Saturday, 6 April 2013

Assassain's Creed 3 - Less knives then forks

While Playing AC3 I got the distinct impression that the developers are fed up with it. It seems they would have preferred to do ANYTHING, rather then another game in this series. I say this because preforming actual assassinations was a rare game-play element next to hundreds of activities that ranged from manufacturing goods to ship combat. I spent more time selling beaver teeth knives then murdering people for vague political goals. But while the gameplay suffered from this "everything but the kitchen sink" approach, it was the treatment of the story that really depresses me.

Sins of the Father
AC3 has all the right cards, thematically speaking. The earth is on the verge of a cyclical catastrophe and Desmond must venture (again) into the past of his ancestors, seeking the final key to the salvation of mankind. Desmond must work with his domineering father, solving the riddles of a precursor civilization, while playing the role of a native American called Connor, caught in the colonial revolutionary war. Connor himself must also face his father who now leads the Templar faction while working under a mentor father figure.
It's a three layer theme cake: Desmond vs father, humans vs first civilization, colonist vs British and Connor vs father. It's all there. And AC3 doesn't do ANYTHING with it.
Instead we are treated to the usual underdeveloped personal conflict motivations I have come to expect from the series. Conor is after "revenge!", what else. And his involvement in the revolutionary war seems flimsy even at the best of times. The game establishes that he hides his Indian identity to circumvent racism by impersonating a person of Spanish or Italian decent. Except that every character seems to see through this rouse effortlessly. Even random guardsmen shout "Halfbreed" at you. So that whole racism angle flounders as Connor isn't hindered by prejudice. A similar mess is felt when Connor swings from defending the colonists he is aiding to condemning their hypocrisy regarding slavery. One moment he risks everything to protect George Washington, only to rile against him a mission later. This bi-polar behavior really robs Connor of any sympathy I might have felt for his plight. One minute he berates his fellow conspirators with cynic eyes, only to defend their ideals with embarrassing naivete half an hour later.
Things outside the animus don't fare much better. Desmond is still a pretty bland character despite the tragic back-story injections he seem to have been receiving. He killed the person he had the most interaction with, two games ago and now that we have time to dwell on it, the plot decides it is not really all that important. No, now his real conflict is with his father, a character introduced at the last few minutes of the previous game. He ventures out on missions of his own, and faces an arch-enemy I never knew he had two times before killing him unceremoniously. His conversations with others reveals that they had more involved relationships with his father, each other and his arch-nemesis then he himself. All this time Juno, a first civilization figure appears to the cast and even starts sending them e-mails. She goads them to hurry while insulting and antagonizing Desmond and the rest. She does all this just to foreshadow the revelation that she is EVIL!
It's so frustrating, because the seeds of good storytelling are there. Unfortunately the game seems obsessed with throwing these seeds around and forgetting about them only to really focus on a character or element that had very little spotlight so far. And then act as if these minor bits were the focus all along.

The Eye of Heaven
Another clue to the reluctance of the development team towards the game is its slow start. And it is a very slow start. You spend ten minutes introduction as Desmond. then at least two hours as Connor's father, then another three hours as Connor during his childhood. All the while you are basically playing a glorified tutorial. Because you can hunt, and sail and ride and sell and buy and lay traps and take aim and play "hide and seek" and climb trees and do a hundred other things not connected in any way to assassination. You'll find the bulk of the gameplay focused on growing a small community which manufactures goods you can sell. It's another one of those activities that demands a lot of attention for very small value. Even without trying I amassed a small fortune with which I had very little to do. I could buy new weapons but quickly found one or two that served me well enough. I could manufacture goods to sell, but what was the point? I could upgrade my ship, but naval battles are optional and only reward you with more avenues to sell stuff. It's a very weak and ill designed economic model to base a whole game around. And I was frankly surprised how far I had to advance in the story for elementary equipment upgrades to unlock. Since you can only manufacture them if you have grown your community large enough. And you can grow the community only through optional missions that open based on your advances in the main story. And so I had to wait for the last act before I could carry more then eight bullets at a time or carry two guns.
These side missions themselves are arguably the highlights of the whole game, since the characters composing this community enjoy the most steady interactions with Connor. Helping a local couple with the rigors of childbirth or helping a young man woe a a young huntress, seem to bring out the best in Connor's character. He still seems a bit autistic in his interactions, but at least he doesn't comes off as bi-polar as he does while interacting with the revolutionaries.
The game really shines when it examines the hypocrisy of the revolutionaries towards slavery and the native Americans. The game touches upon this point several times and each highlights the problem well. The colonists talk frequently about "freedom" and "equality" but these moments reminds you that these lofty concepts will be denied from non-whites, even used to enslave them. It is a shame that the game does not do more to dwell on this issue, since it seems it is the one issue it knows how to tell a story about.

Thus always to Tyrants
Everything that made the previous games in the series fun, is still there somewhere. But it's buried under layers of uncomplimentary gameplay elements. The ability to traverse tree branches is well implemented but the colonial cities are just not as fun to traverse as the high towered Italian cities from previous games. NPCs become even less useful or distinctive as it seems that only guards contribute to gameplay in any meaningful way. You can still try to sneak around to achieve your objectives, but the lack of vision cone indicators and the fast escalation of alerts make such approach very challenging. The combat on the other hand works well in that you will triumph easily over small numbers of enemies but large groups will be a hassle. Either way you will find yourself relaying on parrying through most encounters.
The game is littered with collectables, that frankly offer the only reason to explore the world. But the prizes they offer aren't worth the hassle. And once they are gone, traversing the outdoors area of the game becomes a chore.
The supporting cast is weakly characterized, relaying on your familiarity with American history. While this flashes out some of the secondary characters, it does leave the few genuinely interesting original characters (Achilles for example) with little screen time.
In conclusion, AC3 is a game that seems to have lost its way somewhere. It lacks focus, trying to tackle several issues at once and falling short on all fronts. I spent more time selling knives then using them. And most of all the story just suffers from weak characters with weak motivation and a very thin plot. Blandy Blanderson (aka Desmond Miles) finally gets his moment in the sun. It is a short moment, a fact that seems awkward after the series spent more then three games teasing it. I made my feelings about Desmond as a character quite clear in the past, and although he was less bland this time around, I was glad to spend as little time with him as I could.
Ubisoft already announced a sequel. I'm hopeful that now, released from the bonds of the plot, perhaps they will be able to manufacture a more involving story. But I'm kinda doubtful.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Bioshock Infinite - Vox Dei

Bioshock awed me back in 2007 with its commentary on the role of the player in video games as well as its critique of Objectivism and unrestrained capitalism. Its main flaw was, that after that momentous encounter with Andrew Ryan, the game continued for an hour and a half.
The success of Bioshock brought us a direct sequel in the form of Bioshock 2. But while mechanically sound, it had little to add to the story or experience. It did exactly what a sequel should not do - imitate the original rather then expand on it. Now we have Bioshock Infinite, born from the team that made the original. And It soared above my every expectation. It is very much a Bioshock game, but it avoids treading old grounds completely and emerges as one of the best gaming experiences I have ever had.

I wont talk a lot about the gaming mechanics. They do their job well. Battles are hectic and the weapons at your disposal feel just about right. Ammo drains quickly so you'll often change several weapons during several of the longer fight scenes, and since you can carry only two at a time - you will have to scavenge the environment for alternatives mid battle. And there are plenty alternatives to go around, so you'll often have plenty of opportunities to experiment with different weapons and tactics.
But weapons are only one half of your arsenal. Tonics play in much the same way as Plasmids did in Bioshock. Each has a direct attack mode and a trap mode. And the system works well with traps usually affecting multiple targets while direct attacks are immediate.
The battles are usually typified by frequent mobility thanks to the sky lines. The sky lines are rails that usually encircle an arena, allowing you to move from one side of the battlefield to the other or just avoid an enemy while you gather your wits. They don't have the extensive freedom some of the previews implied, but they certainly serve well as an emergency escape route or a way to surprise the occasional entranced enemy.
Finally there's Elizabeth, your companion. She will quickly scamper in the chaos of the battle but would occasionally offer you ammo, health or salts (which powers tonics), which you can catch and use with a button press. She always offers you the item you need at that moment, but not often enough for you to relay on it.
Death is not a serious hindrance. Elizabeth will "bring you back to life" minus a few dollars. It's not a serious punishment by any means, but since every upgrade to your arsenal requires money, you'll feel compelled to avoid it if possible.

The Acts
Bioshock Infinite is the story of Elizabeth and Booker DeWitt. And it is a well crafted story. It's about redemption through actions or faith and how these characters dealt with guilt and hope.
"Bring us the girl and wipe away your debt." is the sentence that catapults both player and Booker into Columbia. But that simple objective becomes more menacing and meaningful every-time it is uttered. After a while that seemingly simple directive becomes anything but simple- and it raises the questions that are at the core of the game and its plot.
Like the original Bioshock, Infinite has a measure of its plot directed at the player himself, but it is done so deliberately subtly that it remains hidden until the end and while it permeates much of the game, it does not rob the characters themselves of meaning or substance.
The characters work perfectly.
Booker manages to strike a perfect balance between player and character. He has enough personality to be distinct, enough history that we understand his motives and actions and yet the player is never divorced from the character and is free to act in the world.
Elizabeth never fits the niche of a median in distress. She is confident and independent even as she is inexperienced and a bit naive. She depends on Booker but never hinders the player and both come to care about her through their shared experiences. She truly is a marvel in terms of game character, as she dodges every pothole that made escort characters unrealistic or just distasteful in many games. Elizabeth is fun to be with and as a player I slowly came to care about her well-being in a way few games have managed to rival.
Your opponents in Colombia are less developed as characters. But they work well to represent their respective ideologies and faiths. Each comes close to being a caricature, but we get to see them act in different situations and thus eventually see nuances and traits that arn't readily apparent. It's nothing compared to the drama of Dewitt and Elizabeth, but it colors Columbia and its people. Don't expect the through social critique Objectivism got in Rapture, but there's certainly some serious satire on the social background of the united states. Both capitalism and socialism are shown in shocking extremes. But it is the religious aspects that get the main stage. 

Religion is such a pervasive element in the game I hesitate to say it's a critique of religion (although that is a major part in the plot). Rather, religion or more specifically, Born again Christianity, is the theme of Bioshock Infinite. Baptism, confession, absolution and ascension all resurface time and again throughout the game and plot in deliberate references to events and themes. It is a masterpiece of interwoven metaphors that often become literal in the way few works of fiction can create. The element of water and submersion is insidious to behold as it hides in the background waiting for a knowing eye to view the foreshadowing of events and emotions it embodies. I have few games, or movies or books for that matter - that play such skillfully with theme and metaphor.
It is hard to tell you what is so good about Bioshock Infinite without rambling on and on or spoiling the whole thing. It is best experienced as it is, without preconceived notions. Let it in, and before you know it, it crawled under your skin and wrapped itself around your heart. Even a week after finishing it, I still find myself hearing the sounds of Columbia and reminiscing on my time there with Elizabeth. And I suspect I will find myself doing so for many years to come.

Bioshock Infinite is as close as I got to heaven (gaming-wise).

Friday, 18 January 2013

Prototype 2: Character Assassination

When it comes to gameplay, Prototype 2 is simply better then the first. It is more streamlined with a more limited arsenal and less convoluted upgrade system. Infiltrating bases is simpler and missions repeat themselves less frequently. There's also a lot less of them. There are less optional missions, but their rewards are much grater. The campaign itself is shorter then the first's. It is also a lot more cohesive. Your goals are clear and the characters around you have clear and simpler motivations, rather then the vague and blurred goals of Prototype 1. It also means that as soon as you get full accesses to your arsenal, the game rushes to an ending. Leaving you precious few opportunities to use the abilities gained in the final act of the game.
The city is smaller compared to the original as well, but it's design is a lot more defined. Although transition between infected and uninfected areas is done through waypoints and a loading screen. So the subtle change of environment that I liked in the first game is nowhere to be seen. The city also doesn't change as the story progresses. Which is a shame since it was part of what made the setting come to life in the original. To conclude: it is a less ambitious design but a much more streamlined design as well.


Character and Plot

This is where Prototype 2 fails even more then the original did.
It start out promisingly enough with a distraught Protagonist, James Heller. Having lost his Wife and Daughter to a second outbreak of the virus, he joins the military in the heavily infected Red Zone. The first few minutes are sublime. Heller, chasing Mercer through the ruined streets. Despite witnessing his squad's horrific death and Mercer's god-like power, he pursues him with murderous rage. When he finally managed to catch up with Mercer, the latter easily subdues him and then infects him with his strain of the virus. Heller is convinced by Mercer's claim: that Blackwatch is responsible for this second outbreak. He teams up with a local priest to fight the morally bankrupt materialistic organization, but quickly finds out that Mercer is the real source of the virus and again pursues him for revenge.


A World of Evil Evil Men

While Heller seems at first to be a more flashed out character as a protagonist then Mercer, this quickly revealed as false. He has absolutely no character arc or interesting characteristics. And the game seems to think that the only way to make him a hero is depict his enemies as inhuman monsters.
Heller's ability to absorb the memories of his victims is totally wasted on this endeavor. Unlike their role in the first game, these memories rarely provide background story or flash out characters. Rather they serve to show the player that he is justified in killing every single human in his path, since they are all revealed to be callous, murderous and racists bastards who are not above raping the infected and the dead.
Yes, really. All subtlety that might have been directed at the fact Heller is fighting against an organization that tries to stop the plague is rendered mute as only one of them is not painted as an inhuman monster. And still it is hard to swallow Heller as a lesser evil since he seems completely oblivious and apathetic in his actions against his enemies and seems to treat his allies with only a symbolic amount of sympathy. Even going so far as to display unprovoked hostility towards another risking herself to aid him, to the point he demands she sacrifices herself for his benefit.
In this unflattering light, even his vengeance over his family's demise seems hypocritical. Since while he is quick to sabotage and condemn Blacklight's use of civilians in their experiments, he resorts to the same tactics when it advances his goals. He releases uncontrollable monstrosities on the populace, a few scant missions after trying to stop his enemies from doing the same. And releases a potentially deadly virus on the streets as he fights Mercer and Blacklight for those same sins.
Painting Heller as a single minded vengeance seeking lunatic, serves the gameplay's freedom as it allows you to embark on joyous atrocities without much guilt. But at the same time it undermines everything that could make him a good protagonist.
At the end, Mercer reveals himself as a cliche' Final Fantasy villain. You know the type: "The world is full of suffering, people are evil. So it is best to kill everyone to eliminate suffering and death and evil". This bare-bones nihilism is really insufferable as far as credible motivations go. But this time I found my self agreeing with the villain, since everyone I met in the game was a psychotic fuck. Including the protagonist himself.
All the while it seemed that the game's only defense was saying: Yes, but at least he is not a racist or a necrophile.
Yes, Heller is not a racist and he does not desecrate the dead with sexual acts. He does however murder thousand, eats people and absorbs their memories in service of his own personal goals. Color me morally dubious, but I think even the most depraved white supremacist dead-fucker would find it hard to compete in a race to the the bottom of the morality barrel.


Squandered Potential

 At the end it is frustrating because Prototype 2 could have been so much better. Casting Mercer as a villain could have been a fascinating exploration of a man who thought his enemies turned him into a monster, only to realize that what makes him a monster was there even before he got his terrible powers. Heller could be a good protagonist, who starts with his humanity stripped away and redeems himself through a rebellion against his creator.
Instead Prototype is a game with even less personality then it's predecessor. The setting that was relatively strong in the first game is pushed aside. And the protagonist seems undeserving of the good ending he eventually gets. The antagonist seem to be the most interesting character in the whole sordid affair, but he plays a very minor role in the story.
The gameplay is wonderful, but there's less reason and room to roam and enjoy what it offers to the fullest.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Lost Art of Storytelling: A Rant

Through a glass eye darkly

Do you know what I miss these days? A good and solid story in my video games. I ranted about L.A. Noire's flaws as far as plot goes, and yet it's hard to think of a recent title that fared better. Mass Effect 3, like most of Bioware's games, builds a wonderful world but flounders at delivering a solid plot. Part of the problem is the necessity to provide multiple results for multiple actions and the obligation to keep Shepards' character malleability. Which ultimately means that the characters seem to have less to say to each other from game to game. The short conversations that made Mass Effect 1's loading elevators bearable, are all but absent from 3. And the war against the reaper culminates in a series of battles and a deus ex machina (still haven't played the extended ending.

Fallout: New Vegas had a decent plot, but it to was one that sacrificed character and focus to accommodate a "choose your own adventure" narrative. A similar problem plagues Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Adam Jensen is bland and characterless so he can accommodate the player's action. The story happens around him, not to him. It's hard to think of the last time I played a strong character. It seems that my library is filled with silent protagonists and customizable avatars.

Going Tribal In New Vegas

Lone Survivor is worth more then a mention. But for our purposes, it was one of the most satisfying game stories I played of late. It worked on emotional levels rather then boasting a strong plot. And the amount of identification I injected into the protagonist prevents me from calling him a strong character. And yet, he was sympathetic, and the few things I learned about him through his dreams and day-dreams where enough to give him depth that few other games managed to evoke in me lately.

To conjure up a strong character as a protagonist, playing a significant part in a plot with other characters around him, forces me to journey too far into the past. Psychonauts easily falls into this category, as well as Anachronox and Legacy of Kain. But these are now old games. Assassin's Creed (2 and Brotherhood) almost manage to make the cut, if not for their thin plot, minimal character relationships and the sad fact that the main character plays second fiddle to the blandest man in video games: Desmond Miles. Almost every other title in my recent memory has a silent protagonist, weak plot, no character relationships or all of the above. I really miss games that had a clear story to tell and a plot and characters to tell it with.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Registration Rage

GTA IV is one of the biggest culprits. My copy is activated through Steam and Games For Windows Live. Rockstar Social Club is thrown in for good measure.
When Steam came into my life, sometime in 2004 it was as welcome as a sequel to Daikatana. It came with Half-Life 2, and the only reason I was willing to put up with it was because it came with Half-Life 2. I would have provably have accepted a root canal if it came with Half-Life 2. But in an age where DVD where not yet common and the average PC game started using four Compact Discs and making a mess of your filing system, Steam began to be a bit more welcome. Especially because publishers thought it would be an excellent idea to force paying customers to play with a disk in their drive. Pirates and savvy gamers just used a cracked exe file, while everyone else had to juggle CD's on their fingers.
But it wasn't until the Orange Box that I actually started using Steam for more then just launching Valve games. While playing Portal and Team Fortress 2, I started noticing the sales Steam offered. And some of them were so much cheaper then buying from a store that I managed to overcome my crippling fear of changes and new things, and actually buy games digitally. Later that year I bought a new computer and was delighted to discover how easy it was to reinstall all those steam games again, even without the original disks. As my Steam library grew, I started to like Steam more and more. I met some friends through it and kept contact with old ones through it. Today, it is always open on my computer and a reliable friend in my life as a gamer.
Other services try to emulate Steam. I had three games on Impulse, most notably Galactic Civilizations 2. But I had no friends there and the games on sale were usually not my cup of tea. Then came the horrible "Games For Windows Live", a service I already complained about in my Bioshock 2 post. It had certainly not improved since and since I tend to encounter it in games already on Steam, it remains unnecessary and useless. "Rockstar Social Club" is another failed attempt to capture my attention, but thankfully it has the decency to include an option to "Play Offline", which is the reason I don't need to know about its functionality. If I registered I would be able to play L.A. Noire and GTA 4 online, I barely played GTA 4 by myself and Noire needs an online play as much as a Aquaman would need a submarine. Blizzard still tries to lift up BattleNet beyond its humble and unobtrusive roots with mixed success. But at least it's only relevant to the 5 games Blizzard intends to release this decade.
And now comes Origin. From a company too big to like and too devious to trust. EA provably plans to lure players with popular games like Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect 3, the same way Steam wormed into our hearts with Half-Life 2. One obvious problem is that Steam had no competitors at the time of it's launch as a digital distribution platform, and it has taken it about four years to become relevant. EA thinks it can pull the same trick a decade after the fact and facing a dominant service that managed to endear itself to players. Another problem is that EA has a horrible public persona. Justified or not, they are viewed with suspicion and scrutiny. And a few questionable lines in the EULA do not encourage me to trust them more.  Vavle felt that the big publishers exploited Half-Life's success and didn't always paid the designers their due. Steam was their attempt to shake of the yolk of publishers like EA. It was also introduced shortly after a crippling security breach which leaked Half-Life 2 and postponed its development.
EA has had no such troubles, they are a big company wanting to become even bigger. And their record of mishandling developers, properties and players isn't something to be proud of. Even the name "Origin", reminds of that brilliant developer of the same name. A developer house that brought us Wing Commander and Ultima, and then was lost in EA's ever expanding maw.
I will give EA the opportunity to surprise me. And I hope that if it fail, it wont go the "Games For Windows Live" route of continuing to shove Origin fruitlessly where it is unwanted.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

A Requiem for Cole Phelps

L.A. Noire is a great game, but it feels like a greater game was sacrificed to make it. The gameplay is simply standard GTA style driving and shooting with the exception of the interrogation. The interrogations are both the best part of the game and yet they are also the game's greatest weakness. The game can be seen as Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy to Americans) done right. A story focused game carried by a strong script and excellent voice work by professional actors.

A Thousand Stories in the Naked City

The player takes the role of Cole Phelps, a former marine in the Japanese theater of World War II and a recent addition to the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department. At first Cole seems like another bland white male, but slowly he is reviled as a little more complex of a character. His stern morals are more in line with 21st century outlook then the middle 20th century world he lives in. His subtle disdain towards the rampant chauvinism and racism endears him to the player and creates subtle conflicts with the people around him. He never develops into a very complex character, but as we learn about his experience in the war, we discover he is a flawed man trying to come to term with his failures and ambitions. Sadly, we are given barely a glimpse into his life beyond these flashbacks. His wife appears on screen only once for a few seconds, despite the fact that his relationship with her plays a significant part in the plot. His personal life is a mystery as well as the reasons for his choice of lovers. The game paints him as the unintended catalyst to some of the greatest plot events, yet avoids the immense dramatic potential of revealing it to Cole himself. We are thus left with a character who has a devastating effect on the people around him, yet is seldom touched by their actions in turn. Unfortunately this does not seem as a calculated effort to create a tragedy in which the protagonist is unaware of his role, but rather an unintended result of a hasty trim to a much more complex and grandiose story.
The open city in which the game takes place doesn't has the gameplay to justify it's existence. The game could have function just as well without the ability to drive from the police station to the crime scenes or to any other location in the city. There are some hidden collectables and various cars, but collecting them has no game-play advantage or significance. The chase sequence and trailing segments might have served as justification if they were not as restrictive and linear as they are. Escaping persons and vehicles always follow the same route and there is no real advantage to the sandbox-like city in any of the action sequences. What it does though is provide a layer of realism and immersion. Pedestrians talk about your exploits when you're around and react to your driving. It still feels like a wasted aspect of the gameplay, and many times I took advantage of the option to reach my destination automatically and instantly, since there was no reason to navigate the streets on my own.

Phelps grills an old woman for information. A common situation for the diligent detective.

Three Simple Questions
The heart of L.A. Noire is the Interrogations. Here the game gets to shine with amazingly detailed and complex faces, animated in a realistic way and allowing the actors to make the most out of their performances. And yet it also the stage of the games' greatest missteps. The scenario is always simple: You ask a suspect of a witness a question, he responds and you are given three replay options: Lie, Doubt and Truth. These are your responses to the testimony and "Lie"allows you to confront a suspect with evidence. Only one choice will reveal more clues and information. And you only get one chance to get it right. The problem is obvious- these are very vague descriptions for the innumerable angles an investigator might choose to confront his opponent. And so many times I was surprised to discover that the game interpreted "Doubt" very differently then I had expected. Or that the "Lie" I was supposed to expose was a detail not directly related to the question.
Another problem is the drastic change of tone Cole might make from question to answer. Sometimes it seems as if Cole adopted the"Good Cop, Bad Cop" routine and decided to play both alternatively. Another less common problem is a disconnection that sometimes pops-up between Cole's conclusions and the Player's. From time to time Cole seems to be ahead of the player or far behind on the trail toward the truth. Which becomes a bit jarring when Cole confront a suspect with an unexpected theory or when Cole doesn't ask the right questions when the player already deduced the solution. These are thankfully rare, but do expose the limitation of the game.
The game tends to forgives the player's mistake and keeps the story rolling even if the player missed a clue or has chosen the wrong response. So failing an interrogation is frustrating but doesn't impedes the progress of the story. The problem is that unlike other challenges in the game, the interrogation scenes are really the only realm where you are immediately penalized. A chase scene will allow you to close the distance to your quarry even if you took a wrong turn, you can wander around a crime scene as long as you like to inspect potential clues. But if you choose the wrong response in an interrogation, your only option is to exit and reload your game and try it all over again.

A dead body and a head full of questions: A common opening for many fascinating cases in Cole's career.

 M is for Murder
Noire is divided into five parts representing Cole's career. Patrol is a series of well done tutorials, Traffic has you investigating abandoned cars and road accidents, Homicide is about solving murders, Vice is where the story really picks up and finally Arson is where the plot enters the last act. Of the four major chapter, Homicide is the best in my opinion, and yet it has almost nothing to do with the overall plot.
It is an aberration. Much of the chapter focuses on a serial killer. And this is where Cole really works as a character. He is already established as an overqualified cop. He is intelligent, fluent in Japanese, quotes poetry and the occasional Latin phrase, all of which contribute to his failure to endear himself to his co-workers. They see him as smug and patronizing and naturally resent his rapid rise through the ranks. And then comes the serial killer, and Cole is suddenly the only cop equipped to deal with him. The killer is an intelligent madman who communicates in prose, and Cole matches his wits against this illusive adversary.
Unfortunately what could have been epic, feels rushed. Every murder in this chapter is linked to the serial killer and the final confrontation against him resolves itself too quickly to satisfy. The killer's identity is another aspect that gets glossed over and despite the dramatic potential he is not revealed to be a person with which Cole had significant contact before.
The Arson chapter again feels rushed. Here events that were only hinted at previously suddenly take the center stage. The major plot developments that took place in the Vice chapter, take a peripheral role as the plot changes focus unexpectedly. The man who I suspected to be the leading villain turns out to be part of a group of villains and towards the end he is dispatched and another character becomes the focus of the finale. Similarly the game which previously progressed the grand plot elements slowly, suddenly rushes to tie them all up rather ungracefully.
The conspiracy hinted at throughout the game, now reveals itself to the characters with a propaganda film. Yes, the conspirators operating in the shadows decided for some unknown reason to film their sinister meeting, edit in a commercial oriented opening and leave the film reel in a working projector inside an abandoned warehouse for the protagonist to find. This is as blunt and as ridicules as I describe I assure you.
The ending is dark and morose. But not wholly unsatisfactory. After the credits we are treated with a much more powerful scene of one of the events that drove much of the plot throughout the last two chapters of the game. There we are given a new tragic angle when we learn how Cole again served as a catalyst to events that will haunt him. And we are also hear a much more comforting message as the final words of the story.

Smile! You are the star of a crime scene.
I spent almost 40 hours playing L.A. Noire. A player that prefers to rush through it might finish it in less then 20. Players who will take the time to collect the optional cars and street crime might manage to stretch it to 60 hours. I found myself postponing the ending, playing in small chunks to prolong the experience. And thus I must admit that despite my critique, I enjoyed Noire very much. And yet, I cannot shake the feeling that I was playing in the skeleton remains of a much more ambitious project. One that had a much more complicated plot and that would have used the vast cast of characters it surrounded you with for more then window dressing. Somewhere there might have been a game where the player knew Cole's wife as a full character and where the serial killer played a significant part in the overall plot. I find myself imagining Noire taking full advantage of the sandbox city gameplay, giving you reason and opportunity to explore the setting.
The studio behind Noire is rumored to have experienced quite a bit of trouble through the development of the game. And so, I find it easy to imagine how sacrifices led Noire to become what it it. And ultimately, it is a good game with a very good script, a relatively original setting and dialog technique as well as some of the best acting ever seen in a video game.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

It's full of stars Part I: Star Trek Online

Action! Adventure! But mostly Action.

While the whole world and his wife (Mrs. World, PHD) are playing "The Old Republic" I spent the last two weeks playing Star Trek Online, which went free to play.

Strange Old Worlds

I wouldn't consider myself a Trekkie, because I know people who can recite the "Rules of Acquisition" by heart. But most would agree I know more about Star Trek then a healthy person should, and STO is nothing if not fan service. It starts with the familiar races at character creation like Vulcans or Trill. But just on that same page you have much less familiar ones, like Bolians or Pakled (Seriously? Pakled?). And the fan service never stops. While most of the main quest givers and enemies are new characters, there is scarcely a paragraph that does not reference a character, incident, episode or a quote. While the game is set long after Voyager or The Next Generation, you will see and interact with major characters from the series from time to time. Although you will encounter their children with much more regularity.
The last decade was tough for any Star Trek fan. Voyager was wasting its potential for interesting stories while Enterprise searched for direction for over two seasons. The last two Next Generation movies, Insurrection and Nemesis, were mediocre to outright horrible and it is still uncertain if Star Trek (2009) will reignite the franchise. And all of these introduced controversial elements into the Star Trek universe. From Nemesis' never before seen or heard about Remans to the destruction of the Romulan homeworld in Star Trek (2009). STO embraces these awkward elements with a degree of grace. Even the conflicting information about the supernova that destroyed Romulous is incorporated, as the game builds a comprehensive story around what was originally sloppy writing. Similarly, rather then push the Remans aside, it flashes out their plight and relationship with the Romulans. All of which contributes to a feeling of a cohesive universe.

A Space battle. In fluidic space- Species 8472 territory.
Not a Final Frontier
The gameplay is very traditional massive multyplayer stuff. So traditional in fact, it reminds me of the Anarchy Online era rather then its contemporary competitors. The number line on the keyboard sees more use than it has in a long time. And you find yourself spending agonizing minutes on arranging your various skills and abilities on the UI. It's a bit weird to return to such busywork after DC Universe Online and Champions Online allowed you to play with a controller with relative ease. Likewise, you will find all the staples of MMO's are on full display. There's an enigmatic crafting system and the game world is divided into blocks and further-more into sectors. You can leave to feed your cats in the time it takes your ship to cross a sector, but you provably wont be able to make a sandwich (it's not Eve Online after-all). It feels very early 2000's in its design, whether this is good or bad is up to personal taste. The space combat manages to shine with emphasis on power allocation and attack vectors and a simple use of two basic weapon types, all the while remaining quite accessible to new players. Ground combat is, again, a very traditional affair that will be familiar to anyone who played an MMO in the last decade. There's really not much to the game-play beyond the combat. A few missions will run you around from character to character, trading information or solving the occasional riddle, but these are both rare and completely text based. Its amusing that at it best, the shows were rarely about direct conflict, while the game focuses on it almost completely. Similarly, there's a complex monetary system despite the Federation anti-capitalist nature. But this will only offend people who liked the preachy tone of the first season of TNG, all three of them.
A typical away team.

Darmok and Jellad at Tanagra
Where STO shines is in its ability to tell a story. Given through "episodes", the main quests tell a series of enjoyable if simple stories. At first you'll chase a demented Klingon General in his quest to prolong the conflict between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. But soon you'll do everything from time-traveling to ferreting conspiracies using the show's vast cannon. And these missions are really fun. While you almost always run, shoot, fly and shoot again, it is always delivered in a way that keeps you interested in the plot around you and the conflict at hand. Leonard Nemoy is so far the only familiar voiced character I encountered, but seeing the digital faces of Worf, Bones and others, was almost as gratifying. Apart from the episodes are user created mission. Some of which are really good and rival the official content in quality. Another area where STO does good is the customization. While nowhere near as extensive as Cryptic's Champions or City of Heroes, the character editor still lets you feel you are creating a face rather then choosing an archetype. If you choose to play as an unknown alien, the editor opens up and allows you to run wild with your imagination. Customizing your space-ship is much more limited. And yet I experienced a weird feeling of pride, when I gazed upon the name I've chosen for it embedded on the hull. Similarly you build a little crew of mini-characters in the form of Bridge Officers. These are the faces that will deliver most of the routine messages. While it is nice to receive such dialog from faces you have chosen, they have little to flesh them out beside your own imagination. The Bridge Officers grant you special powers during space combat and join you as fighters on the ground, but your interaction with them is sadly limited. In fact when I think of Star Trek I think on the characters, exploration and diplomacy. And STO doesn't mange to capture these in spirit or gameplay. As I mentioned, a few missions offer non-combat challenges in the form of text based puzzles, but non of them are involving. Exploration takes the form of randomly generated missions. But the possibilities are soon reveled to be quite limited.
Get to the choppa!

On the technical side, STO is a mixed bag. It is far stabler then any of the MMO's I played recently. I was able to Alt-Tab to my heart's content. Graphics are nothing special, nor are they bad. A few areas even impressed me with the occasional shimmering planet or nebulous comet. But most planets and zones just feel like palette swaps. Some of the randomized areas had minor graphical glitches on my machine, I have no idea if this issue is universal. What is really missing in STO is a sense of scale. Every planet seems to be the same size and all of them feel like objects. They have no gravity and only your vision is impaired if your starship gets to close to them. All of the maps have invisible boundaries marked clearly on the map, further diluting any illusion of space you might cultivate.
Server downtimes were annoyingly frequent for the first week of play, but hopefully this was anomalous. Despite going free to play, the servers held nicely and I encountered non of the problems that plagued Champions Online or DC Universe Online when they opened their gates to the public. Bug however, are still a problem. A recent patch turned off Auto-fire for space combat, and a patch fixing the problem took almost three days to arrive. Aggravating affair with the dominance of combat in the game. Fortunately, a relatively easy to type command allowed players to bypass the problem for its duration. But this was not a singular incident. I encountered two separate bugs which prevented me from completing missions. And while these were quickly corrected, it was evident that the game has some polishing problems despite the long time in which it has been active.
A game of Dabo on Deep Space 9.

Star Trek Online relays on fan familiarity to sell itself. But for once, I think it is doing it well. If it could just elevate itself above the superficial and manage to grasp the shows' spirit of exploration and adventure, it could evolve into a truly unique and rewarding experience. As it is, the gameplay is very traditional and the content will endear itself to fans only. For fans it is refreshing to enjoy Star Trek once more without feeling exploited and used, but I doubt anyone else will manage to derive similar value from it. It is sadly average. By no means bad, nor will it impress you.