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Deadly Premonition - finally, my review

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Deadly Premonition

"There's a proper procedure for everything. Right, Zach?"

York mid-investigation

It's generally accepted that in reviewing something, one needs to be objective. After all, objectivity is the surest base for criticism, a foothold that allows one to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a game and recommend it accordingly. But when an oddity like Deadly Premonition arrives, such convention does not apply. As a game, it fails. The combat is awful, the visuals are dated and the music is best muted. On the other hand, these shortcomings are dwarfed by the best story to grace a Microsoft console. Deadly Premonition's tale is as much a doting love-letter to David Lynch's Twin Peaks as it is a self-contained narrative. Yet while it owes much to Lynchian surrealism, Deadly Premonition is also an excellent tale in its own right, interweaving both the physical and existential into something that feels singularly unique. As a commercial product, it's almost certainly unpalatable to audiences brought up on conventional action games, but if a review is anything, it's a retelling of a personal experience. And personally, I've never been more engrossed.

Naturally, characterization is important for any tale to work and in Francis York Morgan, Deadly Premonition has a fascinating protagonist. If the game is strange, its hero is too. By profession, he's an FBI agent, but he seems to harbour his share of psychoses too. In York's mind, he is never alone, for he comes with an alter-ego named Zach. During long monologues that touch on subject matter as diverse as Steven Spielberg's Jaws to the denizens around him, York reveals Zach to be his best – and perhaps only – friend. Split personalities have long been examined, but what makes the formula work in this videogame is a stroke of genius. When York addresses Zach, he's actually addressing you: yes, you the player. It becomes apparent that you are the silent half. You are the alter-ego, watching from your television with the controller in hand. You are the one that chooses to wield the trigger, that opens a particular door, that picks up an object of interest. York is the face and the voice to the world; you are his inner cogs. Yet just as you get to grips with this match-up, the game engineers a surprise twist. I only wish I could divulge it, for it's an inspired u-turn that owes more to highbrow literature than the videogame and filmic world combined.

And in Greenvale, Deadly Premonition has its rain-soaked Washington enclave. York arrives in search of a killer who targets beautiful young woman, the first of which has seemingly been given as a sacrifice to a mysterious red tree. As the questions mount, so does the intrigue. Just what is the purpose of the tree? Accordingly, what do its red seeds mean? And just why do the residents of Greenvale repeatedly refer to York's scar when it has all but faded? Forget videogames: few films and novels manage the satisfying revelations that Deadly Premonition achieves. This is an intelligent story that, by and large, opts for clever twists over shock-horror. And at its core, its central character ties the narrative thread together. You can't help but wonder about this FBI agent who dominates the screen, his off-hand comments and deadpan voice at odds with the surreal world he inhabits. He's endearing; moreover, he's interesting, and the final revelation surrounding his character will elicit a gasp.

The game is at its best when York is at the fore and at its worst when he's not. Towards the end the story descends into farce, throwing in muscled boss battles that have more in common with a bombastic envisioning of Batman. The liberties taken to explain these scenes affect the story in negative ways. Moreover, the boss battles and the action scenes in general just aren't fun. At all. In Japanese tradition, York must stand still when discharging a firearm, while shambling monstrosities edge towards him moaning, "I doo-oont wa-a-ant to di-e-e-e-e". It's an unsettling sound at first, but soon becomes very, very annoying. There's also a Raincoat Killer, a stuff of legend says the town's sheriff, but a legend that York spies regularly. These scenes are explained as "otherworldly", but while they add to the game's surreal flavour, the combat seems like an effort to satiate the action crowd while simultaneously lengthening the story. The developers needn't have worried about either: the narrative alone is a good fifteen hours, while the former could have been remedied by exclusively relying on the quick-time events that crop up on occasion. Make no mistake then: these bouts of action that you and York must endure are neither fun nor effective in improving the story. They also seem like a half-hearted nod towards Resident Evil 4: minus all the fun, of course.

Elsewhere, the game slips up too. The music is ill-placed, with many climactic and macabre scenes suddenly punctuated by an absurd song entitled "comic relief". Yes, comic relief. Quite why the comic relief is needed you're never quite sure, nor are you ever entirely convinced that Deadly Premonition is a game meant to be taken entirely seriously. But if seriousness is what the developers are after, its excellent narrative is undermined by the terrible music. Do the right thing and unceremoniously mute it.

Still, there's no denying that Deadly Premonition has something going for it. York's inappropriate observations (the man has a capacity to remain exceedingly calm) run alongside a game that mixes the extraordinary with the truly ordinary. This is not a game that tries to be different. Deadly Premonition simply is different. Ten minutes of gaming can see you first tending to York's beard before being plunged into a survival horror scenario, where, instead of a razor, York handles a shotgun. Fifteen minutes on and in true Patrick Bateman fashion, York may be addressing you on the merits of Ferris Bueller's Day Off. And once home, don't forget to change his suit. York attracts flies after a day or two, much to the distaste of the Greenvale residents.

And what a cast they are. You have the millionaire who never leaves his mansion without his gas mask, a fat travelling salesman and his dog, a rigid sheriff and a deputy that bears an unnerving similarity to Naomi Watts. It's a cast juxtaposed against a town that, in its drab palate of greys and greens, is the perfect recreation of an enclosed and isolated American town. A limited budget means that the visuals are more at home in an era of Grand Theft Auto 3, but ironically this works in its favour at times. Constrained by the technology, Greenvale can only offer an undulating landscape of prairie dullness, one that feels completely right. Still, a few extra licks of paint wouldn't have gone amiss either, and there's no denying that many will be unable to get past the game's ugly exterior. Character models animate poorly, the acting is wooden and lip-synching is just about nonexistent. Where the visuals really become a concern is during cutscenes, of which there are many. Since the game relies on its narrative so heavily, it's a shame that the technology driving it cannot create the emotive and expressive characters that would have truly elevated the story. Being able to better distinguish between facial expressions would certainly have helped, and long pauses in conversation seems more a fault of the technology than an intended dramatic technique.

There are also idiosyncrasies in its design, pointing to a game that was created with conflicting ideas over a long timespan. Greenvale is a sandbox in nature and you can explore it at leisure, but the game is adamant that you follow the main story. There's always a blinking red arrow pointing you to the next story segment, despite the fact that side-missions, races and collectibles litter the world. Though York will put up with the diversions, you always feel a bit bad, don't you Zach?

As a budget game, these flaws are no surprise. Visually it's poor. Sonically, it's woeful, and the less said about the combat the better. What is surprising is how easily you'll be willing to forgive these flaws once the story grips you. Given its limited resources, it has no right to be so ambitious. Half-baked elements reside throughout the game. Vehicular excursions are clunky. The map is nigh-on indecipherable yet, somehow, Deadly Premonition keeps going. Lift the veil and you realize that there is more going on than you ever thought possible. Residents of the town go about their routine in their cars and personalized number plates. Strange and ominous bones litter the grasslands. And an extensive, fifty-strong set of side-missions provide better weapons and useful tools. In Laura Bow fashion, you can even peep through windows and watch the townsfolk doing their chores. Greenvale appears an empty and desolate town, but the amount on offer soon becomes striking. The mix of the pedestrian and outlandish would make Lynch proud, while its budget price-tag is a steal.

Ultimately, it's a subjective experience and a subjective buying choice. Many people won't enjoy Deadly Premonition and I don't blame them. We've been schooled to believe that a game succeeds on the merits of the technology running it. If you're only interested in being led through a series of staged set-pieces amid crumbling scenery and impressive graphics, this is not worth your time. But if you have the stomach for the surreal and the patience to ride its flaws, there's much to appreciate. It's a fantastic story, led by the most memorable protagonist this side of Grim Fandango. High praise indeed for a game hobbled by antiquated design and archaic visuals, yet it does what no commercial offering ever can: it flies in the face of convention. This is a story that rewards your patience and input. Appropriate then, considering you and York are inextricably linked.

My faith has been restored (thank you, Vanquish).

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I picked up Vanquish the other day for review. I have to say, my faith in the industry has been restored. It simply is brilliant. Outstanding. Outlandish.

I struggle to recall a game from this past decade that has been fueled by so much invention. Even the game's credit sequence -- yes, the credit sequence -- is new and exciting. By borrowing from the best, Platinum Games has come up with something fresh. It has the cover-centric fights, the slow-mo, the B-movie plot, but it nonetheless feels singularly different.

For a complete and utter package, this is my game of the year thus far. I've seen complaints on the web that it's too short -- four hours, they say. Rubbish, I say. I finished the game on Medium and it took me 7 and a half hours. That's not including the countless times I had to restart sections and the cutscenes I absorbed. In reality the completion time is closer to twelve hours. At any rate, I don't see how the length of a game can be a measure of its quality. I had more fun in my brief time with Vanquish than I had in the thirty hours with Red Dead Redemption. You don't blame a book for being short, or a movie for keeping it succinct? If short and sweet works for the subject matter at hand, then why should it be any longer?

I dare say that if Vanquish was twice the length it'd be half as good. What it has is bits of everything. Great boss battles, an amazing sense of scale and a wonderful location, I might add. Providence is an exceptional creation, cylindrical in shape. It shifts the traditional into the extraordinary. Gunfights play out in all manner of interesting ways. Boy, I could rave about this game for hours, days; it simply has IT ALL.

Needless to say, pick this up. I hope the game sells well -- if it doesn't, I blame the cover, which makes it look like an arcade Genesis title rather than the inventive, expertly crafted third-person shooter it is.

Honestly, the best third-person shooter I've played in years; in fact, make that the best game.

The death of the singleplayer shooter

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BFG

The death of the singleplayer shooter
10-21-2010

I've been harbouring a troublesome theory for a while now, but it wasn't until the recent release of Medal of Honour that I was convinced of its relevance. As a genre the first-person shooter, hereafter referred to as FPS, is perhaps the most popular in our industry. Its viewpoint is direct. Its potential for immersion is great. There's a concussive solidity in unloading a shotgun shell into the face of a combatant and seeing it through your avatar's eyes. Moreover, it's also a genre that's existed in one form or another for over a decade, from id's early forays to new, contemporary titles. Credit where credit is due, the genre has its undeniable strengths, but I can't escape the feeling that it's also in stagnation. Genuine innovation and creativity seems to be lacking. Scanning the pages of releases from the last two years, I struggle to pick out anything of note. What's to blame? I think it's the "Call of Duty effect".

Take my by the hand

It's said that Quentin Tarantino learnt his trade as a film director from his perch behind a desk at a rental store. He watched countless films, many of them bad, and identified what made them work; or, more importantly, what made them fail. He realized that despite each containing one decent scene, immersion can easily be broken. Corny dialogue, poor direction: these are fatal. But it's often the small mishaps that mar most. Unsubtle product placement and an ill-conceived plug. Or a crime scene investigator who deals with the laboratory work, undertakes police procedures, interrogates suspects and presumably does a bit of cleaning when the occasion arises (cough, CSI). When you're watching a movie or TV series and are acutely aware that it's a staged production, there's little escapism and fun to be had. And long-winded ramble aside, this does relate to the topic at hand. FPS games have long been noted for their immersion, but I'd argue they've lost the knack entirely.

Tarantino

Tarantino knows how to keep you immersed in his world...

It's not that the viewpoint fails. You can't get more immersive than playing as the eyes of your character, gun-in-hand. Recent tricks have also meant that the gun isn't always glued in place. Scripted moments often see you interact with objects in the world, whereby you see "your" hand open that waiting door. Far Cry 2 excels here. Sadly, developers have taken the scripted mantra to heart. These days, entire campaigns play out as pseudo-films where only minimal participation on the part of the player is required.

I was amazed by how restrictive Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was, for instance. For a game labelled an instant cla[s]sic, I found it deeply underwhelming. Thirty minutes in and I knew what the rest of the game would feel like: detached, uninvolved and, curiously, a bit boring too. Six hours later and these suspicions were confirmed. Infinity Ward took me on a trip across the world. Each level was different, flavoured with varied sights and sounds. But it was all artificial. The feel of the game remained the same. I blasted waves of enemies. I took a step forward and blasted more. Rinse and repeat. At times it felt more on-the-rails than Virtua Cop, which, to the latter's credit, doesn't harbour pretensions of grandeur.

During a moment of retrospection I sat back and wondered what all the fuss was about. I was, quite genuinely, nonplussed. Extensive promotion aside, why was Modern Warfare 2 praised by critics and players alike? I considered bribery of the press, but then there was still the appreciation of the game from the general public to contend with. I considered the possibility that I was "missing" it. But I absorbed every scripted moment; nay, I was forced to absorb it by the developers. It seems Infinity Ward was so desperate for you to appreciate their craftsmanship that, more often than not, they wrenched the control of the game from your grasp and did the work for you. "Watch this", they said. "And you can't miss this either!"

I didn't miss anything. And you know what? Sometimes I wished I had.

The replay value on offer is nil. Zilch. Nothing. Nadda. It's so utterly boring. Modern Warfare 2's story masquerades as a campaign. In reality, it's more like a slideshow. I know why, of course. I know the root of the problem, the reason it's so artificial, so scripted. It's not really a singleplayer game at all. These war zones I traversed under the guise of a story were intended for multi-play. And as an experience of all-out warfare against real opponents in a deathmatch arena, Modern Warfare 2 can't be faulted. It's fun. It's fast. It's frantic. All I ask is: what's happened to the singleplayer shooter?

From serial to series

On a whim, I decided to try Singularity. It was the work of Raven, who was responsible for many a memorable moment during my formative years in gaming. Soldier of Fortune's extensive gore and dismemberment left an impression on my younger, tender self. But years on I'm older and wholly more cynical, and Singularity's greatest boon is that it's mildly fun. There was a story somewhere in there too, but I can't actually tell you what it's about. Things happen. Stuff blows up. It's all very FPS-ish, and still very linear.

Don't get me wrong; linearity is the key to maintaining a nice, steady pace. But I'm sick of the restrictive nature of these games. What happened to artful level design? Every time I discover a side-room, I know its sole purpose is to provide you with extra ammo, or a bit of health, or maybe an upgrade. These playgrounds can rarely be used as opportunities for tactical play. Heck, you barely get an opportunity to flank someone. Arguably Crysis works better in this regard. Clearly it's a singleplayer game first and foremost. Plot aside, the levels are expansive and the enemy AI is smart. It's tense, rewarding and requires use of the cerebrum. Then there's Operation Flashpoint, which actually honours the principles of realistic warfare. Still, both these games were dwarfed in sales by Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Evidently multi-play is where it's at.

Modern Warfare 2

...whereas, Modern Warfare 2 is guilty of breaking your immersion with frequent scripted sequences.

Which is sad. I remember Half-Life 2 well. Released before Far Cry 2 had you open a door with your "own" hand, Gordon never drops his gun. And I never cared, nor did I even notice. Being able to interact with the world in such a seamless way had me convinced I was leading the fight against the Combine. Talking to Alyx, I was sure she was a real person, not merely a combination of sprites, textures and other graphical devilry.

Valve's magnum opus is also seamless in its construction. It's not simply a set of random missions cobbled together and given the headline, "campaign". There's a genuine sense of transition from one level to the next. The story flows. Were it on TV and broken up into different episodes, it would work like a serial. There's an overarching thread tying it all together. Games of the Call of Duty variety are more like a series. One week you're in Africa, the next you're in Brazil, and there's no explanation why. A bad series, then. This disconnect between missions means that, after twenty minutes, you've lost your grip on proceedings. And since you clearly only need to worry about unloading your gun into the face of a nameless enemy, you don't see the point in trying to fathom the events that unfold.

I'm not delusional enough to think that singleplayer shooters need a good narrative to work. Half-Life 2's story is B-movie at best, but you get the sense that there are cogs at work, that the world has a pulse. You realize you're just a pawn, and all the while you believe that elsewhere, the G-Man really is at large. Conversely, Modern Warfare 2 makes you feel like a pawn, but for all the wrong reasons. Squad mates pay you no attention. They're only interested in sticking to their predefined path. You could just as well drop the controller and finish the game all the same. Clearly Infinity Ward intends for these partners of warfare to be assumed by real humans.

Back in the day

I hate harking back to Half-Life 2. I'm not an aged crone, rocking in my chair and remembering the "good old days". I've still got a few decades before I'm a wrinkled, parched, greying shell of a man -- I promise. Yet I keep reminiscing.

The obvious conclusion is that no game since Half-Life 2 has made me feel the same way. That's not entirely true, though. Arriving on its heels and to considerably less fanfare, I was amazed by Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (the Xbox version was released some months before, but I only ever sampled the PC port). Intrinsically, it worked. There were restrictions, but they weren't artificial. You didn't feel as though you were being shepherded, nay, herded down the one and only path. In fact, in later levels the developers committed one of the biggest sins of gaming: they made you backtrack. All the same, I return to the game now knowing I will be refreshed. Its slow exposition brings you into the world. You're not foisted with weapons at every turn, and even when the camera cuts to a shot of Riddick in action, you don't lose your immersion.

Thus, I'd argue that immersion isn't tied in to the viewpoint, but the way the world reacts around you. Having characters to interact with helps greatly, but any game that settles for artificial restrictions – I don't mind the odd blind alleyway, just make it look natural – loses my favour. In Matt's recent review of Medal of Honour, he describes what I mean. "Invisible barriers still stand in your way to make sure you don't stray too far from the linear path." It's exactly this that wrenches me out of the action, reminds me that I'm playing a game and prompts me to drop the controller.

What's lacking, it seems, is spontaneity. There's nothing spontaneous about Call of Duty's (or, if you like, just about any other recent shooter) scripted moments. And though they're intended to impress, they don't happen during the action proper. Catching fleeting glimpses of the G-Man in Half-Life 2, on the other hand, feels different. It's a subtle inclusion on the part of Valve. You could just as easily miss him. But knowing that the developers are content for you to experience the game at your pace is comforting. Spotting a driver curse you as you sidle through traffic in Grand Theft Auto 4 brings a smile. But it's only funny because you could just as easily continue the story, unaware that the situation ever occurred. Infinity Ward could easily have been less paranoid, less babying, but then there'd be no game. Games of Modern Warfare's ilk are such shallow experiences that without the scripted moments, there'd be nothing to see. There is nothing going on besides what you're force-fed.

HL2: EP2 concept

Six years on, Half-Life 2 still represents the pinnacle of the genre in my eyes.

These artificial, shallow worlds have left me bored. A new FPS is no longer met with excitement, but a knowledge that there'll be plenty of shooting, a few upgrades and other cursory features that look good on the back of a box, but don't add anything to the experience. I miss the invention that hallmarked Half-Life, the genre tropes that Riddick defied. In recent memory, Bioshock impressed, but it wasn't a true FPS through and through.

What I really want is my gun to stay in my hand. I don't need to see "my" hand open the door. I also want my scripted moments to happen naturally. Developers need to stop force-feeding us. Gorging on endless linearity and narrow-minded design is never fun. And gluttony is bad, you know.

I'm not a jaded hack with a vendetta to settle. Online, Modern Warfare is great. But multi-play lacks the arc of a story. And even if the story isn't any good, there's always that sense of an aforementioned pulse. Forces are at work in good game worlds. Doing battle online is fun, sure, but it can't match the first time you step off the train into City 17 and realize that this painstakingly created city has been crafted for your benefit. Half-Life 2 is as much of a playground as any other (and arguably just as linear) but it masquerades itself as something more, and does so with aplomb, providing a form of escapism that lives with you long after it's completed.

Quite why Medal of Honour attempted to beat Call of Duty at its own game is beyond me. Perhaps the developers thought this was the surest way of achieving strong sales. But they've overlooked brand loyalty and Medal of Honour deserves to fail for its sheer stupidity. To usurp the plague that is the "Call of Duty effect", we need to start being treated with respect. It's not as if new tricks need to be learnt, either. Half-Life 2 proves that if there's a genuinely interesting premise at work, and a world that deserves to be sampled, it'll shine through in the game proper. Forgot a strong story – I'll read a book if I'm craving that; I merely want to feel a part of the action again, or I fear the singeplayer first-person shooter will be lost on me for good.

Mafia II Review

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Mafia 2

This medium is still in narrative infancy, but Mafia II goes a long to proving that it's not merely literature and film that can tell a tale, but videogames too.

Two things about Mafia II you can be absolutely sure. It's not Grand Theft Auto (GTA) in frilly 1950s frock, and it has fifty Playboy centerfolds to find: the best incentive for hunting down collectibles ever. Vito Scaletta takes centre stage in a story of bloodshed and the bonds of the mafia, a narrative that begins in the winter of 1945 and concludes in the summer of '51. This six year jump takes place midway through the game, and it allows the developers a perfect excuse for variety. While 1945 is snow-capped and wintry, the second half of the story takes place in a transformed world, replete with faster cars and a glow to the weather. It seems a fairly superficial difference and something that in most traditional sandbox games you wouldn't even notice. But the shift in seasons illustrates one key point about Mafia II: the developers control everything. This is not a game of exploration and freedom, but a tightly weaved narrative. What you see is not by accident. It is, in some respects, as far removed from traditional sandbox games as you can get.

The original Mafia was mistaken as a GTA clone when in reality it was a plot-driven game that planted you in the middle of a big city and then led you down a predefined path. The formula hasn't been changed in the sequel. While Empire Bay (New York City, one would presume) is large and capable of being explored, you gain nothing from doing so. There aren't side-quests to complete, and barring the Playboy centerfolds, there's nothing much on offer besides the main story. That's not to say you don't spend a great deal of time driving about the city, but it's always tied in to the main plot. Thus, the scope of the game, despite appearances, is limited. Is this a bad thing? No.

Mafia II was never intended as a pretender to the GTA crown. Just because there's a big city on hand doesn't mean it has to be crammed with nonessential oddities. Empire Bay acts as a playground for the story, rather than a playground where half-baked missions reside alongside pointless side-missions and activities you'll undertake once and then forget about. The crux of Mafia II then lies in the narrative, an engrossing tale that sees Vito rise from down-and-out Sicilian immigrant to a veritable member of the mafioisi, suit-clad with machine gun in hand. The cast is of the [clas]sic mobster variety. We have the main hero himself, who's been to war and knows how to handle a gun. Then there's Joe the longtime best friend, charming and good with the ladies. The characters all have a penchant for swearing and speak in gruff tones, but this makes them all the more likeable. The dialogue is harsh and uncompromising, but laced with witticisms.

For a game so heavy on story, good characterization is a must. As much as you drive around the city undertaking missions, you also watch numerous cutscenes. Were 2K Czech inept at such an art, the game would sink. But as it stands, the bits where you simply sit back and absorb the story are often the most enjoyable aspects of the experience. A poignant moment comes in the final third of the game as you desperately rush to save an old friend from an associate, and its moments like these that are brought to life by incredible voice-acting and lifelike looking characters. The cutscenes can also be paused which means that an unceremonious return to the real world does not mean you have to miss what's going on.

At risk of spoiling the story, it's safe to say that the game draws from the innumerable literature and celluloid covering the subject of the mafia. Vito doesn't simply shoot bad guys; he also sells off stolen cigarettes, makes deliveries and roughs people into paying cash. The fact that you're not always unloading a shotgun shell into someone's gut means that when moments of action do flare up, they're that much more effective. And of course, this is an action game through and through. Mafia II is best when it plants a gun in your hand, gives you cover and presents you with an obstacle course of bad guys to navigate.

Early on Vito has to make do with a simple pistol, but in the time-honored tradition, progress grants excess. Before long he's wielding bulky Tommy guns, shotguns and even Molotov cocktails. The AI is smart and uncompromising, making cover a must. You can't simply venture into the open and blast away with abandon. A shot or two is often fatal for Vito. It ensures that you have to be prudent in the heat of battle, making use of cover ala Gears of War. The cover system works well and is infused with small touches that really help. Taking shelter next to an ally, for instance, can often be problematic in other games. Your friend gets in your way and presents you from taking the shot. Yet, in Mafia II, as soon as you get behind a crate or car that a friend is already frequenting, he'll immediately leave and find cover elsewhere, ensuring that you can shoot freely. Enemies are smart too. They tend to hide away for an annoying stretch of time, but they do ensure that no victory feels easy, and that progress in Mafia II is rewarding and tense throughout.

It's not only firefights that take up your time. One chapter of the game centers solely on hand-to-hand combat. You concern yourself with three buttons: one for dodging, one for a fast punch and one for a harder, slower blow. By holding down the "A" key on the Xbox 360 version, you duck as soon as an enemy takes a swing, but it's in timing your own punch that's key. Be too aggressive and you open yourself up to retaliation. Like the firefights, prudence is key. Wait for an opening and strike seems to be the motif at work. Prudence extends itself elsewhere too, with Vito employing stealth in surprisingly fleshed out sections of sneaking. The game allows for silent takedowns and there's even the option of hiding the body. At times, these events do feel a bit too scripted, yet the variation on the traditional gunfight is welcome nonetheless.

Should Vito need a car, he can steal one using a simple lock-pick minigame. 2K Czech has spent a considerable amount of time on the vehicles, which is good considering the amount of time you'll spend driving. Ignore the speed limit and you'll run the risk of incurring the wrath of the law. You can settle your score with the cops by paying a fine, or, alternatively, evade capture. But chances are, if you're in the middle of the mission and have painstakingly reached the final stretch, you'll stick below the 40 MPH speed-limit. The cars become considerably faster in the second half of the game, but Ferrari aficionados will be disappointed. There's nothing post the '50s on offer – hardly a surprise considering the era the game is set in, though errors of anachronism in regards to the music and the occasional slip in dialogue (like Joe using a word that had no place in the 1950s) betrays the game's 21st century roots.

Still, mistakes aside, there's clearly been a lot of effort put into Mafia II's production. Visually the game shines. Rain slashes the roads, snow covers cars and as the game progresses, sun bathes the city in yellow splendor. Despite the limit placed on what you can do in Empire Bay, you always feel a part of the city. Pedestrians sidle along the sidewalk, cars honk if you stray into their path and the police keep a beady eye on proceedings. The audio is even better, with the game boasting some of the best voice-acting you'll hear in videogames today, while frenetic music accompanies Vito's more hairy moments, and soothing tunes courtesy of the radio aid in a leisurely drive home.

While traditional sandbox games are a jack of all trades and, ultimately, a master of none, Mafia II nails the art of driving, shooting, and even hand-to-hand combat and stealth. Yes, there could be more to do outside the main story, but you'll appreciate the attention paid to the heft of a shotgun blast, or the fun to be had in a good old fistfight, elements that might have gone half-baked had the developers focused more on subsidiary activities. Ultimately thought it's really Vito's story that sticks with you most. Everything about Mafia II seems geared towards telling a strong tale. In the main menu, you begin the game by selecting "The Story" and each new mission is entitled as a new "chapter". There are strong literary sentiments at work here and 2K Czech proves that strong characterization, brilliant dialogue and slick cutscenes are just the ingredients needed for a thrilling plot. This medium is still in narrative infancy, but Mafia II goes a long to proving that it's not merely literature and film that can tell a tale, but videogames too. Along with it, you get a damn fine game to boot.

9

The Uncanny Valley

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I first heard the term "uncanny valley" when I was interviewing Al Lowe in 2005. In response to why he was making the graphics of the now postponed Sam Suede cartoony, he said he wanted to avoid the uncanny valley, and proceeded to describe what exactly the term means.

As it turns out, the word has been around since the 1970s. Coined by Masahiro Mori, the Japanese robotocist noticed that the more his robots resembled humans, the more people responded positively, until it got to a point that his robots mirrored real humans too accurately and people were disgusted instead.

Heavy Rain - too realistic?

Heavy Rain certainly looks lifelike. So much so that we're prompted to nitpick what still isn't lifelike about it...


The concept of something being too realistic is an interesting one and not solely confined to the robot world either. As Al Lowe eluded five years ago, it's pertinent to videogames too, and given the day and age of technical opulence we live in the issue will soon have to be addressed. Some people have claimed we've already reached the breaking point where videogame technology can render visuals so lifelike that we're forced to work out whether it's real or not; they say we have overcome the stumbling block and can move on, but I disagree. Sure, FMV sequences can be incredibly realistic but the real issue comes when you have control of the game.

Thus, we are still a few years off from the point in which we struggle to decipher the difference between what is real and what is not, and are disquieted as a result, but perhaps a more pressing issue involving the uncanny valley is that of unrealism. Think about it. The more realistic something looks, the more we're able to identify what's unrealistic about it. The cartoony Mario doesn't make us think -- or look -- twice, but a character from Heavy Rain, which strives for realism, will prompt us to nitpick the details which still are inherently unreal.

Mario - avoids the uncanny valley

...on the other hand, Mario is depicted in such a cartoony way that we never stop to consider his resemblence to life as we know it.

Do developers want gamers to be analyzing and criticizing graphical faults that are still constrained by technology? Either way, it's unavoidable. Subconsciously we're continuously summing up why Forza's Audi R8 doesn't look quite right, admirable though the efforts are. Whether we acknowledge this observation or not, it's still sitting at the back of our minds. When we indulge in something obviously unrealistic, we're not drawing comparisons between the real and the unreal because the visuals simply don't allow for such a comparison.

We haven't yet reached the point where the lines are seriously blurred, but we're not far off either. Look at the strides made in ten years and apply that to 2020. It's scary to think of the visuals we'll bare witness to. I hazard videogames will look and feel very much more realistic. Not lifelike, but close. Whether this will cause us to be disturbed remains to be seen, but game designers would do well to remember that as a form of retreat we don't necessarily want the line to be too blurred. A videogame is inherently unrealistic and a simple form of retreat: this shouldn't be forgotten.

Do I want developers to stop striving for realism? No, I just want them to employ methods that retain that inherent videogame look and feel.

Read Dead Redemption

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I'm nearly halfway through Red Dead Redemption's story-mode, but for some reason, I can't get into it with the same eagerness as a GTA IV. I'm not sure if the sprawling, unpopulated landscape has something to do with it, because judged on its merits alone, it's surely one of the best game's I've ever played.

I did spend about three hours killing animals and skinning them for money. And there are many design elements that trump GTA IV completely. Being able to save on-the-fly (by way of a campsite) is also a nice idea, and Red Dead Redemption really does feel like a thought-out, well-planned game.

Perhaps I'll re-read Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, which might induce me to play the game more eagerly. As it stands though, it's a brilliant game with little to fault, but just not as engaging or absorbing as the Ballad of Gay Tony, which I completed recently.

Alan Wake Review - thoughts?

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Alan Wake

Much has been made of Alan Wake's protracted time in development. We first got a whiff of this psychological thriller back in 2005, but it was envisaged as a sandbox-st[y]le game then. Five years later and much has changed, the final product acting as a story-led, largely linear third-person action-adventure, with a heavy action slant. Though people have whined that the development time doesn't justify the end product, I personally found Alan Wake both an engaging and thrilling experience.

It's rare that a writer gets the spotlight in a videogame. More often that not you take the reins of a beefed-up soldier, but in Alan Wake, as the titular character, you're a writer of Stephen King pedigree and fame, more used to the keys of your typewriter than the trigger of a gun. As one character even alludes: 'he's wearing a tweed jacket for God's sake!' All of this changes when Alan, accompanied by his wife Alice, arrive at Bright Falls, a lush part of the American northwest. A slow start notwithstanding, it's not long before you're in possession of both a gun and a flashlight, and it's clear early on -- as it was in all the promotional material -- that light is the order of the day. Killing denizens of the dark is a two-part process, for it first requires the flashlight to burn away their 'darkness', and finally the services of a gun. The constant need to juggle between a gun and a flashlight heightens the tension, but unlike Resident Evil 5, you're never forced to grapple with the controls. Interestingly, the most effective weapon is not the standard shotgun, but a flare gun instead. Something which would have been relegated to a bit-part item in other games constitutes one of the most effective tools in your arsenal.

Elsewhere the gameplay also sparkles. The story, though overly cut-scene heavy at first, is an interesting horror tale that pulls you into the macabre, but there are enough light touches to keep it from feeling overly serious. Alan's agent, Barry, is a source of comic relief, and reminded me a bit of the bumbling Dennis Nedry from Jurrasic Park (though Barry is a good guy through and through). FBI agent Nightingale also provides some laughs, though perhaps not in the intended sense, for his endless use of author's names to describe Wake -- Hemingway and King, to name a few -- feels contrived at first, and utterly ridiculous later.

For a game heavy on the story, Alan Wake does have its share of mishaps in this regard. The writing, at times, is of the 'tell not show' school of thought, with some lines seeming obviously forced. Manuscript pages that litter the world -- and which form one of the many collectible items in the game -- are also over-written and a little flowery for contemporary tastes. Still, the obvious amount of effort put into the experience is commendable, and this is no more evident than in the presentation.

Bright Falls is an evocative, beautiful place, and heavily inspired by David Lynch's Twin Peaks. It's the perfect setting and though you'll spend a great deal of time in the forest, there are enough flashbacks and changes in scenery to keep things fresh. Graphically, it looks absolutely stellar and it's a small wonder that the Xbox 360 can run it at all, let alone at a solid, unwavering framerate. There's the odd ugly texture, but since much of the game is played in darkness, you won't be any the wiser. Key to the presentation, of course, is the lighting, and here Remedy falters not once. It makes a strong case for other light-focused games in the future, and the atmosphere is thick and unsettling, only serving to immerse you further into Alan's toils.

The game lasts about ten hours on Normal difficulty, longer if you stray off the main track and search for collectibles, and it's a good thing there are thermos flasks and manuscript pages to find, for the game is devoid of a multiplayer component. Gamers inclined towards online play first and foremost will doubtlessly be put off by this, but deathmatch aficionados were never the intended audience in the first place.

Alan Wake may have been in development for more than half a decade, but the result is a highly engaging -- and often tense -- third-person shooter. It might be true that it's a scaled down game from the one Remedy first envisioned, but there are still traces of its heritage to be found, from vehicular travel to the famous shots of the town itself, shots we've been seeing in demo clips for years, and which look beautiful to boot. And whether it took five years or six, ten years or eleven, the end product is still a polished, fantastic action game that shouldn't be missed.

9/10

Solitary Gaming

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Gaming - A Solitary Pursuit?

It's been a long hiatus since my last post. I haven't even gotten around to finishing my top ten list. Shameful, really. Worst of all, I've forgotten what the final three games are.

I think it went something like:

3) Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay
2) Mafia
1) Grim Fandango.

Anyhow, I was thinking about games the other day -- something that usually prompts me to write about them -- and struck upon something interesting: I generally prefer playing on my own. Now, to add some background to this post, I'm a sociable person. I like being around people and often find myself at a loose end when I'm on my own. I don't prefer my own company to other's.

Except when I'm playing games.

If these sporadic posts are anything to go by, I go through phases of game-playing. When I have a new, shiny title, I throw myself into it. I envelop myself in my own company. And the other day, I tried to work out why. Why is it that I'm so sociable, yet so anti-social when it comes to my Xbox 360? I positively dislike company when I'm in front of the TV, tongue lolling, my eyes straining, my mind blissfully clear of external worries.

It's all about escapism I think. I play games as a retreat. We all have ways of dealing with worries. I achieve my release normally through excessive drinking -- it's a university thing of course -- but that's done purely in a social environment. When it comes to games, I immerse myself in the events on-screen, and shudder to think of anyone distracting me from this immersion, breaking my concentration and enjoyment by probing me with silly banter, inane questions, or quizzical comments relating to the game.

I struggle to enjoy myself even playing side-by-side with someone. I dislike split-screen -- perhaps I'm a perfectionist -- but it's more than just that. I get my enjoyment from the solitary aspect of gaming. I stick to singleplayer campaigns, rarely venture online, and enjoy myself all the more for it. It's my slavish itch for a good story that needs scratching. Games that present a good narrative and a liberal dose of combat get my thumbs up.

And yet, in every other avenue of life, I need company. Am I alone on this (excuse the pun), or do you guys share my tendencies?

Agree, disagree, let me know.

My 4th Favorite Game Of All Time

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Half-Life 2 (PC, 2004)


This scene didn't actually appear in the final game, but the rest of Half-Life 2 certainly lived up to the hype.

Despite arriving well past its initial 2003 release date, Half-Life 2 made an earth-shattering impression. It saw the return of the silent, crowbar wielding figurehead of the resistance movement, an unwitting spearhead behind the people's liberation against Dr Breen's oppressive regime: Gordon Freeman.

Much had changed since Gordon's 1998 outing - the game sported a complete visual overhaul (not surprising, considering the six year gap) and with a revolutionary physics system, unforgettable water effects and a gravity defying "gravity" gun, Half-Life 2's new campaign was as timeless as ever.

The seamless blend of chapters helped push home the sentiment of a continuous, freewheeling story taking place over a dozen or so hours, while boat rides and flimsy buggies transported Gordon to his next port of call. Revamped enemy AI helped keep the gunfights as challenging as the original.

Half-Life 2 is still as impressive as it was four years ago. It's the definitive shooting experience with impeccable pacing. While the Steam authentication system is a mild blemish, Half-Life 2 still warrants fourth place.