Monday, June 20, 2011

Duke Nukem Forever Review

Screw the naysayers, Duke Nukem Forever is a fun game. 15 years ago, shortly after Duke Nukem 3D successfully released, 3D Realms (and even though Gearbox's name is on the cover, this is still a 3D Realms game, their last one) decided that the sequel to their game would be called Duke Nukem Forever, and began initial work on it. At the 1998 E3, the first trailer was released to the public. 13 years later the game finally released. Is it perfect? No. I'll get to that in a minute. Is it Raucous, immature, and humorous? If you played Duke Nukem 3D, I don't need to answer that. And if you are expecting anything different, this is not the game for you. It's Duke Nukem, not Call of Duty, Halo, or Dead Space (there are references to all of these in the game). It never takes itself seriously, which is exactly how it should be.
First the good. As the game opens, an Alien Mothership has returned to Earth claiming goodwill. It doesn't take long before they start taking our women, and Duke is called
back into action (against the President of the US's orders) to save them and all of humanity. The levels are linear, but well designed. You'll fight aliens in a stadium, a Vegas casino, a fast food joint high above the Vegas streets, the Nevada Desert, and on top of, inside of, and even deep underwater by the Hoover Dam. The FPS action is mixed up between mini games, turret battles, and little distractions scattered throughout the levels, that once you try for the first time, add to your EGO Gauge (life meter). Things like turning on a hand dryer in the restroom, peeing into a urinal, playing a game of pool or pinball, and several others. There's a few levels mid-way where you are headed to the Hoover Dam (the first part of the game takes place in Las Vegas), and you are given a monster truck to drive. These were some of the funnest levels I played. The truck never felt like it was floating or skating. There are areas where your truck runs out of gas, and you have to go out on foot, find gas, and bring it back to the truck before you can move on. In several places, you are shrunk down to action figure size. These areas consist of mostly platforming sequences that other than a couple of hiccups, work surprisingly well. A lot of this takes place at Duke Burger in Vegas, another area, that was one of my favorites.
The weapon variety is pretty good, although except for boss battles and a few other instances, you'll probably find yourself sticking to the Ripper. There's some fun to be had with the Shrink Ray and the Freeze Gun, but you'll always come back to the Ripper. You can find several "power up" items throughout the game as well. You use them by pushing a specific direction on the D Pad, however you can only carry one of each at a time. Beer will make you stronger, and you take less damage. Steroids make you almost invulnerable, and you get one punch melee attacks. The Holoduke creates a hologram of you, while turning you invisible so that enemies focus on him instead of you. And finally, you always have Dukevision, this game's version of night vision.
As I stated above, this game isn't without it's faults. After you beat the game, you'll unlock some extras, including videos of previous trailers, and art from previous versions. There's also a nifty little timeline for the game. Based on all that, I'm guessing this game was visually finished in 2008. And since I'm guessing, I'll go one further, and say that the visuals are based on the engine
from another 3D Realms game, Prey, which released in 2006. And it shows. The graphics are far from what is coming out of most games this far into the consoles' lifecycles. And there are some framerate issues. I would be surprised if the game is evening running at 30 FPS in some places. But perhaps the most surprising and disappointing thing about the game is the load times. I could forgive the sub-par graphics and the framerate issues. Between each, level you will wait 40-50 seconds for a level to load. If you die, you also have to wait that long. I didn't die a lot (playing at the normal level), but there are a couple of boss battles that are very trial and error, and it doesn't make things any better having to wait almost a minute after each death. According to the timeline in the extras, the single player was pretty much done in 2009. While they used the extra time to get through legal and ownership issues, as well as add a multiplayer component to the game, you'd think in two years they would be able to fix the load time issues. It's disappointing.
And while there is a multiplayer part included in the game, I didn't play it. Didn't have any interest. I got the game for the singleplayer campaign, so I won't be reviewing the MP.
This game should never have released at a full $59.99 retail. Had it been released at $39.99 or less, I would probably give it an 8 out of 10. At full price though, I can't give it anything higher than a 6.5. I'd recommend it at a lower price point or as a rental.

TL;DR: Fun, entertaining game with 2006 visuals, and enjoy those load times!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

REVIEW: L.A. Noire

For once, I’m in a quandary about how to proceed. I just completed a game that had my full attention, that blew me away in terms of story telling and visual effects, but also left me with a lot of questions and frustrations. Am I being to greedy for wanting more in a game that is already fantastic? Am I being overly critical for totally enjoying a twenty hour experience but still having a bit of an empty feeling. Am I looking too much into a game that gave me all the answers and yet I still have questions?

This is the enigma that is L.A. Noire, from Rockstar Games. Set in 1947 Los Angeles, you play as Cole Phelps, a undeserving war hero turned driven, overachieving LA Police Officer working his way through the ranks one case at a time. As in Rockstar’s last bestseller, Red Dead Redemption the protagonist has a troubled past, trying to make things right, playing out through a twisted maze of friends turned enemies and the mystery of an overarching conspiracy driving the story.

If you've played Red Dead or Grand Theft Auto, you’re familiar with the basic set up. Driving around a large landscape, doing tasks that drive the story, and filling time doing small minor tasks not necessarily germane to the overarching plot. L.A. Noire is really no different in that simplistic presentation. There are, however, a few new elements that you have to grapple with to move yourself throughout the game. Since you are a Police Detective, you must master the art of interrogation and “reading” people’s reactions in order to determine whether they are telling you the truth, they’re hiding something from you, or just flat out lying. If you are correct, you will get the info you need to lead you to the next clue or solve the case quicker. If you are incorrect in your assumption, you’ll get the run around.

Cole Phelps’ troubled past is as a marine lieutenant serving in the horror of the WWII’s South Pacific. He is a meticulous and all too “by the book” as a platoon commander, which draws the ire of both marines under his command, and fellow platoon commanders who feel that Phelps’ dithering is costing time and lives. This storyline is presented in flashback form throughout the game, with characters in that flashback appearing throughout the present day Los Angeles. When you begin the game, Phelps is a gum shoe beat cop, who’s potential catches the eye of his superiors, who advance him to detective based on his stellar performance and reputation as a war hero.

The main story puts you working cases progressing through four department desks; traffic, homicide, vice, and arson. Traffic will get you acclimated to the procedures of gathering clues, interviewing persons of interests, tracking down potential suspects, and eventually making the collar. As you cruise through the streets of Los Angeles, you are also alerted to “street crimes”, emergency calls that you can either tend to or ignore, as mentioned before, they are something that doesn’t really relate to the overall story.

Once you have things down in Traffic, Phelps is promoted to Homicide, where you begin working murders. This desk is the largest of the game, and as you gather evidence and clues, you begin to notice strange ties that string all these murders together. I’m not going to spoil the story from here, but each re-assignment to a new desk is the result of an event in the last case of the last desk; something that continues Phelps down to the realization that in these cases he’s worked lies a deeper and complex plot at hand involving people he’s encountered earlier in the game either through interview and evidence.

There are a few things that really stand out throughout L.A. Noire; first of all the environment and landscape is absolutely stunning. Apparently, Rockstar used footage both through aerial still photographs and landscape photos to faithfully recreate late 1940’s Los Angeles to 90% accuracy. The city is vibrant both day and night, sometimes I found myself driving around the city instead of ‘fast travelling’ to a location just to see the different points of interest.

Another thing that has been made a very big deal about the game is the technology used to create the facial and voice animations, which, quite frankly are the best I’ve ever seen in a video game. And its not just lips moving to words; its facial features expressing emotions like frustration, anger, intimidation. You can just see without hearing anyone speak that they are being coy, smug, desperate, deliberate, or scared. Aaron Stanton who plays Cole Phelps delivers a really remarkable performance that is exemplified by how well his face and body language are rendered. The game does a pretty good job of giving you characters you can both relate with and enjoy like Phelps’ partner Det. Rusty Galloway in homicide, and also distrust and annoy in Earle, your partner in Vice.

Now, here is my quandary. I really enjoyed my time playing L.A. Noire, and pretty much could not put it down from the moment I bought it on release day. However, there are things that if I really sat down and picked the game apart, I would find almost as much if not more things find negative than positive of it being a great looking game and something that did keep my attention.

The “action” of the game is soft. Yes, there are car chases and gun fights, but they are really kind of substandard when actually compared to similar third-person action  games but even other Rockstar games. You’re trusty weapon of choice is your handy pistol, which you have to bring into every gunfight and hopefully take down the bad guys who always are out-arming you with Tommy Guns and Shotguns. There is a cover system but it just seems a bit awkward going from cover to cover, when you can just run around, auto aim and take people’s heads off.  As Lord Bling eluded to below, street fighting is a button mash fest, though the fights get slightlymore difficult later in the game.

Car chases are very problematic as the fugitives’ cars drive like they are on rails and you’re car varies from having absolutely no power steering to maneuvering like your driving on a sheet of ice. Again, the later I was into the game, I got a better hang of driving. Still, though, I found myself having to restart car chase after car chase because I would get hung up on a light pole that won’t collapse or would be on the heels of the suspect’s car and they would take a perfectly executed turn into an alley and I would sputter onto oncoming traffic.

Truth? Lie? How the hell should I know?
As I mentioned before, while interviewing a person of interest, the answer to your question would be met with three responses: truth, doubt, or lie. If you knew the person was lying, you’d better have evidence in hand to prove it, and you’ve made the right choice. However, sometimes choosing between truth and doubt was pretty much a 50/50 decision. I mean why would a witness to a murder hide something from me when she was obviously shaken and the victim meant something to her? Well apparently, I wasn’t good at figuring that out when I would mistakenly think “yeah, she’s telling the truth”. In OXM’s review of L.A.Noire, they gave the good advice of “when in doubt, choose ‘doubt’”. I’d stick with that practice.

In the end I don't think it really matters because it doesn't appear that the results of some of your interrogations and miscalculations in interviewing people of interest actually affect the result of a case, only how well you were rated on solving the case. And I don’t think (or at least haven’t been alerted to) your rating on the case has any bearing on how the story plays out. Sometimes you have to multiple people tied to a case as a possible suspect and you have to decide who to charge, or you are in a situation where you have to decide to charge someone and you aren’t sure if they are the right person.

Having completed the game and knowing its outcome, I get the latter in why the game’s story makes you charge someone you aren’t sure is the actual culprit. Without spoiling anything, it kind of ties back into the whole concept that you’re not putting a person away because you think they are really the killer, but you have enough evidence that a DA will put them away, and that there is a gray area in Justice that never quite vibed with Phelps.

Phelps is the wanna-be White Knight. As you work cases, you see that he is a guy who wants to do things by the book, but also be someone who is ambitious and yet not content with the status quo of finding the convenient suspect and building the evidence around putting them away. He is thorough, and deliberate, which draws the consternation of everyone around him; the player gets that. Then he does something completely out of character at the end of Vice that hardly set up before hand and you are like “WUT”. It really doesn’t make any sense and sets off a weird tone for the final desk of cases.

Having said all that, I just have to play the hypocrite and look beyond it and say I loved playing L.A. Noire. But don’t discount what Lord Bling and NIN have said below because I cannot really argue with them (sometimes repetition can be mundane and L.A. Noire definitely has that). I've already downloaded the DLC (which was really pre-order bonuses made available to the general public) and am looking forward to getting through that. While I do think there are things that can definitely be improved upon if Team Bondi and Rockstar decide to make future installations of the game (which they’ve hinted to be interested in doing), I think this has been a pretty good first step.

TL;DR- Your mileage may vary.

L.A. Noire?

More like L.A. Bore, amirite?

I'm barely kidding here. I'm on the third disc, and I'm wondering if it's even worth my time to see it through. I have six cases left, and I'm just over it. Each case takes about an hour, and if that means I have six hours of this left, I don't know if I'm gonna make it. If this is what it was like to be a detective in the late 40s, I would've let myself get shot just to have some paid vacation.

First of all, the writers are clearly big fans of L.A. Confidential. As well they should be. It's a masterpiece. But did they have to be so blatant about it? There are thousands of other books and films from this era that they could've borrowed from. And yet, the typing when you get to the scene of a crime? Stolen from L.A. Confidential. An Irish department head who calls you 'boy-o'? Facepalm.jpeg. I'm sure they borrowed from other stories from the time, but they made a couple of easy thefts from a very obvious source.

So, how is the gameplay?

Combat? What combat? Mash X and A, profit.

I'm not expecting a deep fighting engine, or someone to stop during a fight and yell 'MORTAL KOMBAT!', but it's so base-level, it could've been done on the NES.

Gunplay? Hope you like the 1911. Half the time, you don't even get to go to your trunk to get a better weapon. At this point in the game, I don't even waste the time to go to the trunk because that's just more time I have to spend playing. Again, I'm not expecting Modern Warfare here, but at least be as engaging as the gunplay in previous Rockstar games. This feels like a big step backward.

Street cases? Meh. They're always popping up when I'm in the middle of something more important. Even worse, they're almost all exactly the same, except that one time I saved some dude from jumping off of a tower. Climb to the top of a church, grab the guy, the end. Then I thought, 'What was the point of that?' Oh yeah, I know: Padded game time.

Pic related -- It's me while playing this game.

The framerate is terrible most of the time you're driving or out in the open world. It took Sony 4 1/2 years, but I actually regret buying a game on the Xbox 360. (EDIT: I loaded all three discs onto my hard drive, similar to NIN)

Film reels? I haven't found a single one. Am I doing it wrong? Is there a reason why I should care?

Newspapers? Blah blah blah, bad actor doctor dude, blah blah blah. To quote Stan in the Towelie episode: "Don't care, don't care, don't care."

Lastly, I can't overlook a glaring issue with the story about half-way through the game. I'll keep the spoilers to a minimum, but let's just say that feeling you have that you might be putting the wrong person behind bars? Yeah, it bothered me. And you don't have the option to do any different. For an open world game, I found the lack of freedom in the investigations to be extremely disappointing.

There are plenty of things L.A. Noire does right. The interrogation sequences are strong, even if they're not a step up from the conversation control you have in an action RPG like Mass Effect or even Alpha Protocol. The atmosphere, the look, and the score all are amazing. The mo-cap is fantastic, of course. But those things don't make a great game without the gameplay. I give Rockstar and Team Bondi credit for trying something different, but it would've been a better cable miniseries than a game.

TL;DR -- L.A. Noire is all sizzle and no steak.