Forza Horizon 2
Publisher: Microsoft Studios & Turn 10 Studios
Developer: Playground Games
Release: Sept. 30, 2014
My hands-on time with the upcoming installment of Microsoft’s Forza series was a very enlightening experience for me. During the heyday of the Xbox 360’s lifespan Microsoft had two different driving game franchises that played quite differently, Forza Motorsport and Project Gotham Racing. My affection fell squarely at the foot of the latter. Forza, with it’s simulation gameplay and hyper-realism, was not very welcoming while Project Gotham had a style, finesse and sense of playful ease that made it not only more accessible and approachable but also much more of a timeless piece of software that wouldn’t be left behind in years to come by the improvement of things such as better AI and more realistic physics. I missed the release of the original Forza Horizon so it was a pleasant surprise to see that the “Horizon” sub-series was actually a combination of Forza’s realism and the accessibility and playfulness of Project Gotham. This really wasn’t surprising once I learned that the developer, Playground Games, shares a lineage with defunct Project Gotham studio Bizarre Creations. Before I had played the demo at X14, Forza Horizon 2 was just not on the radar, now however, its got me fairly excited about racing through its gloriously detailed tracks in its lovingly rendered sports cars. Driving feels substantial, vehicles respond as they should in a racing sim but, at the same time, they control with an ease that one would expect from a more forgiving title.
The Xbox One’s triggers add a lot to the experience. The fact that each trigger has the ability to rumble individually provides much more intuitive force feedback while driving. The more you accelerate the more the right trigger rumbles, brake hard and the left trigger resists, collide and the whole controller shakes. Horizon 2 also features a fairly large “open-world.” Missions aren’t selected from menus, rather, players will drive from point to point accepting challenges and entering tournaments along the way. While you’re driving along doing your business, non-player characters chat away filling you in on what you have to do and updating you on the game’s narrative and the goings on of the world. All in all, this really makes the game feel much more alive and personable than other racing games in the same genre. I’m not sure how die-hard simulation fans may feel about this game but I walked away quite impressed. If you were a fan of the previous Forza Horizon or miss Project Gotham Racing, Forza Horizon 2 is looking like a pretty safe bet this fall.
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Lionhead Studios
Fable has always been one of those iconic Xbox franchises. Like Halo, it came to represent Microsoft and what it did differently than its Japanese competitors. As one of the earlier harbingers of the Western RPG renaissance that would grace consoles, it helped define the genre for those used to the dominance of the Japanese tradition exemplified by mainstays like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Fable Legends’ roots run as deep as they can possibly go for a role playing game, taking significant cues from the forefather of all RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons. Like D&D, Fable Legends is meant to be played with friends which makes it quite the departure from past games in the series. The game will support five players, four heroes each with their own unique character, stories and abilities and one villainous “dungeon master” type player whose job is to oppose the heroes by setting up obstacles and commanding hordes of minions such as goblins and trolls. Players will work together and tackle quests online as local multiplayer is not possible. A developer from Lionhead candidly told us that the game chugged while attempting split-screen play and that Unreal Engine 4 was not suited for that task. It’s quite the shame since anyone who has played Dungeons & Dragons could attest, playing with your friends in the same room it really half the fun. That said, Lionhead is working on SmartGlass integration which will allow the “dungeon master” player to control the action on a second screen while a local player controls one of the heroes. It all sounds like something that would work better on a certain competing platform but Lionhead seems to be making the most of what they’ve got. In addition to all this, those who would like a single player experience are more than welcome to play Fable Legends alone. AI players will control the other characters in that case and the developers claim it will play much like Mass Effect. I played one short quest which ended with a boss battle with a large troll. As an archer character, I was able to dislodge the creature’s loincloth with a well placed arrow, the results assured me that Fable’s signature style of humour remained intact.
Even though the emphasis is clearly on multiplayer, Fable Legends will still be telling a story. The game will once again be set in Albion and will take place hundreds of years before the events of the first Fable for the original Xbox. Lionhead chose to create a prequel due to fan feedback that suggested that players wanted to return to the swords and sorcery aesthetic of earlier games after Fable III had taken Albion through an industrial revolution. The game is set to release with a collection of campaigns and stories that will be joined later by new missions and chapters via DLC. I enjoyed my time with Fable Legends and I’m excited to see if Lionhead’s D&D style gameplay is at home on Xbox One.
LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: TT Games
Release: Nov. 11, 2014
Warner Bros. Interactive was also in attendance at X14 and brought along their latest Lego title, Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham. The subtitle “Beyond Gotham” is quite apt. Lego Batman 3 is really more like “Lego DC” as the game will feature settings and characters from all over the DC Universe. Iconic mainstays like Superman, Wonder Woman and, of course, Batman will be joined by more obscure characters like Mr. Mxyzptlk & Bat-Mite. I specifically asked whether Swamp Thing would be featured, the rep merely said that he wasn’t confirmed yet (I’m sure you’re all waiting with bated breath to see if he’ll make the cut). Batman and the other DC heroes will be teaming up with the Joker, Lex Luthor and other villains in order to defeat the mutual threat of Brainiac. The game will feature a variety of gameplay styles ranging from Gradius-like shooter to racing missions along with the seamless co-op the series is known for.
Assassin’s Creed Rogue and Assassin’s Creed Unity
Release: Nov. 11, 2014
Ubisoft will be releasing two Assassin’s Creed titles this fall. Assassin’s Creed Rogue is set to release on last-gen consoles (PS3 and Xbox 360) while Assassin’s Creed Unity is set to release on the same day on current generation systems (PS4 and Xbox One). Both games looked quite impressive. Rogue in particular was pushing the aging Xbox 360 to its absolute limit. Rogue represents the first time the player will play as a Templar Knight instead of an Assassin and seems to be an attempt by Ubisoft to develop the Templar Order into something more than just a generic two-dimensional “Masonic” style cabal. Like the Assassin’s Creed III and IV before it, Rogue will feature sailing as one of the games primary activities, something that will be missing from Unity. However, even with he absence of sailing Assassin’s Creed Unity appears to be the series’ most ambitious game yet. Unity is set during the French Revolution and will mostly take place in Paris and its underground network of catacombs (A brief detour through Versailles was hinted at). The developer we spoke to claimed it was not only the largest world in the franchise’s history but also the most rich in content and things to do. In the demo that was shown, the streets of Paris bustled with large crowds, people and faces had much more fluid animations and greater textures, while buildings such as Notre Dame Cathedral towered over the player character with a convincing sense of scale. All in all, the heavily altered Anvil engine has succeeded in bringing the series fully into the new generation of consoles.
Unity’s story will revolve around the protagonist, Arno, who will cross paths with historical figures of the time such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Marie Antoinette. In addition to the single player mode, co-op will feature a different storyline and will be playable with up to three others online. Feedback from Assassin’s Creed IV suggested that players enjoyed less linear missions and so the development team created the game with re-playability in mind so that any one mission can be tackled in a variety of ways.
Skylanders: Trap Team
Developer: Toys for Bob / Beenox
Release: October 5, 2014
Activision was on hand at X14 and brought along this year’s iteration of the mega-hit Skylanders franchise. This years entry introduces the concept of “traps.” Like the characters themselves, traps are physical objects that will have to be bought in order to be utilized. With these trap crystals players will be able to defeat enemies and trap them in one of these crystals allowing them to be used as not only playable characters but also as assist characters. Each trap is assigned a type and can only be used to capture one enemy character of the same type. In order to capture another character player will have to either release the trapped enemy or buy another trap. While it’s an ingenious way to mine the wallets of players and parents its done with a lot of care and charm. Each monster that’s “trapped” can be heard struggling and making quips from the portal and pretty much every enemy is trappable including the series’ chief antagonist Kaos (they can be viewed in their trap on the Wii U Gamepad in that version of the game).
For those who’ve never played Skylanders, the game plays like a PlayStation era action platformer with very light puzzle solving. The game can be played with a great variety of different characters that can only be used if players purchase NFC enabled action figures of said characters. Activision has no plans to utilize or integrate Nintendo’s own NFC amiibo figurines with the Wii U or Nintendo 3DS versions of Trap Team. The game will launch with a special “Dark Edition” which will contain the game, the NFC enabled portal, limited edition variants of the starter figures and the trap required to capture Kaos. Those who buy the Wii version of Skylanders Trap Team are able to upgrade to the Wii U version with the use of an included download code.
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Insomniac Games
Release: October 28, 2014
Sunset Overdrive takes place in a cartoonish post-apocalyptic world where people have become addicted to an energy drink that has mutated them into monsters. It’s kind of like The Walking Dead except with colours and the Zombies are chugging down cans of Red Bull. We were only able to play a single multiplayer match and the game both impressed and disappointed. Aesthetically, Sunset Overdrive assaults the player with a bright, fluorescent comic book art style reminiscent of Sega’s Jet Set Radio. Like a busy arcade, Sunset Overdrive is a cacophony of sound and neon. The player is always on the move in Sunset Overdrive, any surface other than the ground is “grindable.” You’re encouraged to grind and being still or on the ground becomes a disadvantage. The mode we played was a competitive co-op scenario in which players worked together to defend stores of the addictive energy drink against hordes of mutated enemies. The player with the most kills at the end of the match wins. Unfortunately the camera in Sunset Overdrive is unwieldy to the point that it’s difficult to know what you’re doing and where you’re facing. Getting a clear shot of an enemy is a chore especially when you add in the fact that your character is almost always moving. Weapons were as varied and inventive as one would expect from the creators of Ratchet and Clank and Insomniac’s game design as a whole bring a fresh “PlayStation” sensibility to the Xbox lineup.