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LA Noire First Impressions

Despite being only about an hour and a half into LA Noire, boy has the game got me thinkin’ about a million things already. So here’s my gift to you guys: a bunch of disjointed, but hopefully interesting, thoughts!

I am impressed at the difficulty of interrogation and clue finding.

I was initially worried that lines of inquiry would be too obvious–whether by interrogation or by finding clues–but this hasn’t been the case at all. Things aren’t always what they appear. In fact, I’m messing up interrogations or missing clues more often than I anticipated. That’s not a fault; I actually appreciate being able to be wrong and to mess up and having to deal with the consequences of thinking through the case shoddily.

I am not, however, impressed with the facial animations.

It has nothing to do with their quality (though having such intricacy and depth attached to expressions seems misplaced relative to the quality of the rest of the model), but rather how forced it all is. People overact, are way too obvious; even the worst liars I’ve ever met are not as terrible as some of the people in this game. I’m not sure if that’s because this quality demands that we judge the acting, or if that’s because Team Bondi didn’t want to make reading people too difficult (or both!). The thing is…reading in real life people IS difficult, and thus what LA Noire offers thus far is somewhat of a misrepresentation. Requiring us to engage in more inference when reading people–looking at the possible motivation, the evidence and using some good ‘ol intuition–would have been more rewarding despite the possible difficulty hike, though.

The narrative seems too segmented

Is there really no other way to tell me Cole Phelp’s backstory than to interject a cinematic like every 5 minutes? I mean, it’s all engaging and well written but you already have the modular structure of the cases–each one literally segmented by having a title before playing it–that interjecting “the past” on top of that feels a little jarring. Like watching an episode inside an episode of a show, and inside THAT episode is a showcase of segments of an earlier episode that was never aired.

The action feels out of place

The action–chases, anything involving the car or shooting–seem like too much of a stark contrast to the slow, methodical structure investigation. It’s almost like those segments are only there to appease players who would find the investigation monotonous and boring, and I say this not because I can’t appreciate the action conceptually (you’re a cop and, the hard-boiled ideology has a propensity for violence) but because of how simplistic the action seems in execution.

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RED DEAD REDEMPTION is a videogame developed by Rockstar San Diego and Rockstar North, published by Rockstar Games for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The Xbox 360 version was played for the purpose of this review. It was directed by JOSH BASS, DAREN BADER and TED CARSTON.

Before I begin, there are 3 things you should know.

The first one is that I find the GTA games to be a painful experience, consisting of controlling characters I don’t care about, doing stuff I don’t want for people I hate. The second thing is that I’m a big fan of Westerns, which must have been very annoying for my roommates as I discoursed about every single tiny movie influence I could spot in Red Dead Redemption, from John Marston’s duster outfit, straight out of Once Upon a Time in the West, to the plot itself, lifted from The Proposition. The third one is that I really like how most Rockstar games come with an actual map enclosed with the game box. Not only is it a testament for the amount of polish Rockstar adds to its games, but also helps the game be more immersive– as it begins to “embrace” my real life when, for instance, I use that map to plan my next moves instead of eating my dinner.

Moving on. Red Dead Redemption is a good game. It contains some moments that are pretty close to greatness and the amount of care put into this game is almost palpable (Well, actually, it IS palpable! There is that map after all!). Unfortunately, however, it still suffers from issues like pacing, ludonarrative dissonance, flat characters, lack of focus, clutter and noise. There are also some control issues (e.g.: occasionally, turning your horse will feel like you are back to Resident Evil‘s “tank controls” days), but who cares about those, right? However, one thing is for certain: Red Dead Redemption is certainly the best western game out there right now – though I am certain it will be later passed by better western games. Read the rest of this entry

Nico and the Magic Phone

Let me tell you a story.

If you’ve played Grand Theft Auto IV before, it’s probably a story with a lot of parts you remember. Unwashed immigrant, off the boat, kills a lot of people for redemption only to figure out that there is no redemption in murder, only more murder. It’s a truly touching story broken up by random drive bys.

I like my version better, though: Unwashed immigrant, off the boat, finds a magic cell phone. He uses this phone to get through his missions in the most hilarious of ways possible, usually a rocket launcher, killing a lot of people for redemption in over the top vengeful ways, only to realize there is no redemption in murder, only more death. It’s the same touching story broken up by over the top violence.

My friends, there is no other way to play Grand Theft Auto IV other than to cheat.
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My Game of (last) Year: Dragon Age Origins

[I realize this came out last year, but this is the game that dominated my gaming experience in 2010]

Awarding something ‘Game of the Year’ can be done under a number of different criteria, but one that works for me is this: “what game really drew me in, and had me spending hour after hour with it?” That game, despite some very real flaws, was BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins.

For me, what really sold the game was the character Morrighan. From an artistic perspective, BioWare did a good job of developing a character with some sex appeal that wasn’t overtly sexy. Courting her meant being judicious about helping that defenseless villager, but she is not a character I would describe as evil–let alone a ‘bad’ girl.

In fact, despite all her idiosyncrasies, her behavior is actually quite logical based on her upbringing. Learning the truth about her ‘mother’ Flemeth, exacting revenge, and earning her final amorous approval is something I enjoyed quite a bit. I’m not sure how I would have reacted to the ‘God baby’ endgame without having courted her first, but that’s a twist I certainly didn’t see coming.

Add this defining character into a world that feels lived in. Sure, Orlais and Ferelden bear more than a passing resemblance (with fates reversed) to England and France post-Hundred Years’ War. The prophet Andraste is clearly modeled after Joan of Arc. But look what designers did with high-fantasy regulars: dwarves and elves. The political system of the former and the political status of the latter was something I found incredibly refreshing. Elves as once-immortal beings now typically found enslaved or in refugee camps. . . that lends a darkness to the fantasy setting a thousand Drows could not.

Origins has been let down by its mediocre and poorly balanced DLC packages as well as the largely forgettable Awakening expansion but the core game that shipped in November 2009 got more love from me in 2010 than any other title in my library.

Honorable Mention:

My runner-up is a game that actually came out in 2010, and sucked my time away more than anything that didn’t have Morrighan  in it. This was my first experience with a DICE game and the franchises represented in it (both Battlefield and the Bad Company sub-brand), and I’ve been totally blown away by the experience.

Multi-player in BC2 is an addictive, well-balanced affair that brings tactical gameplay to the fast-paced environment of the console in a way that Call of Duty probably never will. Though the game’s success owes much to the Frostbite engine, especially the way destructible environments make each match feel like an organic battle, the real key is something more subtle. The two dominant multi-player modes (Rush and Conquest) hybridize objective and deathmatch play in a way that no other FPS does: objectives are given–and are key to each mode–but unlike other objective games, kills and kill/death ration still matters for the team. For those who care to read more, I wrote about this on Gamasutra a while back.

The reason Bad Company 2 doesn’t get the nod from me, despite being my favorite game actually released in 2010, is that the campaign is pretty forgettable. In fact, the final level has been so maddening to me I still haven’t finished it.

Disappointment of the Year

Perhaps I came into Halo: Reach with excessively high expectations. It’s a good game, but I expected greatness. On the single-player front, gameplay is solid, but two key enemies are drastically over-powered to the degree they are simply not fun to fight, despite the challenge: Zealot elites, and especially Hunters. Even worse, the story–its characters in particular–fall flat in a way that leaves ODST as the most engaging Halo story to date.

Nor, unlike Bad Company 2, does the multi-player redeem the campaign’s flaws. True, I had some pretty glowing things to say about it back in October, but the more I play the more I get tired of the Halo formula. It’s subjective, I know, but I have to bring it up. Objectively, the game is impeccably balanced, but the majority of levels fail to impress–and they’re certainly not memorable. Not in the long run.

The Noble Map Pack is well-done, and I’ll stick come back from time to time, but Reach is not addictive in the way Halo 3 was and has not superseded Bad Company 2 as my “go to” multi-player game of choice.

Moment of the Year

The last hours of Red Dead Redemption. Especially what happens after the credits roll. . . wow. I left the game there, because that’s the ending I wanted to remember.

The game as a whole is pretty flawed, but it will be interesting to see what Rockstar does with the Wild West setting down the road.

Honorable Mention: the debut of space combat in Reach at E3. I only wonder what would have happened, though, if Bungie and Microsoft had kept that under wraps and let gamers be blown away as they played the game. That surprise alone might have been enough to sway my opinion of the game.

Are We Ready For Catherine and Real Life?

“Oh, you’re looking at that again.”

It’s said with such disdain, you’d think I was looking at dead orphans or something, but no, it’s my friend, and I’m looking at Catherine trailers. Commonly known as “The Sex Game That Patricia Wants,” Catherine has become rather…infamous amongst my friends. Incidentally Persona games are often seen as “dating simulators,” instead of the high school simulators with dungeon crawling RPGs they are–fact is, the second that a game showcases a semblance of sexuality, it’s like being back in kindergarten and discovering cooties. But can we see past that?

I do not mean to belittle Atlus’ choice to focus on the sexual aspects of Catherine: a big part of Vincent’s problems deal with sexuality. Sex is a healthy and normal part of our everyday lives, and it is paramount that they adress the subject to show an accurate portrayal of an everyday life. Moreover it’s refreshing to see a game that wants to address sexuality in a meaningful way.

Still, most people will look at a trailer of Catherine and come to the same conclusion: it’s “the sex game.” And, sure, it is…but that’s not all it is. The marketing for the game, however, would tell you otherwise. The issue I have with Atlus’ choice to focus on the sex of the game instead of the Things That Actually Matter is that a good deal of players may feel too uncomfortable in giving Catherine a chance. The idea of playing a game where sexting is a mechanic, for example, may seem too “sleazy” to take seriously, despite it being a real, everyday practice. But if players are sometimes too embarrassed to play “kiddie games” because of what it might reflect on them, how will people feel about playing a “sex simulator”?

If there is a time when our distinctions between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ are pronounced, it’s when dealing with sexuality…in that sense, I suppose I can’t blame anyone for feeling uncomfortable exploring the subject of sex in a virtual place. If intimacy has a place in our society, it’s not considered to be found within a joystick…but that’s exactly why exploring it in this medium might be an interesting and revealing exercise.

Still, let’s not even think about the sort of bad press the game might get if mainstream media gets a wind of this game.

Maybe, the gaming community isn’t particularly ready for game that seriously deals with sex: what we experience in games are one-note caricatures of ‘love’ and lust. Not only that, we tend to be appeasers…it’s okay if a game falls short of exploring anything meaningful if it plays well, so games do not need to take risks in making meaningful experiences if we’re satiated with technical/mechanical decency. However, Atlus has to rely on the sex to get people to take notice..more on that in a second.
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LA Noire doesn’t fuck you, Nico Bellic

Hey, it’s an open world Rockstar game where everyone doesn’t look like they’re cursing people off like Nico Bellic! Yes, folks, it’s the “first” trailer for LA Noire. And by “first” trailer, I don’t mean the debut trailer. That is not first. Especially considering that these two trailers have similarly styled content: cutscenes!

I’ll be honest: LA Noire is my jam. When the game was announced, I was enthused. Mostly because noir is kind of my thing. Anyway, the trailer above doesn’t tell us a whole lot. In fact, it’s stereotypical noir trailer stuff, but you know what? I love it. There aren’t enough noir themed games out there, and LA Noire will fill that exceptional niche.

And it has a release date now! Spring 2011. That’ll give you just enough time to finally beat Red Dead Redemption! Unless it comes out in March. That may not be enough time.

Simplify, Simplify

We live in complicated times. The modern blockbuster title demands twelve buttons and three directional pads, some buttons doing different things when pressed in combination. There are multiple situations your character gets stuck in. You’re no longer just running around until you find a boss: now, you have to do a flying level to get there, solve eight puzzles designed like a game from the 80’s, platform up a building the size of the Statue of Liberty with obvious hand holds, and watch a 15 minute cut scene for each 5 minutes of gameplay against an easy, repetitive boss, before you lather back on the variety.

My favorite game of the year so far has been VVVVVV, a retro platformer which has three buttons, one mechanic and two goals: finding your crew members scattered around the map, and not dying from the horrible things you find. That’s it.

Simplify, simplify. It’s been a recent theme of games journalists to hammer home simplicity: the more complicated games get, they reason, the fewer people will play them, and the more mechanical the works become. If Henry David Thoreau were alive (and played video games, which is doubtful, unless they were made out of nature), he would no doubt say that a simplified video game is a better one.

The trick is, simple doesn’t have to mean basic. It doesn’t have to me visceral and film like, especially When we look back on the history of games, games like Chrono Trigger and Super Mario World and Mega Man 2 and the lot, these are “simple” games. Chrono Trigger features three buttons that do anything of importance: yes, no, and a menu. Mario has always had two buttons. Mega Man had two buttons. They feature few cutscenes, and tell their story through gameplay. These are simple, simple games.

But that doesn’t mean they are basic. They are just focused in their mechanics. The simplification video games does not have to start at their mechanics, but rather has to start at the bloated trappings of cinema that have been sewn onto the slowly dying corpse of video gaming.
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The Friday Post: Absenteeism

You might have wondered, “Where has the Friday Post been? I love the Friday Post!” Well, we’ve skipped a couple weeks, because…well, because I was a little lazy. And nothing grabbed my attention.

Regardless of today not being Friday, the Friday Post is back, and…well, about the same as ever. But with links! New, precious links!

-We’ve reviewed a couple games in the past couple weeks, which you should know about. Hot as ever DLC games Limbo and Blacklight: Tango Down got some reviews from us. If you allow me to step up onto my independent blogger soapbox for a second, downloadable games are the one true avenue us independent bloggers have to make timely reviews, because major outlets pay less attention to DLC.

We’ve talked more about Limbo than other games, and we will talk more about Limbo in the future. Keep an eye out for another post on it, and our theories on how the game ends*.

-Also old, but wholly underappreciated, Fern and Graham fought it out over permadeath in Fire Emblem. One might say that the wheel of fate is turning. I wouldn’t, but you might.
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The Friday Post: Subtitle

I’m too lazy for a subtitle. This week has been awfully lazy, on account of hell’s weather having moved to New England. On the plus side, it’s Friday! Which means it’s almost Saturday! Which means this horrible nightmare is slightly closer to ending!

Things were posted this week! I’ll tell you about them right now!:
-We have two new writers: Dave Silva and Jordan Clarke! Who we should welcome to the staff here. That’s what I’m doing right now. See? That happened. You were welcomed. They posted about Sonic and Red Dead Redemption (more on that later!) and I’d link to these posts but they’re right under this one!
-Patricia hates Dragon Age 2. Which has been announced. Really. It has been.
-Graham told you how to suck less at Dragon Age as a mage. As someone who has only played Dragon Age as a mage because wizards are fucking awesome, he’s right! Though I am a stronger proponent of force field than he is.
-I’d link you to my feature of the week, but you have to kill a hundred gnolls first. Then take their teeth, grind them into a fine powder, and snort it. I’m sorry. It’s how it has to be. Read the rest of this entry

Red Dead Redemption DLC Remains Part of the Problem

Red Dead Redemption’s streak of free DLC appears to have come to an awfully abrupt end; the co-op mission pack will be succeeded by what appears to be 4 paid DLC packages, the first priced at $10. Details of the pack can be found here. The pricing actually seems reasonable when compared with the current trend (read: MW2). Nothing revealed so far seems revolutionary; it almost runs the gamut with new guns, characters and even zombies making an appearance. However the blurring of the lines between single and multiplayer DLC is encouraging, Rockstar Games clearly seeing no need to charge for the same thing twice, a smart decision considering the nature of the online offerings. Yet any positives could be undermined by the suggestion that changes to players’ griefing abilities in free roam are going to fall within this premium content, surely this is a mistake and players won’t have to dip into their wallets for problems which should be fixed in a patch.

Why though, it has to be asked, does a game which sold over 5 Million units need paid DLC? There’s no doubt that the market for DLC is huge and that online communities can survive its introduction, but that isn’t easy. Red Dead’s multiplayer, while enjoyable is far from perfect, and it isn’t going to replace everybody’s regular online killing fields, the likes of Halo or Battlefield. Games which have tried to take on the mantle of the aforementioned have tried this and failed, Killzone 2 being the most obvious case. It’s the minority that can afford to, Activision’s now regular map pack extortion can exist because of its popularity, but even Bad Company 2, arguably the biggest challenger seen on consoles, has yet to offer maps at a price, preferring to charge for character skins and co-op modes.

Red Dead Redemption’s multiplayer is by the far the best Rockstar has created; but is it strong enough to endure this? Currently finding players online remains easy, but if the DLC sells well it could serve to highlight a small player base and leave the online feeling like a ghost town, ruining one of the truly unique online experiences available.