Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Posted: December 2, 2011 in Review
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Deus Ex Human Revolution Review

The first Deus Ex was magnificent, the original ‘free choice’ game. The less said about the second, the better. So how will this third title fare? It turns out to be a curious mixture of great moments and loathsome mechanics that combine to form an ultimately unsatisfactory whole.

The game revolves around the idea of augmentations, a series of upgrades to your fragile human frame that can change the way you play. You can’t get all of them (at least, you’re not supposed to – the game is so full of glitches that it’s possible to snare all the upgrades before you gain your first side mission) so you are forced to choose how your game unfolds. Do you put the emphasis into stealth, hacking, firepower or physical abilities? Seeing as how the game only congratulates you for playing stealthily and avoiding merciless slaughter, you have free will on the basis that you don’t care about gaining rewards.

The main problem with the game is that it wants to trick the player into believing that they are free to play however they see fit. This is a lie. You have exactly two choices – kill or not kill. Occasionally you’ll have the chance to talk your way through a situation, but this can be waltzed through with the right augmentation. The game also pretends that actions have consequences. This too is a lie. For the most part, interacting with people or completing side missions simply rewards you with an abundance of credits at a later date. Considering how much money you can gain everywhere else in the game, it’s irritating that you aren’t given any other type of reward.

The game’s lack of genuine free will in play continues throughout the entire game. It doesn’t matter how you play through because, if you’ve been a dick to everyone or become worshipped as Mr Nice Guy, there are only four endings. And all four can be unlocked during the final mission. To put it bluntly, there is nothing to gain from being a nice guy in this game. In fact, many of the game’s achievements ask you to play opposite to how you would choose to do things. One rewards you for not completing a sidequest fully, while another will pop up once you’ve allowed a vicious gunrunner to go free. It makes no sense.

Another irritating point is the size of the text in the game – it’s tiny. If you are playing on anything smaller than a wall-sized TV, kiss your chance of reading any ebooks or emails goodbye. There is also the problem of the hacking minigame – a tedious flag-capturing affair that you’ll be playing every five minutes – because it’s just plain naff. Because it’s the only minigame you’ll come across for the entire duration of the campaign, it means that absolutely everything needs to be hacked – people’s homes, storage units, safes, even military installations. You’ll be playing this tiresome game a lot more than you’d like.

The game does do stealth brilliantly, making you any successful infiltration feel like a work of genius on your part. Every enemy can be sneaked past without engaging, every camera can be turned off, every sentry robot can be disabled, and gaining access to a secure facility without raising a single alarm is a very satisfying experience indeed. Although, to be fair, it is one that will see you constantly reloading your last save.

Speaking of which, the load times are horrendous. Even after installing the game on your hard drive, the wait is roughly twenty to thirty seconds for every load screen. And when you consider that most, if not all, of the game’s sidequests ask you to go from one end of the map to the other and back again, you’re looking at a minimum of four load screens for each mission. Bring a book for the wait.

The game also comes riddled with bugs. These range from the exploitable (the ability to upgrade completely at the very beginning of the game with just a few hours’ effort) to the ludicrous (enemy AI seeing through walls). None of them are game-breaking, it’s just disappointing that a triple-A title has come packed with so many glitches.

On the whole, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a strangely unsatisfying game. The feeling on complete a stealth section perfectly is undeniably great, but the game’s appalling story, hateful load screens, loathsome characters and myriad of bugs and glitches render the experience somehow incomplete. For a ‘free choice’ game, that’s just not good enough.

65%

On Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Posted: November 25, 2011 in Musings
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I wanted to have my review of Deus Ex: Human Revolution up by now. I really did. Reviews for the game were glowing with praise across the board and I was very excited when I finally borrowed it from my housemate.

Then I started playing it and everything went wrong.

It’s such a strange game. Half of it is good – almost superb, in fact – but the other 50% is pure, undiluted shit. To start with, the text is incredibly small. If you happen to play this on a TV screen that’s smaller than, say, an entire wall, you won’t be able to read half of what is going on. Emails, ebooks, plot-relevant reams of text, you name it – you can’t see any of it.

Another point is that the game is more buggy than an anthill covered in honey. Some side quests can become impossible to finish if an enemy glitches out of existence, guards can sometimes be killed by your non-lethal tranquilliser gun, you can even accidentally slaughter a guard if the glitch occurs while you move their unconscious body out of the way.

Something else that pissed me off was the fact that you have to spend your vaulable Praxis upgrades kits on expanding your inventory. Why? What’s wrong with spending credits purchasing larger pockets? Why must you be forced to choose between a useful upgrade and a ludicriously minor one that shouldn’t inconvience you at all?

While the game is a thoughtful one, rewarding you for sneaking through areas and not going in guns blazing, the achievements make little sense, as you seem to be rewarded for doing things that are completely at odds with how you should play the game. One achievement will unlock if you toss a man off a roof (going against the achievement for not killing anyone at all), another will reward you for letting a guilty man escape justice and another will unlock if you choose not to hand over a piece of evidence to a grieving mother. Um, what?

I’m almost at the end of Deus Ex, an experience that oscilates wildly between entertaining stealth and hateful mechanics (why do you have to stop and listen to every single guard’s conversation when you try and sneak through an area?) I’m now in a position where I can’t see any way to progress. I’m in a boss fight with the final mercenary and my augmentations have been turned off (I was probably warned about this in some document or other, but I couldn’t read the blasted things). Naturally, I have been playing the game without trying to kill anyone, so I have very little ammunition. I am also playing the game on Hard. And now I am stuck.

So that’s my experience of Deus Ex: Human Revolution – mostly excellent stealth pretty much destroyed by the game it’s in.

Batman: Arkham City Review

Posted: November 1, 2011 in Review
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Batman: Arkham City Review

This is the game of the year. Perhaps it’s unprofessional to open a review with such a bold statement, but in the case of Arkham City, it’s true. This is – somehow – better than the year’s other great games, Dead Space 2 and Portal 2 and bigger, better and more intense than the first Arkham title. You knew it was going to be good. But you had no idea how good.

Picking up a year or so after the first game ended, Arkham Asylum has grown to be the only prison in Gotham City, a sprawling metropolis at the city’s edge, surrounded by vast walls and overseen from a huge tower by Professor Hugo Strange. A cunning adversary, Strange has deduced the true identity of Batman and now the titular hero is in a race against time to discover Strange’s true objective – for this is the night that his plans finally come to fruition.

Straight away, the game feels like a vast improvement on the first one. The bleak prison feels rundown, ruin and staggering in scope. The first time you mount a tower and see the entirety of the city spread before you is one of the most powerful moments in gaming this year. You are Batman and you can go everywhere, do everything. The next improvement you’ll notice is the ability to deliver a Takedown or a Counter to two guys at once. This makes your combos so much easier to keep going, and combined with the huge variety of new special attacks and gadgets that can be brought into combat, Batman has never felt so unstoppable.

Happily, the combat and location aren’t the only upgrades – the story has also undergone a Hush-style makeover to make this one of the cleverly plotted, tightly focussed and best written games for the last five years or so. The plot twists and turns, bringing Batman into confrontations with several of his most fearsome supervillains in a few cracking boss fights. While they won’t be remembered as classics, the boss battles are far more intelligent than before, forcing you to use different gadgets each time, with bigger and grander villains throwing everything they have at you. The exception is the outstanding Mr Freeze encounter, where you must use all of your cunning to outsmart him.

Another villain who makes a welcome return is the Riddler. Instead of simply mocking your intelligence from afar, this time Edward Nigma kidnaps a group of people, forcing you to uncover his clues before you can get the location to save them, one by one. There are four hundred Riddler challenges for Batman to overcome, ranging from simply finding a hidden question mark to manipulating your gadgets in an intelligent new way. Finding all of them will add on a minimum of four to five hours on the game, and the payoff – getting your hands on Riddler – is more than worth it.

In addition to improving dramatically on what has gone before, developers Rocksteady have also created entirely new sections just for Catwoman. Occupying roughly an extra hour or two of game time, the sections feel delightfully different. Catwoman is more graceful in combat, with her whip combos, caltrops and bolas attacks and feline agility, but she is also more cumbersome to get around the city with. Whereas Batman can grapnel boost to the top of a building and keep gliding, Catwoman must whip to a point and use her claws to scale the towers. Catwoman also has forty five additional Riddler challenges to complete, adding to the scale of an already enormous game.

Completing the Riddler’s challenges also unlocks a vast amount of content. Bonus character trophies and concept art are a given, but this time you gain access to new levels in the Riddler’s Revenge challenge mode. Like before, the levels are divided into Predator and Combat, with medals being awarded for completion of specific tasks – Takedown an enemy through glass, etc. The difference this time is a new addition, Campaign mode, where you must take on three set levels in order, each of which demands you get as many medals as possible while manipulating a series of level modifiers – time limit, recharging health, etc. You can also play as Catwoman for these sections, making this supposed additional mode at least as long as the game itself, if not longer.

Alongside the Riddler’s Revenge, there’s another unlockable bonus – New Game Plus. Essentially a harder mode, you can replay the entire game again with all your stats carrying over and all your gadgets, trophies and collectables. The game ups the difficulty by throwing tougher enemies in from the off, having only half your health recharge at any one time and by removing the on-screen counter warning, making this a far more intense experience.

Are there any criticisms to level at Arkham City? Maybe the fact that it eventually comes to an end, or that hints are laid down at what will come in the next game, or the fact that players will have to wait a couple of years for Arkham 3. Aside from that, there are no major problems with this game – it’s damn near flawless.

Improving upon its predecessor’s faults until they shine is quite one thing, but Arkham City makes Asylum look like a demo. A startling achievement and a game that will take a hell of a lot of work to beat – but what else would you expect from the game of the year?

98%

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.

70%

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.