Tag Archive: Next Gen


A shorthanded debut

NHL 14 was the pinnacle for EA Sports’ NHL franchise—and that’s saying something, considering its quality and consistency for more than two decades. It seemed like the folks at EA Canada had crammed in every mode and feature they could come up with and pushed the technology to its limits on the last generation of consoles. But this peak seemed to come at a perfect time, since it was just as we began the transition to new consoles. It seemed more than plausible that EA Canada could reach new heights this year with NHL 15 on new-gen hardware.

Unfortunately, this is another case where expectations were greater than reality. It’s not that the on-ice product is bad with NHL 15. In fact, once you decide to start a game in Be a Pro, Be a GM, or any of the other modes, actually playing a game of hockey might be better than ever. The new NBC presentation package makes it feel like every game is Game of the Week, and commentary from the team of Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, and Ray Ferraro is stellar. I’m about 40 games into my Be a GM mode (I play every game of the season), and I’m just now starting to hear some repeat commentary, but I’m still getting surprised here and there.

The graphics have also made a spectacular transition to the new console generation, and everything looks sharper and crisper—you can almost feel the chill of the ice itself. What’s more, the player models are amazingly realistic and even borrow a few tricks from EA Sports UFC when it comes to bruising and facial contortions from fights. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the eye of a guy you pummeled in an earlier bout swelled shut by the third period.

The biggest improvement comes from the revamped physics, though: huge player pileups when you crash the net, realistic puck bounces that lead to frustrating turnovers or fortunate close calls, and more dynamic goalie saves make it seem like you’re watching a game in real life. All the goal-scoring glitches of past years have seemingly been erased as well—the AI’s improved all around, and your opponent always tries to anticipate your every move. And even the issues with faceoffs—my one disappointment from last year’s game—are now fixed, since you can use your stick with more pinpoint precision than ever before.

When you get off the ice, however, everything takes a horribly sour turn. Countless modes from previous years have been nixed. Even with patches coming in during the next 60 days to bring back Playoff Mode and Online Team Play, you’re still missing EA Sports Hockey League, Winter Classic, and Be a Legend. NHL Moments Live mode from NHL 13 was brought back to cushion this blow, but you still don’t want modes completely removed from the game. It feels like instead of continuing to build on what they’d created over the previous few years, EA Canada instead hit the reset button with new-gen.

The worst part, though, may be the fact that EA Canada scaled back the modes that did make it into the game. Be a Pro has lost the “Live the Life” feature introduced in last year’s game, which allowed you to interact with teammates, family, fans, and the front office and deal with a balancing metagame as you tried to keep everyone in your life happy while also maintaining a high level of on-ice play.

You’ve also lost the ability to simulate to your next shift in Be a Pro. Now, you have to watch the entire game on the bench when you’re not playing, whereas last year, a button press would move you forward in time. This becomes particularly painful if you take a penalty and then have to watch the minutes tick off on the clock from the sin bin. I don’t want to watch a hockey videogame. I want to play. These subtle omissions have turned one of my favorite modes from last year into an afterthought when I boot up the game now.

Be a GM has its own set of issues now, too. To begin with, your team’s AHL affiliate has been completely done away with—now, minor-league players are just “in the system” instead of accumulating any stats or progress whatsoever. There’s also no GM tracking mechanic anymore to let you know how you’re doing or to give you an idea of what goals you need to aim for. The preseason and fantasy-draft options have also been removed, and the year-end draft for each season is fully automated by the CPU. If I’m running a franchise, I want to run the franchise! Don’t take any aspect of that away from me—and especially don’t assign it to the computer!

To make matters worse, the little control you still have left becomes all the more complicated due to the panel user-interface system that’s now permeated every EA Sports franchise. Yes, being able to jump to my favorite modes as soon as I start the game up is a welcome addition, but making trades, changing my lines, and even just resting my goalie have all become a chore because of this new system. The old list system had its problems, but it was nowhere near as bad as what this universal UI homogenization by EA Sports has done. Changing your lines is so difficult that in Hockey Ultimate Team, one of the patches is solely to help adjust this. I wish this patch were for all game modes, because changing lines and making adjustments in Be a GM right now is a nightmare.

And speaking of HUT, nothing has infuriated me more than not being able to earn pucks (the HUT currency used to buy packs to get new players) in single-player modes outside of HUT. Yes, you earned many more for playing online, but as someone who loved Be a GM and Be a Pro modes and spent more time there than anywhere else, it was nice to still earn a few pucks for playing the modes I wanted to play. This only helped extend NHL 14’s life for me; after a while, I would play a little bit of HUT because I’d accrued so many pucks. Now, it feels like the best way to get pucks is to buy them through microtransactions. EA Sports trying to squeeze more money out of us? Color me surprised.

After playing limited demos of NHL 15 leading up to its release, I could not be more disappointed with the final result. It feels like so much time and focus went into getting the graphics and physics systems up to snuff for new-gen that EA Canada forgot about the rest of the game. At the very least, there’s hope, though. Now that the transition’s been made—however painfully—next year’s title can bring NHL back to its former glory.

Developer: EA Canada • Publisher: EA Sports • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 09.09.14
7.0
The new physics system, presentation elements, and graphics are definitely a step forward for the franchise, but the wholesale removal or scaling back of so many modes leaves you wondering how such a great series could struggle so mightily with the console transition.
The Good The physics and graphics are the best the series has ever seen.
The Bad So many modes and features are missing compared to NHL 14 that it’s hard to believe this is the full game.
The Ugly This will go down with Madden 06 as one of the most disappointing generation transition games for a sports franchise.
NHL 15 is available on Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, and PS3. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by EA Sports for the benefit of this review.

Injustice gets the all-star treatment

When Injustice: Gods Among Us came around for the first time seven months ago, it was hard for me—being the huge DC fanatic that I am—to not immediately fall in love. Not only was it a fantastic fighter that built on developer NetherRealm’s success with the 2011 Mortal Kombat reboot, but it also delivered a story that made perfect sense for the DC Universe, providing plenty of the comic-style moments I’ve always wanted to see in a game like this.

But, looking back, I now realize that first version of Injustice was incomplete. Six new fighters, 60 STAR Labs missions, and a cornucopia of alternate costumes would come later via DLC, but you needed to shell out a few extra dollars for it. Until now.

Injustice: Gods Among Us – Ultimate Edition puts all that extra content on the same disc as the original game. Now, if you’ve already bought the DLC separately, you’re probably kicking yourself—as is often the case when Game of the Year, Ultimate, Ultra, or whatever fancy word you want to slap on a game to signify “the entire package”, finally comes out. Especially since there’s really nothing else on this disc besides the DLC. No new modes or characters, and only a single new costume (Black Adam’s “New 52”, exclusive to the PS4 version). So, I admit that the appeal for original buyers is lacking.

But if you haven’t played Injustice yet, this is also the perfect time to experience what you missed the first time around. Since the game includes several elements from Mortal Kombat, fighting-game fans should quickly pick up on the power meter, the Clash system, and the STAR Labs tribute to MK’s Challenge Tower. The game handles as tightly as it did before, and its unique two-lifebar system is still a fresh addition to a somewhat stale genre. I specifically went out of my way, however, to see if the next-gen version of the game was any different than its current-gen counterpart.

As with most next-gen titles, all the visuals look slightly better than on the current-gen incarnation. In story mode, though, it seems that High Voltage’s scaling/remastering for the PS4 version was a little sloppy. Longer cutscenes—specifically the ones in between chapters—have clearly noticeable lag and screen tearing.

Story mode also takes advantage of the PS4’s touchpad. While it’s optional—you can use button presses just like in the current-gen versions—the touchpad can be utilized in the various minigames that crop up during the narrative. Though I personally still prefer button presses, I found the touchpad to be surprisingly responsive and accurate while adding a degree of freshness and challenge to something familiar.

Not surprising—but very welcome—is the huge cutdown on load times. You could go make a sandwich while bouts loaded on current-gen, but on the PS4, the process is far faster, which is great if you can’t wait to get back into the action.

Something that did shock me a little was how unbalanced some of the DLC characters still felt. It’s not atypical for a DLC character in a fighting game to be a bit off-kilter when they’re first released into the wild, but patches usually fix what couldn’t have been anticipated during testing. Several of the six newcomers felt just a bit off, and I’d either have extra trouble fighting against these foes or an easier time fighting with them—at this point, I’d figured this would’ve been corrected already.

Despite these minor issues, at its core, Injustice: Gods Among Us is still one of the best fighting games you’re likely to get your hands on. Ultimate Edition simply makes whole what we should’ve gotten in the first place. There’s not much here for original Season Pass holders, but newcomers and folks dying to play something on their PS4s won’t be disappointed.

Developer: NetherRealm Studis/High Voltage Software • Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 11.15.13
9.5
All the DLC of the original—including costumes and more STAR Labs missions—plus a little nex-gen shine makes a great fighting game even better.
The Good All the DLC of the original game on one disc.
The Bad Could use a bit more balancing.
The Ugly It’s still Solomon Grundy.
Injustice: Gods Among Us – Ultimate Edition is available on Xbox 360, PS3, PS4, PS Vita, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4.

Team Edward

Change is never easy. But often, it’s for the best. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a prime example, since it brings plenty of changes for Ubisoft’s flagship franchise.

From a hardware perspective, Assassin’s Creed IV comes during a console shift, launching with next-gen while still catering to the old. Black Flag also marks the first game where Desmond Miles is no longer the present-day protagonist. Instead, players take on the first-person perspective of an Abstergo Entertainment employee who must “research” 18th-century buccaneer Edward Kenway for the sake of a Pirates of the Caribbean rip-off movie the company wants to make. At least, that’s what they say—but if you look carefully, you’ll see there’s a lot more lurking beneath the surface.

The biggest change, though, comes in the story of Black Flag and how it’s told. In Edward’s tale, the Assassin-Templar war gets pushed into the background and serves as little more than white noise compared to the battle Edward has within himself. It almost feels like the series is trying to ease you back into this overarching conflict that consumed the last couple of Assassin’s Creed titles, making Black Flag the best time in a while for newcomers to jump into the action. The lack of overall narrative progression might worry longtime fans, but the story also seems to be laying the foundation for future games by introducing a lot of new pieces.

The story pacing also sees a dramatic shift compared to previous titles—and it’s a far cry from the dragged-out exposition of Assassin’s Creed III. From the second you start the game, you’re thrown right into the thick of it, piloting a ragtag ship in the middle of a raging storm. From there, Edward quickly acquires his hidden blades, his ship (the Jackdaw), and a first mate. Soon, he’s pirating and plundering with the best of ’em. Quite literally, in fact. Blackbeard, Calico Jack, Ben Hornigold, and every other infamous Caribbean captain of the early 18th century knows Edward somehow—and when you see them, rum will be drunk and laughs will be had. In fact, I wish the game offered the opportunity to work with each one a bit more, but since the cast is so large, you only scratch the surface of all your pirate brethren, and it becomes more noticeable as you peel back all of Edward’s layers.

But through all these interactions, we see a blending of personalities we haven’t really seen before from a single hero in the series. Edward exudes charm and charisma that’s only dashed by his own brash stubbornness, similar to Altaïr from the original Assassin’s Creed. But Edward’s also an established man right from the get-go, with deep-rooted relationships and a reputation that’s well-known—similar to a much older Ezio from the Assassin’s Creed II trilogy. He may not get his proper Assassin training until later in the game (which made me wonder how he became so quickly accustomed to the hidden blades), but he’s been sailing for several years when we meet him, and his backstory’s only fleshed out through short flashbacks.

Despite the advanced life experience Edward’s acquired by the time we first meet him, he also has enough room to still undergo a dramatic character shift over the course of the game. While Black Flag may take place within the short time period of only a few years, Edward grows as a character through each subsequent Animus sequence until he evolves into someone worthy of upholding the Creed, and he takes on a persona that will be quickly recognized by fans who read the Assassin’s Creed book, Forsaken. It’s simply the most dramatic character shift of a single character in one game in the series since Altaïr.

Speaking of things we haven’t seen since Altaïr, that brings me to the gameplay. Making a huge return in Black Flag is an emphasis on stealth. Infiltration missions are a frequent task for Edward to further his cause, and though getting spotted won’t always lead to a mission restart, it will lead to dozens of guards swarming you—and unless your swashbuckling skills are top-notch, it might as well be an instant fail.

Aside from the infiltration missions, Ubisoft’s made some tweaks to the infamous tailing sequences—mostly in the form of an overhauled Eagle Vision system. Now, besides seeing the group affiliation of everyone in a crowd, you can also tag your targets. This allows you to see them through walls and buildings so you can follow them from a much farther distance than in previous entries. I’m afraid this new vision is way too overpowered, though. X-ray vision and Eagle Vision should not be one and the same, and this is just overkill, making these missions easy to the point they feel like a waste of time. And if you want to go old-school and not use it at all, the layouts of the island paths aren’t really set up for that design, so you’ll fail a lot more than the developers intended—and it can become frustrating.

One change that most fans will be thankful for, however? The new gun mechanics. They’re akin to what you might find in a more traditional third-person shooter, which makes taking aim and pulling off headshots a breeze. Of course, sometimes you need to take into consideration the bobbing of your boat when boarding an enemy ship out in the ocean, since that can easily throw off your shot.

Now that I mention your ship, the biggest gameplay element in Assassin’s Creed IV is being out on the Caribbean Sea. This is easily one of the most addictive and well-put-together game mechanics I’ve had the pleasure of playing in quite some time; it was a blast using my spyglass to look for enemy ships, boarding them, and then having that ship’s crew at my mercy. When the game’s story made me go back on land, I was honestly disappointed, because I never wanted to leave the water.

There’s so much to do out on the open seas that it’s easy to become lost in the search for buried treasure, hunting sharks, laying waste to smuggler coves, and violently seizing military forts—and you forget there’s actually a story tying all this together. If you make a speed run and just do the story, you’re probably only going to get a 15-to-20 hour game. But if you’re a completionist, you should double those numbers.

Another part of what makes sailing in the open world so enjoyable is the attention to detail. Seeing whales jump out of the water for a breath of fresh air, Spanish and English ships suddenly engaging each other several nautical miles in the distance, or a storm randomly coming together overhead and you have to start swerving and taking cover to avoid waterspouts and rogue waves was phenomenal. And everything looked crisper and clearer than you’d think was possible on next gen.

What really makes the pirate life so fitting for an Assassin’s Creed game is the freedom—with sailing virtually wherever you want, plundering whatever you wish, and stabbing whoever you want in the face serving as the perfect metaphor. The game’s story holds your hand just enough so that by the time you’re done with the first quarter of the tale, you’re ready to roam about and do whatever you wish. In regards to upgrading your ship and Edward’s belongings, there’s a bit of a grind when it comes to the Jackdaw, since you need to board other ships to get the necessary materials and loot. By contrast, you can buy all the pelts necessary to craft Edward’s upgrades directly from shops if hunting animals isn’t your thing.

Besides the story, there’s also the meta-game revolving around Kenway’s Fleet, which allows you to take captured ships, slap a black flag on them, and send them on special missions around the Caribbean—think recruiting Assassins in Brotherhood, Revelations, and Assassin’s Creed III. If your ships successfully complete the missions, you get cash. Unfortunately, this segment would’ve been more enjoyable if the ships got stronger the better they did—much like how you can upgrade the Jackdaw here or how assassins would level up in previous games. One unique difference is the ships can get into a battle minigame to help make trade routes safer—and increase the likelihood of a successful voyage.

Kenway’s Fleet also takes full advantage of the Black Flag iOS companion app so that you can actually send ships out and make money in-game and work with friends to clear trade routes without being tethered to a console. It’s a cool idea, but all it really made me want to do was get back to my controller faster so I could go back out on the ocean and get more ships for my fleet.

So, the single-player’s pretty damn expansive, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any multiplayer additions. The one that will draw everyone’s eye, of course, is the Game Lab. This allows players to fully customize multiplayer matches like never before, drawing from every other mode in the game. Also, Wolfpack has seen an upgrade, with new objectives besides group killing added—including protecting treasure chests or killing multitudes of “infected” soldiers.

In all, this is one of the most complete Assassin’s Creed releases to date. I think longtime fans will appreciate Edward’s story and how tight everything feels, but it might be shocking how little the Assassin-Templar conflict actually moves forward. Think of this as laying the groundwork for the next story arc—almost like a monthly comic book. The pieces are being put in place, and during the process, you’re getting to play the greatest pirate game ever conceived.

Black Flag might not topple Assassin’s Creed II from its perch as the pinnacle of the franchise, but if you love swashbuckling and high-tension adventure on the high seas, this is as good as it gets.

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal  • Publisher: Ubisoft • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 10.29.13
9.5
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag doesn’t move the franchise forward as a whole—but it doesn’t need to. Instead, this is probably the best pirate simulation in gaming history that successfully lays the groundwork for what’s to come in the series.
The Good The high-seas adventures add a whole new dynamic to the Assassin’s Creed franchise.
The Bad Overpowered Eagle Vision.
The Ugly 18th-century dental plans.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is available on Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U, and PC. The game will be available on PC on November 19th, and is a launch title for PS4 and Xbox One. Primary version reviewed was for PS4.