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Consoles, Handhelds, and Switch Puns by Nintendo

nintendo-switchIf you consider yourself an avid gamer then you are probably by now aware that Nintendo has unveiled its latest console/handheld:  The Nintendo Switch. Previously known by the code name NX, the Switch was officially revealed in a short promotional video on October 20th. Prior to this promotional video, the Switch had only been seen via patent applications by Nintendo containing early drawings that gave some indication of what the console was going to look like. It’s design resembled the Wii U tablet, but with some notable distinctions such as a slot for cartridge based games not unlike Nintendo’s current handheld, the 3DS.

It’s no secret that the Wii U, Nintendo’s most recent entry into the console market, has been a commercial failure. If it weren’t for the abomination known as the Virtual Boy, the Wii U would represent Nintendo’s greatest failure. I was an early adopter of the Wii U mostly out of obligation. I’ve owned every Nintendo console and handheld at some point in my life, and I had the means to get a Wii U at launch, so I did. At worst, I expected to be able to play new entries in classic Nintendo franchises that would provide many hours of entertainment. The gimmick, in this case a tablet with a second screen, was essentially Nintendo’s way of bringing the DS experience to the home console, with a couple of twists. Being on a console meant being able to do different things with the second screen, like hiding information from those who could only view the television or playing the console strictly via the tablet with no TV required. Turns out, that last little feature ends up being the Wii U’s legacy as the Switch is essentially taking that concept of not needing the TV to play and running with it.

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What I assume comes in the box (minus the TV, of course).

Nintendo was never able to prove that the Wii U’s setup was conducive to innovative game design, so naturally neither were third parties. The Switch’s attempt at innovation is far more obvious as Nintendo wants to turn every console game into a portable experience as well. The Switch is fundamentally a tablet that just so happens to have a dock to make play on a TV seamless. Its design is quite similar to the Wii U tablet but noticeably smaller. It appears to be somewhere in size between a Vita and Wii U Gamepad, which is to say for a portable a bit on the large side. The Vita is already sizable for a portable and not exactly pocket friendly, so it goes without saying that the Switch is more of a backpack accessory than a pocket one. The edges of the Switch, which feature the button inputs, are detachable so you can play the Switch like a Vita or use the included kick stand and set it up on a surface and detach the controllers. Some games appear to only require one of these tiny controllers to play, meaning the Switch can natively support two players for certain games. For home use, it looks the Switch will come bundled with a controller “dock” that turns the two pads into something resembling a more traditional controller. The video also shows off a version of Nintendo’s Pro controller that likely will be an extra accessory. The dock also contains USB ports so existing controllers for the Wii U that utilize those ports may be compatible as well.

Nvidia is providing the architecture for the Switch. Some of the preliminary specs have been shared with the public, but just how powerful the Switch is remains a mystery. Given Nintendo’s track record, its likely the Switch will be competitive with the current consoles on the market from Sony and Microsoft, but will likely fall behind in raw power when their advanced models hit shelves over the next year. As long as the Switch is capable of handling ports from those machines, and given that neither Sony or Microsoft is going to ignore the original PS4/Xbox One, the power of the system should be satisfactory. It’s also unknown what the screen’s resolution and makeup is. LED? OLED? Can it support 4k? Is it a touch screen? The display of the Wii U Gamepad is nothing special, and if the promo video is showing actuall gameplay on the device then it at least looks like the Switch is superior to the Gamepad as far as resolution is concerned. If it’s on par with the original Vita then that would be fantastic.

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If you thought using the Wii remote was uncomfortable…

The system’s concept is an appealing one for me. These days I spend more time with my handhelds than I do my consoles because it’s hard for me to make time to actually play with my consoles when I’m home. A machine that functions as both offers a lot of potential. I had hoped to utilize the Wii U in a similar fashion when I first got it around the house, but its range is severely limited so I never took advantage of using the Gamepad as a dedicated console as much as I had envisioned. Sony has offered remote play for several years now through its handhelds, but it’s something I’ve never taken full advantage of. With the PSP, it just plain didn’t work very well. With the Vita, it seems to work fine, but the Vita has fewer buttons than a PS4 controller making some games pretty awkward as those features end up being mapped to the rear touchpad. The Switch is basically just a straight portable that’s convenient to play on a television, and it’s a bit surprising that no one has really done this before. The only thing similar is the NeoGeo X which was released a few years ago. The X is a handheld that has a console dock which resembles the original NeoGeo AES system and more or less functions the same, right down to the wired controllers. The X is actually pretty cool, but the quality is a little suspect. With Nintendo, I have few fears about quality so the Switch should provide for a better experience.

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A brief look at a game cartridge and headphone jack (take that, Apple).

Naturally, there are concerns with any new console, especially a Nintendo one. Third Party support has been a major issue for Nintendo ever since the days of the Nintendo 64. The Wii initially had a fair amount of support because it sold so well that publishers couldn’t ignore it, but there always seems to be the perception that Nintendo owners are fiercely loyal to Nintendo’s games and not as interested in others. So far, numerous developers are pledging support though none are confirming games (likely because of a non-disclouse agreement with Nintendo). Based on the video, it looks like the NBA 2K franchise is heading to Switch, and perhaps most exciting of all, Skyrim was shown as well. The video is likely a mock and what we saw of these games may not even be running on the Switch hardware, but it’s at least encouraging. I do wonder how a game as massive as Skyrim will fit on an SD card and what the costs will be. It’s possible the card in the video is a blank, and to play games on the go you have to transfer from an internal HDD in the dock to a flash style card,but that seems cumbersome. It also sounds like the type of thing that would make piracy easier and publishers hate that. Most likely games are going to come on these cards and I’m over-thinking it, but it will be interesting to see how this all works out. My fear is that the storage medium will compromise a title like Skyrim, and if I can’t have the full Skyrim experience on the Switch, then what’s the point?

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The “joy-cons” slide onto the side of the Switch. In order to preseve a traditional four button layout on each one, it looks like we have to endure possibly the world’s shittiest D-Pad.

The main concern I have, and probably most gamers have after viewing the video, is with battery life. A tablet plus two mini controllers seems like the type of thing that will drain batteries quickly. The Wii U’s Gamepad has horrible battery life, but how much of that is because the Gamepad has to constantly communicate with the actual console? Modern handhelds aren’t much better though, with 4-6 hours being the new standard. After owning both a launch 3DS and a launch Vita for a few years, I can say both of my handhelds are closer to that 4 hour lifespan than the 6 at this stage and it gets discouraging. How well the Switch handles that part will determine just how portable it truly is. Aside from that, the standard concerns apply such as how much will it cost and how does it feel to actually play it? I’ll admit, those little controllers (I think Nintendo is referring to them as joy-cons or joy-pads) don’t look optimal. My guess is they work in a pinch, but I suspect most will be buying a pro controller. The fact that they slide into the side of the tablet is a minor concern as well. Will they slide out during some intense gaming sessions? Probably not, but we’ll see.

I did find it interesting that the promotional video’s target audience clearly seems to be adults. There are no children at all in the video which is in stark contrast to Nintendo’s family audience we’re used to seeing. This probably all factors into the name, Switch, as the console represents a very different approach by the company to remain relevant. At this moment in time, I can’t commit to buying it without seeing more. The Wii U’s tech was never very interesting to me, but I purchased it largely on faith that Nintendo would deliver with excellent software. The Wii U never did, and even the first party titles from Nintendo have really started to suffer. This even goes back to the days of the Wii. Triple A franchises like Star Fox, Metroid, and Mario have really taken a hit lately and Nintendo needs to win me back in that respect. The company really hasn’t shown off any games yet. The video mostly appears to show off enhanced versions of Wii U games like Splatoon and Mario Kart 8 which leads me to believe the unveiling of the big titles is still to come. There is a glimpse of a new Mario game in there that appears to be very much in the style of Super Mario 64, and of course we know that the new Zelda game is likely to be a launch title with a simultaneous or delayed Wii U release (similar to what Nintendo did with Twilight Princess). A new Zelda game, even if it was largely developed with the Wii U in mind, might be all the Switch needs for a successful launch. After that, it will fall to Nintendo to provide reason for gamers to keep coming back. No one is really talking about it right now, but if the Switch is a failure it could mark the end of Nintendo as a console developer, and there’s no way to spin that as a good thing for gamers.


Kingdoms of Amalur Demo Impressions

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (2012)

As a Red Sox fan, I was made aware of future Hall of Fame pitcher Curt Schilling’s video game obsession early on.  Perhaps not as early on as Diamondbacks or Phillies fans, but certainly well before the formation of 38 Studios (at one point, Green Monster Games), the developer behind the latest RPG Kingdoms of Amalur:  Reckoning.

Schilling was a noted EverQuest junkie.  For those unfamiliar, EverQuest was World of Warcraft before WoW.  It wasn’t the first massively multi-player online RPG, but it was certainly the first one to reach a large audience.  Schilling was not at all embarrassed by his nerdy obsession, and why would he be?  He was a multi-millionaire athlete with a hot wife.

It’s been a good, long while since Schilling decided to stop just being a fan and decided to create games for himself.  When that announcement was made I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I thought maybe he’d get into developing on a small scale with iPhone type games, and if he got into the big boy stuff, it would be a MMORPG for the PC, which seemed to be the only game he was into.  Or, as is often the case with this kind of wishful thinking announcement, I figured I’d never hear about 38 Studios again and the company would be dissolved before Schilling lost too much money.  When the first trailer for Kingdoms of Amalur surfaced over a year ago I was both surprised and officially intrigued.

In 2009, 38 Studios made a big acquisition when it acquired small developer Big Huge Games.  Big Huge Games is mostly known for its work with the RTS game Rise of Nations, but it was allocated to Reckoning in an effort to create a single-player experience.  Schilling also brought on board noted fantasy scribe R.A. Salvatore to help design the game world and create a robust history.  Todd McFarlane was also brought in for character designs giving 38 Studios an almost all-star quality.

Suddenly, Reckoning had a lot going for it and the first reveal only made fans more interested getting their paws on a finished product.  Just this past week a playable demo was released for PC, Xbox 360, and PS3 and I gave it a test run.

First of all, Reckoning is a third-person western style RPG.  If you don’t know what that means (you must not read this blog regularly) it just means the game is more like Skyrim than Final Fantasy.  You’re given control of one character and right away you get to customize him to your liking.  You can be as detail oriented as you wish or go with a randomly generated character produced by the game.  There are four base races to choose from that each are more suited towards a particular play style (one makes for an obvious mage, the other warrior, and so on).  The game then lets you pick a deity for your character to follow which incurs some bonuses to certain stats, or you can go atheist if you wish.  The level of customization is pretty much on par with recent entries into this genre such as Dragon Age and Skyrim.

Reckoning places a lot of emphasis on combat, and mostly succeeds in crafting some fun gameplay mechanics.

The demo has you play through an introductory level of sorts.  It gives you some context and, as expected, lets you know that your character is unique and somehow really important to this game’s world.  It’s pretty standard stuff.  From what I gathered from the giant opening cinematic, is that the game is focused on war between mortals and immortals.  These immortals (they have a special name that I forgot) are not immortal in the literal sense, it would be seem.  They die when you fight them, and during the cinematic one gets stabbed through the chest and appears as dead as anything else.  I’m going to assume their immortality comes into play after “death” and that they’re resurrected or something.  Regardless, the story has potential but doesn’t seem all together different from the first Dragon Age when you get right down to it.  It’s good vs evil and the evil guys are way cooler and more ferocious looking.

The introductory dungeon does a good job of giving you a chance to try out seemingly everything.  It encourages you to give melee a try and even throws in some stealth and magic play.  When it comes to an end you select your character class and start customizing it the way you want to play.  The game breaks everything down into three parts where character class is concerned:  warrior, rogue, and mage.  They have their own unique heading instead of that, I know the rogue abilities are called finesse and the warrior ones might be maul or something.  Each one has its own tech tree and at each level up you get 3 points to spend however you wish.  Even if you’re playing a mostly warrior type character you can invest points in the other two schools.  Considering you get 3 points at each level, it seems like it won’t take that long to fill-out a tree but we shall see.  As you spend points in each one the game keeps track which allows you to open up class advancements in each one.  For example, the base finesse class can become a thief or an assassin as more points are invested in it.  You can also dual and triple class if you like variety, which definitely has me intrigued.  I suspect few will play one dimensional characters.  Apparently, as part of the game, you’ll be able to meet characters that (for a fee, I assume) will wipe away all of your point allocations and let you reallocate them from scratch.  This means if you’ve played the game for 30 hours as a warrior but decide you want to switch it up and be a mage/thief, you can!  That seems pretty cool to me and is a good way to let your players experience everything the game has to offer without starting over.

While Bethesda tries to make their creatures seem plausible, Reckoning just wants them to look cool.

Visually, the game is a pretty solid looking title.  It reminds me a lot of EA’s (the publisher for Reckoning) other RPG series Dragon Age.  Both go for a clean look with a rich color palette, which is in contrast to Bethesda’s Skyrim which has a gritty feel with a muted, gray palette.  The character designs also follow a similar philosophy in that they’re straight-up fantasy fare.  Where Skyrim tries to take these creatures and make them seem realistic, Reckoning just throws them in.  This gives some characters, like the gnomes, an almost toon quality to them.  Structurally, the game is also similar to Dragon Age in its approach to the environment.  The map is huge, though in the demo I was obviously restricted to a small piece, but it looks like Reckoning will favor condensed but connected areas as opposed to Skyrim’s wide-open terrain.  This makes sense considering the game’s focus on combat.

How is that combat?  Quite good actually.  At first, it feels like Reckoning may be another button masher like Dragon Age 2 or (gulp) Dynasty Warriors.  Instead, there is importance placed on blocking or parrying and there are time-sensitive special moves you unlock as you advance in levels.  I was concerned when I first started playing that combat would be too simple but the longer I got in the more varied the opponents became.  I could probably approach it like a Diablo and just keep attacking and spamming potions but I found myself dodging and weaving amongst my enemies always trying to avoid being ganged up on.  There’s also a special slow motion type attack that’s triggered by a meter.  When activated, it slows everyone down but your character and you can deal out some serious damage.  It’s player activated so you’ll find yourself saving a fully charged meter for a tough encounter, at least I did.  Main attacks are done with one button, while special abilities and spells are mapped to a trigger.  The game makes liberal use of the radial menu popularised by BioWare for easy access to potions.  There’s also always a secondary weapon mapped to another face button on the controller letting you change things up on the fly.  And like with Skyrim, you can also enter a stealth mode and try to sneak up on enemies to deal massive damage.

Reckoning looks pretty nice, and the combat seems fun, but I’m not sure where I stand on the product as a whole.  I like its ambition, I like pretty much everything I talked about, but there’s stuff I don’t like.  For one, the game’s camera is way too loose.  I liken it to the inFamous series as it has a similar feel.  The camera also feels like it’s too close to my character.  I found myself constantly spinning it around with the right analog stick to get a look at something.  The character also has a floaty feel and landing hits on enemies just lacks something that I can’t quite place my finger on.  The game just doesn’t feel as fun to play as it should, given all that’s gone into it and all that it gets right.

Downloading this demo will also score you some sweet armor in Mass Effect 3.

This game is ultimately going to be compared to Skyrim because both fit into the same genre and will be released relatively close together (Reckoning hits stores February 7th).  The experience of the two is vastly different though.  Skyrim is more an exploration, sandbox kind of title.  Reckoning has a large map, but exploration seems like it will be more tedious than wondrous.  There’s some emphasis placed on free will in Reckoning as well (you can pick pocket, target civilians for attacks and so on) but some of the world’s real feel is dampened by archaic video game conventions like breakable boxes strewn about.  I can run into some guy’s house and just start smashing things for loot and he doesn’t give a shit, which is disappointing.  This game reminds me more of Microsoft’s Fable series than Skyrim, though I think the finished product will be superior.

In the end, I feel like I can’t offer a fair assessment of Kingdoms of Amalur because I’ve just been playing too much Skyrim.  I’m nearing 150 hours with that beast and playing something different just feels too foreign right now.  I have legitimate concerns about Reckoning, enough that I know I won’t be a day 1 purchaser.  That was unlikely anyways as I have too many games I have yet to play as is, but I’m definitely holding out for some full reviews.  And after my experience with Skyrim and its stability (terrible) I’m a little gun-shy to jump right into a new, massive game before knowing how well it runs.  I do recommend that people try this demo out.  It’s quite generous and after the tutorial dungeon you’re given 45 minutes to do whatever you want.  They closed off some areas and I think they removed a lot of the NPC audio to make the download smaller, but you get a good test run.  What will make this game a success or not is how well player’s enjoy the gameplay mechanics and quest variety.  Skyrim offers the same quest over and over but gives it unique context, plus the world is just fun to explore and I’m not sure Reckoning’s will have that same feel.  The story-telling and NPC audio in Skyrim is often times less then stellar but if the quest has me doing something interesting I can overlook it.  If Reckoning just has the player fetching items and clearing dungeons endlessly it may get boring pretty quickly.  We’ll just have to wait and see.  My expectations after playing the demo though are that it probably won’t eclipse Skyrim as the definitive fantasy RPG experience, but should at least top my pick for 2011’s most disappointing release, Dragon Age 2.  And if so, that’s a pretty nice spot to occupy.


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