Category: Action/Adventure


The original Uncharted was, I believe, the very first game I bought for my PS3. The PS3’s launch was infamous for its lack of quality titles at the beginning (at least games you couldn’t get on the XBox as well), and this was the big ticket item to hold me over as I waited for Metal Gear Solid 4 to come out (the reason I bought a PS3 in the first place). It was a fun game. It was gorgeous and it allowed me to live out my childhood fantasy of being Indiana Jones (except with a different name and new friends), but the kill fest of endless waves of enemies got old as did the sloppy combat mechanics. However, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves remains one of my top games of this console generation. It obliterated the line between game and movie like nothing before it, and it never sacrificed fun to do so. That said, my expectations for Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception were understandably high which is why it’s sad to say that in several key ways, the game is a step back for Sony’s premier franchise.

Unlike my Mass Effect 2 review (which required an obscene amount of context for newcomers to the story), the Uncharted games are fairly stand-alone. Nathan Drake is a world-scouring adventurer/treasure hunter on the look for the next big prize, and his best friend and mentor, Victor Sullivan, is never far behind. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception delves into Nate’s history as we embark on the quest that got him in the adventuring business in the first place, the quest to find the fabled “Atlantis of the Sands” which was how Nate and Sully met in the first place. Now, they’re up against an old nemesis, Katherine Marlowe, to beat her to finding this fabled city in the middle of the desert.

For those unfamiliar with the franchise, Uncharted 3 is the same mix of Tomb Raider style platforming and puzzle solving mixed with third-person shooting galleries that it’s always been. Broken up into chapters like they’re scenes from a movie (and let’s face it, the game is just an 8 hour movie that you happen to be playing), you take Nate and his various companions through one intricately designed set piece after another in search for the Atlantis of the Sands. Whether it’s an epic bar brawl to start things out, a harried escape from a burning 15th century French chateau, or a shoot-out on horseback in the middle of the desert, Uncharted 3 finds an endless supply of action-fueled sequences to get your blood flowing as you bring yourself closer to discover the secret of “Iram of the Desert.”

The series is considered one of the industry standard-bearers for graphical fidelity and Uncharted 3 is even more gorgeous than its predecessors. Though no game on this current console generation (and I doubt the next’s either) will pass the so-called “uncanny valley,” this game’s facial animations manage to nearly match L.A. Noire without making as many concessions in other graphical areas that game did. The environments are stunning which is par for the course for the series. What makes it impressive though is how the game often leaves its comfort zone which are usually lush jungles and forests and crypts. Those places make appearances, but Uncharted 3 has a much more urban feel (as well as desert) and it arguably sets a new bar for how to capture the look and feel of cities. This is without even getting into the huge strides forward the game made in movement animations (although ultimately, it did too well there and sacrificed gameplay to look better).

For the first time in series history, I actually think I’ll remember the story details of this game six months now. As much as I loved the first two games, I often felt like the stories were just excuses to have the player do incredible things. Instead, Uncharted 3 has a real emotional resonance. The characters grow in unexpected ways, and it usually feels like the gameplay and story are servicing each other equally (rather than one part taking over as is the case for most games). Add in that the game sets a new high-water mark for insane things that it has you do, and you’d have had a recipe for one of the greatest games of all time if it just played a little better.

Because sadly, the gunplay in this game is not up to snuff. The platforming is as great as always (although at times, it’s painfully obvious how you’re supposed to proceed) and although the game doesn’t have as many puzzles as I’ve come to expect from the franchise, the ones that are there are top-tier (especially a truly devious one involving casting a shadow on a wall to finish a mural). Unfortunately, the gunplay is more stiff than Keanu Reeves’ acting. There are newer, more realistic motion animations for Nate this time around which look astounding, but the gun reticle doesn’t move nearly as quickly as it should (and you have zero aiming assist. if you’re off by a centimeter, you miss). This results in far too many deaths that I felt were caused not by my lack of skill at the game but simply because it was throwing too many enemies at you and not giving you the proper tools to kill them efficiently.

The game has a multiplayer component, but I didn’t play any of it so I can’t comment on its quality. I’m glad it’s there though because no matter how phenomenal the eight hours in your game are, $60 remains a steep price to ask for a game with limited replay value in terms of its single-player campaign. Like the rest of the series, Uncharted 3 is an essentially linear experience with some variation here and there on how you attack the platforming or the combat scenarios. Still, if you get can past the less than commendable shooting, Uncharted 3 stands as one of the definitive cinematic game experiences of this console generation, and I can only imagine what Naughty Dog will be able to accomplish in the next console cycle.

Final Score: A-

“I believe in a long, prolonged derangement of the senses to obtain the unknown.” ~ Jim Morrison

“We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.” ~ Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing and Las Vegas

“I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” ~ The Beatles in “I Am the Walrus

Never in the singular history of video games have I had the opportunity to describe a game as psychedelic. I started this review off with all of those well known quotes of the acid culture for a simple reason. The video game I just finished, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, is a visually arresting journey into ever-shifting landscapes that makes me think more of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test than any video game predecessor that springs readily to mind. From the creative mind behind the character design in Okami and the original Devil May Cry, El Shaddai stands as one of the most unique visual experiences I’ve ever encountered in all of video games and is on my short list for most beautiful game of all time. Alas, video games are a medium meant to be played and enjoyed as interactive experience, and in this area, the game falls unfortunately short with an overly simple combat system layered on platforming that gets unfortunately repetitive as the game’s lengthy adventure plays out.

El Shaddai is a very modern and Japanese take on one of the apocryphal Hebrew texts in the Dead Sea Scrolls. You play as Enoch, a human scribe in the employ of God Almighty who is given the task of returning to Earth to destroy fallen angels who have began to corrupt the Earth. You are guided on your task by Lucifel (aka Lucifer, aka the devil) who sports a cell phone and wears black jeans, as well as the four archangels, and this time around, Gabriel’s a woman. Along the way,  you’ll fight through a seemingly endless horde of disciples and monstrous abominations born from the corruption of the fallen angels and navigate the most surreal and essentially mind-boggling landscapes (or even more accurately, dreamscapes) that you’ve ever come across in all of videogames. The game is at its core a combination of arena battles interspersed with platforming segments, and you’ll never quite be able to look at either the same again.

The combat in the system is both deceptively simple and actually too simple. There is only one attack button (as well as a separate block button). Different combinations in how long you hold the button or delay holding the button or how many times you press it, etc, lead to Enoch performing different combat maneuvers. Combat is built around a rock-paper-scissors system involving the three different weapons you are able to employ and figuring out which enemy to kill first and whose weapons to steal in order to fight effectively. At first, discovering how this system works is rewarding as its not like anything else you’ve seen in a video game, until about a third of the way through the game when you’ve done everything you can in the combat realm. It burns out too early. The platforming is more conventional in nature although its purpose is simply to show off the gorgeous environments that the game’s artists have crafted.

If you thought to yourself that Japanese writers trying to adapt one of the Dead Sea Scrolls (the book of Enoch) into a sci-fi/fantasy epic would end up being a little confusing, you’d be right. The game’s story has an interesting premise, and there are certain set piece moments in the game that really cement neat ideas and concepts. However, the game’s plot makes virtually no sense. There’s not much in the way of exposition. Too much exposition can be bad, but this game has virtually none, and as you are shuttled along from place to place, you aren’t really given much more motivation than simply wanting to see the next great level that the game is going to give you. At around the 1/3 mark of the game, I simply had to accept that I was never going to comprehend this game’s plot in any meaningful way, but I almost feel as if it isn’t meant to be comprehended. You’re just meant to be taken along on this game’s extremely psychedelic ride and just place your trust in the designers.

This is simply the most beautiful game I have ever played. The only competition is the creator’s other big name project, Okami. It doesn’t have the most powerful graphics engine on the planet, and whenever the game tries to render more conventional looking scenery or objects (which is thankfully rare), you can see the limits of the enginge, but that’s really not the point here. This game is about creating levels that stand on their own as works of art. I’ve never done LSD, but I bet this is kind of what it’s like. Not since Braid, have I played a game that has such specific modern art sensibilities. From water-color paintings to Tron to M.C. Escher style geometries to Tron‘s world to something that was almost Dr. Seuss-esque to things I simply don’t have the vocabulary to describe, this game throws you into one visually astounding level after another, and you simply beg for more.

It’s almost impossible for me to over-state how much good will this game’s peerless art design earns for itself. Without its dream-like worlds and constantly shifting scenery, this game wouldn’t have made nearly the same impression on me. It’s combat is overly repetitive and there’s nothing especially innovative about the platforming. However, like I said, no game currently on the market comes close to matching the sheer artistry that follows from nearly every second of this game. Video games do not get the respect they deserve in the realm of real art, and if a game is ever going to make a case for video games as a medium for expressing art, this is it. I wish the gameplay were better integrated into the over-all artistic experience, but it doesn’t do enough damage to ruin how much I simply enjoy looking at this game. When the rest of the hyper-realistic games from our generation such as Heavy Rain or L.A. Noire age and begin to look like dated artifacts, I’m fairly positive that El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron will stand the test of time in the visuals department.

Final Score: B+

I can remember the first time that I played Grand Theft Auto 3 with such vivid recollections that it’s almost like I’m back at my friend Barrett’s house in his basement and having my mind blown again and again by the revolution in gaming that game signified. While every entry since has improved upon the formula in major and significant ways to the point that replaying GTA 3 can almost seem like an antiquated experience, the basic thrill of exploring a wide open world at your own leisure and discretion hasn’t lost any of its charm in the ten years since GTA 3‘s release. There is only one flaw with creating such lavishly constructed worlds with such a wide variety of tasks to perform. Namely, it is far too easy for me to get distracted with all of the side-quests and exploration that I can forget to actually beat the main story of the game. I got Grand Theft Auto IV the day it was released back in my freshman year of college. I played it for literally dozens upon dozens of hours, but it wasn’t until now, nearly four years later, that I finally beat the game. I do not tread lightly when I say that Grand Theft Auto IV, upon its release, stood as one of the greatest video game experiences of all time, and four years later, age hasn’t diminished its power one bit.

Just like the previous entries in the series, Grand Theft Auto IV is an open-world action adventure game following the criminal exploits of a deadly protagonist. The series returns to Liberty City, the setting of GTA 3, but the city has grown massively and is now a picture perfect recreation of New York City in the early 2000’s. Much as in the past, the protagonist, in this game’s case Eastern European mercenary Niko Bellic, accepts missions from criminal contacts for cash as well as plot advancement. These generally fall into the kill all of these enemies, escort/protect this individual, or procure this car/item mission structures that are the bread and butter of the genre, although many missions are considerably more creative. With access to an arsenal of weaponry that would make a South American nation envious and the ability to steal/drive any of the seemingly endless vehicle varieties in Libert City, GTA IV gives the player a wide array of tools to either complete the story of spend dozens and dozens of hours causing havoc and mayhem in Libert City.

Whereas previous entries in the series were over the top parodies of the popular crime films of its particular era (GTA: Vice City = Scarface, San Andreas = Boyz N the Hood), GTA IV firmly cements itself closer to reality with a much more grounded and personal story. At the center of it all is the protagonist, Niko Bellic. Niko is one of the most well-rounded and fully developed characters this side of the Metal Gear Solid series and sets a new high-water mark for anti-hero protagonists. A jaded and broken veteran of the Serbian civil wars in the ’90’s, Niko is a man wanting to turn his back on his life of violence and despair but keeps finding himself pulled back into the fold to protect his cousin Roman whose gambling debts with mobsters keeps Niko knee-deep in trouble. Simultaneously, Niko has tasked himself with discovering the location of two former comrades in the military who may have had something to do with an incident where Niko’s entire squad is massacred. Through Niko’s regular recreational interactions with his friends in Liberty City, you get a compelling portrait of a man torn between loyalty to his family, his desire for revenge for his fallen teammates, and a simple thirst for the American Dream.

While the stories and settings of the previous games were always huge draws (San Andreas still has one of the largest and most populated game worlds I can think of), the actual gameplay of each GTA title could be a little weak. Specifically, gunplay was especially atrocious and nearly uncontrollable. Learning from such popular titles as Gears of War or Rainbow Six, Grand Theft Auto IV wisely introduces a polished cover system as well as improved auto-lock on which removes the annoying legacy issue of shooting a civilian instead of the bad guy firing at you. Additionally, cars control more realistically. So, while upper-level sports cars will allow you the level of speed and control that previous games have accustomed you too, cheaper cars are going to handle like cheaper cars. So, while you may decry the boat-like mobility of early vehicles, it will make you appreciate the later ease of control of end-game cars even more. Also, the game is chock-full of memorably constructed missions like a bank robbery straight out of Heat as well as some other large-scale missions that make GTA IV seem like your favorite blockbusters.

A Grand Theft Auto game wouldn’t be a GTA game without a seemingly endless supply of extra content to keep you busy and GTA IV is no disappointment. In addition to series staples like taxi driving and masquerading as a cop, you also get new missions like high-level assassinations, carjackings, drug running, and a myriad of other ways to keep you occupied in your lulls in the story. In addition to actual gameplay additions, the world itself is full of a million things to discover and analyze. There is a completely functional in-game internet with enough content for you to spend hours and hours just reading the hilarious web pages. Also, there are several TV channels with full-blown (and again hilarious) programs for you to watch and enjoy. Republican Space Rangers was a highlight. Also, you can hang out with your friends and engage in activities like darts, bowling, pool, and drinking as well as strip clubs and comedy shows.If you try and take in all that the game has to offer in one play through, you’re probably going to playing this game for months straight.

Grand Theft Auto games have never been the prettiest games to look at, and while GTA IV is a considerable step-up from its last-gen predecessors, it definitely hasn’t aged well in the four years since its release. However, it’s still a technical marvel. Liberty City is one of the meticulously constructed and well-designed environments in the history of gaming. From what I’ve read, it may be called Liberty City and it may be full of non-existent stores and brands, but it is also a practically perfect recreation of the Big Apple that many New York fans say is the truest recreation of their city they’ve ever seen. To add to that, the city is populated with a very large and bustling population that is constantly engaged in dynamic activity that makes it almost as much fun to people watch as it is to go around and kill random civilians. You’ll see them on cell-phones, having conversations, reading the news paper, and there’s so much diversity in the character models, that although you do see repeats, it is a much rarer occasion than in most games of this ilk. The only really glaring technical problem with the game is endemic to all Unreal enginge games and that’s texture pop-in.

I’m giving this game an A+, but that doesn’t mean its a perfect game. It simply means that it still stands all of these years later as one of the most ambitious and more importantly successful in its ambitions games that I’ve ever played. Sometimes, the checkpoint system can be extremely unforgiving and motorcycles, boats, and helicopters are all a bitch to maneuver, but that doesn’t stop the point that on the current generation of consoles, no game has managed to pull off the kind of storytelling and game play sophistication that GTA IV seemingly does with such ease. With easily one of the best leads in the history of video games and enough varied and polished game play to keep you more than interested throughout the entire adventure (plus online multiplayer to boot), GTA IV has a little something for everybody. A lot of people hated on the game for abandoning the the more over-the-top roots of previous entries and for Liberty City being smaller than San Andreas‘s world, but the sense of realism and emotional drama lends GTA IV so much of its power, and I’ll trade the meticulous attention to detail of Liberty City to the occasionally empty expanses of San Andreas any day. At the end of the day, this is the definition of must-own videogaming and it is a necessary addition to any serious gamer’s collection.

Final Score: A+

Every now and then a new movie or game comes around that will completely redefine words like scale and possibilities. As over-rated as I think the film is, I can say with little to no hesitation that Avatar redefined what was possible in the world of beautiful computer graphics in movies. I can safely say that because Avatar exists, if you have the time and money, you can create whatever you want for a film. The original Metal Gear Solid for the Playstation broke new grounds in cinematic story-telling for video games, and I’m not sure if any series has been able to capture the sheer strength of Hideo Kojima’s opuses. However, I just beat God of War 3, and while it may not match the story-telling heights of the Metal Gear Solid series, it takes video game scope and ambition to whole new levels and delivers a an epic adventure that is unlike any you’ve ever played before.

For those of you who didn’t play the first two, the God of War series chronicles the travails of Kratos, an ex-Spartan soldier on a brutal quest for revenge. Tricked into killing his family by the god of war Ares, Kratos spends the first game currying favors from the gods until he is strong enough to kill Ares when he becomes the new god of war. In the second game, Zeus becomes fearful that, much like how he killed his father Cronos, Kratos will kill him and usurp his power. So the first game begins with Zeus killing you, and you fight your way out of Hades and to an epic journey to kill your father. You are stopped at the last minute by Athena who sacrifices her life to save Zeus. At the end of the game, Kratos enlists the help of the Titans to declare an all-out war on Olympus and all of the Greek gods. That’s how the first game begins. You are on the back of the Titan, Gaia, climbing up Mount Olympus to stake your bloody vengeance on Zeus. That’s all I’ll say of the plot, except for one note, that you are about to begin on a roaring rampage of revenge filled with more bad-ass moments than you could throw a centaur at.

Much like the first two titles, God of War 3‘s gameplay is mixed between third-person button-mashing action, platforming, and some light puzzle solving. As always, the hack & slash gameplay is polished practically to perfection. Throughout the entire adventure (which is a decent length), you are constantly finding new weapons and gadgets to mow down the forces of Olympus. Although the game’s combo system is fairly simple to grasp (nowhere near as complex as Castlevania: Lords of Shadow), the various weapons and magics you have access to give you plenty to do without making the game ever feel to stale. While there are certain moments in the game that can be very challenging (one boss fight springs to mind and a handful of hordes of enemies fights), the game mostly strikes a perfect balance between challenge and fairness. Speaking of boss fights, this game has some of the most titanic and memorable boss fights this side of Shadow of the Colossus, in terms of both fun and sheer boss size. When you kill the entire Greek pantheon as well as some Titans, this is going to happen.

The platforming is fun, if relatively basic. It’s a fairly straight-forward affair, and will be disappointingly simple to fans of platforming heavy adventure games like Uncharted. Most of the platforming in the game serves a purpose of showing off the ridiculously large rooms in any given dungeon (catch-all term for indoor room). It’s been a long time since I’ve played a game with individual areas that are this massive. You can tell that the developers took a lot of time in making every room full of incredible amounts of detail and activity. Normally, when games have large areas, a lot of those areas are empty. That isn’t the case in God of War 3. All space is put to great use. As to the puzzles, the ones that were there were a lot of fun. I just wish there more of them. The puzzles are back-loaded in the second half of the game. I would have enjoyed more in the beginning. I’m a big fan of puzzles.

God of War 3 is a graphically gorgeous game. While I’m not sure if I’m willing to put it on the same level as Final Fantasy XIII or Uncharted 2, but it’s a damn good looking game. As I’ve said, the environments are huge and meticulously detailed. Kratos’ character model (as well as Pandora’s) are very well done and detailed. The game’s engine constantly gives you more and more of the game’s massive scale, especially during any moment when a Titan shows up or you are fighting one of the god’s. You commit your first (of many) act of decide in the first 30 minutes of the game, and the fight against Poseidon is just a technical marvel. It really has to be seen to be believed. This game sets technical benchmarks in terms of the amount of things happening on screen at once.

I wish I had as much praise for the game’s story as I did for the rest of the game itself. Kratos is not a particularly likeable or sympathetic protagonist. Ever since Grand Theft Auto IV, I’ve come to expect a little more from my video games when they decide to have an anti-hero main character. Kratos’ quest for revenge makes him seem like more of a villain than Zeus or Ares ever was, as he is willing to sacrifice and kill anyone, innocent or not, that not only gets in his way but just happens to be near him. Also, the story relies too much on cliche “find the magical MacGuffin” plot conventions for my liking. As Kratos is bandied around this place and that, I never really felt invested in most of the actions I was completing. Unless I was committing deicide, I wasn’t sure why I was doing anything in the game. Also, the ending left a lot to be desired. While I didn’t mind the biggest aspect of the ending (don’t want to spoil it), it was the sheer and utter destruction (and lack of caring) that my quest had caused that left me with an empty feeling about everything I had done.

This is easily the best game of its genre that I’ve played since God of War 2 at the end of the PS2’s lifecycle. This was the series that breathed new life into the genre, and after countless imitators trying to take their throne, they once again show why they’re the best. The game isn’t perfect, but it is fun and epic in practically every second you are playing. This is the video game equivalent of a big-summer blockbuster and although you get a story that left me disappointed, you get hours and hours of gametime that will leave you wanting more. I’m sad that this is the end of a series that I have loved and enjoyed for so long, but simultaneously, I’m glad it got the massive send-off it deserved. For fans of previous entries in the series, this is a must purchase and must play. For fans of epic Greek god-killing action, you need look no further.

Final Score: A-

 It is not an uncommon experience for me to dream about video games that either require a zen-like level of concentration or the constant repetition of specific actions. I have dreamt on several occasions about digging up rocks and erecting monuments in Minecraft, and whenever I’m going through a serious Geometry Wars phase, I tend to dream in brightly colored explosions and gravity bombs. Thanks to a deep and finely tuned combat system that required me to find my inner Obi-Wan Kenobi, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow has joined that list of games that have infiltrated my sleep as I spent the last two nights dreaming that I was fighting my way through hordes of supernatural creatures that were thirsting for my flesh. While the over-all experience was flawed in some unfortunate ways, this latest entry in the Castlevania series turned out to be quite an adventure.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is an epic fantasy adventure set 1000 years in our past where the supernatural forces of the world still existed and are wreaking havoc across medieval Europe. You play as Gabriel Belmont, a knight of the order of the Brotherhood of the Light which does God’s bidding by bringing an end to the forces of darkness. Earth has been cut off from God by the machinations of the three Lords of Shadow, and you must defeat the Lords and recover the pieces of an ancient relic that is humanity’s last hope and the possible key to resurrecting your murdered love. Along the way, you cut through a veritable army of vampires, werewolves, trolls, and other supernatural creatures.

 

I’ve never seen a game crib so shamelessly in the actual game play department from such a variety of sources. It does all of the stealing well and integrates the various sources together brilliantly so bravo to the developers for at least having the chutzpah to steal from such good sources. The game is mixed up into three main sections: combat, exploration, and puzzle-solving. The combat is a straight up mix of the deep combo and magic system of Devil May Cry with the in-your-face visceral experience of God ofWar and the occasional boss battle that could have come straight out of one of my all time faves, Shadow of the Colossus. Though there are only two main attack buttons, between the careful activation of your various powers and upgrades and the way in which you input your combos, you have a deep and varied pool to choose from when you destroy the undead. At first, I thought the combat in the game could be unfairly difficult, but once I got a feel for the deliberate nature and focus on dodging and blocking, I quickly became entirely engrossed in being as efficient a killing machine as humanly possible. The combat was only marred by some occasion button mapping issues which would often result in me doing a specific attack when I wanted to dodge or block. When the game places so much emphasis on being hit as little as humanly possible, it posed an occasional problem.

 

The exploration side of the game should be familiar to fans of the earlier Castlevania entries or newer adventure games like Shadow Complex, although the series steps into new ground by having massive 3D worlds to explore rather than the traditional 2D side-scrolling exploration. As you gain new powers and relics, you can return to old levels and find all of the treasure and powers that weren’t there the frist time, although back-tracking is mostly unnecessary for game completion. I do have one major complaint about the exploration (and it was a problem during combat as well) which is that the game uses a forced camera perspective that I spent the majority of the game fighting with rather than feeling more enmeshed in the experience. The game came out in 2010, and a decade’s worth of great game design have shown that the forced perspective camera style has left common usage for the main reason that it’s mostly a huge pain in the ass.

 

It’s been a long time (if there’s ever been a game that’s done this better) since I played a game that’s forced me to use my brain as much as my Jedi reflexes. Scattered throughout the game’s 15-20 hour adventure, you come across a fairly large number of puzzles that could have been ripped right out of classic Zelda, and then some more puzzles that are so great I don’t want to spoil any of them in here. While some are fairly simple light-based puzzles that have been a common industry trick for years now, there were a lot that were rather in depth and had me in deep think logic mode. You can skip the puzzles if you wish (and forgo the prize for completing them), but I solved every last one and whenever I solved the more difficult ones, it was just as rewarding as beating some of the game’s more difficult bosses. There’s one puzzle that is one of the best puzzles I’ve ever played in a video game.

 

This game is a textbook example of how far stellar art direction can take a game’s visuals. While the graphics were already excellent from a purely technical perspective with great uses of water and lighting and textures, it was the incredibly unique world and diverse visual styles that pervaded the whole experience that sucked me in nearly as much as the game play (and much more than the forgettable story). From lush jungles to dangerous swamps to snow-capped mountains to the trademark castle to a surreal dreamscape of death and magic, the game transports you from one gorgeous locale to another. I can’t remember one moment when I didn’t think the environments in the game didn’t look astounding. Plus, the monster and enemy design in the game was phenomenal as well. The enemies consist of vampires and werewolves and trolls and other enemies you already know, but the game gives them all a distinct look that makes them pure Castlevania and tops it all of with some of the most cleverly designed bosses this side of a Metal Gear Solid game.

 

I wish I had such high praise for the game’s story as I did for the visuals and game play itself. However, it was fairly cliché and predictable, and at times, I honestly stopped caring why I was doing what I was doing and just went where the game led me for an opportunity for the next cool boss fight or next power upgrade. While the end itself was actually pretty awesome, it became fairly muddled and confusing and one plot twist seemed especially contrived. It also didn’t help that I could have given less of a rat’s ass about Gabriel. He wasn’t a particularly interesting protagonist.

 

If you were a fan of earlier entries into the series, you should give this one a go even if certain areas are a radical departure from the Castlevania series that you know and love. If you liked any of the games that I said the game stole from (it eventually even steals from Portal and then makes jokes about the plot of Portal), then you should also give this a go. This is far from one of the most original games to come along in years, but I got a lot of fun from it. I rented it from Gamefly and so I didn’t delve too deeply into trying to get 100% completion, but if you’re one of those people who revel in finding every hidden nook and cranny in a game, this game will work directly on your pleasure principle and you’ll find plenty of hours worth to keep you entertained.

Final Score: B+

 It’s sort of ironic (and completely unintentional on my part) that the first two games that I review for this blog (well that I finished anyways. Alas poor Xenogears) are two period pieces from Rockstar. We had L.A. Noire which was set right after World War II in Los Angeles, and now we have Red Dead Redemption which is a Western set in 1911 in Texas as the Wild West is dying. One is set right after World War II; the other happens right on the heels of World War I. You get to see the birth of our modern nation in one; the death of a fabled part of our history in the other. With both titles, Rockstar created a universe that I became willingly lost in and crafted a gaming experience that was unlike anything else out there. Along with Mass Effect 2, Red Dead Redemption was one of the most exciting and original games to come out of 2010, and I can highly recommend it to everyone.

The premise of Red Dead Redemption is that you are playing as John Marston, a former outlaw turned rancher who is being forced by the government to capture his former partners in crime and bring them to justice, all in order to save his family which the government is holding hostage. Through a story told in three acts (and a haunting epilogue), you get a classic wild west story that takes you from the plains of New Austin to the deserts and mesas of Mexico to the valleys and forests surrounding the city of Blackwater. On your quest to find your former friends, you make shaky alliances with snake oil salesmen, local law enforcement, and other disreputable people. You get involved (for way too much of the game) in the Mexican Civil War. And you end with a stark vision of how everything you just played through will all be gone in 10 or 20 years.

The game does a fantastic job of constantly mixing up gameplay and having you partake in a wide variety of tasks to shepherd you to your ultimate destination. While most missions do play out like your average Grand Theft Auto mission, where you go to a quest giver who then tells you to kill so many people or defend such and such person or collect this or that item, you also have missions that have you doing actual ranch work, going hunting, breaking horses, and a lot of other non-conventional tasks. Not to mention you get to take part in all of the best types of moments from your favorite westerns, like train robberies, O.K. Corral style shoot-outs, and quick-draws. With the exception of herding cattle, it all controls magnificently well, and I never found myself fighting with the game’s controls.

The amount of content in this game is just mind-boggling. With video games all costing $60 a pop these days, it’s refreshing to get a game that offers a truly epic single-player experience that you can jump into again and again and again and not see all that has to offer for months. In addition to the fairly lengthy main story, there are a seemingly endless number of side quests with stories as well as a literally infinite number of citizens that you can help as you travel from town to town. I saved people being chased by coyotes, stopped a ton of lynchings, taught horse rustlers the error of their ways, and averted more attempted hold-ups by bandits than Wyatt Earp. Those were all just ambient random encounters, but it gave the game some much needed life for the world you spend so much time inhabiting. In addition to that, there are a ton of mini-games you can partake in like poker, blackjack, horseshoes, and a game called “Liar’s Dice” which reminded me of the card game Bullshit. There’s also a bunch of optional challenges that test your shooting, hunting, and survivalist skills. It’s incredible how much content is packed into this single disc.

The game looks just spectacular. While the character models are passable, they aren’t as cutting edge as something like Heavy Rain or L.A. Noire. I actually become frustrated with how lifeless the characters looked having just beaten L.A. Noire. The strength of the game’s visuals are in its environments and all of the attention that went into constructing the game’s world. The vistas and locales in this game are just stunning. I could almost feel the sand in my teeth and the sun on my back as I was making my way across the plains and deserts of the game. There would be times when I would just stop playing the game in any traditional sense and just wander around and take in the sights. The only game with environments that look as good as this one (and that game looks better) is Final Fantasy XIII when the group gets to Gran Pulse. There were so many ghost towns and ranches and settlements and animals running around. The world just felt so alive and even more importantly, it felt lived in. It was great.

The game’s story was surprisingly nuanced and subtle. As the game progresses, you find out more and more about John’s past and why perhaps the people you’re hunting don’t necessarily deserve the fate you’re bringing to them. Also, the moments at the end of the game where you make it to the more modern city of Blackwater are incredibly eerie because you realize that this is quickly becoming the future and norm of the country and everything you’ve done so far in this game is just a relic of a past that is about to disappear. You look at John as this archetypal gunslinger hero but he is in fact basically a ghost of an age that has long since disappeared. I don’t want to ruin the ending of the game for anyone, but it is easily one of the 5 best endings for any game I’ve ever played. I’d put it up there with the ending of Final Fantasy X which is my favorite game ending of all time.

If you like open-world action games or Westerns or just video games period, you need to check this one out. While it may not be the masterpiece that Grand Theft Auto IV was, it definitely makes the wait between Rockstar’s marquee IP much easier to bear. I didn’t have a chance to test drive the multiplayer at all because I have dial-up at home, but the game also has a really fun (or so I’ve been told) multiplayer component that makes the deal even sweeter. I would have willingly paid even more than $60 for this game since you get so much bang for your buck, and at that price, Red Dead Redemption simply put is a steal.

 Final Score: A

L.A. Noire

 Here’s a list of some things that I love. I love video games. I love film noir. I love the video game company Rockstar. I love video games that make me use my brain as much as my trigger finger. So, when I first read about Rockstar’s game L.A. Noire when it first got its own cover story in Game Informer a couple years ago, I had been eagerly awaiting the game’s release more than any new IP since the epic disappointment that was Alpha Protocol. The idea of a video game that combines interactive detective work alongside shoot outs and car chases sounded like the perfect mix of Chinatown and Grand Theft Auto. Throw into the mix the company’s boundary-pushing facial capture technology, and it was all I good to do to wait after delay and delay and delay for this game to come out. Well, the wait was worth it. L.A. Noire is the first game that I can truly call film noir, and while the experience is marred by a couple technical problems and gameplay that isn’t as polished as it could have been, it was a hell of an original experience.

The premise of L.A. Noire is that you play as Cole Phelps, a young veteran of World War II returning to Los Angeles in the late 1940’s to become a police officer. You start off as a beat cop and work your way up the ladder of the LAPD with stints in various offices as an LAPD detective, including traffic, arson, vice, and homicide. Throughout the game, you investigate the various crimes that you are given by your commanding officers. While you are able to explore the massively recreated version of 1940’s Los Angeles that is the game’s setting, it is a fairly linear experience that you could complete without ever taking on any side missions. As your investigative skills begin to attract the attention of higher ups, you find yourself thrown into a world of murder, drugs, and public corruption.

Gameplay is broken up into three main sections. The meat of the game and the part that is the most enjoyable for me are the investigations. You arrive at various crime scenes or homes and then walk around said locations inspecting various clues that you find around the scene. Some of the crime scenes are quite large, and the game gives you several ambient noise clues to let you know if you’re near a clue or if you’ve found all of the clues. While those are helpful, the game is much more fun and entertaining if you turn them off and rely solely on your wits and observation skills. There are a large number of fake clues at any scene that don’t offer you any help, so you may find yourself picking up every beer bottle in Los Angeles. The other part of the investigations are interrogations where you put the heat to individuals that might be able to help you crack the case. Judging by their facial expressions and the clues that you’ve found, you have to decide whether they’re telling you the truth or holding back. It’s tense and a lot of fun because if you screw up and accuse someone of lying and don’t have any proof or you believe someone who is lying, you might miss a crucial piece of information.

The other two sections of the game are the action set pieces and the various street crimes that serve as the filler portion of the game. You will find yourself in some action sequences in the game that could have come straight out of a Hollywood detective movie like L.A. Confidential. They happen rarely enough so that each sequence is pure awesome when it finally happens. The only problem with them is that the gameplay in these sequences is a little rough. The gunplay responds a little slower than you’re probably used to, and I died a lot more often than I should have because of the controls. Cars control terribly. You can normally skip your way to wherever you’re driving, but if you find yourself in a car chase, you have to get behind the wheel, and the cars handle like boats and it sort of marred a lot of the experience.

The game’s story is fantastic. With the exception of RPG’s, I’m often really frustrated and disappointed by most developers attempts to place engaging stories in their games because the story often seems tacked on to suit the game play rather than the other way around. While each case may seem disconnected and isolated from the grand scheme of things at the beginning of the game, at around the halfway point of the game, all of the pieces start to come together and you get a sprawling film noir epic. At each of the different desks of the game, I felt like a different police officer. I felt like Joe Friday from Dragnet. I got to feel like Jimmy McNulty from The Wire. I felt like Jack Nicholson’s character in Chinatown at one point. And without wanting to ruin a major twist in the game, I even felt like Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. A game has never made me feel like a detective before, and this game nails all of those notes perfectly.

From a technical perspective, this is one of the most immersive visual experiences that I’ve ever gotten from a video game. Not every aspect of the graphics of the game are jaw-dropping but the facial capture tech in this game is just unreal. The ability for the characters in this game to express emotion and real expressions is just unbelievable. It makes other amazing games like Heavy Rain or Uncharted look stiff and unemotional. It’s crazy. To top it all off, the game’s voice cast is no longer just voice cast. They’re real actors performing their parts, and since the game hires a professional cast of actor’s, it’s just astounding how high a quality the performances all are. Mad Men‘s Aaron Stanton voices Cole Phelps, and it’s one of the best video game performances ever if no reason other than there’s so much expression and life in the character.

If you can handle games where you aren’t blowing shit up every 5 seconds, you need to check this game out. It’s awesome. I had a great time playing this game, and at no point during the week and a half or so it took me to beat it did I ever want to stop playing it. It has enough technical problems to keep it from being perfect but I mean, it only froze on me a couple of times. The game has plenty of replay value, and I’m going to go back and play it with the black and white option turned on for an even more authentic film noir experience.

 Final Score: A-