Monthly Archives: November 2013

The New Consoles (with a slight digression on Default Platform)

Got into Toronto this past week, so I’ve now had the chance to try both the PS4 and the Xbone. Quick thoughts on each:

Xbone:

So I head into the Microsoft store to mess about with a Surface Pro. I see the Xbone display. I see it’s playing Forza and not-Panzer-Dragoon. I pick up the controller and play and…well…it’s basically an Xbox.

Seriously.

Yes, the graphics are somewhat better. But that controller still feels pretty much just like an Xbox controller. The finger rumble is sorta neat, though I found it distracting on Forza. I also like the weird angular trigger thing, which meant that you could easily two-finger the triggers. I’m absolutely down with that: I HATE four-fingering the triggers, always have, and likely always will. Since I’m not a huge fan of trigger-centric console game design anyway, though, it’s not a deal-maker or deal-breaker for me. Other than that, it’s just a 360 controller. You’ve used them.

Forza was “driving game”. Fun, convenient speed-up and slow-down lines, maybe slightly too realistic for my tastes, but that’s about it. We’ve been playing this since the PlayStation. Not-Panzer was Not-Panzer: you moved in a path and shot stuff, though it didn’t have that lock-on feature yet, and it didn’t have that classic Panzer aesthetic that made that series so damned good.

Of the two, I’d take Not-Panzer, though it made me pine for Panzer Dragoon Saga like you wouldn’t believe.

None of the weird TV stuff was available, so I have no idea how that works. Ditto with the Kinect stuff. I did scroll through the Home page to see what was there, though. I didn’t have time to see much, but what I saw was “lots of downloadable media bits”.

Verdict: Absent the weird media stuff…it’s an Xbox. Just, y’know, more so.

PS4:

I also head into the PlayStation store. (Toronto has a PlayStation store. Bet you didn’t know that.) I bellied on up to one of the kiosks and picked up that controller.

It’s not basically a PS3. The controller’s why.

No, I’m not one of those writers who whinges about the Dual Shock 3. I still chalk that one up to a review community that’s still just a wee bit too fixated on the 360 as the “default platform”, with everything else treated as a deviation from that default. The DS3 isn’t a 360 controller, so you read moans about how it doesn’t “feel right”. The PC uses a different kind of interface that’s more sit-forward instead of sit-back, so you read moans about how they “just want to play on the couch”. What it comes down to, I believe, is just the inherent conservatism of the community; they have a platform and ecosystem they’re invested in, and while they’ll venture away from it when they have to, but they’ll grumble the entire way.

The Dual Shock, a controller whose design nobody took issue with back when the PS2 was the Default Platform, just ended up the victim of that misguided conservatism.

But I digress.

That said, the new PS4 controller is, yes, better. The new wider shape and paddle elements are easier to hold, leaving your hands at slightly less of an angle. The L2/R2 triggers are definitely easier to use, since they feel like they’re travelling slightly farther and don’t feel as spongy as the old DS3 triggers or as flimsy as the 360 controller. (I actually preferred it to the Xbone controller, though I’ll still grant that nice  The concave design of the thumbsticks and slightly higher tension works, too. The touchscreen is a clever addition. The “share” button feels gimmicky, but it’s a gimmick I can get behind. I don’t have a problem with the DS3, but the DS4 is an improvement.

Playing Knack, though, showed that although things might control slightly differently, they just don’t look that much different. Launch games are never examples of the best a system has to offer, and they certainly aren’t usually gameplay powerhouses, but they at the very least are supposed to look different enough that you get that “Wow!” reaction. Every previous PlayStation had one of those: The PS1 had Toshinden, the PS2 had Dynasty Warriors 2 and Ridge Racer V, the PS3 had Resistance: Fall of Man…but the PS4’s big all-audiences exclusive, Knack, just didn’t have it. All those little parts were neat, but just made me think of a somewhat fighty version of good ol’ Katamari Damacy. Beyond that, it looked like an HD console game. That’s it.

There was a standout moment, though: Octodad: Dadliest Catch. Octodad on a controller works exactly as well as I’d hoped. It’s silly stretchy fun that has you maniacally swinging those sticks around like you’re back catching monkeys in Ape Escape on the PS1. It’s an utterly ludicrous concept that shows why indie gaming is so damned much fun, and seeing it up on display at that kiosk was a genius way for Sony to demonstrate that they’re as indie friendly as any console in industry history. It also kinda cements that whole “it’s utterly PC-developer friendly” thing. I’m still used to PS3 being the Weird System of the generation, like the Saturn or the Turbo. Having a Sony box be accessible after all this time is something to get used to.

Verdict: It’s not a PS3. It’s not even a PS2. It’s something new. It doesn’t look new, but between the controller and the sheer joy of Console Octodad, it feels new.

Sort of ironic that this ended up that way, and I might feel differently once I get a chance to play around with the Kinect 2. But there we are.

(Postscript: I don’t hate the Kinect concept, and truth be told, I don’t have a problem with MS or the Xbox, either. I like that the 360 gave Sony the kick in the ass they needed, and Halo’s good stuff. I just dislike the whole Default Platform thing. I have ever since it was the NES.)

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Hearthstone Impressions (And a wee bit of personal stuff)

It’s been far too long.

It’s been hard to write lately. I’d underestimated circumstances’ ability to affect one’s ability to sit down, focus, and communicate. Starting to think I’m a bit like Spider Jerusalem, who “never could write when [he’s] out of the city”. Urban and suburban/exurban life are more strikingly different than I’d ever known–and while I might still take up a standing offer to enjoy true rural existence for a little bit, this exurban exile reminds me of how much I appreciate and depend on the energy and vitality of the city.

I kind of sympathize with Andrew Ryan’s Periclean Bioshock slogan about how “all good things flow into the city”. An odd sentiment in a profoundly physiocratic country like Canada.  It’s still never felt truer.

(Oh, and if anybody from Bento Miso in Toronto reads this: I profoundly miss your space and the company I found within it.)

Anyway, I did get into the beta of Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. It’s been a great experience. It’s amazing how such a slight game has revived my bruised faith in Blizzard.

Why “revived”? Several reasons:

  • It shows that Blizzard still understands game design. Hearthstone takes the core of Magic: the Gathering, with its strategic-level deck building and tactical-level in-game card management, and removes a lot of the difficult and idiosyncratic elements that make Magic so hard to learn. Resources are straightforward, interrupts are kept to a minimum, and card effects are easy to understand. I’d never played more than a few hands of Magic, and I was up to speed in Hearthstone after a few games.
  • It shows that Blizzard learns from its mistakes. The Diablo auction house was an absolute disaster, a disaster that I’d identified over a year ago and that Blizzard is only now rectifying. There was real danger that a free-to-play game Hearthstone would be as blatantly “pay to win” as Diablo 3 had been. It was quite plausible that Blizzard would (once again) dangle the prospect of profit in front of their audience, creating yet another ultimately unsatisfying metagame.

That didn’t happen. You can get by quite nicely without paying for cards, and cards aren’t tradeable at all. You won’t make money playing Hearthstone, and you shouldn’t.

  • It reveals that amazing Blizzard polish. The game is beautiful. Screenshots don’t do it justice. Cards have top-notch art and animate beautifully: minions transform into gamepieces and drop onto the board with a satisfying “thunk”, while spells really animate and fly across the gameboard with every bit of the dazzle of the World of Warcraft abilities they were based on.

If anything, spells and abilities are almost better than their WoW counterparts.  Almost all are immediately recognizable, even if you don’t look at the description. That’s a lot more like DOTA2 or League of Legends, boding well for Blizzard’s newly retitled MOBA, Heart of the Storm. That’s probably why Hearthstone is rivalling those games when it comes to streaming popularity right now.

Yes, the game still has balance issues. Rogues were overpowered and Priests useless right before I got in, and from what I’ve seen, the reverse is now the case. (Though I’d hate to see them remove Mind Control, since it’s one of the most interesting effects in the entire game, and used to great effect in a way that it never was in World of Warcraft.) There are still too many classes that are near completely dependent on rare cards to be viable. And I feel that the way the matchmaking rating system works could stand to be a bit more transparent.

Honestly, though…those are minor issues and almost certainly why this beta is happening in the first place. They’ll sort ’em out. I, finally, have faith in them.

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