Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Long Road to... my Next Generation Console

The Road so Far:
Sammy, we need a new console.

"Carry on my Wayward Son! There'll be peace when you are done."
"You know: Wasting time, playing games: the family business!"
And so on and so forth...

I came a long way. From my Coleco Vision and Zaxxxon 3D, to an NES, a Gameboy, a Playstation, a PS2, PSP up to the Xbox 360 - with a few bouts of PC gaming in between, it's been a long road to this next generation of consoles for our hero (that's me).

And it ended, for now, not as I expected on the Xbox One, but on the Playstation 4. Yes. After almost 7 years of Xbox 360, I made the jump. My reasons are many and mysterious, and yet, I actually was set on the Xbox One until about four days before the release date. I had both pre-ordered since they were available, so I did have the choice, but damn me, if that choice wasn't hard.

For a long, long time, long before the Xbox One and PS4 reveals, Xbox was my first choice, simply out of convenience. I've been there, done that, know my way around, and have found lots of friends. Some of those I actually like.

On the other hand, I've had my problems with Xbox and Xbox Live, most specifically because of their many regional restrictions. As a humble, and thoroughly annoyed citizen of the Kingdom of Censorship (that's Germany), not only do games often get, you guessed it, censored (or not released at all), but more horrible is without a doubt, that a lot of games (Digital Game on Demand Downloads and Disc Versions) and DLCs, are NOT in English.

Seriously, you'd think in this age of the global village, the dominant gaming language (outside of Asian RPGs) would be a mandatory feature. Germany doesn't think so. Companies like Bethesda and Square Enix are infamous for only featuring German, French and maybe Spanish on German retailer sold discs. When it comes to digital downloads of games or DLC on Xbox Live, those same companies, in collusion with Microsoft, very often restrict users of German Xbox Live accounts to German versions said content. Famous examples of great games totally ruined by Bad German Dubbing: Halo 3/ODST/Reach/4, Crysis 2, The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and Skyrim, Dishonored, Tomb Raider (Reboot), Sleeping Dogs, Fable 3, and the list goes on.

Why is that horrible? Well, if you've ever heard the abysmal German voice "acting", or had to suffer through "translations" that didn't even make sense, whether content-wise or grammatically, you'd know.
Crysis 2: While the left is perfectly fine, the right is a word-by-word translation of "Most Lethal" that does NOT make any sense in German.
So, while the English versions of games can often boast famous actors performing scripts by experienced writers, the Germans have to make do with third string voice "actors" going off translations that make Google Translate look like... well, the Translator. It's why I constantly have to import my games from the UK - which means I mostly get them after the weekend on which it was supposed to be released.

But I digress. As I said, I was set on the next-gen Xbox, right until that big reveal to introduce the Multi-Media Device called Xbox One. It wasn`t just a video game console, it was supposed to be the "One Box to Rule them All" in your living room. TV, Skype, Internet... And I couldn't care less. I don't watch much TV, and if I watch movies, the English original has become mandatory, something German TV doesn't do. And I already have my PC hooked up to my living room TV. I wanted to play games. But, as good old (and since encouraged to leave) Xbox CEO Don Mattrick said back then, E3 will be where the games are at, and there would be amazing games, in full HD, as behooves a next-gen console.

Truth be told, I hadn't even bothered with the PS4 reveal, so set was I on Xbox, and so disappointed was I, when the hoped-for good news at E3 went sour:
Xbox One games cannot be sold used, discs are basically installation vectors, and yet, the games will still be much more expensive than equivalent PC games via services like Steam or Origin, after which that policy of "Usage Licenses for Games" was obviously designed.
Xbox One needs to be connected to the internet once every 24 hours so validate these licenses, and if you cannot do that, it turns into a very nice bookend.

"By the balls, they have us!"
Kinect 2.0 is mandatory and required to even use the console - if it breaks or you unplug that
"High-Tech Surveillance Equipment" (as German politicians have named it), there`s that bookend again.
Giving a game to friend... I don't even want to think about that.

It was as if Xbox One had thought about all the things that'd piss me, personally, off, and then made those things their policy. Sony only needed to show up, then. And show up they did. Who does not fondly remember the "Instructional Videos" Sony did on giving a PS4 game to a friend?
Sony's PS4 came with a lot of power - for gaming, and not much else.
And in the following months, I became a strong PS4 supporter.

The "Xbox One-80 Day" did change that a bit. No more licenses, no more internet checks, used games work like always, and while Kinect was still in the box, you didn`t need it to operate the X1. Don Mattrick left Xbox,  shortly thereafter, and it has been hinted that he was encouraged to do so.
And then there was "The Power of the Cloud", but I admit I was always more intrigued by Microsoft's promise of Dedicated Servers for every single MP game through that cloud. I have seen many a great game die because of bad online connections and lag - Crysis 2, Crysis 3, Ghost Recon Future Soldier and, lately, Splinter Cell: Blacklist come to mind - so the availability of those 300.000 Azure servers being used to get rid of transatlantic lobbies with Australians, Americans and Europeans and a Brazlian with a dial-up connection as the host was very intriguing.

And, looking at the game presentations from E3, especially Titanfall and Ryse, the 10% processing power that the X1 always keeps away from games for their Multi-Media Features, did not seem to matter much. Both games were shown in full 1080p and 60FPs, and they did look beautiful.

When I then heard about the pseudo-dedicated servers Killzone Shadowfall would get (namely none - the game logic will still be host/client Peer-2-Peer, just like pretty much all current-gen games do it already), and that despite Sony's promise of all First-Party titles getting Dedicated Servers, I slowly began drifting again.
I like killing people. Online. In games. And there`s nothing more frustrating, than seeing bad connections or shoddy netcoding not live up to any game's promise of allowing you to do that killing.

So, I thought, the games look great, and they'll all have dedicated servers, even the small niche games that I seem to find so appealing, and I already have an Xbox Live account paid up until next year, do I really want to make that jump into the unknown?
I've heard a few scary stories about the Playstation Network, and Sony's apparent lack of concern when it comes to keeping it functioning. Xbox Live has been very dependable for quite a long time, and they surely have the experience when it comes to providing good online features, while the PSN, especially as a now paid-for subscription, seems to be still in its baby shoes.
Should I go with what I know, and know that it will (mostly) work, or go with what I tend to think of as the better console and the better approach to gaming in general? No matter how tempting an offer of unlimited dedicated servers might be, I still had a bad taste in my mouth from what Xbox had tried to force on gamers, their approach to Indie-Developers and their lack of focus on games. Actually, their 180 turnaround left me respecting them even less. If they really believed that their vision was the future, they should've stuck to their guns and ride out the storm... or something.

Once more, I was undecided, and the more I thought about it, the more I had to admit, that I don't know much at all about the PSN. I had heard that there's no regional IP filtering, that all games and DLC are region free, and making an account that was not afflicted by Germany isn't a big problem, but that was the PS3. There was no telling if that would still apply to the PS4. And I am notoriously lazy. The thought of having to get familiar with all the intricacies of a new platform, a new service were daunting. More and more I was swinging back to the Xbox One, and the bigger price tag, useless features and the Spy-Toy be damned.

And it stayed that way, until Resolution Gate arrived. Only a few weeks before the launch, some very worrisome news broke about the Xbox One: most launch games would not run in 1080p. Or at 60FPS. Some will even run in only 720p at 30 frames per second. Assassin`s Creed 4? 720p at 30FPS. COD Ghosts? 720p at 60FPS. Ryse? 900p at 30FPS. Battlefield 4? 720p at 60FPS. Only Forza 5 would run in 1080p and 60FPS, but as a racing game, the computational demands to the hardware are a lot lower than shooters, for example. It was not at all what next-gen gamers were expecting, especially since Sony had no issues confirming that all of those games (not the Xbox exclusive Ryse, of course) except BF4 would run in 1080p. It also stood in stark contrast to the full HD E3 presentations. Which then, of course, were called into question, and, as it turned out, rightfully so. Apparently, most if not all of those presentations had not been running on Xbox One Software Developer Kits - but on High-End Windows 7 PCs.

The reason for this discrepancy is the apparently quite complicated structure of the Xbox One, most likely the memory configuration, that for now has developers a bit stumped when it comes to optimization. While most developers talked about how easy and straightforward it was to design and program for the PS4, more and more were now saying that it was quite the opposite wit the Xbox One. And again it seems like Sony and Microsoft have switched places with this next-gen, as the PS3 had very similar issues with its complicated structure, especially when it comes to cross-platform games.

On the other hand, maybe those things were to be expected for a console still in its infancy. Developers soon learned to use the PS3 pretty well, after all, and rumors had it, that the Xbox SDKs were pretty late in getting to the developers - about six months later than Sony's did. Launch games might not be up to snuff, but surely the second wave would bring us full HD gaming as expected.

Yet, when Infinity Ward Executive Producer Mark Rubin was asked about why "Call of Duty Ghosts" did not run in 1080p on Xbox One, and talked a bit about the complications developers are facing with the unfamiliar and convoluted console architecture, he inadvertently mentioned that other developers have made a similar decision: Lower the Graphics and Keep the High Frame Rate. He even mentioned that Xbox One exclusive and, arguably, the winner of E3, Titanfall, is set to be released in 720p as well. And Titanfall is not due to be release until Spring 2014, a definitive second wave release, by which time late SDKs won't count as an excuse anymore. And a little more research found me an article, that eagerly expected Bungie game Destiny shows significantly less graphical quality in its Alpha Version on Xbox One than PS4.

Best. Game. Ever.
Shadows loomed over my gaming future, and for a few days I thought about just forgetting about the next generation, get a PS3 and play all those exclusives I missed out on. God of War, Uncharted, inFamous - not to mention the HD Remake of my personal "Best Game Ever", Shadow of the Colossus. Since it was clear by now, that neither console would feature backwards compatibility, that option became increasingly attractive. But damn it, I wanted that next gen to start right now. I didn't want to be left out, and I had already looked too much into the next-gen games to let go of it, now.

And now, PS4 looked pretty sexy again. Still, the promise of dedicated servers held sway. But... Well. But. What about that promise? Was it still valid? It wasn't like MS had never before pulled back on promises. So I went ahead and did some research, and... it wasn't good. From "Dedicated Servers for every single game" it went to "Free Dedicated Servers are available for every developer who chooses to use them" to "Easily affordable Dedicated Servers" - although that last might not be accurate anymore. And then a good friend working in the business told me, that not every developer will even make use of those "free" dedicated servers - and that he fully expects that most next-gen games on all platforms will get dedicated servers anyway, once the next-gen comes fully into its stride.

More and more confusion. And no more guaranteed dedicated servers for Xbox One. And the big upcoming games I'm most looking forward to might not even be affected. Destiny will have a combination of dedicated servers and Peer-2-Peer on both platforms. The Division will have dedicated servers on every platform. Thief won't need dedicated servers for what I fully expect to be a single player-focused game. What was left was to look at the Exclusives, and truth be told, none of the Xbox exclusives made me want to stick with what I now conceived to be the weaker gaming console.
I don't like racing games in general, and naming a revolutionary online component "Drivatar" actually made me hate Forza 5 for no reason.
Dead Rising 3 might look like fun, but apparently it's mostly fun if you don't play the story.
Ryse is forever locked in my head as a failed Quick-Time-Event, and Crytek have long lost my appreciation as a studio.
Finally, Titanfall. It did look pretty crazy in the presentations. But the finished game apparently won`t even look as good, and with an online-only title, what happens if you don't like the online game play? No matter how great it might look, these are the people that committed Modern Warfare 2, including Marathon-Lightweight-Commando. And I'm not one for the COD-twitch play style - I'm old, and lonely. I don't need 10year-olds to go crazy on me with their dreadfully good reflexes.

So, the Xbox exclusives wouldn't win me over, what about the PS4?
Killzone Shadowfall does look nice, and I loved the old Killzone games on PS2. I had also heard great things about the KZ Multiplayer - and yet, the reviews were not really great.
The Order 1886 had werewolves. I don't know if that's a good thing.
inFamous: Second Son looks nice, but as I never played an inFamous game, looks can be deceiving.
And apart from those, there are a few Indie Titles, but that seems to be it. No matter what you want to say about the Xbox One, they do have the more interesting exclusives.

The inability to decide was pretty painful at the time, and the Xbox One release date was coming very, very close, now. So I finally succumbed to taking an in-depth look at the Playstation Network - and Playstation Plus, the paid subscription. I still had an old PSN ID, registered in the UK from back in my PlayStation Portable days, and it seemed to be still active, so at least my usual Gamer Handle would be there for me - and, hopefully, my language concerns wouldn't be an issue. Until I found out, that for paying for stuff, you need a credit card, debit card, or PayPal account registered in your account's country. Thankfully, you can load your PSN wallet with pre-paid cards, get subscriptions through the same kind of vouchers, and both are easy to buy online from wherever you are. It might not be as convenient as entering your credit card info once and never be bothered again, but it was something I had lived with on Xbox Live for a long time, and, as such, definitely doable.
More interesting, though, was PS Plus, now a necessity for playing online multiplayer on PS4. You get discounts, sure. But you also get your Instant Game Collection, which means access to a selection of free games as long as you remain a Plus member, with new games permanently added each month, and different additional games offered for download for a certain time. And not just 5 year old games nobody wanted to buy, or little Indie Titles nobody wanted, period. It leaves the still relatively fresh "Games with Gold" initiative from rival Microsoft pretty far behind - even more so, since the PS Plus Instant Game Collection will include PS4 titles, while "Games with Gold" is not planned to extend from Xbox 360 to Xbox One. Additionally, if the master account on a PS4 has PS Plus, all other accounts get the same benefits, including use of the Instant Game Collection and Online Multiplayer. It's something Xbox One does as well, though, but again, they have no free games.

By then, I was pretty sure that I didn't really want the Xbox One, anymore, so I cancelled my pre-order three days before release. It was harder than you might think, and I instantly regretted it. I regretted it even more when I had to watch all of my Xbox Live buddies upgrade on launch day and play their Xbox One and rave about it. But I had decided, and I wanted to be steadfast in my decision. No Xbox One for me. But did I want a PS4? Did I really? My Xbox still had a few good games to happen to it, Dark Souls 2 first and foremost, and the PS3 has some great games I never played for a lot less money. I could get a PS3, PS Plus, and be busy for months if not years with all the free games and exclusive franchises.

In the end, I wanted my next generation now. And I don't regret it. Of course, the beginning was tumultuous, as PSN broke down on the European Launch, and for a few hard hours I wished I had not bought a 400€ bookend. The next day got even worse, when I thought that PSN had swallowed about 40€ of vouchers. But they sorted it out, and one day after launch, at least my experience was fully satisfactory. And I already have two free games for PS Plus.
Not everything is perfect, though. My old Xbox 360 Surround Sound Gaming Headset is not really working with the controller, so I have to use the horrible PS4 ear-bud and mic that came in the box beneath my headset's ear cups to chat and hear chat. The DS4 is a great controller, but after being used to the Xbox 360 controller for so long, I still need to retrain my brain and my hands.

But I am happy. I feel like I made the right decision. I wanted a gaming console, and that`s what the PS4 is. It's fast, the games look great, and - initial problems aside - the PSN seems to work fine. I even managed to share a video online, and it was almost ridiculously easy. Granted, the PS4 shares videos on facebook and not youtube, but since google wants youtube to be the new facebook, I guess it's fair enough.

So, if you're still unsure about what system you might get, maybe this will be helpful to you. If you already have your next-gen system, feel free to laugh at my odyssey. Whatever your decision, I really hope you like it.

Whether it's PS4 or Xbox One, there's really no "right" or "wrong" here - only "right or wrong for you".

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