Tag Archives: Microsoft

The Wild Update comes to Minecraft

I haven’t written anything about Minecraft for quite a while.  I haven’t even thought about it much, what with Valheim taking up the exploration and survival niche in my gaming cycle once again.  But a friend I follow on Twitter was excited about the coming of the latest update, dubbed The Wild, and was resetting their world over on Minecraft Realms to give the new changes a try.

The Wild update arrives

The update, which is version 1.19 for the game, comes with a host of new things to look into.

There are new mobs, from frogs to the Warden, new biomes like the mangrove swamp and the dark deep, the latter which can new ancient city structures within it.  Then there are the usual host of new blocks and things to craft that go with the introduction of new materials.

And, as I was looking this up, I realized that I hadn’t actually done much at all with Minecraft since the Nether update back in 2020.

In poking around I found out that I missed both of the Cliffs and Caves updates, version 1.17 and version 1.18 of the game, which naturally introduced a host of other features I haven’t seen.  So there is actually a lot more to be explored than I though.

One other thing came along with this weeks update, something of a unification of the Java and Bedrock editions of the game.  The two have always be separate, and at one point Microsoft seemed eager to divide the two further, downplaying the Java version in hopes of pushing the Bedrock version which not only runs on more platforms, but which has a cash shop.

Go figure, right?

It felt for a while that the Java version might be neglected.  But Microsoft has decided to take a different tack these days.  With the launch of 1.19 if you own or buy either Java or Bedrock editions of the game, you end up owning both versions.

It still feels like they want to get more people on the version with the cash shop, but at least they are making the Java version feel more on par in their priorities, and the Java version is the one that you can mod up.

Anyway, it might be time to go take a peek back at Minecraft to see what is new.  I mean, unless there is some open world, co-op, survival game based on something crazy like… I don’t know… being a vampire maybe… that could pull our group in another direction.  We’ll have to see.

Sony Fires Back at XBox by Offering to Buy Bungie for $3.6 Billion

Well, after the big news earlier this month about Microsoft making a bid to buy Activision Blizzard Sony, XBox’s primary rival in the console wars, has decided to buy Halo creator and Destiny owner Bungie, which was once owned by Microsoft.  While the deal was no doubt months in the works, the timing is too perfect to not see it as a riposte of some sort.  I am sure those in the press office feel that way.

Bungie joins the blue team

The console wars are heating up again, and the worry over exclusives and one platform cutting the other out has become very real, with Sony stating that they hope Microsoft will honor current contract.  The rumble you hear in the background is the menace of legal action should they not.  And now we have Sony grabbing up Bungie, formerly owned by Microsoft and the creator of one of the most enduring franchises on the XBox.

The announcement from Hermen Hulst, Head of PlayStation Studios:

What an unbelievable day! Now that you’re digesting the news that Bungie will become part of PlayStation, I wanted to talk a little bit about how I see PlayStation Studios working with our new colleagues.

For starters, please know that I am a big Bungie fan. They are a historic studio that has made significant contribution to the medium that we all love. Bungie’s gameplay is legendary with fluid and balanced mechanics that are easy to pick up and hard to put down. Their game worlds are beautiful and expansive, with a tactile, lived-in quality that makes them stand out. And I respect their relationship with the gaming community, and their dedication to creating experiences that grow and evolve over time to continue entertaining players.

Sony Interactive Entertainment has always been a great place for developers; encouraging collaboration across studio teams, while retaining their creative independence to craft stories and worlds for our community to explore. At PlayStation Studios our mission is to make the best games we can, advancing the very nature of entertainment through our games and the positive impact they can have on people’s lives.

Over the past year we have expanded to a total of 17 studios across the globe. New additions will help us extend the reach of our IP, develop exciting new games, and further leverage the technical capabilities of PS5 through knowledge sharing and collaboration.

Bungie’s technical expertise, coupled with their track record of building  highly engaged communities, make them a natural fit for collaboration with PlayStation Studios. We are excited to make plans to share skills and expertise, and to unlock the potential in having the brilliant minds at Bungie under the PlayStation roof.

I believe that Bungie joining the PlayStation family will increase the capabilities of PlayStation Studios, and of Bungie, and achieve our vision of expanding PlayStation to hundreds of millions of gamers. For game creators, that’s always our goal: to bring our vision to as many people as possible.

I hope you are as excited for the future as I am!

How this will play out and what it really means remains to be seen, but it is kind of a big announcement here on the last day of January.

Related coverage:

 

Microsoft Plans to Acquire Activision Blizzard for $68.7 Billion, Promises Joy and Community

The news that will be dominating the video games headlines this week will be this morning’s announcement that Microsoft intends to purchase Activision Blizzard for, as the headline says, $68.7 billion.

XBox plus Activision Blizzard equals something

That’s it, that’s the joke.

It will also be an opportunity to see which online media sites even understand how public companies work or how the merger dance is performed.  I have already seen headlines and stories that say that the deal is already done.  But if those sites had bothered to even read the official Microsoft press release on the subject, the might have seen:

The transaction is subject to customary closing conditions and completion of regulatory review and Activision Blizzard’s shareholder approval. The deal is expected to close in fiscal year 2023 and will be accretive to non-GAAP earnings per share upon close. The transaction has been approved by the boards of directors of both Microsoft and Activision Blizzard.

The boards can approve what they want, but a lot of people have to get involved before it is done, and even Microsoft is putting the close of the deal out in fiscal year 2023.

The price, which has been reported as being “all cash” is no doubt subject to some performance incentives, so Bobby Kotick and crew will have to keep things going… and likely “solve” their problems with the state of California and their disgruntles employees… if they want the full, big bucks payout.  It isn’t the announced number that matters, it is what the final price is when the deal closes.

Remember CCP?  Pearl Abyss was set to acquire them for $425 million, but the final price ended up being $225 million because CCP fumbled their performance requirements.

As for why this acquisition… well, Microsoft’s biggest problem for the last 25 years has been what to do with the giant pile of money that its twin behemoths, Windows and Office, earn for it every year through almost complete domination of the desktop market.  You can’t just stick it all in a bank account, and for a long stretch tech companies were loathe to pay dividends as they felt they could earn more money by just re-investing.  And while they have had to pay dividends since, or buy back stock to inflate share prices, companies like Apple and Microsoft are still sitting on huge war chests of cash they hold aside for such opportunities.

So Microsoft needed to spend some money and they have been big on XBox and video games of late, so that was the direction they went.  That’s my initial take.  I am not sure if the state of affairs at Activision-Blizzard helped or hurt the idea.

Phil Spencer, head of Microsoft’s XBox group, which owns all video gaming at the company, and who has been publicly critical of Activision-Blizzard’s behavior, will get his chance to run that show as the company will report up into him when acquired.

Microsoft says it wants to bring the joy and community of gaming across all devices, though I am sure the XBox console will be first among equals should a list of devices actually be ranked.

More specifically, the press release says:

This acquisition will accelerate the growth in Microsoft’s gaming business across mobile, PC, console and cloud and will provide building blocks for the metaverse.

Growth and getting into mobile are probably the key items here.  King’s Candy Crush Saga will mean a Microsoft product on a lot of mobile devices.  Nothing about the deal helps along cloud gaming… Micrsoft already has Azure for cloud… the “metaverse” is just a buzzword that makes investors happy but which has no substantial meaning when a company like Microsoft uses it.

No, the reality seems to be Microsoft seeking to bulk up their gaming portfolio and getting deeper into mobile… which makes business sense.  For all of its troubles, Activision Blizzard brings a lot of brand heft with it.

At least they didn’t throw in crypto and NFTs just to get attention.

For those of us who have been paying attention to what has been going on at Blizzard for more than half a year now, the fate of Bobby Kotick seems set; he will be sent packing.

Granted, he will get to walk away dragging a giant sack of money like the goblin he is… sorry, that might be unfair to goblins… but he will still be gone in the end.

Yes, I know the press release says he will stay in place for now, but the deal isn’t done yet and Microsoft can’t send him away until they own his company.  So my New Years prediction about him still being in the company seems secure… even more secure than it was before.  He has just effectively boosted the stock price to $95 a share.  he is a shareholder hero.  Hell, even if the deal falls through Micrsoft might have to pay them $3 billion for the effort.  So if he is still there on December 15th I’ll have made at least one accurate guess… erm, prediction for 2022.

In 2023 though, if the deal goes through, he is out for being as useful as a nipple on a bull in the Microsoft organization. (Available as needed I guess, which means he’ll probably have to stay on the shelf somewhere rather than jumping in to form a competitor.)  Until then though he has to make sure the company performs, so I am still looking forward to that Q4 2021 earnings call next month.

Anyway, lots of people have been writing up wildly inaccurate assessments of the deal this morning, obviously having to get to work before their first cup of coffee.  We’ll probably have to wait a few days before somebody somebody finds something truly insightful to say about the proposed deal.  Until then, I have a few links.

Related:

Downgrading to Forza Horizon 4

One of the big complaints I have heard about Forza Horizon 5 since I started playing it last month has been that it isn’t very different from its predecessor, Forza Horizon 4, which also happened to be the first title in the series to be available on PC. [Edit: Or the first in the series available on Steam maybe, as I am informed FH3 was on PC as well.]

Forza Horizon 4

Now, since I have been enjoying FH5, hearing that FH4 is mostly the same stuff in a different setting seems like something of an endorsement.  In fact, it was one of the first things I heard about FH5, such that before I even went down the XBox Game Pass route I checked out FH4 on Steam thinking that it might be cheaper, being the older title.

It was not cheaper.  It was the same price, $59.99, as its younger sibling.  Faced with that, I opted for the new title on the game pass.

And then Steam has a sale around Thanksgiving.  Their autumnal sale.  They have a sale for each season at this point, and some big sales events in between, no doubt to keep us all from simply waiting for the Winter and Summer sales, but those two tend to be the big ones in my mind, the Winter sale especially, which comes grouped with the Steam awards, the annual statistics at the end of the sale, and the holiday season when people tend to have some free time and are in a buying mood.

And, as part of the sale there was FH4 for just $20.

Now, I was already playing FH5 for a buck, at least until February, so it wasn’t like I was dying for, or even needed, another driving game, and especially one that is very much like the one I already had access to.  But there was the whole renting versus owning… such that it is when we’re talking about software… plus the idea of not having to deal with the console-centric XBox Live software… that made me start to ponder it.

So I started looking into the differences.  FH5 is set in Mexico, while FH4 is set in the UK.  The list of cars that both offer is fairly comparable…  again, one of the complaints I have heard… but as I was digging into the FH4 list I found it offered a wealth of British and Italian cars that FH5 had omitted.

And that kind of sold me.  For a game like this, the cars are important, and once I get my fix of pre-2000 Nissan models… all of which are in FH4… Fiats and Lancias and Alfa Romeos along with an assortment of Triumphs and MGs are on my list.  I mean sure, big American iron is on my list too, but my taste in style tend to run to the Italians at times.

I asked a couple of people about the title, then poked Potshot to see what he thought, and we both figured we should buy it.

And then, of course, I didn’t buy the $19.99 base option, but opted for throw in another fifteen bucks for the Ultimate Edition, which had been marked down from $99.99 to $34.99, and included all the car packs that had been added to the game, including a range of Hondas, Mistubishis, some Hot Wheels models, and the James Bond collection.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.  Potshot threw down for that as well.

Then came the big install, as another 100GB of data had to find space on my computer.

Of course, my desire to be rid of the XBox PC client was still thwarted.  You don’t have to dive into it, but you do have to link your Steam account to your XBox PC account.  The game won’t start until you do.

It wasn’t a horrible process… not as bad as trying to get from buying XBox Game Pass PC in the Microsoft Store then trying to get it setup outside of the store… but there was still some stupidity involved.

When asked to link your Steam account to your Microsoft account, my Microsoft account was actually presented in the dialog as an option.  My PC is linked to that account through the OS as is the Microsoft Store and the XBox PC client.  Linking the accounts should have been as simple as clicking on that account.  But it wasn’t.  For whatever reason, that was not allowed and I had to click on the “select account” option and then remember my password for the login, which is unique to Microsoft, so I never remember it.

And since I didn’t remember it I had to go to the password managed where I couldn’t find it because the URL for logging into your Microsoft account doesn’t have the word “microsoft” in it.  Instead it is “login.live.com” because Microsoft secretly hates us.

Still, that was only a 10 minute frustration loop rather than the one hour loop with FH5.

But now I have it install and running and can compare the two.  We shall see just how similar the two games are!

Meanwhile, the sale is over and FH4 is back up to being the same price as FH5.  But the Steam Winter Sale will soon be upon us.  The price might be $20 again soon.

Forza Horizon 5 with Friends

As I mentioned in my first post about Forza Horizon 5, my talking about it go Potshot interested enough to take the plunge for a dollar as well and, after having faced the same issues I did trying to go from Microsoft Store to actually playing the game, we found ourselves both in the game and decided to try to play together.  Again, it was something we had managed in Need For Speed: World back in the day, how hard could it be?

Forza Horizon 5

How hard indeed.

I was already vaguely aware that there was a grouping mechanism in the game that allowed you to create a “convoy” with friends (or strangers I guess) in order to drive/race together.  So once we were chatting on Discord we started exploring the UI to see if we could create a convoy.

In digging through FH5 we found a screen that would let us invite a seemingly random list of people to a convoy or see nearby convoys, but there didn’t seem to be a way to search and find a specific player to convoy with.

It seemed like proximity might help the situation, so we picked a spot on the map and both drove there hoping to see each other and group up that way.  I had seen options pop up when close to other players in the game and had even had some rando invite me to a convoy at one point, so off we went to meet up, choosing one of Horizon event points to meet up.

However, when we both had announced our arrival we couldn’t see one another.  I don’t know much about FH5 really, having purchased it on a whim, but I know it is a shared world AND that it sold something like ten million copies in its first week, so I was not entirely surprised that we were not just parked next to each other.  I barely seem more than a few people on the road generally, so the partitions between parallel worlds seem numerous.

There didn’t seem to be a way to make friends, invite, or otherwise see each other on demand from within the game, so it was time to go to Google.

Google said that for those of use using the XBox Game Pass PC version of the game needed to be friends in the XBox app, which meant finding each other there.  It was time to press the Windows key once more and fumble about.

Somehow we managed to get on each others list in the XBox Social window.  But getting into a convoy was another matter.  Back in the FH5 UI we were still lost as how to invite each other.  It might be possible, but we haven’t figured it out yet.  But you can also invite people to play from the XBox Social window.

We had greater success there, though even that took a few tries.  You have to invite in the social window, the other person gets a pop up in the game, but you have to open up the social window to accept it.  Honestly, I am not sure I could replicate the process as we were just poking buttons by that point.

Eventually though he managed to invite me to a convoy and I managed to hit the right buttons to accept and we were together.

In a convoy at last, a GMC Jimmy and a Pontiac GTO

His handle in FH5 was potshot3285 because apparently when 10 million people buy your game it feels the need to append a four digit number to the end of your default XBox handle just to keep track of you.

Unless, of course, your XBox handle already has a four digit number appended to it.  Mine is wilhelm2451 by default, also my Twitter and blog email address ID, so the game felt it could leave me be without appending any additional digits… though you can see in the background of the screen shot above somebody with the name YourMAD5244614, so maybe it isn’t limited to just four digits.

Also, as an aside, I pointed out to Potshot that way back in the Need for Speed: World days he also opted for the ’64 Pontiac GTO.  I even have some screen shots of that here on the blog.

The Xmas GTO

Anyway, we were now grouped up, time to figure out something to do.

FH5 has the same problem that vehicle based games seem to… and I include EVE Online in this category… in that there is a very impersonal feeling that comes from just being in cars or spaceships or whatever, as opposed to having a human avatar.  Also, just driving around it is easy to get separated or lost.

So, in search of some focus, we decided to run some races.  Potshot looked at the map while I swapped into a car more akin to what he was driving.

Waiting for him to find something on the map

Races are all over, but you have to drive to them and the convoy system doesn’t seem to have a way to pin a route or destination for everyone, so after some time going back and forth over things that were on his map but not my map, we picked the closest thing to hand and ran that.

Races went… well, as expected for the two of us the way we play.  We did co-op, which meant only one of us had to win, which still ended up being a tall order.  We mostly alternated holding down 12th place.

In a convoy only the convoy leader can start the race and if the convoy leader chooses an event that is part of the festival story line, you may not get credit for running it if it isn’t already on your list.  We did a run through one of the Aztec sites… you cannot actually four wheel over (most of) those pyramids, but you can have drag races and do donuts to your heart’s content in Teotihuacan… that Potshot had on his event unlock list and you basically get another identical car to run the event, but I didn’t get credit.

Not that it was a big deal, just an advisory.  And when I ran the event later on my own, at least I knew what I was supposed to do, having run it before.

Also, whenever we ran a race or an event Potshot got an echo on voice comms.  We were using Discord to talk, but it seemed like when you go into a race or event as a group, the game opens up a voice channel as well, and one of the channels was slightly behind the other, causing the sense of an echo.  Of course, there wasn’t anything I could see on the screen that indicated that voice was live, but since we already had voice live I suppose it doesn’t matter.

And then, of course, one of us got disconnected from the game and we managed to disband the convoy and had to go through the “did you push the button? I don’t see anything?  push it again?” routine to get back together.  But we got there.

So we accomplished our goals.  We managed to get on our respective friends lists and we were able to play together.

But the game wasn’t done with this.  Once you have somebody on your friends list, the game immediately starts comparing the two of you.  Every time I notch up one of the things they track, like signs crashed through or roads discovered, I get my total then a comparison with Potshot’s progress.

How many roads must a man drive down…

I assume if you have more than one friend it compares you with the friend you’re ranked closest to.  But with just Posthot on my list, it is always him.

And the game also takes names from your friends list when you go on to race solo later on.  So now whenever I run a race on my own there is Potshot’s name on one of the cars.

Faux Potshot ahead of me

The game does seem to like to put him in some odd cars though.  For a stretch he was always in a Mazda MX-5 which, while a fine car in its league, seemed to get matched up against me in a 90s Nissan GT-R.  Even in that screen shot he is in a Mitsubishi Starion ESI-R which, while not a bad car, used to be referred to as the starship back in the day for its sci-fi look.

Anyway, op success.  We managed to drive together.

Playing Forza Horizon 5 for a Dollar

I have been quietly looking for a driving game that covered the elements I found appealing in Need for Speed: World back before the end of its days.  I liked the open world, the racing bits, collecting cars, customization, and the ability to get out and drive and race with friends now and then.

I have looked at a number of games since the demise of NFSW.  ( I even miss that acronym, being so close to NSFW.)  But a lot of titles were too limited or too focused on racing or only focused on modern cars or hae no open world to drive around or were made by UbiSoft, one of the few companies lower in my esteem than EA, and so failed to grab my attention sufficiently.

Then some friends over on Slack were talking about Forza Horizon 5, which I had not even considered.  It sounded like it had many of the elements I was looking for.  But it was also a $60 title that felt like it was focused mostly on consoles, and I wasn’t willing to put down that much money to find out.

Forza Horizon 5

And then I saw that it was available as part of Microsoft’s XBox Game Pass for PC (all gaming at Microsoft is XBox branded it seems), which is their subscription service for which you play a monthly fee to play whatever titles they throw in.  It is normally $10 a month, which isn’t bad.  That is less than an MMORPG subscription, so if there was a game I was into, that wouldn’t be a bad deal.

But when I went to go look into it at the Microsoft Store I saw they were having a special.  I could sign up for three months of the for the XBox Game Pass for PC one dollar.  I wouldn’t have to pay the $10 toll until February, and a lot can happen in three months.  So I figured I could go all in for just ONE DOLLAR.

An Interlude to Complain about Microsoft

Going from “ready to buy” to actually playing the game was… annoying.

I already had a Microsoft account associated with my computer and I even have OneDrive active, so there is a credit card hooked up.  All I should have to do is click “buy” and be ready to go, right?

Well, I could buy the game pass, but to proceed the Microsoft Store had be click on a link that opened up a browser window.  However, despite the fact that I was logged into the machine with the credential I used at the store, the store didn’t want to pass those credentials along to the browser, which isn’t exactly a tough thing to do Microsoft.

So I had to log into the XBox site on my own.  But, as it turns out, I have close to a dozen Microsoft accounts which I have accumulated over the years, some of which were for work, some of which were for other machines in the house, and a couple of which were just folded in from other companies that Microsoft has purchases over the year, and many of them have the same email address, so Microsoft seemed at least as confused as I was as it tried to force me to use one particular account… which didn’t even have the right email address… so I am pretty sure I have at least four XBox accounts now, including one connected to my early 2000s Skype account, something I am sure won’t ever come back to haunt me.

Eventually though I got signed in, read the obscure messages over and over again until I realized that it wanted me to download the XBox for PC app, which involved another ten minutes of getting it to go to the right account… I mean, JFC Microsoft… before I was finally able to see my game pass options, select Forza Horizon 5, and start to download it… through a soda straw.

I mean, it is a big game, but my internet connection isn’t that slow.  At least that was just time.  I had time, and eventually the download completed.

In the end though, I was able to get the game up and running and after a weekend of playing it, I have come up with the following.

The Good

Overall, Fora Horizon 5 , which I am going to call FH5 from here on out, scratches just about all the itches I was looking for and it plays very well on my now three year old PC which, between crypto miners and chip shortages, seems like it is never going to get an upgrade.

It looks good on the big monitor, draws well, plays well with keyboard controls… I was told I really should use a controller, and I have one somewhere, but the keyboard works well enough for me… and it is a big sprawling game with lots of things to do so you can play to your level of commitment at the moment.

It also has a wide range of difficulty settings.  I have a post in me somewhere about how important having an “easy mode” is in games.  I started off doing poorly in races and the game suggested to me some ways to dial things back.  In doing so I was able to get my footing.  It set the computer opponents to novice level and I turned on auto braking, which basically keeps your speed in check coming into corners automatically so every turn isn’t a physics demonstration as your car keeps going one direction while you’re trying go in another.

By the end of the weekend I had put the opponents back to average and turned off auto-braking, option for anti-lock brakes, but the fact that I even had those options helped me get past the initial stage of getting used to how to play.

I did tinker with some of the settings to see what they did.  You can go as far as having your car auto-steer and auto-brake, which I think means you just press the W key and go.  I tried assisted steering for a bit, but the way I drive it was like fighting a car with a bad alignment; it kept trying to pull me to the optimum line on the road while I was trying to hit some sign or cactus along the shoulder.

Oh, yeah, destructible terrain.  You can crash through and destroy a huge amount of stuff.  It is almost jarring to hit something that isn’t destructible, like a building, after plowing through a light forest, half a dozen guard rails, two telephone poles, and a billboard.  Your car takes a bit of cosmetic damage… I think there is a setting for this as well… but keeps on going.  It can be hilariously fun.

And then there are the cars.  You start off with some modern models, but you have the option to buy some older marques.  My interest tends to be in things 1995 and earlier, so I was all in on those options, the first purchase being a 1977 Pontiac Trans Am.

Donuts on the lawn…

After the modern Corvette I got, this thing was slow and very floaty when it got to high speed, but still fun as hell.

I also grabbed a 93 Nissan Silvia K, which actually turned out to be on par with the modern stuff.  I could drive this and no be hilariously out of date.

Okay, maybe I do donuts too much…

There are all sorts of race type, including off road, so one of the early cars you get is a modern Ford Bronco.  But once I got one of my barn finds… a game mechanic where you go find a car that then gets restored for you… was a late 70s GMC Jimmy, which became my go-to off road ride.

Jimmy at the race

Also, unlike old NFSW, you don’t need to stick to the roads.  You can bust through the guard rails and go straight across country. (The game has a very relaxed view on guard rails, chain link fences, and road construction, often having you drive straight through these if the situation is right.)  While the Jimmy has to huff and puff a bit to break 100 MPH without driving off a cliff… also an option… it is very good at taking the straight route across country and through whatever gets in your way.

Also, there is a whole cosmetic system for cars which I have yet to figure out beyond doing very simple pain jobs.  But you can find car skins from other people, so I can sometimes be seen tooling around in a Hello Kitty bug-eye Sprite.

Styling on the road

There is a lot to like about this game and I have barely gotten myself started.

The Bad

My A1 complaint about the game so far is when I want to exit and it tells me that all unsaved progress will be lost.

This is the message I hate

I mean, this message annoys me in most games, but in most games I know how to save and am just annoyed that it tells me that even after I saved just 3 seconds ago. (Looking at you Pokemon.)

But I have no idea how to save in FH5.  I have tried to look this up and so far as I can tell, the game automatically saves, but only at specific points.  If I finish a race it saves, if I buy a new car it saves, if I complete some story objective, it saves, but otherwise it doesn’t seem keen to keep up with your progress.  You can free roam knocking over telephone poles and cactus for hours and if the game crashes, you will come back having lost all the xp you earned, and losing progress pretty much suck.

Basically, my “I need to log off because it is way too late and I need to go to bed” strategy is to go find an event to complete or, if I am in a hurry, to just go buy a new car.  That seems to be the only way to ensure my progress is saved, which is kind of awkward.  At some point I am going to run out of cheap cars to buy and I am saving up for that Aston Martin DB5.

Having mentioned crashing above brings me to the second issue, the game will crash.  I have only had it happen a couple of times, but I will say that in the three years I have had this PC, the only time I have had it crash into a BSOD is with FH5.  Still, I consider myself lucky as I know people for whom the game crashes constantly making it literally unplayable.  But you can see why I want to know how to force a save.

It also gets disconnected rather regularly during peak play hours.  I see this message off and on.

Once again it has come to my attention…

The thing is, in an open world game where you are often zipping around alone, it can be hard to tell if you are connected or not.  And this relates to the save thing in a way, because I am also unsure if what I am doing/earning gets saved when I am in this disconnected state.  The only bright side is that it seems to reconnect readily after short interval, so I have never been able to test whether or not it keeps progress.

Finally, I would really like to take more screen shots, but I haven’t figured out how.

Well, that isn’t exactly true, I have figured out three ways.

The first is to smash the Print Screen key, then tab out and paste whatever is in the clipboard into Paint.net or PaintShop Pro, but that is a little awkward and doesn’t lend itself to grabbing action during, say, a race.

Then there is the XBox PC overlay, which wants you to hit the Windows key and the Alt key along with the Print Screen key, which is a two handed operation that requires me to basically stop controlling the vehicle, which is generally barreling along at past 100 MPH, for what feels like an awkwardly long time.

Finally, there is photo mode, where one can take pictures of your stationary vehicle from very precise angles.  I would have thought this odd except that NFSW had this very same feature, so it must be something that driving games or console players are really into.  For me, my car sitting still is much less interesting than my car chewing up another section of guard rail because I am so bad at this game.

I get points in game for this too!

So there we go.  Nothing horrible, but some annoyances.

The Weird

Boy oh boy, this is really a console title, which means that its UI follows conventions that can seem Bizarro world strange to me.  Why, for example, does M open the map but then not close it?  Map toggling on the same key is very much a standard UI practice on the PC games I play.

And yes, I get it, the game was written primarily for XBox and PlayStation 5, where you have a limited number of buttons on the standard controller so, when translated to the PC the ESC key is the universal “make this bit of the UI go away” key.

Also, since this is FH5, which implies four predecessors plus however many other titles in the Forza series, there is no doubt a long UI convention history to be assumed in the design, things done a certain way because the company has always done it that way and now the players are used to it so they dare not change.

But as the outsider coming in to both series conventions and console design norms, I often cannot figure out exactly what I am supposed to do.  I mean, sometimes it is obvious, but at other times… for example, I cannot figure out how to buy a car from the sales interface without apply a custom skin to it.  Not that I mind, just look at that Hello Kitty skin on the Sprite, but it seems to be required, which seems odd.

The game is also telling me things or popping up rewards or what not all the time.  A+ for feedback, but there are times where I am trying to drive or whatever and it is cool that I have hit another level and have three wheelspins to collect and whatever, but that all pops up, goes away, and fades from memory and I discover half of it by accident some time down the road.

Some of the things I want to do, like make skins for cars, well the UI is just at right angles to my view of reality.   And there are guides out there about how to do all of this I am sure, but because it is primarily a console title, it doesn’t matter if I put “PC” and “Windows” in the search string, 80% of what I get back assumes I am on an XBox or PlayStation 5.

So some effort will need to be applied.  But I am often just trying to figure out how the hell to do something or reacting oddly to why in the hell something is done in a particular way.  The only analogy I can come up with is a long time WoW player trying to play EVE Online.  It is just a bunch of new stuff to learn.

And then there is the XBox app, which you need to use for a number of things, including screen shots.  I don’t think I have hit the Windows key on my keyboard on purpose more than two dozen times in the last 20 years, but everything in that app has you pressing it.  Strange times.

The Verdict

This game would have totally been worth $60 to me. But for a DOLLAR?  Amazing!

In fact, if it falls off of XBox play I will probably just buy it outright.

It is light and fun when you want and as serious as you need it to be when you’re down for that.  I have had a blast playing it.

It certainly fills the niche I was looking for since the demise of NFSW.  In fact, I was going on about it enough that Potshot decided to give it a go… and had the same problems as I did even getting signed up and downloaded, so it wasn’t just me… so he too is in FH5.

Of course, that meant we had to try to play together, but that is for another blog post.

Friday Bullet Points on a Tuesday just to Catch Up

Basically, the month slipped by and ends tomorrow and there were several things I think I should have mentioned, if only to set their place in the timeline of what happened this month.  So on to summaries and links and bullet points.

  • LOTRO Planning a “Mini” Expansion

Standing Stone Games announced that Lord of the Rings Online will be getting a mini expansion pack titled War of the Three Peaks next month.  SSG will be treating it like an expansion in that it will be available in three different versions:

  • Normal Edition – $20
  • Collector’s Edition – $59
  • Ultimate Edition – $99

SSG has been less than forthcoming as to what players will get for the extra $39 or $79, aside from the possibility of boar mounts.  Reaction to this mini expansion has been mixed.

I’m holding my own opinion on value until SSG comes out with more details, but my past experience with Adventure packs, an idea that shows up at Daybreak every so often, only to be disavowed, places my expectations low.

  • EVE Online Mineral Redistribution Plan

CCP put out a dev blog on Friday about the next steps in their economic work, calling it a “redistribution” plan.  However, it reads much more like a continuation of the “starvation” plan that they have been working on so far, with more things being removed from various areas of space and reducing yields on what remains.  The forum thread regarding this change exploded, which was no surprise.  Likewise, the chat in the live stream discussing the changes blew up as several devs tried not to pour gasoline on the fire and failed. (You can watch a re-run of the live stream or read a transcript if you’re that interested.)

Cutting through much of the general rage about the changes, it seems like CCP is trying to solve super capital proliferation via minerals.  However, supers use the same minerals as T1 subcaps, so T1 stuff is going to feel the same resource squeeze.  Updates that are all pain for no gain never fly well with the base.

The changes are supposed to come mid-October, so look for people to be mining heavily until that happens in an effort to try and insulated themselves from the already spiking mineral prices.

  • EVE Online Ship Models

CCP has a deal going with Mixed Dimensions to make models of EVE Online ships that players can buy, who have just added more hulls to those available.

I have always been a bit dubious about the ship models thing since the battleship models from more than a decade ago, not to mention the floating Nyx model that was a bust.  But maybe this time enough players… who always say they want these sorts of things… will actually pony up and buy them.  For me, however, the prices are a bit rich.  And I have that Rifter model from the 10th anniversary special in any case.

  • Microsoft buys ZeniMax Media

Microsoft agreed to pay $7.5 billion to acquire ZeniMax Media.  That name might sound familiar as they own id Software (Doom franchise), Arkane Studios (Prey, Dishonored), MachineGames (Wolfenstein franchise), Tango Gameworks (The Evil Within), Bethesda Softworks (Elder Scrolls and Fallout franchises), and ZeniMax Online Studios (The Elder Scrolls Online).

While there will be no immediate change to any of the studios or their titles, it does raise the question as to what in the future will be exclusive to XBox and what will be available on other consoles or even on the PC.

  • Sony PlayStation 5 Pre-Orders Open Up, Hilarity Ensues

As foretold by every similar experience in the past, the pre-order process was swamped by people looking to get the new PlayStation 5 console, slated to ship in November, and by people looking to grab one to scalp on eBay to take advantage of desperate consumers as the holiday shopping season begins.  If you Google what happened, the word “fiasco” seems to be a common thread in much of the reporting.  Some of the confusion was caused by retailers putting pre-orders up for sale a day early.  Sony apologized for what happened and promised to do better in the future.

  • Microsoft XBox Series X and S Pre-Orders Open Up, Hilarity Ensues

Later in the week Microsoft opened up pre-orders for the coming XBox Series X and S consoles, slated to ship in November, leading to another rush to get in first to claim a unit, either to own or to scalp later.  While things were less chaotic (the news stories rank the event somewhere between “mess” and “debacle,” which is better than a “fiasco” I think) there were still issues and all units were quickly sold out.

The added dimension here is that the XBox One X, a previous generation console, saw a spike in orders at the same time, so it is quite possible that at least a few people are going to be very disappointed to find out that they were duped by Microsoft’s naming scheme into ordering the wrong unit.

  • Foreclosing on your Farmville

Zynga announced that they will be shutting down Farmville at the end of the year.

Farmville, the big break out game for Mark Pincus and Zynga and the poster child for Facebook “social gaming,” which at its 2011 peak had more than 80 million players, was also the standard bearer for annoying garbage games that made you pester your Facebook friends or straight up pay cash to advance and help define the whole genre as spammy pieces of shit.

Of course, that is what you get when your founder doesn’t even really like games all that much.

The surprise here isn’t so much that the game is shutting down but that it was still up and running.  Then again, literally the most profitable thing that Zynga has done during its entire existence was buy property in the SF Bay Area.  I am told that selling their building earned them more than all of their games combined over the last decade.  And, as they lucked into the social gaming on Facebook trend, they managed to luck into the peak, pre-pandemic real estate market in SF.  Good for their investors I guess.

I expect I will come up with a few choice words for the game, the company, and the genre to mark the final passing of the game in December.

  • EA Secretly Craves Lockbox Regulations

Electronic Arts – Fun is Made Here

I’m throwing this one in here at the last minutes just to keep me from writing another two thousand word screed on the self-destructive behavior that greed drives this industry towards.

According to a story over at Massively OP, EA decided that advertising their FIFA 20 lockboxes in a children’s toy catalog (Smyths’ Magazine) was a good idea.  My bullet point for this section is obviously sarcasm, but only just.  The only other reason I could imaging EA thinking it was a good idea to effectively throw some red meat in front of legislators keen to declare lockboxes gambling targeted at children is that they believed that the current pandemic and political unrest would provide sufficient cover for their plan… their plan to target lockboxes at children.

This is so dumb, like a dumb sandwich with a side order of dumb and a 16oz cup of dumb to wash it all down level of dumb, that I had to stop and check other sources to make sure this wasn’t a hoax because somewhere in the back of my head something was saying that even EA could not be this dumb.

And yet, here we are.

I mean sure, I guess that the ESA declaration on lockboxes last year, who among the signatories you will find EA, didn’t specifically say that targeting children was bad. But I guess I didn’t think that needed to be said.  As I wrote a year ago, this is how you get your industry regulated.

Starting Off with Minecraft Dungeons

As I mentioned in the month in review post, I bought a copy of Minecraft Dungeons last month and actually found some time to play it this past week.

It is Minecraft and Dungeons

I am going to get my negative vibes out of the way first.

It is kind of a pain in the ass to buy the game on PC.  That you have a Mojang account cuts you no ice, you have to have a Microsoft account.  You probably have once if you have Windows 10, since they require it, but you may not remember that the login for that is probably in your password managed under a URL that doesn’t have the word “microsoft” in it. (Look for “live” on the list.)

Then there are three different versions, a Windows 7, 8, and 10 version, a Windows 10 version, and a Windows 10 Hero version, which will get you the next few DLC packs they push out.  But otherwise, I couldn’t really tell the difference between the first two… the descriptions were paltry in the extreme, so bought the first one because… more support is better?  I don’t know.  Maybe I made a mistake there.

And then there is the fact that the game has its own launcher, which may sound like a nit pick, but there is a button for it on the damn Minecraft launcher that, before you buy the game, gives you a link to the store page and, which after you buy it, comes up with a button to launch its launcher.  I mean, WTF?

That button is a lie

Minecraft Dungeons is also clearly a console game that they also brought over to Windows.  The opening page starts in with all the controller buttons you need to activate this or that.

My keyboard does not have most of those

That also probably explains why there is no built-in functionality to take screen shots.  I had to hit print screen and tab out to paste images into Paint.net to get what you see here.  I tried to use the nVidia GeForce experience to take screen shots, but the game is too new to be supported in that yet, and I didn’t want to go dig up my Fraps account just for this.

After 45 minutes of buying then trying to install it some place besides the default location… and being warned not to uninstall for heaven’s sake… I was perhaps not all that favorably disposed towards the game.

And, in the end, it isn’t actually Minecraft… you cannot punch trees or build or whatever and it is click to move as opposed to first person perspective.  But if you’re making an action RPG Diablo clone, being able to build a redstone sugar cane harvester probably isn’t a requirement.

That is what it is after all, an action RPG with a Minecraft skin on it.  And the game meets expectations there.  Zombies groan, skeletons rattle, creepers go “sssss… BOOM,” and so on, while you and your blocky avatar move through the game.

A skeleton and a baby zombie!

The UI will be familiar to anybody who has played a Diablo or Torchlight or most any action RPG, with perhaps the arrow count standing in for the mana bulb, as there isn’t any magic casting classes… as there are not really classes.  You’re just a Minecraft protagonist.

Once you play through an intro that sets the story, you end up in a base from which you will head off on your adventures.

The center of the base

The base is pretty sprawling, and I assume  you end up unlocking things as you go along to make some of that space meaningful, but as you start out there are mostly just a chest here and there you can open to collect some of the game currency, which are emeralds of course.

Unlike Diablo, Minecraft Dungeons is mission based.  You go to the mission table in your base, click on it, and choose from some of the missions currently available to you.

Some early missions

Each mission has its own story which ties it into the over arching story of the game, and each has its own set of discreet objectives, bosses, and what not you need to overcome in order to finish.

This is not a bad thing.  While you don’t get a sense of a world as you are teleported into each mission and return back to your base, it isn’t a giant leap away from something like Diablo and its waypoints and quests.  It works.

And there are, of course, chests and loot and upgrades to be found as you run through missions.

Some new stuff!

You can find better gear, and there is an system of enchantment points that let you improve the gear you have.

The thorns enchantment

That gives you the whole optimization element where you have to decide on gear, the benefits it provides, and the enchantments it offers, the latter of which can be different for items that are otherwise the same.

And you can salvage gear you do not want for emeralds and a refund of the enchantment points you have spent on a particular item.

Things start our light and charming, the game play is easy, and it was quite the delight.

Look, a gelatinous cubes!

The missions have a map that shows you where you are and what areas you have yet to poke your nose into (because chests are always a possibility in every side path) and little arrows point you towards every objective, so you are unlikely to ever feel lost  Even death has a light touch.  I did a jump roll into some water and died… no swimming here I guess.

It was bound to happen

You get a set number of lives per mission, but when you die you get dropped back at a safe spot and can just carry on.  But if you die to many times you get sent back to your base to start over again.

After a couple of missions I was pretty happy with the game.  I showed it to my daughter, who liked the idea, and considered getting a copy for my Switch Lite.  It seemed like it might be a good title to play on that.  There is no cross platform play… or even cross platform saves/accounts… but I wasn’t so dug into the PC version that I felt I couldn’t change over.  You can play with up to three of your friends, which on the PC side is controlled through a friends list, though how that really works I haven’t seen yet as I have nobody on my list.

And then I got to the content gating mechanism.

While you have levels… because levels will never die… and gain enchantment points with each level, you also have a power measurement based on your level, gear, and enchantments.

Each mission has a recommended level of power you ought to have to take it on.  After the first few missions I ran though I was at power level 6 and the next range of missions were suggesting 10.

It isn’t a hard barrier.  You can run the missions with a power suggestion higher than your actual, but they are tuned for that suggestion as a minimum.  Still, you might get a gear drop that will boost your power as you go through.

Or you can re-run past missions.  You can actually dial up their settings from their default to something more challenging, which gets you better drops.

Mission settings

I am less enthused with that option because, with all the charm and cuteness and Minecraft feel to the game, none of the levels were really interesting enough that I was thinking, “I want to do that again!” when I was done.  I was far more, “Okay, let’s get the next mission going!”

Still, it feels a bit thin so far, though I need to measure that against the $20 price.

And I am also not that far into the game yet, so perhaps I have not hit the more interesting missions.  It is light and easy to pick up though.  It just needs to clear the “compelling” hurdle for me.

Where Does The Age of Empires II Definitive Edition Fit?

The golden age of the Real Time Strategy genre is nearly 20 years gone at this point.  Like most ideas in video games, it first made a splash in a raw form, in this case via Dune II ,and then saw change in great leaps, some of which made companies, as the original Warcraft did with Blizzard.  There was lots of variety as new titles rolled out.

Then somebody “won” the genre, created a title that seemed to perfect some aspect of it… that was probably StarCraft… after which the genre tapered off.  It didn’t die, but like MMORPGs or Facebook games, it stopped getting so much attention.  It was no longer the hot new flavor to chase.

In around the peak of the genre came Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings, one of my favorite RTS titles.  I’ve written about it before, but in summary it was kind of a big deal for myself, friends, and co-workers.  Back in the days when IT wasn’t policing every PC in development for unauthorized software, we would play a couple of games at the office every Friday night.

So you might think I was pretty excite to hear about Microsoft announcing Age of Kings II – Definitive Edition last week during E3.  Except, of course, I am not.

The Age of Empires trio at the Microsoft site

I mean, I should be happy that Microsoft has finally dusted off the web site for the franchise, which was locked in 2001 for about 15 years, and decided to pay attention to the franchise.  As late as four years ago there was a banner ad for the original XBox on the franchise page.

But there are a few issues for me.

The previous remaster, the Age of Empires Definitive Edition didn’t exactly make a splash.  After a big announcement two years back, it was quietly released on the Microsoft store eight months later where little seemed to be said about it.  It remains an exclusive there last I checked, though there seems to be some plan to bring it to Steam at some point.

I was also more than a bit convinced that the AoE remaster was little more than a marketing scheme to draw attention to the planned Age of Empires IV, so this might just be more of the same.   Also, given that I wasn’t big on Age of Empires III and that all we got was a vague trailer about the game, I wasn’t too excited on that front regardless.

But the primary reason I haven’t been all that thrilled about the Age of Empires II – Definitive Edition announcement is that we already got an Age of Empires II remaster just over six years ago.

Hidden Path Entertainment, who did the wonderful Defense Grid and Defense Grid 2 tower defense games, did a remaster of the game back in 2013 that included:

  • Re-mastered for high resolution displays 1080p+.
  • Enhanced visual engine with improved terrain textures, water, fire and ambient lighting effects.
  • New Steamworks features: Achievements, Leaderboards, Matchmaking and Cloud support.
  • Share user created content with Steam Workshop support.

Not only that, they also updated the unofficial expansions for the game and even added another one just last year.  When steam does stats, Age of Empires II – HD Edition is always doing surprisingly well given its origin in the last century.

Basically, there is already a happy and thriving Age of Empires II community on Steam that is good with the game, so a new version from Microsoft just raises uncomfortable questions… like what happens with all of the Steam Workshop stuff people have created and what about those three expansions?

What does Age of Empires II – Definitive Edition really bring to the table, besides 4K graphics, and what will people lose if they go there?

I personally think that the graphics upgrade and a remastered sound track is insufficient to get people to buy another copy of a game they have probably already purchased twice at this point.  Or that seems to be a common thread in the reactions to the press release on Steam.

The press release mentions three new single player campaigns to be released with the Definitive Edition, and four new civilizations as well, which makes this seem even more like a branch that will be incompatible with the HD Edition.

Microsoft also seems to have learned from the Age of Empires Definitive Edition and will be launching the new game straight onto Steam, where the fan base has resided for years now.

However, even that move gives me pause.  Are they planning on supplanting the HD Edition on Steam?  Hidden Path may have done the HD Edition, but Microsoft owns the title and all the rights.  If they want to yank the HD Edition in hopes that the fan base will be compelled to buy the Definitive Edition, they can do that.

I don’t think they will keep you from playing the HD Edition if you already own it.  It will likely still be there in your library.  But they can certainly disappear it from the store, take down the Steam Workshop, and remove all evidence of the expansions that have appeared since they last cared about the game.

Furthermore, it Microsoft being tone deaf and heavy handed isn’t exactly out of character for them as a company.

I hope that they will find a way to embrace the current and thriving Age of Empires II community that exists on Steam.  Age of Empires II – Definitive Edition is due out this fall according to the press releases, so I imagine that we will see how they plan to play this soon enough.

Friday Bullet Points about Minecraft

It has been just over four years since Microsoft paid Markus “Notch” Persson 2.5 billion dollars for Mojang, the company he founded.  Of course, what Microsoft was really buying was Minecraft.  Notch had been forecasting doom when it came to Microsoft’s plans for Windows 8, but it turns out that a couple of billion dollars can change your mind when it comes to monopolistic practices.

Notch said at the time that the deal wasn’t about the money.  And I am sure he was right.  It is never about the money, it is about what the money can buy.

Anyway, four years down the road and it seems like Microsoft hasn’t managed to screw up Mojang and Minecraft.  I was concerned at the time as there is a long history of big companies buying small studios and then destroying them by not understanding what they really bought.  But Microsoft has managed to avoid that fate, in large part I imagine because they have mostly left Mojang to focus on what it does best, while pushing a few smart ideas of their own that their size and muscle allowed to be a success.

There has been some news out about Minecraft this week, which I am going to mix in with a couple of items of my own for a list of bullet points about Minecraft.

  • A Lot of People Play Minecraft

In a recent interview the head of the Minecraft business group at Microsoft, Helen Chiang, said that more than 90 million people play Minecraft every month, up from 74 million at the start of the year, and more than 150 million copies of the game have been sold, up from the 100 million mark back in mid 2016.

This is no doubt related to the fact that Minecraft is available in some form on a lot of platforms.  I was going to compare to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for most platforms supported, then I saw Minecraft was available on things like Apple TV and the Nintendo 3DS and started wondering if we were getting into Tetris levels of platform support.

  • No Minecraft 2

Also in that interview the question of a sequel came up and the idea of a direct sequel for the core Minecraft product was dismissed.  Microsoft gets it.  If you have a popular product with 90 million people playing it every month, you don’t yank the rug out and force them to decide between what they currently enjoy and some new item.

While Club Penguin didn’t have that level of popularity, things would have likely ended better had Disney not tried to force its player base onto the now discontinued Club Penguin Island.

So while Microsoft will use the Minecraft IP for other games, it won’t try to replace the core game.

  • Minecraft Dungeons

And speaking of using the Minecraft IP, at MineCon this past weekend a new spin-off was announced in the form of Minecraft Dungeons.

Described as something of a cross between Minecraft and Diablo, this will be a multiplayer dungeon crawl experience.  I have actually wondered about a Minecraft dungeon crawl experience in the past, though I would like it to be in the world where I can also build stuff.

Here is the trailer:

This could be interesting if done right.

  • Minecraft Realms

Not in the news, but something I want to mention as an item Microsoft got very right.  Part of what Minecraft does well is a shared experience.  You can play with your friends.  Minecraft is a power in online gaming that people often don’t even consider.

For a long time there was a plethora of third party hosting services for Minecraft and then Minecraft RealmsRealms didn’t offer any of the customization options that the third party hosts did and was much more expensive to boot, at least if you just wanted to play with a few friends.  It was pretty much a non-option when I first went looking for a place to host our Minecraft world.

Somebody at Microsoft figured out that if they couldn’t do quality when it came to features, they could easily do quantity based on a much lower price.  So they dropped the price and added in support for the various editions of the game, and kept it all easy to manage.  The UI for Realms is built into the Minecraft client.

You still can’t run mods and such, but for $7.99 a month it is an easy, no hassle way to put up an invite-only world that you and your friends can use.

It sure as hell was a better plan than that whole Mineserver fiasco.

  • Cuteness Overload

Also announced at MineCon was some of the plan for the next Minecraft update, which will be version 1.14.  Core to this will be Pandas.  There is a video.

There are also new NPCs planned, called pillagers, but this will be known as the panda update.

This is the sort of thing that will keep people coming back to Minecraft.

The MineCon announcement summary has been posted.