PS4

PS4 Pre-Orders Dominate Amazon Top 20

This year’s E3 sent shockwaves through the gaming world yesterday when Sony announced a PS4 price tag $100 lower than Xbox One, and this is certainly having an impact on retail pre-orders already. Considering that neither console is out for at least another five months, it’s impressive enough that Amazon’s Top 20 gaming chart is absolutely dominated by pre-orders. By far the big winner so far, however, is Sony. Just a quick look shows 8 out of the top 20 gaming products on Amazon are PS4 related, including the PS4 itself which holds the top spot. By contrast, there are just 3 Xbox One related products. Just days ago, Xbox One held the top spot, so it’s clear that E3 has had a pretty big effect.

Is this the beginning of a big head-start for PS4, or just E3 momentum, which will fade over time? After all, there’s a long time between now and Christmas, and Microsoft are unlikely to go down without a big fight. Taking into account big hitting exclusives like Killer Instinct and Halo, not to mention the “living room” factor (which may shift a lot of consoles to more casual gamers), Sony hasn’t won anything yet – but it’s clear that PS4 will hit the ground running.

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Backwards-Compatibility

Why Backwards Compatibility Matters More Than Ever

It used to be the norm that as you moved on from one console to the next, you left behind the games, controllers and other peripherals associated with your old console as you ushered in a new generation of gaming technology. No-one really cared when they moved from NES to SNES, as the SNES was so damned exciting that being unable to play Duck Hunt simply didn’t matter. The leap to the SNES was huge, and the new games, joypads and even that massive lightgun/rocketlauncher thing were all part of the amazing new console generation.

People cared even less when they moved from the SNES/Megadrive era onto PlayStation – brand loyalties died as Sony stole the show away from Nintendo and Sega, and naturally moving from one manufacturer to another meant you’d lose access to your old games. Again, no-one really cared – older consoles ended up in carboot sales up and down the country, or were traded in with the owner’s catalogue of about 200 games, all in the interests of subsidising the latest and greatest gaming console.

The cycle continued in almost the same manner with PlayStation 2, which essentially cemented Sony’s position as the biggest games console manufacturer in the world. The difference however, was that Sony took their old customers with them. In a virtually unprecedented move for a console manufacturer, Sony’s PlayStation 2 offered almost full backwards compatibility with PSOne games out of the box. A new dawn had risen, one where console generations blended seamlessly as classics like Abe’s Oddysee, Final Fantasy (VII – IX) and Resident Evil were played alongside cutting edge releases like Grand Theft Auto III and Final Fantasy X.

Alas, this was to be the last time that such a transition occurred so seamlessly. PlayStation 3’s high pricing and botched launch caused backwards compatibility to eventually be completely ditched, while Microsoft’s software emulation of older games lost momentum and was eventually halted, leaving many Xbox games unplayable or with serious glitches on Xbox 360. Ultimately though, none of this mattered, as people got used to leaving their old games behind, and many PS2/Xbox generation games were re-released as HD Remasters – an almost win-win situation for gamers and developers, as gamers got shiny HD graphics and Trophies/Achievements and developers got more money from them.

So why the big fuss with the lack of backwards compatibility on Xbox One and PlayStation 4? There is one simple reason: digital purchasing. Gaming has seen a massive shift towards digital distribution, be it through retail “games on demand”, DLC expansion packs or smaller XBLA/PSN digital-only releases, this generation’s gamers have spent a lot of time and money on content that will simply disappear once they leave their current console behind. Of course, no-one is being forced to get rid of their old console when they buy a new one, but, as has happened with every generation prior to this one, gamers will often sell their old console and games library in order to help finance the purchase of a new one. With eBay, retail outlet trade-ins and even online trade-ins now available, it’s easier than ever to turn your old console and games into cash. With expected console prices of around £400 and game prices set at an RRP of £90, the next generation could be very expensive for gamers.

How willing will gamers be to lose access to their entire PSN/Xbox Live games catalogue? In previous generations, at least you could get a few quid for your old copy of Donkey Kong Country, but people have spent hundreds or even thousands of pounds on games and DLC that will simply be lost if they sell their old console.

What are the possible consequences of this? Firstly, console manufacturers may find it much harder to convince gamers to move up to the next generation. Secondly, gamers may be much more sceptical of spending their money on digital purchases in the future – as consoles shift towards an almost entirely digital future, there will be much more at stake for gamers moving between future generations of consoles.

Could this be the last generation where backwards compatibility is ditched? The best comparison is probably with Steam – most games on Steam will pretty much work on any of the last three or four versions of Windows, and are likely to remain compatible for the near future at least. Or could this be last generation of consoles as we know them, as the concept of “generations” fades out and a more incremental succession model is introduced. Either way, the futures of backwards compatibility and digital distribution are intrinsically linked, and together will shape the future of console gaming.

NextGenConsoles

Next Generation Consoles: 5 Predictions

Considering that we have no idea when the next generation consoles from Microsoft and Sony will be released, or how much they will cost or indeed even what they look like, there is an surprisingly sizeable swell of rumours and predictions floating around the web. Let’s try to put a few to bed while raising a few predictions of our own.

1) Xbox 720 Won’t Require Constant Net Connection for Games

This one is kind of obvious really. At no stage has Microsoft suggested that the next Xbox will require a constant internet connection in order to play games, but actually neither have any of the more plausible rumours. What all this seems to stem from is the completely reasonable and likely suggestion that the next Xbox will have some sort of constant online function, and possibly a requirement for all users to sign up for an Xbox Live account. It may even offer the functionality of requiring a constant internet connection to any devs brave enough to try this (think of EA’s recent Sim City disaster). The “always on” connection could be used for many functions, but one of the most likely is the ability to download and install games/demos remotely, even when your Xbox is “off”.

2) Full-on Backwards Compatibility for Xbox 360

This will be a hot potato, but it’s pretty clear that Microsoft could play a trump card if they announce any kind of meaningful backwards compatibility with the launch of the next Xbox. The danger is that they’ll announce a similar level of backwards compatibility to what Xbox 360 had with the original Xbox (i.e. almost not worth bothering with) and people will see it as an expensive waste of time, so Microsoft needs to play this one big time or not at all – and let’s put our cards on the table here; they’re going to play big time with at least 90% backwards compatibility.

3) The Sony “Headstart” will Fade Away

PlayStation 4 is an awesome sounding console, and Sony has really turned its reputation as a somewhat difficult company to work with into a developer’s dream. Make no mistake, Sony is going all out in its courting of both AAA and indie developers for PlayStation 4. However, Microsoft is keeping everyone silent on Xbox 720 development until the console has been revealed, meaning we know literally nothing about developer support for Xbox 720. People are getting over-excited about Sony’s current “headstart” with developers and gamers, but we are probably six months off either next-gen console launch, and once the next Xbox is announced it will be a much more level playing field. Microsoft will have its own exclusives and partnership deals, and by the end of the summer both consoles will be firmly established as potential winners. We’ll just have to wait and see how it pans out.

4) Wii U is the Next Dreamcast

Wii U is actually a pretty cool console, but being a good console never helped anyone if they were around at the wrong time. Take a look at the Sega Dreamcast – an absolutely phenomenal console at the time, yet completely butchered by Sony’s PlayStation 2. The Wii U is either two years too late, or vastly underpowered. Sadly, the market for Wii U is just too small compared to sustain the console for long in this cut-throat industry, and it will fade away as the “real” next gen consoles fight for the top spot.

5) Motion Control Games are a Fad

It’s easy to underestimate how important game pads are. If you’ve ever used Steam’s “Big Picture” mode on a 40″ TV with a wireless Xbox 360 controller, you’ll know exactly how much of an impact a joypad can make. Of course, not all games are ideal for joypads, but they are one of the main distinguishers of casual gamers and proper gamers. Sure, there are some cool touch screen mobile games out there (Fruit Ninja for example), but most traditional (i.e. non-touch screen) games on smartphones are pretty lame, with on-screen controls that are not only massive and obscure the game with your thumbs, but are also pretty unresponsive and awkard. There are a few PlayStation Move games that are worth playing (Sports Champions 2 in particular) and there are even (allegedly) a few Xbox Kinect games worth playing. But these exceptions aside, gaming is ruled by joypads (and if you’re a PC gamer, keyboard and mouse for FPS and RTS games). Many people in the industry talk about the seemingly inexorable rise of mobile and casual gaming as the harbinger of traditional gaming’s destruction, but there is always going to be a market for non-casual gamers. What’s more, all this “motion control” stuff is fine for a bit of fun, but it’s clearly a fad – people will tire of it like they tired of VR in the early nineties. Gaming with joypads is here to stay.

These are our predictions – what are yours?

Tomb Raider Review

Tomb Raider

As an avid Tomb Raider fan, I have spent many a sleepless night waiting for this game to be released. The time has come and I am glad all my anticipation was not wasted.

Firstly the graphics are stunning. I have based my review on the PS3 version of the game and from trend, if it’s good on the PS3, its better on the PC. As soon as I stepped into the story, I was immediately in awe of the graphics. In the gameplay itself, the colour pallets are very natural making it all the more immersive and realistic for the player. With great lighting and the mud/blood stains on Lara (which disappear after running through a waterfall) shows an amazing attention to detail. The cut scenes were good but I feel they could have been polished a little bit more. The movies are perfect but when you get to the cut scenes, most of the models look a bit dated in comparison and show up too much against the natural looking fauna and flora. The only model that seems to react perfectly to the lighting etc. is Lara herself, but to be honest, that’s fine by me as you only see her for the majority of the game. Another great thing about the theatrics of it is the soundtrack. Never too epic or in your face but sets the mood that much better, whether you’re having a stroll on the beach, hunting crabs or fighting your way through a pack of wolves.

There is one downside to the almost too real graphics: multiplayer. It makes it much more difficult to see other players as you’re dashing through a forest, at night, about to get one shotted by an arrow because the enemy has a similar colour jacket to the tree he’s hiding behind. Even the explosive barrels that you can utilize to obliterate your enemy are such a dull red, it’s hard to make them out from the bush it’s hidden in. Saying that though, the maps in multiplayer are well thought out and just as stunning as the main game itself.

The story is fantastic. I found from the opening movie down to the end movie, the story was great. The characters all have a part to play and interact well and as you progress, the story unfolds in a way that will allow you to link it up yourself while still maintaining its ‘mysterious’ vibe. Based in the ‘Dragon Triangle’ east of Japan you quickly find that the game focuses on surviving more than the usual spelunking Lara has been known to do. The world is open as well so it is not as linear as older games, giving you chance to uncover hidden relics or raid hidden tombs for extra rewards. I am torn with this decision as I used to enjoy the time trials or unlocking alternate costumes, which on release, are options not present however it is refreshing to have that freedom of movement and moments of ‘Oh, what’s over there?’

The starting tutorials were good but not great. Veteran players of Tomb Raider will get the hang of it very quickly however a new player to the series might be sat there for a while trying to remember what it said, bearing that in mind, it will tell you again if you are sat there for a while. QTE’s are present as well giving that much hated fear and terror they instil when you don’t hit the button quick enough.

The Multiplayer is actually quite good as well. I went into it thinking that it was just a bolt on to entice more players in and wouldn’t be worth its weight however it is good fun with a bit of variety.

The option to have multiple load outs with different skills allows you to customize your character and to suit your play style. Whether it’s simply reducing bullet damage you receive to dropping a landmine on death or shooting fire arrows, you have the ability to swap up your style between matches. Certain mechanics within the multiplayer need a bit of a polish however such as the melee, the move set for it, allows far too much movement and more often than not, over shooting your target with your pick axe will result in instant death from your unrelenting enemy.

I did not have nearly as much negativity towards this game as I thought I would as even though I was excited, I was expecting to be disappointed. I was expecting to dislike the multiplayer or be annoyed at Lara for repeatedly jumping off the same cliff over and over again without grabbing on to that god damn ledge, but this pet peeve of mine seemed to have been worked out of the reboot. It was refreshing to see such a well thought out reboot where the graphics didn’t suffer after the first 2 hours of gameplay which have been shown at E3 and so on and the story didn’t fizzle half way through.

The only things that they could have done better? I miss the globetrotting. The island itself had varied atmospheres but I felt myself wanting more. The great thing about games these days is that there is always room for DLC.

I would definitely give this one a go, whether you’ve been playing Tomb Raider since 1996 or just starting now, you won’t be disappointed.

Top5-Games-of-this-Generation

Top 5 Games of this Generation… So Far

There are games that you love, and there are games that go beyond personal appreciation; through their sheer quality, these games manage to cross over into a universal level of appeal that means almost any gamer will absolutely love them, transcending genre, age and format. This generation has seen some remarkable games, and with so many high quality AAA games available, it feels like we’re in golden age of gaming. But above all others, these five games (in no particular order) showcase the best that his generation has to offer:

Batman: Arkham City

Available on PS3, Xbox 360, PC

When Batman: Arkham Asylum was first released, gamers were surprised (and delighted) to learn that not only was Arkham Asylum one of the best licensed games ever made, but that it was one of the best games ever made. Graphically, it’s excellent, and the visuals set the tone perfectly. The storyline is also great, and just about everything else is great. However, what sets Arkham Asylum apart is the gameplay: it’s just incredibly fun to play. So after creating an almost perfect game, what did Rocksteady Studios do next? They opened it up from an asylum to an entire city, expanding the game in just about every way, and created Batman: Arkham City. Arkham City allows you to effectively free roam an entire city fillled with characters from the Batman comics, and gives you a plethora of gadgets to fight them with. There are side-missions galore, bonuses to collect, and massive new areas to explore at every turn. If none of that bothers you, you can just follow the fantastic story all the way through, with its many (and occasionally shocking) twists and turns. Batman: Arkham City is truly among the best that gaming has to offer.

Uncharted 2

Available on PS3

In many ways the complete opposite of a free-roaming, open game like Batman: Arkham City, Uncharted 2 is almost certainly the finest example of Hollywood production values within the gaming world. The gameplay is hugely fun, but this almost takes a back seat to the dazzling graphics and unparalleled (in gaming at least) acting quality. There are times in Uncharted 2 when you simple have to stop where you are and take a look around at the scenery. In particular, the Nepalese village level, high up in the Himalayas, is almost literally breathtaking. These graphics come at a price, as any notion of free-roam or open-world gameplay is sacrificed in order to focus on highly detailed, highly linear levels. However, instead of holding the game back, the linearity becomes an advantage; it allows the game to take you on a rollercoaster of a storyline, with a cast of highly vivid, memorable characters, brought to life by a witty, tightly written script that many Hollywood writers would be envious of. If you’ve ever wondered whether games could ever match movies as a storytelling medium, you only need to play Uncharted 2 to find out that they already do.

Minecraft

Available on Xbox 360, PC

Every now and then a game comes along to remind you that big budgets, AAA development studios and fancy graphics can be blown out the water by simple innovation and creativity. Minecraft demonstrates this principle to a T. By taking a very simple premise – basically a computer game version of Lego – and building up a community of support, Markus Persson a.k.a. Notch created one of the biggest selling and most critically acclaimed games of all time. Sure, it’s not exactly 100% original, but by innovating and adding extra gameplay elements like monsters and levelling, Minecraft is elevated about being just a creative sandbox.

Like Uncharted 2’s linearity, Minecraft even turns its biggest flaw into a genuine asset – the blocky, old-school textures have become an instantly recognisable symbol of Minecraft, and a powerful reminder that fancy graphics are not necessary to make a fantastic game.

Dark Souls

Available on PS3, Xbox 360, PC

Another game that proves how big budgets and AAA development studios are nothing compared to solid gameplay and innovation is Demon’s Souls. First released in Japan in 2009, Demon’s Souls quickly began to send ripples through the gaming world and, thanks to PlayStation 3’s lack of region-lock, was soon being imported across the world by gamers eager to play this generation’s most exciting ‘old-school’ game. Due to popular demand, the game eventually received a western release, where sales and acclaim continued to pile in. Like Rocksteady Studios, developer From Software didn’t let the dust settle there however, and came back in 2011 with the massive, multiplatform sequel, Dark Souls. Set in a huge, terrifying open world, Dark Souls is arguably (but not definitively) the better of the two games, due to the expanded world, increased game length and even darker and more horrifying environments and enemies. OK, so we’re cheating a bit here, as Dark Souls isn’t actually the kind of game that any gamer will enjoy; but, if you’re brave enough to tackle the most punishingly difficult game this generation, you’ll find Dark Souls to be of the most exciting, rewarding and enjoyable games ever made.

Red Dead Redemption

Available on PS3, Xbox 360

As a computer game western, Red Dead Redemption is somewhat of an anomaly in gaming. There have been a number of decent western-themed games over the years, but very few ever reached significant mainstream success, so it was  a welcome surprise when Rockstar Games announced that their next game would be a Grand Theft Auto style sandbox game set in the Old West. Right from the start, Red Dead Redemption has a lot going for it: massive open world gameplay, stunning vistas, an abundance of side-quests and mini games, a fantastic story, and brilliant voice acting. It’s hard to find any faults with Red Dead Redemption, and when you take into account the ‘Game of the Year’ edition that comes with all the DLC including the “Undead Nightmares” expansion, you’ll get a huge amount of playtime out of this. In a strange way, it’s hard to put an exact point on what makes Red Dead Redemption so brilliant, as everything about it is just so good – and that’s what gives it a place on this list. Red Dead Redemption has just about everything you’d want from a computer game and more, with massive replay value to boot.

Although these five games stand out above almost everything else released in this generation, the generation isn’t over yet. With The Last of Us, Grand Theft Auto 5 and many other high profile games yet to be released, we may well see some new additions to the best games of this generation. If anything does manage to topple these five, then gamers really are in for a treat.

What do you think? Have we missed off your favourite game of this generation?

PS4

Is PS4 Just a Branded Gaming PC?

With Nintendo’s Wii U struggling with low sales, and Sony moving from its controversial ‘Cell’ processor to an AMD x86-64 processor, are we about to enter a new era in games console hardware, where bespoke CPUs are a thing of the past and games consoles are little more than branded gaming rigs with a custom OS? If so, is PlayStation 4 just another one of these branded gaming rigs? Let’s take a look at the PlayStation 4 specs that have been released so far:

Processor x86-64 AMD “Jaguar” 8 core CPU
Graphics 1.84 TFlops, AMD Radeon Graphics Core Next engine
Memory 8GB GDDR5 RAM
Storage HDD (size unconfirmed)
Optical Drive 6x Blu-Ray drive
Input/Output USB 3.0
Ethernet 10BASE-T, 100BASE-TX, 1000-BASE-T
Wireless IEEE 802.11 b/g/n

You can pick up most of that kit, or at least a comparable retail version, at any decent computer hardware retailer. So does this mean that PlayStation 4 will essentially be Sony’s new gaming rig, with a PlayStation OS? In a way, yes. But having its own OS, as well as a fixed set of hardware (unlike the virtually infinite combinations of PC hardware), means that PlayStation 4 will still be a long way from a Windows PC.

The next PlayStation OS, whatever it is called, will be a very lean piece of software when it comes to resource usage. Just look at what PlayStation 3 manages to achieve with just 256MB of RAM. Compare that to Windows Vista, which was released just a couple of months after PlayStation 3 and needed at least 1GB of RAM to run effectively, and you’ll see what kind of advantage home consoles have with regard to RAM usage. By the same standard, PlayStation 4’s beefy 8GB of RAM will probably be enough to see it compete with PCs that have 16GB of RAM or perhaps even more.

The same is true with the CPU and GPU specs: by having to cater for so many variations of hardware, PC game developers have to sacrifice a significant amount of performance if they are to keep development time within a financially manageable length. By having just one (for first party developers) or two (for dual platform developers) sets of hardware to focus on, developers are able to push a console to its absolute limits, and take advantage of all the specific optimisations and nuances available to them. Again, this will allow a console to out-compete a similarly spec’d PC by some margin.

The story doesn’t end there however. By offering a “walled garden”, game piracy is kept to a minimum, and this is a big incentive for developers. We’ve heard time and time again from developers that piracy is frequently a barrier to PC game development, whereas this is only a minimal issue for consoles. This, along with other factors, results in many best-selling console games simply skipping PC release altogether, which is a real shame for PC gamers. The only way to play games like Red Dead Redemption, Final Fantasy XIII, and Tekken Tag Tournament 2 is to buy a  console, and that’s before you get into system-specific exclusives like Gran Turismo 5, Ni No Kuni, Forza and most of the Halo games.

One of the other major benefits of the walled garden is that everything works, from the word go. Every Xbox 360 comes with a predefined wireless joypad and a headset/microphone to plug into it. Every PlayStation 3 comes with a Blu-ray drive capable of storing 50GB of data and a motion sensitive controller. Developers know exactly what their audience will be using, and can develop games to specifically take advantage of whatever features they like. Like any iPhone developer will tell you, development is simplified when you know exactly what you’re working with.

So yes, in theory the hardware of PlayStation 4 does make it look a lot like a branded gaming rig. In practice however, there will be as much difference between PlayStation and PC as there ever was. Does that mean that PlayStation 4 will be better for gaming that a PC? No, but it’s clear that for the time being at least, there’s room for PC and console to exist side-by-side as they have always done.

Top-10-Xbox-360

Top 10 Xbox 360 Games | March 2013

Let’s take a look at the top-selling Xbox 360 games on Amazon this month:

01) Tomb Raider – £33

02) FIFA 13 – £29.99

03) Gears of War: Judgment – £36.00

04) Halo 4 – £20.25

05) Far Cry 3 – £24.99

06) Call of Duty: Black Ops II – £39.79

07) Crysis 3 (Hunter Edition) – £37.39

08) Naruto Shippiden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 – £37.00

09) Assassin’s Creed 3 – £27.99

10) Bioshock: Infinite – £37.99

There are some incredibly good games in the top 10 this month, and some real bargains too: anyone who says gaming is getting too expensive needs to take a look down that list! At the top this month we have the long-awaiting Tomb Raider reboot. After concerns about the addition of a perfunctory multiplayer mode, and a few rumours that the game wasn’t much fun, it turns out that the new Tomb Raider game is probably the best game in the series since the original. No wonder then, that it’s hit the top spot at Amazon this week – especially at £33, which is a seriously good price for a brand new AAA game like this.

We’ve got FIFA 2013 at number two, which is no surprise really as there is almost always a FIFA game in the top 10. The FIFA games seem to be in a world of their own much of the time, as they don’t really generate any kind of pre-launch hysteria, and the gaming press tends to almost ignore them, yet they consistently sell well and must make a lot of money. The secret to their success is that the FIFA games have managed to root themselves in a kind of magical gaming grey area, where casual and hardcore gamers overlap – leading to quality, AAA production and an enormous sales volume.

It’s not even out for another 3 weeks, but Gears of War: Judgment is already say at number three, and will almost certainly climb higher as we get closer to release date. The first three Gears of War games have been massive sellers for Microsoft’s Xbox 360, so there’s no reason to think that Gears of War: Judgment will be any different.

Halo 4 is sat at number four and, even though it was only released in November, has already received a decent discount, down to £20.51. Far Cry 3 is also priced very reasonably at £24.99. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens to game prices when the next generation hits, as new games are likely to hold their prices for much longer while the next generation consoles are still new, and it’s expected that RRPs will increase by around £10, bringing an average RRP up to around £59.99.

Also bargainous this month is Assassin’s Creed 3, on sale for just £27.99. That seems like a pretty reasonable price, but there’s a ‘Game of the Year’ edition of sorts on its way too, called the Washington Edition, which will contain the full game plus a load of DLC. If you’re willing to hold on, you might find you get better value by waiting.

Xbox-360

How Likely is Xbox 720 Backwards Compatibility?

Along with Sony’s announcement of PlayStation 4 this week came the expected announcement that PlayStation 4 would have no native backwards compatibility with PlayStation 3 software; presumably due to the move away from their bespoke ‘Cell’ processor towards a much more mainstream x86 CPU. While Sony has also announced that they plan to introduce some level of backwards compatibility through their Gaikai streaming technology, this won’t be integrated at launch and is unlikely to support the entire PS3 catalogue even once the service matures. In addition, the limited bandwidth of many home internet connections means that gamers may end up playing with lag and/or in low resolutions if their broadband isn’t fast enough.

So Sony’s gambit leaves an interesting proposition for Microsoft. With as-yet-unannounced next generation console, Microsoft essentially has three choices:

1) No backwards compatibility

2) Partial, emulation based backwards compatibility

3) Full backwards compatibility

Now that Sony has laid its backwards compatibility cards on the table, it seems clear that Microsoft really needs to follow choice 2) or 3) in order to keep pace with Sony, though there are some very good reasons for no including backwards compatibility at all. First, you can lower the cost of a new console significantly be omitting the hardware required for backwards compatibility, and second, you give developers an incentive to move to the next generation, as anyone whose sole console is an Xbox 720 won’t be tempted to play cheaper, older games from the previous generation. Despite these reasons, leaving Xbox 360 owners with no transition path to Xbox 720 will clearly put Microsoft at a disadvantage to Sony, who have already given PlayStation 3 owners an incentive to stay loyal.

The middle ground, option 2), is pretty much what Microsoft did with Xbox 360, introducing software backwards compatibility over time (before eventually giving up on the idea). This really is the obvious choice, as this is still relatively cheap to implement, while keeping many current fans happy that they’ll be able to play at least some of their favourite current generation games on their next console. Quite how this will work is anyone’s guess, as Microsoft hasn’t even unveiled their next console yet, but if this is how they proceed then it’s likely to be through software emulation, rather than game streaming, for two main reasons: First, game streaming is an unproven technology that may be very costly to implement (Sony paid over £240 million for Gaikai) and second, the Xbox 720’s hardware is likely to have a much closer design to current Xbox 360 hardware than between PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. Software emulation still has a cost attached however, which is why Microsoft eventually halted their program to bring Xbox games to Xbox 360.

The final choice, option 3), is perhaps the unlikeliest of all, yet also perhaps the most tempting. By including the necessary current generation hardware in the next generation Xbox, Microsoft would offer a seamless upgrade path for the roughly 75 million current generation Xbox users. The obvious downside is that this would also increase the launch price considerably, giving Sony the upper hand, especially with consumers who don’t currently own a games console. Again, giving Sony this kind of advantage is something that seems an unlikely prospect from Microsoft.

If the rumoured specs and pricing structures are to be believed, Xbox 720 and PlayStation 4 will both be released with comparable hardware and at roughly the same price; the differentiators will be in software and support. With Sony’s middle ground of Gaikai-based backwards compatibility, Microsoft will almost certainly be forced into matching this with their own middle ground; either through software emulation or perhaps their own streaming technology. Quite how comprehensive this emulation will be is anyone’s guess,but Microsoft will want to at least match Sony with their level of support. If Microsoft can include this support from launch, that may even give them the advantage.

Half-Life 2

Half-Life 2: The Best FPS Ever Made

It’s a scary thought, but Half-Life 2 was first released almost nine years ago, in November 2004. That’s around the same time that Killzone and Fable were released, on PlayStation 2 and Xbox respectively. In gaming terms, Half-Life 2 is old. The gameplay still feels old too, with no aim-assist or recharging health – not that this is necessarily a bad thing. But old-school/new school preferences aside, Half-Life 2 is still amazing fun to play, and in my opinion is still the best single-player FPS game ever made. Let’s explain why.

Puzzles

One of the key features of Half-Life 2 that separates it from many other recent and old FPS games is the nature of the puzzles. The puzzles themselves are great, but what makes them special is the way that they are almost seamlessly integrated into the gameplay, which is something of a rarity these days. Think about the snake/wolf/bear puzzles in Skyrim – they make absolutely no sense (why would you guard a secret chamber with a puzzle and then leave the answers lying around?), and only serve to pull you out of an otherwise hugely absorbing game. Half-Life 2, on the other hand, uses obstacles as puzzles. You never get to a door and think, “oh my, the Combine have left this puzzle for me to solve in order to continue”. Most of the time you don’t even realise that you’re solving a puzzle – you’re just working out how to get to continue the story.

Story

The storyline is another feature of Half-Life 2 that sounds out head and shoulders above most other FPS games. Again though, it’s not just the story that’s great; it’s the manner of its telling that makes it so incredible. There are no cut-scenes, movies or set pieces. Everything that happens is seen through your own eyes, and that’s what makes it such a vivid storytelling method. Exactly as you would be in real life, you don’t have any kind of omniscience that tells you what’s going on behind the scenes. If something happens, you may see it yourself, or be told about it by someone who does. Or you might not. You might find a scrap of newspaper that mentions something, or you might overhear part of a conversion. Ironically, this subdued storytelling method actually serves to make the storyline even more powerful, urging you to search every nook and cranny for another snippet of information that might help you piece together what’s going on.

Characters

Where would a good story be without great characters? Well, you’re not going to find out by playing Half-Life 2 as the characters are some the best, most well-written characters in the history of gaming. They would even give many high profile TV shows a run for their money. In particular, your part-time side-kick Alyx Vance is clever, funny, and – unlike most gaming sidekicks – actually helpful. The voice acting is absolutely spot-on all the way through, holding up the sublime script with some genuinely funny moments, as well as some sad ones (particularly in the expansions). It all combines to create a deeply immersive atmosphere, causing the player to actually care about the other characters: something which is pretty rare in a computer game, and perhaps only rivalled by the characters of Uncharted 2.

Ravenholm

If there’s one section of the game that truly sums up everything that is so great about Half-Life 2, it’s Ravenholm. The Ravenholm chapter is without a doubt, a triumph of the gaming world, and one of the most beautifully executed examples of the convergence of story and gameplay. The gameplay that underpins this chapter revolves around using the gravity gun to fire dangerous stuff at zombies. Now that, on its own, would make an exceptionally fun level. In many other games there would be a perfunctory storyline snippet that explained why the zombies were there, and that you had to kill them in order to save the world or something like that. What Half-Life 2 does is different. The story is so well woven into the gameplay that at first you don’t even realise what’s happened. The town itself is a purely civilian area, so there’s no abundant supply of ammo just lying around. Equally, the zombies were once ordinary citizens, so they don’t drop any weapons or ammo when you kill them. Being a civilian area, there are plenty of workshops around the place however, full of wooden planks, paint pots and, most excitingly, circular saw blades. What this means is, by adhering to the boundaries set by the storyline, you’re forced into using the gravity gun to fire razor sharp blades into zombies. And if you’ve never played Half-Life 2, you’ll have to trust me; gaming doesn’t get much more fun than that.

It’s hard to overstate just how good Half-Life 2 really is, and if you’ve never played it you can pick up the Orange Box for about £14 on Xbox 360, about £11 on PC or about £18 on PS3 – which contains Half-Life 2 and both its expansions, as well as Portal and Team Fortress 2 –  a total bargain. Will Half-Life 2 ever be unseated as the best FPS game ever made? It’s always possible, but what’s amazing is that recent FPS games, as good as many of them are, still don’t even come close to being as good as Half-Life 2. FPS games have gone off on a different tangent, multiplayer gaming is becoming as important as single player gaming, if not more so, and classic single-player gameplay has moved on. And still with no sign of Half-Life 3 on the horizon, it looks like Half-Life 2 doesn’t have much to worry about yet.

Aliens-Colonial-Marines

Aliens: Colonial Marines

Aliens: Colonial Marines is not just any old game from the Alien saga; it’s actually (supposedly) considered canon in the saga, and expands the official storyline from where the film Aliens left off. This is ultimately the game’s most explicit strength and weakness. One one hand, shooting bucketloads of Xenomorphs while exploring planet LV-426 as part of the official continuation of the saga is, for Aliens fans at least, as exciting as FPS gaming gets. On the other hand, this sets the bar pretty high, and so expectations for Colonial Marines have reached an almost unattainable level over the last few months; and that’s where the initial feeling of crushing disappointment originates. However, don’t give up hope just yet, as unless your internet connection has been down for the last week, the unstoppable flow of mixed or poor review scores for Aliens: Colonial Marines will undoubtedly have tempered your expectations – and with more manageable exceptions, Colonial Marines can be good fun.

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first: the graphics, for one, are pretty shocking. If you’re the kind of gamer who doesn’t like screen tearing then you should probably brace yourself for a pretty rough ride through Colonial Marines. The screen tearing, on the Xbox 360 version at least, is appalling. It is, without question, the worst level of screen tearing I’ve seen on a console game for years. What’s worse, is that the graphics are sub-HD, and  full of aliasing (i.e. jagged edges). To be blunt, it looks unfinished – which may actually be what’s happened here. That said, the atmosphere makes up for this somewhat, and exploring LV-426 is still pretty good fun, regardless of the muddy textures and general blur.

The gameplay is also a mixed bunch – when it’s good, it’s actually pretty good, and there are  few sequences later on that will give even the weariest Aliens fan a modicum of pleasure. There are issues however, and there are entire sections of the game that could do with being cut out. One of the biggest disappointments with the game is that actually, there’s not that much Xenomorph killing to do. Huge sections of the game involve slaughtering the legions of Weyland-Yutani soldiers, and even when you are blowing away Xenomorphs, their AI behaviour is so bad that it feels more like putting a bunch of alien morons out of their misery than destroyingthe  remorseless pack-hunting killers from the movies.

The storyline is also pretty weak, and without publishing any spoilers, leads you down a garden path only to abandon you with very little resolution at the end. There are some genuinely cool moments involving the remnants of a few well-known characters from Aliens however, and devoted fans of the film will find a few themselves in fanboy heaven at times. It’s just a shame that much of the game lets down these great little encounters.

The multiplayer is actually pretty fun, at least for a few hours, with a variety of co-op gameplay and adversarial multiplayer. There’s nothing that can’t be found elsewhere, but if you’re looking for a fun multiplayer experience that you can do worse that firing up Colonial Marines. The trouble is, and this sentiment echoes throughout the entire game, that you can do better; Aliens vs Predator (released back in 2010 and reviewed here) is ultimately the better Alien saga game. OK, it’s not considered canon, and it’s not the best Aliens game ever (that accolade goes to the original Alien vs Predator game released back in 1999), but it’s better than Colonial Marines and still a fun game in its own right.

If you’re a die-hard Aliens fan, and you have sufficiently tempered your expectations, then you’ll get some enjoyment out of Aliens: Colonial Marines, though it’s probably best to wait until it’s at a bargain bin price. If you’re not a fan of the Alien saga, then there’s not much for you here, but then if that’s you then you probably stopped reading this review after the first paragraph. If you’re somewhere in between, then you’ll likely find Aliens: Colonial Marines to be a wasted opportunity, but not an altogether bad one – just hang on for the inevitable price drop.