benefits, though it's not all sunshine and roses.
Some of it is not too surprising. If you buy a game on your home console, anyone can play that game on that console, regardless of whether or not you're signed in at the time, and regardless of that person's account status (Gold, Silver, local-only). Also, any game that you've purchased, you can go to any One console, download that game, and play it, and the full version will be available to you and anyone else on that console so long as you are signed in and connected to Live. This is exactly how things work on the 360 today.
What's new is, if you have Gold on your home console, all accounts on that console will have access to Gold features, a new feature they call "Home Gold". Also, if you sign in to Xbox Live on any One console with your Gold account, everyone on that console will have access to Gold features as well for as long as you are signed in. This is a nice new feature. Back when we had the 360 and I had the only Gold account, it meant features that are (inexplicably) locked to Gold members could only be accessed by me. My wife grew tired of having to sign in to my account just to use Netflix, and it was for that reason that we got a Netflix-capable Blu-ray player — she turns it on, presses the button for Netflix, and she's good to go, no ifs no buts no coconuts.
What's kind of disappointing is that the Gold Family plan is going away. That means I will not be able to pay a little extra and give three of my family members full access and privileges to Gold wherever they are.
For the One, this may not be that big of a deal in our house. We will only have a single One console in the house for a while, so everyone will have Gold access. However, if my son wanted to play at a friend's house who didn't have Gold, he would not be able to take his Gold privileges with him. Or, if we bought a second One for a playroom, he'd similarly be out of luck. (Major Nelson seemed to indicate on Reddit that the Home Gold feature would be available on all Ones in a house, but he quickly backtracked and said he would need to investigate to be sure.)
It is worth noting that my kids may not be all on the One right away. For one thing, $60 for a controller is a little tough to swallow. For another, we won't have a vast library of One games at launch, and there are still tons of games on the 360 that my kids love to play. (They even play original Xbox games still.) Since Home Gold is a feature exclusive to the Xbox One, Gold will not be available to my kids that will no longer have access to my Family plan. So for those who try to follow Mattrick's advice and stick to the 360, that's a feature that's going away.
I've seen comments further on this issue that I didn't even think of. Broken or separated families use the Gold Family plan to keep family members all on Gold when they are not in the same physical house and all on one console. There are other features that, as of yet, there has been no word on replacing — things like being able to transfer Points (soon to be real money) between accounts for content purchases, for example.
In any case, my kids are now being forced to decide whether they want to spend their own money to continue Gold for their own accounts on the 360, or to buy a controller for the One. Now, fortunately, they have some time to decide, as Microsoft just sent me an email saying when they convert everyone to individual accounts, everyone will have Gold until the original expiration of the Gold Family subscription, plus three months each. But still, it's sad to see them taking away features from the 360 in what seems like an effort to push people over to the One.