Category Archives: Reviews

LA Noire: A movie masquerading as a game

LA Noire is an incomparably beautiful work. Its high-definition facial detail, unparalleled lighting animation, and physics are things that no video game or movie has ever created in such magnificent scale or detail. But it’s also something that can hardly be considered a game at all. Rather, LA Noire is more suited for the silver screen than your home theater system.

Games are meant to be played and interacted with, but LA Noire is designed to be watched. This is not a critique, necessarily, but it’s a distinction that needs to be made. LA Noire‘s most immediate ancestors are board games like Monopoly and Life, games that offer the player a very select list of options that force the game’s movement. Make no mistake, despite the autonomy that LA Noire feigns, there is no purpose greater than solving the predetermined case. Despite including street crime cases that can be “solved”–this typically involves a rooftop shootout and the postmortem calling of an ambulance–or the ability to free ride around 1947 Los Angeles, there is no discernible reason to do anything other than drive to where you’re instructed, question who you’re supposed to, and eventually solve your case: I rolled a 12 and landed on Park Place. Should I buy it or just roll again? Repeat.

The game’s actionable features include driving to a location, looking at things (important things are written down for you in a notebook, unimportant ones are disregarded; you’re not able to make this determination) and questioning people. This cycle repeats itself until you’ve found your way to the killer/mastermind/arsonist/etc., only to be repeated in the next case. In an effort to break this status quo, the designers added chase scenes (both on foot and in cars), physical confrontations, and shoot outs, all of which fail to hide the eventuality of the situation. When engaged in a gun fight, the game auto-locks on enemies, because action heroes don’t miss. On-foot chase scenes require no real-time skills other than avoidance of obstacles, many of which your character will involuntarily hurdle or climb if you run into them. And in some instances, the environment will react in cinematic, preplanned ways; that bridge didn’t crumble because you stepped on a switch or took too long, but because you stepped on it at all, and it’s thrilling to watch your character narrowly avoid a catastrophic fall.

LA Noire isn’t even paced like a video game, least of all the sandbox games that developer Rockstar is known for (the Grand Theft Auto series) and this game invariably draws comparisons to. You can hijack any car on the street but they’re all similar in function, handling, and speed, to say nothing of the incentive of keeping your police car in shape (when you’re in a police car, you receive radio dispatches informing you of nearby street crimes). And when you are in transit, your character and his partner have important, relevant-to-the-story conversations about evidence in the case, where to go next, and reflections on where you just came from. It’s scripted, and not in the typical video game sense, which uses repeat jargon to fill down time. Everything a character says is important. The game also conditions you to act in accordance with real-world mores. When questioning people, they quickly shut down if you accuse them of lying too frequently. And slowly combing over crime scenes is not the kind of activity you expect to be doing in a video game. Because of this, for example, you subconsciously drive slowly around the streets of Los Angeles, rather than terrorizing it as you might in similar games.

The real windfall is the detail and presentation, which are both unmatched in the world of CGI. A subtle albeit brilliant feature is the customization of each house and storefront. You don’t drive past endlessly repeating McMansions or family-sized ranches. Instead, each building has a unique design, encouraging you to look around and soak in what the game has to offer. And the high definition facial recognition features present an unrivaled experience. LA Noire teeters on the edge of the Uncanny Valley without falling in.

This is a game that will draw far higher critical praise than player support, because it’s not designed for players. It was no fluke that it was featured at the Tribeca Film Festival. But LA Noire is well written and captivating, making it an interesting watch, but it’s the kind of game that needs to be played primarily to say you’ve played and experienced it, not because it will revolutionize gaming.

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Portal 2: A game about game design

There are spoilers below, so if you haven’t played Portal 2 yet and don’t want to know the details of the storyline, I suggest you go elsewhere in 3… 2…

Following up one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time is no small feat, and given the relatively limited universe that the original Portal functions in–the confines of Aperture Science–making a sequel within those constraints only further complicates the task. But leave it to Valve to find every explorable nook and cranny in what becomes a mile-deep wonderland of freakish experiments and death traps.

On the surface, Portal 2 is not unlike its forebearer: once again, you become the faceless protagonist Chell attempting to escape Aperture’s puzzling science factory with the use of the company’s prototype portal weapon. Unlike the original, you now have the assistance of various robots within the facility, namely the British-accented Wheatley and eventually, Portal‘s antagonist GLaDOS.

Where the original gained notoriety for its twisting storyline and closing scene, the story in Portal 2 is basically secondary to the goal: escape Aperture Science. You’re not trying to figure out what’s going on, how you got where you are, or why there’s a Big Brother-like robot trying to kill you; the game assumes you know all of that already (or have at least come to terms with not knowing the answers) and sends you through the puzzles and mazes of Aperture. This shift in focus allows for the game to introduce its biggest plot twist: the takeover of Aperture by the genial and previously helpful programmed Aperture core, Wheatley. When he takes over the facility and insists on testing much the way GLaDOS always had, the game really takes off.

The most captivating part of Portal 2 is the third act when, after being sent to the very basement of the now-decrepit Aperture facility, you encounter the omnipotent Wheatley and his series of puzzles. Throughout the game, GLaDOS refers to Wheatley as an idiot, which, given GLaDOS’s passive aggressiveness, doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy. But once you start traversing Wheatley’s tests, it becomes clear what she means.

The dichotomy between GLaDOS’s and Wheatley’s tests is striking: Though the former’s are neatly constructed environments, the latter designs tests like an idiot would, that is, with brute strength. There’s no poetry to Wheatley’s tests despite them being the hardest in the series. He rips apart infrastructure and doesn’t spend nearly as much time with the intricacies of GLaDOS’s tests. For example, in one of his latter tests, he doesn’t supply an exit so he tears apart a neighboring test chamber to create one.

One reason for this barbaric structure is that he’s openly trying to kill you, which is different from GLaDOS’s more subtle mockery and aggression. But Wheatley is also unconcerned with you following any sort of predetermined path: as long as you die, he’s happy. And making you stumble through Aperture Science’s infrastructure, rather than neatly crafted test chambers seems the most immediate way to kill you.

This thematic level shift manifests itself, primarily, by necessitating larger levels that are more concerned with big jumps, gaining speed, and uncovering the select few places in each level where portals can actually be placed. The addition of white, portal-harboring gel that can be spread around levels adds complexity to the game. Rather than determining where you need to go and what the best path is, this gel allows you to create that path yourself, not unlike Wheatley tearing apart the facility’s finely crafted insides.

While the level design is clearly the game’s greatest achievement, not far behind it is the game’s real storyline: that of former (now dead) Aperture Science CEO Cave Johnson. After Wheatley mercilessly tosses you to the basement of the facility, you spend most of your time in what was once the Aperture main offices and entrance. As you walk through abandoned cubicles, automated messages from Johnson blare overhead about tests, compensation, and general safety memos. But on the walls are murals of Johnson that chronicle his descent into madness and destruction from mercury poisoning, caught from his own experiments. The game’s introduction of these characters–Johnson’s assistant is also included–and narration of their stories is eloquent and subtle in a way that, if Portal players weren’t so concerned with investigating every detail, would go unnoticed.

All of which is to say that, though it clocks in at only about eight hours, Portal 2 is easily the most ambitious release in recent memory. Valve isn’t worried about trying to trick you or confuse you, and they’re only tangentially concerned with innovative gameplay–the original Portal‘s gameplay was successful, so there are very few new additions to the successful model. They’re concerned with an interpretable, real life situation that you can relate to despite the game’s sci-fi roots and mechanics.

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Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters review

I know I said that I was going to start writing more frequently here and then promptly ignored the site for months, but it’s not the sporting offseason for basically everything I write about over at Burgeoning Wolverine Star. This, however, is just a quick update and a plug for my most recent review on PopMatters: Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters.

Money quote:

Despite all of these complaints, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters is still an incredible game. It’s only when you compare it to its ancestors that the game’s new features and general lack of progress feel stilted and disappointing. For diehard Tiger Woods fans and golfers, the addition of Augusta National is likely worth it, but for the casual player, there’s very little benefit to this year’s issue of the most consistent gaming franchise in recent memory.

There’s one thing I failed to mention in this review. The game is always trying to make you purchase the DLC courses. During your career, you frequently try to enter tournaments that you aren’t allowed to play in because you don’t have the course. If you want to play in that tournament, you have to buy the DLC. I’ve played in three PGA tour events and had to skip two others because I didn’t have the course. This is a real pain in the ass.

But it’s still a Tiger Woods game, which means it’s better than just about 70% of games on the market.

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Catching up

I’ve been looking for a way to start talking about the music and video games that I care about again. Since I already have a blog in place, I might as well pick up where I left off. Most of my writing is (and will continue to be) wrapped up in Michigan football over at Burgeoning Wolverine Star, but I’m going to make an effort to start writing here semi-frequently.

I’ve written a bunch of video game reviews since the last one I posted here, but the most recent is the remake of Goldeneye for the Wii:

Unfortunately, in 2010 the archetype that saw Goldeneye 007 rise to fame in 1997 is a wildly outdated model that without a significant revamp pales in comparison to its contemporaries. But modeling the game directly after the current next-gen FPS completely destroys the game’s remake nostalgia. The Wii’s limited graphical capabilities combined with the game’s own existential uncertainty combine for a game that’s woefully undermatched against its contemporaries and is disjointed in its own right.

Regardless, I’m looking to start writing here more frequently.

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Punch-Out!! review

I reviewed (a while ago, though it just ran today, go figure) Punch-Out!! for the Wii. There’s really not much to say that I didn’t already mention in my review, but basically, it’s kind of mediocre. Money quote:

Ostensibly, Punch-Out!! is the perfect game for the Wii: simple intuitive controls, the ability to successfully take advantage of the Wii’s motion-sensor capabilities, and a remake of a classic Nintendo title. The game seems so well suited for the Wii that it’s surprising that it took Nintendo so long to adapt it to its next-gen system—in retrospect, it would’ve been the ideal launch title with the system. Unfortunately, Punch-Out!! nary deserves the marquee release that it’s been given; it is a game wholly limited by it’s greatest selling point: its adherence to its source material.

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Ghostface track review

I reviewed the new Ghostface Killah track “Forever” for Pitchfork. I rather enjoyed it and, when I submitted it, ended up giving it an 8. It was edited and given a 7 (which is common, but just figured y’all should know). It is from, or at least in support of, his new R&B album that has been rumored.

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X-Men Origins: Wolverine review

About a month ago now, I found out that NCAA Football ’10 wasn’t coming out on the Wii. As I grew increasingly excited about the prospect of my beloved Michigan Wolverines returning to dominating glory (or, ya know, .500), I decided that I absolutely had to own a system to play NCAA ’10 on. So I got impulsive, went out the next day to GameStop, and bought an XBox 360.

Now I review video games for the system–as well as still reviewing games for Wii. My first review is of the extremely violent X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I said this:

Enter Wolverine, a member of the historic X-Men series. His powers are varied but all increasingly cool (largely the most appropriate word for his skills). He can smell and sense danger, a helpful but mostly innocuous skill. His body heals at super-human speed making him nearly impossible to kill, again, cool, but mostly PG-rated. And he has razor sharp blades that can cut through any material and that rip through his flesh whenever he needs them … wait, what? When thought about logically, the way that Wolverine “subdues” enemies is, basically, to cut them in half. He’s the equivalent of a back-alley mugger that has uncompromising stealth and six really, really sharp knives that he uses to fatal effect. But that never passes through your mind when you watch the popular ‘90s cartoon or read the books. He just seems particularly bad ass.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine, however, is something of a blood bath. And given the frequency of the gory slow motion cut scenes and writhing, limbless enemies for the creators, this is more a blood bubble bath, a playfully enjoyable celebration of dismemberment and blood-gushing death. This isn’t a slight against the game, though, just an aspect of the game that’s glaringly obvious from the get go.

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