Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Review: L.A. Noire

Full Review:
L.A. Noire

"Leaping technological boundaries."

Developed by Team Bondi
Published by Rockstar Games
for the Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Released May 17th, 2011

After a 15 year run of developing and publishing exceptional video games that take us to crime infested cities, terrain, and even schools, Rockstar puts us in the role of the law and takes us to the dark and corrupt setting of 1940's Los Angeles. Not only does L.A. Noire offer a unique style of detective gameplay and gunplay, it also brings an interrogation arrangement seldom pulled off right in modern games. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of L.A. Noire are the realistic facial expressions pulled off by the cutting edge Motion Scan technology. However, it all comes down to whether or not these mechanics are defined well enough to create a great gaming experience.

L.A. Noire tells the tale of World War II veteran, Cole Phelps, as he works up the ranks as a detective in the LAPD. In order to do so, the player must use a mixture of gunplay, detective work, chasing, and interrogating in order to solve every case and earn promotions (going from patrol to traffic to homicide, etc). All of these gameplay mechanics are blended perfectly as to not overly exhaust the fun out of one or another. So, hardcore players need not worry about spending hours just looking for clues as there is a fair share of gunfights to satisfy (or maybe pacify).

The biggest gripe I had with the gameplay was how much the game holds your hand throughout the cases. In car chases, if the car is too far ahead, it will actually slow down until you catch up to it, then the bandit will speed up. While searching for clues, there will always be text telling you that you should turn a watch a certain way to see a name engraved or press A to look behind a picture frame to read a message. The ability to skip action sequences and use intuition points (the ability to show where all hidden clues are on the map) would have been enough hand holding but changing A.I. to lower the difficulty is unnecessary.

The gunplay is taken straight from Red Dead Redemption (same engine, no duh). The biggest difference is that you cannot collect and upgrade your weapon. Rather you start off with a pistol and can pick up a variety of weapons that enemies drop. The player cannot, however, keep these weapons and use them on the next case. That's the major problem with the depth of the gunplay; it seems as if it only touches on the shooting and quickly switches to something else. The dodging, aiming and firing, however, are just as you remembered in Red Dead Redemption.

The clue collecting is straight forward; search an alleyway or a home, and walk Cole until you hear a chime to signify a clue is nearby. Pick up the clue and see how it will aide your case. You can use these clues to build up your case against interrogating a suspect. A suspect will respond to a question that Cole asks in their own way. It's up to the player to decide whether he is telling the truth or lying. In order to do this, the player must take notice of the facial expressions and body movements that the suspect does (nervouse twitches, worried expressions will always reveal a liar). There are three options; truth, doubt and lie. If a person is lying but you can't prove that he is, you doubt him. If he is lying, and you have hard evidence, you outright accuse him. You then have to search through all the evidence and choose the right one that corresponds to the response given. This is an amazing gameplay mechanic that intertwines unique gameplay with the Motion Scan technology in an almost flawless way.

The musical score fits the game perfectly. From chase scenes, to crime scenes, to interrogations, the music and chimes take the player to 1947 and keep them there until they are done playing. The radio plays classic 40's jazz and big band hits that'll keep your foot tapping whenever your patrolling the streets looking for gangsters to ruin their day.

The acting is phenomenal. I say acting because it's no longer just voice acting. L.A. Noire's technology brings the actor into the game itself. These actors bring the player an unparalleled emotion by using both voice and expression. Aaron Staton of Mad Men brings Cole Phelps to life. I didn't find any of the actors unbelievable in their delivering of the characters. It's all the reason why L.A. Noire is such a story telling power house.

The facial animations that Team Bondi and Rockstar have been promoting are gorgeous. It's amazing how the actors have to provide not only a voice but must react to real situations presented in the game. It is a real shame that the beauty of the faces really bring out the flaws of the body animations and environments that would have otherwised gone unnoticed. The body animations are puppet like and sometimes do not cooperate with facial animations. A lot of the environments' textures are bland or do not load properly during cutscenes while shadows are laughably pixelated. In any other game, these would be minor flaws but in a game where the facial animations are a definite step forward in graphical technology, it's a shame that everything else is somewhat lacking in quality.

The lack freedom of L.A. Noire is a definite setback compared to games like Red Dead and GTA. The player is able to select the option of simply exploring L.A., searching for badges, uncovering landmarks, and answering dispatch calls. Unfortunately, the player cannot make Cole go on a trigger happy happy rampage or even throw a few punches on unsuspecting civilians. The player cannot draw his weapon or fists while on duty (hell, Cole can't even run over pedestrians with their ninja-like reflexes). The player is left upholding the law with no other choice. (We want to at least HAVE the option to cap a few innocents, right?)

L.A. Noire is very story driven. In some aspects this is a good thing and in others this is not. Rockstar provided a riveting tale and intriguing cases taken from actual crimes that hold its own in entertaining the player even if the gameplay falls short at times. The story, being as appealing as it is, can take away the focus of the gameplay and aim it directly at the story. (i.e. skipping action sequences). It's evident that Rockstar wanted a unique gameplay experience and they definitely have one but with certain instances during the game it seems they wanted to rush the player out of brilliant action sequences so they can sit back and relax to watch the cutscenes. It's incredibly unfortunate that such brilliant gameplay and potential exploration was sacrificed at the cost of story which should never be the case for a video game. Other than these apparent flaws, L.A. Noire is an incredibly deep and unique experience that any gamer should at least try. The game, although lacking in replay value, definitely offers players an unforgettable experience even if you'll find yourself spending a significant amount of time watching rather than controlling.


Fun:  3/5
Lasting Appeal:  2/3
Controls:  5/5
Graphics:  1/2
Sound:  2/2

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Review: Xenoblade Chronicles

Xenoblade Chronicles

The masterpiece that almost never was . .

Developed by Monolith Soft
Published by Nintendo
for the Wii
Released April 6, 2012

After the announcement of the Wii U at e3 2011, the Wii became a footnote in Nintendo's agenda with only The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword to look forward to in 2011 and absolutely nothing in 2012.  This made the story behind Xenoblade Chronicles' localization all the more gratifying.  Nintendo had no plans of bringing Xenoblade to North America which would have meant an absolute drought for Wii owners.  Fortunately, with the dedication of devoted fans through petitions and communities such as Operation Rainfall, Americans and Europeans finally have a chance to get their hands on one of the greatest JRPGs of all time.

The world that Xenogears/Xenosaga mastermind Tetsuya Takahashi created for Xenoblade is a grandiose and almost exaggerated take on science fiction story-telling.  You live on the eons-old corpse of a god that died fighting another god in a battle as old as time itself.  And that's just the backstory. The main story has you lead Shulk, the wielder of the Monado Blade, and his friends as they set off on a journey across the Bionis (the big dead god they live on) in order to destroy an army of living, talking mechs all while saving a princess from giant mind-reading birds called Telethia.  As insane as it sounds in summary, Xenoblade is actually full of endearing characters placed in a story enveloped in emotion and suspense.  It’s a story with intertwining twists and dilemmas that keeps the player captivated.

Being made solely for the Wii, Xenoblade looks great for a game developed on last-gen hardware. Textures and character models look horrendous even during cutscenes. Objects look bland and jagged while animations such as jumping look awkward. This game certainly does not lack in aesthetic beauty, just don’t expect to find much detail in anything up close.  The real beauty comes from the world and the environments themselves.  I have found myself staring in awe at the game’s natural ambiance blended with its beautiful colors and lighting effects.  Walking through Satorl Marsh at night or looking up at Eryth Sea from the Frontier Village gives a sense of appreciation for a world designed to balance and infuse life and nature into one living entity through its art style and music.

Xenoblade is one of those rare games that have a flawless soundtrack.  JRPG composing veterans Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts, Mario & Luigi) and Yasunori Matsuda (Xenogears, Chrono Trigger) lend their expertise to create another exquisite score.  Every area of the Bionis has a tune that changes to adapt to the day-to-night cycle, much like how the visuals change depending on the current time.  During the day, songs are livelier whereas night evokes a more solemn take.  It requires true mastery to fully comprehend an environment in order to create not one but two complimenting interpretations of a single composition.

There would be no point in creating such an immersive world if the developers thought you’d only be in it for ten or fifteen hours.  The creators knew that with the amount of quests, leveling, upgrades, and exploring they embedded into Xenoblade , players would easily reach the 80 hour mark. The combat alone has so much implemented that the game never stops introducing you to new battle concepts.

The combat gets its gameplay cues from MMOs and classic JRPGs.  The player battles enemies in real-time and can move the main character around the battlefield during combat.  The characters will auto-attack every few seconds but Arts can be deployed at any time from the player’s battle palette.  Your two partners will attack independently although I was surprised to see how well the A.I. follows your pattern of attack.  If you inflict Break on an opponent, they will follow up with Topple causing the foes to fall over.  The need for A.I. cues such as Gambits in Final Fantasy XII is rendered unnecessary when the A.I. performs this intelligently.  “Visions” will also stop the battle to show the player a powerful attack an enemy will use on a character in order to give the player enough time to defend themselves against it.  There’s nothing quite as satisfying as guarding against an ultra-powerful attack thus “changing the future”.  Classic RPG effects like buffs and debuffs remain, however, the ability to heal using items is not available, making all healing only possible through Arts or auto-healing after a battle.  All this makes combat addictive, fast-paced, and fluid.  The battles can become pretty intense with multiple or overpowered enemies all on the screen at once and although there can be slow-down at times, it in no way takes away from the overall gameplay.

Every character’s Arts can be leveled up to increase damage, effects, or decrease cool down time.  Every weapon or piece of clothing has the potential to hold gems which offer the player boosted attributes.  Gems can be crafted using crystals and cylinders in sort of a fun team-building minigame. Relationships between team members and NPCs can be improved by quests and battle cues which help in seeing special character development scenes called Heart-to-hearts.  With all this and the countless quests and collectibles not to mention the story, Xenoblade definitely offers a life-consuming experience.
The player must be warned; before you decide to pick up this incredible game, do yourself a favor and buy a Classic Controller Pro.  Playing with the Wiimote and Nunchuk will become frustrating in its odd button placing and camera adjusting and can ultimately put a damper on the flow of the game.  Playing with the Classic Pro offered no hindrances or problems and felt appropriate with Xenoblade’s combat style.

Without hesitation, I can place Xenoblade Chronicles on the same tier as JRPG classics like Final Fantasy VII and Chrono Trigger.  Xenoblade is the prime example of how a game can successfully evolve and reshape a genre all while staying true to devoted fans.  And to think, if it wasn't for these fans, everyone outside of Japan would be stowing away their Wiis instead of experiencing this gem.


Fun:  5/5
Lasting Appeal:  3/3
Controls:  5/5
Graphics:  1/2
Sound:  2/2

Thursday, June 7, 2012

E3 2012 Recap

Wow, what a disappointing year for gaming.  E3 failed to impress by miles. 


Microsoft opened up, of course, with Halo 4.  Master Chief is shown kicking the ass of some aliens that look an awful lot like creatures from Metroid Prime.  Halo 4 looks pretty fun with Cortana going crazy and all and it gives hope to a promising showcase from Microsoft . . .


For the rest of the show they don’t present any more video games or at least video games to care about.  We did get some weird cryptic messages from PixelJunk and some 3D Angry Birds but other than that it was just Apps, Apps, Apps, turn your MS devices into a Wii U gamepad, Kinect, Kinect and of course Usher.  They literally “Ushered” in a golden age of gaming with a 15 minute dance off.

They did show Black Ops 2, but I honestly couldn’t care less about the Call of Duty franchise anymore.  It’s scary to think that Microsoft assumes that this is the path the video game industry should take.  Microsoft’s conference succeeded in proving that their first priority isn’t the games, it’s all of the peripherals and apps that they shoved down our throats for an hour.  It was an embarrassment and may God have mercy on their souls.

+Halo Prime
-1-minute pixeljunk trailer with nothing to go off
Microsoft Grade:  D


Jesus Christ how horrifying, this moment was prophesized by the ancients.  The Doomsday is upon us. How could we let it get this far?  It is our doing, these are our sins.  We must repent.  God will come to reap the sinners.

Crysis 3 looked pretty cool, though

+Crysis 3
-DLC up the ass
-The Old Republic damage control (haha we all know that game is crap)
-nothing else
EA Grade:   F


Now Ubisoft knows how to throw a press conference.  If you ignore the awkward bantering from the host Aisha Tyler, you will be immersed in trailer after trailer, demo after demo of yes, ACTUAL GAMES!!!! 

Farcry 3 looks gorgeous and I’m not just talking about the boob groping.  Sure the gameplay isn’t too unique but the demo did prove that aesthetics and story can take a presentation a long way.  I loved the constant insane banter of the terrorist leader as the player killed hordes of his mercenaries.

Not being a huge fan of Splinter Cell, the demo for Black List impressed me.  It reminds me of a cross between Assassin’s Creed and Metal Gear Solid.  The trailer for Avengers: Battle for Earth showed off a fight between Wolverine & Venom, and Spider-man & Magneto.  Then you see the Avengers atop a building looking on as the Skrull invasion begins.  Awesome.

I was surprised that they had an entire section dedicated to the Wii U even before Nintendo’s conference had begun.  They showed off Rayman Legends which nicely incorporated the Gamepad.  The run through of the church level with that badass version of “Chasing A Dream” had me convinced that I was buying this game at launch.  While the trailer for ZombiU looked promising  it didn’t really do much for me.  It kind of looks like what Ubisoft tried to do with Red Steel for the Wii; showing off the gimmicks while ignoring gameplay.

The big trailer was Assassin’s Creed 3 which had Connor mess up some damn red coats in a beautiful trailer much like last year’s for Revelations.  The demo that followed showed off how AC3 is just like the rest in the series.  It’s not a bad thing it’s just there wasn’t too much that differentiated it from Altair or Ezio’s adventures except it’s in Murrikah now!

Then there was some MLG sort of deal  that I didn’t give a damn about.  But after that was the demo that everyone is still talking about.  Watch Dogs.  The trailer showed some guy using his cell phone to hack the city up!  He hacks the bouncers’ phones so he can sneak in a club then beats the crap out of another one with a baton.  After a bit, he hacks a street light causing a huge crash and a giant gunfight erupts.  He easily takes his targets out while a gas station explodes behind raining embers around the street.  Watch Dogs looks to blend stealth, action, puzzle solving, shooting, open world exploration in a way that made my mouth water.  Watch Dogs definitely takes the prize as biggest surprise of e3.

+Watch Dogs
+Splinter Cell
+Rayman Legends
+Wii U showcase
+Assassin’s Creed 3
+Left the sports and fitness stuff to a quick montage
-awkward host
-not a lot of surprises/most of it we’ve already heard about
 Ubisoft Grade: B


Sony offered a mixed bag of goodies for their presentation.  Nothing mind blowing but hey at least they had games (or movies.)  Sony opened up with Quantic Dream’s Beyond, the successor to their 2010 hit Heavy Rain.  It stars Ellen Page as Jodie Holms, a young girl with psychic powers (or a ghost friend I'm not entirely sure).  The trailer was an interesting look into the game but unfortunately it did not show any gameplay whatsoever.  Nonetheless, I’m excited for it.

Sony then failed to impress with their demo of Sony All-Stars Battle Royale.  There was absolutely nothing new other than the reveal of Nathan Drake and Big Daddy.  As much of a fan as I am of the Super Smash Bros. series, I can’t seem to get myself excited for this title.  It just appears to be a blatant copy that lacks the charm of the Smash series and it’s going to take a lot more hype from Sony to get me interested in this game.

The gameplay for The Last of Us showed a lot of what the game is about; surviving in a dying world as you and your partner work together to keep on surviving to the next day.  The dialogue is plentiful and the action is perfectly balanced with moments of silence as you assess the conundrum of whether or not to enter a decaying hotel despite the dangers that lie in wait.  The demo succeeded in building hype and I’m actually looking forward to more news regarding it.

Then there were 15 minutes of Move story book nonsense that no one could seem to get to work just right.  The mediocre presentation ended with a demo of God of War Ascension which was underwhelming to say the least.  The demo showed off Kratos generically fighting off goat and elephant men in his usual fashion.  Now, God of War 3 started out with the epic punishment and brutal death of God of the Sea in one of the greatest video game intros of all time.  Then we go to him having trouble fighting a man sized elephant.  Yeah, my hype level has hit an all-time low.

+The Last of Us
-Sony Smash Bros.
-God of War Ascension failed to impress
-Move story book time!
-No news on how they will save the Vita from its inevitable death
Sony Grade:  C


I’ll be honest, I was fan-boy levels of hyped going into Nintendo’s conference and the intro didn’t disappoint.  Miyamoto did an adorable skit about Pikmin and voila, they showed the first video of Pikmin 3!  The beautiful environments, those adorable Pikmin, that Wii U gamepad integration, it was all there.  Yes, Pikmin 3 quickly became the star of Nintendo’s conference especially since nothing else worthwhile showed up.

The only other good game they showed was New Super Mario Bros. U with its gorgeous backgrounds and familiar gameplay.  Unfortunately nothing new came to the show.  No surprises at all.   No Star Fox/Metroid crossover rumor.  No big first party titles to get everybody amped for the Wii U.  Nothing.  They even pushed aside the 3DS conference for the next day to show off the Wii U games but there was no point since they spent half the conference talking about how cool Nintendo Land will be and it is obviously not.  I don’t need a ten minute tutorial on how to play a mini-game.  I knew how to play in the first 20 seconds they showed it. Yet, they kept beating it into our brains as if they wanted so hard for us to like such a crappy concept.  No I didn’t like it so stop talking about it please.

Reggie then came onto the stage and said “Now let’s finish with . . .”  WITH WHAT?  A SURPRISE!?!?!?  YES PLEASE REGGIE!!!  “One more walk through the theme land that is Nintendo Land.”  And all it showed was fireworks.  Nothing else.  My heart sank.  I was devastated. I didn’t think I could look at Nintendo the same way again.  It was the MOST disappointing conference at e3. 

What boggles my mind is that they had an awesome third party game called Project P-100 which is an insane blend of Pikmin and Viewtiful Joe made by Platinum Games.  And they didn’t show it until after the conference!!!!  That would have fit perfectly in their hour of show time but I guess they couldn’t cut out a little Nintendo Land time for a game that could have possibly saved their presentation.

The Wii U comes out this holiday and yet Nintendo refuses to bring out their A-game.  I don’t understand it.  They have almost nothing to look forward to with the launch of the Wii U except for Pikmin 3, Rayman Legends, and New Super Mario Bros. U.  As much as I like Batman: Arkham City, I will NOT buy it again for the Wii U.  Everybody who is interested in the least bit in Arkham City or Mass Effect  3 have already bought it and played it.  Nintendo offered little to nothing to in these ports.  They didn’t even explain how Assassin’s Creed 3 or Darksiders 2 will be better on Wii U.  If the fans want the same game without buying a whole new console they’ll buy these games for the system they already have.  It’s a dangerous path Nintendo is taking and I just hope they can make it out on top in the end. 

+Pikmin 3
+Reggie’s body was ready
+New Super Mario Bros. U
+Wasn’t bad enough to deter me away from getting a Wii U
-Nintendo Land
-3DS pushed aside
-Didn’t explain how the ports will be better
-No surprises
-No Zelda/Metroid/Star Fox/ F-Zero/Donkey Kong or anything
-They don’t know what they hell they’re doing with the Wii U

Nintendo Grade:  C

Overall e3 Grade:  C