Microsoft has lost its mind (and Xbox gamers benefit)!

Microsoft dropped a bomb this morning. Game Pass (the Xbox subscription service) will get Microsoft Studios exclusive games the same day they launch globally. So why is this a great deal for Xbox gamers?

Game Pass is a $10/month service. Once you are subscribed you can download and play any of the games in its library. Of course if you unsubscribe you lose access to them. These aren’t streaming games like Playstation Now, you download the games and play them normally. There are currently 164 titles in the program though admittedly a lot of them are old Xbox 360 titles that play on Xbox via Backwards Compatibility, but there are some solid titles in the library too. Stuff like Gears of War 4 and Halo Wars 2.

It already seems like a good deal and something I’d be signed up for if I didn’t have such a huge backlog, but today’s news changes that. Microsoft says that Microsoft Studios exclusives will come to Game Pass on the day of release. Specifically they name-dropped Sea of Thieves, Crackdown 3 and State of Decay 2 and in general terms say that all new Halo, Forza and Gears games will be handled the same way.

So say you’re on the fence when it comes to Sea of Thieves. You can spend $10 for a month of Game Pass and play it as much as you want (plus play the other 164 games in the service). If you decide you like it, you can then buy it for $60 (which admittedly means you’re paying $70 for the game instead of $60), or keep spending $10/month until you’re done with it. If you’re anything like me, not a lot of games hold your attention for more than 6 months. And again, you’ll have access to the entire Game Pass library, not just Sea of Thieves.

I was planning on getting the 3 titles mentioned, and together they would have cost me $180. Instead I can get a year and a half of Game Pass (on a month by month basis…there is no contract or anything as far as I know).

It seems crazy on Microsoft’s part, but hey I’ll take it. I know some people just need to own things, and for those people Game Pass won’t ever be of interest. For those of us who tend to play a game then never go back to it, it seems like a solid deal now that we KNOW some of the games that will be hitting the service.

Eating Xbox backwards compatibility crow

While most of my US dwelling friends are getting ready for a big ‘ol turkey dinner to celebrate Thanksgiving, I’m sitting down to a big plate of crow.

For a LONG time I scoffed at Xbox One’s backwards compatibility. To me it was a smoke-screen: something Microsoft could talk about since it had a system that was less powerful than Sony, few exclusive games and was losing the console war. I couldn’t imagine that anyone was playing old 360 games, particularly since the few times I tried it I ran into all kinds of issues with crashes and poor frame rates.

Now, I have to give Microsoft credit. They’ve stuck with this idea and games are running better and better. That is especially true now that the Xbox One X has arrived. A handful of Xbox 360 games have even been “XBX Enhanced” and look way better than they ever did on the Xbox 360, and many unaltered 360 games still run better on the XBX than they ever did on the 360.

But don’t take my word for it, listen to the game performance pros at Digital Foundry talk about it:

So yeah, I was wrong. Backwards compatibility on the Xbox One isn’t just a smokescreen, it’s a pretty cool feature and I assume that if and when Microsoft introduces the Xbox Two (and honestly all signs point to them just enhancing the current Xbox over introducing a radical new system) they’ll make sure to bring BC along for the ride.

I think one of my projects for this long weekend will be to dig out the crate of Xbox 360 disks I have in the back of a closet somewhere and see how many of them are supported in the BC system.

I’m bummed about Xbox Kinect

At their press conference yesterday Microsoft announced the new Xbox One S, a smaller, slightly more powerful Xbox One console coming in August. It looks like a nice piece of gear, but I’m bummed about one thing: there is no Kinect port on it. Instead you have to use an Adapter (if your existing Xbox One and Kinect are registered with Microsoft you can get it free) and plug your Kinect into a USB port.

This bums me out. We really like Kinect. Specifically, we really like voice controls on the Xbox One for when we’re watching video (I don’t think either of us cares a fig about the camera stuff). So we want to keep Kinect, at least until Microsoft offers something better. But the Xbox One S, like the Xbox One, has only 3 USB ports. On our current Xbone one port is being used by the OTA Adapter (which admittedly is a lot less interesting now that Microsoft has scrapped plans to add DVR functionality for OTA broadcasts), one is being used for external storage. The other is left open for things like syncing controllers. If I were to purchase an Xbox One S I’d have to use all 3 USB ports, and one of them is on the front of the new system so I’d have a wire permanently dangling off the front of the machine. Nope.

In broader terms, removing the Kinect port seems to indicate Microsoft is packing it in and giving up on Kinect. Interestingly the Xbox One S has an IR blaster on the front of the unit (the Kinect uses an IR blaster to control your non-Xbox gear) and it still has a pass-through HDMI connection so they don’t seem to have given up on being your media center.

This summer Microsoft is rolling out Cortana on the Xbox One and you can use ‘her’ via a headset. I guess, moving forward, Microsoft expects everyone will be using a headset to do voice commands. I guess Microsoft thinks the entire Xbox audience is composed of single people who sit alone in a room with their Xbox.

For us, voice commands are used mostly during media playback which we enjoy together. For one of us to have to wear a headset to issue voice commands is just ridiculous.

Of course there’s an easy fix: Microsoft needs to release a ‘room microphone’ for the Xbox One S, or perhaps a media remote with a microphone built in, though I hasten to add that the mike needs to be always listening. If I have to grab a remote and press a button to use voice commands, I won’t bother (I’m looking at you, Amazon Fire TV).

Assuming the IR blaster on the Xbox One S works as well as the one in Kinect (and given that the Kinect is perched up high on top of my TV, I’m not 100% convinced this will be the case), adding a microphone would give us back the capabilities of the Kinect that we actually use.

Unless something changes I’ll be skipping the Xbox One S because we like voice commands and the new console just seems less voice-friendly. I feel like Microsoft is back-sliding at this point in its attempt to win back gamers. Honestly our Xbox gets used a LOT more as a media center than it does as a game machine, but presumably we’re no longer the intended Xbox audience.

I’m really interested to see how they pitch Project Scorpio next year.

Hey Cortana…no not you, the OTHER Cortana

Yesterday Microsoft released details on the next update for the Xbox One. One of the biggest and most anticipated announcements (for me anyway) was bringing Cortana, Microsoft’s digital assistant, to the Xbox One.

Over the past years I’ve come to really appreciate voice commands. It took awhile to get through that awkward phase where I felt silly talking to a machine but I can’t even remember why it felt silly now. I use voice on the Xbox, on my phone, on our Amazon Echo in the kitchen, and on my computers. Not for everything, but for some things it just makes sense.

So for the most part I’m thrilled that Cortana is coming to the Xbox One. I have just one concern; apparently the trigger phase will be “Hey Cortana” instead of “Xbox.” Microsoft is doing this in order to offer a consistent user experience across devices, but this is one case where a consistent user experience could work against them.

The problem is that at any given moment, there may be as many as three Windows 10 devices in the same room as the Xbox One. My experience is that for voice commands to work they need to be always listening. If you have to press a button or something, you may as well not use them. So most of our Windows 10 devices are in ‘always listen’ mode in terms of Cortana.

For a laptop it’s possible to speak quietly so that when I say “Hey Cortana” only the machine in front of me ‘hears’ me, but the Xbox is across the room. When I say “Hey Cortana I want to play Forza” I’m sure the Xbox will fire up Forza for me, but will my laptop start up Forza Apex, too? Will Angela’s laptop tell her it can’t find a Forza title to play?

Dear Microsoft, your next Cortana update needs to make the system smart enough so we can set trigger names for each of our devices. (I should add that it may be they’ve already thought of this…I took my Xbox One out of the Preview program so I haven’t had any hands-on time with the new feature yet.) I should be able to say Hey Xbox to get something to happen on my Xbox, Hey Surface to get something to happen on my Surface tablet, and so on. Even better, let us set our own names. I’ll name my desktop Bert and my laptop Ernie and be able to trigger Cortana on only the device I want it to activate on.

Please don’t read this as bitching. I’m really happy Cortana is coming to the Xbox even with this one drawback. Right now the Xbox voice commands are way too rigid. I actually can’t say “Xbox play Forza” today. I have to say something like “Xbox, play Forza Motorsport 6” or whatever the official name of the game is. For this reason I don’t launch games via voice on the Xbox currently because it’s too fiddly. Once Cortana rolls out voice commands should feel a bit more conversational; I’m really looking forward to that.

Neverwinter, the Free-to-play-the-slot-machines MMO

paragon_achievementNeverwinter launched on the Xbox One on March 31st and I’ve been playing it ever since, at my usual casual pace. My character is level 31 at the moment, and I’ve generally been enjoying myself except for one thing: the constant exposure to gambling systems.

Neverwinter is free to play and the company takes every opportunity to try to squeeze a few more bucks out of you. And I get it, to a certain extent. They need to keep the cash rolling in. But even once you get past that it’s all about gambling for things you need or want.

For example, in my 2 weeks and 31 levels of playing I’ve accumulated about 60 of the Enchanted LockBox things. To open these requires a key that sells for 125 Zen. A Zen is worth a penny if you buy normal quantities (when you start buying in chunks of $50 and above you get some bonus Zen). So $1.25/lockbox. It’d cost me $75 to buy Zen to open these boxes. And that’s from a mere two weeks worth of playing. I did open 3 or 4 of them and never got anything the least bit exciting so at this point they just feel like a ‘nag’ from the developers. And you get them ALL the time. Last night I played for like 20 minutes before dinner and picked up half a dozen more. Three in a single trash-mob battle!

But OK let’s just agree to ignore these things. Then there’re the loot chests that you buy with coins you earn from ‘praying’ every day. I’ve opened three of these so far. (I have a 2nd character who is just high enough level to ‘pray’.) Every time I got “junk” (not my description, the game actually said I had rewards of junk quality). So that’s frustrating too. I make a point to log in every day even if I’m not going to have time to play and my reward is literally junk. So let’s ignore those too.

Then there’s enchanting. As you play your character will be standing in a virtual rain of little enchantment gems. In an hour your inventory will be full of enchantment baubles (unless you spent Zen on upgrading your inventory space, of course!) You’ll want to combine these to make an enchantment worth using. As you smoosh them together they get to a point where they’re ready to be upgraded. In order to upgrade you need a reagant that can (as far as I can find) only be purchased with Astral Diamonds. Astral Diamonds are the quasi-real-money currency in Neverwinter. There’s a brokerage where you can exchange Astral Diamonds for Zen and vice versa.

Now admittedly an Astral Diamond isn’t worth much. Currently on the Xbox 150 Astral Diamonds will buy you 1 Zen, and we’ve established that 1 Zen = 1 cent so… But anyway back to enchanting. So you buy these Reagants to upgrade your enchantment and you then have a CHANCE for the upgrade to work. If it fails you lose your reagants and have to buy more. There are ‘wards’ you can use to preserve your reagants but I’m not sure where they come from. Suffice to say I have none. So spend 1000 Astral Diamonds (about 6.66 cents at current exchange rates) and you try to upgrade and it fails. So you buy more reagants and it fails again. And you try a third dime and success! But it’s cost you 13 cents to upgrade this one enchantment. Every piece of armor you own has an enchantment slot and your companions have several. It adds up… I mean it’s never going to be an onerous amount of money (and you can earn Astral Diamonds by doing daily chores pretty easily) but it’s just one more way you feel like you’re literally being nickel-ed and dime-ed by the game. Can we afford to ignore enchanting?

But the last straw for me was a limited time event that went live yesterday. It’s called the Challenge of the Gods and the way it works is that just about every mob will drop a little challenge icon if you’re not already in the midst of a challenge. Challenges are all short term 3-5 minutes tasks (the one exception is a 20 minute crafting challenge) and you have to do things like kill enemies without using a sub-set of your skills, or kill 5 “powerful” enemies in 5 minutes. Stuff like that. If you succeed what do you get? A Gift From the Gods which is another slot-machine item. You might get something good, you might get crap. And surprise, all I’ve gotten is crap. Though you do get enchantments and stuff that bring you closer to spending more Astral Diamonds on reagants.

A side effect of these challenges is the game now feels completely frantic. As soon as you finish one, the next mob you kill will drop another so you’re always doing a challenge. If you stop to read quest text or check out some lore you uncovered you’re going to fail the challenge by running out of time. Of course we don’t HAVE to undertake these challenges, so let’s ignore them along with enchanting, daily login rewards and enchanted lockboxes.

So listen, if you’re a laid back player who is good at just dipping in and taking what is interesting to you and ignoring the rest, none of this is going to bother you much. But if you have the slightest hint of OCD or the completionist gene (which I do), having all this stuff pop up in your face and choosing to ignore it starts to really wear you down. And choosing to not ignore it and then being disappointed when the RNG gods don’t favor you (and let’s face it, Neverwinter is a casino and the house always wins) isn’t a good feeling either.

I’d be so much happier to just pay Perfect World $15/month and be able to play a game without all these gambling systems being thrust in my face all the time. (I do like a little gambling here and there, but I also like knowing that working hard towards a goal will get you closer to that goal, not a random chance of obtaining that goal.) I love playing an MMO on the console so I’ll probably keep poking at Neverwinter while grinding my teeth at these systems, but I’m really hoping The Elder Scrolls Online feels more like a game and less like a casino when it hits console. If it does, I’ll be leaving Neverwinter behind and heading for Tamriel. (If FF XIV didn’t mix PC and console players together I might go back to that, but knowing I’m playing with a controller in a group where everyone else is using a keyboard and mouse makes me feel like the weak link, unfortunately.)


Forza Horizon 2 (and a bit about the Xbox One experience)

Forza Horizon 2 didn’t make a great first impression on me. I think I just got too caught up in the hype and the product delivered felt a little…trivial maybe. Mostly it was the off-road stuff that bugged me; I felt like it made it too easy to just cut across a corner instead of following pavement. I also didn’t like that you got a really good car early on and I saw no need to switch, at least at first. And then there was the in-game radio stations, which I didn’t care for.

In fact my first impression was that Forza Horizon 2 was that it was a bit of a train car wreck.

But I kept playing and the more I played, the more I enjoyed it. I unlocked the classical music station (I’d still prefer a classic rock station but oh well). I was prompted to buy new cars so I could compete in different kinds of events. I was introduced to systems like “Barn Finds” (where you have to search out an abandoned barn that has some old car inside that you’ll get for free) and collecting photos of different cars. I joined a Club (the one that AGE runs) and started competing against both club members and friends to see who could bust the most billboards or discover the most roads.

All the while the racing grew on me. I embraced cutting across corners (or even across fields) and just ignored the fact that most of these cars would have no chance of transversing a plowed field, given their clearance. I’d choose to drive a VW Microbus instead of a Ferrari just for the silly joy of driving an old classic. Basically I re-learned how to play a game for fun instead of playing in the most expedientway in order to finish as quickly as possible.

And now I love Forza Horizon 2. I think my turning point came when I got a chance to race a train.

But there’s more to the story and it has to do with the Xbox One itself, and how it enabled me to come to love FH2 (and how the system is starting to really grow on me). In order to explain I have to tell you a little bit about my routine.

Every day after work I take the dog for a walk and then come home and have a variable amount of ‘down time’ before dinner. Angela is the cook in this house and this is my lazy time when I crack open a beer and flop down on the couch. I never know if I’m going to have 5 minutes or 50, so in the pre-Xbox One days I’d just watch TV because it wasn’t worth firing up a game if I was going to have to quit before I really got started.

But now I turn on the Xbox One and start playing a game. The amount of time I have doesn’t really matter because of the XB1’s suspend feature. When dinner is ready it’s a matter of saying “Xbox watch TV” and the game I’m playing suspends and TV starts playing (yes we’re bad people who eat dinner in front of the TV). So we’ll eat and watch something on the DVR. After dinner Angela usually grabs her iPad to check Twitter or Pinterest or whatever, and I grab the controller and switch back to my suspended game and pick up right where I left off. When I’ve had my fill (or if I have more work to do) I put the whole Xbox into standby mode. The next day I can wake it up and again pick up that game right where I left off.

This sounds minor but in fact it is making the XB1 my go-to console since I don’t have to load up a game, then load up a save, and then start playing. I just say “Xbox On,” grab a controller and start playing the game I had been playing the previous evening.

Overall I still prefer the Playstation ecosystem and when I know I have a couple hours to play it’s the PS3 or PS4 that gets turned on. But on busy days when I just have a few minutes to sneak in some gaming before or after dinner, the Xbox One can provide that fix quickly and effortlessly. And Forza Horizon 2 is the kind of game that rewards playing for 10 minutes; maybe I can get a photo of a rare car, or maybe I’ll go in search of signs to drive through for bonus points. The game offers a plethora of both short and long term goals and makes even the shortest gaming sessions feel really fun.

Farewell to Forza

forzaboxWell after 2 weeks of Forza 5 I think I’ve slaked my thirst for simulation racing. Last night I hopped over to the PS4 and Need For Speed: Rivals and all I could think of was “Wow, this is so much more fun!”

I think Forza 5 is a very good game but it’s a game that really requires dedication if you want to enjoy it over a long period of time. You can start out by turning on all the assists and doing pretty well in races, to be sure, but honestly that doesn’t require a lot of skill. And enjoying Forza is all about becoming more skillful.

I started the other way. I turned off a bunch of assists and was doing OK while driving the less expensive cars (the C & D class cars). As soon as I jumped into my first B class car (a Jag) I just couldn’t keep the thing on the road. Punching the throttle would cause the back end to spin out, the slightest bit of oversteer would cause me to fishtail back and forth down the track.

I turned a bunch of assists back on and started finishing in the front of the pack again, but I couldn’t help but feel like the Xbox was playing more than I was. What I really needed to do was practice, practice, practice using the controller to drive. I needed to learn to feather the right trigger (throttle) rather than mashing it all the way down, and same with brakes (though I did have ABS on which made braking less of an issue…earlier in my career I’d hit the same issue with braking and ABS eliminated the need to learn to feather the brakes).

Problem is, I just wasn’t motivated to do that, for a few reasons.

First, Forza 5 is a slow moving game. You load up a track and that takes a while. Then you race a 2-3 lap race which doesn’t take very long. Then the game goes into the post race routine where it slooowwwly shows your (probably battered) car rolling to a stop from 3 different angles. Then it slowwwwwly counts up your winnings, then makes you stare at them for a good 10 seconds. Then it slooowwwwwly shows your experience and affinity gain, and again makes you stare at these for much longer than you’d ever want to. Then finally you get to the post-race screen. When you hit continue it takes a good while to unload the current track, then another while to load the next track.

I haven’t measured it but it feels like I spend more time watching loading/unloading screens than I do racing. I’m pretty sure that isn’t really the case, but it’s how it feels. I find myself impatiently mashing buttons on the controller hoping to find a magical combo that will speed up the post-race routine. I’m sure the pacing is so some kind of number crunching can finish in the background… but after a while it starts to get under my skin.

Second, the replay cameras kind of suck. I play the game from the in-car view so often I’ll get slammed into and not really know what happened, so I go to the replay. There are a few camera options there but none of them gives a good broad view of the race. I want a camera that follows my car from a few hundred feet above and behind it, so I can see how issues in a race developed. If there is such a camera I haven’t found it. There is a “replay” camera that shows the race from certain fixed points but there are huge gaps on the track where there’s no coverage and the “replay” camera defaults to a view from the front bumper, which is totally useless since that’s more or less the view I was driving from.

Third, I like a healthy dose of CarPG in my racing games. I love earning credits/cash and using it to upgrade my cars. You can do this in Forza 5 but generally you do it once per class change and that’s it. Every car has a numerical rating and classes start at the hundred marks. So if Class B starts at a rating of 501 (going by memory here) then in order to be competitive in Class C your car better be rated between 490-500. When you move from Class D to Class C (assuming you just don’t buy a Class C car) you’ll upgrade everything to bring that car up to spec. And Forza 5 gives you a 1 button upgrade to maximize all of this.

Four is a lack of variety. Forza 5 is all about circuit racing. Once in a while you’ll have some goofy challenge at the Top Gear test track (like driving through bowling pins) but, as far as I’ve seen anyway, there’re no rally courses, or drift competitions, or Kart racing to break things up.

Now there’s a lot to Forza 5 I haven’t taken advantage of. There is an elaborate painting/design system that people use to create pretty amazing paint jobs. I don’t really have the patience for that but I appreciate being able to access the great work other players have done.

There’s a whole Tuning system that you can use to customize how you car handles. Sadly I’m just not knowledgeable enough to make use of it, and this is probably my Forza Achille’s Heel. Maybe that Jag wouldn’t be so squirrely if I tuned it properly. I could learn about this, and I know that people do learn about car tuning just to play Forza better, but that’s where the dedication requirement kicks in. At the end of the day, it’s just not that important to me. That’s my problem though, and not a problem with the game.

And there’s online racing against real players. I feel like I suck too much to get into that, but I suppose I should try it sometime.

As I said, Forza is a good game, but for a casual racing fan like me, it requires too much dedication and too much patience for long-term enjoyment. That said, I’ve played it every single night for the past 2 weeks so I don’t regret the purchase one bit. I’ll probably leave all the assists turned on so I can go back and enjoy it from time to time just to marvel at how amazing everything looks.

And I hope the company makes a Forza Horizons 2 for the Xbox One. From what I hear, the simulation aspects of Forza Horizon are dialed back, but it’s still a looker of a game. So a ‘next gen’ version would be very welcome.

Until then, I’m back to waiting for the arrival of Drive Club and The Crew while I continue to trick out my Mustang in Need For Speed Rivals.