Games: LA Noire


I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire.
I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up
in his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement.
I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames.
And when it was all over I said to myself, “Is that all there is to a fire?”
Peggy Lee

I’ve just done playing LA Noire, Rockstar’s latest all-embracing trip into the world of Los Angeles in the golden years between WWII and Elvis. I’ve solved crimes, caught and killed the kind of serial killers who only exist in books. I’ve brought down the evil, the ugly and the corrupt. I have done the whole town and when I was done, I got up and did it again and all I can think is, ‘Is that all that there is to a firefight?’

'The name's Head, Dick Head' - LA Noire's Cole Phelps plays it for yucks and falls down flat. Not even his partner thinks he's funny.

LA Noire has a hell of a lot to live up to. Not least Rockstar’s previous high points of Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, but also a plethora of books and movies, from James Ellroy’s LA Confidential trilogy to every bloody movie that Bogey was Bogey in. It has to match the expansive, open world gameplay of Red Dead’s wild west, the sexy criminality of GTA and the moody, nefarious atmosphere of the whole post-war era. Ideally you feel it should be in a vague monochrome, with every moment punctuated with cigarette smoke and lipstick clad dames giving you the come on.

And sure LA Noire is a visual treat. But honey, this ain’t no Bogey flick, this ain’t no rollercoaster ride, this ain’t the dark heart of LA triple filtered through the dark, dark prose of Marlowe. This ain’t even Grand Theft Auto knocked back a few years with a different set of immigrants and a few less mean streets. And even if it were, the vision and sounds of this game ain’t going to save it. Because sugar, this games is savagely underwhelming.

And ultimately, when all’s said and done, I’m just bored by it in a way that I was never bored by Red Dead or GTA or Assassins Creed. It may be beautiful, it may have a lovely soundtrack, it may have possibly the most enticing setting you can imagine, I mean who wouldn’t want to be a classic gumshoe, but it is essentially a soulless, dull, little game.

For starters, it’s not nearly as open a game as you’d like. The plot is as linear and unforgiving as that of James Bond: Blood Stone and, at times, every bit as tedious. LA might be massive, but there’s little point in exploring it. There seems to be no benefit to finding the 100 or so different cars, all of which look staggeringly similar to my untuned eye, or locating the myriad of landmarks, which don’t reward you in the way those in Assassins Creed do. As for the film canisters, they were never even on my radar.

So you’re essentially forced into a tight, linear game where each segment is broadly similar. You visit the scene of a crime, search the area looking for clues (which is kind of fun) and ultimately latch on to one or two bad guys and the occasional bad girl. Once you’ve tracked them down it’s time for an interrogation. And it’s here that LA Noire falls down big time. Because, despite using revolutionary face melding techniques, you’re still left confused by the options available – you basically have to read your interviewee’s face and decide whether they are telling the truth, being a bit misleading, or lying through their teeth. And despite the looks on people’s faces, they were either too easy or impossible to read.

Your lead guy, Cole Phelps, doesn’t help. Not least because he is a total grade A arsehole. He is thoroughly unlikeable, a total tightwad, and a pretty shitty detective. Hardly the character you want to be playing as. It’s as if you were playing some kind of a Role Playing Game and had lucked out by scoring 1s in every category and thus created the most completely stupid, untalented midget warrior that had ever rolled his sorry arse out of Narnia. The kind of character you’d only play to see how badly they’d do in the rest of the game. Take it from me, there are corrupt, venal, idiotboy policemen who would be more fun to play that Phelps. Even his name stinks.

And he’s no detective. His questioning, which is essentially your questioning, is unbelievably random. You’ll interview some bartender, who’ll tell you that your suspect came in all depressed and said they were going to kill someone, then when you’re questioning them this information will be completely unavailable. Phelps will often veer off at completely bizarre tangents, leaping from topic to topic like a monkey swinging through a particularly dense forest. Master of the interrogation he is not. And therefore neither are you.

In between interrogations Phelps has some driving to do and some shooting sequences, but these are strangely tedious and irritating rather than any kind of enjoyable. Like GTA, the driving is somewhat flawed, your control of the car is a bit crap and it really isn’t much fun driving round LA. Certainly in comparison with galloping around the Western Border States of Red Dead or the Rome of Assassins Creed it is just plain dull. Thankfully you can get your partner to do most of the driving, and after about the second case you’ll be doing that pretty much all of the time as there just isn’t any benefit in you doing it yourself.

Finally, the story is underwhelming to say the least. You’re thinking a true noir story would have lots of twists to it, a couple of dead ends and a trick ending. This doesn’t so much end as wimp out. You end up feeling like Miles Archer in the Maltese Falcon, as if you’d been killed in the first reel and the movie had just carried on without you. Bang, bang, you’re dead. And that’s all that there is to this firefight.

Review

ProsCons
Some vaguely interesting cases. Faces and expressions are greatBored. Bored, bored bored. Terrifyingly dull, very linear storyline with no satisfying payoff. Oh and bored.
Rating
55%

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Games: Batman Arkham Asylum


Welcome to the Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave

Get Your Gameface On

The best thing about Batman Arkham Asylum is that it’s a movie/comic book inspired game that is everything that the recent James Bond Blood Stone isn’t  – as EA, who have nothing to do with this title, say, it’s all about the game.  And this is a brilliant, tight, atmospheric, immersive, highly entertaining game. And I spent the best part of last weekend playing it from start to finish.

Batman - mysterious man of many faces not to mention numerous artistic styles

It helps that while Batman is every bit as elemental a  force of nature as Bond, he’s far more amenable to interpretation. Witness the wide variety of artists and writers who’ve been associated with him and his success in comics, cartoons and films.  And it’s equally useful that he’s been developed for a range of audiences, from the young kids who watch the Saturday morning cartoons, to the adolescents who read the monthly comics and pack out the cinemas all the way through to the oldsters like me who remember when Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight first came out (and have the original 4 comics to prove it thank you very much). It ensures that this visualisation of Batman, while indisputably unique, fits perfectly into the canon of Batworks.

And while the Game is written by animated cartoon series writer Paul Dini, it’s palpably based around the  core book that centres around Arkham Asylum itself, Grant Morison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth which, like the game itself, is intended for older readers. There’s both badness and madness within these walls and it’s not just confined to the inmates, the very walls of the place exude insanity. Similarly, Batman is clearly built on the big, hard, almost psychopathic hero inspired by Miller’s The Dark Knight, a Batman familiar to more mature readers and the latest movies rather than the quip-cracking Clooneyesque Adam West hero of yore, or the do-Gooding crime fighter of the kiddie cartoons.

Make no mistake, this Batman is big. Pro-wrestling, WWF, Xtreeme Fighting big. Masses of muscle beneath the old leotard and not an ounce of fat to be seen. He’s also mean and broody and you’d better believe he don’t take no nonsense from no one. His sheer size fits in perfectly with the dark undertone of threat that suffuses the whole game. And it’s a sense of threat that extends throughout all elements of the game.

The Dark Knight wanders aimlessly through the corridors of my old primary school looking for crims. Note, I probably kicked off some of those tiles. Sorry.

The visual design matches all of this and is fantastic. It’s dark and vicious and unclean. The interiors have that depressing distressed institutional feel to them, eerily reminiscent of my late victorian primary school and the sort of hospitals where patients are left in corridors to die. They feel spooky, creepy and old, perfectly in keeping with Arkham’s own story. Out in the open it’s equally dark and inhospitable. The sense of place you get is outstanding, it’s clear, this is not a nice place to be. It feels unique and the characters have a three dimensionality to them that I’ve not seen before in a game.

The gameplay more than lives up to the setting – it’s a good bit of stealth, some kick ass fighting, a lot of mazey moving about, a little bit of basic detecting, with enough open ended exploration and reward searching to make each section feel different each time you play. And while I would have liked a bit more of the open ended exploration, this is being really nitpicky. It takes a good half-day to rush through and there’s still a whole load of stuff I hadn’t got around to.

Woof! Batman lays into one of the many crims under the Joker's influence.

All the controls are intelligent – it’s not just a case of button mashing, although that will take you a certain distance. It’s easy and intuitive to move around, while the sneaking and fighting are just the right balance of ease and sophistication. And moments when you come into a room with multiple guards can be dealt with in a variety of ways, usually involving some kind of tactics for separating the opponents and the taking them down individually using stealth rather than simply having a great big fistfight out in the open. The moment you find yourself having to take out seven hardcore crims armed with machine guns without taking a single shot makes for a genuinely tense experience.

And there’s a wide variation in game styles within the game, as the third person stealth fighting style gives way to a 3d platforming mode every now and then. Anywhere else this would be a jarring clash of styles, but here even this is woven seamlessly into the storyline, being those moments when Batman is under the influence of Scarecrow’s fear toxin.

The gameplay falls on just the right amount of challenging, there were the inevitable moments of frustration, and after a while I could have done without the taunting cutscene loading thing after each death, but the challenge was never so great I felt it was unfair or gamestopping. However, occasionally you need to actually die to be given the hint you need as to how to actually defeat your enemies, which is kind of irritating.

If it has a flaw (and we’re being super picky here) it’s that the bigger boss battles, Bane, Poison Ivy and the Joker, along with pretty much the whole Killer Croc episode, become very linear and set piecey. There’s one way to defeat them and that’s it and it’s sometimes a tiny bit monkey see monkey do button clicking to onscreen prompts. The final Joker scene especially.

Other than that it’s sins of omission. I ended up wanting more. More levels, more of Batman’s archetypal enemies as I’m not big on Bane and Poison Ivy is a bit limp. I wish the island on which Arkham is built was bigger with more areas to explore, more baddies and more rewards to discover. Which is exactly what the upcoming Arkham City, due out this year, threatens to do. Sweet.

Review

ProsCons
Fantastic gameplay, Great storyline, Hugely atmosphericBoss battles a little predictable
Rating
90%

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Games: 8 Cars That Really Should Be In Gran Turismo


Can’t Believe They Missed Out On These

Given the Gran Turismo team have spent upwards of 5 years digitising cars in hideous detail and that they seem to have extended the remit of the game from the racetrack to all aspects of driving, it’s strange that they haven’t been a bit more ambitious in terms of the cars they’ve chosen. Here are some cars I’d like to see in any impending update.

African Technical ‘War Wagon’

Generic African Technical. Not sure how the suspension would deal with recoil at 100mph plus

Recipe. Take one flat bed truck of some sort, favourite brand usually some kind of Isuzu, and add an unusually powerful anti-aircraft or anti-personnel ordnance. Garnish with a host of extraneous militiamen casually draped off the sides and drive at indiscreet speed all over the place.

It seems to me that the GT boys have missed a trick in failing to include any vehicles with offensive capability. It would certainly add spice to those awkward dodgem-like starts where autonomous cars attempt to run you off the track. Imagine running around one of the banked oval tracks blowing holes in the opposition.

German WW2 Half Track

Easy commuting for the German soldier. Notice the lame attempt at camouflage. Or maybe they're Xmas decorations.

Having spent many hours building Tamiya models, I am intimately familiar with the German half track or SD.KFZ.251/1. Given the team has already included the Kubelwagon typ 82 and Schwimmwagon typ 166, it seems obvious to extend the range of their WW2 offerings. Should add interest to the dirt and snow track racing. All in all it’s a bit like sprinkling Gran Turismo with a little bit of Call Of Duty‘s guns and ammo stardust.

American DUKW

Half Car, Half Boat. All I want for Christmas is the DUKW-la Prague Away Kit.

Continuing the WW2 theme, I’ve always liked the amphibious DUKW, which is surely one of the most unlikely cars around, kind of like the Duck-billed Platypus. This would add a whole new dimension to the GT world, allowing a range of steeplechase-like races with additional water features. Watch out for the hidden underwater mines.

Big, Big Monster Trucks

If you're going to have trucks, make mine a monster

Given the hell I had actually finding any kind of truck in the 1,000 plus used car lot, it seems obvious that what Gran Turismo is really missing is trucks, right proper monster trucks. The bigger and more monstrous they are, the better. Ideally we should have super armoured, grotesquely over-accessorised behemoths that we can run at one another in some kind of pit-like racing circuit. Forget laptimes and concentrate on ramming your truck into all the others like a bunch of demented Walruses on heat.

And While We’re On The Subject

If you're going to go down the idiot boy truck route...

If we’re going to be all macho American idiot boy about the whole truck thing, then we might as well have the Pussy Wagon from Kill Bill. Imagine roaring around the online tracks armed only with this, most moronic of vehicles.

Being Serious For A Moment

Classic Grand Prix cars. Those were the days eh?

I always loved the classic Grand Prix of the 1960’s, with the cars shaped like crude guided missiles with go-kart wheels. These were epitomised by the movie Grand Prix starring James Garner of Rockford Files fame. The Gran Turismo team should extend its remit to the classic racing cars of these days. Almost like the reverse of the success CoD had in updating their WW2 setting. Kind of like a Grand Prix regression kit.

And Naturally There’s Bond

No well-dressed Englishman should be without one

Surely what GT5 is really missing is a whole pile of Bond related cars, some of the most recognisable on the planet. Take the Aston Martin from Goldfinger, with all the trimmings naturally. The oil-squirting defensive weapons would cause chaos behind you, while the ramming units mounted in the bumpers would add a certain je ne sais quoi to the AI’s bumpercar mentality.

And Bond

Dirt racing would never be the same again.

Or how about the moon buggy from Diamonds Are Forever? That would be class. Obviously it has a top speed of about 5mph, which isn’t that great, but the funky arms would be useful for taking out any of the opposition.

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Games: Gran Turismo 5


I Am A Leaf On The Wind – Watch Me Soar

Neeeeeeeeeeeeeow! My supercool stealth car takes to the air.

And I am flying. No Really. I know how Gran Turismo is the ultimate driving machine only in a box and not on the road and all that, and I know that driving is usually undertaken while firmly on the ground, but I am bloody flying. Because this road has little hills on it and I have just hit one at apparently nearly 200 mph and that’s enough to take all four wheels off the tarmac and there we go, that’s called flying. And once you take all four wheels off the road you’ve totally lost control of that car and you’re basically in charge of a pre-aimed ballistic object and you’d better just hang on and hope.

But everything’s alright if only because at this moment I am in the lead and all the rest of the cars, all of those 1,000+ lovingly crafted cars are behind me. And that’s all that matters. That and the small matter of radically reducing my speed as soon as those tyres hit the ground and I get round to regaining some small semblance of control. And after that it’s on for another five whole laps and eventual victory.

Yes. Racing in Gran Turismo 5 is a blast.

It feels significantly more like really driving (only about 5 times as fast and often in supercool cars) than even Gran Turismo 5 Prologue does. Here you can actually begin to feel the camber on corners, so your car has a sense of momentum and weight rather than just velocity, so it continues round corners when you take your ‘foot’ off the ‘gas’. The right racing line feels immeasurably better and more satisfying than anything else. Different surfaces and tyres affect your car’s behaviour, while each car has its own particular foibles and handling.

I Am A Rock, I Am An Island

But like any new flash car GT5 has its running in issues. For Gran Turismo 5 is an outstanding driving simulator entombed in a chaotic mishmash of gameplay and interface elements. Despite having taken over five years to develop, it seems that for every moment spent on lovingly detailing the cars, tracks and weather systems that comprise the actual driving bit, another moment has been stolen from the development of either the gameplay or the interface.

Gran Turismo 5 is so stuffed full of different elements that it seems no one has any idea of where they should all go or how they should fit together, either practically or visually. Which makes some necessary activities simply vaguely inconvenient, but others insanely irritating. And while they in no way detract from the core element of GT5, namely the actual on-track driving, they can make the process of actually getting to the grid fantastically annoying.

Initially it seems simple, once you decide to dump the ghastly intro movie, which merely reinforces the uncomfortable sense of underlying self-congratulation that lingers around GT5 like an unwelcome stench. You’ve got the traditional Gran Turismo modes, the career game GT Mode, the ‘just go racing’ Arcade Mode, and a basic Track Generator. And while the latter two are pretty self-explanatory, it’s only when you jump into the GT Mode that the problems start to occur.

GT Mode, quite simply, is a mess. It looks like a hyper-excited five year-old’s idea of what they want for Christmas. It’s got everything and it’s all just flung in there with no thought for which bits are the most important or how the various elements should fit together. And there’s this bit,and that bit, and another bit, and it’s all presented in the same breathless, unpunctuated tones your five year-old uses when describing the story behind a movie.

There’s the main racing game, some inexplicable GT Manager type game for budding race team bosses like Red Bull’s Christian Horner, Sébastien Loeb’s Rally School, Jeff Somebody’s NASCAR space, a bit of dirt racing, some karting, the practice area (basically Arcade mode within GT mode), a photo area, the car dealer section, the used car dealer section, and two separate car tuning and performance areas. Going through the mechanics of actually playing the game, as opposed to just jumping in and racing as you do in Arcade Mode, is unbelievably painful. Things that should be easy to do take masses of button clicks and screen changes. Things that should be inextricably linked are connected by the longest, most spurious journeys. And things that seem blatantly obvious just don’t happen. Add to this interface elements that don’t behave consistently and some simply baffling choices about car availability and you’ve got a game that makes it significantly more difficult to actually play than it should be.

Hate That Homescreen

Now I’ve played Gran Turismo 5 Prologue for a while, and various previous incarnations of Gran Turismo, so I know what I expect. And what I don’t. And what I don’t expect is an orgy of bloatware. It seems that where earlier editions of Gran Turismo set the agenda for driving games, GT5 is much more reactive, as aware of what the competition is doing as of the scale of its own ambitions. For instance, is the Rally racing element really an integral part of the game or a terrified reaction to the emergence of Rally Driving games like Dirt? Certainly if you compare the graphics and quality of the Rally section with, say, the Tuscan Night Drive, the former appears thrown together, far less well thought out, with poorer graphics and cars. Could it be that in the five years of self-obsessed perfection seeking development undertaken by the Gran Turismo team fear and panic became the dominant driving forces?

Could it be that after nearly half a decade of poncing around fondling cars and generally back-patting themselves, the development team suddenly realised that they really needed to deliver something and right now? And cut corners, and just stuffed everything into the game and slapped on the first crappy interface they found in a dumpster somewhere. Because that’s exactly what it feels like.

So What’s The Beef?

 

Gran Turismo 5 GT mode home screen

Garbacious interface. Have a guess how to start the game from here.

It’s tempting to say, where to start? If only because if I wanted to create an effective interface to the many, many features that comprise the GT Mode, I wouldn’t start from here. I’d start somewhere else. Anywhere else. Because this doesn’t work on either a visual or a practical level.

Simply put there’s no hierarchy here, no sense of clarity or importance. You’ve got three distinct levels of navigation and they don’t play well together. As the Prince says to Mozart in Amadeus, “too many notes”. Too much information. Overwhelming choice.

You’ve got Open Lobby the online mode, which is supposed to be the game changing element of GT5, buried next to the main Class A game (where you get to drive the cars) and the Class B game (where you don’t).

You’ve got all the special sections (karting, rallying, race school, NASCAR and the utterly painful Top Gear section) lumped into one area and then almost hidden next to the licences. You’ve got the utterly pointless GT Auto section, which opens up into an area that looks like a badly designed photo booth website, overshadowing the far more useful Tuning Shop, which leads you into the hardcore car customisation system. Meanwhile, elsewhere, there’s my garage full of cars.

Now all this would be vaguely acceptable if only the areas were integrated properly. So I could, for instance, easily reach the Tuning Shop from within the Class A section, allowing me to customise my chosen car without having to undergo an orgy of button mashing after discovering I need a little more tuning to get by in a particular race. Or get to the Dealer or Used Car areas so I can purchase the right car for a particular constrained race. But no, no thought seems to have been given to the mechanics of actually playing the game (as opposed to the mechanics of driving). It’s annoying to have to continually trawl your way through the Used Car area every 10 minutes hoping against hope that some kind of truck will turn up so that you can participate in one particular level 5 event.

Winning an event gets you credits and experience points which enable you to buy better cars and enter more events. It also gives you new cars as prizes. But even this has evolved from the streamlined experience of previous games into a convoluted multi-button mash irritation of a process. Instead of simply showing you the new car and then automatically putting it in your garage the process has ‘evolved’. Now a tiny numerical indicator appears beside the useless Car Delivery icon. Clicking on this reveals a ‘ticket’ for a new car, which looks like a metro ticket with the minimum amount of detail. You click on this and a dialogue box asks you whether you want to ‘use this item’. This doesn’t mean ‘would you like to get in this car and drive it’, but ‘ would you like to redeem this ticket and get a new car delivered to your garage’. So you click ‘yes’ and then, and only then, do you get the cutscene showing you the new car. So a previously simply system is replaced by one that requires three additional button clicks and gives you no discernible benefits. You can only imagine what was going on in the mind of the idiot who dreamt that up. And after winning two or three events and undergoing the torturous process of getting two or three new cars you wish nothing but badness on them.

And then there’s the Circle control. Sometimes it works as you imagine, cancelling an action or taking you back one screen. Sometimes it doesn’t. And you’ll never know which is which. And it will infuriate you. Beyond imagining.

And Yet . . . And Yet

All of this pales into insignificance once you start driving. It’s fantastic. Far more visceral and real than previous versions. And it’s competitive. You begin to have some inkling of what it’s like on the grid of a real, quality car race. I love the karting, the way the handling is completely different from that of the cars. I love the way you finally get a sense of the incline and camber of the hills and corners.

Sure you’ve still got the same crappy AI driving the opposing cars, making some driving more like playing dodgems than anything else. This makes starts something of a lottery and it’s still annoying to make an audacious start, avoiding crashing into the cars beside you, only to have some mindless car slam you off the circuit as it plows its way automatically around the circuit. But ultimately it doesn’t detract from the glorious joy of the driving. Of racing. It’s exciting, exhilarating and fantastically rewarding. I’ve been playing it for hours and hours.

And I’m flying.

Review

ProsCons
Outstanding driving simulator, Great racingClumsy interface, Irritating processes, Bad IA and bad AI
Rating
80%

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Games: James Bond 007 Blood Stone


James Bond hangs his head (and gun) in shame at tired storyline and gameplay association

Men Of A Certain Age Beware

There comes a point in every Englishman’s life when he comes to the reluctant conclusion that, bloody hell, he will never be James Bond. Just as he has reluctantly acknowledged (probably 10 years previously) that he will never be picked to play football for England. It’s both a rite of passage and a psychologically crushing moment that leaves one horrendously scarred if somewhat more rounded and mature and ready to get on with one’s life.

The promise that I can outlive this moment of clarity by becoming Bond (if only Games Bond) is highly enticing. Certainly the Bond character lends himself to video gaming far better than Lara Croft lends herself to cinema. And in the Daniel Craig incarnation, you have the best Bond yet – an almost unchanging force akin to the classic Western Hero who strolls into town, solves everyone’s problems (usually by killing many of them) only to languidly wander off into the sunset largely unaffected by the whole process.

However, about five minutes into this game you come to the understanding that no, this game won’t let you be James Bond either.

Sure,  it does replicate one key element of the Bond experience. After coming into town, clearing it of baddies and walking into the sunset, you emerge a few, scant hours later unscathed and unchanged. But it ruins even that by leaving you shortchanged, unmoved and bereft of any feelings of satisfaction or enjoyment.

What’s The Problem?

Essentially this is a game that doesn’t know what it wants to be and attempts to camouflage this beneath the thin facade of a below par Bond storyline. Rather than taking the plot as the starting point and building the game around it, it seems more likely that the plot has been shoe-horned into the capabilities of the developers.  As a result there’s no clear or coherent sense of ‘self’ to the game.

It’s a bit like that popular pop music song of a while back, Mambo No. 9 by Lou Bega. You play it for a moment, find yourself humming it while in the supermarket, but never have the desire to really play it again. To paraphrase, it’s a little bit shooter, a little bit stealthy, a little bit driving, a little bit platform and a whole lot of rigid linearity. All wrapped up in a storyline that feels like the bottom bin discards from an unsuccessful two day screenwriting workshop. You have the requisite, if predictable, ‘glamourous’ locations, the all too familiar rogue Russian billionaire and a few handy McGuffins – but nothing feels like a real Bond moment and the whole story runs out of steam pretty quickly, after which a succession of identikit, bob-a-job villains and baddies strive unsuccessfully to do you in as some kind of vague afterthought. It’s Bond Lite (rather than Bond Redux or Bond Reinvented or The Dark Bond), delivered from the rejected out-takes of one of the screenwriters of Goldeneye, Tomorrow Never Dies and The World Is Not Enough.

The Story Stays The Same

There are some fundamental problems here, which to some extent are problems with the entire concept of narrative within videogames, to some extent problems with the entire Bond world.

Essentially drama and narrative centre around the notion of change and conflict. You have a situation and a bunch of characters which develop over time only to reach a suitably climactic conclusion by the end. The satisfaction we take from a narrative lies as much in the development and resolution of both the situation and the characters as it does from our experience of their journey.

Games have a deepseated problem with the notion of story. Games are not stories, no matter how much they seem to want to be. Sure they may conform to the basic ‘beginning, middle and end’ concept you’re taught at school, but they don’t seem to do anything more superficial than that. The real journey does not play in front of you, it plays you, or rather in playing the game it’s the gamer who is changed not the character they are playing within the game. If in a novel character is internal, and in a film character is action, then in a game character and character development is about the spaces, the holes in which the player operates, allowing them to ‘live’ in the game, rather than any element of the game itself.

If that’s true, then this game has no character at all because there are no holes. Your process through the game is fundamentally rigidly linear, leaving little, or frankly, no room for exploration or deviation. Make no mistake, this is no highly extensible, open sandbox environment littered with choices and options. Instead you are instantly locked into a single passage through the game with paint by numbers routes filled with low grade anonymous enemies whose actions and ‘intelligence’ are severely limited.  In doing so the game reduces the player to little more than a flesh covered husk of bone and gristle whose sole function is to keep breathing while pressing the correct buttons in a specific sequence. Even more so than God of War, which has elevated mindless monkey see button mashing to ever-greater heights, this is about the game manipulating the player rather than the other way around.

Even those levels that are supposedly about exploration, where Bond’s task is essentially to do a bit of detecting, are painfully constricted, with a tedious ‘now go here, now go there’ mechanic that serves only to drag you from one shooting location to the next.

Driving elements are especially guilty. They’re all about pressing hard on the accelerator, learning the corners and various vehicular impediments and very, very occasionally dabbing a digit on the brakes. There’s no room for manoeuvre or deviation. It doesn’t matter whether you’re driving Bond’s Aston Martin, a Thai tow truck or a high speed boat, the action is exactly the same – speed, speed, brake, corner, accelerate, avoid the lump in the way, speed, crash out, memorise route, repeat, close. Very, very little subtlety other than the occasional moment where the finger is dabbed off the accelerator is required to comfortably pass these levels.

Meanwhile, the Stealth and Shoot levels are a bit like a chinese meal, easy to get to grips with, vaguely satisfying, but ultimately insubstantial. Unlike the meal, however, you’re not left wanting another one half an hour later. The linear, one-route-to-rule-them-all system, the tame, predictable behaviour of the enemies and the easy targeting style makes it unrewarding (not to mention pointless) to attempt a stealthy approach. There’s no real benefit in even trying it. And just in case you were thinking of going off-piste on this, your poxy smartphone, which looks even cheaper and nastier than your first disposable mobile in GTA IV, presents you with a series of waypoints that dictate your progress.

Sure the ‘Score an unarmed takedown, get a free headshot’ mechanic is kind of fun, at least making takedowns into a vaguely tempting option, but quite frankly the goons are so stupid it’s rarely worth the additional effort needed, and if you’re into the challenge of going through whole levels only killing baddies by stealth in a pitiful attempt to enliven the gameplay, well don’t bother as key doorways become bullet infested chokepoints which you can’t get by without a reliable semi-automatic weapon.

There’s also an essential problem with Bond himself. For Bond books and films are not classic stories per se, although they perfectly conform to the strictures of the classic Western. For Bond as a character is especially unchanging, his character arc defined by action and external events rather than any kind of internal or emotional development. Which is to say that the Bond who exits a film is essentially exactly the same as the one who enters it (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service being the sole exception). Indeed, one of the key differences between the Bourne movies and Bond ones wasn’t the gritty tone and the more intimate physical violence, but the fact that Bourne’s character actually changed over the course of each movie.

The Villain’s Lair

So there you are. Incomplete and insubstantial gameplay blocked off with a half-arsed storyline that would be lucky to see either side of the bin going down conspire to make this an unpalatable gaming experience to say the least. So much so  it’s hard to tell whether the excessive brevity of the game – around a paltry 6 hours – is a blessing or a curse. Certainly it’s a shock when you suddenly find yourself at the closing credits, albeit a brief one as there is a pang of satisfaction that the thing is actually over and shouldn’t be bothering you for the rest of your life.

Review

ProsCons
Vaguely entertaining for a few moments, Lets you pretend to be Bond if you squint a lotHighly linear and rigid gameplay, Monotonous, Derivative storyline, Way too short, Dull if speedy driving sequences
Rating
45%

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I tell you I was forced to do it


The other day I was forced – forced you understand, absolutely compelled – to get my hands on a PSP. If only so I could play with it and determine what options were available in terms of web access and communications for a small project I’m involved in.

It’s not a bad piece of kit, great for watching super-compressed movies, but there aren’t a whole load of great games for it. Obviously there’s Wipeout, which is just great whatever platform it’s on, and I’m well on my way to becoming a right bastard in God of War, but aside from this there’s not a lot that’s setting my world on fire. Additionally, Sony seem to have given no thought to any kind of integration with Macs. So I had to also get my hands on The Missing Sync, which lets me totally synchronise my PSP with my Mac. A black PSP

As far as using the web goes, it’s not bad. It’s wifi enabled and beats the crap out of any mobile bar the iPhone, but its screen size and lack of a keyboard are problematic. It takes the length of a bible to input any kind of text, and good passwords that combine a load of letters and numbers can take forever to put in. However, I’m keen to get my hands on the Go! camera and try using Skype.

As the project I’m working on proceeds we’re probably going to be developing an interface for the PSP (and ultimately for more gaming platforms). I’ll let you know how it goes.


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