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Funnily enough, at the time of writing this we are only a few days shy of the two year anniversary of my posting ‘part 1’; considering that that piece was a rewrite of a piece I wrote even earlier, I think I’m safe to state that this is possibly the most delayed sequel that I’ve ever been involved with. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing – although over the course of those two years GTA4 hasn’t gone anywhere, it has changed. Two new expansion games refined the experience, when someone finally decided to release them for PS3, at least. (I really wish people would stop doing that; it’s happening all over again as we speak with Fallout: New Vegas. Why should I be eternally punished for not buying an Xbox?!)

Put simply, the game is different and so am I. So let’s see what it has to say for itself now.

Writing the wrongs

I had two major criticisms with GTA4’s base game. First, the character reputation system, which meant simply that you had to keep taking all of your friends out on dates or they’d get angry at you and not sell you guns/bombs/rides in their chopper. To be honest, when you’re mid-rampage, screaming down the supermagic highway with a small army of law enforcement on your tail and only twenty bullets in your machine gun, you really don’t want your cousin calling you up and trying to convince you to go and check out some American titties. Even when you’re not, it’s still annoying. There is a little trick you can pull that allows you to get out of dates without hurting anyone’s feelings; accept when they call, then ring them back and tell them you can’t make it. Having to do this several times a day remains quite jarring, though, and I find it somewhat questionable that the developers left this aspect of the game in as well as a convenient bug that makes it less annoying – that means that they knew it would be annoying!

These problems, I realise now, are not the problems an average gamer would face. For most people, when the phone rings mid-adventure, they’d just ignore it, and not care about losing reputation points, since not everyone has my obsessive-compulsive must-have-every-stat-at-100% nature. And when you’ve fully completed the game, and even killing people starts to get old, going out with your friends is pretty much the only thing left to do.

The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony, the two expansions, fix this primarily by better intertwining the friendship options with the missions of the storyline, and by also making dating fairly optional. In these games, friends help you in missions, and you can build bridges with them that way – I got through The Ballad of Gay Tony without being forced to take my homies out once, since thanks to doing loads of drug wars missions with them, they loved me already. I think that’s pretty well done, especially considering that the characters in these games feel more like real people connected to the protagonists that GTA4’s rogue gallery of blatant stereotypes.

Make it fun

My second major point against GTA4 was that it appeared that, in committing themselves to telling a gritty gangland story in a more realistically-designed city, Rockstar had committed themselves into making a less fun game overall, with less of the awesomely over-the-top set pieces that were once one of Grand Theft Auto’s defining features. Well, it seems someone in the top brass had the same thoughts, because then they released the Ballad of Gay Tony, which, whilst still exposing its central character to the inherent dangers of the laws of physics, makes things a lot more interesting by adding glitz and glamour, lightweight attack helicopters, drug wars, parachutes, hilariously overpowered weapons and awesomely over-the-top set pieces to the GTA4 experience. Basically, it puts back in everything that had to be sacrificed to maintain the integrity of Niko’s story.

GTA4’s last mission was fairly epic; it involved a car chase, a shootout at an abandoned casino, another vehicle chase, and a final shootout on Happiness Island. In comparison, The Ballad of Gay Tony ends with a shootout at an abandoned funfair, a desperate race along the freeway backed up by a gold-plated attack helicopter, boarding a plane that’s in the process of taking off, blowing it up in midair, and parachuting down to safety. Half as realistic, but twice as awesome. You can even do it more than once – in an effort to avoid the ‘now what?’ stagnation that comes when you’ve completed GTA4 to 100%, The Ballad of Gay Tony offers a mission replay system, with challenges to complete. Meaningless challenges, admittedly, but they still add replay value to the game if you’re up for it.

Art direction

This is something I failed to appreciate before; Grand Theft Auto 4 is quite a beautiful game. This isn’t necessarily entirely about the graphics, as they’re starting to look a little faded and dated already. The real achievement of the game is in building a place that looks and feels like a real city, which is something a lot of people said in their initial reviews of the game. I never really felt it until recently, after picking the game up for the first time after a long time away from it, with the vague intention of finding some talking points for this piece.

The first thing I did was the first thing I imagine most people do; have a madcap shootout and escaped from a six star wanted level. It was quite vicarious even by usual standards, so afterwards I decided I’d had enough for one day, got in a taxi to a random location and left the game on in the background whilst I went to do other things. I ended up in Star Junction, or rather Times Square, and observed the passage of an evening, and the intricacies of the artwork as time went on, and realised exactly what it was I’d been missing.

If you’re interested, you can see what I saw here.

The Unwanted Son

You might have noticed, if you know your GTA, that I’ve made few references to the first expansion, The Lost and Damned. The reason for this is that I think it’s bloody rubbish. Whereas The Ballad of Gay Tony totally revamped the game, The Lost and Damned was little more than a minor tweak, and suffers for it. The story is just as bleak and dark as GTA4’s, whilst being shorter and far less interesting; the new weapons that are introduced are for the most part rather feeble in comparison to what the later expansion gives us; the art aesthetic makes everything even grimmer and dirtier than it already was, to such an extent that playing it for too long actually starts to hurt my eyes. Add in the fact that main character Johnny can’t even run properly, never gets a decent safehouse and ends up completely fucked, and you’re not left with a particularly satisfactory gaming experience.

The only thing The Lost and Damned really has going for it are the motorbikes, of which there are loads. The vehicles themselves have been tweaked to be less death-traps than they originally were, making it far easier to enjoy a casual cruise through the city. But the thing about this is that, with sufficient skill and care, it’s entirely possible to do this on the main game. With that in mind, The Lost and Damned is little more than a vehicle pack for motorcycle enthusiasts.. who will still have to jump through hoops to unlock them all.

And in the end..

In part 1, I was (I think) justifiably cynical about Grand Theft Auto 4. It was by no means a bad game, but I at least had some issues with it which made me scorn the perfect scores that all of the gaming publications in the entire fucking world were throwing at it. What it really needed was a patch to surgically re-augment the fun factor of the game… and surprisingly, that’s exactly what we were given. Admittedly they dressed it up as an ‘expansion pack’ and made us pay for it, but hey that’s business.

So, GTA4 is a decent game. The Ballad of Gay Tony is an awesome game. Both will offer you a good time, although GTA4’s is a plot-driven one whereas TBoGT stakes its claim to ‘fun’. Both take place in the same core city that is beautifully designed and realised, so whichever one you pick you don’t miss out. As for The Lost and Damned.. it’s not irredeemable, but for the most part it’s only a microcosm of everything that was wrong with the game in the first place, and even diminishes from the art direction by covering everything in dirt.

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Or should that be, Resident Evil, Fiiiiiivvee, as the over-excited start-up screen guy insists on? No matter, he’ll be doing that for all the numbered Resi’s ’till the end of time, best to leave him to it.

re5-title

Right. The evolution of Resident Evil is a topic that gets thrown about a lot on various internet message boards, but we thought we’d approach it from a less retarded perspective. What once started as a creepily atmospheric zombie game has since evolved, or devolved, into an action-shooter game. You can’t deny, if you’ve played them, that the original Resident Evil games were genuinely unnerving. You can consider exactly what it was that made them unnerving, whether it was genuine elements like the monsters, the scarcity of ammo with which to kill them, the often well-groomed soundtrack, or whether it was the enforced measures, the clunkily ridiculous (even by 1999 standards) control scheme, the enforced camera angles, and so on. 

Whatever it was, that was how Resident Evil worked. Over time, however, console gaming evolved into a state wherein it was considered rather crap to not have a intuitive and workable control scheme for every game. It’s somewhat a vogue in the videogame world these days that if a control scheme isn’t perfect, then, well, why the hell not? GTA4, for example, completely re-worked the series’ established control scheme, not for any particular reason, because after extensive time playing on both I’ve decided they’re really not that different in terms of accessibility. If anything the newer scheme is fiddlier, by demoting weapon selection to the d-pad; can anyone ever find their d-pad in the midst of a firefight? I know I can’t.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, you can no longer get away with having crappy controls as an excuse for making a game hard. Well, yes, you can, it works in the same way that films like Hancock and 21 somehow manage to get released, but it bloody shouldn’t. Unfortunately, this put the Resident Evil franchise into a bit of a difficult situation, as it continued to churn out tank-like game controls even as Tommy Vercetti ran past laughing.

The graphics are pretty good too.

Take that, mafia scum. Wait, SMGs don't cause explosions!

So, Capcom made the risky decision to shake up the formulae a bit, and it paid off. They redefined Resident Evil as an epic action game, gave full control over character, camera and aiming, and got rid of the slow lumbering zombies (who are rather unthreatening, really, except in large groups or close quarters, or, gulp, both) with intelligent enemies controlled by a crazy parasite instead of a crazy virus. Resident Evil 4 was released, success was acquired, and it was all gravy.

Which brings us now to Resident Evil 5, Capcom’s latest offering, which in some ways takes the series back to its roots, and in other ways completely severs them. The root-taking is done via the reintroduction of original main character Chris Redfield and his eternal antagonist Albert Wesker, with the promise of finally putting their feud to rest. The root-severing is done by the complete seperation of this game from the survival horror genre. Whereas for all the action-focus Resident Evil 4 gave us, it still paid service to the atmosphere, by plonking the main character into a desolate place, surrounded by enemies, and featuring several pretty tense set-pieces (a battle in the sewers with Salazar’s near-invulnerable right hand springs to mind).

Resident Evil 5, by contrast, lobs you into a bright community, with about 50 million guns behind you as backup. Naturally, most of them get killed as the game goes on, but the initial effect is rather jarring, and one of them stays with you throughout the entire game, effectively killing any sense of claustrophobia. Wtf survival horror? 

The inventory system is another way in which the game attempts to both praise and distance itself from its original premise. The inventory is laid out so that each of your two characters has 9 slots. Guns take up a slot, ammo takes up a slot, herbs take up a slot. This was fine in the earlier games when puzzle solving and item movement was important, but for a game in which killing stuff is key, and therefore ammo is important, this is pretty senseless regulation, and constant micromanagement is not fun (and this is coming from someone who used to constantly tweak their briefcase in Resi 4.. if you know what I mean). 

By contrast, the Resi 4 theme of gun upgrading returns, but now you don’t have to wait for the reassuring blue-light of a merchant up ahead to do it. You can do it pretty much anywhere, from a generic inventory menu which effectively means that the characters pull upgrades out of the sky, unless they’ve fashioned some way to turn gemstones into more powerful bullets, which is highly fucking unlikely.

Come back Luis, all is forgiven..

I represent logic, and therefore am not in this game.

So, in summary, Resident Evil 5 is as far away from Resident Evil as it is possible to get without changing the name of the franchise, and as an action shooter will inevitably draw comparison to better games of the same genre. A certain tank-like aspect of the old games remains present in that you can’t run and shoot, something that draws a lot of criticism from afar, but in playing the game, this doesn’t matter, as it is geared towards such a method of play. So don’t listen to people who complain about that. It is such light touches that makes RE5 its own take on the genre, enough to distance it from competition.

Besides, it’s not all bad. Playing through RE5 is pretty fucking fun, despite the debatable AI of your partner character: post-game, you can unlock a pretty major infinite ammo option, and yet, with it on, she still runs around picking up all the ammo she finds – would it’ve been so hard to put in an infinite-ammo-mode-fix or something? Especially on the hardest modes, that precious inventory space is far better spent on herbs, but NO, I must have more handgun ammo!

I apologise. That was meant to be a lead in to the positive side of the game, but I got sidetracked again. For the most part, your partner’s AI is pretty good. It only starts to fail in the hardest mode, Professional, which I like to refer to as 1-hit-kill mode, since that’s exactly what it is. It plays exactly the same as the second hardest mode, you just die every time a particularly vindicitive gust of wind passes you. For Professional mode, you should get a real-life friend. In fact, get one anyway, because the 2-player co-op is pretty fucking cool.

RE5 also offers a lot of replayability, due to an increased accessibility. Once the game is cleared, you can select any chapter to start from, and carry over your established inventory to it, no matter what the difficulty setting. There are secret emblems to find, special stuff to be unlocked, a fair slice of if not hidden, then cunningly-disguised-against-a-similar-coloured-background content. I even enjoyed unlocking all the trophies, for all that I usually abhorr the ‘achievements’ concept.

So, for all its various faults and complete indifference to its origin, RE5 is actually quite an enjoyable game. Due to its similarity to RE4, though, you might feel a strong sense of deja vu playing it, and if you ask me RE4 is probably better anyway, since it seemed to be rather deliberately humorous in parts, whereas RE5 falls into the trap of trying to take a crazy b-movie plot about zombies seriously. You could feel good about playing RE4, and it was quite an intense experience. RE5 feels rather shallow by comparison, but is nonetheless rather good.

By the way, the racism is all in your head. I’m pretty certain Capcom didn’t deliberately make a game where black people are demonic and get killed by white people. It’s as daft as saying that people play GTA then go out and kill cars. Videogame media furore = worse than a baghead’s chainsaw to the face.

Game over, dude.

Maybe.

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DJ: Spore

This is quite lengthy, so you might want to get a cup of tea.

I don’t wish to run the risk of generalising the context of our site, but since I’m not going to be going to teh movies this week, I’ve instead decided to whack out a review of Spore for your entertainment. Heard of Spore? You probably have; it was a machine of pure hype for a couple of years before it finally came out in the latter half of 2008. From the people who made The Sims, Maxis, and EA, grandmasters of videogame wankery, Spore aims to be like The Sims, but for the entirety of the universe. You start as a little cell, and progress through a series of game-within-game stages, evolving your creature as you do until you jet off into space and the entire ridiculously big galaxy opens up before you. But I’m evolving ahead of myself.

          The Hand of God, and how it doesn’t beat people made of sacks

One of Spore’s major selling points, and one of the aspects of the game which players will spend half of their in-game lives battling with, are the Creators, a set of stuff-making programs for content in the game; not in the least, your very own creature. Everyone seems to love the creators, but I for one think they’re bollocks. The concept runs that you start with a mere blob which can be shaped into a body, then you stick body parts on with pritt-stick until you’ve got yourself a living monstrosity. Theoretically fine, but in reality the body mass is as unwieldy as a really large bull in a really small china shop, and it’s quite difficult to come up with something interesting.

And then the sticking-bits-on aspect kind of breaks down by making it bloody hard to get what you want where you want it, and the fact that there really aren’t that many customisable options. There are about 20 different ‘arms’ models, none of which really look that different to each other. The size and length of them can be customised (if you can get your cursor in the right place, which is a minigame in itself), so it’s really sort of irrelevent which ones you pick. Within the game itself, during the stage in which you build your creature, you’re limited to picking the parts you need to give you certain abilities in order to progress, which is about as sandbox open as GTA4, if GTA4 took place on a single street. Not, in other words, impressive.

I have a sneaking suspicion that I have been spoilt by the stuff-making abilities of the level creator in Littlebigplanet, which has a far greater level of complexity and depth, making it much easier to make what you want, artistically. Of course LBP doesn’t focus on making living creatures, which is about the only thing protecting Spore from redundancy, but in all honesty I’d much rather make a freakish Frankensteinien monster in LBP than a creature in Spore, because the brain-juice monsters seem more appealing. In Spore, creating stuff is daunting because once you’ve made a creature, it’s just 1 in a million other creatures made by people who are much better at it than you. And whereas, with LBP you can admire user-generated content, I don’t get that with Spore. Instead I get a mysterious urge to actually play the damn game.

          The Origin of Species

So, the gameplay itself. The first, cell stage, is reminiscent of a flash game and over quite quickly. The following creature stage, wherein you grow legs and hit the land, is quite involving, as it follows you adapting and modifying your creature, but as previously mentioned artistic integrity must be sacrificed in order to progress, unless, of course, you don’t want to progress.

The tribal and civilisation stages are quite brief and basic but I rather enjoyed them. As someone who lacks the dedication for full on real-time strategy games, I found their pick-up-and-play approach quite refreshing and enjoyable, but I expect anyone who has any background such games would respond along the lines of ‘wtf is this shit?’ and promptly complete both stages in about an hour (and earn an achievement in the process, woo fucking hoo. Seriously, achievements annoy me no end).

          Final Frontier

With all this out of the way, our creatures suddenly have the bright idea of building a spaceship and then bam! Suddenly you’re left more or less alone in a galaxy populated by millions of species who are all very, very interested in you. This, it seems, is where all the Sim-like openness of Spore is hiding, and indeed it’s the only part of the game that, like The Sims, doesn’t really end. Instead, you’ll be exploring the galaxy forever, making friends with people, or more often begging them to not destroy you (especially early on when you have no feasible means of defence, since all the cool and useful tools aren’t unlocked, naturally, for ages), which is all very well and good if not for the fact that it’s incredibly simplistic and you can basically follow the exact same path with every empire you meet, which is to give them some money, do some missions, make them your friends, or blow them to hell. 

Not that it matters which path you choose. In previous stages, an integral part of your evolution is your choice of alignment; whether you are a peaceful herbivore, a sociopathic madman, or somewhere inbetween. When you hit space, though, none of that even matters anymore. It might make sense that, if you’d been war-mongering for as long as you’ve had a brain, you would shoot into space in a ship full of missiles ready to blast some shit. Or with a few pamphlets in the cargo hold, if you were religious, ready to propoganda-ise like space age Jehovah’s Witnesses, knocking on people’s planets and asking to come in. But no; all your previous work amounts to one vague superpower that doesn’t in any examples really do that much, and a few minor powers which really don’t do much. Whoever you are, you’re cast out into a galaxy of much better prepared CPUs, with absolutely fuck all to help you out. 

If you have the hear to last past this failure of a beginning (and you probably will have, out of desire to see your precious creature succeed, which is a very cunning piece of manipulation), it doesn’t really get much better, since as you make allies and extend your empire, you will suddenly become very popular. Almost every other minute you’ll recieve a request to help a colony defend from pirates, prevent someone blowing you up or save someone’s ecosystem from failure. This might be fair game if, like every other empire in the galaxy, you had access to lots of ships to delegate such tasks to, but you don’t. All you have is your single ship and whatever flimsly CPU allies you can convince to join you, whose main purpose is to get killed instead of you. You’ll be requested to dash about the entire galaxy saving everyone’s ass, including your own. There is an epic gun turrent item that you can whack in place to defend your colonies, but it doesn’t actually do anything unless you go to the planet in question to observe, which kind of ‘activates’ it. And also removes the point of it existing, since now you’re there, you might as well do the job. This isn’t evolution, this is intelligent design.

So, the space stage, where all the gameplay is, is not exactly stellar (hoho). It does have an ending of sorts, involving a trip to the centre of the galaxy, but in order to get there you have to incite the wrath of an angry bunch of fuckers called the Grox, who really don’t want you to do that. So by the time you have completed this epic mission, you’re in a war with them, a war that you can never end, because the game designers wanted to make the Grox seem really badass so all the ‘offensive’ things you can do, to anger empires, angers them twice as much. And actions that make empires happy have about half the usual effect. 

Why do this? Why force you to get involved with someone who will hate you, and then make the effects irreversible? The only thing I can think of is that it forces you to keep playing the game to defend your ass against the constant invasions, but since that lacks the key aspect of being fun, it doesn’t work very well. Ironically, although it possible to prevent this by allying with the Grox, doing so will then give you -200 friendship with every other empire in the galaxy. To-may-to, to-mah-to.

          Dénouement 

To be honest, though, I’m not as bitter as you may think. If we take Spore on its individual merits, the seperate stages and what parts of them work well, then they are outweighed by the sheer amount of things that don’t work with it (or don’t even exist). But as the sum of its parts, Spore is quite an impressive piece of work, and it really is quite something to watch your creature grow from the gene pool to the galaxy, even if you are being constantly mocked all the way there. Unfortunately, due to the dropping of the alignment, there’s no reason to play through the Space stage, the most in-depth stage of the game, more than once. Which leaves only the shallow precursor stages to play with, until you get either bored or so annoyed that you bring out the Planet Buster and blow everything up just to calm down.

And you won’t even get away with that without a -105 friendship ‘bonus’ to every empire in the area for breaking the “Galactic Code”. 

Fuck you, Spore!

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100-as-above-so-below3

A version of this was originally posted on my old blog, but I’ve decided to rewrite and expand it in the wake of  some more time spent reminiscing. As above, so below..

I thought about doing a review of GTA4 shortly after it fell out of its packaging, into my PS3 and stole my life away for a couple of months, but a few things put me off. Firstly, in order to review it I’d have to actually put down the game, difficult when my fingers had been superglued round the suspiciously lightweight controller, and my eyelids propped open with matches that had to be replaced every time I blinked and broke them. Secondly, at that time the review thing had already been done, about a million times over by game critics exasperatingly drooling at the mouth of GTA’s many gargantuan urban wonders, and I’d rather bite my leg off and feed it to the dog than join that group of idiots, especially since I’d largely be saying the exact same things.

So here we are, a few months later, and I’ve regained control of my life sufficiently enough to remember that I actually have one. Now then, would be the time to sell my review to everyone. Alternatively, I could write a comprehensive analysis of the game overall, from the perspective of a longtime Grand Theft Auto fan. So yes, let’s do that instead.

         Characters

One of the major new dynamics GTA4 introduces to the series is that of your friends, who you can take out on dates just like real life. Of course, this begs the question of why you’d want to do this, when you could indeed do it in real life. For those who lack social tendencies and are prepared to investigate this feature (like you’ll have a choice, the game throws it in your face with the fourth or so mission), you’re then faced with the problem that the majority of GTA4’s dateable characters range from insufferable to merely tolerable. 

See, I was under the impression based on previous games that GTA characters could be rather well rounded and believably likeable – alright, so Tommy Vercetti was a psychopathic murderer, but what about characters like Mike Toreno and The Truth from San Andreas? What about CJ himself who was presented as a more morally confused protagonist than an outright murderer (albeit one with a selection of kickass lines for when the player does feel like being badass)? Whilst every character in a Grand Theft Auto game is to some extent a parody of a real life stereotype, with GTA4 it feels like the developers went overboard and just embraced the stereotype.

Look at Brucie, for instance; he’s a steroid-chugging car-lovin’ heterosexual muscleman. And that’s it. Little Jacob is more likeable, but he could be exchanged for any other Rastafarian you might come across on a Liberty City street. Packie is dull and barely tolerable, and Dwayne’s a manic depressive. The only character in GTA4 who really feels real is Roman, and his validation for existence is often rudely interrupted by tittie jokes. Of which there are a great abundance. Spread across the entire game. Ho ho.

Niko himself is interesting, as he’s the only character who actually seems to have a past (Dwayne is an exception, his past is what makes him who he is – although philosophically we can say that of us all, but I digress), and we see him shaped and changed by the new environment he lives in. Naturally, he ends up cynical and wise-cracking. I’ll let you decide how exactly that sentence is meant to be inflected..

         Realism

Is the vogue of the videogame world, and it’s probably the fault of the current generation’s graphical power; we can simulate more effectively realistic worlds now, so let’s do that. Personally I think everyone should be making games like Littlebigplanet, but that’s by the by.

GTA4 takes the realism route that begun in a way when we were thrown into the ghetto in San Andreas, but by then removing most of the dramatic extravagances that are a trademark of GTA’s madness. (Riding a motorbike to catch up to and board a plane, then blowing it up? Using a makeshift ramp to escape a drugs plant as it blows up behind you? Chasing, through the ghetto, the game’s antagonist, who is escaping in a firetruck?)

The tale told in GTA4, and the world created by it, is much more low key. For example, I can’t think of a single standout moment from 4 right now, even though I’ve played through it much more recently than San Andreas, from which I was just able to list three examples (and I’ve got more). To me, this means something has gone wrong somewhere. Bring back the fun, damnit!

This is the reason Saint’s Row 2 exists; to provide the sandbox fun that GTA forgot to include when it put together its dark and somber tale. That in itself is probably a justifiable reason for why this has been done; extravagance would sit ill with the story. But for all I love GTA, I have to say that if we’re sacrificing the fun to accomodate the story, and the medium is a videogame, then something has gone slightly amiss.

Since this has gotten long, I’ll end it for now, and pick this up another time.


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