Leading People Astray

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Oh dear, I’ve done it again. I’ve been enthusiastic about something geeky and someone’s gone and spent money based on my recommendation. Have they learned nothing? In this case Sir S, one of my Sunday Hooligans, was over last week and as we got chatting I mentioned a couple of the games I’ve been playing on the XBox One. Off the top of my head I think I mentioned Witcher3, The Master Chief Collection, Forza, and Destiny.

As a longtime Bungie fan, I could see his eyes light up, so I fired up Destiny, went online and got my arse kicked merrily by all comers in the Crucible matches. I even had my American ex-editor’s husband turn up in-game to join in the fun (on my team, to be fair).

Between seeing the games and technology, as well as the simplicity of how the box sits in the middle of everything,  he got that gleam in his eye, and a wistful tone about whether he could talk his girlfriend round to letting him install one. So of course, being a bad, bad man I showed him the beginning of Batman Arkham Knight.

This week, I dropped in to see M where he works at the local Harris+Hoole and he was still trying to convince himself which hardware and software bundle was best. One brief conversation later, he went for a bundle that included the MCC, Destiny, and Batman.

I’m either a very bad man, or a very good friend. Either way, I’m pretty sure he’s not going to regret his decision.

Trialling Xbox 360 Games on the XBOne

I’m part of the early access program run for XBox One users to trial new features. It’s not that hard to get into, I just got an invite one day – I suspect because I apply for so many Betas across so many platforms. There’s an app on my dashboard that gives me tasks to perform with various planned features and then I give feedback. In return I get full early access to cool stuff, and occasionally free games or admittance to early closed betas for them.

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At E3 this week, Microsoft announced the upcoming backward compatibility of 360 games on the XBox One, and I’ve been trialling the short collection of titles based on my previous purchases: Mass Effect, Kingdom for Keflings, and Zuma.

How does it work? Well to be blunt, you’re running digital downloads that then run in an XBox360 emulator running under the One. If your original game was a digital download, it just appears under your games, ready for installation. Otherwise you still need to put the original disc in the drive to then prompt the image download.

Once the games have installed to your hard drive, you can then launch them. The 360 launch screen appears, it searches for your cloud saves, and away you go. The good news is that so far they seem to run quickly and effectively, and they run as an XBox app, so you can still snap, cut back to the desktop and do anything else just like any other app.

The disappointment so far is that you are still effectively downloading an image even if you have the disc. I would hope that the equivalent of a no-CD crack would be applied so you don’t effectively need it as a key to launch, or that the emulator would actually be able to play off the disc, but that’s probably a bit much to ask in these DRM days. Instead, expect to be using up your hard drive space at a rate of knots, so invest in an external drive and be ready to uninstall/delete games when you’ve stopped playing them.

There’s still a few months before this feature goes live for everyone, so maybe they’ll iron it out a bit. I’ll try to do some Twitch streaming to really see how good the XBox integration is, and I’ll update it in a few days.

So, what’s the catch with Neverwinter?

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The traditional MMORPG model used to be that you paid a monthly subscription to the publishers for the privilege of playing. The money went to recoup operating costs for hardware, bandwidth, development and active curating.  Examples that spring to mind from games I’ve played in the past include EVE Online, Star Wars Galaxies, Elder Scrolls Online, and City of Heroes. To that you can add World of Warcraft, which is still to many the big boy on the block.

It’s not the only model though. Guild Wars had no subscription fee at launch, choosing instead to charge for its various expansions or chapters but then allowing unlimited play. Other games have started as subscriptions-based, but then moved to a Free To Play model, where the basic form of the game is free, but other features need buying to unlock extra content. Star Wars: The Old Republic is a prime example of this approach.

The rise of DLC got console users used to micro transactions in games, but the prospect of paying a subscription on top of the fees required for online console services has proved too unpalatable to most. This is where Neverwinter on the XBox One seems to hit the sweet spot so far.

The game is free, and so far does not seem to be crippled in any way. There are a number of currencies available as rewards for different activities. Your basic missions will give you classic coinage and loot, but daily invocations or raid-like missions also grant rewards in other, more esoteric, currencies. You can also buy another currency with a straightforward credit card transaction that unlocks certain treasures, mounts, races, or pieces of equipment.

That then could be considered the catch to the Free part of Neverwinter, but so far on my play through I’ve not actually felt that I’m missing out on any content by playing through on the game as downloaded. My experience has been so far that its a good game to dip into casually, but there are also deeper complexities to be explored. If I find that anything serious is blocked by sticking to the Free version, I’ll report it, but I suspect it’s largely a matter of bling, or of saving time.

Neverwinter On The XBox One

Like an awful lot of people I played the original Neverwinter games as they emerged from the series of strong Dungeons & Dragons PC games developed by Black Isle and Bioware, so the news that a new title was coming out certainly made my ears prick up. I don’t play very much on the PC any more, mostly because I don’t have the budget, time, or desk space to dedicate to a gaming rig, and mostly play on consoles these days. That’s mostly why I didn’t pick up on Neverwinter when it launched on PC as a MMORPG – that and the fact that I was still playing EVE regularly and didn’t want to stretch either my wallet or time any further.

Fast forward a bit and the free release on the XBox One reminded me that it existed so I downloaded it and rather tentatively gave it a go. I’m glad I did, and it’s not just for nostalgia’s sake.

Neverwinter is a firmly traditional fantasy game with a rich tradition in games that have been published in the setting over the years. That history can be seen everywhere, from flavour decisions in character making, building and character design and naming conventions and in the lore liberally scattered around the place. There are enough players and NPCs around to feel that the city is a living and thriving location, matched by opponents that respawn fast enough to make their faction’s threats feel credible.

Considering how steep some games make their learning curve (I’m looking at you EVE), I was pleasantly surprised at the way the narrative was employed to peel aside the layers of complexity available to you as a player without feeling restrictive. In some ways that comes from the levelling system that (appropriately) feels entirely helpful and natural here – at least to this grizzled tabletop campaigner.

I’ve played through to level fifteen so far, and this morning spent some time unpicking the complicated process of talking someone through joining for a multiplayer group session. This took a bit of perseverence and I’m not sure if that was down to the XBox Friends/Party system or the Neverwinter shards/instance implementation. I suspect a little from column A and a little from column B – or at least the interface between the two. That said, when we’d managed to get into the right shard and team up it felt very smooth and the only disruption we had came from a technical issue with the other person’s XBox rather than any network or server-side problem.

Graphically, it feels a little last generation – but not unbearably so, and the sheer amount of things going on at once and the speed and ease of doing things make these part of the charm of the game. There’s a quietly retro feel to the game that I think is entirely appropriate. We’re not talking blocky Minecraft-style graphics or horrible glitches, but don’t expect to be parkouring around the neighbourhood.

I really like it – and I think I’ll be wandering around making myself a nuisance there for a while. There’s a huge amount of material and options that I’ve only just started to look at – including the professions minigame, crafting and making sense of the daily dungeons and alternate monetary systems at play. There’s a lot here that I suspect would make more sense if I’d ever played World of Warcraft – but beyond a ten minute demo a number of years ago that’s not been on my radar either so I’m learning a lot of this wholesale.

I’ll post more (spoiler-free) as I go along – there’s quite a lot to play with, which is always fun with a free-to-play game.

Halo 5 Multiplayer Beta – The Holidays Have Started

Both Lady M and myself are on leave from our respective workplaces for the next couple of weeks – with a new job on her horizon and general chaos seemingly on mine. So we’re intending to carry on making the best of what life throws at us and grinning in adversity’s face.

Normally, this would be a weekend where the Charleesi would be staying with us, but with it being Christmas week, we’re instead having her arrival delayed a day. We’ll have her with us all week, so this is hardly a disaster. Instead of taking her riding this morning, as would be the normal part of our weekend routine, we had a lie-in (luxury) and while Jo sneaked a little last minute paperwork in, I fired up the Halo5 Multiplayer Beta.

Halo5 Beta LobbyAccess for most people to the Beta is due to start next week, but I’ve joined a sneaky (relative) few by being part of the XBox One Preview testers. As a perk of taking part in testing out new features on the dashboard we’ve been given an extra weekend ahead of everyone else.

My first impressions? It’s a lot of fun. The first game or so felt a little odd in comparison to the more fluid run and gun play of games like Destiny and Titanfall, and I felt initially like I was moving a little more slowly than I would like. Then I stopped and checked the button mapping settings so that I wasn’t trying to double guess what I was doing. Once I’d remapped to the old Halo4 settings, it all felt a lot more natural.

There are four things that are new, and that to my mind are great improvements. Each of them is largely to do with movement:

  • Aiming down the barrel has been introduced, for all weapons, and it doesn’t break the game. I found movement still smooth, and getting hit by anything shifted me back out of it into the more traditional Halo viewpoint
  • Sprinting is available for everyone, as opposed to being an armour loadout as introduced in Halo4. This allows you to move in bursts, and overcomes the initial feeling of moving through molasses that I first noted. When you are sprinting, your shields do not regenerate, so there are real tactical advantages to both modes of movement when under fire.
  • Thrusters – the new suits include thrusters – also introduced as an armour loadout in Halo4 – for all players, to provide short bursts of speed. I could never get the hang of them in the previous game, but in this incarnation they’ve proved useful in both offense and defense. In addition they can be used to provide a brief hover time in a high jump and a Destiny Titan-like ground-pound attack that can be devastating.
  • Mantling – If you don’t quite make a jump and are near an edge, you can tap your jump button again and clamber on to the ledge you were aiming for. Familiar from Titanfall as an essential part of parkour-like vertical movement, I’ve been enjoying having this added to the new game.

It’s been really easy to string these various modes of movement together to perform rapid map traversals, especially on the more human industrial map called Empire. With a series of sprints, jumps, thrusters in mid-jump and mantle at the end, it’s possible to shift rapidly from one side of the map to the other and surprise opponents engaged with other members of your team in another direction.

At the moment there are only two maps available, and not all the classic weapons are in use yet, but everything has felt in balance.

  • The Assault Rifle benefits from the new scope abilities, becoming a short burst weapon when in use, or fully automatic when in normal mode. It’s a good all round weapon and I’m using it more than I thought.
  • The Pistol is more like the Halo2 pistol than the mighty Halo CE tool of destruction, but I’ve got more than a few head shots at range with the scoped mode and it’s a good semi-auto weapon that will keep up with trigger pulls with a minimum of spread.
  • The SMG is a good short range weapon that deals a lot of damage but that tapers off quite rapidly at medium range and above.
  • The Sniper Rifle continues to be an excellent power weapon, and the Empire map contains two of them. If you already like the sniper, you’ve nothing to complain about here.
  • The Battle Rifle is still the weapon of choice for my money – a great balance of fire and precision.
  • The DMR is a great compromise between the Battle Rifle and the Sniper Rifle, but I’ve yet to fall back in love with it. I suspect on bigger maps it will come into its own.
  • The Energy Sword continues to be a lethal tool, but is balanced by just how bright it is – I’ve run the risk of running right past people when I’ve had it equipped because I’ve not seen them through the glare. A better tactic is to run around with your rifle and quickly switch to the Sword when in close quarters.

Competitive Ranking is back – I’ve just qualified as Bronze II, so I’ve a long way to go as I get used to the game. I’m not too worried about that – I’m well aware that I’m an average gamer at best, but I’m competitive enough to want to hone my performance. Matchmaking so far has been pretty good at providing even matches – to the point where even if the final score has looked unbalanced at 50-28, it’s never felt like a walk-over. Every point has felt hard-won.

So – guess what I’ll be carrying on doing in between delivering presents, doing last minute grocery shopping and partaking of the occasional tipple..?

New Destiny Content Has Landed

The Dark Below just went live on the Destiny servers, so I just had to have a wander on to take a first look. If you had any illusions that you could wander into the missions as, say, a mid-20s level character and solo the new material, then you can forget them now. You may be able to solo them if you are already a 30th level hardass, but you’ll almost certainly be wanting to team up with a couple of people and take some extra ammo.

Missions can be got from Eris, who appears on the laft hand side of the main plaza in the tower. You can’t miss her, she’s on a balcony just before the entrance to the area leading to the Speaker, with a spaceship tethered behind her. Similar to the Queen’s Wrath mission setup, she not only has equipment and consumables for sale, but missions and bounties. The missions also take up bounty slots, so you may need to use up some of those patrol missions taking up space to clear the decks a bit.

The first mission dropped me into the area where you fight the Walker in the Earth Strike mission (being deliberately vague in case people haven’t done that content yet), starting where the Walker was and fighting your way back into the buildings. From there, you’re into the Hive warrens that you may have discovered while doing Cosmodrome patrols – and the big bad in there is… tough.

As befits a beefed up Crota agent, he has a big sword and he knows how to use it (oo-er ma’am). He’s not just a bullet sponge, but he deals out heavy damage too, and sends out a pulse that negates your double-jump/glide abilities, so prepare to adapt to slogging around the scenery to avoid him and the inevitable zerg rush of allies when you’ve really cut into his hitpoints.

I’m going to enjoy this expansion, but I’ve definitely had to stop to get reinforcements…

Game Write-Ups

I’m a bit behind, it’s just been a busy couple of weeks with work and general chaos – so I’ve only just got round to writing up last week’s game. I’ll aim to get this week’s one done this weekend.

In the meantime – well, Destiny. I’ve been playing both solo and with a widening circle of friends, and have even set up an XBox Clan called PessimistChic today to give us a shot at some of the clan-based achievements. Give us a shout if you’re passing – we’re mostly casual and enjoy working out what fits where.

Impressions of Destiny? Well it’s very, very pretty – I think Venus is the most astounding location so far, simply for the lush palette and vistas that open up around every corner. How does it play? Very like Halo – and for me this is a huge bonus. Is it the best story in the world? No, it’s sort of there but I’m not gripped, I’m just in a hurry to get to the next sprawling level or to get out there and explore the massive patrol areas.

It definitely isn’t an MMO, and it doesn’t easily allow for general chatter, making it rather lonely if you’re playing solo or casually… but if you have formed a party with friends and a wider fireteam, well then the game transforms. I’ve been doing missions and strikes and a bit of Crucible PvP with friends and playing socially like that has been great fun. I suppose the advantage has been that we haven’t been exposed to so much of the casual idiocy and profanity so common in online games  – at least no more than we manage among ourselves. Paradoxically then, it feels more social to me as a game, because I’m playing with friends I generally already know or who I’ve made contact with over time.

So – Destiny – gets a big thumbs up from me – I’ll write some more specific odds and ends shortly, going into different areas of play.

Xbox One and TwitchTV

This week, I decided to have a go at broadcasting games on my XBox One through Twitch TV. If you’ve not encountered this site before, it basically allows people on a variety of platforms to stream their video game output alongside webcam footage and a chat client so that people can talk to you while you game and vice versa. It’s free to sign up to the basic level of access, and there are a couple of free software clients that they point people to if they haven’t invested in hardware solutions.

I’d been moderately fascinated by this practice, and I’m also a great fan of the Achievement Hunter Let’s Play series and the many, many videos produced by the EVE community. Halo 3 introduced me to the joys of sharing video clips with other players, and I think Bungie generally transformed people’s attitude towards sharing clips by basically making it easy and not reliant on expensive setups.With that in mind, one of the features of the new generation of consoles that caught my eye was their integration of game clip creation with social media. Xbox’s Upload software occasionally takes clips of notable moments and achievements in various games, but a Twitch client was also available at launch.This weekend I decided to go for it and see how easy it was to set up. The answer was: surprisingly simple. Launching the app presented me with a code and instructions to go to a section of the twitch.tv website.

This authorised a connection between the site and my console, and I took the time to also connect my account through social media accounts – as much to see what options that gave me as anything else. Back on the console, all I needed to do was launch the game – in this case Titanfall – and then launch the Twitch app, which sits in a sidebar on the right hand side of the screen. Tabbing between the game and the app is handled by double-tapping the glowing Xbox logo in the controller – and this allows you to set a broadcast name and a few options. In this case I chose to not use the Kinect camera and microphone. I may do some at some point if I feel the need to blather at the screen but its not my highest priority right now.

It pretty much does what it says on the tin. I got Lottie to check on the website while I was streaming, and the site renders and presents the video after a short delay. I’ve not sat down to count the seconds, but I think it’s in the area of thirty seconds or so. Stopping the broadcast was just a matter of clicking a button in the app, and there we were.

Saving the video streams requires a bit of messing around in the Twitch.tv website, but essentially, once you’ve validated your email account, you can choose to highlight a stream that you have completed, and the website renders this so that it can be viewed offline by visitors to my profile. So – it’s all new enough to be a bit of a new toy, not entirely sure what I’ll do with it – possibly review new games as I get them – but I’m sure this isn’t the last you’ll hear me talking about Twitch.Tv on the XBox One.

Watch live video from Ludd72 on TwitchTV

XBox One Day One

It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me to hear that we have a new addition to the household.

We’ve always been a multiplatform household of gamers. Our living room boasts XBox 360 alongside PS3 alongside Wii, and I’ve been PC gaming since the days of Elite on the venerable BBC Micro my parents had the foresight to but, way back in the mists of time.

Most of our media streaming has been through the 360 in recent years, so the closer integration in the One was a big draw when we saw the reveal. So, we duly put a pre-order in with our local Game store when they opened the list.

All through the honeymoon, I have to confess, we were still getting excited about the launch date. Once we were dealing with Lady M’s injury, the thought of the new console kept our spirits that little higher.

Due to monumental poor planning though, we suddenly realised I was going to be working all through Day One, and would also need to pick up Miss C for the weekend. Suddenly the prospect of having the XBox One on Day One was looking shaky.

Fortunately our local Game in Staines announced that they were going to have a midnight opening, so I decided that this was an opportunity to cross an item off the bucket list. Decision made, I finished paying for the console.

I went for the Premium package on offer, which was bundled with Fifa14, and got Ryse and Forza5 to go with it. A spare controller and rapid charging packs for both went on the list. I also got the 2 year support option because it’s a new console, and after the hardware issues encountered over the years with the 360 I’m a little wary of build quality in consumer electronics in this stable.

The midnight launch was extremely well organised. I counted some two hundred people at the door, but having been the seventh person to pay up I was duly ushered to my place in the queue. Barely ten minutes after midnight I was leaving the building weighed down with bags of goodies.

And then home to sleep. I had library work to do, but I did tweet my thanks to the store for making it a fun and painless experience.

So for us, Day One didn’t start until 8pm, and like a bunch of kids in a sweet shop we started unpacking things, swapping cables and plugging peripherals in.

After a wait for the activation patch, and a bit of a false start where I mistakenly made a new profile before re-reading the screen, we were quickly all transferred into the new box. The games could begin.

Initial impressions?

Gameplay is smooth, though we were impatient while games installed and patched the first time. TV integration with our LG was smooth. I’ll be intrigued to see what happens when we upgrade to a smart TV.

The handsets are gorgeous. Seriously very cool ergonomics and an almost sensual pleasure in holding them..

The Windows 8 interface is taking a little time to get used to, and the Snap function has some potential, even though it currently feels a bit Inception-esque with menus inside your menus.

Forza5 is beautiful, though escaping career mode is proving a little unintuitive. That may just be me though. Lady M has gleefully claimed it as her game…

I’ll play Ryse later, but in the meantime I’ve left Killer Instinct downloading as she plays and I take Miss C out riding.

I don’t think I’m going to tire any time soon of just saying XBox On, and seeing it all just spring to life.