A game based around any of the world wars is usually an instant turn off for me. The number of games that have been based around those events are so numerous that there really doesn’t feel like there can be any more angles to tackle it from as pretty much every story from it has been done to death. The alternate reality and fantasy versions of it, like those in Wolfenstein, get away with it since they’re not wholly dependent on war stories for inspiration but they’ll still need a little something extra to pique my interest. Valiant Hearts, which comes to us care of Ubisoft Montpellier, has been receiving wide praise for it’s touching story. As someone who’s just come off 2 rather lacklustre story based titles I wasn’t hoping for miracles but Valiant Hearts managed to surprise me, bringing this writer to tears as its conclusion.
The year is 1914 and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused Germany to declare war on Russia. France, anticipating that this war will escalate far beyond those two countries, deports all of its German citizens back to their home country. Karl is one of those citizens, torn away from his wife and young son he is sent to the frontlines of the war to fight for his home country. Not long after his wife’s father, Emile, is called to duty as well and sent to fight for the French army. What follows is a tale of how the war drives families apart and the never ending quest for them to be reunited once again.
Valiant Hearts reminds me of the flash games of yesteryear, albeit with production values far exceeding that of any of its predecessors. It was developed on the same framework that powered Ubisoft’s recent release Child of Light and it’s easy to see just how heavily the choice of that platform influenced the art work. In contrast to Child of Light however Valiant Heart’s art style is far more dark and monotone with infinite shades of brown and grey being the primary colour palette. This does mean that when colour is used it’s quite striking and the art team does a fantastic job of using it to great effect. This also extends to the beautiful soundtrack that accompanies the game, ebbing and flowing at all the right moments.
In terms of actual game play Valiant Hearts is much like other story-first games in the sense that it usually takes a back seat to progressing the story. For the most part you’ll be doing elaborate fetch quest missions that require you to find one item in order to progress through the next session. Sometimes you’ll have to make your way through various different people in order to get to the final objective and try as you might there’s no clever way to bypass certain things. There’s also a bevy of quicktime-esque events that will require you to either guess correctly or simply memorize the sequence in which events happen in order to move on to the next part of the story.
Thankfully Valiant Hearts didn’t fall into the trap of putting far too much game play in between sections of the story like both the recent titles I played through did. In all honesty I didn’t think it was a major hurdle for games of this nature to get past as many of them are done by indie developers and so ancillary mechanics are usually on the bottom of their to do list. However with 2 games falling prey to the same problems I have to commend Valiant Hearts for getting the pacing right which helps immensely with keeping the player interested in the story. There were some sections that could use some tuning but compared to my recent experiences it was heaven.
Most of the puzzles are fairly intuitive as your inventory space is limited to a single item, limiting the amount of complexity that the game can throw at you significantly. There’s a pretty good variety of puzzle mechanics so you won’t be redoing the same thing over and over again but most of them shouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes or so to figure out. A couple of them will require you to think laterally about what you’re doing as some of them lack obvious cues as to what might interact with what. This did lead to a couple confusing moments when I wasn’t quite sure if I was doing the right thing but most of the time you’ll get there through trial and error.
One issue I did find with Valiant Hearts was that since there’s not a lot of visual differentiation between different parts of the environment it can be sometimes hard to find a path you’re meant to go down or what elements are interactive. This meant that in some of the more visually busy sections I was wondering just where exactly I was meant to go as I couldn’t find the particular path to go down. I also had some deaths that felt like they were more due to visual confusion more than anything else. This might just be a fault of the writer however but it’s still an issue that should be pointed out.
Of course what really makes Valiant Hearts worth playing is the story. Overall it’s a pretty typical story of a family torn apart by war, almost Romeo and Juliet like in the star crossed lovers from different houses idea, and the story of them trying to reunite with each other. The main characters all receive the background and development they deserve, which helps immensely when it comes to scenes that rely on engaging your sense of empathy with them. Some of the elements of it are a little on the fantasy side, which can be a tad distracting from the overall message that the game tries to put forth, however they’re only there as aides to the plot so they’re easily pushed aside.
I’ll have to admit that for probably the first half or so of Valiant Hearts I wasn’t too emotionally invested with the characters or story. Whilst the opening was gripping enough to draw me into playing the game further there’s a bit of dearth in the early game as the characters are seemingly just going through the motions. However as each of their back stories is developed in detail you find yourself becoming attached to them and each tragedy that befalls them starts to cut into you. The final climatic scene is by far one of the most bittersweet endings I have endured in recent memory and whilst it might lean on the cheesy/predictable side that didn’t stop me from bursting into tears, overcome with a sense of grief.
Valiant Hearts is a beautiful story masterfully told through the medium of video games. The art style and music direction are some of the best I’ve experienced in their category, taking the traditional flash styled game and ramping it up to the next level. The game mechanics are simple, enjoyable and thankfully stay out of the way of the story, leaving the player to enjoy Valiant Hearts for what it truly is. Finally the story is by far one of the best examples I’ve come across this year with all the characters receiving the right amount of screen time and development required for it’s ultimate emotional climax. If you, like me, have been feeling let down by the offerings of story based games of late then I can wholeheartedly recommend Valiant Hearts as the cure to what ails you.
Valiant Hearts is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $14.99, $22.95, $22.95, $19.95 and $19.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 5 hours of total play time.
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.
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.
Something was different today. Maybe it was the clouds covering the sky or the late night we swore we weren’t going to subject ourselves too but this morning was slow to get going and slow going all the way. I had actually woken up early and was going to make the most of it but my body wouldn’t have any of it, pulling me back down into the sweet dream land I was struggling to leave behind. We finally woke at our usual time to make our way down to La Pain Quotidien, a local organic bakery that does a mean Belgian waffle and managed to produce a real coffee that didn’t taste like NYC swap gas. We’d figured that we could knock off 2 sights today leaving just one left for our last full day in NYC so we headed up to our first target: the Museum of Modern Art.
I’d heard of MoMA before through watching some vlogs about NYC a while back. I was interested in it primarily because of that but also hoping that it wouldn’t just be all paintings on walls or halls of sculptures. You see I’m not usually much of an art fan as much of it bores me but I thought that the modern aspect of it might ensure that a few items would pique my interest. Upon entering we were greeted with an exhibit that was part physics experiment and part magic trick with 2 fans blowing into each other with 2 loops of some material hovering between them. I’ve got a video of it which I’ll endeavour to upload later and post below because this thing is seriously cool.
Thrilled with the prospect that this wasn’t my grandma’s kind of art museum we started on the second floor. The first section we went through was an installation from a Vietnamese artist which was basically a documentary about helicopters and their use during the war. It was interesting to hear the stories of those who lived through that war but it confused me as to how the thing could be considered art. We went on to the next section which was dedicated to the modern kitchen with all kinds of appliances and designs going back over 100 years. There was also an awesome amount of wartime propaganda about eating certain foods or breeding rabbits (they’re off the ration!) to help the war effort. It was almost surreal that those kinds of posters actually existed but then again I’m several generations removed from those who experienced the last total war.
The next section was all industrial design with various products and art based on those products. Some of these exhibits were interesting mostly for the information around when the products came to be. After this we started making our way up to the next few levels and this is where we showed our total ignorance of the art world. We breezed through the next 3 levels of varying walls of paintings only stopping a few times when we recognised things like The Starry Night or a name of a long dead painter. An hour or so later we were out of there and jonesing for some grub so I found us a little french place not too far away where we could rest up before tackling our next target.
After finishing a delicious lunch we had both came to the conclusion that we’re not particularly big art fans which means we probably won’t be visiting the 2 other art museums we have in our booklet instead opting for another high rise (30 Rockefeller) and just letting the other one slide. Walking out we both felt the same tiredness that had plagued us in the morning return with a vengeance. We wandered back to the hotel where we zoned out for a good 3 hours before heading out for dinner. We shared a slab of ribs and the returned back home feeling fat and happy.
Tomorrow is our last full day here in NYC and we’re hoping to make the most of it. If we feel up to it we might hit up the last museum on our hit list but we’ve still a couple other attractions I’d like to see before we depart this giant city. That will also bring us into our final week of vacationing in the USA and into some warmer weather, preparing us for what awaits us back home. I’m not thinking about that too much as there’s going to be a lot happening between now and then and my brain is firmly in holiday mode.
I can’t say that I’ve been much of a fan of the war series of games. I’m not sure what it was about them but I guess the glut of Axis vs Allies games we had about 5 years ago left a sour taste in my mouth as they were always your typical “Go over there and kill the Nazis for the greater good” which got extremely tiresome after a long while. I’d always felt that we were just rubbing the German’s collective faces in the fact that they did something wrong and good ultimately triumphed (this could also be in part to my German heritage and hence I felt my pride take a small bruising because of this). So while I may have written off the Call of Duty series off initially they did draw me back in with the first of the Modern Warfare line which boasted an intriguing single player campaign and an extremely dedicated online community. Whilst I haven’t had the time to try my hand online of their latest offering of Modern Warfare 2 as of yet I did get a chance to play through the campaign last week and I must say, Infinity Ward has outdone themselves when it comes to giving you that Hollywood-esque feeling of the man out to save the world whilst still capturing some of the true horrors of war.
The first thing that you’ll notice about MW2 is absolute beauty of the world that they throw you into. This is not just because of the gorgeous scenery that makes up every single level it’s also the stunning level of detail that has been achieved. Everything you’d expect to see is there from recruits playing basketball in the first level to wine cellars in an upper class neighbourhood under siege. Whilst its easy to race past all of this there are times when you’re forced to slow down and take in your surroundings, which is usually because you’re being held down by suppressing fire. There’s also one scene you can’t run through no matter what, and that’s the controversial “No Russian” mission.
Now I’ll have to be honest, the controversy and hype about this mission made the whole experience for me rather disconnected and emotionless. Whilst I can understand the emotion that was meant to be invoked by such a scene (and truthfully part of me was just too shocked to react properly) having heard about it endlessly on gaming websites I knew what I was in for and the impact of the scene was lost. However there were a few things that stuck with me about it. The first was a single line on the video before it spoken by Shepard:
It will cost you a part of yourself, which is nothing in comparison to everything you will save.
Indeed reflecting on that mission more I can feel that kind of loss, trying to justify the slaughter constantly in my head with the thousands upon thousands of lives I will save by bringing Makarov to justice. The final betrayal by Makarov then unravels any justification I could have made in my head to overcome the senseless violence my character had just committed, making him just a pawn in his bloody game. So whilst the initial shock of the scene may have been ruined for me the scene still sticks in my mind long after it has been played out.
There were also a couple ideas or themes that I felt played out constantly through MW2. The first, and probably most obvious, was the very real depiction of what a soldier’s view of front line warfare is. There were countless times when I found myself right in the middle of conflict, gunfire soaring over my head and orders being shouted in my ear that left me in a daze scrambling for direction. Of course the game’s HUD does a good job of keeping you on the right direction (although I do credit Infinity Ward for making the majority of it fade away after a short period in time) but you still get the feeling that sometimes you’re just a small cog in a much larger machine. There are also times when you’re the hero, a single man against a much larger foe. These are carefully balanced and it makes both experiences equally as powerful, something which many games struggle to achieve.
Secondly the entire game is a giant advertising campaign for the United States Army. Now I’m sure this isn’t completely intentional but the times when your character in MW2 becomes the hero many of the horrific aspects of war become glorified. One such mission has you taking out troops using a Predator drone’s Hellfire missiles and you get varying levels of commendation from your team depending on how many you kill in one shot. I can’t really fault them for this because if the game just trashed the American war effort constantly the game would be no fun to play at all and the game would obviously be labelled as such. The careful line drawn between showing the glory and horror of war works extremely well but I wouldn’t hesitate to guess that a few considering a career in the army were tipped over the edge by playing MW2.
Just because you all knew it was coming (and if you didn’t I’d have to point you towards this page) I’ll have to throw my weight in on the space scene. It was a nice addition and definitely something I wasn’t expecting to see in a game like MW2. However there were a couple nits I need to pick out of their depiction of space, the ISS and indeed their understanding of physics at large.
First off their configuration of the ISS is old and completely off. Whilst I can understand that creating a model takes time (although their configuration is from 2005) and as such might not match the most recent configuration of that space craft the bits that have been added (most notably another set of solar panels) could have been copied from the ones shown in the picture. Secondly the camera’s on the astronauts helmets would be woefully inefficient for the purpose of watching an ICBM from long range. They’re not particularly high resolution and the ISS has many other cameras on board that would be far better suited to this purpose. Additionally the astronaut in question is a fair way away from the station which is never done because there’s just no need for it. I would’ve let them off with a warning if they used the shuttle instead, but then I would probably have a whole other swath of objections to make 😉
Overall I was very satisfied with my time spent with MW2. It’s a short game with only about 6~8 hours of solid game play in it but I’d struggle to find a moment when your heart wasn’t racing and you weren’t glued to your seat with your eyes solidly fixed to the screen. In fact many who I’ve spoke to about the single player experience in MW2 have done the entire game in one sitting, a testament to how gripping this game really is. I’ve deliberately refrained from commenting on the multiplayer experience as I prefer my FPS games to be played on the PC, and with them being in a minority for this release I thought it would be unfair. However if my brother’s experience is anything to go by (he’s an avid Xbox360 player of Mw2 on Live) its just as captivating as the single player.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is available for PS3, Xbox360 and PC right now for $AU118, $118 and $98 respectively. Game was played on PC on normal difficulty with about 8 hours of game time total.