Friday, 12 August 2011

LA Noire Review

My review of LA Noire has been published at Game Kudos. I found the game to be equal parts outstanding and disappointing. Overall, the technological achievements and the main game mechanics make for an excellent interactive gaming experience, however, the choice to root the game in Rockstar’s familiar formula of 3rd person GTA style open world exploration detracts from an otherwise excellent adventure.

I think LA Noire could be a contender for game of the year but, unfortunately, I believe the game – as good as it is – promised so much more.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The kid’s aren’t alright: LA Noire’s children

Rockstar have a habit of keeping kids out of their games. The trend is bucked slightly in LA Noire but, with only their toe in the water, perhaps they should have stuck to their guns.

For obvious reasons Rockstar’s hit games, which pride themselves on believable rendering of entire cities and landscapes, are notably lacking in one human element: children. Being the purveyors of the kind of video game violence and questionable content that anti-gaming lobbyists love to pounce upon, its choice to keep the streets of Liberty City clear of innocent ankle biters saves the developer that particular political pitfall. Somehow mounting the curb with your stolen vehicle and mowing down a group of innocent passers-by while evading the LCPD would take a turn toward the sinister if mangled prams were among the wreckage in your rear-view mirror.

I approve of this choice, as nothing freaks me out more in gaming than kids. Be it Little Sister from BioShock, the child-like necromorphs from Dead Space 2 or even “normal” kids like those from Fallout 3’s birthday party, their presence in games is unnerving to me and, with the exception of John Marston’s son in Red Dead Redemption, their omission from my Rockstar diet is greatly appreciated. That is, until LA Noire.

The streets and parks of 1947 Los Angeles aren’t filled with children, and their absence simply makes the free-roaming aspect of the game feel like a GTA title, but during your investigations the story sees you interviewing one child and hounding the father of two others in front of them after telling them their mother had been murdered. Their odd responses to the devastating and life-changing events unfolding around them are somewhat unnerving, especially when conveyed using the game’s MotionScan technology, and I actually felt a deep pang of guilt as I condemned one of them to a life of state care.

These child characters serve a purpose in the game; they add a level of believability to the family dynamic of some of the homes you investigate in the course of the game’s cases, they provide a focal point for the reactions of some suspects to help you make your judgement on their guilt. However, because there are only a handful of child characters in a city of countless sprites, their presence in the game is also to its detriment. It leads to a nagging thought in the back of your mind when playing: Why is it there are no kids anywhere else in the game but for the few cut scene encounters in those investigations? It’s not something that spoils the overall enjoyment of the game, but combined with a couple of other aspects (like the ridiculous body count) it picks away at the mortar of a superbly written story, which is delivered - for the most part - in a refreshingly new and exiting way.

Unlike GTA and RDR, LA Noire has heavy focus on protecting the population of the city and hurting pedestrians as you speed through the streets chasing down bad guys is heavily discouraged. Indeed, the game prevents you from un-holstering your weapon at inappropriate times and collateral damage is kept lower than in any other similar title I can think of. With that in mind, and Rockstar’s choice to use child characters in the main narrative, I feel it should have made the braver step to infuse the game with a more believable age range within the city’s population. Not doing so simply highlights how out-of-place the ones that are there feel.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Army of One or a cog on a wheel?

To accurately represent warfare, games must engender a sense of collaboration toward an overarching strategic aim, not focus on the tactical weeds of individual effort.

Despite occupying a significant proportion of video game content, military titles of all genres fail to depict warfare accurately. FPS are fun and exciting, but ridiculous. The game pace, number of incidents and body counts familiar to FPS fans are to modern conflicts as Rambo movies are to guerrilla warfare: a cartoon depiction. In 2011, the average number of daily battle casualties per 100 troops in conflicts worldwide is 3 (source: The evolution of weapons and warfare, T.N. Dupuy). How does that compare to the attrition rate of 2010’s Medal of Honor? Players are divorced from the actions on-screen and are prone to taking extraordinary risk to achieve objectives. Without the fear that normally comes with danger, games simply can’t recreate the true feeling of being under fire. Even if players could somehow achieve empathy with their on-screen character, the way FPS single-player campaigns are designed results in players being constantly harried and channelled to follow pre-scripted actions to progress the story.

RTS military titles are engaging but outside of a despotic society no one person has so much control over the macro and the micro as is permitted by the genre. Even games like Civilization, Age of Empires or Command and Conquer, which incorporate the economic and societal elements of war, cannot give any player a faithful experience of commanding forces at any level. Although RTS games allow players to make the mental leap from the tactical to the strategic, the sheer scope of the faculty entrusted to them is unlike anything that would be experienced by any individual within any military or governmental organisation. To return to the emotional level, players simply don’t, and shouldn’t, care about the hundreds or thousands of units sent to their digital graves in pursuit of the overlord’s aims.

These are examples of the Army of One mentality of video games. Even in multiplayer focused military games the individual is king and players are out to clock up kills and demonstrate their prowess. The number of stakeholders in any military operation, not to mention a full-blown war, is mind blowing. From troops of all spheres of warfare to logisticians, planners and propagandists, politicians and media outlets, the list endless and all have an input to the effort. I’m not suggesting here that any game could simulate the complex nature of a conflict so accurately but highlighting the stark difference between the reality of such operations and how they are represented in our gaming entertainment.

Video game warfare is largely land-centric and it is for this reason, coupled with the individual nature of console ownership, that games don’t make the paradigm shift necessary to depict warfare as the collaborative effort that it actually is. One branch of warfare that is under-represented in games, but which by its very nature requires a collaborative approach, is naval warfare. Sea power is by far the most influential of military might. Navies can legally position aircraft carriers 12 miles off any coast on the planet and influence the area for hundreds of miles around the hull. Submarines can deny access to logistically vital sea-lanes by the mere suggestion of their presence and marines can be landed on any beach by amphibious units with little or no notice. The nature of naval operations means that fighting units – ships, submarines and aircraft - cannot be operated individually and require cohesive teamwork to effect such formidable and versatile weapons. However, from a gaming perspective, the largely individual nature of gaming precludes this vast and intriguing sphere of warfare from being fully explored.

Indeed, the most notable recent example of naval warfare in video games is that of Eidos’s Battlestations: Midway. The battle of Midway is a master class in the employment of naval air power and escort warfare. The world shaping exchange between the US and Japanese carrier fleets influenced the tide of the second World War and gave the US the foothold it needed to press its advance across the Pacific. The game representing these events was woefully below par, reducing the experience to a single-player, ultimate-control farce with one person effecting the navigation, gunnery and command of naval units all at once, so as to make the experience laughable.

The mantra of naval warfare - and indeed that of land and air warfare - is that each individual is a cog on a wheel, a small but vital component in the machine. Everyone knows their job and together they combine to fight the war as directed by those in command, who are in turn guided by the strategic aims laid out by an appropriate authority. Perhaps the only video game genre that could even attempt to replicate the intricate and complex essence of military operations is MMO. If players can make the mental shift away from the weeds of individual effort, and appreciate how fulfilling their role correctly - not for personal glory, but for the collective aim – can have a huge impact on the outcome of a conflict, then they would be much closer to understanding the reality of military effort than they would by running and gunning their way through a restricted shooter map.

As intriguing an idea as this is though, I doubt it would be a viable project. It can be argued that an accurate representation of the human mechanics of warfare is not the aim of these games and that escapist entertainment is the main goal. If players want to test their hand-eye co-ordination whilst enjoying an exaggerated - albeit entertaining - storyline and revel in impressive graphics and sound then the current crop of military titles meets this. However, if players want to experience war in accurately reproduced combat situations but without the physical dangers inherent in military service, then the selection of war games available fails to provide. The dichotomy is that any game that could accurately simulate warfare would be exactly that: a simulation. It would most likely be used to train military personnel and not to entertain the gaming public. After all is a more accurate understanding of the mechanics of war actually what gamers want? Probably not.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Falling out with New Vegas

I hate that I hate the conclusion of Fallout: New Vegas. The immersive and deep Fallout universe has had me hooked for years. The franchise’s detailed back-story, the spectrum of quirky characters and the freedom of story development all combined to create the most entertaining time sink I have experienced for a long time.

I am drawn into the style and themes of Fallout. I enjoy the 1950’s based b-movie aesthetic and the nostalgic homage to Americana shrouded in the grim realisation of cold war paranoia. I love the figurative tilt-of-the-hat to terrible sci-fi, the clunky and often ridiculous technology that could be lifted straight from Forbidden Planet or Flash Gordon. So much of the make-up of the game appeals to my inner geek. In both Fallout 3 and New Vegas, the story is engaging varied and can be approached from various angles depending on player disposition. The main story, the seemingly limitless number of side-quests and the ability to roam and explore endlessly combine to provide longevity of gameplay that far outstrips most other titles.

New Vegas’s gameplay isn’t a leap forward from Fallout 3, but I still enjoyed the mix of RPG and 1st/3rd person shooter. The game allows players to approach combat in a variety of ways, employing stealth, strength or guile to achieve their aims, lay waste to foes and progress toward a player-choice determined conclusion. Unfortunately, despite the best part of 70 hours of gameplay and a series of excellent quests and encounters, glitches and plot holes in the ending have left me deflated.

In the story strand that I followed, my ending resulted in an encounter with a character I had not yet met in the course of the game, but who greeted me as an old comrade and referred to a previous meeting and conversation that never happened. To my great annoyance at the height of the final battle the graphics became glitchy, although I had experienced glitches in-game prior to this juncture and an internet search has assured me that it’s not a universal problem. It’s because of the excellent gaming experience leading up to the end that the below standard conclusion annoys me as much as it has.

I do not expect the game to be perfect; perfect probably isn’t possible. However, considering the time and detail put into the game, these few problems at the crescendo of the game should have been ironed out. I’m not sorry I played New Vegas – it was my favourite game since Mass Effect 2 – but I am disappointed that I hated the execution of my story’s conclusion, if not the content. I don’t feel the urge to revisit it immediately and follow the other possible conclusions, but when I do get around to it I hope they will lead to a more complete understanding of the relationship between my character and the random NPC I encountered this time. Hopefully my 360 will choose not to glitch at the critical moment too.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Don’t kill The Walking Dead

Robert Kirkman’s ongoing, Eisener Award winning, epic comic book series, The Walking Dead, has thrilled and chilled readers since 2003. Recently, a TV adaptation secured a second series, and now Telltale Games has announced that the franchise is to be turned into a video game. We can only hope the transition to console doesn’t kill The Walking Dead.

I am a huge fan of the book and I enjoyed watching the TV series, although I did think it deviated a little too much from the comic. The main draw of the franchise has always been the great writing. In all good zombie fiction, the undead serve simply as vehicle for story telling. As terrifying as the flesh-eating fiends are, they are never the true enemy. They cause the downfall of human society, a situation so far outside of every day life that ordinary people are pushed to extraordinary limits, and thus we can explore the darker aspects of humanity. As with Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, World War Z and other great films and books of the genre, the most dangerous foe in zombie fiction is always us; the people whose weakness and actions in the face of adversity are their own undoing.

Telltale Games has an opportunity to create a great title from a great franchise, but my fear is that they may attempt to make the game challenging by introducing a variety of enemy types. In big release zombie games, zombies are commonly supplemented with “boss” enemies, such as Resident Evil’s dogs, crows and Tyrants. Left 4 Dead did an excellent job of representing a zombie horde (although the creatures are “infected” humans in the vein of 28 Days Later), but again relied on more ferocious creatures such as Boomers, Smokers and Tanks to add another layer of difficulty to the gameplay. Capcom’s Dead Rising managed to capture some of the Dawn of the Dead nostalgia by setting the game in a shopping mall and, for the large part, presenting the player with a zombie we would recognise from the George A Romero classics. Admittedly, the game was darkly comic and injected a great deal of fun into zombie killing, but even Capcom’s homage chose to modify the zombies, having them become faster and more dangerous at night than during the day.

The true horror of zombie fiction isn’t the graphic violence, the tearing of flesh from bone or the copious amounts of blood and gore, it’s the loss of individuality that results from being engulfed by them and the fear of becoming lost in the mindlessness of the horde. Kirkman’s creatures conform to the Romero paradigm of zombies - slow and lumbering, easy to avoid in small numbers but increasingly terrifying as their numbers swell. Ultimately, survival depends on groups working together in the face of a common enemy. It is my great hope for the game that it will remain true to this vision of zombies, and to Kirkman’s main narrative.

The greatest enemies presented throughout the comic book series are the array of psychopathic and self-interested characters that Rick Grimes, the series main protagonist, encounters, and this material provides a more than sufficient basis from which Telltale can draw. I look forward to the game, but very much hope that Telltale avoids creating other classes of the undead in an attempt to bolster gameplay, and represent such a great franchise in the manner it merits. My worry may be groundless, with Kirkman likely to work closely with the developers, but I truly hope they don’t kill The Walking Dead.

Friday, 25 February 2011

"Do, or do not. There is no try."

I’m aiming to write more feature articles. Over the past couple of years I have reviewed many games and had said reviews published at various sites. However, the writing I have enjoyed most has been features. The last post published here was recently picked up by Bitmob and promoted to their front page. This gave me a boost, and my editor at Game Kudos, where the vast majority of my features have been published, has encouraged me to focus on this sort of writing. This doesn’t mean I’ll be dropping reviews; I still enjoy reviewing games, but the majority of my energies will be channelled toward features in the future.

With that in mind, I’m linking up two of my recent reviews that have been published at Game Kudos:

Fifa 11 is a stunning game that all football fans will love. Read my view on the game here.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 2 was a big letdown for me. As an avid Star Wars fan, and one who loved the first game, this half-hearted sequel has left a sour taste in the mouth. Read why here.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Social shaming: My fear of FarmVille

The image of gamers is changing, slowly, and this is largely due to social networking sites. The stereotype of pasty mal-exercised social outcasts gaming for 20 hours-a-day in their mothers’ basement is being replaced by that of “normal” people from a variety of backgrounds, social groups and cultures who do their gaming on sites like Facebook, making gaming more mainstream; so, as a lifelong gamer, why am I afraid to play FarmVille?

Statistics show that social gaming is massive; FarmVille, the game that arguably started the social gaming revolution, has 52 million active users at present. This is dwarfed by the new hot title, CityVille, which has a whopping 98 million active users. To put this into context, that’s more than the population of the United Kingdom. So if gaming has become socially acceptable, as indicated by the sheer numbers of people gaming on one particular application on just one – albeit mammoth – website, should hardcore gamers feel a pang of shame for indulging in these pursuits?

I am a gamer; I have been since the early 1980s. I have owned an Atari 2600, a Commodore 64, a ZX Spectrum, an Amiga 500, a Microsoft PC, a Sega Master System and Mega Drive, a Gameboy, PlayStations 1 & 2, a PSP, an Xbox and a 360 in my gaming career. I have sampled most game genres and rank Real Time Strategy games highly. As one who has witnessed the evolution of video games over the past 3 decades I feel I should embrace the move toward social games, many of which are RTS based that I should enjoy. I speak here of FarmVille, although in reality I’d be more likely to play games like Kingdoms of Camelot or Mafia Wars, but their presence on such a widely used social network puts me off. My reasoning may be debatable, but it’s as follows: I don’t like the idea of everybody on my “friends” list, which includes work colleagues and people on the peripheral of my social circle, being updated every time I sew a field or request help to build a barn. The very nature of social gaming requires this sort of interaction with other users, but having been on the receiving end of countless requests to help others in their gaming efforts, and having been annoyed by the persistence of them despite my not having the same application, I am loathed to inflict this upon my “friends”. It’s the carpet-bombing nature of the applications’ update messages coupled with the lack of customisable privacy options with which I have an issue.

An immediate retort to this would be to say that the option exists within Facebook to ignore all such notifications, however, not everyone chooses to click on this option. This may be because they are happy to receive them, or eager to involve themselves in the game, but what if they’re not? It is entirely possible that people can simply skip through the endless updates spewed out by these applications and, although it could be argued that it is their choice not to get rid of them, I wouldn’t want everyone to see these updates generated by my gaming. I’m not alone in my frustration; an entire anti-FarmVille movement exists within Facebook, born of just this sort of complaint, sporting over 2 million disgruntled users.

For me, collaborative gaming should be about people who want to game together working toward a common goal. If users don’t want to be involved, or don’t have the application, then the system shouldn’t bother them with updates or requests. However, as Facebook and social networks like it have a mandate to expand, it’s not likely that social gaming will move into a less intrusive format any time soon.

I’m sure there are many very worthy games to play in the social gaming genre, but until the scope of who is informed of and involved in my gaming is more tightly controlled it will remain an area of the gaming world that I’ll avoid. I don’t play games on Facebook partly because of the privacy issue and partly due to a reluctance to have my pastimes scrutinised by everyone connected with my social media accounts. I don’t want everyone I know to see what I’m playing and how often I play it; for me, that privilege is reserved for those friends I game with on Xbox LIVE.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Move over DualShock? Killzone 3’s motion control integration

Motion control gaming’s recent rise to prominence raises questions about the future of gaming interface and the lifespan of the traditional controller. Whenever a new technology is developed advocates rush to pronounce it as the way forward for…whatever, and denounce that which came before it as obsolete, or at best, past its heyday. But should we be so quick to turn away from our trusty traditional interface with the video games’ world?

At a Eurogamer Expo developer session in October, Guerrilla Games’ Steven Ter Heide demonstrated the upcoming FPS Killzone 3’s optional Move integrated control system. “Move, for us, is an option, obviously there’ll be DualShock lovers and there will certainly be people out there who want to play this with the Move controller.” He began demonstrating the Move controlled play-through by tracing his controller across the screen, showing how weapon targeting follows the point of the controller. When pointing at the extremities of the screen the camera began to follow, slowly. Ter Heide was quick to point out that the speed of camera movement, along with a lot of Move controller related options, are entirely customisable to the players preferences.

The motion controlled play-through of the game underwent heavy play testing to find out exactly what it was that players were looking for with this interface. “The book hasn’t been written yet on Move controls and what they need to do…there’s a lot of stuff we have to figure out.” As Move has all of the buttons that DualShock has, they can still be used to complement the motion controlled experience, but Guerrilla are attempting to enhance that with the integration of gestures, “This icon on the screen now indicates that I need to reload, and I can do this by just a quick twist of the wrist. We find this has an advantage in the fluidity of the gameplay.” demonstrated Ter Hide. Other functions such as gesturing the controller toward the player serve to pick up usable weapons. Having listened to fan feedback, Guerrilla have included the ability to carry more than one primary weapon in Killzone 3, using the D-Pad switches between them.

The feel of the demonstration was such that the developers seemed to be trying to find reasons to use motion control, and running into more than just a few problems doing so. Ter Heide highlighted this with an example of how grenades are thrown in Killzone 3, “You’d expect everybody to throw a grenades like this [demonstrates throwing motion] because it’s a natural motion, but as you can see what happens on the screen is that the camera starts rotating and I don’t see where the grenade lands.” Guerrilla’s solution here is to have the grenade throwing function relegated to a button push.

The test of motion control versus regular controller systems may come in their integration; can players compete in multiplayer with the different control methods on a level footing? In a modern, fast paced FPS, one that holds the draw of multiplayer at its heart, a multiple control system, player vs. player needs vigorous play testing, so says Ter Heide, “Move is available for multiplayer too, and right now we are doing a lot of play testing to find out whether we can have Move players in the same game as DualShock players.” Although he admitted that the new system is lagging behind, “Our core QA guys have grown up with DualShock and they’re very well versed in that and run circles around the Move players.” He added that choice of control method may become a basis of rivalry: “At some point I think it’s going to turn into your snow boarders versus your skiers, whether you’re a DualShock player or a Move player.”

A balancing act may be required if multi-control method multiplayer is to become a reality. Notwithstanding the camera control issues discussed earlier, certain functions of the game mechanics are unique to Move, Ter Heide explained “Because we now have auto-lock [with Move] we need to find out if we can rebalance that and see how that works.” Guerrilla aim to test a public beta of the multiplayer game, and to decide from that whether or not to separate DualShock from Move players.

From the demo at the developer session, Guerrilla Games has shown that big name developers are actively working to integrate peripheral devices into traditional game genres and top titles. Time will tell whether the experiment will work, but based on what I saw at the session - and my own preferences for game controllers - the Move integration appears to me to be a gimmick, more of a Wii Party toy than a serious gaming tool. It looks to have created problems in the developing process rather than having solved any great flaw in the current and well proven method of controlling an FPS game. Perhaps Guerrilla will prove me wrong.

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This article was written for Game Kudos and this is the third draft. The finalised piece in its edited format can be seen here.