Posts Tagged‘sandbox’

Everything: Is Everything.

If you cycled back a decade or two the generally held definition of what constituted a game was fairly rigid. Today that definition is far less defined with the indie explosion bringing us all kinds of experiences that dance on the edge of what could reasonably be called a “game”. Whilst I’ll leave that debate to one side (nestling it close by the “are games art” discussion) the games which have kindled that debate are undoubtedly some of the most interesting experiences I’ve had as a gamer. Everything, which comes to us care of the developer of Mountain, is an exploration of the idea that everything is connected and how we define nebulous concepts such as self and identity.

You are something, but so is everything else. How do you define what is you and what is everything? The definition of you can change at any time as you journey through space and time. Wherever you go there is always something which is made up of something else. The worlds you explore are infinite, built upon and under one another. If this is all sounding incredibly nebulous then you’re right, it is, but that’s the beauty of the story that Everything tries to tell. As you explore you’ll be many things and each of those things will give you a new perspective on what this world is.

Everything uses a stylised, low-poly, simple texture aesthetic. It’s a procedurally generated game with various different biomes defined covering everything from lush forests to galaxies to 1D sub-atomic structures. Whilst this does meant that that there’s not much variety within a biome there’s enough of them to keep you interested in exploring for hours on end. For the most part it runs very well however once you get a bunch of entities together on screen performance starts to take a noticeable dive. That’s mostly of your own making though so it’s easy to avoid performance issues if you don’t go overboard. All said and done whilst Everything’s simplistic visuals are a nice backdrop to the game’s music, narration and core game play.

Exploration is the core mechanic of Everything as it puts you in a large world for you to explore. The mechanics of how you do this are a little esoteric and not all of them will be available to you at the start. Initially you can just move around and see the thoughts of other things as you walk past. After a while you’ll be able to become other things and then explore the world from their perspective. From there you’ll then learn about ascending and descending, essentially exploring the next “layer” in the realm of existence. There’s also a bunch of other mechanics in there like herding, dancing and a few other things but they’re essentially distractions from the main exploration mechanic. In terms of an overall objective there’s really none as Everything is meant to be experienced more than played, as evidence by the inclusion of an auto-play system which turns Everything into an overgrown screensaver.

When I first saw a demo of Everything I honestly thought it was a joke. The animations are laughably simple with animals rolling around and the various “thoughts” you come across are typically nonsense cobbled together using an algorithm. However there’s something strangely relaxing about it all, watching a big herd wander across a landscape with the soothing backing music playing away. Once you get a handle on the ascend/descend mechanics then the game starts to take on a sense of purpose as you look around you environments for new places to explore.

If I had one gripe it would be that the exploration mechanics of Everything are so obtuse, even after the tutorial, that it can be hard to feel like you’ve got a sense of control. Initially you’re limited in what you can do, which is fine given the broad scope of the game. However even after unlocking all the mechanics it can still be a bit hard to understand how to ascend or descend, what certain UI elements mean or how to direct yourself to the place you want to go. Of course you could avoid all this frustration by just letting the auto-play do its thing but, realistically, I think that’s really only meant for when you’ve become tired of doing the exploration yourself. Still if you can get past this initial barrier the experience of Everything is quite rewarding.

The story, if you could call it one, is to listen to Alan Watts‘ lecture on his theory that everything is connected. The ideas are presented in a highly consumable way and often enough that you won’t go long without stumbling across another audio log to listen to. Whilst I’ll leave the philosophical debate to the reader the ideas presented are interesting and wholly in alignment with the ideas the game wants to present. I’d be interested to know how this particular lecture played into the creation of Everything as the developer has noted that in creating Mountain he saw the potential to represent more of the world through an experience like this. Either the game was somewhat inspired by the ideas presented or they were retrofitted into the game afterwards. Either way it would be interesting to know the creator’s perspective on this.

Everything is a brilliant exploration of ideas through the use of simple graphics and mechanics. Whilst they’re a little obtuse on first glance after a while they start to make sense and that’s when you can truly take control of your journey through this game’s procedurally generated world. After slogging my way through numerous AAA titles and text adventures of late it was great to be able to sit back and simply explore without a goal to achieve. It’s not a game for everyone but, if you’re suffering epicness fatigue from the last couple months barrage of AAA titles then this might just be the unicorn chaser you need.

Rating: 8.5/10

Everything is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $14.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours play time and 44% of the achievements unlocked.

Far Cry Primal: The Wenja Strikes Back.

Spurred on by the success of Far Cry 3 Ubisoft seems intent on transforming the series from its once long development cycle into a yearly release event. Whilst fans of the series are likely to relish this in the short term it does make one wonder just how long it can be sustained before it becomes as derided as other yearly franchises are. For now though it seems like Ubisoft haven’t yet run out of ideas to work into the Far Cry mold with the latest being Far Cry Primal. Whilst it retains much of the IP’s stylings Primal does manage to stand on its own, even if it’s still troubled by the same issues that come with all of Ubisoft Montreal’s open world titles.

Far Cry Primal Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

You are Takkar, member of the Wenja tribe who has been travelling for many suns to reach the promised land of Oros. It has not been an easy journey, with your brother falling to a sabre-toothed tiger mere days before reaching your final destination. Upon arrival you learn that Wenja of Oros have been scattered to the wind, terrorized by another tribe who seeks to cannibalize the Wenja. It is up to you Takkar to unite the Wenja together and protect them against the Udam.

The Duna Engine 2 is as capable as ever, bringing with it the impressive visuals that are becoming a trademark for the Far Cry franchise. The graphics are at their most impressive when you’re up high, surveying the surrounding landscape and taking in the expansive views.  The wide and varied environments, whilst being completely unrealistic (seriously you can walk between a temperature tropic environment to snow capped mountains in under a day), are great a keeping the visual variety up even after hours of game play. The experience loses its sheen somewhat when you’re up close but that’s part for the course in these large open world sandbox games. It might not be a huge upgrade over its predecessor, even with my new beast rig powering it, but at least this time I was able to enjoy it in high frame rate G-Sync-ed goodness.

Far Cry Primal Review Screenshot Wallpaper Lovely View

Far Cry Primal follows the series’ formula for the most part whilst brining in some new mechanics to make it stand out. You’ll still be assaulting outposts (stealthily if you have the patience), crafting using materials you gather along your journey and unlocking skills using the tried and true levelling system. On the flip side you now have a village to take care of, one that will provide you with numerous benefits as the population grows. You’ll also be quickly empowered with the ability to tame many of the animals you’ll stumble across, many of which will provide you with some additional benefit. These changes, coupled with the new setting and the limitations that come along with it, make Far Cry Primal feel familiar to those who’ve played the series before but different enough to keep you interested.

Combat keeps the same basic mechanics from the previous Far Cry titles however it’s limited by the array of weaponry you have at your disposal. Previous games usually threw dozens of weapons at you to use, allowing you to pick the perfect gun for any encounter. Primal, by contrast, is limited to a few types of weapons with each of them having 1 or 2 variants for you to unlock. This means that, for the most part, combat encounters will play out along a very similar line depending on which weapon you choose. Sure you can switch up at will but you’re either arrowing people from afar, jabbing at them with a spear or swinging your club wildly in the middle of a group of enemies. This limitation is born out of the setting, for the most part, and its admirable that Ubisoft stuck to it by not letting you build a crossbow or something equally out of place.

Far Cry Primal Review Screenshot Wallpaper Become The Beast Master

The taming mechanic is definitely Far Cry Primal’s stand out feature, allowing you to have a predator by your side to take down enemies and provide a number of other benefits. It’s quite satisfying to find a rare animal, track it down, tempt it with bait and then claim it as your own. The master beast hunts, of which there are 3, are also quite enjoyable and provide you with a companion that feels completely overpowered. Indeed soon after I unlocked them I went straight for the sabre-toothed tiger quest which had the highest stats of all of them and, as a side benefit, is also rideable with the appropriate talents. Suffice to say most of the other beasts I tamed past that point didn’t really get much of a look in as the tiger is simply too good at what it does. This might be because it ties into the way I found myself playing (running in, bow blazing) so I’m sure the other beasts have their uses. Still it’s an idea that I’m sure Ubisoft could expand on, either in the Primal world or in other future Far Cry instalments.

The level and talent systems are well designed with talent points coming at you thick and fast. This means you’re never wanting for progression, ensuring that if you want to unlock a particular skill you shouldn’t be far off getting it. I favoured crafting/gathering skills mostly as that seemed to be the main roadblock but you could just as easily focus on other ones that improved your quality of life in other aspects. The better talents will require far more points than the lesser ones, something which does slow down progression a little towards the end. Still though there’s enough missions, encounters and random events around the place that it’s just a question of how much time you want to put in before you get bored.

Far Cry Primal Review Screenshot Wallpaper Talents

Like all sandbox games though Far Cry Primal starts to get repetitive after a while. The encounters, non-campaign missions and even the outposts all play out very similarly. The enemies naturally progress up in toughness in the way you’d expect them to: gaining one-shot headshot protection, more armour, ability to call reinforcements, etc. Gathering becomes a chore when you have to track down rare animals or ingredients, something which the game does not really help you with at all (the map and scent trails rarely lead you to what you actually need). The one thing that Primal does have going for it though is that it’s a much more succint experience, clocking in at a couple hours shorter than most titles if you play it like I do, focusing on the campaign.

The main campaign is unfortunately a little confused, lacking the overall cohesiveness that previous titles had with the single arch-nemesis plot line that ran throughout the entire campaign. Instead it’s split into 3 different enemy tribes that threaten the Wenjas. There’s a semblance of continuity between them however upon beating what appears to be the “final” boss you’re simply sent back to your village to continue on. It was honestly very confusing as all the other titles, whilst having similar mini-bosses along the way, was always building up to a big final battle. Primal lacks that and unfortunately feels worse off for it. The individual stories are still interesting, it’s just that there’s nothing to combine them all together into one whole that’s larger than the sum of its parts.

Far Cry Primal Review Screenshot Wallpaper Break the Moon

Far Cry Primal shows that yearly franchise releases can be done whilst still bringing fresh ideas to the table. The base game elements will be instantly familiar to long time fans of the Far Cry series with enough new elements to keep you coming back for hours on end. The taming mechanic is the best feature, adding in a new layer of game play that none of the other instalments have had. However it’s still not able to break away from the issues that plague sand box style games, which is only made worse by the lack of cohesion in the main story and campaign missions. It was a fun 12 hours though but definitely not a game I’d want to invest enough time into to 100% (which, by my rough calculations, would take about 36 hours). Far Cry Primal is definitely worth a look in however, both for Far Cry fans and general gamers alike.

Rating: 8.5/10

Far Cry Primal is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation4 right now for $59.99, $77 and $77 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 12 hours of total play time and 37% completion.

L.A. Noire: The Darker Side of Los Angeles.

The past year of releases has really changed my perception on what sand box style games could achieve. I must admit the only thing I enjoyed about sand box games was the fact that once I got bored with the main story line I could unleash hell for another 15 minutes or so before I quit the game without saving. Red Dead Redemption and Minecraft were two examples of games where my inner jerk stayed in his cave for the vast majority of the game and so when I started seeing seeing some of the screens from Rockstar’s newest game L.A. Noire I figured that it would be yet another step away from their traditional Grand Theft Auto style sand box, and thus very worthy of my attention. What followed was an incredibly interesting experience on multiple levels, both for its accomplishments and its faults.

You play as Cole Phelps, a veteran of the second world war who’s come back to being a cop in downtown Los Angeles. L.A. Noire wastes no time in getting you into the action, setting up Phelps as a man with an incorruptible dedication to seeing a case through to the very end. You start out knowing very little about the man himself at the start but as the story progresses bits of his past, retold in flashback scenes and with dialog with other characters, come to light. It can be a little frustrating not understanding your character’s motivation for certain actions, especially when he’s prone to reacting wildly to certain things. I can understand the reason for keeping much of his past hidden for the majority of the game, however even a few more bits of insight into his past would’ve made his character a whole bunch more believable.

There are several distinct categories of game play within L.A. Noire. The first is the investigation mode where you look around a crime scene for clues, where upon your controller shakes when you stumble upon something potentially interesting. Not everything will relate to the case however, so you might find yourself spending an inordinate amount of time picking up cigarettes and empty bottles. Thankfully they’re kind enough to alert you when you’ve found all the clues so you don’t spend hours going around in circles looking for a potentially missed bit of evidence. These clues will then lead you onto people of interest who you can then interview to get a better idea of the details of the crime.

The next core game play mechanic, the interviews, relies heavily on the extremely lifelike motion capture technology that L.A. Noire uses. You have a list of questions which you can ask the person of interest and based on how they respond you have to choose whether you believe they’re telling the truth, lying but you have no evidence (doubt) or if they’re outright lying for which you’ll have to provide proof. I’ll be honest and tell you that this mechanic frustrated me to no end as whilst the truth and lie were relatively easy to tell the doubt option was a tad ambiguous. It’s explained exactly as I said before to you in the game however the option can also mean “They’re telling the truth but not everything” or “This guy isn’t going to give you anything useful no matter what you say”. It’s also confounded by the problem that Phelps seem to fly into a rage whenever you choose the doubt option so whilst you might think that there’s more to the story (and there always is) Phelps’ behavior seems to make the more softer targets shut down completely. You do get better at picking it towards the end but it can still lead to some incredibly frustrating times.

It’s made somewhat easier by the introduction of “intuition points” which are gained by leveling up your character in the game. These points let you either remove one wrong answer (which isn’t as helpful as it could be) or ask the community which shows you the percentages of how everyone else answered those questions. You can store a max of five and there’s only 20 levels in the game, with a few of those levels giving outfits and not intuition, so they’re best used sparingly.

Additionally whilst the facial capture is down right amazing in how realistic it appears it’s rather comically strapped to good old fashioned motion capture bodies that were filmed independently of the voice actors. What this means is that whilst from the neck up they appear quite lively everywhere else is your usual rigid clothes and rather awkward flailing about, especially when interacting with other objects. Whilst it’s not noticeable most of the time there are a number of occasions when it looks like the character’s head is trying to move independently of its body. Hopefully the technology they used to capture the stunning facial features will soon trickle down to doing full body motion capture and we won’t have this strange world of bodies with alien head syndrome.

During your investigations you’ll be alerted to street crime that’s happening in Los Angeles. Should you respond to it you’ll be pointed in the right direction and receive a short cut scene when you arrive detailing the situation. These little side quests can be anything from chasing down wife beaters to full blown car chases that end up with a shoot out with dozens of individuals. Primarily they’re there to break up the monotony of driving and give you a little break from the case you’re working on (which can stretch for over an hour). They also serve to help you level up your character as it’d be nigh on impossible to reach the level cap otherwise.

The same sort of action scenes that are played out as street crime also form part of the investigations themselves. It would seem that everyone’s gut reaction when confronted by the police in Los Angeles is for them to run for the hills which whilst fun get’s a little repetitive after the 20th time it happens. This isn’t helped by the fact that your case is judged not only by how many clues you found and questions got right but also by how much damage you do to your car, people on the street and the city itself. Since these action scenes tend to be rather reckless you’re more than likely going to rack up a large bill chasing down all these scoundrels. It really doesn’t mean that much overall, but when the game actively encourages you to do it (like your partner telling you to ram someone off the road) and then punishes you for it does leave you feeling a bit mixed up.

Like any Rockstar sandbox game the city in which you play L.A. Noire feels very alive when you’re playing through it. However it’s probably more appropriate to equate it to a movie set: it’s made to look that way. In this game’s predecessors like Red Dead Redemption and GTA IV you could engage with the NPCs in varying ways (playing cards, buying clothes, visiting clubs and what have you) there is simply none of that in L.A. Noire at all. You’re more than welcome to drive around Los Angeles whilst you’re on your way to the mission but there’s no intermission where you’re free to do as you will. You really have no choice but to pursue the cases constantly as sometimes no matter how long you drive around for you just won’t get a street crime to go and solve. So whilst L.A. Noire has the feel of a sand box game it’s really nothing like that at all.

But just like a movie set the pieces that you’re meant to see are set out extremely well. I was a bit disappointed when I saw that it implemented the same cover based shooting style that’s present in nearly every game these days but unlike shooters where the combat areas are obvious they blended in quite well in L.A. Noire. The camera work, music and use of the environment is also done quite well, setting the mood almost perfectly throughout the game.

I also found the story to be quite enthralling as did my wife who sat by my side and watched me play almost the entirety of the game. Whilst the story line suffered initially from the lack of an overarching plot line, just like Dragon Age 2 did before it, the unveiling of Phelps’ back story slowly begins to tie everything together with the ending wrapping it all up. If I’m honest though I felt the ending was slightly hollow with some of the events happening right at the very end serving only to try and make one last emotional impact on the player, rather than adding anything else to the overall plot. Still I must commend them for going with an ending  that didn’t scream “SEQUEL SEQUEL”, a downright rarity these days.

L.A. Noire feels like yet another step towards gaming become a mature medium, becoming more of a medium to tell a story rather than just a distraction for kids. It’s also a technological step forward as well with the facial capture they did for it being nothing short of jaw dropping and I’m sure it’s not going to be long before we see that kind of realism extended to other aspects of the game. Whilst it might not stay true to the sandbox roots from which it was born L.A. Noire delivers a solid game experience that I’d have no trouble recommending to anyone, especially for those who enjoy their games more on the cerebral side.

Rating: 8.2/10

L.A. Noire is available for both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 right now for $89 and $89 respectively. Game was wholly played on the PlayStation 3 with a total of 22 hours played with approximately 75% total game completion according to the in game stats recorder.

Minecraft: Addictive Simplicity.

Sandbox games and I have a sordid history. Whilst I often enjoy them it’s not usually because of the engrossing story or intriguing game mechanics; more it’s after I’ve finished the mission at hand, saved my game and then promptly engage Jerk Mode and go on whatever kind of rampage the game allows me. Long time readers will remember this being the case in my Just Cause 2 review where I grew tried of having to do everything within the rules of the game and modded my way to Jerk nirvana. Still there have been some notable exceptions, like Red Dead Redemption, where the combination of certain elements came together in just the right way to get me completely draw in an engrossed in the story.

Minecraft, whilst sharing the sandbox title, has almost no elements of a traditional game in this genre. Having more in common with game mods like Gary’s Mod Minecraft throws you into a world where the possibilities really are only limited by your imagination. Over the past few months I have watched the news around it go from a single story to a media storm and I was always fascinated by the way it managed to draw people into it. Up until a couple weeks ago however I hadn’t bothered to try it for myself, not even the free version. However after watching a few videos of some of the more rudimentary aspects of the game I decided to give it a go, and shelled out the requisite $20 for the full (beta) version.

That’s a deep mine…

The premise of the game is extremely simple. You’re thrust into a world where everything is made of blocks and at night time hordes of zombies and other nefarious creatures will emerge from the wilderness, baying for your blood. The tools you have at your disposal are only your blocky hands but the world of blocks around you can be used to your advantage. By cutting down trees you can make wood which can then be converted into a whole range of tools. The race is then on to create some kind of shelter before nightfall comes, so that you might have a place to hide when the horde arrives. As you progress deeper however you’ll begin to discover other rare and wonderful materials that can make even better tools and weapons, leading you to delve even deeper underground in order to find those precious resources.

However whilst the basic idea extends to only surviving through the night there’s the entire meta game of creating almost anything you can think of within the Minecraft world. The world’s resources are pretty much at your disposal and their block like nature means you can build almost anything out of them. This has lead to many people building extremely ornate structures within Minecraft, ranging from simple things like houses right up to the Starship Enterprise. As with any sandbox game I took the opportunity for absurdity as far as I could imagine it at the time building a 1 block wide tall spire high up into the clouds where I mounted my fortress of evil.

All that’s missing is an Eye of Sauron.

The basic game mechanic of Minecraft has a dinstinctly MMORPG feel to it. You start out by cutting down trees for wood so you can make a pick axe to mine cobblestone. You then use the cobblestone to make better tools in order to mine iron. You then use the iron to mine other resources like gold, diamond and redstone. Much like the gear grind that all MMORPGs take you through before you’re able to do the end content Minecraft gets you hooked in quickly with the first few resource levels passing quickly. Afterwards it’s a much longer slog to get the minerals you require to advance, usually requiring you to dig extremely deep to find them. Like any MMORPG though this mechanic is highly addictive, leading me to lose many hours searching for the next mineral vein so that I can craft that next item.

After the first week however I started to grow tired of the endless mining that didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I had dug all the way down to bedrock and had found numerous rare resources but seemed to be lacking the one mineral I needed to harvest them: iron. Googling around for a while lead me to figure out that I was digging far too deep to find much iron and that the best place to find resources was in randomly generated dungeons or caves, basically pre-hollowed out sections of the map that were always teaming with resources (and zombies). After randomly digging for a while I started hearing the distinctive zombie groan and I followed it to the ultimate prize.

Oh yeah, that’s the good stuff!

Exploring this find lead me onto a string of caves all containing the resources I needed to progress further and I was hooked again. Whilst the last few hours I’ve spent with Minecraft have focused more on extending my fortress of evil and the surrounding area I still find myself often taking a trip down into the mines in the hope of coming across another cave or mineral vein as the excitement of finding one is on par with getting some epic loots in a MMORPG. I also set about setting up a Minecraft server so that I could play along with some of my more dedicated Minecraft friends although with a server fan dying I’ve had to put that on hold until I can ensure that it won’t overheat with more than one person playing on it.

Would I recommend this game? Most definitely, especially if you’re the type that enjoys sandbox style games that allow almost unlimited creativity. I was the kind of person who lost hours in Gary’s Mod, making whacky contraptions and using them to unleash untold torment onto hordes of Half Life’s NPCs. The tables are very much turned in Minecraft’s world but it’s just as enjoyable and I have no doubt that anyone can lose a few good hours in it just exploring the retro world that Minecraft generates for you. The game is still technically in beta but for the price they’re asking it’s well worth the price of admission.

Minecraft is available for PC and web browser right now for a free trial or AU$20. Game was played on a local single player instance for the majority of game time with an hour or so spent on a multiplayer server. No rating is being assigned to this game as it’s still in beta.

Red Dead Redemption: Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.

At first glance Red Dead Redemption was a game that wasn’t up my alley at all. For starters whilst I love open worlds and the opportunities they allow for emergent gameplay I’m always cautious when it comes to sandbox style games. Rockstar has arguably mastered the format with their Grand Theft Auto series but even their most compelling release to date (GTA IV) failed to capture me long enough to play the game all the way to the end. Additionally I’ve never been much of a western fan instead finding myself engulfed in science fiction and pure fantasy, finding the genre to be a little too bland for my tastes. Still the hype and critical acclaim that Red Dead Redemption managed to garner itself was not lost on me and not having delved into a good console game in a while I set myself the goal of playing through this title to the bitter end. What followed was a highly engrossing tale that ultimately left me with feelings that I’m still working through as I write this post.

 

The story begins with you playing a grizzled cowboy named John Marston who appears to be forced onto a train against his will by some upper class looking folks. As the story progresses you find out that he used to run in a gang and the government is using him to track his friends down to either capture or kill them. His initial attempts don’t go so well but thanks to the kindness of some local strangers he makes it through. The tale then leads on from there in usual Rockstar style with story missions appearing on a radar marked with a letter and random missions popping up in the form of strangers asking for help, events happening as you ride by and a variety of mini-games to play to pass the time. The free form nature of the game enables you to craft your own unique story for John Marston as he wanders the wild west looking for his pals of a life he’s trying to leave behind.

Now credit here were it’s due. Rockstar have created a world that feels alive, open and deceptively real. There are vast, breathtaking vistas around almost every corner and even though you could ride across the entire place in less than half an hour you still have this undeniable feeling that you’re in a world that’s a million times bigger than yourself. The NPCs whilst extremely shallow in their depths of interactivity make the areas come alive with their sound bites of commentary and, once you hit a certain point, make you feel like a living legend. The addition of NPCs in the form of wildlife that form the basis of many mini games add that extra bit of flavour that make you feel like you’re actually out in the west, able to make your living off the land.

The actual gameplay of Red Dead Redemption is actually quite a complicated beast but in true Rockstar form it’s progressively revealed to you over the course of the introductory missions so that it doesn’t overwhelm you completely. The meat of the game lies within the storyline missions which can be activated by approaching any of the giant letters on your map. In addition to the story line missions there are also “stranger” missions where you can help out various people who you’ve only just met. When you’ve tapped out all of these options there’s also the mini games which take the form of various leisure activities you’d expect in the wild west (poker, blackjack, horseshoes, etc) as well as jobs which can include things like breaking horses, herding cattle and chasing down bounties.

Now I won’t lie to you but whilst there is an incredible breadth to the number of activities which you can do after a while they do start to sort of meld into each other. Many of the story line missions are quite similar in that you’ll go to the mission giver, see a cut scene, proceed to ride for about 5 minutes whilst Marston and whoever you picked up share some dialog and then you get to your destination to either shoot up some bad guys or do one of the mini games. It is enjoyable for the first couple times and the trip to the destination is quite reminiscent of what happened in the various GTA incarnations but after a while you get bored having to spend so long riding everywhere just so they can flesh out the characters a bit more. This is where the sandbox genre falls down in my opinion as while you can almost do anything in this world in the end it detracts from the uniqueness of the story line missions making everything feel like just another obstacle that needs to be passed.

Combat in Red Dead Redemption is nothing revolutionary in terms of what it accomplishes but does give enough variety to make sure you’re not left feeling like a one trick pony. Rockstar took the tried and true Gears of War style combat in that you’ll be running and gunning from behind cover whilst having no visible health bar (save for the sound going muted and the screen being covered in blood splatters). Shooters on consoles are notoriously fiddly and to combat this Rockstar added in an aimbot that locks onto a target if you aim in their general direction. Whilst I appreciated the addition (the game would’ve been tiresome without it) when it was taken away for certain things like say, using a gatling gun, I found myself hating these sequences rather than reveling in them. This was wholeheartedly made up for with the ability to be able to lasso and hogtie people in the game, which I used with reckless abandon whenever I had the chance. Strangely though you can’t hogtie any animal, even a hog! Although you are able to lasso them and, in what I assume is a bug, glide blissfully over any terrain as your prey runs scared from you. You can also do this with other people’s horses and is probably my favourite way to travel somewhere random when feeling bored in Red Dead Redemption.

PLOT SPOILERS FOLLOW BELOW HERE:

Now as for the story and its conclusion those of you who followed me on Twitter can already guess as to how I felt about the whole ordeal. After spending 20 hours getting to know the man that was John Marston I’ll admit I became sentimentally attached to the former criminal who’s been trying to mend his ways. After chasing down the last of his former gang and riding home to the tear inducing song Compass by Jamie Lidell I fully expected to see the credits role as John embraced Abegail for the first time in what felt like forever. However the proceeding missions felt hollow as they put you right back at the start of the game and strip you of a few key things (like being able to change your outfit). I knew that in the end something bad was coming for him but really what eventuated was worse than I thought of.

You see in the final moments of John’s life where he’s gunned down by no less than 20 American soldiers there was nothing really noble about it. I can appreciate the noble sacrifice for his wife and son (who are now free from his past) and the harsh reality is that it probably rings true to what would of happened back in those days. Still I wanted at least the opportunity to be able to make a last stand that would end in a shoot out that I couldn’t win instead of Marston walking out and being cowardly gunned down. I also admit that my anger at John’s end stems from a real feeling of grief at his loss, as just writing that down has me fighting back a tear.

In the end I do what I always do when that happens, I look for answers. After looking around for a bit I found that there was a stranger mission available after the end where Jack gets revenge for his father. I went and did it and whilst I felt somewhat redeemed in the fact that Edgar Ross finally got what he deserved (with me emptying at least 15 bullets into him) there was still this hollow feeling I couldn’t shake, almost to the point of me loading up my last saved game with Marston still alive in it so I could pretend like it never happened.

SPOILERS OVER!

In the end Rockstar made yet another great game that has captured the hearts of nearly everyone who’s played it. Whilst I might be uncomfortable with the last few hours I spent with it I still can’t deny the fact I spent a good 20 hours of my life on the game and I don’t regret a single minute of it. The game is not without its issues but if you’re a fan of Rockstar and the sandbox worlds that they create then you won’t feel out of place in the wild west world of Red Dead Redemption.

Rating: 8.5/10

Red Dead Redemption is available right now on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 right now for AU$88 and AU$88 respectively. Game was played on the PlayStation 3 with around 21 hours of reported play time and 73% overall completion.

Boredom Breeds Jerks.

If I’m seriously playing a game I find it hard to take the evil/jerk options if I’m given the choice. Maybe it’s because I like to think of myself as an upstanding member of society and being a total ass in games runs counter to that line but it’s probably because I like being the hero loved by everyone rather than the dark tyrant conquering the world. Still if there’s marked differences between the good and evil choices and the game is good enough to warrant a second playthrough (like Mass Effect 1 did, I haven’t done it with 2) I’ll usually go the other way just to get that experience. However I’ve found that, usually in sandbox type games, once I get bored with certain aspects of the game I have a tendency to switch into what I call Jerk Mode where I start messing with the game and its people in any way possible usually with hilarious results (for me anyway).

I hadn’t really done this in quite a while until I recently began trying to play through Red Dead Redemption. I had fully expected the game to be done in about 15 hours but after spending that long on primarily slogging through the story line missions I started to get a little bored with the world I had been in for so long. What followed was a classic example of Jerk Mode engaging as I began hog tying the entire town of Blackwater, punching up horses and eventually letting off hundreds of rounds in the middle of town just so I could find where the last free roaming citizens were hiding only to add them to my pile of hog tied comrades. Why the in game police take offense when I look at them the wrong way when holding a knife but barely give me a second look when I have a pile of 20 hostages tied up is beyond me, but it was quite comical when they’d walk past saying “Good day Mr Marsten”.

I’ve also found myself in Jerk Mode whenever I’m watching someone play a game that allows you to break things in extremely funny ways. I remember watching one of my housemates play Fallout 3 just after it was released and he remarked on how he could kill anyone in the game, even the core story NPCs. What ensued was an hour of me watching him over the shoulder and telling him to beat up everyone he came across, just because it would be funny. To his credit he never relented although what followed was me installing the game afterwards and acting out my twisted sense of humour on the poor citizens of the Fallout world, much to his dismay.

Looking back at all the games that were privvy to my jerky behaviour I come to realise how much it endeared the games to me. Once I had got to that point of boredom in any other game I would have simply stopped playing them and found something else to fill my time. With the ability to change my playstyle completely and fool around for a while I’d end up spending quite a lot more time with the games than I usually would and, most interestingly, enjoy them quite a lot more. It could be that I’m just supressing my inner jerk and these few times are the moments when he comes out to play but there’s something to be said for a game that allows the player who has lost interest in the game to immediately rekindle it, even if that means toturing the poor NPCs of the game’s virtual world.

My gut feeling about where this behaviour stems from is that open worlds with emergent properties really didn’t exist up until about 5 years or so ago and now that I have the opportunity I’m reveling in a new found freedom. As someone who’s been a gamer for as long as he was able to muster the hand eye co-ordination required to play them I lived through the days when the games were barely able to stray from the linear formula. Today however it seems odd when games don’t incorporate real world physics, meaningful choices and at least the feeling of a big wide world that you can bend to your whim. Sure there’s still great experiences to be had with strictly linear games but I’ll always have a soft spot for games that keep me hanging around for a little while after I’m done with them, unleashing my inner jerk on the world.

Just Cause 2: I’m The Bull in Panau’s China Shop.

It’s been a while since I did a game review on this blog and there’s a very good reason for that. After spending a solid few months developing Geon (and subsequently relegating myself to rewrite it again) I fell hopelessly back into my old addict, World of Warcraft. The lure of defeating the nemesis that Warcraft 3 created in the Lich King was too tempting and I was soon caught up in the rough and tumble world of raiding once again. Still I found myself with less tolerance for some of the crap the game throws at you (although I admit most of it has been removed, thank heavens) so I’ve been dabbling with a few other games. Just Cause 2 happened by my way through several recommendations from friends so I ponied up the US$50 for the game and gave it a good slog over the past couple weeks. There’s a couple unique things about this game that got me hooked and one external thing that changed the game fundamentally for me.

The name has been subject to both ridicule and praise amongst the gaming community and rightly so. Whilst I think that the actual thrust of the name is supposed to be that you’re fighting for a just cause (although that’s questionable) it can also be taken as a light hearted stab at the core of the game: fucking around. Probably a more apt name for the name would be Grand Theft Democracy: Panau, but then again I’m not really in the business of making up game names now am I? 😉

Right off the bat the game is quite a looker. I caught myself on several occasions just flying around the island of Panau and checking out the scenery. You’re not left wanting for various methods to see the scenery either as nearly every form of transport is represented on the tiny island nation. The attention to detail also extends to the little things like the constant stream of explosions you’ll be setting off, and all the glorious debris that follow it.

The story itself is a little thin on the ground. You’re an Agency Agent named Rico Rodriguez (wait it gets better) who’s being sent to Panau to figure out why the island has severed all ties with the glorious USA and to hunt down one of your former colleagues who’s gone rogue. Nearly every character is some kind of overblown stereotype and realistically the game wouldn’t have suffered much if they replaced everything with just text boxes instead of in game videos. Not that I come seeking a deep story from an sandbox action game but the deliberate attempt to be completely cheesy and bordering on the racist, whilst amusing, became almost a chore to sit through towards the end.

Combat in Just Cause 2 is a ludicrous as it comes. The main objective of the game is to cause chaos by any means necessary which mostly means going around and blowing anything and everything up. For such a small island nation Panau seems to have an extremely healthy and incompetent military with fully armed helicopters, aircraft and land vehicles all laying about just waiting to be driven away. This leads to a game where you spend most of your time looking for somewhere to lay waste to or laying waste to something. Realistically though you’ll usually end up trying to find a helicopter with rockets on it as it’s the quickest way to blow up a whole mess of things and it provides you a quick getaway once the fuzz gets on the scene.

Now I’m not one to complain about a game that enables, nay encourages, you to unleash untold destruction on the world they’ve thrust you into. I’m known for being a complete ass in games that let you do this, leading to me spending many hours loading up a save game and wrecking havoc on the in game world. My better half has grown used to me cackling madly as I set up elaborate contraptions in games just to see the NPC crowd explode in a flurry of ragdoll physics and giblets. Still after a while I became bored with the whole untold destruction thing, opting more to try and do missions that would grant me more chaos so I could progress the damn story. To be honest I lasted about 7 hours before this got extremely tedious, so I started to look for other solutions.

You see it wasn’t too long after I got the game that someone put me onto this video of someone having some fun with multiple grappling hooks (yet another one of the games unique features). Intrigued I started hunting down the mod that he made reference to called Bolo Patch which, amongst many other things, enabled this multi grapple ability. Included in the usual money and upgrade hacks there was also the ability to change how much chaos you had, and I couldn’t resist setting it to its highest setting. Now many people will say I was missing the point of the whole game here but hear me out, I was completely and totally bored with what it had to offer. Really all I was after was some closure on the thin plot they had got me interested in and hopefully something different than blowing up yet another military installation.

Playing just the agency missions would see this game done in about 3 hours so you can see why they padded it out with the various faction missions as well as the traditional sandbox chicanery. That wouldn’t of been too bad except for the fact that many of the missions felt like I was doing the same thing just in a different area. Additionally there are whole parts of the game rendered completely moot, such as the black market dealer. Why would I bother buying something from him when realistically I was only 5 minutes away from having something infinitely better? I can’t tell you the number of missions were trivialized by just finding a helicopter and then raining hell from the skies or how every stronghold mission seemed to have a mounted gun that I could take with me for the whole ride.

In the end I turned on god mode and gave myself a fully upgraded rocket launcher with unlimited ammo and honestly the last few missions were a blast. There’s nothing more fun than juggling your enemy in the air with a relentless chain of RPG fire which every so often would land directly at my feet sending Rico flying skyward in a hilarious rag doll spin. There’s also some fun to be had with stacking 50 triggered explosives under your feet and doing the same, as you can actually throw yourself up so high that you can sky dive back down to the ground.

Would I recommend Just Cause 2? That depends, you really have to be a fan of sandbox type games to enjoy the things that this game provides. Whilst it does have its moments (and really some of them are just spectacular) the real meat of the game is just too much of the same thing and after a while you’re longing for something other than blowing up another village or fending off an endless horde of Panauian soldiers. The redeeming feature of Just Cause 2 are the stories you’ll tell with your friends, like that time you hijacked a plane, flew up to another plane, grapple hooked them together and then watched them collide as you parachuted back down to earth.

Rating: 6.5/10

Just Cause 2 is available right now for PlayStation 3, Xbox360 and PC right now for AU$99, $99 and $78 respectively. Game was played on hardest difficulty setting for the entire game, with the last 3 out of 10 hours game play spent cheating like there was no tomorrow.