From polished sequels to surprising new franchises, 2014 was a weird year in gaming.
Before we dive in to the list, a reminder that Ars Technica’s annual charity drive sweepstakes is still going on. Don’t miss your chance to win some great prizes while giving to a good cause.
2014 was a difficult year to pin down in gaming. A number of highly anticipated AAA blockbusters ended up letting down both critics and many players with horrible narratives (Watch Dogs), broken design (Assassin’s Creed: Unity), too-punishing difficulty (Alien: Isolation), or underwhelming repetitiveness (Destiny). A lot of the best games of the year actually came out in some form in previous years (Hearthstone, The Last of Us Remastered, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Grand Theft Auto V’s re-release) and thus didn’t feel like they belonged on a list highlighting what was truly new in 2014.
On the independent side, there were a lot of interesting experiments but few stand-out, bona fide hits that will stick with us the way Papers, Please or Gone Home have in years past. In the middle were plenty of games that were endearing (Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker), well-constructed (Shovel Knight), enjoyably brutal (Dark Souls II), or just plain silly (Goat Simulator). But most didn’t stand out enough to really represent the year.
So after much debate and discussion among the Ars editor brain trust, we’ve come up with this list of 20 games that we feel represent the best and most interesting titles of the year. It’s a bit of a mish-mash of titles with only a top few that really stand out above the rest as true classics. Still, these are the games we think people will look back on and remember when they think about the muddled past 12 months in gaming.
20) Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel
Developers: Gearbox, 2K Australia
Platforms: Windows, Xbox 360, PS3
Release Date: October 14, 2014
It’s easy to write Borderlands: The Pre-sequel off as just more of the same, a rehash of the two collect-a-ton-of-weapons shooters that came before it. I’d argue this wouldn’t be that bad even if it was the case. The Borderlands series has always joined solid shooting action with interesting, RPG-style level-up skills and mechanics, pithy one-liner dialogue, and an engrossing loot reward loop that’s constantly throwing out bigger and better weapons as a carrot to push you along. The Pre-sequel is no different in this regard.
But the latest Borderlands also brings its own twist, in the form of some intriguing low-gravity gameplay. The game’s new moon setting not only means you have to keep an eye on oxygen levels, but also that you can traverse the environments with long, languorous, floaty double jumps. Add in a powerful butt-slam attack, and you have a mechanic that completely changes the way gunfights play out compared to the first two Borderlands games, allowing for more aggressive, three-dimensional attack strategies that are extremely satisfying. It may not be the most original game on this list, but it was one of the most pure gaming experiences we had all year.
Alien: Isolation has its issues, but by-and-large it’s the best stealth game of the year and a stunning tribute to Ridley Scott’s universe.
“This is about survival!” a thin, twitchy guy named Axel yelled in my face, and it was at that very moment I knew he was going to die.
And he did. Like some sort of gruesome magic trick, an enormous spike burst out of Axel’s chest. He looked down at it with probably a great deal more shock than I did. I know the rules. I know you can’t say “This is about survival,” in a horror game without an ironic death shortly thereafter.
Apparently Axel wasn’t a fan of the genre.
Leave me alone
Alien: Isolation is in an intriguing position, coming as it does after the widely-panned Aliens: Colonial Marines. Much has been made of the fact that this is an Alien game and not an Aliens game. Sure, the two are part of the same franchise, but the film Aliens took the brooding survival horror framework of Ridley Scott’s original Alien and replaced it with bombast. (Yes, I’m sure you can tell I prefer Alien.)
And Creative Assembly made the most of that name. “It’s Alien, not Aliens,” they repeated over and over. Isolation was meant to shy away from the excess of Colonial Marines, instead opting for a tense first-person survival horror experience, replete with a deadly and (above all) smart alien that hunted poor Amanda Ripley around the creaking corridors of the space station Sevastopol.
It’s an excellent premise—reestablish the alien as a foreign and fearsome foe, cold and emotionless. You spend most of Isolation crouched, frantically crawling from hiding spot to hiding spot and hoping against hope you can make it to the next save point.
Since our last video game survey, the industry has undergone some major changes, including the debut of both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. But does that mean that mobile, PC, and Nintendo gaming have faded even further away?
We surveyed our game-playing readers again this year, and as it turns out, PC gaming has pulled ahead as the go-to platform. We also discovered that computer gamers are more prone to binge sessions, while Xbox 360 users are proving to be hesitant about the Xbox One.
Read on to find out more about the state of gaming in 2014.
PC Gaming Is Back
The most drastic change we saw this year was the comeback of computer gaming. A full 39% of respondents in 2014 told us they predominantly game on a PC, an increase of 13% since last year. That fits in with the industry-wide impression that PC gaming is experiencing a resurgence: video card maker Nvidia reported better-than-expected earnings last year, despite a decline in overall PC sales, and one study found that PC games generated more revenue than console ones.
PC fans have a right to gloat, as market analysts had been predicting the deaths of both PCs and their games for years. No one is entirely sure what reversed this trend, but many credit affordable and quality titles, like those regularly bundled by Steam.
What else surprised us this year? Check out the infographic below, as well as our analysis of the numbers.
Windows 8 may not excite some, but Mr. Martin makes a compelling case why even Windows XP may be unattractive
Windows 8 is proving to be a release much like Windows Vista for Microsoft Corp. (MSFT). Sales have been good, but not great, and the internet has been filled with hate. Lambasted by internet critics, Windows 8 has failed to push Microsoft’s user base away Windows XP.
I. A Game of DOS
The argument made by many is that Microsoft’s previous operating systems — Windows XP, or more recently Windows 7 – were considered the pinnacle of OS design. And those critics complain that the choices Microsoft made in its new operating system(s) was (or were) mistakes that regressed the utility of the product.
Author George RR Martin — perhaps the most prominent living master of fantasy fiction — has offered up an intriguing set of views on this OS debate. And while his views are a bit outside the mainstream, it’s interesting to see how they echo the opinions voiced by Windows Vista and Windows 8’s detractors, including the Windows XP-for-life crowd.
George RR Martin is a king of fantasy fiction. [Image Source: Nancy Newberry]
Fellow writers closely scrutinize Mr. Martin largely because he’s ascended to both commercial and critical acclaim with his seven-book saga A Song of Fire and Ice. Adapted into cable TV’s most pirated and perhaps hottest series — Game of Thrones — the storyline is currently in its home stretch on the book front, with Mr. Martin working on the final two novels.
UPDATE (08:51AM Pacific): Well, looks like Microsoft couldn’t wait until E3. They’ve gone and gotten rid of the Xbox Live Gold requirement and announced a Kinect-free Xbox One.
Talk about funny timing: Just last week our very own Mark Hachman was complaining that Microsoft still holds services like Netflix and Hulu Plus hostage behind its Xbox Live Gold paywall, essentially charging gamers a fee to use streaming video services that already charge monthly fees. This week, Ars Technica reports that Microsoft is going to stop charging you to access these services, citing “multiple sources within Microsoft.”
The change will apply to both the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, according to the report. Users of both consoles will be able to access Netflix and Hulu, among “other streaming media apps,” without purchasing a Live subscription (which starts at $60 per year). This would bring the Xbox in line with Nintendo and Sony’s consoles for streaming media access—Microsoft’s long been the only console manufacturer to charge for access to any of these services.
Microsoft’s hand has undoubtedly been forced by the increasing prevalence of alternative streaming methods: Since the Xbox 360’s introduction, video streaming has exploded and is now built into a wide variety of devices—from consoles to Blu-ray players to Google’s Chromecast to TVs themselves—for free. Since Microsoft wants its Xbox One to be your entertainment center, this change seemed almost inevitable.
The report comes as Microsoft gears up to launch its own original Xbox programming on June 13. Charging users to use rival streaming services while offering your own videos sans paywall would just be, well, wrong.
But wait! Before you get too excited, Ars Technica also reports that “Xbox Live Gold may put other services behind the paywall to make up for this shift.” No word yet on what those services might be.
This type of change would be big news, and thus probably held for Microsoft’s press conference early next month at E3. PCWorld and TechHive will be at the show to let you know about any major news as it happens.
You pay $60 for many of the new games you play, but how much does a blockbuster game cost to make? Although it is a seemingly simple question, it is actually incredibly difficult to answer. Of all the opaque video game industry questions, this is perhaps the most opaque. Many in the industry don’t even know the budgets of games. It is not unusual for developer working on a big-budget game to have no idea of the game’s budget.
Publishers and developers almost never release information on budgets of their games, and publicly traded companies just combine all of their production costs in investor reports, giving little insight into individual game costs. Most commonly, the numbers we see circulated are often guesses from writers or analysts. So budget numbers could vary wildly: one place might say $60 million, another might say $15 million.
When we do get specific numbers, it is often only the development or marketing costs, which do not necessarily provide a complete picture of a game’s entire budget of development, distribution and marketing costs. Also, specific numbers communicated to the public may not be accurate: like the film industry, it is possible for accounting to play tricks with budgeting to change the appearance of things. In 2009, EA executive Rich Hilleman indicated in a speech that his company “now typically spends two or three times as much on marketing and advertising as it does on developing a game.” This formula is not necessarily applicable to every potential blockbuster game—a \”AAA game\”, in gaming parlance—or to every company, but it is fair to say the break-even point for the average AAA game is well above the development budget. Companies also need to recoup marketing and other expenses.
There is no question, however, that the cost to make a AAA games in going up across the board. Last summer, when Kotaku editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo talked to Sony’s head of worldwide development, Shuhei Yoshida, about game budgets, Yoshida said budgets for top-tier PS4 games would be “slightly larger” than the $20 to $50 million price range he estimated as the development cost for “top PS3 games.” Four years ago, Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot estimated that the average production budget for the generation of games following Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 would be $60 million. In an 2012 investor report, Take-Two admitted some of its “top titles” cost in excess of $60 million for development alone.
Below, I have a list, pulled from public sources as a first attempt to get a comprehensive sense of how much money the world\’s biggest and most expensive games cost. All the information presented below comes from publicly available sources and all figures should be viewed with appropriate skepticism given the murkiness I described above, though I have tried as hard as possible to find numbers I believe to be accurate.
Eagle-eyed readers may notice the following list lacks some of the more prominent numbers from the past few years, and that is intentional—many of those are rather specious. Leslie Benzies\’ widely circulated $100 million development budget for Grand Theft Auto IV was simply an estimate, and according to The Sunday Times article the number came from, Benzies did not actually know how much the game cost and just “[hazarded] a guess.”
With that sort of admission, I can’t help but take The Scotman’s claim of a ~£170 million development and marketing spend for Grand Theft Auto V with a grain of salt. Following an incident in which The Wall Street Journal retracted claims that Starcraft II cost $100 million to develop, Chris Sigaty, a producer on the game, told Gamereactor that, unlike most companies, Blizzard doesn’t have any sort of set budget for their games, and spends as much as is necessary to make the games the company wants to make.
Here are budget numbers for a select number of games. When possible, I have indicated whether it is development, marketing or combined costs.
Of course, no next-gen launch is complete without a rundown of exclusive downloadable fare—who goes to stores anymore, anyway?—which brings us to the biggest Xbox Live-only games at launch. Xbox One has ushered in the $20 starting point for downloadable games (with one kinda-free-to-play exception), but from the look of these three games, that $5 hike might have come a little too soon.
The original Killer Instinct managed to somehow stand out from the slew of also-ran Western fighting games that rose and quickly fell during the mid-’90s. Amidst cartoony, violent, and weird experiments like Primal Rage, Clayfighter, Eternal Champions, and Mace: The Dark Age, Killer Instinct was a rare glimmer of so-called maturity from Nintendo, complete with fancy-for-the-time pre-rendered 3D characters.
It was the combos: so many 15-hit explosions dropped arcadegoers’ jaws to the ground while an amped-up announcer growled about “cah-cah-cah-combo breakers.” But that flash also hurt the game’s balance: the original arcade edition had glitches that, among other issues, allowed TJ Combo to easily win by way of infinite combo.
After a decade of corporate mergers, Killer Instinct is now a nostalgic ball of dynamite for Microsoft to dust off in the hopes of attracting old fans to a new console. If they do come flocking, they’ll delight in the old KI guard remaining mostly firm—what little of it there is on offer, anyway.
In this download-only game, only five KI veterans return, along with a single newcomer, and two more fighters have been promised in the future. In a cost-to-content sense, that might suffice; $20 is the starting price for the eight-fighter pack, compared to about two-dozen fighters in a standard $60 game, right? (There’s also a $40 version with more costumes and an emulated version of the 1995 arcade classic.)
The trouble is, KI doesn’t offer six particularly distinctive fighters at the moment. New character Sadira drives that point home. She comes equipped with hand-mounted blades and sticky spiderman webs, and she brings a few new aerial attacks to the series; hop in the air, then pull yourself towards your target with some sticky blades to slice and open combos. In practice, though, she’s more useful as an on-the-ground hybrid of Thunder’s brutal, spinning attacks and Orchid’s super-quick kicks.
But Thunder and Orchid don’t differ from each other, either, in terms of speed, power, and how they link “quick” and “fierce” moves to combo-smack the heck out of opponents. Most of the other characters (including low-floor sweeper Sabrewulf) also lack such fight-changing distinctions, and the omission of sluggers like Fulgore or TJ Combo is deeply felt. The only real distinct fighters are Jago—the series’ Ken/Ryu clone who can create space by way of fireball attacks—and ice-alien Glacius, who owns the entire screen with Dhalsim-like extendo-kicks and other warping moves.
New developers Double Helix certainly can’t be faulted for their efforts. The small roster is at least tuned for high-octane fighting at all times, which feels decidedly KI-like. The online battles have thus far been lag-free (at least in the pre-release period), and the fights are full of sharp character designs and screen-filling particle effects at a consistent 60 frames-per-second.
To their credit, the developers also worked out some longtime kinks in the series. You’ll be more likely to break combos this time around, reducing the number of buttons required to stop a seasoned expert. Also, a new “instinct” meter fills when you pull off things like combo breakers. Trigger it, and you get 15 seconds to regenerate health and reset your combo meter, which can make for a nice turnaround for newbies.
While I can’t speak for expert-level play (I don’t own an arcade stick and I rarely worry about things like special-move animation resets) I will say I felt comfortable with the special move systems and figuring out how to pull off combos, especially thanks to a robust “dojo” training mode, which also comes in the game’s free version.
But don’t let that free version (which allows for free access to a rotating, single combatant), trick you into expecting a tourney-worthy brawler. This is a fun bit of sexy, nostalgic bombast at a reasonable price, but Double Helix has largely failed to create the balanced, rounded-out roster needed to sustain a good fighting game (though upcoming combatants Spinal and Fulgore may help on this score).
Verdict: Definitely enjoy the free trial access to a single fighter, but wait to spend cash if the nostalgia strings don’t tug.
Riding a dragon through giant fantasy worlds while shooting fireballs, lightning bolts, and other elemental attacks at giant, airborne creatures. How can anybody screw up such an obviously winning concept, especially when the design team in question is famous for delivering that exact formula in the classic ’90s series Panzer Dragoon?
Leave it to Crimson Dragon to answer that question. Between slippery controls, sloppy looks, meager content, and a forgettable plot made worse by its delivery, this Xbox One launch exclusive does everything it can to drag the next generation of consoles backwards by at least a decade.
The game sees you trying to colonize alien planets while wiping out creatures who’ve caught a virus known as Crimsonscale—an obvious allegory for Christopher Columbus and co. wreaking smallpox on Native Americans, but replace the Santa Maria with a dragon. The plot, which at least had some hope of elevating Crimson Dragon beyond its lousy gameplay, is delivered in walls of uninspired, confusing text, spoken aloud by characters who have neither animation nor anything resembling personalities.
What remains, then, is an arcade shooter, broken into a series of brief, on-rails flying missions, in which you pilot your dragon with one joystick and your weapon’s aim with the other. Both parts move sluggishly and ineffectually, and both have further issues. You dragon is confined to only a small portion of the screen, for instance, and dodging enemy attacks is as simple as tapping a bumper.
You don’t really need to pilot your dragon, up until the moment a mission has a “dodge random structures” passage, and your pre-defined flight path makes it hard to gauge where you need to fly. Aiming, meanwhile, requires dealing with your pre-defined camera swooping around for no good reason, not to mention your giant on-screen dragon often blocking your view at the worst times.
You receive a “wingman” helper pretty quickly in the game, and it’s a bad sign that Crimson Dragon has to dole out this auto-locking helper to compensate for its aiming awkwardness. The game also includes some RPG-styled progression, including dragon upgrades and per-mission perks, but they’re mostly a lure to keep players grinding through older missions for higher scores (grind being the operative word here).
The beasts you blast, and the worlds you fly over, won’t seduce anybody with next-gen shimmer. Low-poly, blurry-texture, uninspired, buggy creatures fly over ugly worlds that explode in color, at least, but not in legitimate next-gen geometry. There’s a JRPG-worthy soundtrack behind all of this gunk, but Crimson Dragoon doesn’t even have the courtesy to isolate that quality tuneage with a sound test mode.
In an early mission, as a lifeless soldier pleads for your help, she implores you by saying, “Look, I know you didn’t choose this life; none of us did.” Luckily, Xbox One buyers have a little more free will at their disposal than Crimson Dragoon‘s lowly protagonist.
Verdict: Avoid like the Crimsonscale plague.
For the past few years, Twisted Pixel Games has edged closer and closer to fulfilling its dream goal: becoming a film production company. You can see the studio’s passion for cinema in more recent titles like Comic Jumper and The Gunstringer, as those games are peppered with wacky, live-action scenes and clever writing that reflect a gonzo filmmaking sensibility, often resembling the work of fellow Austin, TX resident Robert Rodriguez.
Those two games prove Twisted Pixel’s priority shift in another, more unfortunate way, by being flat-out terrible to play: Comic Jumper‘s dismal repetition and Gunstringer‘s inability to redeem the original Kinect should’ve been the one-two punch to put this once-promising game studio out to pasture. Instead, Microsoft kept signing the studio’s checks, and their latest dismal release, Xbox One exclusive Lococycle, should be the third strike to Twisted Pixel’s proverbial at-bat. What a giant fall from grace for a studio behind the wonder of games like The Maw and ‘Splosion Man.
For starters, who thought turning the clock back to 1993 made sense for showing off Xbox One’s next-gen powers? Lococycle‘s obsession with dialogue and full-motion video borders on Sega CD-worthy, and it gives the devs more than enough time to wear out the wacky premise of a futuristic motorcycle turned rogue, driving across the country while dragging a Spanish-speaking mechanic on its chassis. That mechanic, incidentally, becomes the bike’s melee weapon against other villainous robotic vehicles. Occasionally, the game’s long stretches of goofiness reflect an Alamo Drafthouse-worthy level of camp and self-aware fun, but more often, they rely on worn-out action-movie references and the tiresome gag of the motorcycle not understanding Pablo’s cries in Spanish.
Yet all of that video and dialogue content seems intentional padding in light of Lococycle‘s ultra-thin gameplay, seemingly designed with Kinect in mind before being repurposed for Xbox One. As players drive along endless, on-rails highways, control is incredibly limited: tap left and right to dodge oncoming traffic; hold one button down to shoot machine guns at occasional foes; hold another button down to “turbo” past others. Two other buttons handle melee attacks against other vehicles, but combat comes down to slapping a single button over and over with an occasional reflexive block move tossed in for good measure.
Top that off with occasional quick-time event prompts, along with a few super-simple types of enemy encounters that loop over and over a la Comic Jumper, and you have an abomination that could one day prove infamous for how hilariously bad it turned out. You won’t have another chance to find another launch-window game this bad for years, and let’s hope future console producers keep it that way.
Verdict: Gaming anthropologists should buy it out of car-wreck curiosity. Everyone else should look elsewhere.
Will Resogun, Killzone, Knack, and/or Contrast convince you to upgrade?
We’ve expended quite a largenumber of words talking about the PlayStation 4 as a piece of consumer hardware. In the end, though, a game system’s value comes down not to its hardware or its features or its interface, but to the new games it can run.
To that end, we wanted to share some in-depth impressions of the exclusive-to-the-PS4 titles that were made available this week alongside the system’s launch. These aren’t full reviews since we haven’t had a chance to finish any of these games yet, but we feel we’ve spent enough time with each to get a good feel for how they play and how they make use of the PS4’s power. Here, then, are our impressions of four launch titles, in descending order of how much you should want them.
Developer: Housemarque MSRP: $15 (free with PlayStation Plus)
Who knew the highlight of the PS4 launch lineup would be an ultra-modern take on the arcade classic Defender. Much like that older shoot-’em-up, Resogun takes place on a 2D play field that loops around on itself as you fly from one end to the other horizontally. This time, though, you can see the cylindrical map curving around back into the screen on the edges of the screen, along with a whole lot of random crap floating around in the background.
Resogun also improves on the Defender formula with simplified controls and the ability to fire in either direction even while flying in the opposite direction. You can only fire horizontally, though, which makes careful lures and positioning more important than in similar games like Geometry Wars.
There’s an almost insane amount of stuff going on in every screen of Resogun, with tons of flashy particle effects and debris being pushed around by the PS4’s processors. Somehow, though, it never gets too visually overwhelming; careful use of color and shape makes it easy to quickly and intuitively distinguish the enemies and bullets you need to avoid from the background detritus. The only exception to this is the tiny green humans you’re tasked with saving every few minutes, who tend to get lost in the maelstrom despite a helpful arrow pointing you towards them (a radar would have been nice here).
There’s a good deal of variety in enemies, each with their own attack patterns that require different strategies of feints and movement to handle effectively. When the throng of enemies gets to be too much (and it definitely will if you play on harder difficulty levels), Resogun gives you a wide variety of ways to get out of sticky situations, including an invulnerable quick dash maneuver, a set of screen-clearing bombs, and a super-powered mode that slows everything down and gives you a giant, overpowered laser.
Despite these escapes, the game can be punishingly difficult, even on the “Normal” difficulty. A single false move leads to death, and you only have three lives to complete levels that can go on for 10 minutes or so before concluding with screen-filling, no-holds-barred bosses. Things get much easier (and more enjoyable) if you have a co-op partner (local or online) to help handle the load, since the game doesn’t seem to scale up the number of enemies to account for the second player.
Resogun probably could have existed as a largely unchanged PS3 game, and so it doesn’t do much to justify the investment in the new hardware within a PS4. That said, it’s probably the most fun you’ll have with any of the PS4’s exclusive launch titles.
Killzone: Shadow Fall
Developer: Guerrilla Games MSRP: $59.99
The obligatory exclusive first-person shooter launching with the PlayStation 4 checks all the standard boxes on the FPS checklist, but so far it hasn’t fully hooked us. It’s not bad, by any means, but it doesn’t really do much to justify its existence next to dozens of other, similarly polished shooters.
After an absolutely plodding and hackneyed father/son-focused introduction, Killzone‘s story does a good job of painting a general aura of authoritarian oppression in a war between humans and the alien Helghast, working overtime to layer on some moral ambiguity over which side is “good” and which is “bad” to boot. Still, I found it hard to follow the specifics of the shifting narrative and to care much about the characters who seem to exist mainly to move the plot along.
None of that matters too much to the gameplay, though, which follows the genre standard by giving you an objective to reach and then throwing in a bunch of shootable enemies between you and that objective. And I do mean a bunch: Killzone seems to revel in sending absolutely massive strike forces of nearly identical enemies to take down your single super-soldier (who occasionally gets computer-controlled backup).
To the game’s credit, these enemies aren’t the type to just sit calmly behind cover and pop up for occasional pot-shots at you. Instead, they tend to surround you from all directions, flanking and making moves to force you out of your comfort zone and into a new position. It can all get overwhelming quite quickly, and you can die frequently because of enemies you don’t even know are there (the lack of any convenient radar or mini-map makes it that much harder to get your bearings in these firefights).
The only way we were able to get a handle on battles, generally, was by sending out a trusty floating attack drone to lay down some cover fire, creating both a good distraction and some crossfire to mess up enemy tactics. The drone has a number of modes, including a temporary shield and a quick-travel zipline, but we found ourselves leaning heavily on the attack mode as the only means of survival.
Speaking of the drone, Killzone makes use of the DualShock 4’s touchpad to decide which mode the little guy is in at any time, requiring the player to swipe in a given direction to change things up. We found reaching over to make this swipe rather annoying, and it made us wish that these functions were assigned to buttons or the d-pad. Instead, the d-pad is cluttered up with commands such as bringing up your heads-up objective marker or sending out a sonic ping to find nearby enemies.
If you’re looking for a game to show off how much more detailed and crisp the PS4’s graphics can be over what it has been on previous consoles, Killzone is probably your best bet. Gameplay-wise, though, the game feels like another rather unobjectionable, rather unremarkable entry in the overcrowded first-person shooter genre.
Developer: Sony Computer Entertainment Japan MSRP: $59.99
Mark Cerny’s effort to create the PlayStation 4’s version of Crash Bandicoot (well after he created the original PlayStation’s Crash Bandicoot) largely falls flat. The problems start with the story, which has an easy-to-ignore blandness centered around a group of humans using mysterious ancient relics to fend of goblins equipped with modern technology. To this end, the humans have created Knack, a sentient collection of magnetically charged relics that can grow by accumulating more of the tiny metallic bits into his form.
Every single character in this story, Knack included, immediately comes off as forgettable. You get the feeling that the game is simply going through the motions and failing to develop in cut scenes that linger on just a little too long. The gameplay suffers similarly, structured as a series of disconnected melee combat challenges that all feel extremely similar. The enemies may change (and there’s a decent variety and verve in their visual design, at least), but the extremely basic gameplay does not: dodge the enemy attacks using jumps or a quick tap of the right stick, then respond by mashing the single attack button until the enemy is dead.
For a game that seems tailored for all-ages family fun, Knack is also surprisingly unforgiving. It usually only takes one or two hits to go from a full health bar to completely dead, even on “Normal” difficulty, and checkpoints are spaced out far enough apart to require quite a lot of repetition of battles that were already completed. Enemy attacks are barely telegraphed, and your foes show a surprising amount of self-preservation in dodging your own attacks. The simplistic combat mechanics make this added difficulty come off as more frustrating than engaging, though, especially when death comes from a cheap shot originating across the screen.
There are some interesting design choices in Knack, though, including the titular character’s ability to grow ever larger by collecting more relic pieces. It’s pretty satisfying to grow large enough to easily dispatch some of the same tanks and goblins that were once overbearing giants. Still, the simplistic-yet-frustratingly-tough battles and forgettable characters turn Knack into a mediocre time-waster that’s far from being a memorable new mascot for the PlayStation 4.
Developer: Focus Home Interactive MSRP: $15 (Free with PlayStation Plus)
This heavily hyped indie darling starts off with an interesting story concept infused with a sense of magical realism. You control the invisible friend to a precocious little girl, determined to sneak out of bed to spy on/help out her parents as they struggle to reconcile their fractured relationship and to make a living. The mobster-filled, surprisingly dark jazz-era tale is told through some beautiful settings and animation, with most characters mysteriously represented only as dream-like shadows on a wall. The game also shines with a great musical score that comes packed with some catchy, fully vocalized songs. The only major fault here is some hit-or-miss voice acting.
Contrast‘s gameplay is similarly unique, centering around your ability to turn into a shadow, blending into walls and walking on the shadows cast by nearby objects to reach areas you can’t get to in your more corporeal form. The designers come up with a number of clever puzzles that make use of this conceit, such as riding the giant shadows cast by characters as they gesticulate and move about during an argument. More often, though, getting a useful set of shadow platforms means carefully adjusting objects in the real world to cast some darkness in just the right place, a meticulous process that ends up being a bit annoying.
Speaking of annoying, the game suffers from pretty frequent glitches that get in the way of enjoying its better-designed bits. We constantly found ourselves getting stuck on objects, phasing through bits of scenery, losing a convenient camera angle unexpectedly, or popping out of shadow form at inopportune and uncalled-for times. The controls feel way too loose and floaty for a game that requires such precise platforming, as well.
Overall, Contrast‘s engine feels like it needs another coat of polish to match the unique, inventive look and feel of its design. We’d love to see more time taken with a sequel that wasn’t struggling to make it in time for the launch of a new console.
Let the light shine on the next generation of consoles. Let Microsoft and Sony slug it out in an epic battle for the eyeballs of living-room gamers everywhere. Let the headlines sing about slightly tweaked gamepads and bundled Kinect sensors. Why? Because these consoles harbor a portentous secret: Beneath all the drama about online DRM and executive shuffling, AMD hardware sits at the heart of every single next-gen game console. Every. Single. One. (Yes, even the Wii U.)And because of this, the future has never looked brighter for PC gaming.
Let me explain.
Before we talk benefits, we have to talk hardware, briefly.
When you get down to brass tacks and silicon, the underlying hardware for both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 amounts to that of a midrange gaming PC: Each console rocks a semicustom AMD APU consisting of eight “Jaguar” x86 CPU cores sharing the same die as a next-gen Radeon graphics processor.
But enough tech talk! For details, check out our more in-depth comparison of PS4 vs. PC graphics. This article is about the benefits we PC types might gain from the x86 architecture that PCs and the next-gen consoles share.
And benefits we shall see. In fact, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 aren’t even out yet, and PC gamers are already starting to reap tangible benefits from those consoles’ computerized cores.
PC gamers are used to being second-class citizens. Sure, we get our share of MMOs (such as World of Warplanes and Star Wars: The Old Republic) and complex real-time strategy games (like Company of Heroes 2) and the occasional gloriously detailed first-person shooter (hello, Crysis 3!). But in general, most big-name games have bypassed the PC to land on consoles and consoles alone.
“In the past, consoles have had very unique architectures compared to the PC,” says David Nalasco, a technical marketing manager with Radeon’s GPU business. This situation has made cross-platform development more difficult, and making a game for a single platform already takes a ton of time, effort, and moolah. And with all that said, Nalasco notes that the very nature of consoles makes them appealing to developers.
“If you’re a game developer trying to get the most out of your platform, you’re going to work on the one that’s most straightforward—the one you’ve worked on for years and hasn’t changed, and has a huge install base,” he says.
Hence, the PC’s aura of neglect. But with x86 blood now coursing through every platform’s virtual veins, those days may be ending.
As I said, it costs a lot of money to make a top-notch video game, so developers have a strong incentive to get those games in front of as many potential buyers as possible. The shared x86 architecture makes it easier to port games from consoles to PCs.
And at this June’s E3 conference—the annual blockbuster gaming-industry convention where the best and brightest games are trotted out—most of the triple-A titles announced for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 were announced for PCs, too. We saw The Crew and Titanfall, as well as PC bastions like The Witcher 3. Thanks, x86!
“I think we’ll see much easier leveraging of work between consoles and PCs,” says Patrick Moorhead, founder and principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy.
That work isn’t limited to hardware, either.
“One very important statement that Microsoft made last week [at Build] was when indie developers asked, ‘What do I have to do to develop Xbox One games?’” Moorhead says. “Microsoft’s response was, ‘Learn how to code for Windows 8.’ That says everything right there.”
Ports aplenty, part deux
Okay, the future of PC gaming looks bright—but don’t console ports suck? They’re always buggy, and they never look as good as good as native PC games, right? So is a flood of ports really worth getting excited about?
In this case, yes. We’re starting to get theoretical here, but the presence of a Radeon CPU and GPU in each and every console promises to make it easier for developers to optimize their games for the PC. Better optimization means better graphics and performance.
Nalasco points to the performance of the latest console games as testament to what extreme optimization can provide. The current console designs are seven years old and have a fraction of the power of modern-day gaming PCs, yet still pump out fairly impressive graphics.
“The opportunity that we see is to get that fit and level of optimization, or something close to it, in PC games,” Nalasco says. “If you’re developing a game or a game engine and want to port it over to the PC, you don’t have to start over from scratch with your optimization. You’re starting from a base that has CPU cores that are much more similar, GPU cores that are much more similar, and other feature sets that are much more comparable.”
AMD representatives stress that the company will continue pushing the envelope on PC hardware, but say that games created for the x86-based consoles will hold up well years down the line thanks to their optimizations.
“The PC will keep growing, but the consoles will give us that next bump,” Tamasi said. “Developers can now build really awesome content that can then scale to the PC.”
If it’s weird hearing Nvidia saying somewhat positive things about consoles powered by its rival, consider that AMD’s inclusion in consoles can benefit the general PC-gaming industry, not just AMD. Both Microsoft and Sony have announced that their consoles will support the industry-standard DirectX 11 programming language.
“If you’re truly writing Xbox One games to DirectX, I don’t know why AMD would necessarily gain an advantage over Nvidia, and I don’t know why developers would write anything [AMD] proprietary to their console games,” Moorhead says.
In other words: Yay for everybody. And Moorhead, who was a longtime PC-industry executive before founding his analytical firm, agrees with the optimistic optimization assessment that both AMD and Nvidia tossed out.
“You’ll see a lot more games that have been optimized better,” he says. “You’ll be less likely to see a console port with crummy graphics,” even though the next-gen consoles already lag behind truly top-end gaming rigs in graphics performance.
I can dig it.
But with all that said about DirectX and Nvidia, AMD’s newfound home among the consoles has the potential to give AMD some big advantages when it comes to PC hardware.