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Archive for May, 2010

Impressions: Red Dead Redemption

Posted by deckard47 on May 20, 2010

Red Dead Redemption

Well, this is a fairly straightforward post, obviously. I bought two games. I’ll talk about Read Dead Redemption first, just because.

I’ve been getting more and more annoyed by all of the reviews talking about “what Rockstar’s done,” and this new “Rockstar developed game.” There’s no doubt in my mind that the corporate overlords in New York came in at various points and game this game the flavor and airs that come with a Rockstar Title. That’s what they do. It makes them oodles of money, thanks to all of those funny, funny jokes (that’s a link to the “Dastardly” achievement, which players get for tying a woman up and leaving her in front of a train).

This is also a Rockstar San Diego game. They are their own development team, and however awful and constricted their workplace has been, they did their own work and made their own game. These are the people who, a long time ago, made the Midtown Madness games (on PC, before the series went to shit on the Hexbox). That’s actually really weird. Anyway.

RDR is obviously a “Rockstar Game.” It’s also obviously a game made by a team that knows a thing or two more than the GTA IV team. The shooting isn’t crap. The cover isn’t crap. The horses handle better than the cars ever did. You can save anywhere, mostly! Marston doesn’t handle like a bathtub on centuries-old wheels. No one’s talked to me about Teeties! Really, it’s a bright new world, and I kind of dig it.

It’s a slow, ponderous open world, and it feels just right. I don’t want to jet around like Rico or Alec Mason. I don’t want to insta-travel, or at least not often. More than Just Cause 2, even, this is a world I like wandering around. Even when I don’t find wildlife to hunt or instanced quests or bandits, the world is beautiful and character-ful enough that I’m not yet bored with it. I’m pleased with the game’s economy so far: ammo and money are everywhere (bandits, mostly), but so far, prices are high enough that I never have more than a few dollars on me after a trip to town.

Fighting, hunting, and running away from wildlife is more fun than I thought it would be. They’re hard to shoot, and they drop valuable pelts and skins. Combat is a measured, solid affair: it takes a while to properly kill or contain each batch of desperadoes, and reloading, Dead Eye (bullet time), and corpse looting all slow down combat. Combat encounters are either concluded instantly (thanks to perfect Dead Eye use) or slowly. The latter occurred when I chased down a group of bandits in a long canyon. It took about half an hour, but it felt like just the right amount of time for such a mission. I haven’t died yet in combat, so I don’t know if GTA IV‘s hideously spaced checkpoints have made a return. Honestly, the combat is easy enough (and fun enough) that I might not mind.

That’s the good stuff.

What’s not so great? The cutscenes and expository sections do the game, its story, and its writing a great disservice. Don’t get me wrong: the writing isn’t brilliant. The dialog and acting do, however, set an appropriate mood, and I haven’t encountered too many cringe-worthy story turns yet. It’s a serviceable Western, a story of loyalty, old and new friendships, and journeys home. I like Bonnie McFarlane, Armadillo’s Sheriff is entertaining enough, and John Marston is gruff, if bland. The problem arises in the absolutely interminable cutscenes and driving sequences. Cutscenes in this game last anywhere from 2 minutes to 10 minutes. Some are entertaining, some are boring, but all of them are too long. The periods where I sit, watching cowboys talk, never seem to end. This isn’t how you engage players: don’t take away my ability to do things for minutes and minutes on end.

The long horseback conversations (identical to the long car trip conversations en route to missions in GTA IV) are almost as bad. They’re glorified cutscenes. Marston and his chosen companion talk about the job ahead, their lives, or how they know each other. Luckily, if you ever have to repeat a mission, the dialogue will change. It makes a boring, frequent process slightly less boring. It never excuses these long, protracted sequences. I’d rather watch a cutscene, if I’m just going to be riding along a set path anyway.

So, it’s quite fun, if a little longwinded at (all) times. It’s also beautiful (really, the draw distance, level of detail, and quality of animation are all excellent) and wonderfully scored. The core and sound effects are great, with bullets, animals, and everyday sounds coming out just right, while the music feels just as whimsical, lonesome, and Morricone-like as one could hope for.

Alan Wake is (pretty obviously) an entirely different beast, but I’ll get to that in the next post

Posted in Impressions | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

Max Payne 2 and the Secret of the Well-Designed Controls

Posted by deckard47 on May 11, 2010

Bullet Kiss!

Bullet Kiss!

I’m quite looking forward to Remedy’s Alan Wake. I know that it’s supposed to be “overly linear,” that the facial animations don’t look great (they’re thinking of fixing that with DLC, oddly), there are “bad world textures” during the daytime (is that something that keeps you up at night after you beat the game? Really?), and it’s kind of the same thing over and over. I also know that the combat is supposed to be good, and fun, the game is supposed to be beautiful and atmospheric, and the voicework and writing range from good/hilarious to awful/hilarious. So it’s a step up from the Max Payne games then.

Max Payne and Max Payne 2 are, from a mechanics and rules standpoint, quite similar. Max Payne is a close-perspective third person shooter in which the player shoots hundreds of New York thugs, crooked cops, and other criminals using an outlandish collection of guns and a slow motion combat mechanic borrowed from The Matrix (and Max Payne did it first, amazingly). Honestly, that only communicates a portion of what makes Max Payne (and for me, its superior sequel) so much fun. The Max Payne games are, simply put, more fun and easy to control than a significant portion of every other single game ever released. I think it’s awesome that Remedy are doing what they’re doing, showing up huge developers (or smaller arms of huge developers) with their fun. “small,” and (god forbid) short games.

Max Payne 2 is Max Payne with some of the tedious stuff excised, and some less tedious stuff put in its place. In Max Payne there was the (hilariously, probably unintentionally vaginally referential) “V,” a designer drug that tore up Manhattan, and out hero’s life. In Max Payne 2, the silly dialogue and less silly dream sequences associated with V have been replaced by straight-up dreams and nightmares, all playable. They’re now long, weird-looking levels, with a bunch of vaseline smudges over the screen (and, often, screams and murmurs from the actress playing Mona Sax). That’ll do.

That’s it really. A few changes have been made to the bullet time mechanic, Max looks a bit older, and the cutscenes are now a little more “water color” looking. What matters – the guns, the combat, and the controls – are just the same: almost perfect.

Bullet Crouch!

Bullet Crouch!

Playing Max Payne, I’m reminded that when developers want to, they can create games, control schemes, and engines that respond with fluidity and rapidity to my every input. When I tell Max to dodge right while looking left, he’ll do so with alacrity. I can shoot just about anything I want, as long as I account for different levels of gun accuracy, distance, and intervening objects. The game’s limited jump is good for surmounting small obstacles and crossing short gaps: there are never anything but small obstacles and short gaps in Max Payne 2. How novel.

If I fail, or die, or take too much damage, it’s never because I had a time of it fighting the wretched controls. It’s always because I wasn’t quick enough on the draw, because I mistimed that bullet-dive, because I dropped that grenade this side of that explosive box, and not on the other side. It’s because I failed a test of skill against the game’s inhabitants and combat arenas, not the game’s controls. When was the last time I could say that about a game? Certainly, this can be attributed (somewhat) to the game’s terribly simple controls. There’s no such thing as cover here, or walking, or sprinting. I can’t move while crouched; instead, moving just forces me to stand. I can move, I can enter into super slow motion firing mode, and I can bullet dive.

None of these mechanics are fiddly, or hard to activate. None of them are withheld from me (for long, in the case of bullet time). Ammo is plentiful, if you’re a good shot. Enemies are plentiful, bot not too plentiful. The environments are well-designed: each one is a bit different than the last. Sometimes I have the high ground. Sometimes three snipers will get the drop on my instantly. Sometimes the best move is to whip out my MAC-10s and slow-mo into a room and shoot every last one of those assholes. It’s simple, incredibly fun, and, dare I say it, quite elegant.

Each kill incrementally slows down time (in the sepia-toned bullet time), enemies, and the sounds they make. After three kills, I’m in The Zone (what else could I call it, in a game starring Russian criminals?). I’m still moving, shooting, and aiming at maximum speed, and my enemies move like they’re running along the bottom of a pool, they’re gestures and motions comically slow. It’s at this point that I get cocky: I’ll waste my bullets on a corpse, to watch it fly a bit farther. I’ll pick the wrong target, leaving myself open to deadly attacks. Sometimes I just plain miss, leading to damage and death, if I’m not careful. This is where the real fun of Max Payne 2 comes into play. Time to hit that reload button. In Max Payne 2, the Quicksave is your first line of defense. Use it ever other 10 seconds, when not in combat. As soon as I die, I reload. Then I sit and think awhile.

Bullet Dodge!

Bullet Dodge!

Enemies in Max Payne 2 always spawn in the same place. Always. Once I alert them, they’ll always attack me in the same way, unless I change things up a bit. If I bust down the door and start firing off shotgun rounds every time, they’ll all dodge, find cover, or shoot at me, endlessly repeating one set of responses. It’s up to me to change the narrative of each combat encounter.

Once you realize that this is how Max Payne 2 works, you’ll start playing differently: I know I did. Every combat encounter become a playground of death and lead, open to my tinkering. Maybe this time I’ll throw a grenade through the door, snipe the first guard who shows his head, and dive through the rebounding door just after the blast. Or not. Maybe I’ll miss that shot, or the grenade will bounce off the door, or the door will burst open, knocking me back. Once I get a handle on that first encounter, I can control the situation. It’s up to me to do it badly, or execute my plan to perfection (even if it’s a bad plan).

It’s no surprise to me that one popular mod (“Battle Tactics 2.0,” I believe) for Max Payne played out like a third person, slow motion version of Frozen Synapse or X-COM. A turn based mod, players had a turn to move and shoot, and following that the AI would take their turn. Max Payne 2 is best played with an eye for moment-to-moment tactics and the smart allocation of resources. Like it’s successors (the FEAR games), it gives players powerful, simple, and exciting tools with which to alter its world. They’re not much to look at, but the Baretta and the Bullet-Dodge are a lot more fun than a lot of the bullshit thrown around in recent games.

From Divinity 2 (which I do have quite a soft spot for) to Dead to Rights: Retribution (a truly hideous game), games seem content to make usability and simplicity of control last on their list of things that should actually make it into in the game. These (and many other) games aren’t great, but I honestly couldn’t care less how good they are if their controls are pure shit. I don’t quit games: I play them until I’m satisfied that I’ve sussed out what fun there is to be had in them. The one thing that will cause me to hate every second of a game is that game’s inability to make interacting with its world fun and easy. Dead to Rights‘ control scheme is infuriatingly implemented: buttons aren’t reconfigurable (and whoever configured them doesn’t possess human hands), the gunfights are slight, boring things (the feedback for landed shots is bad), and the hand-to-hand combat is difficult to get a handle on. Even when you “master” it, the PC’s inability to flow from one target to another ( I miss you Batman: AA and Among Thieves) is incredibly frustrating, and his inability to perform more than the simplest combos (thanks to constant melee/ranged attacks) is even less amusing.

Max Payne 2 is fun. The story is silly, the acting is mostly bad, and the writing is ludicrous (but wonderful, in its peculiar way, I’d argue). It’s fun though. As a gameplay experience, it’s the easiest, smoothest thing I’ve come across that isn’t 10 years old and played out in two dimensions. The camera never once failed me. The game’s animations and weapons never once foiled my plans. It’s as if someone made a game that was meant to make my play experience fun, easy, and (to a gamer) highly intuitive. It even beats out Batman and Among Thieves, just because it’s a bit simpler; I’m, less likely to accidentally take cover or throw a stupid batarang in Max Payne 2. Why is this a rare set of qualities in a game?

Posted in Oldies But Goodies, Thoughts! | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Articles: A Rules of the Game Roundup!

Posted by deckard47 on May 7, 2010

Before I get down to business, I wanted to make a quick note of something I’ll (hopefully) be writing about soon: tragically irony-free, unselfconscious use of retro-chic/”art deco” styles in games to fill in gaping world holes and failings. I’m looking at the Bioshock series and Fallout 3 here. Mostly Bioshock 2 and Fallout 3, but Bioshock muscles it’s way onto the list, somehow. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, since I just beat Bioshock 2, and I’m playing Fallout and Fallout 3 simultaneously (all for Popmatters, actually). Anyway, it’s just impossible to escape the sense that these stylings are approaching unpleasant, completely meaningless levels of recursive, unselfconscious self-referencing and cultural “meaning.” But that’s for another post.

For now, I bring you a trifecta (yes!) of pieces from Rules of the Game. First, there’s Simon’s Section 8 (PS3) review. He feels much the same as I felt about it, especially that awful, nonexistent shooting/feedback issue. Check it out:

Unfortunately, one vital aspect of feedback is lacking from Section 8: the joy of the kill. You don’t notice how important this is in a space marine game until it’s taken away from you: the death scream of a UNSC Spartan flying through the air after getting stuck with a plasma grenade. In Section 8, enemies simply crumple to the ground when they die. Many times, I didn’t even know that I’d scored a kill, or how I’d done it, until I looked at the kill list. This is coupled t0 somewhat vague feedback from gunfire. With weapons that fire slowly, it’s easy to tell whether you’ve scored a hit or not: a significant amount of enemy health decreases, and you’ll notice a tiny radiating color coming off your targeting reticle. But in the case of rapid-firing weapons it can get aggravatingly tough to figure out how many of your shots are making contact.

Absolutely spot-on. Read the rest here, at RotG.

Next, we have Mariam Asad’s excellent piece on Heavy Rain, its camera, and the player. Here’s a bit to entice you:

My reading of the effect of camera angles is grounded in apparatus theory, specifically Jean-Louis Baudry’s essay “The Ideological Effects of the Cinematographic Apparatus.” Baudry argues that the cinema embeds meaning through the camera’s very method of representation. It transforms discrete images (frames) into movement and continuity; the viewer forgets that the apparatus is present. By contrast, the camera in Heavy Rain is jarring and disruptive, which is especially evident through the use of quick cuts during fight sequences. While this is a standard cinematic technique, Heavy Rain takes this to another level by dedicating the L1 button almost entirely to changing the camera angle. This speaks to the significance of camera angles in the narrative design of Heavy Rain, not only as a heavy cinematic influence, but also to the way in which it impacts agency.

There’s a lot of stuff to be said and read about Heavy Rain, but this is definitely one of the more interesting ones. Here’s the link to the full article.

Finally, here’s my review of Zombie Driver. It’s not bad, though I neglect to mention the game’s interesting quest/regard/time passage mechanic, which is quite similar to that used in Dead Rising. It’s basically GTA 2 with hostile zombie hordes, and it’s way more fun than it has any right to be. Plus, those timed quests really are interesting. Here’s an excerpt:

There are so many ways to wreak havoc: hit the turbo button, then throw your car into a power slide, and watch it cut a perfect arc of bloody death through the already dead. Maybe guns are too ostentatious; maybe you’d rather drive as close as possible to the exploding zombies. As you drive by each one, they’ll go off, destroying all zombies nearby, possibly setting off a chain reaction with other exploders. Exor Studios made sure each of these possibilities is as visually violent and tactile as possible. Different zombies make different noises when they attack you and when you run them over. Each gun has a distinctive sound and look, and (of course!) each weapon kills zombies in a childishly pleasing and different way.

So yeah. Go read it, maybe? Here!

Finally, in non-RotG article related news, I’ve a Metro 2033-centric piece up at Game Set Watch. It focuses on the things I wish Metro 2033 had really been about (something I touched on in my review). Here’s a bit of it:

In a game that looks like a scary corridor shooter,  a game whose most common enemies are hard to kill and take an inordinate number of bullets to fell, scavenge-centric survival horror gameplay can be incredibly frustrating. Of course, this scarcity of resources, when combined with an almost overpowering enemy force, creates a powerful atmosphere of danger. Yet Metro 2033 isn’t just content to communicate the horrible conditions everyone in Moscow lives in. They do one better and make combat in the game a pretty horrible experience.

Here’s the rest of it!

That’s it. I apologize for this giant link-dump/article roundup. It’s a bit lazy, but since I’ve been writing so much for these places, I haven’t had time to throw something up on the blog, which seemed unfair. So there they all are, the fruits of my and my comrades’ toil. Until later.

Posted in Analysis, Articles, Reviews | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »