I started reading Tom Bissell's EXTRA LIVES, in which the talented scribe writes about a particularly riveting LEFT 4 DEAD Versus match he played which exemplifies the exceptional gameplay design of Valve's game. It put me in the mood to reinstall L4D2 and try to get into the multiplayer. I'd played some online matches before, but my mic-happy teammates would usually show less self-preservation instincts than the AI bots.
Granted, on the first Versus match I joined today, a teammate would insist on taking point. I would look and see a blue silhouette more or less a mile away from the rest of us with a hunchbacked red silhouette riding his shoulders and pounding his head.
On a mood to experiment, I decided to try the Survival mode for the first time. I joined a game and we were gathering supplies when one of my teammates insisted on switching to another map to exploit a glitch I'd never heard of. A vote was called and, not wanting to be a spoilsport, I went with it.
The map is The Passing - Underground, where the zombie hordes attack the survivors once a radio is started. Before doing that, my teammates instructed me to go up the fire escape and, when we got to the top, one of my teammates jumped on the railing and from there jumped toward the roof. Surprisingly, he hung from the supposedly-inacessible roof and when we helped him up, he was on the roof. Another teammate did the same. I was encouraged to try.
My first attempt had me hanging from the fire escape. My teammate patiently helped me up and encouraged me to try again. My second attempt ended with me on the ground, dead. They defibbed my bones back together as I admitted I wasn't very good at this.
A few botched attempts later, I was starting to accuse Valve of sexism for not letting my female character model get on that fucking roof like everyone else.
"Get on the railing and jump at the corner!" said a teammate through the mic.
"I am doing that," I defended myself.
"No, quite obviously you are not."
We were at this for about ten zombieless minutes. Different directions were given: "Face the WALL, jump to the RIGHT!" "Aim at the corner and jump!" "Just jump!" "Don't jump, just fall off". All of these ended with me either hanging from the railing or staining the ground below.
"Impressive, Andre. Impressive," said the mic guy.
"Don't worry, I failed on my first twenty times too," said another teammate, which I and my ruined self-esteem appreciated.
"Look, I'll just go start the radio and fight from below, okay?" I said, to which they begrudgingly agreed. About a minute later we were all dead. You'd think they'd have fared better than me on top of their precious fucking roof.
From one match to the next, some of my teammates had been replaced by other online players; the ones who weren't replaced were vacated by their human players, reduced to bot-status and nametagged "Ellis", "Coach", etc. But soon, more human players jumped in. We managed to play one match properly before one of the new teammates said:
"Let's do the glitch!"
Up I went, anticipating my humiliation, explaining my story to them and asking for a step-by-step guide. Not fully comprehending the scope of my ineptitude, they were somewhat vague. Two teammates got on the roof and jumped all the way to a lower fire escape on another building. A third teammate got on the roof and got ready to jump too, forgetting he was supposed to help me up. I didn't notice this right away.
So as I jumped toward the roof he jumped toward the fire escape. We both missed.
"Wow," said one of my teammates, contemplating the dead guy on the ground and the desperate girl hanging from the fire escape.
After restarting the match, they offered a more thorough explanation. I got on the railing and, like a little scared child, said, "What do I do now?"
"Get on the railing, jump at the corner and press D."
I tried that and I WAS UP.
I AM NOT A MORON.
I HAD TO PRESS D.
THE OTHER BASTARDS NEVER SAID THAT.
As I victory danced all over the rooftop -- in what may be the most pathetic pride I ever felt --, one of our teammates had gone all the way to the other side of the map and wouldn't stop hopping.
"Why are you hopping repeatedly?" I asked.
"A GLITCH" he replied.
"Another one? How many goddamn glitches does this map have?"
"INVISIBLE LADDER" he replied happily.
We went over to where he was and found him jumping at a wall on which there was nothing but bricks and traces of vegetation. My other teammate did the same thing. I watched them both hop repeatedly like bunnies on ecstasy.
"THEY TOOK IT OUT", one of them concluded in, I imagine, tears. He proceeded to shoot the wall many times, presumably to carve a ladder with bullets.
Meanwhile, in the distance, a fourth teammate stood, patiently waiting for us to start the radio, not slightly interested in glitches and apparently eager to kill some zombies. I verified the nametag on top of this magnificent person's head:
Most open-world sandbox games shouldn't be open-world sandbox games. As I write this, MAFIA 2 and LA NOIRE spring to mind in red-filtered flashbacks like traitors upon which I yearn to enact my revenge. Games that made me drive distances best measured in astronomical units for no purpose other than padding gameplay length. If the sprawling cities had been cut out entirely and replaced by smaller, mission-appropriate scenery, would it have been an improvement? If the answer's yes, your game shouldn't be a sandbox. Your time and resources would be better spent ironing out everything else. Not that this would have helped LA NOIRE. Its core mechanics were inherently broken to begin with.
On the other end of the spectrum, there's GRAND THEFT AUTO 4. The amazing Liberty City seems to bear down on Niko's shoulders, making him feel small and isolated. In what is a stroke of genius, pedestrians will often answer their cellphones as they come close to Niko, excluding him even more. Gameplay-wise, GTA 4 knows how to make the most of its scale with good missions that couldn't exist without it.
RED DEAD REDEMPTION is similarly skilled at evoking an atmosphere. The death of the Old West is almost tangible as you cross a lonely prairie illuminated by the sunset. To the far east is Blackwater, the most advanced city in the gameworld, threatening to expand westward and swallow all in its path until it meets the ocean. The game also has a gameplay feature that every sandbox game should have: scripted events that happen randomly, such as an ongoing robbery or a person being chased by wolves, in which you can intervene. Events that make the world feel alive and the gameplay more varied.
And finally, SKYRIM. In which the world is the main character and its exploration the entire point. Everything else builds toward that. The game's most memorable moments consist of travelling toward a distant city as Jeremy Soule's gorgeous music plays.
SLEEPING DOGS presents a different problem. Its Hong Kong is gorgeous, interactive and full of opportunities. It doesn't feel tacked onto a game that could easily do without it. Unfortunately, the game lacks the creativity to make the most of it. To say that it makes the least of it is a generous assessment.
The problems start with the writing. Wei Shen is an astonishingly bland protagonist. Good at everything, fazed by nothing. Most of the time I forgot he's an undercover cop, because when he's told to do heinous things, he doesn't bat an eyelid. He doesn't call his superiors for guidance, he doesn't hesitate. The developers seem to think it's enough drama for him to show signs of stress every time he wakes up. It isn't. It's just another dissonant aspect of a personality that never forms a coherent whole. He has no real humanity. I could care less what happens to him. Which is in itself a gigantic flaw.
The other characters are stock characters. They feel like the first draft of characters in GTA games, before actual depth was added. And the missions they give you often have little to do with anything. The objectives feel random and actually boring. Several missions ask you to play sequences of hacking mini-games and -- of all fucking things -- karaoke.
Now I speak directly to you, United Front Games and Square Enix.
Wants to be forced to play a Guitar-Hero-for-dummies version.
In a game that has a competent melee combat system, acceptable gunplay and surprisingly responsive driving, why would you build missions around hacking a safe or pressing a button to fast-talk people?
(Yes. This happens. A guard shows up and asks what are you doing, a button prompt appears, you press it and Wei comes up with an excuse that convinces the guard to let him in peace. This is an actual gameplay feature.)
Why, in a crime game that has this:
Would you focus on this:
The more I played SLEEPING DOGS, the more it felt like a waste of time. The story is completely lacking in ambition, the missions are uninteresting and often rely on the game's least entertaining features and the overall gameplay design has a kitchen sink approach that hilariously breaks the game's previously established level of realism.
Consider, for example, the ability to make your car lurch forward or sideways to ram other cars. Even DRIVER SAN FRANCISCO, the game this feature was borrowed from, had the common sense to make this ability available only in the protagonist's dreams (which, no spoiler, last for most of the game). And the designers also remembered to prevent this lurch from adding actual speed to the cars, which would give players a game-breaking advantage during races. The developers of SLEEPING DOGS didn't notice this problem.
And then there's the pathetic health shrines that increase Wei's health after he performs a ritual. This is yet another aspect of what can charitably be called Wei's personality that never shows up anywhere else, and thus feels more like a stereotype of Chinese culture than anything.
And then... there's the sexism.
The female characters in SLEEPING DOGS bother me, because they seem to exist solely for Wei to conquer them. You meet them during a mission, they leave you their cellphone, you call them, you meet them, you do things for them and they have sex with you. They are all attracted to Wei's skills at driving, fighting, hacking, etc. instead of his personality (understandably, since he doesn't have one). It's that line of thinking that, to paraphrase a tweet by Hexjackal, equates women to machines in which you put coins until sex comes out.
Nearly all of the women in SLEEPING DOGS are like that. They show no further depth or narrative purpose. The only reason they're in the game is to be a mission for which the reward is sex. There's no option to advance the relationship, only to conquer the next woman. I had a hint of hope when Wei gets angry at a woman who's cheating on him, and she rightfully reminds him he's cheated on her first. Sadly, this goes nowhere. Wei and the narrative are entirely unnaffected by this. It's like the moment only exists to be a mildly amusing ending to a "tail the car" mission, and to encourage you to conquer new women. Plot-wise, it's pointless. Gameplay-wise, it's padding.
No woman impresses Wei, no woman challenges him or teaches him something in any meaningful way. Most of them are there to give you easy mission objectives and reward you with sex. The only reason this isn't that sexist is due to Wei being such a good-at-everything bore of a character that nobody ever impresses him or teaches him or challenges him. Plus none of the characters, men or women, have any actual depth. The game's sexism is more of a side effect of overall shitty, lazy writing. "We need more stuff for the player to do." "How about dating minigames?" "Bingo."
And your writing truly has to be shitty when actual sexism seems too sophisticated for it.
After a mission in which yet another female character left me her cellphone number after I won a street race for her (by a wide margin, thanks to the magic of the "ram" button), I went to another mission briefing in which I was told to do something I instantly recognized as a minigame. And I simply said "no," quit the game and uninstalled it. Without a second thought. Because it's a pointless, vapid, insubstantial timewaste of a game.
And this may be because of the open-world setting. Having populated it with so many minigames, the developers apparently decided that nearly every mission should consist of doing one or two of them with some story-flavored context added. It's like they built the world first and, seeing what it already offered, built the story around that without adding anything else. In my (admittedly incomplete) playtime, there was nothing even approaching the level of craft from the heist mission in GTA 4 or the ambush mission in RED DEAD REDEMPTION.
All in all, SLEEPING DOGS is a decent sandbox with a shitty story and uninspired gameplay tacked on. The Hong Kong created for the game could have been a great setting for so much more.
It's weird, really. There I was worrying that MODERN WARFARE 3 would lose the franchise's identity due to being written and developed by a substantially different Infinity Ward. It didn't, and is perhaps the best installment in the series*. As if that wasn't baffling enough, SAINTS ROW: THE THIRD turns out to suck in comparison to its predecessor, despite being made by the same studio, including the same writers.
The game starts with some promise, and some wit. The Saints are now celebrities. The first mission has you and your homies robbing a bank wearing rather useless disguises while in the company of a method actor who is trying to learn how to play a Saint. The second mission is a gloriously stupid shootout in an airplane, followed by one of those free-fall sequences that are becoming so common in third-person games (such as DEAD SPACE 2 and FORCE UNLEASHED 2), but even crazier. Both missions have the funny writing that made SAINTS ROW 2 such a joy, my favorite moment being when the main character calls the villain a "French fuck", and hears the offended response: "Please! I'm Belgian."
But in the third mission, I started to get worried. What the fuck happened to Shaundi? Where's the lovable, sexually promiscuous stoner who kept upstaging Pierce in the previous game? Who's this perpetually pissed-off, profoundly irritating woman who shares her name, but absolutely none of her traits except a bare midriff? Also, where's the attention-needing, classical-music-loving Pierce? Why is he now pretty much defined by his wish to finish a chess match? Where's Johnny Gat? Did they really do away with an excellent character on the second mission? And this hacker chick who speaks in complicated computer lingo no-one understands and lacks a social life -- are those two horribly cliché traits the best they could come up with? And dear God, why did anyone think that Zimos' autotuned voice would stay funny?
Not only do all the characters suck now, the interaction between them is astonishingly bland, failing to come within a mile of the funny dynamic of the previous game. They go for the obvious almost every time, and the effort to be funny actually comes off as a struggle. At one point, while you're running away with your enemies' cargo and being pursued by its owners, Pierce actually asks "Why are they aiming at us?!". They being the people whose cargo you're stealing. And instead of being baffled by the sheer stupidity of the question, my character responded, "Because we're not dead yet!". I honestly do not know which is worse, the set-up or the punchline. I actually want to go back to that mission and hear it again to make sure I'm not paraphrasing, but the game doesn't have a mission replay option. SAINTS ROW 2, of course, did.
And mind you, the cargo was a group of barely-dressed whores being sold as part of a sex trafficking operation. At the end of the mission, you can decide whether to sell them or keep them. At another point in the story, the whores at your party turn out to be assassins, and the mission requires you to kill them all. In your crib, whores can constantly be seen giving people lap dances. When Burt Reynolds shows up, he has a whore in his lap. There's a game mode called "Whored Mode". THE THIRD seems to be very proud of its whores, and its approach to ramping up the absurdity of a situation is often to add whores to it. "Look, you're shooting people and there's all these WHORES around!" I'm surprised they didn't include a cameo by Frank Miller.
But that's not all: the female members of pretty much any gang in SAINTS ROW: THE THIRD show up semi-nude. For example, while the male members of the Morning Star gang dress in suits, the women wear trenchcoats over a corset and panties. Shaundi -- despite no longer acting like the sexually promiscuous stoner from the previous game -- walks around with her abs always bare. The game makes a point of having a sexualized woman whenever possible, which quickly gets tiring and gratuitous. There never seems to be any irony about it, what with so many of the game's attempts at humor failing disastrously. Only the mission in which Viola dresses in a superhero costume with a gigantic cleavage, while the other characters constantly tease her about it, comes close to being a spoof of the comic book industry, but never actually comes off as such.
The story does start to get crazier (and occasionally funny) in the third act -- although to say the game's story has acts is to attribute more structure to it than it has. Characters come and go without ceremony, and frustratingly the game does away with its most promising characters. The proud Belgian Phillipe Loren is soon replaced by the unspeakably dull Killbane, and Decker leader Matt Miller shows up only to fill out a couple of missions. STAG commander Cyrus Temple is a monotonous cliché -- big, pragmatic and a fan of Shock and Awe. Apparently that wasn't deemed obvious enough for a military leader, so they give him a sidekick who's pretty much a female version of him. At least the game doesn't dress her minimally, although perhaps if it did -- and other characters remarked upon it with surprise -- the sexism would really start coming off as tongue-in-cheek.
Chances to subvert or ridicularize stereotypes are, therefore, constantly missed. Obvious routes are taken throughout the entire narrative, and new ideas are introduced without foreshadowing as if they're being scratched off a checklist (the zombies come to mind). Nothing about this game comes even close to the aspects of SAINTS ROW 2 that kept it interesting and funny, such as the pathetic leader of the Ronin who is a disappointment to his father, or the deadpan couple that commanded the Sons of Samedi, or the disastrous tattooing of the Brotherhood's boss. And what's worse, THE THIRD presents its watered-down, cliched ideas with an overconfidence that makes them all worse.
Gameplay-wise, there's ups-and-downs. The visual presentation is much improved, with vivid colors, slick graphics and excellent animations, but the implementation of the latter leaves a lot to be desired. For a start, grabbing people and throwing them is no longer fun, because you can't aim them anymore. In SAINTS ROW 2, you could throw them against a bunch of trash bins, or against a car, or against a breakable fence, with surprising (and immensely entertaining) accuracy. In THE THIRD, your character will throw them in the direction you're facing, but always upwards, so if you do it indoors, they'll always hit the ceiling. I made the mistake of upgrading my throw power to the max, and whenever I tried to make a target hit a fence, they'd fly over the fence, and when they did hit the fucking fence, it wouldn't break. What's worse, even after flying forty feet, bouncing off a wall and landing on concrete -- leaving blood splatters everywhere they touched -- they'd get up. On several occasions I threw enemies off dangerous heights only for them to get up again and shoot at me from below. So the throw feature was only useful when you're fighting on top of a skyscraper -- and I wouldn't be surprised if they survived that, too, but at least it'll take a while for them to get the elevator back up.
The nut punch feature -- which allows you to liquefy anyone's testicles with the press of a button -- gets old fast, and much more appreciated would have been the addition of varied kill animations such as the ones that made THE PUNISHER (also developed by Volition) such a joy to play. The wrestling moves you can perform while sprinting also lose their charm, and are an uncertain tactic in combat, since enemies often survive them and keep shooting at you. Enemies are way too relisient, in fact, and to waste two thirds of an SMG's clip on a single one of them breaks the pace of the combat. When they die, they have varied death animations that transition into ragdoll -- but the transition is not seamless. It would have been much better if the game used an Euphoria-like system instead of rigid death animations instantly going full ragdoll.
The "brute" characters, muscular giants that ram you -- yes, SAINTS ROW: THE THIRD has those. SAINTS ROW: THE THIRD has one the most cliched type of enemy in videogames, and they're just as annoying as you wouldn't expect in a SAINTS ROW game. Instead of poking fun at this tired cliché, the game makes them even more infuriating by giving some of the brutes flamethrowers and miniguns, and as they set you on fire/tear you to shreds, they can still ram you.
"But what about the insanity?!" I imagine a straw man asking, as strawy tears slide down its strawy face. "What about the dildo baseball bats, and the fart bombs, and the --" Yeah, they're all there, but like the rest of the game, they get old fast. Volition had a lot of ideas but didn't think the execution through. Hitting people with a giant dildo is pretty much the same as hitting them with a baseball bat, or any other melee weapon -- it sends them flying backwards in floppy ragdoll. The sword, despite being huge and sharp, does the same thing. The amusing quick kill animations that every melee weapon had in the previous game -- guess what -- aren't in THE THIRD. To be honest, I didn't even see any fart bombs in my full playthrough -- well, "full" except for the horrible final mission, which offers two endings, and the one I picked was so pathetic I didn't have the stomach to check the other one.
We do get quick-time events. SAINTS ROW: THE THIRD has quick-time events. Yeah.
Furthermore, the experience system makes the activities pretty much useless, since they don't earn you enough money or respect to be worth playing. In the previous game, completing an activity would give you some kind of perk, and you wouldn't know which until you completed it. Could be really useful, or just barely useful. In THE THIRD, you buy whatever upgrades you want after you've unlocked them, which you do by earning respect, which you get from doing stuff. Missions award you a lot of money and respect -- activities usually don't, which reduces them to pointless diversions. And guess what happened to the best and funniest activities from the previous game, such as FUZZ and CROWD CONTROL? That's right.
Mind you: I had fun playing through the campaign. I had little interest in the activities, and the main story sucks most of the time, but the game was solidly-designed and entertaining enough to keep me playing until the ending. It is a good game. But that's it. The pure sandbox full of toys THE THIRD marketed itself as, and is so proud of being, it is not. If there are things I missed, I'm not compelled to find them, because they'll likely not be funny enough to be worth it or because they'll just ragdollize people in a slightly different way.
* AUGUST 24TH 2012 UPDATE: No it really bloody isn't the best installment in the MODERN WARFARE series. I must have been temporarily insane when I wrote that. Or probably just impressed that the game turned out good after so many problems within Infinity Ward. Still, it's not as good as the previous two, the first of which is more brutal in its portrayal of war and the second being less grounded but more subversive.
(Warning: this article contains spoilers of MODERN WARFARE 1 and 2)
Sure, it might become patriotic gunwank in a few days, when the third installment -- written and developed by a different team -- will be released. Writer Jesse Stern is no longer attached, and I'm under the impression he deserves most of the credit for avoiding the label that... ended up being used to describe the MODERN WARFARE series anyway, possibly by association with Treyarch's pathetic half of the CALL OF DUTY franchise, but still, Stern tried. And in my case, he and what used to be Infinity Ward succeeded.
I've hinted at this point before, but it wasn't until watching this that I felt an overwhelming necessity to expand upon it. As a fan of Bob Chipman's insightful work, I was a bit disappointed that he illustrated his otherwise pertinent argument* about videogames not growing up as a medium by using images from the MODERN WARFARE series -- which is, to my knowledge, the most subversive war series in videogames.
If the words "patriotism" and "Call of Duty" are so connected in your mind that this statement causes an exasperated "whuh?!" to shoot out of your mouth, you can probably blame Treyarch for that. While they did get something right by highlighting the role of the Soviets in World War II, they did pretty much everything wrong in BLACK OPS, which constantly plays like Patriotic Gunwank 101.
The MODERN WARFARE series, on the other hand, already starts unusually. The very first mission of the first game -- not counting the tutorial level -- has you playing as a British SAS operative murdering people in their sleep. The American forces are portrayed in a light that is nearly as ambiguous: at one point, you're going back into a dangerous landing zone to save a downed pilot. In the other, you're playing as an operator in an AC-130 plane, bombing enemies from above the clouds while your colleagues have fun and make detached commentary as if they're playing a videogame (which is uncomfortably reminiscent of real footage of operators in bombers actually behaving like this).
But even though the portrayal of American/British forces is more complex than usual, the game's plot is still fairly straightforward until its end. Surprisingly, it's the coked-up sequel MODERN WARFARE 2 that is the most subversive. In one mission, you play as an American undercover agent helping terrorists kill civilians in an airport. And how is it that no-one seemed to notice the satiric tone of the mission in which American forces protect fast-food restaurants? And for fuck's sake, why does everyone seem to ignore that the villain of the game is an American general?
Perhaps the message was lost somewhat in the midst of all the explosions. MODERN WARFARE 2 is twice as intense as its predecessor, sometimes thrice, and it can be hard to believe a game so insane can also be subtle in its commentary. Every plot development happens on an epic scale, particularly Captain Price changing the course of the war in American soil by detonating a nuclear warhead in low-earth orbit and, just to add to the craziness, accidentally destroying the International Space Station in the process.
Also, maybe you think "the villain is an American" does not constitute enough for biting commentary. And you're right, it doesn't. But the game goes farther than that. General Shepherd's plan is motivated by his outrage at the death of 30.000 American soldiers being received by the world with indifference. So he orchestrates a tragedy to happen in American soil, forcing the country to fight back and win.
The reason he is the villain of a game accused of patriotism is that he is a blind patriot.
And another point, and this might be me reading too much into it, but it's worth mentioning: Shepherd creates a war, using recent events as carte blanche to fight it in any way he sees fit.
Now replace "Shepherd" with "the Bush administration".
Obviously they don't match up with perfection. If you take it literally, you could interpret it as the Bush administration having planned 9-11. But the overarching point is there, exposing the futility and moral relativism of war. How thousands of people can be sent to fight over a lie.
And this is even more important to highlight since Chipman's aforelinked video was juxtaposing Cinema's reaction to 9-11 and videogames' reaction to 9-11. And while I agree that videogames have been far less thoughful in their approach, I strongly disagree that the MODERN WARFARE series is an example of this problem. The CALL OF DUTY games made by Treyarch, and EA's pathetic MEDAL OF HONOR, are examples of the problem, but MODERN WARFARE deserves credit for its thematic ambition, whatever you think of its execution.
Of course, one could argue that the high-octane style of MODERN WARFARE 2 is not the most appropriate to explore serious, topical messages. That a message like this should be more proeminent, not barely glimpsed amidst the action.
Well, they tried making a serious, grounded game about war based on real-life stories. SIX DAYS IN FALLUJAH. And everyone threw a shit-fit, leading Konami to stop backing the project, which is still unreleased.
*What do I think of ARKHAM CITY's sexism controversy? I'm going to play it soon and decide, but I'm leaning toward FilmCritHulk's article. Particularly the second part, in which he demolishes most of the counter-arguments directed at the first part.
Originally this was meant to be a list of great videogame scores, but when I realized I had gone well over two thousand words with it, I decided to do this in shorter segments.
HEAVENLY SWORD was criticized for its short length and the combat system divided opinions. I thought it was a beautiful game and as long as it needed to be, but what truly hooked me was the touching story about sacrifice protagonized by Nariko, a daughter blamed by her father and her clan for not being the chosen one they expected, cursed by her decision to wield the Heavenly Sword and fulfill the prophecy that condemned her to lifelong rejection.
This is evoked magnificently by the slow percussion, the plucked strings, the beautiful wind instruments and the constant, soft chiming of Nitin Sawhney's wonderful main theme:
But the example that summarizes the genius of Sawhney's work is SHEN'S ESCAPE:
The track is gorgeous in its own right, but the brilliance of it is where in the game it appears. The following is a mild spoiler, so jump right to the next paragraph if you want to miss it: this music plays when a character named Shen, wounded, is very slowly trying to escape from armed soldiers being barely held back by the arrows of the character you play as. Due to the gameplay mechanics, most of the section plays in slow-motion, perfectly fitting the pacing of the music -- but its brilliance is in its melancholy, and in how it evokes tension by portraying Shen's efforts to pick up the pace and not pass out.
The score as a whole is tinged with melancholy, but in BEWARE OF FLYING FOX, Sawhney proves himself capable of keeping that up while delivering the fast-paced epicness required by some of the game's combat sections. Due to the dynamic nature of gameplay, the following track has noticeable audio cuts as it switches melodies, but it is nevertheless beautifully engaging:
Sawhney's score is worth experiencing the entirety of HEAVENLY SWORD. Fortunately, there's many more reasons to do so. Again if you don't mind mild spoilers, this is how the previous music plays in-game:
L.A. NOIRE has done something I thought impossible: it has made me look back at the time I've spent with HEAVY RAIN and miss it.
Because regardless of David Cage's pretensions of being a filmmaker and his hard-on for himself, HEAVY RAIN was a game. You could make choices that deeply affected the storyline. Sure, the storyline was a piece of shit floating in an ocean of piss squirted from Hitler's dick, but there was still a degree of control over where in the ocean of piss the piece of shit would float. You could get any of the four playable characters killed at various points during the narrative -- and I think the only reason I didn't was in the hope that there would be another scenario later on in which I could kill them in a more painful way.
When it comes to narrative, L.A. NOIRE kicks HEAVY RAIN's ass until incandescent meat is dripping from its buttocks, but at the end of the day I finished HEAVY RAIN and I find myself currently unable to muster the patience to finish L.A. NOIRE.
First of all: having a much better narrative than HEAVY RAIN does not mean you have a good narrative. It does not even mean you have a bad narrative. It simply means your narrative is somewhere above brain-killingly fucking awful.
L.A. NOIRE has a disjointed narrative. It starts with a narrator, who soon disappears completely. Then we start getting flashbacks of protagonist Cole Phelps in the Second World War, which happened underwater in a sewage pond judging by the video filter they use to indicate to us dipshits that it's a flashback. Without it I guess we'd just all ask ourselves why Cole suddenly put on a soldier's uniform to solve his next case, and why he needs so many similarly uniformed partners to help him figure out who's dropping mortars on them.
Then there's the morphine subplot. Every time Cole picks up a newspaper, the player gets access to a scene involving a plot Cole has no knowledge of, but now we do. In a detective game, it's kind of not a good idea to let us know more than the detective we're playing. This is completely lost on the developers: in the prologue to every case, we see the felony we're about to investigate being carried out. Obscure camera angles or not, I could still see the suspect's general appearance and the weapon he used, which helped me figure out an important plot twist about two cases before Cole did.
And are any of these disjointed plots well-written? The dialogue certainly is, but writer/director Brendan McNamara goes out of his way to try and mislead the player. At one point, the game asks us to convict one of two suspects -- both of which have a knowledge of how to use ropes, wear size eight shoes and own green coveralls with the letters HM stencilled on them. By coincidence.
Here's the gameplay in L.A. NOIRE: get assigned a case - drive to location - hit about ten cars and nearly run over a dozen pedestrians because the controls are shit - cutscene - pick up every object until music stops playing - cutscene - interrogate whoever's on the scene - cutscene - walk ten steps - cutscene - let your partner drive you to new location - cutscene - shoot/pursue someone - cutscene - let partner drive you to new location - fall asleep - wake up with sound of controller sliding from your lap and hitting the floor - interrogate whoever's on the scene - cutscene - repeat - repeat - repeat - case solved.
And not even the parts that aren't cutscenes feel like gameplay. I don't think my abilities are being particularly challenged by walking around a crime scene picking up everything I see and turning it around in Cole's hand until he figures out what's special about it. I don't think I'm having much fun with it, either. And when pursuing a suspect on foot, all you have to do is press down the sprint button and steer Cole around -- he'll jump over all the obstacles for you.
Pursuits by car and gunfights are two aspects of the gameplay that actually feel like you're playing them. While the car controls are shit for normal driving, they work somewhat decently for high-speed chases, and the shooting mechanics are competent, but only that. You go into cover and shoot everyone dead. No way to just wound or use some other strategy that could reward you with more points or something.
As for the famed interrogation scenes, they're easily the game's most frustrating aspect.
First of all, the amazing facial animation technology is thrown in the bin by an approach that not only lacks subtlety but never heard of it: when someone is telling you the truth, they'll look you in the eye and appear relatively calm. When someone is telling you a lie, they'll shift nervously, flick their gaze everywhere, tighten their lips and write I AM A LYING SACK OF SHIT on their forehead. Everyone in this game is a phenomenally bad liar, and therefore this huge disparity between their appearances when they're being truthful or deceitful could easily be represented by typical facial animation, which demotes the technology used in this game to little but eye candy. Why not teach the player to recognize microexpressions and train us to spot them as people speak, instead of having them reply to your question and then fall into a long silence that is either calm or nervous? It gives you the impression all the characters are Jim Carrey in LIAR LIAR.
Second of all, what the fuck is wrong with Cole? If he approaches a line of questioning incorrectly, he'll give up on it. You can only ask a single question on any given topic. Fuck it up and there's no going back unless you quit to the main menu and reload the last save, which is far less preferable to, say, Cole rephrasing the fucking question like the goddamn detective he's supposed to be.
"But how does one fuck up the questioning if the suspects are such terrible liars?" you ask, in my diseased imagination. Because there's three options to every question: truth, doubt or lie. The difference between the latter two is evidence, which when lacking requires you to use doubt, and when present requires you to choose lie and pick the particular piece of evidence that corroborates your claims. Problem is, what the game may or may not consider evidence is often strange, so choosing the wrong option can actually happen a lot -- and the annoying thing about it is that there's no middle term. There is only One Right Way for every question, and figuring it out doesn't require wits from the player, only from Cole. All you do is see whether the suspect is obviously lying, then checking your notebook to see if there's any usable evidence against him and choosing either doubt or lie.
It's a system so detached that at one point I realized I didn't know the details of the case I was working on. The game told me to go somewhere, I did, investigate this, I did, investigate that, I did, interrogate him, I did, and so on. Actual thought is rarely required, and when it is, it's almost insulting. On two separate occasions I was asked to put pipes in the correct sequence, and in one of those occasions, I was asked to do that by a guy who could have assembled them in half a second but didn't for no reason.
And finally, what is the frigging goddamn fucking bastard point of having a huge city with nothing to do in it? And I mean nothing. NOTHING. Even MAFIA II -- the game that previously held the title for Most Useless City -- let you rob a store or two and get chased by the police. In L.A. NOIRE, you sometimes get a call from dispatch offering a mini-mission that is often in the other side of the city, instead of using the brilliant RED DEAD REDEMPTION system of having you happen upon nearby events during your journeys -- a system that made the game world feel alive, whereas in NOIRE these mini-missions have their own cutscenes and even their own title cards, so they feel as separate as possible from the game.
L.A. NOIRE should be praised for its approach to maturity, though: it's unafraid to show corpses, either naked or wounded or both. They go so far as to show the charred body of a child. This commitment to reality also shows in the game's amazingly well-done setting, from the way characters talk to how they dress and how they look and what their prejudices are.
But that is one of the few things the game gets right, along with some of its action sequences and a few good scenes. Most of the time, it feels like a movie you have to continuously turn a rusty crank to watch. A repetitive experience -- especially during the Homicide desk -- that never really puts its already flawed mechanics in situations that explore them differently. Cole has a wife and children -- a fact that you only learn well into the game because a character casually mentions it -- yet we never see Cole using his detective skills on his family, which could render interesting dramatic moments. We never see any of Cole's relationships in detail, either, and we rarely see Cole himself when he isn't working.
There's only cases, cases and cases, and as much as the game tries to have an overarching story, ultimately it feels unconnected, arbitrary and, worst of all, tedious. I stopped playing at the first arson case when I found out there would be four other arson cases which would probably require me to do the same thing over and over and I just don't have the patience for now.
Say what you like about HEAVY RAIN -- fuck knows I most certainly never miss an opportunity -- at least it wasn't tedious. It remains an example of what not to do with storytelling in gaming. But L.A. NOIRE is, to me, an example of what not to do with gameplay in gaming.