Monday, June 27, 2011

Dungeon Siege III

Just because I'm taking a vacation from work doesn't mean I'm not playing games. This gave me the opportunity to play through Dungeon Siege III without feeling rushed, as I'm giving myself three or four days to finish a game. As a fantasy RPG I assumed I would need it. I bought the game from GameStop brand new at full price.

As an Xbox 360 user I am a bit of an Achievement nut, so after loading the game I went through the list to see what the game wants from me. A little disclaimer in how I played the game; there are three difficulty settings, but only one achievement for beating it on Hard. I didn't think this was the ideal way to play it the first time, so I opted for Casual, as Normal doesn't get you anything extra. There was one particular achievement that caught my eye, Perfectionist, which is about completing the game and all the side missions. As it turns out the side missions all appear on your in-game map but I used a list to make sure I didn't miss any. That was the only amount of assistance I used in the game.

Well, that and a list of where all the books are that explain the entire backstory of the franchise. There is a brief history on the land of Ehb in the manual and the prologue of the game, but the game might have been better served if the player knew the world's history before going into it. I would be remiss in mentioning since this is a sequel the events from the previous games (Windows and PSP) are in fact covered. Some care was taken to craft the world to explain the motivations of all forces involved, up to and including the gods of the land, so that should be commended.

Like most games of this genre, the world is in chaos. You are one of the last few descendants of the Legion, the elite defenders of the realm in days gone by. Even though they were the most powerful force of good in Ehb, they somehow failed keep some hot, young illegitimate heir to the throne from using god-powers to decimate them and the land, as well as turn all honest folks against them. It's deeper than that, but on the surface you are trying to clear the name of the Legion which was hunted to extinction as well as bring order to the land. Nothing new there.

The draw for this game is playing a top-down Fantasy RPG dungeon crawler where you wander the land, beat up evil and collect as much loot as possible. It's even a feature on the back of the box. The developers want you to collect incrementally better and better gear as you play. I like min/max-ing my armor and weapon choices as I play a game, but I don't like a game that either focuses on it, or tailors the world to make me do it. When you switch to better equipment it should look and feel like your character is better, and I never did, except seeing damage numbers above enemy heads. I also had the feeling that enemies scaled with you, almost defeating the purpose using gear to an advantage. Equiping seems easy at first, but you get companions that have to be equiped as well, and it becomes clunky dealing with them as you can only use one of them at a time. Upgradeable between levels are personal powers and character mods, but you never get enough points to put into everything, so I always felt at a loss when I had to choose one of many different things.

I have played any number of RPGs, and this game seems to have taken a number of mediocre ideas from other games and merged them into one. Every aspect of Dungeon Siege III I have played elsewhere and better. That's not to say it's is bad, just that it's bland. Borderlands and Too Human did a better job of the item collecting game. Dragon Age: Origins and Knights of the Old Republic did the character ability tree better. Diablo did better with top-down camera angle. Baldur's Gate did better with the dungeon crawling. It feels like a blender was used to list the features this game should have. The sad thing is it's a decent game, but just misses shy of the mark in so many ways. I want to know why games that let you carry 20 different suits of armor for four characters suddenly imposes a limit. Just let me carry everything, or put a box somewhere in the world I can store my things in. I hate RPG item management.

The camera is always over your head, but can be moved a little closer to behind and above your head. This never lets you see what's in front of your character. Ehb is a lush looking world at times from a forest village, to a Steampunk city, to a snowy mountain pass, to a Dwarven mine with shiny crystals and floating rocks. I wanted to see all these things from a first person perspective and enjoy the details, but the god-like view made much of this impersonal. But then, a lot of times the detail wasn't that sharp when you could look at the environment close. This could easily have been an original Xbox game. If Dungeon Siege were presented like an Elder Scrolls game it would have been much better.

If you are worried that an open world would be hard to manage with this camera, then you'll be relieved to know you can't go anywhere off the beaten path. This is almost the perfect definition of Invisible Walls. There is no freedom to wander and no need to back track unless you think you missed something. If you get disoriented after a battle, a Fable II dotted trail will lead you to the next destination. It's hard not to figure out what to do. I'm not sure this is a good thing. Dragon Age: Origins was the same way but I could call my own shots with an overworld map to decide what to do next. This freedom is gone.

There are four characters to choose from the start, but the only one that appealed to me was Reinhart, a mage with the power over electricity that had spinning gears on his clothes. All the interactive dialogue is presented like a BioWare game, with voice acting and a conversation wheel. There were plot elements to choose from that did feel like it effected the game, and all this came from talking to NPCs. The sad thing is the character animation was flatter and less interesting than Fallout 3. I suppose I should be happy characters blink. Conversations always seem an abrupt change to events unfolding as you run around. At least there are no load times to speak of.

I am spoiled by Final Fantasy of days gone by when it comes to cut scenes. There aren't any. Well, there are these nice sepia-toned art pieces that act as segues between major events, that are able narrated by a character named Odo. I really wish Rene Auberjonois had voiced him. It just would have made sense. The voice did a decent job, too. It is weird hearing your own character talking back after choosing a response. However, when I did manage to see my character's face, he wasn't talking, just a voice coming from his head. Cheap shortcut. And what is it with games that change what you say after you respond? There was even an L.A. Noire moment where I needed to judge if someone was lying, and there was no way the facial animation had that level of detail to it.

Fighting is handled in real-time with some minor cool-down of defense spells. You have a life bar, you have a magic bar, what else do you need? How about grinding? Unless you want to game the system; save, then reload in a wilderness area to force enemy to respawn. Rinse and repeat. At least your companion is good enough to revive you when you fall during battle, so being overwhelmed isn't such a chore.

The bright shining light I found in this game was the town of Stonebridge. Inhabited by both humans and Goblins (I think they were supposed to be Gnomes), the entire town is Steampunk with moving gears on buildings and robot police walking the streets. It is the most fully realized idea in the game. From its history to the economy and technology. There is a Foundry underground that powers the entire city and you have to investigate it when it goes silent. I wish every town and hub in the game was made with this level of care.

This franchise could use an update of some sort. I have nothing against the story as they have filled a lot of history over the last 150 years of in-game time since the last game. I need something more out Dungeon Siege, though. I wanted to be wowwed by the locations, spend hours picking the right piece of armor, or grind for a while until I could face down a boss on my terms. Everything in this game is adequate, except the voice acting and the music which are above average. I like the world, I just want a better use of it. And who the heck is the person on the cover?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Duke Nukem Forever

After three days of concerted effort and a little lost sleep, I finally put the game to rest. My goal, get the achievement for sitting through the end credits. The task, to finish one of the worst reviewed games I have ever played. So much has been written about the issues with Duke Nukem Forever, I don't feel like treading over a well-worn path. I would instead like to share some of the good things about this game that may be overlooked. Then again, "good" is a relative word.

First off, Duke Nukem Forever is technically a video game. I like video games, therefore on some level I automatically like playing this game. As an FPS I like the familiar controls and you get most of the achievements on the Xbox 360 version (and I assume trophies for PS3) just playing it through once on Normal. The chapter structure of the game does allow you to replay older levels looking of Ego boosting items which are added to your current campaign play, Ego being your life meter.

Second, you are moving through the narrative one chapter at a time, like most FPS's these days, and each level has at least a few seconds where there is good gameplay to be had. For instance a driving level requires you to race down a busted freeway, then at key scripted moments you have to dismount and find gas cans while having a running gun fight in an old western town. One of the better moments in the game, as is the final endgame escape from Hoover Dam that reminded me of the end of the first Metroid.

Thirdly, The voice work of Duke Nukem is the best dub-work in the game and tends to fit everything that's going on. There must be two dozen one-liners worth of material as you shoot every one in sight. This is the most entertaining part of the game. I tend to comment on my games as I play them (which might be a habit I developed in the early 90's from Duke anyway), so it was quite relaxing not to have to use my own one-liners. At one point we both (Duke and I) said the same epithet at the same time. Quite invigorating. And this voice work is used to make lots of action movie, pop-culture references. Some make fun of much better games, but I thought it was slightly more clever than rude. Many, however, didn't like all the derisive comments to Half Life, Halo, and Gears of War, but since I didn't take this game seriously (as much as the game takes itself super-seriously) I wasn't offended.

Number four, the disc starts with slo-mo rolling craps dice showing all the different game companies involved, while generic heavy metal plays in the background, that fits the character style but is woefully lost after the American flag-waving title screen. Also, after you complete the game, you unlock some extras that include a complete time line of the 15+ years of game development.

Last on the list, The final boss fight was actually on the fun side of challenging. Once you learn the attack pattern, the battle is a rewarding challenge to get through, even in the hectic end-game with everyone shooting at you without any cover. Almost every other boss fight felt cheap on some level, to the point most defeats are just pure luck. The first boss fight is kind of handed to you though.

There is so much wrong in between these little things that I can barely recommend Duke Nukem Forever to anyone, unless they have a morbid curiosity of the triple-breasted alien-queen or the one-eyed snake boss battles. The sexual innuendo, and not so blatant sex acts, are kind of funny the first time, but just get worse as the game goes on. The aliens want revenge for Duke kicking them off the planet in the last game, so they show up to kidnap every hot babe, with large mammary glands, in sight. This upsets Duke greatly who, instead of killing every alien around to save the Earth, only wants his favorite girls back, the Molsen Twins (named for the beer I suppose... oh wait... those girls from that show... ewww). Something like that, as the plot really isn't any stronger than that.

As you start to see bad things about the game it cascades into deeper and deeper issues. The load times between levels, or checkpoint reloading after you die again and again, are unbearable. I can't think of another game this generation that has had loads in excess of 30 seconds each. At least the load screen gives you half-a-dozen pithy messages to help you play better: "if you fall to your death, it's your own fault", "while being shot at, avoid bullets" and "If you are stuck look up a game FAQ online". I think original Halo had some load times… on the first Xbox. And what is it loading? The graphics form in the first few seconds on the new level, instead of being ready AFTER 40 SECONDS. In the mean time you're playing around in a world of grey clay models. That is if the framerate doesn't drop to the unplayable level of 1fps or slower. Only happened a couple times, but you suffer greatly. Not that the game looks to be in HD, but more like a slightly better rendered Xbox game. For some reason all the colors seemed very bland to me, some levels almost seemed like black and white. Maybe that was my TV, but there was no gamma controls in the options, only brightness.

The non-Duke voice acting is awful, as is the character models and the no-dimensional characters, except maybe the kid who general seemed excited to get your autograph in the first level. And the use of NPC's gets horrific when you're expected to smack webbed-up dead bodies to drop ammo you need. I won't get into the naked, bondage babes that suffer the indignity of Chest-Bursters from Alien, all screaming and crying, making for an ugly level to endure. Okay, so I did mention it. Sorry. I'm trying to warn anyone playing this game what to expect.

It's not all shooting pigcops and tentacle-brain things, there is also platforming. It is really hard to implement good platforming in an FPS (see Portal for a perfect gameplay example) and Duke Nukem Forever wasn't even close. Most of the time I didn't even know where the game wanted me to go. I just went somewhere and died, then tried again in a different direction. This becomes even more of a pain in the ass when you get shrunk to doll size. I don't remember that in the original games, but it is so out of place here. Why is that even something aliens would use against me? Shooting at me was doing the job just fine. Why shrink me so I can be eaten by rats? Such an uninspired idea. It's all scripted, too, so it's not like you can choose to shrink to solve one of the few platforming puzzles in the game.

But, many times you are just fighting aliens, so you get locked in a room where you can be jumped from anywhere. I especially hated the jet-pack people that teleport when shot and appear behind you to teleport again when you shoot them. There's a special place in hell for the dude that thought that one up. Or some gorilla looking dudes come running at you in a such a crappy framerate you can't even shoot them before tackling Duke. Don't worry, there are also a couple turret moments to make you annoyed with something new. I did enjoy the one on-rails turret area that seemed right out of Modern Warfare. Then again you have unlimited ammo and I don't think you can die, which is even more irritating than normal. Your screen cracks red, you can't see what's happening, then another load screen pops up.

Much of what you are seeing and doing seems haphazardly put together, like lots of different people had lots of different ideas for lots of different gameplay, but never enough time to polish anything, so everything got thrown in the blender without thought. Deadlines must be a b***h in the game development world. If they never come out with another sequel that would be fine, but if one company can do one game in a couple years it would be a vast improvement. The best I can say is it's good for achievements. But, for those that track these things, the "jiggle physics" is well realized.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Red Faction: Armageddon

Every year more sequels are pumped out by studios (movies, video games, etc.) and during the build up to an iterative release there is always a voice or two speaking of sequel exhaustion. Then comes the additional request for more first-time IPs. In the case of video games I think sequels should hold just as much hope for a good gaming experience as original releases. Most games have a dozen or two hours of campaign gameplay where a player is the character. When I finish a game, often times I'd like to see what happens next in the world, with or without that original character. So I equally welcome a sequel as well as new properties as long as the gameplay is solid and rewarding.

This brings me to Red Faction: Armageddon, the fourth game in the series. I became attached to the world on Mars I helped liberate in the last game, so I looked forward to a continuation of the time line. Armageddon takes place a century later, with the descendants of Alec Mason still fighting along side the Red Faction against the Earth government for freedom of Mars. So, apparently I, as Alec Mason, did almost nothing in the long run. I know there is a TV movie that probably explains all this, but at the start of this game a home-grown radical religious group, that hates the Mason family for some reason, sets about destroying the Terraformer that has maintained all the atmosphere on Mars for a century (or more).

You, Darius, are the latest generation of Masons to fight the good fight, not well liked by the Red Faction and apparently kind of a joke. In the course of the game you will become the hero your name represents. However, you still have the NanoForge as a full developed wearable tool, with a built-in AI (named Sam, a connection to the Marauder of the same name who helped in the last game), which gives you the power to destroy and rebuild in a matter of seconds. This makes you a better asset than any other character in the game, and you are treated as a joke and a pariah, which doesn't sit well with me at all. However, for the sake of gameplay it's a great addition. So is the banter between you and Sam, as the AI becomes the best realized character in the game, but that's not saying much.

There are other nice little references to the last game: a Taco franchise from Parker, the first sector you liberate; plenty of left over EDF supply crates just lying around; another female protagonist (Kara) that is a Marauder; the Ultor corporation comes up in the plot; you have the iconic sledge hammer, again; and many more. You still use Scrap as a kind of currency and it is way easier to see them against the background than before. Here, though, it seems out of place as barrels of scrap are just laying around everywhere and not contextually built into the game as before. You can use scrap this time to buy abilities for yourself like an RPG skill tree, with a growing progression of Rings that enhance your NanoForge talents. I really like this, but it doesn't mesh with the narrative again.

Speaking of plot, this is called Armageddon because you are tasked with saving the Martian colonial population from indigenous creatures that nobody knew about, except the aforementioned religious group that unleashes it. This removes the game from the standing theme about revolution and puts it right up against the likes of Gears of War. This is not an open-world game at all, but a third-person, plot driven shooter that has you move from one chapter to the next. No backtracking, no choices, no freedom. Red Faction and Red Faction II (both FPS's) were in this vein, but Armageddon seems uninspired from the step forward that Guerrilla represents. Halo 3, Gears of War, and Modern Warfare are all built on this structure, and each has its own unique take on the shooter genre. Armageddon comes off a bit bland; lackluster set-pieces, controls that are too jumpy to allow good targeting, and characters that are a little too generic and under-developed. The only interesting angle in the game that isn't explored is the fact you are killing all the actual Martians and the humans (all Martian-born at this point) are aliens.

Where Armageddon is strongest is in the physics engine. It is awe inspiring to watch structures shatter under your destructive control. You will very likely destroy a key element to your continuation so you also have the ability to rebuild things. This isn't utilized enough because it is quite fun. Odds are in the dank, dark confusing-but-linear level design you will get turned around by the same three creatures attacking through most of the game. To help you through this you have an instant GPS that gets you sorted out. This gets so repetitious, however, that there is an auto-target button to make it easier. This is to simulate another ability; that Darius has instant reflexes. He is head-and-shoulders better than every other human living on Mars. You will kill hundreds of native Martians, cultists and even fight a couple mechs hand-to-hand, and at the most desperate hour of the human race on Mars, you will be arrested because some officer doesn't like you. I should probably also point out the sounds of all your weapons are well realized, even to the point of making a rattling noise when your magazine is almost empty, to remind you to reload. Too bad many of the firefights are boring.

There are other things to do with this game than the single player campaign. An Infestation mode is included which is basically Horde Mode from Gears of War II. You need to survive 30 waves of the indigenous Martian horde coming at you or defending a spot as they try to destroy it. The fact that everyone playing can repair damage instantly actually provides a fresh gameplay mechanic to a boring implementation of someone else's idea. But as it is not strongly supported by achievements I didn't play much of this mode.

There is technically a Zero Day DLC in the form of Ruin Mode which is pretty fun as you are unleashed to destroy things in the environment. You have a time limit to do as much damage as possible, which in turn unlocks new boards. How you download it, however, is a bit misleading. This is one of those premium ideas designed to make you want to buy it brand new. You input a code, but it won't download. Since you can't download things while playing a game (unless it's Rock Band or Guitar Hero in my experience), Ruin Mode won't work until you quit out of the game, wait for confirmation, then start it again. Something is really sloppy here. The file in question is about 100KB, which means you are downloading a key to unlock content already on the disc, the worst kind of DLC. Not worth the effort to get it, even for free, without achievement support.

Lastly there is Mr. Toots. A secret weapon you unlock by finishing the game (even on Casual as I didn't see a point to playing it at a harder setting) that has to be seen to be believed. Very destructive and way out of place for a pseudo-Space Marine game. Picture how someone might use a My Little Pony as a beam weapon. But there is reason to play a second time through, called New Game Plus, that lets you carry over all weapons and unlockable abilities from the first run through, thus making Insane difficulty a little easier. Plus, there are new weapons and cheats to purchase that don't ruin achievement progression and make a second play more enjoyable.

My criticisms may seem a bit harsh as I found the game fairly enjoyable. Only a couple spots have weird shifts of gameplay that become chokepoints until you learn the new rules, but there are some great things happen during gameplay. I don't feel the game is worth the full $60, but as I got it on discount (see my previous blog), $40 seems about right. GameFly it or borrow it from a friend will work too. I would like to see the next game get back to its revolutionary roots. Maybe Red Faction: Vendetta where the "V" stands for "5"?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Full Disclosure

I understand that in the interest of full disclosure if one is to review a product, say a video game, one is to disclose the manner of acquiring said object to allow readers the chance to put the opinions in perspective. With that in mind I'd like to cover my behind by describing the circumstances of my recent video game reviews. But, in case no one is following my rambling, I will explain why I think this desire exists. I suppose at some point in the past someone promoted a game, movie or cell phone without ever explaining it was given to them for free and that no matter how bad it was, that's pretty cool with them. Conversely, if someone paid full retail price for an item and it sucked, they may be inclined to really hammer home that it sucked. This latter scenario seems more reasonable to me as that is how most people acquire things, at full price. Now there is some nifty middle-ground where a person might get a mediocre product at half price and that actually creates a more positive environment than it normally would have. I only write this in case you have never heard of this before and wonder how I interpret the need to contextualize the review experience.

L.A. Noire: I bought it at full price from a local Best Buy and received a $10 gift card for, I assume, being a prompt customer purchasing a new videogame within a week of release. I had no idea about receiving a gift card until purchase time and I never let it figure into my feelings about the game. It is worth the normal $60 and the value increases for any discount you might get on it. If this had a special edition for $100 with Fedora then I would have been all over it.

Red Faction: Guerrilla: Having jumped through some hoops online back in early 2009 I had the chance to play the multi-player beta. I won't lie, I was enamored with a chance to play a game before release, and to take a Q & A session to help before it was ready for prime time. I thought the beta could have used a little help, but, overall I liked the game enough to declare, even if it sucked, I would buy the game. When it came out I bought it from GameStop at full price (upsetting the staff as I wasn't trading anything in or buying a used copy that was $5 cheaper) and shelved it assuming I would get to it soon. Sadly I didn't, but with recent release of Red Faction: Armageddon I cracked the seal on the older game and played it. I think it stands to reason the if the game is still good after two years that it is a really solid third entree into the franchise.

Red Faction: Armageddon: I bought some special edition something or other for Xbox 360 and was given a $20 gift card to Target for my troubles. I've had this gift card for a while and finally decided to use it. I won't reveal my feelings on this game yet, as I finished it about 24 hours ago and it's still gelling in my head. But I will say getting a discount on this game can only work in its favor.

Duke Nukem Forever: I am old enough to have actually bought a Duke Nukem game for a previous console, and I felt moderately enthused that it was okay. That would be the Nintendo64 version of Duke Nukem. I have heard nothing but vitriol about this new game that indicates it probably never should have existed, but instead it hung in there for more than a decade to shake the vapor-ware attribute. I bought this today at Best Buy using a couple of gift cards to make the final price around $40. I have only played this game for a few hours but I can confidently say I think I payed too much for it. I will hold all the rest of my opinions until I find the end of it, but my will might atrophy.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Red Faction: Guerrilla

Yes, I'm writing about an older game. I had the opportunity to play the multiplayer beta test for this game back in early 2009 so I bought the game in June of that year and somehow never ended up playing it. With the new release of Red Faction: Armageddon I felt I should play the older one first, just in case the story carries over in some way. Even if it doesn't, this is a decent game, even two years later.

You play Alec Mason, in a third-person role, of a miner looking for work on Mars. In the space of one cut scene you lose your brother and get caught up in the Red Faction, a group of freedom fighters who resist the generic totalitarian regime of Earth. The story ain't the strongest but it has all the elements you want in science fiction, which definitely comes off as a future western. Even down to the Native American analog of The Marauders. I wish the history of the colonization of Mars was covered better, because there are already ruins of the previous industrial antagonists, The Ultor Corporation, and "natives" living in them. I'm sure this was already covered in Red Faction (2001) and Red Faction II (2002), but I didn't play them much. There is also the threat of a space battle ship from Earth that can vaporize targets from orbit on its way to Mars, the idea being the insurrection you are heading needs to succeed before its arrival. Unfortunately, since these parts of the game are scripted, you never feel like you're really under the gun.

There is a lot to like here; an open world Mars to help liberate. There are six sectors to liberate, by kicking the EDF out, and a gauge to show you how much control they still have. You need to get that down to zero to move onto the next sector by doing story missions, guerrilla missions (which you pick the ones to do) and random building destruction. Here is where the game is strongest, destroying buildings. But not just any building, but specially highlighted buildings, or any on your RADAR in red. You can just walk across Mars with a machine gun, remote charges and a sledge hammer, destroying any EDF structure you want. This is the hands-off approach to gaming I like. It's up to the player how to tackle the situation. There are a total of 20 story missions to do but there is still freedom in tackling them and how to accomplish the goal. This reminds me a lot of Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction (2005) in that respect, where you had a lot to do but it was up to you when and how to do it.

This is definitely a physics game; and glorious to watch, especially blowing up smoke stacks. Put a charge on one side, detonate it, then watch the whole thing topple over destroying what ever is under it. Everything can be destroyed so the game is tracking the structure as you damage it to see when it collapses. None of this is pre-rendered, it all happens on the fly and is very rewarding. The game is also quite forgiving when you get caught in the destruction. I blew up a building with EDF soldiers around me; they got crushed and I got up again to collect some scrap. Scrap is the in-game money which is left behind by wreckage or earned through various Guerrilla missions. You will use this to buy weapons and upgrades, like a better sledgehammer, a rocket launcher, or a jet pack. There are even vehicles to drive around which have their own mass to destroy obstacles. All in all a very satisfying experience.

For achievement completionists there are several things to collect from the environment, which can be done after the game, so no worries if you miss anything. There are 300 ore rocks growing out of the ground you can mine (i.e. smack it with your sledge hammer) for scrap which barely show up on your RADAR as small, dark red squares. The EDF keeps blue supply crates everywhere and there are more than 250 of them. Very faintly on RADAR you will see a green glowing dot which is one of 36 radio beacons to collect. And finally, there are big billboards advertising Earth propaganda of which you can find 50.

I found game play decent, but frame rate tended to drop when a lot was happening. Sadly when a lot is happening (destroying a building while being attacked from air and ground by a dozen troops) is when it hurts the most. However, this didn't happen enough to ruin the game at all. Shooting the enemy becomes routine, and never really that exciting, but blowing dudes up with charges and rockets, or hitting them with your sledgehammer is incredibly satisfying. All the missions are fairly well balanced except the final one which felt more like a Kobayashi Maru mission which you aren't expected to win. There are multiple difficulty settings but no benefit to choosing any but Casual, which near the end was hard enough. I'm not really covering the multi-player because I was far more interested in playing the story.

I hope the themes of revolution and independence from Earth play into Red Faction: Armageddon. I want these games to be connected somehow. I don't want them to feel separate even though they take place 100 years or so apart. But then again, SyFy put out the Red Factions: Origins made-for-TV movie to bridge the gap in between.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

L.A. Noire

It took some dedication this weekend, but I played through L.A. Noire and found the end credits. What a fantastic story. I loved every minute of it. This proves I can sit through hours of well built, in-engine cut scenes. The dialog track is excellent and I wish I could watch a TV series of this. Just a season, nothing more. But, I'm talking the narrative here. The story. Not the game play.

I am assuming you have played sandbox games before so you understand the language of Grand Theft Auto controls. It's that game play laid out on such a tight framework of story that argues against it being a sandbox. This may seem a harsh criticism for a title likely to make game-of-the-year, but the controls are just controls and when they fail to work, you notice it. In fact, the makers of the game knew people might not like the bits in between the story points so you can skip them if you want.

What does this do to the game? It makes it a series of events about looking for clues and interviewing people. These moments are so good it will carry you through the many hours of play you will need to dedicate. Sadly, there comes a point as you play that you realize you don't have to be good at anything, just poke buttons and you'll get to the end. That doesn't sound appetizing, but if you don't care about the story and just want to play a game, this might not be for you.

I was wrapped up in the main character from the start, and his wholesome value system contrasted with the corruption and bigotry of the LAPD, the underworld, returning vets, Hollywood and the business elite. He's trying to do good on the streets of LA and I could feel it as I played. But there is a deep seated darkness to the game that will take some willpower to suss out if you wish to take the game to its fullest. It's like reading a book, if you don't really care about it, why read it. You aren't playing L.A. Noire to race through the streets and gun down everyone in sight. You have GTA and Saints Row for that. This is a well realized work of fiction designed to show off the greatness of film noir story telling. And I felt like I learned something about LA.

L.A. Noire should be played by people who like the immersive world of games. This shouldn't be your intro into gaming, but it shouldn't stop anyone from at least watching it. I never felt irritated whenever a cut scene showed up. These were what I was working for, to learn the mystery. Or, like text adventures from the '80s, what did the writers want me to learn? How did they want me to jump?

All the focus of the new technology really comes down to The Interrogation. Almost every case has several moments where you have to question someone and decide on your own if they're telling the truth or lying. This is accomplished with the most sophisticated facial rendering hardware and processing to date. I haven't seen facial expressions from characters with this level of meaning since Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. I always felt everyone was lying, but you have to have evidence of a lie or you just doubt them. I could never seem to get it right. I refused to look online for the proper branching discussions because even in your failure it still seems to affect the world in some way. So I intended to live in the world I was shaping through lousy police work. But, when you nail a suspect it feels phenomenal.

Midway through the game I felt it was dragging a bit, once you get through the doldrums of murder investigation, the game perks up and I couldn't drop it for hours. You could sit there and tap whatever button they want you to press until the end. If that's what you're doing you're wasting your time. Sit up and take notice of 1947 LA and try to live the detective life to the fullest. Even if you fail sometimes, own it. The interactions when you get it wrong are as good as if you got them right. The experience of L.A. Noire is worth every penny.