Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy

Jak & Daxter The Precursor Legacy

Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy is a 3D platformer from developers Naughty Dog, the creators of Crash Bandicoot and, more recently, the Uncharted series on the PS3. Naughty Dog has a reputation for creating quality games, and as a fan of the Crash Bandicoot games I thought I owed it to myself to check out their other platforming series. Here’s what I thought of it:

I loved:

The Level Design: For its time, J&D is visually very impressive, with lots of variety in the colour palette, world themes and visual effects, but it is in the design of the worlds themselves where I feel this game really shines. The game world is open and the player can choose how they want to progress; you have access to a group of areas right from the start, with the next group naturally closed off. The aim of the game is to collect Power Cells, obtainable in numerous different ways, and collecting the required amount opens up the next set of worlds. Power Cells can be found anywhere, and you don’t need to collect all of them in order to progress, giving the player freedom of choice when deciding which cells they want to go for. Most of the time you are required to visit each area at least once, but it is the player’s prerogative how much time and effort they want to spend in a particular area. Each different environment comes complete with new enemies, tasks and obstacles, keeping things nice and fresh all the way through to the end.

Vehicle Sections: At various points in the game the player can take control of two different modes of transport, either a Flut-Flut, an indigenous creature akin to a dinosaur, and an A-Grav Zoomer, a man-made vessel similar to a hovercraft. These sections are a nice diversion from the familiar running and jumping, and the A-Grav sections in particular take you across fiery canyons and forest-type areas at high speeds, throwing tons of obstacles in your path for you to dodge as well as things to collect along the way. These parts of J&D control really well and offer up even more variety to the traditional formula.

Daxter: The character of Daxter is primarily what gives the game its personality. Granted, there are numerous wacky and entertaining characters to interact with throughout the game, but Daxter is constantly with you and always available to offer some comic relief when it’s needed. Jak himself never actually speaks, so it is up to his furry friend to fill the void when it comes to conversation. Some of his lines are genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, and you never really know what he is going to say or do next.

The Controls: Moving Jak around the various environments is totally responsive and feels perfectly natural and fluid. All of the usual moves are there, such as jumping and two basic attacks, but there are other more advanced techniques such as high-jumping, rolling jumps and stringing your various attacks together, all of which are simple to pull off. In a game like this the controls either make or break it, and luckily everything is on point here, making it a joy to progress through the game. 

I Hate:

The Health System: It only takes three hits to kill you in J&D. You can refill your hearts (the lifebar) by collecting a substance called Green Eco; every 50 units you collect equals one heart, but the substance is a little too scarce to make collecting so much a reasonable demand. You can fill your life meter completely by stepping on Green Eco Vents, but these are too few and far between. Most enemies take off a full heart when they hit you, and many of these enemies are tricky to defend against when trying to perform a difficult jump or when they assault you in numbers. Personally, I think that either the life bar should have been extended or Green Eco be made available to collect in higher quantities. It isn’t a question of difficulty because dying has pretty much no penalty; it’s just an annoyance and one of the only consistent ones throughout the entire game.

The Length: I wouldn’t say that J&D was a short game, and it does take a bit of time to complete everything 100%, but I completed the game in two fairly casual sittings, managing to also collect every Power Cell. It seems that I’m nitpicking a bit, and I suppose in a way I am, but the game could have been a little bit longer. I would also have liked to see a couple more boss fights, but this isn’t really a major problem.

Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy is a fantastic game. I can really level very few criticisms at it; the world and the characters are all bursting with personality and life, the gameplay itself is superbly varied and exciting, and it really does offer a lot to see and do. I can now look forward to playing the other games in the series — once again Naughty Dog has proved that they are a team of highly talented individuals.

Splinter Cell: Conviction (First Impressions)

Splinter Cell Conviction

As I mentioned in my previous post [which doesn’t exist anymore], I like the Splinter Cell series. I also mentioned at the end (basing the statement on just the first two missions) that if you were looking for a good stealth-action game, you should probably go elsewhere. Now I’m a little further in and I’m pleased to report that my opinion has completely stayed the same.

You see, Conviction isn’t really a stealth game. I know, I was surprised as well. But it’s true — Sam Fisher the “greatest stealth operative in the world” is apparently losing his touch.

In the previous games, Sam was never the all-guns-blazing action hero. He was the grey man, staying in the shadows and using diversionary tactics and his surroundings to isolate his enemies. He was a specialist, granted, but his speciality was keeping out of sight and out of reach.

In Conviction Sam is a completely different character. Now he has no allegiances and no rules to follow, so he has no qualms about killing everyone that stands between him and where he needs to be. To make matters worse, he now has the tools to be able to do that without the need for stealth, which breaks the concept of the Splinter Cell series altogether.

Ubisoft have put a few too many tools at Sam’s disposal which don’t conform to traditional stealth mechanics. As a starting point, the default weapon is a silenced pistol with unlimited ammunition, so the question must be asked: why would I use anything else? Well, so far I haven’t. You have the option to carry a secondary weapon and upgrade each firearm you pick up but it’s all completely arbitrary when you remember that you have a silenced pistol with unlimited ammo that is pretty much always available to you.

Then you have various creative ways of using the pistol. You can fire the pistol from behind cover, and Sam can blindfire 100% accurately without exposing himself at all. He can fire when hanging from a pipe, he can fire when dangling from a window ledge (which is bollocks, by the way), he can fire whilst using a human shield, and a lot of the time if you angle the camera in the right way he can fire through solid objects.

Sam can also now “Mark and Execute” targets, which essentially means selecting a number of enemies you particularly don’t like and pressing a button to make Sam shoot them for you. Each weapon permits a certain number of “marks”, and guess which one allows the most? Yeah, the silenced pistol with unlimited ammunition.

To earn the ability to perform this new manoeuvre you must kill an enemy using a melee attack, which is getting in close proximity and pressing the B button. It doesn’t matter where you approach from, what type of enemy you’re dealing with, how much health they have left, how much health you have left, just one press of the B button and the person dies, granting you the ability to have Sam play the game for you as they do so.

I imagine all this is Ubisoft’s method of trying to convey Sam’s superior abilities, but it comes across as false. I always liked the character because he was a man sculpted from training and experience rather than just a sprite with semi-supernatural talents; in this game, he has been de-humanized, relegated to just another unbelievable video game character.

However, just because Conviction is a bad stealth game doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad game overall. To be honest, I’m having quite a lot of fun with it. It has some neat aesthetic quirks, the mechanics work well when you play the game like an action game rather than a stealth game and it has some great new interrogation scenes. It does have some interface design issues which I’ll be covering when I get around to reviewing the full thing, but it’s still functional enough to provide an enjoyable experience.

I’m not sure how near the end I am, but hopefully before the conclusion there will be at least one level in which I’m not allowed to kill everyone or set off as many alarms as I like. Hopefully they might strip me of the pistol as well, but I suppose even then I’ve still got the one-button-kill Sam Fisher Special.

In summary, so far it’s an enjoyable action game with stealth elements and some careless design issues. It isn’t a great entry to the series in my opinion, but if you judge it on its own merits it isn’t all that bad. Definitely not a classic, but definitely not one to completely ignore.

I’ll be back with a full opinion when I’ve beaten it completely.

Mirror’s Edge

Mirror's Edge

It’s pretty rare these days that a game really captures my attention in a way that makes me look at an entire genre in a different fashion. It seems more often than not in this era of gaming that originality has been sacrificed in favour of better graphics and physics, but Mirror’s Edge is one of those rare games which, for me at least, has completely opened up a genre to new ideas. Here’s the lowdown:

I Love:

The Visual Design: ME looks unlike anything I’ve ever played before. The idea is the stark white background symbolises the oppression the city is enduring at the hands of the government, and the red “runner vision” which provides a subtle guide through each level is a genius touch. Every indoor area has its own thematic design, making a unique use of bright colours. Overall, very impressive.

The Controls: Usually in regards to FPS games, platforming is a terrible idea. When I first heard about the concept behind this game, I shuddered at the idea. A poor control scheme could have ruined this, but what is in place is designed excellently. Pulling off complex manoeuvres is a breeze and using the shoulder buttons to do so just feels smooth and natural.

Chase Scenes: When the player is being pursued by various armed personnel across rooftops, atop trains and through storm drains, the experience is very intense. When you pull off a perfect stunt, there are very few other games available on the platform which can provide a similar feeling. ME is at its best at full speed and in the open.

I Hate:

Combat: Although generally it should be avoided, there are times when you must engage the enemy and this is where the fun levels start to dip. The disarming system in place is obvious enough but it seems vaguely hit-and-miss, and attacking the enemy with basic punches and kicks is often difficult because of the hit detection. Shooting is average, but aiming is slightly difficult. Fighting really lets the game down in parts.

Indoor Platforming: Faith’s repertoire is designed almost entirely for outdoor use, so when I get restricted to narrow corridors or linear scaffolding, the experience becomes somewhat diluted. Some of Faith’s abilities are tricky to pull off on a small scale, and making smaller more precise jumps rather than massive ones seems awkward and needlessly tricky. Too much of the game is set indoors.

The Length: The campaign is very short; 3-5 hours short. For a game like this I can see why the length isn’t excessive, but it could have been made slightly longer without becoming tedious. There is a lot of replay value in the time trials and speedruns, but for me I like a varied story experience with some length and a fully developed narrative. Because of the size of the campaign, the plot feels rushed and incoherent as well.

So yeah, ME is one of my favourite games at the moment. Despite the minor criticisms I have highlighted with it, the good points far outweigh the bad. I would definitely recommend this to anyone, even though the achievements (especially now the new DLC has been released) are really tough. I’m determined to continue with this until I 100% it, because I think a game as fresh and unique as this deserves the attention.

Lego Batman

Lego Batman

Lego Batman is the fourth Lego adaptation to hit the Xbox 360. The first two were dedicated to the Star Wars universe; the second to the Indiana Jones trilogy (obviously the fourth film was blatantly disregarded) and this latest edition explores the DC legend that is Gotham City.

This game was a win-win for me, because as well as being a fan of the previous Lego games I’m also a big DC/Batman fan, so this has a lot of selling points for me. Let’s see how it stands up to scrutiny:

I Love:

The Characters: LB offers a huge range of playable characters, and it’s great to see loads of familiar faces in there. There’s a nice mix of heroes and villains, and a comfortable range of abilities and quirks to make each character relatively unique to play as.

The Villain Stories: The idea of playing each storyline through from the perspective of the villains involved is a great idea. It’s a lot of fun playing as the villains because of their wide range of specific abilities, rather than having to constantly change suits like in the hero campaigns.

Combat Improvements: There have been some minor changes to the combat system, but it is always nice to see some advancement. Now we have the ability to grab and throw enemies, and some characters have very unique attacks. Bane is my personal favourite, but there are a lot of little quirks to look out for.

I Hate:

New Storylines: While the campaigns are still fun to play, it disappoints me that they are so difficult to comprehend. I understand the idea that Lego men don’t speak, but surely there must be a slighter more effective way of conveying the narrative? When playing from the perspective of the villains, it is made easier my textual introductions to each mission but in the hero campaigns you are left somewhat in the dark.

The Formula: As fun as it is, the Lego franchise is undoubtedly becoming old. For an achievement guy like me, playing through all the levels in order to find every collectible becomes very tiresome really quickly, especially after playing through the other Lego games in the series. I have a feeling this may be the last in the series [I was incredibly wrong about this.]

No Online: The multiplayer mode that we saw in Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga has been curiously omitted in LB. It would have been nice to take this selection of characters online, and I’m sure the concept would have proven popular.

Overall, Lego Batman is still great fun to play despite getting the feeling that you have seen and done most of it before. Setting it in the Batman universe was a great idea and works very well with the format. Hopefully this will be the last Lego game, at least for some time, because then the developer runs the risk of simply re-skinning all their existing titles. Time will tell.

Stacking

Stacking

I’m a gleeful inhabitant of Stacking’s imaginative and alluring world. I have a childlike exuberance for charming design, and Tim Schafer’s industrial-era marriage of matryoshka dolls and timeless adventure gameplay is nothing if not full-to-the-brim with the exact kind of charm I love. It’s a wondrous experience which offers a few, focused hours of great ideas rather than a sprawling opus tarred by the brush of repetition.

At its most fundamental level, Stacking provides a more accessible, less esoteric modernisation of the old-school point-and-click adventuring formula. But it’s so much more than that. It succeeds so completely because it can take serious social issues such as the Great Depression and child labour then present them as a whimsical, off-beat narrative premise and give the player free-reign to explore the various humorous scenarios it creates.

Players control Charlie Blackmore, the youngest in a family of chimney-sweeps who champion the slogan “ain’t no mess we can’t address”. When the family comes into debt, an evil industrialist called The Baron forces Charlie’s relatives into a life of slavery in order to pay off the money they owe, and it’s down to the runt of the litter to rescue them. Because he’s the smallest matryoshka doll in the land, he can jump into bigger varieties and use their unique abilities to help him solve puzzles, complete challenges and ultimately reunite his captured kin.

The idea of stacking up dolls and using their individual talents was conceived by Double Fine’s art director, Lee Petty, as a way to subvert the clunky interface of the classic adventure games. What results is a simple, intuitive system that is accessible enough for the casual crowd while just about deep enough to be satisfying for the more experienced player.

Puzzles in Stacking are excuses for inventive use of each doll’s abilities, and (crucially) rely on actual logic rather than trial-and-error. Admittedly, breaking wind into a ventilation fan to send a cloud of noxious gas into an adjoining room only really makes sense in this world, but when among such outrageous company this kind of decision becomes surprisingly normal after a short while.

Following the natural progression of the story without deviation won’t hold your attention for long – the conclusion is reached a little too quickly, and many of the challenges you encounter on the way can be solved with minimal fuss. However, the real joy arguably lies in exploring the world in greater depth; finding alternate solutions to the primary puzzles, jumping into various unique dolls and performing Hi-Jinks such as games of tag with the children or catching unsuspecting passers-by with “proper” uppercuts. It’s a lovely way of adding replay value without cluttering the narrative arc, and it really pays off here.

Stacking is a lovely, unique game that bears all the hallmarks of a Tim Schafer product. It’s wonderfully written, funny, stylish and clever. It won’t hold your attention forever, but if you take the time to explore it’s subtleties you’ll find sparks of ingenuity that are a great credit to the downloadable market. Highly-recommended.

Medal of Honor

Medal of Honor

While I have no factual evidence to corroborate this claim, I’m reasonably sure that the Call of Duty series is more popular than Jesus. In the first 24 hours after its release, Modern Warfare 2 sold 4.7 million units. As of June 2010, its total sales were somewhere in the region of 20 million. If Wikipedia is to be believed, this makes MW2 the best-selling video game of all time in the United Kingdom [Note: I published this article long before either of the Black Ops games or Modern Warfare 3 even existed. These records have been broken by now, but the point still stands].

Yet while the staff at Infinity Ward are busily passing around Wayne Rooney’s favourite prostitutes, every other developer with the intention of exploring the modern theatre of war is at a major disadvantage. In this regard, Danger Close, the development team responsible for the latest instalment in the Medal of Honor franchise, are worthy of admiration. Despite Call of Duty’s unquestionable dominance of the FPS market, they still had the balls to try and dethrone MW2.

Medal of Honor’s primary selling point was always going to be authenticity. The game was given a contemporary setting, and military advisors were brought in to ensure the most accurate depiction of real-world warfare and situations on the ground. A young squire from EA’s public relations department boldly claimed that “Medal of Honor is set in today’s war putting players in the boots of today’s soldiers”, and ironically that’s exactly where the game falls flat on its face.

The reason Medal of Honor fails to be a compelling representation of armed conflict is because it fails to recognise the fallibility of military personnel. Soldiers in MoH are exactly like soldiers in CoD, or any other war-based game for that matter – uncommonly courageous cardboard cut-outs, devoid of any relatable human emotions. Soldiers in the real world are actual human beings. They have the same emotional spectrum as you or me; they get scared, have doubts, panic, but what sets them apart is that, despite the emotional strain they’re under on a daily basis, they are still willing to put their life on the line for their country and their beliefs. Being able to shoot a man in the head from close to a mile away is impressive, but it isn’t what should define the person pulling the trigger.

Every bad decision in Medal of Honor is perpetrated by the most stereotypical ex-military government pencil pusher I have ever seen. You know the guy I mean; he’s the one in the big office behind the big desk, barking ridiculous orders irrespective of consequence, blatantly fuelled by his own personal agenda and determined to wear his fatigues at all times despite the fact that he hasn’t seen combat for a good twenty years. The game never explores the possibility of mistakes being made on the ground, and instead opts to attribute anything less than absolute efficiency to the guy behind the desk on the other side of the world.

I know that military intelligence often doesn’t correspond to what’s happening in the field, but I want to see how the troops react to drastic changes in circumstance in a way that’s meaningful and believable. Brushing off the whole situation with a casual “let’s just get on with it” is far from authentic, and authenticity is apparently what MoH does best.

I want to tread that thin line between a non-combatant and someone who might well let off an IED in my face. I want to see soldiers enter moments of blind panic, surviving a situation on luck and instinct rather than raw efficiency. I want to accidentally shoot one of my AI squadmates and do him a serious injury.

I want to play a game that accurately simulates the horrors of armed conflict. I want to play a game that shows people that soldiers aren’t unstoppable badass killing machines; they’re real people with real feelings, placed in situations that the majority of us frankly couldn’t handle. I want to play a game that gives soldiers the respect they deserve; recognition as people carrying weapons, not weapons being carried by people.

Medal of Honor isn’t that game.

L.A. Noire (Redux)

L.A. Noire 2

Like oysters, small Japanese girls with black hair and men who wear Ugg boots, I have no reason to dislike Rockstar Games; I just find it very difficult to trust them.

Rockstar would have us believe that we can be told a linear story in an open world and connect with that story in the same we would, say, a movie narrative. I’m sceptical of this position for a number of reasons, but primarily because most gamers (myself included) tend to go a bit mental when given the kind of freedom a sandbox offers.

The major problem facing video game narratives is the player, because as players we want to actually be able to play. We can’t be expected to trudge through narrow corridors until the next cutscene, because we’ll complain that the game is too linear. We want the freedom to stray away from the beaten path and hunt for hidden treasure, even though we know that this is going to fuck up the pacing of the story. Balancing narrative progression with actual gameplay is a difficult juggling act that only the most talented of developers (Valve, Naughty Dog) can pull off successfully.

In an open world game, these problems are exacerbated, especially with a character-driven narrative. In Grand Theft Auto IV, we’re expected to believe that Niko Bellic is a Serbian immigrant hoping for a new life in America, yet on our way to take Roman bowling we can catapult half of Liberty City over our bonnets and leave them sliding along the asphalt and nobody bats an eyelid.

Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston is a man of honor. A family man. He rode with a gang of outlaws in his naive youth, and then left that life behind to start a family with a prostitute. More than once, he risked his life to rescue innocent civilians from bandits. Yet, when working for the Mexican Army, he burns down a village without a word of protest – just because De Santa tells him to.

Do I like GTAIV and RDR? Yeah, I do. I think they’re both great games that are worth playing. Are they fantastic stories? Not so much.

And so we come to L.A. Noire, Rockstar’s latest story-based character-driven sandbox game, and you might be able to see now why I was doubtful about it.

I know that’s a little bit hasty. Technically, L.A. Noire isn’t even a Rockstar game at all – it’s actually the product of an independent Australian development studio called Team Bondi, who apparently worked on the game for the better part of a decade. Encouraging, perhaps, but somehow Rockstar’s name and logo still found their way onto the front of the box, and all the familiar tropes and trappings of their typical sandbox are still resolutely intact.

I do, however, think it’s somewhat unfair to approach L.A. Noire with the same critical lens as one would apply to other games of similar structure. While cover-based shooting, lots of driving and asinine collectibles are all still present and correct, L.A. Noire makes a brave (and welcome) step by emphasising puzzles and a slower-paced, police procedural style of play. It’s also trying very, very hard to tell a good story, so much so that it’s actually admirable.

Being admirable is one thing, though, and being successful is another – this, in my mind, is the line that L.A. Noire seems to straddle for its entirety, never quite leaning on one side in particular for any great length of time. Its highs are lofty and triumphant, its lows are positively subterranean; it has the potential to astound and amaze, but frequently baffles and confuses, and to be honest I’m still undecided about whether or not I actually like it.

My main problem with the game is the fact that it’s a sandbox, and I genuinely can’t see any justification for that. While I wouldn’t say that the open world is necessarily prohibitive to the experience, it does seem entirely counter-intuitive to what the game is trying to achieve.

Don’t get me wrong, 1947 Los Angeles is breathtaking, in both scale and attention to detail. It has quite clearly been lovingly and accurately crafted from the ground up, and despite the fact that I have little scope for interacting with it aside from when the missions tell me to, I’m still content to stand and admire its various subtleties for minutes at a time. I insist, however, that it’s not necessary.

Most of the blame can be attributed to the incredibly unlikeable protagonist Cole Phelps. The fact that he’s a detective in the LAPD, a man dedicated to upholding the law rather than breaking it, doesn’t sit well with an open world. He can’t draw his gun unless a particular case calls for it, he can’t assault civilians and he gets severely penalised if he drives recklessly. I’m not saying that I personally would like to do all these things (quite the opposite), but I know that some (most?) people appreciate that kind of freedom when it comes to sandbox games. There are very few ways that Cole can actually interact with the City of Angels, and none that spring out as worth anybody’s time. He can find hidden cars, collect hidden Film Reels and solve Street Crimes, but the first two are arbitrary and the random crimes are just a collection of the game’s worst elements (read: anything other than investigating/interrogating).

Bearing all this in mind, why do we have the freedom to explore every nook and cranny of the city when there’s very little to do and very little to find?

L.A. Noire 3

I suppose I could say that while the MotionScan technology that arguably serves as the focal point for the entire game is indeed very impressive, the actual game surrounding it is not. I’d almost be correct, too. The majority of the game is mediocre, at least when it comes to gameplay. Moving Cole around feels like driving a truck, the shooting is the same cover-based affair that it was in GTAIV and RDR, the on-foot chases are unbelievably vapid and the fighting system is diabolical. The only redeeming qualities L.A. Noire has come in the form of investigating, interrogating and parts of its narrative, so rather than harp on about the negatives I’ll take some time to briefly discuss those positive qualities here.

The investigation sequences, for me at least, are strongly reminiscent of point-and-click adventure games, and that’s a good thing in my book. The familiar and rewarding feeling of finding something useful amid the heaps of crap is still a great gaming experience, while the faster pace and accessibility create a nice entry point for someone who isn’t experienced in that bizarre adventure game logic. There isn’t any “use chicken on rope” bullshit, but actually using your brain to piece bits of information and evidence together will take you a long way, and that’s refreshing if nothing else.

Moving on, I suppose the interrogations are a mixed bag, but I still feel they provide a number of the game’s stronger moments. When it works, it works very well. Noticing a suspect’s dry swallows and roaming eyes, then producing the perfect piece of evidence to shut them down is very satisfying. But, and I suppose this is fairly crucial, it’s often not a good idea to play through the interrogations on your gut instinct. I get the feeling with L.A. Noire that you’re not actually in control of Cole Phelps – you tend to function more as his advisor, as though you’re sat on his shoulder giving him advice about how to proceed. Success in the interrogations relies quite heavily on predicting how Cole will interpret a particular situation, rather than how you feel about it personally, and I can imagine that being off-putting to a lot of players. The ternary “truth, doubt, lie” system can be a bit ambiguous.

The fact remains, however, that for all its flaws L.A. Noire does tell a decent post-war detective story, which while being a bit uneven in parts (the homicide cases, especially) does help to provide enough incentive to keep going. It makes some sloppy mistakes and overlooks glaring inconsistencies, but for the most part (the final third in particular) things move along at a decent clip and provide plenty of intrigue.

Now that I think about it, “uneven” is probably the best adjective I can think of for L.A. Noire. It has moments of brilliance, moments of absolute absurdity and very little middle ground, but it’s determination to focus on underused elements such as story and puzzles is at the very least encouraging. I didn’t think it was great, but I’m glad it exists.

Like Mirror’s Edge and Heavy Rain, another two games that excited me conceptually but fell a bit flat in their execution, L.A. Noire is something of an experiment, and it’s worth remembering that most new experiments tend to blow up in someone’s face before they create something revolutionary.