Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Review: L.A. Noire (Xbox 360, Playstation 3)

When L.A. Noire was first announced, my reaction was lukewarm to say the least, me having been one of the seemingly small number of people who disliked Rockstar’s previous efforts such as Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption. I don’t necessarily consider these to be bad games, however I do feel that they are highly overrated and I was unable to find a connection with these titles despite multiple attempts at getting into them. Fearing the same of L.A. Noire, I dismissed it until the early reviews came out and I was intrigued by both the unique facial recognition software and the focus shifting from an open world, “go anywhere and do anything” sandbox game to a more focused and linear crime drama. While this shift in game structure might spurn those hoping for a more immersive sandbox game, I found it to be an engrossing, stylish and highly rewarding experience that exceeded my expectations on almost every level.
L.A. Noire has two characters at its core, the first being the faithfully recreated post-war 1940’s era Los Angeles and the second being the protagonist, incorruptible police officer Cole Phelps.  The city and time period is faithful not only in its construction but also in reflecting the political climate at the time. This was an era where crime was rampant, the mob was in power and police corruption was tied into it all, and this is what you get immersed into when playing L.A. Noire. The first difference you will notice from earlier Rockstar games is that you are playing on the side of good, as opposed to a rogue criminal who can pull out a gun and kill people in the street. As an office of the law, you are asked with solving a series of murders that gradually get more interesting and you rise through the ranks of the LAPD as you progress. The main story follows a series a gruesome murders that all link up in the end, while the story of Cole Phelps is mainly revealed through in-game dialogue and expository flashback scenes to his time in the war. While Cole is able to throw punches with the best of them, he embodies the good cop cliché to a point where feels wooden and underdeveloped as a protagonist. His partners seem to have more personality and they get more colorful as you progress through the game.
As a detective, you occasionally see action in the form of car chases and shootouts, however the bulk of your time will be spent finding and collecting clues, and interrogating suspects and witnesses. The clues you find lead you to persons and places of interest, and interrogations yield more clues that push you closer towards finding the truth. This is where L.A. Noire finds its stride and the gamer really begins to feel like a detective. The aforementioned facial recognition software is not only used to make the game look good, but it’s integral to successful interrogations. When asking questions, you have to review your notes based on the clues found and deduce if the person is telling the truth or lying. You have the choice to believe what they say, call it into doubt or outright accuse them of lying. If you accuse someone of lying, you will need to present evidence from your notebook which backs up your conclusion. Paying close attention to their facial expressions and body language is key to making the right decision, as getting it right will yield more valuable information while doing it incorrectly can bring the interrogation to a halt. This requires a level of attention paid that is uncommon for games and it will take a few cases before you are comfortable with your detective prowess. To aid you in solving the harder cases, you are awarded “Intuition Points” as your rank rises, and you can cash these to reveal clues or ask the online community (via the “Social Club”) what the answer is to a particular question. However, you will usually solve the case even if you bungle the investigation, so the game is very forgiving.
Gameplay in L.A. Noire is a mixed bag that will no doubt polarize gamers. The core of the game is finding clues and interrogating suspects and the controls are intuitive enough to complete these tasks without frustration, however gamers know early on that finding clues is vital and this often leads to exhaustively searching areas to ensure nothing is missed. Handling interrogations and accessing notes and clues are relegated to simple button presses and you have ample time to make your choices, so the game is very forgiving in that respect. The driving and gunplay controls have a classic Rockstar feel to them, which is both a good and bad thing. On one hand, the generous auto-lock aim on your guns ensures a quick resolution to gunfights, however the controls can be glitchy and hyper-sensitive at times. The driving controls are also good for the most part, however these 40’s era cars handle like shopping carts and you are bound to crash during high speed chases. Additionally, the cars don’t corner or reverse well, so hitting a tree or another car during a suspect pursuit can cause you to halt and you’ll be unable to catch back up.
Rockstar Games and Team Bondi have done a fantastic job in bringing the post-war city of Los Angeles to life and driving around is in itself a treat for the eyes. Careful attention has also been paid to making the characters look and act appropriate for their time period, so the fashion, music and dialogue is all extremely well done.  Unlike GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption, which offered a massive world in which there is an inexhaustible supply of missions, the game guides you down a very linear path with little room for deviation outside of some ad hoc street crime missions and some scattered collectibles. In many ways, L.A. Noire is the cousin of 2010’s Mafia II and the two games share many similarities, especially in the fact that they offer a sandbox-style world with a linear story-driven campaign. I actually view this as a strength, since plentiful side-missions on top of the many hours already spent doing detective work would be overkill.
At the end of the day, L.A. Noire proves to be gaming experience unlike any I have played before and it hit the right spot between being challenging and rewarding. Getting answers wrong and missing clues can lead to some frustration, but it rarely impacts the overall story progression and you quickly learn how to use your deductive reasoning skills when working on a case. Not every element in the game works, but what it succeeds in doing is putting you in a time and place and making you feel like a part of it. As the title would suggest, this is straight out of the Film Noir era and fans of games like Mafia II and films like L.A. Confidential will feel right at home here. For those hoping for another Rockstar sandbox title with plentiful side missions and countless story threads, rents this one first and see if you like it.
Note: None of the reported glitches, crashes or game freezes occurred during my time with the game. Also, note that the Xbox 360 version is spread over three discs while the PS3 version is only one.
Rating: 8/10

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Carolyn Petit's L.A. Noire Review - Why all the hate?

With the blockbuster release of L.A. Noire, Rockstar’s superb game about being a lawman in the seedy 1940’s-era Los Angeles, gamers have been flocking to game review sits and Youtube to see what the critics are saying about this title and to discuss the pros and cons of the game with fellow gamers. Popular review sites like Gamespot and IGN regularly post video reviews on Youtube and scrolling through the comments section is always a colorful experience to put it mildly. Intelligent and insightful comments are to be found, but sadly they are often swimming in an ocean of ignorant prattle put out by functional illiterates who should probably be picking up a book rather than a game controller. In this capacity, the comments that greeted my aching eyes in the Gamespot review of L.A. Noire particularly bothered me, and it affirmed that the gaming community, for all the great people out there, is still infested with trolls and lowlifes.

The comments I speak of are not the garden-variety “your review sucks” type, since those exist in every video and should be expected, but rather vicious and prejudicial barbs aimed squarely at the reviewer of the game. The reviewer in question is Carolyn Petit, who you will know within a few seconds of watching her review that she is a transsexual. Not that this should matter to me, since I clicked on the video to actually watch the review and have it aid in my decision to buy or not to buy the game. The personality of the reviewer does help to build a connection with the viewer, and I found Carolyn’s review to be very well thought out and well presented. Valid points were made on the games strengths and shortcomings, and I felt it was one of the better reviews I had seen thus far. However, I was acutely aware while watching the review that the comments section, just a scroll of the mouse wheel away, was likely to have exploded with  barrage of rude and hateful comments. To be fair, people picking on the reviewer has rarely offended me because it shows the pure idiocy of the trolls, since they have no valid points to offer and must resort to childish ad homonym attacks. However, to attack someone on the basis of them being transgendered is no different than calling someone out for being gay, black or having a disability. Even in cyberspace, where people can say whatever they want with impunity, this should not be tolerated.

Admittedly, I don’t know a lot about the specific struggles that transgendered people face, but I imagine it’s the same that the gay community has had to deal with for years. We live in the year 2011, however there still exists people who are either outdated in their thinking or completely ignorant as to let prejudice guide their views. Sadly, there are plenty of those people playing video games and they have swarmed the LA Noire video and made Carolyn the focus rather than the game. I won’t quote specific comments as doing so would dignify them, but comments like “what the hell is he/she doing reviewing games” and “who or what is that?” are generally what you can expect to find. Whatever intelligent comments existed quickly got buried under a landslide of idiocy and ignorance. Some did try to fire back or shift the focus back to the game, while some were even bold enough to blame Gamespot for the trolling, arguing that putting a transsexual in front of the camera is troll bait and they should have known better. By this logic, anyone with even a remote imperfection that others can pick out and make fun of should be banned from presenting videos and doing reviews. It’s completely absurd and little more than prejudice masquerading as informed opinion.

I’m not an easily offended person and I know to expect the worst of some people online, but something about this situation bothers me more than it probably should. To Carolyn’s credit, she is taking it in stride and she even explained her struggles with gender identity in her blog, which thankfully led to the more sensible people coming out of the woodwork and offering support. What is at the core of this issue for me is the fact that trolling has hit an all-time low and my mind is blown at the sheer ignorance and utter stupidity of some people who call themselves gamers. The personal life of the reviewer, while perhaps being unusual to some people, should not be the prime topic of discussion let alone an incentive for people to troll. This is a game review and the focus should be on the game, as should the discussion, and people leaving rude comments about Carolyn really need to locate their moral compass and smarten up.

For Gamespots part, I think it’s good that they provide an equal opportunity for talented reviewers and will not shy away from putting someone on camera just because they may not fit the GQ mold of what people think an internet personality should be. Carolyn provided a quality review that has unfortunately been overshadowed by the ignorance of others, but hopefully this will become less of an issue once she becomes more of a presence in Gamespot reviews and the gaming public accepts her. As angry as trolling makes me sometimes, the reality is that we’re on the internet and putting yourself out there means that you are opening yourself to a world of abuse. That being said, I think the comments I’ve seen in said review represent the rock bottom of trolling and I think these people should be called out for their conduct. However, to do this would be crediting them with the ability to learn and think reasonably, something the clearly lack by their displays of ignorance and complete dearth of education. Haters are going to hate, I guess, but hopefully that will change.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Nerd Rage: OMG...Stop Clicking Those F$#@!ing Facebook Scam Links

Facebook, for all the good things it brings us, is fast becoming a source of irritation and mild rage for me. The social networking aspect of the site that was originally intended has taken a back seat to the games, applications and constant stream of phishing and spam scams that have littered the landscape of Facebook lately. The games and applications are tolerable, but the scams have gotten way out of hand and I blame the legions of gullible, mindless Facebooking drones who continue to allow their accounts to be compromised despite the fact that these scams are both obvious and well known by now. To quote an old saying, "artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity", and it pains me to see this affirmed so many times on Facebook.

The scams always work the same. Someone posts a link on your wall or in a group that you frequent, proclaiming to contain something so interesting or shocking that you have to click the link to see what it is. This can include things like something some kid did in order to get expelled from school, what someone did to some girl that caused her to commit suicide, or more recently, links that will allow you to see who has viewed your profile, who your top stalkers are, and even links to leaked photos of Osama Bin Laden's bullet-riddled corpse. True to form, people's mindless curiosity kicks in and they feel compelled to click these links when common sense would suggest that it's probably bogus. Then it takes you to a website outside of Facebook that asks for permission to access your account - red flag number two! Yet, people still click the "allow" button and from there, you are bombarded with advertising and you realize that you've been punked. Bad enough, but it doesn't end there. In allowing this spambot access to your Facebook account, you are effectively a conduit for spreading the same link to your friends, who will click on it and spread the virus further. 

Because off this, my Facebook newsfeed and my friend's pages are absolutely polluted with an endless stream of these annoying links that people continue to spread through their ignorance and mindless curiosity. As a blanket statement to all Facebook users, DO NOT CLICK ON THESE. Do not allow any outside applications to have access to your page, do not click on any of these bogus "See Your Top Stalkers" or "OMG...Click Here To See This" links and please do not click anything that says "Click Here To Verify Your Account". The fact that these are scams is so painfully obvious that I cannot help but think that only a dumbass with an IQ lower than their shoe size would fall for it. Yet people still do, so at the risk of sounding like a dick, I'll leave you with some simple advice that should guide anything you do online: THINK BEFORE YOU CLICK! If something sounds phishy (ah, a pun!), exercise common sense and avoid it like you've been trained to do by being taught critical thinking and deductive reasoning in school. Facebook may have dumbed down out abilities for communication and human interaction, but there is no need to throw your other faculties out the window as well. Think. Be Smart. For your attention and adherence to this advice, I humbly thank you.

*Deep Breath* I feel better now.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Clearing the Backlog...

One of the drawbacks of being a gamer, if indeed there is one, is that we often end up with more games than we realistically have time to play. This results in some games not getting the attention they should or simply not getting played at all, so this got me thinking about two kinds of games in my current roster: games that I really want to play but haven’t gotten around to, and games that everyone else loves but I have been unable to get into. The latter can be attributed to me either having put it down after playing it for a while and not being impressed, or because I moved onto other titles before giving it the proper attention. For shits and giggles, I have compiled a list of games I plan to revisit soon and hopefully I will finish or appreciate in a way that I couldn’t before.
10. The Orange Box (Xbox 360)

This was one of the first games I bought when I purchased my Xbox 360, and it’s not difficult to see why everyone loves it. I have been a big fan of Half-Life 2 for a number of years and I have been dying to play through it again, however the inclusion of the first Portal and Team Fortress are what really push the value of this collection. Despite having it for over two years, I have yet to delve into it and this something I regret. Playing Half-Life 2 on a big screen is incentive enough, but the first Portal especially interests me given the popularity of the just-released sequel and I’ve heard that Team Fortress is a fantastic multiplayer experience.

9. Resonance of Fate (Xbox 360)
A fan favorite RPG that slid completely under the radar of most gamers due to it being released on the same day as Final Fantasy XIII, and by the accounts of many, it’s the superior game in many respects. I bought this game a while back but ended up giving it away as a gift, however I have re-acquired it and I am ready to give it a go. The battle system is reputed to be ridiculously complex and one that takes ample time to grow accustomed to, but that’s the challenge and reward of the game and one that has many of my gaming brethren hooked. Being a fan of more grind-heavy RPGs with a turn-based battle system, this one will likely be a challenge for me and there is a good chance I will put it down shortly after starting, however I will give it the old college try.

8. Nier (Xbox 360)

From what I have seen in gameplay videos and read in reviews from critics and fellow gamers, Nier is a gumbo of game ideas that don’t fit together in theory but work surprisingly well in practice. A mix of action RPG, adventure and even including elements of puzzle and rhythm games, Nier has an “everything and the kitchen sink” feel to it and people I know absolutely adore this game. I purchased it on the cheap with the full intention of playing it right away, however other games have gotten in the way and this is currently sitting on my shelf. The time commitment aside, I’ve heard that this game needs to be played through at least twice in order to get the full experience. This is definitely near the top of my pile and I plan to get around to it posthaste.

7. The Dark Spire (Nintendo DS)
The Nintendo DS is a treasure trove for RPG fans and one of the most acclaimed games of late is The Dark Spire, one of the standout tiles of 2009 for most games I know and one that everyone describes as an insanely difficult grind-fest. Given that the game is all about progression, grinding , leveling up and gaining new skills and equipment, I have very little reason not to like this game and you can always count on Atlus to deliver the goods.

6. Grand Theft Auto IV (Xbox 360)
I was heavily addicted to Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City, but by the time San Andreas rolled around I was on series burnout and part IV didn’t grab me at all. I played about an hour back in 2009, put it down and have not gone back to it since. However, the endless acclaim for this title and the numerous people telling me that I need to give this another chance has piqued my interest once again. From what I recall, the missions are repetitive and progression comes slow, but this is a title I can grow to like if given the time and chance to resonate with me. Having said that, I share the opinion of many that the GTA series as a whole is highly overrated, so I don’t think I’ll ever agree with Gamespot’s 10 out of 10 rating. Time and patience with this game might change my opinion.

5. Gears of War (Xbox 360)
Another series I have always found to be highly overrated, Gears of War is a testosterone-fest of a shooter that is heavily geared towards multiplayer, with a paltry single-player campaign tacked on. However, most of my friends on Xbox Live are gaga for this game and its sequels, so I do feel like I’m missing out to an extent. I remember playing through the first two levels of the first game and being completely turned off by everything about it; the characters, the story, the controls and the fact that I kept dying at the same spot. However, time has passed and I have become much better at a variety of shooters, so I think my opinion might be different this time around. I have plenty of people who will play with me and show me the ropes, so there is really no better time to delve back in.

4. Demon’s Souls (Playstation 3)
Holy hell, if there was ever a game that I’m actually scared to play, it has to be Demon’s Souls. This is not because of the gothic horror setting, the hordes of demons you have to fight or the creepy and dreary atmosphere, mind you. It’s because of the insane difficulty, one that even the most expert gamers will admit to having their asses handed to them by it. I am not a fan of extremely difficult games and would prefer a title I can casually enjoy at my leisure, but there is something that attracts me to this game and compels me to give it a try. The difficulty means constantly dying and losing hours of progress in the blink of an eye, however people have told me that this is part of the fun and the feeling of accomplishment when you finally conquer a level is tantamount to beating an entire game. Sounds both exciting and frustrating, so I’ll have to try this and see for myself.

3. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Xbox 360)
When I was contemplating getting an Xbox 360 and I was asking around to see what games I should get, Oblivion was usually the first title recommended to me. Being completely new to the Elder Scrolls universe, I had no idea what to expect and I was very excited to see what all the hype was about. Man, I was bored to tears and I put the game down after about three hours, two of which were spent just wandering around to get to my next objective. Graphically, the game was impressive for its time but you can really see the limitations of the console, with a choppy framerate, frequent slowdowns and horrible pop-in. However, I have since been reading up on Oblivion and people are saying that it gets much better once you learn to navigate and you get a groove going, so I will definitely give this another chance. It often happens that I dislike a game when first playing it, only to go back to it years later and finding that I love it. Hopefully that will be the case with Oblivion.

2. Red Dead Redemption (Xbox 360)
If ever there was a game I took heat for not liking, it’s Red Dead Redemption. People absolutely love this game and the look of shock on people’s faces when I say that I couldn’t get into it is rather amusing. It topped most “Best of” lists for 2010 and it’s one of the highest rated games for this generation, however this also carries the liability of hyperbole. A game gets hyped up to the point where it cannot meet expectations and it comes off as being overrated and underwhelming, which is what my reaction has been thus far. Saying that a game is overrated is not the same as saying it’s bad, since I see why people like this game so much. I have had a hard time getting into it and have since moved on. Like Grand Theft Auto IV (also from Rockstar), it was a lot of travelling, doing jobs I didn’t care about for characters I didn’t care about, and it just felt meandering. However, people have said that it really gets good after the first few hours, so I need to go back to this game and tough it out. Perhaps, like Oblivion, I can grow to love this game as countless others have.

1. Fallout 3 (Xbox 360)
Similar to my issues with GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption, both from Rockstar, I have had issues with Oblivion and Fallout 3, both from Bethesda. It seems that certain developers rub me the wrong way for some inexplicable reason. Fallout 3 is an open world RPG that employs some of the same aspects of Oblivion that I didn’t like, however it is placed in a setting that I love; post-apocalyptic Washington that is overrun with colorful characters and nasty creatures. For some reason, I just couldn’t get into this game and I especially found the shooting and fighting mechanics to be problematic. However, I have since gotten heavily into Borderlands and this employs a similar setting and emphasis on looting, so I think I might be better disposed towards Fallout 3 now than I previously was. This is one of those games I feel that I *should* like and it’s the first one I am going back to.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Review: Borderlands (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)

Reviewing a game nearly two years after it was released is something of a fool’s errand, since everything that can be said about it already has and gamers have had ample time to make up their minds on whether or not it’s good. However, I have been enjoying Borderlands so much lately that I feel compelled to write a review and perhaps assist the relatively small number of gamers who haven’t decided if this game is worth playing. Borderlands is a standout title from Gearbox games combines the best elements of the first person shooter (FPS) and the loot-based RPG genres and creates a game that feels unique enough to not feel derivative and consistently challenging and rewarding enough to hold your interest after many hours of gameplay. Accented by a striking visual style and a wickedly sardonic sense of humor, Borderlands is a game that you will be glad to have invest the time in.

Despite the game being full of colorful characters and some genuinely witty dialogue, the story itself is paper-thin. You play as one of four mercenaries who traverse the rocky and trash-strewn terrain of Pandora, a distant planet populated with a mix of humans, mutants and monsters. The main objective is to find the fabled alien treasure that is said to exist within a vault hidden on the planet, and the prospect of extreme wealth is enough motivation for you to spend hours gunning down the various nasties you will meet in your travel. You can choose to play as a hunter, a siren, a berserker or a soldier, and character has skills and abilities unique to their class, though they all feel similar in how they play and handle guns. The main difference is in the “action moves” that you have, which is a specific ability that aids you in battle. The hunter unleashes a ravenous bird onto enemies, the siren goes invisible and sneaks behind enemies, the soldier throws down a shielded gun turret and the berserker just goes nuts and punches everything in his path. The action moves become stronger as your character advances, and certain modifiers can be applied to augment your abilities, such as adding electrical or corrosive damage. Each character has a dearth of dialogue and the story is mainly advanced through the friendly (and not so friendly) NPCs who guide you towards your objective by giving you missions, providing valuable items and engaging you in battle. A few boss fights are mandatory to advance the plot, however many missions are fetch quests that are essential for leveling up but provide very little in the context of the main plot.

Gameplay in Borderlands will feel familiar to any FPS fan, but people who prefer a “run and gun” approach will find that this does not get you very far. Two elements are essential to surviving in Borderlands, and those are leveling up your character and scavenging for loot. Attempting to run through the game without taking the time to level up will result in your playing missions that are too advanced for you and you will die constantly, and not taking the time to search chests, lockers, and even piles of animal vomit for loot will result in your running out of money, ammunition and better weapons. Dying also carries consequences, as you lose money each time you have to respawn and large amounts of money can be lost rather quickly and bring your progress to a crawl. The main draw of Borderlands is the sheer variety of guns you can acquire, and the amount is staggering to say the least. The usual weapon classes such as rifles, shotguns, pistols and sniper rifles are included, as are rocket launchers and bizarre alien guns found later in the game. Each weapon has unique stats and augments, so gamers will feel rewarded as they find and equip better weapons, while selling unwanted guns for cash. Guns can be found all over Pandora, in vending machines, weapon chests, lockers, and dropped from dead enemies. The guns are randomly generated and you are unlikely to come across the same weapon twice, so there is an element of discovery, and finding the guns that really work for you is a reward in and of itself. In short, take the time to grind and progress through the game and you will be amazed at the fun you’ll have testing out a massive variety of guns.As a single-player experience, Borderlands is a fun game that will easily take 30 or more hours to complete, longer if you invest in the four DLC packs currently available. However, the game was made with cooperative gameplay in mind and this is where Borderlands really shine. The entire campaign can be played in co-op with up to three other players, either from your friends list or with random gamers online. The scaling difficulty of the game means that the enemies grow stronger based on the number of players and better loot will drop as a result. Co-op gameplay also increases the level of experience acquired from mission progression and enemy kills, so co-op is definitely a great way to level up your character quickly. Playing with your friends is a wickedly good time that can easily consume hours, regardless of whether or not you are playing through missions.

Playing with random people is a mixed experience, since many online gamers have modified weapons and shields that give them an unfair advantage, and some people are loot whores who will just drop into your game to steal loot and then drop out. Conversely, I have met some great people online who have helped me level up and have provided me with choice weapons, so you take the good with the bad. However and whoever you choose to play with, Borderlands excels as one of the best co-op experiences in this generation of gaming, and those opting to play solo will also have a great time.

I’m sure most people reading this have already played Borderlands, but as per usual, I am fairly late to the party with these games and I have only just discovered my love for it. Being a fan of shooters, I feel that the genre has become very stale lately with the endless steam of short and shallow FPS titles that appeal mainly to those who like competitive multiplayer, so it’s refreshing to play a game like Borderlands that provides a more substantial experience with an emphasis on co-op gameplay as opposed to the cookie-cutter deathmatches and dinky single-player campaigns that currently plague the genre. The RPG elements also work to the game’s benefit as they provide the sense of progression and reward that has kept me coming back night after night. If you haven’t played Borderlands, the “Game of the Year” edition is going cheap and it contains all the DLC expansions, so there is no reason to hold off any longer.

Rating: 9.5/10