Valiant Hearts: a hit with kids & dogs

Gamer Dude’s playing Valiant Hearts — released today on XboxLive and there’s a valiant dog protagonist that’s caught our dog Astrid’s attention. She’s watching the screen wagging her tail and offering her computer game dog friend the lacrosse ball she pinched from the ball bag! LOL

Valiant Hearts was released today for Microsoft Windows, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and Steam.  Powered by the same engine as Rayman Origins the game was developed by Ubisoft Montpellier. I’m already a fan. The game art, storyline and musical score is compelling and has a arty feel to it. It’s not an epic war game, but this game has plenty of heart. From the looks of things, the puzzles are satisfying too.

According to Hayden Dingman from PCWorld.com,

Far from a detriment, the silent-film nature of Valiant Hearts is one of its greatest strengths. The game is able to support a multicultural cast—French, German, American, Canadian—without any one culture dominating. And still, these are some of the best characters I’ve played in recent memory, thanks to some strong archetyping and brilliant animated cutscenes.

You also fall in with a trained war dog early in the game, and it’s this dog that most of the game revolves around. The story is the primary draw here, but play revolves around solving a cadre of puzzles more than actual combat.

I’m literally watching Dude play as I write. I’ll update later after the game’s done!

 

Xbox creating drama series with UK Channel 4

Following in the footsteps of Netflix, Xbox Entertainment Studios, together with UK Channel 4, is co-producing an eight-episode series called Humans. The series will be available for viewing on US Xbox platform and Channel 4 in the UK in 2015. News about the hour-long series was announced earlier today, by StreamDaily‘s @melitakuburas.

 

 

 

 

Microsoft testing backward compatibility on Xbox One

We still haven’t decided whether we’re buying Xbox One or PS4 consoles in this gaming house, so you can imagine the excitement around here when we read the breaking news report from Appy Gamer this morning:

Some fantastic rumors are emerging this week, suggesting that Microsoft has been secretly testing a feature, to allow the playback of Xbox 360 games running on a PC — using streaming and Microsoft’s new-found cloud technologies.

As you may or may not already know, PS4 will not be accepting PS3 discs. That said, Sony and Gaikai are positioned to change the PlayStation gaming experience in a massive way with Gaikai’s cloud service. Gaikai and Sony plan to release a PlayStation app which would allow users to tether smartphones and tablets to the console’s hub. Users will then be able to stream mobile games and access PSN and the PS Store. Using Gaikai’s cloud, Sony plans to offer users remote play and streaming of PS3 games on the PS4.

I’ll provide more news about Microsoft’s plans to use their cloud for backward compatibility as I have it. Looks like the competition between the new-gen consoles continues to be close…

Verdict: Controlled Yes on COD: Black Ops II

The victory for GamerDude is a bittersweet one (my WordPress friend, Bitter Ben would argue there’s no other kind of sweetness) — I’ve

Keep your cool while playing, ebayUK

Contolled playing, ebayUK

given him permission to play Call of Duty: Black Ops II, if he plays within the following parameters:

1. blood, gore, & language controls on, and

2. no online multiplayer gameplay

Of course, I believe this is a massive step for me in my relationship with video games, but in the time I’ve taken to reach a verdict on this game, the creators of COD: Black Ops II have released one DLC — a map: Revolution — last month. Further, this review/MOMmentary is being published the weekend before a gaming platform-wide release of the second DLC: Uprising (which includes a zombie setting called “Mob of the Dead”). Turns out, keeping up with this franchise is a full-time job.

A little background about COD: Black Ops II

It was released for PS3, Xbox 360, and Microsoft Windows November 2012, and it’s the first game in the COD franchise that features branching storylines influenced by players’ choices — these storylines/choices are called “Strike Force missions”. It’s also the first COD game to use futuristic warfare technology.

The game narrative is complex and compelling — in its single player mode, the campaign showcases two connecting storylines with Black Ops protagonist Alex Mason starring in the first section of the game and his son, David, in the second half. The game spans from 1986 to 1989 (the final years of the first Cold War) and then in 2025 — the onset of a second Cold War (this is where we see futuristic weapons and action). Soldiers in the game are tasked with — among other duties — preventing a terrorist attack.

Zombies

According to Patricia Hernandez (Kotaku), Zombie mode is a bit of a letdown. In her review of zombie mode for Kotaku, Hernandez writes:

There are three game types: the story-based “Tranzit,” the classic “Survival,” and, less excitingly, the maliciously spirited “Grief.” All overtly have the same premise: using teamwork, survive/kill the zombies.

Zombie mode is also very violent. Like, in a gratuitous way. I’ve banned it in our house because I haven’t found any evidence of zombie mode/maps being anything other than gross — and not in a cool, Super Meatboy way!

Violence and Gore (and Language — Oh My!)

COD: Black Ops II is a violent FPS (first person shooter) game, with and without the use of control settings. This review, and my verdict, have taken about two weeks longer than I’d hoped because of my inherent discomfort with the genre. That said, my decision to allow GamerDude to play the game is rooted in my the ability to control the level of gore, violence, and objectionable language in the game. With the content controls on, the screen literally goes black in places — to his frustration and my satisfaction. Also, in at least one instance, I’ve seen a cutscene that was appallingly horrific in the uncontrolled game — a man being burned alive — edited in the gore control mode.  The effect: a cutscene free of graphic visual and sound effects (preferable).

I’ve watched GamerDude play COD: Black Ops II — avec content controls — and, while it’s still intensely violent, the strategy, narrative, and decision-making aspects of the game really shine in this mode (as opposed to being outshone by violent, gory, and profane content). These are factors that contributed to my decision to allow the game in my home.

Closing

The ESRB rates the game Mature for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes, and Use of Drugs. The first four themes are controllable and the last two are (virtually) unavoidable. It should be noted that the suggestive themes entail your player entering a nightclub with exotic dancers — in silhouette — and it’s not a primary aspect of the game action or narrative. Regarding the use of drugs in the game, it’s limited to a mission set in a cocaine bunker. To complete the game players need to complete these missions, but if you don’t want to experience these worlds, you can avoid the missions.

I also want to add that the musical score for COD: Black Ops II is stunning. Composed by Jack Wall and Trent Reznor, it’s a powerful combination of classical and contemporary music that serves to enhance the gameplay and enrich what’s already a detail-rich world. Despite the fact that FPS isn’t my bag, I dig the task responsibility of watching GamerDude play this game.

VERDICT: RECOMMEND — with content controls ON — FOR SOME 12 YEARS PLUS

 

Challenge: Keeping Up With Ubisoft & Todd McFarlane

It’s next to impossible to keep up with Todd McFarlane and Ubisoft, which, if you’re the parent of an Assassin’s Creed (AC) fan, you’ll be smart to try. Since today is the widely publicized release day for the Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag game trailer and game release announcement, I’ve been online upon waking. In case you missed it, AC4 is slated for October 29, 2013 release. View the game trailer here:

In my last post on this topic I jokingly suggested a media blackout as a means of staying ahead of Gamer Boy — at least until I knew more about this installment to the AC franchise. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself until last night at dinner when he asked me if he could pre-order AC4, “Pleeeease! If I do I’ll get a limited edition Assassin’s Creed IV poster by Todd McFarlane!”

Two steps behind him again. Sigh.

I checked into the poster bonus today and discovered that Tood McFarlane has indeed illustrated a poster (source: IGN). The Assassin’s Creed website provides a pre-order purchase link, but it’s still leading to a PRODUCT NOT AVAILABLE page (at time of publication) — buying me more time to make my decision.

In the process of conducting this AC4/Todd McFarlane research I stumbled on another goody for AC fans:

These toys were made public on February 12, less than a month ago, but they won’t be available for purchase until this summer, giving me the gift of time. And really, it’s only a matter of time before Gamer Boy starts in on me for these action figures (& DLCs!). Still, it’s a small satisfaction being ahead of him on this one, if only for a moment.

I’ll keep you posted about my decision re: to buy AC4 and the figures, or not.

Shizzle’s going down — Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag’s Coming!

Shizzle is going DOWN this Monday. Why? Oh, a little game called Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is on the way.

In a statement sent to Digital Spy Ubisoft said:

“We confirm that Ubisoft will announce all the details of Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag on Monday March 4th at 5pm GMT.”

HOLD THE PHONE — I haven’t even given permission for Gamer Boy to play AC3 (never mind rumored AC3: Washington Edition, a bundle including all of the DLCs to date AND the game). Now Ubisoft raises expectations/excitement/anticipation with another chapter of the franchise? So much AC, so little time…

According to Matthew Reynolds from Digital Spy, AC4 is slated for release on current and next generation systems this year — during Ubisoft’s 2014 fiscal year — and it will be game-ready for Xbox 360, PS3 (PS3 will also have 60 minutes of exclusive content — sweet), PC, and Wii U.

What’s the setting for AC4?

Apparently it’s the high seas — pirate-style. Reynolds confirms that the location is somewhere in the Caribbean, and that the main character (Edward Kenway) is a privateer, assassin (of course), and a pirate. Here’s a peek for you — box art from the game:

Assassin's Creed 4

Paul Tassi for Forbes confirmed that Ubisoft would be dishing out more information this Monday, March 4. So I’ve got A LOT of reading and research to do in preparation for Gamer Boy’s AC4 harassment pleas. Hmmm… I wonder how long I can manage a successful Assassin’s Creed media blackout in this house…

This just in: IGN will be livestreaming the AC4 announcement all day Monday at 9am Pacific (pre-show at 8:30am)!

 

PC & PS3 AT LAST! Dragonborn DLC Release

Dragonborn DLC Screenshot

Dragonborn DLC Screenshot

About a month ago I wrote about the staggered release of downloadable content (DLC) by the Elder Scrolls (TES) franchise.  By early February, the DLC was ready and waiting to be played on PC. And this week, to the excitement of PS3 users, it’s available on PSN (Playstation Network).

This week’s PS3 release is the beginning of a three-week Skyrim DLC-release schedule — it will be followed by Hearthfire next week and Dawngard during the last week of February. Both Hearthfire and Dawnguard DLCs have been available to PC and Xbox 360 users since summer and fall of 2012.

There’s been a lot of excitement and anticipation in our house around this release. I actually imposed an embargo on questions like, “Have you had a chance to look at the reviews?” “…watch the trailers.” “…see the game play?” And there were strict penalties for asking me any of these questions (or variations of them) more than once a day(!).

As in Skyrim, the DLC received an M(ature)-rating due to the potential for play that contains blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, and use of alcohol. I say POTENTIAL because the format of the game — open world role playing game (RPG) — lends itself very well to a modified version of the game that could be rated T(een). The issue as a parent becomes, do you: 1. Trust your child to play a version of the DLC that agrees with your family values, and/or 2. monitor their play as a copilot watching your child play?

Gameplay

In TES tradition, the game’s animation is stunningly detailed — it’s gorgeous. Even the island of Solstheim, which lacks colorful flourish, is rich in detail. And so is the musical score.

I’d read that the DLC was a bit glitchy and buggy in places and found this to be the case with ours (PC). And by the way, I opted for a combination of 1 and 2 above, trusting my son to play a version of the game that I’d allow him to play while I was out of the room, as well as working alongside him as he played. My advice (and code of conduct rule) to The Gamer Boy is that he should always play as if I’m sitting beside him (not as creepy as it sounds).

Closing

It’s possible to play a T-rated version of the DLC that’s limited in violent gameplay, sexual content, and use of alcohol. The open world RPG design of the game lends itself to exploration, which is a major component of the main quest and the game’s narrative. Fans of TES games will be pleased with this DLC — mine certainly is. The Gamer Boy is challenged by the problems that are presented to him in the DLC and gratified by the rewards reaped from completing challenges. In addition, this DLC is a feast for the eyes and the ears — both players and observers can enjoy this one.

VERDICT: RECOMMEND FOR SOME KIDS 12 YEARS PLUS


Praise for Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

ESRB Rating

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Platform: Windows PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Rating:

     Mature Rating Symbol
Content descriptors: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Use of Alcohol

Skyrim is the game Commonsense Media calls a: “vast and violent RPG filled with moral choice and ambiguity” and they rate it “Not For Kids”, in support of ESRB. Interestingly, both parents and kids rated this game as “on” for 13 year-olds, which I believe is more appropriate.  I will say the game’s not for all kids. Like with so many games (even supposed E for Everyone games), it’s important to know your child and to consider the following:

1. context and purpose of violence,

2. context and appearance of blood,

3. what constitutes sexual themes,

4. which objectionable word is used and in which context is it employed, and

5. what context do alcohol/drugs appear?

When Skyrim was placed on the table for my consideration and approval a few months ago the feature of the game that I found to be the most striking was its gorgeous graphics — the game animation, especially of the landscape and the world of Skyrim, is outstanding.

The most risqué content found in the game is found in mods, which are created by developers and the public.  That said, not all mods push the envelope in controversial areas like the ones listed above. About a year ago, Bethesda released its Creation Kit for this purpose.  Some reliable spots to find game mods are Steam WorkshopNexus and  ENB.

Another area of interest for parents should be whether the game is an online multiplayer. Skyrim isn’t, but with the help of Skyrim Online a player can interact with other players in a game. It’s in online multiplayers  where your child may come across some of the most adult content, and it’s not an easy thing to regulate. At my house, there are very few of these gaming opportunities and another feature of Skyrim that I liked was its closed-play environment.

Recomomdations & praises

There are a lot of aspects of Skyrim that I like — a lot — which is why my son plays it in our house (a lot), and why we’ve bought the game as a gift for his friends. The epic story and mythology woven through the game is beautiful, as is the musical score. A bit about my game rating process: I always check out the graphics, plot, premise, and music first. And I’m a sucker for beauty (which my son knows, and he’s learned to promote these aspects of games with me first!).

As I said in an earlier post, Skyrim’s an action, role-playing open world video game. It provides upward of 100 hours of new play experiences as players explore its vast terrain. Players personalize their experience through every action and decision they make, which is both exciting and educational.

Kids practice anticipatory judgement as they learn about consequences playing Skyrim; choices they make affect the development of their character as well as the opportunities that come their way. During the game, players choose whether they will fight for an empire or for a resistance group. They can also play as members of many other groups, called factions, found in the open world such as the Dark Brotherhood or the Blades.

There’s so much to do in this game; players can choose to accept or decline quests as they explore bustling cities, small towns, lush forests, richly illustrated tundra, towering mountains, crystalline waters, and dark caves. Similarly, players can choose the virtual people with whom they’ll interact, which brings me to a possible point of contention: romantic encounters.

Possible Point of Contention: Romantic Encounters, Sexual Themes, & Adult Language

I’ll admit I was skeptical about the ability to meet mates in the game until I learned more about the reasons behind the activity and the player benefits involved in selecting a mate for marriage. (context is everything) As with non-romantic relationships and liaisons in Skyrim, if you take time to be nice and do well by the people you meet, they will be good to you — this usually translates into opportunity in one way or another. The benefits of marriage include: daily meals and gold (100!) as well as a 15% increase in skill experience. When I asked my son why he wanted to find a wife he told me without hesitation, “If you’re good to your wife she gives you riches and helps to make you a better player.” Sounds like a healthy, nurturing, and rudimentary love bond to me.

Some parents may be uncomfortable with the requirement that players sleep with their wives to gain skill benefits. To them I’d say, if you’ve been OK with your kids playing house with dolls etc. this element of the game isn’t likely to pose a problem for you because — unless your child is playing Skyrim with a mod — s/he’ll be literally sleeping platonically with their spouse (no hanky-panky).

NB: there’s some sexual reference in some of the dialogue between characters in the game and some of the outfits may strike you as too revealing. It’s not out-of-place for the genre, so if you’re comfortable with costumes in TV series like Robin Hood and Merlin you’ll be fine with what you find in Skyrim. The language is, for the most part PG-13, with the occasional reference to “whores” and sex (which may be lost on a 12 or 13 year-old). In any case, none of these occurrences represent a main focus of the game.

Is Skyrim inappropriate for kids?

It’s a complex game which may be beyond children younger than 12 years-old, to some degree due to content, but to a larger degree due to its level of difficulty. (How big a drag is it when your kid is frustrated by a game they just bought?)

Violence, Blood & Gore

While it’s possible to enact random violence, players discover that choosing to do so is of no benefit to them (and may detrimentally affect their game).  This is a negotiable category because players choose their violence by the way they play. At my house, we’ve talked about and arrived at an agreement about acceptable fighting/defense plays as well as the unacceptable ones. I believe this kind of dialogue is always fruitful, and sticking to the rules helps to ingrain in my son the concept of chivalrous play (which is just good sportsmanship). Our practice may work for you, but if you’re uncomfortable with the freedom of expression in this area, you might want to steer clear of this game.

Use of Alcohol

Alcohol features prominently in Skyrim as a social and nutritional benefit. As with other aspects of the game, players can choose to drink in moderation — for benefit — or excessively — to their detriment. Maybe this is a point of objection for you, but I think in the context of the game, this aspect reinforces positive social choices.

Closing

In closing, I’m a fan of the game and I completely understand why it won Spike’s Game of the Year award and IGN’s Xbox 360 and PC Game of the Year Awards (2011). It’s a game that I never say “no” to at home for two reasons:

1. I really enjoy listening to it playing in the background (gorgeous musical score), and

2. Whatever parts of the brain it requires to play, it puts my son in a good mental place (as opposed to other games that seem to light his frontal lobe ablaze!).

VERDICT: RECOMMEND FOR SOME KIDS 12 YEARS PLUS