Category Archives: Xbox One

Rayman Legends Now Available On Xbox One and PlayStation 4

Today, Ubisoft announced that Rayman Legends has entered the next generation of gaming and is now available on PlayStation®4 computer entertainment system and Xbox One, the all-in-one games and entertainment system from Microsoft in North America.

With the upgraded capabilities of next-gen consoles, the award-winning visuals of Rayman Legends have been enhanced to show the hand-drawn artwork in even sharper detail and loading time between maps has been suppressed. Each platform will have a set of exclusive playable characters to unlock in the Heroes Gallery. On Xbox One, there are two characters designed after the infamous villain from Far Cry 3, Ray Vaas and Far Glob, as well as Splinter Ray, inspired by Sam Fisher. PlayStation®4 players will have access to Assassin Ray, inspired by the hero Edward Kenway from Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag. Both platforms will also support the VIP hero, Champion Ray, who is unlocked mainly by the highest-ranked players in the Online Challenges Mode.

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Each console will also have a set of exclusive game play features. The Xbox One version will include 10 exclusive challenges to unlock new achievements. These challenges require you to perform specific actions during a limited amount of time and are associated with various aspects of the game, such as player skills, co-op play, Kung Foot, and more. The PlayStation®4 will allow use of the controller’s touch pad for actions such as scratching Lucky Tickets, as well as a new Camera Mode. In this mode, players use the touch pad to freeze the screen and zoom in and out of the picture. Focusing on the hand-drawn visuals and animated-nuisances created during development, camera mode allows you to share these treasured moments with the rest of the community. Rayman Legends on PlayStation®4 will also support Remote Play so you can continue playing from your PS Vita while the TV is turned off.

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Ryse: Son of Rome Review – Xbox One

Ryse: Son of Rome is one of the “big three” launch titles for the Xbox One, and while early gameplay demos and videos had me feeling a bit skeptical, the final game has certainly turned out better than I had hoped, but is still sadly lacking in a few critical areas.  Developer Crytek has put the power of their latest CryEngine to work along with the power of the Xbox One hardware to deliver a game that is visually striking; a game where cutscenes and actual player-controlled gameplay are seamlessly meshed into one continuous experience.  Perhaps that is why, for much of the game, I felt like I was merely in control of one giant cutscene.

In Ryse, you’ll play as Marius, a celebrated soldier-turned-centurion as you partake in battles to save Rome as well as taking the fight to the barbarian hordes on the front lines.   Things take a turn for the dark side when your family is brutally murdered, and new characters and plot twists start to shatter your reality, but no matter how compelling the story manages to get at times the gameplay slips into a rather repetitive button masher that won’t even begin to present a challenge until the final chapters of the game.

Ryse borrows on the combat system born from the Batman Arkham games with light and heavy attacks, a timed counter move, and eventually an execution icon that will trigger a stylishly violent fatality.  The interesting element here is that rather than presenting you with a sequence of annoying button prompts, your target will glow with the aura of the corresponding gamepad button colors, essentially turning Ryse into a series of Simon games.  I’m not sure how this works for color-blind gamers.  The big issue here is that it can take you quite some time to kill an opponent without using a fatality, so the urge to use them with every kill is great.  But when you factor in that there are only a dozen or so of these animations and only a half-dozen enemy types and you are going to be killing hundreds upon hundreds of enemies over the course of the 6-8 hour campaign, things are bound to get repetitive before you even make it out of Rome.

Speaking of repetitive, aside from Marius the game has a disturbing lack of original character models, which means that you will be seeing a lot of familiar faces on the battlefield.  It’s even worse when you are fighting the same enemy types in the same melee at which point this game could easily be renamed, The Clone Wars.  Crytek has done some amazing work in creating some of the best and most lifelike humans that stand up to even the closest facial scrutiny in cutscenes, but obviously this level of detail comes at the expense of variety.  Likewise, CryEngine does an impressive job of recreating detailed cities and realistic environments that will have you assaulting and defending cliff-side fortresses or exploring lush forests and sinister swamps.  The terrain detail combined with lighting, shadows, and particle effects is quite impressive and the very definition of next-gen.

Ryse does try to deliver a few breakaway moments from the normal cycle of button-mashing.  In some instances you’ll be in command of a legion that slowly marches forward while periodically raising their shields to block incoming arrow, much like a certain scene in 300.  Another great moment has you defending a fortress from incoming forces by kicking back ladders and smashing siege towers.  The game even incorporates some good use of the Kinect so you can verbally shout commands to your troops rather than wait for the lengthy button-hold input to do the same action.

Those looking for some epic Roman legion multiplayer will have to settle for the Gladiator co-op mode (online only) but that entire part of the game is less than enjoyable due to a slow leveling-up and loot system that encourages an endless cycle of more of the same repetitive combat you are likely already tired of from the main game.  There is an impressive amount of weapons and armor to tempt you into hours of mindless mediocrity, but most items offer nominal stat perks given the time it takes to earn anything.   Of course Microsoft is there for you if you don’t want to grind through the game, and you can purchase in-game gold with real-world cash to buy those various random loot packs.   As with a few other Xbox One games, Microsoft seems to be using this randomized reward system forcing players to buy these mystery prizes, so instead of buying the sword or armor you really wanted you will get random items that you may not want or already have.

Ryse: Son of Rome is a visual masterpiece and a fabulous showcase title for the Xbox One, but much like these mega-million dollar summer blockbuster movies, visuals can only get you so far.  You need characters and a story you really care about and Ryse has neither.  Marius clichéd revenge tale devolves into a repetitious cycle of button mashing and quick-time fatalities that will have you mentally “checking out” about halfway through the game.  Thankfully, Ryse is as short as it is shallow, so at least you won’t have any trouble making it to the end of this ambitious yet fatally flawed launch title.

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Killer Instinct Review – Xbox One

There are dozens of reasons to play fighting games.  You might like a robust combo system, you might enjoy sexy fighters in revealing costumes that can “kick high”, you might like beating up your siblings or friends in a virtual fashion that won’t get you in trouble or you may enjoy the more serious tournament aspects of the genre.   Whatever your reason there is a fighting game out there for you whether that be Mortal Kombat, DOA, Tekken, Soul Calibur, or in this case, the resurrected classic, Killer Instinct.

I have to admit I never played any of the previous games in this franchise, but I do enjoy a good fighting game and from what I saw leading up to its release, Killer Instinct was shaping up to be a quality entry into the Xbox One launch line-up.  Microsoft has also chosen a rather unique way to deliver this game to its new console owners using a freemium system typically found on mobile game platforms.  For those uncertain of the games long-term appeal you can get your feet wait for free with an initial download that gets you all game modes, and a rotating free character.  You can then add additional characters, costumes, and accessory packs à la carte.  The good news is that this can save you money if you only favor a few characters and costumes, but it can get quite spendy if you want more.  There are three more paid tiers ranging from $20 to $60 that include increasing amounts of content and early access to future content.

Killer Instinct has a cult-like following.  I know of at least two people who were waiting in line for an Xbox One at midnight to ONLY play this game…a downloadable store title.  The hook for Killer Instinct has always been its unique combo system that let players create their own combos on the fly using a potentially endless series of basic attacks.  The trick was to keep the combo going while mixing things up to avoid an opponent’s combo-breaker.

Using the next-gen power of the Xbox One Double Helix was able to tweak that original formula to make things even smoother, more intuitive, and slightly more complex by mixing in light, medium, and heavy attacks, but stitching the various attack animations together in a way that keeps the action and the animation flowing seamlessly.   Button mashers need not apply as Killer Instinct is a fighter designed around, and requiring, deft finger tapping and precise timing.

The Dojo mode is a great way to learn the ropes and begin your mastery of your favorite character(s).  All too often you are simply given a set of button commands and combo sequences and left to figure out how to play, but Killer Instinct breaks it all down in a series of extremely helpful tutorials that will hopefully set the standard for future fighting games to come.

Being an old-school game, Double Helix didn’t try to tamper with the presentation, so we end up with something as basic and lacking in narrative as the original Mortal Kombat.  It’s basically two fighters in a ring fighting until somebody gets knocked out.  No story, no sexy cutscenes, no cheesy dialogue.  This is certainly a plus for fighting game purists and tournament pros, but for casual gamers who need a bit of backstory to keep them interested, the barebones presentation of Killer Instinct may turn some away.

The stylized graphics are gorgeous and the thumping soundtrack is as energetic as the gameplay with some great reimagined remixes from an almost-forgotten decade.  The scope of characters is diverse and the locations you get to fight in are quite stunning and loaded with detail.  The animation is smooth and rife with special effects that will have you scrambling to the built-in DVR to save and share your favorite moments.   Killer Instinct comes from a time where political correctness wasn’t a big deal, and the designers chose to keep some questionable character designs intact as well as some of the sexier costumes and camera angles that would make DOA blush.

With no story arcs the single-player experience is basically a series of individual fights or a survival mode that pits you against an endless series of combatants.   The lack of any story or career-type sequence of fights is definitely an issue for solo gaming, but with only eight characters (six available at launch) any such career path would be a short one.  I’m guessing Microsoft is relying heavily on DLC purchases to flesh out the game, but one can’t help but feel this slightly unfinished game was rushed to meet the console’s launch date.  Thankfully, the local and lag-free online multiplayer is a fun, challenging, and obsessively addicting delight to play.

It won’t be long before we see Tekken, DOA, Mortal Kombat, and the other popular fighting franchises stepping into the next generation, but until they do, Killer Instinct; despite being shallow in content and narrow in appeal, is a nice diversion for fighting fans, and Microsoft is marketing it in such a way that everyone can get a taste…even for free.

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Forza Motorsport 5 Review – Xbox One

I can’t tell you how many hours I spent playing Forza Horizon.  Even today it still remains one of my top five racing games of all time, so I was understandably excited (but not surprised) when Forza Motorsport 5 was announced as an Xbox One launch title.   Turn 10 has always pushed the hardware envelope for their games and I was eager to see what they could do with some real next-gen power under the hood.

The Forza franchise has always been able to find that perfect comfort zone between arcade fun and serious sim driving thanks to a wonderful set of sliders and toggles that let you adjust every element of the racing experience from car assists to HUD overlays that indicate the perfect racing line and optimum speed through turns.  And in a brilliant design choice, the game doesn’t punish you for using these features but rather rewards you for not using them.  This makes Forza 5 accessible and fun for gamers of all ages and skill levels.

Turn 10 has put the power of the Xbox One to good use, rebuilding all of its tracks from the asphalt up using precision laser-scanning technology.  The only way these tracks get any more real is if you go there and drive on them yourself.  The cars are meticulously detailed with sexy curves, polished paint jobs, and gorgeous detail interiors so photo-realistic you can almost smell that new car smell.  You can even use Kinect head tracking to look around your virtual cockpit.

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My biggest issue with Forza 5 is that after giving me a taste of the open road in Horizon I am now brought back to the repetitive grind of circuit racing, and no matter how many tracks you include in your game it is going to get boring all too soon; especially when the career mode is bloated with so many tiers, events, and race sessions that you are destined to repeat tracks dozens of time.  Even the narrator starts to sound bored the 20th time she says, “…and were back in Indianapolis for…”   I play video games to escape reality and experience virtual worlds, but Forza 5 seems determined to trap me in a series of infinite loops on tracks I’ve been racing on since the 1990’s.

Forza 5 has a brilliant and overly classy presentation thanks to its tight integration with BBC’s Top Gear series and narrator whose love of cars is almost a bit creepy…but that accent makes it okay I guess.  You can’t help but learn something every time Jeremy Clarkson opens his mouth.  Before you ever take to the tracks you can explore the massive library of cars in intimate detail using the showcase feature that lets you walk around and open every door, hood, and hatch and even explore the lush interiors.  Those looking for a virtual encyclopedia of race cars will find hours of entertainment without ever driving a single lap.

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Forza Motorsport 5 is without a doubt the visual showcase title of the Xbox One launch line-up.  Nothing can touch its amazing design and overall presentation quality.   The light and shadows are incredible and real-time, real-world reflections insane – one of my first cars had a gold chrome paint job that was basically like driving a mirror around the track and everything was reflected perfectly.   The sensation of speed is flawless thanks to the game’s smooth framerate that holds up even when cars are clustering in the hairpins.  Cars are precision modeled and constructed from more than 1500 unique materials, and textures have 12x the detail of those in Forza 4.  Tracks are recreated with laser-like precision with an accuracy of 6mm.  Bottom line – it just doesn’t get any realer than this.

Of course a racing game is only as good as its controls and while we are still waiting to get our hands on the Mad Catz Pro Racing Force Feedback Wheel and Pedals for the ultimate simulation experience, the new Xbox One controller did a surprising job of delivering a precise and immersive control scheme.   The impulse triggers work surprisingly well in giving you that extra level of connection with the road to the point where you can actually feel when your car is starting to lose its grip with the pavement.  The analog stick provides reasonably good steering when using the cockpit or hood camera but is overly twitchy if you drive from behind the car – but seriously, who does that?  The Kinect also comes into play if you turn on head-tracking, allowing you to realistically look into the turns with a subtle body or head tilt.

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Of course the big new feature of Forza 5 is the revamped Drivatar system, that ever-watchful computer that studies the way you drive and continually compiles this data into a virtual version of yourself that can then go out and race with others over Xbox Live even when you aren’t around.  It’s a clever system and one that I wish I could turn off at times.  Gone are the predictable AI drivers that always drive smart and conservative, sticking to the perfect apex line through the turns.  Gone is your ability to overcome this AI by driving a bit reckless and perhaps breaking a few rules.  In Forza 5 the track is now populated with Drivatars, the virtual essence of friends and strangers from around the world, and much like in real life, everybody on the road drives like a maniac.  I have other words but this is an E rated review.

Personally, I’m used to screaming down the straightaways, slamming on the brakes at the last minute and drifting through a turn, perhaps scraping the outside wall or tearing up some inside turf, but when the entire pack shares my bad habits the playing field just got leveled and not in a good way.   Drivatars will consistently slam into your rear bumper or sideswipe you in turns, and in a game were you are penalized for damage and each use of the rewind button, these shady racing tactics make it hard to turn a profit.  You have selectable levels of difficulty for the Drivatars, and harder levels reward you with bonus cash.

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There are a few pluses to the Drivatar system.  One is that the computer opponents do make mistakes, and unlike the perfect AI from the past, it’s not surprising to actually see a computer car actually spin out or fly off into the sand pit on a hairpin turn.  Another is that seeing your friends’ names over the cars, on the leaderboards, and the topic of real-time race challenges makes things a bit more personal and a whole lot more competitive.  Suddenly it’s no longer about just winning the gold – you must crush your rival’s top lap time.

The progression of difficulty is smooth but always rising and you can control that curve with the various driver assists from braking and traction to the color-coded racing line on the curves.  I’ve always been one to accept nothing less than a first-place finish but that is often an unattainable goal in Forza 5; something the designers must have realized since winning a gold medal for an event often only requires a third-place finish.  There are hundreds of races broken down into all sorts of themed events for exotics, classics, muscle cars, etc. that will have you upgrading existing cars or purchasing new ones to meet class requirements.

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Forza 5 also supports multiplayer racing for up to 16 drivers, but honestly, after spending countless hours driving against virtual a-holes the last thing I wanted to do was drive against those same unfiltered a-holes in real-time.  At least Drivatars don’t verbally abuse you during the race.  But for those who do want to take their racing online, the multiplayer racing works quite well and has its own distinct level of challenge and fun.

Forza Motorsport 5 offers up a true next-gen racing experience with stunning visuals constructed from insane levels of detailed data.  The car models defy photo-realism and the audio mix created at Skywalker Sound adds an entirely new dimension to the experience.    I was disappointed that despite new cars and tracks being added there are still fewer of both than we had in Forza 4.  It seems that expanding your car library is now going to cost you big bucks, as the game frequently tempts you with new cars that cost real money.   And even though the game has a daunting multi-page library of race events, the frequent backtracking to countries, cities, and tracks gets boring after you have raced on each circuit a few dozen times.  I’m sure there is something to be said for mastering all the nuances of each track but this racer prefers the open road and point to point racing.  I only hope Turn 10 takes what they have done here and creates a next-gen version of Horizon.  I might even be able to forgive those crazy Drivatars if they do.

Microsoft Xbox One System Review

3piecefrontIt’s been a long time coming but we finally have our review wrapped up for Microsoft’s new Xbox One.  I had to stop myself short there from calling it a “video game system” because Microsoft has a grand vision for their not-so-little black box.  The Xbox One is now going to be the hub of your entertainment world, the core of your family room, the center of your universe…if you believe the hype.  I’ve been breaking down this system for over two weeks going through every app and playing every game.  While the Xbox One has a few things going for it, nearly every step into the future seems to be countered with two steps back into the past.  And while the Xbox One may be the jack-of-all-trades it is the master of none.

When the Xbox 360 launched in 2005 it was just a video game system, then over the years Microsoft introduced new hardware (Kinect), new apps (Netflix, Hulu, Zune), and even a new interface to replace those horrible blades.  But even as Microsoft tried to expand the capabilities of the Xbox 360 they never strayed too far from the fundamental mission of playing video games.   The Xbox One picks up where the 360 left off and takes it even further by trying to take over your TV viewing and even your communication with the outside world, but in doing so seems to have lost focus on why we all really want a game system – TO PLAY GAMES!

THE UNBOXING

The Xbox One box is surprisingly heavy given its size, and after slicing the security tape and opening the lid I found out why.  This is the most compact and tightly packed collection of components I’ve ever seen.  The top tray is home to the Kinect, power brick, controller, headset, and all the various papers, and when you lift out the tray you’ll find the Xbox One system neatly tucked in the bottom half of the box.

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Immediate observations included the size and weight of the new Kinect as well as the thick cable used to connect it to the console.  The power brick was also quite massive, although in reality not much bigger than the one from the Xbox 360.  Still, it was a surprise given the overall size of the main unit and the fact that Sony’s smaller PS4 has their PSU inside the box.  Much like the PS4, Microsoft has a two-textured black design that splits the system between shiny gloss and flat black; although in reality the flat black is more of a vented top surface that is home to a surprisingly large exhaust fan.  The black finish makes the unit nearly invisible when added to your component rack, although the glowing Xbox logo on both the system and the Kinect reveal its location and power status.

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The Xbox One is clearly designed to be used laying flat.  The left side is home to a lone USB port, while the rear of the unit is surprisingly uncluttered now that they have gone digital-only.  This means one HDMI in (for your TV pass-through) and one HDMI out.  Xbox One has built-in wireless networking as well as a gigabit Ethernet port for those looking for a faster more reliable connection.  There are two more USB 3.0 ports on the back as well as the proprietary Kinect port.  At this point there is no support for external storage devices so the USB ports are pretty much for charging your controller or plugging in the MadCatz Killer Instinct Fightstick.

THE SETUP

powerbrickBeing the second largest component in my home theater setup (next to my Yamaha AV unit) I gave the Xbox One a place of honor on the top shelf of my entertainment stand.  I had already unplugged my Xbox 360, so I was able to use the HDMI cable from that system (even though Microsoft provides one) then I just had to connect the Kinect and the new power brick.   The Kinect cable is long; longer that you’ll probably need, but it was nice to have the freedom to place the unit wherever I liked, even if I did choose to simply have it sitting on top of the console.  All that was left was to insert the included pair of AA batteries into the controller and turn this beast on.

Make sure you have the system connected to the Internet because the first order of business is a day-one system update that will take upwards of ten minutes to install.  Once your system has rebooted you’ll be asked a few questions about your location and time zone and then you’re prompted for your Xbox Live account.  While the Xbox One has severed all ties with your old 360 when it comes to playing your old games it will bring over all your friends, achievements, and other information.  Once you have finalized the initial setup info you are treated to a loud sizzle trailer that should really get you pumped to play some new games.

The Xbox One includes a Blu-ray drive and a 500 GB hard drive, which sounds like a lot, and in 360 terms it is, but now that games are shipping on BD they can take upwards of 50 GB per title to install – and ALL games must be installed.   After you deduct the overhead of the OS and system patches you have just over 400 GB, which means at any given time you can have around 8-12 games installed and playable at any time.  This includes any games purchased digitally, which leads to my next observation – why buy disc copies?  Unless you are renting or planning to sell, trade or give your game away after playing you may as well just buy the digital version.  The downside is that it takes a bit longer to download the entire game versus installing from disc, but the upside is that you won’t have to dig out that disc and insert it every time you want to play.

Another oddity that concerns me is that there is no way to view or manage the data stored on your hard drive, and when you factor in video capture footage, DLC, and title updates, that 500 GB is going to be gone in a few months, so we can only hope Microsoft has something in place to manage the data when that happens.   As I was installing the various launch titles I was encountering initial update patches of anywhere from 5-13 GB per title.  I’m not sure if these patches stack on top of or replace currently installed content for that game.  I currently have over 15 games installed and updated on the system, so I expect to see some sort of “data management” warning pop up soon.   Microsoft has promised support for external storage in 2014 – not sure if that means memory sticks only like the Xbox 360 or possibly external hard drive support.

Many of the functions that we took for granted on the Xbox 360 are now apps, which must be downloaded and installed from the Xbox Marketplace.  If you want to watch a DVD or Blu-ray you’ll need to download an app.  If you want to Skype, watch YouTube, or access the Internet you’ll need to download the appropriate app.  The Xbox One has a built-in DVR that keeps a running chase replay of your gameplay, but if you want to edit or enhance those clips with a voiceover you’ll need to download an app.

THE INTERFACE

So how are all these apps and games managed and organized?  Well, they are not.  Xbox One uses a tile interface that looks a lot like the Windows 8 Metro design.   When you start the console or press the Xbox Guide button you are dropped into a summary page of your recent activity including any current game or app you may be using and recent apps below that.  Scrolling to the left shows your Pins – a collection of favorite apps and games of your choosing allowing for quick access, and scrolling to the right takes you into the marketplace where you can shop for apps, games, music, movies, and more.

There is currently no way to organize or manage your game and app collection, so I pretty much had to pin everything to the front page that wasn’t disc based.  At least disc games will auto-start if toggled on in the options, otherwise you are left to stumble through the tiled interface or trying to launch with a voice command.    It’s clear Microsoft wants you using Kinect to navigate their new console, but we are still a long way from Minority Report.   Despite all its hype, the new Kinect is just as imprecise and awkward to use as the last one, and instead of holding your hand over an area for 2-3 seconds you now have to make this awkward push and pull motion with your palm, as if you are hitting an invisible button floating two feet in front of you to register your inputs.

The Kinect voice commands work a bit better but only if you know what to say and when to say it.  The Xbox One tries to help you out by displaying key trigger words in green when it’s actively listening, but it doesn’t always register, and the parser demands strict terminology, word order, and proper names.  You might want to say “Xbox Play Forza” but the Xbox will only accept the full name forcing you to say “Xbox Play Forza Motorsport 5”. Or maybe you want to redeem a DLC code; just don’t use the word “redeem” – instead you must say “Xbox Use a Code”.  If you want to navigate around your Xbox menus you’ll need to preface everything with “Xbox Go To…” followed by a destination like “Settings” or “Upload Studio”.  There is a disturbing lack of consistency when “Xbox On” turns on the system but “Xbox Off” doesn’t – instead you must say “Xbox turn off” followed by a verbal yes or no confirmation.  Kinect clearly has its issues, which we will cover in greater detail all too soon.

The one highly touted feature of the new Xbox One interface is the Snap feature that allows you to multitask in a few interesting ways.  Simply saying “Xbox Snap” followed by an app name will launch that new app in a narrow window down the right side of the screen.  You can then move between the two apps by double-tapping the Xbox Guide button.   While this narrow strip is too small for most applications, it is suitable for accessing the web to look up a game hint, read a manual, or setup a DVR recording for your current game.

THE CONTROLLER

padinhandLeave it to Microsoft to spend $100 million to design a new controller and end up with pretty much the same thing.  It’s slightly bigger and slightly heavier, but for the most part the sticks and buttons are in the same place.  The twin analog sticks have a great rubbery textured top but they felt a bit loose with a weak return-to-center.   It didn’t affect my gameplay, but after seven years of using the Xbox 360 controller, it just felt “different”.  The D-Pad feels great and is much more accurate thanks to its cross design.  The guide button has been moved up higher to avoid accidental game pauses and the Start and Options (formerly known as Select) are smaller and more centrally located (away from the X button).  The new “impulse triggers” have their own vibration motors that do a fantastic job of providing haptic feedback; especially in games like Forza 5, but also provide pleasing stimuli in shooters like Call of Duty Ghosts and Battlefield 4.

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Wrap-around shoulder buttons are hard to click

There are a few negative issues for the new controller though starting with the LB and RB shoulder buttons that now wrap around the entire top corner of the gamepad.  With so much surface area you think it would be really easy to use these, but I found I had to apply an inordinate amount of pressure to make these buttons register.  They are nowhere near as responsive as those same buttons on the Xbox 360.  Sadly, the Xbox One controller still relies on an outside power source, which means using AA batteries or purchasing a Play & Charge Kit.  I’ll make that decision for you by saying that the batteries fit so loose in the compartment that you can hear them rattle, so much in fact that during a session of Dead Rising 3 where I was shaking off a zombie, the compartment lid and batteries went flying.  This problem is eliminated once you install the rechargeable battery pack, which is much more snug and silent.

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New battery pack is smaller and lighter than Xbox 360

Power issues continue though once you realize there is no way to monitor the battery life on your controller – nothing on the screen and nothing on the controller itself.   You just play until suddenly you aren’t – no warning…nothing.  If you are using a Play & Charge then hopefully you have a USB extension cable or your own extra-long micro-USB cable since the 10’ cable that comes with the console will fall short of spanning most game spaces.   Even worse, the relatively expensive Play & Charge Kits don’t come with a cable, so you can only charge one controller at a time unless you have your own.    Not only can you continue to play while charging your controller, when plugged in the gamepad will disable the proprietary wireless connection and start using a direct connection – something tournament players will certainly enjoy.  You can plug in the controller to gain this nominal boost in response time while using batteries as well, but you can’t recharge AA’s inside the controller.

While it’s almost unthinkable that Microsoft is still refusing to use a dedicated rechargeable power cell (Sony’s been doing it for two generations now) the upside is that the battery life is surprisingly long thanks to some interesting power saving features.  Unless you are playing games non-stop that use a lot of rumble you can expect to get a week or more of use from a single charge (a far cry from the 5-8 hours on the DualShock 4).  The Kinect finally starts to show its usefulness here by detecting when you set the controller down and putting it into a low power mode.  Kinect also detects when you are shaking the controller, allowing for some interesting “controller-shaking” gameplay moments without having to worry about gyroscopic or motion sensing innards.

headsetFinally, the Xbox One controller has a proprietary port for its included mono chat headset.  It’s certainly not a high quality device, but it gets the job done when you don’t want to chat via Kinect or want to lay down a nice commentary track on that video you just recorded.  It won’t be long before all the third party people jump on with their own higher-quality devices.

THE KINECT

I’ve touched on the various shortcomings (and a few benefits) of the Kinect.  The voice command system is okay as long as you know exactly what to say and the Kinect is actually listening, but when you have to repeat commands two or three times it’s just as fast (if not faster) to pick up the controller and navigate old-school.   The camera is most impressive and even a bit scary, able to see in the dark and detect objects at various depths within the frame.   The camera is no longer on a motorized mount, so it no longer “bows” when you start the console.  Instead, the lens tracks you, and with most of the Kinect-specific processing hardware moved into the unit itself, that frees up the Xbox One to do other things.

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Facial recognition is greatly improved so the game will know who is in the room and log them into the system if they have a Kinect-enabled account on the console.  Controllers are assigned and synced to profiles based on who is holding them, and the Kinect can even tell when one of your younger kids walks into the room and will pause your M-rated game.  The only downside to profile facial recognition is if you play in the dark and the Kinect loses track of your face you may be prompted to manually log-in.   Playing in low light can also affect the Kinect’s ability to see you shaking the controller in games like Dead Rising 3, and replace that motion input with a button mash.

Ambient light is irrelevant when it comes to voice commands in gaming and the Kinect works well in games like Ryse where you can shout commands to your troops or in Dead Rising 3 where you can shout to attract zombies.  Forza 5 supports head-tracking so you can look around the cockpit or look into that upcoming turn by moving your head.  Even Battlefield 4 lets you peek around corners with a head-tilt.  Kinect is a nice intuitive way to replace extraneous button presses, or in the case of Zoo Tycoon, eliminate the trudge through complicated menu tiers.

SOCIALIZING

Oddly enough, Facebook and Twitter are absent from the Xbox One, at least in app form – I suppose you can access them via the Internet Explorer app, but for a system that wants to rule your world it seems to have forgotten two important onramps to the information superhighway.  The Xbox One does offer its own version of a Facebook wall with a scrolling list of tiles that show what you and all your friends have been doing – at least if they were doing it on their Xbox One or Xbox 360.  You’ll see recent achievements, current activity, and even uploaded video clips that can be recorded, edited, and uploaded to your feed.   If you want to share videos and screenshots outside of the Xbox One you’ll have to rely on Microsoft’s cloud sharing space, SkyDrive that offers 7 GB of free storage that can then be accessed via PC or mobile device or even uploaded to YouTube.

The Xbox One has a built-in DVR that is constantly recording what you do.  In some cases, like when earning an achievement or performing a memorable action, the game will auto-save a clip to your library.  You can also, at any time, say “Xbox record that” and a copy of the last 30 seconds of gameplay is saved.  While 30 seconds is the default you can record clips up to five minutes in length if you set things up in the DVR ahead of time.   This is one of those rare times when the Snap feature is useful.   Clips are temporary and will eventually get deleted unless you process them in the Upload Studio app.  This intuitive video editing tool allows you to insert your own cool wipes and effects and even splice together multiple clips (not to exceed five minutes) as well as lay down a commentary track or even insert a PIP image from your Kinect camera.   It’s a nice easy way to record short clips for video reviews or strategy guides without having to have a dedicated PC and video capture setup.  While there is currently no support for live streaming such as Twitch, Microsoft claims that is coming this year.

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Skype is a really cool app that lets you video chat with other Skype users.  It’s been around for a while now and is quite popular with laptop users with built-in webcams, but the Xbox One takes it to the next level with HD quality video and the ability to track and zoom around the room to maintain focus on the person speaking.   It’s not that impressive in a one-on-one conversation but when you have a family of four with three on the couch and another pacing the room it’s pretty cool to see Kinect slowly move to the person speaking or even track a person moving about.

ENTERTAINMENT BEYOND GAMES

As the new hub of your entertainment network the Xbox One is ready to take control over your TV as well as all of your digital streaming sources like Amazon, Crackle, Netflix, Hulu, or the NFL.  I use DirecTV and with no app to support that service I would have to use the built-in IR blaster on the Kinect to control my DVR/receiver, which is more trouble than it’s worth and still requires the use of the DTV remote for anything DVR or On Demand related.   I do not watch anything live – it’s all recorded.   Even worse, there are some serious issues with the HDMI pass-through that not only strips away your surround sound but can seriously damage your picture quality.  As far as watching live TV is concerned, the Xbox One might be a viable option for a student living in a dorm or a small apartment with a standard TV provider, but anyone with a serious home theater system needs to avoid integrating their Xbox One in their non-gaming setup.

videoappsWhere the Xbox One really shines is in the digital streaming content, and honestly, for most of us, live TV is a thing of the past.  Almost everyone consumes their media a la carte.  Who wants to wait a week between episodes when you can wait nine months and consume an entire season in a two-day marathon?  Apps like Hulu and Netflix make watching movies and TV on your Xbox One entirely too easy with intuitive menus and voice commands and scarily enough; achievements.   It’s worth noting that Xbox One requires a full Xbox Live gold membership ($60 per year) to use any of these streaming services as well as some of the more basic features like Skype, the Live TV OneGuide, or even the Game DVR; a core feature of the new system.  So not only do you need to pay your fees for your video service, you must also pay a tribute to Microsoft to use that service on their hardware.

Now that the Xbox One supports Blu-ray I have three BD players to choose from.  I decided to watch a movie or two just for testing purposes and found that the lip-synch was off by nearly 200ms.  After a bit of research I found this can be “fixed” by unchecking the 24fps box in the options, but after seven years of watching Blu-ray at a locked 24fps it was unbearable to watch without.  Thankfully my PS3 and PS4 have no such issues.

PERFORMANCE

For as powerful as the Xbox One appears on paper there are still numerous and noteworthy load times and pauses both in the games and navigating the interface.   You can setup multiple purchases from the store but they still don’t run concurrently, so you end up with a long list of downloads and installs.   The smaller digital store games install fairly fast, but the disc based games often require the main installation of 20-50 GB plus an initial patch of 5-13 GB.  I’ve had issues of installs getting jumbled with patches that have corrupted the entire installation.  Depending on your Internet speed it could take hours before you can play a game out of the box – even longer if you are downloading that same game from the digital store.   Thankfully, Microsoft has figured out how to let you start playing a game after a significant portion has already downloaded.

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Once you are actually in the game it’s time to see what the next-generation looks like, and while the Xbox One is certainly better than its predecessor, it is a far cry from the quality of an affordable PC or even the $100 cheaper PlayStation 4.  With the exception of a few titles most all of the games are being output at a native 720 (or in some cases 900) vertical lines then being upscaled to 1080p.  This results in some noticeable and displeasing side effects in many games.  Xbox is using some sort of sharpening filter to try and clean-up the image, but this only results in a grainier picture with sharp edges and exaggerated textures.   I also noticed reduced draw distance and even some framerate drops in a few games in peer comparisons.  Admittedly, this is only the first round of launch titles so things will hopefully get better.   First-party exclusives like Forza 5 and Ryse: Son of Rome look fantastic, while Dead Rising 3 sacrifices quality for quantity.   It might be impressive to see a pulsating mosh pit of a thousand zombies but seeing it at a grainy 720p resolution certainly takes away some of the magic.  Ironically, Zoo Tycoon – the game most everyone without kids will certainly pass on – is not only one of the best looking games; it actually gives the Kinect a chance to strut its stuff.  But any cross-platform titles such as Call of Duty: Ghosts, Need for Speed Rivals, or Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag looks and plays decisively better on the PS4.

SMARTGLASS

smartglass1You may have played around with SmartGlass on the Xbox 360 but things just got a whole lot more serious on the Xbox One; so much in fact that you’ll need to download a whole new app for the new system.  SmartGlass now mirrors your console interface more than ever, giving you access to friends and messages even when not directly connected to the console.   When connected it lets you work behind the scenes while playing a game, letting you setup another app to launch in full-screen or in a snapped window.  It’s particularly handy in apps like Internet Explorer where you might want to use the touchscreen as a mouse, and the keyboard on your tablet (or phone) is certainly better than the hunt-and-peck pop-up keyboard on the console.

2ndscreenWhile SmartGlass is an invaluable asset in simply using your Xbox One, it also enhances the gameplay in various unique ways with dedicated companion support in select titles.   Some games like Need for Speed Rivals and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag have their own dedicated companion apps, but several Xbox One titles can launch their own companion support from within the SmartGlass interface.  Dead Rising 3 turns your phone or tablet into an extension of the cell phone in the game, enabling unique ways to communicate with the game and get exclusive mission content otherwise unavailable.   Madden NFL 25 allows you to view player rosters, playbooks, and various stats and history right on your tablet.  You can even tap on parts of the field display to get recommended plays from other gamers on plays they used for that situation and their success rate.

smartglass2If you are using your Xbox One with Live TV then SmartGlass also works with the OneGuide allowing you to surf channels and even control the volume of your TV using your tablet or phone as a remote and viewing the guide on a second screen is a nice alternative to interrupting your main screen viewing.   In apps like Netflix you can also be queuing up your next movie on SmartGlass while watching one on the big screen.

The potential for where this can all go is limitless, and I can easily see game maps, inventory screens, and other game-invasive menus and such being moved to a secondary screen in such a way that it not only enhances the experience, but immerses you deeper into the game.  SmartGlass currently supports iOS, Android, Windows PC, and Windows phones and is a free download.

CONCLUSION

I’ve avoided making too many comparisons to the PS4 in this review, but in the end it really does come down to making a choice.   At this moment in time the Xbox One has a much larger library of games and a much better second screen app with their SmartGlass.   The Xbox One potentially does a lot more than play video games, but do we really need our game system to run our TV; especially when major content providers and DVR boxes aren’t fully supported?  Do you really want your game or movie interrupted with an incoming Skype call?

The Kinect has the potential to be cool but currently the body inputs are no better than the old Kinect, both in gaming and in simple menu navigation.   The facial recognition is functional and useful when your room is properly lit, and the voice commands are slick as long as you know exactly what to say.  But when you strip away all of the non-gaming stuff that Microsoft is trying to inject into their hybrid entertainment system you are left with a game console that is marginally better than its predecessor and no better than its current competition.

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I personally believe this console shipped way too early; either in a kneejerk reaction to the PS4 launch or an attempt to cash in on that 2013 holiday shopping season.   Nearly half the launch library is cross-generation titles while all the important next-gen games are still months away.  The Xbox One would have been better served by a February/March launch (cash in on those tax refunds).  That way Microsoft could have polished up the interface, tested more TV options, and perfected the Kinect.

For all its purported power most all of the games I’ve played haven’t looked that “next-gen” or even that good.  720p native graphics, crazy sharpening filters, poor anti-aliasing, limited draw distances, and even framerate hiccups (no more 60fps in Call of Duty) will make anyone wonder why spending $100 more on this over a PS4 is a good idea.  Of course when games like Titanfall, Quantum Break, Project Spark, and Halo 5 start rolling out it might be time to reconsider, but until then, the Xbox One is too little too soon and destined to play “catch up” in the next cycle of console wars.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Review – Xbox One

It’s ironic that the best Assassin’s Creed game in the series to date has the least to do with the core premise upon which the franchise was founded. Sure, there are Assassins and Templars, cool hooded cloaks, fancy parkour moves, swords, pistols, and even that blue/red/gold instinctual hunter vision mode, but this latest installment in the series has much more up its sleeve than just a pair of deadly wrist blades.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag uses the death of Desmond Miles to essentially reboot the series, or at least take a serious detour. The centuries-long battle between Assassin’s and Templars is a mere footnote in the historical Animus archives. Abstergo has gone from a shady corporate villain to a major public company that has joined forces with Ubisoft (yes, this gets pretty Meta) to create entertainment products from harvested DNA memories. You play as the latest new hire, destined to spend countless hours in your cubicle tapping into the memories of Subject 17 – aka Desmond Miles, whose body was recovered after the tragic events at the end of Assassin’s Creed III.

There is a rich tapestry of ancestral memories ripe for possible game ideas, but as you start hacking into your coworkers computers you’ll realize that most are unsuitable for consumer gameplay. In fact, the only game to be successfully marketed so far was Assassin’s Creed Liberation (another meta-reference to the PlayStation Vita game that launched in 2012). You are now conducting research on a new historical figure; Edward Kenway.

We meet up with Kenway in the opening prologue where, after a brief ship battle, he finds himself marooned on an island with an Assassin. After a brief chase, Edward kills this Assassin and steals his clothes and mission orders. You’ll need to suspend your disbelief on how Edward is suddenly imbued with all the skills and inherent abilities of a professional Assassin. Apparently being a seasoned pirate shares many of the same skill sets.

While Edward certainly has the skills of an Assassin, he lacks the motivation and allegiance to their cause, which provides players with a unique mercenary perspective to the story. Edward is obsessively driven by two things; treasure and information that leads to more treasure, even to the detriment of his crew. When he learns of an ancient place/device known as the Observatory he becomes obsessed with finding it and exploiting it for profit. Both the Assassins and the Templars are also desperately racing to find this ancient artifact, and hundreds of years in the future, Abstergo is also trying to mine its current location from the DNA memories of Subject 17 and using you to do it.

With the core premise in place it’s time to settle in for what is easily a 60+ hour game and one that completionists can spend upwards of 80-100 hours, and that’s before tackling the DLC content and the online multiplayer modes that now include an exciting new Wolfpack mode, complete with its own 8-chapter story.

I can make a lot of hyperbolic claims about Black Flag. Yes, it’s the best game of the new generation – not saying much this early into the limited libraries of both consoles, but it is easily the best Assassin’s Creed game in the franchise, and personally, the best game I’ve played in several years. I normally struggle to finish any game that lasts longer than 12-15 hours but I was desperately seeking reasons to keep going back and playing Black Flag, whether it was to collect some missing treasure, hunt the elusive white whale, sink all the Legendary Ships, or simply check off a few more of the 100 Abstergo Challenges.

Part of the appeal to Black Flag is the sheer freedom you have while playing it. You can play for hours; even days, without touching that icon that will trip the next memory sequence to advance the story. For the most part, the entire massive map is open from the start, and you are free to plot your own course to adventure, and there is certainly no shortage of ingredients when it comes to cooking up your own pirate experience. There are dozens of cities; some quite large and others merely small island settlements. There are Smugglers’ Dens, Plantations, temple ruins, and you even get to setup your own island pirate base and build it up with various structures. Scattered about the map are 46 uncharted treasure chests that are stashed on beaches or remote sandbars and only revealed on the map after you have defeated any of the numerous enemy forts to lift the “fog of war”.

Fort battles are just one of the many sideline activities where you begin by first assaulting the island structures with cannon and mortar fire to level the battlements then invade the interior with your crew to kill the leaders and take over the fort. Navy forts provide you with money-making privateer contracts as well as a friendly dock to repair your ship and lower your wanted level.

Also scattered about the map are various shipwrecks and underwater ruins that can be explored later in the game when you have acquired the diving bell. This opens up a whole new world of adventure as you quite literally hold your breath while seeking out even more buried treasure and Animus fragments while hiding from sharks and avoiding jellyfish and Moray eels. These underwater sections are some of the most visually striking and terrifying moments in the game.

There is also a surprisingly in-depth crafting system in place that will have you hunting various types of wildlife on land and in the sea; the latter triggering a quite enjoyable and sometimes-challenging harpoon mini-game where you battle sharks and whales from a small rowboat. Skins and bones can then be crafted into all sorts of useful accessories or simply sold for cash.

For as much time as you’ll spend on land you will likely spend even more sailing the ocean, and let me say there is nothing quite like the exhilarating feeling of sheer open freedom as you glide across the rolling waves, identifying ships with your spyglass, and engaging in exciting naval combat. The level of tactics and strategy is seamlessly integrated into the easy-to-use controls where weapon selection is as simple as facing a certain direction. Look forward to fire the chain cannon to stun your opponent while looking to the rear will drop fire barrels that float and explode on contact like mines or can be shot with your swivel shot. Your broadside cannons fire from either side, often revealing weak points that can be targeted with the swivel shot for precision damage, and you also have the long-range mortar that rains fire from above when you get within range. Of course you can always ram your enemy in moments of desperation. You’ll need to mix-up your tactics based on the type of enemy; especially when going up against the four Legendary Ships.

Assassin’s Creed III only gave you a taste of what is possible with ship battles – Black Flag takes it to the next level. Your ship, the Jackdaw, is the second most important character in the game next to Edward. It can be fully equipped and upgraded with hull upgrades, rams, cannons, mortars, and fire barrels. You can upgrade your hold to carry more cargo and your barracks to sleep more crew. And don’t even get me started on all the visual customizations like sails, mastheads, and steering wheels.

Upgrades require both cash and in some cases resources such as cloth, wood, and metal. These precious resources are obtained by raiding island warehouses and defeating enemy ships. Sinking a ship will get you half the possible salvage but actually boarding a ship will get you the full amount as well as some extra perks. Once you have battered a ship down to critical damage you can pull alongside and board. Victory requirements change based on the size and type of ship. Sometimes you just have to kill 10-15 crew but other times you’ll need to kill the officers or scouts, cut down the flag from the main mast, or blow up powder kegs. Once the ship is captured you can scrap it for parts to repair the Jackdaw, or in some cases recruit the crew to lower your wanted level or salvage the entire ship and send it off to your fleet.

Fleet battles are the new replacement for the Assassin’s Guild missions in past games. In this strategic mini-game you will build up a fleet of various ships ranging in size, speed, and firepower. You are then given a map of the Atlantic with a growing number of destinations. You’ll first need to engage the enemy in these turn-based ship battles with as many as three ships. Once the shipping lanes are safe you can then send your ships to various cities to deliver or exchange cargo, thus unlocking new destinations on the map. Missions require ships with certain cargo capacity and they all have a preset time of completion – some taking 30-40 hours of real-time, so this is one of those activities that you need to queue up before ending each game session so it can play itself while you are away.

Collectors are not forgotten and Black Flag has plenty of collectibles like 200 glowing Animus shards found in cities, under the ocean, and even on the random sandbar. Like the floating pages of Ben Franklin’s almanac in Assassin’s Creed III, you now get to chase 35 Sea Shanty pages around city and jungles, and for each one you collect a new song opens up for your crew to sing while you sail the high seas. There are 20 letters stuck in bottles, 22 maps that lead to buried treasure, and 18 blueprints to upgrade your ship and equipment. Then you have 30 Assassin contracts, and 5 special Assassin missions that result in 5 keys that unlock a special set of armor. And if armor is your thing, there are 16 special Mayan monoliths that you can climb and use your vision mode to reveal 16 stones that when combined, will unlock a cool piece of Mayan armor.

Previous games had you buying maps to reveal all of these item locations, but Black Flag only asks that you either defeat the navy forts or simply sync the numerous Viewpoints to reveal all possible pickups in the surrounding area. With literally hundreds of collectibles and hours of sideline activities, it is easy to see how you can get lost in this world without ever touching the core story, but periodically you will be swept back to reality – aka the real world – and asked to wander the impressive office tower of Abstergo.

Your time outside the Animus is limited but still entertaining; especially if you are a fan of the lore and backstory of the franchise. As you sneak around hacking into 33 computers and collecting 20 Sticky Notes, you’ll become privy to a lot of controversial information about Desmond, Subject 16, and even Subject 1. There are three types of hacking puzzles; one where you navigate a sphere searching for an infinite loop, another where you must get a data node across multiple scrolling firewalls like a game of Frogger, and another where you must dial in a certain frequency using a set of mathematical rules. None of the hacks proved terribly difficult although I did feel I stumbled on the answer more often than solving it. Most of the resulting data is either audio or video so you don’t have to spend hours reading, but for those who really want to sink themselves into every last bit of content, Ubisoft has created something quite wonderful – the companion app.

The Black Flag app is a free download I was able to install on my iPad (also works on iPhone) that gives you unprecedented access to features and modes of the game even when you aren’t playing it. The app connects to both Uplay and your specific platform (if the game is running). When used during gameplay you have full access to the world map with the ability to filter the icons and even plot waypoints. You also have access to all of your treasure maps making it so much easier to find where X marks the spot without having to open and close menus on your main game. Using the companion features just makes the whole experience that much more seamless.

iPad Companion App Gallery

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The app also lets you track your progress, total sync, play time, etc. as well as granting you access to ALL of the information you have been slowly unlocking in the massive Animus database. If you can’t be bothered to read all the information on people, places, and things, or learn the lyrics to your favorite sea shanty during the game, you can now catch-up on all that peripheral info anytime you have a free moment with your iPhone or iPad. And then we come to the most useful part of the companion app; Kenway’s Fleet. Yes, you no longer have to retreat to the captain’s quarters to manage your naval empire. You can play the complete fleet battle mini-game from within the app anytime, anywhere, and then collect your earnings the next time you play the main game.

The last part of the companion app is the Initiates feed which provides a list of Hot Topics as well as a real-time progress feed outlining major events within the game. This also ties into Ubisoft’s new website, acinitiates.com that opens up another tangent world of activities and challenges. This site syncs with Uplay and provides multi-tiered challenges that reward you with XP and other special rewards that can be redeemed on Uplay. I got an awesome set of new sails by completing all three levels of the Beachcomber challenge.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a work of art, but sadly the Xbox One version falls just shy of the PS4 experience when it comes to graphics.  The game is being upscaled from a native 900p which translates to a fuzzier image and reduced clarity on distant objects.  Xbox One continues to use its sharpening filter  that creates unwanted grain and sharp edges of up-close objects, and while the PS4 manages a consistent 30fps, the Xbox One periodically dips lower creating some uneven motion and even occasional screen tears.

Obviously, the PC version is going to be the technological winner but the video card alone would cost as much as an Xbox One to create a comparable experience.  Even with its deficiencies the rolling waves are a treat for the eyes or perhaps a terror when a storm rolls in and giant rogue waves start sweeping your crew from the deck. The night and day cycle creates some of the best sunsets and sunrises, and nothing is as calming as sailing through the night with nothing but the glow of the moon and the twin lanterns on your stern to illuminate the blackness.

The next-gen version of Black Flag also adds a unique skeletal system to the plant life so it bends and moves with your body, or even to the gentle breeze. Since you spend a lot of the game hiding in bushes this makes it much easier to keep track of Edward while stalking your prey. The lighting, textures, and level of detail are definitely better than Xbox 360 with minimal pop-up and impressive draw distances that really make you appreciate those spinning 360-sync cams. The world is so natural and alive it’s hard to believe that it was created by artists and programmers. God would be impressed.

Load screens are nominal, and you can now transition from land to ship or even ship to ship with nary a break in the action. The only significant loads are when fast-traveling, advancing chapters, and when going in and out of the Animus. The Xbox One functions flawlessly with smooth analog motion on the sticks and some cool use of the impulse triggers to reflect combat damage during ship battles or other physical interactions.

As of this review I have logged over 120 hours with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag including both the Aveline and Freedom Cry DLC missions, and that doesn’t include the hours I’ve spent managing my fleet on my iPad. There is so much to do in this game and it is all addictively fun. Beneath all the pirate panache there is a lot of repetitious gameplay – some might even call it grinding, but the only thing that gives it away are these silly little post-event cutscenes like a crew cheering when Kenway spares their lives or watching your crew repair your ship and test fire a cannon. These animations are much more obvious and repetitive than the activities that trigger them.

Black Flag also has a competent and surprisingly addictive online multiplayer component that, for me, rival the depth and fun of anything Call of Duty or Battlefield has to offer. All of the traditional modes are back as well as the new objective-based Wolfpack mode that even comes with its own 8-chapter story and can be play cooperatively with up to four people. The more you play the more XP and money you earn which will increase your rank unlocking new weapons and abilities that can be purchased and assigned to the various slots in your character sheet and organized into various loadouts for specific missions and game types. While the graphics take a slight hit in quality, there is no shortage of suspenseful hide-and-seek gameplay in Black Flag’s thrilling online modes; especially when you factor in the new Game Lab that lets players create and share their own custom online game modes.

I have to confess to a bit of separation anxiety now that I am out of content and have no real reason to sail the seas with Edward and crew. I can only look forward to the next DLC coming in the Season Pass collection, and further into the future with whatever adventures the Assassin’s Creed franchise has for us in their next sequel. I only hope it can live up to the incredibly high standards Black Flag has set for the series. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is easily one of the best games currently available for the Xbox One and our pick for the best game of 2013.

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Skylanders SWAP Force Review – Xbox One

There’s only so much time that a series can remain unrivaled in the gaming world and the marketing marvel that is Activision’s toy-meets-video game franchise Skylanders is no exception as Disney moves in on their turf this year with their own toy-based franchise. I’ve played both the original games and after the last game I wandered just how they could up their game in the face of competition. Giants introduced a larger than life way to interact with the world of Skylands which was different though it pales in comparison to the depth of Activision’s newest addition, Skylanders: SWAP Force, for the Xbox One.

One of the biggest things to remember about Skylanders other than it’s going to involve a lot of money out of the pocketbooks of parents is that it’s largely designed for kids. This doesn’t mean that a kid at heart of my age doesn’t appreciate the effort that actually went into the story of this new adventure. Skylanders: SWAP Force tells the tale of a volcano that when it erupts replenishes all the magic in the Skylands. This volcano has been protected by a group of Skylanders known as the SWAP Force until one battle against evil when the eruption blasted them apart mixing their powers with others to create new Skylanders. It’s once again time for the celebration of the eruption and evil is once again plotting to cover the world in darkness.

As with the previous game your favorite Skylanders from all previous versions carry over into Skylanders: SWAP Force utilizing the new Portal of Power. It’s the titular characters that really drive this new adventure though with some new and unique features. One major new feature that has to be mentioned is the fact that all your Skylanders can now jump! This feature while it sounds small is a huge advancement for the console versions as it brings an added challenge to the experience and brings back some of the platforming heritage that the Spyro franchise is known for. Unlike its “narrow path” predecessors, SWAP Force now feels a bit more open and flushed out with multiple layers and more involved puzzles. There are plenty of hidden paths to discover though none of them are like those seen in the first game where the correct element was needed to trigger a secret path.

Elements still play a big part of Skylanders: SWAP Force like characters being stronger in certain areas or getting through element gates, but Vicarious Visions has taken things to the next level with the SWAP Force characters. These new characters while falling into one of the elements are designed to be separated at the waist and combined with the tops or bottoms of other SWAP Force characters to create 256 new and lethal combinations. The top half of these characters are your primary means of attack while the bottom halves will feature one of the eight movement abilities like teleportation or whirlwind. These new movement abilities not only allow your Skylanders to move faster in the levels once upgraded but gain you access to new Swap Zone challenge areas. Completing these fun yet sometimes tough and optional challenges with the proper character not only nets you a higher completion rate of the chapter but also unlocks more challenges outside of the chapter.

SWAP Force characters are heavily integrated into practically every asset of this new game like the fore mentioned challenge areas. They also are used to gain access to the newly created Dual-element gates which as the name suggests requires both of the required elements to be present near the gate to open it. The cool part is that this can be accomplished a few different ways especially when two people are using the drop-in/out cooperative play feature. You can either have two people with the required elements from any usable Skylander approach the gate or use the magnetically attached halves of two SWAP Force characters to do it which would be preferable in single player sessions. The downside as of this review is that several of elements needed like Earth element SWAP Force characters have yet to be released so 100% is almost impossible for single players. This goes for the special movement areas as well as the Stealth zone characters have yet to be released.

For those of you just joining the world of Skylanders, the important thing to remember about the highly detailed figurines you use to virtualize the character into the world is that they have brains in them. This allows each individual character to remember the skills you teach it, hats you put on it for stat boosts, coin count and if you so choose you can name them. That last part is useful if you or your kids plan on playing it over at a friend’s house and they have the same characters. The jewels you collect either by defeating enemies or breaking items act as your form of currency in the game. Each character has their own individual bank so it’s a good idea to share play time with your Skylanders so you can gain enough money to purchase upgrades. Skylanders: SWAP Force once again takes things farther with leveling up you Skylanders. Unlike traditional Skylanders figurines that only have one main upgrade path with a choice of offensive/defensive trees in the middle (i.e. Stealth Elf’s blades or decoy; SWAP Force characters have one for each half of their bodies. This way you can improve Free Ranger’s lower body whirlwind moment abilities while working on Blast Zone’s upper body fire and bomb based abilities at the same time if you so choose.

Skylanders: SWAP Force is the first title to hit a new generation of consoles so there’s always going to be discussions if it’s justifiable to switch over to a different system to play the next chapter in a franchise based on graphics alone like Skylanders especially given the cartoony nature of the series. As a reviewer, I own all three games now and not a one of them is on the same system, which matters little as they figurines are universal amongst their respected games and comparability. Skylanders: SWAP Force for the Xbox One definitely gains a leg/tentacle/claw over its last-gen counterparts in the graphical department though. The character models even on Series 1 figurines look sharper than ever before and the animations are crisp as ever. Due to the ability to jump this time around the new developers definitely used the opportunity to create some really pretty and complex worlds that are a beauty to behold. The boss fight with Mesmerelda which takes place on a theatre stage is easily one of my favorite set pieces in the game and was a blast to take on.

One of the things that I’ve always admired about the Skylanders franchise is that despite the games being marketed towards kids and families, there is a lot of love and detail put into its audio package. For starters, Lorne Balfe returns to deliver another amazing score feature hints of the Skylanders theme that I’ve come to love. There’s also the little show tune you get to see before you get to fight Mesmerelda that I found entertaining and very Vaudvillian in nature. The other thing that I have to mention is the amount of voice work that went into Skylanders: SWAP Force. Not only does it feature entertaining cutscenes backed by the easily recognizable stylings of Patrick Warburton, but there’s a rather impressive list of 58 voice actors lending their voice to the actual Skylanders you get to control don’t get to play her, I absolutely fell in love with the voice work of the Frost Elf Avril. The kids that this game is marketed for probably are not going to care about the voice actors behind their favorite characters but Skylanders: SWAP Force wouldn’t be nearly as fun to play without them as they bring character and life to the world they inhabit.

I have to say that Skylanders: SWAP Force is easily the deepest in the franchise both in story and content. Oh yes there is plenty of content for both the young kids and for someone like me who likes to 100% games of this nature. Skylanders: SWAP Force features a fairly long 17 chapter campaign with only a few of those being actual boss fights. As I’ve mentioned above it’s still impossible to 100% a chapter at this time but the nice thing is you don’t have to do everything in a single run. You can go back and do the missing areas or challenges like not having a single Skylander defeated throughout the level. As you play through the main game you can unlock new Bonus Maps, Challenge Maps and even complete quests for your individual Skylanders over time. Upon completing the main game you also unlock a Score Attack and a Time Attack Mode that adds a bit of a challenge to some already tough levels depending on difficulty. Score Attack mode has you going through a selected level tasking you with achieving the highest combat score possible by chaining attacks while Time Attack mode has you rushing through the level as fast as possible. Each mode earns you stars based on your results.

Skylanders: SWAP Force this time around also contains a rather cool Portal Master feature which rewards you depending how high your Portal Master rank is. Your rank is determined by nearly every facet of Skylanders: SWAP Force. Completing chapters earns your stars but so does defeating so many enemies or collecting so many winged sapphires (used to reduce cost of items and abilities) along the way. You even get rewarded for collectively placing so many of a certain element on the Portal and for trying all 256 different variations of SWAP Force combinations. Raising your Portal Master Rank also allows you to place Legendary Treasures (found in the Story or bought) on pillars scattered around the game’s central hub of Woodburrow. Each pillar is unlocked at certain level requirements and earns you the effect of one of the Legendary Treasures placed on them while playing such as raised defense against melee or ranged attacks or an increase in gold or XP earned. There is even a daily bonus that players get that would otherwise be unknown to you if it weren’t for reading/interacting with the sign at the starting area of the hub every time you play. The effects are random though all of the ones I experienced while playing like a Elemental Boost for example were quite useful in combat.

Skylanders: SWAP Force offers players plenty of opportunities for combat both in and out of the story. Separate from the story, though accessible through it, is the Arena Mode that allows a single player or friends and family to battle co-op or against each in one of the following battle types: Solo Survival, Team Survival, Rival Survival, Battle Arena and Knockout. Battle Arena and Knockout are the two true one vs. one modes where the only real difference is that one is won by knocking your opponent off the playing field. A nice ability here is that you can level the playing field if you or someone else has characters that are much higher than your own if you want to by selecting it in the match options. The Team And Rival Survival modes pit you and friend cooperatively or counter cooperatively against waves of enemies that want to take you down. Whoever has the highest score in Rival Survival however wins compared to a collective win in Team Survival.

I could go on and on about all the little details and features of Skylanders: SWAP Force but that would make this article longer than it already is or spoil things that need to be discovered and experienced by you the potential player. Honestly I had some reservations on either or not Skylanders: SWAP Force had what it takes to remain a strong and enjoyable title before even sitting down and playing it. Apparently my fear of this adventure not holding the level of magic and wonder that the original did was unwarranted as Skylanders: SWAP Force is every bit if not more enjoyable than the first entry. Skylanders: SWAP Force offers players a huge amount of content, plenty of replay value and a charming story with enough humor that even adults can love. If you’re just now thinking about checking out Skylanders or are a fan of the franchise already and own an Xbox One then this is a fun and must-own adventure to add to your collection.

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FIFA 14 Review – Xbox One

I just love soccer. I played for a good part of my life and have watched it religiously. I still have a large library of games on VHS and DVD including USA’s only win over Brazil. I have MLS, National Team, Futsal, beach soccer, and old Major Indoor Soccer League games. It’s a beautiful game in all its forms. Now in mid-life, I have been relegated from being a player to the sidelines either photographing or coaching whenever I can. So when I get the itch, soccer games on PC or console have been a great distraction.

Over the years, EA’s FIFA series has been my favorite. At first simply because it was the only game available at the local game store, yet even despite some minor competition from Konami, EA has evolved to the point where FIFA is one of its highest selling games every year, and tech developed for FIFA is being used in other franchises like NHL, Madden and other games. They have learned how to make the money flow.

Not much has changed in this next-gen port of FIFA 14.  EA’s micro-transaction cash cow is still trying to pick your wallet clean and the menu system is still that same tile system similar to Windows 8. I hate Windows 8 with the heat of a supernova, so I wasn’t happy with the new UI at first, but it actually works better than previous years.  The quirky Kinect touch interface has been abandoned in favor of voice commands that are much more reliable and can actually enhance and immerse you in the gameplay.  You won’t believe how fast and intuitive it is to call out substitutions using players’ names, change formations, or choosing various tactics, mentalities, or even camera angles.

The gameplay engine on the Xbox One (and PS4) is entirely new, built from the ground up for this new generation of console, yet only the most studious of FIFA fans will spot the superficial improvements to the game engine.   The visual enhancements are more instantly apparent with much better stadium detail, a more lively and diverse set of spectators in the stands and cameramen on the sidelines.  Even the grass texture has been improved, which might be responsible for some quirky shadows that seem to float off the surface of the field.

Of course the biggest improvement that Ignite brings to the game is the increased number of dynamic animations.   Last-gen versions of FIFA had a fairly limited library of moves that were recycle for a variety of situations, which means things started looking repetitive even when you were doing different plays.  This new engine offers unprecedented variety when it comes to having the players come into contact with the ball and each other.  It doesn’t really affect the gameplay as much as simply providing a much more realistic visual experience.  Some of the subtle movements like a foot roll during a steal can only be appreciated when viewed in slow-motion.  Sadly, the actual character models still look a bit like their last-gen counterparts with dead-eyes and flat, simple textures.

The biggest change for actual gameplay would be in the area of player AI and actual self-awareness; something you’ll quickly realize after your third or fourth failed attempt to slide tackle.   Slide tackles have been the default way to regain possession of the ball, but now that the opposing team is actually aware of not only themselves but you and your crude tactics, they will easily hurdle your incoming charge.  Admittedly, this makes the game a bit more challenging, but in a more realistic way, so you can’t really fault the game for evolving.  FIFA 14 delivers hundreds of new skills and behaviors, including side volleys, first-time screamers, off-balance shots, touch passes, and panic turns when defenders are beaten and for the first time ever, multiple players can contest a ball in the air simultaneously. Ignite is going to eventually make you a better player.

It was also refreshing to see that the ball physics got a serious upgrade to the point where it now seems to exist outside of a player animation sequence.  Before, the ball always seemed to have that invisible tether to the player in control, but now it seems that you are always fighting for possession of the ball rather than having it merely switch sides.

FIFA has 33 leagues, 600 clubs, 47 national teams and over 16,000 players and their stats (many with facial maps and mo-cap). PES has 81 national teams and around 150 clubs – sort of. Most of the teams are pseudonyms like “Man Blue” for Manchester City. That is just staggering.   EA has groups of ‘scouts’ who pour over the FIFA data sets before being published. Those data sets are updated frequently as players are transferred or other changed occur and are available as free downloads in-game.

Also FIFA 14 has their online Creation Centre web app to allow users to fill in the gaps. You can create players, teams or tournaments for anyone to download. Users have created an incredible wealth of teams over the past several years so any of the few teams or leagues that are not licensed in FIFA are available for download. Anything from the Canadian national team to fantasy teams like the Cleveland Force Best XI are available. Historical teams are my favorite to put up against more recent teams just to see how it may have happened – especially old EPL teams featuring Beckham or Cantona.

The Career mode lets you manage or lace up the boots and play out a long career. This year instead of working my way up in England’s FA, I decided to try out playing in Major League Soccer. It’s a different animal – though this season EA decided to make the divisions accurate instead of using a single table like previous years. It was almost as if to say ‘hey, MLS, having a single table like everyone else in the world would be a good thing.’ But they’d probably expect a promotion/relegation system next.

Both management and player career modes are a real joy to play and add even more value to FIFA 14. Simple improvements like having the ability to request to be subbed out of a game are now in FIFA 14 and those little things are what make it special. Previous years I seemed to write more about the limits in sports games, but this year FIFA 14 really rises above most complaints. The great thing about career player or be-a-pro mode is the unique opportunity to teach kids the game. In a tangible way kids (and parents) can learn about offside and the benefits of playing your position. All of these skills translate to online play and even on the real pitch in local leagues.

As with NHL 14, EA has chosen to stick with their commentary teams from the past few years of FIFA and it has given them a large library of recorded names and situations to utilize. The commentary is impressive – even while playing with MLS teams. Martin Tyler and Alan Smith with an alternate duo of Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend are some of the best in the sport and add a new level of realism that Pro Evo just can’t touch. The EA audio team has really captured the game beyond anything we’ve heard before on any console. Tyler even commented that goalies Marcus Hahnemann (Seattle) and Jon Busch (San Jose) may be retiring after this season which has been rumored all year.

Skill games have been completely updated to have even more fun and challenging skill development. Some new variations on last year’s games are included with quite a few more to help develop passing, shooting and goalkeeping skills. It’s surprising how much these games actually do help your normal gameplay especially online against real opponents.

Online modes are continuing to be more engrained in all EA Sports games. FIFA is no exception. It is surprisingly fun to compete online in Ultimate Team or other online activities. But just be aware that at any point you don’t have an internet connection, a significant number of modes will be crippled or completely unusable such as Ultimate Team.

FIFA Ultimate Team is again the big addiction (and money drain) for most players. It uses a trading card interface to let you build a club with multiple teams. All 16,000 licensed players are ranked in bronze, silver or gold monikers and you can buy (with real money) packs of digital cards with various players and skill enhancements.

FIFA 14 Ultimate Team (FUT) has been revamped a little bit this season. Most notably are the chemistry connections between players have been altered. The team formation isn’t such a huge factor anymore and now it’s more about the roles of the player. So now you can get cards with chemistry styles for attackers such as “sniper”, “finisher”, “deadeye”, “marksman”, or “hawk” which upgrades specific offensive attributes like shooting, dribbling, heading or passing. In the end this is probably a better system than last year but getting the right combination of players to make a good team isn’t as easy as it once was. But it is incredibly addictive. Especially when you go up against others online and see how their team chemistry makes their weaker team beat your higher rated team. Thus the money begins to flow.

EA really pulls at all the strings by also having a robust auction system (similar to eBay) in-game that allows you to bid on specific players, consumables (contracts, healing cards etc.), coaches, and club items (logos, uniforms, stadiums, and balls). You earn coins by playing games and improving your skills. You can also sell items. The easiest way to build a team with good chemistry is to target players of the same nationality, league and/or team. While the Wayne Rooney’s of the world are incredibly expensive, you can find the rare deal on Van Persie or other highly rated players occasionally poaching a bid at the last second. EA hits all the major internet addition points with FIFA 14 and will do so again next year because they made it fun and we keep coming back for more.

EA has also updated the EA Football Club iOS companion app for iPhone and iPad. It allows you to manage your club while you are on the road. Everything from buying packs of cards to transfers (auctions) and squad lineups are at your fingertips in this free app. It’s a great little bonus to keep you occupied during lunch breaks at work. Unfortunately the FIFA 14 iOS game is completely separate from consoles so you can’t transfer games or FUT teams between devices. Though it also has Ultimate Team and many of the console features, it’s still a completely separate experience.

FIFA 14 is nearly a perfect sports game experience on Xbox One. The only clear failing in FIFA 14 is the complete lack of women’s teams. Given the Women’s World Cup will be in Canada in 2015 one would expect EA Sports Canada to be working on this long overdue feature for FIFA 15. Even if it’s just a few women’s national teams, it is just time. The addition of women players in Creation Centre would open the gates for a wealth of user created teams from past college, club and national teams. After all, there really isn’t much more EA can do to make FIFA better. They might as well give the users the tools to make something even more special.

While small and mostly superficial, there is no denying that the improvements to FIFA 14 on the Xbox One help make an already great game even better.  Improved stadiums, crowds, and presentation elements help immerse you in this multi-cultural sport while a larger library of dynamic animations help keeps things looking fresh and much more realistic.  Improved AI will deliver more challenging gameplay and force even the most seasoned of players to up their game, and for those who already invested in FIFA 14 on their Xbox 360, EA is providing an easy and affordable upgrade path for not only the main game, but all of your season and Ultimate Team data.

FIFA 14 is one of those rare sports games that has something for every soccer fan, from quick skill games to full league simulations; and all of them with fully licensed leagues and teams.  FIFA 14 is still one of the only franchise games where I actually felt like I got my money’s worth and didn’t really mind putting down a few more bucks for additional Ultimate Team items. It doesn’t get better than this for any soccer fan. FIFA 14 on the Xbox One is the best, most complete sports game you can currently play on this new generation of consoles.

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Call of Duty: Ghosts Review – Xbox One

 

Back for my fourth and final review of Call of Duty: Ghosts, this time we are checking out the Xbox One release, possibly the most anticipated version of all the platforms, new and old, yet sadly the most lacking.  While decisively better looking than last gen versions, the Xbox One fails to compete with either the PC or the PlayStation 4 when it comes to overall presentation and the Infinity Ward’s promise of 1080p/60fps gameplay.  I’m not sure if this was due to limitations within the Xbox One hardware specs or if Activision rushed the game out to meet Microsoft’s system release; which in hindsight also seems to have been rushed.

Call of Duty: Ghosts is a new direction for the series that abandons historical war scenarios as well as the Modern Warfare canon of stories and characters. Infinity Ward is heading up this latest project that includes a gripping story mode and enough new online content (now and in the future with the Season Pass content) to keep couch commandos playing until next November.

Eight years ago Call of Duty 2 marked the debut of a new generation of console when it released as a launch title for the Xbox 360.   Infinity Ward is once again banking on an entirely new generation of console to help celebrate their most ambitious game in the franchise to date, and with versions of the game spanning last-gen, this-gen, and PC, it’s been quite the challenge to find all the subtleties when trying to compare and rank these Call of Duty: Ghosts.

Given the fact that the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are pretty much glorified PC’s, it was no surprise that the graphics on both new consoles have a lot in common with the PC, but there are also some glaring issues specific to the Xbox One.  In order to keep their promise of 60fps gameplay, the Xbox One version of Ghosts is only rendering at 720p and then being upscaled to 1080p.  This seems to be happening in many of the Xbox One launch titles, and during the upscale process the system is applying some sort of sharpening filter to assist with the post-process anti-aliasing.  Translation – the game is already jaggy from the upscaling and the sharpening process only accentuates the effect as well as producing an overall grain to the image.  Ironically, the game looks considerably better if you change your Xbox One to output a native 720p signal, thus elimination the upscaling effect.

The new Xbox One controller will take a bit of getting used to, especially if you’re like me and have been using an Xbox 360 gamepad for both console and PC gaming for the past seven years.  I’m still not quite used to the floppy analog sticks and their weak return-to-center.   I tried putting on my new Kontrol  Freek stick extenders, which has always helped with my precision aiming, but the sticks just don’t feel right.  I guess I have seven years of thumb muscle memory to overcome.

There is a companion app that you can download for your iOS device that will enhance your online games by allowing you to queue up new weapon loadouts and view level maps in a second screen mode without having to pause your game.   You also get a nice 3D model of your soldier as well as real-time stats, friends’ updates and clan notifications.  Many of the features can even be accessed when you aren’t playing the game, but just want to check in with the community.

While most people are into Call of Duty for its online multiplayer I always head to the story first because if anybody can tell an explosive wartime drama its Infinity Ward. Their latest opus kicks off in the immediate present with a recounting of a legendary group of warriors known as the Ghosts. The opening cutscene, along with all of the other between-mission videos are presented in this stylish grayscale animation that is simply gorgeous. As the opening narration ends we realize that the story is being told by Elias, a seasoned veteran out on a hike with his two sons, Logan and Hesh. As they start to head home tremors start to rock the hillside. What at first appears to be an ordinary California earthquake is actually an attack on our country from an orbital weapons platform.

The scene quickly changes to 15 minutes prior and we find ourselves in one of the most visually striking levels in the game; in orbit working on the space station near the Odin weapons system. Yes, the game takes necessary liberties with inertia and such, but the effect is still jaw dropping and not unlike the movie Gravity. The station is quickly occupied by hostile Federation forces, and they program Odin to launch a series of kinetic rods at key targets decimating the United States.

With the exception of one flashback episode where you play as Elias, most of the game centers around you and your brother and your faithful and extremely talented dog, Riley taking the lead roles in the resistance movement to keep the Federation from dominating the USA ten years in the future. Riley is arguably one of the most touted new additions to Ghosts, and also one of the most talked about by fans, but not to steal any of his canine thunder or detract from his contribution to the few levels in which he appears, Riley is more of a novelty than anything else. I would compare him to a quadcopter drone; albeit one that can rip a man’s throat out. I had my fun issuing the occasional “attack” order and even playing as Riley in those few instances where I got to sync with his high-tech doggie gear, but ultimately, I felt Riley was underutilized. Why wasn’t he sniffing out bombs or fetching me better weapons from fallen enemies like in Dead to Rights. I have to admit that I was a bit nervous throwing that first grenade since the first time we see Riley he is playing fetch with a tennis ball.

As expected, the story is a massive non-stop rollercoaster ride of action set pieces and dramatic moments that will leave you physically and emotionally exhausted; especially if you try to marathon the 8-10 hour campaign in a single session. You’ll be fighting in space, under the ocean, on land, in the jungle, in the snow, and even in the air as you dangle from a skyscraper or take control of an attack chopper to provide cover for your ground forces, and then start swapping back and forth between the two. There are 18 pieces of intel called Rorke Files; glowing green laptops, and while none of these are particularly well-hidden you will need to keep your head on a swivel to find them all. These files can be accessed from the main menu after you find them. Call of Duty: Ghosts offers the usual selection of difficulty options, and as before the Recruit and Normal modes are disposably easy, while Hardened offers a decent challenge and Veteran will test your FPS mettle and reward you with an achievement if you can complete the campaign on its hardest mode.

Zombies are out and aliens are the new hotness in Ghosts. Extinction mode is an additive and challenging game designed for 4-player co-op but can be tackled alone – just don’t plan on getting too far. The game operates under the premise that aliens arrived on the planet around the same time as the Odin strike and now there are all these hives sprouting up. It’s your job to drill into these hives and destroy them, but naturally, once you start drilling these dog-like lizard creatures start attacking in waves. You need to defend (and possibly repair) the drill until the hive is destroyed and then move on to the next. It’s basically one big survival game to see how long you can last and how high a score you can post on the leaderboards. Naturally, you’ll earn cash for kills and for completing bonus objectives during the waves and you can spend that cash on better weapons, more ammo, and even portable gun turrets. Extinction puts a heavy emphasis on tactical teamwork by having players choose from various starting loadouts like Assault or Medic then supporting each other as you try to cleanse the map of the alien infestation.

Multiplayer is the meat and potatoes of Call of Duty, but Ghosts dares to change up the menu with some new entrees and side dishes. Character customization has been greatly enhanced and now allows for female players along with a host of other customization options, most of which must be unlocked. Squads is the new buzzword and this new feature allows you to test the online waters before diving into the full online experience with friends and bots. You start by picking a character. One is open at the start and nine others can be purchased using squad points (SP). New squad members range in cost and initial appearance, and the more expensive they are the more perks, better weapons, and weapon mods come with their initial loadout. Each character levels up separately, but your earned SP can be used to enhance any character in your roster by purchasing new perks, weapons, and attachments. Squad Points are a bit slow to come by, so I can see it taking hundreds of hours to earn enough to unlock everything Ghosts has to offer, but you should be able to fully deck out a single character in 30-40 hours of play. While you can only have one “active” squad member for online play at any given time, you can assign non-active squad members to be used in bot matches against another human player and their squad-bots.

Ghosts returns the online experience to something a bit more reserved and “normal” with tweaked kill streaks like Sat Coms instead of UAVs. If you work as a team and setup multiple Sat Coms in multiple locations they provide better results and are harder for the enemy to wipe out. Oracles provide temporary awareness of enemy locations in the first-person view and not just the map, and you can even earn your very own attack dog, which will alert you to the enemy, attack the enemy, and even avenge your death.

Online modes like Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Kill Confirmed are back but some modes are missing and some have been mixed up a bit for this latest installment. Search and Destroy is now Search and Rescue, which I find encourages a lot more teamwork. Yes, you still only have one life, but if your team picks up your dog tag before the enemy does you can spawn back into the game. Infected is basically a last man standing game that pits a team of survivors with shotguns against a slowly growing number of zombies as each human dies. Hunted is a variation of TDM where everybody starts with pistols and fights as weapon crates are dropped into the area with better guns. Grind expands upon the Kill Confirmed mode by actually making you deposit your dog tags at designated locations to lock in the score. Blitz is a variation of CTF that merely requires you to reach the enemy base to score. There is no flag to retrieve or carry back, so it’s not very challenging or fun. And then you have Cranked; a crazy variation of TDM where each time you kill someone you get a 30-second speed boost, but if you fail to kill somebody else within those 30 seconds you explode.

Even weeks after launch there are still a few multiplayer issues; mostly in the areas of poor spawning and camping; the latter being more a fault of the lame attitude of gamers than the designers, but I guess we rely on Infinity Ward to police the campers. Team Deathmatch is the worst. A minute after the game starts everyone seems to have found their “spot” and woe to anyone who dares walk around. It’s very discouraging to newcomers who are just trying to learn the maps, which is why I recommend Squad play. The levels are massive this time around, which is both a blessing and a curse. 95% of the time you will never see the person who killed you because of all the various paths and flanking positions in these complex maps with multi-level buildings and vertical terrain that offer unprecedented cover. Ironically, for as many people complaining about the multiplayer issues in the various forums, there are a hundred times more just playing and enjoying the game as is, knowing full well it always takes weeks, perhaps months, to fine tune the online experience.

As always, the PCM surround audio presentation is outstanding and envelops you in the war. You play as Logan, the typical mute protagonist, but your brother Hesh is voiced by Brandon Routh (Superman Returns) and he has plenty to say. Some of the voice acting is better than others and the script relies on a lot of clichéd and overly dramatic moments and set pieces, but it all works and is what it is. Gun effects are exaggerated and nowhere near as realistic as those in the Battlefield games, but nothing about Ghosts is really striving for realism. The soundtrack is also exceptional, complementing the action when necessary but sticking mostly to the story points. The final credit song from Eminem was horrible and out of place with the rest of the game.

Call of Duty: Ghosts is sure to polarize a new generation of gamers as it goes up against not only its own controversial history, but tackles EA’s Battlefield 4 in the launch of not one but two new consoles. Ghosts is not without its faults but trying something new isn’t one of them. Gamers continuously cry for something new then complain when they get it. Infinity Ward has delivered a compelling single-player campaign that I couldn’t put down (and this was my third time playing), a delightfully addictive Extinction mode that I continue to enjoy on each new system, and some of the best eSports-quality run and gun military combat you can play online that will only get better over time.

If you already enlisted in a last gen copy of Call of Duty: Ghosts then it’s time to report to the PX for that $10 upgrade, but if you are coming into this game fresh then you may want to consider options like the PC or even PS4, as those two systems clearly outperform the Xbox One.   The upscaling just creates this unsightly “haze” over the entire experience, and the lower resolution will actually affect the draw distance and your ability to spot and reliably target enemies in both single and multiplayer modes.

No Call of Duty fan should miss out on Ghosts, but the Xbox One isn’t necessarily the best system to be playing it on.  I dare say, you’ll have a smoother and more enjoyable experience with a much larger online community sticking with the Xbox 360. What little polish the Xbox One offers in textures and details are swallowed up by the side-effects of trying to match the performance of a seven-year old console.  Too much, too soon, or simply rushed to retail; we may never know, but when you factor in the visually disappointing release of Call of Duty: Ghosts and the all but completely broken release of Battlefield 4 (so broken we aren’t even reviewing it) for the Xbox One, the console wars are off to a shaky start and clearly, FPS games won’t be the deciding factor in this launch battle.

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