Star Wars Battlefront – Review

From the 17th to 19th Centuries, Nostalgia was thought of as a disease. If that’s the case then Star Wars is an epidemic. There isn’t a childhood memory amongst us that doesn’t involve Star Wars in some way, even if you aren’t a fan and your best mate over hyped it. But what’s incredible is that for many of us born before the late 90s, our fascination, our love, our passion and a canon of books, games, cartoons and toys all came from only 6 hours and 39 minutes of source material.

I point this out because Star Wars Battlefront takes from that time, at least in the core version before DLC. So when it comes to content that you can enjoy and play, the selections are limited. This has been well known and discussed. The majority of the mostly Online only game comes from the original movies experience and includes such levels as Hoth, Tattooine, Endor and the once mentioned Sullust (It has been mentioned in two movies but was cut from A New Hope, and has since been established in to the wider video game cannon).

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That’s not necessarily a bad thing but the lack of a cohesive narrative campaign doesn’t really give you an introduction to the levels or at what part of the story you enter them. Of course you already know so that’s not an issue, it’s Star Wars, everyone knows. But there’s a certain arrogance in that mindset and the game gives you the levels and just says “there you go, shoot everything.” I think that’s why I’m a little annoyed at the lack of a “story” mode, for want of a more descriptive emotional word. But in some ways the game is better for it. It doesn’t have that corny attachment to a certain sequence of events and is in many ways given more freedom to express the gameplay without the need to pick sides.

Which is what really should be the champion here because Battlefront is the best Battlefield game I’ve played. I have to admit that my earlier issues and problems with the game, the engine and the style are mostly unfounded. I’ve played the PS4 version but if the Xbox One release is anything like the beta was then I’m sure its visually awesome. The technical specs are that the Xbox is doing 720p, the PS4 900p, much like Battlefield 4, DICE’s last outing. But the main thing here is that they’ve refined the experience now so that they can achieve the 60fps they desired (with the occasional dip) and have the gameplay experience as close to the PC as is technically possible on these consoles. Which is a terrific achievement but it does show that the Frostbite Engine is definitely a powerful beast that requires much taming.

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The level design is not your average FPS level. Yes it has the various required elements but it is rather constricted by the source material and the size needed for the scale of the battles. As such, we get incredible lush foliage and startling snow, but we do lose a bit of a competitive edge when playing. Sullust on Walker Assault ends up with two or three flash points that are death funnels and the scale of the height means that vehicle play can be a tricky exercise in not accidentally dive-bombing into the arse of your own AT-AT.

The thing is that it doesn’t bother me and unless you are a serious, almost competitive level PC FPS player then it shouldn’t bother you at all either. What Star Wars Battlefront has nailed is the casual element of picking up, playing, having fun, putting down and returning in a few days time when you get the itch again. It’s not a constant must play-shoot-unlock guns-level up affair that so many others are and, quite honestly that will irk some players. But it does mean that it’s a game that won’t just jump off in to levels of frustrating play against people far more powerful than you. In this regard, its very nicely balanced with a small range of weapons and grenade/special gun loadouts that best serve you rather than being ridiculously overpowered.

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In fact, the only thing that does make the game unbalanced in places is the level design in certain game modes, although that really depends on how the rest of your team do, as you might have found out if you played the beta. The best way to play this of course is with friends and the co-op wave modes are great and frustrating fun, even on local split screen and the drop to 30fps. But it harkens back to the days where AI wave games were basic and fun, and I honestly haven’t had as much fun in this kind of mode since Halo 3: ODST’s Firefight. The challenge of continuously using active reload is great and the whole gun play feels as loose and wild as the movies have always portrayed.

The other problems come from a lack of spaces and map choices. Each map for each type of game does feel suitably different given the same location but it still can get a bit predictable after the tenth go around. Sullust in particular comes up way to much and doesn’t really offer a lot in enjoyment either, and it is totally a homage to the various locals from the prequels they couldn’t do (think Geonosis and Mustafar). This could have been a problem in taking the cue from the original movies as it really limits the actual planet surfaces you can use. Although who wouldn’t have loved some modes in Cloud City or even inside Jabba’s Palace.

But the veneer of Star Wars is what will entice you to this game. Not even the music but the overall atmospheric, despite some naff voice work here and there. It’s the clean and easily relatable gloss that the franchise has the power to do. But what that actually takes away from slightly is how good the base game is underneath it. I don’t know if it’s that both serve the other very well, or even if the modes would work as well without the franchise, but the marriage of both has made an excellent experience. Take away the franchise and the title and DICE have done something very good by giving us a game that is a “return to basics” simple multiplayer game and it excels because of that.

Summary

Star Wars Battlefront provides the best, the easiest and the most accessible pick-up-and-play multiplayer shooting experience on this generation of consoles. Its simplicity is enhanced by its smoothness and by really good optimisation of the Frostbite engine. This isn’t a big competitive Call of Duty type game, and that will put a lot of people off, most notably on PC. It is a video game for genre fans who might not really be as hardcore as most FPS fans and if you are the latter, you’ll see why you need to play it in moderation. The lack of a story mode and maps, along with some occasionally too open level design is the only criticism in an otherwise great casual shooter.

Good Points

  • Easy pick up and play
  • Looks beautiful
  • It’s Star Wars

Bad Points

  • It doesn’t have much to offer hardcore FPS players
  • Lack of maps, or held content for DLC
  • Some of the levels aren’t that well designed

Why an 8?

In truth this is a hard game to score because it’s such a subjective subject. Is this a good FPS game? Yes for the more casual/younger player. Is this a good Star Wars game? It looks great but in actual Star Wars content, probably not. Is it short lived? Well that entirely depends on how you play it. There are so many variables but I’m constantly being drawn to the fact that DICE have created a brilliantly accessible game in a genre that can really be dominated by die hard players and difficulty extremes and successfully whacked one of the worlds most popular and enduring franchises on it seamlessly, and still kept it fun.

 

This review is based on the PS4 version of the game.

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Gamescom 2015 – Day One


It’s been an interesting 24 hours here in Cologne. Europe’s premier games conference and industry trade fair is buzzing with people. Today is the calm before the storm where industry and press get to see some things before the peoples of Europe come and wreak absolute carnage. How much carnage? Well the organisers are expecting around 400,000 people approximately. That’s just under the population of Cardiff.

We start today with yesterday. Xbox’s annual briefing gave us some new glances into things we’ve been waiting for, such as Halo 5 Guardians, and Rise of the Tomb Raider. The latter of which we were treated to a secondary demo of after the breifing. Lara Croft’s adventures seem to follow the exact same system and style of the 2013 remake. Some have criticised it for being and Xbox exclusive (which we now know it isn’t after Winter 2016) and that Lara was a bit too indestructible. Honestly, whilst she certainly takes some pubishment, you don’t feel that she’s immune to the physicality she endures. The game has a frenetic and terrifying way of creating urgency in how you react against obstacles and big crazy events like collapsing caves. It does look good and we can hardly be critical for wanting more of the same and getting it.

Crackdown 3 appears to be the most technologically progressive out of the games we’ve been shown. The use of Microsoft’s cloud servers in delivering a better in-game experience is nothing new (we found out last year that Dead Island 2 was due to use the system). But there doesn’t appear to be a game that has ever been so reliant on it. The 100% world destuction is an ambitious ask for a console that has begun to find its gaming feet but it raises some questions. Will this be unplayable offline, will this be reliant on server connections being stable, will the amount of players cause lag and issues? The 4 player co-op sequel is in the pre-alpha stage so it’s going to be a while but what we’ve seen is impressive. The 100% destruction is based on actual construction with elements in the buidlings. There’s no empty shells with textures, every shatterd pane of glass, broken concrete, collapsed steel pillar and brick is a physical element in itself, with each building being based on its own server as to not interrupt gameplay. The demo we saw with ultimate destruction used 12 servers in addition to the Xbox One. Is it too ambitious? We’ll see next year hopefully.

We saw new game Scalebound (a rather jaunty hack and slash with dragons), debut some gameplay, and we saw some almost blase news that Cities: Skylines (the Sim City rival/usurper) will be making it’s way to the console. But the biggest new annoucement was a sequel we were all hoping for and from a studio that we really should have predicted. Halo Wars 2 is coming and it will be developed by Total War studio Creative Assembly. I for one am sad that it isn’t in house with a reformed Ensemble Studios but I’m more exctactic that it exists with a studio that has such pedigree.

Quantum Break was given more of an outing and we saw an expansion of the third person gameplay to something that looks quite like a rival to inFamous and the like. Remedy studios appear to be brilliantly keeping their TV style presentation for the game with Aiden Gillen (Game of Throne’s Littlefinger) sticking to one accent alongside a great cast. The gameplay does look excellent but we need to see some more, less demo-y gameplay now, and maybe even some hands on time.

We also had DVR announced (if you have that much memory left then teach me your ways), a new keyboard peripheral and backward compatibilty for Games with Gold. So your Xbox 360 Games with Gold from now on will be playable on the Xbox One. None of your previous ones sadly and there’s no telling how that’s going to limit the game choice but apparently everyone is on board so, we’ll see.

The next morning EA held a conference which, from the social media reaction, hasn’t really been well received. We have more news on FIFA 16’s Ultimate Team mode, a new Sims 4 expansion, some Mirror’s Edge gamplay, some Need for Speed and, most importantly, a new trailer for Star Wars Battlefront. To be honest, we weren’t expecting much from EA than what they had already announced at E3, with a new Battlefield game being slated for 2016. I personally didn’t see it as I was busy checking out Dark Souls 3 (a preview of which will come next week) but here’s the trailer for Star Wars Battlefield.

We also has a press conference from Blizzard which introduced new characters to Heroes of the Storm including the monk from Diablo, along with some gameplay refinements. We also saw a new standalone expansion to Starcraft 2, Legacy of the Void, new Hearthstone cards and more news on Blizzard’s first person shooter, Overwatch, including new maps and their 16th character – carnival loving Brazillian Lucio.

There’s still some noise to come from Blizzard with the reveal of the new World of Warcraft expansion and I’m going to be deep in halls checking out all that I can so stay tuned to our Twitter for more and more reports over the next week.

[author]

Battlefield Hardline – Review

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“Sir, Mendoza’s last run in the field, no offence, was a total clusterfuck.”

It’s hard to not see Khai Ming Dao’s first critique of her new partner as a tongue in cheek look at the last Battlefield outing. Battlefield 4 was one of the titles badly affected by EA’s 2013 of discontent… Ok it wasn’t really called that. But Battlefield 4’s online issues and subsequent board and legal battles are well documented. Enter in to the fray 2015’s Battlefield Hardline. A game in itself that was delayed twice after an arguably poorly received Beta last year.

[Nick Mendoza - Greener than a field of grass in the spring time]

[Nick Mendoza – Greener than a field of grass in the spring time]

Rolling the DICE this time around is Visceral, a studio best known for the Dead Space series (although they also had quite a run of 007 games in the past). And as a departure from the more futuristic armed forces based gameplay, we enter the world of the Miami Police Department and their never-ending war on drugs. Nick Mendoza, a police detective who is also a refugee of Cuba, comes fresh faced in to the department and starts by helping to botch a simple search with his partner, Stoddard, stumbling upon an worrying development in the cocaine trade. Nick then gets partnered with Kelly Hu’s character, Khai Ming Dao, and the two unearth worrying revelations about the force they work for as well as the drugs trade they’re trying to curb.

I’m not giving away any spoilers, although you have probably guessed at this point that Nick ends up as a prisoner and there’s a lot of shouting and comedic lines. That’s because they’re all in the trailer. To be perfectly frank, despite the TV presentation, this is just a B-movie script. You’d see this plot in the summer movie list starring someone like Jason Statham or the never-ending ream of former SNL comics who straddle the action movie/funny man circuit. It’s an entertaining don’t-think-too-much romp of gratuitous gunfire, explosions, criminal underworlds and broken trust. In fact the only thing missing from its action movie stereotype is some pathetically carnal whimsy between the main characters. Although you will get you comical tech wizard sidekick and his crazy Ex who you’d never have pictured him with – literally ticking all the boxes of a mindless audience approval screening for a formulaic American TV detective show.

[Press X to administer Savlon to wound]

[Press X to administer Savlon to wound]

There is something with the episodic format that works though. It worked very well for Alan Wake, it’s worked very well for TellTale games although that’s become more strained as they become more generic in their design, and Battlefield Hardline is no exception. However, because the whole game is there from the off (as in you don’t have to wait months for DLC or the next episode) and you could easily complete the story within a days gaming, you could very well miss these nuances. The “Next Time on…” and “Previously on…” segments simply don’t exist unless you save and quit out of an episode. All of the little nods to the popular TV formats are there, from characterization, multiple layers of intrigue, secrets, lies, etc, etc. But it doesn’t make a game. It makes for some entertaining cut scenes and moments but the gameplay of Battlefield doesn’t really match it. And personally I can find it quite jarring when the 30fps cut scene changes in to the 60fps player controlled shooting time.

The mechanic in the game is the ability to be non-violent. The reward for not spraying bullets into a zone is that you can unlock and upgrade weapons, attachments, etc, for arresting people rather than mercilessly capping them. In effect, the reward for being a pacifist is that you unlock newer, more customisable, shinier ways to kill people. Once you’ve hit level 15 and you’ve found all the case files to unlock everything, that’s it. With the recent issues with policing in America and what is seen as a militarisation of the force and a reduction in accountability, there’s probably been better times to release a game where a major part of the gameplay is arresting, or killing several unnamed Latino racial stereotypes for bonus points. But once you’ve earned those points, the hypocrisy can begin and you can start playing the game the way first person shooters are meant to played – Like a mindless, bloody, hilariously over the top, unaccountable hero: Utterly empty

[I know it's American but I want a Swag bag, not loot]

[I know it’s American but I want a Swag bag, not loot]

In that regard, absolutely nothing has really changed in the game since Battlefield 4, at least not for me. Yes, there’s been little changes to the gameplay here and there, the removal of grenades from the single player changes the game into a bit of a Metal Gear Solid stealth simulator (albeit a pretty poor one), but very little actually changes the game or how you play it. The graphics on the Xbox One version run at a lowered 720p so that the frame rate can be consistently hit. The PS4 version does run at a higher resolution, but a lot of the game is, simply, quite messy. Certain areas are graphically very poor, which isn’t surprising given the resolution. But the textures at times are shoddy, the aliasing is abysmal and the whole thing plays like a faster frame rate past generation game, and not the HD re-release kind. Yes there are some awesome moments in the game that take in sound and visual cues like the hurricane hitting the mall, but for the most part it really is sub-par. I’ll be honest, I’ve not been impressed with EA’s flagship engine. The Frostbite 3 engine seems to be either beyond the capability of the consoles it’s running on or no one knows truly how to get the best from it. In fact the best game using the engine so far has been Dragon Age: Inquisition. Hardline is most definitely not a good advert for the engine, away from the high-end PC hardware acceleration.

The graphical difference is very clear in the multiplayer modes. Battlefield’s multiplayer relies on not being graphically heavy so it can withstand the big team nature. Personally, I find the amount of people and the utter chaos utterly confusing and frustrating. The now tried and tested CSGO style of earning money and unlocking weapons and bonus packs is in full force here but those feel incredibly difficult to achieve thanks to how tough the early level options are to use. The game modes, mostly variants on Capture the Flag and Control game types slightly amended to suit the policing theme, are fairly obvious rehashes of normal game modes with swanky names and aren’t a massive departure from Battlefield’s past. Whilst it can’t graphically hold a torch to Call of Duty in these modes the more realistic and frenetic gameplay does aid certain game types, but only once you’ve racked up multiple deaths in your effort to level up. At least a lesson has been learned from the previous release and the servers are plentiful and fully operational. The benefit of having what is essentially a good, competitive multiplayer environment is that the infrastructure is finally there to support it. And for all its entry-level difficulty, once you do get some success and push on through the levels it can be very enjoyable. Much like many other recent online games, it benefits a lot more from having a group of friends that are all in on the action and playing regularly.

Whether or not it is the right time to release a game based on heavily armed police forces full of corruption against a nameless, seemingly replaceable, throng of Hispanic and Latin organised criminal gang members is slightly contentious. But it’s recent events that have dictated that the game can be perceived as insensitive, not the initial conception and plan that must have been drawn up 18-24 months ago. Sadly the game hasn’t really improved or built much upon any lessons within that time since Battlefield 4. For all of the criticisms, the beta feedback and the delays, the game hasn’t grown like, and it’s a bad comparison, Call of Duty has in the recent years. In fact, its distance from Activision’s franchise in the release cycle has certainly brought more of the series’ faults to the fore, at least more so than normal. This one is certainly for fans of Battlefield’s multiplayer and is definitely focused to capturing an audience that is willing to dedicate time and form groups to play it, much like its PC online FPS cousins. For the rest of us though, it’s a short-lived action romp and getting the box set of The Expendables movies could better scratch that itch.

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[tab title=”Summary”]

Battlefield Hardline excels in what it does best. Which is really frustrating for the game as it spends a long time trying to avoid it – That being the frantic shooting of all manner of bullets against the enemy. The police drama is a good enough B-movie and the style certainly works as a format but the content holds very little for video games like this. A consistent and functioning multiplayer hides a game confused between a pacifist setting and a all guns blazing FPS format.

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[tab title=”Good Points”]

  • Interesting change in game focus
  • Multiplayer is fully functioning and well supported
  • TV style and Episodic format works very well

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[tab title=”Bad Points”]

  • Incredibly poor graphically for next generation consoles
  • The usefulness and novelty of hypocritical non-violent gameplay wears off quick
  • Very little improvement on Battlefield 4

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[tab title=”Why a 6.5?”]

This game has tried to change the landscape a bit. It hasn’t been too overly brash about itself or claimed itself to be a new frontier in gaming. TV episodic tropes are tried and tested. But beneath the good intentions lies a game that is incredibly hypocritical of its pacifistic direction due to its FPS roots, a game that is graphically shoddy and a difficult multiplayer for entry-level players. It is at least stable and works, but all in all is confused and lacking.

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This review was based on the Xbox One version of the game.

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[author]

Are too many games broken on release? Discuss!

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Broken games aren’t anything new, although it does seem that we have had a glut of them in recent months. Assassin’s Creed Unity looks set to join the post-development woe befalling Halo’s Master Chief Collection and DriveClub. But has it always been this way for games to be released with problems?

In a word, yes. Sadly the game medium and the ease publishing downloadable updates to consoles have seen game publishers rigidly stick to their release dates in order to fill their quarterly reports, at the expense of bad press and consumer dissatisfaction. It feels all too apparent in recent times though. Here are a few reminders of the last 12-18 months of game release failures. [divider]

SimCity

brokengame1 Those who recall the long wait for a £60 pound persistent online game only to find that they were only persistently trying to connect to EA’s servers will lament this well. It was made even worse for Mac users who had to not only wait an age for their release but for the problems to be solved as well. Was the game broken? Well there were parts of it that were, and certainly still are. A new engine and new AI was being patched quite a lot in the end to stop itself from doing silly things but for the most part (apart from the always online design flaw and small development areas) the game was fine. But the release of the game turned into a complete farce for EA.

Given that the game was “always online” and there was no offline mode, it was the lack of servers that surprisingly foiled EA’s release. The back end infrastructure they had in place couldn’t handle the amount of people who were wanting to play, nor the data it was supposed to store, leading to a long process of issues, apologies and modifications. EA had to give away a free game, Maxis had a tail between their legs and had to release certain things for free that would have made good DLC and they had to implement an offline mode after the mod community showed how easy it was to implement. Never one to be bested by such setbacks, EA did exactly the same thing six months later…

 

Battlefield 4

brokengame2 The release of Battlefield 4 actually started a lawsuit against people who appeared to be raising the game’s praise to shareholders erroneously in order to generate satisfactory financial reports. But us gamers don’t care about all that suit nonsense, we care that once again, EA’s servers were not up to the task of online play. Bugs galore as people could run around with no health and kill you, the promise of big destructible landscapes and buildings were hard to find, lots of graphical glitches and all this was only an issue if you could even connect to a server in the first place to play the game.

Personally, I found Battlefield 4 quite uninspiring as a single player game although I enjoyed the online play as by the time I’d got to it, the multitude of patches and fixes had been implemented and the multiplayer game was playable. But around its launch, very public and very damning issues beset it. Exactly who is to blame here is tricky as there seems to be quite the administrative level fallout over this, but EA once again were at the centre of the storm and directly addressing it calling the situation “unacceptable”. Two bad online releases in a year is obviously the button pusher in the EA head offices. Speaking of fallout…

 

Fallout: New Vegas

brokengame3Ok, so this game goes further than the 18 months but still, it’s worth putting in here. This game was bugged from release. I know this, which is why it’s on my gaming rack still in its cellophane wrapping. As gamers, we tend to forgive Bethesda’s mistakes in game development because of all the things they get right in their games, but this game makes my little reminisce due to it being the most bugged of them all. Fallout 3 was not without its issues and PS3 Skyrim players will recall the game breaking memory issues and save deletions.

Fallout New Vegas also had the same issues and was prone to a multitude of crashes, textures not loading properly, framerate issues, characters running away, item and character clipping, characters heads doing strange things, incorrect gender character noises, to name but a few. There’s a big old list of all the bugs on the wikia page for the game and you could summise that this is why we’re waiting a long time for another Fallout game, or a proper Elder Scrolls successor. The engine definitely needs a lot of work to be up to the scrutiny of a new generation of consoles and maybe that’s why Bethesda are being quiet about it. But that hasn’t stopped them, oh no…

 

The Evil Within

brokengame4 Bethesda’s most recent release is a fine game. It looks excellent and has only the minimal of bugs, like the headless character bug pictured. It’s a survival horror treat that is worth the time and the day one patch. If you don’t have the day one patch however, the game is a completely different story. Digital Foundry did some snooping after a couple of reports of bad frame rates, but that was just the start of the horror. The out-of-the-box version of the game is a mess. The resolution of the game is a heavily upscaled resolution that is nowhere near the 1080p or 900p it’s supposed to be for the PS4 and Xbox One respectively and is stretched to fill the screen. It also suffers from massive framerate drops, the likes of which you’ve probably only seen on a heavily overworked Minecraft server.

The patch completely changes this to a playable game. But what gets me is that the developers had time to fix this for the release edition until the game’s release was brought forward a week (presumably to cash in before Alien Isolation came out). The patch, given how much it fixes, is a monumental effort by developer Tango Gameworks. It’s definitely worth checking out the videos that Digital Foundry put up as it really does highlight the issues the retail version of the game has. To release a game in that condition is simply just not cricket…

 

Ashes Cricket 2013

brokengame5 Yes these links are getting worse. But no worse than the only game in this piece that was actually removed from sale. It even made national news due to its failure. Ashes Cricket 2013 is probably the reason that you won’t see a cricket game for quite a long while. 505 apologised and issued refunds, Steam pulled the game from sale and the console versions didn’t even appear. Why? Because the AI was awful, the character models were missing key things (such as an animation for catching the ball) and the players ambled around in such a manner that Tecmo Bowl looked superior in playability.

Everything about this game was poor although the development was just as sketcky, moving to the Unity engine and then back again, being delayed twice and only released to try and cash in with its titular sporting series in Australia back in November 2013. All in all the story of this game is quite tragic really and just a cacophony of errors that will probably see Cricket languish in video game development hell, much like Rugby has for the most part in the past decade.

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The thing is that all games release with bugs and as console gamers, we probably feel a bit precious about it given that we expect for our £50-60 outlay a satisfactory and, above all else, a ready product. And releasing games into a retail environment (that includes all the digital stores too) that are effectively broken or heavily bugged, just to make the demands of agreed times and publisher’s quarterly estimates, is quite abhorrent. That maybe a slightly cynical viewpoint though as PC gamers of all ages will know that games can be and are regularly patched to combat these problems. They always have been and they always will be. But the fact that we’ve had quite a few big name problems within the space of a week is quite damming.

brokengame6 Of course Microsoft have always had this date due to the nature of its anniversary package for Halo and the game in all honesty is intended to be a much needed unit shifter for the Xbox One. In fairness to them, the single player element of the game is fine there are just a lot of teething issues for quite a vast and probably the largest options of a multiplayer experience to date. Assassin’s Creed Unity is suffering from a number of graphical glitches in character models as well as world clipping issues. The game has already irked some due to its drop from 1080p to 900p in what is perceived to be cross platform parity. But the game has quite the demanding and technically difficult task of simultaneously processing 10,000 AI controller non-playable characters so that the experience of the crowd is more real and genuine. It’s no small matter given the processing power needed for that and what the consoles can achieve at present with how new the technology is for developers. DriveClub’s issues just seem to be poor choices that have been made at a management level to the game’s infrastructure and, if we’re honest, just a complete shambles from pre-launch to now, which is a shame for Evolution Studios.

While these bugs are certainly taking away from the game experience, and do invalidate our confidence in a publisher to develop a complete package for our hard earned electronic wealth numbers, do they constitute such a breach of trust between the consumer (us) and the developer/publisher (them) that we should be up in arms, or should we just back off a bit? After all this is all new ground for everyone, right?

Please feel free to leave comments, post on Facebook or tweet @TheGameJar and let’s talk about this.

[author]

The Rising Cost of Add-Ons and DLC

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Somewhere along the line, we lost faith as gamers that we were getting all that we paid for. Downloadable Content (DLC) has become a sticking point for many consumers who believe part of the game they paid for has been held back so the publisher/developer can milk some more heard earned coin from your digital pocket. This is regardless of the price, although this in itself has become more of a sticking point since the Next Generation consoles and game development costs have pushed the price of games up significantly in the past 24 months.

It also seems the higher costs appear to be based around publishers Activision and EA over most other publishers. How do I get that? Well I could have done some very deep research but the truth is that I didn’t have to. Here’s a list of Season Passes on the PS3 Playstation Store… Yes, there’s a dedicated section for them:

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  • Call of Duty Ghosts – £34.99
  • Alien Isolation – £24.99
  • Defiance – £24.99 (It is worth noting that Defiance is now a free-to-play game)
  • Sniper Elite 3 – £24.99
  • Destiny – £34.99
  • Battlefield 4 Premium – £39.99
  • GRID Autosport – £24.99
  • Assassins Creed 3 – £25.99
  • Assassins Creed 4 Black Flag – £15.99
  • Little Big Planet 2 DC Comics – £19.99
  • Borderlands 2 – £19.99

 

I’ve only selected some here. There are a lot that are free or that have dropped in price like The Last of Us. But it is easy to see why people are beginning to get angry when they are paying arguably the cost of a new game (based on internet retail prices) for DLC. This is a new area for retail where the availability of internet speed has basically made the retail space redundant for them to sell this extra content and they can price it as accordingly as they want.

Why do I mention the retail space? Because before DLC was the done thing, it was Add-Ons. In some cases they are still called that but the distinction for me in the current gaming industry vernacular would suggest that Add-Ons are physical copies of this extra content. This is something that has been in gaming for many, many years. Sonic and Knuckles was one of the first physical game add-ons although this was also a game in itself. Westwood had several different releases for the Command & Conquer series. Heroes of Might and Magic, Grand Theft Auto: London 1969, Half-Life… The list can go on and on.

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The biggest cash cow for this is undoubtedly the one that completely changed the market. It didn’t give the game much extra other than things to use in the game, and some extra spaces but that didn’t stop its rise to being one of the most profitable franchises in gaming history. The Sims had seven expansion packs which roughly retailed around $24.99/£19.99 from what I remember (I am looking for confirmation on prices and will update the article if they come). The Sims 2 had eight expansion packs and ten extra content packs. Although these all did add things to the games, if you had them all you would have spent well over $300 on getting them all. It’s hardly EA’s fault really. They had a product that people were willing to throw monumental amounts of money at and they said “fair enough”, and provided them with ways to do that. Regardless of your thoughts on EA, it was good business. And if the cost of their packages had an effect on the industry and kept prices stable then it would have been great. I suppose you could argue that historically, additional content for a game in the form of an expansion pack, or more common nowadays a season pass, has roughly been around half or 2/3 of the original game’s retail price.

That is possibly the problem though. There doesn’t seem to be any industry standard as to what a recommend retail price for add-ons or DLC should be. Partially because the content can vary so much as to what you get and partially because the publishers have to decide on the offset of profit versus development cost recovery. That’s sadly just business, any business. Regardless if us as gamers want to hear it, we should know that behind the art we love is a business that needs to survive under the insurmountable pressure of rising costs and international market difficulties. Don’t worry, I’m not looking for an argument or defending any one company here, but it needs to be said that there is a business behind us being provided with this entertainment.

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The problem with that business is that the regulation on it appears to be quite sketchy. PS Store, Wii Store, Xbox Live are all digital retail spaces. Physical retail stores (supermarkets, specialist retailers, etc) will also sell this content by code card. So there must be some portion of this that has to be compliant with fair pricing across the board. But the consumer does seem to get a bum deal out of all of this. When you buy Battlefield and Call of Duty (the latter arguably having the possibility to have the best selling game of the year, as it always does), you are paying around $44.99/£38.99 on average for the retail game and now with the next generation, that’s more like $64.99/£59.99. You expect to pay some money for some extra content but the amount of content that these games are providing, with mostly extra maps and gameplay modes (which the game must be ready to support at launch otherwise it’d be a major code rewrite), can cost a massive amount of money to the consumer in total. That’s not to say that you don’t get a lot of extra stuff though. In the case of Call of Duty Ghosts from Activision, the Onslaught, Devastation, Invasion and Nemesis packs (the Dynasty map is pictured), gives you 16 extra maps and some extra weapons along with episodic content for the Extinction series. In the case of Battlefield 4 from EA there are five extra packs, China Rising, Second Assault, Naval Strike, Dragon’s Teeth and Final Stand, making an additional 20 maps, three new game types and a load of extra weapons.

So much is available that the season passes seems to be the obvious way to get it all for a cheaper price. In the case of those two games (you can see the prices above on the Playstation Store list for the most recent releases) the season passes are nearly the price of another game. These are all for extra maps which you have no idea if you’d enjoy and in a way are forced to buy in order to continue your full enjoyment of the game. Why? Because someone WILL buy them and so will many others and if that stops your online enjoyment with everyone playing the new stuff you haven’t got then you either buy it or ditch the game. In the case of Xbox and Call of Duty, and Playstation with Destiny, these expansions are mostly exclusive to that console and the expansions are the selling point. Which when you think about it is a completely ridiculous concept when you just want to buy a game and could arguably be damaging to the industry. But again that is just business. Look at how television handles exclusivity of certain shows/licences to get subscribers to their packages or advertisers to their viewers, and how that’s damaged the public broadcasting sector.

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The price of those season passes you could argue is roughly in line with the price idea I made earlier and that the model is still fairly accurate; Half or 2/3’s of the original game’s retail price. But in the case of these games, like Destiny, we have no idea what we are getting for these season passes and if they quantify the amount of money we’re spending on them for the entertainment value we receive, regardless of work being put in. The two Destiny add-ons that are coming don’t appear to give us new planets or places to visit, but additional missions and story in the existing worlds. In fact we know so little about them that our cynicism is being unintentionally qualified. Watch_Dogs was another example of not knowing what the game will give us. We have a few extra modes for the in-game mini-games and now a new single player story add-on. But how much content is there that takes the developer more money than was already spent on the game at launch? How much money are these companies looking to make from the post-launch additional content? And how justified is it to market your game or your console’s exclusivity based on these maps/modes/skins/extras? Our cynicism is based around a game already having the additional content spaces ready and that the content we buy is merely assets for it, updates for it or just a patch that unlocks it. Before when this content was physically brought, we were kind of assured that there must be more than we had before otherwise what would be the point in having a new disk for it?

The rising cost of Add-Ons and DLC can partially be paired to the rising cost of games in general. But as the internet and journalism has begun to open the debate on this, and the gaming consumer becomes like any other consumer in a tricky economic climate, that being incredibly savvy and questioning, the conversation is only just beginning. Also with certain games being re-released with everything included some 12-18 months later for the same price as the original game, or with updated graphics for the new generation as well, this will add more focus on what makes good sense to a consumer. With the Christmas period around the corner and the publishers needs to release games on a yearly basis to maximise profit, we’ll see how this new generation handles the consumer when we feel that we are not getting enough for what we’re shelling out. I predict that some games will be guilty of doing less with their content in this regard and we can probably make predictions as to who will be more guilty than others. But in the next 12 months we’ll see how people will react to paying nearly 75% of the cost of the game for extra in that game, and I’m sure we’ll find out how much of that could have been included at launch.

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Dragon Age Inquisition interview with Neil Thompson

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Dragon Age Inquisition is the new offering from Bioware in the franchise that has very quickly become a fantasy icon in video gaming. Sean got to sit down at EGX with Bioware’s Director of art and animation, Neil Thompson, and have a few words about it.

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It’s a very interesting art style compared to other Dragon Age games, especially with the Frostbite 3 engine. How did that come about?

Well the interesting answer is the adoption of Frostbite. We did the previous two Dragon Age games on a Bioware engine called Eclipse and I think it’s safe to say it was starting to show its age. We wanted to take Dragon Age Inquisition on to the new hardware and new generation. What does that mean? Well a lush, diverse and complex experience and there’s no reason why that shouldn’t apply to us like everyone else. We’d already seen what Frostbite was capable of with Battlefield and we wanted a piece of that.

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How has that approached how you create the game? Before the previous Dragon Age’s single player experiences very much in the Bioware theme and the characters and now it’s multiplayer and more open.

Multiplayer is one aspect of the game but the single player and multiplayer are still two different things. The single player experience is still an immense priority for us. We wanted to extend that single player experience, larger worlds, and better combat. You don’t allow the paradigm of the hardware or the engine to dictate what we wanted to achieve with the franchise. We wanted push the pillars of Dragon Age with a more open world experience, a larger or more diverse world. That’s what we wanted to use for the game because we felt it would be a better experience for the player.

The advent of the new generation consoles has come along at the right time for you to embellish that as well?

We are on all five consoles with presents a challenge in itself. But the move to the next gen has made the older generation versions better because of it. We try to satisfy the needs of the players across all platforms. We don’t want the last generation console owners to get less of an experience than the other console owners.

The art style has changed, partly because of the Frostbite 3 engine and you’ve been able to put new features in to the game like the tactical view. Tell us a little bit about how that came about.

Well it’s the result, not really of Frostbite option, but between the team and the creative director that they wanted that RPG experience. Origins and many of our games have that dynamic and I think it really enhances the combat. You can play the game with the traditional third person way and its fine. But if the challenge becomes too much you can always pause and think about it more strategically and from a party perspective. Rather than just playing from the one view.

Where did the inspirations of that mode come from and for it to be as seamless as it is, because you can see comparisons to MOBA’s and Warcraft?

Well I think Bioware’s inspiration goes back further to Baldur’s Gate and those top down RPG’s.

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The game is the third in the franchise, so you’re fairly well established with Dragon Age and what you do. There’s a lot of other games as well coming around at the same time with competition like Lords of the Fallen, Shadows of Morder, Elder Scrolls Online. How will your game go in that kind of market as it is very different and unique compared to what is there?

It is and what I think is good and that is positive for the Fantasy space market is that it is possible to sustain multiple franchises. And it just encourages strength across the board. Fantasy has had something of a revival in recent years with Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and stuff which is fantastic, a positive environment for fantasy and the games that inhabit it. So I think it’s great for everyone.

You say fantasy is having a bit of a revival, I’d say role-playing as well is having a renaissance. Dungeon’s and Dragons is back again with new rules, simplified. There’s a lot more indie gaming that’s using the mechanics. How do you keep things accessible when there’s a lot of other options and different things about?

It is challenging. I think you can’t be stuck in the position where you’re trying to please everybody. You end up diluting the experience so what we’ve tried to do is allow you to play Dragon Age the way you want to play it. If you want to get more in depth and in to the tactical side of things then you can absolutely do that. But if you are a more casual player and if you want to go through the narrative without getting as deep in to the ability trees then you can. What we’d like to see, if you are a more casual player, is that you get introduced to it and you just dip your toe in the more complex systems and if they enjoy it then they do.

With art & design, you’ve probably seen enough concept sketches to keep DeviantArt running for years to come. What kind of artistic inspiration do you take, how do you get that world created?

We try to go as broad as possible. We’re keen to have a broad palette for our artists, not just from the genre of games but from film, TV, architecture, fine art, contemporary art, sculpture, writing. You name it people are passionate about it and it provides the spark of creativity then it’s a wonderful thing. So we look very broadly with our inspirations.

There’s a lot of things that come from the games characters, how much of the classic Bioware character driven style is still in the game, given all the changes? 

It’s still incredibly core to the experience. You start with the narrative perspective, get the story outline, introduce the characters. Their personalities are explored and evolve right from the concept artist even before the 3D side of things. It is still absolutely part of it. Dragon Age Inquisition is a game about a vast and threatening diverse world and the people in that all have needs and desires and that’s key to the experience.

DAIINT4I suppose it might be a new thing for a Dragon Age game where you’re going in to an online world where the key is community. Destiny has shown already how many people, even on consoles, will form groups, discuss the game, play the game, etc. How do you see Dragon Age being received by the community like that, as the genre leans very heavily towards that kind of community?

I think Dragon Age and Bioware itself already has a very vibrant community. There’s no shortage of passion for the franchise. I hope Dragon Age will get people more involved and more emotionally interested in these characters and drive further conversation and further collaboration between fans and Bioware.

So what’s been your favourite thing so far in developing the game and what have we got to look forward to?

It’s hard to say, there’ve been so many things. It’s been a challenging development. Anything like this is difficult to achieve. I look at the final game now and I see how the design and the art has gelled in to the experience and I feel very satisfied and I and the rest of the team are very proud of it. We’re always working on new ideas and Dragon Age has always got more stories to tell. So there’s a lot more to come.

How about getting the Xbox One version up to spec with the PS4?

Game development is challenging, it’s always difficult. I think the key is trying to give the same level of satisfaction and experience across all the platforms so we hope to achieve that.

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Dragon Age Inquisition is due out on November 21st on Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4 and PC.

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EA Report – GamesCom 2014

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Back in to the big belly of the noisy beast that is GamesCom, we got a chance to see the EA briefing. And, if we’re honest, we were expecting bigger, right?

To start with, we were given some gameplay footage of Dragon Age: Inquisition (not the last offering from Bioware yet). It certainly looks good and the tactical view element of the game takes it out of the standard RPG gameplay a bit, almost in to turn based strategy. The idea is that you go around and kill things in order to build your army to save the world and if you kill those big things, smaller things will join you as you just made them redundant to their now deceased employer. The thing is, even with the Tom Hiddleston-sounding hero (I have no idea if it is him but it definitely sounded like him or at least channeled his Loki), it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot on offer that hasn’t already been offered by the series. Apart from the hours. The game looks set to be a big one with lots of dialogue and a story that at their last play through took 150 hours. Speed runners everywhere are going to enjoy nailing that down. Hopefully there is enough with the next generation platform and the story to really make the game different from its previous franchise siblings.

fifa15HOCKEY! Strangely NHL and FIFA were the only sports games on display, but NHL looks very, very good. It’s been good for a while but the next generation in consoles is allowing for a lot deeper resolution and authenticity in the arenas, much better physics for both the players and the pucks, fighting, and on screen presentation. Covered by American network NBC, we have two actual commentators giving to-camera links for the game, as in real life. But these aren’t computer generated guys, no they’ve superimposed these people from high def video recordings made for the game, which is looking so good now that it is apparently seamless integration. FIFA World had a game engine update and the biggest news to come out of FIFA 15 is that the goalkeepers have had an overhaul. New animations by World Cup hero Tim Howard and new AI should help the games get that little bit more juicy in the goal mouth… I’m never saying that again. The annoying thing is that America gets the game before the EU. Sorry Americans, I know you like it but it isn’t your sport as much as it is here and I don’t see why you have to get it early.

THE SIMS 4! Complete with Death coming to take dead people away. Death who looks like he came dressed from an Assassins Creed cosplay. Of course the game looks great and we were treated to a very long partially ad-libbed demo (Angela Merkel selfie anyone?) but it is The Sims. We know exactly what we’re getting. Cool social mechanics for the characters and the building options now can drag and drop whole rooms which is cool. Lots of fun customisation tools and no doubt a ream of DLC to last for the next five years. Fun, but lets move along please.

If 2013 was the year of too many Candy Crush-a likes then 2014 will be known for the abundance of MOBA. Dawngate is the new offering for the top down tactical destruction category that is taking the internet and competitive gaming by storm. I’d argue with how many we have that are also free to play, and now with Smite coming to console, if we really need this. I certainly saw a lot of people playing it after so maybe it will have more legs than I’m giving it right now.

Bioware not only gave us Dragon Age, but some new expanded content for Star Wars: The Old Republic (is the community still that jazzed for it after 4 years?) and finally their new IP. Console owners, go home. It’s PC time with Shadow Realms, a title seemingly made up of cool sounding Dungeons and Dragons areas. The comparisons don’t stop there as the game is a modern fantasy MMORPG where it’s four players verses one player as the bad guy. Think D&D (Think Evolve?). It looks like it could be cool and will be going in to a closed beta next month so sign up now.

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After the disappointment of Battlefield Hardline post-E3, this reveal could not be more different. In fact it is worlds apart from the beta we all played both in style and visuals. I heard a lot of Far Cry comparisons and the game is certainly trying to take itself away from the CoD competing big open battlefield stuff that it is used to. Very much walking down tight corridor stuff at times to be precise. But it looked very good and the focus on non-lethal adds a new dimension to the game. You can see its inspiration from modern television in the setting (big desert like Breaking Bad-esque areas) and the story whilst a bit hammy certainly goes in with the rebirth of the action hero. Lots to get excited about for next year and another beta will happen.

Do you have any thoughts on EA’s showcase at GamesCom 2014? Why not leave a comment on Facebook or tweet us @thegamejar and let us know.

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