TIME Video Games

Halo 5 Guardians Will Be the Xbox One’s Maiden Halo

Microsoft

The second installment in developer 343 Industries' new Halo trilogy will be exclusive to Xbox One and ship in fall 2015.

It seems Halo 5‘s skipping its presumptive E3 unveiling and going for a gala May party instead.

We all knew Halo 5 existed (just as we presume Halos 6, 7 and beyond do), but Microsoft chose this Friday spring morning, of all mornings, to de-cloak its second installment in 343 Industries’ new trilogy starring the be-helmeted Master Chief, and a bunch of exceptionally hard-to-kill new aliens (if you played Halo 4‘s campaign on “legendary” difficulty, anyway).

“How do we begin and where to we go with ‘Halo’ on Xbox One?” asks Microsoft in the press release. Toward even grander gameplay scales, running at 60 frames per second, it answers, calling that task “non-trivial.” So yes, Halo 5 Guardians, as it’s officially titled in full, will be an Xbox One exclusive, despite the trilogy’s Xbox 360 beginnings. And 343 Industries says we can expect it not this year, alas, but sometime fall 2015.

Handing the mic to the studio:

“Halo 5: Guardians” is a bigger effort than “Halo 4.” That applies to the content and scope of the game, as well as the technology in what’s now a brand new and more powerful engine. Certainly there are some core elements carried over from prior games, but we’ve invested a huge effort in retooling our tech to take full advantage of the Xbox One’s hardware and ecosystem to create worlds and experiences worthy of next-gen.

It’s a game that will hopefully demonstrate the talent, learnings and abilities of the 343 Industries team. A game that will incorporate the things we learned from “Halo 4” about technology, aesthetics, performance and scale – and perhaps more importantly, understanding and embracing a community of gamers who love what lies at the heart of this game, and the limitless potential of the “Halo” universe.

And 2015 won’t simply be the year of “Halo 5: Guardians,” it will also be a year that offers us a unique opportunity. The opportunity to invite old friends and new audiences into that universe through the “Halo” television series, launched as a unique collaboration with Steven Spielberg and some of the finest creative minds in the business. A series that will stand alone, as well as complement and enrich the game experience. We’ll have more to share on the “Halo” television series as we near its projected fall 2015 release.

343 adds that it’s approaching Halo as a “journey,” not a “destination,” implying the may be Halo-related content in the offing that we’ll see before 2015. Something like Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (serves as a standalone game as well as prologue to Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain)? We’ll see. Microsoft says it’ll give us “much more information about [its] plans for this year” at its upcoming Xbox E3 2014 Media Briefing, which happens (and I’ll be attending) on June 9.

TIME Video Games

PlayStation 4 Just Outsold Xbox One for the Fourth Month in a Row

Sony's PlayStation 4 (upper-left) and Microsoft's Xbox One (lower-right). Sony, Microsoft

April 2014 Xbox One sales declined significantly in the U.S., week by week.

Sony’s PlayStation 4 has once more tipped the scales — by how much we’re not certain, since we don’t have official figures — to assume the number one sales spot in the U.S., says retail tracker NPD. This makes April the PS4’s fourth dominant month in a row.

The Xbox One placed second, with 115,000 units sold, according to Microsoft, which notes the One has outsold the original Xbox 360 by 76 percent for both of those systems’ first six months in market.

Indeed, NPD says that to date, sales of PS4 and Xbox One hardware are more than double the sum total of PS3 and Xbox 360 hardware sales in their respective first six months.

That, for all the misleading doomsaying about Microsoft’s less-well-selling new console, is at least a preliminary indication of a far more robust appetite for next-gen set-tops than anyone expected, and positive news for gaming from a purely economic standpoint. And while I don’t read as much into year-on-year increases (or decreases), it’s worth noting that April 2014’s spending on hardware, new physical software (doesn’t include digital) and accessories was up by 17 percent over April 2013’s. All in all, a good month for the games industry viewed monolithically.

Here’s NPD’s list of bestselling physical software, with the caveat that SKUs are combined for multi-platform games, and it doesn’t include digital sales.

1. Titanfall (360, Xbox One, PC)
2. Call of Duty: Ghosts (360, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Wii U, PC)
3. NBA 2K14 (360, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, PC)
4. Minecraft (360)
5. LEGO The Hobbit (360, PS3, Xbox One, PS4, 3DS, Wii U, PS Vita)
6. The LEGO Movie Videogame (360, 3DS, PS3, Wii U, Xbox One, PS4, PS Vita)
7. LEGO Marvel Super Heroes (360, PS3, DS, 3DS, PS4, Wii U, Xbox One, PS Vita, PC)
8. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (PS4, 360, PS3, Wii U, 3DS)
9. Grand Theft Auto V (360, PS3)
10. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (360, PS4, PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, PC)

NPD adds that Yoshi’s New Island (3DS), Infamous: Second Son (PS4), MLB 14: The Show (PS3), Kinect Sports Rivals (Xbox One) and Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfares (360) rank in the top 10 if you list software without SKU combinations.

While the Wii U doesn’t seem to be registering here, NPD says its software sales were up year-on-year by over 80 percent. And while Microsoft’s selling fewer Xbox Ones than Sony is PS4s, it’s still leading in software sales across the Xbox platform, according to Microsoft, selling 2.6 million units (I assume that’s across physical and digital, but Microsoft doesn’t specify). Of that, the Xbox One accounted for 447,000 and the Xbox 360 2.2 million, “totaling 53 percent of the total software market share,” again, according to Microsoft. Microsoft adds that the Xbox 360 is still the dominant seventh-gen console, selling 71,000 units in April.

Let’s shift gears and consider a few contextual points.

As noted last month, the numbers don’t mean precisely what they seem to (though sales numbers rarely do). But the picture this month is a trifle clearer than last. Gamasutra reminds us, for instance, that on Microsoft’s recent earnings call, CFO Amy Hood admitted Xbox One console supply was outpacing consumer demand. And here’s Gamasutra’s take: “This is a situation that did not appear to exist during the early days of the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, which reputedly saw slower, supply-constrained beginnings.”

That said, it remains a truism, however bored some are of hearing it at this point, that Sony’s PlayStation 4 is available in far more countries than Microsoft’s Xbox One (72 versus 13 at last count). That’s not an attempt to excuse the unit sales disparity, which is substantial and important in its own right, but it is an attempt to factor in the broader reality. Yes, potential buyer demographics veer and lurch wildly from country to country for more or less obvious reasons (population differences chief among them), and it’s certainly not the case that all the countries Microsoft isn’t in automatically account for all of that 2 million (or more) sales gulf. But it’s also baldfaced nonsense to suggest Sony and Microsoft are competing on precisely equal terms. I doubt anyone disagrees the PS4’s outperforming by wide margins, but the points aren’t mutually exclusive.

In any event, as Gamasutra further notes, Microsoft clearly seems to be having problems maintaining next-gen momentum: 115,000 units sold in April is a significant downturn from 311,000 units sold in March. Respawn’s Titanfall was supposed to energize the console, and it did to an extent in March, but not enough to give Microsoft the edge it’s been looking for over Sony: the lion’s share of Titanfall sales in April were for Xbox 360.

That edge may have instead arrived this week, however, with a $100 price drop and Microsoft’s excision of its motion-sensing Kinect camera from a new $399 SKU that’ll consist of the Xbox One alone (you can still buy the Xbox One with Kinect for $500, but it seems likely the bulk of Microsoft’s June hardware sales and future ones besides — the new SKU goes live on June 9 — are going to be Kinect-less).

Conventional wisdom holds that Sony’s been winning because the PS4 is less expensive and perhaps a shade more powerful (that’s the perception I’d wager most have, rightly or wrongly, reading article after article about this or that multi-platform game running at lower frame rates or pixel counts on Microsoft’s Xbox One). Microsoft just solved its price-perception problem. The questions remains whether it can mitigate this performance-perception one.

Its software lineup’s appeal, built largely on multi-platform games at this stage, is arguably on par with Sony’s, and its Xbox Live online community was one of the Xbox 360’s crown jewels, so there’s incentive from that angle for all those Xbox 360 gamers — who’ve outnumbered PS3 gamers by millions in the U.S. for years — to follow the Xbox platform’s flightpath, if only for social network reasons.

TIME Video Games

Far Cry 4 Exists, and You Can Play It in November

Ubisoft

Ubisoft's next grand outdoors-y sandbox game will take place in a "perilous and wild region" of the Himalayas.

Surprise, Far Cry 4 is a thing, still a first-person shooter, and it’ll arrive not two years after the last installment. That’s November 18 in the U.S. and two days later in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

But unlike Ubisoft’s other big late 2014 release, Assassin’s Creed Unity, which’ll ship for PlayStation 4, Windows and Xbox One alone, Far Cry 4 will live on those three platforms as well as the older, better established PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

I wouldn’t read too much into the latter, since Assassin’s Creed IV was also available for all of those systems, and it arguably didn’t harm the significant upturn, visually speaking, with the next-gen versions.

Pack your parkas and thermal undies, because Ubisoft says we’re going to Kyrat in Far Cry 4, a “perilous and wild region” in the Himalayan mountains that’s come under the bootheel of a despot. I assume that’s a rendering of said despot in the promo art above. (Hey, give the guy props for wearing rosette in the jungle. And are those red alligator skin you-know-what-kickers?) Ubisoft says to expect a “vast array of weapons,” and notes that vehicles and animals will once more play a significant role.

As with Far Cry 3, Ubisoft says its flagship Montreal-based studio is the design lead, with assistance from the company’s Red Storm, Toronto, Shanghai and Kiev satellites. (Far Cry 3 included Sweden-based Ubisoft Massive and U.K.-based Ubisoft Reflections, so the newcomers here — replacements? — are Toronto and Kiev.)

The game’s executive producer Dan Hay says to expect the game to “surprise” players, and that it’ll reveal more — it says it’ll offer its first look during its E3 media briefing — “in the coming months.” Preorders are being taken immediately, and include the usual array of bonus upgrades in the form of downloadable content.

TIME Video Games

Flappy Bird Creator: The Game Will Return With Multiplayer

Matt Peckham for TIME

Game's creator reiterates commitment to make game less addictive.

Flappy Bird creator Dong Nguyen made it clear in March that his serendipitous and deceptively casual “endless flapper” would return, but as he put it at the time on Twitter, “not soon.” So we’ve known Nguyen planned to resurface the game at some point, just not when.

Until now, that is: CNBC caught up with Nguyen, who said on Closing Bell that Flappy Bird will be back in August and with multiplayer to boot. He added, however, the game would be less addictive.

Flappy Bird‘s shock ascent from obscure time-waster to viral chart-buster occurred last January, even though the game had been available as early as May 2013. It quickly generated waves of controversy, including allegations that Nguyen had used bots to artificially inflate Flappy Bird‘s improbable chart rankings and that he plagiarized gameplay and art from other games.

Nguyen yanked Flappy Bird from mobile app stores back in February, citing the game’s addictiveness and writing “I cannot take this anymore.” Several clones and near-replicas of the game, including ones with multiplayer components, have surfaced for mobile devices and computer browsers since.

[CNBC]

TIME Reviews

Mario Kart 8 Review: Just What the Wii U Ordered

Nintendo

If you have a Wii U, Mario Kart 8 is the proverbial no-brainer for any sort of player, casual to pro.

Scooting down a neon-gobsmacked raceway in Mario Kart 8, I snake left, then right, then left again, chaining mini-turbos and rocketing past visually thumping loudspeakers, pulsing purplish stars and a tower-sized EQ that throbs in time with the soundtrack’s symphony of techno. Everything’s moving and alive and lit up like one long, continuous Jumbotron. And then I’m gliding over lacquered blackness, my just-upturned anti-grav wheels flying inches above what looks like grooved vinyl, the music flanging, the track ahead twisting and looping back at me — above me — like a disco Möbius strip.

That’s what it’s like to wrap your hands around the Wii U’s GamePad and plumb Mario Kart 8‘s wild panoply of wonderfully absurd tracks — 16 new, 16 reimagined — spinning, sideslipping, soaring and tumbling, roaring down vast mountainside waterfalls or bulleting through squalling banks of lightning-lit clouds. (“Hello, hello… I’m at a place called Vertigo…“)

Imagine a carnival of race tropes, a grab bag of driver profiles, tactics and race types, a melange of little gameplay iterations and configuration tweaks and “Holy crap, I’m racing up and down that?” moments jammed into a single game. To sum up my affection for this best of all Nintendo’s Mario Karts to date in a few words: lavish, kaleidoscopic, gasp-inducing, ingenious, exotic, balletic and — let’s switch from words to statements — something I’ll be playing for a long, long time.

Not because the basic kart racing’s been rejiggered in some wondrous new Nintendo-fied way. It hasn’t. Think of it more like a 22-year-old snowball that’s still snowballing, a slightly bigger smorgasbord of soothing cartoon-scape tracks and fanciful kart types, a collage of all-terrain vehicles (including actual ATVs this time, enlarging racer metrics like speed, acceleration and handling), some new objects to toss (the cleverest: the piranha plant that snaps up items, coins and other racers and the three-use boomerang flower that does damage outgoing and incoming), upside-down anti-grav racing (though since the screen shifts to maintain perspective, it doesn’t feel like upside-down racing), more karts and kart parts and unlockables and so forth. And then Nintendo whops you upside both retinas with some of the most sublime visuals ever seen in or out of a Nintendo game.

The ballyhooed new mechanic — antigravity racing, your wheels automatically flipping perpendicular to the ground, like Doc Brown’s DeLorean during Back to the Future‘s coda — makes the new every-which-way (including upside-down and backwards) tracks feel cooler to course through, but that’s about it unless you’re playing cooperatively.

The novelty here’s that instead of avoiding drivers, you’re encouraged to ram them, which causes both vehicles to turbo off in different directions. But it’s too happenstance as a solo tactic, other drivers slamming into you from behind unexpectedly, or sliding away at the last minute and wrecking your angle of attack. Team up with another player, by contrast, and it becomes an indispensable tactic, the two of you slamming into one another willfully, rocketing down the course like a yo-yoing centrifuge.

The series’ signature element of chance remains: the most skilled players in the world can still wind up losing an otherwise expertly played race thanks to another player’s inopportunely dispatched blue shell. And as usual, finding the fastest path through a course (and figuring out how to maximize drifting through it) is at least half of winning. You can hone your skills learning from the best players by using returning features like Ghost mode (in Time Trials), uploading your own performances as you like. And though I wasn’t able to test it (it’s not working yet), the game now supports (modest) editing and uploading of video clips to YouTube, a move that only brings it up to par with its rivals, but warrants an attaboy nonetheless.

You can’t talk about Mario Kart 8, the most important game Nintendo’s yet released for its flagship console, without thinking about the troubled state of the Wii U. Mario Kart 8 alone won’t save the Wii U, if indeed the Wii U needs saving. That’s the implicit question, the kart-riding elephant in all the game’s glittering stadiums, water parks, shoals, harbors, mansions and electrodromes. No single game has the power to make (or, for that matter, break) something as multivalent as a platform. Mario Kart 8 is wonderful, thank goodness, but it’s still just one game.

Nor does the racer best emblematize what the Wii U stands for: playing games with a tablet that’s not a tablet, juggling input from disjunct screens that aren’t supposed to feel disjunct (and they definitely seem at odds here — I rarely felt comfortable enough to look down). Sure, the Wii U GamePad offers sometimes-complimentary feedback, but nothing about its stack of command center feeds tracking racer positions or letting you enable motion control steering on the fly feel essential, much less exude halcyon-days-Wii novelty.

Put it this way: if you have a Wii U, it’s the proverbial no-brainer for any sort of player, casual to pro. If you don’t own a Wii U, here’s a reason to buy one, with the caveat that the Wii U’s software future looks pretty hazy right now. Nintendo’s deluxe 32GB Wii U bundled with Mario Kart 8 runs $330, knocking $30 off the standalone price for the racer, so there’s that, but it’s still $330 for one game (plus a driving wheel and Wii Remote) and a platform with an uncertain future. But it’s also one of the best games Nintendo’s delivered, and a reminder that when the company’s firing on all cylinders — even when it’s standing on its own shoulders, gameplay-wise — its creative output remains peerless.

5 out of 5

Wii U

TIME Internet

Kim Jong Un Takes on the Capitalists in New Video Game

With additional assistance from the North Korean leader's best friend, Dennis Rodman

Other video games let you experience life as a cat, but now you can pretend to be a dictator.

Atlanta-based Moneyhorse Games created a side-scrolling video game that will be available soon for PCs and mobile devices. It features North Korea’s Kim Jong Un gallivanting through forests on unicorn and dashing through the streets of Pyongyang, battling U.S. paratroopers and eventually setting fire to an American flag.

Oh, and of course, Kim Jong Un’s noted bestie Dennis Rodman will be involved.

As the Guardian points out, this game — simply titled “Glorious Leader!” — could trivialize the very serious accusations against the dictator’s regime and the many perceived problems within the secluded nation. Moneyhorse Games CEO Jeff Miller told the Guardian that the company hopes to “carefully walk the line of satire without being an apologist for the regime.”

(h/t The Daily Dot)

TIME Video Games

Microsoft Offering Xbox Live Refund Ahead of Massive Changes

Subscribers can ask for pro-rated refunds between from June until the end of August.

Microsoft is offering refunds to Xbox Live Gold subscribers who want out of their memberships ahead of drastic changes to the service, the company revealed Wednesday.

The refund, announced in an FAQ page, comes weeks before Xbox owners who subscribe to entertainment services such as Netflix, Hulu or HBO GO will no longer need an additional $60 annual Gold membership to those services on their console. However, they’ll still need a Gold membership for most online gaming.

Once the changeover happens in June, subscribers will be able to cancel their Gold memberships and get a pro-rated refund, according to Microsoft’s FAQ page. You can make a request through Microsoft’s support website, with a cutoff date of August 31 for refund requests.

Microsoft’s Xbox Live subscription changes come as the company is locked in a sales battle with rival Sony and its PlayStation 4 console. PlayStation owners who also separately subscribe to entertainment services like Netflix have never needed to pay Sony an extra fee to use those services on their console, a major selling point in the PlayStation’s favor.

TIME Video Games

4 Reasons the $399 Xbox One Without Kinect Is Good for All of Us

Kinect may have needed us, but we don't need Kinect. Giving us the option to exercise our preferences (while saving $100) is precisely the right maneuver.

Look, I know you want to pick a horse when it comes to video game consoles, and you don’t want anyone telling you that you picked wrong, or less than ideally. Everyone loves their horse. To be clear, that’s not what I’m up to here. I love the PlayStation 4: it’s a phenomenal piece of hardware. This is me endorsing Microsoft’s decision to sell a version of Xbox One without Kinect, not an endorsement of Microsoft or Xbox One. I have platform preferences like anyone, but they’re not part of this piece.

These are simply my thoughts about Microsoft’s decision today to announce a Kinect-less Xbox One for $399, coming on June 9. I think it’s as good an idea as any the company’s had since it dreamt up the Xbox 360 last decade. And given all the hoopla the company’s made about Kinect being an essential part of the Xbox One experience, I think it’s just as tectonic.

It levels the playing field, price-wise.

Obviously, but that’s important for less obvious reasons: the Xbox One was already selling reasonably well at $500, if nowhere near PS4 numbers, and that’s a relevant point. But the Xbox One is well ahead of Xbox 360 sales for the same period, and it’s doing so in a fraction as many markets as the PS4.

And now it’s $100 less expensive. Officially. You can make the argument it was already $50 to $100 less expensive thanks to retailer deals and promotions, or after you factor in the cost of this or that bundled game, but making the Xbox One’s baseline price official locks Microsoft in, and makes future price shaves or bundle deals that much sweeter.

I know: You want to tell me the playing field isn’t really level, how a game like Assassin’s Creed IV runs at a lower resolution on the Xbox One than it does the PS4, and how that’s been a problem for several other games, too. I get it, but that’s always struck me as a shortcut to thinking, a way of reducing artful experiences to processing cycles (to say nothing of its presumptions about what these systems are going to be capable of in a year or three).

Is the platform powerful enough to render the games you want to play? That’s what matters. Unless you’re a videophile — and in that sense, a fraction of a fraction of the populace — that’s the only thing that ought to matter.

It lets Microsoft off the hook, vision-wise.

I have no idea if recently appointed Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella had his hand in this, so I’ll just say that I find Kinect a fascinating experiment, and one I’d love to see continue. It’s what you get when you marry Minority Report, Sony’s Eye Toy and Dragon Dictate, a post-Wii riff on futuristic notions that your body and voice are all you need to make stuff happen in increasingly semantic, augmented reality environs. But it’s currently like that (possibly apocryphal) Gandhi quote, where he supposedly said in response to a question about his views on Western civilization, “I think it would be a good idea.”

I think Kinect would be a good idea. But it’s a work in progress. And foisting it on gamers as part and parcel of the Xbox One experience was probably not a good idea, especially given what it did to the system’s sell price. This move lets the company double down on pitching the Xbox One to serious gamers — their first line of supporters, same as Sony’s PS4.

It tells us that Microsoft’s willing to act, even when it hurts.

Imagine Apple doing this with…well, any of its products. Microsoft’s yanked feature after feature from the Xbox One’s launch arsenal — mostly for the better, in my view. That’s partly the sign of a company having trouble reading its audience, and too much of that can shut you down, but it’s also the sign of a company that’s willing to admit defeat and follow wildly different vectors.

Yes, the Xbox One’s trajectory since launch looks like a series of withdrawals, from its position on home invasiveness to those stringent preliminary used-game requirements. But ask any military leader: sometimes you have to retreat to find your footing.

It dovetails with Microsoft’s equally surprising paywall shift.

After years of stonewalling (and griping by blowhards like me), Microsoft’s finally going to unpack apps like Netflix and Hulu from its $60-per-year Xbox Live subscription requirement (and that’s for both the Xbox One and Xbox 360). That requirement’s always felt like double-dipping, since you were in essence paying Microsoft a toll to access something that had its own subscription fees (and for which you paid nothing on Sony’s more open-ended PlayStations 3 and 4). Launching a Kinect-less Xbox One now is the meat and potatoes here, but unbundling entertainment apps from Xbox Live is the gravy.

Final Thoughts

Yep, pulling Kinect out of the box poses problems for the handful of games that depend on it — games like Just Dance 2014 and Kinect Sports Rivals. But by doing this early on, Microsoft’s minimizing the fallout, which could have been considerable had this instead happened two or three years out (though to all the developers who’ve slaved to make the peripheral relevant, including those at Microsoft designing the One’s interface, you have my sympathies).

But where I can see the logic in arguments that selling a platform with innovative peripherals can increase diversity in game design, I’m not sure Kinect’s such a peripheral. It’s been a boon for armchair innovators who’ve paired Kinect with PCs to come up with unexpected, often very cool contraptions, but it’s also important to remember this move changes none of that.

This decision is Microsoft recognizing two things: that Kinect isn’t a killer enough idea to justify a $100 price differential with its closest competitor, and that a $399 Kinect-less system probably moves a ton more systems than a $499 one.

We’ll see. The worst that could happen to video games at the platform level, in my view, is a major competitor pulling too far ahead of another. That might sound like victory to diehard fans, but it’s trouble down the road. Microsoft would never couch it as such, but the Xbox One will cost $399 in June in part because of the PS4. It only benefits us then, as consumers, if this maneuver allows Microsoft to regain a bit of lost ground, keeping the pressure on Sony, and for both systems to move forward, side by side.

TIME viral

Watch Cats Attempt to Play Candy Crush 

The video game is catnip to humans, too

Cat videos and Candy Crush are two of the most addicting things in the world, so what happens when they come together? This video compiles cats from all around the world trying their luck at the matching video game, and the results are hilarious.

The cats swipe madly at the candies—which might be as good a strategy as any for the game’s higher levels. The video is destined to join the same pantheon of animals-playing-video-games videos that includes skateboarding dog plays video game and this frog trying to catch virtual ants.

At least you don’t need to spend extra money to keep playing with cats. Unless you’re in a cat cafe, that is.

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