Archive: Gaming

Hellblade II confounds expectations

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II (HB2) is one of the most fascinating games of the year. At its core, it’s a linear “walking simulator” like Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture, made with AAA levels of polish. Creative dissonance between initial expectations and the final product has fueled a polarized reaction to the game across reviews and social media.

A debate over HB2 felt inevitable with how fundamental gameplay is to most games and how strongly HB2 deemphasizes traditional gameplay mechanics. Pick any title at the top of sales charts; gameplay elements are almost always pivotal to their success. Elden Ring has best-in-class action RPG controls. Fortnite allows high degrees of player customization while providing many game variations, from battle royale shooters to Lego building and car racing. The Last of Us is best known for its post-apocalyptic storyline but is also lauded for its stealth action combat.

However, HB2 takes a deliberate approach by limiting gameplay options to focus on characters, setting, and mood. The majority of HB2’s runtime is spent guiding the protagonist Senua through an environment, allowing players to absorb the scenery and engage with the dialogue. There are no fail conditions or choices, just a linear journey from point A to B lasting about six to eight hours. While combat battles and puzzles exist, the action is straightforward (some argue outdated), repetitive, and easily skippable.

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Game Pass needs Call of Duty more than ever

According to The Verge, Microsoft is debating on whether to add the new Call of Duty on Game Pass. It’s a no-brainer: COD would easily be Game Pass’s most high-profile title, giving a potential injection to growth to its otherwise plateaued subscriber base.

Opting out COD from Game Pass will effectively end the service as Xbox’s final differentiator against PlayStation, Nintendo, and Steam. A case by case treatment of “our games will come to Game Pass day one” will annoy existing subscribers. Nor is there any clear criteria – budget, branding, genre – to distinguish what enters Game Pass day one in a way that’s satisfactory to both Microsoft corporate or the Xbox player base. Even with clear messaging, in losing some day and date first party titles, a weakened Game Pass no longer properly distinguishes itself from PS5’s competing PlayStation Plus service.

Admittedly, corporate accounting will provide insight that I can’t speculate on. Maybe Microsoft ran the numbers, and a game of COD’s stature on Game Pass is simply too big of a sales revenue hit to ever swallow. Perhaps Game Pass’s long-term fiscal sustainability is long past the expiration point, and this is just the first in a line of walkbacks to slow the burn rate down.

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The shutdown of Tango Gameworks erodes trust in Xbox

It’s sadly easy to become numb to the news of more layoffs in the gaming industry, given its frequency over recent months. But Microsoft’s shutdown of four Bethesda studios stands out for its blatant reversal of Xbox’s purported post acquisition, Game Pass-centric future. The about face erodes trust in the Xbox brand and questions whether there’s any coherent first party strategy.

The shuttering of Tango Gameworks was particularly galling. The studio’s latest release, Hi-Fi Rush, exemplified the independence, creativity, and high quality that Xbox leadership claimed their first studios should aim for. Hi-Fi was a critical darling, landing on many critics’ top 10 lists, won a BAFTA, and was Xbox’s highest first party game of 2023 on OpenCritic. It also was a creative risk for Tango Gameworks, a bright, colorful throwback to the Dreamcast era for a studio that built its reputation on survival horror games.

Hi-Fi’s excellence also leveled up the value of Game Pass, Xbox’s greatest differentiator against the competition. It’s a draw for the service on its merit and the kind of high quality gem that can serve as an effective gap between some major AAA releases on Game Pass to minimize customer churn.

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Live service games are taking the wrong lessons from Fornite

Fortnite is a gaming success story that is paradoxically underreported, underrated, and misunderstood by the many new games as a service (GaaS) that try to emulate its feature set. Mainstream hype about Fortnite (e.g., billion dollar Disney investments, musical collaborations with Lady Gaga) obscures a primary reason the game continues to crush virtually every would be competitor in its path: it nails its fundamentals beautifully.

Every time I boot up Fortnite, I have enormous flexibility to play how I want. Within its multiplayer shooter core, there’s an immense variety of skins and other customization options. The artistry isn’t always for me, but the cosmetics set a consistently high quality bar. When I start a multiplayer match, I can chase the XP goals I’m in the mood for, whether combat-focused, exploration, or a mini battle pass narrative story. Skill based match making strikes a good balance; I can challenge myself by purposefully landing in frenzied hot zones or begin a match far away from the action to take things at a slower pace.

Fortnite also respects my money and time. Its battle pass doles out decent, reasonably varied rewards at a faster clip than most of the competition. Even half finished, I end up earning enough V-bucks to allow me to buy a future battle pass at a reduced rate. The time to kill is reasonably high compared to other popular shooters like Call of Duty or Apex Legends, which gives me a competitive opportunity to react and fight back against better players. Matches rarely last longer than twenty minutes.

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The unfulfilled ambition of the Xbox ecosystem

During last week’s business update, Microsoft leadership reaffirmed two differentiators for the Xbox ecosystem: Game Pass (every first party game coming day one) and platform accessibility (cross-play, cross-save, cloud streaming). Yet I don’t see either feature today as a compelling reason for net new gamers beyond the PC and console core – Xbox’s stated long term growth target – to jump in with Xbox. They are features with huge potential but are stuck today in alpha mode.

Game Pass unquestionably has a lot of great games, but most of the library encompasses small, under the radar indie titles or older catalog hits. Microsoft puts all its first party titles on the service, but none have the marquee prestige and popularity of franchises popularized on rival systems from Sony and Nintendo. Furthermore, I find the onboarding process on Game Pass intimidating for newcomers. There’s a bewildering number of choices, and the Game Pass app’s recommendation system is limited and simplistic; there’s no sense of individual game length or difficulty to guide new players.

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Xbox’s third party gambit

Recent news suggests Microsoft will shift Xbox to a multiplatform release strategy; existing and future first party games, including Starfield, Indiana Jones, and Gears of War will be ported to PS5 and Nintendo Switch. While we won’t know the whole story until a “business update” next week, I expect the change to be extensive, with many if not most top tier titles available soon on PSN and the Nintendo Store. In the face of lagging sales and stalled Game Pass subscriptions, the corporation is making a big bet that will attempt to thread a needle: keep an Xbox ecosystem sustainable – digital purchases on the Microsoft Store, lively Xbox Live network, Game Pass subscribers – while going multiplatform with in house studio games to generate additional revenue.

It’s a risk; no gaming company has succeeded as such an extensive third party publisher and simultaneous platform holder. Executed poorly, the plan could push the Xbox ecosystem into an eventual death spiral: gamers shift away from Xbox with its lack of exclusives, the install base drops, so other publishers stop porting games to Xbox, which leads to fewer players, until eventually Microsoft pulls the plug. Xbox hardware and accessories are dead, the digital library goes kaput, and Microsoft becomes a pure third party publisher like Sega.

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My favorite games of 2023

Many professional critics consider 2023 one of the best years in gaming we’ve had in a long time. OpenCritic underlines this opinion; more games than average this year landed a coveted score of 85 or higher. But I was left mildly underwhelmed by what I played.

“Keeping up” as a modern console gamer is a challenge, with time available as my main hurdle. Many of the most acclaimed games this year – Baldur’s Gate 3, Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty – are massive action adventure RPGs. They demand at least thirty-plus hours of my time to complete and are challenging to dip in and out of casually. Multiplayer experiences like Call of Duty or Halo Infinite still have a steep learning curve to play competitively. I never felt like I had the focus (or reflexes) to play matches without being repeatedly ripped apart.

The big budget games I did invest time into this year almost universally underperformed. Forza Motorsport is excellent when I’m racing on the track, but the overall single player experience lacks personality, and I’ve encountered many game breaking bugs and crashes. Starfield has gorgeous production and audio design, and I had a blast running through the game’s many faction quests. But eventually, character progression felt meaningless, with exploration that felt like a total afterthought. Diablo IV, as I’ve written about previously, had a great gameplay hook but suffered from a lack of variety and forgettable narrative. Call of Duty: Warzone’s DMZ mode was a mid-year multiplayer favorite, but Activision effectively killed it off.

Stumbles aside, my favorite game experiences this year, as in 2022, remained shorter. You can easily wrap up three of the five listed here in twelve hours or less. Another has daily puzzles that routinely take me under five minutes to complete. All have been a blast to play and are accessible enough to recommend to almost anyone.

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An existential crisis around Diablo IV

Diablo IV provokes an existentialist question: can one fantastic gameplay hook make a game’s vapid elements forgivable? Over twenty hours in, the answer appears to be an emphatic “yes” with caveats.

The game’s core combat loop is one of the best I’ve ever played. System balance, especially with an action RPG of this scale, is deceptively tricky, but somehow Diablo IV keeps the operation humming along like a well oiled machine. Every wave of enemies has just enough resistance to be challenging but not too much to be frustrating.

The artistic and design elements that surround the combat package are stellar. The sound design has a rich soundstage with good speakers or headphones. Waypoints and level progression are easy to follow. The atmospheric lighting is impressive, taking advantage of HDR to give dungeons a murky, often foreboding look. As my sorcerer levels up and I try new spells, I’m also happy to see elemental variety and different combat approaches open up.

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Game Pass’s reputation needs a reboot

Microsoft wants Xbox Game Pass to be the HBO of gaming, with heavy hitters rolling out regularly to plenty of buzz and critical fanfare. But today, Microsoft falls far short of that standard. Game Pass AAA releases, both from Xbox Game Studios and third party partnerships, are uneven in quality and too infrequent.

2022 came and went without a single notable big budget Game Pass release. Grounded, As Dusk Falls, and Pentiment got decent critical attention but were small titles primarily ignored by the larger gaming public.

2023 looks much more promising. However, Minecraft Legends scored a passable but far from great 73 on OpenCritic. I suspect the buzz following Redfall – rushing out the door at 30 FPS alongside some lukewarm previews – will lead to a similar lukewarm critical consensus. Even what will likely be a critical hit – Xbox Game Studios’ mainstay Forza Motorsport – missed its original Spring 2023 release window and settled into a vague “2023” timeline. For what’s left on the horizon, I see sci-fi RPG Starfield, with Bethesda Game Studios’ pedigree, as the only remaining possible “must play” for the remainder of the year. (I passed over Hi-Fi Rush‌ and MLB The Show, both splashy titles that played well critically but didn’t break out into a wider audience.)

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Warzone 2.0 DMZ: joy in human chaos

Playing Call of Duty: Warzone 2.0’s DMZ mode this winter has been one the best first person shooter experiences I’ve had in years. It’s not because of the graphics, the level design, the battle pass, or the gunplay. All match but rarely exceed expectations for a free-to-play shooter in 2023. Instead, DMZ is awesome by mixing an open sandbox of activities with widely divergent human psychology. The results are unpredictable and often fascinating.

DMZ’s power derives from how much it differs from normal big budget multiplayer gameplay that funnels players down a narrow path of expected behavior. Racing games like Gran Turismo: Sport or Forza Horizon 5 push players through a track as fast as possible. Large scale battle royale shooters (Fortnite, Apex Legends) drop combatants into a combat zone as players battle to remain the last standing. There are, of course, endless tweaks and variations to give each game its character and difficulty, but successful gameplay hinges on an easy to follow win condition.

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