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!

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