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.

Xbox Games with Gold – June 2016

Sunset Overdrive Xbox BundleLike they do every month, Microsoft announced the upcoming “free” games available to Xbox Live Gold subscribers. I say “free” because you do need to be paying for the Gold subscription, but the games themselves don’t cost anything extra. The Games with Gold program has been really hit and miss over the last few years that it’s been around. Some months, it’s got a couple really incredible games – in the past Dark Souls, Sunset Overdrive, and Halo 3 have all appeared as “free” titles. Sometimes though the games are maybe a little lower on the totem pole. What I have always really enjoyed about the program is that it has always put a lot of Arcade/Indie titles in the spotlight. I picked up Guacamelee along with a few other titles in the same kinda vein. And that’s certainly the style game I’m looking for with the June games.

The two Xbox One titles are on total opposite sides of the tone spectrum. On one hand, we’ve got Goat Simulator, a game that just has humor and character for days. It’s got no direct plot, just go be a goat and do all kinds of crazy stuff. I’m honestly really looking forward to playing it next month – as interesting a game as I think it is, I was more interested in spending my money on other games. The other side of the spectrum though we have The Crew, a much more serious racing game. This is one of those games that I was pretty excited about pre-launch, but after launch, the impressions I kept seeing seemed that it fell a bit short. I like the concept of being able to race all the way across the U.S. I like the idea of building up a car club – that’s something that we haven’t really seen in a racing game in a few years. Since it’s going to be free, there’s really no downside to picking it up and trying it out.

On the Xbox 360 front we have the usual set-up; a full game and an Arcade title. The full game, X-Com is one that has received tons critical acclaim since it, and recently the sequel, launched. It’s a pretty intense RPG/RTS, featuring permadeath for characters, meaning each mission has some pretty high stakes. I totally see the value in a game like that, but the RTS genre has never been a style game that I’ve liked, and X-Com, for all it’s strengths was never really a game that I was interested in. The Arcade title on the other hand is one that I’m kinda disappointed in myself for never actually picking up. It was a game that I wanted to get, ever since launch, and just never pulled the trigger. Now that Super Meat Boy is going to be free though, I can finally play one of the best pure platformers in recent memory. It’s as old-school as they come – demanding extreme precision and control to navigate the levels. At this point, you probably have at least heard of the game, and now it’s free to pick up.

The Games with Gold program is a really cool thing that Microsoft does – and I know Sony does the same thing. It ensures that no matter what, as long as you have a Gold subscription, you have access to at least four new games, every month. With games being as expensive as they are, having free games each month is a really nice thing. I do wish that maybe they could pick some newer titles sometimes, but that feels a little entitled to me.

Goodnight Sweet Prince – The Xbox 360 Bows Out

Xbox 360 LogoToday marks a pretty significant milestone for console gaming. Earlier today, Microsoft boss Phil Specter announced that Xbox will stop manufacturing new Xbox 360 consoles. The console marked its ten year anniversary in the fall of last year, which is an insane lifespan for technology. It’s a little sad to see it enter the final chapter, but it’s a good excuse to talk about some of the consoles highlights.

Before we talk games, there’s the console itself. Microsoft was in an interesting spot going into the console generation – despite being a company since the late 70’s, it was the new kid on the block with consoles. The original Xbox had shown that they could create a console that could appeal to the adult gaming audience as well as the overall crossover audience. But compared with the huge success of the PlayStation 2, it was definitely the little brother of the group. The 360 showed a tremendous amount of growth, even with a somewhat rocky launch. It showed that Microsoft was dedicated to creating a home console that belonged, not just a quick grab for money. From relatively consistent system upgrades – some that completely overhauled the dashboard we saw every day – to providing the best online service for consoles, the Xbox 360 gave the Xbox brand the identity it needed. Plus Achievements and Gamerscore started on the 360, and I’m a pretty damn big fan of them.

Skyrim

One of the complaints I really remember from the early days is one that would end up being the total opposite of how the 360 was. It’s one that I myself made in the early days – the launch window games were somewhat crap. A Call of Duty – the last Infinity Ward World War Two game in fact – and Kameo are really the only two that I can even remember. Which is a far cry from the last five or so years – Halo, Call of Duty, Fallout/Elder Scrolls, BioShock, Gears of War, Minecraft, the list just goes on and on. The Xbox One may be struggling to grab those third party exclusives – I’m looking at you Destiny and Call of Duty – but on the 360, it was the exact opposite case. DLC came out first for those big third party games on the 360, pretty much across the board. Combine that with the Xbox Live upgrades that really solidified it as an integral part of the Xbox brand, and it was pretty easy to see why that was the case. It’s hard to imagine, not just Xbox gaming, but console gaming in general without the rise of Xbox Live and Halo and Call of Duty during the 360.

Now that the console is entering the final phase of its life, it’s the perfect time to go back and revisit some truly classic games. With backwards compatible games coming to the Xbox One more and more frequently, there are plenty of ways to play them too. If you got rid of your console, but still have the discs, that’s totally fine. If you have a full collection of digital games, the Xbox One has you covered there too. While we’re starting to see a few games coming out now – Dark Souls, Battleborn, Overwatch, DOOM – it’s not quite as crazy as the fall, so while it’s a little slow maybe go back and play a favorite. It’s always a good idea.

Xbox One Backwards Compatibility Thoughts

Xbox OneWith the new Xbox One Experience that launched last month, Microsoft has brought to the console a feature that we have been asking for since the original launch of the console. We can now play, in a limited capacity, Xbox 360 titles on the Xbox One. The really nice thing is that that isn’t limited to physical copies of games – Games on Demand titles can be brought forward as well.

While it’s not an exhaustive list – and really we shouldn’t expect to be at all, there were easily thousands of games on the 360 – Microsoft was smart with this first 100 or so titles. They feature a lot of the biggest games from the last console generation. From Microsoft exclusives like the Rare games and Gears of War; to big third party titles like Rainbow Six Vegas and Fallout 3 there’s a really good mix of games out there. One other nice thing here is that you don’t actually need to currently still own your 360 to get the digital games – you can purchase them right on Xbox.com. For people who maybe sold their Xbox 360 to make room for the Xbox One, this is a really nice addition.

The actual execution of the backwards compatibility play is also pretty damn smart. Instead of having it behave vastly different, it works just like it already does on both consoles. The Xbox One requires games to be installed to the hard drive – including the 360 titles – so that’s the first step. And it’s a step that anyone with an Xbox One already takes with games. That keeps people from having to learn another way to move about their console. When you actually load up the 360 game, your Xbox One transforms right in front of you. It runs the 360 start-up noises, and acts just like an emulator. As someone who played the 360 for almost ten years, it’s a pretty welcoming feeling to see it come up. You still have access to the Xbox 360 Guide even – that’s fantastic.

It might be a little later than we would have liked, but now that it’s here, I think it’s a really good addition to the console. Sure the Xbox One has a couple quirks to it that I would like to see tweaked. Sometimes it’s in specific games – I’m looking at you Destiny and not having private in-game fireteams. But Microsoft has done a really good job, this year in particular, of looking at the console and the wants of the fanbase, and then applying what they can to the console. We’re still very early in this console generation, and while I do think that the PlayStation 4 got off to a much strong start, I think the Xbox One is starting to finally come into its own.

In Defense of Microtransactions

The Taken King LogoOver the last couple months, I’ve seen a lot of talk in various places about microtransactions. With Destiny adding Silver for emotes, and Halo 5: Guardians having the option to buy some REQ packs with real money, they’ve been at the forefront with two of the biggest games of the season. So the debate continues to rage on – are microtransactions good for gaming? The easy answer is no – they give developers a way to charge for content that might normally be in the game. But that’s the cynical way of looking at it. In truth, the answer is a lot more complicated. If you’re looking for reasons why their bad, just go search around Reddit or game forums. I’m playing devil’s advocate today.

Destiny Tess Everis

When they’re done properly – like I think they are in Halo and Destiny – they supplement the game that’s already in place. In Destiny‘s case, it’s a secondary revenue stream for Bungie to use. Activision came out in their latest revenue call and said not to assume that all future DLC for the game would be free just because Silver is in the game now. That irked some players – but to me, that makes perfect sense. Silver alone would never be enough of a revenue stream to support a game of that size. What Silver does is provide a little cushion, and gives Bungie a way to maybe put out smaller chunks of content for less money or for free. I don’t think that something like House of Wolves would ever have been free – but maybe with Silver something a little smaller in scope now can be. Maybe a Quest that has a couple missions in it and has a few new pieces of gear, or a new Crucible map – those are more what I think we’re looking for moving forward now. Bungie was also smart about what Silver is used for. Since it’s only good for buying Emotes that have no direct impact on gameplay, there’s no penalty for not getting Silver. It’s not a Pay-to-Win system that seems to be a pretty prevalent way of implementing microtransactions.

Which is what worried me most about the REQ system in Halo 5: Guardians. Since I wasn’t super interested in diving into the info pre-launch (I tend to do that a lot with games I like) I didn’t really know that REQs were only in Warzone. Now, Warzone isn’t a super competitive mode – it’s a good way to just zone out and play a few games with big teams. The REQ system actually works really well, removing weapon spawns on maps, and putting them in the players hands with these REQs. Now, if they were only tied behind real-money purchases, that would definitely be a real issue. But they aren’t – you gain in-game currency from playing and leveling up, which you can use to pick which tier REQ pack to buy. Sure the very top level is only real-money, but that’s not a necessary purchase in any sense.

Halo 5 Warzone

Ultimately, I see microtransactions as a great tool that developers and publishers have access too. When they’re used right, they do nothing but enhance the game. Whether it’s with customization items, or status things, they make playing it a little more fun. It’s a tricky line to tread for sure – it’s real easy to use them as shortcuts to victory. Battlefield is guilty of that – after a few months from launch, they offer the shortcut packs for each class/vehicle to unlock all of the items and upgrades. It’s supposed to be a help for new players to get caught up, but it does make me feel a little punished as a day-one player. It kind of alienates the original fanbase. Now Battlefield has gotten away with it – mainly because I don’t think those items are really promoted or needed. What microtransactions really do is open up a different way for fans to support the game they love. DLC takes time to make, and while playing the game is always the best way, buying these little things helps in the meantime. Like them or not, they’re here to stay too – so it’s more important for us as players and fans to find the games that do them well and support them. The power with microtransations is in the players’ hands – if they don’t work, the publishers feel that and adjust moving forward. That’s how we progress as an industry.

This Halloween I Got a Nasty Trick – Not a Treat at All

Xbox OneI’ve been talking pretty much all summer about how excited I have been for this fall/holiday release season. I legitimately think it’s the best lineup of games we’ve seen in at least four years. There’s big first-part titles, there are huge triple A games, and there’s always the chance for some indie loves to sneak in. I’ve already had the chance to play a few great ones – Destiny: The Taken King and Halo 5 both are tremendous fun. The meat of the season really picks up this week with Call of Duty, next week is Fallout 4 and then after that we have Star Wars Battlefront. That’s not including Tomb Raider, or Need for Speed.

With all those incredible games, I should be really excited. And I was – until last Tuesday night. I’m a part of the Xbox Preview Program, which lets me get the system updates early to test them. I had put off installing the New Xbox Experience (Windows 10 on the One) because it had issues with Destiny. Unfortunately, last Tuesday night, the Program pushed the update live to my box. Normally, no problem, but my Xbox had its first install issue in two years. The update downloaded fine, restarted the Xbox fine, and then nothing. It hung, forcing a power cycle. Doing so showed me just how bad the damage was. There’s a known issue with system updates – Xbox’s support page has a troubleshooting section for them even. I got the Green startup screen stuck for well over ten minutes – normally a maybe one minute screen as it checks the systems. After trying their fixes – power cycling and using a thumb drive to try to boot off of – there was still no change. Which means that as I write this, my Xbox One is somewhere in Fed Ex Land on route to Xbox’s service center. What’s nice is that shipping was free, and that the repairs shouldn’t cost me either since it’s in the “in-program repair” category. All I’m really losing here is a couple/few weeks without an Xbox One. Normally, that would be a little inconvenient – no good YouTube/Twitch/ESPN/Gaming center to entertain me. I still have my 360, as well as my SNES and Genesis if I’m really in the mood to play something. I’ve also hooked up my desktop to maybe try my hand at a couple PC games again. In truth, what’s really killing me with this whole situation is the timing of it all. In 8 days, I’ll have a beautiful brand-new Fallout 4 Pip-Boy edition in my hands, and no console to play it on. I have Halo 5 ready to rock, and no way to play it with my friends (who have already finished the campaign.) Destiny is having a really awesome Halloween event that I was enjoying a ton, that I can’t finish now; not to mention that Xur had some awesome gear I wanted last weekend.

There’s no real timeline on fixing my Xbox yet – I probably won’t know for sure until my Xbox actually gets to the service center. I’m expecting it to last at least two or three weeks, but prepared for longer. My advice to people now is this: take care of your consoles – keep them registered, and under warranty, you never know what can happen with those moving parts. And it never hurts to have a backup plan should it go.