Sunday, August 24

Rose Coloured Glasses: Max Payne 3

Note: This post contains major spoilers for Max Payne 3.

When I first played through Max Payne 3's brutal single player campaign, the shocking depictions of violence are what stuck with me in the aftermath. Sometimes I'd be playing some relatively light-hearted fare like Rayman Origins, only to think back to Marcelo's immolation at the hands of the Cracha Preto, or the holes I'd pushed through some poor schmuck's face with my automatic pistol.


It was powerful. It was shocking. It hung around like trauma.

I loved the game because, and in spite of, these displays of gratuity. I can remember looking away from the TV when I thought someone's death was imminent, even Max's. Sure this meant I failed the odd quick time event, but it also meant I could sleep at night. It meant that I could stomach the tension of shootouts and close encounters with militiamen. It meant eventually seeing the impossible tidiness of Max's redemption.

Recently I've felt the urge to return to glitzy (and grimy) Sao Paolo, but that was effectively tempered by my unwillingness to pull the Xbox 360 out of storage and hook it up to an entertainment system which is at capacity (in terms of HDMI ports and shelf space). Thankfully, Steam came to the rescue with an unbelievable bargain: the game plus all downloadable content for a measly 8 US dollars.

It may have taken 3 days to download, but it was well worth the wait.

Despite my laptop struggling with the neon noir presentation (especially scene transitions) and the pin stripe of Max's suit, it's been a relatively smooth ride. Shootdodging against hordes of gang bangers occurred at a reasonable clip (just shy of what I assume to be 30 frames per second), my "rig" just can't handle the raw emotional power of Rockstar's scripted sequences. Voicework usually played out of sync with the rendered actors and my hardware approached alarming temperatures, but we got through in the end.

What was most surprising was just how well the action held up. I can remember complaining that I found the damage model (read: how you accrue damage) to be inconsistent, but this time around it felt just fine. I mean, you should go from dandy to deathbed after being hit with a sniper rifle or up close with a shotgun, shouldn't you. Also, since when have video games been known for realistic portrayals of pain thresholds in the human body? With a bit of patience, any combat situation is easily cleared - the only exceptions being 2 not-quite-boss fights in the penultimate chapter. If you take the time to search your surrounds and find a few bottles of painkillers, it's even more likely that you'll live to shoot your way through another day.

Back to the action, leaping through a dangerous battlefield in slow motion and peppering anything in your sight with precisely placed projectiles is still super cool. Pulling away from cover could be less awkward, but I'd be unreasonable for labelling that as anything other than a slight annoyance. It is bloody and gross fun perforating heads and body parts with a wide arsenal that covers everything from several variations of the modest pistol to the rocket launcher.


What really sets this slightly aged masterpiece apart from 2 years’ worth of blockbusters is Health's original soundtrack that even makes a title screen sad enough to force your head between hands. The stirring string arrangements that punctuate the bullets and blood (and usually accompany the titular character drinking and drugging himself into a stupor) are, with hindsight, more haunting than any instance of gun violence. It lingers, playing through my head whenever anything fails to go to plan. The grimy, foreboding tracks that are played throughout the bullet ballet are just as -- for lack of a better word -- catchy, and I've had the album on regular rotation since I started downloading the game last week.

One interesting observation, particularly after having just started playing the Tomb Raider reboot, is that the game tends to fetishise death. I was almost glad to see the camera focus on Max's death mask and various angles of blood spatter after having been subjected to arguably erotic angles on Lara Croft's multiple and gruesome demises. Granted, Tomb Raider seems that little bit more uncomfortably preoccupied with the protagonist's agony in the throes of death, but at least now I can find an example of this treatment on a man.

While we're on the topic of problematic treatment of women in games, they exist only to be saved in Max Payne 3. I realise this ties in heavily with both the noir theme and the premise of the original, but even the strongest (and, if memory serves, only surviving) woman character is shown to have some serious flaws and has to be saved by the lead male. It could also be argued that Giovanna is the only woman to survive because she exhibits some positive behaviours and is thus worthy of saving.

So, two years on, Max Payne 3 is still very much worthy of your time. If 10 hours of bloody, bullet-riddled mayhem didn’t sound appealing upon its release, it’s not going to be any more attractive to you now. That being said, I again found myself falling for and with Max from failure to stomach-turningly grisly failure. If you’re looking for a third person shooter with a compelling story and solid, cover-based shooting action, I can recommend this (again) without hesitation. 

Friday, August 22

Backup

Hurt her and I'll kill you
I know people
I'm sure you're a nice guy
But I'm watching you

An idol threat aptly made
It showed that you care
That you're all scared and crazy
In hindsight, I mean

At the time it felt excessive
Now I feel like it could've served others
Too late now
Now we feel its absence

Sunday, August 17

Dad

Dad used to play games before children arrived
Dad beat the high score on Frogger
Dad had his score wiped by the first, crawling
Dad drank a carton to quell his frustration
Dad doesn't game anymore

Dad raised three boys
Dad was asked by the eldest to stop smoking
Dad didn't think to ween himself off nicotine
Dad was all willpower
Dad quit cold turkey

Dad wanted a staircase
Dad asked his boys for help
Dad offered nothing more in return
Dad would wait years to reach the bottom floor
Dad was patient

Dad worked from dawn
Dad did not observe public holidays
Dad had trouble sleeping
Dad always answered his phone
Dad provided for all but himself

Dad drove his sons to work
Dad asked for nothing in return
Dad advised his sons to "Get a license."
Dad ran a taxi service
Dad never got paid his due

Dad received his diagnosis
Dad kept working
Dad fought with his hands
Dad could no longer trust his body
Dad started slipping away

Dad missed his boys
Dad waited for them to return
Dad would remember loose dates as promises
Dad wants nothing more
Dad is still waiting

Dad left the country
Dad forgot his friends and family
Dad forgot who he was
Dad pissed his pants
Dad was so ashamed

Dad fought for his life
Dad was never threatened
Dad tried to make his escape
Dad was surrounded
Dad is alone

Tuesday, August 12

To end

I've never felt the urge to end
I never hope to
I feel for those that do

To have death as an option
As an alternative
Sometimes you just need to rest

To know you'll never wake again
Never feel that tightness
No more anxiety, no more emptiness

A charming prospect, I'm sure
But please, don't leave
We need you

I need you
I'll miss you
I love you

Monday, August 11

Friendly Fire: A Hearthstone Adventure

We ate lunch with my folks
We drank beer
I don't drink beer

Ideology, faith and family
Never a good mix
Pick one, discard the rest

We could've sat in silence
Instead we engaged
Battled hate speech with humanity

You sometimes fight
Even though you might not believe, at least not as strongly
Fascinating, if not admirable

You can't play a card you've not been dealt
Yet somehow, you did. You always do
Rebel Nerd

Deus Ex: Human Revolution - Director's Cut (Wii U) Review Notes

I reviewed Deus Ex: Human Revolution in 2011. A lot of my observations still hold true, but I thought I'd summarize what the Wii U version of the Director's Cut brings to the table:
  • The Missing Link DLC is entirely disposable from both plot and play perspectives. I understand why the developers chose to limit the use of augmentations, because as an additional opportunity to earn experience, the odds would be stacked squarely in the player's favour. Still, it feels somewhat cheap to be limited in what are relatively difficult combat scenarios. There's a lot more trial and error at play in this new segment, but in the end it still contains the same elements that made the core game so special. 
  • I found side missions and areas that I failed to notice in 1.5 subsequent playthroughs of the core game. 
  • Thanks to the experience I earned playing through the Missing Link and through finding additional missions and interactions, I unlocked every augmentation that I wanted to use... and started unlocking upgrades that I wouldn't even think to use. 
  • Deus Ex: Human Revolution is looking more and more awkward and robotic as time progresses. 
  • Off TV support is fantastic: touch controls for menus, keypads, screens and keyboards are super responsive. The only complaint I have is that everything looks a little washed out.  
  • The Wii U Gamepad is a perfect, awkward match for Human Revolution. 
I picked up Deus Ex: Human Revolution - Director's Cut for just under 20 bucks at EBGames. Well worth the cost of admission in my eyes. Even with the damage done by Father Time, this is still a compelling story that feels better with a Gamepad in your hands. 

Saturday, July 19

Destiny Beta Impressions (PS4): No surprises


Until this past Wednesday morning, I hadn't shown any interest in Destiny. Bungie's much anticipated and more hyped MMO/FPS hybrid looked pretty, but it also looked hollow. I couldn't see any personality hidden behind the armoured Guardians that populated almost every screenshot. Even Master Chief looked to have more going on up top than any of the colourful avatars that were locked in battle with what I now know to be The Fallen, and truth be told, I've no love John-117 or whatever the hell you want to call him. Give me Noble Team or the ODST squad anyday.

The buzz surrounding the beta that runs from 17 July through to 26 July hit fever pitch on Twitter, however, and I'll jump at pretty much any chance to board a speeding Hype Train. Whether it's packed with well-dressed peeps who've nothing to say or teeming with loveable rogues, it makes no difference. HYPE TRAIN A COMIN', BABY! TOOT TOOT!

I wasn't willing to pay for a ticket and thankfully, the Twittersphere was raining beta codes for those looking out for them. A generous follower came through for me and assured that he had all platforms covered; no need to pre-order.

The download took about 12 hours all up and I wasn't really in any condition to start playing last night when it was ready. Thankfully (?), an intense fit of coughing had me up at 4 this morning, so what better time would there be to start an intergalactic adventure?

As I made my Mark Hamill circa 1980 avatar complete with Ultimate Warrior eye makeup, I reflected again on why, until days ago, Destiny hadn't really illicited anything other than a hearty shrug from me since the big reveal towards the end of 2012. I think by conflating MMO with FPS, Borderlands was immediately brought to mind. I don't hate Borderlands or its sequel, but there's a litany of better shooters on the market. Gearbox's series looks fantastic and plays pretty well, but it's paced in such a painstakingly slow manner. Even with a deadeye and an itchy trigger finger, if you see that skull indicator next to your target's health bar, you're not going anywhere (other than into a body bag). I made the assumption that Destiny would conform to the following mathematical formula:

Destiny = (Halo X Borderlands) - humour + pretty graphics

I was right. Well, just to be clear, when I include "humour" in the function above, I think that Gearbox (and, to be fair, a lot of the series' fans) are of the opinion that Claptrap and co. are funny. I'm more of the opinion that the games have a "sense of humour", but rarely approach anything remotely humorous. I guess what I'm trying to say is, Destiny is pretty dry.

Be it your Ghost companion or any number of high and mighty merchants and guild (?) reps, no one is in it for the laffs. That's not a game breaker and that's not to say that every game I play is 100% comedy gold, it's more that I can't imagine investing a significant amount of time in a game, MMO or otherwise, that doesn't connect with me. Humour is one way to pull me in, but a compelling narrative and/or memorable characters work just as well.

Destiny ain't got none of that.

What it does have though is a powerful orchestral soundtrack that creates more atmosphere and feeling than anything else I've seen in my time with the game so far. It speaks to me more directly than the haughty script and does a great job of creating genuine tension when you're exploring some of the darker parts of Earth post galactic expansion (and potentially, apocalypse). Kotaku's Kirk Hamilton looks at it in greater depth, but I reckon this might just be the element that hooks me in to the finished product.

Combat and movement have that distinct Bungie flavour: floaty jumping, competent driving and lots of circle strafing characterise the majority of your time in conflict. If you've played any game in the Halo series, you're going to feel right at home here; moreso if you've had a crack at Borderlands as well. The pace, in terms of character progression, feels similar to Borderlands; although I must say that I hope it doesn't slow down much more in the final version. Well, not until the end game at least. There doesn't appear to be any element of choice in terms of skill trees like there is in Borderlands, other than the ability to switch Sub Classes once you've unlocked them. Abilities are unlocked in a predominantly linear fashion, and it works well enough.

I reached the level cap with my Warlock character and am still yet to sample each of the game/match types available in the beta. Story missions work just as you'd imagine: progress from Point A to Point B, defeat waves of enemies, listen to expository dialogue, repeat. It felt a little disjointed seeing several other players completing the same objective that I was on without directly impacting on my progress. Kills by non-party members still added to my experience point tally, but they couldn't progress me to the next objective and vice versa. It's co-op but not really.


The Explore mission I played didn't seem to end. More sub missions kept popping up to the point where I went from level 6 through to 8 (the current cap) on the same map. Enemies varied in level depending on my location, meaning that a greater challenge was almost always around the corner. Literally. This mission type didn't work particularly well unless a Public Event was on. The time-limited missions turned a listless wander through a wasteland into a multiplayer free-for-all. The most enjoyable event I took part in tasked me and whoever else was around with taking down a Devil Walker (or spider tank). A tense 5 minutes awaits you in that instance, rest-assured.

The Crucible, Destiny's Player versus Player component is also playable in the beta. I've only trialed the Control match type (think Domination from the Call of Duty games), but I'm pleased to say it handles just as it should (read: it's freaking Halo). There didn't appear to be any issues with balance, even with variance in player levels. The only thing I can foresee being tweaked is the use of the Super ability. After completing enough objectives / scoring kills you'll get access to the same "Super Charged" attack you'd use when playing solo. It's ridiculously powerful and it's great fun when you're the one firing, but as someone who lost a pretty impressive kill streak to this one-handed Hadouken, it can feel like a cheap note to end on.

Destiny hasn't provided anything in the way of surprises, but that hasn't turned out to be a bad thing. I'm chomping at the bit for more and have just started up my next character with a new class. It looks beautiful and it handles well, but was there any doubt that Bungie wouldn't deliver on these fronts? What I'm more worried about is the hook. What is it that's going to keep me playing? From my time with the beta trial, I'm guessing it's not going to be the story or the characters. A beautiful score might be enough to get me started, but I doubt it'll have me investing anywhere near as much time in it as a World of Warcraft enthusiast has in Azeroth's varied locales. Maybe there's a few surprises in store. Then again, maybe not.