Saturday, February 9, 2013
Basically just play Memento forwards. Maybe recast the whole thing. or else continue the story back in time!
Ception, alternatively Outception.
What happens next in Inception? The world wants to know. Plus you get a chance to explain that confusing ending!
Dark Knights and Baney Days
Bring back Bane and have him team up with Batman to take on Gotham City's underworld. Also have Bane narrate the entire film.
Saturday, December 29, 2012
My wife and I were going to take our 2 year old son on a trip to Hawaii in October, but we greatly feared what would happen when we did. Our son's attention span rarely lasts very long with anything, and we were talking about a 5 hour flight. In order to alleviate the boredom, my wife got me an iPad 3 for Father's day, with an eye towards using it to occupy our son on the flight.
It was and is a beautiful device with a fantastic screen and a very responsive, usable, OS. There are of course a lot of apps and games for the iPad, but most of them weren't that useful, with the exception of a bunch of kids apps and some videos on iTunes. Virtually the only game I played on the iPad was Magic: The Gathering Duels of the Planeswalkers which felt really good with touch controls. It ended up working fairly well at distracting my son during the flight.
Unexpectedly I ended up continuing on to New York by myself for work and rather than drag a laptop all over the country, I decided to just bring my iPad. It was a reasonable device for my needs but I found it frustrating to use the keyboard for restaurant searches and the like. I also missed having a real IM with a keyboard. Overall it was workable, and I really enjoyed the iPad for a while.
All of this is to present the context of my Surface experience. I had used what was basically the best device in the tablet space and enjoyed it. The Surface had something to live up to for sure. I also happened to own an older Tablet PC that I installed windows 8 on, so it did have a touchscreen, but didn't support all the windows 8 multitasking functionality because the screen resolution was too low.
The week before I got my surface I was taking some time off from work and I was bumming around Seattle coffee shops with my tablet PC. The tablet PC was a full core 2 duo machine and it weighs about 3 or 4 lbs. Possibly more. It's not exactly huge but it lacks the svelte profile of a modern tablet. I had already found myself wishing for a surface. I brought my iPad along on these jaunts, but the kind of thing I was doing. Chatting on IM, posting on Facebook, replying to emails, and writing my Windows Phone 8 thoughts, were all better on my PC than the Surface.
Enter the Surface. I finally got my Surface RT and I was able to take it around an do all the stuff I'd wanted to do with my iPad but ended up needing a laptop for.
At first, I was a little disappointed. There were a bunch of obvious bugs and very odd behavior. Then I was able to update the OS and apps and the experience improved considerably. I felt I had a real sense for what the developers of Surface and Windows RT were gong for.
Let me say that, unfortunately, everything feels very version 1.0. There are niggling little bugs, and missing features all over the place. Some of the touch controls are startlingly worse than similar controls on Windows Phone which is pretty disappointing. Let me say this, though, I think it feels a lot more like an Apple version 1.0 than a Microsoft version 1.0. Microsoft is generally quite a bit worse at version 1.0s than anyone else and the Surface still feels like a good product.
In fact, it has virtually replaced the iPad in our house, with a few exceptions. The only thing it really lacks at this point is apps. And there are a plethora of apps for kids for iPad, which is why my son is now the main user of the iPad in our house.
How has it replaced the iPad otherwise?
The web browser is fast, fluid, and fantastic. It loads pages with ease and even displays flash on some pages. I don't think Safari is is a bad browser by any means, but IE 10 on surface blows it away in my estimation. The browser is so good I can even use it for Facebook and some of the other "missing" apps.
But that's also because of the Touch cover. The Touch Cover is a huge upgrade in my eyes. I know there are Bluetooth keyboards for iPad, but The touch cover also has a track pad and this makes all the difference in the world to me. I can use it for desktop apps and having the cursor is vey helpful for some websites. Plus it takes up basically the same amount of space as my "smart cover" on my iPad and is considerably more functional. The typing is a bit weird, but you get used to it. I still type faster on a normal keyboard, but I'm typing up these thoughts on my surface with my Touch Cover and it's actually not going too badly, though using shift keys can make things sketchy. The spacebar has also taken a bit of getting used to. This basically completes the device and turns it into a functioning PC (for me) with a form factor basically the same as the iPad. I used it for Christmas shopping and reading and watching videos and it's great for all of that. One reason for that is the kickstand.
The kickstand is also, to me, a huge upgrade to the iPad design. I've used it when using the surface like a laptop, I've used it just while reading or watching videos. It even helps when using the camera for some things. The Smart Cover just doesn't work well enough at standing up the iPad, the kickstand is a huge improvement. Just having it in the kitchen with my One Note with my pancake recipe up was very nice when making Christmas breakfast.
For me the Surface RT is not quite a full PC replacement, but it's damn close. I need a compiler and a stylus for any device I'd want, and coding on a Touch Cover seems like an exercise in frustration. But if I just wanted to use Office, email, surf the web, and do social networking, the Surface would be a pretty complete solution in my opinion.
It is a touch slow at some things, and sometimes in surprising ways. I'd still like more apps, and more particularly games, but since this stuff runs on windows 8 also, I have a feeling that stuff is coming, particularly with 35,000 apps in only 3 months. It's also improved considerably in the short time I've owned it, which I find to be pretty hopeful. I realize it's a little pricey, but it feels like a high end device. Highly recommended to anyone who needs a device for light pc work.
Tuesday, November 20, 2012
I ended up with a Samsung Focus and used it for two years, basically until my contract was up. Initially I liked the phone, and really enjoyed the overall design of the OS. I liked the speed and fluidness, and I also enjoyed how the applications all worked together to form a cohesive whole. Well, the applications that were there anyway. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that many applications available on competing platforms haven't really shown up on Windows Phone yet. Honestly though I'm not missing much. I don't use Twitter, which seems to be a particular sore spot for Windows Phone, and otherwise my needs are pretty much covered. It would be nice if my bank (Wells Fargo) had a decent Windows Phone app, but then, it'd be nice if they had an iPad app also (rather than just a blown up iPhone app). Until the device started basically falling apart at the end of the contract with strange battery and speaker issues, I didn't really have a problem with it. I didn't love it the way I loved my first iPhone, but I found it incredibly usable.
Earlier this year, Windows Phone 8 became available on a range of hardware devices. After looking them all over, for me, the clear choice was the Lumia 920. With it's incredible high resolution screen, striking design, and PureView camera, I knew I had finally found a premium phone in my ecosystem of choice. However much I liked my Samsung Focus, I knew it wasn't really a premium device. It was light on specs for when it came out, and it had a low resolution screen. It also felt extremely cheap and plasticky, and fell apart when dropped. That said, until the very end, it generally worked properly.
The Lumia 920 is a completely different story. Even though, ironically, it's made of plastic, the method they use to mold the phone makes it feel like an extremely premium product. The phone is rather large and hefty in hand, but while many people have knocked the phone for this, it's one of my favorite things about the phone. It feels solid in ways other phones I've used just don't. And it's certainly not like it's unusably heavy. Design aside when I turned it on, the screen was a feast for the eyes with bright colors and deep blacks as well as extreme viewing angles. I think it's the best screen on a smartphone today. To be fair I haven't seen an HTC One X or Droid DNA in person, so those might be better, but I can't imagine how. With 60 fps refresh and the deepest blacks I've seen on an LCD, I really love the screen on the 920.
The other striking thing when using the phone at first is just how FAST it feels. Windows Phone 7 didn't exactly feel slow to me, but Windows Phone 8 on a higher end CPU just screams. Opening applications is much faster; as is resuming tombstoned applications, and just swiping around the OS. The web browser clearly blows away any mobile browser I've seen yet (let me caveat this by saying I've never used Browser or Chrome on Android), and even running Windows Phone 7 apps is noticeably faster. The app story is still pretty thin, though there is a decent new facebook app, though it's not totally solid yet, hopefully some updates are forthcoming. There are a few cool new features that I haven't used a ton yet like the wallet functionality or the Kid's Corner. Allowing applications to take over the lock screen is a welcome change as is the ability to have notifications on the lock screen.
The other huge differentiator with Nokia devices in particular is the Nokia suite of apps that are available only for Nokia windows phones, including Nokia Music, Nokia Maps, and Nokia Drive. I haven't used Nokia Music since I have an X Box Music pass, but Nokia drive is fantastic... when it works. I did have some trouble with the phone seemingly losing a GPS connection lately but otherwise it's been incredibly solid. Overall the Nokia apps are a huge value-add helping to justify my purchase.
The other "big name" feature of the phone is wireless charging, which I initially pooh poohed, but I have found it to be very nice when going to bed to just kind of lay the phone down on it's charging tile without having to plug anything in. Early reviews mentioned having to carefully align the phone, but I haven't found this to be the case, I can lay it down fairly haphazardly and it will still be fully charged by the next day.
The battery life of the phone is probably the only sore point so far. The first day of use found it actually sorely lacking, but after turning off NFC (since I never use it anyway), I've found it to be much better, if not fantastic. Probably the only drawback compared to my previous phone.
The main reason I bought the phone was the PureView Camera, which is called PureView due to it's Optical Image Stabilization feature, rather than some kind of digital stabilization, this camera actually floats in the middle of the phone on a flud, and is attached with springs, so when your hand shakes, the camera still manages to take still images. This has two key advantages, one, normal picture taking is no longer a "careful tap" affair, to avoid motion blur, and secondly, the optical image stabilization allows the camera to keep the shutter open quite a bit longer for low-light images. This makes for amazing dark and night photos. There have been complaints of poor daytime performance, but it's such an upgrade from my previous camera, I haven't noticed. Potentially this could be due to the software not automatically "touching up" photos for end users, and will apparently be addressed in a patch. So far I'm very very happy with the camera.
In conclusion, I'm am extremely happy with this phone. It's the first phone I've owned since the original iPhone that feels like a truly premium and top of the line device. Even the iPhone 3G felt like kind of a step backwards in design from the original iPhone (to me). This phone feels like the logical end of the polycarbonate body that Nokia has been using since the N9 and it just feels and looks fantastic. The OS also runs extremely well and is fun to use.
Friday, February 10, 2012
When I first played Guitar Hero, I remember wondering what all the fuss was about. By the end of the song, when I realized how much better I was than at the beginning, and when I realized how awesome it felt to “play” guitar, I couldn’t stop recommending it.
It was the first game I can recall where almost all of the fun of the game just comes from becoming more skilled at the game, and actually, learning. Obviously it’s not an educational game, and all it teaches you (honestly) is how to play Guitar Hero, but in that game I sensed the kernel of something bigger. I’m certainly not the only or even a particularly early person to realize that educational games have huge potential, but I had forgotten how fun it is just to learn something. Obviously it helps to learn something you want to learn, but it’s interesting (to me) that what you learn doesn’t even have to be useful. At this point I’m thinking “holy crap, games could teach you X, Y, Z… even… even how to actually play guitar!”
At this point I sort of realized I was getting carried away, because playing guitar is FREAKING HARD (believe me, I tried to teach myself), it’s actually PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE to change from one chord to another as fast as songs require ( or so I was pretty sure at the time), and guitar players are just mutants. There’s no way you could make a fun game teaching someone how to actually play guitar. AT this point I thought you might be able to do something with someone wanting to learn piano, or drums (both of which rock band eventually addressed), but guitar? No way.
Fast forward several years and Harmonix , the best rhythm game studio in the world and makers of Guitar Hero, announces a HUGE upgrade to Rock Band. PRO MODE, you ACTUALLY PLAY THE INSTRUMENT YOU’RE “PLAYING”. INCLUDING GUITAR! Though, with guitar, it’s one of two extremely expensive peripherals, either the 104 button “pro mode” plastic video game guitar, or the $180 six string Fender Squire Stratocaster that has MIDI output that Rock Band can use.
At the time, I’m excited enough about the idea to pick up all the peripherals and I end up with both the 104 button plastic guitar, and the six string. I play with the plastic one for a while, but I’m not getting sucked in. It’s fun, sort of, but it’s SUPER FREAKING HARD, and I can’t really tell what I’m doing wrong because the only feedback is a fakey guitar twang when I make a mistake. The interface is also pretty difficult to understand. The “real guitar” isn’t slated to come out for several months so I sort of practice with the plastic one, waiting for the real one to come. The fateful day finally comes when I can play rock band with a real guitar, and it’s….. disappointing.
It doesn’t function great, there is some bizarre Microsoft requirement reason that I can’t use the buttons on the guitar to control the game, and worst of all? It doesn’t function well! It can’t hear some of my plucks! I am eventually able to adjust it to where it works pretty well, but the experience isn’t that much better, and worst of all? When the MIDI mode for rock band is enabled, the strings on the guitar are muted so I still can’t hear my mistakes.
Life intervenes and my child demands a large amount of my attention so my guitars (real and fake) get put away for about a year.
Then this little game Rocksmith finally comes out. Initially I’m skeptical, given that Rock band 3, and the apparently abysmal Power Gig didn’t really live up to the hype, I can’t believe some obscure Ubisoft studio could manage to put out something that bests the indomitable Harmonix Music Systems. Reviews are pretty good, however, and apparently for newbies the learning curve is amazing. Not taking it too seriously, I throw the X box 360 version of the game on my Amazon.com wish list, thinking that maybe someone could get it for me and I could try it out. Particularly since my birthday and Christmas were coming up.
I ended up trying to cancel the wish list wish and switch it with the PC version because I’ve heard about problems with the delay inherent in modern home theatre equipment and the game, and how it can sound really terrible and be hard to play. Unfortunately (or actually, forunately) I update my wish list too late and the gift is already on the way. I receive it, and take it up to my office where I have a second X box 360. It still takes me quite some time to get around to trying it. I don’t’ have my xbox live profile upstairs… I don’t want to mess around with memory cards… Skyrim is out… Finally Microsoft implements Cloud Saves into X box 360, and it’s easy to have a profile on multiple X boxes. One night I randomly decide to fire up Rocksmith instead of Battlefield 3.
3 weeks and 4 calloused fingers later, I’m not looking back. This game completely delivers on the promise of Guitar Hero. The track list is fantastic, the interface is extremely good (one can quibble but it’s by far the clearest interface I’ve seen of its kind). There are tons of small little nits to pick and it’s clearly not a big budget title, but it nails what it needs to nail and more importantly, the more I play, the better I get at guitar! The first couple of days my fingertips are on fire from pressing steel strings down, but once the callouses are in, I can’t pull myself away from the game at night, I’m mastering “High and Dry”, I’m learning the main riff from “Satisfaction”. I’m struggling to play the main riff from “Don’t Fear The Reaper”, I’m LEARNING FREAKING GUITAR.
The game has a brilliant automatic difficulty selector, wherein, the more you play the part, the harder and more like the actual song it gets. Normally this means chords start out as notes, then two string chords, then possibly the full chord. Solos pick out the highlights and then slowly fill the gaps. It almost always is recognizably the song you’re playing, but usually simpler sounding. I play this way over and over, playing through the surprisingly competent career mode, where the game selects songs to practice and then “perform” in front of a virtual crowd, earning you rankings and points. There are a few great practice modes where you can practice part of a song to increase the difficult, or play it slowed down and then have it gradually ramp up the speed as you learn it. Basically a fully featured rhythm game, possibly the best one I’ve ever played.
I really hope Rocksmith succeeds financially, it’s already succeeded from a creative perspective. I REALLY want more downloadable content, I want there to be a sequel that fixes all the little problems. But if not, I’m going to squeeze all the practice I can out of this one. It’s truly an amazing game experience, and an incredibly important symbol of what video games can be.
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
There is a new tech site in town. It’s called The Verge. It’s ostensibly similar to Engadget and Gizmodo, in that it reports tech news with some editorializing. It is actually, in practice, quite different. I’ll say that Engadget and Gizmodo might post more stories in a day, but The Verge posts stories that are almost like magazine articles. They’re laid out extremely well with top notch writing and if the article isn’t an editorial, an overall lack of bias in the content, something that’s pretty rare these days in tech reporting. I tend to think the majority of the staff are apple fans, but I don’t think that comes through too badly in the news reporting. Unlike Gawker sites, there’s also a distinct lack of sensationalism and click-baiting which I find incredibly refreshing.
Anyway I thought some people might be interested in this great new tech site, The Verge.
Tuesday, February 7, 2012
I recently had a discussion with a friend and colleague at a party about Uncharted 3 and it’s merits and weaknesses. My friend’s main high point was the fantastic “Narrative Design”. I’m not trying to single him out with this post and I don’t’ want to insult anyone, but when I hear terms like “narrative design”, I want to give our industry a good shake. Not because it’s necessarily wrong to go after a great narrative, not that narrative and design should be divorced, it’s just that it’s so freaking poorly defined!
What is narrative design anyway? Is it writing? Story? Connection between story and gameplay? All of the above? something else? For me, the term invokes the concept of telling a story through gameplay, or at least tightly interleaving gameplay and story. To me a great “Narrative Designer” would be someone who can tell me the story of a game even as I’m playing it, without relying heavily on dialogue or cutscenes. Someone who can use environment cues to give backstory, who can, through gameplay, create emotional connections to characters and plot.
Not to offend anyone, but I don’t think we have a lot of these people in the business. And, not to be a total jerk, but I don’t think any of them work at Naughty Dog.
Let me start by saying that I think Uncharted 2 is in a short list of contenders for best game of the current console generation, and maybe one of the best games of all time. Certainly one of the best action games of all time. Particularly in context. It wasn’t a game that innovated, but boy did it execute on so many levels. Great encounter design, decent shooting, fantastic graphics and great dialogue. Really impressive tech, too, in terms of graphics, physics, what have you. Amazing opening, incredible pacing, just a fantastic bolt from the blue as far as I’m concerned. Uncharted 1 did not prepare me for what Naughty Dog had in store for Uncharted 2.
When Naughty Dog says things like (paraphrasing) “it’s disheartening when reviewers say other games have amazing stories”, I have to take issue. The story might be good, if there was a consistent main character in Uncharted, or if the allies of the main character didn’t have a huge blindspot for the main character’s bizarre psychopathic behavior.
What am I talking about?
The main character, who presents himself as a “happy-go-lucky” everyman who is a treasure hunter, just trying to get that big score, in actuality is a mass murderer. We’re talking about someone who will sneak up on hired guards who are paid to protect an archeological dig, or possibly some amazing ancient tomb, and silently kill as many people as he can until they realize he’s there and desperately try to defend themselves. It doesn’t do much good though, because Nathan Drake is a superhuman marksman and soldier who basically puts any real soldier to shame. During each uncharted game, Drake kills easily over a thousand people, many of whom had no warning, and certainly did not initiate combat.
No, the main reason Nathan Drake sneaks in and murders hundreds of mercenaries is to try to get rich. He’s presented as a noble protagonist and several characters are sympathetic to him due to his supposed nobility. But all the motivations for Drake are to make a lot of money obtaining some relic. The plot does ensure that there’s someone even more murderous and money hungry (though do we ever see these so-called villains murder thousands of people? I don’t think so), and of course the get rich quick scheme backfires, but it doesn’t change the fact that characters in the story laud drake and hate the antagonist despite the fact that the motivations are largely the same. And worst of all, they’re not really that consistent with the motivations of the player! The player wants to have fun murdering thugs! Which is totally out of character for Drake!
Now, I haven’t played Uncharted 2 in a long time, so I can’t pull examples from that as easily, though the beginning of the game, where you inexplicably start with a tranquilizer gun comes to mind (why bother? Drake clearly has no compunctions taking down hundreds of people who get in his way), or at the end when in a bizarre desire (one assumes) for Naughty Dog to show the world how ridiculous its plot actually is, they have the antagonist say to Drake “How many men have you killed, just today”.
Uncharted 3, has some pretty amazing moments in this regard, however. At the beginning of the game, when Drake’s British compatriot hands him a gun and Nathan gives the man a look as if to say he wasn’t comfortable handling a gun. Really Nathan? Who are you trying to fool? I personally watched you gun down hundreds of people during the previous two games, and don’t act like you’re trying to look good in front of your friends. I’ve seen them shoot a fair few mercenaries themselves. But the amazing part is towards the end of the game, no spoilers, so don’t’ worry, but there is a part where Sully separates from Nathan so Nathan can open a door, and on the other side of the door there are 20 or so mercenaries, just trying to guard the place. After murdering all the mercenaries, you open the door, to have Sully ask: “What took you so long?” Your response? Delivered in a lighthearted, devil-may-care tone: “The usual”. Indeed, murdering tens of people is “the usual” for this madman, but not for any normal person!
Now longtime gamers might, at this point, begin to question my motives behind this blog post, and even question the validity of my concerns. I mean aren’t most games about killing enemies? What about Halo or Call of Duty? What about Grand Theft Auto? Well it’s pretty simple, in Halo and Call of Duty, you’re a soldier, and a soldier’s job is to kill enemies! It’s perfectly reasonable that you’d mow down tons of enemy troops. In Halo, you’re even meant to be a genetically enhanced cyborg, so it’s sort of plausible that you could face down armies on your own. Call of Duty basically ensures that you’re the greatest soldier who ever lived, but at least it makes sense that a soldier would shoot enemies. As far as Grand Theft Auto, I could write a whole separate blog post on why the gameplay and story don’t match up, but at LEAST the main character is meant to be a NOTORIOUS CRIMINAL. In Grand Theft Auto Vice City, several characters are trepidatious about the protagonist’s imminent return due to his ability to destroy a town! This isn’t exactly solving the problem but at least it sort of addresses it.
“Well, that’s all well and good,” you might say, “ but can you show me an action game where the main character isn’t killing hundreds of enemies?”
Indeed, the Batman games from Rocksteady do, in fact, have a protagonist who doesn’t kill criminals. All of the combat is stealth and fistfighting. One might note this is how most of the action in films that are similar to the Uncharted series takes place also. Films like the Indiana Jones movies, and Romancing the Stone.
I can laud the uncharted games (particularly 2) as a fantastic action game series, but I can’t take them seriously as advancing the industry in terms of narrative design. I will admit they have a reasonably good plot and, for video games, really good dialogue, as well as fantastically realized cutscenes. I won’t give them a pass on the absolute and complete disconnection between the action of the game, and the plot of the game, however. It doesn’t make the game bad, but it certainly reflects poorly on the games as paragons of “narrative design”.
So is this rant just a hate filled spew? Can ANY GAME Live up to my seemingly high expectations? Indeed, my friend’s question was “what game does it better?” Which, in some ways is a fair question. I shall attempt to answer with a few games that I do find to be incredible examples of what I think of as great narrative design.
Ico is the only game that I’ve ever witnessed that can truly be said to have a love story in it. You may not fall in love with Yorda, but if that’s the case, I’d advise you to go to the hospital, because I think there’s a reasonable chance you don’t have a heart. Through simple mechanics and IK, a bond is forged between the protagonist and Yorda that ends up creating incredibly strong emotional connections, and the ending exploits this to tremendous (and frequently tearful) effect.
But that’s old and somewhat esoteric. One could even complain that it’s too artsy fartsy, and not that popular. Besides, there’s not even any good dialogue!
For my second case, I present: Portal 2.
The entire game, your motivations are perfectly in sync with the protagonist. There is amazingly hilarious dialogue with genius comic timing. The story is told through mechanics, dialogue, and told very well through the environment. I’m not going to talk about whether Portal 2 is overall a better game than Uncharted 2, but from a narrative design perspective, it beats the ever living crap out of uncharted 2 (in my opinion, of course).
How about Half Life 2? The beginning of the game is a master class in video game storytelling. This storytelling doesn’t work in any other medium, you have to play it, you have to experience it firsthand. I don’t’ think the rest of the game holds up quite as well to the beginning, but oh what a beginning.
Other games that I tend to think have great narrative design include Bioshock, Shadow of the Colossus, Mass Effect, and the God of War series.
I think that’s enough ranting, and I hope I made it clear that I think the Uncharted games are perfectly good games, but I hate that as an industry we can’t define “narrative design” as distinct from writing a story well enough to discern good dialogue and cutscenes from good design.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
So I finished LA Noire. For those rare readers not actually in the game industry or hardcore gamers, L.A. Noire is a modern open world game where you play a detective in 1940’s Los Angeles. It’s meant to basically be a video game version of an Ellroy novel, with original material. Since it’s an open world game, initial expectations included a GTA style sandbox to play in. No such luck here as L.A. Noire is basically a by-the-numbers linear adventure game set in an open world.
I’m going to post overall thoughts first, then I’ll put a more detailed spoiler section together to get into more specifics for those who have finished the game.
When I first started playing L.A. Noire, what struck me was many similarities to a Nintendo DS game entitled “Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney”, wherein the player takes the role of the titular attorney charged with defending all manner of suspects in a culture where guilty until proven innocent is the rule of the day, and, in fact, one must find the perpetrator of the crime before one is allowed to go free. The game is silly and has overall silly themes with a few odd moments of gravitas, since, after all, some of these cases are murder cases. The basic mechanics are find clues and then during the course of cross examining a witness, catch them in enough lies to prove their guilt or at least begin to prove your client’s innocence. Phoenix Wright is a fantastic game and doesn’t overstay its welcome.
L.A. Noire covers very similar territory, the basic gameplay is that you find clues and interview witnesses in order to determine what happened. Clues are used to catch witnesses in lies, and the cases all progress in a linear fashion. You never quite get to court, and you’re not “defending” someone, but the overall premise turns out to be very similar. There is one key difference, however, L.A. Noire does overstay its welcome, at least for me.
The tone of L.A. Noire is quite a bit more serious as you’re put in the shoes of Cole Phelps, a returning war hero with a mysterious past. You are an earnest and honest cop, something of a rarity in 40’s LAPD, apparently and you’re constantly searching for the truth despite what other police officers and even your superiors might want. It’s an interesting character to some degree, but very much an archetype. The past, which you eventually uncover, that they give Phelps is compelling, but ultimately feels more like a gimmick than something that adds real depth to the character. As you play the game, Phelps’ career moves through several “desks” of detectives, changing depending on the crimes Phelps investigates. Each desk feels like a separate episode in the “L.A. Noire novel series”, basically.
The clue searching mechanics are interesting at first, but quickly get somewhat repetitive where basically it’s a 90’s adventure game, but instead of hunting for a pixel with a mouse cursor, you’re hunting for a vibration with the controller in 3d. This is somewhat compelling at first mainly for its novelty, but the novelty wears off. At this point the mechanic isn’t bad, as long as it’s in service of a good story. The adventure game like clue hunting sections are broken up with driving, shooting, and melee fighting sections. The shooting sections, at least, can usually be skipped if the player loses enough times, with no detrimental effects to the player. This is an interesting idea and I can actually see it work pretty well, though I played through all the shooting sections.
The shooting mechanics are serviceable if uninteresting, though the cover mechanics are horribly broken, and to my mind, unshippable. The only saving grace is that generally the shooting sections are ridiculously forgiving, so it rarely becomes frustrating, even if it looks kind of silly.
The driving is likewise broken with some of the worst feeling vehicle mechanics I’ve met. Excuses can be made about it being 1940’s cars, but I know a good vehicle friction model when I feel one, and L.A. Noire doesn’t have one. This is especially frustrating as the open world is built with protrusions in the middle of key driving areas that the player gets easily hung up on, forcing a failure in chase missions. The other type of driving missions, follow missions, are exactly as fun as they are in other open world games. That is to say, no fun at all, and tedious in the extreme, if not very difficult.
I found the fist fighting sections to actually be something of a pleasant diversion. The melee system is dead simple, allowing dodging, blocking, and a few different attack types. There’s something of a rhythm to the melee and it’s generally pretty forgiving
The other core mechanic is interviewing witnesses to determine if they’re lying. This is both the game’s highlight and biggest disappointment. The much ballyhooed facial scanning technology comes into play here with actors basically being scanned in for a digital performance, and players expected to carefully watch the performance to determine whether the witness/suspect is lying or not. On paper, this sounds like it would never work due to the performances not being good enough. Interestingly enough, I actually feel like they nailed that, and generally I could tell when someone was lying or holding something back, and when I wasn’t able to tell, it generally felt like it was my fault. The problem with the system is the options you’re given. Truth, Lie, and Doubt. To my mind, lie should be a stronger version of doubt, and there should be some spectrum to the questions, rather than 3 discrete answers. The way the mechanic actually works is you need to remember the clues you’ve uncovered so far, and if you have a contradiction, you have to select “lie”, if you read the face as not being honest, but you don’t have any clues to prove a contradiction, you should select “doubt'”, otherwise you should select “truth”. Problems come into play when you haven’t found all the clues, can tell that someone is lying, and select “doubt”. This ends up being the wrong choice, even though it feels right and it’s incredibly difficult to tell that it’s not the right answer. At least it was for me. The entire “doubt/lie” mechanic feels poorly thought out and confusing and severely damages an otherwise amazing mechanic.
As for the open world, there are a few random street crimes that have the player chasing down a perpetrator and stopping them, aside from that, the open world is completely wasted and simply window dressing. There are no sandbox mechanics whatsoever and the incredible amount of time and money spent on building this world would have been much better spent elsewhere in the game. Technically the open world performs well with little sign of LOD popping or low res geometry coming to the forefront.
Graphically the game is interesting but nothing much special, aside from the facial animation and artwork which is fantastic. The overall graphics are nowhere near on par with Grand Theft Auto IV in my view, but it’s not a bad looking game.
To sum up the spoiler-free section, it’s an interesting game with a few interesting, if broken mechanics, which might even work, if the story, writing, and characters were great, which, in my opinion, unfortunately, they aren’t. Reasons why can be found in the spoiler section, immediately following. Ultimately I found the game to be a disappointment, never quite making good on its promise.
BEWARE, SPOILERS, TURN BACK NOW MORTAL!
This part works beautifully for me: somewhat interesting cases, getting my feet wet with the mechanics, hinting at a deep backstory for the protagonist all wrapped up in a fairly high production value package. Sucked in. Not sure why I’m so engrossed but I want to keep playing.
Starts off strong, interesting cases, serial killer aspect, referencing real events with the Black Dahlia, pretty damn awesome… at the beginning. As time goes on, I’m more and more sure that the people I’m arresting aren’t responsible for the crimes, then all of a sudden I’m very sure, now I’m kind of annoyed that I have to arrest innocent people, suspension of disbelief is broken.
Finally, the clues are coming together, we trace the killer back to his hideout, confront him, and THE KILLER IS REVEALED TO BE………
The temp bartender I briefly talked to in a couple of the cases?
Are Velma and Daphne going to show up?
Do I at least get a scooby snack?
You’re seriously going to make a James Ellroy referencing game, with similar elements and even use the same case for inspiration, and the ending is going to be a SCOOBY DOO ENDING???
At this point I no longer have any faith in the game to tell me a decent story. I’ll keep playing ‘cause I’m invested, but this is pretty disappointing.
Now my partner is someone the game has already taught me to dislike and Cole seems completely oblivious to this fact. Roy Earle is obviously a bad guy from before you even get transferred to Vice and somehow Cole just trusts him throughout the entire sordid affair. Chasing down the heroin racket isn’t as interesting as the red lipstick murders anyway and at this point I’m in full grind mode where I barely even care about the game. Roy is a caricature of a corrupt cop, Cole is an oblivious hero character archetype, and the interactions between the two are obvious and frankly poorly written and uninteresting. The outcome is inevitable and obvious, and the twist of Cole actually having done something wrong feels more like a cheap gimmick rather than some hidden depth to his character. They took the payoff without doing enough work to set it up and it feels totally tacked on. Super lame. Especially since you never even meet Cole’s family in order to see why what he did was so wrong.
Now I can barely get myself to play the game. They don’t even bother fleshing out the Arson partner, just murkily mention that he’s difficult to get along with. The cases are somewhat interesting, but it’s really a grind at this point and I might not even finish the game, until…
They put me in Jack Kelso’s shoes, which is actually a pretty interesting twist and I really liked it. It helped the end of the game out immensely and got me re-interested in the game. Kelso still doesn’t quite have a 3 dimensional character but he’s a nice counterpoint to Phelps and it was interesting to work cases from a different angle, even if my suspension of disbelief couldn’t handle that an insurance company investigator gets to call the police information robot from the future…. err…. police operator to get information. Also why is he able to carry a gun? It’s very weird. The ending played out in an interesting way, and even though they still didn’t do the work to pay off the “reveal” at the end, it’s not quite as bad as the murder investigation.
Overall the story is pretty weak. I’ve read a number of reviews that have talked about the great characters and writing, but I’m sorry, if you don’t tack the damning with faint praise tag “for a video game” on the end of that sentence it’s just laughable. Watch L.A. Confidential and then come back and play this game and tell me that there is good writing or characters. It’s so rare to see a game that isn’t sci-fi or fantasy have a story that’s even remotely well put together that I suppose this game looks good by comparison, but I found it to be a big disappointment and I really think we should expect more of our industry. I actually think, had the story been better, I would probably have loved this game. As it stands, I found stuff to like, but overall I have a hard time recommending it. The broken mechanics really hurt as well, and taken as a package, I think it comes up pretty short. That’s not to say it’s a terrible game, I’m just not sure if it’s a good game, and if it is, I certainly don’t think it’s a great game. I guess my review had a pretty weak ending too. I hate to waffle, but there is some genuinely interesting stuff going on with this game, and I think game developers are doing themselves a disservice if they don’t at least give it a look. That said, there’s enough crap here that I hope the industry doesn’t follow this game too closely.