Monday Musings 5/17/14: Embarrassingly Late Edition

Monday Musings 5/17/14: Embarrassingly Late Edition

Monday Musings 051214.jpg

It's an embarrassingly late edition of the Monday Musings this week (Weekend Musings?), as it's been a little hectic around here, but that's never kept a good Musings down before! The warm weather has come and gone here in Michigan, but the gaming universe continues to stay hot as industry scuttlebutt and news heat up on the road to E3. Microsoft introduced another big change to their Xbox One strategy this week, and this next-generation just got a whole lot more interesting. What else can we look forward to in the weeks ahead? I'm pumped for E3 to get here, what about you? In the meantime, more pressing matters await. Let's get to this week's Musings!

The Kinect-free Xbox One hits June 9th for $399 USD

Whoo buddy, this is a big one!  After months of speculation, predictions, denials, and internet petitions, Microsoft has finally confirmed that June 9th will see the release of the Kinect-less Xbox One to the retail masses for the low, low price of $399 USD.  Not the least bit coincidentally, June 9th is the same date as Microsoft's E3 press conference.  And for all of you mathematicians out there, yes, $399 USD puts the Xbox One in total price parity with it's arch-nemesis, the PlayStation 4.  Microsoft also revealed that the controversial paywall blocking Netflix, HBO Go, and other digital services from non-Xbox Live Gold members is also being removed, allowing anyone with an Xbox Live account — on both Xbox 360 and Xbox One — to access these digital services without needing to pay a second subscription.  However, free-to-play online games and MMO, subscription based titles such as The Elder Scrolls Online, will still require an Xbox Live Gold account.

So, what does all of this mean?  First and foremost, it means that Microsoft — and more specifically, it's newly minted Xbox division — is listening.  Regardless of where your feelings stand in regards to Kinect and its worth and/or necessity, it seems that the overwhelming majority of gamers are "pro-choice" when it comes to Kinect and their Xbox One.  While it's unclear whether this current "180" is the result of [new head of Xbox] Phil Spencer's leadership, or a product of months of analysis and evaluation by the Xbox Division as a whole, I've mused before about Phil being the right man to course correct the Xbox One's misguided ship.  Phil is a games-first kind of guy, and I have to believe this is something he lobbied for and/or saw the value in for the core gaming consumer.  Let's be honest, there just hasn't been any definitive reason, from a software standpoint, to own a Kinect or feel like it's a necessary component of a great gaming experience.  Hiking the ball in Madden 25?  Yeah, that pretty cool, but not essential.  Rock climbing in Kinect Sports Rivals.  I don't think that's going to cut it, either.  Sure the TV and voice stuff can be cool (when it works), but not everyone wants to constantly talk to their TV, and for many, the novelty can wear off after awhile. It's nice to see that, come June 9th, Microsoft is giving gamers the gift of choice, at least when it comes to Kinect.

So long new Kinect, we barely knew ya'

So long new Kinect, we barely knew ya'

It's also clear that Sony's opening salvo in this newest console war has severely wounded Microsoft.  Approximately one year outside of the REVEAL of the Xbox One back in May of 2013, Microsoft has already made an about-face on always online, DRM, used games and trade-ins, an always-on Kinect, and whatever other anti-gamer policies I've forgotten about.  A quick aside: amidst the swirl of controversy and negativity, there was one unfortunate feature casualty in the form of the awesome-sounding Family Sharing plan (across Xbox Live accounts, up to 10 total if I'm not mistaken) Microsoft was originally planning to roll out.  Now, they've come full circle with the introduction of the Kinect-free Xbox One, effectively eliminating any and every distinguishing feature that the company touted prior to launch.  While this is clearly a response to gamers and consumer interests, in many respects this is a shocking and befuddling turn of events.  Remember this little snippet from an interview CVG conducted with Xbox's Corporate VP, Phil Harrison, shortly after last year's Gamescom (emphasis added)?:

"CVG: A quick word on Kinect - I presume there will never be an Xbox One sold without it. You are doing this for developer-related reasons as much as your own. You want all developers to know that they can always implement Kinect technology because it always comes with every system. Would that be correct?

Phil Harrison: Correct. Xbox One is Kinect. They are not separate systems. An Xbox One has chips, it has memory, it has Blu-ray, it has Kinect, it has a controller. These are all part of the platform ecosystem. What we have shown really well at Gamescom is the magic of games that use Kinect. We have shown the power of voice control. I'm probably going to piss off your readers unintentionally when I say this; I have an Xbox One at home, and being able to walk in and say "Xbox on", and for the system to recognise me, launch and load my profile, and put my choices of content on the font page is a very magical experience. It makes you think about your relationship with technology in a slightly different way. It's personal. It makes you think, I wish more devices would do this."

In nine months time, Microsoft has gone from "never" selling an Xbox One without Kinect, to always selling an Xbox One without Kinect.  This is a drastic change by anyone's definition of the word.  Desperate?  I don't know that I'd call it a desperate move, but clearly Xbox and it's leaders are concerned about their new system's position in the current marketplace.  While the system is selling solidly enough, it's not selling nearly as well as its top rival, the PlayStation 4. More concerning than simply lagging behind in sales, the Xbox One is not outselling the PS4 in any of the territories it is currently released in, including typical Microsoft hotzones like the United States and the United Kingdom.  With western friendly releases like Titanfall and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, this could change, but I think when the March NPD numbers hit — and the Xbox One was still left sitting in second place, despite this being the month of Titanfall's release — this was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.  No longer could Microsoft sit by idly and risk losing any more momentum early in the generation.  Microsoft was learning from Sony's past mistakes and aping Nintendo's recent successes in the handheld sector; the time was now to rejuvenate and reignite the spark for the Xbox brand.   

Yeah... so about that whole "necessary" Kinect thing...

Yeah... so about that whole "necessary" Kinect thing...

While this move will introduce a much requested element of choice to the purchase of an Xbox One, as well as bring the system into total price parity with the PlayStation 4, it does not make the two systems equal.  Sure, Microsoft is tearing down the paywall between digital services and the consumer on Xbox Live, and attempting to improve its lackluster — when compared to the vastly superior PlayStation Plus — Games with Gold promotion, but I still don't know that this justifies purchasing an Xbox One over a PlayStation 4 that is the same price.  The PlayStation 4 is still a more powerful system, developers are still going to have to figure out a way around the eSRAM problem on the Xbox One (1080p and all that), and the PlayStation 4 has a ton of games the Xbox One does not have due to their strong support from the indie development scene; an indie development scene that is producing some of the best content across all of gaming (Resogun and Mercenary Kings say hello).  

The indie issue is exasperated by the troubling "launch parity clause" that is a part of the fledgling ID@Xbox development program.  This controversial clause states that independent developers can only release games on the Xbox One if they haven't already appeared on other consoles first.  With Sony cranking out indie game after indie game — seemingly every week — first on their platforms, that's a whole wealth of content that may never make it to Xbox One as long as the launch parity clause is in place.

                                             The Launch Parity Clause needs to go the way of the Kinect

                                             The Launch Parity Clause needs to go the way of the Kinect

Another point of concern is the UI of the Xbox One.  The UI was designed to be navigated with the Kinect and voice commands in mind, and if you ask anyone who uses the system on a regular basis, they'll tell you it's nigh impossible to wade your way through menu after menu to find what you're looking for when not using Kinect.  So what happens when you take all of that away? You're left with a UI that will need to be redesigned.  You can write this in pen and take it to the bank: on June 9th we will see a redesigned Xbox One UI make its debut on the E3 stage at Microsoft's morning presser.  If I had to guess, I'd say that Phil Spencer saw the writing on the wall as far as Kinect was concerned, and upon assuming his new position atop the Xbox hill, he immediately set out to disconnect (see what I did there?) the Kinect from the Xbox One and task his engineers with redesigning a more controller friendly UI.

Harmonix's John Drake on the reveal of a Kinect-free Xbox One

In the end, I think these changes are a step in the right direction for Microsoft, but where do things go from here?  Some are concerned that Microsoft is losing their identity; shunning conviction in the face of adversity and a desire to keep up with Joneses, rather than blazing a trail as the Smiths.  I'm not sure you can blame them for feeling this way; the Xbox One and the PS4 are starting to look awfully similar, at least in terms of strategy and messaging.  Games, games, and more games is a great message — and music to my personal ears — but is this what gamers want?  Two companies with the same message and the same goals?  As long as that goal remains to put out as many awesome games as possible, I don't see why not.  

As long as Microsoft addresses the technical disparity between third-party releases on PS4 and XB1, exclusive games will once again determine where your gaming dollar is best spent.  E3 is right around the corner, and we'll no doubt see the next wave of console exclusives first-hand. Are you getting excited?  What do you think of this Kinect-less Xbox One?  Let us know!

Transistor Releases Tuesday, May20th!

...what?  You were expecting me to say something else?  Transistor is out Tuesday!  What more do you want from me?!

All joking aside, I'm really pumped for this one, and I'm hoping that life lets me give it a whirl this coming week!  Now that Recursion Mode has been unveiledTransistor's version of a sort of New Game Plus, the game is guaranteed to have a nice degree of replayability as well.  

I also love how this game has been shrouded in secrecy during development.  Nowadays, too many titles put all of their cards on the table prior to release, leaving gamers with nothing to surprise them once the game is finally in their hands.  This sums it up perfectly:

"You know the typical PR cycle for a big game involves tons of trailers, previews, press releases, and so on, and maybe eventually a round or two of hands-on impressions before the game is finally released. That’s not been our approach, partly because we’re a small team, and partly because we don’t think it makes sense for the kinds of games we’ve made. Our feeling is that the less you know going into a game like Transistor, the more likely it is to surprise you. And we think experiencing genuine surprise is one of the rarest and most pleasurable sensations that games can provide." - Greg Kasavin, Creative Director of Supergiant Games

This sci-fi action-RPG looks gorgeous, and in the words of Square Enix, please be excited for Tuesday! 

The Borderlands 2 Vita Debate...

The new PlayStation Vita Slim bundle hit store shelves last week, and with it, the highly anticipated port of Gearbox's epic fps-loot-fest, Borderlands 2, for Sony's now OLED-less handheld.  The idea of shooting-and-looting on the go is one that is incredibly appealing to gamers, so the arrival of Borderlands 2 Vita is something that many are watching with vigilant eyes.  Can this gigantic game really be ably-ran on a handheld system?  I guess that depends on who you ask.

Some are quite disappointed and some are less than impressed.  Some have really liked it and some have absolutely loved it.  So, who are we supposed to believe?  

Yourself, naturally.

The game still looks nice on the Vita

The game still looks nice on the Vita

I know this sounds stupid, but in a polarizing situation like this one, the only one you can trust is the man in the mirror.  This is definitely one of those games you need to experience first-hand and decide for yourself whether or not it meets your own personal expectations. I have a copy installed on my Vita, and my take falls in-between the extremes reflected in the various reviews that have popped up over the last week.

Cramming the entirety of Borderlands 2 onto a Vita is an extremely impressive feat.  This is a gargantuan game by any definition, and from what I've played so far, it seems that all of the side-quests, story quests, and dark humor of the console game are present and accounted for here.  I haven't attempted to play the DLC yet, but two of the major expansions (Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate's Booty and Mr. Torgue's Campaign of Carnage) are also included, with the possibility of the additional DLC campaigns being released at a future date.

The debate regarding Borderlands 2 Vita stems from the technical performance of the game. And make no mistake about it, this game does have technical issues.  The frame rate is inconsistent, with frequent hiccups popping up as you make your way around Pandora. There are the standard loading frame skips, as the game cues up new data, that happen in many console games as well, but these are supplemented with frequent frame drops during gameplay.  It doesn't seem to happen as much during firefights, but its noticeable when engaged in exploration.  

Then there are the controls, which take some getting used to, especially when you're accustomed to playing first-person shooters on a console or PC.  Some have lamented a lack of precision and range of motion with the analog sticks, but I would contend this is more of an adaptation issue.  I found myself settling into the control scheme the more and more I played, and I'm at the point now where I'm comfortable booting the game up and mowing down Bullymongs without much hassle.  Although, I am curious about these:

Anyone have any experience with these?

What's a little more difficult to get used to are the back touch controls.  By default, the sprint and melee actions are mapped to the back touch pad, and no matter how much I play, I can't quite get the feel for using the back touch for these actions.  Back swipes are just not an adequate replacement for the L2 and R2 trigger buttons.  Actions mapped on the front touch screen, such as grenade throwing, are more natural to execute, although I do find myself accidentally throwing grenades, if my thumb graces the touch screen when using the analog sticks, on occasion.  Thankfully, the game has a fully customizable control scheme, allowing you to map the buttons however you see fit.  I prefer to map the buttons I use the least to the back touch pad, such as crouch and jump, and it makes the experience much better having melee and sprint on either the face buttons or front touch screen.  

All that said, even with the inconsistent frame rate and not-always-ideal control scheme, it's not a deal breaker for me.  This game is a lot of fun, and after a modest investment of time, the eccentricities and uniqueness of the Vita version become almost second nature as you adapt to the required playstyle.  Even the technical glitches — and while this may sound like a cop-out, that's not my intention — are something that will become an almost non-issue as you immerse yourself in the game world.  Sure they're still there, but your mind learns to almost "accept" them as part of the game; you instinctively program your eyes and brain to ignore them to a certain extent.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that hurt

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that hurt

Is the Vita version of Borderlands 2 a 10/10 game?  No, it's got its issues that hold it back, but it's also not a 4/10 game, either.  Keeping in mind that there is tons of this game I've yet to play, if I were to score it right now it would probably be in the 7 range.  For reference, the PS3 version of Borderlands 2 is currently sitting at a 91 on Metacritic.  It's a top tier game trapped in a low end technical shell. But like I said, this game is still a blast to play, and I'm having fun with it on my Vita.  

I don't think developer Iron Galaxy is done supporting this game by any means, and here's hoping that any future patches can rectify some of the technical issues with the title.  I'm wondering if a locked frame rate option, even something sub-30 like 27 or 28fps locked, would be a viable option and help to allow the game to run more smoothly.  Until then, I'm still looking forward to exploring more of the world of Pandora on-the-go!

What do you guys think?  If you've played the Vita version of  Borderlands 2, what are your thoughts?  Let us know!  We have more coverage incoming for Borderlands 2 Vita in the days ahead, including our full review, so stay tuned — er — bookmarked?!

Countdown to Destiny...

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