Thursday, 27 November 2008

The New Xbox Experience?

Microsoft don't do philosophy. I do. I ask the big questions. The kinds of questions that would leave even closet Satre's flummoxed. One such question is this: what exactly is the New Xbox Experience?

I've spent the last few days pondering about this one. My conclusion is based on literally two hours of intellectual toil. 'NXE' is an odd concept. Microsoft wants you to believe that their recent dashboard update for the Xbox 360 is a major step into new territory, but is it? Let's weigh it up.

Initially, there is clearly a wow factor once you've switched your 360 back on after the update's initial installation. The new design for the dashboard is neat and modern. It really goes to show how, even in the space of just three years, the design of software can move from cutting edge to obsolete. The old dashboard design had clearly done the rounds and needed to go. However, I'm not so convinced it was replaced. In reality, the NXE is a paintjob.

The major new feature is the Avatar. You create a Wii-like alter ego. Clothing and shaping your avatar is a laugh for about five minutes. I spent a good deal of time perfecting mine because I imagined some great 3D lobby beckoned. However, no such 3D massively multiplayer platform exists. The avatars are ultimately the biggest waste of effort I think there has been since Sega launched the 32x.

What is the point of an avatar when there is literally no environment available where you can take them? The answer is there is no point. None at all. The 'friends' blade (are they still called blades??) is random. It's interesting to see how your friends have designed their avatars but this blade is the only section of the dashboard where you can view them. Because of this, they don't seem integral to your Xbox experience. They feel gimmicky and less central than even the old gamerpic you can select for your profile.

About the only thing to praise about the NXE is the new party feature. Finally, you can have up to 8 friends form up in a private party via the dashboard and either migrate into games together or do as you will separately whilst still being able to speak in the party's private chat. Essentially, this new feature equates to the end of trash talking... if you want it to that is. No longer do you need to be in public channels to be able to speak to more than one friend at a time. Expect a good deal more silence when playing games solo from now on.

For me, the NXE needed a really solid 3D world where you and your buddies could chill out independant of any game. The party mode should exist within a 3D private lobby - akin to something like Habbo Hotel's room creation. Omg. I actually just mentioned Habbo Hotel. Kill me now.

I'm sure Microsoft are due to spam us with mini games featuring 'avatar support'. However, we will no doubt have to pay for them. As far as I can see, the NXE will be based in a sadly 2D world. This reality check got me thinking about Sony's Playstation Home. I'm interested to see how Home shapes up once it finally comes out and will certainly be tempted to give it a go if it turns out to be as good as the hype suggests. Like I said in a previous post a while back, I predict Home may well represent the great console shift to the PS3 unless the NXE actually competes with something more than a gimmicky Avatar system thrown into the fray.

In conclusion, my personal take on the NXE is that it's a very convuluted dashboard paintjob. Party mode is fantastic and I cannot stress how happy I am to see this. The problem though isn't with the party mode. It's with the rest of the NXE. There is nothing to behold besides a slightly fancier marketplace front screen and some nice new camera effects if you keep your Vision Camera plugged in when on the dash. The NXE doesn't really seem like much of an experience to me, or particulary new for that matter. Hmm.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Rant Review: Call of Duty: World at War / Call of Duty 4 (???)

Format: Xbox 360 / PS3 / PC

Category: FPS
Players: 1-18
Publisher: Activision

What the CoD?

Time for a new feature: the quick capsule review, aka a rant review. Inspired by an obscure Hicksean joke, I have decided to 'quick capsule' those games I just cba to actually properly critique. This may be for various reasons but you can rest assured that it will always be for a reason, and not just due to laziness on my part.

CoD: WaW. It was inevitable this game would hit and hit it did. I wasn't even going to bother picking it up but swapping Far Cry 2 for a part exchange in a well known games store ensured the coinage came calling. To say I was sad to part with Far Cry 2 would, simply, be a lie.

I didn't expect much from "CoD5". Treyarch's games catalogue reads like a token example of a list of games that should be put on a bus for a one way trip to the desert. However, I wanted to give this one an open mind. People had told me that it was surprisingly good. Infact, many have even dubbed it 'the greatest' WW2 game ever made. Let's break that down.

I guess people are impressed by the dramatic set pieces that... wait. No. Let's roll back a year or two. So there was this games developer called
Infinity Ward and they created a few great WW2 FPS games off the back of their expertise having worked on the original Medal of Honor titles. By 2006, they got working on their magnum opus, Call of Duty 4. They made it from scratch and set a gold standard in the process. Call of Duty 4 was, and still is, that standard for FPS games on both the PC and consoles.

A few months pass. And here we have
CoD: WaW. Quick Capsule review time: this game is merely the sum of Treyarch taking IW's CoD4 formula and just dumping a few new ideas into the mix. This is literally akin to someone taking a core code for a game, customising the options screen, adding a new score over the top, and altering the maps/player models and then announcing it's the latest big thing.

I'll admit that, at first, this game actually really surprised me. At one point I fell for the line that Treyarch had actually pulled it off. I then realised that this was far from the reality of WaW. The reality here is that people are paying for a CoD4 clone. There is nothing new here. Co-op is decent enough. However, I'm not convinced it was particularly hard to implement. My real gripe is with the adversarial multiplayer. Compared to CoD4, it's just not that good. I can't put my finger on it. It's a sense of there being a lack of that magic touch to the map design we saw in CoD4. It's in the way weaponry lacks that cool and solid feel you get in CoD4. It's in the lack of red tiger camo. WaW just isn't as inspired.

It's also in the small things. The voices of the enemies and buddies alike. What they say. How they say it. The voiceover you get for the start of a multiplayer match. All of these elements are superior in CoD4 because they just are. I also prefer the helicopter for a 7 kill streak over a pack of dogs anyday.

Guns, generally, are a massive failing point for
WaW. Nothing is particularly exciting to use. For God's sake, to pit CoD4's arsenal of cutting-edge military shooters against the back catalogue of your Daddy's WW2 era firearms is only ever going to result in one winner when it comes to gamer satisfaction stakes. Treyarch needed to breathe life into these rusty guns in order to keep them exciting to use. We needed a little bit of artistic licence here. The M1 Garand, for example, needed a far more weightier, bass-heavy, blast of a sound effect. I don't care if your sound engineers didn't conclude that would be authentic. Also, camo patterns should have made it in in order to insert something into this dull set of boom sticks. There are also way too many bolt action rifles.

All WaW is is the product of an inferior studio trying to copy a superior one by literally pasting an entire body of code into their new game and tweaking/screwing with it in p-laces. About the only welcome new feature I could find was the filter for matchmaking that allows you to search for local gamers only (about time this became a standard over live). WaW does a few things well, such as the co-op and decent new gore system. The new zombie mode is also a neat bonus. However, I refuse to accept this game does anything better than, say, CoD2 when it comes to dramatic set pieces and linear level design. For me, it's also just a damn frustration that this WW2 title has taken all the limelight and left Hell's Highway in a cold and lonely shadow. Highway is the superior WW2 shooter even after its lack of co-op and poor multiplayer is taken into consideration. This is because it tried to do something different and ambitiously placed a heavy emphasis on realism.

is all about the fun factor both on and offline. That is why red tiger camo is acceptable. That is why you can take on near enough one hundred baddies as a solo sniper guarding a man with a busted up leg. CoD: WaW tries too hard to be a 'horrors of war' piece and trust me when I say that computer games cannot achieve this like a good movie or book can.

Here be my conclusive take on Call of Duty: World at War:

Quick Capsule:

Online: Inferior to CoD4 in every respect - including map design, weapon selection, gametypes.

Single Player: Just another linear CoD romp. Co-op is fun but nothing ground breakingly good - particularly after experiencing Gears of War 2's Horde Mode (review to come soon).

Because of everything I have stated above, I refuse to actually score WaW. This is because I fear giving it a mark out of ten will negate my primary message here; being that
CoD4 is the game and WaW is some pretender trying to make out it's the game. However, seeing as I never actually reviewed CoD4 back in 2007 I will use this moment to rate that glorious title instead.

Summary (Call of Duty 4)

+Linear gaming at its finest
+The paragon of pure FPS games
+Intense, dramatic, heart racing action
+Simply put, the greatest FPS multiplayer experience since CS
-Co-op... if only

9.6 / 10
The pinnacle of a crowded genre both on and offline

by The Critical Alien
© 2008