Archive: Gaming

The Last of Us Part II buckles under the weight of its ambition

Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2) sets an unimpeachable technical standard and has some of the best stealth action I’ve ever played. It’s also a game with blunted thematic impact due to excessive length and an unsatisfying story for its back half. I’m glad I played the game, but TLOU2’s weaknesses make it a significant step down from Naughty Dog’s best, The Last of Us and Uncharted 4. Spoilers for TLOU2 ahead.

Luddonarrative dissonance is an unavoidable weakness in TLOU2 thanks to the game’s persistent stealth sandbox gameplay loop. Granted, Naughty Dog tries everything possible to avoid this phenomenon. The main characters have backstories to justify their acts of violence. Player-controlled action tries its best to match the somber tone of the cutscenes with grotesque and unsettling audiovisual cues. When you kill an enemy soldier, an ally will often cry out their name in anguish. Hit someone with a melee weapon, and you’ll listen to them gurgle on their blood. Stealth kills are a switchblade to the throat, replete with arterial blood spray.

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Gaming’s low bar for critical discourse

The wide ranging discourse around The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2) has been a welcome change of pace from usual gaming criticism. Instead of the expected debate over gameplay, fidelity, and genre expectations, there’s been far more focus on TLOU2’s depiction of violence, ludonarrative dissonance, non-linear narrative structure, treatment of LGBTQ characters, and other thematic elements. Vice ran a six hour podcast dissecting the game’s narrative, and I’ve seen similar extensive “spoilercast” treatment across other gaming sites. The breadth of TLOU2’s discussion beyond social media and enthusiast sites like IGN and Gamespot is also notable. I’ve read dissections of the game in indie film blogs (Indiewire), lifestyle magazines (GQ), and popular newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post).

But I’m unhappy this same level and breadth of discourse doesn’t occur across more games and more often. Nor has chatter about TLOU2 been universally deep or mature; there’s a tremendous amount of vile, toxic “debate” from bigots upset with the game’s plotting and LGBTQ representation.

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Subscriptions and games as a service will dominate console gaming’s future

I expect the gaming landscape for console games will be radically reshaped in a few years. The existing $60 AAA game market will mostly collapse. Indies, stifled by saturation across every market, will turn to subscription services as their only viable path forward. Everyone will still chase Fortnite (or its successor) to become the next free-to-play hit.

Gaming trends today portend significant changes on the horizon. For years we’ve seen the same $60 titles — mostly first person shooters (Call of Duty, Destiny) and big sports franchises (FIFA, Madden, NBA2K) — dominate NPD and digital sales charts. But more recently, these perennial best sellers have shifted into effectively “games as a service” platforms. Studios increasingly focus on new functionality at a core fan base that readily laps up micro-transactions. This ensures revenue stays flowing in well past the upfront sticker price. Look at FIFA and how so many improvements lead back to Ultimate Team. The Call of Duty: Modern Warfare reboot added a Fortnite-inspired battle pass and a prominent shop rotating in and out costly cosmetic gear. This is rampant speculation, but I could see the anticipated Halo Infinite moving in a similar DLC-heavy direction, reliant on a narrowing core base to push the game’s initial investment into the black.

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Games, not hardware, matter most in 2020

Stadia looks like a flop out of the gate, and its meager, overpriced game selection is a significant factor why. Google overestimated the console market’s appetite for experimental moonshots. Most gamers aren’t making purchasing decisions based on streaming quality, teraflops, 4K, or fast SSDs. Instead, as I wrote about earlier this year, it’s the games themselves — both selection and quality — that matter most. It was a crucial differentiator in the battle between PS4 and Xbox One, essential to the Nintendo Switch’s breakout success, and it will continue to be important for next generation hardware.

Games matter more for reasons beyond their historically strong track record. It’s also because across other facets — hardware, marketing, third party integrations — Sony and Microsoft will be on similar footing next generation, at least to your average consumer. I don’t foresee the major stumbles that marked previous console generations. Price and power, two factors that solidified PS4 as the clear victor this generation, I expect to be a moot point in 2020. Microsoft learned its lesson launching a console $100 more expensive and less powerful than Sony’s. Sony hopefully still remembers the $600 launch PS3 debacle and how undercutting on price helped secure their win for the PS4. Speculation from Digital Foundry and other sources posit the PS5 and Xbox Series X will rely on similar internal components. The result for consumers should be two boxes with similar specs and no more than a $50 gap in price differential.

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Modern Warfare’s regressive politics

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (MW) has the look and mechanics of a modern AAA game from 2019. So why does its politics (or lack thereof) feel like a relic from decades earlier?

MW developer Infinity Ward invites this questioning given how hard they pushed realism as both a selling point and a differentiator from previous Call of Duty games. Its first press event earlier this year had presentations on the game’s authenticity and moral complexity. The official marketing boasts how the game “engulfs fans in an incredibly raw, gritty, provocative narrative.”

Infinity Ward also made the “Clean House” mission from the campaign a centerpiece demo of their preview event. Now having played the campaign, I understand why; the audio and visual design is uncomfortable and tense in a way that stands out from the rest of the campaign, not to mention other first-person shooters. The mission centers on a British SAS team that raids a building housing terrorists at night. You assume the role of one of the SAS agents, bursting through doors and making split-second decisions to “clear” threats with civilians thrown into the mix. Given your usage of night goggles, the mission has an eerie visual palette of stark greens and blacks.

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Apple Arcade: high caliber games with quality of life issues

Apple Arcade is a no-brainer investment for devoted iPhone gamers; for five dollars a month, you get a wealth of top tier, original mobile titles. But if you’re not already actively invested in mobile gaming today, Apple Arcade may not be the service that makes you a believer. As an already devoted console gamer, the service didn’t provide enough to keep me paying.

That caveat shouldn’t distract from the quality of games offered here. Given the usual knocks against mobile as a gaming platform — lack of genre variety, monetization in the form of annoying microtransactions — Apple had an uphill climb. But as a credit to the high bar Apple has set, I found many quality titles within a few hours of play.

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The future of Xbox is Game Pass

With Sony MIA, Microsoft had an opportunity to go on the offensive this E3, which made their lack of detail on next-gen hardware, exclusives, and even streaming technology perplexing. But when you looked past console war talking points and read between the lines of their keynote, 2019 marks the most definite sign that Microsoft is splitting away from its competition, with Xbox Game Pass its centerpiece strategy. Other companies have dipped their toe into the subscription market, but given the maturity and boldness of Game Pass, I’m convinced Microsoft is all in.

The evidence of Microsoft’s subscriptions push was all over their E3 presser: onstage speakers and game trailers name-checked Game Pass frequently. The debut of Game Pass on PC and a special “Ultimate” bundle for combined PC and console access got a prominent showing. Two high budget upcoming Game Pass games — The Outer Worlds and Halo Infinite — bookended the show. And there’s no coincidence the first item Microsoft highlights under their E3 page is Game Pass.

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Fixing Mortal Kombat 11’s economy

Mortal Kombat 11 had the potential to be one of the best reviewed games of this generation. Game critics universally praised the core gameplay, HDR graphical flourishes, story, training mode, and overall polish. But MK11 hovers at a solid but not stunning 83 on Metacritic given the long, frustrating grind required to unlock cosmetics through the Tower of Time and Krypt single player modes. NetherRealm, the studio behind the game, apologized and promised to improve the situation.

I’m somewhat sympathetic to NetherRealm’s ambition (though this comes with an uncomfortable caveat given troubling reports of rampant crunch and other issues at the studio.) MK11 takes a bold step forward to generate a long tail “endgame” of single player content. You can blow through most fighting games’ solo modes in a matter of hours. MK11 wants to entertain you through randomized Tower encounters and the Krypt for months. But there’s a fine line between a grind that’s rewarding and one that’s tedious; NetherRealm has veered too far into the latter.

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Thoughts on Stadia’s introduction

Game streaming services depend on three big factors for success: technical prowess, cost, and games. Based on Google’s track record and their recent GDC pitch, Stadia’s tech chops will likely hold up well in real world testing. Consumer cost I’d anticipate won’t be high either. The big unresolved question is what actual games Stadia will have for its release later this year. And it’s on games that give Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo solid footing for blocking Stadia’s advances.

Games carry an outsized significance when considering past PC and console platform battles. For example, the PS4’s “must play” exclusives helped buttress their lead over the Xbox One over the last few years. This is where Google will run into a substantial headwind; game libraries on Switch, Xbox One, PS4, and PC are gigantic, with many critically acclaimed exclusives bound to a single platform. Assuming next-generation consoles from Sony and Microsoft support backward compatibility, this “lead” from Google’s competition should only grow.

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Streaming could revolutionize the gaming industry

Playing console and PC games through streaming may shift from niche experiment to mainstream reality this year. It’s the biggest gaming news story to watch; if the tech lives up to the hype, streaming will disrupt the gaming industry in a way that many companies will be unprepared for.

Historically streaming’s technical hurdles like high latency and bandwidth requirements have been a barrier to entry, but the latest signs of progress are promising. Google ran a beta of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey streaming through a Chrome browser. I read positive feedback on the experience, even from dedicated gaming sites like GameSpot; we’ll learn more from Google at GDC tomorrow. And while Microsoft’s xCloud streaming infrastructure is under private beta, they are bullish enough on the technology to release multiple splashy video teasers. If there are any two companies with the right expertise in cloud infrastructure to pull this off, it’s Google and Microsoft.

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