Friday, 19 May 2017

A speedy need for a reboot

Need For Speed (2015)

Platform tested: Xbox One

There's no shortage of Need For Speed titles, and within this huge racing franchise. It spans all the way back to the early days of 3D racing in 1994, on the ill-fated 3DO console, there's been a lot of sub-racing genres represented throughout it. This latest instalment, from 2015, aims to reboot the entire franchise into something new. Perhaps a little close in time to the game before it, one can ask ourselves if the series could have needed a longer break, but this reboot turns out to be quite a solid racer under the bonnet.

NFS's appearance is perhaps it's most innovative "feature" for the genre, while the rest of the structure is a fairly typical for an open world NFS fare. Situated in a huge city, you're a new member of an underground racing league. Rivalling gangs roam the streets and illegal street races are the way to make a statement and climb the ranks. It's not exactly rocket science, and the story within is represented in some cheesy, but intentionally so, movie clips with actual actors in. The cutscenes are so over the top they actually become quite funny, and bring back memories of older 90's EA titles with similar video clips. Tongue in cheek and probably intended exaggeration, they become a nice way of moving the story forward and introducing the characters in the story.

The actual driving feels very solid this time around, there's a nice meaty sound to the cars and they control with more feeling of actually gripping realistically to the tarmac. The far more arcade approach of recent NFS games have had this floaty drifting mechanic in comparison. This time around the physics engine are somewhere between arcade and simulation but closer to the latter if that makes sense. There's a wealth of tuning and styling options too, more so than most other racers in this half sim category. Letting you dig into setting up the car both visually and mechanically just how you like it. For more casual players though, you can simply tune the car by pulling a bar from drift to grip as your preferred car handling.

Much like how the Forza Horizon games allow you to drive the type of car of specific model, without forcing you into stuff you don't like, NFS2015 lets you hold on to your favourite car for long periods of racing too. Allowing you to tune it up to compete in faster races. Sure, you need to buy some of the faster models at one point, but it helps get you more familiar with each car. The game takes a more personal approach to owning each car, it's about tuning and styling it into your own personal racer, rather than owning 500 cars in your garage. In fact you can only store a handful of cars at a time in your garage, further emphasising that it's about making unique and personal cars. It's a refreshing approach and while the car selection is fairly slim, it's a varied enough selection across various car brands to cater for most car enthusiasts.

In fact, this whole game shows a far more direct and clear goal as to where they want the series to go and what it offers. The NFS series has jumped around so many aspects of motor racing it's been difficult to retain a sense of direction and affiliation with the series as a whole. You simply had to try the games yoursellf to see if the style and gameplay suited you. Mostly the previous entries have focused on cops vs. illegal racers, but simply resorting too often to the overused Hot Pursuit formula. This game approaches a dark and gritty night movie scene visually, a cinematic approach to it's presentation and focuses mostly on the actual racing. It does have cops roaming the streets and chasing you, but they're far more toned down and a side show if you're out free driving the map. The main game is down to earth street racing with a raw feeling to each car, combining excellent motor sounds and top notch visuals.

Sure, NFS2015 doesn't reinvent the wheel, pun not intended, and there's nothing fundamentally new here. There's a fairly generic main map, tons of races set up in a fairly uninteresting manner. However, the cutscenes, graphical style and presentation and more narrow focus on the danger and thrills of street racing brings the game into a far more unique package than previous entries. The fairly small roster of cars makes up for itself by offering lots of variation to cater for most motor enthusiasts and the customisation will really make it into your own personal machine should you want to put hours into it. 

I'll recommend this racer over any of the NFS games of recent years, it's a great visual treat for those seeking to see the best nighttime cityscapes in any racer to date too. While Forza Horizon 2 and 3 are far more packed with cars and varied races, I highly recommend those games above this one, but if they're already in your collection then NFS2015 is definitely worth checking out! It's a solid racing package and a great effort at making Need for Speed relevant again.



    + Plus points

    • Stunning movie-like nighttime visuals and rain effects with a unique look.
    • Cheesy, but fun  movie cutscenes with real actors.
    • Fast and raw feeling to the racing and meaty sound effects.

    - Minus points

    • The game structure is extremely generic.
    • Day racing would have been nice to change things up.
    • Nothing fundamentally new to the genre here.

    Sunday, 14 May 2017

    Slimming the one

    So I bought a Xbox One S...

    ...while nothing major to report; I thought to give it a little write up!

    Back in early 2014 I purchased the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, within days of each other in fact, both released late in the prior year. You can read my initial impressions from back then of the consoles here. For the first year and half of owning them, my main console ended up being the PS4 for multiplatform releases. Much due to the slightly more powerful hardware, resulting often in a 900p vs 1080p resolution for multiplats. My Xbox One was at the time mostly used for the exclusives on the system. While I enjoyed the early PS4 games like Infamous Second Son and The Last Of Us Remastered, the consistent releases of quality exclusives and more interesting titles for my genre tastes on the Xbox One, turned it into the being the most used console over time.

    In addition to excellent titles like Forza Motorsport 6, Sunset Overdrive, Forza Horizon 3, Halo 5: Guardians and Gears of War 4, to mention some of the consoles best exclusives, other factors like the backwards compatibility and the superior controller played a main role in the One turning into my most played hardware. The backwards compatibility now features lots of major titles from the Xbox 360 and even makes the games run better. When looking at the controllers I always felt the PS4 controller was an upgrade from the terrible PS3 one, however it doesn't match the Xbox One controller, or even the 360 one for that matter, in quality, functionality and comfort. As a fan of shooters and racing games, those tiny and cheap triggers alone break the PS4 controller for me. They can't match the large, ergonomic, springy triggers on the Xbox One controller with the feedback rumble built into the very tip of them. The terrible analogue stick placement that lingers on as an old and unwelcome relic from the PS1 days further dampen my enthusiasm for the PS4 controller.

    So after last years E3 reveal of the slimmed down One S and a few months back when a very reasonable price cut was given for it here in Norway, I just couldn't resist to purchase an S. Plus, it's got a UHD player built-in!

    From a design point of view the new white and sleek box is simple, yet beautifully designed. Perhaps even one of the sleekest looking consoles to date. It doesn't look like it's bulky and more anonymous father. Sure, the design is still very square, but it looks far better designed and much less bulky. I like all the small round holes covering the big round ventilation hole for the main fan on the top. The tiny holes covering the front of the console look great too. Gone is the scratchable, dust collecting and fingerprint friendly shiny plastic half of the console. The console just subtly blends into your white TV furniture, simply looking like a media or blu-ray player in size and form.

    I like how all the pressure sensitive buttons on the console have been replaced for proper mechanical ones. The console can now also be placed vertically for those that prefer it standing on a desk for instance. The main hardware functional design choice of having one large fan for cooling and thus noise reduction has been kept; bigger and slower fans make less noise than small and fast rotating ones. Although the original One probably will be slightly less noisy when working at full power, simply due to the larger box, external power supply and more space for ventilation. Though this difference is nothing I noticed; the One S i extremely quiet, nowhere near my jet engine sounding PS4 launch model in comparison.

    The one major complaint about the original Xbox One was it's rather massive size compared to the smaller PS4. This issue has luckily been fixed and not only is the box much smaller with this S model, but the huge power brick has now been fully integrated into the main box. Plus the power cord is now a generic and easily replaced figure of eight cord. If you're a Kinect owner, going from One to One S; keep the serial number for all three devices and order a special Kinect to USB cable  that Microsoft offers for free on their website. The One S no longer has a dedicated Kinect connection and thus the extra cable required will disappointingly need an extra power outlet. Though one can question how few really use the Kinect at all any longer.

    What I really appreciate other than the actual slimming of size to the Xbox One is the added hardware functionalities, quite significant ones as such. Rather than making it a cheaper model with less features, much like Sony does with it's slim models, added for the One S is a larger hard drive for the same price, going from 500GB to 1TB, though an even cheaper 500GB model is also available.

    The most significant upgrade though, is the really cool UHD disk drive, which replaces the Blu-Ray one. Letting you very cheaply have access to play UHD movies, a great bonus as standalone UHD players are still very expensive. The One S also lets you see Netflix content at 4K and adds HDR colours to not only HDR movies but games that feature it and TV's that support it. The latter craves a small hardware boost in the CPU to make it work. As such the One S will give you slightly higher framerates in unlocked framerate games, 360 BC games and probably a few frames in higher resolution in games with dynamic resolution. Nothing you'll notice significantly, but it's a nice touch. Physically there's an added IR blaster at the front of the console to easier use various remote controllers through your Xbox as a media player too.

    I did a quick size comparison with the original Xbox One and as you can see the actual console is considerable smaller. The total amount of shelf space, considering the huge power supply being integrated, makes the reduction in size significant though.

    That's really all there is to say about this new hardware purchase! If you're in the market for buying a Xbox One this model is a no-brainer as the S model will be the only one available by now in the shops. If you are in the market for a used one though you have to consider mainly two things, apart from a cheaper price for the older model: Do you want a fairly small physical size on your console, for me personally it wasn't such a major issue with the power supply, and also if 4K Netflix content and UHD movies are something you'll use. The latter choices require a 4K TV, and if you want the added HDR functionality, you'll need a newer type of 4K TV too. Decisions, decisions and all that. 

    All in all it's nice to see Microsoft making the Xbox One go from a fairly plain black box, to something sleek and cool looking with a much smaller size. It fits stylishly into most TV furniture; the S in Xbox One S is for sexy!

    Now on Instagram!

    For those following my blog, I'm now on Instagram. A place I thought best suited for gaming related pics I take now every so often on my mobile. I love taking pics of old and new hardware or games.

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    Friday, 28 April 2017

    The massive Andromeda effect

    Mass Effect Andromeda

    Platform tested: Xbox One

    A sequel series to the fantastic Mass Effect trilogy on last gen was inevitable. The developer, Bioware, switch it up brilliantly between Dragon Age and Mass Effect releases. Returning to such a critically acclaimed franchise with quite a few years break can be challenging. To say my expectations, and I presume everyone else, were high, was understating it. While the ending of the previous ME trilogy had been criticised, the franchise as a whole was an excellent sci-fi RPG and third person shooter combination.

    Having redeemed a free EA Access voucher the same month as release for ME:A, I not only got a small discount on the game, but I also had the chance of playing the first ten hours nearly a week ahead of release! My save continued over to the full release too, which gave me time to try the beginning of the game twice actually, as I couldn't decide what my fem-Ryder should look like. The default face looks kind of more detailed, while the custom one made my playthrough more unique. So as a tribute to my favourite videogame heroine; Regina, I went for short red hair.

    As the role of either a female or male Ryder sibling, both are featured in the game regardless of your custom gender choice, who is a part of the Andromeda Initiative. A huge fleet of exploration spaceships sent out in the hope to find liveable planets for in the Andromeda Galaxy. Setting out on it's journey in the timeframe Shepard from the first trilogy lived, you start the game by waking up from a 600 year journey in a frozen sleep state. It's quite clear the game seems to set itself far away from the story of the original games as a sort of statement of a fresh start to a new series, however it keeps the ME feeling very much intact. 

    The first area of the game learns you the basics of control; movement and combat. You quickly discover the neat jumping boost move this time around, making it easier to traverse the more open ended environments. Strangely though, the rolling mechanic isn't present from ME3, probably  planned considering the less indoors and square design of the old games. Even on this first little planet visit, the game introduces a neatly confined but open ended structure to it. Letting the player get a feel for things to come and to understand that mission critical checkpoints can be taken in your own order.

    The main planets of the game though, is where you really understand how huge the levels have become. Much like how large the car-only planets in ME1 were, only this time around with tons of actual interesting areas to explore and discover. I love this new direction, it perfectly balances open world gaming with a more linear structure that takes you from location to location, rather than the whole game being one big play area. This fits perfectly with the fact that such a space exploration game needs planet diversity, spanning from from boiling, desert surfaces to cold and icy ones.

    Only on my first proper planet visit I'm finding secrets, ancient ruins, underground complexes and ending up terra-forming a whole damn planet. Then, you venture forth to setting up the first exploration center of the Andromeda mission, thus starting colonisation of the planet for mankind. Further more, I must secure the base from enemy attacks and progress on making the planet a liveable place again from it radioactive previous state. I mean, words can't really describe the huge, monumental tasks I doing and the fantastic sense of pioneering space exploration! And that's just the very first planet and the early hours of the game.

    It's like Bioware took all the good parts from the older games; the big, open and driveable planets from ME1, the tight and satisfying shooting combat from ME2 & ME3 and the amazing presentation from all of them and mixed it with a modern, yet not overdone, open world approach and achieved something truly unique. It gives the game not only a sense of, but also actually delivering you the freedom of massive scale the previous games lacked at times. It's that grand feeling you would imagine space exploration would be. Sure some of tasks on the planets are repetitive, but the maps are never overcrowded with stuff to do, and usually have a side story with cutscenes in them. Making venturing into the side missions are more tempting and interesting fare.

    While there's been numerous posts online about how the facial animations look somewhat stupid at times, I personally didn't find them more distracting than the previous games. Comparing a game where you can make your own character and change the tone of a conversation mid-way to very carefully scripted cutscenes in more linear games is a little unfair. Sure ME:A, much like Fallout 4, can fare into uncanny valley with it's characters expressions at times. However the facial animations do the job fine, characters look detailed and are a big upgrade from the older ME titles. The running animation though, is still laughably ME 3 bad, it needs to be fixed!

    Physics wise the game could give me a slight glitchy feeling at times, like it's missing some extra hours of polish. While the combat is very satisfying, giving room for a lots of tactics with it's wide range of attacks and defence, I still found enemies falling strangely around after being shot or crude cover detection as you try to hide behind an object. These are hopefully issues that get fixed in an update. I must stress that ME: A is far less a cover based shooter than the old Unreal Engine 3 based trilogy. More often the game pushes the player to attack in more open environments, relying on vertical attacks from above with the jump jet tactic and manoeuvring quickly from side to side around the battlefield. Adapting to this larger form of fighting is refreshing and fun.

    Perhaps the issues that bothered so many with Andromeda simply became an internet meme thing, taken out of proportions, because the game is one of the best Mass Effect games released in my opinion. Falling just behind ME2's fantastic revision of gameplay and presentation over the very first game. It may not be an opinion I share with the general public, but at least I made it on my own through hours of play. My best tip is simply to give the game a few hours by yourself instead of judging it by the loudest complaints on the net.

    I found the freedom, the focus on exploration, the way you build up planets and colonising, all to give a fantastic sense of accomplishment and a fresh new beginning to hopefully a new Mass Effect trilogy. I genuinely felt like I was changing the future for mankind together with the alien races, pioneering space exploration. Perhaps it's just my personal taste that ME:A so well suited, but it's definitely a game I would not believe the hate about and simply try for yourself. My favourite game of the year so far with a fantastic mix of RPG, third person shooter action and adventure exploring.



      + Plus points

      • Exploring huge planet surfaces and terraforming them is breathtaking.
      • Far more expansive worlds to discover and explore than before.
      • Gameplay feels satisfying, with lots of variation in attack and defence types.

      - Minus points

      • The side quests are can get repetitive at times.
      • Facial animations can look strange at times and the running looks stiff.
      • Limited visual customisation options, both for characters and armour.

      Friday, 7 April 2017

      Swedish yarnballs


      Platform tested: Xbox One

      There have been many 2D platformers in my gaming life through the years. I've grown up on sprite drawn ones and experienced the genre going full 3D, then years later going back to 2D gameplay but retaining the 3D graphics. New Super Mario Bros. leading the way as one of the strongest contenders 2D platformers with 3D graphics. Unravel is one of these too, but perhaps has it's foot set more in the physics based gameplay, much like Little Big Planet, rather than being the old school style like NSMB and the latest Rayman games.

      Made and set in a beautiful rural Sweden, Unravel hits home for me on a visual level with such impact, I could literally feel the atmosphere and nostalgia build up inside. I've grown up in Norway and the countryside is very much alike Sweden's featured in Unravel. Beautifully detailed nature locations are blurred into a beautiful backdrop for each level. Unravel follows a little woollen figure, named Yarny, on his travels through gardens, woodlands, seasides and snow covered mountains in search of a little knitted figure at each level end. Levels have increasingly complex with climbing puzzles to solve to progress, but they are never too hard to figure out and evolve around the way Yarny strings his woollen lasso to reach places.

      The game is set in a country cottage on a farm, working as a central hub. From here you your journey begins beside an empty photo album on a dinner table. Each level is found throughout the cottage, in form of a picture. Entering one and completing the level gives you access to enter the next and so forth. Each completed level ends with Yarny finding a woollen figure to put on the cover of the photo album, thus resulting in a story page and photos added of the location the level was set in. It's a touching and sweet storyline with a lot of visual atmosphere and is perhaps even more so if you are familiar with the Scandinavian nature and countryside. The pictures could almost come from my own childhood photo album.

      Gameplay is fairly straightforward and simplistic. Yarny walks left to right and can throw out a lasso of string to attach to ledges, branches etc. and climb or pull himself up to it. Knotting a string in two places near each other makes the string a trampoline, letting Yarny reach new places higher up. To progress you need to find more string, as Yarny runs out of it and gets stuck. However this string length mechanic was too scripted in my book, with no clear definition of how much string each yarnball gave you. Sometimes you would walk for ages, other times it stopped suddenly after a short stroll simply because you used and extra few knots climbing onto something you didn't need to. I rarely ran out of string though, so it was never really an issue. Otherwise the gameplay rules were fairly straightforward and easy to get to grips with.

      Some issues I'd like to address though. The controls are slightly floaty, think Little Big Planet, with physics based platforming resulting in some annoying misses when precise jumping or timing is required. I still found the game fun to play as it never requires those extremely fast and precise skills from the more traditional and faster paced 2D platformers, but it's definitely a place the game could be improved. I could have been challenged a little further at times too, I get it's a more laidback game with atmosphere to suck in, rather than throwing hectic gameplay or tricky tasks to solve, but I never scratched my head for long or was challenged at a higher level of any sort.

      Unravel is a fun and fairly lengthy platforming adventure that deserves attention, if not mostly for the visual atmosphere it so perfectly visualises. If you're from Sweden, Norway or Finland you're gonna really need to pick up this one up and truly enjoy the environments and nature settings. So Unravel then; a solid and fun platformer with beautiful visual style and atmosphere, though objectively for the genre nothing ground breaking new or incredibly polished gameplaywise.



        + Plus points

        • Gorgeous visuals, hitting straight home with it's Scandinavian nature.
        • Original character and setting.
        • Atmospheric with a darker underlying story at times.

        - Minus points

        • A little floaty feel to the controls.
        • Slow pace may not be for everyone.
        • Can get frustrating sometimes.