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

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

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

Will PlayStation 5 Launch This Year? Sony Thinks So, But What About Me?

These days, amidst a serious global pandemic with far-reaching economic impact, it’s impossible to be sure of anything in gaming and tech.

Which is why it’s notable that people familiar with Sony’s production pipeline say the company is still on target to launch its upcoming PlayStation 5 (PS5) console by year-end, according to a report today from Bloomberg.

Sources claim that the coronavirus outbreak has affected the company’s promotional roll-out and marketing strategy more than production of the console itself. Which would explain why we still don’t know what it looks like or, most importantly, how much it will cost at its scheduled launch later this year. (At least PlayStation Blog revealed the new DualSense controller last week to sate the rapid appetite for hints as to the aesthetic of Sony’s final product.)

Part of why the Japanese firm will reportedly still meet the late 2020 release window for PS5 is that its roll-out will be more limited than the PlayStation 4 (PS4) back in 2013. Sources say the console maker is informing production partners it intends to ship between 5 and 6 million PS5 hardware units between Q4 launch and March 2021 fiscal year end.

Compare this to the PlayStation 4 console after its November 2013 release: That hit 4.2 million and 3.3 million unit shipments during its first couple quarters respectively, for a total of 7.5 million in the fiscal year ending March 2014. So at best, internal estimates put the PS5 launch down 20% versus the prior generation. At worst, this forecast leads to a 33% dip.

It’s worth noting that this early production would be above 2006’s PlayStation 3 output of 3.5 million consoles during its first half year, as noted in this CNET piece.

On the personal prediction side, I’m expecting closer to the lower range of Sony’s PS5 guidance. 5 million to 5.5 million range. As I’ll expand on later, I’ve decided to remain conservative in today’s landscape.

Estimates and speculations reported by Bloomberg are quite revealing about Sony’s overall approach. It shows executives pressing forward to hit market by the holiday season despite anticipating lower output, a move which it hopes to make up for in volume on the back-end.

The other intriguing part of the equation and Bloomberg’s report is the exact topic on which I speculated in a recent article: How much will PS5 cost?

Developers interviewed for the piece imply a launch price of $499 to $549 in US Dollars, which would be a dramatic increase compared to where PS4 started at $399. In my aforementioned article debating about price, one of the most important points is the rumored cost to make PS5 totaling $450. Which leaves little room for margins if priced below that low end of developer speculation.

Main reason for the higher launch price seems to be its beefier specs, higher component costs driven and part scarcity. (I’d wager a costlier marketing campaign plays a factor, too.) Many tech products require the same kinds of components to build, and are sourced from China and related Asian markets, which were generally hit by the coronavirus earlier than the West. It follows that the launch price is most certainly impacted by the pandemic, there’s no avoiding it.

I was wavering in my personal price estimate after hearing the final technical specs. Now with the developer input plus knowledge of continued component shortages, I’m upping it to a minimum of $449 with the more likely outcome being $499. It’s just not realistic to expect Sony to take a significant loss per unit in this environment and while forecasting softer sales.

These estimates and speculations reported by Bloomberg are quite revealing about Sony’s overall approach. It shows executives pressing forward to hit market by the holiday season despite anticipating lower output, a move which it hopes to make up for in volume on the back-end. Not only that, its employees are working remotely which makes it more difficult to finalize plans both logistical and financial or meet with the external teams responsible for making the hardware itself.

Another element to the company’s strategy is potential discounts on current PS4 generation console versions plus offering services like PlayStation Plus in order to recoup the loss of hardware sales. If the PS5 is in shorter supply, can Sony entice people to stick around its ecosystem by selling PS4 this late in the generation? I’m skeptical on that play. The market is saturated as it is, with nearly 109 million PS4s in circulation already. If it’s just a couple more months of waiting, people will save that money to put it towards the next generation. Especially given that PS5 is backwards compatible with software on its predecessor.

I was wavering in my personal price estimate after hearing the final technical specs. Now with the developer input plus knowledge of continued component shortages, I’m upping it to a minimum of $449 with the more likely outcome being $499.

Good news for Sony in terms of marketing strategy is it’s much more viable to do a digital-only events these days, even for major product reveals. Normally hardware companies will host a huge in-person media event during a console unveiling. Given where we are at with the coronavirus and government mandates, this is unrealistic for the short to even mid-term and coincides with when Sony would want to ramp up its advertising campaign.

There’s also the question if Sony is still waiting for Microsoft to make its first move on release date and pricing for its Xbox Series X. Tough to know, since competitors monitor each other of course however each have their independent plans. Honestly, I don’t expect Microsoft to commit to a release date or cost soon. So Sony will either have to keep waiting and delaying its formal reveal, or make the first move and risk being beat on price or market date.

These points all lead back to the topic: Will Sony stick to the current schedule to release this year or have to push the PS5 launch date to 2021?

My answer: I believe that’s what Sony wants to do, even if it’s not necessarily what will happen.

Production pipeline estimates from Bloomberg’s sources say that suppliers are already getting parts to those that assemble the console. Broader PS5 production is expected by June. Which indicates that Sony is steadfast in its plan to reach consumers this year during a unified, global launch.

Thing is, it’s difficult to predict the future even without the variable of a pandemic. Components aren’t guaranteed to be in the same supply even weeks from now let alone months. There may be follow-up outbreaks that impact employees at those suppliers and assemblers. Even separate of the virus, production disruptions can happen for any number of reasons.

Once the console is built, there’s the added layer of retailers and their ability to attract customers. Then the economic impact on disposable income in Sony’s key markets. Where will demand be when people are recovering from what could be the worst recession since the Great Depression?

Many parts of the world are still on lock down. So many people aren’t working. Even when the situation turns more positive in a broad sense and worldwide cases dwindle, people start thinking of a return to normalcy, there’s the risk of follow-up outbreaks. I might be the most pessimistic in this context as I’m expecting this will last a lot longer and we shouldn’t expect it to change quickly.

The further Sony goes without revealing the console and its price, the more likely we’ll see the delay to early next year. It also depends on what Microsoft does with its Xbox Series X roll-out of course, however they are experiencing the same exact conditions as Sony when it comes to part suppliers and manufacturing pipelines.

There’s the strong possibility we see one of two things from Sony:

  • Soft initial roll-out of PS5 leading into the holiday season with low shipments and decreased sell-through to consumers until 2021.
  • Broader delay of its global console launch until Q1 of 2021, when retailers and distributors are more secure and demand has recovered.

Right now, I’m predicting the first scenario. Yet most certainly will not rule out the second.

Either way, my estimates parallel with Sony predicting that if the PS5 launches this year, shipments should be down compared to last generation when component costs are impacted by supply. Not to mention the appetite for expensive, new technology is subdued and won’t recover until next year. If the launch happens in 2021, I’m more optimistic on initial shipments and people’s willingness to spend.

What about you? Are you team Late 2020 or Early 2021? Feel free to get back to me here or Twitter on your expectations! Thanks for reading.

Note: Prices quoted here are using US Dollars.

Sources: Bloomberg, CNET, New York Times, PlayStation Blog, Sony Corp.

-Dom

Now That We Know Specs, How Much Will PlayStation 5 & Xbox Series X Cost?

The short answer: We still don’t know. Yet that won’t stop us from speculating!

Even though we’re now a bit closer to seeing the full picture, there are still plenty of variables at play. Right now, no one on the outside actually knows.

That said, it’s time to guess.

After Sony’s “Road to PlayStation 5” video reveal of the technical specifications for its upcoming PlayStation 5 hardware, we know a lot more about components and power expectations for it alongside its main competitor in Microsoft’s Xbox Series X. So it’s easier to approximate where they might be at launch, currently scheduled for late this year. Which is great. Because while power is important, I’d argue price drives consumer sentiment more than anything.

For those looking for in-depth breakdowns of specs and numbers for Sony and Microsoft’s hardware, check out Digital Foundry’s work at this link for the PlayStation 5 and this one for the Xbox Series X. The team also compiled a comparison piece across the two consoles, at least based on the information so far.

Then there’s the latest collaboration with Digital Foundry, Austin Evans and Xbox Wire with even more detail into Microsoft’s project, plus Sony’s own PlayStation Blog post summarizing various items on its box. Plenty of places to soak up the technical jargon. It’s impressive coverage, to the point where even someone that follows the business and critical side of games can almost understand.

Here, we’re going to cover mostly the general points and see just what they mean for potential launch pricing. Price drives consumer decisions just as much as power, arguably even more so since it’s an easy comparison point between different products. Don’t worry if some of the tech side goes over your head. You’re not alone.

Based on the reports as you see above, the conclusion is the raw components and feature sets are mostly comparable with some important distinctions. In terms of capabilities, there are common ones. They support high frame rates and 8K resolutions. They’ve got Raytracing (get used to this buzzword for a fancy lighting technique). 3D audio. Custom AMD processors. Solid state drives. Some form of backwards compatibility for legacy software.

It’s looking at the divergences that spark discussion of course. Without getting too much into the weeds, I’ve heard it framed as such: The Xbox Series X is more powerful while the PlayStation 5 is notably speedier. The former has the more capable processing power, while the latter has a tailored solution for delivering the highest speed possible.

Which makes sense when we step back. Microsoft’s general philosophy is now about how it has the most powerful console this generation in the Xbox One X, and the focus remains on the upper end targeting tech enthusiasts this time as well. The upcoming Xbox Series X is twice as powerful as the improved version of its predecessor, the Xbox One X. Microsoft’s goal is to have games looking great and running smoothly plus is going to offer the ability to suspend and resume multiple games at once. Which fits with its ecosystem, software compatibility and catalog approach.

The downside to the raw power of the Xbox Series X is that it requires proprietary expandable storage options, which will add to the cost of keeping the console over time when hard drive space inevitably fills up. This certainly lowers its price tag, yet adds to the overall investment across the full generation. There’s also the question of first party software support, which is a primary concern though less relevant in this context.

Flipping over to Sony’s PlayStation 5, its specs are still impressive. While in raw terms its numbers are notably lower than Xbox, its implementation is slightly different in using what’s termed “variable frequency,” more plainly a type of “boost” to allocate its power budget. Sounds to me like a focus more on optimization rather than sheer strength.

This also fits with its design mantra of placing a major focus on speed. Limiting loading times for players, offering studios the tools to minimize downtime and providing better options on the consumer storage side. This is achieved by leveraging a custom system alongside its 825 GB solid state hard drive plus expandable storage that doesn’t require proprietary equipment. Simply, the real treat is its storage speed and flexibility.

Mark Cerny, Sony’s lead system architect and hypnotic public speaker, described the solid state drive as the single most requested component by software developers. Capabilities for the people that make games are just as important as delivering performance output to those that play them. Which is why the PlayStation 5 seems tuned for speed.

One disappointment of Sony’s messaging so far is its stance on backwards compatibility. The aforementioned PlayStation Blog post alludes to many of the most popular PlayStation 4 games being playable at launch on the new console generation, then comments that there are roughly 4,000 PS4 games on which they will be working on this feature. Does that mean only select games will be available? Or that those will benefit from the PS5 power? We need more clarification of this increasingly more important feature.

Capabilities for the people that make games are just as important as delivering performance output to those that play them. Which is why the PlayStation 5 seems tuned for speed.

This summary of the broader strategies across the two competing hardware makers brings us to the real debate:

How much will people have to pay to move to next gen later this year?

We’ll start with the PlayStation 5, mainly because we already have some insight into its supply chain and pricing decisions from a Bloomberg piece last month.

For context, PlayStation 4 released at $399 back in 2014 while 2016’s more powerful mid-step PlayStation 4 Pro hit that same price later in the cycle, after discounts applied for the original box.

Rumors suggest that the manufacturing cost for the upcoming PlayStation 5 is currently at $450 per console, which is well above the estimated $381 for the base model of its predecessor. And this is strictly speaking about component cost. It doesn’t include the additional marketing and distribution associated with launching a flagship product.

During a conference call with investors earlier this year, Sony’s Chief Financial Officer Hiroki Totoki said “We must keep PlayStation 5’s bill of materials under our control and we need to make the correct number of units in the initial production.”

That certainly sounds like component cost might be approaching levels that Sony didn’t anticipate. Knowing these factors, could we see the same $399 introductory price for the PlayStation 5 this holiday?

I think there’s an argument to be made that we will, and it’s where I predicted it to be when discussing the topic in late 2019. That was without knowledge of the power capabilities and higher-than-expected component cost. Console manufacturers traditionally have slim margins early in a console life cycle, though $399 would be clearly selling at a loss. Companies aren’t in the business of losing money.

I’m leaning towards upping my forecast to $449, with Sony eating those additional expenses in hopes of making it up in volume and software sales. This puts it roughly at what it costs to make, and it’s only 50 bucks more than where it launched PlayStation 4 nearly seven years ago.

Gaming has been largely free from the reality of inflation so far, what with big budget software costs remaining consistent through the years. Even if publishers are finding ways to generate additional revenue via downloadable content and customization options. With rising costs to build hardware, it’s looking like a higher baseline for console launch cost is approaching.

There’s also a chance that Sony’s console starts at $499, especially if supply chain constraints limit the availability of parts. I don’t think it will be this high due to both sticker shock and competitor decisions, yet we can’t rule out the possibility based on what we know of its specs now. Especially if Sony only has the one model at launch, its usual strategy.

Microsoft’s situation is somewhat different. It’s already revealed plenty about the beefy Xbox Series X. While there aren’t yet rumblings of how much it costs to build, we can deduce that it’s likely going to be more than the PlayStation 4.

Thing is, there’s still the unknown of Microsoft potentially offering a more affordable option simultaneously at launch. Allegedly the team is working in parallel on the Xbox Series X and what’s dubbed Project Lockhart, a slimmed down version with less power and a friendlier price. Similar to what phone manufacturers do. Two products, one targeting the enthusiast and the other suited more for a broader, casual audience.

Even this generation, Microsoft has dabbled with offering a variety of console options. Xbox One hit market in late 2013 at $499, a much higher price point than its competition. Problem was, it wasn’t actually more powerful. It was that way because of bundling Kinect.

We then saw the Xbox One S version in 2016, beginning lower at $299. The most powerful family member in the Xbox One X launched a year later, coming in at $499 to appeal to dedicated players that wanted more than the earlier models could produce.

Shoot, Microsoft has been even more experimental later this generation. The Xbox One S All-Digital Edition hit last year for $249, making it the most cost effective in the family. Even if it had little fanfare and we don’t actually know how well the market reacted.

Phil Spencer, Head of Xbox, hearkened back to the early days last gen in an interview with Eurogamer by saying “If you remember at the launch of Xbox One, we were $100 more expensive and less powerful. So, I won’t be in that position. There’s no doubt about that. As an industry that’s growing so fast, we do think about price. We do think about performance as well. I’m not going to sacrifice performance for the sake of price.”

Combining this sentiment with now seeing the power potential of Xbox Series X, I’m at a minimum of $499 for launch cost. I just don’t see a way Microsoft can price it lower and not take a serious bath on each unit. $549 is probably a smarter prediction, even $599 contingent upon the existence of the lower-priced Lockhart version of course. I don’t think Microsoft can enter next gen with only one console priced at $599. That’s beyond risky. I think the smart people on the team know that.

There’s ways to make it more enticing even at a higher price than the PlayStation 5. I’ve said bundling Xbox Live and/or Xbox Game Pass would go a long way to incentivizing the undecided audience towards the Xbox ecosystem. Even spreading out the cost with a payment plan, similar to its Xbox All Access program.

Gaming has been largely free from the reality of inflation so far, what with big budget software costs remaining consistent through the years.. With rising costs to build hardware, it’s looking like a higher baseline for console launch cost is approaching.

What makes predicting this generation even more difficult is the increased uncertainty surrounding global economies and the impact of coronavirus. How will it impact component availability and supply chain? Could it even delay the launch to 2021? I’m not calling for that just yet. We have to acknowledge it could happen.

The last question for now is: When will these companies reveal pricing? The Bloomberg piece suggests that Sony is somehow waiting for Microsoft to make the first move. Sony hasn’t even shown the form factor of PlayStation 5 yet. While Microsoft has even let certain media members see Xbox Series X in person and been extremely vocal about sharing details, it’s still quiet on the potential of another model. With the delay of various gaming events globally and the move to a digital format for many presentations, I expect a longer wait than usual for price announcements. Think closer to the summer.

I’m on record with my predictions of $399 for the PlayStation 5 and $499 for the Xbox Series X, while leaving the door open to moving up slightly if component scarcity hits or some other disruption. It’s too early to lock in officially. (Yes, I’m leaving myself an out. Wouldn’t you?)

Anyone confident enough to place bets even when we don’t have all the information and there’s plenty up in the air with current socioeconomic elements? What are your price expectations right now?

Pretty soon, we’ll all have to go on record.

I look forward to hearing here or on Twitter. Thanks for reading!

Note: All pricing discussed above is in US Dollars.

Sources: Bloomberg, Eurogamer, Digital Foundry, Microsoft, PlayStation Blog, Sony, Xbox Wire.

-Dom

Sony, Ubisoft, Activision & Take-Two Earnings Recap: It’s a Numbers Game

As you likely read recently at my post of this quarter’s earnings calendar across gaming, tech and media, this week was an especially busy one for these industries.

In addition to the likes of Twitter and Disney, we saw gaming giants share updates on their recent financial results. Today I’ll both summarize and analyze Sony, Ubisoft, Activision and Take-Two reports and highlight the most important parts driving each business. Plus, chat some about predictions and where these companies are going in the near future.

I hope to.. hm, earn your confidence as we work through these because it should be a good one!

Sony Corp: Tuesday, February 4th.

Japanese media and gaming conglomerate Sony Corp reported a number of updates across its myriad of businesses for 3rd quarter of fiscal 2019, including its Gaming & Network Services (G&NS) business which houses its PlayStation brand and continues to be its main revenue source.

Notably, Sony announced that its PlayStation 4 hardware has now passed 108.9 million consoles shipped globally after moving 6.1 million during the holiday quarter. As expected later in the console cycle, this quarterly figure is down from 8.1 million last year. Still, the company reiterated its current forecast of 13.5 million consoles for the full year, implying we’ll see another 1.4 million come the end of March.

In terms of software within G&NS, PlayStation 4 game sales totaled 81.1 million copies in the quarter compared to 87.2 million in Q3 of 2018. 49% of these full game sales are now digital, when last year it was 37%. After its Q1 report hit 53% digital back in June, Sony is certainly on track to see at least 40% digital share this fiscal year which would be the first year ever it’s crossed this threshold.

Switching over to the services side, its PlayStation Plus subscription service, which offers online multiplayer access, hit 38.8 million registered users versus the 36.3 million player base last year. This increased subscription audience drove Network Services to be the only sub-segment within G&NS growing this quarter on dollar sales.

Speaking of dollars, Sony overall generated $22.4 billion in sales and operating revenue which is up 3% since last year on strength in its financial services and imaging businesses. Operating income however experienced a decline of 20%, to $2.73 billion. Within G&NS, sales dipped 20% to $3.3 billion with operating profit down 27% to just under $490 million due to lower hardware and external software sales. That PlayStation Plus user increase did help to offset this.

You’ll see in the chart above that even aggregating over the last 12 month period, during which sales were approximately $18.8 billion for its gaming business, the decline is tangible. It’s more pronounced than I even expected leading into the formal reveal of its PlayStation 5, due this holiday season. Partially due to the major success of titles like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Marvel’s Spider-Man driving sales during last year’s comparable time frame.

Sony’s higher network services revenue shows the growing importance of ecosystem and subscriptions to keep an audience engaged especially late in the cycle, helping to smooth out performance plus offset weakness in hardware and full game sales.

Within the PlayStation business, Sony realigned its segment reporting which I’ve presented above. Both digital software and add-on content and hardware sales experienced double-digit declines, though network services gained nearly 10%. Sony’s higher network services revenue shows the growing importance of ecosystem and subscriptions to keep an audience engaged especially late in the cycle, helping to smooth out performance plus offset weakness in hardware and full game sales.

Looking forward, the firm actually boosted its overall guidance slightly for sales and operating profit for the full year, though lowered these projections within its PlayStation unit, which means it expects a lower contribution than before. My personal take is that this quarter’s result is a bit lower than I anticipated, though certainly fits with where the major manufacturer and software producer is at ahead of its next console release in the back half of this year.

It’s going to be lackluster for a few more quarters leading into PlayStation 5, and I’m intrigued to see how its network services and subscriptions perform in the interim.

Ubisoft Entertainment SA: Thursday, February 6th.

Yesterday’s third quarter sales announcement from French video game publisher Ubisoft was lighter on the details than its competitors. But there’s still plenty to discuss (and speculate, of course)!

From the numbers side, sales for the nine months ending December dipped 16% to $1.23 billion which is on pace to come in well below the firm’s initial expectations due to softer sales of games like Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint and Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 in particular. Ubisoft did point out that Just Dance 2020 is.. this is an easy one, performing well. Digital equates to nearly 80% of total sales, a figure which includes both digital game downloads and in-game purchases.

Because of somewhat weaker results for new titles, back catalog sales are propping up its recent numbers. Revenue of these older titles hit nearly 69% of business compared to 62% in the same period last year. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey from 2018 saw a major rise in unit sell-through plus engagement compared to its predecessor Assassin’s Creed Origins. 2015’s Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege is still showing excellent momentum years after launch, boasting 55 million registered players and record active users for a December month.

Unfortunately, Ubisoft doesn’t share much in the way of profitability metrics outside of annual reporting. I’d imagine it’s facing a similar trend in declines, perhaps even more pronounced because of rising costs associated with developing games that it delayed a few months back. It did reiterate its full-year sales targets for both this fiscal year ending March and the following one, showing early confidence in its adjusted release schedule.

At a personal level, I’m extremely excited for Ubisoft’s robust lineup after the type of year it’s had with core franchises. At an analyst level, I’ll remain intently skeptical all targets will be met until we hear exactly how these games will roll-out.

Speaking of its development pipeline, we’ve arrived at the best part of Ubisoft’s press release and conference call. The rest of this fiscal year through March is light. No major releases. Looking forward, CEO Yves Guillemot highlights the internal organizational restructuring in an attempt to strengthen its most important titles, which means the firm reiterated its plan to release five new triple-A titles between October 2020 and March 2021. Now we’re getting somewhere.

I spoke with Ubisoft Investor Relations briefly over email to confirm that three of these flagship games are targeted for the October to December window while the remaining two are slated in January to March. Three of these five have been formally announced: Watch Dogs Legion, Gods & Monsters and Rainbow Six Quarantine.

The worst kept secret in the industry is that a Norse-themed Assassin’s Creed game is on the way this Fall, so let’s mark that down as the fourth. My ongoing assumption for the final one is a new mainline Far Cry, thereby crushing the hopes of Splinter Cell fans everywhere yet again. Kotaku’s Jason Schreier claims that these are both true, so we essentially have an unofficial confirmation of its full fiscal year lineup.

It’s an ambitious schedule, especially for this upcoming holiday quarter during the launch of consoles from Microsoft and Sony. Ubisoft is usually one of the most dedicated supporters of a new generation, capitalizing on the updated tech and fervent early adopters. It sounds like this time it’s no different, although I wouldn’t be surprised if only two projects end up releasing before December and the remainder sometime during the first half of calendar year 2021. Having three titles jam-packed into the holiday quarter risks cannibalization, especially given how most of these games feature some sort of open world or action elements.

Now these aren’t the only pending games from the publisher. Guillemot points out it does have more intimate ones, as he describes them as “very innovative titles that have a particular focus on social interaction.” Main example being Roller Champions. I’d imagine there’s also a mobile game from internal studio Social Point or perhaps a new UbiArt style project made by a smaller team.

At a personal level, I’m extremely excited for Ubisoft’s robust lineup after the type of year it’s had with core franchises. At an analyst level, I’ll remain intently skeptical all targets will be met until we hear exactly how these games will roll-out.

Activision Blizzard: Thursday, February 6th.

Out of those reporting this week, domestic publisher Activision Blizzard was the only one with a fiscal year ending in December. Thus it shared both fourth quarter and annual metrics.

Twice the fun!

For the quarter, results exceeded internal expectations with net revenues of $1.99 billion though were down compared to the $2.38 billion generated last year. Operating income totaled $454 million, off from the $694 million in fourth quarter 2018. Nearly $1.29 billion of sales, equating to 65% of the total, were from subscriptions, licensing and micro-transactions rather than retail product sales or full game downloads. That’s the model for these major software makers going forward, after all.

Across the full year, Activision Blizzard generated almost $6.49 billion. Which is down a billion bucks since 2018. 76% digital share in 2019, essentially flat compared to the 77% in prior year. Operating profit reached $1.61 billion, down from the near $1.99 billion. Which means that while results beat the firm’s estimates, the trend is certainly down for the company overall.

What really caught my eye when looking at what’s driving these figures is the distribution of sales for the full year across its Activision, Blizzard and King businesses. Historically, Activision is top dog. That fits the narrative this year, as its split is 36% of total sales and 41% of profit. However, mobile subsidiary King is now in second place, which means the overall firm is now benefiting more from its casual phone offerings like Candy Crush than traditional games made by its storied Blizzard studios.

It’s clear that flagship franchise Call of Duty from Activision is as strong as ever. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare unit sales and engagement stats are up strongly compared to last year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. Around half of Modern Warfare console sales are now digital, helping it become the best-selling game in the States during 2019 as I wrote about recently. Then there’s Call of Duty Mobile, which now has over 150 million downloads after one of the biggest launches in history.

On the Blizzard side, dollar sales ended the year at $1.72 billion which is down 25%. Monthly active users dipped 3 million since this time in 2018, now at 32 million. It’s a mixed bag for this division, where growth for Overwatch and World of Warcraft driven by a resurgence of interest for its Classic version couldn’t offset declines in Hearthstone and Diablo. It’s been an intriguing time for Blizzard in recent years, with a focus on continued support of older franchises rather than new releases. There’s Overwatch 2 in the pipeline, with no launch window. And I’m still skeptical of how fans will react to it. Then there’s Diablo IV, which I have to believe is a long ways out. This trend is likely to continue for the short to medium term.

Mobile subsidiary King is now in second place, which means [Activision Blizzard] is now benefiting more from its casual phone offerings like Candy Crush than traditional games made by its historic Blizzard studios.

Tying in with this is the last major item: its forecast for next year plus its mention of new titles. Activision Blizzard expects to generate $6.45 billion in revenue during 2020, slightly below this year’s figure. Guidance for earnings is also down 5%. Factored into this forward-looking guidance is.. surprise! A new Call of Duty project set to release in the last quarter of 2020.

Thing is, I’m not sure what else will drive its performance. Blizzard is set to focus again on continuing games like WoW, then a test phase for phone game Diablo Immortal in the middle of 2020. King reportedly has multiple new mobile games in development. On its conference call, Chief Financial Officer Dennis Durkin alluded to these not having material impact on guidance.

So, what will? Well, friends, we’ve reached the highlight. Activision Blizzard is sitting on a goldmine of legacy properties that it hasn’t leveraged as well as competitors. To that end, the company expects to “tap into our portfolio of beloved IP to bring several remastered and re-imagined experiences to our players in 2020, which we will announce closer to launch” according to Durkin.

In recent years, the company’s seen success with collections like Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy and Spyro Reignited Trilogy, the former being a major commercial win at 10 million units shipped. This type of quote shows that executives at least acknowledge the value of such brands. The issue becomes that fans of these franchises desire new games yet the quote is ambiguous. Will it continue to be more of the same or might we see new projects within these nostalgic series? Apparently we should hear sooner than later.

Take-Two Interactive: Thursday, February 6th.

Finally this brings us to the last one up. Another stateside developer/publisher in Take-Two Interactive, owner of historic labels Rockstar Games and 2K Games plus the Private Division publishing arm and mobile subsidiary Social Point. Take-Two reported its third quarter of fiscal 2020 results via the usual press release, then went in-depth on its conference call highlighting sales results of all its major franchises. (My favorite part.)

The way I’ll tackle Take-Two is talking broadly about its quarterly figures then drill into its owned businesses. Net revenue overall reached $930 million, down from $1.25 billion. Mostly because of the comparison to the massive launch of Red Dead Redemption 2 this time last year. Operating profit hit $177 million, down from $303 million in 2018 Q3.

Of its total sales, 37% is now from recurring spending; a metric which grew 15% this quarter and represents virtual currency, add-on content and in-game items. This drove the digital share to 75% of full revenue for the quarter. The company also reported that around 41% of its business originated from catalog sales, mainly those within the Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption franchises plus mobile titles from Social Point.

2K Games, which the company estimates will be around 55% of its business this fiscal, benefited from ongoing sales of NBA 2K20 as it now totals 8 million units shipped to date since its September release. Roughly on part with its predecessor. This quarter’s slate included the launch of Sid Meier’s Civilization VI on console, Borderlands 3 and NBA 2K20 for Stadia (neither of which I imagine contributed materially) and WWE 2K20.

Borderlands 3 continues its better-than-expected start since release a few months back, now totaling 8 million units sold-in. This is after moving 5 million copies within a five day span near launch. Take-Two notes that while it expects lifetime sales to achieve a record within the franchise, it’s factoring lower sales for Gearbox Software’s latest into its annual forecast.

On the flip side, WWE 2K20 saw a lackluster launch that drastically under-performed the firm’s internal estimates on both the critical and commercial sides. Developer Visual Concepts is working to rebound, though I think this year’s iteration is down for the count.

Still, the cash cow for Rockstar continues to be Grand Theft Auto V. A game which apparently isn’t yet in the homes of every single person who owns a gaming console because its lifetime copies shipped hit a whopping 120 million in the holiday quarter.

One of the most consistent and frankly notorious teams in the business is Rockstar Games, which will account for 35% of Take-Two’s annual net bookings. Its main release this past quarter was Red Dead Redemption 2 on PC around the year anniversary of its console version, which drove lifetime unit sales for the game to over 29 million. This is up from 26.5 million copies as of September, proving the impact of the new platform plus the ongoing adoption of Red Dead Online for which CEO Strauss Zelnick said engagement tripled year-on-year.

Still, the cash cow for Rockstar continues to be Grand Theft Auto V. A game which apparently isn’t yet in the homes of every single person who owns a gaming console because its lifetime copies shipped hit a whopping 120 million in the holiday quarter. That’s 5 million more than the prior quarter. No one at Take-Two or really anywhere in their wildest dreams could have predicted this sort of longevity.

A part of this crazy momentum is the ongoing success of Grand Theft Auto Online, which somehow achieved a record audience size in December and in the quarter overall. Recurring spending from consumers on GTAO jumped 54% this quarter after a new expansion in the Summer. Take-Two expects this online mode to have a record fiscal year in terms of recurring consumer spend. Keep in mind: The base game released in 2013, and its online mode really picked up steam the following year. Honestly doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.

Moving to Private Division, its major release during Q3 was The Outer Worlds which debuted on Xbox Game Pass in addition to its console and PC platforms. Obsidian Entertainment’s recent space role-playing title, which earned a Top 5 spot on my 2019 Games of the Year list, has now sold-in 2 million copies since October. And that doesn’t even include downloads from Xbox Game Pass, nor its Nintendo Switch release which is set for sometime before March 2021 (I’d imagine even sooner).

Another quick note is that Kerbal Space Program, the first game in a franchise now run by Private Division, is approaching a new sales milestone itself by reaching nearly 4 million copies shipped. The company reiterated that its sequel is due in fiscal 2021 as well.

Switching over to the broader company’s outlook for the full year, it adjusted the numbers slightly though I wouldn’t say it’s a substantial impact. Basically it tightened the range in which its revenue expectations, then slightly lowered its profit guidance. As you’ll see above, net revenue should be up however net bookings will contract. I’m not as concerned as other industry commentators, as I think this quarter and year look a whole lot worse than they really are because of just how ridiculously well Red Dead Redemption 2 did.

I’d even argue Take-Two’s upcoming lineup is just as intriguing as Ubisoft’s, even if we don’t know as much about its major projects. Speaking on its development pipeline, Zelnick called it the “largest and most diverse in our history, including releases from our largest franchises, new IP and a broad mix of gameplay experiences.”

Sure, that’s a bit of corporate speak. It’s still somewhat indicative of where one of the industry’s premier software players is going. Shorter-term, this implies to me new annual releases in the NBA 2K and even WWE 2K franchises, new platforms for existing titles plus ongoing content for the online modes in its main games.

Medium to long term is where it gets exciting. First and foremost, the filing announcing the departure of former Rockstar Games co-founder and vice president Dan Houser said the team is working on both “current and future projects.” Where does Rockstar goes with its upcoming slate now that its model has changed to fostering player retention via online modes rather than solely single-player experiences? Will there be a Grand Theft Auto VI? The answer is yes, we just don’t know what form it will take with this different ideology. I’m more curious about what games Rockstar might have that aren’t Grand Theft Auto.

Then there’s (my beloved) BioShock. Take-Two announced a new studio called Cloud Chamber this past quarter, which is currently developing the next iteration in the series. Within this earnings release, the company reiterated that it will be in the works for “several years.” While it isn’t factored into the immediate forecast, I’m ecstatic to hear how it progresses.

Executives even fielded questions on other teams such as Hangar 13, known for Mafia 3, then the newly-formed 2K Silicon Valley led by industry veteran Michael Condrey. Sounds like these are in fact actively working on projects, we just can’t hear about them yet.

I’d say Take-Two’s current position is summarized by President Karl Slatoff as he echoes his CEO’s sentiment: Its pipeline consists of “new IP and existing franchises, free-to-play games, different business models, casual games, core games, mid-core games” about which they will share more in upcoming months.

While I don’t expect Take-Two to have a major presence during this year’s set of console launches outside of sports titles, we’ll undoubtedly see it capitalize on the new tech in the mid-term. And who knows, maybe Rockstar will surprise us?

Well then. That’s a pretty darn comprehensive look at the week that was in games industry financial reporting if I say so. Spiced up with my takes (as varying in quality they might be).

Reflected across all four is the trend of ongoing digital and services attempting to offset the contraction in hardware resulting from next generation beginning this holiday season, plus development plans that will ramp up at various points in the future. Ubisoft seems to be the most immediately impacted with its recent delays, while Activision and Take-Two lean on recurring sales from their biggest budget franchises to soften the blow while we await new tech from hardware manufacturers and emerging platforms alike.

If you made it this far: You rock! Thanks for reading.

Note: All comparisons are year-over-year unless noted. Currency conversions are to U.S. dollar as of February 7, 2020 for the sake of comparison.

Sources: Company Investor Relations & Media Sites, Getty Images, Kotaku, The NPD Group.

-Dom

Review: Kojima’s Death Stranding is Groundbreaking & Special, Yet Stumbles in its Delivery

Death Stranding is one of the most important, unique and thought-provoking games of this generation with its themes of personal connection, harmony of humanity and the relationships between body, soul and afterlife. It’s the actual playing of the game that’s the difficult part, stumbling along the way with shaky gameplay, arduous controls and a confusing reward structure. This boldness ultimately makes for a truly memorable experience, as much for its underlying message as for the struggle in getting there.

It’s hard to summarize what the heck legendary gaming icon Hideo Kojima made with PlayStation 4 exclusive Death Stranding, his first independent project since splitting from Konami in 2015 and creating Kojima Productions. The genius Japanese designer is best known for many core games in the Metal Gear franchise, equal parts military stealth action and over-the-top, nonsensical commentaries on future tech and politics.

Death Stranding is, effectively, Kojima unchained. At its base level, it’s a third-person game in which the main character Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus) delivers packages in order to connect remote regions of a disjointed America under a shared network. In reality, it’s so much more. A story with enough plot lines to make one’s head spin. It’s set in a post-apocalypse where dead now infiltrate the living world after a catastrophic event dubbed a “void out”, an explosion that occurs when entities from the other side interact with a human.

The cause of this initial void out and its subsequent fall-out is detailed in the off-the-wall story, told in chapters that focus on each character. One as weird as the next, though it all begins with the story of the gruff, solo delivery man Sam Bridges.

Sam is the playable character, complete with a tragic past and the ability to sense supernatural beings, who receives a task from his parent company (conveniently also called Bridges) to bring supplies to distant areas in order to integrate them into what’s know as the “Chiral Network.” He starts on the East Cost with the end goal to reach the Pacific, where the former President’s daughter is being held captive by a terrorist cell as she describes during visits via her holographic likeness. (I told you it was weird.)

This plot device of creating a network is a means by which Death Stranding reveals its most innovative, cool feature: Asynchronous online multiplayer. Each individual on their own is delivering packages, building up infrastructure and spawning vehicles. All of which can pop up across other people’s games. Players can “like” all of these things, in the vein of social media. When Kojima claimed this new title occupied a new genre called Strand Games, this is what he meant.

Its world and setup is a smorgasbord of proper nouns and foreign words. Admittedly, as wild as they appear, somehow everything fits together under the lore of this future universe.

Chiralium (A made up element that has magic powers.) The Beach (i.e. Purgatory). Beached Things (BTs. Hostile ghosts from The Beach). MULEs (Former delivery folks obsessed with stealing packages.) Homo Demens (Terrorist outfit whose leader acts as the main antagonist.) Bridge Baby (BBs. Tiny pre-infants that exist between plains of existence and can sense BTs, so they are used as tools by various factions via placing them in a jar of goop then connecting an umbilical cord to one’s suit. Nope, I’m not lying.)

It’s surprisingly well-fleshed out. Partly because Kojima beats the player over the head with it from jump so that it’s unavoidable. More importantly because much of the back-story is available in flavor text throughout the game’s messaging system or data dictionary, plus characters reference these things as everyday terms. In this timeline, people eating “Cryptobiotes” to heal themselves is as ubiquitous as avoiding “Timefall,” rain that speeds up time to make everything age much more quickly when caught in it (like, of course!).

I’ll hand him credit: Kojima sure knows how to build a world like no other.

This plot device of creating a network is a means by which Death Stranding reveals its most innovative, cool feature: Asynchronous online multiplayer. Each individual on their own is delivering packages, building up infrastructure and spawning vehicles. All of which can pop up across other people’s games.

Flipping from plot to visuals, it’s a stunningly gorgeous game built on the Decima engine borrowed from Sony’s Guerrilla Games studio. Which clearly specializes in glorious landscapes and environmental detail. I can’t oversell the spectacle of looking into the distance as a storm approaches or climbing a snow-capped mountain to take in the wintry horizon. These special moments almost make up for how painstaking it is to get there.

Speaking of that, here’s where the issues arise. Narrative set-up and universe-building can be as incredible as they are, yet the game is so brutal to play. Boring, even. Which is still a key aspect of one’s enjoyment. The core gameplay loop is picking up packages, balancing them on Sam’s back by using the trigger buttons, stumbling towards a destination avoiding rocks, Timefall plus pockets of enemies then dropping said packages off. It’s way too laborious until the better upgrades start appearing, which is no joke at least 8 to 10 hours into the game.

It’s not a case of “get good.” Sam’s lack of tools is by design. It feels intentionally frustrating in the first couple chapters, I’d imagine as an allusion to how difficult it would be without connections to other locations or players. That’s not even to mention the survival elements. Sam has a stamina gauge, then an energy bar, then the ever-present annoyance of “time fall” which is rain that speeds up time (of course) to the point where packages deteriorate.

There’s little to alleviate these pains until after those near dozen hours, when Sam earns gadgets and tools to assist in his effort. Making it even more annoying, the controls aren’t anywhere near intuitive. It never feels all the way right. Not to mention this quest design never changes. Unlike its game world, mission structure doesn’t evolve. Sure vehicles and weapons help. But the missions are basically the same in hour one as they are at the end. It’s boring by the second act and plain tiring in the last.

And what’s the reward? This is part of the problem. The lack of incentive, other than to progress the narrative to the next cutscene. Each mission awards experience based on a number of factors, like speed or package condition. The same animation plays as Sam delivers the package, a little bar goes up, there’s some dialogue then often times it’s back to the menu to pick up yet another boilerplate order. Very infrequently, the bar fills up to a point where that location doles out an upgrade or gift. There’s no clear path to seeing which places give what or how much time or experience it’s going to take to get that upgrade. It stumbles through its incentive structure as much as Sam does while getting there.

The argument against this thought process is that the journey is the reward, rather than the destination or reward. I understand that appeal to an extent. Though I think both have to be true in order for a game to be elite: I can find reward in getting to a place just as much as the tangible benefit for arriving there. Great games do this consistently well. Death Stranding isn’t one of them.

Other than an intriguing side quest involved pizzas, I stopped attempting optional deliveries in the back half in order to devour the story as fast as possible. I couldn’t get enough of the narrative. I certainly had my fill of its snooze-fest mechanics and fetch quest design by then.

Once the pace picks up and upgrades unlock, weapons start popping up with characteristics explained in the underlying world. The main material used to combat BTs is.. fluid from Sam’s body. Bridges is constantly extracting these from Sam, since he’s special. Namely that his blood and bathwater impact the ghastly BTs. Blood is used for grenades and even bullets, in an interaction between character development and gameplay application. These kinds of gadgets along with other aiding in deliveries, like vehicles and stabilizing armor, help the minute-to-minute gameplay break out of its early rut to become much more tolerable in the game’s middle chapters.

A related nitpick in this kind of game, which is one I’ve expressed for others in the past. Namely stealth games. The expectation here is to be as non-lethal as possible. If someone is killed, and their body isn’t incinerated, it can cause a crazy explosion when BTs find them. Then the developers provide all sorts of lethal options while simultaneously chastising the player for using them. What the heck is the point? Thankfully, Death Stranding often offers non-lethal counterparts that are essential. Unless you want a crater on the map in the aftermath of a void out.

Let me say this now, because I can hear the comments already. I don’t think a game has to be fun in order to be great. There are classics that aren’t fun. I believe it should at least be engaging from a gameplay perspective as early as possible, otherwise who wants to play a game they aren’t enjoying or don’t think the rewards are justified except to see the story play out? I felt like this during both the beginning hours then the end here, when I wish I didn’t at all.

Getting back to the positives, the realistic look of its characters is a superb achievement. These roles feature near perfect acting, as they well should from an experienced cast of talent: The aforementioned Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen as Cliff Unger, Léa Seydoux as Fragile, Guillermo del Toro as Deadman and even The Bionic Woman herself Lindsay Wagner as Amelie. Add in cameos from some of his more recognizable friends and even though it’s kind of a ridiculous concept to see Conan O’Brien or Edgar Wright as characters throughout the world, I can’t say it doesn’t fit with Kojima’s persona.

It’s the type of lineup rarely seen in games, if ever. Which is groundbreaking on its own, where blurring the line between cinema and interactive media is the intent. Each chapter focuses on a different character, which keeps it as focused as a game about so many different themes can be. There’s a risk of losing a player for a section if they aren’t interested in that particular person, which throws off pacing. For instance, I found Heartman, who induces cardiac arrest at intervals to search The Beach for his deceased family then revives himself back to reality, particular engaging while others not as much. Covering all of them here is impossible, so suffice to say it’s a diverse cast that supports Kojima’s character-driven saga.

I want to point this out before dipping into other areas: Troy Baker, one of the most prolific voice actors in games, is exquisite in his role as the villainous Higgs. It’s great to see him in action rather than as the voice behind a character. I hung onto every moment he’s on screen, almost proud how well he flexed his ability to hang right there alongside traditional film actors.

After a slow beginning from both story and gameplay perspectives, Episode 3 starts the second act which is the game’s absolute best. This is when it finally doles out the upgraded versions of gadgets and introduces weaponry that helps drastically. Plus, the puzzle of how characters interact and who they really are pieces itself together, namely the mysterious character played by Mikkelsen which up until then existed only in the memories of Sam Bridge’s Bridge Baby buddy (say that fast).

Main complaint is on its delivery method, which I should honestly expect by now in Kojima games. His writing is as subtle as a sledgehammer. It lays the exposition on thick during many scenes, as if the player isn’t smart enough to figure things out on their own. Like how the President, who wants to connect everyone, has the last name Strand. Or how the woman with a ghost baby is called Mama. Or how the guy nicknamed Deadman is cobbled together with organs from the deceased. We get it. Their names parallel their character traits. We don’t have to hear it every time we see them.

Its final act was exceedingly too long, exacerbated by the increased cutscene frequency combined with way too many places to deliver. By this point, the gameplay loop was way less satisfying as it asks you to do the same old fetch quest dressed up in a new way for the umpteenth time. Other than an intriguing side quest involved pizzas, I stopped attempting optional deliveries in the back half in order to devour the story as fast as possible. I couldn’t get enough of the narrative. I certainly had my fill of its snooze-fest mechanics and fetch quest design by then.

No story spoilers, other than to say it’s even further out there than I imagined. It goes places, then the ending flies off the rails. Turns total video game mixed with art film combined with anime. It’s totally aware and self-indulgent. I can’t tell if I love it or despise how Death Stranding wraps up during its, no hyperbole, more than two hours of cutscenes before actual final credits.

I firmly believe Death Stranding is the most important game of 2019. Not because it’s the best. Or even one I can recommend to everyone. It’s significant because it tries to be something more. It’s as special as it is flawed, stumbling all along the way to delivering its important message.

Speaking of the ending, we’re almost at the conclusion of this piece. I want to first highlight what I consider a main component of modern game design: Systems and quality of life. These are just as important to my game experience as how the game looks and runs plus its narrative progression.

To put it plainly: Death Stranding is cumbersome, in both movement and systems. As revealed by some very odd decisions. Namely, how the player navigates as Sam and his interactions with the world plus everything it throws at you in its myriad of menus.

There must be a hundred or more entries in the game’s log of how to play it or what to know about its mechanics. Hold the triggers to balance. Don’t let stamina deplete. Packages can be destroyed by falling or standing in timefall. Batteries power all the gizmos attached to Sam’s body. Smoke can hide you. Noxious gas can kill you. Don’t put too many packages on your back, there’s an encumbrance mechanic. You can hang onto parcels by hand, only by holding that particular trigger button. You can throw packages, only by hitting the punch button then letting go of said trigger. (This last one was especially comedic.)

It’s near comical how many times I had to check if I was doing something correctly. Or if I was forgetting some integral mechanic that would magically enhance my experience.

Then there’s the stealth. Mainly applies to two scenarios: Areas where Beached Things (BTs) exist, you know the ghosts that cross over to our dimension, or human enemies of MULEs and terrorists. BTs are intermittently invisible, so passing through those areas takes meticulous creeping and timing to kill them with Sam’s blood weapons. Not to mention time slows down for around 10 seconds every time Sam enters an area with these creatures. And they are around A LOT. It’s like when a Zelda game stops to tell you which item you’ve picked up, every damn time you pick it up.

The hint system is obnoxious, showing the same phrases over and over countless times on a huge portion of the screen. Sure they can be turned off. But what if I’m interested in learning new things about the game but don’t care about the hints I already know? I mostly appreciate these quality of life options in games. Not those that overstay their welcome, like they do here.

Then we have the infrastructure building system. It’s not bad. Players gradually get the ability to craft a variety of structures that help with navigation or combat. They can put up signs to encourage or warn other people. It starts with basic bridges and postboxes that require metal, then evolves into generators that replenish energy plus ziplines that zoom players around (however only if they can connect, which they often don’t, because only some of them populate from other people’s worlds).

All of this is governed by different materials like metal or resins, plus a general area has to be connected to the network in order for these to work. It’s a great way to make it feel like an evolving, connected world. I love how much it helps once it works. Though somewhat inconsistent in its application, plus Sam receives no help unless the main quest in a given area is complete.

Another major help in navigation that pops up after the first few painful hours is fast travel. Its implementation fits with one of the character stories, plus it allows movement between safe houses in different regions. Downside is the materials and gadgets don’t travel with Sam, so you can’t use it to actually make deliveries of course. It’s a travel system for him alone.

Final note before we wrap is the soundtrack. I really appreciated its integration, liking most of the tracks. There’s subtle, ambient tunes when traversing the world. It helps instill the sense of loneliness when delivering packages solo. Occasionally a licensed track will play during main story missions, accentuating the journey. It’s great, other than the track name being prominently displayed on the screen for way too long. As if the designers want you to know how much Kojima loves his picks for music. The band Low Roar, especially.

This reveals a common theme with Death Stranding: Great ideas, inconsistent implementation.

In what’s my longest review ever after spending an absurd 80 hours in this world, the craziest part is that there are things about this game I’m likely forgetting. It’s complex and opaque, with systems layered on top of systems for the sake of layering systems. It’s sometimes silly, breaking the fourth wall with that classic Kojima charm. Then turns serious, touching on themes that are obviously very important to him and his entire team.

It’s also a technical showpiece, a masterclass in game design when it comes to both motion capture and graphical fidelity. It rivals the most beautiful games on PlayStation 4 to date. I’d be remiss to not praise how special this is, plus the acting and cutscene work is the best in the business. It exists on another plane within the industry, one where film is as much an inspiration as anything. When we rank cinematic games, Death Stranding now has to be the preeminent entry on the list.

Still, it’s not without faults. Many of them. Its pacing is off, it’s nowhere near fun or even enjoyable to play and quest design is rudimentary at best. Among other negatives, such as way too many mechanics for its own good plus a lack of visibility on its rewards. This means there’s limited incentive to accomplish things outside of the critical path.

I firmly believe Death Stranding is the most important game of 2019. Not because it’s the best. Or even one I can recommend to everyone. It’s significant because it tries to be something more. It’s as special as it is flawed, stumbling all along the way to delivering its important message.

Title: Death Stranding

Release Date: November 8, 2019

Developer: Kojima Productions

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment on PlayStation 4. (505 Games on PC.)

Platforms: PlayStation 4. (Eventually PC.)

Recommendation: It’s hard to broadly recommend. I know it’s special. Yet only certain people will love it. If you dig Kojima’s storytelling, beautiful graphics, character acting, esoteric themes and connecting with other players then try it. Caveat being you must also tolerate all sorts of frustrations along the way with busted controls, annoying survival elements, repetitive fetch quests and unclear upgrade paths.

If not, play at your own risk.

Sources: Kojima Productions, IGN, PlayStation 4 Pro Screenshots.

-Dom

Sony’s PlayStation 4 Becomes Second Best-Selling Home Console of All Time

Passionate PlayStation fans have driven Sony Corp to yet another impressive, hm.. milestone in its storied history as a game console manufacturer.

Announced in a supplemental sheet as part of its quarterly earnings report today, the Japanese technology conglomerate shared that it shipped 2.8 million PlayStation 4 consoles in the three months ending September 2019. Which means that to date, the PlayStation 4 has now passed 102.8 million consoles sold.

While at first it doesn’t sound as noteworthy as the PS4 surpassing the 100 million threshold last quarter, it’s super impressive in the context of all-time sellers in the home market. That’s because PS4 formally passed both Nintendo’s 2006 system Wii (101.63 million) and Sony’s own original PlayStation from 1994 (102.49 million) to land as the second best-selling console ever.

Only Sony’s PlayStation 2 system has shipped more units, at a whopping 155 million at last count.

Sensing a theme?

This marks yet another major accomplishment for the team. Led by Sony’s focus on appealing to core gamers with both its marketing and software lineup plus launching at a lower initial price than its main competitor in Microsoft’s Xbox One, the PlayStation 4 has cemented itself as a legendary couch gaming experience with exceptional commercial success.

Obviously question is: Can it pass its most accomplished ancestor, the PlayStation 2?

My simple answer is: Unlikely. Sony has already announced the PlayStation 5 is due out in late 2020. The company has consistently reduced its forecast of PS4 shipments for its full 2019 fiscal year from 16 million back in April to 15 million in July, then 13.5 million in this latest report. Assuming it does hit 13.5 million, that equates to roughly 110 million in the wild overall by March 2020.

Even taking into account another fiscal year during the transition to a new generation, I can see under 125 million before PS5 appeals to a broader audience than just early adopters. Depends of course on how later generation software exclusives fare plus discount trend over time.

Well. It will have to settle for second place at the moment.

Beyond the eye-catching headline, Sony’s latest financial quarter was mixed at best especially within its gaming division. Check below for highlights and, might I say, lively commentary. The company’s presentation is here. Note that dollar amounts used are estimates, converted from local currency.

As displayed above for the company’s overall second quarter, sales and operating revenue dipped 3% since last year to around $19.5 billion while operating income surpassed $2.57 billion, an increase of 16%. Both revenue and earnings-per-share results actually beat analyst consensus, though Sony lowered its forecast for both metrics when considering the full fiscal year ending in March 2020.

Within its Game & Network Services (G&NS) unit, which includes PlayStation hardware, software and related services, quarterly sales slipped 17% to $4.5 billion while operating profit dropped 28% to just under $600 million. Sony pointed out that an increase in PlayStation Plus subscription revenue was not enough to offset a dip in both hardware and software dollar sales, thus the lowered performance.

Now, it’s always worth considering these reports in a broader context. Comparing quarters is only part of the equation. When pushing the dollar sales trend out to a trailing 12-month period then mapping over time, we certainly see a recent decline. Thing is, it’s above this time last year. Which means that even as it approaches the reveal and launch of the PlayStation 5, gaming is maintaining decent momentum. Profit is down slightly when looking at a similar trailing time frame, though well above where it’s been in prior years.

Note that similar to the company’s overall forecast, Sony also lowered its G&NS division forecast for both sales and profit for the full year, plus the PlayStation 4 hardware target as I noted previously.

Let’s chat a few specifics within its gaming business, then wrap with a couple observations and future thoughts.

While PlayStation 4 eclipsed sales of most of its historical competitors this quarter, it’s obvious that hardware and software are both slowing ahead of a new console cycle. The full game software sales total of 61.3 million copies is down from last year’s 75.1 million, likely due to the massively popular Marvel’s Spider-Man releasing in the corresponding quarter of 2018.

In terms of physical and digital split, 37% of software sales in Q2 were downloads. Compare this to around 28% this time last year, and it’s clear the trend is inching towards digital even for a traditional platform holder. Combine this with the popularity of PlayStation Plus, which rose to 36.9 million subscribers compared to last year’s 34.3 million, and we see how much digital and services matter when hardware sales are tapering off due to the natural cycle. It’s especially true this generation, as prior generations skewed much more towards retail consumption.

Speaking of business split, above charts out individual product categories within the gaming division over recent quarters. Which shows a handful of notable trends.

First, hardware sales are among the lowest this generation. Expected now that PS5 is official. Software remains the most prominent part of the PlayStation business other than occasionally during the holiday quarter, so it’s natural that growth ebbs and flows with it. Take a look at the green Network Services bar. This burgeoning segment has shown double-digit year-on-year growth every single quarter. Services are the talk of the industry lately, and for good reason. Sony is seeing tangible contribution from providing customers with things like PlayStation Plus, PlayStation Now and others to where I anticipate this to continue smoothly in both the near and long term.

So. What does this all mean and where’s Sony going in the future within its most important business segment?

It’s obviously a mixed quarter both overall and within G&NS, most notably because of its lowered guidance for annual revenue, profit and PlayStation 4 hardware sales. Though when smoothing this quarter’s performance over time, the PlayStation business is showing legs before entering into a new chapter. Most noteworthy being the digital and services slices.

Still, software is key and that will dictate the remainder of this year. What I anticipated to be the year’s top console seller, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, achieved a $600 million opening weekend according to an Activision Blizzard press release today. It has an exclusive marketing deal with Sony plus PlayStation exclusive content, which means the console will benefit greatly from this rejuvenation of Call of Duty annual sales.

Death Stranding is the major console exclusive during this holiday quarter, releasing on November 8th. It’s produced by Kojima Productions, led by all-time-great director Hideo Kojima, and I’m upbeat on its sales potential despite being a new intellectual property.

The downside is that 2018 saw major releases in the God of War reboot and the aforementioned Marvel’s Spider-Man, which makes for a difficult comparison. Combine that with the delay of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II into the first quarter of 2020 fiscal and we can understand why Sony adjusted its estimates downward.

Based on the above, I’m intrigued to see how software sales compare during the back half of the year, since I already anticipate lower dollar sales from PlayStation 4 hardware due to market saturation and discounted pricing.

Sony boasts one of the most impressive achievements in its company history with PlayStation 4 joining its PlayStation 2 brethren as one of the best-selling pieces of hardware ever, though the company will face short-term pressure as it gears up production and marketing for PlayStation 5 its corresponding software lineup.

Hope you all have a good one!

Sources: Activision Blizzard, Kojima Productions, Nintendo, Sony Corp., Wired.

-Dom

Earnings Calendar Jul & Aug 2019: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

No more funny business!

Alright, maybe just a little. Because it’s that time again. The most fun you’ll have all season. It’s way too hot (at least here in the States) to go outside, so spend the next couple weeks as one should right now: hanging in the air conditioning reading through financial reports and analyzing fancy numbers, of course.

If that’s your type of thing, you’re in the right spot. I’ve compiled the closest thing to a full list anywhere in the world for upcoming earnings dates from major global gaming, tech and media companies. I know you’re busy. Hope this will keep things organized.

You’ll notice something a bit different this time. Select rows are listed as not reporting this quarter. This is the result of trying to document as many names as possible, though not every international company reports quarterly. Some only share numbers semi-annually. I’ll keep them on the list for quick reference or access to the investor site, though we’ll have to be even more patient to see how those in particular are doing.

Full calendar image is above, then there’s the Google Doc link below that has each of them listed individually. A number don’t have set dates yet, though we have a general sense based on trends. Scroll further to see which three companies I’m monitoring closely this quarter. Truly appreciate your visit, please check back for updates!

Working Casual Earnings Calendar Jul & Aug 2019: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

Sony Corp (SNE): Tuesday, July 30th

The Japanese gaming and consumer conglomerate has been bolstered lately by excellent results within its gaming division. While software and services are growth engines this late in the current cycle, I’m actually intrigued by how hardware is holding up since the PlayStation brand is maintaining better momentum than anticipated. Namely, will this be the quarter where Sony’s successful PlayStation 4 console eclipses the 100 million units shipped? If so, it would be only the sixth piece of hardware to ever cross this coveted threshold. two of them being earlier Sony consoles with the original PlayStation at over 102 million and PlayStation 3 achieved a whopping 155 million. Based on the lifetime sales of just under 97 million and the company’s trend of moving approximately 3 million or more PS4 in the past couple quarters ending June, there’s certainly a chance it reaches this milestone. Though I’d bet it happens later in the summer.

Capcom Co Ltd (9697): Thursday, August 1st

The resurgence of Osaka-based Capcom is one of the most uplifting stories of the current generation. Last year’s.. hm, yes I’m doing it. Last year’s monstrous hit Monster Hunter: World continues its momentum as it amazingly hit 13 million units sold just this past week, widening its margin as the company’s best-selling game ever. January’s Resident Evil 2 Remake is the 5th best-selling title of the 1st half of 2019 in the States according to NPD, and has eclipsed 4 million units at last count. March’s Devil May Cry V showed well at launch and is estimated to be nearing the 3 million unit threshold. Continued sales of these should make for solid results in the quarter ending June, though I’m actually more interested in where executives go with guidance. Especially in light of Monster Hunter World’s Iceborne expansion due out September. And where’s the company going with its fighting game approach? Will it factor in a brand new Resident Evil entry, perhaps for early next calendar year? We likely won’t know for sure until later, though any change in guidance can give us enough information to at least speculate!

Super League Gaming (SLGG): Mid August

Yup. This is a new one. eSports community and content platform Super League Gaming is the latest in gaming initial public offerings (IPOs), raising proceeds of nearly $23 million back in Q1. It’s an intriguing, modern business model in a growing industry where the firm operates more as a community platform for amateur players rather than solely competitive games for pros. Effectively highlighting content creators on social media, hosting events and offering a technology platform to organize all of it. Based on its first quarterly filing as a public company back in April, revenues nearly doubled and it’s established multiple partnerships with companies like Best Buy, Logitech and the aforementioned Capcom. With annual revenue estimated at $1 million, I’m curious to see how it continues to monetize this type of community approach especially since it’s aligned with major titles like League of Legends and Minecraft.

Sources: Company Investor Relations Websites & Press Releases, Sony PR, Capcom PR, NPD Group, Super League Gaming, Games Press.

-Dom