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Grand Theft Auto V: Lessons Rockstar Needs to Learn (Article)

February 10, 2013 Leave a comment

GTAV-Protagonists

Let’s get this out of the way: I don’t like the Grand Theft Auto series. Whoa now, before you start writing that highly offensive comment telling me how wrong I am, hear me out. I don’t like the GTA series, but I really really want to. I’ve tried so hard to like the games; I’ve played almost every title in the series to some extent, I completed GTAIV, I’ve even enjoyed many aspects of the series and had a ton of fun with them.

That being said, I think when it comes down to it, the Grand Theft Auto games could be so much more than they are.

Since GTA IV is the most recent entry in the series, the one I’ve actually played all the way through and the game which GTA V will surely be building on, I’ll be using that as my reference point.

GTAIV-Niko

Grand Theft Auto IV starts off so strong. You’re introduced to Niko, a fairly likable character with a dark past, and his cousin Roman, a man who clearly likes to think he’s more successful than he actually is, but remains endearing despite that. Niko wants a new life, one like Roman’s–free of death and crime. Unfortunately for him, it’s not to be, as Roman’s life has its own paths into the underbelly of Liberty City.

This sets up the game wonderfully, and as you play, you forgive the fact that the shooting isn’t all that great, climbing is clunky, moving Niko around is awkward and numerous other faults the core mechanics of the game have. You overlook those because the story hooks you, because Liberty City feels like a real place–a dense, populated, living city. Evidently, this seems to be the part that garnered the game such rave reviews. Whenever people talked about GTA IV, they always mentioned the amazing feeling of the city, never the actual gameplay.

Fifteen hours later, you are less forgiving. Now all those faults you were overlooking are infuriating; they’re prolonging this game which already feels too long. To top it off, the story starts to go off the rails. You’re given supposed moral choices, which you are seemingly meant to be invested in because they involved characters who are “friends.” But they aren’t, they’re just characters who have been around a while, and proximity to someone, of course, doesn’t make you invested in them. Just because I’ve completed five missions for this character, and seen them in 20 minutes worth of cutscenes, it doesn’t mean I care about them. Niko starts protesting that he’s just doing all this deplorable stuff for the money, so he can have the better life he wants, he doesn’t want to kill anymore. While you look to the corner of the screen and see he has more money than many people make in a year. Then you go murder 100s of men for a few grand, cause Niko really needs that money. Maybe it’s to decorate the several different apartments he now has? Who knows.

GTAV-Pest-control

For some reason, Rockstar has it in its collective head that GTA needs to be a 30-40 hour game. With GTA IV, they made an attempt to go almost completely into a more serious tone, but it didn’t quite work out. At best, the narrative begins to meander off on tangents, at worst it barely makes sense and ends up painting Niko as a complete psychopath  Perhaps it’s because they build this huge world for you to inhabit, and they don’t want all that work to go to waste–the shorter the game, the less exposure to the environment. Whatever the reason, GTA games need to be shorter, or they need to find a solution that allows them to be 30+ hours while not suffering for it. Hopefully GTA V‘s three protagonist route will help to alleviate this. Could that mean we get three super-tight, 10-hour stories? We can but hope.

There’s reason to believe Rockstar can and will improve on this, though. Since GTA IV, we’ve seen them release Red Dead Redemption, a game with a far more coherent and enjoyable story. It managed to tell a long-form story that didn’t overstay its welcome, even if it did trail off a little. Of course, Red Dead also has the benefit of being set in a completely different time period, one in which character motivations are far easier to simplify and make believable. John Marston rarely lost sight of why he kept doing the awful things he was asked to, he wanted his family back, pure and simple. The old west setting, and his background as an outlaw made his actions believable. He was reluctant but didn’t mope about it

One of the most recent and arguably best examples of a story-focused open world game, Sleeping Dogs, proves that you can make a 12-15 hour open world story immensely interesting and satisfying. The story of Wei Shen is intriguing and gripping while also serving up interesting gameplay scenarios, which take him all over the dense city. The narrative and characters do not fall to the same contradictions we see in GTA. Wei does not start complaining about lack of money despite having an abundance of it, he does not start bemoaning all the killing he is being forced to do. In fact, in Sleeping Dogs that last aspect is actually dealt with, as we see Wei start to become affected by what he’s forced to do while undercover.

GTAV-Trunk

Of course, as previously mentioned, the problems with stretching the narrative aren’t the only issue with GTA. There’s also the clunky gameplay, which is pretty unforgivable when you have to deal with it for almost 30 hours. Looking at GTA IV now, it looks downright archaic. When it released it wasn’t great, but in a world with Saints Row: The Third and Sleeping Dogs, the gameplay mechanics in GTA IV feel unplayable. That may be a bit harsh, but the core mechanics are certainly lacking in polish. The driving is probably the most robust part of the game, with shooting and general traversal mechanics being clunky at best.

While Saints Row‘s gunplay and general gameplay are arguably no more robust than GTA‘s, as Volition has iterated on the series it’s learned to put fun first. Which is why we have things like the so-called “awesome” button, which allows players to modify their actions and execute crazy but satisfying moves like jumping through a windshield to steal a car. Then most recently we saw Sleeping Dogs raise the bar by bringing in robust action-game mechanics to the open world genre, with satisfying melee combat, akin to an Arkham Asylum or Assassin’s Creed, and shooting mechanics you might expect to see in something like Max Payne. That’s not to mention more than a few ideas from the underrated Wheelman implemented into to the driving portions of the game. Wouldn’t you much rather have fun while also experiencing a well crafted story? Rather than trudging through mediocre gameplay in the hopes that the fumbling story gets good again.

There’s no arguing the Grand Theft Auto franchise is important. After GTA III especially, the gaming landscape changed. We wouldn’t have those Saints Row: The Thirds and Sleeping Dogs in the world without first having GTA. But it’s a series in danger of forgetting what games are about, so here’s hoping Grand Theft Auto V can manage to be as fun and entertaining as it deserves to be.

Originally published on StickSkills.com

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Dead Space 3 (Xbox 360 Hands on preview)

February 10, 2013 Leave a comment

Creepy ambient noises create a tense and scary atmosphere that keeps you on edge. Necromorphs pop out of no where and scare the bejesus out of you. These are the things to be expected in the upcoming Dead Space 3 demo that let you know it’s still very much a Dead Space game. But then there’s the co-op and the fact you are shooting humans in the middle of a brightly lit snowy environment. Do these new elements threaten to ruin the increasingly beloved action-horror franchise?

Dead Space 3

While it’s hard to say from the brief demo, co-op does change the game, quite literally. If you play alone as Isaac then you are alone, there’s no AI buddy alongside you, it’s just regular old Dead Space. If you choose to bring a buddy, then the game’s other protagonist John Carver will always be there, in cutscenes and all. But it doesn’t just change the fact there’s two of you to take on Necromorphs, there’s new dialogue and slight changes to scenarios too. I found myself quite surprised by how differently a scene played out with Carver there. He’s not just along for the ride; he has thoughts, feelings and he isn’t afraid to share them with Isaac. Carver is a much more brash and angry character, a nice contrast to the more reserved Isaac Clark we’re used to. Whether the story as a whole drastically changes remains to be seen, but the moment to moment stuff certainly changes and is made more interesting by Carver’s inclusion. Oh, and it still manages to be scary.

That said, co-op seems like it’ll be a second play-through option for most Dead Space fans. Making it quite a relief to see that playing solo with Isaac still feels as creepy as it always has. Even while trudging through a bright snowy environment, though I’m still unsure on the whole fighting humans thing. Though it was somewhat inevitable in terms of the story, but hopefully it’s not a huge part of the final game.

isaac-snow

Whether playing in co-op or alone, the demo kicks off with Isaac having crashed on the planet of Tau Volantis. The events in the demo aren’t given much context, however. Isaac yells for Ellie, and if playing in co-op he and Carver argue about whether she’s even alive. Other than that though, you’re just moving forward as a blizzard rises and lowers in intensity, making it hard to see more than a few feet in front of you. Which of course is a perfect opportunity for a Necromorph to lunge through the wall of white in front of you. A cheap jump scare tactic, perhaps, but that doesn’t make it any less scary in the moment.

The demo is fairly straight forward, as you wearily wander from encounter to encounter, afraid to turn every corner or walk too far into the snowstorm. These moments are punctuated by a couple of boss encounters, one involving a rather large Necromorph and the other an even larger malfunctioning drill. Both add the burst of action we’ve come to expect in a Dead Space game, as you have to use all your skill (and Isaac’s abilities) to take care of the situation. The end of the demo, as most demos do, teases an even larger boss encounter. EA and Visceral certainly want you to know the epic spectacle of Dead Space is still in tact, as much as the creepy atmosphere.

isaac-boss

In addition to co-op, the demo highlights another big new feature in Dead Space 3: crafting. Even before jumping into gameplay, you can access weapon crafting from the main menu. Doing so will insert you into a small room with a tool bench and a bunch of resources. After reading through a few tutorial tooltips you’re left to craft and upgrade any weapon you want, and you can even spawn some Necromorphs to test them out on. The combinations on offer, though,  are surprisingly diverse. Fancy a Chain Lightning Gun that also occasionally sets enemies on fire and gives you a powerful melee attack on top of that? Or how about modifying Isaac’s trademark plasma cutter, sacrificing its ability to rotate for a small submachine gun as it’s alt fire? In fact you can easily completely change the nature of the plasma cutter, so it’s not even the same weapon, it’s quite impressive. You’ll even be able to save the blueprints of your favorite new weapons and share them with your co-op buddy. It’s a surprisingly robust and enjoyable feature, allowing players to customize weapons, which have always been one of best parts of Dead Space is very smart.

For those worried that Dead Space 3 would be a huge departure from what the series is known for, this demo should go some way to quelling their panic. While the co-op does change the dynamic quite a bit, it still manages to be creepy and scary. It’s also very much optional, and leaves the core Dead Space experience relatively untouched. If you haven’t nabbed early access, you’ll be able to try the demo out for yourself, but rest assured it looks like EA and Visceral are doing right by the series.

Originally published on StickSkills.com

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Mass Effect 3: Omega (Xbox 360 DLC Review)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

ME3 Omega 1

It has to be tough making new story content for a game with a narrative that’s already come to a close. And yet that’s what BioWare is doing with Mass Effect 3. Leviathan was the first attempt and was mostly successful thanks to some fairly large lore revelations. BioWare Montreal–currently in pre-production with the next entry in the franchise–has produced the second piece of content: “Omega.” It’s fair less grand in scope than Leviathan, but promises to deliver a large chunk of content all the same. Unfortunately the context of its release may make it less appealing to anyone not currently in the middle of a playthrough.

“Omega” picks up a story thread that was left hanging in Mass Effect 3. In a side quest, Commander Shepard aided former Omega ruler Aria T’loak gain allies to help her take back the titular asteroid-turned-space-station. Between Mass Effect 2 and 3, Cerberus has taken over the station and Aria has fled to the Citadel. Once you helped her out, though, there was no pay-off to that particular side quest; you got your war assets and whatnot, but Omega remained under Cerberus control. You certainly couldn’t go there.

Until now.

BioWare has been talking a big talk with “Omega,” likening it more to an expansion pack than the more traditional DLC content we’ve become used to. It even has a price tag that implies it’s more content rich, but it’s not. The new chapter contains three hours of content at most. That’s about average for Mass Effect story DLC, and it’s certainly nowhere near what one would expect from an expansion. It’s a shame, because the content that is here is actually a lot of fun: very action-heavy, with a few Dead Space-esque sequences that enhance the atmosphere. You’ll also get some more insight into the character of Aria, thanks to the introduction of a female Turian named Nyreen. Their relationship is a complicated one, which you’ll discover the details of as they join your squad throughout the mission on Omega. None of your regular crew, it turns out, makes the trip.

In “Omega, you’ll see a different side of the station than you did in Mass Effect 2, as the areas you visited then are partially under the control of Cerberus. A lot of time is spent in small, darkened rooms, as Aria and her rag-tag army devise a plan to take Omega back. Some of Aria and Nyreen’s compatriots will also task you with the very few side quests available in this DLC, all of which you’ll complete as you follow the course of the main mission. For a space station that’s built into an asteroid ,BioWare managed to provide a lot of visual variety as you travel through abandon mine shafts and facilities. Unfortunately, some of the more impressive environments also suffer from frame rate issues (at least on the 360 version), although these moments are (thankfully) outside of combat.

ME3 Omega 2

It’s hard not to compare “Omega” to Mass Effect 3‘s first piece of story DLC, Leviathan. That DLC also came out a good while after the game, even after the Extended Cut content. But because it was about a very specific and ultimately pretty important part of the overall Mass Effect lore, it was far more enjoyable as a standalone piece. “Omega” feels like it needs to be played as part of a full Mass Effect 3 playthrough to be enjoyed. That way you can wrap up the story thread with Aria, get a bunch of new war assets and weapons, then carry on with your mission to defeat the Reapers. As it is, most people will play through “Omega” and then take Mass Effect 3 out of their systems until the next DLC is released.

Taken on its own, the “Omega” DLC for Mass Effect 3 is a pretty cool piece of content. But when you start to think about it in context–the price, the length and how far removed it is from the release of the main game–it starts to look a little different. These factors add up and make “Omega” look like a bit of a bum deal.

Originally published on StickSkills.com

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Mass Effect 3: Leviathan (Xbox 360 DLC Review)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

ME3 Leviathan

Whether you experienced the original ending, or the revamped Extended Cut, it’s hard to argue that Mass Effect 3did not, in fact, end. Commander Shepard’s story came to a blatant conclusion, presenting BioWare with the problem of what to do in terms of post-release DLC. If the developers were to add content to the end of the game, they would run into problems with linear storytelling, as each ending is drastically different from the next.  Unsurprisingly, BioWare decided to create content that slots into the regular game and can be played like any other side-mission,. This method is no doubt easier and smarter, though it is a bit limiting.

In Mass Effect 3′s first expansion,”Leviathan,” Shepard is informed of a secret research project, tasked with the investigation of something called “Leviathan,” a mysterious entity that apparently killed a Reaper. Obviously a creature as powerful as this could be a very useful ally in the war against the Reapers, so Shepard sets out to discover more about what it actually is. A large chunk of “Leviathan” involves investigation, though this aspect of the game is heavily front-loaded. Players must find clues to narrow down search parameters, which lead to a new location with clues in the quest to find out what (or who) Leviathan is.

ME3 Leviathan 2

Throughout the almost-three-hour length of “Leviathan” you will take part in small skirmishes against Reaper forces, who are themselves trying to track down Leviathan whilst stopping Shepard from doing the same. These moments bring a burst of excitement to an otherwise low-key piece of content. You’ll spend most of your time in the investigation sequences, searching offices and various complexes for clues to progress. A few sections also have a brilliantly creepy atmosphere, as you wander through dimly lit rooms and are told you shouldn’t have come by their occupants.

It’s safe to say “Leviathan” contains some fairly large revelations that give context to the Reapers and their origins. Is it necessary information? Not at all. The Reapers were fine as a seemingly ageless race whose origins were so old they could barely be comprehended. That said, having this new context does little to hurt the overall universe of Mass Effect. In fact it’s immensely interesting and has me intrigued to know more.

The revelations “Leviathan” holds are wrapped in an enjoyable piece of Mass Effect 3 content, that is sure to remind fans why they love the series. There are some truly spectacular visuals toward the end too, but overall, despite being enjoyable and building on the fiction, “Leviathan” isn’t quite a must-play.

Originally published on StickSkills.com

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Deadly Premonition (Xbox 360 Review)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Deadly PremonitionDeadly Premonition is an open world action-adventure with a distinctly Japanese bent. Taking control of FBI Agent Francis York Morgan, call him York, you have been sent to the rural town of Greenvale to investigate a murder. As you might imagine there’s a little more to the murder, which is why York has been called in. Agent York himself is a very odd man too, constantly talking to someone called Zack, who isn’t actually there.

Deadly Premonition is clearly a budget title: Awkward animation is bizarre and jarring in an age of motion capture and fluid, hand animated characters. That said there’s an admirable ambition behind everything in Deadly Premonition. For example you’ll get into cars often and be both amazed and amused to discover it has working indicators and window wipers which don’t have any practical use in the game.

The most fun you’ll have playing is when you’re wandering around the town of Greenvale, talking to the residents and discovering bizarre little secrets. When you won’t be having fun are the times you have to put up with the games serviceable (but lacking) shooting mechanics and some of the worst quick time events ever created.

Deadly Premonition is not a shooter, no one would ever claim it is, but the shooting sections are so long and prominent that they can’t be ignored. They just aren’t satisfying and seem to exist solely to add variety and length. It’s hard not to feel that the time that went into making these sections [and adding working window wipers – Ed] could’ve been applied to expanding on the adventure and exploration aspects of the game. Or having more ways to interact with and experience the world of Deadly Premonition would be welcome. In reality even those sections of the game are marred by a painfully methodical pace. It turns what could be an enjoyable and interesting experience into a draining grind.

If you’re someone who is partial to a bit of offbeat storytelling and like the sound of an anime version of Twin Peaks, with an extra dosing of pop culture references then you’ll probably love Deadly Premonition. But if you’re someone who would rather have a fairly straightforward narrative and doesn’t like long meandering dialogue sequences about Jaws or the merits of DVD extras, this might not be for you. To its credit the voice acting in the game is pretty good (if a bit heavy on the ham) and the dialogue is often quite funny, although it isn’t always clear if that’s the intention though.

If there’s something you’re not likely to see discussed it’s the audio mix of a game, meaning the volumes of the different audio aspects. The music in Deadly Premonition is at such a volume it overpowers everything else; make dialogue nearly impossible to hear without adjusting settings. It’s a shame because it detracts from one of the games best bits, the music itself. Perhaps those making the game realised this and decided to make sure everyone would pay it more attention, either way it is a glaring and baffling error and definitely one worth noting.

Deadly Premonition represents a problem that is far too common in games with interesting stories and concepts; the actual game part is a bit rubbish. This proves even more problematic as the story, characters, setting and general tone are only going to appeal to a niche audience to begin with. Putting that stuff behind a wall of broken game mechanics and monotony makes it’s appeal dwindle to the point of insignificance.

When it comes down to it as interesting and crazy as the story may be, it just isn’t enough to eleviate the rest of the games mediocrity.

Originally published on Square-Go.com

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Catherine (Xbox 360 Hands on preview)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

CatherineThe recent entries in the Persona series have gained a rather large cult following on Playstation 2 and PSP. Their blend of quirky high school relationship sim and traditional Japanese RPG managed to find more success than one might expect. Of course anyone who has played the games can see the appeal. Charming characters, an intriguing, if uniquely Japanese, story and solid RPG mechanics. Many are waiting in eager anticipation for the inevitable announcement of Persona 5 for current gen consoles. However while they wait the Persona team has been hard at work on a very different game.

Catherine is essentially a puzzle game but to present it as nothing more than that would be a disservice. In the game you play as Vincent, a 32 year old guy who has been dating his girlfriend Katherine for many years (he can’t quite remember how many though). Katherine thinks it’s about time they thought about marriage and settling down. Vincent isn’t so sure he’s ready to take that step. If that wasn’t enough for Vincent to think about, he soon meets Catherine. He wakes up in bed with her the next morning with no memory of what happened.

It’s a subject matter you rarely find in video games, often relationships are side stories which you can all but ignore. In Catherine however Vincent’s relationship crisis is set to be the main drive of the narrative. There are some hints at a more sinister subplot but it remains to be seen how much of an impact that has. The main thrust of the story definitely looks to focus on the love triangle of Vincent, Katherine and Catherine.

The other unique aspect of Catherine is that the bulk of the gameplay comes in the form of block puzzles. Presented as Vincents nightmares, you must guide him (in nothing but his boxer shorts) from the bottom of a tower of blocks to the top. In order to do so you will have to pull and push individual blocks to create steps for Vincent to climb. All the while a grotesque monster-like version of Katherine climbs up from below and if she catches you it’s game over. The preview levels were only available on Easy difficulty, which didn’t provide too large a challenge. These also appeared to be from very early in the game, later puzzles promise more variety and different block types to increase the puzzles complexity.

You will be able to interact with Vincent’s world while he’s awake too, mostly The Stray sheep, the bar where he hangs out. No block puzzles here though, well aside from an arcade game found there. You can also chat to people in said bar, both friends and just fellow customers. While there you’ll also receive text messages, which you can reply to. There are a few different lines to choose from, each with their own implications. Whichever response you select will have an affect on both Vincent and the person you’re replying to.

The only big barrier to entry Catherine has is that it’s wrapped in a Persona-esque anime aesthetic. This isn’t for everyone, so while some may be interested by the games themes and story the distinctly Japanese wrapper could put them off.

While the puzzle game element being the bulk of the gameplay is somewhat baffling, it’s the themes and subject matter that make Catherine so interesting. The promise of a game where the conflict is a mans struggle with an emotional relationship crisis is unique to say the least. Whether the full version of Catherine ends up as compelling as the demo suggests, it’s certainly commendable to see a developer put out something so mature and different.

Originally published on Square-Go.com

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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (Xbox 360 hands on preview)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Call of DutyIt is somewhat expected at this point that any first person shooter worth its salt won’t just have story based campaign and competitive multiplayer modes to keep us entertained. No, they now also need some kind of co-operative mode. One which involves getting together with some friends to hunker down and take on wave afer wave of increasingly difficult enemies. It may not have been the first but Gears of War particularly popularised the idea with its extremely fun and engaging Horde mode.

Past Call of Duty games have had slightly similar modes. Of course there’s the ever popular zombie mode, which is the most directly comparable to Horde. The Modern Warfare sub-series did things a little differently though, they had Spec Ops. These were small co-op missions each with their own objectives and unique environments, although some were similar to missions from the games campaign modes. This mode will return in Modern Warfare 3 but it will also be joined by a new Survival Mode, which is what I recently had a chance to play.

Survival Mode, stop me if you’ve heard this one before, sees one or two players face off against wave after wave of increasingly difficult enemies. While a straight copy of Horde mode with Call of Duty’s shooting system could be fun, there are a few differences to make this system a little more interesting. As you progress and kill enemies you and your partner will earn cash, each having your own pool. This can be used to purchase weapons, equipment and upgrades at several terminals scattered around the map.

I only had access to the weapons station at first, but as the game progressed the other ones unlocked and appeared on the map. One for equipment and a final for special killstreak-esque unlocks. The weapon station allows you to purchase different guns and also upgrade them with the usual red dot sights and all the add-ons you’ve grown to expect in Call of Duty games. The equipment station is much the same but for things like claymores and grenades, you are also free to keep what you already have and just use the stations to restock ammo. This will conserve your money for the final, and I’d argue, most fun station.

When I played the Survival Mode, I was lucky enough to be paired with a player who was of broadly equal skill to myself; which meant we managed to last a little longer than most. This allowed me to use that last upgrade station a few times. At the station you can purchase what are essentially killstreak rewards, like those you find in competitive multiplayer. So you can get an airstrike or a helicopter to come in and clean up the enemies for you. My personal favourite was the ability to call in Delta squad, a group of marines who drop down from an attack helicopter and fight alongside you. It made the whole thing feel more like a mission from the campaign, with a large scale firefight breaking out in place of the tense back to the wall encounters we’d been having up till then.

The ability to purchase upgrades so readily made the mode feel like an accelerated version of the multiplayer. Within a few waves I’d already ditched my starting weapons for superior replacements and decked them out with a red dot sight and grenade launcher. It gave a much greater feeling of progression than just seeing the wave number increase.

Much like Spec Ops the Survival Mode is limited to two players, which is unfortunate as half the fun of these types of modes is the atmosphere created by having a group of friends playing together. That said, it is a great addition to the usual Call of Duty package and it should definitely be a lot of fun.

Originally Published on Square-Go.com

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