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Below you’ll find a few reviews and previews I did during my time at 1UP.com. Since 1UP has been folded into games media giant IGN, and the site’s server taken off-line, I’ve basically had to copy-and-paste them here.

 

Review: “L.A. Noire”

Take the “L.A.” out of the title and what are the first thoughts that come to mind? Smokey nightclubs filled with fedora-wearing gangsters? Femme fatales with dangerous secrets? Warren Beatty as Dick Tracy? If that’s what you’re expecting out of Team Bondi’s detective game, L.A. Noire, you’re only halfway there. Throw in some mutilated bodies, pedophiles, and subtle racism and now you’ve got a better idea of what’s in this game.

L.A. Noire is almost everything I hoped it would be, and very little of what I thought it was. Judging by trailers and gameplay footage alone, I expected it to be Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney wrapped in a Grand Theft Auto IV game engine, with some femme fatales and fedora-wearing gangsters thrown in to fulfill the “noire” element. In fact, this has very little to do with the GTA games and is probably more closely related to graphic adventure games and movies. The relative lack of free-form gameplay and driving over prostitutes is most certainly going to turn off some gamers. The real draw here is the story and how the game forms the mechanics around that.

You star as Cole Phelps, a decorated Marine and veteran of the Pacific campaign in World War II, and now a rising star in the Los Angeles Police Department. When the game starts, Phelps is a rookie cop, working the beat on the streets of L.A. By the time the game ends, Phelps will have worked cases involving arson, stolen drugs, and of course murder. Investigating these crimes represents the bulk of what you get to do.

The start of nearly every case means you’ll walk around a crime scene. Some of the evidence is clearly marked for you by officers that were first on the scene and by the coroner, if the case involved a murder. Other pieces of evidence, often crucial to your investigation, are hiding somewhere nearby. Aiding you in your search are the game’s musical cues which let you know when you’re near something you can examine. Inspecting evidence requires you to look at every inch of an object, scan all the parts of a document, and generally be thorough with anything you get your hands on.

After the evidence collecting is done, you now start the interview process. Witnesses, suspects, and P.O.I.’s (Persons of Interest) all must be questioned if Phelps is to get to the truth. Here’s where the game’s much-hyped facial animation technology really comes into play. As a person is answering your questions, it’s up to you to decide whether or not they’re lying. A quick moment of broken eye contact, a subtle smile, or a nervous twitch of the neck can give away a person’s true intent. That’s when you have to start connecting the dots and use the evidence you’ve gathered to expose a lie.

It’s amazing what this technology can do to the experience of a game like this. If I don’t have the proper evidence that proves someone is lying to me, I assume they’re telling the truth (as naive as that may be). However, a careful study of the other person’s body language can reveal a wealth of information. When the doubt sets in, you have to change your line of questioning to something with a more suspicious tone. That can lead to the interviewee giving up a little more information, which then leads to a whole new set of questions, suspects, and evidence. The case that I once thought was “open and shut” has now changed into something bigger and probably more dangerous. And this all resulted because I was suspicious of how the other person glanced away, only for the briefest second, when I asked a specific question.

However, just because a person can’t look you straight in the eye doesn’t always mean he or she is lying. There’s one case early on in the game where I had to question a young girl who’s mother had been murdered. As awkward of a time as it was, the game demanded that I proceed with the questioning. Even though she was looking at the floor or around the room during the session, I didn’t always believe she was lying or holding anything back, and at the end I had successfully judged all of her answers correctly. For the rest of the game, I didn’t just look at whether or not a person is looking me in the eye, I had to actually think about the circumstances that were occurring in-game and if the person is in the proper state of mind to be answering any questions.

Your questioning of suspects also affects how you are scored when you complete a case. While the story dictates what rank in the L.A.P.D. you are, the points you accumulate and if your superiors congratulate or berate you all depend on your ability to interrogate suspects. For example, during the same case I mentioned previously I had to question the husband of the murder victim. It became apparent through the clues I gathered and his reactions to my questioning that something wasn’t entirely right with him. Eventually, he’s held as a suspect at the police station, along with one other person. Both have evidence stacked against them, but only one person committed the crime. The captain already had in mind who he thought was guilty, but I felt otherwise. I made my decision and charged one of the suspects with first-degree murder, because I felt the evidence was overwhelming. Not only did I get an earful from the captain, but I earned a fairly low-scoring result, causing me to question what I did wrong and if I had charged the wrong person with murder.

Before you go off and ask the wrong questions or accuse the wrong people, the game does offer you plenty of help in the form of “Intuition.” With enough “Intuition Points,” you can access a series of in-game help options similar to the Lifeline options in “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” One option can eliminate one wrong answer when questioning people, another reveals all the evidence at the location you’re currently at, and the last one uses Rockstar’s Social Club feature, allowing you to see what other players chose as the answer to a specific question.

The cases themselves are all pretty self-contained, with their own victims, suspects, and witnesses. However, once you start working in the Homocide desk (one of five “desks” you’ll work throughout the game), many of the cases begin to tie together. The infamous “Black Dahlia” case — a real-life unsolved murder that occurred just a few years before the start of the game — was the basis for many of the murders Phelps will investigate. At first seen as copycat killings, it’s obvious that the real killer is still on the loose and the people you’ve charged with murder may be innocent after all. This is how the storyline of the game generally progresses. Isolated killings soon turn into murder sprees committed by an individual who has eluded capture. The story evolves from individual cases to something akin to an episodic television procedural like “Law and Order” or “Southland.”

There are plenty of optional “side quests” that you can do which have no bearing on the rest of the game. These are obtained via your police radio, where a dispatcher will request any available officer (that’s you) to respond to the scene of the crime. Doing these can prove useful in leveling up or obtaining “Intuition.” Gamers looking for a quick break in the dialogue-heavy plots may want to respond to these calls whenever they get the chance.

Eventually, the increasingly complicated storylines demanded that the cutscenes become longer and more elaborate. Gamers who had soured on more “cinematic” games like Heavy Rain or Metal Gear Solid 4 may get a little annoyed at film-inspired cutscenes in L.A. Noire. While most of the cinematics last only a minute or so, there’s a lot of them. It became more like watching an interactive movie, with the game only demanding that I hop in the car and drive to the next location in order to trigger another cutscene. However, by the time the game becomes ridiculously cutscene-heavy, I felt that it had earned the investment of my time. I was genuinely interested in how some of the plot threads were going to pan out.

Unfortunately, the twisting storylines don’t all tie together perfectly. Without spoiling too much, I’d say there are three major plot threads: one about the Black Dahlia killer, another involving stolen drugs, and the last dealing with a serial arsonist. Only two of those had any real connection with each other, and the other one felt separate and isolated from what was going on in the grand scheme of things. If L.A. Noire were a movie, the stand-alone storyline would be a sub-plot I’d opt to cut out for story’s sake. It’s not that the game didn’t need the content, it’s just that, from purely a story perspective, it didn’t flow well with the other things that were going on.

If you’ve read this far into the review, you’re probably wondering why I’ve barely mentioned the combat in the game. It’s because the action is probably the weakest thing about the whole experience. You’ll get plenty of opportunities to shoot guns and drive really fast (or, as fast as a 1940’s-era car will let you), but a lot of it feels mostly like an afterthought. Much of the combat is cover-based, with you and your enemies hiding behind things and popping out to take shots. And it was way too easy, especially if you’re used to playing games like Gears of War or even Mass Effect. All it takes is for you to wait for your target to pop out from cover, then aim for the head and pull the trigger.

Movement during combat can sometimes work against you, especially since the camera always wants to stay directly behind you. While the cover system works well enough, changing directions while in-cover, or even moving from cover-to-cover or around corners can prove challenging at best, and frustrating at worst. You are also given melee options, which mainly consists of blocking or dodging a punch, and then throwing one of your own. You can also melee with whatever firearm you have equipped, but if everyone’s already shooting at each other, there’s really no need to try and pistol-whip your enemies.

Despite the shortcomings of the combat, it still didn’t detract from the overall experience of L.A. Noire. By the end of the game, I felt like a seasoned gumshoe with years of experience under my belt. I know that investigating crimes is vastly different in real life, but the game provided the most realistic experience I’ve had so far of being a detective. The evidence-gathering gameplay, and conversation-based puzzles requiring actual logic took me completely by surprise, not just because of how “real” it all felt, but by how entertained I was just doing it all. And just when I thought it would get repetitive, I was sucked even deeper into the experience by the stellar voice acting and smooth motion capture animation.

L.A. Noire has a lot of hype surrounding it, but I’ve no doubt that this isn’t a game for all gamers. However, I think all gamers should at least give it a shot. This is vastly different from the countless first- and third-person shooters and all the “me too” open-world games sitting on store shelves. All the things I’ve only read about in Dashiel Hammett novels or seen in film classics like “Double Indemnity” have all come to interactive life in L.A. Noire. Team Bondi has gone to great lengths to wrap you up in the game’s story, and from my experience they’ve succeeded. I investigated these crimes. I apprehended the suspects. I pieced together all the clues. L.A. Noire had me more involved in its first thirty minutes than some other games do in their entirety, and that makes this a game you may regret passing on. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your gaming life.

Review: “Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare DLC”

Zombies! Cowboys! Zombie-Cowboys! Has the world gone mad? According to John Marston, it certainly has. Rockstar’s zombie conversion for Red Dead Redemption, titled Undead Nightmare, takes the world of the Old West and mixes it up with zombies, with a dash of survival horror elements and B-movie cheesiness. And, boy, is it good. For those that haven’t beaten Red Dead Redemption, please do so (it’s quite good), but if you haven’t, Undead Nightmare doesn’t provide too many spoilers for the main game. In fact, it’s almost completely separate; when you start RDR, you’re given the option to play either RDR proper, or jump into the Undead Nightmare DLC. From the start, you begin in the state of West Elizabeth, having already been reunited with your wife and child and are now living a normal life at your homestead. After a rainy night, though, things start to go awry. Marston’s family is attacked by…something, and you must set off in search of a cure, or at the very least, a reason for why things have gone to hell.

Though the word ‘zombie’ isn’t mentioned in the world of Undead Nightmare, it’s pretty obvious what’s trying to eat you: they were once people who have died, and are now walking about attacking any living person. You’ll run into quite a few of them on your way to the first major location: the town of Blackwater. Here is where the game wants you to familiarize yourself with your new enemy. While the undead don’t shoot at you, they sure do like to bite. They may amble about at first, but once they notice you, they can move at a decent jog. Dead Eye becomes your best friend, as only headshots or lighting them on fire will kill them. Though the game gives you a longer Dead Eye time, you may find yourself running out of it quickly.

And on that note, ammo also becomes a commodity. At first you have only a handful bullets and shotgun shells, and with stores closed, there are only two ways to procure ammunition: scavenge from the dead (the dead dead, not the ones walking around) or find chests scattered about the world. You’ll also find more weapons as the game progresses. In most cases, the zombies can easily be outrun, so avoiding them entirely is a good way to conserve supplies. You can also use your torch to set zombies afire, but this requires getting close, and when faced with a horde of them, the task becomes much harder.

Missions generally comprise of clearing out towns and settlements until they are deemed “safe” by a cross shape on your map. This requires you to kill all of the zombies in an area and save the townsfolk that are hiding. But don’t rest too easy; after a while, a place that you may have “cleansed” will come under attack, forcing you to go back there to kick some more zombie butt. There are story-related or special missions to perform as well; a notable one early on involves looking for Sasquatch in the Tall Trees area.

The difficulty isn’t too bad, and the game makes you feel like a genuine bad-ass zombie killer fairly early one. That is, until you get to Armadillo. By that point, you might already fashion yourself a seasoned undead killer, but the more “feral” zombie humans are downright terrifying. They charge at you on all fours, pull you from your horse, and give time for the rest of the horde to descend upon you and start tearing pieces of flesh off. And zombie people aren’t your only worries: you have zombie wolves, zombie bison, and yes, zombie bears. So the best thing to do is to keep your gun loaded and your horse nearby at all times (they won’t kill your ride).

When you’ve survived the single-player, there’s plenty of online stuff to do with friends. ‘Undead Overrun’ pits a group of up to four people against waves of zombies. And a king-of-the-hill-style addition to ‘Free Roam’, called ‘Land Grab’, gives you more multiplayer options to choose from.

With the popular trend of zombies currently running its course, it’s good to see the folks at Rockstar doing the genre right. Undead Nightmare is a fantastic piece of downloadable content. Priced at an affordable ten bucks, you get a lot of bang for your buck: a fun, tense, and rather lengthy solo adventure that crosses the entirety of the Red Dead Redemption world, plus a couple of new modes for you and your friends. Even if you hate zombies, but loved Red Dead Redemption, play this DLC.

Review: “Comic Jumper”

Did you ever wish that more games had muscle-bound characters with a smiley face for a head? Did you also wish that those same characters were in their own comic? I sure have and Twisted Pixel, the folks behind ‘Splosion Man and The Maw, have just indulged my ridiculous fantasy. Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley, their latest effort, is a mishmash of genres and styles, held together by the developers’ knack for wit and humor.

Your character, Captain Smiley, star of the comic ‘The Adventures of Captain Smiley’, has just lost his one and only title. In order to earn some money and bring his comic back, Captain Smiley has to ‘jump’ into other characters’ titles, fighting their bad guys and rescuing them from whatever trouble they may have gotten into. Along for the ride is the requisite hot assistant, Gerda, and Star, a talking star attached to Smiley’s chest (think ‘Left Hand’ from ‘Vampire Hunter D’, only more of a fratboy and with no special powers).

Being branded an “action” game, Comic Jumper tries to be every action game ever conceived. It’s Geometry Wars, Gunstar Heroes, Sin and Punishment, 1942, and pretty much every old-school shoot-everything-punch-everyone game under the sun. With such a varied choice of styles, I was worried that the game would do none of them well. Though the game doesn’t necessarily excel at them, it doesn’t fail either. The beat ’em up parts are very simple, and the controls for the shooter sections feel very tight and precise. This works to the game’s advantage, as an overly complicated control scheme would suck, considering how much craziness is going on at any given point.

Much of the shooting has you blasting away at plenty of bad guys. So plentiful are they that the game can get hard, ridiculously hard. There’s so much going on that at times I felt overwhelmed. I found myself powering through difficult sections of levels, taking (un)healthy doses of damage in the process, just to get to the end. I also can’t count the number of times I squeezed my controller in a death grip when I die and have to replay a frustrating part of the level.

Captain Smiley does have a few tricks up his sleeve. The game gives you a slide maneuver that allows you to slip underneath certain attacks. Timed right, this can be very useful. The downside: it’s assigned (on the Xbox 360) to the Left Bumper, very close to the Left Trigger, which makes you jump. Many times have I accidentally pressed one instead of the other in a spasm of a reaction to all the madness that is happening on screen.

What this game dose exceptionally well is in the presentation. Each comic you jump into has its own unique art style (my favorite being the manga Captain Smiley gets stuck in). Tying all of this together is the game’s self-referential sense of humor. Smiley can interact with the developers (wearing clinically white lab coats, of course) from his base, which acts as a ‘hub world’ for the entire game. Demos of Twisted Pixel’s other games are also located in the base, in the form of arcade cabinets. Your sidekick, Star, also has no problem cracking wise throughout the game, poking fun at Captain Smiley’s inadequacies while reinforcing the point that they’re both comic book characters sneaking into other people’s comic books.

While I have some issues with the controls, and the difficulty is maddening at times, Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley was a genuinely fun experience. There isn’t a moment where I found myself bored or disengaged from the game. I laughed at all the silly jokes, marveled at the art design, and even found myself replaying levels to get a better score and earn more money. Money, by the way, is used to buy things like concept art, behind-the-scenes videos, and even dashboard themes and gamer pictures. At 1200 Microsoft Points, you get a lot of bang for your buck. If you’re looking for something to satisfy the twitch gamer in you, Comic Jumper might just be what you’re looking for.

Review: “Bionic Commando Rearmed 2”

Remember when you first ate at a 1950’s-style diner? That strange feeling of nostalgia you had as you sat down in a booth lined with Elvis paraphernalia, while being served by a Marilyn Monroe lookalike? Do you recall when the schtick started to get old, when all you wanted was a burger and could care less about the setting? That’s kind of what it’s like playing through Bionic Commando Rearmed 2; the game feels familiar, but one can’t help but play through it and feel slightly disconnected from it all.

Captain Nathan “Rad” Spencer is back, sporting an awesome mustache and spikey ‘do. Spencer’s been called upon to infiltrate the Papagayan Islands, where the ruthless dictator Sabio (modeled after Fidel Castro, of course) plans to attack Spencer’s beloved FSA. Upon arrival, Capt. Spencer’s team of bionic, um . . . commandos gets separated and hunted by an unseen enemy.

The developer for this installment, Fatshark, knows what works for a 2D Bionic Commando game. The enemies themselves aren’t very tough, but are usually placed in challenging spots, requiring excellent timing or a bit of strategy to kill them. There’s plenty of action, with lots of things to shoot at without becoming a run-and-gun style shooter. Most importantly, the swinging feels good; you control your momentum with the control stick (or D-pad) and you let physics take care of the rest. All the levels have plenty of things to grapple and swing from, and often times the fastest way to complete a level is to start swinging around. It would be no surprise to see players swing through a level exclusively, doing the minimal amount of running required.

Boss battles seem impossible, though, until you figure out their pattern. From then on, all it takes is quick reflexes and the proper weapon. In terms of puzzles, there aren’t a whole lot that will wrack your brain. However, it is to Fatshark’s credit that many of the levels are puzzles themselves. Because the swinging mechanic is so prominent, it would only make sense to make navigating the environment as challenging as it can be. Figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B is half the fun of Rearmed 2, and as an added bonus, you can replay any mission to perfect your completion times and share with others.

Here’s where there seem to be cracks in the game’s armor. As solid as the level design is, Spencer can still die in ridiculously cheap ways (like getting shot by something off-screen, for example). Players will have to resort to old-school tactics (i.e. memorize levels) in order to beat some of the later areas. Thankfully, the game employs checkpoints that will restart you close to where you last died, provided you have enough lives, or else you restart the level from the beginning.

There are also a few game design choices that seem dated, or downright archaic. Spencer can still die by landing in water, which would seem normal in a game from the 1980’s. However, when played today, it just seems kind of ridiculous that a war hero and special ops soldier like Captain Nathan “Rad” Spencer would be bested by a puddle of water (and, indeed, there’s one level that has just that: a shallow puddle. You step in it, you die). A little water shouldn’t automatically result in instant death, robotic arm or not. God forbid it should ever rain while Spencer is outside walking his dog or something.

If you were to be struck by something, like a bullet, or fall on something nasty, like a bunch of spikes, Spencer is automatically sent flying backwards a few feet. While that doesn’t sound bad by itself, it starts to get really irritating when you’re always sent backwards. Always. Even if that means falling forward on a spike while trying to grapple onto a light fixture, and sent flying backwards away from that fixture and into more spikes. If Capt. Spencer is jumping forward, it would only make sense to have momentum keep him moving forward, but, no, you’re sent backwards.

Despite these complaints, the game still offers a lot of bang for your buck. Optional challenge rooms, speed runs, and co-op play round out an already solid package. It’s just a shame that Bionic Commando Rearmed 2 holds on so voraciously to some of the design choices of decades past. Yes, the game will score points with older gamers who have fond memories of the original, or with those who played the first Rearmed and are ready for more. However, just like those retro 50’s diners, there’s no shaking the notion that there will come a time where games like this just won’t feel fresh anymore.

Review: “Kinect Adventures”

Just when I thought I was safe from the dreaded minigame collection, Microsoft makes one and tosses it in the box along with their Kinect motion sensing peripheral. Minigame collections seem to go hand-in-hand with this generation’s gesture-happy consoles, and all of which are trying to capture some of the audience that loved Nintendo’s Wii Sports So what makes Kinect AdventuresĀ so special? Goofiness, plain and simple.

Kinect Adventures fully embraces the fact that people (like me) look ridiculous while playing motion-sensing games, to the point where it takes pictures of you in the most awkward of poses. No one looks “cool” waving the arms around or shaking their hips in front of the TV. That doesn’t mean the people aren’t having fun. In Kinect Adventures, you play through a series of minigames through four different difficulty levels. What sets this collection apart from others is that the games require you to use your entire body, not just you arms or your feet.

A more ‘traditional’ example of gameplay would be the game where I had to hit balls to destroy blocks, which send the balls back. You’re given a time limit to destroy all of the blocks, and the amount of balls you have increase when you hit special blocks. It’s kind of like racquetball — you need super-fast reflexes in order to hit the balls back toward the blocks. Soon enough, I found myself jumping back and forth across the screen, stretching my arms and legs outward like a crazed starfish to hit the returning balls.

For something a little different (and slightly more sinister), there’s another game that stuck me in a glass box under the water. Fish, and occasionally sharks, swim by and ram into the glass, causing cracks to appear. I had need to maneuver my body to plug these leaks. This is a great example of how wacky the game can be, since you’ll probably have to contort your body into odd positions. The Kinect’s camera also picks up depth, so some leaks that spring up from below require you to step towards and away from the camera in order to get to them.

What the camera also does well with is picking up a second player. A friend can jump into any game at any time without having to pause the game and cycle through a bunch of menus. This is wholly recommended, as much of the fun I had was playing through these games with a buddy. The rafting levels definitely got the most activity out of us: the both of you must use your bodies to steer a raft down an obstacle course on a river. Leaning and jumping move your craft horizontally and vertically, and you’ll need some decent coordination between the two of you in order to score the most points.

Although the game doesn’t have a “workout mode”, I definitely built up a decent sweat. The constantly changing objectives of the minigames force you to do different things nearly every time, sort of like a lightweight version of the popular P90X workout: just when your body gets used to doing one thing, the game switches things up and you’re doing something completely different. You’re also rewarded for completing each ‘adventure’ with stuff for your avatar and ‘live statues’, which let you record voice and movements and share these with other Kinect Adventures players.

With all of this craziness and flailing about, one has to ask the question, “How much room do I need?” Turns out, you need plenty, and that’s the unfortunate thing about this game, and indeed, the entire Kinect experience. You’ll need the minimum of about six feet of space between you and the television, although Microsoft recommends that you have ten feet. Those with tiny apartments or small living spaces in general may have to consider Feng Shui-ing their living space to make ample room for playing. Kinect Adventures does help you a little by showing you a diagram of the ‘safe zone’ of play — the most ideal place to stand so that the sensor can pick you up. The game also comes with a card featuring a smiley-looking face that is supposed to help you calibrate the sensor for optimum use within your playing area.

Even after calibrating with the smiley-face card thing, another issue arose: placement of the sensor. The camera automatically picks up what’s in front of it and focuses on a single primary person, especially when voice commands are used, but when transferring Kinect from our demo room to my living room, I placed the sensor on the floor. For some reason, the game had a more difficult time tracking me, or not even tracking me at all, from this position. Jumps wouldn’t register, a single step to the left or right would cause my character to spaz out, and often a warning would pop up telling me I’m too close or too far from the sensor when I’ve barely moved. It would appear that placing the Kinect sensor above the floor, perhaps level with the bottom of your television, is the best spot.

As a pack-in game, Kinect Adventures does a lot of things right: it shows off what the hardware is capable of, it’s free (technically), and most importantly, it’s actually a lot of fun. Unfortunately, it also highlights some of Kinect’s weaknesses, namely the lag and occasional calibration issues. Still, the game definitely works, in that your movements are translated as close to a one-to-one ratio as it can get, and it makes me all the more curious to see what developers come up with in the non-minigame variety.

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