Evis T Reviews LA Noire On The Xbox 360.

LA Noire is a strange beast. I’m really not sure what to make of it. On the one hand I love most of what it tries to do, but on the other hand it gets stale quite quickly thanks to a few glaring issues.

To begin with I was thoroughly enjoying myself. The cases were interesting and the game’s interview mechanics were very rewarding and something I had not seen done so intricately in gaming before. Needing to read your subject’s expressions is a good idea, and the technology used to create the digitized acting is impressive- if a little unnerving. The technology isn’t quite there yet and you can’t get away from the fact that people look like film footage stretched out and stapled over a mould. It certainly isn’t Xbox Live Vision levels of bad, and when the effect works well it looks stunning. However all too often you can see the proverbial strings, usually in the form of a nose or ear not having a hole in it but rather a black coloured patch.

LA Noire’s investigation mechanics can be broadly divided into two sections- evidence collecting and interview. In this way it plays a lot like the Phoenix Wright games on the DS. At first both of these ideas work well- you pick apart a crime scene for evidence, and then question suspects using the evidence to prove they are lying when you feel their story is inconsistent.

I say these only work at first because after you’ve been playing for about four hours, it’s nigh on impossible to fuck this up. When you’ve cleared a crime scene of evidence, the music stops, meaning that provided you are not deaf (and this is a big kick in the nuts to those of you who are), you simply CANNOT miss any evidence.

I get that the actors need to exaggerate the facial expressions to indicate when they are lying. After all most of us are not experts in reading people- so subtle expressions will be lost on us. Sadly though this means that once you get used to identifying the cues, telling if a suspect is being truthful, lying, or withholding information becomes almost automatic. Sadly this leaves you with very little in the way of a challenge.

Consequently LA Noire is very much a one trick pony and once you’ve figured out how the trick is done, it just becomes one long cut scene that occasionally requires you to press a button. The only other curve ball the game can throw at you is visiting locations in the wrong order. But of course, anyone with half a brain cell should be able to figure that out once they realise it’s actually important. While the illusion of interactivity lasts though, it’s a very involving and entertaining experience.

Sadly, LA Noire has nothing else to do beyond these cases. Unlike most Rockstar games which are usually chock to the brim with interesting things to do around the map; random encounters, challenges and well crafted distractions (the comedy club in GTAIV anyone?) LA Noire’s ‘side quests’ are distinctly lack lustre.

Virtually all, in fact literally all of them are Pointless Fucking Collectables (PFCs). If you feel like taking some time off the cases, you can collect cars, film reels, newspapers (which to Rockstar’s credit actually serve a point as they reveal cut scenes giving some back story to the main game), discovering landmarks, or solving street crime- none of which bar the newspapers actually serve any purpose.

By solving street crime I mean you respond to radio call outs which result in a firefight with a handful of gunmen and then getting back to your day. These are just boring by the numbers firefights we’re familiar with from previous Rockstar games, but without any background to give them a sense of urgency, motivation or accomplishment. Well done Rockstar, you’ve found a way to turn what should be an adrenaline fuelled gun fight into another thankless collectable.

I just don’t understand it- LA Noire features probably the most detailed and intricate map Rockstar has yet produced, and they don’t do a damn thing with it.

To add insult to injury, one of the cases pretty much requires you to have behaved like an obsessive compulsive as if you have not found one specific land mark, you can’t proceed. The worst part of this is that the prior to that landmark, others you need to find are revealed to you if you take too long finding them. This last one serves the sole purpose of forcing you to drive around for hours looking for the damn place, killing time. Unless you do what I did and just check the internet for the advice of people insane enough to kill every pigeon in Liberty City...

Beyond the gameplay I also question just how Noire LA Noire actually is. I’m not a huge movie buff- in fact I rarely watch films. However I am familiar with Noir through a friend of mine who has a passion for it, and as such I’m familiar with many of the tropes and trappings of the genre. Therefore I’d question how closely LA Noire actually follows them. Outside of the first hour, there isn’t much in the ways of voice over, femme fatale or anything else I’d associate with Noir, beyond maybe the themes of drugs, sex and general vice. To be honest though it felt closer to 70’s cop shows and Dirty Harry movies (Minus Harry Callaghan if that makes sense) than anything else. Still, I’m by no means an authority here so you’ll need to take that with a pinch of salt.

From a technical standpoint (and this may not be true for the PS3 version; I’m playing it on the 360) LA Noire does have a few issues with loading textures and jittery cut scenes. It doesn’t happen too often, but it does happen often enough to make it worthy of note. Installing the game does seem to make a difference though and the occurrence of these errors is heavily reduced if you do so.

Overall, I can’t really speak against LA Noire in a big way. While its execution has some big holes in it, the ideas presented are interesting and also demonstrate great strides towards truly engaging non combat centric gameplay. The problem is that these concepts age very quickly, even within the lifetime of the game itself.

My final word on the matter would be simple: LA Noire is certainly worth playing, but you’ll want to pick it up cheap second hand and I doubt that DLC will extend your enjoyment of the game. It lacks the entertainment value of games like Red Dead Redemption or the GTA series, but shows some interesting ideas that deserve exploration. If you’re after a murder mystery though, I think you’ll find more mileage with Heavy Rain on the PS3.It isn’t as long or as complex, but it remains challenging and entertaining all the way through.

Why I Won't Be Reviewing Brink, And A Plea To Devs On The Subject Of Multiplayer

So, the highly anticipated Brink has just been released, and the standard flood of complaints have begun. People are attacking it left right and centre for a stream of bugs, errors, poor gameplay balancing and various other gripes. I’ve not played the game, I have no intention of playing it, so I can’t really comment on that. The reason though is something else which many people have also been raging against- Brink’s single player mode.

Looking at the press releases, it was no surprises then to see Brink was going to be a heavily multiplayer affair. My interest was piqued momentarily when they stated they would be trying to incorporate a single player mode too, but I gave up when I realised that they planned on making it merge with multiplayer.

This could mean one of three options- a single player campaign with co op, a single player campaign with counter op (Remember Perfect Dark?), or a multiplayer game you could play by yourself with bots.

Now the game has been released, the word is that it’s the third option. To be honest though, even if it had been one of the other two, it still wouldn’t have worked as Splash would have needed to tailor the game to make viable for people to drop in and out- meaning it would still play like a multiplayer game with bots, even in single player mode.

So, where is the point in all this? Well, what I’m trying to say here is that Brink is indicative of a trend I’ve noticed in gaming, in which games seem to be passing over the single player experience in favour of a pure multiplayer game. I first touched on it here, and I’d like to expand on that now.

Command and Conquer Red Alert 3, Resident Evil 5, Command And Conquer 4, StarCraft II, Borderlands, Halo 3, Medal Of Honour, these are all games I’ve played in the last few years solely on the basis of a single player experience, and all of them have left me disappointed on that front. The reason is common to them all- they were designed with multiplayer in mind first, with little to no concession to the idea someone might want to play them alone. And these are just the ones I played; I’ve heard stories of other games with similar issues.

I won’t go into all of them, but I would like to offer a few examples. CnC:RA3 featured 2v2 as the standard mission format, and required you to have an ally to the play campaign. If you didn’t want to, you were assigned a bot.

Bots are usually stupid, especially in RTS titles, and this one was no exception. To this day I have not been able to complete the Japanese campaign thanks to the fact one level pretty much requires a coordinated attack, which is impossible to achieve with a dumbass bot.

StarCraft II earns less heat as the single player mode does clearly have a lot of effort in it, however the price tag associated with it for a single player experience, lacking two of the bloody races (bar a Protoss mini campaign), is utterly obscene.

Without friends to laugh at it with you, Borderlands is soulless husk of mediocrity and level grinding. Imagine WoW without any other people.

Now, this is not a big trend. I’m not for one moment suggesting that solo gamers are being shafted, but this ‘problem’ does seem to be on the rise. I think it’s often linked to the allegations that games are becoming shorter and dumber too- why bother creating an in depth, complex and rewarding set of game mechanics when you can just bolt something flashy, with no depth (like Brink’s SMART system) together and let people provide the entertainment for themselves? As I said in the piece I linked above, most activities are more fun when you share them with someone- we’re a gregarious species, and we also like to compete. This is where the fun is coming form in these games. This is fine for multiplayer games; fun is fun regardless of the source, however it leaves us solo gamers with a distinctly dull product.

I suppose the point I’m trying to make here is that I’d like to ensure devs don’t forget about us forever alone types, and to avoid thinking they’ve made a good game just because the multiplayer element is popular. What happens in a year when everyone suddenly moves on to the next big thing? Suddenly your opus has gone from the penthouse to cold and naked in the street as its servers empty. Your game wasn’t good; the people who were playing it were the fun part- and now they’re gone.

I do however make an exception to this, in the case of games which are clearly multiplayer only and are not even trying to pretend they should be played alone. Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead (although that has its own set of problems), to name but a pair. It’s good marketing for me as I know damn well that I’m not going to enjoy these titles. I steer clear of them and I don’t put black marks against the publisher and developer for making me waste my money with false advertising.

I think that a final mention should go to indie developers, many of whom cater solely to the single player market, and consequently are currently churning out fantastic, innovative games with a lot of scope and replay value. Keep it up guys and gals; it’s nice to know that at least someone is still interested in making games that can stand up on their own.

So anyway, that’s my spiel and it’s also why you won’t see me reviewing Brink, or any other multiplayer game any time soon. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, feel free to pop them on the comments below.

-Evis T.

In Love of Metal Gear Solid, Part 3. MGS3 Snake Eater

No, this is not a porno. It is however probably my favourite out of all the Metal Gear Solid games. Plot wise, it’s a prequel set during the Cold War, which establishes the roots of a lot of the characters and plot elements of the later games. MGS and MGS2 often referenced events in the past which were quite important, but never really expanded on. MGS3 ties up some loose ends, as well as establishing many other elements for use in MGS4.

Gameplay wise, Snake Eater is friggin’ brilliant. It is however, a huge departure from the other games. Thanks to a far lower tech level, staying hidden is much harder as you don’t have radars and the like to help you. You do have gadgets such as the motion detector (which picks up animals and does not pick up stationary guards) and the sonar (which alerts nearby enemies and still picks up local wildlife), but thanks to their drawbacks, they will still only get you so far.

Snake Eater is brutal. You need to check where you are going carefully, and move forward slowly to avoid surprises. Keep a detection tool handy as well- just in case. There is very little hand holding here, you’re dropped into the jungle with only a few basic gadgets to get you started, and from there, you’re expected to avert World War Three.

Unlike in MGS2 however, you are given a potent new tool to use in your fight against the Russians (who strangely enough have better eyesight and co-ordination than the genome army)- camouflage. Snake Eater allows you to change your clothes and face paint to better blend with your surroundings. A very helpful meter in the top of the screen keeps track of how well camouflaged you are in your current terrain, and with the correct camo, your enemy will need to walk over you before they actually see you.

It’s not a perfect system though. Changing your camo requires you to pause the game, go into the menu, select camo, select your clothes, select your face paint and then shift back through the menus to get to the game again. On some terrain you’ll want to do this every ten seconds or so if you are paranoid. When you factor in loading times, this can get downright annoying. Still, technical problems aside, as a gameplay mechanic it’s excellent.

Beyond that, the gameplay is largely unchanged bar the lack of advanced tech necessitating extremely cautious play. Oh, there is one other exception- stamina.

Betamax hates this. I love it. Essentially, it adds a survival element to the game. Over time (influenced by your activities and injuries), Snake looses stamina. As your stamina drops, your health regeneration slows down, your hands tremble so you can’t shoot straight, and you can’t hold your breath as long underwater. You can replenish your stamina by hunting wild animals and raiding the food stores on enemy bases.

In many ways it’s the precursor to hardcore mode on Fallout New Vegas. Your stamina degrades slowly enough that you don’t need to constantly hunt for food, but fast enough that you’re still aware of the fact you need eat. Oh, and taking damage can sometimes result in an injury which decreases your maximum health (as with Dragon Age 2. Sort of), and requires special equipment to heal.

All this helps to really emphasise the stealth element of the gameplay, and even sections where you are expected to fight the enemy (including a great piece against an elite Spetsnaz unit), simply running and gunning is liable to get you killed on all but the easiest difficulty settings.

Story wise, I think Snake Eater is probably the best of the series. For one thing, it’s much easier to follow, bar a sudden jolt in a totally new direction halfway through. It’s concise, it’s to the point, and Kojima doesn’t throw new things in so suddenly I get metal whiplash. The ending too, is something special which still brings me to tears. The only scene I’ve found more emotive in a videogame is the death of Aeries. Like most of the series, the message is simple and to the point- politicians are shits, nationalism is bad and of course- war is evil. Of course I don’t agree with Kojima on every point he’s making, but it is refreshing to see an actual message being put across in an artistic medium which is more often than not nothing more than popcorn.

The sound is great too- solid voice acting and a great musical score, including a James Bond style theme song, which makes no sense at all, but is still fun to listen to. It is a little strange though that all the actors are American when the game takes place in Russia, but despite an odd casting choice they still deliver their lines well.

There are some elements of Snake Eater though which are a bit annoying. Wild animals for example, can be used against your enemies if you capture them alive, which is cool. However the best ones are poisonous, and having sneaked past hordes of GRU soldiers only to be laid low by a tarantula you never even saw is pretty annoying. The boss fight against The End is also a major irritation as it takes the form of a somewhat realistic sniper battle (but for some reason he uses tranq rounds), which means it takes FOREVER (although you can save the game, set your Playstation’s clock forward a week and load- he will then die of old age).

Then there are the parts of the game which are just weird. Raiden makes a sort of cameo, and while it’s nice to see Kojima acknowledging him as the annoying watery twat that he is, ridiculing him in his own setting, it is a strange spark of humour against the mainly dark story.

Ultimately, Snake Eater is my favourite of the series. For me it has the best gameplay elements, featuring a very tough challenge, but offering you the tools to overcome them, along with a well told story and an interesting cast of characters. I found it easier to get my head around than MGS2, and once I did it was very rewarding. It’s far from perfect with a few technical problems and a generally very high difficulty (going for zero detections and zero kills in this game WILL screw with your mind), but at the end of the day it’s a great game, and one I always enjoy playing through.

In Love of Metal Gear Solid, Part 2. MGS2, Sons Of Liberty.

Easily the weakest game of the series in my opinion, but still by no means bad. The biggest problem in this title is the fact that your enemies have improved dramatically, but you’ve not really been given much to counteract their newfound skills. It’s irritating to say the least, and while I wouldn’t dream of calling it false difficulty, getting spotted at long range when you have nothing to hide behind by an enemy you couldn’t have known was there, can get tedious. It’s confounded by the fact you need to get to a certain point in each section before you can use your radar. I love the way guards are now a real threat, but it’s annoying that you don’t have anything to counteract them with.

I suppose the best way to explain it is that I think good difficulty comes from having a wide range of challenges to overcome, and a wide range of tools and methods to overcome them. The challenge comes from using the right tools for the job, in the right way. I just feel that first person attack isn’t enough to deal with the threats now placed against you. Still, as I said it just makes the game more brutal, and it certainly isn’t false difficulty.

The other complaint about this game of course is Raiden. A character created solely for the purpose of appealing to the Kawai-Bishi crowd, he’s one of the most irritating characters in gaming history. People hate this guy, or at least seriously dislike him. He’s a whiney, white bred pansy who complains about everything and has a temper tantrum at the drop of the hat. I hate this character. I hate his baby smooth PS2 graphics face, his girly white blonde mullet that flutters so carelessly in the breeze. I hate his deep, piercing eyes, I hate his ultra skin tight suit and I hate his huge throbbing man bulge. Yes, we get it; your package occupies a space roughly equivalent to a small grapefruit. Put it away. Well at least it makes up for the gratuitous cleavage shots in MGS3 and 4...

Raiden’s woes though are nothing compared to his fiancĂ© Rose. She will call you up, in the middle of an operation to save the president, and stop a nuclear launch- to talk about the first time the two of you met. Seriously. This happens. I mean I know some people can be neurotic but honestly, do you call up your loved one in the middle of a fire fight to remind them about your anniversary? And use their real name no less?

These problems aside, once you manage to get inside the way Metal Gear Solid 2 works, it’s a very rewarding game. Playing stealthy is now actually challenging, and response teams called in when you’re spotted are now a serious threat, as opposed to a minor irritation. Standing your ground and just gunning down the response team is still an option- but it’s not a wise one. Add to that that enemies will now also use their radios to spread the alert, as well as checking in with command, and suddenly even deciding to knock someone out becomes a tough decision.

Technically, Metal Gear Solid 2 still holds up well. The graphics give a fine demonstration of the PS2’s (still frankly impressive) power, the gameplay, while much harder is solid and provides you with more options and the sound is as good as ever.

The supporting cast are also excellent, Dead Cell in particular make for some interesting villains, especially Vamp, voiced by Phil LaMarr (better known as Hermes Conrad) doing his best ‘fuck me’ voice. Still turns my knees to jelly.

Metal Gear Solid 2 is where the plot really starts to get weird. Penny Arcade said it best back in the day. In all seriousness though, it does start to fall into place if you ponder it for a while, and if you play through the game again, it does start to make a lot more sense, especially once you adapt to the way that Kojima tells his stories (I.E badly- hey the man has great ideas, but isn’t exactly great at articulating them).

All in all, it’s still well worth playing. The plot doesn’t leave as much of an impact as Metal Gear Solid One, and the increased difficulty takes some getting used to, but once you grok it, it’s still a fun game and a classic well worth every penny.
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