Looking Ahead to 2015

Sunset Overdrive CoverNow that we’re fully in the swing of 2015, I think it’s time to start looking forward to just what this year will entail for gaming. Looking back at last year, I think we can really think of 2014 as the year where the “Next-gen” really got started. It was the year of the action game – Titanfall, Destiny, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Sunset Overdrive, Halo: The Master Chief Collection and Shadow of Mordor and Assassin’ Creed Unity – all launched with pretty solid success, even with a few hiccups in the mix.

That having been said, this year is already shaping up to be even more over the top. I was thinking off the top of my head last night – January has a major Xbox One Evolve beta and Advanced Warfare DLC, February is the launch, March is looking like its House of Wolves for Destiny, April will probably have the second DLC for Call of Duty, May is the first month that I can think that might be clear of major releases. That said, there’s also Battlefield Hardline in March; not to mention games like Tom Clancy’s The Division and Rainbow Six: Siege coming out at some point this year. Before we even hit E3, we could have multiple Game of the Year candidates – including Batman: Arkham Knight on June 2.

Batman: Arkham Knight

By the time we are done with E3, we could be looking at the busiest second half of the year in ages. We already know that there’s an Assassin’s Creed game coming (set in London) and there’s bound to be a Call of Duty announced for the fall, not to mention the actual release date for Halo 5: Guardians and Star Wars Battlefront as well as the potential big Destiny pack hinted at in that leak. I really can’t remember a year that looked this stacked, this early on. The games that were pushed back to this year are a big part of that – we lost a few big ones from last year, and 2014 was still a huge year. It’s cliched to say that it’s a great time to be a gamer – but it’s never been more true. All those games I listed are multiplatform for the most part, I didn’t mention either of the huge Nintendo games – Star Fox and Zelda, nor did I think to mention Mortal Kombat X. Clear some time off your schedules for this year, it’s going to be crazy. I just hope that with all these incredible games that we can try to keep the focus on them and not have to worry about “hackers” taking down networks for fun, or having talented developers get death threats, just being a woman in gaming. Let’s try to make this year the year that gaming truly grows up and becomes part of the main pop culture world.

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Wrapping Up the Xbox 360: The Best Games on the Console

Xbox 360 LogoOver the last couple weeks, I saw Game Informer put out a series of columns talking about the editors picks for the best ____ game of the last generation. They hit topics like best racing game, action game, PS3 game, overall game and 360 game. As the transition to the Xbox One and PS4 continues and the 360 and PS3 begin to truly become “last-gen,” I thought I would also look back at the console that I probably spent more time playing than any other before it. While I could narrow it down to just ten, I feel like that discounts a lot of very good games that I am a big fan of, so instead of just doing the same thing everyone else does, I’m just going to toss a whole bunch of games out there in no real order (save for the last two.)

ASSASSIN’S CREED II, BROTHERHOOD, and REVELATION
While there are three more Assassin’s Creed games that appeared on the 360, the Ezio trilogy is really where I think the series shines. The gameplay is much more refined and streamlined, the story is a very compelling one, told over the course of three different games, and this was really the point where the Desmond sections also started to actually mean something, and not just feel like they were arbitrarily breaking up the action. Plus Assassin’s Creed II was the first full game I every got every achievement in once I decided to start actively hunting them.

BioShock Cover

BIOSHOCK (SERIES)
A series that is both highly critically successful as well as commercially, and for good reason, the BioShock games were really important games that showed that shooters could still tell incredible stories, while still having solid action. The original BioShock still stands as one of my all time favorite games – the Plasmids adding in strategy and RPG elements to a shooter that already worked well, the enemies were unique, Big Daddies were terrifying and it still has one of the coolest settings in games in Rapture. The second game gets a bum rap as being a step backward, but I think that’s unfair – it’s more that it wasn’t as big a step forward as people expected. The single player is still really solid, but the multiplayer I think detracts from it a little. BioShock: Infinite on the other hand was a true return to form – incredibly heady story, engaging characters, action that played out perfectly and a new setting that still captured the same feeling as Rapture in Columbia.

BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM and ARKHAM CITY
Despite being an incredibly successful franchise in film and tv, Batman hadn’t ever translated well to games for whatever reason. Older gamers will remember an NES sidescroller that for whatever reason had the Batman wearing a bright purple suit. Rocksteady Games changed all that with Arkham Asylum though, hitting all of the important parts of the Batman mythos. The cast of characters all had the same feel that they did in the Emmy award winning cartoon series, there was a real sense of darkness about the Asylum, and Batman felt truly like a superhero. The corridors of the Asylum are tight, creating a really tense experience, requiring Batman to use his most important weapon – stealth. Arkham City took that same idea and bumped everything up to ten and beyond in some cases. Rocksteady has some guts to kill off the most important comic villain around – we’ll have to see how the Arkham arc will end next year in Arkham Knight.

Borderlands

BORDERLANDS SERIES
Mixing humor, action, RPG, co-op and random loot grabbing, the Borderlands games are a hard bunch to pin down. At their core they’re shooters – but then they really are also RPGs, doing both well. The series is built around four-player co-op, with random loot drops ensuring that players are always finding new weapons, grenades, shields and other goodies to use as they tackle all sorts of enemies. All of that would be well and good, but on top of all that, Gearbox and 2K have always made sure that the games are also really funny, never taking themselves too seriously at all. Both games in the series so far have been supported with awesome DLC and remain standouts on the console – with a third game on the way, during a time when most developers are pushing forward to the Xbox One, Borderlands; The Pre-Sequel should do really well on the 360.

CASTLE CRASHERS
The Xbox Live Arcade had been around really since the Original Xbox as a way for developers to put smaller games out to fans as direct downloads, at a lower price point. Until 2008, there really weren’t any major standouts, aside from Uno and Geometry Wars; but in the summer of 2008 (the first Summer of Arcade) the XBLA got a real shot in the arm. Spearheaded by Braid (a game that I actually never played for whatever reason) and Castle Crashers, the XBLA became a place for not only smaller developers to push games, but for really good games to live. Castle Crashers is still one of the better co-op games on the system – a terrific old-school beat em up with a unique art style, good music, and solid leveling process – but most importantly, it’s just a plain fun game.

Modern Warfare 2

CALL OF DUTY MODERN WARFARE, BLACK OPS SERIES
Activision really hit the lotto with the Call of Duty franchise this generation. I’ve talked a lot in the past about this franchise, both because it’s so popular and because I’m a big fan of the games, generally; so I won’t belabor the point too much here. Modern Warfare changed the shooter landscape, end of story. That group of three game blew sales records away, and changed the way that people played a multiplayer shooter. Black Ops took that new formula and applied a little different spin on it thanks to a different developer. Across the five games in the two series, I had more fun playing Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops 2, than any of the other entries.

DEAD SPACE
Survival Horror games were in a tricky spot going into this generation. At the end of the previous generation, Resident Evil 4 changed the game by giving the player way more control than ever before with the over-the-shoulder camera, but still had the horror present. After that, with the added control to increase the action, how could games truly be scary? Or at least that was the question before Dead Space came out. Even with a solid action system that made it easy to aim and attack the enemies, there was still plenty of terror to be found on the USG Ishimura. Instead of relying on tired and true zombies in space, Visceral came up with something much more horrifying – the necromorphs, and more to the point – the humans bent on turning everyone into them. It was a tense, dark, claustrophobic game that really helped invigorate the genre, and stands out as the best in the series.

Dishonored

DISHONORED
Every once in a while a game should shock you. Dishonored did that for me. I went in with muted expectations, but was totally blown away by the experience. A stealth game that did both stealth and action well? And didn’t punish you for choosing to play loud? Crazy talk, I thought. Of course, playing the game loudly may not have punished you explicitly, but through the “chaos” system in the game, you would make later levels harder or easier depending on how you played through. It’s a game that showed that stealth totally still works in games, and adding in the supernatural just made the game that much more engaging, helping you get to even more different routes to sneak around. Criminally we haven’t gotten a sequel yet, but I’m excited to see what one would entail on the Xbox One.

GRAND THEFT AUTO IV and V
Rockstar has always brought the very best with the series, and that was no different with the latest two offerings. It took me a while to really get into GTAIV, just because of how different it felt from GTAIII and Vice City, my favorites from the previous generation. Once I “got it’ though, IV became much more engaging than before, relying on using Niko as the main storytelling device – his backstory and conflicted morals really set the stage for a wonderfully designed final set of missions. Emotional, but still possessing the GTA trademark humor and freedom, it was a great step forward. With GTAV though, the real strengths come from a more refined control scheme, and the addition of a truly online world with GTA Online. You can play it online or off, either way there’s more to see than ever, but it doesn’t feel that overwhelming. That said, I think it’ll really shine when it launches on the Xbox One and PS4 this fall.

Halo 3

HALO SERIES
Not counting Halo 3: ODST or the Halo: CE Anniversary, Microsoft’s go-to franchise had three winners this generation. Going in, Halo 3 was set up to be a huge game, telling what we thought was the end of Master Chief’s story – we found out it was really just the end of the war with the Covenant. Giving players the ability to play four-player co-op, adding in the scoring meta-game, Forge maps – Halo 3 really was the game that players had been waiting for. Bungie had one hell of a farewell in store for us too with Halo: Reach which might be my pick for the best of the series on the 360. Forgoing relying on Master Chief to tell the story, Reach put the player into a Spartan that was their own – then we were forced to play through his last days thanks to a story that was intense, and really had some weight behind it.

Mass Effect

MASS EFFECT SERIES
BioWare was already a well-respected developer thanks to the Knights of the Old Republic and the Baldur’s Gate games going into the 360’s lifespan. In 2007 they took their already solid RPG elements and mixed them with a solid real-time third person shooter combat system, and together with a really solid story created Mass Effect. Over the course of the three games, we faced down the threat of the Reapers, and depending on who you talk to, tied up the story completely. While Mass Effect 3‘s ending got a lot of ire from the internet, I don’t think that is on BioWare at all – I actually thought the ending was totally fine. The idea that there would be hundreds of endings depending on your choices is just silly. The series still remains a favorite, each game feels different enough to distinguish themselves, and to me the best parts of the games remain the awesome characters that make up Shepards team.

Rock Band Blitz

ROCK BAND SERIES
The rhythm game genre came to a head pretty quickly during the 360’s lifespan, thanks mainly to Activision pushing their Guitar Hero games out far too fast and flooding the market. On the other side was Rock Band a series that Harmonix took a different approach with. Featuring full band gameplay and strong on-disc setlists for each game, Rock Band really brought the genre back to the beginning – party games. Getting people together and playing songs that everyone knows and loves. Instead of releasing new games every year (or in some cases, quicker) Harmonix went with a smarter route – release a few new songs every week. There was weekly DLC for the series from November 20, 2007 straight through to April 2, 2013. That’s over 5 years of uninterrupted DLC – and a whole mess of songs, 1,689 to be exact. The variety in the songs ensure that everyone can find some that they love, and that’s why I still play the games to this day. Plus there’s nothing quite like nailing a tough solo in a great song and getting that 100% completion.

SAINTS ROW SERIES
When the Xbox 360 launched, there really wasn’t anything along the lines of a Grand Theft Auto style sandbox game. Rockstar’s series was seen as almost untouchable at that point, thanks to the success of the PS2 era games. But in 2006 along came Volition with a little game called Saints Row. It wasn’t trying to be GTA – instead it took the basic formula, added in a pretty robust customization system, a story based around rebuilding the Saints respect, and it took off. The first game wasn’t quite as insanely over the top as the later games got, but still featured a strong sense of humor that didn’t take itself too serious. As the series progressed, the gameplay was refined, expanded and the story pushed over-the-top. As much fun as the series is, I worry about the future, just based around my thoughts with Saints Row IV – which I felt wasn’t nearly the game it could have been. I hope that was just because of the mess that the THQ bankruptcy was.

Now for the games that I think are the absolute best on the console:

Oblivion

ELDER SCROLLS and FALLOUT SERIES
Bethesda has really gotten it right this past generation. They were there way back at the start with Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, which might just be my favorite game on the 360, and they were there for what a lot of people say is the best with Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. In between they put out two more absolutely amazing games with Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas. At their core, the four games are very similar – First Person RPGs with a strong emphasis on freedom, it’s in the details that differentiate them (obvious setting differences aside). All the games feature huge game worlds to explore that truly feel lived in – NPC’s follow set routines depending on the day of the week, different factions behave differently when they interact with each other, the world itself is alive (or as alive as the Fallout world allows for). And once you get past the initial starter dungeons, you have 100% free reign on what to do.

Fallout 3 Cover

Want to tackle the main storyline right away? Go for it. Feel like wandering aimlessly around the world, fighting and looting? No problem. One area that that freedom is more standout in the Elder Scrolls games is the amount of sidequest options. In Fallout the sidequests are more limited to single quests scattered about the Wasteland. In Oblivion though for example, you can work your way up through the ranks of the Imperial Arena, or become the Arch Mage of the Mages’ Guild. The sheer volume of different things you can tackle in the Elder Scrolls games really makes them almost unending. I’ve been playing Oblivion – through two characters – since I got in 2006 and am just now going through and finishing the main storylines, after sinking well over 200 hours across them, and that’s on the low end for players. I cannot wait to see what Bethsda has in store for us – Fallout 4 is supposedly in development right now, and I would expect to hear more about it in the next year. As for Elder Scrolls VI – well we just have to keep waiting, it will most likely be after Fallout 4 has it’s run, but knowing Bethsda it will be a huge undertaking.

The Times They Are a Changin’

DestinyOver the last few years, the gaming world has settled into a pretty predictable pattern. E3 hits in June, the summer is devoid of major releases, then the floodgates open in the fall. We’ve seen a new Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, and Halo game every year since 2011. On top of that, Battlefield has had two major entries, plus continuous DLC; Borderlands 2 has been supported since 2012 and there’s always the yearly entries in the various sports games. This is the first year where we’ve really seen indie titles start to make major waves – especially on the console front. Every year though I see the same arguments online about the¬†yearly releases, and it’s always Call of Duty that gets the blame. The titles are seen as cookie cutters, there’s limited or no innovation, they’re packaged for the lowest common denominator – I see these sort of statements all the time on YouTube and Twitter about the franchise.

That said, this year has had a different vibe about it, really ever since it got started. We had a weak fall/holiday last year thanks to the new consoles releasing. This year started with a major release’s hype train in full swing for Titanfall’s March release, and anticipation of a really stacked E3. Expectations were definitely high going in, and all three consoles had really strong showings, setting the table for a really busy, hugely anticipated fall/holiday/early 2015 release window. What I think we should pause and look back at when we look at 2014 is that this was the year that indie and new IP games really shined. Titles like Speedrunners, Sportsfriends, Guacamelee, 1001 Spikes, Towerfall Ascension and more all were standouts of the summer.

Advanced Warfare Cover

Going into this fall, at least right after E3, I had three games that I knew I would be playing day one – Destiny, Sunset Overdrive and Evolve. Since then, Evolve has been delayed, but the other two games, both brand new IP’s, still are set to come out this fall. I’ve talked a lot about how excited I am for Destiny, but Sunset Overdrive looks like it’s going to be just as fun, in a totally over the top, crazy way. While this fall does still have the familiar faces – Call of Duty, Halo, and Assassin’s Creed all have new entries – those titles aren’t the focal point of the season. Normally, Call of Duty would be dominating the headlines and leading the fall schedule, but to me, Advanced Warfare feels very much like it’s way under the radar. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, but the Gamescom reveal had all the bombast that the franchise is known for, and actually did its job – it got me more excited for the game than anything else did. I totally expect to see Sunset Overdrive, Destiny and Evolve all become franchises for the next few years to come, but the fact that they’re proving that new IP’s can not only survive in the craziness of the fall, but in fact thrive in it, is a really good sign going forward. Hopefully they’ll do well enough and will help convince publishers to take a risk here and there.

Weekly Gaming Roundup for the Week of August 4, 2014

I’m going to start a new thing here at Infinite Lives, where on Friday, I’ll recap the major news from the gaming world for the week. Nothing ground breaking, but I didn’t get my degree in journalism to just write features every day.

Evolve Cover

EVOLVE DELAYED
On Tuesday we learned that the upcoming asymmetrical shooter from the team that gave us Left 4 Dead, Evolve would be delayed until February 10, 2015. Take-Two games announced the delay in a statement on Tuesday afternoon, saying they want to give Evolve the time to be polished up to perfection. Publisher 2K games has a track record with somewhat out of the box games – publishing the Borderlands series as well; giving the team behind Evolve even more time to tweak and hone everything to perfection seems to point to their belief that Evolve can become a major market player. Evolve had a great showing at E3 this year, unveiling the new Kraken monster type as well as winning numerous “Best of Show” awards. Evolve‘s delay follows two other Triple A title delays – Battlefield: Hardline was delayed until 2015 as well, and Dragon Age: Inquisition was delayed until November.

Destiny

DESTINY PRE-ORDERS BEING CANCELLED
More bad news this week, this time related to Destiny, Bungie’s upcoming shooter/rpg/mmo hybrid. Turns out Walmart and Best Buy accepted too many pre-orders for the Ghost and Limited Editions of the game, and as a result have started to cancel people’s pre-orders. Bungie said from the day they announced the special editions that they intended for them to truly be limited, and it appears that they weren’t kidding. Best Buy is at least handling it in a pretty stand up manner, offering a $50 store credit promotion while suggesting the Digital Guardian Edition or Standard edition instead. With the release of Destiny only a month away, I wonder just how many more emails will be sent out, or if retailers did it all in one fell swoop.

Assassin's Creed Rogue

ASSASSIN’S CREED ROGUE ANNOUNCED
Switching gears toward news that isn’t about something being cancelled or delayed, instead we have the opposite – a new game being confirmed. There were rumors of a last-gen Assassin’s Creed game in development to pair with the upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Unity, but nothing concrete had been seen until this week. Assassin’s Creed Rogue will be coming out on the Xbox 360 and PS3 on November 11, 2014. ACR features a different playable character – putting players in the shoes of a Templar, Shay, a former Assassin turned rogue and now tasked with hunting down other Assassins. Rogue will feature the naval gameplay that was in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and will be set during the Seven Years’ War, filling the gap between Black Flag and Assassin’s Creed III.

Those were the three biggest news stories I thought for this week. It was a relatively slow week, but I think that’s mainly in preparation for Gamescom coming up in Germany next week. Teasers are already out for games that will be at the show, so I expect a bunch of new info to drop about this fall’s strong lineup.