Monthly Archives: December 2013

Five changes that would make Forza 5 the Xbox One’s Killer App

Forza5boxartForza 5 is an excellent racing simulation.  On the surface you’ve got probably the best racing simulation currently available on consoles with excellent controls giving you the means to race at blistering speeds around some breathtakingly picturesque tracks. Racing around Bathurst’s Mount Panorama, new  to the series, is a pure joy and highlights the game’s real strengths.  The complex track is a driver’s dream, with its numerous fast straights punctuated by sequences of tight corners, making it one of the more interesting and technical tracks on the roster.  It is a spectacular experience in even the lowest sports hatch class in the game, but it really comes into its own when you’re behind the wheel of a V8 muscle car, the way nature intended.  From the moment you first rev your engine to the moment you cross the finish line Forza 5 packs a great big walloping punch full of realistic racing thrills – don’t be surprised if your hair gets wind swept.

And its all in the physics that underpin the whole game.  The cars for the most part behave as you would imagine they should, and while I personally get more satisfaction from powerful touring cars that rely on their tyres for grip, the faster supercars that rely more on downforce to stick to the track require you to manage your speed more carefully to avoid losing control.  The addition of open-wheel racing    The force feedback in the Xbox One’s controller is put to excellent use, signalling when your tyre adhesion is starting to reach its limit.  It all adds to the immersion that makes Forza 5 a joy to play and incredibly rewarding to learn.  The game may not be the full featured and well-structured game of its predecessors, having taken a step back in a number of ways from the last game in the series, but that doesn’t make it a bad game by any stretch of the imagination.  If you like driving fast cars and being challenged while doing so, Forza 5 is absolutely your game, and one that I can not recommend enough if you’re a new Xbox One owner.

But it’s not perfect.  Having spent quite a lot of time with the game now I feel like there are a few key areas that the designers could improve on in the next iteration of the game that would make Forza an unbeatable force.  Better still implementing some of these changes now could potentially make Forza 5 the Xbox One’s first killer app.  Here are the five key changes I would make to Forza 5 the best experience on the console.

Forza5screen

1. Fix the Drivatar

Forza 5’s biggest innovation and it just so happens that it is a very large thorn in its side.  The drivatar is in my opinion a bit of a disaster with every corner in the first lap of each race feeling more like a game of Destruction Derby than anything closely resembling a racing simulation.  The underlying idea, though, is a good one that is misguided in its implementation and I think misses a stellar opportunity to provide a unique experience for each player that caters toward their play-style and skill level.  The problem is while the issue does fix the rigid AI issue that has forever plagued offline single player simulation racers, it doesn’t fix the real underlying issue that the racing part doesn’t in any way resemble a real race.  You can get your physics spot-on but when the other cars on track aren’t behaving as they should, that means diddly.

The fix: have the AI Drivatars learn from the player rather than a world full of players who play their own way.  It’s all well and good to have drivers that behave more like real players, but when those real players are for the most part maniacal drivers, it doesn’t help for those of us that want to ‘play’ race driver for the day.  By having AI drivers learn from the player you’re in essence building up a database of sound AI that know how to react to at times erratic players.  And that can only be a good thing when it comes to delivering dynamic AI opponents to players in offline.  Make them drive like player opponents, not like players themselves and I think you’ll solve some of the game’s most fundamental issues.

2. More ways to compete in Rivals mode

I could not be happier that Forza 5 places such a great emphasis on multiplayer competition.  While I don’t necessarily gel with real-time online play outside of my friends list, competing with real people is where games like Forza shine, forcing you to continue to improve and push the car outside of your comfort level. The Rivals mode comes bloody close to making Forza 5 the first must-have game of the new generation, featuring a dynamic leaderboard that provides the impetus to improve your own driving and mastery of the game.  While this is best experienced against your own Xbox Live friends, having a world of drivers’ ghosts at your fingertips is definitely a reason to keep playing.

But it’s not perfect.  The Rivals system is hamstrung a bit by the way it has implemented its challenges.  On the rivals menu you are provided with the opportunity to challenge the ghost of the player next on the leaderboard from you.  It’s great but has a few issues that make it far from the user friendly and compelling experience it could be.  The first change would be to instantly update the ghost to the next rival on the leaderboard once you’ve beaten one.  This is a minor change that would make a big difference to the flow of the game.  But there are other changes that would make it a far more compelling experience.

The problem is that its all focused on lap times.  In order to capture and hold the attention and interest more than just the best of the best, because the fact is unless you’re a seasoned driver you’re never likely to come close to the best times worldwide. Casting the net wider and allowing competition on a broader base of metrics could fix this.  The game tracks so many performance based metrics that it is seriously insane that the game doesn’t use them in any meaningful way.  Corner perfection, racing lines, top speeds; all of these could be used as a basis for competition and leaderboards.  Not only would this make it more interesting and varied, it would offer those that haven’t mastered the game the confidence and a real gateway into the magic of competitive racing.  And combining all of these into one factors into a lap ‘score’ could be the cherry on top that shows players that lap times aren’t the only thing that matters in racing.

3. Add wagers

Forza 5 could be the ultimate multiplayer racing sim with just a few tweaks to its rivals mode.  Adding extra metrics on which to compete on aside from just lap times would be a good start, but that’s only going to last as long as players are compelled to keep coming back.  While these challenges do provide monetary rewards upon beating ghosts from players all over the world, that may not be enough to compel players in the long run and keep them coming back to the game.

Forza 5 collects truckloads of information about how players play in forming the Drivatars.  It should therefore follow that this telemetry could help form a global picture of how capable or likely the player base is to perform any objective put before them.  Use this information to allow players to set challenges for their friends.  Want to challenge your friends to beat the V8 Supercar lap record  of 2:08.46 at Bathurst?  Let them do it.  The amount of information ‘in the cloud’ should allow the game to calculate the odds of success and allow you to offer up a reward to any player that can beat your challenge based on the ‘degree of difficulty’.  It would need careful balancing but allowing you to challenge your friends would play into that competitive edge in all of us that makes us want to keep playing.

4. Forza 5 ‘snappable’ App

If competition is, as it should be, at the heart of the Forza 5 experience it needs to do a better job of keeping you in the game.  Criterion’s implementation of its Autolog features have always led the pack, and with good reason, the designers put a strong focus on keeping the competition alive to keep players coming back. Burnout Paradise really changed how we compete online with friends by keeping track of an amazing level of detail about how friends were performing across a whole stack of actions in-game, but more importantly the team realised that in order to give your game multiplayer legs, you need to keep the players in the game.  At any one moment playing any of Criterion’s brilliant and critically acclaimed racers you are presented with countless challenges: countless ways to outdo your friends, and countless ways your friends have outdone you.  It’s this game of leapfrog that kept these games so exciting and in the drives of many people for months, perhaps years, after release.  The first problem for Forza 5 is that because its stat tracking doesn’t just include your friends rather it includes seemingly every person that has ever raced on that track, presumably in the class of the car you’re in.

The second and perhaps bigger issue is that the game’s competitive side isn’t readily apparent, meaning you have to go searching for how you’re tracking against your rivals.  This should be front and centre and  I’m sure having all of this wealth of content and multiplayer stats impacts the longevity of the game to all but the most dedicated racing enthusiasts.  This should never be the case, and if I’m having to remind myself that I’m competing, something is wrong.

So transparency is incredibly important.  Giving easy access to how players are tracking against their rivals (or just friends) is paramount in encouraging healthy and ongoing competition and keep them thinking about the game even when they’re not playing.  The unique interface of the Xbox One provides the perfect opportunity to fix this.  Adding a Forza 5 leaderboard app that could be snapped to the side of the screen whenever the Xbox One is perhaps the best move the developers could make toward giving their game longevity.   Imagine watching TV or playing another game while being able to keep a keen eye on how your lap times are holding up against your friends.  It’s such a good idea I’d be surprised if we don’t see developers start using this functionality in the coming 12 months.  Which is a win-win for everyone in my books.

5. Make Forza 5 the Killer App by separating the rivals mode out

This is my final recommendation and probably the biggest change to the game.  You’ll notice that most of these recommendations are based on keeping the competitive nature of Forza 5 exciting and dynamic.  With good reason, simply put Forza 5 is best when you’re pushing yourself to the limit, and what better way to do that than against the world’s best.

As you can probably tell I am enamoured by what the Rivals mode tried to do and by changing the way it is distributed could make it the Xbox One’s first killer app.  The rivals mode is so separate from the rest of the game that there would be no harm in providing it free of charge as an individual product in the market-place and allowing players to buy cars and tracks individually.  Not only would it allow players to get involved with a lower price of entry,  coupled with the other changes to the multiplayer it could have the potential to be a real money maker for Turn10 and Microsoft.  If you saw your friends posting blisteringly quick times at the Circuit de la Sarthe in an Audi R10 tell me you wouldn’t want to do the same.  Who hasn’t spent money to outdo their friends?  At the end of the day the game should let players play the game with friends on their own terms.

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Played Forza 5?  Agree with me or disagree?  Tell us in the comments below or continue the discussion on twitter @oldgaulian.

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Haring around Hotel Dusk

hotel-dusk-room-215-coverHotel Dusk: Room 215 is a brilliant example of that most niche of genres, the visual novel. It’s difficult to classify Hotel Dusk as a game, if by ‘game’ you mean having some sense of autonomy in a virtual world – here it’s a mostly passive experience in which you talk to different characters, scroll through reams of text and attempt to ask the right questions to trigger the next plot point. Very few of these types of game make it to the West – the most well-known example is the Ace Attorney series – but they’re hugely popular in Japan, and I’m a big fan of them.

Games like this tend to live or die on the quality of the writing, and thankfully Dusk gets a big thumbs up on this point. The set-up is nothing original – a grizzled seventies detective on a missing person hunt – but the story and setting provide atmosphere in spades, and each chapter throws more intriguing mysteries into the mix. Visually the game is a winner too, and the pencil-drawn animation provides a really unique look that I can’t recall seeing in a game before.

The plot kept me hooked right up to the end, although I was left slightly wanting by the climax – some mysteries are left unexplained, which was frustrating but also brave on the developers’ part. There were a few niggles along the way, too – probably the most frustrating thing was aimlessly wandering the hotel in search of someone to interview. Often you’re given clues as to where to go next, but sometimes it’s really unclear what you’re meant to do, and I found myself consulting a guide a few times. The nadir is probably around a third of the way through, when you’re given a pen with an engraving and a hint that you need to put something into the engraved letters to be able to read them. Cue lots of needless wandering and searching, followed by an exasperated trip to GameFAQs.

Hotel Dusk screenshot

Another potentially frustrating feature is the way a single wrong choice can abruptly lead to a game over screen. Annoy someone too much or wander into the wrong place and you’re likely to get kicked out of the hotel by the owner, forcing you to restart from your last save. After the first couple of ‘Game Over’ screens, I learnt to save frequently, and despite the potential frustration, I quite liked this harsh but fair system – it adds a lot of weight and tension to the game and stops you blithely skipping through conversations with no fear of consequence.

Sadly, the developer Cing folded in 2010, but before they went they created a sequel – Last Window: The Secret of Cape West – so I’m currently on the hunt for it on eBay. Cing had a varied and unique output: they created one of my all-time favourite Wii games, Little King’s Story, as well as a few esoteric visual novels that have met with varied critical reception. Importantly though, they weren’t afraid to try doing something a bit different – we could do with a few more developers like them.

[As investigated by Lucius Merriweather.]

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Side-stepping the next generation

The PS4 and Xbox One have now both launched in the UK, so the question is, which one am I going to get for Christmas? Well, the answer is neither: I’m getting a PS3 instead.

Both the PS4 and Xbox One look like impressive pieces of kit, but I’ve yet to see a single stand-out reason that I should own either of them right now. The launch games for both machines are impressive in their number but disappointing in their quality, and neither machine has a stand-out ‘must buy’ game. Indeed, I’m sure we’ll see the likes of Knack, Fighter Within and Ryse: Son of Rome confined to bargain bins in the very near future. The best-reviewed games, such as Assassin’s Creed 4 and Call of Duty, are already available on Xbox 360 and PS3, and by all accounts the next-gen versions offer little improvement over their old-gen cousins. Similarly, there’s very little on the next-gen horizon for me to get excited about, with the possible exception of Titanfall, and even that’s not particularly appealing – online multiplayer first-person shooters are most definitely not my bag, even if they feature giant robots (very much my bag).

So which one to get? Well, neither as it happens...

So which one to get? Well, neither as it happens…

Then there are all the little problems associated with buying a console at launch. Both the Xbox One and PS4 have features that didn’t quite make it in time for launch day, such as streaming of PS3 games using Gaikai for the PS4 and the compatibility with UK set-top boxes for the Xbox One (a seemingly glaring omission considering that the Xbox One reveal was centred around using the console to watch TV). Then there’s the ‘baffling incompetence‘ of the Xbox One interface, which seems to have removed useful and well-used functions such as being able to see what achievements you’ve unlocked and how much power your controller has left (the latter being a particularly odd omission). Microsoft have said that this is just the ‘first version’ of the interface, but it’s hardly encouraging me to rush out and buy an Xbox One. Furthermore, seeing as the intention appears to be to align the Xbox One interface with Windows 8 (surely one of the most hated operating systems of all time, and I’m saying that as a frustrated user), this hardly bodes well for future updates.

I’m certain that both consoles will find their feet in time, and in a couple of years from now I’m sure the problems will be fixed and each will have a healthy roster of fantastic games, but right now I see no need to upgrade. On the other hand, I see every reason to invest in a PS3.

I’ve owned an Xbox 360 since the early days of this generation, but it was more through luck than choice: my uncle sold me his 360 for a bargain price when he upgraded to the Elite version. I’ve never felt the need to buy a PS3 up until now because most games I’ve wanted to play are available for both machines, but as we near the sunset of the seventh generation, the PS3 has acquired an enviable line-up of exclusive games that I’m itching to play. Now that PS3s have been slashed in price on the launch of the PS4, it seemed the right time to treat myself to one for Christmas – I managed to blag a new console with Killzone 3 for just £134.

£134 with Killzone 3? Bargain!

£134 with Killzone 3? Bargain!

It will stay firmly in its box until Christmas day, but in the meantime I’ve already bought copies of The Last of Us and Deadly Premonition: Director’s Cut in preparation for Chrimble day. Then, come the January sales, I’m hoping to expand my collection with the Uncharted series, Ni No Kuni, Little Big Planet and Journey, to name a few.

With amazing titles such as these, plus all the phenomenal Xbox 360 and Wii games I’ve yet to play (Mass Effect 2, Xenoblade Chronicles and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword are just a few of the games in my backlog), I see no reason to launch into the next generation for some time to come.

[As penned in patience by Lucius Merriweather.]

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