Happy Birthday, Xbox 360! Believe it or not, today marks the 12th anniversary of the launch of the Xbox 360. Despite a somewhat lengthy initial period of supply shortages, followed almost immediately be several years of technical issues (including drives that would occasionally render game discs permanently unplayable, and, especially, the infamous "red ring of death"), the year-long head start the 360 enjoyed over the competition helped it to become arguably the most popular home console of a generation.
Of course, it wasn't the earlier availability alone that made it such a stunning success. Questionable decisions from Sony and Nintendo with their own PlayStation 3 and Wii consoles, in addition to early commitments by Microsoft to bring scores of fantastic games to the 360, made it the obvious choice for enthusiastic gamers around the world. In fact, not only did Microsoft manage to score several popular third-party franchises that had previously only appeared on the competition's hardware, but they also arranged publishing deals which resulted in the creation of brand new and amazing titles you could only experience on the Xbox 360. Speaking of amazing games, we went ahead and included a few examples of those below. So, read on for a look at 12 of the finest reasons to have ever owned an Xbox 360.
Still holding out on that reviled Windows 10 "upgrade"? Well you're an adult and far be it for me to tell you what to do, but it's the 19th and Microsoft will only be offering the install for free until July 29th.
It happens every year. Every year, without fail, at around this time, "real" news [and I use the word in inverted commas, because really - game releases and hints at game releases aren't really "news" at all. They're - at best - terrible product placement] drops right off the radar.
Why? Because some PR drone way up on high has decided that nothing can leak out prior to E3. And that results in what fans generally call "lots of slow news days." While that's a problem, E3 - and shows like it - have a far bigger issue that I want to tackle.
Please note: This article is LITTERED with links. They will open in a new window and will take you off-site.
Now that four-in-February is behind us, I thought I'd take some time to look into games that I'm at least a little curious about for the calendar year of 2016. I have divided my choices into three broad sections:
Things that will almost definitely be with us in the near-future or before the end of 2016.
Things that might make it into 2016, but you never know.
And, finally, things that I'm totally worried about. Sometimes with good reason.
So, let's take a look and see, shall we? Read more
This year my goal was to finish Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, Halo 5, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak and finally Grim Fandango. I am sad to report, I failed, and miserably. I had a 50% completion rate in no small part due to the release of several games including the time sink of Xcom 2 (reviewed on our site here by Scroo). What this exercise really hammered home is the dilemma of the modern gamer, prioritization.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate:
First to touch on the games I played, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate was a solid experience, the game finally delivered on the promise of the franchise that has been missing in the last three entries. While I love Black Flag’s sailing mechanic the story missed out on a lot of elements and made me feel uncomfortable with the protagonist but not nearly as much as I outright disliked the leads of both Rogue and Unity. Simplification was the key, the use of the Frye twins (which was very hard to not make Futurama jokes about) kept the narrative fresh by switching between the two depending on the type of mission and preserving stylistic integrity of the character preventing ludonarrative dissonance from being a problem. This is one of the few times I’ve actually gone for completionism, the side quests were all solid fun and while they were plentiful they were never overwhelming like in Unity (which I basically just walked away from saying “screw this” when I couldn’t see my objectives for all the clutter of side quests). This title is well worth playing.
Halo 5: Guardians
Having bought this at the same time as Syndicate and not touched it I was actually able to finish the game rather quickly. Splitting the narrative between Blue Team with its succulently voiced Master Chief and Osiris led by Spartan Locke (or the Master Chief Grouch) the game was solid enough. There were some changes, Locke originally portrayed by Mike Colter (who is busy now being Luke Cage) didn’t return and was replaced by sound alike actor Ikè Amadi. Honestly, unless I was told, I wouldn’t have heard a difference. Amadi does his best with a bad script. I went into the game relishing the opportunity to spend time with Buck (aka my Mancrush Nathan “Captain Mal Reynolds” Fillion) to find very little actual interplay between the team members. There’s some random background chatter and the lush and beautifully rendered cut scenes which would actually make for a great movie/tv series on their own but beyond that there was no real difference who you were playing with.
Regardless if you were the Chief or Locke your companions were pretty brain dead AIs. Playing on Heroic the game never felt too tough, I was able to make it through the game with some strategy but the AIs of your companions are downright stupid often ignoring pleas for help or just running blindly into fire. Your enemies on the other hand would often coordinate attacks and make use of flanking and cover very effictively. If only my squad were so smart! The squad level commands were Spartan (forgive the pun) at best. You essentially had resurrect me, go here, use this vehicle and attack that. You don’t want to be worrying about issuing a ton of commands in a combat heavy game, understood, but some more strategy and differing play styles by your AI companions would be nice. Even the ability to set behaviour like in Mass Effect would have been cool (like get Buck to use heavy weapons or Fred to focus on sniping).
The story itself is the framing device to the next arc of the Halo universe. It feels like we may finally be done with the Flood/Covenant/Precursor story and introducing something entirely new. Allies become enemies and new alliances are forged but in the end the story felt annoying because of some of the reversals that just felt silly and the fact that much of this could have been resolved with a simple call back to base or a 5 minute conversation. That being said, the same could be said about 90% of action movies out there so there’s that.
Multiplayer is tight with none of the Halo Master Chief Collector’s Edition issues and due to its design even joining in months later thanks to a lack of a class system I didn’t feel overpowered by my opponents. The arena material was classic halo and the addition of mobility powers and clambering change the dynamic enough to make it feel fresh. The best part though is the addition of Warzone. This adds large scale team vs. team vs. environment play and is a sort of capture and hold based game play with points being accrued for destroying Precursor and Covenant who drop into the field of play. This is the most fun and revolutionary addition that could be a game on its own. One little possible concern is the addition of card packs but having played the multiplayer it’s easy enough to earn these requisition packs which unlock gear in Warzone matches as well as cosmetic material. That said, all of this can be earned simply by playing the game and I’ve not once had to buy any in game or even been compelled to consider it.
In short, if you like Halo and the universe Bungie created you’ll enjoy where 343 Industries are taking it. If you don’t you may not really enjoy the gameplay which can be at times frustrating due to working with team AIs that feel like they have brain damage. However, given the ability to play co-op, this could change the feel of the game especially with friends you can to something more enjoyable. Really with a 16 mission campaign that depending on play style can be run in 5 to 6 hours unless you are a fan of the universe or the multiplayer I’d suggest waiting for a sale.
That brings us to my shameful failures, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak and Grim Fandango, to be honest I barely touched them. I did get a bit more time in with Homeworld but I found the lack of ability to issue commands in formation or line up where my units sat on the 3D environment frustrating and over the month of February, I had several betas pop up that were limited time, a couple of “Seasonal events” roll around in a few games I regularly play and the release of several new titles.
When I started gaming in the late 70s there were literally a handful of games a year. Many of them rehashes of existing games with just different plastic sheets you'd tape to your TV.
During the 80s and 90s it picked up but it still wasn’t the same kind of frantic pace you have today. You could get away with buying “all the games you want” because even at its peak during the "Holiday Season" it was still only a few dozen games at most which means you wont be overwhelmed.
But now we have new games showing up on a weekly basis. This doesn't count Betas, DLC, season events and so on. All of this makes it a challenge to just focus. I have access to Steam, PlayStation and Xbox and these libraries are littered with titles I’ve not finished. Many of these games are great - as long as I'm playing them - but I never really seem to make any headway through my backlog because of the sheer constant barrage of New Hotness that might be floating around in the gaming world. Thankfully, those games in those libraries aren’t going anywhere and I can always return to them, but as time marches forward it feels harder and hard to return to these abandoned games.
It makes me wonder if it wouldn’t be better if game companies cut development in half and focused on titles making really amazing experiences versus the constant iterations on old titles, re-releases, HD Upgrades, and the crazy release schedule we deal with now. In the end, no one forces me to buy these games and I’m lucky enough to have disposable income enough that I can live easily with my poor impulse control, but if I was a kid who didn’t have a lot of cash it would have been frustrating. I guess I’m lucky enough to have grown up in a time where 5 of my friends could split the cost of a game and share it using floppy disks to copy the game. Man, how the times have changed.
I am generally the kind of gamer who savours the experience (savour being code for I take forever to finish a game). I'm still toiling away on games from years ago all the while my collection builds up to the point where it becomes slightly daunting to think about what to play next (seriously, I'll get around to finishing Dragon Age: Inquisition one of these days but having seen the Bull sexy time scene I think I've seen all the best parts).
For my #4iF list I decided to go with a mix of new and old as well as a variety of gameplay types. First off I'm going to start with a little old school RTS revivalism by finishing the campaign of Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak. Designed by Blackbird Interactive, a team made up of the designers of the original Homeworld and published by Gearbox Software who acquired the rights during the sundering of THQ the game was originally intended as a "spiritual successor" to the Homeworld series and started under the name of Shipbreakers.
When Gearbox picked up the rights they heard about this project and invited the team back to help not only build the re-release of the original Homeworld games but fold Shipbreakers into the Homeworld universe. The premise was already very familiar with only a slight twist to the story it was able to slot in as a prequel rather nicely. I look forward to exploring the world of Kharak before the Mothership helped the people retake the stars.
To liven things up a bit I'm going to swing from RTS into action-adventure, I'm going to work on putting Assassin's Creed Syndicate to bed. I've been working on that since release and what's dragged it out so much is that it has been so fun! The game world is rich and interesting and just chock-full of interesting gameplay. In a lot of ways it's felt like a final return on the promise of the series for the first time in years. We have strong and interesting protagonists with a believable relationship, the bad guys are not so cartoonish and the story makes more sense than the last few. Can't wait to polish this off!
Next is a bit twitchier, when Halo 5 dropped so did Assassin's Creed Syndicate and it's been a challenge to find time to spend with it. Destiny has taken up most of my shooting schedule and I've just not felt the need even with Microsoft's really interesting podcast and cross promotion.
That changes this February, the saga of Master Chief is just a vague excuse for me to spend time with my very own virtual Nathan Fillion. I mean it's not hanging out with Mal and zipping around the 'verse misbehaving but it's still something. Damn that man, he does have the rugged good looks of an action hero!
Lastly a classic that I never completed, this is a sin especially for an old school gamer like myself. I feel incomplete having never finished this but now I will right wrongs by completing the saga of Manny in Grim Fandango. The quirky and unique adventure game from the great minds of Doublefine Studio for LucasArts.
Thankfully under Disney's leadership Doublefine have started loosening the choke hold they have on older properties and letting some of them get licensed or even re-released. With Grim Fandango Doublefine made a concerted effort to update without altering the game leaving the obtuse and at times cryptic gameplay intact (I mean not as insane as Gabriel Knight's method of obtaining a fake moustache). This is an interesting historical piece of software as it shows how gameplay, even within a fairly niche genre like adventure games, has evolved over the years. A game that at one time used mechanics considered normal could now be considered quaint, dated or just downright cryptic!
So that's my February in a nutshell. Now to step up to the challenge! (Also, have to find some time to fit XCOM 2 in there now that's going to be a challenge!)
Well, it's happening. Microsoft has added Windows 10 to the list of recommended updates for Windows 7 and 8.1 users. That means if you've got a Windows PC and you're perfectly happy with the operating system you chose, bought and payed for a few years back then you may wake up to an unwelcome surprise soon. That is if you've got Windows Update set up to automatically install updates.
Thankfully you can get around this by entering your control panel, choosing System and Security, then clicking on Windows Update. From there you can change settings to let you decide what's installed on your PC. I'd personally recommend "let me choose when to download and install updates" as the automatic download isn't exactly small and will suck up your bandwidth if set to anything else besides "never check for updates".
For the record here, it's still advised to install security updates and the like to keep things flowing normally, but if you don't want to walk in to a room after refilling your coffee cup and see that you have a new OS installing, I'd recommend unchecking the one that says Windows 10 before confirming any installations. If you -do- get caught in the auto upgrade, you'll have 31 days to choose to reverse the action.
Also here's how to stop that annoying little nagware popup telling you your free copy of Windows 10 awaits.
Open the Registry Editor (search for regedit in the Start Menu and run it).
Set DisableOSUpgrade to 1 in HKLM\SOFTWARE\Policies\Microsoft\Windows\WindowsUpdate
Set ReservationsAllowed to 0 in HKLM\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\WindowsUpdate\OSUpgrade
Furthermore, if your reason for not updating to Windows 10 is the fact that it spies on basically everything you do... Well Windows 7 and 8.1 have been doing that for quite a while now, so they're just as bad. Bigger reasons to avoid the upgrade are things like these:
Your PC is optimized to run it's current OS, not Windows 10. Things could bog down, you may see tons of errors etc.
Your PC is old/unsupported by Windows 10. Microsoft doesn't care about that, they'll still install Windows 10 for you and it could brick your machine potentially costing you money to have it reverted to your previous OS.
Your PC is running software that cost you loads of money and will not be supported by Windows 10. Again, Microsoft doesn't care and you may not be able to use that software any more.
On November 16th, Microsoft added the ability to remap the buttons on your standard wireless controller for your XBox One. Those who want to change their button mapping can either launch the Xbox Accessories app or enter their Xbox One settings. If you don't have the app already, the link above will provide all the information you need to get it.
Remapping through the accessories app works by either swapping buttons or changing individual buttons through drop down menus. Looks altogether pretty simple.Those settings will only save on your console however, as the standard controllers don't have any on-board storage. So if you map your controls at home then take your controller to a friend's place, don't expect them to still be mapped the way you want. And sadly as of yet there is no PC support for said remapping, but it's on the way according to Microsoft.
My comfort zone when it comes to video games extends to slow games. I like adventure games. I like turn based strategy games [assuming there aren't a billion units]. I like turn based role playing games [assuming there isn't a stupid ton of micromanagement]. So, platformers are generally right out. The speed of a platformer, coupled with the number of enemies and the level of sheer frustration those games can engender just make them not worth my while.
But I've been trying. I most recently beat Evoland 2, a game that takes some inspiration from platformers of the past. I also beat Shovel Knight, again, earlier this year, because I love that game a great deal.
Both these games are great, but they're modern and have modern gamers in mind. Evoland - thoughtfully - saves your progress every time you change scenes. Shovel Knight has a clever, player-directed difficulty setting where you can either break your checkpoints or you can leave them intact, allowing you to make the game incredibly difficult, or just "somewhat challenging."
Banjo-Kazooie, however, comes from a different time. A time when men were men, squirrels could get their own game and you could still get away with making a cutesy, animal-based platformer.
Banjo-Kazooie is this last, a cute, animal-based platformer that doesn't really take itself seriously at all. The plot is pretty simple: Bad witch discovers she's not the nicest looking witch in all the world. A bear by the name of Tooty is. She decides this simply will not do, kidnaps the bear with the intention of swapping bodies and gets caught in the act, red-handed by a mole named Bottles. Bottles yells for Banjo to help his sister, which, basically starts the adventure.
The creepy nature of the plot aside, Banjo-Kazooie is a blast. You start at Banjo's house where Bottles teaches you a couple of moves that you can use to jump, stomp and run through each ensuing level. For the first few worlds, your move set will slowly broaden until you can fly, bomb creatures from the air and run extra fast with the help of a pair of running shoes.
Each level is a complete little world, with it's own particular perils and theme. In one world, you might be in a winter wonderland, while in another, you may be traversing a scary mansion. No two worlds are ever quite alike. Each has its own [fantastic] musical theme, little character designs that show just enough personality to be memorable [but, given the brief nature of your visits to each, don't get fleshed out overmuch] while never getting in the way of game play or bogging the player down with superfluous fluff.
This particular game comes from an age that incentivized exploration through collectibles. In Banjo-Kazooie, the main "currency" of the game is the musical note. You can pick up 900 of these and each note that you pick up brings you closer to opening sections of Gruntilda's [the witch] lair. At the beginning, you simply need fifty notes to progress, but as the game slowly winds up the difficulty crank, so it expects you to rise to the challenge of collecting ever more notes.
To unlock future worlds, you need puzzle pieces that complete picture frames throughout the lair. Again, starts off simple - you only require one of these to get into Mumbo's Mountain, but by the time the game winds down, you're going to make sure you're scouring levels for as many as you can get. These are - in the game's parlance - Jiggies.
Jiggies are earned through doing a collection of little "quests" throughout the level you're in and these are great. It's a very rewarding way to entice the player through the game. Some are fairly "standard." There's a Jiggy for collecting a "collection" of Jinjo's - little, bird-like creatures that have been scattered throughout the levels by Gruntilda, while others are more esoteric and need far more work. In one of the very last levels, for example, your patience with a young bird [that you hatch, yourself - and then later feed, too] is rewarded when, at last, the bird takes to the skies and reveals the Jiggy it was holding onto for you.
There are other collectibles: extra lives, honeycomb pieces [that extend your life bar] and Mumbo tokens [which allow you to visit the local shaman, Mumbo and be transformed into something native to the world you're in. In one world you might be an ant and in another, you might be an incredibly adorable walrus.] all of which you'll seek out, but the main game requires that you simply collect notes and Jiggies.
And this seeking out is the most fantastic thing about the game. Modern games will hold you by the hand and guide you, step by step through what you need to be doing next. Shovel Knight had the over world. Evoland 2 - while incredibly open in it's second act - still has a structure you can follow. Banjo? If you're smart and wily, you can sequence break - going into worlds that you should only visit further along in the adventure. Likewise, each level is wide open. You can start at any point [for the most part] and collect any Jiggy you choose. [This is almost always true. A couple of worlds force prerequisites on you - Clanker's Cavern has an entire second half that can only be done by doing a very specific Jiggy-related task.]
One of Banjo-Kazooie's greatest assets is this variety. You never quite know what you're going to run into while you're playing and this makes it easy to want to play. If there's one thing modern gaming has entirely lost, it's the element of "what's around the next corner" and this particular game has that down to a fine art. Wozza the Walrus won't deal with me if I'm a bear, but how about when I'm a walrus, too? There's this very weird camel guy in Gobi's valley that says all this funny stuff, I wonder if I can get him to move? All these little things add up to make Banjo-Kazooie a joy to play.
But it is not without its faults.
One early move you learn is a maneuver that allows you to toss eggs, but it's never as accurate as you'd like it to be, because 3d gaming was in its infancy and trying to aim your "missiles" so that they did what you wanted could be quite daunting. This is - to a lesser extent - a problem with every move in the game. 3D wasn't a perfected art at this point, so judging distances - especially when you're high up in a level and the prospect of falling is a clear and present danger - could be tricky. One of my single biggest gripes with the control of Banjo-Kazooie was that they didn't just come to a complete stop. Often, if you're running in a direction and you take your hands off the controller, there's a little gap between your action and the action on screen. Essentially, the bear and bird pair will skid to a halt a couple of steps further than you meant for them to be. This can create a weird kind of terrible tension where you absolutely need to stop dead, and sometimes, the game will keep moving you, plummeting you to your doom.
In the same vein, the forced swimming is atrocious. You get "used to it" by the end of the game, but it is difficult to control, has a tendency to make you overshoot your actual goal and drowning is a thing that can really happen.
And when you die...
...Well, I mentioned that this was an old game with an older design paradigm, so when you do kick the bucket, your notes that you collected get revoked. You're forced to re-play that section of the game again to re-acquire all the notes you just lost so that you can beat your "note score" for that world. This can be a frustration at the end-game where the levels get increasingly more difficult and require particular dexterity on your part. [Engine room in Rusty Bucket Bay, I'm looking at you!]
Besides, at least this frustration has been dealt with in the XBox re-issue of the game.[that you can currently snag through the Rare Replay compilation.]
This Xbox version introduces it's own set of frustrations - Motzhand's organ plays exactly the same note regardless of which key you hit while you're working with that particular puzzle. All of the Nintendo branding and shout-outs are gone [this is understandable, but sad] and that special kind of tension where you lose all your notes when you die is gone. [This can swing both ways. On the one hand, the challenge can be interesting. On the other, it can also be particularly frustrating.]
What do I think of Banjo-Kazooie? I think it's absolutely worth experiencing. The current re-release does some things rather differently, but if you've never played it, this would be the place to start. Of course, if you want the original experience, you should attempt to find it for the Nintendo 64.
This is easily, behind The Dig, one of my favourite games this year.
Computer games have a pretty short history when you compare them with other media - books, movies and music all have far, far more works attributed to them than video games could ever have - and yet those media [books, movies and music] don't have nearly the same technological hill to climb as video games.
Whole chunks of gaming history just get abandoned as we march ever onward toward greater polygon counts, better musical fidelity and tonal shifts in gameplay. Where once the platforming collect-a-thon ruled the roost, today, most people only really want to play first/third person shooters.
And in that shift - from one platform to the next - we lose games. Sometimes catastrophically terrible games, but sometimes, we lose wonderful pieces of history, too. Like Banjo Kazooie or Okami.
One of the answers? Emulation. But the industry tends to frown upon emulation, because it requires reverse engineering the original game console [or operating system] and Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft aren't fans of that.