Monday, April 30, 2012

The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition - The Good, the Bad and the Kayran.

For my fans out there, you probably know that I've been rather tardy on updating in the last 4 months. Well, don't fret because I have a brand new review of the Witcher 2 for the 360 in all of its gothic glory. For those long time readers you might be familiar with my original review of the first Witcher game on the PC and how I very much enjoyed the story and interface of the game, but considered it to be best for those old school RPG fans. Since my last post I have also played and beaten the Witcher 2 on the PC, and well as the version on the 360. I got a chance to do a side by side comparison of both in order to see how each handles with the different control schemes and hardware profiles. In this review however, I will limit myself only to the 360 version and how well it plays.


You are Geralt of Rivia. Monster slayer, mercenary, wanderer, hunter - a Witcher. You slay the creatures that give men cold sweats and are told about only in whispers to scare children at night. You take no sides except for your own, kill the creatures that normal men would run from in terror from and prevent these creatures from hunting the innocent; for a price of course. When you are blamed for the assassination of the King of Temeria you have only one option: escape from your cell on the eve of your execution and find a way to clear your name. For the man you hunt is as skilled and as deadly of a warrior as you; for he too is a Witcher.


The saga of Geralt of Rivia actually started off as a book series out of Poland written by Andrzej Sapkowski. It featured a dark, brutal fantasy world where humans put the other races into ghettos and sorcerers play chess with the lives of unsuspecting pawns. The same level of gritty detail has been brought to the game in both the story and in the visuals as well. Towns and cities that you travel to have an old, used feel to them. They seem as if they have both been occupied for centuries, but basic repairs have been neglected. No small detail is missed; such as ravens pecking at the bodies of recently hung criminals, fishermen going about their daily work, and soldiers patrolling areas where the non-human resistance has been seen. Characters react to Geralt with varied levels from respect to distain since many see Witchers as being just as monstrous as the creatures that they slay. Creatures and enemies will not just dance around you and attack one by one; if you turn your back on them they will swarm and overwhelm you very quickly. Combat itself requires the player to learn the fine balance of swordsmanship, magic, traps, and thrown weapons such as bombs or knives. Focusing on just the sword will not be penalized, but learning how to use all of Geralt’s abilities, including drinking potions before a battle can turn him into an unstoppable weapon.

Story wise the game allows you huge freedom of choice on how you can proceed with character encounters. For example you may choose to bribe a guard who will not let you pass, intimidate him with threats, persuade him with rational logic, charm him with your magical signs, or just outright kill him. The plot of the game follows this same style as well and gives the game no less than sixteen endings based on the choices you have Geralt make throughout his journey. Most of these choices are morally vague, with there being no 'good' or 'evil' choices to decide between. Many involve the player deciding which is the lesser evil to them, and can be as subtle as choosing between a non-human hating commando or a renegade elf who actively murders humans. Both of these choices are not as cut and dry as they may seem, each character has a reason for their bias that rationalizes but does not justify their discrimination. These choices also have long running effects and can dramatically change the outcome of the story in dozens of ways that the player may not expect. The world isn't the pretty one of Tolkien where elves are these lofty beautiful creatures and ignore the world of men. A resistance of elves and dwarves fight against the humans for the crimes men have committed against their races, but at the same time this resistance kills innocents out their blind hatred of humanity.

In game controls translates very well to the game pad from the keyboard and mouse. In fact I think it works better on this interface because combat is fast and kinetic; going from swordplay one second, to casting a spell, rolling to avoid an enemy, and finally blocking the attack so Geralt can parry then riposte the attack in a flurry on strikes. The button control is simple enough, you have a fast attack, a strong attack, a button for magic, one to block, one to roll away, and a quick menu you can bring up to swap spells or thrown weapons/traps. On a side note, after playing the Witcher 2 on PC and again on the 360, I find that the normal difficulty level on the PC feels harder than that of the 360. This could be as simple as the game controls are much tighter on the 360 gamepad, or that they may have knocked the difficulty down a tad. Either way on the 360 the combat felt satisfying, and watching Geralt swing his swords is a visual marvel.

Underneath all of the action and intrigue there is a very classic RPG character progression system where you earn experience from completing quests that can then be used to upgrade your skills in the sword, magic or alchemy. Along with this you can upgrade your swords or armor with stat enhancements, craft potions from ingredients that you collect from local plants or slain monsters. You also can have local smiths craft bombs, traps, weapons or armor for you.

The visual style of the game is what makes it stand out from other western RPG's, such as Dragon Age, or even Kingdom of Amalur. You regularly come across characters who are scarred from years, or even centuries of fighting. Both the armor and regular clothing of characters are both unique, and at the same time inspired from classic sources. Knights in full armor are designed not from the pretty tournament armor of the film Camelot, but more of functional German gothic armors of the 15th century. The clothing of characters such as peasants reflect their poor status, but not as simple as just ratty clothing and rags. Many wear items that would be suited to their profession or the environment where they live and give a feeling that you could step into the world and smell their need for a really long bath. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the nobles, sorceresses, and kings that wear these opulent and equally ridiculous looking robes and gowns that scream "I have tons of money so I can dress however I want."

To add a little variety, as well as a quick way to make some quick coin, the game has a dice poker, arm wrestling, and fist fighting mini-games in it. Each has its own interface style, such as using the right and left thumb toggles to roll the dice in poker, keeping the icon centered on the slider for arm wrestling, and a quicktime event for fist fighting. Each one adds a variety of distraction from the main quest and sometimes used to advance side quests found through-out the world. Also as a way to stand out from the crowd the developers added a difficulty level labeled simply as "Dark". In this mode enemies are punishingly relentless and if you die you die for good (i.e. your saves are deleted); however the unique loot is far more satisfying that anything else in the easier game modes.


Unless you do the tutorial before playing the main game, you will be very lost at how everything is done. The game does not hand hold players like other RPG's by giving you pointless little missions to teach basic skills. Instead it throws you right into the mix, with you fighting in open combat within 5 minutes of starting the game. Most players would not be used to this aspect of the game and might be put off by this.

There are some stealth and sneaking sections of the game, one that involves getting some valuable equipment for later encounters. Unfortunately the controls in the section are a little clunky and you may find yourself reloading a previous save if you get caught. As mentioned before, the game has a lot of choices that have long standing results later in the game. If you are a player who doesn't want to have to worry about the results of siding with this "person of questionable moral character" then this game is most certainly not for you.

One general complaint I've heard from a few of my readers is that the merchant system pays you pennies for items you sell, but jacks up the price to anything of value that you might want to buy. I know that this is common in the RPG circuit, but considering how much of a tough guy Geralt is, I'm surprised that the vendors don't raise their selling values just out of fear of him alone. The interface for alchemy has been simplified compared to the PC version, but this is due to the limitation of using a 360 controller. It is also hard to tell sometimes what crafting components are needed for potions and traps until you are actually trying to make them.


As with the first Witcher game, this one pulls no punches regarding language and mature content. The game starts off with Geralt in bed with a very naked sorceress and it seems like swearing is a national sport in Temeria. Along with this, you come across mutilated corpses that either have been killed by monsters or soldiers, witness a double hanging, multiple sexual encounters, engage the services of prostitutes, and do attacks that spurt blood everywhere. It very much earns its M rating.


If you like your fantasy more in line with George R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire over the Lord of the Rings, and if you want a hybrid of third person action and classic RPG standard then go out and get this game. Unlike other western RPG series that are about choosing between good and evil, this is about deciding which lesser evil do you follow. The plot is dark and gritty with a more realistic feel to how humans would treat elves and dwarves if they were real. The combat system is fast, but requires you to think tactically about how you approach enemies types and what kind of preparation you will do before you enter the fray. It's not about saving a princess or protecting a benevolent kings lands, but murder, betrayal, and the seedy underside of politics. It is dark, gothic, mature, engaging, and fun. In a word it's "perfect".


Score break down:

Graphics: 10

Audio: 10

Gameplay: 10

Controls: 10

Interface: 9

Thursday, July 21, 2011

LA Noire: The Good, the Bad, and the Vice

I actually finished LA Noire 3 weeks ago, but just haven't had the time to do my write-up on it. The game itself had caught my attention early on because not only was it an open world game from Rockstar, but it also had you playing as 1940's police officer in Los Angeles. The golden days of Hollywood, and the height of police corruption in the Golden State. Needless to say that as a fan of film noire, fedoras, and the 1940's I was intrigued. The question is though, is LA Noire the beginning of a beautiful relationship, or just a petrified forest?


You are Cole Phelps, recent discharge of the USMC turn LAPD cop. Starting as a beat cop you will work your way up through the police ranks through the scum and low life of the LA criminal underworld. Along the way you will come across colorful partners, criminals who will test your deductive skills, and a plot of corruption the sinks to the very foundations of the city itself.


There has been much touting about the facial capture system that was developed for the game, and I have to say that praise is well earned. Every nuance of the actors is captured perfectly to allow the player to be able to read subtle details to identify if they are telling the truth, withholding information, or outright lying to you. This is actually a core part of the game itself as you must conduct interrogations of witnesses and suspects in order to gain information to progress on your current case. Use the wrong method and the person may clam up, or not give you the information that you need. Along with the interrogation there is crime scene investigation where you have to examine evidence, find clue and look for the subtle details that can make or break a case. This evidence becomes the ammunition you will then use in your interrogations, and allow you to outsmart your quarry.

The game is not all static investigation; in most cases you will have 'Action' sequences that can range from chasing down a suspect on foot or in your car, shoot outs, fist fights, even stealthy tailing a suspect to learn more information. You will also have random dispatch calls about street crimes happening in the world that you can respond to, most of these tend to be short action sequences, but provide a nice ambient challenge during a case.

The world itself is a faithful reproduction of 1947 North LA and Hollywood up to the LA river. Details range from building that no longer exist, the Pacific Electric Redcar lines, even locations that weren't even developed yet. Having been to LA many times in my life I can tell you that while some parts were very familiar, others I just barely recognized because of how much they had changed in 70 years.

Many people have been complaining about the game not allowing you to do random shooting sprees, run down every pedestrian you see, or other general bit of mayhem. What they fail to grasp is that LA Noire is not Grand Theft Studebaker; it is a detective game, you are a cop, you're job is to maintain public order, not create total anarchy and break the laws you are sworn to uphold. Many people saw that the publisher was Rockstar and that it was an open world game and automatically assumed it was just 1940's GTA, it isn't. The game is about deduction, critical thinking and plot advancement, not chaos, destruction, and popping a cap in a hooker you just solicited.


As mentioned before, this is a deduction game, and critical thinking for clues and interrogation is key. Part of this comes back to interpreting the facial gestures of suspects, how evidence is linked to the case, filtering red herrings, and using some good old fashion intuition. If you can't do this, you'll need to use walk-throughs. Along these lines also with most interrogations there is only one correct interrogation path; though getting a few questions wrong is not a game ender, it does change how the case progresses.

One of my biggest pet peeves in the game is that when you are chasing suspects on foot or in a car no matter how fast you go they will be able to just keep ahead of you or catch up to you over long distances. Mind you, this is a classic pet peeve of mine from the days of the arcade racers because besides violating the laws of physics, it feels like you are being forced along a scripted sequence.

A common complaint is actually that even the the game is open world, the storyline is quite linear. Once you are on a case you can only progress by following the chain of investigation, action and interrogations that have been set out for you. You do have the ability to roam freely in the game, however this is basically site seeing, or easter egg hunting for all the hidden film reels, landmarks, or badges.


Well, consider this for a moment: its 1947 LA, and you play as a cop who handles everything from Traffic to Vice cases. There are naked corpses, racist language, drugs, sex, booze, profanity, gore, even child prostitution. In the games defense, you are trying to stop most of this, however the developers pulled no punches with the reality of the times.


The game has a spectacular polish to it, however it is aimed more at the story driven gamer over the action/multiplayer online gamer. Voice acting, and character acting is film quality with several acclaimed actors putting on excellent performances. Gameplay is challenging, but more inline with an old school adventure game than a modern sandbox chaos fest. The world is very deep for those who wish to delve into it, however for those looking for a frag fest they will be bored quickly.

An excellent game and a fine example of gaming as art, but not for everyone. I loved it, but I know that there are many who wouldn't.

HIGHLY recommended.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Portal 2: the Good, the Bad, and the Lemons

Following up on my last posting about catching up with reviews I am now doing my write-up for Portal 2. Now, if any of you have read my previous review of The Orange Box you'd know that I really liked Portal, but didn't like how short it was. I was rather surprised when Valve announce that Portal 2 was its own stand alone expansion and that it was going to be “Twice as long” as the original. With these in mind, I sat down to Portal 2 on my PS3 with my companion cube, a piece of cake, and humming Still Alive. It's go time.


Portal 2 had a lot to live up to from the first game. Graphically Portal 1 was rather bland, however the development team must have sat back and said “Yeah, we can make it look better”, because they did just that. The boring white test chambers have been replaced by a world that nature has partially retaken. In the beginning of the game the whole of Aperture Science has been overgrown and decaying from years, if not centuries of neglect. The pallet doesn't just follow this design either, as in the bowels of the facility you come across test labs from the 50's, 60's and 70's; as well as the reconstructed and cavernous test labs that make up the heart of the modern Aperture Science.

Gameplay is still the same usage of portals to traverse and physics obstacle course. Added to this mix is the addition of color gels that let you change the properties of a surface, lasers for powering switches, hard light bridges and tractor beam emitters for moving items, gels, or even yourself. The gels add a unique puzzle element because they can be used to make a surface bounce you like Flubber, accelerate you like a race track, or place portals on surfaces not normally usable. Added to this is using the portal gun, tractor beams, and even basic gravity in order to apply the gels in a manner to let you proceed forward.

The story itself starts off with you meeting a new AI core, named Wheatley. Wheatley is a nice change from the GlaDOS AI who seems to be hell bent in killing you in a very passive aggressive fashion. He is more of a lovable goof-ball who lacks common sense, or any real ability, but makes up for it with gusto and ambition. This also leads into your introduction to Cave Johnson in the old test labs in the bottom of the facility. Through recording made over the years for different test projects (i.e. insane experiments for the sake of insane experiments), you can start to build a picture of the company through the 30 years of 'Science' they perform. This also gives you insight into the origins of the GlaDOS AI that has been your taunter and tormentor since the first game.

One of the unique features of the PS3 version of the game is that it actually links to Steam and allows you to download a PC version of the game for free as part of this link, and allows you to share Steam and PS3 achievement/trophies from whichever format you are playing. Along with this comes the 2 player Co-op mode where you are a friend (or random stranger) play as two bots created by GlaDOS and use two player portal usage to complete your own small storyline in the series.


The most common complaint about the game is that on the PC version there are a series of downloadable items one can purchase with real money for visual add-ons to the Co-op bots. They change nothing about the game, but cost between $2 and $6 bucks for visual comical items.

Puzzles in the old section of the test labs can be challenging as well since the large environments and sometimes hard to spot portal location can frustrate the casual gamer, along with that there is only one way to solve the puzzles and you need to hit it correctly in order to proceed.

While not a problem with the game itself, this is also worth mentioning. Shortly after the release of Portal 2 the PSN network went down for a 3 week period, and for those with the PS3 version and no gaming PC the Co-op game was completely locked out for them, causing quite a stir among online gamers and people reviewing the game on marketplace forms.


Nothing. Seriously, the game is rated T and up, and has no mature content of any kind in it.



Portal 2 is a fun game with many hours worth both a first time play through and repeat play-through for the challenging puzzles, the witty dialog and the well told story. The puzzles are challenging and when solved will give the player a feeling of accomplishment as well as a wicked brain cramp at times. Co-op is well implemented with greater challenges in the puzzles that require team work, but also with hilarious dialog from GlaDOS in her comments to both robots, and long with the robots' child like enthusiasm in their task.

This game is a Must Buy.