606 – Cloudy Horizons

clip_image002As the Holiday Season starts to loom (though some retailers’ tasteful décor has been in the aisles since late August), technology fans’ thoughts turn to Black Friday and the inevitable gift flinging that follows. The Global Pandemic™ and its spin-off, The Supply Chain Nightmare®, has dealt a shortage of what uninformed pundits refer to as “computer chips” amongst many other issues.

This means that even if big ships weren’t in the wrong place and there was anyone left to drive the containerloads of toot they ordinarily carry, the actual goods themselves might be in shorter supply than expected. All sorts of consumer electronics from gadgets to motor cars have been affected by shortfall in capacity at silicon fabs.

If you haven’t got your planned-for Xbox Series X console yet, then good luck in finding any in stock – there are numerous twitter accounts and stock scraping websites out there which might help, assuming you don’t want to get scalped on eBay. Maybe you’ll need to stick with what you have already and just wait until 2022 to get the top spec console, or settle for a Series S in the meantime.

Good news for all Xbox console gamers, though – the latest release in the mammoth Forza series has arrived.

Originally a racing simulation franchise to rival the PlayStation’s Gran Turismo, Forza Motorsport appealed to driving sim types, but Forza Horizon – a more arcade-style driving game which has you hooning around an open world in all kinds of exotic cars – has reached a far wider audience. Set in Mexico (or a fictionalized variant thereof), FH5 has hit the ground running with over 1 million gamers already.

Forza Horizon 5 is available for PC, Xbox One and Xbox Series S / X. Already available on Xbox Game Pass, it can be downloaded free with the right subscription, though it might take a while to complete the installation…

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If you can’t wait to play it (or you just fancy a quick try without spending all day installing it), why not run it from the cloud instead?

clip_image006The smoothness of the graphics probably won’t be quite as good as having it locally, but with Game Pass Ultimate you can try the streaming experience which has been in beta for a while now. Cloud Gaming is available on Apple, Android and Windows devices.

Simply plug in an Xbox controller via USB or connect via Bluetooth, and your device will be the front end to the game which is actually running in an Azure datacenter, on one of many Xbox Series X blades.

Even modest spec PCs like the original Surface Go can cut a credible job for a little Friday night entertainment.

604 – Empire and Pass

clip_image002The Xbox console is nearly 20 years old. Launched at Toys R Us (remember them?) in NYC in mid-November 2001, the first generation console (originally referred to as the “DirectX Box” after the PC graphics technology) later made its way to Japan and Europe in early 2002.

The companion Xbox Live gaming service arrived in 2002, and set the high-bar for online and multi-player gaming services alongside the original console and its online and multi-player-enabled games. The Xbox Live Gold service was threatened with a price increase earlier this year, though that was quickly walked back; commentary at the time was that Microsoft was trying to make XBL Gold less attractive in order to push people to using the newer and more comprehensive (also, more expensive) Xbox Game Pass offering.

Game Pass Ultimate is a superset of Xbox Live Gold – and includes access to lots of games as part of the subscription, akin to getting movies through a Netflix subscription rather than buying or renting individual titles. In January 2021, Microsoft said there were 18 million Game Pass subscribers, with the number likely to be a good bit higher now. Different Game Pass levels are aimed at PC games fans or Xbox games, or both – starting at £1 for a month’s trial, up to £10.99 a month for the full kahuna, which includes XBL Gold and both PC & console games.

This week sees the launch of the latest edition of one of the biggest PC games from the 1990s; Age of Empires. Originally released in 1997, the civilization-building strategy game was hugely popular and kept growing through community-provided expansion packs and “mods”, despite sporadic attention from Microsoft directly. If you played the original, you’ll probably remember the Priest who could turn an enemy into a friend, or recall losing hours being absorbed in the minutiae of building farms, training soldiers and waging war on your neighbours.

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Well, the franchise is being rebooted, in a clear signal that the PC is still considered a major gaming platform. Leading the 20-year celebration of Xbox with a flurry of both PC and console game launches, is Age of Empires IV.

The new release has a variety of clip_image005campaigns from the Roman Empire to Moscow, Mongolia and Genghis Khan to Joan of Arc. If you’ve already got a Game Pass, and If you fancy whiling away some of the weekend stuck in the past, you’d be well advised to start the installation soon – it can take a very long time to download and install. Wololo!