Although Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar San Diego’s long-awaited open-world game, may look nothing like GTA IV, the two easily invite comparison. Like GTA IV, Red Dead Redemption is an incredibly powerful, polished sandbox game. But, it also carries many of the same flaws as its Liberty City counterpart. While set in drastically different periods, the similarities between these two games cannot be ignored: from gameplay mechanics to mission design to narrative direction. While not cosmetically apparent, even the premises of these two titles are strikingly similar: both are about ex-criminals in new lands attempting to forge new lives for themselves. Both characters are dragged back into murder and vengeance; and both John Marston and Niko Bellic are forced to do odd jobs for odd characters in order to accomplish their goals.
It’s these odd jobs that make up the majority of Red Dead Redemption’s core gameplay, which is a mixed bag. Most of the missions involve going from Point A to Point B, shooting enemies along the way, and it won’t be long before you start to ask yourself the same question Marston asks: “Why am I doing this?” RDR has a number of explosive moments. As John, you’ll hijack a moving train, engage in duels and race away in a mine cart. But too much of the game is devoted to herding cows, shopping and shooting hats — odd jobs indeed for a bloody murderer. To say that RDR sometimes loses its focus is an understatement.
Still, variety is one of Rockstar’s hallmarks, and it’s what makes the world of New Austin feel so authentic and alive. There is so much to do in Redemption, that it’s hard not to get swept up in it and be tempted off the story path. You could go off in search of the right tools necessary to make a new outfit (which comes with its own set of benefits). You could, instead, play poker, blackjack, dice, horseshoes; or simply sit back and watch an old time movie at the cinema. You could go hunting for rabbits, wolves or bears — or go hunting for the most dangerous game of all, accepting bounties, and capturing villains, dead or alive. With multiple menus devoted to tracking various stats, RDR is a grinder’s paradise.
Of course, being beautiful makes getting lost in the world that much easier. This is a stunning game on both platforms, with some truly amazing vistas to appreciate. Not only does RDR capture the beauty of the desert, it features other environments to explore, as well, including a snowy mountain, a forest and even a burgeoning city or two. Both indoor and outdoor environments are stunningly detailed, and the character models are realistically animated with the assistance of NaturalMotion’s Euphoria technology. The thing that impressed me the most, though? Cloth — seeing a flag wave in the distance, or watching the clothes ripple from the blow of the wind, highlights the meticulous attention to detail Rockstar is famous for.
Should you grow weary of exploring the wilds, the story always awaits. Progressing through Marston’s tale will be familiar to anyone that’s played an open-world game before. Mission markers will appear on the map, and walking into one will trigger one of Rockstar’s signature cutscenes. In typical Rockstar fashion, the writing is heavy-handed, and perhaps even more so than in GTA IV. While it has its fair share of comical characters, RDR definitely takes a more serious approach in its narration, with toned down slapstick and moody, introspective conversations.
The main plot has its highs and lows, but I’d argue that the story of Red Dead Redemption is one of the more sophisticated tales executed in the game medium. Although it has humble beginnings, the game quickly escalates into a story about power and the corruption that comes with it; and like most great Westerns, it’s ultimately about the inescapable move towards modernity. John Marston is a product of his times, a relic in a society on the verge of tremendous change. Seeing his “redemption” play out is a fascinating journey. More so than previous Rockstar efforts, RDR is an insightful character piece that kept me riveted from the beginning to its unforgettable and haunting end. Still, with lengthy non-interactive sequences, the story may seem too tiresome, too boring, too preachy, or too sardonic for some. (The story’s quick disposal of side characters is also somewhat unsatisfying.)
RDRsucceeds in nearly every aspect the GTA franchise has been celebrated for. However, it still manages to have a gunplay system that can only be described as adequate. Taking cover is somewhat cumbersome and unintuitive, with an awkward number of buttons necessary to run and move through cover. Jumping over cover and running to another cover point, for instance, involves pressing three different buttons. However, there are moments when the cover system shines: a hostage situation, for example, has you taking cover next to a door, kicking it open and using slow-mo to precisely shoot around the victim. Still, more often than not, you’ll find yourself taking cover behind a rock and stumbling to move around it as you look for somewhere better to position yourself. Once you find a comfortable spot, you’ll have no reason to move elsewhere. With cover, you are nearly invincible.
Perhaps the lock-on system, also ripped from GTA IV, is at fault for making gunfights feel more like target practice than actual combat. Essentially, the gunfights boil down to taking cover and waiting for the right moment to lock-on and shoot an enemy. RDR is probably one of the easiest third-person shooters out there. However, the provided alternative is not much better: auto aim can be turned off, but the small reticule and lack of zoom make the game significantly more difficult to play than a typical third-person shooter.
Most other games would be harshly criticized for featuring such mediocre gameplay, but Red Dead Redemption does so much right that the unsatisfying mechanics feel like a small blemish on an otherwise well-executed masterpiece. While Rockstar San Diego hasn’t strayed far from the GTA formula, the developer has definitely refined the experience. For example, you’re able to quick travel from one point to another: hitting the Select/Back button lets you choose an option to jump directly to a designated waypoint. You’re also able to save at nearly any time in the game, whether at a safehouse or out in the wild. Finally, checkpoints are far more intelligently placed in RDR, with nearly zero backtracking necessary should you fail a mission.
Another feature that should be appreciated: the ability to replay any of the story missions — at any time. For competitive gamers, there’s even a scoring system that will award Gold/Silver/Bronze awards based on your performance in each mission. Additionally, the achievements act as a game of their own, with an entirely different set of objectives than those of the core story. (In fact, playing through the story comprises less than 10 percent of the entire achievement collection.)
While the experience is largely derivative of Rockstar’s previous efforts — it’s Grand Theft Auto IV with horses — there are far worse models to follow. Like Grand Theft Auto IV,RDR has its shares of rather significant flaws, but ultimately, it’s a game worth experiencing — a “tour de horse,” if you will. Red Dead Redemption is a rare example of a game that commands captivation through polish alone.
This review is based on the PlayStation 3 retail version of Red Dead Redemption purchased by the reviewer.
Your new running shoes have WiFi, but there are still — still! — no flying cars. We’ve got mini-supercomputers in our pockets, but where’s the kitchen machine that materializes beef bourguignon? It’s not quite the future we predicted, at least as far as Back to the Future 2 and The Jetsons informed us, but it’s the future we’ve got. Something as basic as, say, turning on electronics using your voice is still novel. Microsoft’s Xbox One is representative of just such a novelty, pairing old tech like IR and HDMI passthrough with brand-new 1080p video capture and voice control — all to impressive effect. When you turn on your Xbox One and TV in one fell “Xbox: On!” grandpa’s gonna be wowed, as will little Suzie. Guaranteed. The deeply integrated fantasy sports and ESPN apps will no doubt get pigskin-obsessed Aunt Linda interested.
But it’s not the expensive camera and sports partnerships that makes Microsoft’s proposition impressive to the hardcore gaming faithful. The Xbox One is a beast of a games console, capable of running beautiful games. But can it serve two masters? It’s not quite the game box we would’ve predicted, but it’s the one we’ve got.
Wake-on-voice is very impressive
Excellent multitasking experience
Games are beautiful; console runs quietly
The most expensive console available
Limited selection of exclusive titles worth playing
Missing key promised functionality at launch
The Xbox One is quick, quiet and capable of handling live TV and gorgeous games, all at the sound of your voice. $500 is a lot to ask, but it’s much more than just a gaming console.
Xbox One Wireless Controller
Great battery life
The best analog sticks on any gamepad
Shoulder buttons are cumbersome
Requires AA batteries
The Xbox One’s controller is mostly a refined version of the last-gen gamepad, with the new shoulder buttons being the only real step backward.
My word, that Xbox One console. Surprising no one, the Xbox One remains a relatively large black rectangle with little in the way of visual charms. A 45-degree angle cuts along the bottom front, giving the face a slightly squatter profile than the console’s actual height. It looks an awful lot like a 1993 artist’s rendering of 2013’s technology. There’s a hint of retro cool in that look, but it’s more PT Cruiser than VW Beetle.
All told, Microsoft’s new game system is no looker; it’s a far cry from the Xbox 360’s “inhale” design philosophy, that’s for sure. The One is divided into quadrants fashioned out of a mix of glossy, black plastic and matte, black plastic. As is always the case with shiny, black plastic electronics, our Xbox One instantly got dirty. We’re talking within the first day of living with it. This was our first of many signs that the Xbox One is meant to be plugged in, set up and rarely touched.
An entire half of the One’s roof is taken up by a slotted vent, which helps cool the custom system-on-a-chip, 8GB of RAM and 500GB HDD within. On that note, the console is very, very quiet. Meanwhile, a slot-loading Blu-ray/DVD drive on the front-left offers the only front-facing opening, and it’s thankfully surrounded by matte plastic. That means the only other fingerprint-prone spot is the touch-sensitive power button on the front-right, and even then, you might prefer to use your voice to turn on the console.
One of three USB 3.0 ports is located on the left side, just around the corner from the disc bay, which makes it easy to charge at least one device. Heading around back, a mess of ports is hidden away: the power socket, two more USB 3.0 connections, Gigabit Ethernet, HDMI-out and -in, powered USB (for Kinect) and optical audio. And that’s it!
The Xbox 360 gamepad is an industry standard at this point. Beyond its wide adoption through the Xbox 360 itself, the PC is rife with controller-friendly titles that work with the wired version of the 360 gamepad. Due to both its revered status and ubiquity, then, Microsoft wasn’t in a position to drastically change the gamepad here. And that’s exactly what this is: not a change, but a refinement.
The same basic setup persists: offset, dual thumbsticks along with a d-pad, four face buttons, two middle buttons and an Xbox Home button. The 360’s Start/Back keys are swapped for the Menu and View buttons, acting contextually both in games and in the Dashboard for various ancillary tasks like pulling up maps and options. The Home button is a bit higher up, making accidental presses unlikely — all slight changes, but important ones. The differences become more stark as we move to the thumbsticks and rear triggers.
The squat, concave thumbsticks now feature sharply angled, rubberized depressions, surrounded by a hard, circular rim and coated in tough, textured rubber. The design ensures that, regardless of how you hold the thumbsticks, you’re not slipping off by accident. If you do, it’s probably your fault — these sticks are serious; they’re clearly built for keeping thumbs locked in. Stick movement is slightly looser than last time around, but we hardly noticed a difference in precision. Where we occasionally had to re-adjust finger placement mid-race on the 360 gamepad, the textured edges of One’s thumbsticks obviated such concerns.
While the 360 gamepad was widely praised, its original d-pad was among the worst created. Microsoft moved toward a fix with a new version of the 360 gamepad in 2010, and the One’s version represents a bigger step forward. Four audibly “clicky” directions give the impression that this is a d-pad meant for switching between weapons or spells, not as a control device. Sure, you could play a fighting game with it — and Killer Instinct is waiting for you to try at launch — but we wouldn’t suggest you do so. It could work in 2D, retro-style games, but there are none available to play on the One just yet.
“Impulse Triggers” is the name Microsoft’s giving to the new vibrating rear triggers. Despite the silly name, they’re actually a neat little addition. Whereas the PlayStation 4’s DualShock 4 has a touchpad, the Xbox One’s gamepad has rumble triggers; the triggers offer new feedback to the player and an instant means to respond. Forza Motorsport 5 demonstrates this perfectly, using the trigger rumble to convey… rumble strips, or a redlined tachometer. It’s hard to demonstrate their importance through words: You simply have to feel them in action. Use it once and the potential becomes obvious.
Another nice addition to the triggers is what feels like a rubberized stopper where the trigger meets the controller body. What results is a distinctly quieter, more comfortable experience during heavy trigger use (shooting games, anyone?). Your roommates will love the quieter triggers; we promise.
The only real step back on the One controller is in the shoulder buttons, which are noticeably stiffer than on the 360 gamepad. They’re simply harder to push down, and can be tough to use repeatedly (try barrel rolls in launch title Crimson Dragon). It’s not a dealbreaker by any means, but we have high hopes that future models will feature springier shoulder pads.
Battery life is excellent considering two AAs power all of the above — the same controller we’ve been using for a few weeks nearly every day needed its first battery replacement yesterday. We’d put up with having to charge the controller more frequently had Microsoft included a rechargeable battery, but keeping its cost lower isn’t a terrible tradeoff.
There’s a camera (or two) on your phone, and on your laptop, and it’s possible that the NSA is watching. We’re not the tinfoil hat types, but this year’s headlines haven’t been great for our paranoia. In that context, having a large black rectangle with a visible camera lens pointed into our living room is just a tad weirder than the last time Microsoft did this in 2010. Oh, and it’s a 1080p camera? And it can detect heart rate? And see in the dark? Yes, all of those things. And if you’ve got your console in “always on” low-power mode, where it can be woken by voice, Kinect is always listening. That’s a little terrifying!
On a more practical note, Kinect represents the $100 difference in price between Xbox One and PlayStation 4 this holiday. It’s of course Microsoft’s prerogative to go “all-in” on Kinect, but we’d sure prefer to choose at retail. Waking the console (and television) by voice is magical, and the speed at which you can jump between apps using voice is very impressive, but every false positive or unrecognized command had us reaching for the controller. Sadly, both occur every time we use the console, even after weeks of testing.
What’s most impressive is face recognition, which works without fail and works very quickly. It’s not just convenient, but also adds a sense of ownership to the experience. Something about the Xbox One recognizing your face and saying hello makes the whole interaction more welcoming. Kinect’s body tracking is also significantly improved. That our in-game character in Kinect Sports Rivals reflects real-life arm twists and dance moves (while aboard a jet ski, no less!) is a marvel. Impressive tech aside, what matters is how you use it. Outside of Microsoft’s first-party offerings, we’ve yet to try anything that demonstrates the potential demonstrated by the minigame tech demos in KSR.
The camera itself is rather nice, and thankfully doesn’t need nearly as much space to function as it used to. The new Kinect’s field of view is dramatically larger, so there’s no longer a motor for movement. Aside from a rather thick cable connecting Kinect to the Xbox One, this is the most attractive hardware in the entire Xbox One setup.
If there’s one trend this console generation could do without, it’s massive launch-day patches that enable standard functionality. Xbox One is no hero in this department: The first thing your new One will do when you turn it on is attempt to connect to the internet and download said patch. Should you choose to skip the process, your console won’t go anywhere beyond the Dashboard. It won’t even play games!
After connecting, you’ve got a big patch on your hands — at least 500MB — before restarting and beginning the actual setup process. We encountered longer-than-normal restart times during this initial process; it’s possible the update will go smoother on launch day, but don’t be too concerned if it’s a little… disconcerting. When the console’s back up and running, just enter a handful of the usual data (Gamertag, Microsoft login, region, et cetera) and you’re in. If you’d like to set up Kinect face and voice recognition, there’s an option; the same goes for controlling the TV and setting up OneGuide. If you want to skip all that and jump right into games, you can do that as well.
Navigating the OS
Windows 8 is far from perfect when it comes to non-touchscreen PCs, but it’s perfectly navigable on Xbox One. The main Dashboard is basic, and built around access to what you use: Friends is glued to the left side, with the large main pane reserved for your active content and surrounding panes showing recently used and “active” apps, Snap, your software folder and the disc content square. Software is where Microsoft outclasses the competition — the Xbox One Dashboard is simply a cleaner, more intuitive setup than the PlayStation 4’s endless app list.
Three main areas divide up the Dashboard: Pins, Home and Store. Home is described above; Pins are… whatever you’ve chosen to “pin” (or attach) to that screen; and Store contains quick links for various categories (games, movies/TV, music and apps) above a search bar, all of which leads into a deeper storefront (more on that in a moment). Pins can be especially neat. Think: pinning an album or playlist from Xbox Music and jumping directly in from the Dashboard. Ultimately, this is the number one way to customize your experience, as voice commands only get you so far.
Voice commands and multitasking
As we said earlier, turning on the One by saying “Xbox: On!” is delightful. Tying that experience to the TV so that, when the console is running in “always on” lower-power mode, both can be “woken” with voice, is powerful. Pair all that with face recognition and you’ve got a game console that boots in less than 15 seconds, all from saying two words. But say those words carefully and with extra enunciation, because otherwise you might have to say them a few more times. And don’t you already feel silly enough speaking to electronics?
That entire last paragraph is representative of the Kinect voice experience on Xbox One, from basic Dashboard commands to in-game action and during Hulu Plus streaming: It’s just not a reliable enough input method. When it does work, boy is it incredible. Every time it doesn’t, we’re one step closer to disconnecting it forever.
When voice commands work, jumping from game to app and back to game is seamless, with no need to re-launch most apps after loading. Four applications can run at any one time, with one game included in the four. That number of “active” applications may shrink depending on how memory-intensive your companion apps are to the system at any given time — Skype, for instance, seemingly takes up more memory than, say, Netflix or Hulu Plus. It’s not always clear how many can remain active, but whichever game you were playing last remains suspended (music playing in Xbox Music keeps its place, etc.). We cannot be clear enough here: When voice commands work and you’ve got several apps active as well as a game, jumping between them is instant. Not quick — it’s immediate.
Should you go the controller-only route, switching between apps is also quite speedy when you employ the Home button. Rather than launching a miniguide like on 360, you’ve got access to the full Dashboard. From there, your active apps are just a button press away.
Additionally, even when you turn off the console (but leave it in “always on” mode), it will reawaken with your game in the same paused state from when you were using it earlier. Pretty great! Should you load another game, the previously suspended game will turn off, making way for the new game — there’s no warning here either, so be careful when issuing voice commands that sound like “Xbox: Go to Dead Rising 3” while your game of Forza Motorsport 5 is suspended mid-race. In fact, that unfortunate scenario happened to us. Imagine that wasn’t a single race, but hours of unsaved game progress. Yeah.
That’s frustrating not only because the game of Forza was shut down mid-race, but also because loading times for games can be incredibly long from a dead stop. Dead Rising 3 is a solid two-minute load from Dashboard to in-game (that includes loading our save file and getting into the game), whereas Forza takes about a minute and a half and Killer Instinct takes one. After that initial load, they’re instant to re-load from the Dashboard or from other apps, but not between other games.
Shortcomings and oddities aside, the multitasking on Xbox One is leaps and bounds ahead of the competition. The Xbox One handily switches between several apps and a game at once, whereas the PlayStation 4 works with two at most (including one game). It’s a credit to Microsoft’s software prowess that the console can handle so much at once. It’s even relatively organized as well!
Live TV and OneGuide
The HDMI plug that comes out of your cable box: That one goes into the back of the Xbox One where it says “HDMI In.” Then you snag another HDMI cable and run it from “HDMI Out” on the Xbox One to your television. And that’s it: You’ve completed the “Make Live TV Work on Xbox One” process (unless you haven’t set up Kinect to work with your TV’s IR sensor yet, which takes another few moments). It’s very, very easy. And that’s because the Xbox One is doing little more than acting as an HDMI signal passthrough for the cable box. Any other HDMI devices you’d like to pass through the Xbox One will also work, though beware of a slight delay in gameplay if you throw another game console into the mix.
OneGuide is similarly easy to set up, requiring a postal code and cable TV provider to sync up local channel guide listings with the Kinect’s IR blaster, so you can command the One to switch to other channels. The guide also integrates various apps, so that it can be used for navigating between live TV, streaming content (e.g., SkyDrive, Hulu Plus) and more. Only a handful of voice commands work in terms of channel names (the ones you’d expect, like CBS and ESPN), though we were only able to test it with Time Warner in New York City. In short, don’t expect the OneGuide to take over your TV-viewing experience, but the Live TV passthrough is still very convenient. One less HDMI plug going into the backs of our HDTVs!
Though based on Windows 8, the new OS won’t feel alien to longtime Xbox 360 users. Many of the standard applications aren’t dramatically different either. The Friends list is still basically just a friends list, though an activity feed keeps a running log of who’s doing what in which games. It’s the One’s equivalent of the PS4’s “What’s New” section, and it’s similarly susceptible to floods of messages from a single, very active user. It’s also just not very up to date, making most new information not useful at all.
“My Games & Apps” returns from the Xbox 360’s Guide Menu to provide two jumbled, sadly unfilterable rows of every owned piece of software. Like the PlayStation 4’s main content area, One’s My Games & Apps not only lists everything you own (both games and apps, as the name says), but it also lists game disc installs. Of course, when you try to load those games without the disc inserted, you’ll get nothing more than a prompt asking if you’ve lost your mind. You haven’t, of course; it’s just a poor design choice. That there is literally zero organization outside of most recently used apps showing up closest to the left is truly unfortunate. We might have to keep Kinect hooked up just to circumvent dealing with finding specific apps.
The Party app is relegated to Snap functionality, meaning it only populates on a slide along the right side of the screen. This makes it convenient to handle for the most part, though inviting friends takes over the full screen and still stutters a bit as invites get sent out.
Bizarrely, Skype is relegated to its own application, rather than working with the Friends and Party apps to unite Xbox One communications. Video chat is simply no longer an option outside of Skype, and you’ll need your friends’ Skype names or phone numbers to use it. As previously detailed, Skype’s video chat functionality uses Kinect to automatically adjust its picture size and focus based on how many people are in the room or where they’re standing. It’s neat, and functions relatively flawlessly, but it’s not likely an app we’ll be using all that often. There’s nothing wrong with Skype on Xbox One; the living room just isn’t a place we use for Skype chats. If that changes, it’s nice that Xbox One provides a solution.
SkyDrive on Xbox One is very convenient, offering streaming access to any content you have stored in the cloud. We easily uploaded a short video from our phone to the free 7GB account Microsoft provides and subsequently watched it on Xbox One via SkyDrive. Easy! Microsoft’s also offering uploads of game clips to SkyDrive, making sharing even easier.
Both Avatars and Achievements are little changed. “Challenges” add a new level of metagame to the already deeply ingrained Achievements system, offering time-sensitive goals set by developers. These don’t affect Gamerscore, but add another layer of bragging rights. Internet Explorer is also back, and it’s still not very good. Neither Sony nor Microsoft has solved the translation issue of web browsers on game consoles — current gamepads and virtual keyboards simply don’t cut it when it comes to web navigation.
Xbox Music/Video continue to offer large selections of music and movies, though we spent most of our time using Hulu Plus and Netflix over Xbox Video. Videos continue to be very expensive and are often available for free elsewhere, though we appreciate the option for snowy days when Netflix just doesn’t cut it. At very least, the layout for both is clean and organized. Streaming custom radio and full albums (with subscription) through Xbox Music is a very nice experience and one we’ve been drawn to: It’s easy to get home, turn on the Xbox One with voice, navigate to Xbox Music and play it in the background while taking care of a barking dog/crying baby/delicious pie/etc. If it was active before powering down, it’ll pick right back up where it left off, mid-song.
Though we enjoy Xbox Music, it’s currently the only option for listening to music on the Xbox One. No Spotify or Rdio, and no ripping music to the HDD. Music can be streamed from a local PC’s Xbox Music-housed collection, but that’s it. Despite SkyDrive’s video-transcoding ability, music can’t be uploaded there and streamed down.
Snap is a major addition with the Xbox One’s Dashboard. Try as we might, we can’t figure out why. Snap might be an impressive-looking feature — the ability to “snap” a variety of apps to a right-aligned rail, from live TV to streaming music to SkyDrive to Internet Explorer — but almost no situations exist where the aforementioned makes any sense. Worse, the snapped application often runs poorly as a result of its shrunken form; Internet Explorer serves as a perfect example of crippled usability while snapped.
On the Xbox 360, music could be streamed from the HDD directly into games, replacing in-game music. So why does the Xbox One require both that we use Xbox Music to listen to that music and that we have it “snapped” to a portion of the screen? Being able to snap music while doing other things on the console is nice, but we’d prefer if the music traveled into games without a massive graphic overlay. This is audio we’re talking about, after all.
For the sports fanatic, having live games snapped to the right rail might make sense. And perhaps having fantasy sports information along the right side will be enough for others. Outside of those applications, it’s hard to find other compelling reasons for Snap’s existence.
Microsoft’s got the second-screen experience much more figured out with Xbox One: The companion app connects quickly and allows access to much of the console. We’re not saying you’ll want to pull out and pair your smart device — we’re still not entirely sold on the concept either — but if you do, SmartGlass is both convenient for controlling the console and fun in-game. Dead Rising 3‘s companion experience is useful, even, offering quick access to the character’s cellphone (and the functionality therein).
There is no escaping the Xbox One games, movies/TV, music and apps store. It’s actually built into the main Dashboard this time around, and all of the above content types have their own storefronts with featured items, new releases and popular sections. A large search bar below the four sections offers a shortcut to anything too far outside Microsoft’s categories, via text entry or (if you’re willing to risk it) voice. Clicking through the new Store quickly brings up rich content pages, with a variety of metadata depending on the content in question (trailers, images, blurbs and the like — standard info). Though organization for the game section will become more and more dependent on search as the Xbox One’s life goes on, for now it’s a great representation of the new console’s software lineup at launch.
Forza Motorsport 5
Forza is one of two first-party graphics powerhouses from Microsoft meant to dazzle new Xbox One owners. And if you aren’t dazzled by Forza‘s gorgeous lineup of cars, something has gone seriously wrong. Consult an optometrist. Thankfully, in addition to looks, Forza Motorsport 5 is excellent, if not a touch too serious. It’s still a driving simulation first and foremost, but in-game driving assists and recognizable cars make its depth of simulation easy to skip past.
Dead Rising 3
Of all the launch games we played on Xbox One, Dead Rising 3 feels the most underdone. Animations are awkward and dialogue is terrible. Nothing about it feels like a finished product, and at $60 it’s a seriously hard sell. Don’t waste your time: Skip over this empty zombie action game.
Ryse: Son of Rome
Ryse might be the most graphically impressive game on any next-gen game console. More excitingly, it’s got engaging combat and uses the Kinect effectively (the occasional shouted troop command). Graphical prowess is used for acting, combat animation and showing off the glory of (fake) Ancient Rome. It’s an easy game to get caught up looking around at how gorgeous everything is visually, and it’s right there with Forza (and beyond) as a showcase for graphics on the Xbox One.
Not long after the PlayStation 3 arrived, a dragon-flying game named Lair launched to critical disdain. You’d think the subsequent console launch wouldn’t feature yet another dragon-flying game. It does; only this time it’s named Crimson Dragon. It’s not pretty; it’s not very fun; and it doesn’t do anything particularly interesting with the Xbox One’s tech. Crimson Dragon is squarely with Dead Rising 3 in the category of “Not Worth Your Time or Money.”
Given that it’s free, Killer Instinct is hard to turn down. To unlock the rest of the game’s characters, though, you’ve gotta plunk down some more dough. We think you’ll find that a few fights with Jago and you’ll be in for more money and more punching fights with werewolves. Killer Instinct isn’t the best or prettiest fighting game we’ve ever played, but it owns its silliness and has a shockingly deep combo system. Beware of that ultra-hard CPU difficulty setting: It’s a doozy!
Where’s streaming, Upload Studio and sports?
Whoa, doesn’t the Xbox One broadcast games and record the last five minutes of gameplay at any given time for editing/sharing? And what about the ESPN and NFL stuff? When’s Engadget gonna get to that?
Why yes, the Xbox One does do that stuff! Or at least it will. Upload Studio arrived this morning, and game broadcasting is delayed to some point in “the first part of 2014.” As such, we’ll have to update this review after spending more time with both. Expect Upload Studio within the next 24 hours. Sorry folks!
The Xbox One may not be exactly what Microsoft thinks it is, but it’s still a strong start for a powerful game console. Its sheer speed, versatility, horsepower and its ability to turn on and off with words make it a relatively seamless entry into our already crowded media center. What determines whether it stays there is the next 12 months: Exclusives like Titanfall and Quantum Break will help, as will gaining feature parity with the competition (we’re looking at you, game broadcasting!). For broader success beyond just the early adopter’s living room, the NFL crowd must buy in to Microsoft’s $500 box. But will they? That remains to be seen. What’s there so far is a very competent game box with an expensive camera and only a few exclusive games differentiating it from the competition.
Photos and Video: Joseph Volpe, Todd Thoenig and Benjamin Harrison.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 succeeds in many ways, living up to promises of a branching campaign, expanded Zombies mode, and a new spin on multiplayer customization. The ideas coming out of developer Treyarch are exactly what the annual franchise needs, especially under the intense scrutiny of a vocal shooter audience.
There’s a charm missing from Black Ops 2, however, and it resonates throughout many of the enhanced modes. The mystery surrounding the characters from the original Black Ops is abandoned, and clandestine operations are pushed out of the way in favor of bombastic, public battles. That charm is especially missed in the open-world zombie mode, which expands at the cost of becoming less inviting.
Despite those missteps, Black Ops 2 showcases a powerful multiplayer component that betters its predecessors, setting a new series standard for customization and features.%Gallery-170816%
The Call of Duty franchise has arguably been spinning its wheels for years now, trying to once again tell a story as engaging and surprising as the one featured in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Although new games in the series haven’t hit the same mark, they’ve managed some memorable moments and concepts in recent entries. Say “No Russian” to a series fanatic; ask campaign nuts about the numbers in Black Ops; mention the Paris level from Modern Warfare 3. You’ll get a reaction.
There’s nothing in Black Ops 2 that evokes such a response. There are peaks in the campaign, like a horseback ride through a great battle between Russia and Afghanistan, but Black Ops 2 mostly falls flat. Treyarch said its goal was to focus attention on telling a story that would give us moments of understanding and pause, with the idea being that we’d come to understand its antagonist’s reasoning, perhaps even empathize with it. The underdeveloped characters of Black Ops 2, however, simply can’t carry the weight Treyarch tries to heap upon them.
You will spend the majority of your time in the near future, intersecting occasionally with the original Black Ops cast, and become embroiled in a futuristic conflict executed by populist faction leader Raul Menendez.
The game attempts to show how Menendez was driven to become a villain, but the story falls apart as soon as we meet him in the game: he’s already succumbed to insanity. Treyarch tries to depict his fall from grace with a short introduction video, but the result is ineffective. Black Ops 2 just puts Menendez through the wringer throughout the campaign, giving him more excuses to become less stable than he already was, but still never giving players reason to empathize with him. Knowing that horrible things have happened to him doesn’t change your overall mission of putting an end to his plan, and being so close to the antagonist’s past does away with a lot of the mystique an evil character can bring to a story. The mystery offered in the original Black Ops has been set aside here, even so far as to ignore questions from the last game. So, was Alex Mason involved in the murder of JFK? Forget about it, because it never comes up in Black Ops 2.
The campaign does offer one major addition that works well, at least mechanically. Your actions and decisions affect the narrative, offer incentive for replays, and can lead to multiple endings and scenarios. The story goes to some standard places, with far too many unsurprising twists, but the ability to make choices kept me interested. A handful of optional ‘Strike Force‘ missions are also available – allowing you to play from the perspective of any soldier, robot, or as battlefield ‘Overwatch’ – and have the potential to affect global relations between the U.S. and China, which can alter the difficulty in campaign levels.
Black Ops 2 attempts to convey a sense of drama and elicit sympathy for the plight of its characters, but it’s always too difficult for me to take one person’s death to heart after I’ve mowed down a million dimwitted, respawning A.I. enemies, or watched my own allies fall to bursts of gunfire. One character, for example, is vital in achieving what you could call the “good” ending, so it’s in your best interest to ensure their survival. You try being protective of someone who greets you with a gruff “Go to Hell.”
While the idea of branching missions is something the franchise would do well to expand upon, it doesn’t make the by-the-numbers, action-movie storytelling of Black Ops 2 any better. You can count on better pacing and more excitement than Modern Warfare 3, but this cacophonous ballet of destruction is what you’ve come to expect.
Treyarch’s trademark Call of Duty “Zombies” mode continues to grow, with Black Ops 2 offering an expansion so large it could probably be broken into its own release. “Survival” returns, but two new modes are the real highlight: “Tranzit” and “Grief.”
Grief pits two teams, who cannot kill each other directly, against waves of increasingly tougher zombies. By using power-ups – like hurling a chunk of meat at the opposing team – you can attract zombies to attack your adversaries. Whichever team has the last man standing is declared the winner. You can’t shoot the other team, but you can interrupt and push them around with your weapons. If an opposing teammate goes down, your best strategy is to make things as difficult as possible for his standing teammates before they can revive him. The end result is almost like a party game, adding a fresh distraction for you and multiple friends.
Tranzit, meanwhile, tries to change up the zombies formula by removing the world’s size restrictions. This mode features multiple hubs (the store, gas station, farm, power plant) connected by a dangerous open road. Navigating between areas to discover secrets is possible, but treacherous. The handy inclusion of a roving bus, however, makes exploration of major areas much speedier and less dangerous. The open-world mode is still based on Survival, but there are a multitude of challenges you can complete to open new areas and gain better weaponry. Unfortunately, in the spirit of its previous zombie modes, Treyarch has offered very little to help players discover what to do. It’s really up to you to find out its secrets for yourself. Fans who love Treyarch’s spin on zombies, and scour wikis and piece together narratives, will enjoy the challenge, but new or casual players will be at a complete loss.
Certain limitations irked me. There are countless items in the world you can collect and piece together to build equipment – something the game never explains, by the way – but those items are nondescript and randomized throughout the world. Items rarely look out of place, so the first few times you play Tranzit it feels like going on a pixel hunt, searching for items you might be able to interact with. Furthermore, you have to stand very close to an item, with the camera positioned precisely, before the game allows you to pick it up. Even then, a slight bump from a teammate can halt the process, forcing you to reposition and start again. And that’s all while zombies are out to eat your face.
It’s understandable that Treyarch wanted to create a mode about discovery within zombies, but it’s very unforgiving and none of the issues I encountered can be adjusted for custom games. A little direction is all some players might need to unlock the mode’s potential. Going through the bizarre steps necessary to unlock a hidden area can be exhilarating, and give you purpose, but Tranzit does nothing to help you discover those steps. The mode will evolve over time for those willing to piece together its adventure game logic, though many may be left frustrated and confused.
Black Ops 2 features some of the best multiplayer design the series has seen in years. With the new “Pick 10″ system, you’re free to customize loadouts any way you want, even forgoing equipment (or anything) in favor of additional perks or more weapons.
Black Ops 2 doles out this content in intelligent ways, giving you choices at every level and helping you shape starting classes, rather than putting money in your pocket and opening the floodgates like in the original Black Ops. With more content available to unlock than there are initial levels (in other words, you’ll “prestige” before you unlock it all), the progression system gives plenty of motivation to keep going. Weapon experience also incentivizes dedication to an arsenal. It’s a system built to continually provide content to those who will spend countless, sleepless hours scouring the fourteen included multiplayer maps for kills (if their dedication to Kill/Death ratios wasn’t enough already).
In my dozen hours of multiplayer, I didn’t notice any glaring balance issues between weapons and perks, but it will be the player biomass that ultimately dictates which further tweaks are necessary. Black Ops 2, like other Call of Duty games, is still a fast-paced, twitchy shooter, with some great additions. I’m particularly fond of the Guardian score streak – a microwave emitter that cooks nearby enemies.
Extended multipalyer sessions usually evolve into high volume discussions/arguments about memorable moments in previous matches, or trips to the enhanced Theater mode to watch clips and relive your best kills (now made much easier thanks to a nifty “Highlights” option that automatically extracts the best moments from a saved film).
League Play is built to place players in appropriate tiers of skill, meant to help players of all skill levels find an appropriate challenge. There is no character progression in League Play, instead opening up all items and equipment, leaving you to focus on rank and proper placement. It makes sense to “level the playing field,” but I lost a lot of the excitement that comes from unlocking content.
The ability to stream games is certainly the most interesting expansion for the Call of Duty franchise, a series that – despite its critics – is active in competitive gaming. There’s a limitation, however, in that players are only allowed to stream League Play games. Additionally, the control players have when Shoutcasting matches is great, but it isn’t possible to stream this content outside of the game itself, nor is it possible to save your audio. To get something like the video we have above, for example, you need external video and audio capture equipment, which is disappointing.
Multiplayer is king in Black Ops 2, offering plenty of in-game and inherent rewards for its ravenous online community. It’s paired with a lackluster story that fails the ambition shown by the branching campaign, reflecting the overall game’s forward-thinking but imperfectly executed ideas. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 isn’t the best or most charming entry in the franchise, then, but it takes risks, exploring more than is strictly required for an inevitably annual franchise.
This review is based on review code of the Xbox 360 version of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, provided by Activision. The game was played at an event hosted by Activision. Travel and accommodation were paid for by Joystiq, in accordance with our editorial policy. Additional testing was performed on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version, provided by Activision.
Joystiq’s review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time – a five-star being a definitive “yes,” and a one-star being a definitive “no.” Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.
I’ve been beta testing it for a few weeks and while it takes some getting used to, the good news is it seems to run faster than the software it replaces. The removal of Kinect gestures from system menus is no big loss, although there have been issues with some games. Hopefully all of those have been resolved through the beta process — my main advice is to learn the shortcuts (like pressing right trigger to jump to Games & Apps on the home screen).
OS version 10.0.10586.1006 (th2_xbox_rel_1510.151107-2322) fre
New or updated features
The New Xbox One Experience—the fastest and most social Xbox experience ever, including the ability to play Xbox 360 games on Xbox One.
Xbox One Backward Compatibility
Play a growing number of digital and disc-based Xbox 360 games on Xbox One natively, with next-generation features such as screenshots, broadcasting, and Game DVR. Access your previously saved files, game add-ons, and achievements.
Xbox Live Gold members can do multiplayer gaming with friends no matter what console they’re on.
A faster, more social Xbox One experience
With the integration of Windows 10 into the New Xbox One Experience, you can access many popular gaming features up to 50% faster than before.
Instantly start a party, see what your friends are playing, and get updates to your recently played games from Home with no wait time.
New Guide and Community areas
Guide: Quickly access essentials with one button press to bring up the new guide. View your friends list, quickly start a party, get to settings, see system notifications, view your messages, and more using the guide, without ever leaving your game.
Community: In the new Community area, see what’s trending on Xbox Live and interact with the Xbox Live community by liking, commenting on, and sharing your favorite content. Quickly access the latest updates from friends and game developers through the Activity feed in Community.
Redesigned Home, OneGuide, and Store areas
Home: Share your screenshots and game clips more easily with the Xbox Live community, and see whether your friends are playing the same games from Home. Scroll up and down to get to your games and apps collection.
OneGuide: See what’s trending on live TV in the Xbox Live community in OneGuide. Browse for live TV listings with picture-in-picture, so you don’t miss what’s happening in your show. With app channels, quickly find something to watch from your favorite video apps—all in one place.
Store: The Store expands to four easy-to-explore areas—Games, Movies & TV, Apps, and Music. The new vertical gallery view brings more listings at a glance. Browse through intuitive categories like Featured Staff picks, New Releases, Top Played, Top Rated, Coming Soon, and Recommendations to discover new games and other content.
Enhanced Game Hubs
Get one-click access to Game Hubs directly from Home to view or launch the last game you played, go to the Store for details about other games, or see what your friends are playing right now on Xbox Live. You can also access news and updates directly from the community and the developers, plus compare gamerscore, achievements, and other game stats with your friends.
Researchers at UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center (TSRC) have announced that they are pairing with NRDC Urban Solutions to study the climate impact of ridesharing schemes like Uber and Lyft. The study will examine whether such “ridesourcing” services have a positive impact, by replacing privately owned automobiles, or whether they actually put more cars on the road by competing with existing public transportation systems.
Amanda Eaken, deputy director for urban solutions at the UCB TSRC environmental policy group, will lead the research. The study will look at ridesharing at the national level and focus on both activity data from these companies as well as surveys of rideshare users. The team has also reportedly reached out to Uber and Lyft for additional raw figures. The UCB team expects to have their initial research completed and published by fall of next year.
Uber and Lyft are doing a rare team-up to offer “tens of thousands” of free rides to veterans who need transportation to seek work, according to a message from the White House. Uber pledged to donate 10,000 rides worth around $125,000, while Lyft told Techcrunch that it’s giving away “thousands of rides” in total. The White House pointed out that the rides will be particularly beneficial to the estimated 50,000 homeless veterans, two-thirds of whom don’t have access to transportation. In addition, Uber will today offer riders a chance to donate $5, which it’ll use to offer additional rides.
According to the “Joining Forces” program headed by the First Lady and Vice-President Joe Biden, the PenFed Foundation will offer stopgap funding to veterans who have lost their jobs and need emergency funding. Uber is actually one of the largest employers of US military veterans thanks to its UberMILITARY program, which has signed up 40,000 or so veterans as drivers. According to stats from January, Uber has around 160,000 active driver, making veterans a significant portion of that pool.
Sure, it’s not hard to learn when your bus is likely to show up, but have you wondered where everyone else’s bus is at any given moment? You now have an easy way to find out. GeOps and the University of Freiburg have rolled out TRAVIC (Transit Visualization Client), a map that shows the real-time positions of buses and trains from more than 200 public transportation systems around the globe. Some of this info is based on schedule estimates, but it’s still quite hypnotic — you can see when subway cars pass by Times Square (hint: often), or how long it takes a bus to arrive at Barcelona’s beach. While this tool probably won’t be very useful for planning your own trips, it’ll definitely remind you just how much effort goes into getting you across the urban landscape.
It’s been a little over a week since Vertu announced that it is now under full ownership of Hong Kong’s Godin Holdings. Which, as we found out, is linked to Godin Cyberspace Security Technology — aka GodinSec from mainland China. This raised two questions: Will Vertu be ditching its “Handmade in England” slogan in favor of the classic “Made in China?” And does Godin intend to make use of its own secure smartphone OS on future Vertu devices? The short answer to both is no, according to the newly appointed CEO Billy Crotty.
“The ‘made in England’ [aspect] was one of the principal reasons why Godin invested in and acquired Vertu. We don’t see or foresee any reason to change that,” the Irish exec told us in our interview. That’s good news for the staff of 450 people back in Church Crookham, England. Similarly, future phones will still “absolutely” be designed in-house, and there’s no intention of cutting down production costs nor changing the pricing strategy.
All the premium elements such as sapphire, titanium and exotic hides are here to stay, and these will continue to be assembled by hand. As for services, Vertu’s renowned concierge service and personalized offers will be rolled into a new package dubbed Vertu Club. This is part of the strategy to expand the company’s portfolio of services via third parties, in order to provide better assistance and localization. By popular demand, Vertu will also train its concierge team to handle special inquiries related to finance, education and healthcare.
Gordon Watson, VP of Sales and Marketing, added that despite the general downturn in the luxury market, Vertu has remained more resilient than conventional luxury brands, especially in key markets like China and Russia. The company’s even anticipating an exponential growth in the luxury tech sector. It may even expand its UK facilities — as opposed to setting up a manufacturing base elsewhere — when it succeeds. That said, Crotty couldn’t disclose his company’s sales target, which is just as well given that his team is still in the midst of their 2016 planning session, while also launching the new Signature Touch around the world.
In regards to the potential link between Vertu and GodinSec, Crotty was quick to draw a line between his company and the cyberspace security venture. “GodinSec has nothing to do with who we are.” Rather than adopting a different OS, Vertu will instead rely on its own mature Android platform and continue to explore cyber security elements by expanding on Silent Circle’s offerings. Whether this will remain true in the long run, only time will tell.
So what exactly does Godin bring to the table? For one, it certainly helps to have an investor based in one of Vertu’s biggest markets. But as far as the execs are concerned, it’s more about leveraging the added capital to build agility, in the sense that Vertu can then shorten development cycles in order to react to the market quicker. As Watson eloquently put it, “we’re quite a cumbersome beast, quite honestly, given our size.”
Crotty’s appointment at Vertu may be somewhat surprising to some. Unlike his predecessors, the Irishman has had admittedly little chance to work on luxury products in the past, but he makes up with 15 years of top-level managerial experience in the consumer electronics manufacturing space. Crotty was brought in by the chairman of Yellowstone Capital Group Limited, Jason Sun, who also runs GodinSec and helped set up Godin Holdings. The two had previously worked together at one of China’s earliest mobile phone factories, Cellon International, where Sun served as the founding chairman and Crotty as the COO.
Merely a couple of weeks into his job, Vertu’s new CEO calls his role a “welcoming challenge.” “There are things that we can do better, from an operational, from a manufacturing, from a sufficiency perspective.” It’ll obviously be a while before we see the results of this fine-tuning, so we’ll reserve our judgement until the new products start to arrive next year.
In recent years, we’ve watched Vertu evolve to a luxury phone maker that actually cares about specs, and you can thank CEO Massimiliano “Max” Pogliani for that. But according to Financial Times, Swedish private equity group EQT has recently sold Vertu to Hong Kong’s Godin Holdings, and Pogliani has since decided “to pass on the baton” to someone else. While these changes may bring a tear to some eyes out there, things are about to get real interesting for Vertu. You see, after some digging around in the Hong Kong Companies Registry, we found out that this Godin Holdings is actually just a four-month-old shell company of Godin Cyberspace Security Technology (translated name), which claims to be working on its very own secure smartphone OS dubbed “GOS.” If you put the pieces together, we could be looking at a luxury equivalent of the Blackphone or the BlackBerry Priv in the making.
According to Godin’s Sina Weibo post from June 5th, GOS is developed independently by the company, though our guess is that this is based on Android (as are pretty much all Chinese smartphone OSes), as we came across a job posting for an Android security engineer back in August. GOS boasts anti-rooting, anti-firmware flashing and anti-theft mechanisms, as well as encryption for both software data plus communication data, thorough data wiping and a “G Store” which features carefully sourced apps. There’s also a one-click stealth SOS mode in case you get into serious trouble like in the movies. Alas, there’s no further detail on how these are implemented, which doesn’t help this mysterious company’s credibility.
What’s also baffling is that there are no images of GOS’s allegedly minimalistic UI whatsoever, despite the announcement saying the software had already been shipped to trial users back in June. Similarly, there’s no trace of Godin’s secure social networking app, Milian (which translates to “secure contact”), nor the company’s special SD card which features a “state-approved” encryption chip and remote wipe feature. Both products were announced on the same day as GOS. More worryingly, Godin doesn’t even have a website anymore; the last time Internet Archive grabbed a snapshot was back on August 1st.
The only reassuring part of this deal is the background of Godin’s chairman, Jason Sun. Prior to his current role and also the chairman of Yellowstone Capital Group Limited, Sun was the founder and CEO of Cellon International, which was China’s largest mobile phone ODM at one point, according to an interview back in September last year. He also held top positions at a couple of Chinese electronics companies in his earlier years.
Now, under this new Chinese ownership, who will lead Vertu? The phone maker didn’t have any update for us at the time of publishing, but whoever that will be, here’s hoping he or she will continue the good work, and perhaps this relationship will even help boost Vertu’s position in China’s dwindling luxury market. More importantly, if GOS does end up on future Vertu devices, it better be as good as it claims, so that Vertu can go beyond the few Silent Circle encryption features that it already uses.
And please, keep it “handmade in England.”
Update: Godin’s website is up and running again the day after our article went live. Coincidence?
Following New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s request for daily fantasy sports sites DraftKings and FanDuel to stop operating in his state, the two sites filed a lawsuit against the AG. Filing a petition with the New York Supreme Court, both sites allege that Schneiderman’s office illegally interfered with their business operations by threatening payment processing vendors if they didn’t stop handling transactions for players in New York. The Attorney General also declared the two illegal gambling sites earlier this week, threatening to ban them if they didn’t stop operations. The companies maintain that their version of fantasy sports do indeed require skill rather than luck, which separates them from regular ol’ gambling.
As part of the petition, DraftKings and FanDuel asked for permission to continue operations in the state as the legal proceedings continue. While New York followed Nevada’s lead in banning the daily fantasy sports sites, other states have a habit of following it on matters of consumer protection. There’s also the millions of players that reside there and it’s where FanDuel’s HQ is located. That being said, the battle is fair from over, and we’ll be curious to see if other states attempt to squash the two sites as well.