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LA Noire Review

Posted: October 31, 2011 in Review
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LA Noire Review

The dame refuses to meet your eyes when you ask her a simple question. Did she see what happened? She looks away and says, ‘no, officer.’ You don’t believe her. It’s quite likely that she knows more than what she’s letting on. You choose to doubt her words. You scream, ‘DO YOU WANT TO SPEND A NIGHT IN THE SLAMMER?’ She clams up, refuses to help the investigation. You have failed. Welcome to the world of LA Noire.

Like Red Dead Redemption before it, LA Noire is a game of two halves. One half is the actual crime solving, seeing you control bland protagonist automaton Cole Phelps as he’s bounced across every investigative desk in the LAPD, strolling through crime scenes, staring at every tiny piece of evidence imaginable, before interrogating suspects and trying to break them. The second, far more disappointing half, is the rest of the game.

Between the interesting sections that attempt to make you feel like a detective, LA Noire insists on trying to make things ‘exciting’ by throwing in driving sections, chases, shoot outs and general staples from the GTA series that felt out of place in that franchise. Street crimes get reported as you drive across the city between destinations and completion of each rewards you with XP towards your next rank (not that levelling up makes a damn bit of difference.) The disappointing thing is that all the street crimes are the same – you either have a car chase, a foot chase, a shoot out or some combination of the previous. The only street crime where you’ll feel like a cop instead of a character in a game is the one where you are charged with secretly tailing a man without being spotted. But this too ends with a shoot out, ruining the atmosphere.

As to any potential narrative, the plot is pretty much given away by the fact that it’s set in Los Angeles at the time of the city’s boom. A crazy mixture of Chinatown and LA Confidential, every character seems to be an archetype of either of those films. Phelps himself is simply Guy Pearce’s Ed Exley, while the supporting players seem to have been lifted straight off the screen without a single thought to making them original or interesting. LA Noire might as well be the interactive version of James Ellroy’s LA Quartet that it so clearly wants to be.

While the game’s many flaws may be off-putting, the true heart of the piece is an incredibly well created and intelligent system of facial motion capture to allow actors to perform each role. This means that every facial tic, every wince, every shrug is captured perfectly, allowing you to see exactly what you’re supposed to – although the faces never quite sit right on the necks, seeming to float awkwardly above the bodies.

The downside of the facial motion capture is that, once Phelps receives the promotion to Homicide, the liars get much better and so the only way to really know what to do is to accuse everyone of lying and then back out if you can’t prove it. Add to this the fact that the game is incredibly unclear on what exactly you have to accuse suspects of and you have a game that always relies on a one-in-three trial and error system that never quite makes you feel like a smart detective. There’s also no way of knowing what each of the options will unleash on the suspect – selecting ‘Truth’ could easily be a simple nod to continue, or Phelps could shout at them about aiding an investigation. Likewise, ‘Doubt’ ranges from simply raising an eyebrow to threats of physical violence. You never really know which selection to make.

The game is also incredibly specific about some things and incredibly general about others – the position of a body in an early case makes it appear as though the victim was shot from inside a store, but this doesn’t actually matter and is never mentioned by anyone. Another case features an underage girl who was drugged, raped and almost murdered in a car crash and when she says that she doesn’t recall what happened to her, logic says that she must be telling the truth, but, no, she remembers everything perfectly, somehow.

As to the investigation angle, LA Noire might as well be a point-and-click game. You move the awkwardly-steering Phelps around each crime scene, stopping when the controller vibrates to examine an item close-up. However, the controller vibrates around anything that can be examined, even if it isn’t relevant to the case. The only way to really know when you’re finished examining the scene is to look at absolutely everything until the music chimes to let you know you’ve finished.

Aside from the staggeringly well realised world of 1947 Los Angeles and the amazing amount of things to see and do in it (although scoring 100% is easier here than in Red Dead), there isn’t much else going for LA Noire. Once you’ve completed it – roughly twenty hours or so – there isn’t any reason to replay it, unless you’re a completionist, in which case add on another five hours to the total play time. On the whole, LA Noire is a great concept that could have done so much more, just spoiled by a slightly muddled script, bland characters and a sparkling lack of originality.


613 – The Wedding of River Song

This is it. The moment fans have poured over since the beginning of the series – the Doctor’s death at the edge of Lake Silencio. Can the Doctor undo a fixed point in time? Will River really murder the man she loves? And most of all, what is the Question that the Silence want to remain unanswered?

Perhaps what’s best about this episode is that all of those questions are answered in the most mind-blowing way possible. One of Steven Moffat’s many strengths as a writer is his ability to surprise the viewer with sequences that are unexpected and leave them desperately trying to figure out what is actually going on. Nowhere is this more apparent than here, where time begins to collapse in on itself in spectacularly puzzling fashion.

The cast spark off one another brilliantly, with Rory once again getting some great lines and even a cracking scene where Amy gets her badass on. River’s love for the Doctor is both convincing and amusing, with their banter becoming a highlight of the series.

The only problem is that when the moment comes – the grand reveal – it’s impossible not to feel a little disappointed in just how easy it all really is. After the cleverness of last year’s time-travel clue-laying, this is almost a let down. Or at least it would be if the rest of the episode – indeed, the entire series – wasn’t so damn good.

On the whole, this is an excellent close to a generally great series. Leaving enough questions unanswered for the next series, but providing just the right amount of clues, Moffat has delivered a thoughtful, challenging, fun and downright entertaining show. Here’s to the Christmas episode.

612 – Closing Time

James Corden returns as Craig for this comedy episode featuring the Cybermen. Left to look after his baby for a weekend, Craig runs straight into the Doctor, who is going on a farewell tour before his inevitable death on April 22nd. However, there are sinister goings-on afoot and Craig is enlisted to help his old friend to stop the Cybermen one more time.

It’s unusual that a comedy episode would be genuinely funny, but this is precisely what ‘Closing Time’ manages to be. Frequently bordering on hysterical, the episode thrives on the excellent chemistry between the hapless Craig and the Doctor, while managing to get a hell of a lot of laughs – and even some key plot points – out of Craig’s child Alfie.

The plot moves along with a good pace, allowing time for a couple of good twists and red herrings, before arriving at an explosive climax. Held together by good CGI and some excellent comic timing, the episode is a joy to watch as it races from one amusing set piece to the next.

If there is perhaps one minor problem with the episode, it’s that the Cybermen aren’t really needed. It could be any enemy from the Doctor’s past – heck, it could even be an all-new villain. This is something of a shame, as it feels like the Cybermen have returned just to be made fun of.

On the whole, this is one comedy episode that works very well, thanks to the talents of its two stars and a few excellent lines. Another cracking episode in a damn good series.

611 – The God Complex

The Doctor, Amy and Rory find themselves trapped in an alien building designed to look like an old earth hotel. Each room contains a nightmare specific to one person and, once viewed, turns them into prey for the minotaur that stalks the corridors. If the Doctor can’t figure out what’s going on soon enough, everyone will succumb to their own fears…

This is one of those strange episodes that seems to think it’s much better than it really is. Packing no less than six plot twists, it also breaks the show’s running time by an extra four minutes. There’s also a lot of fat that could really be cut out here, such as the many interminable scenes between each minotaur attack.

That said, there are some good points here – some of the nightmare rooms are quite unsettling, such as the ventriloquist’s dummy room – and the first couple of plot twists are pretty clever. There are also some great turns from the supporting cast, including the brilliant David Walliams as a cowardly alien. It’s just a shame that it seems to drag on so long.

Probably the weakest episode of the series so far. A shame considering the quality of the rest of the run, but perhaps inevitable that there would be one weak link. It’s just disappointing that the story doesn’t really go anywhere fresh or exciting – this is an episode set entirely within bland, empty corridors.

610 – The Girl Who Waited

When Doctor takes Amy and Rory to one of the Universe’s hotspots, everything goes hellishly wrong. An outbreak of a contagion that the humans are immune to has broken out, turning the paradise into a final resort for those dying. Family members get to see their loved ones live out their lives all in the space of a single day – something that backfires dramatically when Amy enters the wrong doorway. Attempting to rescue her from a cure that will kill her, the Doctor and Rory head after her, only to find that Amy has been alone for thirty six years – and she’s become someone entirely different.

The central premise of the episode is incredibly thoughtful, posing the question of what exactly it is that happens if the Doctor fails his companions. Amy’s relationship with the Time Lord has already gone through some turbulent times, but here their fragile alliance is stretched to breaking point, with the Doctor leaving his redheaded friend in a deadly environment for almost four decades.

Naturally, the episode focuses on Rory and Amy’s relationship and here the two actors do not disappoint. Their chemistry is nothing less than excellent as Rory and Amy struggle to deal with that most difficult of life-changers: time itself. Seeing Amy wizened, older, angrier and vengeful is one thing, but seeing Rory, heartbroken, attempting to salve the wound is quite another.

That’s the episode’s true strength: the ties that bind the characters. Amy’s aging affects not only the Doctor and Rory, but a younger Amy as well. Full credit should go here to the make-up artists: not only does Amy look visibly aged, but it never looks silly or overdone. In fact, the characters are what keep the storyline together to such an extent that the robot villains are almost irrelevant.

Most of the episode is highly enjoyable, if slow-paced, meaning that it’s a shame that the final action sequence is forced to be so melodramatic. With the over-use of slow motion, dramatic music and low angles, it’s almost like watching a cheaper version of the appalling film 300. In fact, given how much the drama relies on characters up until the last few minutes, the climactic fight is genuinely disappointing.

All in all, this is a very good episode. Light on action, heavy on excellent character building and with a pitch-black finale, this might be looked on as one of the most intelligent episodes that Doctor Who has yet enjoyed.

609 – Night Terrors

Last series Mark Gatiss gave us the abomination known as ‘Victory of the Daleks’. To describe the episode as a stinker is an injustice to all the other bad episodes there have ever been. ‘Victory of the Daleks’ was pure, unadulterated eye cancer. So with trepidation we step into Gatiss’ latest episode, knowing that he has a hell of a lot to make up for…

Actually, it’s not a bad episode at all, although it does step once again into that familiar territory of strange domestic problems (something Gatiss uses a lot). The story flits wildly between engaging and wonky, although the whole affair is pretty much saved by an excellent villain. The creepy Dolls are quite wonderful, appearing both sinister and believable all at once. The only real problem is that once it’s revealed that they grab people and change them into Dolls, all the tension is lost – it becomes painfully obvious that the Doctor will just undo everything at the end.

There’s also a fantastic supporting turn from the always likeable Daniel Mays as a panicked father and some incredible use of sound, such as the ‘breathing’ lift and those skin-crawling children’s giggles.

So does it make up for ‘Victory of the Daleks’? Yes, easily. While the episode is flawed in several places – easy to figure out, the Doctor doesn’t do much, not enough is done with the Dolls and the ending would be better if the father killed the child – it’s still entertaining enough. Not the best, but it’s nowhere near as bad as the last episode Gatiss wrote.

On Those Special Games

Posted: September 20, 2011 in Musings
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What is it about Resident Evil 4? I only ask because I’m sitting here in front of the Xbox, watching the download bar slowly fill as I wait to play the game again. Problem is, this will be the fourth version of the game I’ve played.

Resident Evil 4 changed the gaming world, reinventing third-person gaming and giving players a masterpiece to enjoy again and again. It’s now seven years and has appeared on the GameCube, PS2, Wii, PC and now the 360. I bought the game on launch day for the Cube and played it for a solid week, loving every second of it. The set pieces. The characters. The tension provided by the ammo-enemies ratio. THe incredible action. All of it was brilliant.

When the game was ported to PS2, I travelled to Reading to help a friend play the Mercenaries bonus game and check out the additional content. While the game didn’t look or feel right on the PS2 (those analogue sticks were always wrong, somehow), the game was still good fun.

Then the game was ported to Wii. Once again, I bought it on launch day and spent a whole week reliving the masterpiece. The Wii version was the best one yet, providing the incredible graphics of the Cube version with all the added content of the PS2 release. The only downside was the fact that the pointer controls made it a hell of a lot easier to shoto enemies, thus reducing the fear factor.

Now it’s here again. I’ve purchased it on launch day (again), with money I don’t have (again) and will happily throw several more hours into the game (again). Why, I ask myself, why?

Because it’s worth it, that’s why. Every gamer has their favourite, a particular title they’d drop everything for in an instant and Resident Evil 4 is mine. The fact that the series is being rebooted just one game on from this masterpiece proves how flawless it is. While the gameplay may have aged, the characters, set pieces, heart-pounding fear and constant adrenaline have not and never will. Resident Evil 4 is back. All hail the king.

608 – Let’s Kill Hitler

BOOM! And so The Doctor finally returns to our screens. So many unresolved questions are now rattling around and we’ve had months – long, cruel months – to debate and discuss. Now we’re going to find out the answers. What happened to Melody/ River, Amy and Rory’s child? Is the Doctor actually going to die? Are bowties really a fashionable accessory? (Hint: yes).

The Doctor returns to present day England for a reunion with Amy and Rory, who still don’t know a thing about what’s going on. There the three are grabbed at gunpoint by Amy and Rory’s friend Mels, who forces the Doctor to take her to kill Hitler.

That’s when a series of amazing events occur and the Doctor finds himself face to face with a demented River Song, who is under orders to kill him. Faced with only forty minutes to live, the Doctor must stop River from destroying history and also deal with a time-travelling justice department, who want River captured at all costs.

The title is a bit misleading, to be honest. Hitler himself gets a paltry two minutes of screentime (which is hilarious, to be fair), and then literally gets shoved in a cupboard. Nothing is made of the setting either, with Germany in 1938 getting forgotten almost as soon as it is set up. This is a real shame, given who much storytelling potential could have happened here – the gang having to save Hitler from would-be assassins might well have been TV gold.

Still, what’s here is definitely good and occasionally great – River’s first attempts to kill the Doctor are borderline hysterical, while Rory could almost do stand-up after some of his lines. (‘Can you drive a motorbike?’ “I expect so, it’s been that sort of a day.”)

The alien villain is also well done and quite interesting, seeing a team of people shrunk down and piloting a shape-shifting humanoid robot. The effects department might be trapped behind the same budget limitations as before, but the idea itself is both entertaining and imaginative – certainly more so than regular alien baddies are.

On the whole, Who returns with style and flair. A couple of the major questions are answered by this episode, with many more left to be poured over for the remaining weeks of the series’ run. Long may it continue.

Come in, put your feet up. Would you like a drink? Why, yes, I have been away, thanks for asking. I went to Orlando, Florida.

It was incredible. I was fortunate enough to go there ten years ago, and now I’ve gone back. It’s perhaps twice as good as I remember, simply because this time my brother and I hit all the rollercoasters we could. The Hulk – a big, bad mother that launches you away at 60 mph – was utterly brilliant. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was also fantastic, featuring Hogsmeade, Hogwarts and several other key locations such as the Three Broomsticks. It was also the first place everyone chose to go as soon as the park opens, meaning that, if you don’t get in there asap, you aren’t getting in there for, oooh, hours.

So, yes, now I’m back. With a post-holiday bank balance to match. Eeesh. Happily, there is plenty of work going at the moment, so something resembling normal service can now resume.

Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D

With the real 3DS Resident Evil experience – Revelations – not arriving until later in the year, it would seem that Capcom have simply opted to knock together a bonus game and charge full price for it. It’s a real shame, as Mercenaries is a cracking little shooter that can’t quite shake off the restraints of its bonus game roots.

If you’ve played either Resident Evil 4 or 5, then you’re probably pretty familiar with the objective already. You have two minutes to rack up as many kills as possible before either the time runs out or you eliminate all 150 enemies on each level. Smashing time extensions and killing enemies with melee attacks will allow you to keep playing for longer, while stringing together a combo of defeated enemies will see your score go into the stratosphere before you know it.

Enemies and levels are all taken from the aforementioned games, including classics like the Village and Public Assembly, as well as the lesser-enjoyed levels Warzone, Castle, Missile Area, Mines, Ship Deck and the Prison. The enemies are a mixture of Cultists, Majini and Combat Majini, with a few Uroboros mutations – exploding heads, the shell-like creature made of innards – thrown in for good measure

Adding to your woes are each level’s special enemies, such as the Chainsaw Majini, Garrador, Executioner, Red Executioner, Gatling Gun Majini and the utterly, utterly terrifying Super Chainsaw Ganado (remember him?). Much tougher than the regular foes, these angry bastards crop up at specific points and will kill you – or worse, ruin your score – if not dealt with immediately. Mercifully, they always make a distinctive sound before they arrive so you don’t get surprised by them – although the Big Man Majini is a sneaky bugger – but their appearance is always cause for concern.

Happily, you’re given plenty of ordnance to deal with the bad guys. Each of the eight characters have a different weapons set, alternative costumes and three slots for selected skills. Naturally, mastering all of these means playing the game repeatedly, so if you’re new to the Mercenaries experience, you may find yourself completely overwhelmed. Series veterans will be pleased to see the Chris and Claire, the Redfield siblings, as well as Barry Burton and Rebecca Chambers. Rounding out the cast are Hunk, villain Krauser and eternal nemesis Wesker. The easiest character is undoubtedly Krauser, thanks to his powerful bow and rocket launcher combo, as well as the fact that almost all of his melee attacks are guaranteed to kill.

Scores range from rank D (you survived) to rank SS (you killed pretty much everything), and the better you did, the more the rewards. These can be simply unlocking a new character, opening up the next set of missions, earning a new costume or even being granted a new skill. These are incredibly useful little perks that can dramatically alter the state of play at any given moment. There are perks for almost everything – some improve your melee attacks, some upgrade the functions of each weapon, some increase the amount of time you get from a melee kill and there are some that do incredibly specific things, like give you a time bonus every time an enemy is killed when a seven is in the time counter, or add lightning properties to your melee, or make it much easier to bring down the bigger enemies. Using each skill in a round will grant you points, allowing you to upgrade them to a maximum of three levels, at which point you are granted an additional ability. For instance, the Medic skill increases the amount of health you recover from green herbs, and at level three gives you an extra health bonus from each critical hit you score.

On top of this is an absolutely cracking online mode. While the first three missions are simply training stages designed for single players, later levels allow you to take a friend along for the slaughter, either in local link-up or online. It’s incredibly simple to find a game online as the servers are always busy – in fact, they’re so busy that many games will disappear as you click on them, so it’s easier to host a game than join one. Once you’re in, everything goes smoothly, as the vast majority of players online are utterly excellent, meaning that perfect teamwork is never far away and achieving SS ranks on every mission becomes a doddle. Thankfully, the game doesn’t mind if you score highly in Solo or Duo play, as all the rewards will come to you regardless.

For all the fun, the replayability and the enjoyment that Mercenaries offers, it still cannot escape the fact that it is merely a bonus game stretched out to feature length. Thanks to the incredibly long learning curve – eleven training missions! – the actual game feels decidedly short, with only eighteen levels where you actually get to do your thing. And no matter how many times Capcom switch the enemies, time of day and time extensions around, they can’t hide the fact that you will be playing the same arenas over and over again. What’s weirder is that the game is clearly designed as high score challenge game, so why is it that only your very highest record gets saved?

Almost as if they know that players are more interested in the forthcoming Revelations title, Capcom have stuck a short demo into Mercenaries. While this seems like a great idea, it’s shorter than any demo you have ever played. In fact, it takes longer to load than it does to play through, making it more of an interactive cutscene than a demo. The free trailer in the eshop is longer.

So Mercenaries is a peculiar bag, one that manages to be everything it should have been and yet nothing at all. It’s a cracking co-op title, a solid action game and has plenty of depth to it. However, it can be pretty much done 100% in the space of a week by anyone who knows what they’re doing – the Mercenaries target audience, for instance – so as to whether this is worth full price depends on how much you enjoyed the bonus game the first time around. A shame, really, as it’s almost excellent.