Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Xbox 360 - L.A. Noire

L.A. Noire by Rockstar

I usually like Rockstar games that are even somewhat based on the Grand Theft Auto engine. However, in L.A. Noire's case, I need to make an exception.


You're a soldier turned beat cop in Los Angeles (Cole Phelps) who must solve crimes to move up through the police force ranks (i.e. Beat Cop then Rookie Detective to Detective.. etc). So, as you solve more crimes, you progress through through the ranks of the police force.

At first, you think the story is leading somewhere because you are progressing through the ranks of detective. Yet, your player character (beat cop turned detective) makes an unexpected choice about 3/4 of the way through the game which you have no control over. At first, I thought the choice was something you could control. But, you can't. Worse, it's a questionable moral (and career breaking) choice that just makes no sense. I'm guessing they included this part to put you onto the Arson desk (which is apparently a demotion).

At first, I thought the the choice was part of a bigger cover to entrap the dirty cops in the department into revealing their identities. No, it isn't. Then, at the very end, your player character inexplicably dies.

Before Cole Phelps dies, though, your player character basically enrolls a former army buddy turned life insurance investigator unknowingly into playing detective (though he's not a cop). This puts his life in danger while you now play the game as this character. Which is odd that Rockstar decided to switch your player character here. Anyway, after that, thew new character loses his job from the life insurance company and is courted by the DA to become investigator to uncover all the dirty cops. So, all the way through the game, you're playing as Cole Phelps, but now you are inexplicably playing as a new character.

Also, all throughout the game between each level, you see flashbacks of military actions that have nothing to do with the actual gameplay. It was inevitable that they would roll it together at the end, and they somewhat did in the final scenes of the game. But, there were so many dirty cops left that the ending felt hollow and unsatisfying, especially considering the outcome of Cole Phelps.

Basically, the story is convoluted and disjointed. The ending wraps up one thing, but not the entire game. It also doesn't exonerate Cole Phelps in any way.


Witness Interviews and Interrogations

Here's where the game has failed on two fronts. First, the interview process. As you work through clues while interviewing your witnesses, you have three selections to choose during the interview: Accept the statement as Truth (A), Doubt what they are saying (B) and Tell them they are lying (C). If you decide they are lying, then you have to substantiate it with a piece of evidence. Once you make a choice, you don't know if you have chosen correctly until you finish the interview.

And here's where the first failure lies. If you choose a wrong answer type to the witness statements and you want to try to get all of the answers perfect, you have to completely restart the entire assignment from scratch if you choose 'restart'. That could mean playing another 20 minutes gathering clues, visiting other places, etc to get to the point where the witness line of questioning is. The checkpoints are too far between when you start a level and line of questions. This is, at best, frustrating. I should be able to start over just the line of questioning, not the whole level.

I have found that instead of using 'Restart' on the menu, that you should quit the game right where you are. Don't use restart, just quit to the main menu. When you restart, it will start from the most recent game save and you don't have to restart the entire level. Instead, Rockstar should have made it so that if you choose 'restart' that it goes back to the last save rather than the beginning of the entire assignment.


The second failure is driving around the city. Clearly in Grand Theft Auto, driving around is a big part playing the game. In L.A. Noire, there is absolutely no point to driving at all, unless you count the pointless street crimes which are mostly worthless. Worse, in most cases, when you hit vehicles, things or people, the game basically penalizes you for doing so. So, there's really no fun in driving inside this game. That said, they do offer to let your companion drive which skips the tedious driving scenes. The only real need to drive is for the side missions (when a call comes in over the radio). Otherwise, it's rather pointless to drive.

After the game ends, you can free roam on each level to gather what amounts of small things there are left to get. Frankly, there's really no fun in it. It's much more fun to take diversions during the stories to get things. Doing it all after the game is over is really no fun. Once I've played the story element all the way through, I don't really feel that I want to explore the rest of the game.

Investigating crime scenes

At crime scenes, you are tasked to locate clues. Unfortunately, the game directs you to the clues using queued music and controller shaking. So, when you're on top of a clue it shakes the controller and plays a piano ditty. On top of this, there's an overall music score that plays as long as clues are available. Unfortunately, this part is so directed that you basically can't miss any clues... especially if you use intuition points. Also, the only thing that clues help you is to nail lies during the evidence phase of catching people in a lie.

Locating suspects

Yet another gameplay problem ends up as chasing suspects (either in a car or on foot). Inevitably, one of the two outcomes after finding a suspect is that they run either by car or on foot. So, you're tasked to chase them down. The main problem I have with this part of LA Noire is that it seems to do it with EVERY suspect. Not only is it just unrealistic, it's just stupid to think that every suspect would run. Worse, it seems that the suspects can run far faster than Phelps in every instance (including the fat ones). Catching running suspects is just an exercise in futility. I'd rather just shoot them and be done with it. Worse, though, it only takes two shots (or in some cases one shot) to kill the suspect. So, you can't do that.

If you're doing a car chase, again, their car is far faster than yours. So, you're always just one step behind. Trying to push the car off the road is near impossible. Trying to ram the car doesn't work and while you're driving you can't shoot. So, you just have to chase them until they run themselves off the road (which they will eventually do).

The chases are incredibly stupid, not fun and border on the edge of tedium.. especially after having done it more than twice. If there were an easy way to push the suspect off the road fast, I'd be all over this part. But, there isn't. Instead, the game would have been far more fun to just skip past the chase scenes from the outset and get right to the capture of the suspect which is going to happy anyway.


The one thing that is the most stunning of this game is the facial animations. Rockstar has raised the bar with facial graphics animation. So, instead of trying to animate a mesh by stilted mechanics, they capture facial motions using cameras and apply it right to the mesh. I think I understand what they used to accomplish how it looks, and it is mostly amazing. The trouble isn't the facial features, it's the stilted body movements that make the character animation weak. Part of the reason is that they captured the facial animations separately from the body motions. So, when putting these separate elements together, the walking and talking animations still seem stilted and unnatural.


Nothing spectacular here as for music or voiceover work. It's definitely serviceable. The soundtracks are mostly from the 40s, though. As far as other incidental music, there's not much. Worse, you can't even change the radio station when driving around in the vehicles. Note that what makes the voiceovers work is not the voiceover itself, it's the facial animation.


I was hoping for more from this game, but the two failures mentioned above dampened me about this game. Even though they do allow you to skip the driving (most times) by having the partner drive, it's still doesn't really resolve the driving issues. When you do have to drive, it's just wasted.

The cases are ok, but mostly boring. Examining the scenes for clues is almost exactly the same in each case. There's nothing surprising. It would have been more fun to find clues randomly at later parts of the game. Someone throws a gun into a bay and in a later crime you happen to find the gun from a previous case, as an example. The cases are far too cut and dried.

The game is somewhat fun to play. But, playing as a cop has major hurdles that Rockstar wasn't able to overcome. That is, being able to run over pedestrians and things. The cases are far too directed with no free roaming aspects until AFTER the game has completed.

  • Sound: 6/10
  • Graphics: 9.5/10
  • Gameplay: 6/10
  • Story: 6/10
  • Bugginess: N/A
  • Controls: 8.5/10
  • Bang-to-buck: 4/10
  • Play Value: $12 (not as fun as GTA)
  • Overall: 6/10 (some good parts, not nearly as fun as GTA, too directed, too many chases)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Xbox 360 - Portal 2

Portal 2 by Valve

Portal 2 is the follow up to Portal. Portal is available through the Orange Box game set or via download on Xbox Live. Obviously, it's also available on other platforms (both Portal 1 and Portal 2).


Mini-review. Portal starts as a unique and fresh take on a shooter. Instead of being a straight first person shooter, it turns the gun into a portal creation device. So, you run around in 'test' chambers creating portals and then running through them to get to other places in the room without walking. So, you can create an orange and blue portal. This creates two doors linked together.

Portals are like mini-rifts in the time fabric that let you walk through the portal and enter one place and exit wherever the other doorway is. Portals can be created on floors, ceilings, walls or wherever a portal surface is. Portals can only be created on special surfaces. Some surfaces cannot create portals (like metal).

In the first Portal, you were a test subject thrown into a series of test rooms to test out the portals and whether you could solve the puzzles using the portal guns. In among all of the tests there are motion sensing shooting robots, a quirky and somewhat insane robotic female computer along with other traps that could kill or maim you. At the end of Portal, your character ends up shutting down the main insane female computer to prevent it from becoming more insane (and, of course, to escape).

To solve many of the puzzles, you are tasked with dropping down long drops into created portals to fling yourself across the room using momentum.

Score for Portal: 8.5/10.

Portal 2 -- story

Portal started this whole new genre of puzzle shooters. This is a unique game with an odd twist on a shooter. It's fresh and unique and sits in its own unique place in the gaming world. Hello other developers, you might want to take notice.

Portal 2 continues with where Portal ended. It's not exactly clear how you get there, but you are now many years in the future. So, you start off with a somewhat odd flying eye bot with a male British or Aussie accent. This bot leads you back into the test chambers again where, eventually, you awaken the insane female robot computer from the first Portal. Now that she's awake, she begins testing you again with various rooms and new trials. Except, now this eye bot is helping you along and the female computer is now seeking revenge (even though she says she isn't). So, you meet up with the insane female robot computer again and things take a turn when you disconnect her and connect up the eye bot to the mainframe. So, now the eye bot is in charge and the insane female robot computer gets shoved into a potato.

As you carry the potato around, she talks to you trying to devise a way to get herself back into the mainframe and get the eye bot out. Worse, the eye bot doesn't seem to understand the system at all and is now leading the entire test facility towards destruction.

So, you are now tasked to work your way back up from the very earliest levels of the facility to the most recent and to the chamber with the eye bot. And, there are some new things you need to do along the way.

Liquid blobs and flinging

As you progress, you will run into holes dropping various colored paint blobs. These liquids do various things. The orange liquid is very slick and makes you slide. The blue liquid makes you bounce. The white liquid lets you 'paint' surfaces to create portals. The clear liquid washes any of it off. The liquids can also be dropped onto things to disturb them (like robots).

Now instead of just trying to figure out how to get out of the room with portals and momentum, you have to use the liquids creatively to coat surfaces. This allows you to create speed and momentum to jump through portals to fling yourself across the room onto a ledge or some other surface. You are tasked with figuring out which surfaces to coat.


The story is mostly reasonable. It takes place many years after the first incident. But, the robot says she doesn't hold a grudge, although it's quite clear she does. Note that the insane female robot computer has some of the best lines in this game (including Portal) and they all happen during the first few test chambers. After she becomes a potato, the one-line zingers basically stop.


This game relies almost entirely on humor to carry it. While the puzzles can be challenging, it's really the female robotic computer voice that makes this game. Unfortunately, the eye bot is not so much that way. His British or Australian accent is annoying and his lines aren't funny at all. It's a good thing that he disappears for a good bit of this game, otherwise this game wouldn't be nearly as much fun to play.


This is a good follow-up to Portal. The game is nearly as fun as the first. Portal 2 is a unique game much in the same way as Portal. The only one downside is that I was expecting the campaign to be a lot longer. Instead, the game requires co-op play to get more fun out of it. When you play co-op, though, you play as two robots rather than as the female in the first Portal.

I would also have preferred a completely different character and a different approach to the Portal gun. I was hoping to see more than the test facility, but that's where we're still stuck.

  • Sound: 9/10
  • Graphics: 8/10
  • Gameplay: 7/10
  • Story: 9/10
  • Bugginess: N/A
  • Controls: 9/10
  • Bang-to-buck: 5/10
  • Play Value: $30 (if you like puzzle games, worth buying)
  • Overall: 8.5/10 (a good follow up to Portal)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Xbox 360 - Brink

Brink by id / Bethesda Softworks

I used to like most Bethesda titles, that is until Bethesda bought id. Now, I'm not so thrilled by the Bethesda's new id games. Unfortunately, this game is not what it could have been. It's really mostly a waste and definitely not worth the $60 that it costs.

Because this game is not very compelling and definitely not something you'd want to play over and over for a long gaming experience, I'll make this review short and to the point.

id games

Way back when, Doom was all the rage. It had some cool new things that hadn't been done in gaming before. Now, it's all been-there-done-that. With Brink, unfortunately , it's all too familiar.

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars Clone

Unfortunately, Brink is just a clone of Quake Wars. Quake Wars is a team based objective play first person shooter. Brink is just a rehash of that. If you enjoyed Enemy Territory, you might enjoy Brink assuming you like to play games you've already played before. Otherwise, it's a been-there-done-that moment. Frankly, the campaign part is not very exciting. If you enjoy games where you're constantly being shot and killed by random enemies from all over the place while trying to accomplish a task, then this is the game for you.

On the other hand, if you're looking for something deeper and fresh with a real story involved, this isn't it. It's far too much like other team oriented objective play games.


In Brink, it's actually quite hard to distinguish the enemies from the friendlies. So, you're constantly shooting at the wrong people. Worse, you can't even tell that you're doing it. So, it's really badly designed from this perspective.

And it gets worse. There's an annoying Jamaican announcer who's constantly blurting useless information out throughout the entire level. That useless information being constant updates on things that don't even matter to what you're currently trying to do. It's like, "shut-the-f-up. I'm trying to play here."


Well, once again a game developer decides to break the rules with the controller. See 'Messing with a good thing'. Anyway, they mapped reloading the weapon to the left stick button press. Looking at any other first person shooter, who does this? Get with the program id.


What armor? The only thing you get is basically nothing. Two shots and you're incapacitated and you have to spawn again. Worse, all of the XP you gain only gets you cosmetic appearance armor. It doesn't give you any real armor to help increase how many shots you can take. No, you have to get other 'points' to buy armor. Worthless system.


A disappointing romp not worthy of the $60. Perhaps if you enjoy lots of multiplayer action and being constantly shot at while trying to obtain your objectives, you might like this. Instead, for team based play, I'd prefer something like Star Wars: Republic Commando where you actually direct your team members to actual strategic locations and use their skills to handle specific tasks along the way. That's what I want to play.

What I don't want to play are clones of previous games that weren't really very good the first time around. Oh well, maybe id will get their next game right. Maybe not. Although, I won't be buying into many of these id titles unless they are a lot stronger than Brink.

Do yourself a favor, rent Brink first. If, after you've rented it, you actually like the title, then you might consider buying it. But, you can probably get through the game long before the rental period is over. However, if you've already played Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, then you've already played Brink. So, do yourself (and your wallet) a favor and skip this wannabe clone.

  • Sound: 8/10
  • Graphics: 7/10
  • Gameplay: 4/10 (average shooter)
  • Story: 4/10
  • Bugginess: N/A
  • Controls: 6/10
  • Bang-to-buck: 1/10
  • Play Value: $5 (rent first, then buy)
  • Overall: 4.5/10 (poor gameplay, average graphics, poor characters)