Review: Armada by Ernest Cline

[Note: I received an advance reader edition of this book]

In the vernacular of professional wrestling, there is the concept of the “cheap pop”. A cheap pop is when the face or “good guy” character gets an easy reaction from the crowd for not doing all that much. Often, this is done by name-dropping the city where they are currently performing. When the wrestler says something like “Nothing is going to make me happier than beating you up here in the great city of Philadelphia!” the Philadelphia crowd goes nuts. The fans get their ego stroked a bit because an object of their esteem is saying something nice about their city and by extension, something nice about them, which makes them feel good. It is a “pop” in that it is a favorable crowd reaction, but it is “cheap” in that the performer didn’t really have to do anything to earn it.

Cheap pops come in many forms. Many wrestlers are known to have catch phrases that the crowd can say along with the performer which makes them feel like a part of the show: “If you smell what the Rock is cooking”, “Whatcha gonna do when Hulkamania runs wild on you?” “That’s the bottom line because Stone Cold `said so”. The performer doesn’t have to do anything creative to get the reaction, it is just something that serves as a means to bring the crowd into the experience without doing something difficult and dangerous like actually performing or telling a story.

Ernest Cline’s Armada is a follow-up to his 2011 nostalgia-laced Willy Wonka meets It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World-esque mystery adventure Ready Player One. Ready Player One had flaws but it was largely enjoyable based on the pacing and unraveling mystery of the story.

In Armada, Cline name drops The Last Starfighter and Ender’s Game early to give a wink and a nod to the audience that he knows he is just largely rehashing old ground, but he’s in on the joke and so are you now as well. Armada plods along largely content with fulfilling the promise on the book jacket. The first act sticks around for far too long. If Lightman would just read the damn book jacket, he could be clued in on the plot before the midpoint of the book. If you are looking for a story with subtext and mystery, as was at least mildly present in Ready Player One, you will be disappointed. There is one major twist that happens three-quarters of the way through the book, but it is heavily foreshadowed and so the reader just kind of shrugs and continues with the TitanFall fan-fiction.

Unfortunately, it seems Cline puts more work into connecting with the reader via cheap pops than he does by connecting with the reader through engaging plot or characters that have to overcome any kind of adversity or internal conflict.

Armada is laden with cheap pops. I refuse to count, but I would estimate that there is at least one pop-culture reference per page. Some are subtle; others not so much. There is nothing wrong with references and nostalgia if it furthers some other goal in the story, but in Armada (and to a lesser extent Ready Player One), it serves only as an attempt for the author to build a character or scene without any real character- or world-building.

I know plenty of folks who speak in the nerd lingo, but no one drops constant references to external things in such a forced way like the characters in this book. While reading, I was reminded of this Hawaii Five-O scene with horribly obvious product placement. However, Cline isn’t getting paid by his reference antecedents in the book. He just does it to prove nerd gravitas. That’s with the best intentions applied, of course. With the worst intentions, he provides this non-stop pop culture nonsense to distract from a vacuous, already done-before story with evenly spaced dopamine drip drip drips from things the readers remember and love. “Oh hey, He’s listening to Rush’s Moving Pictures album? I loved that!”

It may seem pedantic to rail on the use of pop culture references, but to me it devalues what makes the references powerful in the first place. Leeroy Jenkins was a funny web video from the mid-2000s. I can still go back, watch it, and laugh. But a reference to Leeroy Jenkins provides nothing new except a reminder that something else was fun and good. Unless the thing making the reference has something new to add, then it just becomes like a recursive Xerox copy, getting more and more faded with each iteration. After a while, you are left with “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” that is so overused that the marrow has long been sucked dry from the bone and you never want to see or hear about it ever again. By the way, there’s an All Your Base reference on Page 89.

At the end of the day, Armada is inoffensive but largely a waste of time, much like a good deal of the pop culture it lovingly cuddles up to.

Review: Darkest Dungeon

In many role-playing games (although I much prefer the genre title “dungeon crawlers” due to no actual role-playing happening in most of these games), the player chooses a number of characters to join his or her party. Then he or she goes out and levels these chosen characters up to level awesome and everyone who stayed home remains level noob. Every once in a while a contrived story event or a desire to switch things up will cause the player to dip into the reserves (oh no, you can’t use Aeris anymore), but often you just get the characters you start with, whether that was a good initial choice or not.

What attracted me to Darkest Dungeon was that it eschewed a few of the standard tropes of indie procedural dungeon crawlers. One of the unique mechanics is that characters get stressed out when having to deal with monsters, when injuries to party members happen, even when walking around in darkness. If a character gets too stressed out, he or she develops some sort of mental or personality defect.

After each dungeon trip, instead of zipping to an inn to heal up and repeat, characters need time to process what they’ve been though. Characters do this in different ways: some pray, some self-flagellate, some turn to booze or gambling. But these methods of mental healing take time and so the player must dip into reserves for the next trip. This is a great example of a mechanic supporting a unique dynamic. Many games have had switching out characters or permanent injuries before, but few have made it a part of the core game loop to keep the character choice interesting.

Sometimes these personality effects are mild. I have seen characters that are paranoid and will refuse to be healed by other party members, characters that are kleptomaniacs and will take treasure for themselves instead of the party, and characters that will only go to brothels to heal when going back to town, leaving that option unavailable for other characters. While the characters are randomly generated and every character of a given class looks alike, these quirks and foibles end up being meaningful. I have a healer that I just don’t take out unless he is the only option because his stress levels build too quickly in the environment I’m exploring.

There are other attractive differences. Combat is based on one-dimensional positioning. Your party lines up in single-file 4 deep and enemies can line-up single-file 4 deep. Some attacks only work if you are in positions 1 or 2. Rarer attacks hit the back characters, so that’s a smart place to keep weaker characters. However some attacks affect the order of your characters, pushing your warrior to the back line or your priest to the front. Then you must decide whether it is worth it to spend turns rearranging or make due with what you have.

Since one of the main mechanics is the party’s torchlight levels, most of the game is played in washed-out shadows. The palette of burnt orange and browns gets tiring. The narrator should be annoying when he repeats lines, but the delivery and the awareness of game situation make it less irritating.

The UI is a bit confusing in a number of places. The map window should know to focus in the direction of unexplored rooms, but for some reason you have to use your right mouse button and drag to manually move the map around. There’s no way to navigate to new hallways from existing rooms without using the map widget, despite being able to exit through doors in the hallways. Some menus have two options and the coloring makes it unclear which is the selected and which is the unselected option. The game shows you a lot of data, but doesn’t prepare the player to receive it as information. It’s clearly a game that was developed by a small group who understood it and tested with a small early access group that watched it grow because some of the mechanics are entirely inscrutable without referring to a wiki.

For example, I had played for three hours before knowing that I could heal traits in the sanitarium. Obviously, the text in the UI told me I could. However, when I dragged a character in, I received a list of traits in yellow text. When in the dungeon though, yellow traits are positive and red traits are negative. I did not realize that my negative traits were mixed in and could be selected by clicking on them as they looked like static text referring to positive traits. There are many small usability nightmares haunting this game.

As you earn money, you unlock abilities of the town to heal and upgrade your poor adventurers. This is a straightforward gameplay hook. However, a few hours in, I felt that I had seen everything there was to see. The power of your group scales very slowly. Items earned tend to be balanced such that they all involve tradeoffs, increasing one stat while decreasing another. This is fine in a multiplayer setting, but I do not feel much more powerful at level 4 than I did at level 1.

Dungeons can end up being exercises in long backtracking sequences as there is no way to jump to completed areas, especially in large branching dungeons where the goal is to explore 90% of the dungeon’s rooms.

In retrospect, I seem to be complaining quite a bit, however I quite enjoyed Darkest Dungeon for about six hours of total gameplay. If you really enjoy the dungeon crawling genre, you will likely get a lot more playtime out of it. It takes some big risks in a number of places. In some aspects, it whiffs embarrassingly. In others, it knocks it out of the park. I think the attention to character choice dynamics is particularly admirable. It is a game worth playing.

Review: PARTICLE MACE

I have what I consider to be a lot of Steam games. For some of them I’m not entirely sure where they came from. I could have bought a bundle for one game and it tagged along. I could have had it pushed to me from IGF, but since judging is over, I cannot check. Or maybe I bought it and just forgot.

PARTICLE MACE (all caps) is one of those games. I saw it sitting there in my library untouched and due to the penumbra in my heavenly rotation of responsibilities had an hour or two to myself to try something without the taint of preconceived reasoning for why it was in my library in the first place.

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PARTICLE MACE uses the simple Geometry Wars artistic styling, which is appropriate, since much of it’s play aesthetics feels cribbed from that title. Yet it cribs from the bits of Geometry Wars that are not themselves cribbed from Robotron 2084. In Particle Mace (no more caps, it tires me), there is no shooting.  Instead, your ship drags around the titular particles, which are your only defense against invading asteroids and creeps. Thus, the game plays much like the Pacifism modes in Geometry Wars at a very base level. Because of how the particles trail around the spaceship, a common dynamic is to try to fly in circles to get the mace to swirl around in a violent circular pattern. This makes the game similar in some way to Michael Brough’s recent game Helix, although since I am playing on PC, it doesn’t suffer from the finger occlusion problem that made Helix a very difficult go for me. Particle Mace is also out on iOS, and I can see it suffering from a similar problem there, but I haven’t played it there so take it as you will.

Sometimes your body tells you first whether a game is right for you instead of a rote spreadsheet-like mental calculus. As I played, my tongue slightly poked out of between my lips, my breath coming and going only when gameplay allowed the spare brain space for the luxury. I haven’t felt this sense of flow in an action game since Super Hexagon. Particle Mace shares the <60 second core loop* of Terry Cavanaugh’s game, yet I feel Particle Mace is actually able to be completed by non-cybernetic players.

I have spent most of my time playing the “Mission” game type, and it is a perfect framing for the main game mechanics. Players are given three tasks to do within the game world based on destroying specific units, traveling to specific locations, or avoiding death in certain ways. This would be a standard implementation of a modular achievement system if the goals didn’t conspire with each other to create unique scenarios. For instance, I simultaneously received a task that kept me within a tiny space along with a task to not destroy asteroids. The tiny space quest suggests a dynamic of frantically bouncing around your allotted space, but the task which forbids the destruction of asteroids means that zipping around will likely cause your mace to whack into the desultory asteroids. Since the tasks constantly cycle out upon completion, you are often reexamining your strategy instead of just frantically trying to stay alive. The normal “arcade” mode feels aimless in comparison.

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One can certainly ignore two of the tasks at any time and focus on one of the three, but that feels like it eschews the random beauty of pairing the tasks together, almost like a childhood dare: “I bet you can’t eat three pancakes while balancing on one foot.” Either task is simple but together they become silly and fun.

Meeting certain criteria unlock new ships and other bric-a-brac, but I’m not far enough yet for that to be much of an incentive. The credits are a playable level which, had I been involved in the making of this, would have pleased me as there is actually a reason to go into the credits screen.

There are additionally menu listings for a co-op arcade mode and a death match. Both use controllers and require two folks in front of the screen, so I have not been able to try either. I am imagining death match to be a lot like ROCKETSROCKETSROCKETS, another quick-cycle game that requires controllers and feels compelled to scream its title at the players. I have no evidence from which to make that judgment.

If you have played and enjoyed any of the games I’ve name-checked above, you will likely have a blast(as I did) with Particle Mace. It’s on Steam, itch.io, and Humble. And iOS, but I’ve got unfounded concerns there.

* The expansive stats screen tells me my average life is actually 26 seconds.

7 Grand Steps

Enthusiasts of the construction and craft of games perennially seem to be stuck between celebrating the successes of titles that are popular and powerful commercial mass-market experiences and the tension that really only the “indie” microcosm has any sort of interactive simulation that carries any actual meaning that is transferable to the lives of the player. As far as I can tell, this happens for two reasons. The first is media envy. Some game makers want their works to be seen as capital I important and the media that does that well: books, cinema, songwriting, etc., seem to do that by actually being about something and trying to better the consumer’s life in some minute way. The second reason that we crave titles with meaning is the same reason we crave meaning from those other aforementioned media: it makes our lives better, deeper, and more fulfilled.

Of course, the discussion of how and why we derive pleasure and meaning from media is complicated and beyond the scope of what I want to discuss here. My point in bringing it up is to frame that we seem to take a barbell approach to games: either our successful games are completely nihilistic (Halo, League of Legends, God of War) or they are highly directed to be about a message (Papers Please, Gone Home, Depression Quest). The middle ground provides difficult territory and seems to create dissonance such as the hamfisted shoehorning of charged imagery into Bioshock Infinite or the middle-school doodling of Metal Gear Solid 4. We seem to react strongly not to a message or the lack of one, but to the expectations of message. In the case of where the mechanics suggest a message while the narrative suggests a different message, Clint Hocking called this ludonarrative dissonance. I think there is something to be said about another type of dissonance, where the mechanics create a type of message that is dissonant with expectations. Sometimes messing with expectations can be good (see The Stanley Parable or to a lesser extent Train, or even the recent comedy movie The World’s End), but often the practice just feels incomplete or incorrect.

7 Grand Steps, Step One: What Ancients Begat is a little independent game with an insufferably long title (so I will henceforth call it 7GS) that I picked up recently on Steam. It was nominated for an award at a recent Indiecade, but I had not known it made the trip to Steam until it popped up on a flash sale. For all intents and purposes, it looks like a Euro-style board game. I’m quite fond of Euro-style board games. They tend to have a depth and thoughtfulness to systems that I find fulfilling to play. 7GS even has a passing resemblance to the Euro game T’Zolkin as they both feature large moving wheels.

In 7GS, you play a lineage of ancient individuals who are attempting to better themselves generation after generation. They do this by cultivating tokens that represent resources and spending them to move their pawns away from the ever encroaching crocodiles. Tokens are mainly cultivated by having sex (complete with inappropriate tribal rhythm sound effects) with either your married partner or other AI players that are represented by creepy silhouettes. Eventually, you will “begat” a child or half-dozen. The children then have to be “fed” tokens which will increase their understanding of the various resources so that when they come of age that they can, in turn, earn more tokens. Additionally, you must attempt to land on beads that are strewn about the game board in order to make discoveries that either change the resources on the board or upgrade your family to a higher social class on the wheel. At a high enough level, you will play an unrelated Lemonade Stand game that manages the resources of your people.

The dynamics that this system creates leave a lot of odd messages to be absorbed by the player. First, additional children beyond the eldest are at best unnecessary. Sometimes kids happen (because whoops), but there is no mechanical reason to ever feed them tokens. You will only carry one child into the next generation, so it makes sense to only use your resources on the eldest as they will have the most time to develop skills. There will be messages generated about so-and-so’s jealousy, but nothing ever seems to become of it. There is no penalty for having a massive family because you never have to actually spend resources on them. Spend resources on advancing yourself or preparing your eldest kid. So have a bunch of kids or not. Who cares? They don’t matter. Is that the intended message?

Second is the meaninglessness of the tiers. I spent a few hours and a few generations climbing up from digging in the muck to leading a civilization. Yet the only benefit I seemed to have gained from doing so is additional work in the form of the civilization management slider game. One can yield bonus tokens by being a corrupt leader, but the game’s messaging seems to suggest not doing so as yields lower with higher corruption levels. It’s the one actual tradeoff that was evident in the game, yet it carried no weight as the point of being an excellent civic leader was unclear. It suggested that the right path was to do whatever the hell you wanted as leader because you will outlive any repercussions. Is that the intended message?

Finally was the message of mechanical toil. After leveling up out of the Copper age, I entered the Bronze age which seemed to great me with different icons, yet the same grinding tasks. What is the benefit of spending all of your hero points to escape an age? I don’t know. There are hints to a problem of an age, yet I played for a few hours without seeing any payoff. It seems like all the work in the game is pointless. Is that the intended message?

This brings me back to my original comment on dissonance. What bugs me is that I think this game has a lot of potential. Choosing which tokens to spend to move your pawns into appropriate positions is a fun subgoal. It’s a “core loop” that works very well (to use the industry parlance) surrounded by systems that both fail to provide meaningful ludic consequence and simultaneously provide odd semiotic impact. The idea of crafting generations towards one overarching goal has loads of promise (see also Rogue Legacy, Hero Generations) as it hasn’t been popularized in this sort of odd board game/RPG hybrid.

Part of what is attractive about board games is the abstraction of decision-making into incredibly discrete moments and resources. By focusing on just the interactions of systems with decision makers, board games have the opportunity to craft very salient moments of meaningful decision-making whereas continuous simulations like many real-time video games hide their meaningful moments in loops of dominated or rote task completion. There is room for digital games that create the same density of meaning as the best board games. And often they look like board games. An example that comes to mind is Introversion’s Defcon. But when the decision making is trite, dominated, or is filled with odd connotation, it seems to this player like a wholly missed opportunity. If 7GS wants to be a Euro-style board game, it needs to have more interesting and impactful decision-making. If 7GS wants to be a game about life in ancient times, the mechanics need to have relevance to that theme.

7GS is interesting and worth playing, but the next six steps need to support more weight.

Steam Cleaning: Orcs Must Die

Steam Cleaning n. 1. The futile attempt to play all the games you’ve bought on Steam during sales, bundles and promotions.

I don’t like Tower Defense games. Like everyone else, I played Desktop Tower Defense a few years back until I got bored and then I called it a genre. My main problem with it is the passivity of the actual game-time. The bulk of the important decisions are made before the action and then during action, it is just triage. Tower Defense reminds me a lot of a less interesting version of The Incredible Machine games, where one sets-up and then hits play and watches him or herself win or lose. The difference being with the Machine games that there were multiple dimensions to deal with: gravity, flammability, wind, etc whereas many Tower Defense games deal with just Put Damage Here.

Orcs Must Die is different. It has the pre-game component of Tower Defense, but the action is done in third-person shooter style and is largely dependent on your skill in that regard. Interesting decisions happen in the pre-game AND during game action. While it is still in the realm of Put Damage Here like most Tower Defense, the added constraint of having to ferry your warmage around to deal with situations adds a level of complexity that is sorely needed. Additionally, the art/animation/sound is slick and really adds to the experience. I’m starting to tire a bit of games using Captain Hammer-esque protagonists, but in this case it works.

The gold standard of my enjoyment of a game is if I will go back and replay levels and I did this in spades. I have only the final (*^&%$*&^ impossible!) level to complete, so I’m going back and trying to ace the previous levels. Ignore any pseudo-intellectual normative “should I like this?” internal dialogue and use this as the metric and see what results you get.

Making of Prince of Persia

I’ve been reading Jordan Mechner’s The Making of Prince of Persia which is selections from his journal in the period from 1985-1993. It’s fascinating in a way that I don’t think it would be if the method of delivery was a retrospective or biography. His entries are deeply personal as fits the journal method. He names names of people he feels are incompetent or standing in his way. He has a task to do; he wants to make the greatest game of all time and he gets frustrated when people aren’t on the same page as him.

But what really stood out to me in the journals is his single-mindedness that this was just a step to becoming a filmmaker.  What Jordan will always be known for is Prince of Persia, yet so many of the entries are about wanted to be done with it so he can move onto films. Perhaps it is because he grew up in a time before video games were something you could be respected for, yet for most of the time that the journal covers he cannot see that he is on the top of the world with true creative freedom and control and mastery over an area of creative expression! The grass is always greener. I was literally frustrated when I was reading the period just after POP released and Jordan became a gopher for a student film and was nothing but excited about it. He went from the very top of one industry to the very bottom of another. I can’t criticize him for following his dreams, but I also cannot help but be sad for what was left on the table. I guess it is part of a great dramatic arc that you want to yell and scream at the main character.

There’s tons of fascinating stuff in here, especially if you’ve been a professional game designer. It’s amazing in this day and age of the willy-nilly aspect of just throwing things into a game without documentation or process or just taking six months off because you feel like it. Of course, it is also unreasonable in this day and age to actually expect to own anything you make AND get paid for it.

It is inspiring in a number of different ways. One, it makes me wish I’d kept a true personal journal during my EA and Gameloft days. Two, it reminds me that even the names in the industry face the same insecurities and setbacks.

Boo

I haven’t written a review in a while, so I thought maybe I’d give my impressions of F.3.A.R or Fathirar or what henceforth I will call Fear 3.

For a game with an aesthetic response right there in the title, it does little to evoke fear. Day 1 Studios tries hard and I want to gently pat them on the head and say “Good effort” but there seems to be a clear delineation between “scary parts” and “shooty parts”. The “scary parts” are marked by a lack of enemies and overall creepier music. But once you realize there is no danger in the “scary parts”, then it becomes like a tame theme park haunted house. You walk around and admire the workmanship and cleverness of the designers.

But good survival horror (if that’s even the genre they look to nudge into) doesn’t give you a chance to breathe and enjoy the scenery. Or if they do, it’s only to lower your guard for when they choose to shock you in a “safe” area. About three quarters of the way through the game, they seem to start to realize this and they start throwing enemies at you in a way where you can’t camp behind cover and methodically advance. I was excited by this, but the rails came off when I realized the AI of the enemies was a bit too stupid to provide for any interesting encounters–the monsters bite at your ankles mostly so you just unload shotgun round after round at them until they go away or you die. Playtesting must have revealed that they had no clue how to balance this thing as there is a difficulty slider on the respawn screen so you can nudge it to suit your own level of flow.

I probably wouldn’t have pushed myself through the entire campaign but for periodic surfacing of some truly great tactical set pieces. About once per mission there appears an encounter where you truly have to use the environment and the weapons at your disposal cleverly to progress rather than either Ramboing or playing cover tag.

If these moments happened more often, my blood would have been pumping. Regretfully, it seems like a rogues gallery of early 00s bad design and technical decisions. Enemies will pop in from nowhere. Doors lock behind you constantly to load further parts of the level (I just blew up a helicopter with this surface-to-air missile, yet I can’t open this door that just automatically closed behind me?). Invisible walls block progress where you aren’t “allowed” to go yet. Enemies clip through closed doors. Scripted events trigger too early meaning you don’t actually get to see the helicopter crash or the monster come through. Even enemies that are invincible because they are part of scripted events and can’t be killed until you walk past the line that triggers the event.

Inexplicably, these bugs and mistakes are paired next to excellent looking levels with masterful indirect control. You almost always know which way to go and it is usually because of a well-placed light or other non-obvious marker. Of course, a lot of the cool-looking things were in Half-Life 2, seven years ago but games can’t all be Half-Life 2.

You’ll get sick of the same monsters appearing over and over again by game’s end. One of the best enemies is some sort of Dr. Manhattan-esque blue guy who can create portals and walk through walls. These guys can set up some pretty good moments, but they don’t go far enough. In fights with them, you should always be vulnerable next to walls as they can just teleport behind you and grab you. This would make being out in the open the safest place, a direct reversal from the dynamics set up in the rest of the game.

The story is pretty nonsensical, but I’ll admit I didn’t play the first two iterations. For some reason, they stick with the silent protagonist (nee Gordon Freeman) but they place him in cutscenes where it would be natural for him to offer some sort of response. Even a nod or a grunt. Instead, he looks stone faced at whoever is talking to him. I guess I shouldn’t ask for much when the character doesn’t even have a real name. The game hints on a theme of mistakes and favorite sons but really doesn’t develop on either. One mechanic at the end of the game takes it into consideration as which brother you played throughout the game, but since they don’t really tell you that, you will probably have the Point Man ending.

There’s an exploitative points system that gets you to do stupid things like hiding in cover when no one is around to gain points. When you complete levels you unlock the ability to play through the game as the evil brother Fettel who can possess enemies and make them fight each other. This is much more interesting than silent commando protagonist! But since it is just an unlock option, few will play that way. Why not have made Fettel levels and Point Man levels where you can set up interesting pieces with your possession abilities? I almost wrote something about Fettel’s voice acting being almost as bad as Psycho Mantis from Metal Gear Solid, but looking at his biography it turns out he was Vulcan Raven in that series, so I understand perfectly.

The multiplayer shows signs of being compelling, eschewing the normal deathmatch/ctf types for some objectives that are a little more interesting. I didn’t dive too deep into it, but there were some mechanics I really liked in there. One mode has you possessing NPC enemy players and battling NPCs possessed by other real players. That’s clever. One mode has you running from an ever encroaching wall of badness, which strangely reminded me of a minigame from Fuzion Frenzy. Something tells me co-op would be a blast, but I’m so tired of the game after going through the single player. If the game was primarily about Fettel or provided a separate co-op campaign, you’d see it jump a few points in my book.

Overall though, it is a game about guns and little else. If you are tired of gun games like I have been lately, then this won’t do anything to change your view of the hollowness of gun games. If it was released in the crowded Christmas season, it would have been instantly forgotten. Luckily WB Games is smarter than that. There are plenty of things to like, but they are surrounded by frustrating same-y filler. Unless you are willing to forgive a lot of sins, you will be more distracted by FEAR 3 than drawn into its world.

Is this from Uncharted 2 or Fear 3 or Call of Duty 6?

Oh! I almost forgot! There is a level that takes place completely within a near future Costco!

Bully Theft Redemption Noire First Impressions

I have some serious heavy-duty gripes about LA Noire but it does a bunch of things right.

My favorite feature of all is that you can hold down Y (or Triangle) near your car to get your partner to instantly drive you to the next location instead of lumbering around town like a drunk teenager wrecking into every stop light in a ten block radius. If any dialogue was to happen during the drive, it happens before the fade-to-black. It fixes the primary problem of many open world games: that getting from point A to point B is really not all that fun. And when point-A-to-point-B is the majority of the time spent in the game, that discourages players from completing the bits that you spent millions of dollars on: the missions and set-pieces. Less than eight percent of players finished Red Dead Redemption. In movies or TV when your protagonist needs to go somewhere, we don’t see him or her get into a car, navigate the freeways, signal legally and pull into a valid parking spot. Because it is boring and unnecessary. We spend all of this time investing in raising the emotional stakes of our characters and then let that tension slack so that we can navigate a “real world”. A game that I found incredibly interesting and innovative, Far Cry 2, I never finished because I was tired of driving through jungles and savannas getting randomly assaulted.

The primary frustration I have with the game is the linearity of conversation. (This may seem ironic to some, since I just advocated what some may call linearizing travel, but I would argue that it is already linear since there are no meaningful changes that happen between point A and B – it is false freedom.) While melodramatic and a bit silly, the Ace Attorney games provided pretty interesting mechanics for searching crime scenes and interacting with witnesses/suspects. Often the dialogue would take the shape of a hub. You can take a line of questioning and if things go sour, you can loop back to where you started and take another line of questioning. Sometimes this would lead to repeating dialogue, but there was a sense from a metagame perspective that if you could suss out orders and prerequisites, that you could complete the designed interaction.

LA Noire takes a wholly linear approach to questioning. You get one shot at each prompt to answer Truth-Doubt-Lie. Only one of the pieces of evidence works for each lie even though evidence may lead to similar trains of thought. And when you “doubt”, you can not later go back and accuse the witness of lying. It makes little sense. You get one opportunity and that’s that. If you have suspicions, you better use the right evidence or forever hold your peace. Is it meant to be replayed? Is that the point?

 

Dialogue Shape: Ace Attorney vs. LA Noire

I’m also fully convinced that whatever genre Rockstar tries in the future, they will still use the same minimap.