Earnings Calendar Oct & Nov 2020: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

First off, no jokes. I hope everyone is safe right now, especially here in the States. I know the pandemic is impossibly tough and puts a strain on everyone’s physical well-being and mental health. But it’s still bad out there, and it will only get worse if we don’t keep up with the same precautions. Please be patient and wear a mask.

The upside is that right now, we can spend even more time playing and discussing games, media and technology. And it’s as good a time as any, with a new earnings season underway and new tech products right around the corner!

Which brings us to this: The Internet’s single biggest compiled list of of earnings dates for the most important companies in these sectors. Now covering over 75 stocks, including those from numerous markets worldwide plus a handful of newer listings this time around.

Check out the calendar above to save as a handy image or click on the Google Doc below, which has links to company websites with more information. It’s the only resource you’ll ever need to track these dates.

I’ll periodically update as others are firmed up, so set up that bookmark and check back often. Now on to the calendar and highlighting three companies to watch closely this season.

Working Casual Earnings Calendar Oct & Nov 2020: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

Activision Blizzard, Inc (ATVI): Thursday, October 29

On one of the busiest days this quarter, domestic gaming juggernaut Activision Blizzard reports its third quarter results. I expect the ongoing momentum of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, mostly attributed to its Warzone battle royale mode and constant stream of seasonal updates, to drive an impressive suite of figures. We’ll also hear about attribution from mid-September’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2, a critical darling, plus perhaps an indication of early sales for Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time after its launch in early October. As for forecasting, I expect Activision Blizzard to maintain or even raise guidance with Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War debuting in November, which I fully expect to be the best-selling console game of 2020.

Square Enix (9684): Early November

Square Enix will publish its second quarter report in early November, and it’s the most important in a long while. Mainly because this is the first period after the Japanese publisher’s flagship Marvel’s Avengers released in September, to both mixed reviews and an uncertain market reaction. As I wrote recently, it was the best-selling title in the U.S. during September according to The NPD Group. Industry tracking firm SuperData recently estimated it was the third best-seller of the month globally measured by digital sales on consoles, moving an approximate 2.2 million copies. This would be the company’s second best digital start ever behind April’s Final Fantasy 7 Remake. Square Enix has consistently reiterated very positive guidance leading into this fiscal, yet hasn’t shared global unit sales statistics for its second major title of 2020. Makes it tricky to know which way it will go.

Corsair Gaming Inc (CRSR), Unity Software (U): TBD

The games industry saw some notable initial public offerings during September in Corsair Gaming and Unity Software, the former a headset and accessory designer while the latter is a software provider boasting one of the world’s most popular gaming engines. Corsair shares declined right after listing, though have since rose over 70% to give the company a valuation over $2.2 billion. Unity Software has been hot from the start, its stock gaining 46% since first trading. This makes its market valuation a staggering $26 billion, at or ahead of the most established of publishers and software providers. This will be the first time these companies report publicly outside of their respective prospectuses, so we’ll see how underlying financials align with market sentiment once we know the exact dates.

Thanks for stopping by and hope to see you again soon!

Sources: Company Investor Relations Websites, NPD Group, SuperData.

-Dom

Marvel’s Avengers & Nintendo Assemble at the Top of September’s U.S. Game Sales Charts

It’s officially sales season in gaming, and is proving to be busy one at that.

September ushered a great start domestically for a polarizing game from Square Enix, while overall consumer spend achieved yet another double-digit increase even as the console cycle comes to a close. Plus, there were tons of debuts and new-ish games to discuss on the software side while Nintendo secured another dominant win within the hardware category.

Industry tracking firm The NPD Group has, hm.. assembled its latest monthly sales statistics for the U.S. games market. Stand-outs during September included Marvel’s Avenger’s achieving the top spot on the software chart, sports games occupying 3 of the Top 5 spots including a record performance from a familiar franchise, Crusader Kings III debuting within the Top 7 and Nintendo Switch besting hardware as it’s done every month since December 2018.

Total spending across the categories of Video Game Content, Video Game Hardware and Video Game Accessories reached a whopping $4.3 billion in the domestic market during September 2020. An increase of 10% since this time last year. While it’s not as robust as the growth seen in the spring and summer months, it’s still yet another double-digit rate which has been the case each month since March. Of course coinciding with the tragic rise of the pandemic, which has forced people to remain home for months.

“Mobile, hardware and accessories were among the largest growth segments,” said NPD Group Analyst Mat Piscatella. In terms of hardware, “growth in sales of Nintendo Switch offset declines on other console platforms.”

Expanding to the year-to-date figures, broad consumer spend in the games industry reached $33.7 billion through September. This is up 21% since last year. Continued stay-at-home guidelines and quarantine mandates combined with a variety of brand new titles from major publishers, namely licensed releases and sports titles, contributed to impressive growth this late in the console generation.

Let’s get more into the numbers and commentary.

United States Games Industry Sales (August 30th to October 3rd):

As mentioned before, September brought healthy gains overall and across all three major categories in the U.S. tracked by The NPD Group. The above chart shows monthly and year-to-date metrics.

The largest category of Content (i.e. game sales and in-game purchases) reached $3.84 billion in September and $29.8 billion for the year as a whole, increases of 8% and 21% respectively. Mainly driven by titles from some of the most popular companies in the business: Square Enix, Nintendo, Activision Blizzard and Electronic Arts.

Diving into the data, Marvel’s Avengers fought its way to the top spot on the total software chart which I’ll list out shortly.

The hero brawler slash live service game made by Crystal Dynamics received mixed critical reception at release in early September, yet brand power goes a long way when it comes to licensed titles. Not only was Square Enix’s latest the top-selling game overall last month, it held the top spot on both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One individual charts plus immediately became the 7th best-selling title of the year so far.

Its launch month dollar sales were quite impressive, reaching the second best in history for a super hero game behind only the record-setting 2018 title Marvel’s Spider-Man. While early success doesn’t guarantee momentum over time, which is key for an ongoing game like Marvel’s Avengers with regular characters and content updates, a solid start establishes a baseline audience that may come back during those intervals. We also haven’t heard yet from Square Enix on global sales, which I predicted would be strong in its launch window. Essentially, only the first chapter of its story has been told.

It wouldn’t be a software chart without a major Nintendo launch, and September was no exception. Super Mario 3D All-Stars, the collection of three classic games in the beloved series, jumped to the 2nd spot overall. Spanning 2020 as a whole, it enters the year-to-date chart at the 10th spot.

For context, Super Mario 3D All-Stars is also the 2nd best retail launch for any game in the U.S. during 2020 that isn’t called Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which is more an anomaly at this point with its incredible sales. Widening the time frame, it’s the 6th best start for any game published by Nintendo in tracking history, as measured by retail dollar sales. (Note that Nintendo doesn’t share digital in this context, so this particular statistic only encompasses physical sales.)

Madden NFL 21 rounds out the Top 3, scoring a second consecutive month of solid momentum after leading the chart in August. Publisher Electronic Arts hasn’t shared specifics in terms of units or engagement for the football game, though did say in a press release that this year’s Madden recorded 20% higher unit sell-thru to customers than its predecessor during launch week.

“After the most successful year in franchise history, fans are now playing more Madden than ever before,” said Executive Producer Seann Graddy. Personally, I’d prefer to hear exactly how many people are playing, unfortunately that’s wishful thinking for a major sports title these days other than maybe Take-Two and its 2K franchises.

Speaking of, September welcomed the resurgence of Tony Hawk with the release of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2, a rebuilding of the first two games in Activision’s long-running skateboarding series. The remake carved its way to the 4th spot overall in the most impressive of ways: it set a series record for launch month dollar sales, outpacing the prior leader in 2004’s Tony Hawk’s Underground 2. Talk about grinding out the win.

Quickly reporting on the remainder of notable new games, Take-Two’s annual basketball release NBA 2K21 scored the 5th spot. This is noticeably lower than last year’s title, which led September 2019’s rankings. I’d say that’s mainly due to the publisher no longer sharing digital share for any of its products, which is even more obvious with how both Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption 2 are no longer mainstays each month.

Since NPD Group doesn’t publicly state units or dollars, it’s difficult to determine an early performance comparison across NBA 2K history. Take-Two Interactive reports second quarter results on November 5th, and executives should share global unit sales at that time.

In what’s likely the surprise of the monthly chart, Crusader Kings III landed at #7. The strategy game from Paradox Interactive achieved the best launch month start in series history from both a ranking and dollar sales standpoint. Two October games that technically released right before the cut-off landed on the chart: Star Wars: Squadrons at #9 then Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time at #11. More to come next month on these when they have more days on market.

Lastly, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare maintains its position as the year’s top-seller as it enters into its sixth and likely final season of content before Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War hits stores on November 13th. I expect the latter of these to lead holiday charts. Yes, even with all the major games around the new console launches especially the hotly-anticipated Cyberpunk 2077 from CD Projekt Red, which will serve as stiff competition.

Check out the software charts below for September 2020 and the year so far, then I’ll switch over to hardware and accessories.

Top-Selling Games of September 2020, U.S. (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Marvel’s Avengers
  2. Super Mario 3D All-Stars*
  3. Madden NFL 21
  4. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2
  5. NBA 2K21*
  6. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  7. Crusader Kings III
  8. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  9. Star Wars: Squadrons
  10. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe*
  11. Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time
  12. Ghost of Tsushima
  13. Ring Fit Adventure
  14. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  15. UFC 4
  16. New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe*
  17. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  18. Super Mario Odyssey*
  19. Mortal Kombat 11
  20. Super Mario Party*

Top-Selling Games of 2020 So Far, U.S. (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  2. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  3. The Last of Us: Part 2
  4. Madden NFL 21
  5. Ghost of Tsushima
  6. Final Fantasy 7: Remake
  7. Marvel’s Avengers
  8. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot
  9. MLB: The Show 20
  10. Super Mario 3D All-Stars*

Moving to the Video Game Hardware category, spending in September amounted to $277 million which is up 15% year-on-year. Nintendo Switch was the only console experiencing gains. Over 2020 so far, hardware spend rose 22% to $2.3 billion in total. In the least surprising stat this past month, Switch was again the best-selling console by both number sold and dollars generated. It nearly broke a September record as per comments from Piscatella, and retains its position atop the hardware list for the year as well.

This is a spot Nintendo’s hybrid has held since holiday season nearly two years ago. And I’m on record saying that even with the release of both Xbox Series X|S and PlayStation 5 upcoming in November, Nintendo will once again attain the top spot for each month during the 4th quarter. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is still the game to get, plus upcoming releases like Pikmin 3 Deluxe (October 30th) and Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity (November 20th) mean there’s still room for growth in the domestic market for Switch if you can believe it. Guaranteed to be a staple of holiday product lists.

The final category of Video Accessories is actually among the most significant of results last month. Accessory spend reached a record September amount, hitting $191 million or a 30% gain since this time last year. Over 2020 to date, this category has accumulated an all-time high result of $1.6 billion, an increase of 26% year-over-year. Within, Gamepad and Headset/Headphones sub-categories also hit historical highs for both a September monthly result and year-to-date through this same month driven by the Xbox Elite Series 2 Wireless Controller.

And that’s all for September’s numbers and positions. The late summer to early fall here in the States sees continued lock-downs in many areas as coronavirus tragically isn’t going away any time soon. The games industry continues to be a benefactor of people abiding by the rules, making the most of home entertainment and spending time interacting via online games as opposed to in-person gatherings.

For way more detail on The NPD Group release itself, head over to their Twitter page or the in-depth thread from Piscatella as well.

Until next time, stay safe and thanks for stopping by!

*Digital Sales Not Included

Sources: Electronic Arts, Nintendo, NPD Group, Square Enix, Take-Two Interactive.

-Dom

Forget Console Wars: Sony & Microsoft Can Both Win Next Generation

Congratulations, gaming fans. You can do it!

All of you.

After Sony’s somewhat messy reveal yesterday of many things PlayStation 5 plus Microsoft’s announcements last week regarding the Xbox Series X|S platforms, the foundation of gaming’s next console generation are starting to fall into place.

With these announcements and a subsequent trickle of details, both manufacturers are solidifying their individual strategies. Sony with its more direct platform marketing and big-budget exclusive software compared to Microsoft’s two-tiered hardware plan plus service as an ecosystem play.

And I believe that both of these can, and will, work out for them.

Starting with Sony, the Japanese tech giant shared that the PlayStation 5 base version starts at $499 with a Digital Edition set for a quite competitive $399. The only difference being the latter doesn’t have a physical disc drive. Both release on Thursday, November 12th in seven markets, then November 19th in the remainder. Launch lineup includes games like Demon’s Souls and Marvel’s Spider-Man Miles Morales (which now has an Ultimate Edition with a remastered version of 2018’s Marvel’s Spider-Man), with the most notable point being increased prices compared to last generation. The broad video game price increase is officially underway.

Sony’s showcase also had brand new announcements like Final Fantasy XVI from Square Enix and Warner Bros’ Hogwarts Legacy then capped off teasing a new God of War title in development from its Santa Monica Studio. Overall, it was a tight, informative presentation albeit missing a number of key details for things like software release windows and pre-order timing.

Messaging from Sony has been all over the place in the time since this reveal. First off, Sony allowed retailers to dictate when pre-orders went live despite saying that they would provide “plenty of notice” previously. Also in the past, executives like Sony Interactive Entertainment’s President & CEO Jim Ryan have stressed how the company believes in generations. That is, targeting games for strictly the new console as opposed to cross-generational type releases.

Then yesterday, the garbled communication accelerated. The team said PlayStation 5 games including Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Sackboy A Big Adventure and even next year’s flagship graphical powerhouse Horizon Forbidden West will also have PlayStation 4 releases. An inconsistency with seemingly its underlying strategy of established generations. Now, this makes all the sense in the world from a business standpoint. There are 112 million PlayStation 4 consoles in the wild, most owners of which won’t upgrade for a number of years. A clean-break generational move is antiquated in 2020, when backwards compatibility and maintaining a library is important.

Early adopters are going to buy the shiny new box regardless. It’s more about people six months or years from now that will determine the trajectory of sales. These companies have to consider those just as much as the enthusiasts.

In another twist, Ryan said in a couple interviews with media that the overall catalog of games is less significant than having “new, great” software offerings. Combine this with the massive $100 million or more budgets for its first party projects, Ryan doesn’t think that launching games into a subscription service is sustainable.

The irony is that I believe bridging the gap between PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 is one of the reasons why Sony can be successful in the upcoming cycle. Maintaining continuity with its legacy owners and their libraries will allow people to upgrade without fear of losing access to their favorite games, especially with many titles being live services now and not providing clear upgrade paths. Early adopters are going to buy the shiny new box regardless. It’s more about people six months or years from now that will determine the trajectory of sales. These companies have to consider those just as much as the enthusiasts.

Another reason I believe Sony can achieve is competitive pricing, especially the Digital Edition at $399. This model comes without sacrifice in the power department, it’s just that it only allows for digital downloads. Sony apparently had locked in the idea of getting at least a version to the same launch price of PlayStation 4, and they succeeded. The question comes down to availability, and anecdotal evidence says the digital version is much harder to find despite Sony saying that the PlayStation 5 will have more units overall at launch than its predecessor.

Finally, and it’s no secret, Sony’s software prowess is near unparalleled in modern game development. Its studios are among the most talented in the business. With projects like Horizon Forbidden West and God of War 2021 in the pipeline from internal teams, Sony seems to be leveraging a similar software strategy as last generation in quality, single-player experiences.

It’s also making key partnerships with external publishers, such as the aforementioned deal with Square Enix for Final Fantasy XVI console exclusivity plus its work with Bluepoint Games on major remakes, to round out the portfolio. There’s also a new service offering as part of its PlayStation Plus membership: PlayStation Plus Collection, where legacy titles will be available for PS5 owners.

That’s how Sony can win. Solid hardware pricing to sell volume of both editions, new foundational games on console then PlayStation Plus and even PC on the back end down the line. It just needs better and more honest messaging, clean up the pre-order process ahead of November and share information on upgrade paths like it has with Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales in that the game moves with players from PS4 to the upcoming generation.

Switching to its main competitor in Microsoft of course, its Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S consoles debut a bit earlier the same week on November 10th in a simultaneous global launch, for $499 and an utterly aggressive $299 respectively. Both are also available via what’s called the Xbox All Access financing program, for $34.99 and $24.99 per month each. This comes with a subscription to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, an immediate library of software. Which is a key part of enticing especially new buyers, not having to drop so much money up front like generations of the past.

As I’ve stated before, the American software and cloud conglomerate’s modus operandi is ecosystem and services. Lowering the barrier to entry, offering games and subscriptions on a variety of devices beyond its consoles, embracing cloud as a complement to traditional gaming plus connecting everything in its Xbox brand. Its Xbox Game Pass catalog of games monthly subscription service is arguably the best value in the industry, considering that all new first party titles launch simultaneously into the service on their retail date.

Then there’s Project xCloud. Microsoft formally launched the cloud streaming offering just earlier this week for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate members in various countries for use on Android phones and tablets. It’s a play on the future direction of the industry. Despite some critics prognosticating otherwise, I don’t believe it’s a replacement for traditional games. It’s a complement that will offer yet another way to play console and PC quality software. Which means it won’t cannibalize sales, it will be accretive to the business line.

“We really built this strategy around that – play the games you want, with the people you want, on the devices you want or already have,” said Phil Spencer, Head of Xbox. “The high-level goal for us is can we build a platform where more people want to play more games more often?”

What this means is that Microsoft is foregoing one-time purchases up front to make it up in volume, monthly fees and player engagement. It hopes to monetize on an ongoing basis, and keep people in the ecosystem whether using hardware, PC or even mobile via cloud.

So, what does this have to do with winning? Everything.

A holistic approach makes Microsoft less dependent on core hardware sales and major, blockbuster exclusives than ever before. Its hyper-competitive pricing tier for Xbox Series S gives the most realistic entry point for various slices of the market: lapsed gamers, those on the fence about an upgrade and even PlayStation owners looking for a way to try games not available on that platform. Sure, the company is chalking up a loss on hardware and even generating less revenue up front with service discounts. It’s still built up a user base of 10 million strong for Xbox Game Pass as of last month, many of which have or will renew even when their discounts expire. And according to various accounts, this leads to people not just playing more games but also buying them, bumping up software sales alongside the subscription.

Xbox has also been much better about messaging and marketing, sending a clear signal with both its pricing and retail packaging. Its social media team is on fire, rolling with the punches during leaks and summarizing perfectly the contrast between its console models. While some argue that offering two models with similar names is confusing, I strongly disagree and think that tech consumers are more knowledgeable than that in the age of multiple iPhone models and countless TV iterations. The pricing alone tells the story: Xbox Series S is for those looking to enter next gen at an affordable price, Xbox Series X is for the enthusiasts that are much less sensitive to cost.

A holistic approach makes Microsoft less dependent on core hardware sales and major, blockbuster exclusives than ever before. Its hyper-competitive pricing tier for Xbox Series S gives the most realistic entry point for various slices of the market

The main question (and it’s a big one, no doubt) surrounding Xbox is its software lineup, at least early in the cycle. Without games like Halo Infinite, Forza Motorsport or Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 at launch, it will lean more on smaller titles like The Medium from Bloober Team and Ebb Software’s Scorn, older first party games like Gears 5 and Gears Tactics plus external, multi-platform releases such as Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and Destiny 2: Beyond Light. With the amount of studio acquisitions and announced games like the aforementioned bunch plus Rare’s Fable and Everwild, I anticipate a more beefed up portfolio within two years of launch. Which is really the time that’s most make-or-break for sales.

Microsoft is one of the world’s largest companies, and while Xbox is a key brand segment, it’s a small portion of the overall business. We’re still talking about an $11.5 billion or more annual revenue generator here, one where Microsoft is clearly investing in parallel to its Cloud offerings. The firm can sustain a hit from discounted Xbox Game Pass and All Access programs, as long as the opportunity is there to keep players over time. These are meant to build up the audience base and benefit over the longer term, even if shorter term it appears to be slower than its competition.

As noted throughout, we now know how both Sony and Microsoft are throwing down aggressive pricing this holiday season for some powerful next generation boxes. Both are investing internally, mapping out marketing, purchasing studios and making partnerships in attempts to win mind-share and, most importantly, dollars.

Sony promises more PlayStation 5 consoles at launch than PlayStation 4, offers an enticing Digital Edition upgrade for PS4 owners while also solidifies a more impressive launch lineup of software even if its messaging has been jumbled. Microsoft’s message has been direct: Its Xbox Series S is the most affordable of the bunch and both consoles are available via a financing option for folks that might not want to pay up front or have been impacted financially by coronavirus.

It’s not quite time yet for my detailed forecasts, though this piece should give an early indication of where I’m at in that I expect both manufacturers to sell out of launch stock then move into the later years of this generation with unique offerings that absolutely will attract buyers. Even some that will overlap. If I had to pick, I’m slightly more bullish on Sony’s prospects especially if they can supply enough Digital Editions to the market at that extremely attractive $400 point.

That doesn’t mean its competition can’t also win. Each has something the other doesn’t, which means victory is attainable for all. Most of which, console gamers. Even if they’ll probably continue to fight among themselves for eternity.

Stay safe all. Thanks for reading!

All prices reference above in U.S. Dollars. Local pricing available at manufacturer websites.

Sources: Fast Company, GamesIndustry.Biz, Microsoft, Sony, TechRadar, Washington Post, Xbox Wire.

-Dom

Madden Wins & Nintendo Sets a Record in August Games Industry Sales Report

The push toward the goal line of 2020 is now officially underway, as signaled by the annual release of a new Madden game.

And this year’s proves to be another big seller, pushing games industry growth up double-digits here in the States.

During August 2020, Electronic Arts’ Madden NFL 21 and Nintendo’s Switch console attracted the most dollar sales in their respective categories domestically, with the former increasing the franchise streak of commercial success and the latter setting a new August month record. This is all according to the latest monthly report from tracking firm The NPD Group.

Overall, stay-at-home restrictions and everyone trying to get the most out of the relaxing days before school starts drove consumer spending across the games industry in August to $3.3 billion. That’s up 37% since this same time period last year. (Get used to that number.)

“Digital content on console, mobile and subscription were among largest growth segments,” said my friend and NPD Analyst Mat Piscatella.

Expanding to year-to-date spend, this is up 23% across 2020 so far to a total sum of $29.4 billion. Every category jumped more than 20% in August. The three main ones now being Video Game Hardware, Video Game Content and Video Game Accessories as I detailed last month.

As I’ll describe shortly, 2020 continues to be a remarkable year when it comes to gaming sales across multiple segments even amidst the ongoing difficulties of coronavirus. It’s one of the main viable forms of experiencing new entertainment at home, especially as film studios continue to push major motion pictures to theaters. Gaming is excellent at bringing people together remotely, and almost all companies involved are benefactors whether it’s those producing free-to-play releases like Fall Guys and Among Us or the traditional full-price model as we’ll see here.

On to the numbers.

United States Games Industry Sales (August 2nd to August 29th):

As displayed in the above chart compiled by The NPD Group, Video Game Content i.e. software and in-game purchases sales rose 37% (there it is again) in August 2020, reaching $2.9 billion. For the year as a whole thru last month, content category spend hit $25.9 billion which is up 22%.

The major highlight during August was Madden NFL 21, the best-selling title last month. This marked the 21st straight year that a game in the Electronic Arts-published football franchise has led the overall chart during its first month. It’s a streak that provides context for just how consistent the annualized series is commercially.

Launch month sales doubled when compared to Madden NFL 20, making it instantly the sixth best-selling game of 2020 to date. Surpassing games with months of sales like Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot and MLB: The Show 20. The continued early success here reiterates the Madden NFL brand as the top-selling sports franchise in the multiple decade history of tracking.

Another Electronic Arts game reached second place on the August list, that being UFC 4. The mixed martial arts simulator set a launch sales record for UFC games produced by EA, dating back to 2014. The game ranked within the Top 3 of the individual charts for both Xbox One and PlayStation 4 platform results.

The other ongoing stories were Call of Duty: Modern Warfare rounding out the Top 3 while games published by Nintendo occupied six spots within the Top 11. Animal Crossing: New Horizons showed steady momentum, landing it at #5 while fitness game Ring Fit Adventure finished right behind it.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild reached an impressive milestone in August, as it’s now the 10th best-selling game on a Nintendo platform of all time domestically. It was a launch title for Nintendo Switch back in March 2017, since which time it’s been in the Top 7 on that platform’s list of software sellers every single month.

Another note in perusing the lists is the notable scarcity of games from publisher Take-Two Interactive, owner of Rockstar Games and 2K Games. Its golf game PGA Tour 2K21 landed at #14 on the main chart, a respectable yet pedestrian result, and its sports titles randomly made the single platform lists. Though staples like Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption 2 are nowhere to be found. My understanding is this stems from a change in how the company is reporting its downloadable portion, as its games are now flagged similar to Nintendo’s without digital sales.

I expect its flagship basketball title NBA 2K21, released back on September 4th, to perform very well during September’s report. However I can’t shake the odd feeling of not seeing Rockstar on any of the lists, when I know its games are still attracting players and dollars.

Anyways, full charts for August and year-to-date below.

Top-Selling Games of August 2020, U.S. (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Madden NFL 21
  2. UFC 4
  3. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  4. Ghost of Tsushima
  5. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  6. Ring Fit Adventure
  7. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe*
  8. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  9. Paper Mario: The Origami King*
  10. Mortal Kombat 11
  11. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  12. The Last of Us: Part 2
  13. Minecraft: PS4 Edition
  14. PGA Tour 2K21*
  15. New Super Mario Bros. Deluxe*
  16. Super Mario Party*
  17. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege
  18. Super Mario Odyssey*
  19. Final Fantasy 7: Remake
  20. Luigi’s Mansion 3*

Top-Selling Games of 2020 So Far, U.S. (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  2. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  3. The Last of Us: Part 2
  4. Final Fantasy 7: Remake
  5. Ghost of Tsushima
  6. Madden NFL 21
  7. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot
  8. MLB: The Show 20
  9. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe*
  10. Mortal Kombat 11

Within the Video Game Hardware category, consumer spending totaled $229 million last month which was growth of 37% (a ha! we meet again) when compared to August 2019. For year-to-date figures, spending on consoles was up 23% to $2 billion flat.

While Nintendo Switch continued its dominance as the best-selling hardware, a spot it’s held each monthly report since late 2018, August proved an especially exceptional result. The hybrid platform set a new August month record for dollar sales, outpacing that of the Nintendo Wii back in August 2008. Also, unit sales doubled since this time last year. Considering its recent momentum and ongoing demand, this shows what can happen when the supply side and inventories catch up to consumer interest.

Going back three years ago, right before Switch hit the market, I was on record as one of the most bullish on its prospects. I loved the hardware design and thought that a combination of that ingenuity and Nintendo’s software prowess, Switch would be one of the firm’s most successful consoles ever. But I stopped short of predicting it would beat the Wii, a global phenomenon in the years after its 2006 launch.

These days, I’m reconsidering that. Especially with word that the company is further ramping up production into the back half of this fiscal year and the speculation of another model next year, I’m now betting that Switch lifetime sales meet or exceed that of Wii globally.

Want another prediction that we’ll know sooner than that? Looking domestically according to these reports, I’m planting my flag that Nintendo will win the holiday months even with the start of next generation, mainly due to supply opening up for Nintendo’s box and limits on inventory for its competitors in the Xbox Series X|S and PlayStation 5.

Whew. Back to the report itself, Video Game Accessories also set an August record last month by jumping 42% to $166 million in dollar sales. Expanding to full year, sales within this category reached an all-time high through an August month at $1.4 billion, exhibiting growth of 26% year-over-year.

Sub-categories sales here for Gamepad, Headsets/Headphones and even Steering Wheels boasted August and year-to-date records too, though no growth or cash totals were provided. PlayStation 4 DualShock 4 wireless black model was top-selling accessory in August. Xbox’s Elite Series 2 game pad maintains its spot as the year’s top seller so far.

Moving into the back part of Q3 then holiday season is when these reports really ramp up, this year more than ever with Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 + 2 releasing in early September. (Get it?)

Though really, the combination of coronavirus restrictions, Nintendo’s slate now being clear with Mario’s 35th anniversary games including Super Mario 3D All-Stars then Pikmin 3 plus of course new generation consoles starting in November as I write about before with Microsoft’s Xbox Series X|S announcements, this is the starting whistle of the more newsworthy months in industry tracking.

Highly recommend NPD Group’s post and NPD Analyst Mat Piscatella’s thread for a great summary and further details on the results and individual platform rankings.

Stay safe everyone. Thanks for hanging out!

*Digital Sales Not Included

Sources: Bloomberg, Electronic Arts, NPD Group.

-Dom

Microsoft Reveals Xbox Series S, Leaks Hint to Series X Price & Release Date

Updated: September 9th.

It’s now around two months before next generation gaming consoles are set to release, and one of the manufacturers has finally moved publicly on price.

Well, sort of.

In the middle of the night here in the States, Microsoft formally unveiled its “smallest Xbox ever” in the Xbox Series S, the counterpart to its higher powered Xbox Series X platform. The leaner, more cost-friendly Series S will launch at $299 with a financing option at $25 per month via Xbox All Access.

Its existence has been the worst kept secret in the industry for a year or more, originating at the same time speculation began about Microsoft’s new generation approach featuring multiple, simultaneous console launches. Last night this intensified, mainly due to a post at Thurrott.com showing leaked promotional packaging for the Series S.

According to another leaked Series S promo posted by WalkingCat on Twitter, this time a full on video ad, Microsoft is certainly going for the segment of the audience that might want to upgrade or enter the Xbox ecosystem, doesn’t care about physical discs and refuses to break the bank in order to play the newest games.

Series S is an all-digital box, which means no disc drive, and it’s 60% smaller than the beefy Series X. While it has a quick-loading solid state hard drive (SSD), it’s only 512GB which is restrictive in terms of internal storage space. Especially for a console that only downloads or streams games. Its specs are of course reigned in compared to any next gen version so far, though targets comparable output in terms of performance. Supports high frame rates, 4K upscaling and more as you’ll see in the commercial.

Furthering the fervor, Windows Central dropped even more major news in that its sources say the powerful Xbox Series X will launch at $499 with a $35 per month financing option.

AND that both Xbox consoles will be out on Tuesday, November 10th.

(Edit: Microsoft has confirmed that at least Xbox Series S launches this day. I anticipate both will be at the same time.)

(Second Edit: Microsoft revealed that Xbox Series X will also release on this date, at $499.)

Whew. After months of snacking on crumbs, we now have a lot to digest. First, let’s talk timing.

This all sounds legitimate. Friend of the site Jez Corden and his team at Windows Central are reliable for most things Microsoft and this is consistent with the company’s own marketing of a November release. Plants it squarely before the holiday rush and right during the windows of big third party titles like Destiny 2: Beyond Light, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Cyberpunk 2077.

(The irony of a Bungie game that isn’t Halo being effectively a launch title for an Xbox console isn’t lost on me!)

And, this timing just might be before its rival Sony PlayStation 5 as well, which is rumored actually for later that week on Friday, November 13th.

If the simultaneous Xbox release happens to be November 10th, then it’s a few days after my prediction. I thought the console would hit on a Friday, though Microsoft is seemingly opting for a Tuesday strategy. Similar to its Xbox 360 debut in 2005. Really, the exact day of launch is less important in the grand scheme than is moving first and having it ready to go before Black Friday and holiday shopping begins in its major markets.

Still, what continues to stand out to me is a distinct lack of exclusive, first party launch games now that Halo: Infinite is delayed to next year. The timing tells me that Microsoft is leaning into those aforementioned third parties, updates from last generation software and its Xbox Game Pass service to entice people to upgrade. Perhaps when Microsoft officially reveals the date, it will also have a surprise announcement for a new launch game. (Not betting on it.)

There’s also the question of future-proofing, which is why this latest set of consoles try to target things like 8K resolution and 120 frames-per-second at the top end. These boxes need to be relevant years from now. Can the Series S accomplish this with its current specs? Probably not. Which is why we’ll likely see a mid-generational upgrade like we did last time around, so future-proofing isn’t as important as it once was.

Next up, that pricing!

The first word that came to mind when hearing these revelations is: Aggressive. Like, extremely so.

Earlier this year, I speculated that $499 would be the minimum price for Series X based on its specs and likely build cost. I’m on record saying I expected $349 for a cost-friendly Series S with the option to reduce based on its specs (which we never knew in advance, in my defense). Microsoft reaching or beating these, especially the $299 Series S point, clearly shows a strategy of making next gen affordable for as many people as possible even if the lower end specs aren’t dazzling.

These days for the $11.6 billion in annual revenue Xbox gaming division, it’s just as much about attracting buyers to Xbox Game Pass. The two-tiered console approach covers a significant part of the market now. Enthusiasts will always upgrade early, that’s the audience for Series X. It’s the more casual audience, those that are platform agnostic or even lapsed gamers that are most likely to bite on that juicy $299 price tag.

Another smart move from a marketing perspective is Microsoft starting with the price announcement of only its entry level version. Putting that in public mind-share on its own, rather than showing both at once. Taking this sort of staggered approach injects a sense of affordability in the market, saying to consumers that it really isn’t crazy expensive to move into the next generation of console gaming.

I fully expect to see at least a version of each console bundled with Xbox Live, Xbox Game Pass and even the streaming service Project xCloud, the last of which is an especially intriguing play for the all-digital Series S. An Xbox Series S bundled with an introductory subscription to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate could be the best bang for the buck early in the console cycle.

In terms of general sales predictions, I’m still cautiously upbeat on early prospects in November and all of the fourth quarter calendar year. For both console manufacturers, mind you. We still don’t know price or timing for Sony’s PlayStation 5, so I’m hesitant to go on record with figures or comparisons at this stage other than to say I’m expecting demand to be steady though unsure about production quantities.

Even so. With the confirmation of an all-digital version in the next gen Xbox family, Microsoft sales should shift towards that lower-margin model which means slightly lower overall revenue generation. I still fully expect early adopters to upgrade to the Series X. The question becomes how many of the people that might not have upgraded, or might have picked the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition, will now buy Series S? That will dictate sales even more than the hardcore players.

Of course it also comes down to production, which we know will be impacted by coronavirus and availability of parts. In 2013, Xbox One sold a million units in a day to be the biggest launch in Microsoft’s gaming history. And that was priced $100 more than its competitor. Between the two models this time, there’s potential for setting another record internally.

So, what now?

Microsoft ended its Twitter reveal saying that they will share more soon. Windows Central notes the likelihood of Xbox holding a press event in the near future, after which time I assume pre-orders will also go live for both versions. Expect this to be *very* soon, like within days now.

While overnight we saw our first glimpse of next generation pricing, plus received all-but-confirmed rumors of cost and timing for the Xbox suite of devices, we’re now waiting for that official confirmation.

Then, it’s Sony’s move. My “almost” final prediction for PlayStation 5 Standard Edition is $499 and Digital Edition is $399. Which would be great for that Series S entry point. When will we know? Well, right after Microsoft’s event seems like a sure thing.

I’d bet the house.

Stay tuned here or Twitter for more news, commentary and sales talk on next generation consoles plus everything in gaming. Thanks for reading!

All prices quoted in US Dollars. Sources: Microsoft, Thurott, WalkingCat on Twitter, Windows Central, Xbox Wire.

-Dom

Ghost of Tsushima & Nintendo Power July 2020 U.S. Games Industry Sales

The results are in for another month, proving most of the games industry is still powering up and seemingly staying at home during what continues to be the most difficult of times. COVID-19 restrictions and major new releases from multiple publishers drove growth, which counteracted a slight dip in console sales during July.

U.S. video game sales tracking firm The NPD Group released its July 2020 domestic report this morning,. Overall movement is impressive from both a dollar sales and individual title standpoint, especially for new games from Sony and Nintendo plus catalog titles from 3rd party teams.

Let’s take a look at the trends and get some commentary going on monthly performance.

Note: NPD Group has adjusted its software tracking metrics, which means its three main categories are now as follows:

Video Game Hardware: Console and hardware sales.

Video Game Content: Previously dubbed Video Game Software. This now includes “total market Physical and Digital Full Game, DLC/MTX and Subscription consumer spending across Console, Cloud, Mobile, Portable, PC and VR platforms.”

Video Game Accessories: Self-explanatory, includes controllers, game pads, headphones and comparable gaming accoutrements.

United States Games Industry Sales (July 5th to August 1st):

Overall industry consumer spending jumped an impressive 32% in July compared to the same month last year, totaling $3.6 billion. When expanding to 2020 as a whole, total spend domestically is up 21% to $26 billion right now.

NPD Group Analyst, and online friend of mine, Mat Piscatella said this about overall performance in July: “Double-digit percentage spending gains in accessories, subscription, mobile and both digital full game as well as post launch spending on console and PC offset a slight decline in hardware.”

The largest contributor to last month’s results by far is Video Game Content, at $3.3 billion in dollar sales. This is an increase of 34% over July 2019. In particular the Digital segment within Content is expanding rapidly, showing growth of 41% year-on-year although no dollar amount or split was shared. I’d imagine physical is also showing resilience as we’ve seen with multiple earnings reports from big publishers around the world, though digital is certainly benefiting most from current conditions due to ease of access and retail closures.

As for individual software releases, PlayStation 4 exclusive Ghost of Tsushima solidified the number one spot on the overall chart. The latest action game from internal Sony studio Sucker Punch Productions, which I reviewed recently, is the developer’s fastest-selling to date, outpacing 2014’s inFAMOUS Second Son. Early momentum resulted in Ghost of Tsushima achieving the 4th best Sony-published launch in tracking history, immediately entering the 2020 to date chart as the 5th best-selling title. Sony shared that global unit sales hit 2.4 million within 3 days of release, consistent with my upbeat call on its commercial upside based on where the PS4 install base is at this point in the generation.

The other notable new release is Paper Mario: The Origami King, debuting at #3 on the combined chart plus numero uno on the Switch rankings. It set a new launch high for Nintendo’s Paper Mario franchise, beating the prior record-holder Super Paper Mario in 2007. Additionally, retail launch sales were more than double that of 2004’s Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. Its one of five Nintendo titles within the Top 10 in July, the next highest being the commercial breakout hit Animal Crossing: New Horizons which this quarter became the second top seller ever on Nintendo Switch at an absurd 22.4 million global unit sales as reported earlier this month.

Additional contributors to software growth include another PS4 hit The Last of Us: Part 2, which ranked #4 and has now achieved the 3rd highest lifetime sales ever for a game published by Sony behind Marvel’s Spider-Man and God of War both from 2018. Ring Fit Adventure, Nintendo’s fitness entry, continues to have legs due to high consumer demand and increased stock as it climbed to the 7th spot. Rounding out the Top 10 was a surprising one to me, Sword Art Online: Alicization Lycoris from Bandai Namco. It’s the best ever placement for a game in the series to date, since Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet hit #14 in 2018. The game also achieved the 3rd spot on the Xbox One’s individual chart, behind only heavy hitters Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Mortal Kombat 11.

Software and additional content really are carrying the industry with lockdowns still in place around the country, proving a smart way to pass the seemingly endless time. Below are the general charts.

Top-Selling Games of July 2020, U.S. (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Ghost of Tsushima
  2. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  3. Paper Mario: The Origami King*
  4. The Last of Us: Part 2
  5. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  6. Ring Fit Adventure
  7. Mortal Kombat 11
  8. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe*
  9. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  10. Sword Art Online: Alicization Lycoris
  11. Minecraft: PS4 Edition
  12. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  13. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege
  14. New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe*
  15. MLB: The Show 20
  16. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
  17. Need for Speed: Heat
  18. Marvel’s Spider-Man
  19. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey
  20. Call of Duty: Black Ops 3

Top-Selling Games of 2020 So Far, U.S. (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  2. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  3. The Last of Us: Part 2
  4. Final Fantasy 7 Remake
  5. Ghost of Tsushima [New]
  6. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot
  7. MLB: The Show 20
  8. Resident Evil 3 Remake
  9. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
  10. Mortal Kombat 11

In really the only lackluster category result of July, Video Game Hardware saw consumer spend decline 2% to $166 million. This is showing that most people have already purchased the current generation systems, are waiting for more news on discounts going into next generation or even holding off until Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 before making a move. The upside is for 2020 as a whole, spending hit $1.8 billion which is an increase of 22% versus this same time frame last year. Mainly driven by strength in Switch, especially during the height of Animal Crossing: New Horizons buying.

Speaking of, Nintendo Switch was yet again the top-selling piece of hardware during July 2020. Nintendo’s hybrid offering has topped the list every month since November 2018. Which means it remains the best-selling console for 2020 as well, naturally.

Finally, Video Game Accessories accounted for the remaining $170 million in monthly sales which is actually a July month record. This figure is 34% higher than July 2019. Gamepad and headsets in particular set July records, although no specific number was attached. Reminiscent of when Fortnite was at its height of popularity, though not the same type of sizeable dollar amounts.

Stepping back to view July domestic sales overall, it’s not another ridiculous month like we saw during say March or the April. It’s still an exciting result for total industry spend, growing double-digits again for the the fifth consecutive month, plus featuring titles like Ghost of Tsushima and Paper Mario: The Origami King with steady demand to set select, more focused records.

Gaming is the type of entertainment that continues to be a great option for people that perhaps thought the country would be more open than it is due to lingering effects of COVID-19. I’ll take this time again to thank those people working hard to keep the States going, whether in medical, retail or other essential fields, and hope that games are able to lift the burden and provide a brief respite when not on the grind.

Hit up NPD Group’s lists and Mat Piscatella’s thread on Twitter for additional deets on July’s report. Stay safe, all. Thanks for stopping by.

*Digital Sales Not Included

Sources: Nintendo, The NPD Group, PlayStation Twitter.

-Dom

Review: Ghost of Tsushima is a Great, Vibrant Samurai Game That Colors Inside the Lines

TEN PARAGRAPHS I SAID!

An actual open world samurai game set in stunning, gritty and conflicted feudal Japan. It’s been a long time coming, hasn’t it.

Ghost of Tsushima is most certainly that game, even if not more. Perhaps it doesn’t have to transcend its genre convention since it does it so well. It’s gorgeous, vibrant and visibly pleasing, a solid action game combining sword combat, ranged capability and stealth tactics within a world worth exploring for tangible benefit and aesthetic luster. It’s that beautiful virtual painting where the brush firmly remains within predefined lines.

The newest project from Sony’s Sucker Punch Productions studio, it’s a quite enjoyable samurai experience tuned especially for collectible enthusiasts, map-clearing addicts and digital photographers, even if it never reaches the lofty standards of its cinematic inspirations or superior contemporaries.

It Starts With Honor

As suggested in its title, the game centers on the Japanese island of Tsushima in 1274 during the initial Mongolian invasion towards the mainland. Classic setup. The player controls Jin Sakai, a young warrior who might be the only samurai left after an amazing intro sequence fighting back against Mongols making landfall. Jin somehow survives an early duel with big baddie general Khotun Khan, fictional grandson of Genghis Khan, who captures Jin’s uncle and honorable protector Lord Shimura. Naturally, Jin sets out to rescue Lord Shimura, rid his homeland of the foreign threat and restore order to a struggling populace.

Even being as talented a fighter as he is, Jin can’t do it alone. The cast of characters he seeks out is somewhat predictable yet mostly likeable. He’s saved after his fight with Khan by Yuna, that ol’ skilled thief with a heart of gold. Lady Masako is the tough matriarch of a dismantled family. Sensei Ishikawa is a skilled archer dealing with the fallout of a rogue student. Norio the warrior monk strives to uphold a fallen sibling’s legacy and retake his stolen temple. In addition to their involvement in the main campaign, each of these has a set of quests which are some of the highlights of both character moments and mission designs. It’s like a simplified, historical version of Mass Effect 2: Gather a squad to take on the enemy.

And I can’t forget the best of them all. Those adorable sacred foxes!

Really though, the main character is the island of Tsushima itself. It’s hard to describe how stunningly gorgeous this game is with respect to art direction. A photographer’s nirvana. Sucker Punch’s art and environment teams deserve all the credit for what I believe carries the game. It entices people to explore and see what’s over that hill or around that bend. It’s beautiful in its aesthetic and overall direction. An exquisite use of color, shimmering in every regard, that allows for quiet moments on top of a hill writing a haiku to be as memorable as any moment of combat or story climax.

Natural lighting seeps through cracks in the treeline, revealing daybreak across a golden forest scattered with tall grass. Even the dreary areas offer natural beauty, mud soaking up dew from a nearby maple tree. The island and everything in Ghost of Tsushima provides that picturesque backdrop of what someone dreams feudal Japan looked like at its most beautiful and serene.

A key design choice by Sucker Punch that enhances the experience is its minimalist user interface (UI) and experience approach. There aren’t any traditional waypoints or navigation lines, the map isn’t littered with random icons. Instead, players pick a spot in the distance or a collectible type then swipe the touchpad to trigger Guiding Wind, a subtle, self-explanatory assistant that breezes toward the objective. There’s also a myriad of birds that will hint at locations, whether it be healing waters or pillars that hold vanity items. The lack of a UI taking up screen real estate, unless manually triggered or in combat, does well to disguise its true nature as a checklist style open world.

As stunning as its art and aesthetic, the game is nowhere near as dynamic as it seems or even similar games when it comes to secrets, events or pop-up missions. There are shrines to find, lighthouses to fire up, artifacts to read, even haikus to write. (Like, a lot of these things. A few too many.) Then the player will see the same type of Mongol group or bandit patrols lurking throughout each of the game’s three acts, having to save a hostage or clear a graveyard, which I ended up avoiding altogether about halfway through my 60 to 65 or so hours towards getting the Platinum trophy. Combine this with my critiques of mission structure a bit later, this proves Ghost of Tsushima has less character overall than it initially suggests.

It’s a quite enjoyable samurai experience tuned especially for collectible enthusiasts, map-clearing addicts and digital photographers, even if it never reaches the lofty standards of its cinematic inspirations or superior contemporaries.

Come To Know One’s True Nature

It wouldn’t be a major video game in 2020 without multiple types of upgrades and skills. There’s impressive flexibility in building Jin as a character, as he slowly adopts new techniques perhaps not as honorable as the straightforward samurai tactics taught by his uncle. Jin believes they are essential to defeating the Mongols, liable to fight disgracefully themselves.

Various systems combine to define one’s character: Armor selection, upgrade paths and a charm system offering unique spec opportunities. Every combat encounter or zone takeover contributes experience points to growing one’s legend, which signal’s Jin’s reputation as the Ghost.

Upgrade paths fall into a handful of categories: Samurai with multiple battle stances and damage buffs, Ghost with its stealth techniques and assassination tools then one’s gear like Jin’s katana and bow can be strengthened by vendors. This is where the game reveals its alignment most with stealth action titles like Assassin’s Creed or Dishonored because the coolest gear comes from playing as a Ghost with its bombs and poison, even if some on the island frown upon it. A personal favorite is the ability to stealth assassinate multiple foes at a time, like Batman in Arkham Knight or Talion in Shadow of Mordor.

Earning charms ends up being the most impactful of all because it’s how the player builds out Jin’s passive traits. Some are general, increase health or enhance melee ability. Others, especially late game, are much more specific. Arrows have a chance to poison opponents or return when missed. Parries and dodges are easier to perform. Increase the amount of upgrade materials gathered.

Throw in a ton of vanity items including hats, masks and armor dyes to accentuate Jin’s fashion, the downside of all this customization is that I was constantly swapping armor and charms based on my immediate situation. Often mid-activity. The ability to save custom loadouts and assign them via menu wheel would absolutely change the game for the better, saving a ton of downtime fumbling through menus to remember which items paired with a specific build.

Flowing from character options right into combat overview then mission design, this is certainly the core of a game meant to simulate being a samurai warrior. Early combat is far too simple, centered on the blade and fighting one or a handful of enemies at once ranging from Mongols, bandits then rogue “Straw Hat Ronin” swordsmen. As Jin grows his legend, he earns new stances to fight against different enemy classes. Flipping between them is essential. The best fighting happens after the introduction of throwables like kunai and smoke bombs, as it’s easy to be overwhelmed.

The glaring omission is the lack of a lock-on option. There should be one, no question. Not everyone has to use it, it could be something that the player turns off in the option menu. However it’s worth the upside from an accessibility standpoint. The camera in Ghost of Tsushima can be unwieldy, notably for newcomers and when enemies are flanking constantly. I really hope Sucker Punch adds this with a future patch.

Later game, Ghost and ranged attacks end up being more fun than the close quarters forced in the first act. Especially the use of a blowgun, introduced in the second act. Jin can use deadly poison or hallucinatory plants to confuse and enrage, which really creates additional opportunities to surprise attack. As much as the game keeps telling the player that they should fight honorably, there’s too much cool Ghost stuff to ignore.

Mission design even during campaign quests follows a somewhat ordinary trajectory. Talk to someone, go to a place, investigate said place, find tracks or an enemy, follow or trail, clear the area, return to original character. Side quests are the most egregious offenders, which was fine as I was getting my bearings then trended towards laborious the more I played. Sure this is distilling it to its most basic format, and there are some emotional and surprising stories that play out within this framework. It’s hard not to notice how predictable it becomes.

Fair word of warning to those that cringe at the thought of stealth missions: You will be tailing people in Ghost of Tsushima.

I’ll specifically shout out the epic battle sequences that happen a few times, often during major story culminations when going against a sizeable Mongol force. These are excellent as they open up opportunities to fight in a free-form manner, combining tools and ranged tactics with standard swordplay. There’s even some larger artillery that I won’t spoil because it’s a great time to experience firsthand.

The driving conflict behind these missions in Ghost of Tsushima is obviously fighting back against Khotun Khan and his Mongol army. The additional narrative layer is Jin’s ambition to free his people, no matter the cost, versus upholding an honorable samurai code as instilled by Lord Shimura and the militaristic Shogun from the Japanese mainland. As Jin befriends people and adapts his style, he creates a divide between himself and the traditionalists.

Thing is, this is really nothing new in video games or films from which it clearly draws inspiration. It’s unsurprising in both themes and execution. Local Japanese warrior defending the population from an invader. The honor code of the samurai versus trickery of the thief. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cool to interact with such a story. Sucker Punch wears its inspiration on its sleeve. There’s even a “Kurosawa” mode where one can play in grainy black-and-white in homage to Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa. While I’m not a samurai film expert, the story here feels more like it’s trying to replicate its inspiration rather than rising above it.

Plus, this struggle of honor actually reveals my main philosophical difficulty with Ghost of Tsushima. It’s constantly telling the player, sometimes blatantly, to not use stealth or trickery to defeat foes while at the same time offering the dopest abilities and gadgets in its Ghost path! The weather even becomes more stormy the more one plays as a Ghost, I mean c’mon. Characters are constantly challenging Jin’s honor, even using his notoriety against him by claiming he’s done thievish acts. Why is the game making me feel guilty for using stealth? It’s a disconnect for the sake of a narrative conflict, one that detracts from the fantasy. Why does the hero always have to be a “good guy?”

There are side stories and mini-quests, true to the open world action philosophy. Most are run-of-the-mill while a select few feature quieter, random emotional stories of people lost in the invasion. Still, the optional Mythic Tales are clearly the standout. There’s a musician in various locales singing stories of legendary techniques or armor sets in animated sequences complete with artwork, lore and storytelling. It’s really something, setting up multi-part quests that don’t actually reveal where the player must go. Instead, they hint using drawings of areas and make them figure it out. These culminate in tough duels with different types of characters, plus are the most rewarding of all secondary missions. They check all the boxes of what makes great content.

Truthfully, I found my absolute favorite part of Ghost of Tsushima was simply exploring the world. Reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild except not nearly as charming or mysterious. Uncovering parts of the map previously untraveled. Stumbling upon a landmark etched into the scenery. Unfortunately, there’s mixed results when it comes to reward structure (you know how much I praise games for rewarding players for their time). Often it’s an excuse for a great screenshot or mindful meditation rather than any tangible keepsake.

Why is the game making me feel guilty for using stealth? It’s a disconnect for the sake of a narrative conflict, one that detracts from the fantasy. Why does the hero always have to be a “good guy?”

Battle Unending

When taking stock of acting, voices and performances, which are so very important in a game where story is conveyed mostly through dialogue and cutscenes, there’s a layer of polish missing in Ghost of Tsushima. Acting is stilted, resulting in rigid story moments especially when it cuts to Jin speaking to non-playable characters (NPCs). It reminds me of older games where the characters just stand across from each other talking, with limited nuance or expression. Jin is stoic as it is, highlighted even more by these interactions.

There’s an unfortunate disconnect when it comes to dialogue depending on the setting. As I do with games of this nature set in Japan, I began using the Japanese vocal track with English subtitles. The lip-syncing was clearly off, bothersome right away. Which meant I had to change to English voiceover, much less authentic. Overall it’s serviceable, with no real standouts within performances or animations, and I wish I experienced the Japanese version.

In what’s thankfully a general push in the industry these days, Sucker Punch provides a decent menu of accessibility options. I noted the lack of a target lock-in during ground combat, though there is an auto-aim feature for using Jin’s bow. There are simplified controls, button hold toggles, visual indicators and controller vibration choices. It’s not the best in class like something along the lines of The Last of Us Part II, still very much appreciated.

The game’s photo mode is the true treat and acts to show off an already beautiful selection of locations. I ended my play session with over 200 shots saved. It features the standard options for color palettes and focus depth, it’s that it offers animated backgrounds, time-of-day changes, wind direction and even background music for the GIF-inclined folks. I spent more time in this mode trying to craft the perfect shot than any other game in recent memory besides Red Dead Redemption 2.

Changing my stance to take a step back, there’s a ton to like in Ghost of Tsushima between its explorable environments, character building and fluidity of combat. Its setting is magnificent. The project echoes Kurusawa movies and respects the historical time period, even if it pays homage without ever going as far as being a great samurai narrative.

In video game terms, there’s just way too much base-clearing and camp liberating. Random encounters that get stale when you’ve seen them all. Mission structure comparable to games of yesteryear. It’s just as much Far Cry as Assassin’s Creed. It’s the type of open world game set in feudal Japan that people have wanted from those kinds of series without challenging conventions established by them.

Sucker Punch’s latest, and I think best, fits nicely within a general modern day open world design mantra, and it’s a great one of those. Especially in its depiction of a 13th century Japanese setting. It’s just never more than that, unlike some of its more spectacular and memorable predecessors. Ghost of Tsushima will be remembered as the game that satisfies that enticing fantasy of being a powerful, vengeful samurai that develops new skills to combat an invading force. It falls just short of being an essential study in the space.

Title: Ghost of Tsushima

Release Date: July 17, 2020

Developer: Sucker Punch Productions

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platforms: PlayStation 4

Recommendation: It’s a really cool open-world, third-person action game set in a beautiful landscape with some smart features and challenging combat sequences. Exploration is a treat, as is taking screen-grabs of its incredibly artful environments. You won’t find innovation or risk-taking beyond its genre, much of its side content is repetitive and its interactions aren’t as dynamic as it should be. Ghost of Tsushima is still worth a play for collectors, photographers and feudal Japan enthusiasts alike (of which there are at least 2.4 million, as the game is the fastest-selling new property on PlayStation 4 to date.)

Sources: PlayStation Twitter, Sony Interactive Entertainment, Screenshots on PlayStation 4 Pro.

-Dom

Earnings Calendar Jul & Aug 2020: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

Hope all is well everyone. Given the difficult circumstances, especially here in the States.

(WEAR A MASK!)

There’s still not much else to do these days besides talk about gaming, media and tech amirite? Good news is there’s a bevy of information dropping recently and in the near future from companies about the status of their businesses amid the coronavirus landscape.

Helping navigate is my quarterly earnings calendar covering these major sectors. Above is the image for quick reference and below is the usual Google Doc with everything including investor links.

Working Casual Earnings Calendar Jul & Aug 2020: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

I recommend keeping a close eye in particular on the three companies below as you hopefully stay safe during this time.

Ubisoft Entertainment SA (UBI): Wednesday, July 22

The maker of games in major franchises like Assassin’s Creed and the Tom Clancy lineage actually reported already last week in what was the most significant communication from a PR standpoint in its recent history. As shared by various outlets including an extensive article from Bloomberg, multiple Ubisoft executives are facing ongoing allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct including the main creative officer of the company Serge Hascoët who recently resigned.

The French publisher’s numerical performance was sound, with increases in sales and engagement for catalog titles especially, yet the real topic was the company’s approach to addressing toxicity in its studios. CEO Yves Guillemot claims to be committed to changing its culture. Which desperately needs to happen on a broad scale. It’s way too early to know if he will, at least the company has a plan in place to move towards a more welcoming environment for everyone. Especially women, people of color and LGBTQ employees.

Sony Corp (SNE): Tuesday, August 4

Sony is a sizeable company with a diverse set of ventures, though its gaming division continues to be the feature especially this summer. We’ll notice the impact even more in its latest quarter due to the flagship release of The Last of Us Part II in June. Like many critics, I showered Naughty Dog’s latest with praise in my recent review. This widespread critical admiration is translating to commercial success as the game was the fastest-selling PlayStation 4 exclusive ever, selling-through 4 million copies in three days and the number one grossing title in the United States during the month of June.

The Japanese tech conglomerate should also benefit from growing PlayStation Plus memberships, which reached 41.5 million last quarter up from 36.4 million the prior year, plus higher demand in its other consumer businesses amidst continuing stay-at-home situations globally. Just as intriguing will be its forecasts for future quarters and the upcoming fiscal year, given the significance of its PlayStation 5 release this holiday.

Walt Disney Co (DIS): Tuesday, August 4

Disney is one of those companies that experiences both sides of virus impact. Coronavirus has naturally caused massive disruption in its park and cruise operations, resulting in significant earnings declines last quarter. Though the media leader benefits financially in subscriptions to its Disney+ streaming service, which totaled 54.5 million users as of its last quarterly report. Compare this to the 33.5 million in March and you can see the potential as the virus looms or even returns in areas.

In arguably its biggest get yet, the movie version of Broadway hit play Hamilton launched on the service in early July, surging downloads by 74% over its debut weekend. There’s also the sports angle, as the National Basketball Association (NBA) is set to restart its season this Thursday, July 30 exclusively at the ESPN Wide World of Sports at its Florida location. While these latest developments won’t impact the latest quarter-ending results, Disney’s forecast for future growth will reveal how much they can offset the lower park and vacation revenue near term.

Thank you again to all those on the front lines of fighting the coronavirus, and to those working through the pandemic wherever you are whether it’s helping to deliver packages or working essential retail.

Hopefully chatting about these industries, companies, products and experiences can help during the downtime. Appreciate the visit!

Sources: Bloomberg, Company Investor Relations Websites, NPD Group, PlayStation Blog.

-Dom

Review: The Last of Us Part II is an Unforgiving, Relentless & Painful Masterpiece

Two important notes: First, a general content warning that The Last of Us Part II deals with disturbing, violent subject matter. Second, I’ll be intentionally spoiling two major plot points, one of which happens early then another halfway. I believe it’s impossible to write a full critique without discussing them. There will be no spoilers for events after the second act. Oh, and of course the first game will be spoiled in full.

Please check back later if you’d rather not know about the story. It’s best to experience the game first, unless you are extremely curious in which case I appreciate you trusting me with these topics. On to the review (which now includes a new photo gallery by the end)!

From the Beginning

Just like The Last of Us Part II is a difficult game to play, this was a tough piece to write.

Because even considering its bleak setting, unyielding violence, dark worldview and pacing inconsistencies, the game is a masterpiece backed by premier storytelling, environment, direction, acting and technical achievement. It’s one of the most important releases this generation, if not ever, plus among the most intense, heartbreaking stories ever told in the medium that still has me reeling days after its end.

Part II is the direct sequel to 2013’s The Last of Us, a phenomenal experience in its own right and the first recent new title from Sony’s Naughty Dog studio amidst entries in the Uncharted series. This one is again a third-person action-survival game which picks up five years after main characters Joel and Ellie made their harrowing journey across country. They attempted to find the Fireflies in hopes that Ellie’s immunity from the Cordyceps virus could help with a vaccine, only for Joel to pull Ellie away after finding out she would have to die to uncover a cure.

What begins innocently enough in a settlement in Jackson County, Wyoming in Part II morphs into a savage revenge tale that will forever change characters and relationships to the bitter end.

Gruff, father figure Joel and now 19-year old Ellie have just settled into their respective lives in Jackson, where the bustling of people is a stark contrast to the loneliness of the prior game. Ellie’s grown up with friends, notably a new love interest named Dina and Dina’s former boyfriend Jesse, all of which patrol the surrounding areas hunting for infected to keep the community safe. It feels almost normal, with Jackson home to adults, children and animals doing their parts to survive the post-apocalypse landscape.

The player begins controlling Ellie on a patrol route alongside Dina, as the two exchange flirts and witticisms, ignoring their brutal reality. Even as Ellie inherits Joel’s caution of getting close to someone at the risk of getting hurt, it’s clear to see the beginnings of intimacy. Naturally feeling each other out. Which is part of the masterful setup and a common theme in the game. Characters are real, we get to know them through interactions, dialogue and journal entries.

What’s also evident from the start is how ridiculously talented Naughty Dog’s team is still at environmental work, character designs and perfection of subtleties that other studios might disregard. Snow falls gently from tree branches as the player bumps into them. Glass shatters with a smash as pieces fall naturally to the floor. Ellie’s gun silencer visually degrades the more she uses it. Limbs are strewn about when the pair fight their way through infected enemies. Each encounter or exploration section has its own examples, as if someone looked over every inch of the game to enhance it in a very specific way.

I keep thinking: It must take a considerable amount of effort to make animations look this effortless. So nuanced and smooth, approaching lifelike. Each precise movement taken into account. It must be painstaking. Unfortunately, Naughty Dog is a studio criticized for exceedingly tough work conditions with “crunch,” a term used to describe how many folks work long hours right up to release. My fear is that this is why the game’s tech is near unrivaled in the space. Still. I want to acknowledge the supreme talent, and there’s no place more evident than these areas.

Change of Perspective

It’s after Ellie and Dina share these special moments that the game cuts to a brand new character, an immensely important one: Abby. Athletic build and piercing gaze, she’s with a group of travelers right outside of Jackson. Hunting someone in the community. Her friend Owen tries to talk her out of a plan to hit an outpost to collect information, yet of course she departs anyway. The player takes control of this parallel story-line, rather than witnessing it through cutscenes, moving through the area this time as Abby. An early hint that the game isn’t what it seems.

Abby is soon overrun by infected, when suddenly we she meets two faces familiar to fans: Joel and his brother Tommy, out on patrol. The three barely escape, then rendezvous with Abby’s crew. All of which seem to know who Joel is. Before we know it, Abby’s shotgun shatters Joel’s kneecap and she’s picking up a golf club while towering over him. It’s the first of many gut-punches in the story, albeit telegraphed by the game’s marketing, seeing a beloved character on the flip side of torture. (Something he’s done countless times, as alluded in The Last of Us.)

After Ellie hears the shot, she arrives just in time to see Abby’s striking blow on Joel. He’s gone. Screaming and frantic, she vows to hunt them all down. The irony is Abby and friends spare Ellie’s life, along with Tommy’s, because they found their target. They achieved their goal.

Then Ellie’s warpath begins.

Part II moves to follow Ellie and Dina on their attempt to find Tommy, who is also seeking revenge for his brother’s murder, and hunt down each member of Abby’s team. These people are based in Seattle as part of the Washington Liberation Front (WLF), a paramilitary organization controlling the city. The “Wolves.” These enemies are more specific than the generic hunters seen before, they use flanking tactics and are geared up for serious battle. They use dogs to sniff out the player, they call out to each other and scream in agony when a friend is found dead. It’s the kind of touch that somehow works, mainly because it’s used sparingly enough to not be redundant.

In one of the game’s highlights, the pair happen upon an open space area early in Seattle. The point is to find gas in order to kick off a generator that will open a door, yet there’s also optional buildings to find. One has a new weapon. Another an upgrade item. There’s puzzles with ladders or ropes, traversing vertically unlike the first game. It’s authentic because it feels like the characters would do this while stalking their prey, they wouldn’t know where the heck to go without context clues.

This sequence proves how scavenging is as good as ever. One of my favorite parts, scouring for written notes, hidden items or crafting parts. I’ve always said that reward structure is key in gaming. Part II certainly knows how to reward a player for spending time checking side areas and optional spots. Even if it’s not something tangible like an item, which it usually is, Naughty Dog showcases dazzling artwork or environmental design that bolsters the experience. The stories we learn indirectly from world items are just as significant as from dialogue or cut scenes. There’s more reward for exploring than simply the material.

What’s also evident from the start is how ridiculously talented Naughty Dog’s team is still at environmental work, character designs and perfection of subtleties that other studios might disregard.

Beyond this, after run-ins with the Wolves and a new faction called the Seraphites, rendezvousing with Jesse (who sneaked out of Jackson to help Ellie and Dina) and finding shelter in a theater, there comes a point where the game telegraphs a show-down. The culmination of our efforts!

It’s not, of course. The screen goes black, and reveals its master plan.

It begins again, this time playing as Abby.

This here is the game’s main transformation, why its structure is so effective. What starts as a seemingly traditional linear narrative turns into the story of two women, both determined for vengeance, yet unclear which is truly the antagonist. Are both of them? Neither?

What follows is the foundation of Abby’s backstory starting with a flashback that lays the groundwork for why she sought vengeance on Joel. It’s a subversion of the highest degree, that moment where the player steps into the shoes of the exact person we think is the villain. I hate Abby in the first act. In the next, I become her. By the end, I respect her.

While the original game progressed through seasons, the sequel is told mainly only a few days. We see the same segments in time from Abby’s perspective right after Ellie’s. At first, I admittedly didn’t like this. The pacing felt off and I found it jarring. We had seen the climax, then returned to way before that moment.

The more I played as Abby, learned about her motivations and histories, saw her life in the WLF alongside the people she cares about, it’s reinforced that every person has their own reasons. I didn’t have to despise her. There’s never one side to a story, quite literally, despite what the game first presents. Her and lifelong friend Owen are figuring out their feelings. Abby’s family history is tragic. She isn’t only the psychotic torturer as depicted early in the game. Yet the irony is that’s still a part of her, and her friends view her differently from that moment forward.

Here’s another gut-punch: She may even be justified in killing Joel.

Abby’s personality traits are bolstered by the introduction of new characters. The WLF is currently at war with a group called the Seraphites, a religious sect dubbed the Scars by their opposition because of their initiation process whereby they cut the face of new members. These people are tight-knit, devout and prone to violence in the name of their prophet.

At a critical turning point, Abby is captured by the Seraphites then left to hang. She’s saved by young Lev, who is really there for his sister Yara, both of which are former Seraphites themselves. The three escape and move to tend to Yara’s wounds. They can’t do so without help. This is when Abby seeks out Owen at his aquarium sanctuary. The aforementioned Mel, a medic in the WLF and Owen’s current lover, needs supplies to amputate Yara’s arm. Abby is AWOL from the WLF yet still willing to risk everything to travel with Lev to the hospital, an act of selflessness to return the favor for him saving her life.

Reality is Cyclical

It’s here that both ends of her spectrum come into focus: She’s been training for years to get payback, then applies this “by any means” rationale to her friends as well. She will always be both of these things now, and her relationships shift accordingly.

The unending cycle of violence caused by seeking revenge is obviously a strong theme, yet just the beginning in Part II. It’s not just about the ridiculous lengths that someone will go to achieve vengeance, it’s how much is that person willing to sacrifice in order to do so? Not just mentally. Tangible sacrifices like friendships and loved ones who may never look at you the same, even if they are part of the reason for the supposed justice. Payback has its costs, many of which are invaluable.

Without going too much further on individual story beats, as if it wasn’t obvious, so much of Part II is relationships. Forging new ones and losing others. Characters growing, struggling, fighting, protecting and risking life for each other. Dina and Ellie. Both of them with Jesse and Tommy. Abby and Owen. Owen and another WLF member Mel. Abby, Yara and Lev. Abby’s friends. Humans navigating the ruthless post-apocalyptic world.

There’s also sub-themes on the difficulties of post-traumatic stress syndrome, a character dealing with gender identity and stern religious beliefs infringing on personal choices. The concept that we can’t change what someone else has done. We can only control how we react to it.

Contributing to the effectiveness of the story and character moments is the incredibly talented cast of actors, comparable to a big budget movie. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson are back as Joel and Ellie respectively, while newcomer to the series but industry veteran Laura Bailey slays, figuratively and literally, as Abby. Two Westworld alums Shannon Woodward (Dina) and Jeffrey Wright (WLF leader Isaac) plus video game voice actor Ashly Burch (Mel) all star. A truly stand-out role is Lev, acted by Ian Alexander from Netflix’s show The OA.

Combine this casting with Naughty Dog’s technology capabilities, I was awestruck. Dumbfounded that it was even feasible. Facial animations and character interactivity are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The sheer technical mastery displayed is near unrivaled, whether it’s spectacle in the action sequences or specific in the intimate moments. The type of game that should, and will, be studied.

Then there’s the topic of representation, which I’d like to specifically shout out. The audience learned in The Last of Us: Left Behind expansion that Ellie is queer, which obviously continues here and is even more prominent in her blossoming attraction to Dina. Then, one of the new characters here is transgender and refuses to be controlled by a bigoted religion. While it’s part of what drives their motivations, it doesn’t need to be anything more than normal to the characters. The more representation in mainstream games, the better. Especially in this way.

One of the game’s goals is showing how grief can be all-consuming. It blinds us to logic. Yet people still have the capacity for mercy, regardless of how many times they have sinned before.

As tough as it is, since I could talk about narrative and characters all day, I’d like to move past story themes into other topics that round out this memorable experience.

Naturally, Part II builds on the mechanics, systems and enemy variety of the original. It’s not revolutionary in the third-person stealth action space, yet the improvements are meaningful especially when it comes to the dynamics of combat with Ellie and Abby having more rounded skill-sets than the burly Joel.

Weapons are traditional, mostly standard firearm and bow archetypes, plus improvised explosives like stun bombs and molotov cocktails made by characters scraping together supplies in true end-of-the-world fashion. A new favorite of mine is the trap mine, a proximity device which Ellie can place on the ground. I used it to both protect areas from flanking enemies or strategically cover a specific spot in the path of their patrol.

The cadence is familiar. Scavenging for supplies, crafting to gear up for a fight, sneaking around picking off enemies individually then scrambling when it all goes wrong. Both playable women are athletic and maneuverable, they can jump and go prone, which are way more substantial than they first seem. There’s the added element of new companions as well, similar to Ellie supporting Joel in the first. Character AI is helpful and will make their own moves, even help the player out of a jam.

The three main enemies are of course the infected, then human groups WLF and Seraphites. Certain infected have mutated into new types, namely the gas-cloud bursting Shamblers and others that blend more into the environment, which makes even facing a small group more demanding. Both groups of humans use call-outs and attack strategies, the WLF being more militaristic as Seraphites using creepy whistles to communicate. The WLF even uses dogs, which will guide their owners according to the player’s scent. This requires a tactical approach, especially on a harder difficulty. Finally, we even see certain major combat moments that align more with traditional boss fights.

There are spots where these myriad foes are in the same space, so the player can lure one into fighting another. A move of which I took full advantage, if not just to see the results. These are all effective in making encounters feel unique, even if in reality they aren’t. I’ll say there are some stretches where it feels like there’s maybe one or two more fights than needed, which slows pacing especially for those more akin to stealth tactics.

Speaking of, total stealth seems viable throughout the game. Part II provides the tools, like bows, silencers, bottles and improved take down abilities. There isn’t some mandate that each area must be clear before moving on to the next, which is great to have as an option.

For those more interested in fighting it out, combat is way more flexible than the first game even if it’s still not the most memorable feature. Ellie and Abby are more malleable and adaptable to their situations. Scavenging during fights. Dodging, an excellent new mechanic especially in up-close fights. Lying prone. Crawling under vehicles. Jumping over obstacles. Even running away as a last resort.

I’d like to specifically call out the melee combat, which is exceptionally crunchy and brutal in its feedback. Whether hand-to-hand or with melee weapons, it’s among the most effective and viscerally painful close quarters fighting I’ve felt in games. Naughty Dog made it somehow both satisfying and sickening, partially through the sounds of enemies struggling to survive.

Now, this may sound predictable. A lot of it is. Then there’s times where it subverts expectations, even within its more predictable framework. Quiet moments are interrupted by hidden foes. The player must defend oneself when least expected. Scares during seemingly calmer moments. Long stretches without any enemies, a foreboding dread that lingers between character conversations. This heightened the tension, proving that there’s really no safety in this reality.

Since it’s a video game in 2020, Part II features upgrades to be found and skills to be opened. What’s cool is both characters have their own weapon sets and skill trees, not to mention collectibles, all of which operate independently. Workbenches allow for weapon enhancements via parts collected in the world, a callback to The Last of Us. Animations are slick as Ellie attaches a new part then wipes down her rifle, though for the most part, this is all standard.

The system with the smartest implementation is ability upgrades. This time around, it’s all based on training manuals that the player must find throughout the world. Each manual starts a new skill tree, and there are a number of them for each main character: Crafting, Stealth, Precision, Explosives and the like. Every upgrade requires Supplements, a resource found by scouring mainly medical buildings or bathrooms.

This again goes back to my statement on rewarding players for their time and curiosity, an essential part of any great game. I don’t think it’s possible to fully unlock each path in a single play-through, I unlocked most but not all on each character, so it’s a meaningful choice each time. Would you rather be sneaky or guns blazing, if you can’t be both? Between this, supplies and rounding out collectible sets, the game makes exploring every area its own journey.

Look Towards the Light

Consistent with the best stressful horror experience, Part II isn’t all about tense stealth sections or intense combat sequences. What sets it apart is Naughty Dog successfully inserts levity to break up the sheer brutality of it all. Most notably via flashbacks, mini-games and character moments.

Honestly, its best moments are unexpected so I won’t go into much detail. Sprinkled throughout the main campaign are flashbacks to earlier times for both Ellie and Abby, featuring Joel and Abby’s family plus Owen respectively. With a museum and aquarium being the backdrop to some of the best interactions, we learn even more about relationships than we could possibly through dialogue or texts. Many of these lead directly to the present day situation.

There’s also quiet times during the story itself where the world seems to disappear except for those on screen. Ellie and Dina early on, Ellie and Jesse while they look for Tommy, Abby and Owen various times as the writers try to convey their complicated history, then Abby, Yara and Lev settling in after their big escape. The foundation of player knowledge is built just as much on these as during the action, bolstered of course by the sensational performances and design technology.

A common thread is how Joel teaches Ellie to play guitar, which was hinted in the first game towards the end of their trek. In Part II, Ellie is now a proficient strummer so Naughty Dog adds a mini-game with real chords and the ability to practice whenever the instrument is close by. This blends seamlessly with the game’s music again crafted by composer Gustavo Santaolalla, leveraging plucked string melodies, dramatic build-ups and even renditions of one-time popular songs that act as main themes for certain characters.

There’s new puzzle type sections, as opposed to the plodding ladder or dreaded wooden pallet variety in The Last of Us. Many of them center on rope throwing, swinging or climbing which is somehow way more fun than it has any right to be. Plus, of the utmost importance: There are multiple times where the player can pet or play with a dog. I counted three, including two where fetch is totally an option. Game of the Year material level of pooch interaction.

This downtime is crucial. A game as bleak and relentless would be totally overwhelming if not for the opportunities to catch one’s breath. It’s also Naughty Dog’s craftsmanship on full showcase, the detail of the guitar strings or the intensity of someone’s stare. I can’t oversell how much detail is present, making these moments as warm and real as possible.

In terms of user experience, I commend the studio for its efforts on options and accessibility innovations. As written as part of its product page, Part II features more than 60 different options related to accessibility. It’s the best set of options I’ve ever seen. This covers areas like color modes, subtitles, full control mapping, button presses, assistance capabilities, visual aids, audio cues, motion sickness and help with navigating the play space. It took me a while to tweak these to my liking, which is how it should be. Anything that allows more people to enjoy it.

One feature in particular that I found useful is High Contrast Display, which simplifies the entire screen and highlights certain items in the world like players and collectibles while the background stays as plain as possible. I swapped to it occasionally to help locate a collectible or see what door I should open, so I can imagine how amazing it must be for someone who is color blind. It’s incredible.

I’m a big fan of minimalism in user interface design, so Part II is generally great in that regard. It has a simple heads-up display (HUD), which blends into the background unless in active combat or the player really wants to see it more. Essential for immersion, though there’s also the flexibility to make it larger and more prominent if that helps one enjoy the game.

On the performance and visual side, the game looks awe-inspiring albeit capped at 30 frames-per-second unfortunately. I never noticed any hitching or slowness playing on PlayStation 4 Pro, as it should be with that sort of restriction. Lighting is mind-blowing, especially as it reacts with foliage and grass. Snowy parts showcase both lighting and environmental reactions. And I’ve already gone on about character models, which are best-in-class. The least impressive part visually is probably the water areas, underwhelming and murky. No one’s perfect, after all.

The sheer number of areas and different environments is staggering. Even though all of them take place in a handful of cities, each is unique enough to stand out. The community feel of Jackson, the civil war torn Seattle plus multiple bespoke flashback sequences.

Oh. And its photo mode is great. In a new feature for this review, I’ve added a photo gallery with select shots. Highly recommend seeing for yourself!

It’s not just about the ridiculous lengths that someone will go to achieve vengeance, it’s how much is that person willing to sacrifice in order to do so? Payback has its costs, many of which are invaluable.

Now, even a masterpiece isn’t perfect. Part II is no different. I’d still argue its imperfections detract less from the final product than other titles.

There’s a couple instances of uneven pacing, namely the shift into Abby’s portion which signals the start of the second act. It comes after that false kind of climax, a restart when the race felt like it was just getting good. Because Naughty Dog is establishing her identity plus the personalities of the ones around her and their way of life, giving insight into the WLF as more than enemies, it takes build-up.

Combine this with the flashbacks and time shifts, it can be confusing at first. Once the game returns to “Seattle Day One,” the same time frame as when Ellie starts to seek out Abby, I found my bearings. This manipulation is a tactic by the designers to dole out information on their terms, slowly revealing not just Abby’s backstory but also how Joel and Ellie progressed once they moved into Jackson, which was anything but a traditional father-daughter dynamic.

It’s not a short game by any means, especially for a single-player narrative experience. My campaign clocked in at nearly 32 hours. I’m a notoriously slow and meticulous player, looking for side areas and collectibles as much as I can. There’s no doubt it can be finished in 20 hours if mainlining the path. I wouldn’t advise that, and instead say deal with the pacing inconsistencies because the exploration is totally worth it.

It Was for Everything

Part II is intentionally dark. It can be disgusting. An unfathomable cycle of violence, notably moments that are forced rather than driven by player choice. I’ve heard criticisms it’s a borderline murder fantasy. I’d combat that by saying while it’s dark, the player has the option for stealth or escape. Plus, there’s the lighter moments I’ve spoken about that balance the persistent misery.

Briefly about the interpretation of key story beats and the ending, I left satisfied. I understand why the characters made their choices during the conclusion, especially Abby after getting to know her. I can only talk about it from my perspective, I thought Naughty Dog’s direction was wholly effective and justified.

The Last of Us Part II is difficult. Not in its challenge, in that way where I want to look away or don’t want to press the button because I know the outcome is brutal. It’s foreboding. Unforgiving. Disturbing. This is exactly what makes it brilliant. It doesn’t have to be fun or a distraction, games should be much more. Seeing someone’s descent, always hoping there’s the possibility of atonement.

Naughty Dog proves yet again why it’s one of the most respected studios in gaming, the level of polish and detail in Part II is near unbelievable. The team improved on weaker aspects of the first game such as combat mechanics while maintaining the survival and scavenging, the side stories and collectibles, the crafting and upgrades plus the narrative strength that defined it.

One of the game’s goals is showing how grief can be all-consuming. It blinds us to logic. Yet people still have the capacity for mercy, regardless of how many times they have sinned before.

Where the first was fighting infected and finding hope in desolation, then doing anything for the ones you love even if it means dooming others, the sequel is about the duality of humanity at its most desperate and broken. Some seek retaliation that they will never find. Others pull together with those closest to them, finding redemption in that togetherness. Many do both.

It can’t all be for nothing. It wasn’t, no matter how much it feels that way. Everything matters, especially the hurt. It’s the only way that we can appreciate the small, fleeting fragments of compassion.

Title: The Last of Us Part II

Release Date: June 19, 2020

Developer: Naughty Dog

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platforms: PlayStation 4

Recommendation: If calling a game a “masterpiece” isn’t recommendation enough, I don’t know what is. The Last of Us Part II is an outright essential game, which will be remembered as such in future generations. It’s already hit 4 million copies sold within three days, the fastest-selling PlayStation 4 exclusive ever.

Sources: PlayStation Blog, Sony Interactive Entertainment, Screenshots on PlayStation 4 Pro.

-Dom

Review: Maneater is an Amusing, Fun Shark Game Even in its Shallow Depth

Sometimes, you know exactly what you are going to get after hearing a game’s pitch.

Maneater is that. One of those video games that relishes in being a video game, purely defined by that “ah ha” moment in the brainstorming phase: Play as a shark. Become powerful. Destroy everything. That’s about it.

Billed as an open world shark adventure with role-playing game mechanics by development team Tripwire Interactive, the core loop of swimming, exploring and devouring as a powerful ocean predator is mostly fun and quite satisfying even if lacking in surrounding areas of narrative, quest design and progression balancing. If the end goal is simply wreaking as much havoc as possible as a vengeful bull shark, then mission accomplished.

It’s framed as a ridiculous reality television show, itself dubbed the titular Maneater, that documents battles between humans and sea beasts. Like a deranged Shark Week on steroids. This particular show features the exploits of lifelong bayou shark hunter Pierre “Scaly Pete” LeBlanc and his inexperienced, college-aged son Kyle.

Presentation and design philosophy is akin to a Crackdown or Sunset Overdrive, as over-the-top and exaggerated as possible. It never takes itself seriously. There’s the ever-present, sarcastic narrator voiced expertly by Saturday Night Live alum Chris Parnell. Title splashes and hashtags fill the screen. Personally I enjoy the approach because it provides a parodist tone that perfectly parallels a game solely about munching and destroying everything in sight. I could see some viewing it as more annoying than entertaining, especially towards the end hearing the same lines numerous times.

Initial setup is as straightforward as they come: Scaly Pete captures a mother shark and kills her before trying to throw her newborn pup overboard to survive on its lonesome. Pete maims the baby shark in order to distinguish it when it gets older, then the pup gobbles his arm in the struggle, igniting a feud between the two that becomes the primary narrative driving the game towards its conclusion.

The player then takes control of that small shark. And it’s pissed.

What follows is, plain and simple, utter underwater destruction. Even some above ground. The point is to consume as many creatures and nutrients as possible to evolve from diminutive stature into a massive, legendary beast that’s powerful enough to confront Scaly Pete. There are cutscenes interspersed between each chapter that mostly delve into Pete’s familial relationships and his ambition to rid the sea of a mythical Megalodon because it killed his father. Really there’s not much story to be had, there’s no sub-plots. The backdrop is a standard revenge tale.

Jumping over to gameplay mechanics, I’ve always struggled with the physical act of playing water levels in games. And that’s because, honestly, they usually aren’t very good. Not for lack of trying. Especially for 3D where it’s extremely difficult to balance camera operation with input controls and account for variables of both depth and distance, plus the resistance of water on how a character moves. I don’t envy anyone who has to develop a game with one water area, let alone an entire world. So going into it, I was naturally skeptical.

Results here are mixed, yet I’m happy to report it’s on the positive end of the spectrum. I judge this by evaluating swimming controls and camera maneuverability. Maneater does well enough with swimming and movement, even if it takes longer than it should to get the hang of it. There are multiple options for controller layouts, always a plus. Moving and turning is smooth and manageable. There’s a “chomp” attack button that bites, a burst to gain speed, an evasive dodge and even a tail-whip input. Tripwire Interactive’s designers and animators gave a cool suite of movement tech to the shark, which only improve with future upgrades.

Sadly, camera control is inconsistent and finicky. Moving below the shark to line up jumps to grab collectibles above sea level proves frustrating. When descending into pipes or cave areas, the camera bumps up against geometry making for wonky viewing angles. Perspective is especially difficult when trying to prioritize enemies during fights with multiple foes at once. The game allows a sort of soft lock-on mechanic that snaps to enemies, which is both necessary and disorienting. I tend to weigh camera quality high on my list of priorities because it’s integral to my enjoyment, and I believe the player should feel in control. Especially in a power fantasy.

The core loop of swimming, exploring and devouring as a powerful ocean predator is mostly fun and quite satisfying even if lacking in surrounding areas of narrative, quest design and progression balancing. If the end goal is simply wreaking as much havoc as possible as a vengeful bull shark, then mission accomplished.

Speaking of integral, the whole idea of Maneater is that it includes role-playing game (RPG) elements. Which means customization, skills and upgrade paths to evolve one’s shark “beyond what nature intended.” This is done via an Evolution system, where every kill or collectible provides experience points and nutrients which the player can invest in growing the size and base statistics of the shark then decide on a handful of different ability types.

Traditional stats include mass, health, defense, damage and speed which increase incrementally as the shark matures then can be influenced by equipping gear. There are five body parts on which this gear can be equipped: jaw, head, fin, tail then body. All of these provide buffs or varying abilities. The last of which even provides a unique ultimate ability, which is a pleasant surprise.

Gear falls into one of three sets: Bio-Electric (Lighting), Shadow (Poison) and Bone (Durability). These are all pretty self-explanatory, and it’s fun to play around while adjusting builds. For instance, Bone is uber strong against boats and humans while Shadow provides speed benefits, poison attacks and can heal when biting enemies. Wearing multiple pieces of the same set increase the benefits. There are also upgrade paths for these that require investing nutrients and mutagens, which come from either winning combat encounters or finding stashes throughout the world.

I’m impressed by the attention to detail and the flexibility to mix-and-match items. Plus, these choices actually change how the character looks, the way it dodges plus other movement animations. Each is unique to that set of gear. Which means that your shark can look cool while also having sweet abilities, which is obviously the true endgame of any RPG.

Even beyond the gear slots, there’s three additional “organ” options for further customization. These provide more passive buffs, like acquiring more nutrients and health per enemy eaten or being able to breath out of water for longer. Using this in combination with gear types provided even more opportunities for a particular player build. It gave me a chance to be strong against boats while also gaining health on kill, the latter of which is something I often utilize when given the chance.

Overall it’s really an impressive, ambitious gear and upgrade system with impactful results. Thing is: It’s the implementation where I have qualms.

Unfortunately, Maneater isn’t forthright in explaining how it all works or how to acquire upgrades for these slots. It shows the screen once and provides a brief tutorial. Then it’s on the player to figure out where to find them. Certain upgrades are via side activities or clearing a given area. Others are snagged via the bounty system, which I’ll address soon. Even more are directly tied to collectibles, which is my least favorite because it feels like rewarding the most banal of content. I don’t love the ambiguity or pushing towards busy work, though I understand it in context because the game doesn’t really have too many different tasks to complete.

Subsequently there’s the actual equipping. Swapping between anything at all requires the player to be at a grotto, a sort of home base in each of the game’s seven regions. This means there’s zero flexibility to change tactics on the fly, which is especially frustrating given the free flowing nature of moving through an area and facing different enemies. Having to both leave combat and wait for a loading screen before being able to change gear is way too limiting. Please games, let us change in action!

Alright. I’ve gone this far and haven’t talked about the shark’s favorite part: Combat.

Fighting is for all intents and purposes the point of the game. It’s the means by which all forms of progression happen, it enables most upgrades and provides the core fun factor that all games must have. Not all fish are antagonistic, but those that are can be especially fearsome.

Combat consists of chomping, dodging, tail-whipping and strategically timing attacks when an enemy is vulnerable which is signaled by it changing to a “highlighted” yellow state. When it works well, it’s crunchy and visceral with the most amazing sound design. Fantastic audio effects, noises that fish make while struggling or shaking loose, crunching wood when boats are cleaved in half, loud splashes when breaching the tide and even human screams pleadings for mercy combine to tell the player that they are really doing well as a shark.

There’s some good, smart creature variety in Maneater that really fills out each section. The swampy bayou early on has alligators and catfish. Later game in more wide open oceanic areas, it’s seals, mahi mahi, barracudas, quick species of sharks and even gigantic whales.

What’s tough is again, related to camera and lock-ons which becomes immensely frustrating when being attacked by multiple enemies especially of different types. It’s imprecise and jarring. Bites occasionally don’t land. Enemies look vulnerable then grab you despite their state. It pretends to be more tactical than it is, as in many cases I ended up randomly whipping my tail or attempting chomps until I dealt damage or grabbed a fish to thrash the life out of it. The ambition of combat is well above its execution, most notably against higher level foes and apex predators that guard each region.

Looping back to progression and pacing, the “campaign” in Maneater is dictated by achieving various tasks in a given area. Thing is, those tasks aren’t that various in practice. It’s mostly: Eat things. Chomp some chunky humans or a specific species of fish. Terrorize a region enough so that bounty hunters show up. Complete hunts against nasty apex predators. Reach a certain level of evolution, find the next grotto and move on. There are a couple areas with official boss encounters, mainly used for story progression and with a similar mechanic each time. Even the final boss is an iteration of something the player has already experienced.

Missions and quests aren’t very inspired, if you could even call them as such. Perhaps it’s because there’s not much in the way of variety when you play as a single-minded shark that eats everything in its quest for revenge. I would have liked perhaps some sort of puzzles or more intricate challenges to achieve, as opposed to merely “kill 10 of (insert species)” then “beat this mini-boss.”

It’s best to go with the flow and not expect much more than the tale of a shark on a warpath to avenge the death of its mother. Maneater is hilarious and absurd, its combat is crunchy when it works and the game fulfills a ridiculous fantasy of playing as a shark, even if it’s shallow in a number of areas.

A primary side activity and a way to acquire upgrades is its Bounty System of ten increasingly more difficult shark hunters. Picture a combination of the wanted level from a Grand Theft Auto with the nemesis system Shadow of Mordor, except for the ocean and not nearly as robust. It uses an Infamy rating which ramps up when the shark attacks a certain number of humans then a handful of boats that show up who try to mow down the player with assault weapons, explosives or underwater divers.

Problem is, being hunted is brutal and relentless. It doesn’t stop until the player runs away. And the hunters are powerful, often of a higher level than the shark and there are dozens of them. This is where I’d prefer different levels of difficulty, because even when I had the shark at its most powerful, the bounty hunters would still be overwhelming. Sure there’s no major consequences to dying from what I can tell, it’s just the annoyance of having to respawn after waiting through tiring load times.

Tying into narrative and overall world progression is the process of leveling up. This felt somewhat out of balance. Early game, the next area is gated since I had to evolve to become a “teenager,” which meant grinding for experience points. Then during the second act, it felt way too generous with experience to the point I became over-leveled for base enemies very quickly. Perhaps this is by design in hoping players would like being powerful. For me, this ends up feeling like there’s less incentive then to partake in side activities or go off fighting optional enemies.

With respect to game length, it took around 20 hours to get 100% of everything. Could easily be a 12-15 hour playtime, if not less, depending on one’s proclivity to optional activities and tolerance for collectibles.

Flipping back to tone and world-building, the game’s lighthearted, satirical nature carries through to environmental touches. There are seven regions with names like Fawtick Bayou with its swampy aura, Sapphire Bay resort town and Dead Horse Lake with its radioactive power plant. I really liked the personality of each spot, plus the fun use of each environment.

Golf courses with water where the shark can swim. Underground pipes in the industrial energy sector. Communities with swimming pools that allowed for bouncing around and scaring residents. Everything is built to cater the utmost destruction, and also to make sure that there’s always some body of water within reach. Going further, there’s many destructible items from boats to parts of scenery.

For the explorers and completionists, there’s a fair amount of collectibles: Funny landmarks, license plates, nutrient caches. The good news is completing these earns rewards, as noted before. It’s also fun to see all the clever landmarks throughout the world. There’s an underwater parking lot where the mob hides those with loose lips. Variety of underwater artwork. There’s even a replica of the Titanic, a mysterious UFO and fake Stonehenge. I love when developers put these kinds of touches in their games, it makes collecting reward both tangible and enjoyable.

Briefly touching on performance before I wrap, it’s fairly inconsistent. Frame rate dips during scenes of frantic action, making combat that much more difficult. There’s often loading screens or hitches between areas, even right before a cutscene which totally kills momentum. Loading times overall are way too long and that’s playing off the internal hard drive of the Xbox One X. Experienced a couple hard crashes, even after the day one patch. It’s a small development team and I’m not very strict when it comes to performance, I just have to report this since no one wants to lose progress and I’d prefer not to sit through that many loading screens.

Taking Maneater as a whole, it’s a fun game with a clear intention. It suffers from blemishes and a lack of depth in cases, such as quest design and narrative strength.

The Tripwire Interactive team doesn’t bite off more than it can chew, which is fine for a team of this size however it also limits the potential upside of its game. It’s unfair to compare it with open world RPGs made by larger teams, it’s just I wish there was more to this particular one than its rudimentary mission structure and lack of different types of content.

Truly, it’s best to go with the flow and not expect much more than the tale of a shark on a warpath to avenge the death of its mother. Maneater is hilarious and absurd, its combat is crunchy when it works and the game fulfills a ridiculous fantasy of playing as a shark, even if it’s shallow in a number of areas.

Which is why this game works as a guilty pleasure. Just don’t expect it to be much more.

Title: Maneater

Release Date: May 22, 2020

Developer: Tripwire Interactive LLC

Publisher: Tripwire Interactive LLC, Deep Silver

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC. (Nintendo Switch TBA).

Recommendation: Water my final thoughts? I know there aren’t many, so it’s got to be among the best shark games out there. I haven’t played anything quite like it. It’s a fun, shallow and straightforward romp to occupy a weekend or so. Might be best on sale down the line.

Sources: Deep Silver, Tripwire Interactive LLC.

-Dom