Xbox One X hits the spot

I’m writing this as a 40-year old. An age I never thought I’d get to (because 40 is ancient, right?) and yet somehow a month of being 40 has passed in the blink of an eye. I’ll be 50 before I know it, which is even scarier.

This may seem like an odd way to start this post but it’s a slight bit of background as to how I came into possession of an Xbox One X; my parents bought me one. Isn’t that awesome? 40-years old and they have accepted that gaming isn’t a fad of mine but my actual, genuine hobby. There’s hope for us all.

Question is: is the console really that powerful? Can it really live up to the hype? Does it boost games as much as they say?

The answer, in short, is effin’ hell yes.

In the past I’ve written about my preference for framerate, or more precisely lack of slowdown, over graphical fidelity but now I’m in the privileged position of being able to have both. Microsoft have been very clever and made sure all of their first-party games are enhanced for the console and it really shows, especially as I have a 4K television to get the best out of the machine. I’m also comparing against an Xbox One S, not an original Xbox One.

Cleverly, and as with some titles for the PlayStation 4 Pro, you can choose whether the Xbox will prioritise graphics or performance. If I’m honest I’ll go for performance every time because once I’m playing I can’t really tell the difference in how realistic a wall looks but the smoothness in how everything moves is noticeable.

The only difference to this is Forza Horizon 4, which goes from looking like the real thing in graphics mode to looking almost like the real thing but smoother in performance. Either way it’s absolutely mindblowing when you’re old enough to remember when games like Pit Fighter and Mortal Kombat sold themselves on photorealistic character models back in the nineties. I can’t wait to see how Mortal Kombat 11 looks on this beast of a machine.

That’s not the only one though: Gears of War 4’s campaign now runs at 60fps and looks stunning. I’m slowly playing through it again because it’s really that good. Halo 5 is mindblowing and I’ve already mentioned Forza.

But these are all Microsoft-published games, first-party products that you’d expect to use the technology to the max. What about third-party offerings? Well, I’ve had a chance to look at two so far and – thanks to Game Pass – will be able to try a few more in the coming weeks. What I can say is that Destiny 2 looks sharper and more crisp but the real difference is with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. In performance mode it runs gloriously and leaves the PS4 for dust.

The best part though is how quietly it runs. I love the PS4 Pro but on the more demanding games the fan is so loud I can’t hear the television! The Xbox One X? Quiet as a mouse.

If you have a 4K TV (and the means to afford the console) I heartily recommend you take the plunge. I feel it would be a harder sell if you don’t have the TV as yes, silky smooth gameplay is lovely but not £450 lovely.

Long story short: I’m chuffed to bits with the kit and if you’re able to get your hands on one, I think you will be too.

2D to 3D: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

In my post last month, I mentioned how I’d managed to find a copy of the first Simon the Sorcerer PC game at the London Gaming Market recently. A photograph of the case sparked a conversation with proxyfish in the comments during which we briefly discussed the series’ visual switch from 2D to 3D.

This got me thinking about other classic adventure franchises where the developers made the decision to jump from 2D to 3D. There are a number of well-known occasions where this occurred but instead of being amazed by technical advancements, fans were left unimpressed; take the transition from Broken Sword: The Smoking Mirror in 1997 to Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon in 2003 as an example. So what is it about this switch in style that we don’t like?

I discussed the subject with a few blogging friends last week and was actually surprised at their responses: most were positive about the switch in style and very little negativity was expressed. Perhaps my 3D aversion has something to do me with being a slightly older gamer then? I can remember being so excited at the release of The Escape from Monkey Island in 2000 but being horrified at what they’d done to Guybrush once I’d managed to get my hands on it.

For fans of an established series, the change can be quite jarring. You’re used to seeing your favourite characters depicted in all their pixelated glory; and, as I wrote in my response post to Brandon from That Green Dude recently, the plot then encourages your imagination to fill in the blanks between the pixels to create their full image. Then all of a sudden they’re 3D, looking nothing like you pictured in your head – and more like a bunch of jagged triangles hastily glued together.

I suspect that, like myself, many older fans of the genre found their way into it through a love of fantasy and science-fiction books when they were younger. The nearest thing to actually seeing the amazing stories contained within their pages were comics, which were then a short step to 2D adventure titles. Perhaps playing those sort of narrative games in 3D is so far removed from the original mediums that it feels almost ‘unnatural’ and we’re more at home in our flat worlds.

But maybe it’s nothing to do with visuals at all? We’re all aware of how bad the controls became when titles such as Gabriel Knight: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of Damned made the visual switch. Gone was the ease of simply clicking on an item to use it or right-clicking to display the verb wheel; and instead we were greeted with frustrating movement, bad camera angles and a release which just generally feels clunky (not to mention cat-hair moustaches).

And then again, maybe it’s nothing to do with the game at all and down to the fact that we gamers are generally a difficult bunch to please. Nostalgia has a funny way of affecting your opinion on a subject and casting a rosy glow around all that you remember from your younger years. For 90s players, the most well-loved adventures were those presented to us in pixels; and just as we’d quickly cite our preference for 2D, an adventurer from the 80s is as likely to cry out for text.

Regardless of how bad we think the transition from 2D to 3D was, the visuals themselves don’t really matter: it’s more important for the graphics to be in-tune with the developer’s vision for their project and to suit the gameplay. As I wrote last month, if all aspects of a release aren’t in sync and don’t work together in harmony, they’ll never create a coherent form that makes for an awesome gaming experience.

And let’s face it: if LucasArts were still with us and made a 3D adventure today, it would be way better those triangular nightmares we recall from our past.

Lookin’ good: video game visuals

Do you prefer realistic graphics or a unique art-style in your video games? That was the interesting question posed to the community back at the beginning of July by Brandon from That Green Dude.

It’s a bit of a difficult one to answer due to the sheer amount of choice we have available to us: advancements in technology mean we no longer have to put up with a simple sprite and can instead take our pick from retro graphics, hand-drawn animations and photorealism.

Everybody has a preference of course, and I’d say mine lies with pixel-art due in part to my age and nostalgia. My fondest memories of gaming while growing up primarily involve classic adventures such as The Secret of Monkey Island, Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars and Simon the Sorcerer; titles depicted in only a low resolution and 256 colours. Playing modern titles with a similar aesthetic still brings back that same sense of excitement and wonder that I felt as a child.

The Secret of Monkey Island, video game, ghost, pirates, LeChuck, Guybrush Threepwood, root beer, grog machine, Stan's Previously Owned Vessels, boatyard

There’s something about a developer adopting this type of visual style that’s quite brave, despite some gamers believing it’s ‘easy’. There’s a chance for their whole game to fall flat if the story isn’t perfect; the plot needs to be one which inspires the player’s imagination and encourages them to fill in the blanks between the pixels on screen. It’s the power of the mind’s eye which takes Guybrush from a blocky Deluxe Paint character to a young, blonde wannabe pirate.

As much as I love the pixelated style of the adventure classics however, there’s something magical about the photorealistic art used in today’s games too. Take Horizon Zero Dawn for example – one of the best releases of last year. Everything in the title has been fine-tuned to make it look as awesome as possible and around 80% of the natural landscape is procedurally-generated. According to Naughty Dog’s creative director, it was ‘simply stunning’ and set a new bar for graphics.

I spent so many hours both playing it and messing around with its photo-mode. It’s the small things that make it so special: the way Aloy’s hair ruffles when the wind catches it and how she hugs herself as she’s battered by rain. The mechanical beasts that interact with their herd while casually grazing, then limp and spark when wounded. The huge open vistas full of mountains and sunsets but smaller details such as tiny tree ants too, if you take the time to look closely enough.

Horizon Zero Dawn, video game, woman, warrior, Aloy, mountains, sky, photo mode, clouds

But would Horizon work so well if it was depicted in pixels of 256 colours? Definitely not. We want to see all that detail in Aloy’s metal foes as we go into battle against them because they’re so far removed from everything we know in the real world. And would Monkey Island have captured my imagination as much as it did if it was photorealistic? No again – because Guybrush would be someone else’s creation and not the pirate I see in my head (who I developed a big crush on).

It’s important for the graphics of any video game to be in-tune with the developer’s vision for their project and suit the gameplay. If all aspects aren’t in sync and don’t work together in harmony, they’ll never come together in a coherent form to create an awesome experience. The player is a the tourist in a game’s foreign lands and, just as with our adventures in the real world, each place we’ve visited conjures up a unique image in our minds that is wholly its own.

Thank you to Brandon for being the inspiration for this post – I’m sure there’ll be more questions from him in the future! Now, what’s your visual preference?