Following rumors and leaked screenshots, Ubisoft has officially confirmed the existence of Assassin’s Creed Unity with a brief teaser trailer for the upcoming game. Set in 18th century France, the game is the first Assassin’s Creed installment to be developed exclusively for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One – a separate game, codenamed Assassin’s Creed Comet, is rumored to be making its way to the PlayStation 3and Xbox 360 – features a brand new black-clad assassin, and is rumored to employ a modified take on the series’ signature parkour-like navigation system. Check out the brief glimpse of the game above and stay tuned for additional looks ahead of its Holiday 2014 release.
by Paul Tassi, Contributor
Speed. It’s been missing from the competitive FPS genre since the days of Quake. Call of Duty lets you sprint for mere seconds at a time. Gears of War has you run only when it leads to hiding behind a wall. Halo allows more mobility in the form of a power-armor assisted vertical leap, but often getting from one side of the map to the other is a daunting, plodding journey.
Enter Titanfall, Respawn’s new bit of multiplayer mayhem which puts mobility and speed front and center to the point where it often feels like the reinvention of the genre it’s trying to be. Sprint is unlimited, and far faster than its counterpart in other shooters. A jetpack allows for double jumps, edge grabbing and wallrunning, making nearly every part of every map landmark accessible on foot.
The speed is required, of course, to stay out from underfoot of the massive Titans that make up the other half of gameplay. Kills allow faster access to the machines, and once a pilot is inside, it takes enough firepower to destroy a small country to bring them down.
Titanfall is an Xbox One and PC exclusive from Respawn’s Jason West and Vince Zampella, the minds who brought Call of Duty out of World War II and shaped it into the powerhouse shooter franchise it is today. Now with their new title, Titanfall, they build on the existing concepts of their older games. Gunplay feels similar, but the speed, mech play and scope of Titanfall make it feel like it’s leagues past a simple evolution of Call of Duty.
The game is multiplayer only, for better or worse. It allowed the team to focus on making the most refined multiplayer experience possible, but also means that Titanfall is painfully short on anything like lore, story or iconic heroes. I wondered in a previous post if Titanfall would suffer without its own public face, be it Captain Price, Marcus Fenix, or Master Chief. Is a compelling multiplayer experience be enough to offset a nearly non-existent story? Yes, but it’s still easy to wish there was more mythology to this newly created universe.
The game does attempt to inject at least some bit of story into the game with an almost comically anemic “Campaign” mode. It’s simply a string of predetermined multiplayer matches, the only difference being a sixty second introductory voiceover explaining why exactly we have to hold points A, B and C on a map, and a fifteen second “drop-in” cutscene that’s barely more than what you see in regular multiplayer. Plot-related things actually happen during the match, but it’s impossible to have any idea what’s going on as you attempt to listen to radio communications while in the middle of a never-ending firefight.
It’s a lot like the much-derided Brink’s attempt at a campaign made up entirely of multiplayer levels, but even that game had more cutscenes explaining some vague semblance of story. It wasn’t a good idea then, and it isn’t a good idea now. It seems like the mode only exists so the game doesn’t feel quite so flimsy, but it adds practically nothing to the experience, and I did find myself wishing there was more to learn about the Titanfall universe than what we’re given. Perhaps a traditional, linear campaign isn’t the answer, but the game needed something more than this.
Fortunately, multiplayer is so engaging that the lack of a story will be quickly forgiven by most, especially since a great many players have take to skipping campaigns altogether in recent shooter releases in favor of diving right into deathmatches. Not a practice I partake in, but it is somewhat commonplace.
At long last, we get to see the full scope of the maps in Titanfall, rather than the two many of us played in the beta on repeat for a week. While it will likely take a while to learn them all, there are none that stand out to me as either empirically awful or fan favorites, at least not in these limited first few days of play. There doesn’t seem to be as much of a size disparity in the maps as there is in other games which have both tiny and sprawling levels, namely because no matter what mode you pick, it’s the same amount of players.
Similarly, the design is restricted by the fact that levels have to both accommodate massive Titans and tiny mobile pilots. That means that most levels are a mix of open spaces and smaller, corridored buildings. As a result, your preferred playstyle can work in any map, but it can also make many of them feel a bit too similar to one another.
It’s impressive how Respawn managed to make playing as both a jump-happy pilot and a locked-to-the-ground Titan equally fun modes of play, and entirely different than one another. Being a pilot on foot allows for much more diversity of play as you bound all around the map, killing pilots, AI bots and Titans alike. The shooting isn’t quite as tight as Call of Duty. The guns feel a bit softer in the way the connect with targets and may take some getting used to. There are far less gun and attachment options to choose from than other shooters, but there are many more than the limited selection we saw in the beta. The amount seems to be just right, as at a certain point, nine assault rifle variants with twenty attachments each seems to be a bit excessive. There are enough unlocks to instill a sense of progress, but not so many where the entire game is driven by XP collection.
Controlling a Titan is a different story than sprinting around as a pilot. They are locked into specific open tracks on the map, as jumping isn’t an option. You can swat and blast pilots like flies if your aim is good enough, but mostly you’ll spend your time battling other Titans. Those fights aren’t the twitch reflex “who shoots first” matchups of ground warfare, they’re often battles of attrition and strategy. You should always try to engage with a friend, and if you find yourself outnumbered or without a shield, you probably want to run. Switching between guns, missiles, shields and other abilities means there’s a lot to keep track of, but it’s not overly technical to the point where it’s cumbersome and annoying.
I believe many players will find themselves drawn to one form of combat over the other. Some may love the freedom of freerunning to the point where they’re content to let their Titan roam around in auto-mode, while others may never leave the safety of their metal nest, locked into the mech for as long as humanly possible. The game allows a mix of both, and the most fun moments are found when you hop in and out of your Titan, depending on the landscape and the foes you’re trying to fight.
I prefer Titan combat simply because I appear to be better at it. While I’m lucky if I break half a dozen pilot kills a game, I always rack up 4-5 Titan kills, which are much harder to come by. Many games, after I get my first Titan, I manage fight my way to the end of the match without dying, which is always a gratifying experience.
In general, it’s refreshing to die a lot, lot less in Titanfall than in other multiplayer shooters. While only the elite in other games will die 1-3 times in a match, in Titanfall that can happen frequently even to average players like me. It allows for far less frustration as you almost never get trapped in “spawn death” loops where you live for only a few seconds at a time, and get killed by unseen enemies before you have a chance to do anything. Rather, Titanfall’s universally large levels allow you to spawn a safe distance away from enemies most of the time, and as such you’ll likely only die a handful of times. Lives last minutes, not seconds, and that’s refreshing for the genre.
Of course fewer deaths means less killing. As nice as it is not to die every ten seconds, it comes at the price of a reduced amount of kills. To counter this and give players at least something to shoot at, the game is flooded with AI bots which dramatically outnumber the six players on each team. The bots pepper you with bullets that appear to be made out of Nerf foam, and serve as cannon fodder while you seek out an enemy that can actually fight back. The addition of bots is a mixed bag. It fills up the sprawling levels and creates a proper “battle” atmosphere that enhances the matches. But there’s a little pang of sadness every time you kill an AI thinking it was a human. As I said in the beta, ” I’m not sure it’s even possible for an AI soldier to kill you, and half the time it feels like you’re slaughtering defenseless, dumb animals that just happen to look like humans or warbots.”
The problem is that if all the AI were replaced with humans and we had something like crazy 16 vs. 16 matches, death and kill totals would skyrocket, making Titanfall just like other games in that regard. And since the game can’t handle that many players anyway, removing them would make for some very dull matches. Right now they seem necessary, whether we actually want them there or not.
Burn cards are another interesting aspect of multiplayer, though I’m not quite sure how impactful they are. Each player has three slots a game to use the consumable cards which can do things like shave seconds of a Titan drop, give the player an upgraded weapon, or allow them a special ability like unlimited grenades or invisibility. Most only last until the end of the player’s life, so when you have one active, you want to be especially careful to make the most out of it. In my eyes, they don’t really affect gameplay all that much one way or the other. They’re just fun little additions to make a minute or two of the game more interesting than it would have been otherwise. Perhaps I haven’t seen them all yet and a few could dramatically unbalance the game in some way, but that doesn’t seem to be the case yet.
For as much focus as Respawn devoted to making Titanfall a purely multiplayer title, it’s fairly disappointing that there are only five modes in which to play the game. All of them are 6 vs. 6 with the requisite swarm of bots, and include Attrition (Deathmatch), Hardpoint (Domination), Last Titan Standing, Pilot Hunter and Capture the Flag.
The first two are standard fare for every shooter, so it’s no surprise to see them here. Last Titan Standing should be right up my alley, as it’s a fun bit of search and destroy with Titans, but the matches are exceptionally long and snowball rapidly, making the mode rather unappealing. Pilot Hunter is just a stripped down version of deathmatch where nothing but killing pilots actually scores points. Capture the Flag is probably the most fun non-deathmatch game, as in the world of Titanfall, the action is five times as intense as it normally is for the mode. With Titans guarding flags and wallrunning and jetpack jumping as a means to avoid enemies, it’s easily the most pulse-pounding the game gets. The only problem is that if you’re an active flag pursuer, you’ll tank your overall K/D ratio as during Capture the Flag you canrack up 15-20 deaths rather than the usual 2-5.
But, that’s it. Five modes, most entirely traditional, one seemingly pointless, and all with the exact same player count. It seems like there could have been a lot more done with mode variety, and something like a custom game creator would go a long way. I’m picturing games that use permanent burn cards to shake up the action. Maybe Titans with special weaponry that drop randomly from the sky and can be controlled by both players. A mode where the rarely seen monsters from the variety of planets actually stumble into the map and influence gameplay. And at the very least, they need a ranked mode.
All of this seems possible through future patches, but it does make this initial release of Titanfall feel like something of a blueprint for the future rather than a final product in and of itself. While the multiplayer combat is absolutely excellent, and all Respawn’s hard work shows, the actual content of the game is relatively sparse compared others in the genre, given its almost complete lack of a campaign, an incredibly limited selection of modes, and no “third pillar” of co-op gameplay like Zombies, Firefight, or Spec Ops.
Finally, I have to praise the game from a technical perspective, at least so far. The launch has been flawless from my initial downloading of the game to the fact that I haven’t been booted out of a match due to server issues yet. I’m waiting for players to come home from school and work and start playing to make a final judgement call about stability, however. (Update: Annnnd the game probably killed Xbox Live). And for all the controversy about resolution at launch, the game looks just fine to me. It’s not the most visually impressive title I’ve seen in this new generation, but it didn’t need to be, and there’s certainly nothing to complain about. Besides, further resolution patches are coming, according to Respawn.
Titanfall is a great game and an incredible amount of fun. Combat is creative, exciting and never, ever static. It lacks depth past its core concept however, and hopefully that’s something that can be rectified well ahead of the inevitable Titanfall 2. But right now, this is the game the Xbox One needs, and it’s the first true must-have of the new console generation.
Platform: Xbox One, PC
Released: March 11th, 2014
by Paul Tassi, Contributor
Well, that didn’t last long.
Though there’s no official confirmation that the outage is tied to the Titanfall launch, it would be a fairly obvious culprit as millions of players try to access the game on launch day. Titanfall relies heavily on Microsoft’s Azure cloud servers which were going to be used to ensure something like this didn’thappen, but it appears things have gone wrong, as many expected they might.
The service outage has lasted for the better part of an hour now, and Xbox Support says that service is “Limited” right now. “Unable to sign in to Xbox Live on Xbox One?” they say, “We’re on the case to get this issue fixed as soon as possible!”
I thought I was taking crazy pills as when I was unable to play Titanfall (because there’s no offline mode, naturally), I turned to boot up Hearthstone, which has just dropped its beta badge to go officially live as of today. Now it seems Battle.net is alsodown, and the result was me resetting my internet for about twenty minutes until I figured out what was going on. I’m not sure why Hearthstone would pick today of all days to go live, nor do I know what their issue is, though I assume it’s 100% unrelated to Microsoft’s plight.
This is the problem with launching a 100% online multiplayer title like Titanfall. A game with a campaign would at least have something for players to do as they waited for Live to return, but the entire game is locked behind the online wall.
And now we see a problem with EA and Titanfall relying on Microsoft directly for server support. Now if the servers melt down, it’s not just Titanfall that’s inaccessible, it’s the entirety of Xbox Live. A problem for not only Titanfall, but Xbox One as a whole. The One is failing the digital test I talked about yesterday if this keeps up.
I suspect the server load is just too great as players are now getting home from work or school and trying to play. It’s 5PM EST, and with most schools out at 3 or 4, the service kicking out about an hour or so ago makes sense.
Nothing other than boilerplate “we’re fixing it” responses from Microsoft yet, so we’ll have to keep an eye on the situation. At least EA has someone to share the blame with this time.
Keep checking back here for updates, and I’ll post information as soon as I find it.
Update: From Respawn’s Vince Zampella: “Looks like Xbox live sign in is down currently. I hope that isn’t our fault!” Keep hoping, Vince.
Update #2: I’m hearing reports of people that have been playing through this entire outage. I guess that explains the “Limited” service interruption rather than whatever it would say otherwise. “Offline,” maybe. I’m trying to figure out if this is location-based.
Update #3: I’ve asked Microsoft PR for an ETA on service restoration, but nothing yet. As for how widespread this is, I’m not sure how to gauge it other than noting that “tweets per minute” about the outage appear to be extremely high.
Update #4: From Microsoft’s Major Nelson, who says this isn’t a Titanfall problem: “If you are having issues signing into Xbox Live, we are aware of it and actively working on the issue. This is not a #Titanfall issue.” Well that officially makes this the world’s worst coincidence, if that’s actually the case. I have my doubts their luck would be that poor, but I’ll take him at his word. Still, it’s the biggest launch of the year and Live was killed at the beginning of a peak traffic time in the US. Hardly a stretch to imagine the two are related.
Update #5 (7:50 PM EST): Well, the only update I have now is that Live is still down, and Microsoft PR said that Nelson’s tweet is the official word on the situation. I still cannot process how this is not Titanfall related, but that information will have to be sorted out when this crisis ends.
Update #6 (10:53 PM EST): Alright, it appears you can restore service using this process:
- While the console is on, press and hold the console’s Xbox button for 5 seconds.
- The console will power down.
- Wait 30 seconds, and then turn your console back on by again pressing the Xbox button.
It worked for me, and appears to be fixing the problem for many others as well. Hopefully we all can get in a few games of Titanfall before bed (lucky West Coasters). Anyway, more on this tomorrow as hopefully Microsoft will offer some sort of concrete explanation on what exactly happened here, and how it could have possibly not been Titanfall-related.
by Dave Thier, Contributor
Microsoft it would seem, is all in on Titanfall. Respawn entertainment’s upcoming mech-shooter is, arguably, the centerpiece of the Xbox One’s first few months, and the company is making sure that the console is good and ready for it when it arrives. We’re meant to be getting a software update shortly before launch that will address issues surrounding online multiplayer, and according to The Verge, Microsoft even worked with Respawn to tweak how the controller operates.
“It’s just fixing the controller input, really,” Lead designer Justin Hendry told The Verge. “It wasn’t really where we felt it should be; it was a little overly twitchy with the current controls. Now it’s fixed. We’re happy with it.”
The fix will make the outer limits of the analog sticks more sensitive.
Titanfall enters beta on Friday, and from everything I’ve seen, we have reason to be optimistic. The game is fast, frenetic and genuinely new feeling. It borrows influence not just from the multiplayer shooters that dominated last generation, but also from MOBA’s like League of Legends, and even collectible trading card games. Matches have scope and progression, something that was sorely lacking in the lightning-quick death and respawn cycles that characterize games like Call of Duty. The only thing that gives me pause is the total lack of a single-player mode. While players overwhelmingly spend their time on multiplayer with games like this, a story mode still serves to ground the fiction in which the game takes place. Witness Call of Duty, which dominated the shooter landscape last generation by updating little more than the story mode in each iteration.
One thing is for certain — the Titanfall launch must be perfect. As ED Kain notes, there is very little room for error for either the Xbox One or publisher EA. The latter company saw catastrophic launches for both SimCity and Battlefield 4, and it needs to prove to the gaming public that it can make a title that actually works as intended. As far as the Xbox One goes, Titanfall is meant to show off the company’s extensive cloud services, so any launch hiccups would undermine some of the console’s fairly basic selling points. The console has a $700 million server farm in Iowa dubbed “Project Mountain” in Iowa backing it up, so here’s hoping that can keep the launch stable.
Titanfall marks the first major next-gen release outside of launch. Xbox One is trailing PS4 in total sales, so it will be interesting to see if this gamble can galvanize sales and re-establish Xbox as a preeminent shooter brand.
Xbox One Direct Broadcasting: There is no ETA at this time from Microsoft. Expect a few more months. If we know sooner, we’ll update.
What’s the hold up? We can’t say, but one possibility is that Microsoft hasn’t yet figured out how to deal with streams of an unsavory nature. Sony’s PlayStation 4, which did ship with Twitch.tv, found itself facing a bit of a controversy when users realized they could filmthemselves doing all sorts of things — including having sex — in the augmented reality demo The Playroom. Sony decided to cut off access to Twitch.tv for that one game as a solution, perhaps something that’s not as easy or even technically impossible with the current Xbox One software.
Also, it’s not like Sony delivered on all of its promises for the PlayStation 4 at launch. The console is still lacking its instant-on mode to instantly resume games from standby, and it won’t stream games from PlayStation Now until summer at the earliest.
Wondering which of the Xbox One’s games are worth getting? Team USG pick the ones they think are the best – and explain why.
By USgamer Team
Xbox One weighs in at a fairly hefty retail price of $499. The machine includes a built-in Kinect system, and has a variety of features that enable users to watch an enhanced version of TV. However, it’s the games we’re most interested in, and that’s what we’re looking at today. Each member of Team USG has looked at the roster of Xbox One titles and have chosen the ones they think are the best to buy.
I’ve been going on and on about this for months, so it’s no surprise Forza 5 sits at pole position on my must-buy Xbox One launch games list.
When I played it at E3, I was very impressed. Not quite blown away, but definitely impressed. This is largely due to the narrowing technical gap between generations that we’ve been seeing since the 90’s. While we will eventually see a clear and significant difference between the incoming generation and the outgoing one, it’s going to take some time. Until then, to the untrained eye, many games will look very similar.
Forza 5 is such a game. On the face of it, it’s not a huge step up from Forza 4. There are differences, however – it’s just that they’re in the details. The richer level of atmospheric effects, the more complex lighting, the slightly more convincing interiors, and minutiae like leaves that swirl as you drive past them. The backdrops are more sophisticated too, and draw distances have been pushed way out. It’s difficult to appreciate them when you’re driving down a narrow road at 125 mph trying to overtake an opponent, but they’re there if you look.
The new and much-heralded AI system is a little hit-and-miss. It’s supposed to be based on real people’s driving, but it sometimes does some really dumb things – like braking ridiculously early, or freaking out on a straight. Perhaps that’s what some people do, but sometimes it just seems a bit off. Ultimately, if you spend more time competing with other players, it’s all moot anyway.
We’ll have to wait and see whether Gran Turismo will catch up when it finally arrives on PS4. If its recent performance is anything to go by, it’ll likely arrive around the same time we’ll be expecting Forza 6. Until then, Forza 5 sits atop the podium as greatest racer out there.
Need for Speed: Rivals
Yes. Another driving game. But this one is a slightly different flavor to Forza 5. Where Turn 10’s elegant automotive experience is all about driving finesse, trying not to hit other cars and shaving tenths of a second off your lap time to reach the checkered flag first, Need for Speed is a brutal, no-holds-barred, four-wheeled war zone.
It packs a ton of features that make it great, but the best of them all is AllDrive, which seamlessly integrates single- and multiplayer mode. If your friends are online, you can see exactly what they’re doing and join in their fun. Or you can just drive right past them and carry on doing whatever it is you’re doing. Which is inevitably driving flat-out like an idiot, either trying to catch the racer in front of you as a cop, or trying to avoid cops and challenging other players to races if you’ve decided to pursue a career on the wrong side of the law.
Boasting a wealth of cars, tons of missions, and a big open world that offers a full spectrum of driving opportunities, Need for Speed: Rivals is a gorgeous-looking, raucous-sounding, bonkers-playing combat race game that helps start this next generation off with a bang, followed by a huge slide, a collision with an oncoming car, and a barrel roll down the road.
Call of Duty: Ghosts..Or maybe Battlefield 4
I think both of these are great multiplayer games – but offer a weak single-player experience. If you’re playing solo, Call of Duty gets the nod from me. It’s shorter, but offers a lot more bang for the buck, delivering an almost cinematic experience during some of its spectacular set-pieces. But then again, these games are all about multiplayer, and both deliver an absolutely excellent experience here.
If you’re after involving, close-up, visceral and fast-paced action, Call of Duty is definitely the game to get. It’s all about the subtleties of gunplay and finessing your loadouts to best suit your own personal playstyle – and the kind of combat you’re entering. Whether it’s classic deathmatch gameplay, or working with others on some of the new objective-based formats, Call of Duty: Ghosts is tense and exciting.
What I particularly like this time around is the new Squads mode that lets you construct a small army of bots and take them into battle. Again, you can experiment with roles and loadouts to see what works best where, and the AI is impressive enough to give you a really fun mulitplayer experience without having to go online and wait for others. Finally Extinction mode is a really cool, but all-too-short multiplayer co-op mode where you fight off an alien invasion. It’s incredibly good fun, and something I hope we’ll see more of in future COD games.
But while COD is the better choice for those who want the very best gun-oriented action, Battlefield is the one to have if you want more variety. From driving tanks, flying planes and blasting the enemy with a wide variety of weapons, Battlefield is a huge open space filled with mayhem. It’s not quite as authentic-feeling as COD, but it’s a lot more “fun” – and certainly has lots of different things to do. Either way, I think both are a great choice. I prefer COD personally, simply because I like its format of multiplayer better, but I still always enjoy myself whenever I play Battlefield, because it’s just so nuts.
Dead Rising 3
I’ve said before that I have a hard time getting stoked about launch lineups, and Xbox One really drives that fact home. It’s not that the system’s debut titles don’t have promise — they’re just not the sort of games I normally flip out for. Those typically come later, after developers have a chance to get a feel for the machine and time to develop deeper, more consuming ventures. Plus Xbox One lacks the huge roster of indie titles that balances out PS4’s flashy-but-shallow retail releases. There’s plenty to be excited about further down the road for the console — D4 looks interestingly wacky, and holy cow is Titanfall fun — but this early slate of software leaves me cold.
Fortunately, Dead Rising 3 embodies the shining exception to my launch blues rules: At once a substantial adventure, a sequel to one of the definitive titles for Microsoft’s previous system, and an ambitious open-world action thriller. The previous Dead Risings have been full of interesting ideas and systems that never quite gelled to perfection, but early buzz on the third game in the series suggests it has real potential. I’m not enamored with the second-screen elements (which basically amount to “use a tablet for an instant win”) but so long as they’re optional I’m happy to go about my zombie-slaying tasks with aplomb. Especially if it evokes the ridiculously un-serious fun of Saints Row. And this from someone who normally hates zombie games!
It looks like 2013 is where Double Helix breaks out of its shell of mediocrity. Killer Instinct by all rights should be horrible; fighting games are hard to make and balance. Instead, it plays well; it’s fast, bright, and fun. The team has clearly looked at what works in the current fighting game market and updated the classic Killer Instinct gameplay accordingly.
The updated designs for the original cast have all been superb, even if Glacius’ new look will have to grow on me. Even more surprising, is that each character has clearly been pushed in different direction to allow for different playstyles. It’s impressive work, and it all comes together. The roster is a bit sparse, but this isn’t a fire-and-forget release. Microsoft and Double Helix intend to support the game with more characters and a story mode coming next year. I’ve been wanting a new Killer Instinct since 1996, and someone finally delivered.
Just Dance 2014
On the Xbox 360, the Kinect – yes, I have one – was only great for two things: dance games and Netflix voice commands. Of the two dance games out there, Harmonix’ Dance Central and Ubisoft’s Just Dance, I stuck with Dance Central. Just Dance was more fun, but Dance Central was the “hardcore” version. You felt like you could actually dance after long sessions of Dance Central, while Just dance was more forgiving. Harmonix has left the Dance Central series behind in order to create the family-friendly Fantasia: Music Evolved, so Ubisoft has this year’s dance card all to itself.
I was going to ignore Just Dance 2014, but having to wait at Ubisoft’s E3 booth for other appointments meant I had to watch three or four Just Dance 2014 songs performed by professional dancers and random crowd members. With each song, my interest peaked a little more. It looked like a ton of fun. Is there some sort of sinister hypnotism at work?
Just Dance 2014 features an impressive list of super pop-y songs for me to shake my ass to, and all-new Kinect works just as well as the old one. Will you booty shake with me?
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Yes, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was also on my list for PlayStation 4 and I loved it when I reviewed it on that platform, but I’m a bit of a rebel. If I was only getting one console and that was the Xbox One, ACIV would still be at the top of my list. Did the navel-gazing of Assassin’s Creed III’s Connor bore you at times? ACIV’s protagonist – ‘hero’ is a bit strong – Edward Kenway is far more charismatic and in tune with exactly what he wants from the world.
Did you hate the naval combat in ACIII because it never felt tied to the main game? Good, because now it’s an integral part of the experience! Did you love the naval combat in ACIII? Great, because now there’s a ton more of it!
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a big badass open-world and Ubisoft has had another year to hammer out the bugs in its new AnvilNext engine. While the game will still probably look good on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 4, it looks goddamn gorgeous on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Even though it’s coming to current-gen as well, it’s still my next-gen title to beat.
Need for Speed: Rivals
I enjoy the Need for Speed games, but I always feel like they stop short of providing what I really want from them — an interactive Fast and Furious movie. Several past installments have tried to incorporate story into their gameplay with varying amounts of success, but mostly have just boiled down to racing. Fun, exciting, eminently silly racing, admittedly, but still little more than the same sort of thing we’ve been enjoying for years now, albeit a little prettier.
Need for Speed: Rivals still doesn’t really provide that experience, but it does the next best thing: gives us another Hot Pursuit. Autolog is simultaneously the best and worst thing to happen to racing games ever; competition with friends is good, but at the same time it can lead to repeatedly playing one single race over and over again in an attempt to smash that last record by a hundredth of a second rather than actually making any progress.
Hot Pursuit kept my friends and I battling it out for hundredths of a second for a significant period of time; Most Wanted unfortunately failed to recapture that magic. I’m hoping Rivals has the legs to support competition in the long term.
Most of the games that I enjoy tend to run towards the hardcore. Dota 2, for example, is my drug of my choice. However, Zoo Tycoon has me both charmed and rather curious. It’s being marketed as this zoo-building simulator of unparalleled beauty and accessibility. Why stop at making artfully realistic enclosures for the animals? Go in. Go wild! Stop by the elephant range and scrub down the entire family. I’m skeptical as to how realistic Zoo Tycoon will be. The less pleasant logistics associated with animal husbandry are most likely going to be glossed over.
Still, this is going to be something that I will be able to introduce to my mother and my sister, neither of whom are terribly comfortable around electronic devices. The notion of Zoo Tycoon possibly functioning as a gateway drug tickles me. If something as tactile as Zoo Tycoon is advertised to be cannot beguile the family into joining me in the Dark Side, nothing can. Plus, there’s also the appeal of checking out my first Zoo Tycoon game in god knows how long. It’ll be interesting to see how it fares on the next-gen console, especially with Frontier behind the wheels. Kinectimals was an adorable diversion but too shallow to engage me in the long-term. Will Zoo Tycoon take what was good about its spiritual predecessor and make it palatable to adults? Only time will tell.
Between brand new consoles and blossoming indie development, this is a year to watch the gaming industry.
The year has only just begun, but there are already plenty of exciting hints at what the gaming industry has in store for 2014.
At the intersection of powerful hardware and game developers unafraid of experimentation, the following trends are setting the stage for one of the most interesting years for video games in recent memory.
1. Inventive Hardware
Gaming hardware will follow software into more experimental territory in 2014. The Ouya bucked the three-party system last year, but at this year’s CES, Steam’s small fleet of Steam Machines are set to sail and other inventive takes on gaming hardware have bubbled up, too.
The new Oculus Rift prototype, known as “Crystal Cove,” builds out the virtual reality head-trip of its forebear by adding an OLED screen and positional tracking, among other refinements. (In a press event, Sony showcased its own Oculus Rift VR knock-off too.) Meanwhile, PrioVR is taking the idea of wearable gaming to the next level with full and half body motion suits.
2. Gaming In The Cloud
In the virtual world woven together by syncing and streaming services, the gesture of placing a disc in a tray feels downright prehistoric. Video games are a booming business, so why should playing them be any less modern than streaming a song on Rdio or syncing a movie across iCloud?
Well, Microsoft considered ditching the Xbox One’s optical drive altogether this generation, but eventually reversed that decision as well as abandoning its other strict DRM policing policies in the face of massive consumer backlash. Sony-side,PlayStation Now—a cloud gaming service that syncs games across devices—will merge video games with the cloud in a decidedly gamer-friendly direction. Expect these tensions to play out over 2014 as companies nudge their platforms toward the cloud without kicking the hornet’s nest.
3. Indies Flourish
Indie games once existed in defiance of the mainstream machine. Now they’re alluring to console makers and major game publishers alike, as both try to buy goodwill with gamers. Nostalgic indie shooter Resogun, published by Sony itself, stood out among the new PS4’s handful of launch titles. By showcasing the buzzy indie exclusive Witness (the latest from Braid’s legend-in-the-making Jonathan Blow) and allowing indie devs to self-publish, Sony is positioning itself to be the indie gamer’s console of choice.
Microsoft played catch-up by announcing “ID@Xbox,” its own program to support smaller developers. Expect to see huge indie hits enjoying support from major publishers across both consoles in the coming year, not to mention more indie gems popping up on mobile, PC and on Steam.
4. The New Consoles Will Become Worth Buying
Laptops and phones get annual updates like clockwork, whereas new consoles only roll around every eight years or so. At launch, both the PS4 and the Xbox One had barren game catalogs, making it hard to find a compelling case to upgrade at launch. Droves of next-generation titles will launch in 2014, making Microsoft and Sony’s brand hardware beasts worth considering. Every major console launch year is a truly special occasion—and a lightyear’s worth of hardware evolution.
5. Storytelling Transcends Genre Conventions
With rote refreshes of mindless shooters like Call of Duty growing stale, inventive, narrative-driven games will have even more room to shine in 2014. Last year, completely unconventional games like Papers, Please—a game literally about stamping passports—topped “best of” charts.
The Last of Us, another chart-topper with more than 3.5 million units sold, was lauded not for its survival horror mechanics, but for the intricately emotional relationship between its two protagonists. Even the violent sandbox of Grand Theft Auto V relied heavily on the cycling stories of its three main characters, exploring gritty and at-times mundane hyper-realism—and even following one of them to yoga class.
These aren’t the only gaming trends we’ll be watching into the year—Twitch and casual gaming are two others that spring to mind—but they’re definitely a few areas for gamers to keep a close eye on over the next 12 months and beyond. Gaming is more mainstream—and more lucrative—than ever, so with new consoles added into the mix, 2014 will be an exciting year no matter which way you cut it.
BY BEN GILBERT
Xbox — and Microsoft in general — doesn’t really show up for CES. It’s not hard to understand why: for a big company like Microsoft, there’s no point in competing with the cacophony of voices shouting for attention. “Whenever we want, we can talk about Xbox stuff and get coverage. Why try to talk with 100,000 other things going on?” Xbox chief product officer Marc Whitten told us in an interview this week. Though Xbox isn’t here to show anything off, Whitten’s in town to meet with partners and, as he put it, “It’s just a good time to pop up and see an environmental scan you can get in an immediate dose.” After a long 2013 head down on the Xbox One launch, he’s finally got a second to take the temperature and see the world outside of Microsoft’s Bellevue, Wash. campus.
But we’re not here to ask Whitten about the past. Yes, he’s “really thrilled” with the console’s launch (over 3 million sold by the end of 2013). And yes, he’s very happy with the reaction from consumers. That doesn’t mean work’s over, of course. “There are seams in the product [XB1]. There are still seams in the 360, nothing’s ever done,” Whitten said. As such, first up on the fix docket is what Whitten called, “the Live experience.” Essentially, that’s much of the social features on the latest Xbox console. Whitten takes that stuff personally, having worked on Xbox Live as a service for the last 10 years:
“The feedback we’ve gotten is pretty valid; some of the social stuff is hidden or harder to use than it was on the Xbox 360. So you’re gonna see us come out with an update where, well, we’re going to fix those things. As a person who’s been pretty involved in building Xbox Live for the last decade, I take it pretty seriously when people say it’s harder to get into a party, and the defaults aren’t right, and I don’t like the model. So what I’m trying to do with the team is kind of theme some stuff up. Let’s take an update and really go through a big list of what we’re hearing from customers, what we know is broken with the architecture, areas that we want to improve or complete. I think that’s a theme you’ll really see us push on — that Live experience.”
Based on our conversation with Whitten, it sounds like those Live fixes are coming sooner than later. Promised game streaming functionality, however, may not be coming as quickly. “This is not 100 percent,” Whitten prefaced his statement with. “But my general strategy at E3 is to talk about things that are gonna happen from that E3 to the next E3. So, we are not yet to the next E3,” he added with a smile. So, uh, before June then!
Updates in general, though, will come much faster. While Whitten said we’ll still see the traditional large Dashboard updates, the Xbox One was designed around lessons learned from the 360 before it. One major facet of that design facilitates more regular updates. “The Xbox 360, which I’m still very very proud of, the software architecture was built in 2003. Rethinking [updates] based on everything we learned from 360 was a lot of what went into the Xbox One,” he told us. “You’re still gonna see the big, ‘Hey, here’s the cool stuff we’re doing.’ But you’re also gonna see the box just get better faster than you did in the past.”
First up on that front? “Everything from getting more apps out faster, some of the TV stuff — improving some of that, getting the scale of that internationally where we don’t have some of that. So I think you’re gonna see that come pretty quickly,” Whitten said.
The next big push for Microsoft’s Xbox One starts by March’s Game Developers Conference. As it turns out, the Xbox One gets its first major exclusive game that month in Titanfall as well. And hey, if you ask us, there’s serious incentive for Microsoft to have partying up perfected in time for Respawn Entertainment’s big game.
When real travel stops feeling revelatory, the digital road takes its place — for good or ill
by RYAN LEAS
You want to begin again. You’ll get it right this time. Buy the beautiful house, associate with interesting, beautiful people. Drive a new car. A fast one. Get rich, naturally. You want to cut everything away, leave behind all your old things, all your old acquaintances. Slip out quietly as night falls, or just as the sun’s rising. A clean slate, no past. Head someplace else, somewhere far away. You want to have control this time. Be your own architect. Press “Start” once more. A new life. A new career, in a new town. We’ve all thought of that right? It’s what we were promised, after all.
Ain’t the American Dream grand? Michael, one of three playable characters in “Grand Theft Auto V,” yells this periodically during firefights, typically when you’re rampaging against cops. In a nutshell, that context is all you need to understand the wicked smirk specific to the GTA franchise’s exaggerated vision of America. It’s always hard to pin down exactly what the ultra-successful series is. “GTA” is equal parts incisively clever and on the nose. It pushes boundaries with some of the most mature content in mainstream video games while channeling that content toward juvenile ends, tapping into latent teenage dreams of anarchy. The games acerbically critique American consumerism while also offering a world in which driving up on a sidewalk and running down civilians is cause for laughing out loud.
Throughout, one thing has been consistent. In its continual mining of classic American crime dramas, from “The Godfather” to “Scarface” to “Heat,” the GTA franchise automatically inherits that tradition’s outlaw take on undying American Dream tropes. The upward mobility, the rags to riches, all with a pistol in one hand and a bag of money in the other. Through its knowing recalibration of this traditional structure, “GTA” would like to position itself as subversive. And, no doubt, its vision of America has always been an amusingly satirical one, that proclamation of “Ain’t the American Dream grand?” delivered with a healthy amount of sarcasm. But it’s also fantasy fulfillment. As much as this newest iteration of “GTA” skewers American culture, it also captures how the GTA franchise as a whole plays into a more contemporary tradition — a new, digital American frontier in which to play out our inherited myth over and over. One that urges us to press “Start” once more, but on the pretense of what is, ultimately, a batch of false promises.
There has always seemed to be promise in the American landscape — its expansiveness seemed to suggest unlimited potential for self-reinvention. It’s big enough for you to keep diving deeper inward, and this has become woven into the stories we tell ourselves about American identity. This is, of course, all over the place, but just take a look at three iconic American artists. Fitzgerald gave us one of the holy texts of American Dream iconography with “The Great Gatsby,” one of the archetypal stories of a man fleeing to one coast to recreate himself in a new image, to start again as someone else. There was something more diffuse in the stories of Kerouac, a wanderlust that ping-ponged between those two dream-state destinations of New York and California. And, of course, there’s always Springsteen, perhaps the most iconic American artist to poeticize the lure and possibilities of the open highway.
But lately the idea of taking off and starting anew in another town feels a bit outmoded. We’ve inherited the failure — Gatsby winds up shot in a pool, Sal Paradise no longer really believes in Dean Moriarty, and the characters of “Born to Run” never make it past the city limits but instead wind up in the bar of “Glory Days.” That’s the symbolic stuff, but the act of traveling through America has changed, too. The prices of airfare dropped, allowing middle-class Americans to traverse their continent in a few hours, abstracting the distance. Road trips became something of a stereotype. For different reasons, the recent film adaptations of “On the Road” and “The Great Gatsby” were more or less conceptual failures, but what they had in common was that they felt heavily inert for stories that were supposed to be so dynamic. Their sense of wonder now scans as quaint, a forced premise covering up attempts at escape we inherently understand as failed experiments.
Digital culture has, as it does with most things, accelerated this process. These kinds of classic American tales of reinvention might not end with the characters finding what they’re looking for, but at least those characters were able to work off of an initial sense of wonder. There is very little mystery left in driving around America when you can search a million photos of the Grand Canyon online, or when you hew rigidly to the route laid out by the automated Google Maps voice as you roll through the desert. You can travel anywhere you want before you actually go there. Inevitably, this changes how it feels to arrive at a new place — leaving you with that nagging sense of having been there before, of having lived this moment before. Digital culture demystifies something that strains to remain legendary, demoting an enigmatic frontier to the banality of a default desktop photo.
The effect of digital culture isn’t just how it alters our old dreams, but also what it offers as an alternative. If physical space feels finite even when we couldn’t possibly see it all in person, the new worlds we create for ourselves feel truly limitless. The Internet, of course, is the main venue in question, with its countless portals to wherever we wish to go, with the way it fragments us from a single person into a Facebook self, a Twitter self, etc. What is perhaps less considered is how open-world video games have, for a not-inconsequential portion of a certain generation, supplanted that notion of discovering yourself somewhere in the American continent.
There’s still plenty to be said for the experience of driving across America, but increasingly, it’s the virtual worlds that trigger our imagination. We no longer have to be concerned about arriving at the opposite coast and realizing that we still have ourselves to deal with when we arrive. Now we can acutely craft how we present to others with our various profiles, or disappear entirely into characters in some sprawling digitized world. Mostly, these kinds of games still operate in a fantasy/sci-fi vein, offering the player a world entirely dissociated from our own. We require different things out of video games than other art — we seek an active performativity, and games like “Skyrim” or “World of Warcraft” deliver.
There’s something else to the GTA franchise, though, something that hits on multiple levels. It’s an open, virtual world that we’ve created, but a vivid reflection of the real one, which complicates things severely. Digital culture contributed to the downfall of our myths, but it can build them up in even more extreme forms. When the aura of the American frontier fades, all it takes is a sunset rendered in graphics, all the colors punched up to their more delirious selves, and suddenly we have new places again.
When “Grand Theft Auto III” — the first entry in the franchise to take the world to full 3D as we now know it — was released in 2001, its creators at Rockstar Games expected another cult hit, but not a major hit. It wound up being the highest-selling game of that year. When “Grand Theft Auto V” was released this past September, it made over a billion dollars in three days, which isn’t just a record for video games but for all forms of entertainment, period. As a recent Grantland article pointed out, with more than 29 million copies sold, the reimagined Los Angeles of “GTA V” — dubbed Los Santos — has a player base milling around in it that’s more than triple the population of real-life Los Angeles. Has there ever been another game that received as much hype before its release alongside such a massive succession of considered essays on the experience of playing it?
People still wring their hands over the game’s teenage dreams of rebellion, or over its rabid political incorrectness. With a cultural footprint like that, though, we have to be dealing with something beyond leftover adolescent wish fulfillment. Something bigger, more endemic.
For those of us raised on the teleology of level-based side-scrollers, open-world games are revelatory.
As a genre, they allow us to disappear into something. Live a different life. It’s effective because the worlds are so sprawling and intricate as to feel like true alternate existences. That’s long been half the fun of the GTA franchise. You don’t have to do anything. Each iteration deepens its world, and drives that point home. “GTA V” has, as expected, taken everything to the next level, including this. It added far more atmospheric stuff to occupy your time — the “Strangers & Freaks” encounters playing on cartoon versions of California full of drug burnouts and the fame-obsessed, bounty-hunting gigs, arms-smuggling.
As you drive through Los Santos, lots of what happens to you seems unrelated to the game’s main point. Someone will get mugged, and you have the option to help them. You’ll stumble across armored vehicles you can rob for a few thousand dollars. You might witness someone stick up a clothing store, and you can either let them run away or gun them down. This is all outside the main storyline, which itself is somewhat amorphous. Where past “GTA” entries had players encounter a spectrum of different criminals, they still operated on a basic structure, point A to point B. There’s less direct momentum to “GTA V.” Between its three characters and the fact that you spend the bulk of the game actually working for yourself or the government, it feels more like you’re wading into these lives rather than racing alongside them.
Coupling the largest and most complex world of any of the GTA games with this even wider-open nature of gameplay, “GTA V” is the most immersive of the series and the one that best represents the moment where the new escapism of open-world gaming dovetails with an inherited American mythology. Playing any game entails some level of physical and psychological immersion. You don’t think “I need to press R1 to take cover, then L2 to aim, then R2 to fire at this thug before he takes away enough of my health meter that I lose and have to start the mission over.” You think “I need to kill him before he kills me.” “GTA V” welcomes that immersion, letting you move through its world with a new level of grace, whether it’s the smoothness of its weapon wheel and aiming system, or the responsiveness of its driving mechanics. You are inhabiting a new skin and a new place, but the game hardly lets you see the seams as you traverse this new existence.
The other reason the experience feels so natural is that, for a time, “GTA V” seems to promise that it will never end. Surely the massiveness of its world, the variety of its activities, would guarantee that there would be unlimited potential. The setting of the game makes “GTA V” feel theoretically limitless even if that’s demonstrably untrue physically. Playing “GTA V” is a radical and twisted form of virtual self-reinvention, taking place in a world that is itself a twisted reinvention of our real one.
The Internet and digital culture are simply facts of our lives and times, and many of us spend much of our days navigating the digital and cyber landscapes far more than any literal landscape. What goes on there, what identities we create out there — whether in the play realm of video games or the social and professional realms of the Internet — is very much legitimate. We know the frontier of “GTA V” is a constructed one, but the fact that it is created purely to lose yourself in — as opposed to the actual American landscape, which will exist with or without your cares — makes it feel like a more appropriate method of escape and performative reinvention. The artificiality of it all is part of the deal. It’s what makes the escapism legible to us in the 21stcentury. “GTA V” succeeded in delivering a world that hit all these pleasure centers and intellectual concerns alike. So, why, ultimately, does it still feel unsatisfying?
When I first started playing “GTA V,” I tried to space it out. A few missions a night, mess around a bit, keep it to maybe 90 minutes of gaming a day. Eventually, this system broke, and I played through more than half of the game in the course of one weekend. Clearly, I was hooked, and I did love the game, but I kept waiting for something to click that never did. Even now, three months on from its release, I’m not entirely sure how to describe my experience with “GTA V.” Something about it feels a little hollow.
In the course of playing a game, you inevitably come upon its borders. You can’t go to this section yet. You don’t yet have the special ability needed to defeat this boss. You can’t replay that level until you finish the game. Open-world games seem to promise that won’t ever happen. They’re supposed to give you a self-sustaining, fully-functioning space unto itself that you can enter and reenter at will with the feeling that the systems within it keep moving along without your presence. Maybe “GTA V” tried to be too much. And somewhere along the line I started to lose faith in Los Santos.
Paradoxically, “GTA V” is so massive, intricate and immersive that when the curtain gets pulled back just a little bit you suddenly become aware of how tightly cornered in you really are. Some of it is symbolic. You’re playing in what you understand to be a fictional, bloody funhouse reflection of our real-life cities, but every now and then the real world encroaches. A Shark? song called “California Girls” comes on the radio, but you live in San Andreas; a Bob Seger song called “Hollywood Nights” is playing, but you’re driving through Vinewood. There are little gestures to suggest the continuity and interconnectedness of the GTA franchise’s world even across the PS2′s “3D Universe” and the PS3′s “HD Universe” — people mention Vice City; they allude to your “GTA IV” protagonist as a Russian “making waves” in Liberty City; radio personalities like Fernando and Lazlow are ever-present. But while Vice City stands in for Miami, you get real references to Mexico’s nearby border or Chinese gangsters. The variance makes the world feel connected to our real one, not independent.
I remember the first time a “GTA” game shocked me. Early in “GTA III,” you are tasked with assassinating a Triad member in Chinatown who works a little street stand in a pedestrian mall. When you walk up, he gets spooked and starts to run. I shot at him a few times, grazed him in the leg, ran out of ammo and had to chase him down to beat him with a baseball bat — all of which was a lot more comical than it reads, given the cartoonish look of the older “GTA” games. The Triad member ran down the pedestrian mall and out onto the highway, where a taxi cab suddenly hit him, knocking him over but not killing him. It was a bizarre, startling moment — a realization that this world was functioning outside my actions. I could have caught up with the Triad and fought him on the sidewalk, and that car could’ve still passed by. Anything could happen. This was what was so appealing about “GTA’s” anarchic spirit.
“GTA V” is elaborate and more cinematic than any other installment in the franchise. There’s an ambient score that will play during chases and missions, undoing the intense and strange (but realistic) silence that would occur when you had to abandon a car in the middle of a chase and lost the radio, or when you were in a shootout inside a warehouse. The missions themselves are now more expansive and flashier — an early one features you pulling someone’s house off a cliff, but it isn’t long before you graduate to multi-part heist missions. All of these things are great. They just also happen to move in the direction of reinforcing the invisible rules of this world.
In “GTA IV,” if a truck happened to pull out suddenly and crash into you in the middle of a chase, half the time that was a scripted event for the mission. It’d happen the same way if you failed and tried again. Sure, there is still plenty of chance for random madness like a cab hitting that Triad, but more and more the GTA world shows its hand. All the spontaneous moments in “GTA V” — the muggings, the armored trucks, the strangers needing a ride — at first seem truly random. Like they could happen anywhere at any point, like this is a fully functioning world. Of course, that’d be wildly complex to achieve. In reality, there are four or five set incidents in each category, and they’ll eerily play out again if you happen to not finish them right — like, for example, if you’re supposed to give someone a ride but crash and blow up your car. Roll past again a little while later, and there they are, asking once more for your help.
These technical edges are the ones that make the escape of open-world games feel like an insidious one. At first the game seems like a new, endless digital frontier full of its own unique events. Those little slips of repetition make you think about all the rest of it, too. You jump out of a plane with Franklin, and as wildly impressive as it is to see the game’s map laid out before you and know that as you descend all of these distant lights will form into buildings with windows and doors and people outside, just like they would in real life, you can also look out at the expanse of the blue sky, and feel a flatness, a feeling as if you are in some big invisible box.
This is, of course, always the way such games eventually fail to maintain their worlds. In those earlier 3D “GTA” iterations, you’d die just by going in water. In later ones, you’d go as far as you could and the world would just stop. In a non-level-based game, the designers don’t have the luxury of having the space end with the wall of a house you can’t break through. They have to camouflage their limits out in the depths of a sea that hopefully few players are willing to take the time to seek out.
What’s uncomfortable about these parts is how they make you realize that digital frontiers, whether games or the Internet, are seemingly limitless experiences that are actually very controlled by other people. Somebody had to write the code that delineates what part of the ocean you swim in and what part is actually off limits to you. The game programmers decide on other borders as well: what characters you can play as when you first turn on the game, which buildings have interiors you can enter and which don’t, the order in which the missions become available.
In any of these cases, you’re operating in a space allotted for you. The person creating these open-world spaces is still constructing an experience as much as the people who put you in a level system in “Super Mario World.” These spaces are all finite in reality, but we can’t see the end. They seem limitless, and we seem free, but how much of that comes from the distractions and directions written into the game is another issue. How many police chases can you get in around Los Santos before you realize its limits, the same circuit you always find yourself taking? Traveling through a real landscape, you have the roads people have built and the stories you’ve read, but it’s still the world. It’s just there. In a digital landscape, the roads are everything, even if they look more like scenery.
One of the other classic elements of the “GTA” games is the codes. When you’ve exhausted the world on its own terms, you can put in cheats — flying cars, moon gravity, invincibility. You can begin again. A new you that happens to be able to jump 20 feet in the air. But these are still the world on its own terms. Someone had to program these codes. That’s where the dissatisfaction seems to come in. As large and multifaceted as these worlds are, we want more. We want true malleability. These games have the potential to be our new frontiers, but right now it’s too easy to find the bones. The artificiality is what makes the experience legible, but it’s also what makes the limitations frustrating when they’re exposed. You feel like there shouldn’t be any limits, but you have no control over that. These worlds still have walls.
I’ve decided on an important thing. I want to be immortal. I want to do things I couldn’t do if I were able to die.
I’m Trevor, which in my game world means I’ve taken a scuzzy Wild West meth dealer and given him a denim jacket echoing “Drive” and a small-time cult leader beard. The patterns are familiar now. I put in the code for invincibility and the code for explosive bullets. I’m very aware of the buttons I’m pressing — I know the order and the names I need in order to create the result I want. I walk into a busy intersection, take aim, and a passing car explodes with a single shot from my combat pistol.
Setting off explosions in downtown Los Santos is a quick way to attract police attention, and I’ve attained a three-star wanted level in about a minute. I stand in the intersection blowing up cop cars for a while. Blood’s spurting off of me constantly, but I’m unharmed. Eventually, I decide to leave town. I put in the code to conjure a sports bike, and ride up mountainsides and off cliffs, knowing that I will be fine even as my motorcycle explodes.
I arrive at a military base and steal a fighter jet. I’m flying away, when a little beep warns me that the military base is sending some anti-aircraft missiles my way. I figure I’m out of range, but I’m wrong. The jet explodes midair, and I crash in its blackened husk on a mountaintop.
The police choppers have found me again up here. I begin running downhill. I pause. Reenter the code for the bike. Ride the rest of the way down.
The invincibility cheat has worn off, but I don’t bother to reenter it this time. I begin riding down the highway. There’s an eerie silence without gunshots, or without the cinematic score accompanying a chase. I pass dusty strip malls, and mini-marts with a two-decade old glimmer, and hodgepodge trailer communities. There’s just the low hum of my motorcycle, the occasional bark of a dog, the rickety whir of ATVs or rusted-out VW-esque buses as they drive by me. The American Dream is grand.
I pull up to a mini-mart, one called 24/7. Its sign is green and red and orange. I walk in, my jacket decorated with a dozen bloodstains, a gun still in my hand. The shopowner begins to warn me that cops frequent his store, and maybe to call him on his bluff or maybe because I’m ready for a final stand, I shoot him. I take cover just inside the doorway to the back room, awaiting the arrival of the cops.
Not long after they arrive, the firefight has escalated, a constant whine of sirens echoing from outside the mini-mart’s doors. I move out into the store, crouching against a small set of shelves. Soda bottles and snacks periodically get blown off shelves as the cops try to get me. I’ve crept towards four stars, and I know time’s up. SWAT members will start swarming the place, and I can’t hold the position forever. I stand up, and I move toward the door, an automatic shotgun in hand. And even as I knowingly walk to my death, to a last stand amongst the All-American detritus of this desert town, I have a familiar feeling that had been long lost. In that moment, I do feel limitless.