At Microsoft’s Canadian Xbox One preview this week in Toronto, I had a chance to briefly try out most of the titles that will ship at the same time as the system. The event was crowded and noisy, not a place to be reviewing games in depth. So this is just a very cursory overview. But there were a few points that seem worth mentioning.
Forza Motorsports 5
The game looks great, as you’d expect. Cars show very believable wear and tear to the paintjob. Microsoft notes that each car now includes numerous types of material, each accurately modeled. Obviously, cars are easier to depict than humans, but they are now nearing photo-realistic quality.
I did notice some very obvious aliasing along the edges of body panels. The effect was subtle, yet jarring. My brain was fooled into thinking I was looking at real-world HD video, which would never show this kind of artifact. Not a big deal, but interesting. It may be there’s hardware post-processing still needing to be implemented.
Physics modeling seems very complex, which made driving fiendishly difficult for someone like me, who isn’t a particular addict of driving sims. Controls are twitch-sensitive, cars are enormously over-powered and tire traction is in very short supply. I found that really tiny movements on the thumbstick were enough to have the car swooping all over the road.
I suspect that fans will want a proper wheel controller, like the Thrustmaster product Microsoft had on show (but unfortunately not plugged in for use) at the preview.
Ryse: Son of Rome
In my few minutes with this game, I got a very mixed impression.
The visuals are in many ways spectacular, showing huge numbers of amazingly realistic human warriors on screen at one time. But the game does cheat just a bit, which actually detracts from the illusion.
Story events subtly shift the display to pre-rendered video, then fade smoothly back to the live in-engine view. Nicely done… but Crytek sneaks some extra facial detail into the close-ups in these mini cut-scenes. They should have resisted the temptation and just gone with a single visual texture. Better yet, deliver the story material in-engine, without freezing the controls. (It can be done.)
Some aspects of gameplay are more impressive than others. I took over the controller from another journalist in the middle of a long and annoying turret sequence. You control a big crossbow-like weapon (with a preposterous rate of fire) to mow down hordes of attackers. This was a cliché years ago, and nowadays should fall under the heading of ‘filler.’
On the other hand, melee combat seems well-done, exploiting all the controller buttons and sticks to deliver a complex mixture of attacking and defending moves.
What I saw seemed very promising. I’d still like to know how much time is spent in what activities, and how long (and involving) the main storyline is.
Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag
The demo focused on shipboard combat, which seemed entertaining but not particularly deep. The Caribbean islands are fully mapped, offering a vast play area. But the population of ships seems ridiculously high. I was able to jump from one target to another without pause.
The feel of bounding over the waves is very good. Unfortunately, the wind – so crucial to combat in the days of sail – is not modeled at all. Repeated presses of the A button make you go faster, in any direction you like. Animation of extra sails being unfurled is purely cosmetic. This reduces the tactical complexity to just about zero.
Still, plundering ships and building up the capabilities of your own does look like fun. But in an arcade-game way. I suspect this will be the most lightweight game in the AC series so far. But that’s not always a bad thing.
After being forced to sit through an interminable cut-scene (even though the demo kiosk had undoubtedly already played the same mission scenario numerous times), I ended up tasked with finding some officer on board a huge naval ship. If there was any way of tracking this person, I never found it. I never found the person, either.
After blundering around for twenty minutes, I passed the controls to someone else, departing with the vague suspicion this sort of ‘combat mission’ was just there to bulk up the length of the single-player campaign.
I’ve been a huge fan of Battlefield 1942 and even Battlefield 2, but the series has veered so far away from those stellar beginnings, that my interest is now at very low ebb. However, I seem to be in the minority. The game certainly looks swanky, and I did see people shooting at each other.
This struck me as one of the most promising games at the preview. It’s the first new entry in the franchise in many years, and the very first time it’s been on consoles. (Very much in keeping with Microsoft’s shun-the-PC stance on games. There’s no real reason this shouldn’t have been a simultaneous Windows release.)
The user interface looks good in full HD, and the choice of game modes is just what you’d want it to be. You can play in freeform sandbox mode, simply building up your zoo. Or you can play specific challenges, attempting to fix an ailing zoo by boosting revenues or ensuring that animals are properly housed.
It’s hard to tell in a few minutes how satisfying the simulation really is, but it certainly has the feel of being intelligent enough to appeal to both parents and kids.
Kinect support is limited, but interesting. You can ‘hand’ food to the animals, and be rewarded with some amazingly life-like animation of them approaching to take it. You can also play a monkey-see-monkey-do game with the chimps. None of this adds much to the main game, but it should really tickle the younger players.
There are never enough strategy games on consoles generally, so inclusion of this one is a big plus for the Xbox One opening lineup.
Microsoft has taken a novel approach with this title. It’s not so much a software product, as the gateway to a paid service, operating along the lines of the music and video services being pushed by both Sony and Microsoft.
The Xbox Fitness client software is in fact a free download. Xbox Live Gold subscribers get a good chunk of fitness training modules, about enough to keep them sweating for a year with no more than the recommended amount of repetition.
Users can also buy exercise modules from big-name fitness personalities. In the demo, I saw prices ranging from about $10 to $30, depending on the scope of the package and the fame of the guru pictured on the front.
The Kinect seemed to work well in the demo, but tracking star-jumps is hardly a big challenge for it. More interestingly, it registered the blood pressure of the demonstrator, from about six or eight feet away. This is apparently based on measurements of “micro-fluctuations in your face” using the infrared camera. Of course, I had no way of checking the accuracy. It’s also supposed to track the user’s performance by measuring “their balance, tempo and form.”
Maybe the fitness crowd doesn’t find this sort of thing creepy. Personally, I’ll stick with my (real-world) bicycle. Xbox, Off! already.