Monday, 14 April 2014

Hardware tour: The next generation is now!

So I bought a Sony PlayStation 4 and a Microsoft Xbox One...

...yes, both of them! And I am enjoying both of them very much! So with out further to say on my huge shopping spree, let me share my thoughts on the hardware, controllers, operating systems and a couple of games.

Comparing hardware

PlayStation 4
The hardware inside the PS4 is, as many are aware of by now, more powerful than the Xbox One. It has a better CPU and faster memory to mention a couple of differences. It's impressive then, that the PS4 is the smallest console and requires no external power supply! Sony have really outdone themselves here and made an hardware platform at such a forgiving price tag. We all remember to familiar the ridiculous high pricing of the PS3 and the media functionality focus they were aiming for. It's as if Sony have learned from Microsoft's Xbox 360 launch and really aimed for the gamers and making the console a pure gaming platform.

The PS4 looks like a typical blue-ray or Hi-Fi equipment, only rebelling slightly with an angled shape at the front and rear. It's anonymous, much like the Xbox One and I personally like the consoles to be this way. There's a thin light strip along the middle of the console that lights up when the console is powered on.

Xbox One
Microsoft had a hard job of following up their success with the Xbox 360. Despite all the initial scepticism of their "always online policy" and used game policy, they actually listened to the consumers and turned around on their decision; making the Xbox One more like it's predecessor. Some of the features they had initially announced weren't all that bad in my opinion, it's not like gamer are getting much value for their money reselling used games at stores.

The Xbox One hardware is a big upgrade from the 360, but not as powerful as people maybe had hoped for, it is Microsoft after all! The result of this can be seen in multiplatform games being at lower resolutions or framerates than on the PS4 platform. Just like it's rival though, the console is X86 based (ed. that being a PC architecture) and will make development easy for developers.

The Xbox One has a fairly large size and square design, but luckily an anonymous one. It looks like your typical cable TV box. There's just a simple Xbox logo without text at the front, that lights up. Slightly disappointing, though, that the power supply is an extra box, but at least the console is the most quiet one of the two. Usually I can only tell it's on because of the little light at the front; it's dead silent. The Kinect follows along in the box and is optional. I have only used it for voice commands personally, but I guess children will  love some of the Kinect based games.

The PS4 takes the lead here. It's a cheaper and more powerful solution. It's the platform to choose if you are planning on playing all the multi-platform games. If you have strong preferences in exclusive games though, you should check out which console offers which titles in it's library.

For gaming with small children and a more family orientated experience; the movie store, the Kinect and the TV recording option and auto-login that the Xbox One offers makes this console the choice for you. More gaming purists and hardware nerds will probably prefer the PS4 platform, though it all depends on the exclusives. Both are amazing consoles, but both are slightly moderate considering the hardware leap. I would have personally liked them to have had more power under the hood and therefore could have tolerated to be priced higher.

I'm glad they are out on the market though, both developers and gamer were getting frustrated of the long 360/PS3 lifespan and the constant degrade in graphics compared to the PC versions of multiplatform games.

Comparing controllers

PlayStation 4
The PlayStation finally gets an overhaul on it's controller design, something  that's been much needed for years now. PS3 simply used the design from way back on the PS1 when the DualShock was lanuched. In every possible matter this new PS4 controller is better than it's predecessor DualShock 3. I personally thought the DS3 was a bad controller, and it was miles behind it's competitor; the Xbox 360 controller.

    • Proper shoulder triggers, though they have shorter travel than even the Xbox 360 ones, it's a nice addition. It was time Sony jumped on the trigger idea Sega made a reality way back in the Sega Saturn era!
    • Concave analogue stick tops, finally Sony are bending them the right way.
    • A large and well-formed controller shell, makes for a nice grip for bigger hands and the rubber texture futher enhances the grip.
    • A dedicated share button for screenshots and videoes; finally a console gets the benefits that PC gamers have had for decades!
    • Built-in speaker and gyroscope; they make way for originality in game controls.
    • The d-pad is still in primary position in this day and age, why? Makes my thumbs feel stretched towards the centre of the controller. Again, Sega made this switch in 1998, why aren't Sony following?
    • Very short battery lifespan, I seem to be charging them daily. For an evening of play you are using over half the power. You'll need a micro-usb power adapter near by to keep recharging it.
PlayStation 4 controller summary:
The PS4 controller is the best controller Sony has ever made and it beats the hell out of the DS3 on PS3. It finally puts itself up there with the Xbox 360/Xbox One controller. I like it's size and shape.

Xbox One
I've felt for years that the Xbox 360 controller has been one of the best controllers made for 3D gaming, and with the new SE versions that fixed the stiff d-pads it kind of perfected itself. Advancing it's design with something better is a hard task for the Xbox One controller. Does it succeed?

    • Large and soft-springed triggers that are formed after the fingers and have feedback inside them!
    • Default d-pad is now a very good.
    • Nice shape and size, lends itself a lot to the shape of the 360 controller.
    • Battery pack is removed and makes room for fingers underneath the controller.
    • Very, very long battery lifespan, you'll be playing for countless evenings with one set of batteries.
    • The analogue sticks feel a little to loose from the get go, I liked the stiffer 360 ones.
    • No built-in battery, you need to use standard AA ones.
    • Strange icons for the "start" and "select" buttons.
Xbox One controller summary:
Feels like a small evolution of the Xbox 360 controller, which already was amazing. I love the new triggers for racing games, though I could press them more rapidly for other types of games on the 360 controller.

All in all though, the Xbox One has the edge on the PS4 controller. It's taken a close design to an already perfected one and kept it's quality. It feels like better quality than the PS4 ones and the layout is just what modern 3D games need.

Comparing Operating Systems

PlayStation 4
The PS4 operating system is very responsive and fast. The menus have a simple and stylish design to them, though they are somewhat lacking in content and options. The designers behind them seem to be a little too worried about keeping some the PS3 design and so the whole design is literally divided in two; top level being a PS3 (XMB menu style) replica and the bottom something new, lending itself slightly to the PSN store. Disappointingly the PSN store is still not integrated into the OS; it simply boots into a separate application with it's own design.

I like the options for sharing things via the controller and streaming gaming sessions on the PS4. It's easy to learn and do during a game. The game chatting functions seem to be largely improved with a dedicated lobby outside of the actual games.

The PS store looks slick in it's design but it remains one of the worst organized places I've seen. Orientating yourself to certain categories or finding stuff is a nightmare. The updates for games are also a pain; the game informs you that there's an update, yet lets you boot and continue the game. Most games will then informs you that it requires the latest update. You have to force the application to stop, wait for the update to download and manually start the game again when the update is finished. Why no automation?

Xbox One
Microsoft have continued their Windows 8 type design over from 360 on to the Xbox One. The Xbox One in general is a console much more aimed at multi-tasking than the PS4. Here you can snap in a small window during a gaming session for checking something on the web or start Skype conversation for instance. There's a lot to customize on the console itself and I love the automatic user detection through the Kinect. Simply by recognising your face the console logs in on your profile.

Users familiar with Windows 8 will feel at home instantly. The great functionality really shines though after some use; the welcoming screen gives you all the gaming options, the next gives you the movie store, then the game store, then a music store. Each category has a distinct purpose and is categorised clearly. 

The Xbox store is great as always, and very pleasing to navigate. Things are separated in clear categories and displayed orderly. It's a far more enjoyable experience than the PS4 and there is no separate store; it simply is in the main menus.

The Xbox One does the better job on an OS level. It simply is a better multi-tasking experience and aimed at making your own familiar space. It gives the impression that the team behind it have great design and usage ideas behind everything; a clear goal. The PS4 gives  the impression of a slick experience at first, but feels like an empty shell after some time. The PS4 feels like it's still at a trailing level and trying to find out how it's supposed to look. Like they haven't quite made up their mind on one clear design.

Just like the previous consoles (360/PS3), I'm sure we will sew updates in the future changing the look of these OS's. For the time being though; Xbox One is the best one.

The games

I haven't got around to trying so many games on each console yet, I'll be reviewing one game on each console this time around. However there aren't that many unqiue games to choose from at the time being; each console has a small number of exclusives that are only on in this new generation. Multiplatform games are still available on the previous generation, however they look far better on the new platforms. As such, the most impressive game for me has been Forza Motorsport 5 on the Xbox One, it truly feels like the biggest leap graphically from the previous generation. Kind of a paradox, considering the PS4 is the most powerful of the consoles!

Call of Duty Ghosts

Platform: PlayStation 4

I know this is a multi-platform game. I have yet to play the main PS4 graphics gun; Killzone: Shadow Fall. However, this version is the best one of the console versions; running at 1080p at 60fps compared to Xbox One's 720p at 60fps. This huge bump in resolution from the previous consoles, which ran at 600p, makes the picture quality seem razor sharp and clear. A technical leap, like this, is especially important now the average TV size is growing in everybody's homes. The last generation began with the move from CRT screens to flatscreens, mainly being 720p "HD Ready" ones at 26-32 inches in size. Now TV's are popular in the 46-55 inch category with 1080p resolutions.

Apart from the 1080p picture, the increase in particles, shiny surfaces and advancement in lighting is the most noticeable. Call of Duty never looked better before, despite this series being a rather conservative series graphically. The game handles all the small details incredibly well and it's the inside locations that makes this game shine. That being you are playing single or mutiplayer; the outdoor and large areas don't do the game so much justice. Inside, however, there's tons of details. Unlike the rather empty look of it's competitor, Battlefield 4, CoD Ghosts truly shines when it wants to give a convincing look of cluttered and worn down building interiors.

Once again the singleplayer is a fairly standard CoD affair; lots of action and hectic "from A to B" layout. I did enjoy that this game focuses more on smaller operations though, with a lot of stealthy missions. The whole post-apocalyptic setting of a defeated USA is really impressive and the variations in locations is great. Some of my favourite moments were; rappelling down a skyscraper at night and the shoot outs in outer space! The storyline itself though, gives no surprises and is not a very strong or convincing one sadly. I appreciate the setting and smaller scale of the fights leading up to a huge battle towards the end though. A tank warfare level is a nice welcome and a nod towards the early days of the series!

Multiplayer is much the same as previous games. The increase in graphical detail actually makes it hard to spot people from just scenery detail! The winning CoD formula, that is the 60fps, once again proves that framerate is really important in fast games that require quick responses. There's a nice set of varied MP maps to engage online warfare in. I love the smaller multiplayer maps in CoD, simply because it doesn't do the large ones in the same scale and quality like the Battlefield series.

As a whole Ghosts isn't as bad as the impression I got from reviews in general, but it never leaves it's comfort zone to try out daring new ideas. It's a CoD game through and through. The advancements on the new console are definitely apparent and breath new life into a series that has perhaps been overstaying it's welcome on the previous generation. A safe buy if you enjoy FPS games and online gaming!



Forza Motorsport 5

Platform: Xbox One

The Forza Motorsport series enters it's third generation. It's been the Microsoft's answer to Sony's Gran Turismo series since the first Xbox. On the Xbox 360 the Forza series really proved itself and I have enjoyed, and been far more impressed, with it than what the GT series has had to offer on the PS3. The focus on delivering a very realistic, content-packed and excellent racing franchise to Xbox owners has been an impressive one. The series even received a street racing spin-off, which was an amazing open-world racing game; Forza Horizon in 2012. Forza Motorsport 5 finally arrives to my fingertips and eyes. How is the leap to the brand new Xbox One hardware?

Straight from the first race, which is a test lap showcasing the stunning new Prague track, I was amazed at how incredible the game looked. It's 1080p and rock solid 60fps, with so much detail; the textures are amazing and the amount of trackside scenery is truly impressive! No wonder they showcased this track and game when promoting the Xbox One!

Forza 5 is even more realistic than before, much thanks to the advancement in hardware, and is actually more tricky to master when played in simulation compared to FM4! It's a game that takes time to truly master, but feels so rewarding when you are driving smoothly and controlling each type of car perfectly. The damage system seems very precise too; breaking down parts if you hit other cars or walls. With 16 cars onscreen, which are based on other players AI though the cloud data on Microsoft's servers, the races can become a ballet of manoeuvring past and not damaging your own car or others. These "driveavatars" that are based on data from each player are a great idea, though sometimes they seem to drive a little to aggressively for my taste. Not that I don't myself, I must admit.

There's decent amount of a few hundred cars in FM5 and the tracks are completely rebuilt and redesigned for the new generation. I love the detailed textures in them and the sheer amount of buildings on the trackside; they look spectacular. The Prague and Bernese Alps are the most graphically impressive ones, and offer an incredible flow to the driving. The amount of tracks is slightly disappointing though; 14 locations. It makes the large set of leagues to race a somewhat repetitive affair; you'll find yourself driving the same tracks over and over. Luckily they are adding tracks free of charge in up and coming updates; Road America and Long Beach being two examples.

I like how the game has leagues, presented by the Top Gear team, that are categorised with specific types of car from power to certain era in car history. I just would have enjoyed it better with more tracks to mix it up with!

FM5 is one of the most impressive launch titles in years, and it's in my case the best looking game on my new consoles. The content of the game should have been larger to make this a true classic. However the great advancement in physics and the impressive graphical upgrade make this a must buy for any Xbox One owner or racing fan!



Sunday, 6 April 2014

Looking back: Virtua Racing

I must have been around ten at the time, on holiday in England. I'd gone to an arcade with my dad that evening, by the seaside in Sunderland. Seaside breeze refreshing the warm indoor air each time someone opened the huge glass doors with a a great ocean view. 1993 would be my guess, the year when the brand new Sega racing arcade machine arrived.

There were people crowded around it and an employee answering questions. Before me stood a scaled Formula 1 car body with a huge screen mounted at the front. Displayed, was a simple and clean 3D world. Visually it looked like a typical virtual reality game of it's time; no textures, just plain shaded polygons in various colours. I was only accustomed to seeing 2D racers at the time, scaling their sprites to give an impression of depth. It was something about how the game's 3D made the movement and rotation so much better and believable than 2D racers.

It just blew my young mind.

Just like you were really travelling through a virtual landscape. What I witnessed was something I will never forget; Virtua Racing. Sega's and the worlds, first commercially successful, fully polygon racing game. The version I witnessed was the top model housed in a deluxe, hydraulically powered, F1 chassis cabinet with a 50 inch screen, released a year after the initial 1992 launch in Japan.

Although this game left me with such an extraordinary impression, I never actually got to play it! I had to envious, but proudly, watch my dad play. Why, you may ask; my feet didn't reach the pedals...

Virtua Formula in all it's arcade glory, see it's SegaSonic logo!
A mor common twin arcade cabinet.
An 8-player setup featuring the live broadcast screens just visible on top.

A history lesson then; this was Sega's AM2 department's first try in polygon gaming. Gone were the 2D scaling sprites that had developed from the hugley successful OutRun (1986) up to advanced 32-bit racers like Power Drift (1988) and Rad Mobile (1990). The latter two using scaling and rotation of 2D sprites in such a manner they appeared almost 3D. Virtua Racing though, was different, it was entirely built from polygons. Even the pitcrew were polygon models! Both Namco and Atari had beaten Sega to the arcades with polygons, however they were far less advanced, contained sprites and were commercially not successful like VR. This was the game that would break the ice for 3D gaming and make it widespread. A new era in gaming began.

"Virtua Racing is regarded as one of the most influential video games of all time, for laying the foundations for subsequent 3D racing games and for popularizing 3D polygonal graphics among a wider audience." Wikipedia

The main producer behind the title, Yu Suzuki, is probably one of the most important people in gaming history. His diverse, technically impressive and ground breaking games have earned him much fame in the business. Apart from being behind one of the most loved franchises in history, the Shenmue games (brought to fame on the Sega Dreamcast), he was the man behind timeless Sega arcade classics such as 
Space Harrier (1985), Hang-On (1985), OutRun (1986), Afterburner (1987),  and Virtua Fighter (1993). To mention a few. The latter was a fighting game, also in full 3D, developed as an idea from the the fully animated pit crew in Virtua Racing.

After Virtua- Racing and Fighter, Yu Suzuki would go on to develop Daytona USA (1993), which would become the most successful arcade game ever developed. Further defining and influencing racing games for years after, even today we see those very foundations laid by Daytona USA being used in racing games.

Sega's master mind, Yu Suzuki. His games broke many boundaries.

Daytona USA was born from the Model 2 arcade board (ed. board, is referring to the main hardware board of an arcade cabinet, a generation of board was often used for a variety of titles) it featured fully textured polygons. Virtua Racing however, was a whole board generation before Daytona and as such is often forgotten.

VR ran on the Model 1 board to Sega, the first fully polygon capable board they produced together with what would later be a part of Lockheed Martin (yeah, the fighter jet manufactures!). Sega shifted from it's advanced 32-bit 2D sprite boards, which were superior compared to the 16-bit home consoles at the time, to Model 1. This board did not allow textures on the polygons, and as such, gave both Virtua Racing and Virtua Fighter 1 a very clean and distinct graphical appearance, making them unique.

With a distinct arcade approach to handling, the game required a drift technique for cornering the fastest. There were various camera angles to choose from and a typical short list of tracks. Three in fact, each representing a difficulty level. Up to eight player cabinets could be combined for multiplayer races, featuring a special "live monitor" screen with a replay shots hosted by a sports announcer named "Virt McPolygon" during races. Built clearly for sports like events to be held in the arcades. Alhough here in Europe we mostly saw the twin and singleplayer cabinets. 

So does VR's simplicity hold up any interest today? I took the PS2 port out for a spin the other day. This version does have some slightly more detailed cars and 60fps (the arcade original only ran 30fps, though 60fps was mainly standard across arcade games before and after). I personally think it looks like a cool designed indie game by today's standards! I also own the downgraded Mega Drive/Genesis version, the one and only game on the system with a built-in enhancement graphics chip. Though this version is a fair more choppy and downgraded compared to the original, it still shows how immediate and simplistic the game is to get into.

The gameplay holds up well, even today. The controls and feeling of the car feel precise and have a nice drifty feeling to them. It's a testament to how good Sega were at creating racing games and made the jump from their 2D racing classics into 3D. Sega would the following year do with Daytona USA what Nintendo later did with Super Mario 64 in the platform genre; making a 3D game which redefined the genre and a traditional 2D series, and withstand the test of time. VR however may fall into the shadows, but will always remain an important new direction for Sega and be the true kickstart for the 3D push in gaming. A change that would change it forever, firstly for the arcade marked, but quicker than expected for Sega into the home market with Sony's PlayStation. But that's a history lesson for another day.

I'll give you  this great video of the PS2 version of VR in HD and let you enjoy the smoothness and basic polygon graphics of the early 90's. Put the video in HD and fullscreen, then tell me; doesn't it look, play and animate fantastic in it's own simplistic way? This will give you some sense of how it was to look at in 1992/1993:

Sega may be different and a shadow of it's mere self now, but make no mistake, their contribution to the development of the racing genre is, with no doubt, one of the most important and boundary breaking of all time. Virtua Racing was a key piece of this development and shouldn't be forgotten.