Sunday, May 29, 2011

This Isn't New York

Last year, I proclaimed Rockstar’s action Western “Red Dead Redemption” to be the best game I’d played in 2010. Naturally, when Rockstar announced that their film noir style detective epic would be released this year I was eager to see how it would play out. On one hand, I wasn’t too enthused about the setting. Sure, I could see the appeal of a rich and dramatized Los Angeles set in the late 40s but how could 20 something hours of investigating crime scenes possibly hold my attention?

At PAX this year, Lynsey and I were treated to a 30-minute demo of the game, which certainly piqued my interest but still left the aforementioned question unanswered.

Having finished “LA Noire” last night I now know: yeah, I really can spend 20-something hours investigating crimes scenes and not get bored.

As detective Cole Phelps I began my career as a lowly street cop only to work my way up the food chain of the LAPD from traffic to homicide to vice and then finally arson. And yes, arson is the last division you’re assigned to thanks to some surprising plot twists. Then again, this is Rockstar isn’t it? Plot twists are what it’s all about.

As Phelps you spend your time driving from case to case – occasionally stopping to assist in 1 of 40 street crimes that randomly pop up – and trying to piece together what exactly happened and who you need to haul downtown to answer for the nefarious misdeeds. As you wander through a crime scene, your controller vibrates to let you know a clue is nearby. Well, sometimes it tells you nothing: Phelps often picks up items that turn out to be worthless but are still able to be fully examined. Let me tell you, I think the guy has a fetish for hairbrushes.

Following the crime scene investigates, you move on to the interrogation of suspects and this is where “L.A. Noire” really shines. Using an elaborate network of 32 cameras, the developers flawlessly recorded the actor’s faces as they spoke their lines. This may seem excessive to any outsider but when a large portion of your success in the game depends on your ability to read people’s expressions (are they not meeting your eyes? Is their mouth twitching? Are they blinking too much?) this is crucial and Rockstar pulled it off beautifully. Take a look at this video to get an idea of the effort that went into this technology and how marvelous it truly looks:

That being said though, the facial animations really are the star of the show here. Yes, the story is engaging but truthfully once you’ve played one Rockstar I feel as though you’ve played them all in some respect. I went into this game knowing that at some point I would be betrayed and that my character or someone I was close to wouldn’t make it to the end credits. I’m certainly not going to go into details on that here but let’s just say I wasn’t surprised by the game’s twists and ultimate conclusion.

I will say it again however, this predictability doesn’t make the story any less fun.

The other staples of the mechanics work wonderfully as well: the music, the background noises, shooting and cover systems, they all come together nicely with the exception of the repetition of the conversations NPCs would have around you. It wasn’t long before I found myself memorizing lines like “if olive oil comes from olives . . . where does baby oil come from?”.

This lack of variety did play a role in my disappoint with the overall level of interaction with the open world of this game. Yes, it looks beautiful but really, there just isn’t much to do in the streets of Los Angeles. I never felt the urge to explore like I did in “Red Dead Redemption” but I suppose it’s not really fair to compare the two and I will say that while Red Dead only had a handful of “random” encounters that were recycled in different areas of the world, all 40 of the street crimes in L.A. Noire are wholly unique.

That’s impressive.

Impressive. That’s really a good word all around for this game. It lived up perfectly to my expectations, neither falling below or above them. L.A. Noire is a fantastic game and is everything I’ve come to expect from Rockstar. In fact, I’m planning on starting another playthrough as soon as I finish this review. There has already been talk of a sequel and I can earnestly say I’d love to see more of this world, perhaps within a game where it’s a little easier to get yourself happily lost outside the main quest.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

And She'll Scream, and She'll Shout, and She'll Pray

Video games, like other forms of media, often comment on the nature of society. In fact one could argue that that is the very nature of media: to comment on society, the good, the bad, the ugly, the confusing and the complicated.

Kotaku recently published an article concerning the nature of the relationship between Elizabeth, a woman from the highly anticipated (read OMFG IS IT HERE YET?!) Bioshock: Infinite and Songbird, her mechanical captor. When she first appeared in the teaser trailer Elizabeth was shown as nothing more than a beautiful face, trapped high in a tower, being held against her will by something lurking and monstrous. She seemed to be a very real princess trapped in a very real tower waiting on a man to come to her rescue.

Needless to say, I wasn’t terribly impressed with her.

Then the 10-minute demo footage was released. Here, I saw this woman in the midst of the fight, more than holding her own. She didn’t seem to need any help or protection which in addition to giving her more of a unique personality put my fears of escort missions aside.

What also caught my attention was the fact that Elizabeth spent a fair amount of time in the demo struggling to breathe as she raced through the chaotic streets of Columbia in a corset. I know it may seem strange that such a thing really stuck with me but I think it speaks volumes in the developer’s quest to make her a real person. Society demands that she forcefully constrict her body to accentuate her hips and bust while making her waist seem impossibly small all in the name of what’s considered beautiful and appealing – never mind that it also compresses her lungs, ribs, and organs. Elizabeth is a woman restricted by her environment and is now being revealed as a woman fleeing an abusive relationship.

In the article, Kevin Levine describes how Elizabeth pleads to the protagonist – you – not to let Songbird take her back, implying she’d rather die than fall back into his mechanical hands. Yet, when the synthetic beast catches up with her she tearfully apologizes for running away and asks it to take her back home.

She is strong and clearly capable but still frightened, made weak by her fear and inability to keep the hopelessness of her situation out of her mind. She resigns herself back into captivity to save your life, as abused women often do for the sake of their children.

I find it brave of Irrational Games to explore this type of relationship. I truly do.

Elizabeth seems damaged, trapped, strong, intelligent, and real.

I can’t wait to get to know her better and find out how her story ends.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Zed Word

In-game screenshots from the upcoming zombie sandbox game "Dead Island" were released today.