Gears POP! Level 6

I wanted to revisit my first take on Gears POP! given the rather harsh assessment offered by Kotaku, and my own worry that I may be a little too optimistic about what others saw as a mediocre game.

But, nope. I’m still enjoying it – and Kotaku is wrong.

At first glance, reaching Level 6 probably isn’t quite at the top of the enlightenment period to be able to safely dismiss Kotaku’s rather short-sighted take on the game, but there’s quite a bit of work that goes into getting to this level. I don’t doubt that the gloss of many casual gamers has started to wear off for Gears POP!, and so the competition I’m left with are either the true believers, or the late-to-the-party types, but having understood how many games and how many win-losses it takes to get to that stage means that there is a not-insignificant amount of respect for anyone competing at what I’d consider this ‘mid-tier’ level.

In fact, I think it’s fair to say that I am regularly loosing quite a few games – it’s about a 50-50 split, but the shine hasn’t quite worn off as quick like it has with Hearthstone. Perhaps it’s because I still get the drip-feed of delicious Xbox achievements, or perhaps I’m still just simply enjoying the game. In either case – from either a philosophical or a business perspective – I’m still playing it, and that means something.

I’ll be interested to see if other first party studios lean into some mobile development for Microsoft, or whether xCloud will pickup the mobile audience – but in any case, it’s definitely not a flop for me.

Melbourne Esports Open 2019

Judging by Public Transport Victoria calculations, my trip to the Melbourne Esports Open this weekend was to take about 1 hour and 40 minutes. As part of ‘Victoria’s Big Build’, the city of Melbourne is currently undergoing quite a few disruptions at the moment, up-to-and-including train replacements and complete line shut-downs, meaning that in order to take the public transport option into the city for the Open, I would have to take a bus into the city, then navigate to Flinders Street where I could then get a tram, or – worse – walk to Rod Laver Arena in time to be able to catch an event.

If it sounds like I’m whinging, imagine what doing the above with two kids under six would be like.

So, with that in mind – we did what any sensible human being would do: we drove to the MEO this weekend, and thanks to some well-planned pre-paid parking, scored a park right near the entrance.

Last year’s MEO was very much a social experiment, and while it seemed, at face value, to be relatively successful, I was keen to see how the event had grown or adapted based on this success. After all, there was a notable difference in PAX Australia 2013 to 2014, so if MEO was to gain traction, then this would be the event where we would be able to see some success.

The first thing I noticed was the layout had changed – considerably. Originally MEO 2018 was structured in a way that the main competition and the ‘JB Hi-Fi Game Zone’ were fairly evenly contained between and within the Rod Laver and Margaret Court Arenas. Most of the ‘outside’ activity was concentrated on the entrance to Rod Laver, whereas this year much of that content – and I feel like there was considerably less – had shifted into the open space between the two main arenas, and Melbourne Arena off Olympic Boulevard. As it turns out, this was supposed to be the ‘Main Entrance’ I later found out, and the rear entry where I had come in was actually designated the ‘Secondary Entry’, but the net result was that we got-in.

Last year, I made the assessment that I don’t think the Rod Laver Arena is the best sort of venue for the MEO. While I think the organisers have ‘made do’ with the layout, there is undoubtedly a sense that the whole event is spread too thin – something that was exacerbated this year considering it went across multiple venues. It reminded me a touch of the ESL Masters I attended in Sydney, where the Qudos Arena was simply unsuitable for a major gaming event – in the middle of nowhere and laid out in an erratic fashion. In some regards, I think these smaller stadiums are great for what they were built for: sporting matches, and by all accounts, the stadiums were perfect for the main events on the weekend, but considering that esport now has to offer competition between travelling to the venue or – like I did for the non-kid-friendly events – simply opening up a Twitch stream, then I’d expect a little more polish on my venue design.

While I didn’t get in to the main events themselves, I think it’s fair to say that MEO has matured in a good way. OPL has generally gone from strength-to-strength in the last 12-24 months, and so seeing its high production values land in Melbourne to put on a great show is certainly something to write-home about. I watched as eager fans went trawling through the venue to find ‘skin codes’ for their League of Legends accounts, and the images by brilliant esport photographer Sarah Cooper (@aquahaze) showed just how far esport has come in Australia. I only saw the highlights of the Overwatch Contenders match-up, which is surprising considering I was rapidly getting into Overwatch as an esport, but when matched up against a game like Rainbow Six, it’s hard not to have your attention slightly diverted towards that more ‘meaty’ competitive scene.

Still, it’s no fix for the otherwise toxic R6 community.

In terms of games on offer, both Xbox and PlayStation put in an appearance in the Game Zone, which is wonderful to see. PlayStation, per usual, had large ‘no photography’ signs up everywhere – which is a bit strange considering that they weren’t really showing anything ‘new’ or ‘secret’. Last year, there was Spider-Man on offer a few days or weeks before launch, and so keeping things under wraps made sense, but most of the time my kids played Crash Team Racing … something that was released in June.

The Xbox team were far better-equipped for a public-facing show like MEO, offering up Minecraft for the kids, I was able to take a photo of them playing together, and the marketing team there even had little basketballs (stress balls) with ‘Windows 10’ on the side. Dad may or may not have borrowed one of them for his own collection. There was also a behind-closed-doors demo of Gears 5 which I only have a loose interest in, but considering it is coming to Xbox Game Pass, I’m not too concerned about milking every last drop of content out of it before it drops. I mean … if I need a fix, I have four preceding titles to get through first.

Other big players on the day were Nintendo, who had a great variety of consoles setup, and my kids played Mario Maker 2 for quite some time before etiquette dictated that they get off and let someone else play. Likewise, the kids managed to score themselves some lanyards and a tote bag off the show floor, but nothing quite as cool as the Activision-offered Call of Duty 4 gift bag that my eldest managed to grab last year. I still have my COD4 hat in the cupboard, ready to be broken out again come PAX time.

And speaking of merchandise – we need to have a chat to the organisers about buying in some better hoodies, or at least some more variety in terms of clothing options. One $70 hoodie that was in plain white as the only clothing memento from the weekend? No thanks. At least I managed to walk away with a metallic keep-cup, but for $20, I’m not sure if that was entirely worth it, or I was just clinging to the hope that I’d leave with ‘some’ keepsake.

MEO is not flawless. Nor is it flawed. It is an event in its infancy, that has already shown how much it can improve on in a twelve-month period. Being able to arrange for major teams like Washington to travel to Melbourne for the Open, as well as seeing some great talent in OPL, Overwatch and Rainbow Six means that I’ll be back again next year, if only to keep an eye on what else is new and emerging on the esport scene.

I can hardly wait.

One OS to Rule them All

In the last 48 hours, Microsoft announced two things which tickled my fancy. The first is updates to Microsoft Office, which – as rumoured – is likely to be the implementation of Dark Mode across all of its Office products – which is great for a heavy iOS user like me. The other is that they will be holding a hardware event in New York at the start of October, again – another rumour – likely to bring with it a dual-screen Surface Pro.

As part of some comments on some news article (I have a few Microsoft-specific blogs on rotation, including MSPoweruser and On MSFT), I mentioned that I would absolutely be interested in upgrading from a Mac to a Surface if they introduced USB-C in as standard (like they have with the iPad Pro, and the MacBook). I think we’ve reached an age now where pushing ahead with the best in technology, like the USB-C, should be the norm. It’s no longer ‘innovative’, it’s standard. If I’m buying the latest, greatest product, then I want the latest, greatest offering.

But no, that’s not what the internet picked up on, did they?

Instead, and I’m paraphrasing, the response went along the lines of: well, if you like Windows so much, you should have abandoned Apple long-ago.

Now, make no mistake about it – I love my Apple products. I am yet to find a single piece of Apple hardware that hasn’t been able to withstand everything I throw at it – up-to-and-including my three kids. Consider also, that most products I use from Microsoft are now available on iOS, then it’s largely only gaming and a few specific pieces of software (like Visio) that require me to either dual-boot into Windows, or use another computer for. But that being said, I don’t hate using my Windows computers when I do have to use them either. I think Windows 10 is as close to the perfect version of Windows as I’ve seen since they launched Windows 95, and now with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, I’ve found myself using my Windows PC’s more-and-more. Couple that with the fact that most of my services are web-based, then it really doesn’t matter what hardware I’m on most of the time.

Right now, I’m writing this on my Surface 2, with my MacBook beside me showing my Google calendar for the week on Microsoft Edge Dev while notifications go off on my Apple iPhone.

All that’s missing is a bit of a Ubuntu on my desk and I’d have the whole family together.

So, like all of these other fringe arguments, my point remains the same – why is this a zero-sum issue? Why can’t I like iOS and MacOS and Windows and Linux equally and at the same time? Why and how does my decision to like one-or-more ‘other’ products lessen your enjoyment? Sure, there is enough marketing out there that will make you feel like your choice is the superior one (Remember: “Hi, I’m a Mac.” “And I’m a PC.”), but surely there is enough education out there now to recognise fluff versus feelings and preference.

Back when Xbox One launched under Don Mattrick, there were very real issues when it came to console choice. There was a clear divide about why Xbox sucked and PlayStation was better, and Microsoft adapted their product based on those decisions. These days, the products are like-for-like, and silly historical quibbles belong in the past. Right now, Windows and Mac are in the same position: like-for-like.

You don’t need to be a Mac or a PC person – you can be a little bit of both.

And tell the internet to keep their opinions to themselves.

Quantum Break Initial Thoughts

The thing with being a gaming parent is that you know you want to milk every last opportunity out of your gaming session that you can. Whether it’s a full hour, ten minutes, or if you’re lucky enough to have an afternoon-on-the-couch-wearing-little-more-than-your-boxer-shorts-and-a-smile, you need bang for your buck.

Which is a long-winded way of giving an excuse as to why I have never gotten around to Quantum Break.

To be fair – I’ve never had anything against the game. I remember back in E3 when Shawn Ashmore came on stage to announce the title, and Aidan Gillen was touted as the next big thing, coming off his success in Game of Thrones, and even then I liked what I saw. But in the same breath, it also came at a time when Microsoft was pushing entertainment over gaming. When ‘always on’ was destined to ruin gaming for almost anyone that doesn’t live in the internet Utopia of West-Coast America. And so, for much of this generation – I’m happy to admit, I was pretty much all-in on PlayStation.

Fast forward a few years, and Game Pass has given me the opportunity to finally wander back in and have a go at Quantum Break. Full disclosure: I haven’t watched any of the episodes yet, and that’s largely for the same reasons that I described at the outset: (ironically) time. Already, I enjoy the combat. I’m playing on the easiest difficulty because I really just want a solid story experience, but there’s still something quite satisfying about the gun-play with a few spatters of time-controlling special powers thrown in for good measure.

The story is still unfolding – I’ve just completed Act 1 – so I suspect more will become apparent as I go forward, but already I’ve chosen the Hardline approach for Monarch to take – which is a nicer way of saying ‘kill anyone and everything’. I’m having some ethical issues with that choice, but at the same time, given everything I saw in the story so far, it seemed the most appropriate.

One thing I did want to highlight at this early stage was the sound design. It’s not often that I comment on the sound design, because it’s usually so vanilla from one game to the next – but whoever is doing the mastering of the gun shots and weaponry at Remedy needs to be given a pay-rise. It is easily the most satisfying gun audio I’ve heard in a game for the last decade.

For now, I’ll continue the story. There seems to be an issue streaming the episodes so I’ve had to download them for the time being, which is fine because I’d be lucky to be able to watch them until later this week anyway, but I am looking forward to seeing how it all plays out.

And then, I suspect, I’ll also be ready to give Control – Remedy’s latest title – a look.

Gears POP!

I am a sucker for a mobile game with Xbox achievements. It’s one of the main reasons why I play Microsoft Solitaire so much, and I have no qualms in touting the virtues of Wordament to any-and-all who will listen. Sadly, people don’t really take to my warped sense of digital justice like I do, and so they just end up heading back to their match-three game or scrolling through their Instagram.

Not me though. I think it took me all of fifteen seconds from when I got the notification that the pre-order for Gears POP! was ready to having the game downloaded and starting it up.

Then the connectivity issues happened.

I’m not going to labour the point because I don’t mind a few teething errors, and thankfully they corrected themselves fairly soon thereafter, which meant that after an hour of gameplay, I had already earned myself two or three achievements, and by the end of the day yesterday, I was at 9% completion.

Not bad for a very brief afternoon’s work.

The game itself is essentially just a Clash of Clans clone, though with POP! characters based on the Gears of War franchise. It just seems like a whole bunch of licensing agreements were prepared by some junior lawyers that got too convoluted and something had to be done with them, but, strangely, it works. Considering I’m really only on level two and working with characters that are, essentially, just upgraded versions of the starting set, I’m not sure how much the game will open up as I get new characters, or, more likely, I go up against stronger opponents.

Progress from here-on out will be slow, because some of the achievements require you to play into the hundreds of games, which is not insurmountable, but it will take time. Each game I played against a human tended to run down the timer, rather than being the one-sided battle that I had anticipated, with some of the games only conquering one base, or going to sudden death. If you can get some time away from the world so that you can play this unencumbered, then you are absolutely in the best position to win, though I’ll see whether that holds true as I continue playing, or whether my own inability is just waiting to shine through.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep working towards those delicious, delicious achievements.

Cross Save for Destiny 2

It’s here. It’s finally here.

It might sound silly, but I’ve been waiting for the industry to catch-up to this point for so long. I have looked at the Mike Ybarra Tweet many times over the past few years in which he prophesied a world where you would be able to play your same Destiny characters across any platform and take your progress with you, and now – that day has arrived.

While much of the narrative in the industry has been around cross-play for the past few years, I’ve always had my heart set more on the ability to cross-save. I knew that Microsoft had made incredible in-roads in this capability, part of the sales pitch that they use for using Azure, but regardless of any anticipated marketing kick – it was the functionality that most appealed to me.

The reason is simple: I don’t want to play with other people, I just want a choice about where I play.

Sure, Destiny is a game which thrives on social interaction – but other than one time when I managed to get a friend online, and through the good grace of an Xbox LFG – not to mention a few drop ins and drop outs – I managed to finish a raid – OTHER than that … I like to play it solo. If I play in a fireteam, it’s because it’s been randomly assigned to me, not because I have two or three good mates that I like to regularly catch up with each week and play. No, it’s the simple fact that I’m a busy man, and sometimes I only have twenty minutes to play, other times I can settle in for a long afternoon and smash out six missions in a row. There are a lot of variables at work there – whether the kids are in bed, whether my wife wants to watch something on the TV, whether there’s housework to do, whether my in-laws are staying, etc. And when that’s the case, I want to be able to pivot to a different platform, and try and play there – in my case, the PC.

Do you know what I don’t want to have to do? Start things all over again.

So, yes, I am red-hot-keen for cross-save, and I can’t wait to get into Destiny 2 Shadowkeep a little more on PC. It is, undoubtedly, a superior way to play the game, but I have built a healthy little legacy with my Guardians on my Xbox, and so I want to be able to maintain that going forward.

If they can sustain the cross-save capability for Destiny 3, I’ll be a happy man.

Thanks, Bungie.

Robocraft Infinity

This title from the Xbox Game Pass library is an interesting blend between a mech combat game and some sort of Minecraft-lite crafting mashup. The premise surrounds simply building, or modifying, a mech made up of small blocks and weapons and then taking them into battle.

For the few games that I played, I elected to go with a T-Rex variant of the mech, which seemed to be a fairly solid all-rounder, though I was able to see how handy, for instance, a wheeled mech would be able to capture points quicker, or an aerial mech was able to navigate to enemies easier.

The load times on this title are terrible for something with low fidelity visuals and otherwise basic concept, but it’s not a bad title, and otherwise ‘safe’ for younger gamers to play – with some supervision (it does, after all, have lasers and other weaponry in it).