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Happy Holidays to all. Hopefully you’ve had just as good a time as we have.

Posts will resume after New Years. In the meantime, we give you your daily dose of merriment and epic rolled into one:

Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword – Victoria’s Review

Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Platform: Wii
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 2011
Rating: Everyone 10+

Written by Victoria Zukas

Introduction
I need to say a few things before I get started. While I have not played every Legend of Zelda game (by a long shot) I still consider myself a huge fan of the series. I got hooked when Ocarina of Time came out for the N64 and have been a fan ever since. I have the gold cartridge of Majora’s Mask, the gold colored Nintendo DS, and a host of other smaller Zelda things that Gamestop puts right next to the register to empty my wallet. When Skyward Sword came out I bought the bundle with the gold Wii Mote.

Why am I shoving my Zelda fan credentials in your face? To make you understand when I can’t say the standard line of “If you’re a long time fan of the series this game is for you.”

Zelda a Strong Female Character?
Don’t get me wrong. Skyward Sword does get some things very right. This is the first Princess Zelda I’ve seen who breaks out of the standard damsel-in-distress role. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call her a strong female character, Nintendo is taking a step in right direction. Princess Zelda has always been more assertive then her female counterparts (Princess Peach for example) but this version of her is someone you can identify with. Her interaction with Link also feels more real then in previous games. It carries much more emotional weight to be chasing after your childhood friend/crush instead of some random princess.

Controls
The other thing Nintendo gets right in this game is the Wii Mote controls. When Twilight Princess was announced, Skyward Sword was the game everyone was imagining. The Motion Plus makes a HUGE difference here. When you swing the Wii Mote your sword on screen makes the exact same movement. Being so used to standard controllers it blew my mind that the game could handle diagonal cuts and thrusts. While there can be minor glitches from time to time it’s easy to reset where center is, without having to leave the game to calibrate your Wii Mote. Most of the problems I had with the Wii Mote were due to having lights on in the path of the sensor; nothing that is the fault of the game.

The only part of the controls I found fault with is Z-Targeting. I’m 10 hours in and I haven’t found a setting I can change so you don’t have to hold the Z button down to keep targeting. There is only so much I can do Nintendo; asking me to hold the Z button down while dodging, blocking, and swinging is a large annoyance. My finger gets tired after awhile.

Remember Navi?
Speaking of large annoyances, I present to you the only thing in the Zelda universe more frustrating then that small blue ball of pain. Her name is Fi, and you will learn to hate her.

Fi is one of the reasons that I say hard core Zelda fans won’t like this game. She is part of a larger problem with this game, which is demographic mismatch. I understand that with the Legend of Zelda franchise being 25 years old there are gamers coming into Skyward Sword who have never played a Zelda game before. However, Nintendo seems to have completely ignored their long term players in order to compensate for the new members to the Zelda club. As veteran players know, whenever Link finds a new object he raises it about his head, the “you got something!” music plays, and a description of what it does appears on screen. Fi then pops out of your sword and explains everything that you just read again. Really? You just told me that I got the map and how it works. Now the construct thing living in my sword needs to say it not a second after I just heard it? What grade level are you assuming I’m in?

This also happens with dialogue. The leader of the Kiwis “forgot” where he saw Zelda go off to, but if you help him find his missing people he might remember. It is so painfully obvious that he’s making Link do his work. Instead of going off to find the missing Kiwis, Fi pops out and says that the Kiwi leader knows where Zelda is and you should go find the Kiwis. ….No duh.

The one that really grates on my nerves is when her icon flashes and chimes every single time you’re low on hearts. I should refill my heart container you say? Really? I hadn’t thought of that. Thanks. (/end sarcasm)

Art Style
On a topic less frustrating, Nintendo has once again proved they are masters of world building. While each area you visit feels unique, Skyloft itself is the crown jewel of this. It’s hard to make a floating island with sky people without going into the cliche, yet somehow it works. I say “somehow” because it works so well that I can’t pull it apart to analyse it. At first Skyloft looks like someone took every color of the rainbow and threw it onto the screen. Then as you sit there staring at it, you realize that it doesn’t hurt you eyes. As you look at it more it begins to look natural. I can’t explain it. Whoever was in charge of level design for this game at Nintendo needs to be given props for Skyloft.

The choice to make Skyloft a color extravaganza also helps separate it from the surface world below. Each area that Link visits on the surface has a much stricter color pallet that it’s drawing from. For example, the Forest Temple uses mainly blues and greens, while the Fire Temple uses shades yellow, orange, and brown.

Shield Degradation
My last complaint has to do with shields in Skyward Sword. Whoever at Nintendo thought that shield degradation was a good plan didn’t playtest this game afterwards. A shield should be able to take normal wear and tear without breaking. There were several times I had to stop mid dungeon and go back to Skyloft to get my shield fixed, or buy a new one entirely. In the first dungeon I completely broke three wooden shields. This is after having them fixed multiple times and using potions to fix them while still in the dungeon. Making me retrace my steps three times because your enemies need to be stunned with a shield to be killed is not good game design.

Final Result
While I can’t say Skyward Sword is a horrible game (I will continue to play it after this review is done) I can’t whole heartily recommend it either. At the end of the day if you’re new to the Zelda series, or hard core enough to ignore the things mentioned above, go give this game a look. If you’re a Zelda fan returning for the latest installment in the series, expect to be gripping your controller several times in frustration within the first hour.

Final Verdict – Play It.

Catherine – Richard’s Perspective

Catherine

Platform: Xbox 360

Developer: Atlus

Publisher: Atlus

Released: 2011

Rating: Mature

Written by Richard Pavis

 

More than the sum of it’s parts

Catherine is a relationship horror puzzle game, and I cannot belive that those elements actually work together.  Let me make something perfectly clear, this is a japanese dating game, and a japanese puzzle game.  If either of those things do not make you jump for joy, this is not for you.  This is not a gateway drug, this is not an introduction to either genre.  Catherine may not be easy, but it is an excellent game this is a prime example of good game design, taken to it’s highest level.  This is not Skyrim, or Portal, or WoW, but it is a richly textured and finely crafted experience with multiple and very different endings.  This is not a game to ease into, but perhaps I’m not doing it justice, since I’m not a fan of any of these types of games, but this is the chocolate & peanut butter effect.

Theme, Subject, Tone and Pacing

When discussing Catherine it behooves the reviewer to separate theme and subject.  The theme is horror, and the subject is long term relationships, but this does not mean that LTR are portrayed in a negative light, or in any horrific fashion.  The theme and subject are related but not dependent.  In fact, the primary scare for Vincent, is represented by the loss of freedom and the unwelcome change from the normal.  A LTR is simply the way in which the world is changing.  Any sufficiently life changing experiences could serve to agitate Vincent in this way. He isn’t specifically afraid of relationships. He’s actualy in his own way in love with Katherine, even if he isn’t ready for marriage.

I hesitate to call the experience of Catherine cinematic, because that implies that the best this a game can be is a movie, so instead I’ll call the experience immersive.  The pacing is exquisite.  Without wishing to ruin a few of the scares, I will say that the game plays around with the idea that Vincent’s nightmares start bleeding over into the waking world.  In the small moments of safety and solitude, Vincent is instead shocked with terrifying images and sounds, which quickly disappear before they are completely understood.  Catherine is able to spool up tension, and snap it taught to punctuate a scene.  In a simple horror game, each scare is entirely divorced from each other.  Each one discreetly placed along the timeline of the game.  As you play Catherine you will quickly realize that in addition to the small scares, the game is carefully spooling up larger, more abstract psychological scares.  As Vincent starts to become self-aware in the dream, he begins to connect events in the waking world to the dream world, providing insight to the player, but leaving Vincent to forget it each time he wakes up.  However, once information starts bleeding back into the real world, Vincent starts to unravel at the seams, questioning his own sanity.  It is this slow and steady climb toward larger questions  and fewer answers that make Catherine a truly excellently paced game.

Many Puzzles, Many Solutions

In the dream the player will be presented with a tower they must climb.  On each landing the player will be able to discover new techniques in which to climb the tower.  The idea is you can use almost any technique at any point to get through the tower.    However, a boss battle almost requires you to follow one path almost exclusively, and solve it in one particular way.  There is a disconnect between the ‘Techniques’ I ‘learn’ and the dream world in which they must be implemented.  This makes it very hard to smoothly integrate these new tricks into my climbing; I end up using the same technique over and over.  Knowing only how to use a hammer, I search in vain for nails. The trouble is, if they went out of their way to force me into using those techniques along the way it would feel heavy handed and wrong.

Controls, or lack of

As a lesser annoyance, the controls in Catherine all seem to be mounted on a hair trigger.  Every action could go off at any second, and take you onto or off of a block.  Where you are positioned matters a great deal in Catherine since each one has a different perspective on control schemes.  Standing on a block and hanging on a block will have you control Vincent differently, and the controls reverse when you go behind the main tower stack. Oh, but the controls only reverse when you stop moving.  Eventually I was able to fight my way through the controls to make it through each level, but it wasn’t easy.  I’m going to assume that these controls are the norm for the genre since despite their quirks, they seem well refined.

Here, here!  It is the beating of his hideous heart!

The loading screens in Catherine are the single biggest detractor from the experience.  They are numerous, protracted, and annoying.  Laterally, they are meant to convey the passage of time as a clock ticks away the time from scene to scene.  In practice, the ticking becomes annoying very quickly, and every loading screen lasts far too long.  Moreover there is no redeeming value to them, since they contain no text or information of any kind.  The easy excuse is that they build dramatic tension.  The simple response is, well then do it without breaking the immersion.  A deliberate technique in cinema is the physically crush the film to give it an aged or frayed look.  This is deliberate action.  Loading screens are more akin to the operator changing film reels.  It is something completely outside the scope of the experience and it only serves to aggravate me while I wait for the next scene.

I understand on a conceptual level that all the data for the game has to be loaded off the disk into active memory. What I don’t understand is why it has to happen every five minutes.  Are we loading entirely separate graphics engines for each segment?  What the hell is the game loading in the background?  I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but this smacks of bad game development.  Putting all of this blame on developers isn’t quite fair though. They are pushed to use the newest and the best tools, with ever increasing amounts of graphical fidelity, and those can take some time to load.  What I will say in Catherine’s favor is that the cutscenes and the gameplay are entirely lag free.  If the price of admission to the excellent gameplay is long load times, I’ll bite, but please cut out the damn ticking.


Final Verdict – Buy It

Catherine
Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Released: 2011
Rating: Mature

Written by Victoria Zukas

To say that Catherine is unique is an understatement. Catherine is a puzzle game who’s focus is on the drama of a long term relationship. The name of the game comes from one of the main characters. Vincent is under pressure for commitment from his girlfriend Katherine, when he meets another girl named Catherine. Catherine practically throws herself at him at the local bar, and the next morning Vincent wakes up with no memory of what happened and a gorgeous naked girl next to him. He then spends the rest of his nights climbing a tower of blocks as punishment for cheating on Katherine.

I came into the game with very little experience with puzzle games and I was able to get through and enjoy Catherine. Notice how I said “get through”? The gameplay in Catherine was designed for puzzle game fans and people who love a challenge. I played on Easy mode and I never made it through any given level on the first try. In fact it usually took five or six tries per level. This game’s “Easy” is what other games call “Normal”. Thankfully there are mid level check points and if you completely mess up you can restart from your last check point at anytime.

The same team that made the Persona games made Catherine, and it shows in the art style and story. I can’t think of anyone other then the Persona Team that would attempt a game like Catherine and pull it off so well. Usually I save statements like this for last, but it really needs to be said. Buy this game. No really – buy this now; new if you can afford it. In an industry where companies will make the same game over and over (I’m looking at you and your sports series EA) it’s refreshing to see someone go out on a limb and make something wacky and different. This is made even better by the fact that it’s a great game. You actually care about Vincent and what he’s going through. All of the supporting characters are characters instead of caricatures. Hard core puzzle game fans will find the challenge they want, while new players to the genre will still be able to enjoy the game. The visuals are beautiful. It’s clear that care was taken to made sure no graphical bugs got through and the aesthetic works well for the atmosphere they are trying to create. The game goes for an anime approach with it’s art style, using full out hand drawn animation for it’s major cut scenes. I really can’t praise Catherine enough.

However, no game, no matter how good, is without it’s faults. The loading times tend to be long and jar you out of the experience. Also, when you’re not pushing blocks around there isn’t much to do. The game is divided into two sections, the first being the puzzle sections and the second being time spent at the bar. The gameplay in the first half is great, while the gameplay in the second is non-existent. You basically walk around the bar, talking to people and sending text messages. I’m not joking; you save via your cell phone and you will get messages from both Catherine and Katherine via text. This creates an obvious divide between gameplay and story. It’s like the game is saying “Yay you beat that level. Now we’ll show you a cut scene and let you walk around a bit so you can get an idea what the heck is going on.” A little more weaving of gameplay and story would have been nice, especially towards the end when the game dumps a mountain of cutscene on you right before the last set of levels. I don’t want to spoil anything, but trust me when I say the last hour or so comes out of the blue.

One point I haven’t made up my mind on is Catherine’s use of a moral choice system. During the game, in both sections of gameplay, Vincent is asked questions. Depending on how the player answers is which way the meter goes, which in turn changes the ending. On the plus side, the meter isn’t good vs evil like in most moral choice systems. One side represents stability and Katherine and the other freedom and Catherine. On the negative side, the system is so transparent that after awhile that I stopped picking what I would have picked and instead starting picking based on which girl I wanted Vincent to wind up with. When you start gaming the game on your first play-through something is wrong.

Despite the faults mentioned above Catherine is a fantastic game, and one I highly recommend. If nothing else, buy it so Atlus can keep making new and interesting games. We need more wackiness like Catherine out there.

Final Verdict – Buy It

Castle Crashers – Victoria’s Playthrough

Castle Crashers
Platform: XBLA
Developer: Behemoth
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Released: 2008
Rating: Teen

Written by Victoria Zukas

Castle Crashers is an action game in the spirit of old GameBoy/SNES games. You’re the hero who must rescue the kidnapped princesses. There will be plenty of bad guys to kill and bosses to fight as you side scroll your way through the kingdom. Unlike its older friends it’s a 3D game. However, it’s the fake kind of 3D where the back-forward dimension is flat. While this means you do have more space to move in, it also means you have to be on the same line as an enemy. It takes a bit to get used to, and it’s especially annoying in boss battles.

You have four characters to choose from. Although each wears a different color and uses a different element of magic, they are basically the same. As you level up you can choose to get better in Strength, Magic, Defense, or Agility. This means that while the nameless heroes start out generic, you can customize them to how you like to play. The game wastes no time getting you started. A knight tumbles into the starting room with an arrow in his back and everyone rushes off. No long cut scenes or opening dialogue; straight to the smashing. In the starting room there are four characters who will, in six speech bubbles or less, walk you through everything you need to know. After that you can head out and begin your adventure.

The cartoon art style works for this game, especially since it doesn’t try to take itself seriously. While by no means the latest and greatest in graphics, everything looks part of a unified aesthetic. The details are what really brings everything together. The area I’m fighting in is a very good rendition of a battle torn village, but in the background there is an army fighting, with magic and arrows going into this giant cloud of smoke which looks to be the center of the battle. The developers made a world that’s fun to look at as well as be in, not an easy task.

With Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Skyrim, and a host of other AAA games coming out recently, it’s easy to be swallowed by the sea of 40+ hour games when all you want is a simple, yet engaging, hack-n-slash. Castle Crashers is that game. It’s best enjoyed by turning your brain off, sitting back, and setting some minions on fire. I’m still up in the air if it’s better as a single player or multiplayer game. The multiplayer is easier, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a challenge. The major difference between single and multiplayer is that in multiplayer you don’t have to restart the level when you die. The other player can revive you a certain number of times, so as long as one of you lives the game can continue. Also, having another sword to go against the bosses can be extremely useful. On the flip side, pairing a new player with a friend who’s gone though the level before can be an exercise in frustration (though that’s less a problem with Castle Crashers and more a problem with multiplayer games in general).

There is almost no UI in the main game; just a small square in the upper right with your picture, health, mana, and other relevant information. When you’re finished killing everything in a given room a large green arrow will appear, telling you to go right. Subtle is not in this game’s vocabulary. It all works, until a tip appears. Having tips appear in battle when I get new abilities or weapons is OK. Having those same tips take up so much of the screen mid battle that I can’t see anymore – problem.

Another odd thing the game does happens when you die. In most games after you die your experience and items are reset to how they were at the last save. Instead, the experience you gained stays with you and any potions you used are gone. While loosing potions is annoying, keeping the experience makes up for it. I went from Level 2 to Level 5 in one area because I kept dying. This has the added benefit of keeping you from getting stuck on any area.

While the fake 3D does make gameplay frustrating in parts, it was never so much that I stopped playing. I recommend this game to anyone who’s looking for a nice hack-n-slash in between boughs of AAA hard core gaming.

Final Verdict – Buy It

Castle Crashers

Platform: XBLA

Developer: The Behemoth

Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios

Released: 2008

Rating: Teen

Written by Richard Pavis

I liked castle crashers, it’s fun to play either alone or with friends, and that is no mean feat.  When solo your playing against the level, and with friends your playing each other AND the level.  CC is smart enough to add more enemies when there are more players, and since each boss’ life meter is proportional rather than absolute, giving them more life behind the scenes is easy.  In some ways, CC could be said to be variations on a central premise.  Or, a bunch of clever Game Dev’s sitting in a room, thinking of clever bosses.

This is a game which is a perfect example of simplicity misscaled simple.

Absence of Story, Presence of Narrative

Castle crashers has a story, but the text clearly takes a backseat to the gameplay.  The entire story is told through non-verbal cues and body language.  The only people who speak are the trainers at the begining of the game.  It’s possible that they couldn’t come up with a steamlined way to include text on the screen, but I think the game is stronger for it.  Not including text where it would otherwise be included forces players to pick up on visual cues the wouldn’t look for otherwise.  Designing encounters and hazards to be self-identifying is both harder and more effective, and damn near required when one of the major side quests in uncovering dozens of hidden weapons and animal orbs.

Genre?

Following in the footsteps of golden Axe, Streets of Rage, and  Gauntlet: The Whole Series: Castle Crashers is a down a dirty beat ’em up.  If it aspires to something, it is to be the best beat em’ up it can be. The RPG elements, the simple story, and offbeat humour all contribute in their own way.  The graphics however, need some tweaking.  They are gorgeous on their own, but the 2D Isometric view forces you to try and find the right plane to line up with an enemy.  You’ll spend more time assualting the air just above of just below any given enemy, no matter how tall they are.  Attacking a dragon?  Don’t bother attacking the top of the head, wing or anything else.  It has a glass jaw, so unless you hit it in the special glowing spot, you just kidding yourself.  ProTip:  Unlike Shadown of the Collussus, most monsters have evolved past their need for such things, so just guess.

Two hugely important gameplay factors:

You must line up on the correct plane with your enemy to hit them

XP is based on the number of enemies struck, not the number of enemies killed

Now, while these initially will cause you some frustration, it is a quickly flattening difficulty curve, even for people not familiar with the genre.  It also speed up the flow of combat, since you will spend a greater amount of time moving to avoid enemy attacks, because you play be the same rules.  The game then becomes not just about how much health you have, or how much damage you do, you skill becomes a necessary element.  This leads directly into the XP system based on not damage, or kills, but hits.  The better you play the game, the quicker you will level.

Side Quests, or all one Big Quest?

In some ways it is unfair to say that Castle Crashers has no sidequests.  It has a number of different goals you can pursue in a level, besides simply beating it.  You can you can ry to find all the rare weapons and hidden animals.  Some weapons like the fishsword are only available in one level as a rare drop off a monster.  All of these sidequests are done on concurrntly with the normal level exploration, so they aren’t really a side quest, it’s just being thorough.

Sense of Humor, Sense of Timing

If humor is all in the timing then Castle Crashers gets it down pat.  The laughs are tight and in a common theme.  That theme may be toilet humor, all manner of creatures shitting themselves in fear, but like a good south park episode Castle Cashers carries it off well.  The fast paced fighting keeps you tense and aware , so you may actually miss some of the jokes in the background.

Difficulty

This is one of the best games to talk about difficluty, since nearly the entire game is based on the same basic structure.  Run, jump, attack, block, block,attackattackMAGICattackattackattackMAGICattackattackattackattack; repeat.  Then your combo starts to include arrows at range, bombs up close, and magic jumps immediately following an ambush.  The game provides you with moves and makes you develop your own combos.  Juggling enemies becomes increasingly more important, and being aware of other dangers while doing combos will become second nature.  This is the essence of the difficulty curve in Castle Crashers, because the game doesn’t scale up smoothly in terms of overall difficulty.  You are very likely to replay levels either because the enemy had a new kind of attack, or you simply weren’t doing enough damage.  A sharp spike in a difficulty curve can serve as a motivator.  A player suddenly challenged will be forced to adapt, and rise to the challenge.  If this happens every level, at best it will be Disgaea, and at worst Rise of the Silver Surfer.  If done properly a sharp spike every now and then can provide the ump needed to raise a players overall engagement level.  However this can lead to the pitfall of a sudden loss of immersion.  While it is possible for players to overlook such lapses, especially in action games minimizing these events is a good idea.

Multiplayer & Replay Value

You cannot get everything in a single playthrough of this game.  As such rather than asking whether you would play this game again, let’s try to determine just how many times you would play this game until you get sick of it.  Between the weapons and animals you already have a fair amount of depth, but you can also unlock characters through certain conditions.  Throw the requisite Trophies and Achievements on top and you have a fairly in depth experience.  To put it another way, this is the kind of game you can strive for completion on, and if you enjoyed playing it the first time, you’ll still enjoy it.  With multiplayer scaling as smooth as it is, replaying the game with friends adds enough complexity and crowd management, even an experienced player will still have to fight to win a kiss from the princesses.

Lost Comments Restored

Recently we found out the spam filer on wordpress can go a bit overboard. We restored any non-spam comments it would let us, but we don’t know if that’s all of them. If you commented and it’s not here we apologize. We really do appreciate comments, both good and bad. We promise from now on to be better about checking “spam” and all comments should show up in the future.

Evil Pink Fortress

L.A. Noire Richard’s Playthrough

L.A. Noire
Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Team Bondi
Publisher: Rockstar
Released: 2011
Rating: Mature

Written by Richard Pavis

Theme

Team Bondi has really pegged noir down to a T.  They got the setting, clothes, cars, speech, and pacing all down.  Noir is one style that hasn’t been horrifically overdone lately, so it’s refreshing to see it not just done, but done well.  I could go on and on, taking each element and explaining why it reinforces the setting and theme, or I could step back and say that L.A. Noire is itself a master class on the subject of noir.  So take out your textbooks and turn to page one, let’s see what Team Bondi has accomplished.

Sense of Style

Every case has a unique name, from the big splash for a main case, to the tasteful corner card for the street crimes.  There’s a good mix of interesting street crimes to deal with while exploring the city, and discovering prominent landmarks… or you could just have your partner drive all the time and skip all that.  The game developer in me likes that you can go straight to the main case at all times, but it makes me feel like the street cases are entirely superfluous.

Tutorial

Yup, there’s a tutorial, no you won’t notice it; yes that’s the point.  The game skillfully weaves tutorial elements into the first few cases, and drops tooltips as each new game element presents itself.  In theory all the cases on the Patrol desk are ‘tutorials’ but in practice you’ll still be getting tooltips about finding cover and switching weapons as far as the Homicide desk.  That’s what makes the tutorial so effective, it never overtly disrupts gameplay to explain gameplay.

Speaking of gameplay: There’s too much game in my movie.

Now wait a minute, isn’t that the whole point of this game?  To be played?  In which case, why will the game allow me to skip certain action sequences, but not puzzles?  Is it perhaps that this is some beautiful love child of adventure games and interactive fiction?  When will I find a declarative sentence?

The story is captivating sure, but it feels like a mean uncle is keeping the best part until you’ve done your homework.  I suppose the problem could be avoided if the gameplay was seamless, but I feel like even the smallest error would be magnified in a game this polished.  That sounds like a backhanded compliment, but I truly found myself lost in the world, then immediately snapped out of it by the gameplay.  Awful driving, weird facial features, and the ability to find clues before you should all add up to wrecking the immersion.

Continuity of clues

Speaking of gameplay issues, let’s talk about the hit boxes for a second.  You are required to twist and bend many items in front of your character’s face to hone in certain details on the item.  A fine idea to be sure.  The worst example of this is the bloody knife in an early case.  Apparently finding the bloody knife isn’t enough; no you must focus on the maker’s mark before your character suddenly realizes that he is holding a bloody knife after all.  To throw a continuity error on top of the pile, if you find the knife before examining the body, you’l know exactly why they guy died.  After one look at the body your character will say “Hm, it looks like he got hit from behind, and dragged across the ground.”  When you mention the chest wound to the coroner, he’ll recommend you look for a ‘prominent hood ornament’.  This doesn’t add up for me.

Also: I know that you should preserve the sanctity of the crime scene, but it is a bit odd to watch your character delicatly fold up a receipt and put it back in the trunk of a car.

3 Tools

If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a lie.  The only question is do you have the evidence to back it up?  Even if you think you do, the game’s logic maybe different from yours.  ‘Doubt’ often is far, far more forceful than I would be.  When I intend to register some doubts as to the veracity of a witness’ story, I find myself instead threatening them with a short meeting of my foot and their face.  And on a purely menu design angle, why do they assign each action to a different button?  I’m not really doing much else at the same time, and it could be accomplished with a sequential menu.  Maybe I’m nitpicking, but I found myself looking at the controller to remind myself exactly where each button was so I wouldn’t accidentally shout at some poor rape victim.  Good immersion makes you forget the controller is in your hand.

Alright, I’m probably being too hard on the game, it succeeds in a number of areas that have been classically hard for games.  It includes a titanic amount of facial and vocal talent, all of which has to be recorded multiple different ways for branching conversations,  but I keep finding myself wanting more action, and more game, rather than feeling like I’m coming up short if I do anything other than perfect.  Even still, it is by all means an enjoyable experience, and one worthy of recommending.

Verdict: Buy It

Small Things:

*) So, when you run up the the ledge, you get an ‘I’m not falling off’ animation. it’s nice.

*) So, I opened my notebook as my partner was walking by and I found my partners shadow crossing my view.  This means that a single live cam is responsible for most of the in game footage.  I thought that when you open your notebook it goes to a micro world prepped for that shot.  Proves me wrong.  Also, when you catch a bit of your notebook on a wide shot, it will always have the relevant information up.

Having just walked into a bar to question a suspect, your partner decided to sit at the bar while you do work.

Partner: “I’ll stay here. I’m a little parched, pour me three fingers of rye.”

*pause*

Bartender: “Are you going to pay for that officer?”  *pause*  “It’s on the house.”

Partner: “That’s the spirit, pour me another.”

So, In one quick moment we are introduced to not only graft, but drinking on the job…  Role models, every one of em’.

L.A. Noire
Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Team Bondi
Publisher: Rockstar
Released: 2011
Rating: Mature

Written by Victoria Zukas

L.A. Noire is a good game with a few poorly implemented design choices that really stick out. You play as Cole Phelps, an L.A cop who rises through the ranks by solving cases. I give Rockstar a huge amount of credit for the world they created. You really feel as if you’ve been dropped into the middle of a noir movie. Everything from the period cars and dress to the advertisements on the radio. If you love this genre then you’ll fit right in.

The tutorial is spot on. Even if you’ve never played this kind of game before you can easily figure out what to do next and how to do it. Instructions will appear in the upper right corner of the screen when you need to do something new, such as hiding behind cover or jumping over obstacles. It’s noticeable enough that you can see it, without it blocking the screen or getting in the way. Also the game doesn’t throw everything you need to know at you at once. Every mission is called a case. The first two cases are there to get your feet wet. During each one you’re presented with different situations. This means you get new information in bits at a time. Fast enough to keep the game moving, but slow enough so you aren’t running around like a chicken with your head cut off. It never feels like a tutorial, just the first two missions in a game.

When at a crime scene you’ll spend your time searching for evidence and talking with witnesses. Instead of having the objects you can interact with look different, the music will change and the controller will vibrate when you’re near an object you can pick up. Not all objects you can pick up will be clues for your case. If you find something that isn’t worth your time Cole will say something like “I don’t think this is useful.” This is a great small cue to let the player know what’s important and what isn’t. While the music/controller cues are useful when searching a crime scene, in practice you ignore what the place looks like and walk around until the controller vibrates. I found myself wandering around pressing “A” at everything until I triggered the next cut scene.

When talking with witnesses or conducting interrogations, their are facial tells and body movements that will tell if you if the person is lying or not. It took me a lot of wrong guesses and intuition points before I could see any difference. The game tells you to “watch for clues”, but the only thing that helped me was using the “use your intuition” option, which removed one of the three possibilities (Truth, Doubt, and Lie). Do that enough and you start to see a pattern. On that note, the faces for all of the characters were just….off. The rest of the graphics for the game were standard current generation level quality, but the faces have a very high level of detail. This is most noticeable on any NPC that had a large mouth. It gives this weird uncanny valley effect that takes some time to get used to.

This next part I will flat out admit is a personal preference problem. I hate driving games. I don’t mean games like the Mario Kart series or ModNation Racer, because running over obstacles and crashing all the time is part of the fun. You’re not expected to drive like a sane human being in those games. In L.A Noire there are red lights, lanes, and other real world traffic rules. Since my character is a cop, I feel like I should be obeying said traffic rules. This means I’m spending half of my time trying to navigate L.A via old time car. If this was Rockstar’s other huge title, Grand Theft Auto, I wouldn’t care; but I’m supposed to be a cop in this. So I spend far too much time at red lights and desperately trying not to crash into pedestrians, lamp posts, other cars, etc because I can’t control the police car to save my life. If I want to drive in a game, I will pick up one of the racing titles mentioned above. I came here to chase down and interrogate bad guys. The time spent in said car is a huge waste. My partner wants us to check out the gun shop on X road. Why am I spending ten minutes trying to get to that road? Just cut away and pick up at that road. Aside from random banter, nothing of importance happens while you’re driving. It’s all a device to get from Point A to Point B. It pads out time, nothing more.

Whither you like driving in games or not, L.A. Noire’s AI gets in the way when you’re in a rush. Traffic acts normal when you have your siren off. When you have your siren on everyone stops moving. Normally, this is a good thing. However, several times I’ve been speeding to catch up with someone on foot, and I get stopped at the intersection. Instead of the cars at the light getting out of my way they stop and block both lanes, not letting me through. I have to turn off my siren, wait for the cars to turn or go through, and then turn my siren back on. That is not how traffic works at all.

In summary I would say L.A Noire is worth a look, especially if you like this genre. However, I would wait until it goes on sale or get a used copy.

Final Verdict – Play it

Child of Eden: Perspective 2

Child of Eden
Platform: Xbox 360/Kinect
Developer: Q Entertainment
Publisher: Ubisoft
Released: 2011
Rating: E 10+

Written by Victoria Zukas

There is only one word that truly describes Child of Eden; surreal. While Child of Eden is technically a first person rail shooter, it feels wrong to compare it to other games in that genre. In the world of Child of Eden humanity has gone out into the stars and all of our knowledge is stored on the internet, now called Eden. A replica of the first girl born in space has been created inside of Eden. However, something has gone wrong and you must travel through Eden to save it and save her.

The first thing that strikes you about the game are the visuals. The art team did a fantastic job of making you feel like you’re traveling through an endless sea of data. When I think of traveling through the internet my first image is of the black/blue style of Tron. Child of Eden has the same feel, but instead immerses you in an explosion of color. Each level has a distinct theme, and the beauty of it just stops you in your tracks.

Child of Eden is an excellent use of the Kinect. You get a deep sense of immersion that is lacking on a regular Xbox 360 controller. To progress the player must shoot down virus’ that have infected Eden. There are two types of weapons, each one mapped to a different hand. The rapid fire weapon is weaker but takes little effort to use, and is the only one that can stop incoming missiles. The lock-on gun lets you hit up to eight enemies at once and is the more powerful of the two, but it takes a lot more precision to use. Flicking your wrist fires the lock-on gun, while the rapid fire gun is always firing. Each weapon creates a different sound when it hits anything in the level, subtly changing the background music. The combined effect of the music, visuals, and gameplay (especially when using the Kinect) will pull you in and not let go.

My major complaint is the odd difficulty curve. You can proceed through the first three levels without doing anything special. After level three the player has to go back and rack up a high enough total score to continue. This means that you will replay the first three levels several times. While a completionist will find no problem with this, making the player redo the same level over and over is annoying in my book.

My second major complaint is the camera. Both the weapon you’re using and the camera are tied to your hands. That means if you fire a weapon you’re moving the camera. This was the most frustrating with the lock-on gun. I would flick my wrist to fire and then have to readjust every single time. Placing camera control in one hand and both weapons in the other (with some kind of motion to switch weapons) would have made gameplay a lot less frustrating.

Child of Eden is remarkable in it’s visuals and music, sucking you into this new world. While separate camera control would have made gameplay better, it wasn’t enough of a problem to keep me from enjoying the game. Check this game out, if for no other reason then you’ll never see anything else like it.

Final Verdict: Buy it.

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