This console generation has seen brought us a lot of great things. HD graphics, wireless controllers, new heights for online gaming, as well as features like Netflix and downloadable games have all been greatly beneficial. Some of this generation's developments, however, have been of a far less savory nature. I'm here to talk about those things that cost us extra money or dumb down the overall gaming experience. I'm not an especially nostalgic-minded gamer, so I don't intend for this to come off as sound like the bitter rantings of a man yearning for the "good old days". There are simply some things happening in the industry today that I do not approve of and neither should you. Read on for what I consider to be this generation's 5 worst trends.
5. Retailer Specific Pre-Order Bonuses
In today's industry, pre-orders play a large role. They help publishers gauge public interest in their product which, in turn, can help them plan for future installments or add-ons. It's only natural that publishers would want to offer gamers some sort of incentive for them to pay in advance for a game that may still be months away. They're asking gamers to take a chance on a product that they're not even sure will be any good in the end. Things like new clothing items, weapons, game modes, etc., have become standard pre-order offerings. That's fine until the retailers become involved. It's no longer enough for a publisher to offer one set of pre-order bonuses. Now they must pander to a handful of individual retail chains such as Wal-Mart, Gamestop and Best Buy, who could outright refuse to offer the game for sale without a pre-order bonus attached to their stores. It's asking developers to put in even more work to create items that only small portions of their intended audience will be able to utilize, just so that retailers can try to make a few extra bucks for themselves while stepping on everyone else. If you buy a game, should you not be entitled to all that it contains? At least allow us unlock those bonuses in-game somehow, or make them available post-launch if you must, but this retailer specific nonsense is getting way out of hand.
4. Nickel And Dime DLC
There was a time when gamers used to have access to everything on the disc. Every feature, costume, character or level could be unlocked through skill, sheer time investment, or cheat codes. Now, these features simply cost money, even if they're already on the disc that you already paid for. Many companies began this generation using this business model for DLC, but have since come to realize how to offer actual value with extra content. EA started by offering all manner of ridiculous in-game objects for sale, even down to paying real money for in-game currency in games like The Godfather. They have since taken a more sensible approach to DLC, but Capcom was right there to pick up their slack, seeing fit to charge us for a Versus mode in Resident Evil 5 and extra characters in the upcoming Marvel vs Capcom 3 (that are already on the disc) just to name a few. EA and Capcom are not alone in this practice, of course, they're just 2 of the more high-profile offenders. Along similar lines, publishers simply overcharge for DLC much of the time, especially if it was not on the disc to begin with. Map packs for games like the Call of Duty series began at $10 for 4-5 new maps (still a bit pricey) and now cost $15 for even less new content. How soon before these packs cost $20? $25? Honestly, publishers aren't the only ones to blame for this, since people paid the higher price by the millions. If you vote with your wallets, changes will be made to suit us better. I know it's extremely important to have the latest maps for Generic Shooter #14,903, but shouldn't they be available at a reasonable price?
3. Lack Of Creativity Within The FPS Genre
First person shooters have been around for a long, long, LONG time. The genre can be characterized by a single game coming about every 3-5 years that sets new genre conventions, and every shooter that follows does its best to mimic that one game. Beginning with Doom and passing the torch on to games like Quake, Half-Life, Halo and Call of Duty, this trend isn't necessarily new, it's just that in recent years, it has become so much worse. The 3 games pictured above are Modern Warfare 2, Killzone 3 and Medal of Honor, but you'd be hard pressed to discern the difference at a glance, or even after closer inspection. Apparently, the world world is bland and colorless, because to make a game more realistic and gritty, it has to be brown or gray and feature some sort of military theme and terrorists who are planning to attack America. There is a bit of relief on the horizon, however, with games like Bulletstorm and Brink bringing some much needed color and originality to the genre.
2. The Downfall Of Single Player Campaigns
The advent of online console gaming has been a huge factor in this generation. Competitive gaming is more important than ever as it can increase a game's replayability to near infinite proportions. Unfortunately, much of this competitive focus comes at the expense of a good, old-fashioned, story-driven single player campaign with actual substance. There was a time when a game would have been destroyed by critics for having a 4 hour campaign, but these days, even 4 hours is asking too much in some cases. Games like Kane & Lynch and the Call of Duty series last only a few hours and then quickly usher you into multiplayer as though their single player campaigns were just an afterthought. No portion of a game should be an afterthough. Anything worth putting into a game is worth taking the time to do it right and to make it worth your while. This problem is only likely to get worse, however. Even EA believes single player games are "finished", but I really don't buy that. They're only "finished" because so little emphasis is put on them by developers lately. Games like Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect, and Fallout: New Vegas have all garnered critical praise and commercial success for their single player campaigns. Red Dead is a particularly good example because it shows it isn't necessary to sacrifice a lengthy single player campaign in favor of extra multiplayer features.
1. Motion Controls
Motion controls. Likely to be the most controversial of my selections, they are the bane of my existence as a "hardcore" gamer. Nintendo jumped into the fray first with the Wii, proving that motion controls are commercially viable, and managed to create a whole new audience out of soccer moms and the elderly. To call Nintendo's success unprecedented is the understatement of the century, and it was only a matter of time before Microsoft and Sony decided they wanted a piece of that action as well. Enter Move and Kinect, Sony and Microsoft's respective answers to the Wii. Sony's approach is a shameless, blatant rip off of the Wii masquerading as something that will be appealing to hardcore gamers with games like "The Shoot" and "The Fight" (very creative names, by the way). Microsoft, on the other hand, thinks controllers are no good at all and would rather we use our entire bodies to control the game. The fact of the matter is that neither the Wii, Playstation Move or Microsoft Kinect offer much in the way of "hardcore" experiences. No matter how much they might claim, these motion controllers do not give the gamer MORE control. As the great Ben "Yahtzee" Crenshaw once put it, "Gaming should be about games, not controllers...Actual gamer gaming technology should be working toward controls that use SMALLER movements, not LARGER ones, to enhance immersion by minimizing the separation between thought and onscreen action." I couldn't have said it better myself.
The long-running Need For Speed series has come a long way over the years, becoming one of gaming's best selling franchises. This generation has not been entirely kind to the series from a quality standpoint, however. After 2005's "Most Wanted", the series went through several less exciting iterations. "Carbon", "ProStreet" and "Undercover" didn't feature police chases at all, considered by many to be the best part about Need For Speed. Enter Criterion Games, the creators of the popular Burnout series looking bring their signature brand of destructive racing to the next level. Fresh off their flawed, but promising 2007 release, Burnout Paradise, does Criterion have what it takes to put the Speed back into Need For Speed, or does Hot Pursuit crash and burn?
Hot Pursuit is set up as a big sandbox in the fictional, but picturesque Seacrest County, with about 50 different events to choose from as either a cop or a racer. Burnout Paradise was set up in a similar manner, but it was all very cumbersome, having to physically drive to every event and drive all the way back to the starting live if you failed. Fortunately, a little more foresight went into Hot Pursuit, so now you have a large, overhead map that allows you to choose from any available event. You can switch between racer events and cop events at any time, and there is a decent variety of events to choose from. Racers have standard time trials, races against the AI and 1 on 1 duels. They can also participate in Hot Pursuit events which place you with a pack of other racers while trying to evade police, or Gauntlet events where it's just you against a multitude of cops and without any equipment to defend yourself. Cop missions also have time trials (though it is a frustrating variant called "Rapid Response" which penalizes you for every mistake), but most cop events are Hot Pursuit races in which you bust as many racers as possible, or Interceptor events in which you throw everything against a single opponent. The game is at its best when cops and racers battle it out, so I would have liked to see less of the time trials and more Hot Pursuit, Gauntlet and Interceptor events. It's a good, lengthy campaign, though, clocking in at over 15 hours, which could easily be extended if you decide to pursue gold medals for each event.
The Need For Speed series has always boasted a line-up of licensed, real-world vehicles, and Hot Pursuit is no different. There are about 100 cars from manufacturers like Lamborghini, Mercedes, BMW, Pagoni and more, though 50 of them are merely police variants of the available racers. Curiously absent, however, are Ferraris. The Italians manufacturer probably didn't want to see their cars getting banged up and running each other off the road. After all, they probably didn't want to encourage another incident like the one former Gizmondo president Setfan Erikson was involved in. That poor, poor Enzo! You'll unlock new cars as you progress, and more powerful vehicles can make or break a race, especially as you near the end of the career. The difficulty spikes abruptly and significantly in the second half of the game and you may find yourself on a bit of a grind as you try to unlock better cars. Anyway, the cars all look great and do receive damage, but not nearly at the level of the Burnout games.
To dish out said damage, both cops and racers have some useful equipment at their disposal. Cops and racers both come equipped with Spike Strips and EMP Bursts. Think of the Spikes Strips sort of like banana peels from the Mario Kart series. They are dropped behind your vehicle and will spin out the first car to drive over them, causing a damage along with it. EMP, on the otherhand, is fired ahead of you and temporarily disables your target. You need to maintain a fairly steady line of sight to keep your targeting reticule locked on, and it's best used as your target enters a sharp turn. The Racers' 2 unique abilities come in the form of Turbo Boost and Jammers. Turbo Boost is exactly what it sounds like and rockets you forward at high speed with green fire erupting from your exhaust pipe. Jammers are an incredibly handy device, probably the most useful in the whole game. Firing off a Jammer shuts down a cop's heads up display and disables the use of their equipment for a short time. It also allows you to see upcoming roadblocks, as well as jamming EMP lock-ons and even spike strips. Cops are treated to 2 very different unique abilities: Road Block and Air Support. Calling out a Road Block sets up a wall of police vehicles across the road ahead to try to stop incoming racers. Their effectiveness is a bit of a mixed bag since there are often large gaps in the defense, but they have their uses. Air support call in a helicopter that zooms ahead attempting to drop spike strips in front of racers. Like the road blocks, they are not 100% effective and you'll probably spike yourself more than once. All the equipment is upgraded as you progress through the career, and using them strategically when they're available is often the key to success.
Without a doubt, Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit's most outstanding contribution to racing is the Autolog feature. Autolog, at its core, is just like Facebook. You have a friends list and a wall where you can post your times and pictures and send challenges to your friends. You'll also be notified any time one of your friends beats one of your times or challenges, which will, in turn, offer you a new challenge to beat. It instills a constant spirit of competition into what is already a smartly designed single player campaign. You'll likely find yourself checking your challenges all the time, striving to surpass the friends on your list. The best part is, Hot Pursuit won't litter your Facebook wall with posts about your in-game accomplishments, unlike other games that use the actual Facebook in this way (I'm looking at you, Blur). It all stays on Autolog, making it far less intrusive. It's a great feature that EA has already confirmed they will be using in future installments of Need For Speed. My only concern is that it can sometimes prove to be unstable, disconnecting you from the Autolog servers and being unable to reestablish a connection. Even if your internet connection is working, you can't even play multiplayer if Autolog goes down. It doesn't occur TOO often, but it occurs often enough to warrant mention and I do hope they iron out these issues.
In addition to the huge single player campaign, Hot Pursuit contains online multiplayer for up to 8 players, though it is somewhat less fully featured than the single player. There are only 3 event types to choose from: Hot Pursuit, Race and Interceptor. Races are self explanatory, while Hot Pursuits pit a team of 4 racers against a team of 4 cops and is easily the most exciting option available. Unfortunately, being knocked out early can be a real drag since you're forced to sit and wait until the match ends. Interceptor races, as in the campaign, pit a single cop against a single racer. Unlike the campaign, however, the course has no boundaries and will continue indefinitely, until the racer escapes or somebody wrecks. To mix things up a little, you are at least allowed to choose from 1 of 5 available speed classes to narrow down your search. The nice thing is that any experience points you earn in multiplayer will carry over to your single player progress, and vice versa. It helps maintain a feeling of constant progress between the game's different modes, and that goes a long way. Even so, Hot Pursuit's multiplayer is lacking compared to it's single player offering. There are no options for matchmaking aside from choosing a gametype and speed class and you'll always be pitted against a seemingly random assortment of people. It's especially harsh for new players, who will often be pitted against players at a much higher level. Still, the gameplay itself is fun and racing against real people will always be more dynamic than racing against (unfairly) rubber-banding AI opponents.
Visually, Hot Pursuit looks fantastic. Seacrest County is a beautiful place filled with winding canyons, beaches, deserts, forests, snowy mountains, small, rural towns, pretty much every type of North American environment rolled into one. The only thing it lacks is a large, metropolitan area, but given Criterion's history with Burnout Paradise's DLC, one can hope they'll go a similar route, adding large new chunks of playable space. Criterion has always been known for producing an extremely intense, over the top sense of speed in its games, and Hot Pursuit continues that proud tradition. When you're driving a Bugatti Veyron at 250 miles per hour, you really feel like you need to hang onto your seat. Blinking your eyes often results in disaster and you'll come away from every victory feeling breathless. The audio portion is somewhat of a mixed bag, however. The cars all sound appropriately powerful, often resembling the roar of a wild animal when you start them up. The issue here is the actual music selection in the game. Obviously, this dives into that ever present gray area of personal preference, but I found that most of the music is simply not good driving music. Even the songs that are most tolerable are often ruined by whiny, high-pitched vocals that make me want to shove a hot poker through my eardrums. By contrast, the music that plays during Hot Pursuits, Interceptors and Gauntlet events is a more dramatic, orchestral score that fits the action much more appropriately. Of course, the game also supports custom soundtracks, so that eliminates the problem entirely.
When all is said and done, Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit is the best game the series has seen in years, possibly the best it has seen ever. Its speed and intensity are simply unmatched, while Autolog takes the spirit of competition and infuses it into every aspect of the game. It's a genre-changing addition that will surely spawn many imitators in the coming months and years. It's not a perfect game (but what is, really?), as it could use less rubber banding on the AI as well as a larger selection of game modes online. Even so, it is easily the best driving game of 2010 (keep your pants on, Gran Turismo fans) and I would recommend it to anybody looking for no nonsense, high speed thrills. It's the game that Burnout: Paradise should have been and that the Need For Speed series should always be from here on out.
FINAL SCORE: A-
Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit is available now on Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Wii, iPhone and iPad
Reviewing Fallout: New Vegas has been a daunting task. As the latest entry in the long running and venerable Fallout series, I didn't want to rush my playthrough simply for the sake of providing a timely review. I'd rather be thorough. Bethesda left pretty large shoes to fill with 2008's Fallout 3, a game I poured a good 300 hours into, so handing the series off to Obsidian Entertainment left me feeling skeptical. Does New Vegas live up to the high standard set by Fallout 3, or is it merely a pale imitation?
New Vegas starts with a bullet to the brain. Set sometime after the events of Fallout 3, you play as a non-descript male or female courier on a delivery with a mysterious but important item: The Platinum Chip. You are ambushed by a man named Benny and his thugs, who then steals your precious cargo and delivers said bullet to your brain. Of course, it wouldn't be much of a game if you actually died before you even began, so you are revived by a kindly old man whose head occasionally spins in a grotesque manner. From there you'll determine your skills and stats before embarking on your quest to recover the Platinum Chip and to avenge your own near-death. From there, the game sets about the task of making sure you never forget you're a courier by throwing an inordinate amount of fetch quests at you.
The game's other major plot point involves the mounting tension between the Mojave's 2 ruling factions: The New California Republic and Caesar's Legion. During the course of your long journey, you'll come to know them well and make friends or enemies out of them and a multitude of various smaller factions that live in the Mojave Wasteland. You'll learn their unique personalities, individual motivations, their dark, dirty secrets, or you can simply annihilate anyone who looks at you wrong. A lot of the factions have interesting characters to talk to and most will have at least a few errands for you. What's interesting to note about the factions in New Vegas is that while helping the NCR is considered "good" and helping Caesar's Legion is considered "bad", most goals are not so transparent and will involve many shades of gray rather than a simple black and white choice. Those moral ambiguities translate into many of the missions as well, which tend to have multiple ways to complete them.
There is a glaring issue with the factions in New Vegas, however, which comes in the form of the Karma system. Doing good gains you Karma while doing bad loses it, just like in Fallout 3. New Vegas also judges you based on Fame/Infamy with various factions. The problem now is that if you complete a seemingly innocuous mission for one faction, you'll likely gain Infamy with another, even if the mission appears unrelated to other factions. You'll often be left scratching your head wondering what arbitrary thing you did to make them angry. Another strange quirk is that apparently, the game puts a higher value on personal belongings than on life. Early on in the game, you'll encounter the Powder Gangers, a group of escaped prisoners who love dynamite and attack you on sight. Killing Powder Gangers raises your Karma level (even though you're simply defending yourself), yet stealing their belongings results in a loss of Karma. It makes no sense at all. Why penalize the player for doing what it takes to survive? Scavenging the belongings of your fallen opponents is how many players will acquire almost all of their goods in this game. The Karma system is littered with bizarre inconsistencies like this.
Basic combat in New Vegas has not changed much from Fallout 3. The uninitiated will still be put off by what is perceived to be sloppy gunplay. The thing to remember is that this game is an RPG first and an FPS second. So while New Vegas has added the ability to manually aim down a set of iron sights, the most effective way to fight with ranged weaponry will still generally be V.A.T.S. For those who never played Fallout 3, V.A.T.S. is sort of an "easy" button when it comes to combat. The action will pause, allowing you to target specific body parts on your opponent, showing you a percentage indicating the likelihood of hitting your target. When you unpause the action, your attacks are made for you in slow motion. There are a variety of magazines and chems you can take to increase your range, accuracy, firing speed, etc to improve your performance in V.A.T.S. It's a system that works well enough, though you'll sometimes have trouble actually highlighting the body part you were hoping to target.
That having been said, there are quite a few new weapons and toys to play around with in New Vegas. From lazer tommy guns, to exploding fists, to fireball launchers, you're certain to find a few weapons that suit your personal taste and playstyle. I tended to gravitate toward melee weapons such as the Super Sledge or Ballistic Fist, myself. Afterall, the Gamebryo engine was originally built for Elder Scrolls IV, a game based primarily on melee combat, so the fact hat melee combat in New Vegas feels best is no surprise. You can also mod a number of weapons now. Primarily purchased from vendors or traders, weapon mods will do things such as increasing fire rate, reducing a weapon's weight, or adding a scope. Returning from Fallout 3 is the ability to craft certain "improvised" weapons as well. This system has been expanded upon to include item and ammo crafting at workbenches, reloading benches and campfires. In theory, it allows you to make use of a lot of the seemingly useless junk you accumulate during your travels. In practice, the crafting interface is incredibly cumbersome as the menus can not be sorted or organized in any way, leaving you to scroll through dozens of unavailable combinations every time. It will also kick you out of the crafting menu each time you make something, and many of the items you can make really are not worth the effort.
As you journey across the Mojave, you'll come across a multitude of interesting characters, some of whom may be talked into accompanying you. The companions have a lot more personality to them in New Vegas than they did in Fallout 3, and you'll get to know them well thanks to the inclusion of backstory missions. A mentally deranged "Nightkin", a floating robot and even a cyborg dog are just some of the many companions in the game. They each also grant the player with a unique perk that is only active so long as they are accompanying you, such as enhanced stealth capabilities or bonus effects from whiskey. Interacting with your companions is also made easier thanks to the Companion Wheel, which allows you to quickly access all of their functions, change their strategy, open their inventory, heal them, or just have a conversation. It's a nice feature since you can't directly tell them where to go or what to do otherwise. Mostly, you'll find your companions serve their purpose best when you just load them up with junk from your own inventory, essentially turning them into pack mules. In Fallout 3, your companions were too weak and would be gone forever once killed. In New Vegas, your allies are practically invincible and will merely be knocked out for a brief period once their HP reaches 0. It almost makes them TOO effective, as you can often just kind of sit back and let them do all the work. Also, you'll probably notice them getting stuck on objects pretty often or just standing right in your way, so be prepared to deal with a certain amount of frustration in that regard.
The Mojave Wasteland is a big place and I tried to see as much of it as possible before starting this review. Setting out on your journey is an initially daunting task, as there are around 200 different locations on your map waiting to be discovered. Some of these locations are towns or cities, some are caves full of creatures and treasure, but there are also a few too many places that are nothing more than a campfire and some bedrolls with nothing much to see or find. The map is blank when you first begin, of course, so you'll essentially be flying blind. I recommend unlocking the "Wasteland Explorer" perk around level 15 or 20 as it makes the task of exploration much more manageable. It'll display every location in the game on your map, though you'll still need to travel manually to the places you haven't actually been to yet. You can fast travel to any location you've already discovered, but otherwise, your mode of transportation will always be your feet. It can take a long time to traverse the landscape, so some sort of vehicle or mount would have been nice. Oblivion had horses, and seeing as how New Vegas is built upon that same tech, why not give the player one of those robot horses they show during load screens? Also, if you've played Fallout 3, much of the Mojave Wasteland will seem unremarkable to you from an artistic standpoint. It's mostly the same browns and grays, but there aren't any places that inspire any sort of "wow" factor like there are in Fallout 3. Even the New Vegas Strip is somewhat underwhelming, especially since it takes such a long time to reach it initially. A little more variety would have been nice.
I'm just going to come out and say this, cause there's no easy way to do it: New Vegas is an ugly game. The Gamebryo engine is 5 years old now and it really, really shows. Fallout 3 wasn't even a great looking game in 2008, so it would have been great if Obsidian had enhanced the tech at least a little. You'll have static conversations with creepy, dead-eyed NPCs who walk around like robots. You'll see giant chunks of land literally missing because game can't draw them in quickly enough, as well as the usual bouts of crippling slowdown. It's not pretty and I sincerely hope the next game in the series uses better tech. The audio portion fares better, fortunately. There are a number of radio stations built into your Pip-Boy to provide ambient tunes as you wander the Mojave. The music selection this time around has an appropriately Western sound to it, though there seems to be less of it than there was in Fallout 3, so you'll hear songs repeating pretty often. There are a few amusing DJs, though, particularly on "Black Mountain Radio" which features a Super Mutant DJ who offers tips for Super Mutants on how to treat humans. The voice work is generally well acted, but after hours of play, you'll begin to notice that many of the NPCs in the game sound exactly the same since only a handful of people comprise the entire cast of them. Still, at least their parts are well written and well acted, which is the important part.
New Vegas was a very difficult game to assign a score to for this review. Many will consider it great on its own merits, and I don't necessarily think they're wrong. On the other hand, for a game that's being billed as a full sequel, it is nearly identical to Fallout 3 in so many ways that it could best be described as a huge expansion pack. Again, many people won't have a problem with that fact, as they simply wanted more of what was offered in Fallout 3. It's a buggy game, rough and unpolished, but it's large, expansive, thoroughly engrossing and you'll definitely get your money's worth as well. Even with over 70 hours of playtime already, I still feel like I'm only just scratching the surface. So if you've got time, patience, a love for Fallout and a desire to loot and explore, Fallout: New Vegas is the game for you. With DLC already on the way for the Xbox 360 version, it's a game that will keep you busy for the foreseeable future.
Fallout: New Vegas is available now for the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3