19 6 / 2014
When Watch Dogs was announced at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in 2012, many gamers believed it marked the beginning of true next-gen gaming. After spending nearly a decade with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, gamers were hungry for the next big thing, and Watch Dogs, with its gorgeous graphics, expansive recreation of Chicago, and unique hacking gameplay mechanic, promised to be just that. Furthermore, unlike most new game reveals, Watch Dogs’ initial trailer appeared to be made up entirely of gameplay rather than pre-rendered CGI. Gamers around the world pre-ordered their next-gen consoles on the promise of Watch Dogs alone, and bemoaned its delay into 2014. With so much hype surrounding the launch of Watch Dogs, was it even possible for the game to deliver?
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Watch Dogs doesn’t live up to the hype first established in that E3 2012 trailer. For starters, the game doesn’t look nearly as good as that first trailer (on PS4 at least). Gone are the incredible lighting, particle effects, and textures of the trailer; and instead we have a game that looks only marginally better than last-gen era Grand Theft Auto V, the game Watch Dogs most closely resembles. Of course, graphics aren’t everything, and I hate all the attention graphics typically get in gaming. Surely Watch Dogs can be visually unimpressive and yet still herald the start of next-gen?
Sadly, it’s everything besides the visuals in Watch Dogs that bring the game down to earth. There’s simply nothing next-gen about how Watch Dogs plays; nothing that elevates it above similar games that came before it. Just watch this YouTube video for a rundown of how very last-gen Watch Dogs can be.
In addition to the many technical issues highlighted in the video, my biggest gripe with Watch Dogs is actually how contrived the entire world is; everything in Watch Dogs’ version of Chicago exists solely for the player. Every conveniently parked car, every building with the exact same explosive grate; every street with a combustible steam pipe valve or road barrier; every guard with a mechanical grenade that can be hacked (I thought those things required a physical pin?) only exists to be used by the player. It’s not just the combat or driving sequences that felt artificial, it’s everything in the world that surrounds those direct gameplay moments. At one point, I decided to follow a firetruck, sirens blaring, around town to see if it would actually end up at a burning building. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if the game randomly generated these little events that you could stumble upon? I followed the truck as it seemingly made random turns down alleys, and cut off pedestrians. After about two minutes, the truck received word from its dispatch that the emergency was over. That’s it. Done. The truck turned off its siren and just kept on driving. Another time, I followed an ambulance around, same situation, sirens blaring as it zigzagged through the city. When it pulled into a parking lot full of pedestrians, I thought I might actually be on to something. Then out of nowhere, the ambulance sped up (in the parking lot!), wheels screeching as it ran over one of the pedestrians, and existed the lot. Moments later, same call from dispatch, emergency over, no one seeming to care about the man the ambulance just ran over! There is virtually nothing about the Chicago of Watch Dogs that feels real, or lived in beyond serving the player.
With Great Power…
Part of me doesn’t understand why Watch Dogs exists. Not every game needs to feel like a real place where people live, but why go through the trouble of recreating an entire city if it doesn’t feel real? Why introduce a hacking concept that is not only simplistic (just press one button), but is also used the exact same way from beginning to end? By their very nature, videogames are a technology driven medium. Every advance in technology removes another barrier or constraint to which game designers were previously shackled. Technology frees designers to create games closer to what they originally envisioned without compromises. Instead of making something that couldn’t be done before, Ubisoft played it safe and made a game you’ve already played in some form. I know we’re still early into this generation of consoles, and not every game can or should be a transformative experience. I’m just at the point where I want more. I want gameplay experiences that are unique; game worlds that feel alive; and characters and stories that move me. It’s time for game designers to give us more, and more importantly, time for gamers to expect it.
17 5 / 2014
It’s been six months since I proclaimed I was leaving Android and returning to the greener pastures of iOS with the iPhone 5s. No longer would I deal with laggy UI, poor cameras, and phones to large to use one-handed. The iPhone was my savior, the phone with the least compromises, and I was ready to once again bask in its glory…
Hear Me Out
Of course, things didn’t work out as planned. Only a month after making the switch, I bought a Moto X during Motorola’s holiday fire sale after hearing about a software update that greatly improved the camera, and I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to create a custom colored phone! For awhile, I went back and forth between the two on a week-to-week basis, until I encountered the iMessage purgatory issue where I couldn’t actually receive texts from anyone while I was using the Moto X. After that, I confined my iPhone use to situations where I felt I would need a camera. After the holidays, however, those situations became fewer and fewer to the point where I found myself using the iPhone simply because I felt like I should. Five months in with my iPhone use becoming almost non-existent, I sold the iPhone and stuck with the Moto X.
So it only took five months for me revert back to Android, but hear me out. I don’t really have many bad things to say about the iPhone 5s. In fact, I really enjoyed using it. It was everything I thought it would be, and you can pretty much take my thoughts on the iPhone 5/iOS 6 and apply them to the iPhone 5s/iOS 7. So why switch back? As with the iPhone 5, the problem for me has always been iOS, going back to my days with the iPhone 3G. Toward the end of my three years with the 3G, a jailbroken iPhone was the only way I could use iOS. Objectively speaking, I know iOS isn’t bad as it performs all basic smartphone functions well. Subjectively, however, iOS still doesn’t offer the ability to truly customize my user experience the way Android does, nor enable the apps I use to truly talk to one another.
On the latter point, I ran into a situation where I simply wanted to send an article I was reading in Chrome to Pocket. On iOS, Google has to implement this feature into the app (which you should, Google) whereas on Android this functionality is built into the OS itself. While I was able to find a workaround, I shouldn’t have to. In a way, iOS often reminds me of the European Union, it’s technically a unified entity, but each country (i.e., app) has its own history, not everyone speaks the same language, or even talks with one another. Android is more like the U.S. where each state (i.e., app) has some autonomy, but they all still operate by mostly the same rules, speak the same language, and like it or not, have to communicate with each other.
But Let’s Be Honest
Despite these annoyances, I still wanted to give iOS a shot. I waited patiently for years for iOS to catch up to Android before making the switch. I watch WWDC keynotes and read about changes coming to iOS every year hoping to hear some news to entice me back. Why do I do this? The honest truth is I never wanted to leave iOS. It was iOS and the iPhone that blew my mind in 2007. It was the iPhone 3G that started my love affair with smartphones. I held onto the 3G a full year after my contract expired because I wanted to give Apple more time to improve iOS. In a way, I’m somewhat of a reluctant Android user. I like Android a lot, but I loved my iPhone, and I’m always looking for an excuse to go back to my first love. WWDC is in two weeks. Your move Apple.
27 4 / 2014
While it may be the year of gaming, I haven’t completely ignored the smartphone market. With both the Galaxy S5 (GS5) and the HTC One (M8) both out in stores, I headed over to my local Best Buy for a quick look at Android’s flagship devices for 2014.
HTC One (M8)
When the M8 was first introduced my initial reaction was one of disappointment. Despite criticism from fans and journalist alike, HTC decided to stick with the same UltraPixel camera found in the M7. During my brief time with the M7 last year, I found the UltraPixel camera to have good low-light performance, but tended to washout images in other settings. I also wasn’t the biggest fan of the M8’s added length, which made the phone appear too long for comfortable use. Thankfully, after spending some personal time with the device, I am way less critical than I was at the outset. For starters, the M8 doesn’t feel as big as I initially assumed thanks to its relatively thin and light design. It certainly is still a larger phone than I would like, but it feels smaller. I could easily see the M8 fitting into my jean pockets without hassle. While the power button is still awkwardly placed at the top, navigating the phone one handed was also pretty easy, again due to the thin design which allowed for a solid grip (Android’s use of navigation buttons at the bottom of the screen help too.)
The camera on the M8 was also not as bad I initially feared. While I can’t attest to how it performs in a variety of settings, the photos I took in store were no better or worse to my eyes than the photos taken with the GS5, and I actually found myself enjoying the ability to refocus shots after taking them. Other than that, the phone had an amazing screen, just like the M7, and performance was fast and smooth, but not noticeably faster than my Moto X.
If my experience with the M8 could be summed up as a pleasant surprise, my time with the GS5 would have to be summarized as a disappointment. First the good. As I expected, the GS5 feels great in the hand, managing to be solid and easy to hold one handed. Even the dimpled back so many reviewers have derided didn’t look too bad. Unfortunately, that’s where the positives end. I don’t care what Samsung’s designers claim, there’s nothing inspiring about the faux-metal trim that surrounds the phone; not only is it an outdated design concept (the iPhone 3G had a similar design), it makes the phone look cheap. It only gets worse once you activate the device. The screen can best be described as sugary; like the colors in a candy shop, everything on the GS5’s screen just seems unnatural and overly saturated. It’s been awhile since I’ve really spent time with a Galaxy S device, and my time with the M7 and iPhone 5/5s’ excellent screens have really soured me to Samsung’s approach.
The camera was equally unimpressive. Again, I didn’t spend a ton of time in different settings, but I just wasn’t blown away with the image quality. Also, the image refocusing wasn’t as useful as the M8. Whereas the M8 allowed me to refocus the image on any point I wanted, the GS5 offered a more simplified experience, allowing me to only blur out the background or whatever image was directly in front of the camera. I’m sure in practical use how both phones handle image refocusing won’t matter, but I liked the more granular approach of the M8.
To be clear, I only spent about 5-10 minutes with each phone. Certainly not enough time for a thorough review, but about the time I believe most customers in a store making a purchase would spend with each phone. In this showroom test, the M8 is the clear winner for me. It simply looks and feels better than the GS5.
27 3 / 2014
October 1998 changed the way I played games. After reading about Metal Gear Solid (MGS) for months in gaming magazines, and incessantly playing through the demo, the game was finally mine. I was ready to explore every inch of Shadow Moses Island, and learn more about the mysterious enemy leader, Liquid Snake, who shared protagonist Solid Snake’s code name and face. Other than Resident Evil, my gaming experiences up to that point were mostly relegated to platformers, racers, and one large dose of Final Fantasy VII. While enjoyable, these genres supported the notion that gaming was strictly for kids. They featured cartoony characters, bright and colorful graphics, and virtually no story. At 15, I was ready for something more edgy, something cool, or at the very least, something a parent wouldn’t buy for a younger child to play. MGS was that game. From the epic showdowns with the various bosses (Revolver Ocelot!), to the over-the-top storyline about war and love blooming on the battlefield, I was hooked. Sixteen years later, I still find myself excited by new entries into the series. With a new PS4 gathering dust under my TV, I decided to fire up MGS V: Ground Zeroes to recapture the old magic.
Compared to previous entries in the series, Ground Zeroes feels more modern and refined, adopting gaming conventions that have been around for a decade or more but seemingly ignored by the MGS series. For example, whereas previous MGS games allowed you to maintain a nearly limitless amount of weapons and supplies, Ground Zeroes limits your weapons and supplies to two apiece. The game also eschews the use of health packs in favor of health regeneration. Additionally, enemies react more realistically in Ground Zeroes. No longer does being spotted by an enemy instantly alert everyone. You now have a few seconds to take out any enemies who may have spotted you before they radio for help. Also, the game is simply gorgeous, finally showing off what the PS4 is capable of, unlike the disappointing Assassin’s Creed IV.
Ground Zeroes main campaign only lasted about 2 hours, but as a prologue to MGS V: The Phantom Pain (release TBD), consider my interest peaked. Good to have you back, Snake.
Not So Fast
Of course, just like flat tops and tights, everything from my childhood is suddenly new again, so I also recently played through Drinkbox Studios’s Guacamelee. On the surface, Guacamelee is one of those cartoony, seemingly devoid of substance games I just purported to have abandoned back in 1998. In reality, Guacamelee is an incredibly challenging, funny homage to those classic games. Guacamelee plays like a classic 2D Metroid-style action platformer, complete with lots of backtracking when new abilities are acquired, and several areas that require complex platforming using a plethora of moves, often in rapid succession. Also similar to those old school games, boss fights play out like a game of Simon, forcing you to memorize each boss’s pattern of attack to find weaknesses to exploit. Fortunately, unlike those games of yesteryear, save points are plenty, and there’s no way to completely run out of lives. Honestly, I haven’t been this frustrated toward a game in a long time; the platforming was difficult, and the boss fights infuriating, but the catchy Mexican themed music, and in-game jokes covering the very games from which Guacamelee was inspired, had me coming back for more. No matter how much I may crave more serious, story driven games, Guacamelee proves that there’s room for the classics.
25 3 / 2014
"We feel like the product is strong. We just need to get people in the stores to pick it up, hold it, and then walk away with it."
18 3 / 2014
"We’re not heading toward a world where when I leave the office, I undock my tablet from mouse, keyboard, and 27-inch monitor, only to plug it into a keyboard dock or my television when I get home. Instead of hardware being situation-agnostic, our lives are becoming hardware-agnostic…As services like Dropbox and OneDrive have improved, and as we’ve adopted Google Drive and Gmail or Outlook.com and Office Online, the hardware we use is increasingly unimportant. I’m able to do all my work whether I’m on a Chromebook or a MacBook Air, on a Surface or a ThinkPad 8 or my parents’ 10-year-old Compaq desktop tower. So why, when it’s so easy to turn any device into my device, would I choose inherently compromised tools that do everything passably but nothing perfectly?"
17 3 / 2014
"The product you have in your hand, or put into your ear, or have in your pocket, is more personal than the product you have on your desk. The struggle to make something as difficult and demanding as technology so intimately personal is what first attracted me to Apple. People have an incredibly personal relationship with what we make."
15 3 / 2014
"In pursuing the latest and the coolest, young engineers ignore opportunities in less-sexy areas of tech like semiconductors, data storage and networking, the products that form the foundation on which all of Web 2.0 rests. Without a good router to provide reliable Wi-Fi, your Dropbox file-sharing application is not going to sync; without Nvidia’s graphics processing unit, your BuzzFeed GIF is not going to make anyone laugh. The talent — and there’s a ton of it — flowing into Silicon Valley cares little about improving these infrastructural elements. What they care about is coming up with more web apps."
22 2 / 2014
Image by AcerSense
There were several moments during my playthrough of Beyond Two Souls where I forgot I was playing a videogame. I’d watch a scene play out, then suddenly the image of a button on the PS3 controller would flash on screen, indicating the start of a quick time event, and I would hastily attempt to press the button before something bad happened in the game. Unfortunately, these moments weren’t quintessential examples of immersive storytelling, rather they were moments where the developers of Beyond Two Souls, Quantic Dream, forgot they were making a game. Simply put, Beyond Two Souls is one of the worst games I’ve played in a very long time.
Be Careful What You Wish For
On paper, Beyond Two Souls is a game I should love. It’s heavily focused on storytelling, and comes from the same studio that produced both Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain, both games I enjoyed. In the game you play as Jody (Ellen Page) and the spirit Aiden with whom she is connected. The story is told through a series of vignettes, chronologically out of order, that follow Jody throughout her life as she comes to terms with being connected to the spirit world via Aiden. While an interesting setup, I had serious issues with the order in which the events of the story were told. There were multiple dialog scenes between Jody and the other characters in the game where I could choose how to respond in the conversation; do I want to be snarky, distant, lie, tell the truth, etc. Often times these conversations were about Jody herself, so if I chose to be distant or lie, I would not only keep the truth from the characters in the game, but from myself as well.
The story’s biggest problem, however, is that there’s just too much of it. I’ve always been drawn to games with strong stories, but as I’ve mentioned previously, a strong story in a videogame shouldn’t translate to the gamer simply watching it unfold. The beauty of games is that you can be an active participant in the story. Too often in Beyond Two Souls I found myself watching the game unfold, and would only occasionally press a button to indicate an emotion or perform an action. This lack of interaction would be forgivable if I felt that my decisions had a lasting impact on the story, but most decisions you make offer only minor changes to the story, if any at all.
To make matters worse, the remaining gameplay is also lackluster. Action sequences rely heavily on quick time events, which honestly at this point are my least favorite gaming mechanic; pressing a button or moving the analog stick in a timed sequence is not interesting or engaging. Most games rely on quick time events for heavy action sequences as a way to make them more cinematic, but Beyond Two Souls also uses these sequences for exciting events such as pumping water from a well.
I love the way Quantic Dream continues to push the boundaries of storytelling in gaming. The studio isn’t afraid to tell smart, mature stories. Unfortunately, the studio still hasn’t quite learned how to make a game. Trite gameplay mechanics, low interactivity, and a story that is being told to you, rather than empowering you to tell your own, does not a great game make. I found myself bored during my entire time with Beyond Two Souls, and am glad that time has come to an end.