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Microsoft Reveals New Remote Control/Cable Box Combo

xbox

In case you didn’t get the memo, Microsoft just revealed its new $500 (?) television remote control/cable box called the Xbox 361. It also may play some video games, according to some suit in a blazer and jeans for the special occasion.

The new Call of Duty game was shown and it will be a Durango exclusive for a couple of days. As long as you pretend that games like Thief, Vanquish, and Brink never existed it will provide innovative new gameplay experiences like the ability to lean and slide. Also, for the first time ever in a video game, there is a dog. What is most impressive though, according to the video I watched, is how the Xbox Infinity will simulate Captain Price’s arm hairs better than ever before. There were also some wireframes that show how your dudebro entertainment experience will come alive like never before with the NextBox. I thought it was pretty touching seeing those soldiers cuddling up. I hope my bros will purchase the Xbox instead of the PS4 so that we can share the man-love a couple of days early.

Steven Spielberg came on stage to say that the next Halo will have no gameplay at all, that you will just watch it. Lots of intro screens were shown for lots of sports video games, none of which I care a flipping shit about other than the soccer one, which is pretty popular. I hope that you care a flipping shit about some football, because the Xbox 720 will have lots of it. And you can scratch your groin at the Kinect and it will switch back and forth between Madden 14 and ESPN. Without having to turn one off. That is truly amazing, the next generation has arrived.

Forza 5 showed a bunch of cars that you can’t have. But they didn’t show what it’s like to actually drive the cars in the game. So Turn 10 may have actually reached the peak of motorsports simulation by not allowing you to drive any of them. Just like in real life.

Remedy showed a game based on the popular Quantum Leap TV series with lots of human drama- the kind only a little girl can deliver- and some multimedia CD-ROM game live action content. Stuff blew up. It looked like a summer blockbuster. But it will probably be a third person shooter that will kindly do you the courtesy of doing everything itself other than requiring a press of the X button occasionally so you can sit back and enjoy the show.

Bride of Xbox 360 features a bunch of cloud stuff, so it will always be online. Deal with it. The good news too is that you can throw your old Xbox 360 away, including everything you’ve downloaded on it. Believe me, when you see the ability to watch Netflix on this thing, you’ll never want to play Bastion again anyway. I hate old video games, don’t you?

So the takeaway out of all of this is that Microsoft, even more so than Sony, is doing us all a favor by reminding us that developing new design-level gameplay concepts and leveraging technology to create them aren’t important. We’re dumb to think that anyway, which is why the PC, Wii and iPads suck and have no legitimate game experiences. What matters in the next console generation is the ability to chit chat on the internet, watch TV shows, and marvel at 1080p arm hairs waving in the breeze at 60fps. Get with the program.

No Violence Please, We’re Gamers

Red Dead Redemption violence

Turned my back and grabbed my gat
And guess what I told him before I shot it:
‘If you don’t quit, yeah, if you don’t stop, yeah, I’m lettin’ my gat pop’
Cause it’s 1-8-7 on an undercover cop

That chilling threat came over my headphones, backed up by a sinister bassline, while I was waiting queueing for some trivial purchase in a shop. Jarred by the disconnect between the prosaic setting and the shocking sentiments I was hearing I wondered: why did I find the rap unsettling, while the fact I killed twenty men in Red Dead Redemption the night before cause not a flicker of emotion?

This happened a while back, well before Michael wrote his Rethinking Mass Murder column on violence and gaming. But we’ve all reflected on these issues from time to time. Personally I disagree wholeheartedly with his assertion that there’s any link between media violence and social nihilism. These moral panics have accompanied every incremental media change since popular novels 200 years ago and never amount to anything. The gulf that separates thought and deed is too wide to step over without conscious choice. The evidence, such as it is, supports me.

No well constructed, wide ranging social science research has ever demonstrated a connection. Violent crime in US and Europe has been dropping for two decades. Respect and tolerance for other points of view and ways of life, as measure by polls, has been rising over the same period. The perception of an increasingly uncaring society has been fostered largely by a sensationalist media. But it’s a myth: we may be more scared of violence than ever, but we’re safer on the streets than we’ve been for years.

But that’s not what this column is supposed to be about. I just felt strongly enough about the issue to want to rebut that claim, and this seemed a good place to do it. Rather I wanted to look at why violent gaming feels qualitatively different from much of that presented elsewhere in the media, films and music in particular.

dishonored-interactive-trailer_original

To cut to the quick the answer is presentation. Anyone who plans to portray a piece of violence has to make conscious decisions about the context in which it will be shown. Build up sympathy for the victim, linger on the suffering and the act will condemn itself. Glamourise the protagonist, anonymise the antagonist and focus on the fireworks and the violence will be thrilling. Lessons so obvious they were learned in early theatre, centuries before the first violent film.

The relationship between modern video game design and cinema is easily close enough for these points to be applicable to both. Gamers could easily be encouraged to reflect on the consequences of their violence rather than glory in it. So the question becomes a why question: why do game designers choose almost exclusively to present their violence in a glamorous way rather than a condemnatory one? Why do game players nearly always choose to eschew more thoughtful pieces in favour of the thrill?

There is of course a close connection between what gamers want and what designers deliver. But in the instance of violence, I’m beginning to think that it’s a rare case of a gap between the two, a disconnect between the perception of what’s wanted and the truth. Add a grain of laziness on the part of studios, or perhaps more charitably the valid concern over multi-million dollar titles experimenting and flopping in the marketplace and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.

Consider. One of the very few mainstream titles to actually present the player with a harrowing version of violence, Spec Ops: The Line, garnered a lot of interest and critical praise and seemed to sell reasonably even if it was below the publishers’ expectation. Another rare exception, the infamous “No Russian” level of CoD: Modern Warfare 2, again got a lot of coverage and was certainly no impediment to sales.

Spec Ops: The Line

Meanwhile non-violent games have been one of the great success stories of this hardware generation. Family games, casual games, puzzle games, dance games, sports games have risen and risen, fueled at first by the early success of the Wii, then later by mobile devices. There may only be a small overlap between this market and that which consumes more violent fare, but plenty of action gamers have found pause for thought in peaceful, reflective indie titles.

It seems to me there’s actually quite a considerable market for anti-violence action games like Spec Ops. All that’s required is for the package to be delivered correctly. Firstly, it must be remembered that while it’s a sizable segment, it’s still a minority. That should come as no surprise: pandering to the lowest common denominator has long been a recipe for sales success across all media. Games are no different.

So it was perhaps unwise to have commissioned Spec Ops: The Line with an AAA budget and the accompanying weight of sales expectation. But pitch it right and there’s a market there, providing you can design a game to suit. That’s where the accusation of laziness holds a little water. Designing an action game around violence is relatively straightforward, with so much history to draw on. Building one that either draws a player into violence and then has them dwell upon its repercussions, or which tows the protagonist along in the wake of violence committed by others is much harder. But still entirely possible.

The lack of negative portrayals of violence, relatively common in almost other art forms, is unfortunate in video games. It plays into the hands of those who seek to censor or ban games by manipulating public perceptions of a link between gaming and antisocial behaviour in the face of all available evidence. But it’s not as inevitable as some might have you think. Not so long ago gaming was an immature format, practised largely by minors. But as the audience grows up, so will the subject matter. It’s about time we learned to expect, and to demand, better.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II in Review

After all of the chic whining about the Call of Duty franchise- whether it’s from retro-obsessed indie hipsters that ironically bemoan its glacial pace of innovation or from so-called “fans” that take to the ramparts over any perceived infraction of entitlement that results in a game lesser than the original Modern Warfare- it all doesn’t make a lick of difference. The game won, pal. It’s a cultural phenomenon, the blockbusting-est blockbuster in its medium, and it’s been a consistently successful brand not only from a marketing perspective, but also a design one. I’m not a Call of Duty apologist, even though I’ve been subjected to the “why don’t you just go back to playing Call of Duty” responses from forumistas chagrined by my not-so-glowing reviews of games like Portal 2 and Fez. I don’t have to apologize for it, it’s a good mainstream game. Every year.

This year brings us, of course, Treyarch’s Call of Duty: Black Ops II. The good news that fans will want to hear is that it stays the course, maintains its core competencies, throws out a couple of sloppy curveballs and occasionally manages brilliance. Don’t hand your ticket to the man and get on the rollercoaster expecting it to be a Ferris wheel this time. If you know what to expect you’ll get in and enjoy it if you’ve already enjoyed it before. If you want a revolution in the way we play video games, I’d suggest you go looking at less polished, less expensive, less mainstream games.

The top-of-mind bad news is that the single player campaign is utterly atrocious, the worst that I’ve seen in a Call of Duty game to date. Sure, there are some neat tricks that Treyarch pulls off in it. There’s a surprisingly organic branching narrative with multiple possible outcomes- and sometimes it’s completely transparent as to what the actual choices or results are going to be. Who doesn’t want the freedom to pick a pre-mission loadout and party like its 1999 all over again? Then there are challenges, incentivizing replay. On a structural level, Treyarch was definitely on the right path. But everything else about the solo game is a wet sock.

The writing is incomprehensible, with the trademark Call of Duty machismo oddly neutered in a morass of bullshit espionage and, well, Black Opsian tropes. Big-name actors add no gravitas to the proceedings, no matter how many times someone says the word “cocksucker”. Between watching future super-soldiers suit up in flying squirrel suits (see also: New Super Mario Bros. Wii U), a hilarious scene where you shoot down multiple Hind helicopters with a Stinger missile while on horseback, an unintentionally funny hallucinatory one-man machete massacre, and a guest appearance by the original Panamaniac Manuel Noriega, I found myself rolling my eyes and thinking “this shit is really stupid” more than “damn, that was cool”. Something went wrong on the way over the top- and I usually like the silly, obnoxious machismo and ridiculous GI Joe-isms.

It’s also unfortunate that the storyline is yet another Brown People Shooting Gallery, moreso because once again the game makers have mistakenly thought that throwing an endlessly spawning parade of them at a player until they touch a checkpoint is fun. The environments, including some near-future ones, are more open than in past Call of Duty titles and that’s appreciated, but that goodwill is practically undone by some truly awful real-time strategy segments. Yes, you heard that right. There are a couple of optional missions where you’re put in charge of marshaling soldiers and robots around a map, occasionally taking charge of one to get the job done. AI is terrible, control is sloppy, and it feels like trying to keep molasses from dripping off a table. But hey, they tried, right?

Meanwhile, the multiplayer is as it always has been- which is to say that it’s great and it more than redeems the single-player game. Fast-paced, fatless shark tank action that feels hectic, immediate, and occasionally thrilling. Maps are great, modes are fun. Just keep the lads on mute if you want to retain your sanity, and I would advise you not to look through other players’ personalized emblems unless you just WANT to see an erect penis against a pot leaf background, ejaculating swastikas onto the silhouette of an AK-47. Like I said- you know what to expect.

The new Pick 10 system, whereby you have ten loadout slots to make a truly custom build, is genius and I hope that Infinity Ward and other developers carry it forward. It makes building a loadout a slight exercise in resource management and budgeting, and it also provides a greater sense of strategic import. I don’t like to use secondary weapons, so I can choose to not have one at all in favor of adding a “card” that gives me an extra attachment slot on my primary. I like instant-kill hatchets, so I take a card that gives me a second Lethal slot. The attention to balance and planning is impeccable, and I’ve found playing around with builds to be much more satisfying than in past Call of Duty games- or any other shooter for that matter.

Zombie mode, who knows. I’ve never cared for it, and it appears to have become more complicated than ever before. I’ve barely touched it myself, but it is the third part of the suite if you’re among the interested. I didn’t last long once I heard the annoying “funny” character voices.

It’s hard to call a game that bungles one of its tent pole offerings so badly great, particularly when you don’t really care for a second one that by most other accounts is great. But as a purely multiplayer shooter (with lots of options for custom games including bots), Blacks Ops II is great. No, it is not a completely new paradigm and yes, you will be shooting people, dying, and then shooting people again. That’s the genre, folks. Like Halo 4, it represents the most recent refinement to a hugely popular mainstream success. Treat it as such, and you might find yourself willing to overlook whatever components don’t work for you and getting plenty of value out of this title for months to come.

 

Is Call of Duty all this industry really is?

Those aren’t my words, those are the words of Peter Molyneaux. Molyneau spoke to Eurogamer at Microsoft’s Spring Showcase. He’s saying this because he’s pimping the new Fable game, Fable: The Journey, which is Kinect driven. Here’s the full quote in context:

“We’re doing the same thing that Hollywood’s doing with action movies. We’re inventing a formula, and we’re repeating it over and over again, and we’re grabbing every penny from our consumers and not bothering to think about something different. And they’re the people that need something different. They’re our fans, and this is their hobby, man! We can’t be lazy! We can’t back away from creative inventiveness now, just because it costs a bit more money. Now’s the time to double down on that. Is Call of Duty really it? Is that all this industry really is? If it is, then you should just shift me off to the mental asylum now.”

This all goes back to what we have discussed here at length — it’s what Mike spoke about when he reviewed Syndicate. It’s what I inferred when I wrote about Binary Domain — a game that needs the press and needs word of mouth to succeed. This industry, and I believe this with every fiber of my being, isn’t as big as we want to make it appear. It’s dominated by a handful of what are truly “AAA” games. The rest is filler. The games industry isn’t Hollywood.

So, yeah, in a way Molyneux’s Doomsday rhetorical question is true. We are all about Call of Duty.

When you look at the amount of money thrown at a lot of games in development today, you need to sell an unrealistic number of copies to an audience that simply is not there. Don’t get me wrong — a lot of people play games. If you define that as liberally as you like: Minecraft, WoW, Halo, Call of Duty, Skyrim, Madden, Angry Birds, online chess — we are talking a whole mess of people playing videogames. However, those same people aren’t buying the 2nd tier game. At least in not enough numbers to warrant developing them.Or — and more importantly — developing them to be more than what they are. It’s like when you are in college and you live on a budget. You can afford dinner, snacks., and beer. But not all three.

So where does Molyneux come in here? The notion that the Kinect is the answer to the core gamer doldrums isn’t only risky — it’s sorta crazy. Now I freely admit that I’m not a Kinect fan. I own one. My daughter begged me to get it for her. I have played “core” Kinect games just to see what the fuss was all about and I am convinced that, as of now, it’s a fad that sold a ton of units much like every animated movie that comes out makes money because parents need something to do with the kids — so they go see the latest cartoon movie.

It’s going to take some smart financial planning to make the “less than AAA” retail game a success. It’s going to take some innovation, some smart marketing, some smart planning and a new way to look at how this industry operates. Is the Kinect going to take us out of this Hollywood action movie rut that is currently boring everyone to tears, according to Molyneux, anyway?

Of course..there’s always the chance that I’m talking out of my ass. I honestly have no idea how many copies of The Darkness II 2K Games needed to sell in order for developing that game to be worth the effort. We do know that THQ sold a lot of Space Marines — and it still wasn’t enough. It seems that when you shoot for that AAA pie in the sky: you better not miss. Because this industry is all about Call of Duty.