Past Reviews

Monday Night Combat

Limbo

Alan Wake

Red Dead: Redemption

Just Cause 2

Mass Effect 2

The Saboteur

Assassin’s Creed II

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Reviews

Alan Wake Review

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Developer: Remedy Entertainment

Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios

Release Date: May 18th

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I’ll level with you, I’m no horror survival fan. Sure, I like unnecessarily scaring the crap out of myself with a suitably cheesy horror flick as much as the next guy, but when it comes to video games, I always found myself either not being able to concentrate on the game, for fear of wetting my pants, or feeling all too aware that the haunted town I’m lost in is simply a collection of textures and models. With this said, I thought I’d have to make an exception for Alan Wake partly because it dubs itself a ‘psychological action thriller’, and partly because of the shuddering thought that its pre-production dates back as far as 2001.

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Alan’s perilous story begins with a nightmare, perhaps not customary for video games, but hardly an original opening for the genre, nevertheless I’ll let this initial hiccup slide because tutorials are notoriously difficult to integrate and never run as seamlessly into the game and narrative as you’d like; unfortunately it comes with the territory. Anyway, Alan and his wife arrive in your standard Pacific North-West town; so as you’d imagine creepy shop owners, muttering old ladies and closet axe-murderers are commonplace. The town of Bright Falls, a name which by the way screams ‘fucked up things happen here’, is supposed to be a relaxing break for Alan, but unfortunately for him, his wife Alice thinks he ought to do some writing, bearing in mind he’s a writer who hasn’t written anything in two bloody years. However on the first night, Alice, is taken by some sort of dark force. As you can imagine, things start to go downhill from about here, so Alan must set out to find his wife, while making sure he makes the least logical decisions possible, along the way.

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Light and dark is the key theme of the game, in terms of the narrative and gameplay, and this blend makes for a very solid, and coherent experience. In order to kill his possessed hillbilly attackers, Alan must eradicate the darkness that controls them, usually with a torch, before he can fill them with lead to any great effect. Although this original mechanic may not sound life-changingly exciting, Remedy have tweaked and polished the movement of the torch, weapon sounds and animations, resulting in a genuinely great combat system. This, combined with a dodge move to avoid incoming pick-axes from your nearest demented construction worker and the drip fed, trademark slow motion that Remedy do so well, breathes new-life into the 3rd person shooter and horror genre. The fluidity of Alan’s movement, and the manner in which the torch revolves around so swiftly, without feeling fidgety, establishes a natural method of navigating Bright Fall’s dark woods and streets.

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In keeping with the light theme, flashbangs, which are usually met with a short sigh from a player foraging for frag grenades in any other game, are suddenly very much coveted; a panic/”fuck you” button, if you will. To go along with this, Alan’s tools of the trade include flares, hunting rifles and high-powered lamps amongst other things. The controls behind these luminescent armaments almost feel non-existent, and this is a compliment I assure you; making sure you’ve only to worry about the 7ft tall psychopaths chasing you, and not which buttons to press.

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Now that we’ve let ourselves stumble into this peculiar world, let’s take a look at some of the more familiar faces. Alan himself has some solid and confident voice work, and at least sounds like a commercial author, as he should do, yet somehow oozes an aura of momentary stupidity, evidenced by such great decisions as “let’s have piss-up inside a farmhouse comprehensively surrounded by chainsaw-wielding monsters” and “taking the abandoned mine route is probably safer than finding a car”. Nevertheless Alan has well fleshed-out personality, and an interesting and unusual back-story, with the very necessary qualification of: for a video game; a caveat that’s applicable for many of the game’s themes and sticky situations. Alan’s wife, Alice, is fairly uninspired, but a couple of scenes at least make an effort to try to convince you that your character is meant to be in love with her and just managed to convince me to not turn my heels and bravely run away from Bright Falls all together.

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There are a number of supporting characters, most of whom are fairly one dimensional, (after all the game is prominently about ‘Alan Wake’) but a few beacons of light lay ahead injecting some quirk and horror-based humour into Bright Falls shadowy hills. Responsible for the perhaps the most awesome set-piece in the game, the Anderson brothers are a couple of old rockers, who’s dementia has begun to set in, but exploring their farm reveals that they’re far from done with their rock’n roll past. Also lightening the mood, Barry, Alan’s New Yorker agent occasionally comes off as irritatingly cheesy in his efforts to make light of the situation, but in general seems believable in his relationship with Alan, and makes a nice contrast from the mostly miserable townsfolk. It did occur to me that Barry’s obnoxious one-liners somewhat lower the tone, yet despite a very dark story, there’s no reason that the game ought to take itself too seriously, at least not to an excessive degree. However, as I mentioned, the majority of the cast are fairly dull, which is a shame because a few had the potential to supplement the story, had they been explored in more depth.

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Fairly novel for a game was the decision to dice Alan Wake into six episodes. While each episode isn’t a confined series of events, it shoots for that TV series feel, complete with “Last time on…”. This is fine, and serves as a handy recap of Alan’s shenanigans, but bafflingly fails to provide the logical options of saving and pausing/quitting in between. It’s a feature that’ll irk some, who’ll see it as pointless, and appear as a mildly useful device for pacing the story to others, either way, it gives the game a bit character if nothing else.

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Equally bemusing is in fact Alan’s musings, as your character, i.e. you, will often talk to himself about the problems he’s facing or glaringly obvious things he notices, and although developers would claim this is justified by the context of Alan writing the story he’s in, too few of the comments are actually insightful enough to avoid becoming inane and unnecessary. I’m all for narration as a tool to advance the plot, but a running commentary just ends up seeming patronizing, especially when it all too promptly reminds you of your objective and how you might go about it, hardly keeping you in the dark (see what I did there?), which seems particularly counter-intuitive considering this is a game, that despite its developer-given genre title, is actively trying to make you shake in your leather-elbow-patched jacket.

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Regardless of these presentation issues, the plot is well paced, dropping you in and out of the action with the felicitous arrivals of friends for breathers, allowing the story to unfold as you progress and refraining from overindulgent cutscenes or drawn-out traveling. However, even though Alan Wake’s gameplay is tightly knit into the story and vice versa, they don’t share the same qualities, specifically in terms of pace, as you are pitted against a number of different shapes and sizes of foes (including inhumanly tall specimens) and later on, possessed construction paraphernalia, but the combat, despite being extremely satisfying, never really evolves. I was even just hoping for some new weapons or a new perspective, such as being able to drive-by my luminescently-challenged attackers, but nothing, aside from some short driving sections left over from the game’s initially planned open world experience. Even more frustrating was the complete lack of any meaningful progression when it comes to equipment. Like any good survivor I saved up my flashbangs and flares for my moment of need (which incidentally never came on account of the game being a tad too easy) only to find that the end of the chapter removes all of my savvy procurements. Yet another incomprehensible game design decision.

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While Bright Fall’s various environments are lovingly created, and terrifyingly realistic in their aesthetic, many of them seem to be all too familiar after playing for a couple of hours. By episode 4 I felt like I was in the 50th logging-industrial-mill-station-warehouse-generic-empty-large-machinery-filled-substation type building, and although there are a couple of more unique locations, it would have been just dandy to get a little more variety. Alan Wake needn’t have been an open world game; sure, I’d certainly enjoy playing a game that was geared towards that experience, but increased linearity affords the game more control over, and thus more input, on the narrative. Nonetheless a little more exploration and perhaps conversation with local residents, during daylight hours, may have deepened the story, and built a more rounded story, given that ‘psychological’ is in the title as well as ‘action’.

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Alan Wake’s visuals are a sight to behold; or not, as the case may be, because there’s a whole lot of dark, but all this darkness is articulated beautifully in the game’s graphics, along with the mists and fog which make even the most innocent of shapes warp into terrifying monsters. Accordingly, the graphics that deal with light are also fantastic; making the pools of light that recharge your health and ward off your enemies, look most heartening, even though they may be engulfed in blackness. And the way the darkness is burnt off the possessed with your torch looks brilliantly brutal, helping to make the combat what it is.

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The animations that bring all these visuals to life mimic human movement (specifically a human that is running for his deer life), swayings of trees and russlings of bushes commendably, but in contrast facial animations feel almost non-existent, along with lip-syncing on par with foreign shampoo adverts. It truly amazes me that after so many years of development, with buckets of effort evidently poured into lighting, combat and writing that they could possibly fail to imitate any sort of realistic expressions for characters, a detail that is surely required of any good story. I’d like to say that it doesn’t detract from the experience, but almost unavoidably it does.

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To extend the playtime to around 15 hours, give or take, Remedy tosses in a number of subsidiary collectables and tasks including a series of “Night Springs” TV shows, found throughout the game, Twilight Zone-esque mysteries which are perfectly apt for Alan Wake’s setting, contributing to the mysterious atmosphere and giving your shivering buttocks a short respite. But again Remedy find a tiny way to diminish the experience not allowing you to zoom in on the TV set, meaning you have to find and awkward camera angle over your shoulder to watch. A similarly trivial problem befalls another of Alan Wake’s distinctive features. As you blunder through Bright Falls you’ll discover manuscript pages from the book you’ve written, that you’re in, meaning you get a sneak preview of what’s to come ahead. An interesting dynamic, most would agree, but to hear Alan read it out, you have to stay on the menu page, not permitting you to listen as you progress, which is surprising considering how partial he is to twittering on as you play otherwise.

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Accompanying these little features are some horribly incongruous inputs such as a wealth of thermos flask collectables (I can only assume Alan’s inexplicable decisions are down to the exceptional amounts of caffeine running through his veins) which appear to have no bearing on anything else and some real world commercials deviously place where you’d expect to catch another episode of the brilliant little Night Springs. It’s these small but significant details that break the immersion and trivialize the atmosphere.

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Having stumbled around in the dark with Alan Wake, however, I can safely say this is a very good game, and just misses the boat on becoming great, because of a number of dopey mistakes. Perhaps poor Remedy themselves were fumbling through the woods too long and having lost sight of obvious features and details on the periphery; because the core mechanics are all there and finessed down to a T. It is a genuine shame that it hasn’t quite lived up to its mammoth potential, given its development period, because the basic gameplay is great fun with a number of puzzles and boss like sequences littered throughout and Alan’s story is gripping and absorbing making those of many other games look pitiful.

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It has to be said that there are clear and unashamed similarities with series like Twin Peaks, and the books of Stephen King, but the games industry is hardly saturated with titles using this genre and we must admire Remedy for giving something like this a go. It’s a fairly unique experience, even if it isn’t a perfect one, and nobody would deny that it doesn’t create a chilling and exciting atmosphere that both looks superb and plays well. But unfortunately unlike the narrative, the gameplay just doesn’t mirror the crescendo of good books, which avoids repetitiveness. Fans of horror games or even those just searching for a good story will be absolutely satisfied, but perhaps not blown away and as such, Alan Wake is good Xbox 360 exclusive that makes great use of its graphics and well fleshed out plotline and back-story, but falls short due to an absence of obvious features and an unfortunate inertia surrounding its basic gameplay.

June 13th, 2010
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Reviews

Red Dead: Redemption

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Developer: Rockstar San Diego

Publisher: Rockstar Games

Release Date: May 21st

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Gun slinging and gold mining in the old west seems, on paper, like the perfect, and indeed, most obvious context for a staple video game setting or even an entire genre, yet despite a few admirable attempts in the past, developers have all but failed in creating an animate, engaging world, reminiscent of the classic western flicks which captured the imagination of Hollywood, and continues to do so for the younger generation. So enter Rockstar, who are synonymous with, if not the fathers of sandbox, with Red Dead: Redemption, the sequel to Red Dead: Revolver, but only by name, for the original, purchased from Capcom, was never Rockstar’s game in truth.

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I’ll say this right off the bat: It’s a Rockstar game through and through; in its mission structure, characters, and even HUD, but thankfully, this doesn’t translate to some sort of lazily re-skinned or re-hashed GTA with horses (or should I say, Grand Theft Equine…probably not). No, quite the opposite, because aside from a few noticeable similarities due to sharing the same RAGE engine, RDR creates a much more focused experience, in which all the elements coalesce in an exceptionally satisfying fashion.

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The narrative follows John Marston, a former outlaw, coerced by the government to kill a few of his former gang members, on fear of his family’s lives. And without wishing to be cryptic, it feels as though Marston’s character is familiar yet so unfamiliar. On one hand we’ve got the hardened criminal, resolved to turn his back on his past life whether by choice or circumstance, classic Rockstar character theme, yet on the other, we’re allowed to play this man who respectfully turns down the local prostitutes and endures his often frustrating employers. In essence, our protagonist is relatable, believable and down to earth, and though I cynically predicted that, in due course I would begin to disconnect and lose interest in the character on account of a lack of quirks or flaws, he remained remarkably endearing in manner that allowed me to enjoy the surrounding world without having to justify my character within it.

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John Marston’s exploits occur at a fascinating time in America’s history, past the turn of the century, as civilization with all its advancements and attacks on civil liberty, begins to encroach on what was previously known as the ‘wild west’, with New Austin as the last faltering haven. As such, Rockstar use this evolution as a vehicle for RDR’s overarching plot, allowing them to dip their fingers into all the juicy bits of western clichés, strategically placing all the established action scenes imaginable, from train robberies to saloon shoot-outs, while maintaining a contrasting and fresh edge to proceedings; allowing us to indulge our childhood fantasies without coming across as overly banal. After all, that isn’t their style. But Rockstar have got something to say about more than just America, leading you into chaotic Mexico, where revolution is looming, and the chief contenders aren’t as clear-cut as an ideal world would permit. This type of context is home territory for Rockstar, and they do a good job at presenting us with an interesting subtext, making us go along with the courting of certain individuals and factions, as laid out by the narrative, with an uneasy compliance. So although there’s no particularly avant-garde storytelling here, in content or style, it’s an undeniably fun ride.

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As you may well have expected, New Austin and below the border is replete with many a colourful individual as per Rockstar’s usual outings, with a few of their more eccentric characters providing some welcome comic relief. Unfortunately the appearances of some of the best acquaintances, who truly had me laughing my chaps off, seem to dissipate somewhat during the middle section of the game, which is a shame, but it doesn’t represent a lower quality of script or voice acting. In actuality almost every single character, from our protagonist to your roadside hobo is brilliantly voiced. Each performance captures the nuances and tones of language of the period, and appears to be well researched, at least to my pitiful knowledge. The scripting ranges from pure genius, with the swindling and swinish travelling salesman, West-Dickens, as my personal highlight (and no doubt, others will have their favourites), to perfectly acceptable, and denotes a great accomplishment all round, which really helps to bolster a plot that I wasn’t wholly convinced by to begin with.

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RDR’s basic controls are fairly manageable and anyone who’s played GTA (so everyone and their mum) will find movement and actions natural. My only complaint lies in the weapon selection system, which can prove a little tricky at first, especially when travelling at speed on horseback, with the right analogue stick, which would otherwise direct the horse, needed to select your chosen weapon. Other than this, the more advanced features, lassoing and dead-eye (the slow-motion target placement system) are well balanced as to require enough spur of the moment skill to feel gratifying upon success, yet remain easy enough to pickup after a little practice.

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No longer will you be forced to daydream yourself into a vast wilderness with just your horse for company, as all grown men surely do (right?), because RDR bestows upon you a great landscape to explore, beautifully rendered and lovingly sculpted, without the trappings of modern day civilisation. Crucially, it doesn’t feel unnecessarily large either, meaning you won’t see the same building or ranch every corner you turn: a long-established immersion-breaker some developers can’t seem avoid.

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It’s evident Rockstar have realised that travelling needn’t be some arbitrary barrier put in place to stand in as content, and have consequently made travelling large distances simple through means of stage coach or setting up a camp and travelling to your waypoint. But neither is journeying on horseback tedious. Your given mount has a pre-determined amount of stamina depending on its type, relative loyalty to you and what sort of ground is underneath it, and so pressing A nudges it along, but consumes stamina. If you expend all of it before it recharges, he’ll teach you a ruddy good lesson and throw you off, and thus you have a simple mechanic to control the speed of your horse, for which you’ll swiftly find a comfortable rhythm, that incorporates a degree of interaction so it actually feels like a living creature, and a dynamic for racing, based on how well you can pace yourself.

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The targeting system is adequate, allowing you to lock on with each initial press of your aim button and while the cover system may have you glued to the wrong side of the wall every now and then, it performs the job tolerably bearing in mind you’re in massive world, and not in tight, finicky corridors. The real highlight, in terms of combat however, is the dead-eye system that allows you to place shots in slow-mo and then subsequently reel them off in a gruesomely satisfying manner, perfect for horseback combat and handy in sticky situations. Aside from a duelling system, which is a more than a tad confusing at first, the basic mechanics work well and serve to give the more glitzy features of the game a sturdy support.

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Read Dead openly flirts with RPG elements but has no misplaced aspirations of slipping into that genre, at least not to the excessive and ultimately pointless lengths of San Andreas. An honour and fame meter cause actions to have consequences, altering the way people and shopkeepers react towards you. This means instead of the customary disconnected GTA experience we’re used to, where you’re running pedestrians over like speed bumps one minute, then in some cutscene refusing an assassination on moral grounds, you’re identifying with your character, playing as John Marston all the time, which in turn affords the narrative greater impact.

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General mission structure for the main story doesn’t really deviate a great deal from what you’d expect, but nonetheless, the vast majority of assignments are fun and engaging, employing various set pieces help to keep things fresh. A small but nice little feature, that won’t go unnoticed, is being able to match of the speed of an NPC on horseback during missions, often on the ride out, which is ordinarily bucked up by some filler conversation; I don’t wish to labour the point, but this sort of detail really helps to immerse the player in the world, demonstrating that story and dialogue need not be bound to cutscenes. Also, at the risk of sounding pedantic, actually using a much-anticipated Gatling gun was perhaps the closest I came to be being disappointed in Red Dead, because the experience was more akin to firing some sort of rotten fruit roughly in the direction of my enemies, much more easily dispersed with my own trusty rifle. Nevertheless, the quests and the miscreants they ask you to terminate are just as good as any previous incarnation based on the same game engine.

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Giving PETA aggressive diarrhoea is the ability to hunt, glorious in its simplicity, if not satisfying for its primal appeal. There’s no discrimination either, because New Austin is positively teaming with life, from great eagles to friendly (and soon to be splattered) skunks. Save for a skinning mini-game, that some part of me inexplicably wants, hunting is a basic pleasure that provides you with materials to sell, some more rare than others, along with herb and flower picking, so you can quickly go out and buy a large gun to make up for the manliness lost in floral matters. Now shooting things, homo-sapien or not, is great, but RDR refuses to quit there and gives you the full western experience, if you will, asking you to herd cattle, and capture and break-in horses. You yourself are eased into the process well, and now I come to think it, most of the game features are introduced smoothly and without feeling contrived, which again, helps to realise the world you’re in.

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The central plot and nature trails aren’t the only way to get your kicks though, thanks to a number of ancillary missions and tasks, Rockstar have stretched your playing time generously and made damn sure the west doesn’t feel one bit static or dull. These quests and mini-games come in a number of forms, from a slew of card and chance games with which to fuel your gambling habits, to spontaneous roadside shenanigans and more unique stranger quests, all of which are optional, but feel worthwhile for the fame, honour and of course, hard cash.

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Sometimes it’s easy to take for granted how well balanced and skilfully crafted the game world is. Speeds of travel have to be taken into account, animal population, dynamic missions, NPC road-farers; the list goes on, building layers of increasing complexity, which makes even getting it to function, tricky, let alone enjoyable to play in for long periods. However, despite huge efforts on the developers’ part, it has to be said that this seemingly polished world is crawling with bugs and glitches, a very few of which are most aggravating, necessitating restarts, but most of which are inconsequential, and occasionally chap-slappingly hilarious. Fortunately, it’s an issue most, if not all, will be willing to overlook.

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Gameplay always comes first, and indeed it has done, but by Jove does this game look pretty considering its scope. New Austin and its Mexican neighbourland are shaped beautifully with glorious textures and host numerous different species of plants. And let alone the land, our equine friends are magnificently rendered, and animated equally so. Character models also share this level brilliance in movement and design, floundering only on facial expression, in spite of top-notch lip-syncing, and the acting that goes with it.

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To soundtrack your own wild west wonderings, Bill Elm and Woody Jackson, amongst others, have written a fantastic score, full to the brim with all the eerie chords and bendy notes you could ask for. And although it would have been truly awesome to nab some of the famous film pieces or even imitate them, Read Dead Redemption’s musical accompaniment is a brilliant and fitting achievement that easily measures up to and surpasses GTA’s innovative radio stations.

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It’s an odd feeling when my very brief list of complaints counts ‘so good that you can only help but want even more from it’. But this is the case in a strange way, because each element is handled so well, so that you begin to crave more depth in every system and mechanic once you become more involved in the game, not because it’s lacking, but because it’s difficult to think of anything existing, that needs to be fixed or changed. I found myself beginning all too many sentences with “they should do this or that” knowing, in reality, that what’s there already, has clearly taken a gargantuan effort and budget. So I reel myself back into the realist state of mind I like to inhabit, but I do think they could have just developed the way in which mounts work a little further, because a greater variance in speed, stamina and constitution, and the trade-offs they would demand, would undoubtedly improve upon the already great system in place.

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As if this wealth of content wouldn’t suffice, the game gets the multiplayer it deserves, allowing you to compete with or against your friends online, or just fuck around, incentivized by achievements and rewards in the form of mounts, weapons and characters. I’d go so far as to say the online dimension warrants a good many evenings in itself, as such shoot outs rarely get old, and if they do, waltzing round, harassing anyone who wont join your posse is clean good fun and a great substitute.

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Whatever criticisms you can conjure up about this game, we do have to remember that the market is hardly saturated with wild west cowboy games, and ergo we should consider ourselves lucky they’ve got it so right. It sounds, feels, looks and plays like the great western flicks we know; it’s all there, without feeling like a sterile checklist of old clichés. Red Dead Redemption lays down a stark portrayal of the west in its times, from beginning to end, with cynicism that has painted an unrelenting tale you’ll find difficult to mentally detach from, ensuring this is no spaghetti western. It also boasts an impressive aesthetic, which goes hand in hand with the predominantly realistic gameplay.

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Rockstar are no strangers to ambition, and this time round it’s safe to say they’ve hit bull’s-eye thanks to a cavalcade of gratifying gameplay experiences backed by a great, and brilliantly bountiful narrative. Put simply, if you don’t go out and get this game, you’re doing it wrong.

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June 2nd, 2010
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Reviews

Just Cause 2

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Developer: Avalanche Studios / Eidos Interactive

Publisher: Square Enix

Release Date: March 26th

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During my life I’ve pondered many a thought-provoking query, but one thing has nagged at me all this time: what’s it like to tether a south-east Asian peasant to the back of a speed boat then crash said boat into port populated with numerous other peasants only to swoop gracefully away muttering and chuckling at my own evil genius? Well I can thank my lucky stars, because Just Cause 2 lets me do that, and indeed, all manner of maniacal experimentation. The sequel to 2006’s ambitious, but technically flawed Just Cause released last month and can be described as a sandbox game in the same way that you can describe the current situation in Greece as a tad unsettled.

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If you take a glance down below, I posted an image I gleaned off of some forum which demonstrates the ludicrously large game world Just Cause 2 has to offer, and yet surprisingly the map, perhaps the most ambitious aspect of the game, doesn’t factor in on the list of Just Cause 2’s flaws. Among it’s diverse climates, the fictional nation of Panau boasts some of the most impressive mountain ranges and cliff-faces I’ve seem in a game and manages to present a remarkably detailed playground despite the graphical limitations posed when creating a world on such a scale. Of course, it’s all well and good to set out a massive environment for the player but how’s it filled? Quite generously is the answer as there are plenty of villages, cities, airfields and military bases; in fact Panau must have the highest military employed population per capita on earth, because there appeared to be more army strongholds than civilian settlements, including mountain-side fortresses worthy of your most extravagant bond villain.

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The player takes on the role of Rico Rodriguez, an American agency badass, whom the developers openly describe as a mix of all you’re favourite action heroes, from 007 to Han Solo, with a touch of Enrique Iglesias. I had to double-take while reading that sentence too, since I missed the moment where the Hispanic pop singer became worthy of such a level of suavity, but each to their own I guess.  But I digress; Rico our protagonist has a penchant for approaching any situation he’s presented with by some sort of elaborate acrobatic stunt aided by his remarkable grappling hook and infinite parachutes. You can tell from the outset that this game doesn’t take itself too seriously, and there’s nothing wrong with that, and in actuality, that’s precisely where Just Cause 2 prevails.

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After mere minutes you’ll be fully familiar with JC2’s control layout and slinging about like an over-enthusiastic Latino Spiderman, as all the actions are mapped to the logical and conventional locations for action/adventure sandbox games, at least this was the case on the Xbox 360. Where this eccentric game excels is allowing you to perform the actions and stunts that games like GTA just weren’t made for, even at their most surreal; for example surfing on the roof any vehicle you like (or dangling underneath in the case of helicopters) and being able to hijack it whenever you wish or grappling onto moving choppers in order to manoeuvre yourself onto the front and fill its scummy fascist occupants with lead. What’s even more admirable is that these mechanics work smoothly and therefore result in devilishly satisfying action experiences. To go along with this fast and often very jumpy gameplay, the aiming system is given a very necessary but enjoyable handicap, which means firing in the general direction of an enemy eventually does the job.

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So that’s the basics and really, it doesn’t divert too much from there, aside from some mini challenges that require you to press buttons in a certain order to disarm bombs or open doors. The actual content of the game essentially rewards you for fucking around, to be blunt. In between story missions your job is to create chaos by blowing various things up, collect upgrades for your health, vehicles and weapons, race and do the odd short-but-sweet factional mission, which unsurprisingly, also frequently involves blowing things up. The factional missions are as good as the scripted missions get and are, for the most part, a lot more fun the agency (story) missions. These little outings are brief, but often use the dramatic landscape to great effect, prompting you to hurl yourself off bridges or take up sneaky sniper spots and on the occasions they ask you to protect an NPC, which are ordinarily the bane of sandbox games or any genre, the guards mainly direct their gunfire towards you, which helps a great deal when your AI friend gets stuck on a foot-tall tree stump.

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I can’t exactly work out whether the title of the game is meant to be ironic because let alone the explosive ending of the game, all Rico seems to do is destroy Panau’s utilities infrastructure which is surely vital to the country’s inhabitants, but who am I to argue? Anyway, Rico is sent in to single-handedly expel Panau’s oppressive dictator, “Baby” Panay and investigate the whereabouts of American agent Tom Sheldon who is presumed to have gone rogue; that’s about as complex as JC 2’s narrative gets. The developers go to comical lengths to make sure you understand that Panay is really very evil, we’re talking Hitler tier: one of the in-game news reports informed me that he’d executed Panau’s sports teams for loosing, which presumably reassures you that for all the civilians you tether to oncoming traffic, it’s ok because the state is much more unnecessarily immoral.

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The main story or Agency missions, which can be taken on at your own discretion, provided you’ve caused a certain amount of chaos beforehand, involve genuinely spectacular, elaborate set pieces and one or two interesting locations which are otherwise inaccessible, that admittedly come as welcome change after hours of doing missions outdoors, destroying the quite similar military compounds. But my primary issue with the story missions lie in the boss fights that pop up at their culmination: unimaginative is the word the springs to mind because constantly rolling around in a circle to avoid their overpowered attacks, only stopping every now and then to squeeze a few shots in, doesn’t seem engaging, and you’re not even allowed to use the staples of the game such as your grappling hook. Most of all these boss fights seem very arbitrary, as though the game feels it shouldn’t let you have too much fun all the time, which is a trap games often fall into, but I expected more from one that essentially puts all its eggs in the “superficial entertainment” basket.

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Perhaps unavoidably for such a large game, Just Cause 2 has its fair share of bugs from floating rocks to missions not starting, certainly more than your average triple A title, which is a shame because you’d think a game that had already been pushed back two years would come off a tad more polished. Having said this, these bugs are unlikely to completely ruin your experience, but the voice work does a good job trying to diminish it. Some of the military’s radio alerts sound more like a cringy dub step remix on account of the frequent skipping, the lip-syncing resembles badly dubbed porn and I’m no expert on south-east Asia, but some of the main characters’ accents are too fantastically irritating to be realistic.

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But all these issues pale into insignificance when it comes to the one aspect you’d think would be fine tuned to the Nth degree, considering the development period, and that’s driving. Just Cause 2’s cars handle like planes, and the planes handle like aircraft carriers on speed, and this is a game where travelling counts for a sizable chunk of playtime. The black market system, which incidentally forces you to watch a cut scene for every single item you wish to buy, allows you to upgrade vehicles, but it only affects those that you’ve bought from the black market, despite the weapon system working to the contrary.

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I can see the attraction of the black-market system, being able to drop a monster truck at the top of the tallest mountain, get in and promptly hurl yourself off in suicidal glory, but the problem is there are no safe houses so every vehicle you buy is essentially a very expensive rental. This I find frustrating because I was keen to get the most out of the dollars I’d earned from the drug distributing, peasant exploiting crime factions Just Cause 2 ushers you into bed with.

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With great swathes of land and impressive vistas one surely imagines the proverbial icing on the cake is appropriate music, yet this seems to have been overlooked because the soundtrack is resigned to a few very short sound clips that don’t appear to be linked to specific environments in any meaningful way. I’ve always maintained that much like in film, one of the greatest mistakes is to underestimate the power of music, the atmosphere it generates and the impressions it creates, whether subconsciously or not. It comes as a real shame, because although character models, cars and buildings are nothing more than average, the terrain is brilliantly detailed, especially cliff sides, even from great distances. Remember how in Grand Theft Auto 4, if you were more than 200ft up roads full of cars would, very conspicuously turn into roads full of red blobs, well forget that because Rico can spy out an unsuspecting lorry driver to harass from 100s of meter away. Avalanche have really capitalised on the scale of their world and have even made a concerted effort to create a fair amount of interesting little locations, out the way, for you to discover.

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Just Cause 2 excels as a largely superficial experience, but that doesn’t whatsoever, make it a worthless one. You know when a friend, who enjoys a muck around on a video game every now then but doesn’t pursue the hobby further, walks in on you playing Mass Effect 2 for example, but you’re buying upgrades, an unexciting, yet important part of the game and they start quizzing you about when you get to blow things up, and usually write it off before they’ve taken second glance? That’ll never happen with our rumbustious Rico and Just Cause 2, because blowing things up and hijacking planes pretty much sums it up. My initial thoughts upon the first few hours of play went something along the lines of: Any game that allows me to fight ninjas and surf a 747 into a row of highly explosive fuel tanks gets my vote, but upon further inspection, it became glaringly obvious it does have its flaws.

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So don’t expect a deep or immersive experience, because the clichéd script, buggy voice recordings and fairly repetitive (yet addictive) gameplay deny the game of those merits, but it’s quite clear to see that the developers know this is case, and have purposefully focused more closely on the action. Thus the narrative, which is average at best, isn’t laboured, and allows you to relegate it to the backseat, as almost all cut scenes are skippable and non-essential to mission completion. It simply acts as vehicle of the over the top action and doesn’t try to rope you in with unnecessary clichés like a relative dying, which is admirable. Granted, it would have been nice to have the whole package, but if it can’t deliver on that, at least it accepts the fact.

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I’ve dwelt a great deal on Just Cause 2’s flaws because there’s very little to say about it’s merits – not because they are outweighed, but because in reality the action is simply good old fashioned, very well constructed fun, and you’ll undoubtedly sink, or should I say, invest many hours into it, as I have. It isn’t charming or clever, but crucially, it isn’t undermined by its faults. The result of Avalanche Studios and Eidos Interactive’s efforts, despite an average story, dodgy car handling and a few technical issues, is gleefully gratifying through its vast landscapes and hyperbolic action and is arguably one of the best sandbox games since GTA 4.

May 13th, 2010
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Reviews

RPG Ponderings

Earlier I was thinking about the games we’ve got lined up this year, and I got thinking some more…and then I figured I’d write down these useless thoughts:

The all-knowing Wikipedia defines RPG video games upon the originals like Dungeons and Dragons, noting that it’s mechanics and style has often been simply re-skinned, with a few minor differences, forming the basis of the traditional Role-Playing Game. I’m sure many have pondered the classics over and over: Neverwinter Nights, Baldur’s Gate to Zelda: Ocarina of Time, so on and so forth, but I’m no expert, especially on the more retro and Japanese titles, so I’ll stick to discussing the future and present of this genre, remarkable though those classics may be. So what sets RPGs apart, for me personally, in light of games like Mass Effect, which almost defies the genre, is their ability to let the player control more than one simple aspect or role. In Call of Duty you run around, shooting and blowing stuff up – nothing wrong with that I might add, but Fallout 3 for example, lets me create weapons, pickup random objects, or trade, as well as unleashing my real life-induced anger.

The genre itself is inexorably drenched in ambiguity, and this, I feel, is a fantastic thing, to be cherished, for the loosely defined guidelines allow and encourage innovation where other games might be afraid to stray off the path of what’s known to work. Of course, there’s a tried and tested stereotype RPG that many love, just look at the hordes (literally) of gamers indulging in World of Warcraft night after night, but RPG’s lend themselves to originality if the developer chooses to follow that path because, as I discussed before, they allow you to explore any aspect of the role you’re taking on, and they are often closer to problems and choices we face in real life than other genres; For instance, I know for a fact that choosing whether I help someone with a problem, or take advantage of them is a decision I more often come across than deciding whether an M16 might be more accurate with a laser sight on it or not.

Another feature many would argue is paramount in RPGs is choice and decision. The ability to choose one’s own path is held dear by many, and while it needn’t be forced arbitrarily into every game, it’s something that gives certain games that real personalisation of an experience. One matter in particular seems to perplex and annoy certain reviewers over and over, and this is the mother Theresa/Hitler problem, meaning when the game only allows you to follow one of two very clichéd and predictable paths of extremity – it’s either unquestioningly helping, without thought of self preservation or slaughtering all involved then defecating on their corpses…well not quite that but the issue still remains. Shades of grey is where it’s at…No, not the 1986 EP from Christian rock ban The Choir; I’m talking about exploring the options in between the two extremes. It is perhaps more time consuming to create a story with such subtleties, but infinitely more rewarding. Dragon Age: Origins had a good crack at this, and the original Mass Effect, with it’s new approach to the morality system (Paragon and Renegade), not only made things a little more interesting, but redefined they way your character would be judged. Indeed, all the time the leading RPG developers: Bioware, Obsidian, Bethesda etc, fortunately for us, are looking at new ways to improve this mechanic. Obsidian’s upcoming Fallout: New Vegas has both a Karma system to reflect your character’s morality and a reputation system, in order to distinguish how people perceive you and how much of bastard you really are – other genres just don’t get this kind of attention to innovating such specific game mechanics.

Then there’s the setting – Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, commented recently in a review of Dragon Age: Origins that it’s amazing how our society is so bent on escapism that the words “standard fantasy setting” can be taken seriously. The generic world with elves and dwarves that Tolkein essentially created is tried and tested but it’s nice to see new RPGs deviate a bit – obviously there’s your space setting (KOTOR/Mass Effect) but a previously untapped era is that of the Victorians/Industrial Revolution. Lionhead Studios’ Fable 3 is taking this route, and I commend them, though certain usual RPG elements have been stripped from this sequel – It’ll probably fall a great deal short of what any of us would hope for; Nevertheless this period was pivotal in the real world’s history, and the dark, dirty streets haven’t ceased to fascinate modern fiction fans yet. Alpha Protocol is doing it’s bit to spice up the RPG landscape as well, and I think, if implemented correctly, with enough significant choices, and obviously, solid gameplay (Mass Effect’s improvements in the sequel showed us that shooter RPGs need serious groundwork on gameplay as well as the rest of the frills) it could give us something fresh and fancy to chew on.

Now I know I’ve rambled on a lot about Bioware games already, but they really do stand out, particularly as they’re one of the only developers who attempt to add a true love mechanic with at least a little choice. Undoubtedly this goes hand in hand with they’re ability to convey cinematic and narrative brilliance, but it doesn’t mean other designers couldn’t learn a thing or two. As they say, “love changes everything” and if you do, at least on some level, feel involved (and you’re more likely to with choice), it reinforces and enhances the story and the gravity of decisions; and if you don’t buy that, it’s always nice to have the fairer species to brighten up the place, as it were.

The difficulty with the genre lies in what it’s trying to achieve; it is by nature ambitious – to create something of a real life for the chosen character and setting without it becoming mundane, yet making customisable and diverse enough for it to be fleshed out sufficiently. In this sense the developers of these games bear the heaviest weight on their shoulders, and some of what we’d love to see (bigger worlds, more characters, more customisation and objects) is simply constrained by time, which in turn is controlled by money – the very reason they exist. I’d gladly welcome any technological advancement that can improve this situation, but bigger isn’t always better, as for example, Mass Effect 2 showed us. Some complain that they can’t do anything they want when they become Shepard, that they have to save the universe, and are forbade becoming a Janitor or whatever. I can understand where they’re coming from, but Shepard’s mission is predefined in some senses and it’s the way it plays out where the choice comes, and they relationships with different characters. Only by partly pre-defining the story and character can Bioware possibly offer the same fantastic, narrative-rich, experience.

So if RPGs, and other games too, can be related to sophisticated narrative adventure, like all literature, why does the debate about games as art still rage on? Interactivity I suppose is the key; whether or not the viewer/admirer should have input. There are countless examples of installation and modern art that have allowed, encouraged and required audience participation, and we could get all deep about it, but honestly, I don’t understand how anyone could argue that certain games aren’t art or artistic. The very art that makes up character models and world design constitutes art, let alone story, lighting and intriguing themes – it’s the player’s individual experience of the game combined that makes it art, for art, as I think many would argue can be a very personal thing – it’s how your brain reacts to visual imagery, feelings and sound – simple as that.

Role-playing games let you see how you might handle a certain role, whether that be a specific king or hero or a loosely defined wanderer in any world you can imagine. It is truly ingenious that we are able to carve out our own paths, and if nothing else, to boast to others how got rid of Zaeed in the suicide mission on purpose. It’s the personalisation, and how it affects the outcome, and this is why developers often get lost in the possibilities and neglect the gameplay. At least, this year, the worst we can expect are new settings, stories and characters and the best we can hope for is innovation and originality, that will, with any luck, push the industry, so rabid and grasping for the money in our pockets, forward, allowing it to hold itself up. Thanks for reading my thoughts on some admittedly, quite basic stuff, that I find very interesting to ponder upon – weekly news round up sunday!

March 4th, 2010
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