TIME Video Games

The Xbox One Just Launched in China and It’s Super Expensive

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A customer holds Microsoft's Xbox One game console limited edition in an electronic shop in Shanghai on September 29, 2014. Johannes Eisele / AFP / Getty Images

The first foreign game console has officially landed in China, after a nearly decade-and-a-half ban.

The Xbox One launched in China today, September 29. It’s a vaguely historic moment, as it’s the first foreign games console to be officially allowed in the country in 14 years. This, after a six-day delay for unknown reasons.

People actually lined up for the box, says Kotaku. That’s despite the price tag of 3,699 yuan, or about $600 — and that’s without Kinect, mind you. The Kinect-less version of the system in the U.S. goes for $399, same as Sony’s PlayStation 4. The Chinese are paying 50% more, in other words.

When the Wall Street Journal wrote about that jacked-up price this summer, it noted the obvious: things like tariffs and exchange rates play a role, so that’s part of it. China’s version of the Xbox One comes with a two-year warranty (we get just one here), six months of Xbox Live Gold (as opposed to 30 days here, and membership is $60 a year), plus a few free games (Powerstar Golf, Neverwinter Online) and discounts on others.

But that still doesn’t explain the 50% hike, even when you take into account disparities between the U.S. and China in household incomes, the level of debt to average income, the number of homeowners with mortgages and so forth. The in-betweeners must be taking a generous slice.

The Xbox One was supposed to go live in China six days ago, September 23. Why Microsoft delayed is anyone’s guess (not to rethink launch pricing, apparently). The challenge Microsoft faces from here is competing with the black market, where foreign-wrought game consoles have been on sale throughout the ban for considerably less moola.

Side musing: I’ve never understood why there’s so much English on the packaging of products sold in countries where English is spoken by a fraction of the populace (less than 1% in China). English is the third most populous language in the world, not the first. But still: “Limited Edition,” in great big West Germanic letters (instead of the Chinese equivalent, which Google Translate tells me should be something like “限量版“) on the side of that Limited Edition Xbox One in the shot above.

TIME Video Games

It’s Simple Math: You’re Probably Not Good Enough to Beat Bloodborne

Or at least not good enough to take down the creature that games studio From Software demoed at PAX Prime and the Tokyo Game Show.

The wonderful thing about Tokyo studio From Software’s games — the reason they’re beloved by such a widening swathe of gamers — is that they fly in the face of a decade’s worth of design assumptions: that successful games, especially financially successful ones, must be these inviting, cosseting, mechanically anodyne things.

Speaking as a deep admirer of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2, it’s with great pleasure that I’m reading a statistically irrelevant number of people managed to beat the PAX Prime show-floor demo of From Software’s upcoming ego-collapser, Bloodborne, at the conference earlier this month.

According to DualShockers, who attended the show as well as a stage event during which Bloodborne producers Masaaki Yamagiwa and Marketer Yasuhiro Kitao broke down the demo’s play stats, just 20 people managed to beat the final antagonist, of some 3,500 people who tried (slightly more than half of one percent).

That percentage crept up slightly at the Tokyo Game Show last week, says DualShockers: 40 people succeeded, out of 1,250 attempts, or 3.2%.

Writes DualShockers’ Giuseppe Nelva:

As I mentioned when I posted my video, journalists and industry professionals that had exclusive access during the first two days did abysmally, with only one managing to kill the Cleric Beast.

Unfortunately that one wasn’t me, as I did get to the final boss, but didn’t stop to grab enough potions for healing along the way. The result is that I got killed before I could drop under 80% of its life bar. It was exhilarating.

Here’s video of the demo at PAX. Nelva advises you can cut in line to the 33 minute mark if you want to see a few of those elite, supernaturally gifted 20 players taking the thing out.

Bloodborne arrives for PlayStation 4 on February 6 next year.

TIME Video Games

10 Powerful Women in Video Games

While more women are playing video games, their ranks aren’t growing as quickly in positions of power in the video game business

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This post is in partnership with Fortune, which offers the latest business and finance news. Read the article below originally published at Fortune.com.

By John Gaudiosi

There are more women playing video games in the U.S. than at any time, according to recent research from the Entertainment Software Association (ESA). The average American gamer is 31 years old and 48% are female, which is up from 40 percent in 2010. Women age 18 or older represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (36%) than boys age 18 or younger (17%).

The popularity of free-to-play online and mobile games from Kim Kardashian: Hollywood to Candy Crush Sagato Plants vs. Zombies has helped the number of female gamers age 50 and older increase by 32% from 2012 to 2013, according to the ESA. Generations of women who grew up playing games like Super Mario Bros. and The Sims have made things even with men (50%) when it comes to the most frequent game purchasers, whose average age is 35.

According to a recent survey conducted by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), the number of women working in the game industry has doubled since 2009 to 22% of the workforce. But it’s still a man’s world— 76% of game developers are men. Wanda Meloni of M2 Research, who worked on the IGDA survey, said much of the female growth is in the education and student sector of respondents.

“Even with these positive points, there has never been more blatant reproach and harassment towards the women making games and female consumers who are growing the market with their wallets,” said Meloni. “The backlash has reached a head, and is something that is greatly impacting the market both from within and with consumers. The message continues to be one where women are unwelcome, but the women on this Fortune list continue to forge their own paths, and we applaud them for that.”

Below are 10 powerful women in the $76 billion global video game business today (in alphabetical order).

For the rest of the story, please go to Fortune.com.

 

TIME Video Games

Rudy Giuliani Explains Why Noriega’s Call of Duty Lawsuit Is ‘Absurd’

The former mayor of New York explains why Activision chose him to lead a very public pushback against Manuel Noriega's lawsuit over the use of the former Panamanian military leader's likeness in the military shooter Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.

Rudy Giuliani minces no words when speaking about former Panamanian military leader Manuel Noriega. When he describes the man he calls “a criminal of the worst kind,” you can hear the outrage. And when he refers to Noriega’s lawsuit against Call of Duty publisher Activision over the use of his likeness in one of the games, he repeatedly calls it “absurd.”

“Noriega is one of the worst criminals, dictators, opressors, terrorists, whatever you want to call it, of the past 30 or 40 years,” he tells me. “He’s been convicted in three countries, the U.S., France and Panama. And he’s suing a decent, good company, because he is included in a video game as a bit player.”

In July, lawyers for Noriega, currently serving a prison sentence in a Panamanian jail, sued Activision, alleging the company used Noriega’s likeness in the first-person shooter Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 in a damaging way, without his permission, and without paying him royalties.

In the game, Activision’s version of Noriega works with the CIA to apprehend a fictional Nicaraguan political activist named Raul Menendez who’s the game’s prime antagonist. But Noriega betrays his own Panamanian Defense Force and frees Menendez, only to be savagely beaten by the terrorist leader. Later, players are tasked with capturing Noriega, loosely mirroring events that transpired during the historical invasion of Panama by President George H.W. Bush in 1989, during which the real Noriega was captured.

I spoke with Giuliani–a celebrity-caliber presence himself–about the case by phone. The former mayor of New York says he views the matter above all as a question of free speech, but says it’s also about precedent-setting he calls “extremely dangerous” were Noriega to prevail. He mentions the chilling effect it might have on historical fiction, for instance, and not just the sort of drier, voluminous, fact-obsessed tomes a James Michener might write, but gonzo-revisionist stuff like Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, in which the 16th U.S. president runs around staking the bloodsucking undead.

“If Noriega can do this–since video games, movies and books are considered to be exactly the same for free speech purposes, according to the Supreme Court decision in 2011 written by Justice Scalia–then Osama bin Laden’s heirs could sue the filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty for bin Laden’s portrayal in that film,” Giuliani tells me. “Public figures, good ones, bad ones, who are included in books, movies and video games, all of these would have a right to sue.”

Here’s the rest of the interview in full.

Why did Activision contact you, specifically, to address this case publicly at this time? You obviously have a breadth of legal experience, but I’m not sure people think about you as a legal figure these days.

Well, I’ve been at Bracewell & Giuliani, that’s my law firm, and I’ve been practicing law there for nine years. So although it hasn’t gotten as much attention as some of the other things I do, I’ve been back at the practice of law now for at least nine years.

I think that I have a reputation of being a very good lawyer. I’ve argued cases in almost every court you could think of, including the United States Supreme Court. It’s an area of the law I know well. And I think also the fact that I have a background as a narcotics prosecutor is important here. I was head of the narcotics division in the United States Attorney’s office. As the Associate Attorney General, I was in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration. I probably possess considerably more knowledge about Noriega than the vast majority of lawyers. So it’s a combination of those things. And I’d like to think they asked me because I’m a great lawyer, which I am.

You’ve been talking about this case from the free speech angle, but Noriega’s lawyers are pushing this on the basis of a principle known as “right of publicity,” which, while it varies from state to state, is supposed to afford individuals some measure of control over how they’re depicted in commercial products. You’ve had football and basketball player sue Electronic Arts over the use of their likenesses in games, for instance, resulting in a multimillions payout, and the band No Doubt sued Activision for using their likenesses in a music game and got Activision to settle out of court.

I think you’ve hit on exactly the right point, the point over which the case is going to be argued, or as we say as lawyers, “distinguishing this case from those ones.” And they are very, very distinguishable.

The two cases you’re talking about, the football case and the band case, the litigants were basically the principle figures in the games. And not only were they the principle figures in the game, they were advertised as such. And you could play them in the game. So there was not enough transformative use involved.

Remember, that’s the distinction. If the court finds that there’s been transformative use of the character, then we win under the First Amendment. In those cases, the court didn’t believe there’d been sufficient transformative use because the football players were actually shown making their football plays. The band was actually shown playing their songs. And they were principles, and the video games were marketed around them.

(L) Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega takes part in a news conference at the Atlapa center in Panama City on Oct. 11,1998.(R) The character Noriega claims was created in his likeness.
Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega (left) sues Activision over a portrayal of him in Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 game (right) Alberto Lowe—Reuters; Activision/AP

In this case, Noriega appears in only two of 11 segments. He is one of 45 characters. If you add up the average time the game is played, he appears for about 1% of the game. You cannot play him in the game, as you could in the other games. Most importantly, he is not found anywhere in any of the advertising for the game, he is such an insignificant bit player. When you go back and look at the reviews of this game, which is one of the most popular games in the world, there’s no mention of Noriega, he’s so unimportant. And from the standpoint of transformative use, Noriega isn’t shown doing what he actually did. Noriega is being used as a historical figure, but shown doing very different, fictionalized things, the way Lincoln was in a book like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, which of course is a genre, not only in video games, but in movies.

Think of Forrest Gump. Forrest Gump the character is shown with Nixon, Kennedy, Bear Bryant, all kinds of famous people. None of that really happened. The more transformational the work is, the more it’s protected as free speech. And we have a complete transformation in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, because unlike these other cases, Noriega’s shown doing things that are creative, things that a creative mind made up. That’s why free speech is so important. We want to protect people’s ability to be creative.

What about the fact that Noriega’s not a U.S. citizen? Let’s assume someone made a game where a figure like Noriega was, in fact, the principle component, maybe where you even play as him for whatever reason, and furthermore the game cares about historical verisimilitude, and then the company that makes the game markets it on that basis? What if the person portrayed, but not a U.S. citizen, sues on that basis?

We believe that that would still be protected because Noriega is such a public person. It goes back to a case a long time ago that started all of this libel law, New York Times v. Sullivan. What that case says is, if you are a public person, you are entitled to considerably less protection of your right of privacy and publicity than a person who is a private person. They even extend public persons to people that are victims of crime who don’t intentionally become public persons. But when you are a public person intentionally, your protection is lessened dramatically.

I can’t think of someone who has worked harder at becoming a public person than Noriega, in the most infamous ways possible. Every one of the crimes that he committed, every one of the things he did in the U.S. and France, I mean this is about as public as a person can get. In many ways, I think the Supreme Court would say he’s lost the usual protection you would have for your right of privacy or your right to be free of publicity.

But let me be clear, that’s not our case. We don’t have to go that far, because this is a one-percenter. If this were a movie, he would be way down at the bottom of the credits. This is a guy that’s trying to extort money out of a decent company, and who the heck knows what he wants to do with it down in Panama, and who knows what you can accomplish in a Panamanian prison if you can get yourself a few million bucks.

If the suit isn’t dismissed, will you personally lead it at trial?

The extent to which I am involved in it we’ll figure out, but I’m deeply involved in it right now.

TIME Video Games

The 25 Biggest Video Games of Fall 2014

This fall's biggest PC, console and handheld video games are some of the most promising we've seen in years.

Welcome to summer’s end, the season where the air outside seems to sharpen and we’re turning lamps on sooner (the better to game in the evenings without having to draw the curtains or blinds, naturally).

It’s also the start of the busiest time of the year for gamers, the most lucrative annual window during which the industry rolls out its multimillions-marketed newcomers and supergroup sequels.

This season’s shaping up to be about the multi-platform perennials, with exclusives down to a trickle. It’s a little unusual, too, because several of the franchise publishers and studios — pilloried in recent years for sticking to the safe and predictable in their fiscally groomed annual rollouts — are trying harder than we’ve seen in years to do unique things with their respective money-spinners.

Before you dive in, a word on the selections: fall runs from September 22 to December 21, so if you don’t spy a game you’re looking for below, you can find it in one of three places. It could possibly be on a second list that’ll follow this one and focus on the season’s less prominent games. It might be outside the fall window entirely (probably bumped to next year, as were Batman: Arkham Knight, Dying Light, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Battlefield Hardline). Or it could be in unconfirmed limbo-land, meaning it’s listed nebulously as “Q4 2014″ and may or may not arrive before the New Year (I’m looking at you, Super Smash Bros. Wii U and Ori and the Blind Forest).

  • Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes

    Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes represents Disney’s second charge into the toy-game space, this time mashed up with the corporate behemoth’s Marvel property characters as well as comics maven Brian Michael Bendis (Ultimate Spider-Man, Powers, Alias) working the writer’s box.

    The first-wave characters amount to 16 Marvel superheroes sorted into three play sets with corresponding stories: The Avengers, Spider-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy (weirdly, Nick Fury comes in the Spider-Man and not the Avengers set).

    Disney’s also significantly retooled its Toy Box mode, where players can forge their own mini-worlds, making the tool more granular and interface-friendly, and the company notes all Disney Infinity characters old or new work in the sandbox, though characters are still restricted to their play sets, save for a handful that can cross over if you collect coins found in each set.

    September 23 / iOS, PlayStation 3 & 4, Wii U, Windows, Xbox 360 & One

  • Hyrule Warriors

    If someone built a Zelda game that stripped most of the storytelling and roleplaying and exploration out, then replaced it with stepped-up combat (but included all the protagonist’s signature moves) versus battalions of Hyrulean Soldiers and Bokoblins and Deku Babas, would you play it?

    That’s the question in this team-up between Koei Tecmo (Dynasty Warriors, Ninja Gaiden) supervised by Nintendo Zelda series producer/director Eiji Aonuma. It’s not a proper Zelda game, but that’s by design, and it sounds like it’s more than just a hack-and-slash, in that it rewards thoughtful execution of balletic battle maneuvers over thoughtless button-mashing.

    September 26 / Wii U

  • Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

    Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is a Lord of the Rings-inspired game that delves into Tolkien’s legendarium after the events of The Hobbit, and that may well do for Lord of the Rings games what Batman: Arkham Asylum did not just for Batman games, but gaming in general.

    Imagine the Arkham series’ sophisticated, combo-driven, arena-style combat merged with an emergent simulation of gang hierarchies (here, Tolkien’s Uruk-hai, a.k.a. incredibly badass orcs) and volatile vendettas that culminate in a pliable webwork of escalating threats to you and others (that is, the A.I.) within that network.

    Push Shadow of Mordor‘s A.I. ecology of plebes, captains and warchiefs and it pushes back, though even inaction is a form of action: watch the time march by and your enemies will evolve and strengthen independently to become even tougher foes.

    September 30 / PS4, Windows, Xbox One (November 18 for PS3 and Xbox 360)

  • Forza Horizon 2

    At E3 2014, this southern Europe-located road racer’s creative director sat in front of a display screen that offered astonishing Xbox One views of vehicles that seemed almost hyperreal.

    As we watched someone navigate a gleaming 2015 Lamborghini Huracán through the game’s open world, the director delivered line after line of crisp, immaculately rehearsed bullet-point-ese, talking up the game’s expansive scale (three times bigger than the original Forza Horizon), the improved Drivatar technology (A.I. vehicles you can race against, based on the driving attributes of real players’ in your friends list) and the startling way light now refracts through drops of moisture, the render tech plausibly simulating something as intangible but essential as the earth’s atmosphere.

    September 30 / Xbox 360 & One

  • Super Smash Bros. 3DS

    Super Smash Bros. for 3DS is a big deal, because the 3DS is still a big deal (the 3DS, released in early 2011, has sold over four times Sony’s record-busting PlayStation 4 units-wise). That, and it’s been eight years since we’ve had a new Smash Bros. game. The last one, Super Smash Bros. Brawl for the Wii released back in 2006, just passed 12 million units worldwide. The Smash Bros. series as a whole lives in that lofty, rarefied group of game franchises that have sold more than 20 million copies.

    That’s the power of Nintendo. No one else has its first-party allure. And while I can’t claim to be any good at the Smash Bros. games, I probably enjoy them more than anything else in fighter-dom. The series’ modestly reimagined debut on 3DS is still a four-player brawl where you’re trying to knock your opponents off the play field, layered with strategic depth stemming from character abilities, item traits and level design.

    The twist this outing is that you can modify Super Smash Bros. characters (Miis or Nintendo icons), transfer them between the 3DS and Wii U versions of the game, or train characters using Nintendo’s upcoming Amiibo toy-game figurines.

    October 3 / Nintendo 3DS

  • Skylanders Trap Team

    Toy-game pioneer Activision returns with another Skylanders and a narrative hook to justify selling even more plastic geegaws: the series’ big bad, Kaos, has freed the worst of the worst, and it’s up to players to nab them using translucent “traps” that physically connect to an NFC-enabled “Traptanium Portal.”

    Once captured, you can turn the bad guys into good guys (they work for you), but comprehensive do-gooding sounds real-world pricey: Activision says you can collect over 60 Skylander toys, and trap more than 40 villains (you can only have one villain per trap).

    The most interesting development this round may be Activision’s support for mobile devices, whose specially-tailored Traptanium Portal includes a tablet holder (it works like a kickstand) as well as a wireless gamepad, letting you play the full game just as you would on consoles, but on the go.

    October 5 / Android, Fire OS, iOS, Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation 3 & 4, Wii, Wii U, Xbox 360 & One

  • Driveclub

    Sony’s Driveclub was originally supposed to ship around the PlayStation 4’s launch last November, but wound up delayed until early 2014, then delayed again, which is one of these flip-a-coin, good-or-bad signs.

    This is developer Evolution Studios’ maiden voyage with a road racer, but the studio’s banking from years of experience developing the gonzo off-road Motorstorm series. And while it’s hard to get a sense for what makes Driveclub drastically different from other road racers–the trailers are the usual gleaming vehicles prowling high-octane catwalks–the novelty here seems to be cooperative play: that you can form clubs of up to six players, each working to advance your club by completing challenges.

    October 7 / PlayStation 4

  • Project Spark

    Project Spark is Microsoft’s game about making games for Windows, the Xbox 360 and Xbox One. Think of it as a creative gamepad, mouse/keyboard, tablet (SmartGlass) or Kinect manipulated canvas, touted in videos as a kind 3D fantasy play-scape you can reshape from macro to micro, retooling the way objects behave down to the smallest levels, all of them shareable with other players.

    Topping the list of cool, unexpected features: you don’t need a $60 a year Xbox Live membership to play, and the game stars Conker, the slightly obscene, alcoholic squirrel last seen in a 2005 Conker’s Bad Fur Day remake for the original Xbox.

    October 7 / Windows, Xbox 360 & One

  • Alien: Isolation

    It’s been decades since I’ve found anything to like about an Alien movie or video game (granted, I seem to recall enjoying 1997’s Alien Resurrection a bit more than its screenwriter, Joss Whedon, but then it only had to be better than Event Horizon, The Postman, The Lost World and Starship Troopers). And sadly typical of iconic ideas every moneymaker wants to draft off of, no one’s yet managed to craft another experience that translates the sense of existential, almost nihilistic dread we felt seeing Ridley Scott’s Alien for the first time.

    “I guess it all started because no one had made the game that we wanted to play, a game that really captured the spirit of the original movie,” says studio The Creative Assembly’s Al Hope, the game’s creative lead. That’s Alien: Isolation‘s promise, a game set between the events of the films Alien and Aliens that’s explicitly not another rambunctious, alien-killing, glorified shoot-em-up, but rather a thoughtful horror-stealth game starring you as Amanda, daughter of Ellen Ripley (the gender stereotype toppling protagonist played by Sigourney Weaver in the films), sleuthing for information about your missing mother on a derelict space station.

    October 7 / PlayStation 3 & 4, Windows, Xbox 360 & One

  • The Evil Within

    A new survival-horror game directed by the creator of the Resident Evil series (Shinji Mikami) that deliberately walks the genre’s increasingly action-focused gameplay backwards to reinvent it? What could go wrong?

    We’ll know soon enough. The game’s plot sounds awfully cliched: an unwitting detective, a ghastly murder, a phantasmagoric asylum and an unstoppable supernatural force. But the idea, according to Mikami, was to subvert survival-horror conventions by slowing the pace, fractionalizing access to weapon ammo and revisiting the land of ridiculously cramped confines.

    My hands-on time with the game at E3 didn’t bowl me over (muddy controls, not very scary enemies, difficulty seeing anything), but I’m hopeful the full experience and that area in context justify whatever chances the studio took.

    October 14 / PlayStation 3 & 4, Windows, Xbox 360 & One

  • Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

    If you’re rocking a computer or last-gen console, you’re in for a very Borderlands 2-like experience (plus new items and weapons) in 2K Australia’s prequel-sequel to one of publisher 2K Games’ most successful games yet. The story this time, to the extent anyone cares, follows the last game’s villain, Handsome Jack, and his turn to criminality.

    The twist: low or no gravity motion mechanics that’ll force you to rethink how you get around, since the game transpires both on the Moon and in space.

    October 14 / Linux, OS X, PlayStation 3, Windows, Xbox 360

  • Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth

    If you’re not put off by the notion of a game that unfurls at the pace of paint drying (and in plenty of cases, paint dries faster) and you count yourself a fan of hard-sci-fi-informed interstellar strategy games, this is quite possibly the most important PC game to come along in years.

    Some of us have been waiting exactly 15, in fact, for a spiritual successor to Firaxis’ Alpha Centari. And now that game’s finally here, building on the turn-based strengths of Civilization V‘s resplendent new engine and shift to hex-based play, and hopefully–fingers triple-crossed after all the trouble with Civilization V in this regard–sporting computer opponents that can actually play the game competently here.

    October 24 / Linux, OS X, Windows

  • Bayonetta 2

    It’s hard to know what to make of Bayonetta 2 amidst escalating concerns about gender representation in gaming: is its unsubtly sexualized imagery–the protagonist throwing back her head and sighing as a lance slow-mo slides along her body, for instance (watch from 0:26 above)–a celebration of feminine sexuality? Or gratuitous, stereotype-riddled, male demographic targeted exploitation?

    Series fans are probably going to shrug off that question and fuss instead over the game’s hack-and-slash particulars. Are the controls and combat maneuvers and time slowing mechanics up to the original game’s acclaimed standards? Are the angelic and demonic enemies versatile and unique enough to sustain interest? And above all else, is the game (and remastered inclusion of the original Bayonetta) compelling enough to warrant buying a Wii U?

    October 24 / Wii U

     

  • Sunset Overdrive

    Sunset Overdrive, developer Insomniac’s first try at an open world game, is Microsoft’s only major Xbox One exclusive this fall (not counting Halo: The Master Chief Collection).

    At first blush, it sounds eerily similar to Sucker Punch’s Infamous games: irreverent dude with super powers who can grind on rails and scale walls has to save his dystopian city from nefarious forces. But on closer inspection, the differences pop out: a hyperrealistic, punk-informed, quasi-parkour game by way of a zany skateboarding simulation by way of what looks almost like a metropolis-sized circus playground.

    October 28 / Xbox One

  • Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

    The annual Call of Duty rollouts have become some of the grandest run-of-the-mill events in gaming: mechanically predictable, fictively clumsy and dramatically overwrought, but selling in the gazillions anyway–even as the users generating those record-selling figures weirdly storm review score aggregators to gripe and bring the average numbers down.

    Advanced Warfare wants to capsize those assumptions by bringing in heavy guns like: Kevin Spacey, lending both his visage and voice to the game’s ostensible villain (as well, perhaps, as more credibility to the story about a private military corporation gone rogue); studio Sledgehammer, whose co-founders previously worked at Visceral Games on the Dead Space series; and near future warfare tech in the way of exoskeletal suits that give players superhuman abilities, lending the game a sci-fi feel, though one grounded (so we’re told) in meticulously researched extrapolation from existing military concepts.

    November 4 / PlayStation 3 & 4, Windows, Xbox 360 & One

  • Assassin’s Creed Unity

    2014 could go down as the year annual franchise games caught a glimpse of their spiraling sameness in the mirror and opted for more than superficial change. To that end, Assassin’s Creed Unity is Ubisoft’s–and specifically sub-studio Ubisoft Montreal’s–stab at reworking its popular action-stealth series from the ground up, as groundbreaking a shift, according to the design team, as the first game was when it appeared in 2007.

    Tackling the hugely complex period leading up to and through the French Revolution (an inexorable historical destination for this France-based publisher), Unity changes the way you parkour through its Parisian urban-scapes (you can speed down the sides of towering structures as well as up, however improbably), reinvents the way it handles combat (counter- and chain-killing are both gone), lets you move into and out of buildings without separate load areas or scripted animations, and lets you play the game’s story cooperatively, optionally, with up to three other assassins.

    November 11 / PlayStation 4, Windows, Xbox One

  • Halo: The Master Chief Collection

    The indefatigable Halo series is back in a kind of glorious, seam-splitting, mongo-deluxe collection that crams all of the numbered games from 1 through 4, including multiplayer maps and game mode extras, onto a single Blu-ray disc. Think of it as nigh ecclesiastic fan service conveniently intersecting with 2014’s calm before next holiday’s Halo 5: Guardians tempest.

    Each version’s been fully remastered here (better lighting, shadows, reflections, other little details, including tweaks to the already-remastered Halo: Combat Evolved) and runs at 60 frames per second and 1080p resolution, though Halo 2 gets the lion’s share of improvements, as this November marks that original Xbox sequel’s 10-year anniversary.

    You’ll also get two interesting additives on the disc: playlists, meaning roll-your-own lineups of levels (or Microsoft-curated ones), so that for instance, you can opt to play the Master Chief and Arbiter levels in Halo 2 sequentially instead of intermittently; and access to Halo: Nightfall, a live action digital feature produced by director Ridley Scott that ties into next year’s Halo 5: Guardians.

    November 11 / Xbox One

  • LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham

    Picking up the threads where LEGO Batman 2 left off, Traveller’s Tales’ three-quel pits Batman and pals against Brainiac, the alien android better known for harassing Superman. Not to worry, Supes is here, along with some 150 other heroes and villains from DC’s storied universe.

    If that sounds pretty much like the last game with the numbers jacked up, it’s because it is. And that’s the most worrisome thing about what Warner Bros. has been doing with the LEGO series of late, tributing its own iconic IP in these charming rehashes of earlier ideas without meaningfully driving the gameplay anywhere.

    November 11 / Nintendo 3DS, iOS, OS X, PlayStation 3 & 4, PS Vita, Wii U, Windows, Xbox 360 & One

  • Assassin’s Creed: Rogue

    I’d be shocked if Ubisoft didn’t give Assassin’s Creed: Rogue the PlayStation 4, Windows and Xbox One treatment at some point down the road (perhaps standalone, perhaps as part of an eventual remastered collection–imagine that).

    In the meantime, you’ll have to dust off those last-gen boxes to play Ubisoft’s late-breaking narrative sequel to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag unveiled just last month (its story bridges Black Flag and Assassin’s Creed III). As in Black Flag, Rogue‘s naval game will predominate, only here you’re sailing through ice-riddled boreal seas as an Irishman and former member of the eponymous Assassins, who’s mysteriously switched sides and joined the rival Templars.

    November 11 / PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

  • World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor

    They’re still making World of Warcraft expansions? They are indeed. We’re still looking at nearly 7 million people playing the game, in fact, which–whether anyone wants to criticize the game for overstaying its welcome or no–makes the quibble pretty much economically irrelevant.

    Warlords of Draenor, which follows Mists of Pandaria‘s release two years ago, is Blizzard’s fifth expansion to its MMO-to-rule-all-MMOs. The new features probably won’t barrel you over: The level cap, which topped out at 60 when the game launched 10 years ago in 2004, finally hits three figures (from 90 to 100). The game’s getting its customary graphical uptick (in this case, its the older races being improved) and a smattering of new dungeons and raids. And Blizzard’s adding user-created garrisons that let players recruit in-game characters to handle loot-gathering busywork.

    November 13 / OS X, Windows

  • Dragon Age: Inquisition

    The first Dragon Age game, Origins, was a decent enough romp, so long as you parleyed Dungeons & Dragons and didn’t mind the way the game mistook expletives, implied sex and blood spatter for narrative gravitas. But the second installment was a mess of half-measures designed to appeal both to button-mashing action fans and stat wonks, excelling at neither.

    Dragon Age: Inquisition revamps BioWare’s dark fantasy series by opening up the game world (it’s not Skyrim-sized, but far bigger and spread out than the last two games) and delivering a combat system that, while still action-oriented, allows for deeply strategic, tactically-nuanced and preplanning-driven battles.

    Some of those battles–I can confirm this firsthand, after watching a demonstrator tango with a dragon–may take upwards of 15 minutes to half an hour and involve multiple stages to complete; you sense the MMO genre’s fingerprints here, perhaps in a good way.

    November 18 / PlayStation 3 & 4, Windows, Xbox 360 & One

  • Far Cry 4

    The last time we got to ramble around the Himalayas in a big ticket game was Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 2, and what a gorgeous glimpse that was. Far Cry 4 looks to be far prettier, but unlike Uncharted 2, it’s a sprawling open-world shooter that models the mountainous microcosm of a play-box you get to tramp around (snared by the horrors of a regional civil war) with incredible verisimilitude.

    Plus: see 4:25 in the gameplay video above (warning, language), and among the many side-activities and forms of travel Far Cry 4 supports, you’re looking at the world’s first game-based wingsuit simulator.

    November 18 / PlayStation 3 & 4, Windows, Xbox 360 & One

  • LittleBigPlanet 3

    LittleBigPlanet 3‘s two biggest changes are as follows: One, instead of the series’ lovable, burlap-adorned, but ultimately singular protagonist, the game will have four, each with unique abilities design to complement the others’ and help solve the new game planet’s multifaceted puzzles. And two, the series’ original developer and creator, Media Molecule, is on to other things, replaced by series newcomer Sumo Digital.

    If you’ve already invested in either of the last two games, Sony says their content (in particular, all the user-generated levels) is transferrable to LittleBigPlanet 3, turning this third installment into something of a LittleBigPlanet emporium. And if you’re a hard-nosed level tinkerer, the level creator now supports a whopping 16 (versus just three) layers of depth, and the levels themselves are only limited in scale by the size of your hard drive.

    November 18 / PlayStation 3 & 4

  • Grand Theft Auto V

    Grand Theft Auto V‘s been around for nearly a year, but it’s on this list because Rockstar’s remastered version may well outsell everything else this fall when it lands on both of the new consoles. (It’s the sixth-bestselling video game of all time, courtesy the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and the bestselling game of the past half-decade).

    It’s also far more rhetorically nuanced and thoughtful than its critics give it credit, a sort of misanthropist’s revelry glossing subtler, darker points about American consumer culture. Calling it misogynist, for instance, misses its point, but then that’s also part of its point.

    November 18 / PlayStation 4, Xbox One

  • Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire

    Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire are the latest in publisher Nintendo and developer Game Freak’s remakes of older, ridiculously popular Pokémon games. Here, they’ve added Greek letters to their original names, Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire.

    The originals for Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance are over a decade old, so the most obvious change is going to be from primitive 2D to the reimagined 3D graphics and the 3DS’s dual-screen interface split. The rest of the changes amount to the sort of arcane minutia only Pokémon devotees will understand, but that’s sure to have them lining up in droves to buy both versions when they ship in late November.

    November 21 / Nintendo 3DS

TIME Video Games

Neal Stephenson Sheathes Crowdfunded Swordfighting Game for Good

Speculative fiction writer Neal Stephenson's ambitious history-minded swordfighting simulation will go no further than crowdfunded prototype, says the author.

So long, Clang. You were a very, very expensive curiosity, in part because your lead proponent is something of a literary treasure.

The crowdfunded project to develop an ultra-realistic motion control driven sword fighting simulation, which originally generated over half a million in funding but ran out of money in September 2013, has been officially shelved — it sounds like for good.

In a “final update” to Clang‘s Kickstarter site, Stephenson writes that he’s decided to “cut the cord, and announce the termination of CLANG.” He says he delayed announcing the end sooner because of “new ideas and opportunities” that were happening, and that he says “may ultimately wind up in some of the same places we wanted to take CLANG.”

But he says as far as Clang-the-Kickstarter-project is concerned, it’s over. He expresses regret that it couldn’t continue further, but makes it clear he believes it delivered on its promise, though assuming much of the blame for its inability to continue.

Last year, Subutai Corporation delivered the CLANG prototype and the other donor rewards as promised. The prototype was technically innovative, but it wasn’t very fun to play.

Stephenson, author of speculative fiction novels like Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon and Anathem, launched Clang in 2012 as a project he hoped would “revolutionize sword fighting video games.” Stephenson is a self-described “swordsmanship geek,” though I’m not entirely sure what that means. I can’t find anything about him actually hefting blades or suiting up to fence with sabers, foils or épées, but he often talks about sword history (at least in the many interviews I’ve read over the years), for instance admiring the way a show like Game of Thrones is careful to represent aspects of swordsmanship realistically.

Here’s Stephenson’s original pitch for the game:

Clang sounds like a classic example, by Stephenson’s own admission, of someone relatively un-versed in the insanely byzantine complexities of game design (and bringing a concept to fruition), but very well-versed in the history of sword fighting, over-obsessing about the latter and not enough over the former. As he says of the reasons that ultimately led to Clang‘s termination:

Some of these [reasons] were beyond our control. Others are my responsibility in that I probably focused too much on historical accuracy and not enough on making it sufficiently fun to attract additional investment.

The debate from here out, I suspect, is going to be over whether Stephenson and his cohorts delivered the goods. The promise made on Clang‘s Kickstarter page, somewhat buried in the print, does seem fairly unambiguous: “The next step is to build a functional proof of concept in the form of an exciting prototype we can share with you and use to achieve our next level of funding.” Anything subsequent to that prototype would have required additional funding, writes Stephenson — funding beyond the project’s original Kickstarted $526,125, that is.

I’m not sure anyone’s verified whether Stephenson and Subutai delivered their prototype or donor rewards to backers as claimed (it doesn’t seem that anyone’s yet written about their experience with the prototype). Stephenson says he’s issued $700 in refunds to “around two dozen CLANG backers” who’ve asked for their money back. He adds that the financial burdens on members of the design team, as well as himself, have been substantial, above and beyond the money spent from the Kickstarter pool:

Members of the team made large personal contributions of time and money to the project before, during, and after the Kickstarter phase. Some members, when all is said and done, absorbed significant financial losses. I am one of them; that has been my way of taking responsibility for this.

There are no further formal plans to return backers’ money (or at least no obvious ones). Stephenson ends his final update by offering a link to sign up for a list to receive updates about future projects, but cautions those projects may or may not come to anything. The reactions to the announcement, restricted to backers, have been mixed, from folks chiming in to express their support for Stephenson and satisfaction with the project, to others asking for their money back.

TIME Video Games

All Three Final Fantasy XIII Games Are Coming to PC

Square Enix's Final Fantasy XIII trilogy is coming to Steam and the company's own digital storefront starting in October and concluding next spring.

The Final Fantasy XIII games are better than you’ve heard. They can be quirky, arcane and spasmodic, pacing-wise, and when it comes to storytelling and dialogue-writing, they’re cripplingly un-self-aware.

But they’re also exemplars of what Square Enix does best: obsessively upending the series’ (and JRPGs in general) gameplay formulae. Sometimes that culminates in messy, mechanical fiascos and tedious game segments, but would that most games tried as hard.

And now the trilogy’s coming to PC via Steam and Square Enix’s digital storefront, starting with Final Fantasy XIII on October 9. The first game’s price seems a steal compared to the original $60 for Xbox or PS3: just $16. If you buy the game through Steam (as opposed to Square Enix), you’ll get a slight 10% discount that knocks the price down to just over $14.

But it seems a strange move. I’m not sure Western PC gamers are going to care. How many JRPGs have you played on Steam? How many actually live there? Factor in all the Final Fantasy XIII sequence’s unorthodoxies and deceptively simplistic systems, and…well, maybe that’s exactly what’ll be appealing about them: PC gamers are some of the most idiosyncratic gamers, given the spectrum of game genres and sub-genres and sub-sub-genres they’re able to access.

On the other hand, these aren’t the first Final Fantasy games to grace Valve’s online store. The PC versions of Final Fantasy VII and VIII have been available on Steam for a year, and Square Enix’s massively multiplayer forays, Final Fantasy XI and XIV, live there as well. I had no idea the reimagined 3D version of Final Fantasy IV was on Steam, but when I checked this morning, there it was, released two days ago.

Another upside to playing on PC, assuming Square Enix supports it (and I don’t see why the company wouldn’t): playing at higher-than-720p resolutions. The Final Fantasy XIII series was visually unparalleled on the PS3 and Xbox 360 at 720p (or thereabouts). Square Enix hasn’t said whether it’ll update the game’s textures, but I’m not sure it’d have to. Just to see the game running at 1920 by 1080 or 2560 by 1600 as-is would be a wonder, and I’d like to think Square Enix supporting those higher resolutions might mean we’ll see the trilogy eventually reemerge on PS4 and Xbox One.

Square Enix says the remaining two games, Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, should be out by next spring.

TIME Video Games

8 Takeaways from Final Fantasy XV’s Wild-Looking Tokyo Game Show Trailer

Square Enix's new Final Fantasy XV trailer is really, really pretty.

Here comes Final Fantasy XV, an action game that was never supposed to be 15th.

It was originally dubbed Final Fantasy Versus XIII and pitched as a sideline to Final Fantasy XIII, a game that was supposed to be acclaimed character designer Tetsuya Nomura’s directorial Final Fantasy debut (he just announced he’s stepping down as director). It was announced over eight years ago and is still without a release timeframe — year or otherwise.

Square Enix just broke years of informational rehash at the Tokyo Game Show with a beautiful new trailer that showcases just how far the game’s come, visually speaking. Here’s what I made of it.

It’s going to be even weirder than usual

The more lifelike and post-anime the Final Fantasy games get, the more uncomfortable I get watching photorealistic characters screech and yip and yowl like cartoon caricatures stripped of their cartoon-ness. It’s sort of endearing if you’re a Final Fantasy buff, but it’s also kind of bizarre.

You can drive a car

Apparently. And check out the limo-like wheelbase on that ride. All that’s missing are outward-canted tailfins and you’d be somewhere in the vicinity of George Barris’ modified 1955 Lincoln Futura (that is, Adam West’s Batmobile).

The game’s pretty much all dudes

The trailer treats the only female shown with at least a modicum of respect (by which I mean she’s not half-naked or being bodily ogled by the cameraman). But the rest of the trailer is a dude-fest.

Nothing wrong with a bunch of bratty/broody-sounding fellas taking a road trip, but after Final Fantasy XIII‘s female leads, it’s a little jarring seeing none here.

The game takes place on the Isle of Skye

Or, since we know Final Fantasy XV actually takes place on a planet that’s somehow tied into Square Enix’s arcane Fabula Nova Crystallis mythos (which includes Final Fantasy XIII), call it a lookalike version of one of the prettiest spots in the world.

I spent a week back in 2009 driving around Scotland, including Skye, and I’d swear on a stack of Triple Triad cards that those craggy cliffs and scrubby, boulder-cluttered hills in the trailer were imported direct from the land of Talisker, crofting and the Peatbog Fairies.

World-tech min-maxing!

Check out those creepy hover-ships with electric blue lens flare, or the thing floating around the battlefield at 1:56. Then pay attention at about 1:14. Yep, those are contemporary roadside power lines, and I’m pretty sure that’s the water tower I grew up down the street from at 1:50.

The battle system still looks Kingdom Hearts-like

I’m sure there’s more to it, but in the trailer, it looks like whoever’s controlling the protagonist is pretty much attack-button mashing, though the maneuver at about 0:55 and another at 1:54 seem to involve tag-teaming. I’m not sure what to make of the sequence at 1:58 where your buddies react to your getting walloped by smacking around the offending creature in retaliation; it looks scripted, but maybe it’s in fact a combat feature?

No, you probably can’t go anywhere in that ginormous city

I’d love to see Final Fantasy pull off something on the wander-anywhere scope of a Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto V, but I’d bet my life this thing’s still a bunch of linked areas. The best to hope for, if you’re in the hated-Final-Fantasy-XIII‘s-first-20-hours camp, is that the areas are more open-ended.

It’s not a bait-and-switch for Square Enix’s direct-to-video film The Neverending Story IV

Though that crazy-big thing at the beginning does look a bit like a hulked out version of Morla, no?

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