Forza Horizon 3 Open Beta Thoughts

forza-horizon-3Over the weekend, Turn 10 and Microsoft put out a demo for the upcoming Forza Horizon 3, pairing well with the first game being free for the first half of this month. I spent a little bit messing around with the new festival down under in Australia and wanted to put down a few thoughts I had with it.

Firstly, I’m admittedly not the greatest racing game player in the world, especially with the more realistic style games. That said, I have really enjoyed playing Forza games since I started my first time with Forza 5. The games have enough forgiveness to help those of us that aren’t the smoothest of racers. I’m sure that my Driveatar in the Forza world is a giant pain to deal with, with plenty of aggressive lines. That still is the case with the Horizon games – the races may be a little less strict, since their set on “real” roads – I just like the free roam nature a lot more. With this new game, the new setting really helps make it feel like a step forward. I know Forza Horizon 2 was set in a very different place from the first game – the Mediterranean Coast in Europe vs. Colorado – but this new variety in locations Down Under is so different from the other two games that it really breathes life into it. Driving from the beaches right through to a dense jungle in one fell swoop is pretty damn cool, especially when you look at what really makes the Forza games special – the visuals.

My favorite part of any Forza game is looking at these amazing cars, that I have a less than zero percent chance of ever owning, hopping in, and driving away with graphics that are incredible. They’ve always been some of the most visually impressive games on the Xbox, both while you’re actually out racing and when you’re inspecting the cars to see all the minute details. Even playing the original game now, four years later, it still looks fantastic compared with 360 games from that era – hell it looks better than some games do today. But looking at this new game, it’s like night and day – the graphics have progressed on consoles so far so fast that it blows my mind. These kind of graphics ten years ago were only possible on super high end PCs – now it’s on your TV thanks to a $300 console, and it’s only going to be better if you’ve got the Xbox One S uprezzing it to 4K. There’s a reason why everyone made a big deal about the PS4 Pro not having native 4K, while next year’s Xbox Project Scorpio is going to natively render in 4K. Ultra HD is here, and damn does it make games like Forza look amazing.

Racing games are weird to recommend, in that if your skill level isn’t great they can be super frustrating. I’m, again, not great with them, but thanks to shows like Top Gear, I really like luxury cars and high end sports cars and classic sports cars, so I’ll keep playing Forza through the frustrations. I have no problem dropping the skill level to easy to beat them if I have to. They’re a lot like Fighting games in that way – super frustrating, but I still enjoy a couple of them. The demo is free, and since the game is coming out soon, now is definitely the time to grab it to try it out. I thought it was a really fun time, maybe a bit more of the same with gameplay in the Forza world, but certainly a gorgeous experience.

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E3 2016 – Microsoft Press Conference Thoughts

E3 LogoAs they’ve done the last couple years, Microsoft opened up the week proper on Monday with their press conference at E3. They’ve done a really good job of rebounding after the tepid response to the initial Xbox One launch and marketing, mainly by focusing a lot more on games during these big showcases. This year though, they took a bit of a chance by also talking hardware – which has worked against them in the past. I think ultimately it was a really solid show though – the new games they showed off hit all the major points, big exclusives, some good third party support, and a variety of genres and tones to play. Let’s talk a couple high points.

Before we get to the games, let’s get the more “boring” stuff out of the way. The hardware talk this year was a good mix of platform upgrades for Xbox Live and cross-network play, as well as actual hardware like the new custom controller shop and upgraded consoles. It’s easy to look at some of these announcements and not necessarily be excited, perhaps because of all the flash around the games this week; but I really think that some of what Microsoft is working on is a legitimate game changer. The new Play Anywhere idea in particular is a really cool idea – buy a game once on Xbox One, and you can play it on Windows 10 PC at no extra cause. Progress and achievements all carry over thanks to the Microsoft Cloud. With all of the big exclusives that Microsoft talked about Monday all being part of the program, I definitely see Play Anywhere the first step in gaming trying to really break down those platform/console walls. The Xbox Live upgrades are all welcome ones – I like the addition of clubs, it lets existing communities begin to group up and play together easier; I wonder how much of that is in response to PlayStation doing the same thing a couple months back. The addition of LFG right into the basic Xbox Live service is another really cool idea – no more random matching, you want a group to play the raid in Destiny, you put it up and go. The last addition – Arena – is a little trickier to me. I like seeing competitive gaming becoming easier to get into, and the more options there are to play in tournaments, even as an amateur is a really cool idea. I just wonder how smooth the implementation will go. The most exciting hardware news though is the Xbox One S and Project Scorpio, the two new versions of the Xbox One that Microsoft is releasing. Xbox One S should be a good way to try and get new players moving to the console – HDR gaming, 4K video and up to a 2TB internal hard drive is a great combo. Add in it’s a smaller footprint, and it’s a solid all around console. I don’t think that current Xbox One owners need to upgrade – not yet. But it’s a good way to get new people on board. Project Scorpio on the other hand does look like it could be a good upgrade point. All we really know is some specs for it – 6 terraflops of computing power, true 4K display and support for VR tech all sound like a pretty sizable upgrade. Pricing will be a big question – especially since you’ll pretty much need a 4K TV to really see the difference. But it’s still a year out – TV prices can change a lot in that time – and everything will be compatible, across Xbox One, Xbox One S and Scorpio. It really feels like Microsoft is trying to go from being one console, to a full console family. It’s a risky move for sure, especially knowing that PlayStation also has an upgraded PS4 coming.

Sea of Thieves

All of that is great, but what we really watch E3 for is the games. Microsoft has certainly lost a bit of third party support in the last couple years – Destiny and Call of Duty both are PlayStation first titles. But Microsoft has been, to me at least, showing a really good focus on trying out new IPs from their exclusive developers. We saw four games that are part of franchises – Gears of War 4, Forza Horizon 3, State of Decay 2 and Halo Wars 2. Every other exclusive was a new IP – including some games that I could easily see being heavy hitters. Of those sequels, I think Forza is the one that I’m most interested in – I never really got deep into Gears, I never played State of Decay and I’m not a big fan of RTS games. Forza Horizon 3 though looks gorgeous, as Forza games always do, and having four player, cross platform co-op play is really cool. I like the setting of Australia – it’s different from just about any Forza yet. The new car classes also look to help break up the gameplay.

We Happy Few Logo

For me, the most exciting games I saw, exclusive-wise, were new ones. First, we saw We Happy Few, from the team behind BioShock. It looks dark, it looks heady, it looks frightening, but overall it looks incredible. It’s going to be in the Game Preview program starting July 26, so the wait isn’t long. The other game that really got me pumped up was Sea of Thieves – I was interested last year when Rare announced it, but seeing it in action solidified it. Persistent online world, with a huge emphasis on co-op group play, and you get to be a whole pirate crew? Count me in. I love how colorful it looks too – a lot of big name games are always so washed out and trying to be dramatic. Sea of Thieves though uses the bright color palette to make the whole world feel a lot more alive. Microsoft also has the ID@Xbox program, which is where We Happy Few comes from, as well as Inside, the new game from the creators of Limbo, which looks incredible as well. And of course Cuphead is on the way from that same program as well.

Third party games also got shown during the conference, and it was a pretty good mix I thought. Final Fantasy XV got a demo of a massive fight against Titan – that honestly was underwhelming. I think it was just because the actual fighting shown was sloppy, but I came away unimpressed. Battlefield 1 showed the same gameplay trailer as the day before, as well as announcing that EA Access members on Xbox One can play the game a week early on October 13. While Minecraft isn’t technically a third party game, I still think of it as one – and I really like the move they’re going with. They’re adding in cross-network play, right now focused on the mobile versions with PC, but console support is coming. That’s the one real feature that I think Minecraft really is tailor-made for. Tekken 7 was shown, with Akuma appearing, and it looked solid. Nothing crazy for a Tekken game. Scalebound, the new game from Platinum games got a co-op gameplay demo, and it continues to be a game that confuses me. The idea behind it is awesome – hack and slash Platinum goodness, with a giant dragon as back-up. But the tone of the game just keep catching me off guard – it’s got a lot of levity and almost some degree of self-awareness about it. I wonder how much of that is the Japanese influence in the development, but it’s not something that I think would keep me from buying it. I think the big surprise came from Capcom though, with a really slick trailer for Dead Rising 4. It looks a lot like a return to what got the franchise started – Frank West, and a mall full of zombies.

I know that a lot of media has been down on the Microsoft show – especially after the Sony show, which I missed. And maybe it’s because I’m primarily an Xbox guy first these days, but I don’t know how you come away from that show and not go, “Microsoft has some really cool stuff coming in the next year or so.” Maybe it’s because they took time to show hardware, which is always kind of boring to hear at big events. Maybe it’s because PlayStation 4 has just been doing everything right over the last few years, while Xbox One has had a couple hiccups along the way. Whatever the reason, I think it’s another bit of that kind of negativity and pessimism that surrounds gaming in general lately. Was Microsoft’s show flawless? Not at all. But I came away from it excited to be an Xbox One owner, and ready to see what the next year brings.