Thursday, 26 May 2011

[PS3] L.A. Noire

Title: L.A. Noire
Platform(s): PS3, Xbox 360
Publisher: Rockstar Games

Developer: Team Bondi
Score: 81%

What this game does well, it does superbly. The rest of it seems so limply tacked on that the whole experience is brought down as a result.

This is the new and massively-hyped title from Rockstar Games, the people who brought us the highly popular Grand Theft Auto series and Red Dead Redemption. Once again we are offered an immersive playing environment to get lost in and a huge cast of characters to interact with (then often end up killing or getting arrested). In this case, it is 1947 and you begin as Cole Phelps, LAPD officer who has come back from the Second World War with a badge of honour and a steely determination to uphold the law.

You start off as a patrol officer on the streets of central Los Angeles solving petty crimes such as robbery and shootings. These cases start by introducing the general skills and gameplay mechanics used throughout the game, particularly investigating crime scenes, chasing criminals on foot and in cars and engaging in shootouts to stop the bastards. 

Investigating crime scenes requires you to search around areas such as dark alleyways with flashlights waiting for a slight rumble of the Dual Shock controller or a chime in the soundtrack indicating that a clue is nearby. When you find the suspicious object, you manipulate it to find a point of interest and add your findings to your notebook - your handy log of all relevant people, places and clues which keeps everything in order as you progress through each case.

When you have found all the clues at a crime scene you can question witnesses to gain further clues and relevant information. It is in the face-to-face questioning sections that the new MotionScan technology truly shines. The character models and animations, particularly the subtle facial movements, are absolutely spectacular. Each twitch of the cheek, every slight narrowing of the eyes, the fractional raising of an eyebrow to indicate a smug withholding of information is displayed in beautiful high definition. I really cannot understate how much of a step up in terms of graphical quality this is from anything else around at the moment. These animations are present are not only in conversations and cutscenes but wonderfully also while just out on the street - each passerby makes quips and comments and these are complemented by the appropriate facial movements, which I feel is a very nice touch.

To add to this, the game actually utilises these subtle facial animations a key element of the gameplay. You are given a set list of questions which the interviewee will respond to in one of 3 ways and you must identify which one it is. These options can be a little confusing at first but are as follows:
  • Truth - when you feel the character is being totally honest and has nothing further to share with you.
  • Doubt - when you feel the character is misleading you or holding something back but you do not have hard evidence to solidly prove this.
  • Lie - when you know the character is not being honest with you and you have a clue collected in your notebook which would back this suspicion up.
When I started out I made the wrong selection a few times because the statement made was in the most part truthful and so I selected truth - however I was meant to say "Doubt" as they had more to give up. My advice is - if they look REALLY genuine go for truth and you will get more info. If you aren't 100% sure then "Doubt" them. If the conversation is clearly leading you towards bringing out a piece of evidence then don't hesitate to whip it out on the table and show them what you've got (hmmm.... actually that sounds a bit dodgy).

The start of the game provides a nicely balanced introduction, giving you a good flavour of what is going on while at the same time offering enough challenge and variety to keep you interested. There are also parts of the back story fed in slowly so as not to overwhelm - however the relevance of any of this does not become apparent until much later in the game and so sadly feels quite detached from the action.

The overall arching story is actually very well written and interesting. The huge host of characters each has their own motives and involvement to this sordid affair which is played out bit-by-bit as you progress through the various police departments. I felt that the story was lacking in 2 minor ways though: firstly, any sort of shocking twist, either through a backstabbing character or through an unexpected death. There seemed to be several perfect opportunities for it that just weren't taken up. Secondly was the point where our hero, Cole, cheats on his wife and kids. The wife and kids had barely been mentioned before they kicked Cole out on to the streets and what was clearly meant to be a slightly downbeat and poinant moment was totally lost beacuse it was just baffling. "Who the fuck is this wife you never mention and why the fuck have you thrown it all away for some tart you barely know!?!", I found myself howling at the TV screen. Plot-wise, I found this both very confusing and a little weakly explained.

When you have done your grunt work and proved you can handle a case, you get promoted to the Traffic Squad, where you are required to solve a variety of car-based crimes. At this point, you are also briefed on the general layout of each case: your captain gives the lowdown, you investigate crime scenes and gather clues, question witnesses and then move on to the interrogation of your suspects. This is where you really start to get involved in each case, trawling tirelessly through evidence and asking every possible question to get all the facts together so that when you finally bring the suspects in you are armed with all the clues you need to put the right person behind bars. Don't be fooled into thinking that you will always point the finger at the right person though, it is perfectly possible to charge the wrong suspect and send an innocent to jail. In fact, in one mission I just didn't like one of the witnesses and so went on a personal vendetta against him until he was charge with a murder he didn't commit - tee hee hee. It is for this reason that I have decided for the public's sake that I should never go into law enforcement.

The 2 other parts that make up the missions are chase scenes and gunfights. This is where it is clear that less attention was paid and the game suffers for it. The on foot chase scenes are for the most part set on an invisible track - your character will head straight for the suspect without you having to aim at all. This is obviously to keep the intensity of the action up and these sections could be truly challenging without I am sure, but this is why I have BOUGHT A GAME and not sat down to WATCH A MOVIE. Any satisfaction in pouncing on the baddie is lost because really, I just held down FORWARDS and let the game take over. The gunfights are similarly disappointing: the ridiculously overpowered auto aim means that as soon as you poke your head out of cover, you snap straight to a minuscule target 100 metres away. Again, all satisfaction is taken out of the completion of these sections when 20 bad guys have been brought down in the space of as many seconds simply using the following method - poke out of cover, snap to enemy, shoot, hide, repeat. Bizarrely, there is also an option to skip all these sections as well if you don't succeed in the first few tries!

I feel that this is actually Rockstar overcompensating for their failings on the last few titles. Many gamers criticised the shooting and chase sections in the recent Grand Theft Auto games because they were too difficult. Now they have introduced an auto aim/steer system that compensates just a little bit too much. Hopefully this issue will resolve itself by their next big release and avid gamers can do themselves a favour by going straight to the options menu and turning "Auto Aim and Action Skip" OFF.

The car chases are not too bad, although they do get a little bland. Each generally follows the pattern of: catch up with suspect, hang around near his back tyres, wait for partner to shoot them out, watch as car comes to a crashing halt. They can also be a bit annoying, partly through bad steering control but mainly due to that fatal videogame problem (which I am sure we should have grown out of) INDESTRUCTIBLE TREES. This time it is not just trees that are made of adamantium but wooden fences, post boxes and some kerbs have similar properties, bringing high speed chases to a very abrupt end. The car chases would have been 10 times better if the player were able to smash through peoples back yards without fear of deadly shrubbery.

My final point would be to say that this game was actually quite accessible to my girlfriend, who is not a gamer herself and generally leaves the room while I am playing. Throughout L.A. Noire though, she sat quite happily beside me and really enjoyed trying to unravel the mysteries of each case and identify which of my suspects was the culprit through the fantastic interrogation sections. I can also say that I would have ended the game with a much lower score if she hadn't have picked up on the subtle lies of several key witnesses. Perhaps that is a testament to the game's uniqueness though: gamers blast through the shooting with ease but when it comes to working out realistic people, we're left stumped and it takes hiring in an outsider to get us through it!

Score Breakdown

Category Score/10 Description
GRAPHICS 10/10 Wow. Wow. Wow. Almost lost a point for AWFUL water graphics in the final mission, but thought I was being a bit mean. Everything else is above and beyond anything else out there. Even you, "Uncharted".
SOUND 9/10 Authentic soundtrack, spot on effects and the little chimes that lead you to clues are all wonderful.
GAMEPLAY 8/10 Although unique and glorious in the talking scenes, the shooting/chasing is below standard for a Rockstar title.
CONTROLS 7/10 Everything works pretty well (except the car steering) but when you aren't given the opportunity to control the character through some scenes, you wonder what the point is.
STORY 10/10 A couple of let-downs but all-in-all this really is a very well-written artistic piece and worthy of credit for this.
LONGEVITY 8/10 Extra downloadable missions on the way (when PS store finally reopens) and the main story actually kept me going for about 25 hours - not bad going.
DIFFICULTY 8/10 Once you take Auto Aim off, it is all quite nicely balanced. Not grindingly hard by any standards but I think hard enough.
PERSONALISATION 6/10 Well, they hardly tried. You can unlock new suits and cars but it's in the solving of cases that you let your personality shine through. A bit.
CONTRIBUTION 10/10 This gets top marks because I really think it is the way of things to come: jaw-droppingly realistic animations and scenarios. Truly a high-definition experience.
MULTIPLAYER 5/10 The only involvement is "Asking the community for hints" - weak. Getting a girlfriend in to help you grill witnesses gives it a bonus point.

Total Score - 81%
Another fabulous Rockstar title that is let down by its ambition. Still a landmark in graphical quality and gaming experience.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Nintendo DS Downloadable Games [vol. 1] [Mini Review] [DS]

This post is a review of a few downloadable games for the Nintendo DS.

Plants Vs. Zombies
A brilliantly creative game that can make minutes turn into hours turn into the next morning.

PvZ is a tower defense game with the enemies being a vast variety of zombies (slow shufflers, american football quarterbacks, dolphin zombies) charging into your back yard - presumably to join you for dinner. Your tools to defend against this horde are an equally vast array of plant-type things (sunflowers, mushrooms, walnuts). The sheer variety of plants, zombies, settings and special game modes (including 20 unlockable mini games) means that you are challenged, interested and amused throughout.

The difficulty level is pitched very nicely, with levels providing a suitable amount of challenge without being stuck for too long any point in the adventure mode. The sounds are great - from the groans of the zombies to the eerily catchy soundtrack. The graphics, too, are spot-on although I cannot help but be a bit creeped out by "Salad Fingers" shuffling towards me with a desire to nibble my cerebellum.

Overall, this is a fantastic time killer that can be picked up and put down for weeks but is certainly worth the fiver that I paid for it.

Another tower defense title that lacks charm and beauty but makes up for it in ease and simplicity.

Each map has an entry point where enemies pour out and you use just 4 main towers (rising to 6 later) to guide the enemies away from the exit as much as possible and wear down their health. This leads to vast number of possibilities and combinations which you can try out and find the best way to take them all out before they make it to your base.

As I said before, this is not a charming nor a beautiful game - in fact the graphics would be better suited to a Windows 95 title and the sound doesnt really add anything to it either. The limited number of towers and maps means that there isn't a great deal of depth here and you may become bored fairly quickly. However, as maps can sometimes take a few goes to get right (especially on Hard difficulty) and with 100 waves of enemies each time, if you can stick with it Fieldrunners can keep you going for a couple of hours at least.

It's not pretty, it's not very clever but it was damn cheap so it's hard to complain!

Flight Control
I went down the rehab clinic and gave the smackheads some sound advice - "Methadone is good an' all but if you want something to make you forget about the brown - it's Flight Control".

So blisteringly simple I really did wonder what all the fuss is about. You have several runways on each map (5 maps in total) and your job is to guide planes and helicopters down to the correct landing strip. There are only 3 types of plane (slow, medium and fast) and 1 type of helicopter. You guide each in by drawing a flight path from the plane/chopper down to the end of the runway, sit back and watch it make the landing. That's it.

The brain-wrenchingly addictive part comes when you try a level a few times. The first time I got 20 landings before a collision which I really should've seen coming. So I thought "Fuck it, you smarmy flight hostess who tells me my final score. I can double that, I'm sure!".

As the number of landings tops 30 the number of planes on screen increases to 10. You've got choppers slowly creeping in that get in the way of your speedy jets, then the slow planes start to build up because you can't find a clear time to land the bastards.

"OK, doing well, got a few out the way at once.... yes... and.... NO! YOU FUCKER! Stupid jet speeding into that chopper! ARE YOU BLIND!?!".

Onto the screen pops smarmy bitch. "New high score - 33".

I know it's not a good idea. I know she's baiting me. But I really thought I'd do 40 that time. "Alright, just ONE more go....".

Then next time I glance over at the clock it's 2am. I've successfully got 60 landings on each of the 5 maps. But I want to see the look on that bitch's face when I top 100. Then I'll show her. Then she'll know who the daddy is. The flight master. The aircraft king. The loser who needs to get up for work in 4 hours. "Last go this time.... I'll get to 100 if it kills me....".

Given that I paid about a fiver for this, I didn't even need to consider pawning my TV to keep the addiction going. The bills will start to pile up if I throw any more FC-related sickies though.