Wednesday, November 27

Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate Review (PSV): A long trail of empty promises

There is a point where I thought that Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate (herein referred to as "Blackgate") was due to end. There was a boss fight, a few puzzles and a room that was thick with finality. I thought I was knee deep in the conclusion, but I was then again tasked with playing fetch throughout Blackgate's labyrinthine wings.

My meandering, directionless agony was set to continue. Again I would wrestle with the game's nonsensical map.

The worst thing is that it shouldn't have been this way. Well, at least not on paper. If you read into it before release, Blackgate should have been one of the better games released in 2013. A Metroidvania -- for those not in the know, that means a platformer with role-playing game elements and a map that opens up with the acquisition of new equipment and abilities -- title starring Batman and developed by Armature Studio, which is partly comprised of Retro Studio alums. Retro Studios just happened to be responsible for two of the greatest Metroidvania games that I've ever played (just to clarify, I haven't played Metroid Prime 3: Corruption or much of Hunters on the DS, so that count may deserve to be bigger). If that's not enough, the Arkham series' signature combat, investigation and stealth systems would also be translated into 2.5 dimensions. Such promise!

It starts off well enough: the game looks good and the punching, kicking and stalking work just fine. There were lengths of time where I found that I was actually enjoying myself too, but these stretches are undermined by poor direction and hapless navigation. The best games in the genre subtly guide players to the next objective whilst also encouraging experimentation with new tools in previously-explored environments. Blackgate gives you new tools and a marker on an indecipherable map: good luck sorting that shit out. Suffice to say you'll be rubbing your screen (which activates Detective mode) looking for some indication of where to go next for hours at a time.

I'd wager at least a third of the 6 hours I spent playing the game involved asking aloud (on public transport, on my bed, in the park), "Where the fuck do I go now?". No short order of competent boss fights or charming comic book cutscenes could really redeem the game; no matter how badly I wanted it to. Still, if I'm being honest, I enjoyed this game as much as the 2011 mega hit, Arkham City and the less said about Arkham Origins, the better.

Wait until this shows up in the PlayStation Plus Instant Game Collection, otherwise approach only if seen in the bargain bin. Heartbreaking stuff.

Sunday, November 10

Grand Theft Auto V Review (PS3): Boys' Club

I quit reading critical discourse about videogames upon Grand Theft Auto V's release.

Cold turkey. 

I mean, having finished it, I can confirm that it's misogynistic and cynical, but I just didn't want to believe that something I would love would be so objectionable. Shortly after Leigh Alexander's prophetic review (prophetic in that she hadn't even played the game before writing this particular piece) was turned into a catchy tune, I thought it best to best to have my cake and eat it in silence. 

'Cause see, Grand Theft Auto V is a great game. It is also, however, a deeply-flawed tale of friendship in spite of betrayal and years' worth of conspiracy.

By great game I mean there is literally a mission where you're tasked with using a high tech, high-powered sniper rifle to destroy a light aircraft's engine as one character, only to then chase the descending plane and sort through the wreckage as another. The scope of San Andreas is astounding, and the way in which players can switch between protagonists to experience what is really well-worn territory from multiple perspectives makes this sandbox murder crime death simulator stand out from its predecessors; at least in terms of the breadth of ways there are that players can interact with videogame space. Apart from body swapping, there's not a great deal of activities that feel genuinely new, but there's no denying that there is oft-mythologized "fun" to be found in this fictional city's streets, landmarks and establishments. 

One could argue that the heist missions are an innovation, but in truth, these mission sets simply mask some of the more painful parts of GTA mission design. Where in previous games, players may have been asked to steal a getaway car and stash it in a discreet location before committing a greater misdeed directly afterwards, the fetch quest is now a standalone mission that can be completed at a player's leisure. Once set up, the heist missions are sterling examples of Rockstar North's craft, but let's not pretend that "steal a fire truck then lose the cops" is a breath of fresh air.  

Shooting is still a little awkward, the camera still has trouble with interiors, and it's still really hard to connect with one, let alone three, men who would just as likely shoot you as they would talk to you. I guess this time though the disconnect between your protagonists' actions and their words aren't as jarring. Our heroes may disagree in terms of how to approach a certain situation, or life for that matter, but they won't often share feelings of grief or guilt with you. There's no yearning for a less violent, law-abiding existence before dispatching an entire state's worth of law enforcement personnel. That being said, Franklin and Michael's apathy toward grievous acts of violence is hard to reconcile; even after spending roughly ten hours in their respective pairs of shoes. Trevor is a completely different and compelling animal though. He's genuine and shows no signs of pretension. He's happy to set up business deals in a cute floral dress or his trademark blood-stained pants. I'm sure I'm not the first to express the sentiment, but in scripted sequences he acts in a way that seems organic for someone who indulges every sociopathic urge to kill, commit crime and further oneself. In other words, he's a believable lead for a Grand Theft Auto game; perhaps the most believable the series has seen. 

The tale that brings these men together rarely surprises and the ending (the one I chose, to be accurate) was so clean so as to be completely unsatisfying. There's few likeable supporting characters, and even less that are memorable. Worse yet, the sights and sounds of San Andreas reinforce the cynicism of the protagonists. It also bears mentioning that I can't think of a single female character that felt like anything more than the butt of a joke. It's not that Grand Theft Auto V constantly tries to denigrate women, they're just notably absent from this tale. The women that do appear throughout the narrative, however, are caricatures sourced from reality television and mediocre, syndicated shows that have since faded from relevance. While a great deal of the missions are "fun" to play through, Grand Theft Auto V often reads like the developers were trying to say nothing as loudly as they possibly could.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the "Strangers and Freaks" side missions that offer access to activities like skydiving, underwater salvage and... border protection. I can imagine a conference call with Dan Houser where he would describe the Minute Men missions as elaborate satire. "See! One of the volunteer border protection zealots can't speak English, but he's trying to force those that he perceives as illegal immigrants out of the country! Xenophobes being accepting of people from one country but not from another. Isn't that ridiculous and not racist?" The end to your partnership with the Minute Men is, well, just as pointless as that with any other character in the game, but the bottom line is: don't look to Grand Theft Auto V for biting social commentary. Most of the side missions are well worth experiencing, but more for enjoyment of the activities contained within, rather than the chance to discover another citizen of San Andreas. 

Back to technical evaluation, this is the best looking game on current generation hardware. I don't even feel the need to clarify that observation with a genre, the scope of San Andreas and the details you'll find within are simply staggering. Random events like carjackings, purse snatchings, drug deals gone awry, and mob killings serve to further immerse you in a crime-riddled state that you'd no sooner visit than a warzone. 

I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure GTA V is the first instalment to feature an original score (other than an intro and ending theme). There's several standout pieces and just as many that fall flat, but it's well worth a listen outside of the glitz, glamour and violence of the game itself. There's also a vast array of radio stations accessible in most of the vehicles you'll ride or fly, but for mine, there's slim pickings in terms of listenable content. There's no one station I could happily stay tuned into,  no MSX FM or Radio X that's safe for an entire day. There's sure to be at least one tolerable song playing at any time of a given day cycle, but I'd go as far to say this is the weakest assemblage of licensed music in a GTA game to date. 

If you're one of the two people stuck on the fence as to whether Grand Theft Auto V is for you, allow me to assure you that as long as you're male, this is a safe buy (ha! Sexism). This is an at times painfully-masculine assortment of people, places and positions, but there is so much "fun" to be found in this massive world. Sure there's a lot of dead space, but I was awe struck on multiple occasions by the scale of the action sequences and the surprising level of detail that can be found if you look close enough. Character swapping is a great mechanic that ensures that every worthwhile interaction is had in what are, for the most part, brilliantly designed missions that span air, land and sea. The way in which the writers have cynically dealt with women and the death of the American Dream are hard to take at times, but this is a Good Game©.