Nate's reviews and writings

  • Musings on L.A. Noire, and gray areas in game design

    Full Review

    la Noire CoverOne of the fun attributes of film noir is that, while often filmed in a stark black and white style, the characters and situations aren't so easily sorted. Good guys can keep bad habits, damsels in distress can turn femme fatale, and the line between cop and crook gets muddy. Black and white is the look, but gray is the tone.

    L.A. Noire, Rockstar's latest critical smash, pays tribute to film noir's unclear nature not only in style but also in its design. A vast open world is the stage for a linear story. Modern gunfights and street races play nice with adventure game relics and intuition simulation that should prove to be the game's lasting legacy. And, given the task, I'd place L.A. Noire somewhere in the spectrum between pretty good and almost great.

    But to be honest, that's not really what this piece turned out to be. It's not quite a review, but not really just a critique, either. Want a review? Here: "L.A. Noire isn't a bad game by any standard, but it's more an interesting experiment than it is a great experience." I'll even throw a number at you. "7." Bam, reviewed.

    With that addressed, the following is a look at a few of the ways L.A. Noire straddles many seemingly opposite design elements. Sometimes this leads to nagging issues, others to surprise delights. But more often than not, it's hard to say either way.

  • Wii Play Motion - Video

    First Hour Review

    wii Play Motion Cover"Gathering dust" has become the meme of regretful Wii owners everywhere. I can't even count the number of times I've seen these words used to complain about the dearth of worthwhile Wii games. As someone who has found plenty of variety and quality in Gamecube 1.1's software lineup, I've let out innumerable deep sighs in response.

    And yet, I must admit that my Wii has sat silent for over six months now. After a year that I wouldn't hesitate to call the system's very best, even the most forgiving Nintendo fanboys couldn't deny that Wii has been a ghost town in 2011.

    But all that changes now, as I just picked up the brand new Wii Play Motion! Yes, I think it's safe to say that the 2011 Wii drought is officially over. Because if anything can get hardcore gamers excited about Wii again, it's a minigame collection bundled with a controller!

    All sarcasm aside, Wii Play Motion's various motion-centric minigames were created by several different studios, tasked with outdoing each other in finding a fun and unique use of the bundled-in Wii Remote+'s capabilities. Featuring such contributors as Prope (Yuji Naka's new studio) and Good-Feel (the minds behind the excellent Wario Land: Shake It and Kirby's Epic Yarn), it at least has an interesting pedigree. Or a collection of interesting pedigrees, I guess.

    So I synced my pretty new Wii Remote+ and popped in the disc. In just over an hour, I tried out every singleplayer minigame in the collection (as far as I know). And lucky you, I recorded video of all of them! Hopefully each video will give you an idea of how the player interacts with the minigame and what kind of depth it may offer.

  • Infamous 2 - Video

    First Hour Review

    Infamous 2 CoverI vividly recall some trials and frustrations in my time with the original inFAMOUS (not the least of which was that horrible spelling which will henceforth be abandoned), but overall I really enjoyed the game. As much as the sticky platforming, messy mission design, and transparent morality system bothered me, I ultimately had a great time surfing on power lines, tossing electric grenades, and guiding a concentrated lightning storm down alleys of soon-to-be-corpses. It was inevitable that the game would get a sequel due to its ending (and the sad, predictable nature of this industry), and I really hoped that Sucker Punch would iron out a few of the teeth-grating problems I had with the original.

    Lo and behold, it's one month and two years later, and there's another Infamous game. Boasting a locale with more colors than gray, melee combat that's not completely worthless, and the promise of acquiring more elemental powers, Infamous 2 certainly seems like the kind of sequel that boasts incremental improvements over the original and hasn't yet worn out the franchise's welcome. Pretty typical of a "2," really.

    I find it amusing that the game arrived in my mailbox last Monday, the same day that Sony featured a trailer from the game in its E3 conference. Shortly after their presentation, I had my first taste of Infamous 2. I grabbed three clips from my first hour: arrival at the new sandbox city of New Marais, the first new power tutorial, and an early choice between good and evil sidequests.

  • Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars

    Full Review

    Ghost Recon Shadow Wars CoverVery few titles available at a system's launch are ever worth the price of admission. Thing is, they don't have to be: early adopters don't have any other choices, and they certainly aren't taking home that shiny new box with nothing to play. If a launch window game isn't a glitchy, feature-stripped port of a last-gen game, then it may just be the best of the bunch.

    Ubisoft in particular doesn't have a great track record when it comes to launch games. They were the first third party to reveal their Wii hand with the ambitious and roundly disappointing Red Steel, threw straight up shovelware at the DS, and didn't exactly set any precedents at the dawn of the HD era, either. For the 3DS, Ubi's launch day contributions took the forms of Rayman 3D, Asphalt 3D, Combat of Giants: Dinosaurs 3D, and Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars.

    It doesn't surprise me, then, that Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars is a technical mess. The visuals wouldn't turn heads on PSP, slowdown is common, and everything just feels rough around the edges. Oh, and then the game freezes every now and then. Sometimes you'll get the black screen of death, other times the audio will stop and the display will just fade out. In the time I was playing, Shadow Wars crashed on me a grand total of ten times.

    What surprises me is that, despite these glaring technical issues, I will still recommend the game to 3DS early adopters.

  • Bit.Trip Runner

    Full Review

    bit Trip Runner CoverThe era of digital distribution has been good to many smaller developers. One needs to look no further than the Minecraft success story to see just how fruitful the budget game market can be.

    Even on Nintendo's meager WiiWare service, some have found the opportunity to shine. Gaijin Games, a small studio founded by a former LucasArts employee, has found acclaim with its Bit.Trip series. With six games in the series released within two years, each Bit.Trip title is built on the same foundation of rhythm and psychedelic retro aesthetics but offers a different gameplay hook. Beat, the first title, is like the love child of Pong and a laser show. Core is more like a tricky Guitar Hero with a D-pad. Void is an avoid-and-collect using the nunchuk's control stick. Fate is a rail shooter utilizing the Wii remote's pointer. And Flux, the final chapter in the Bit.Trip saga, returns to an experience similar to the choreographed Pong performance that birthed the series in Beat.

    I recently acquired Bit.Trip Runner, the fourth game released (and the third I've played, after Void and Beat). It happens to be the one that generates the most buzz in the gaming community. Runner certainly sounded appealing to me when I was introduced to it as a "rhythm-based platformer." My experience with the game, however, came somewhat short of my high hopes.

  • L.A. Noire - Video

    First Hour Review

    la Noire CoverI like to think I'm open-minded, but it's undeniable that I'm leery of open-world games. The genre's tendency to prioritize quantity over quality often produces sandboxes full of activities and environments that are rough around the edges (if not outright broken). That's not to say that the entire package can't overcome the inadequacy of its individual elements, but the apparent lack of focus often leads me to suspect that developers sometimes take the kitchen-sink route to distract players from a game's inability to evolve, improve, or even replicate proven game mechanics.

    It's this perceived deficiency, whether imagined or real, that has distanced me from THE sandbox developer's games. I had a decent time ramming criminals off the road in Grand Theft Auto III's vigilante missions, and Red Dead Redemption's gorgeous frontier can be fun to gallop through, but I've mostly ignored Rockstar's standard-setting sandboxes. While Web of Shadows and InFamous at least throw some fancy superpowers into the mix, there's not a whole lot more to Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption than driving and shooting, one or both of which are available (and often superior) in a thousand other games.

    So it certainly was a surprise for me when I caught my first trailer for L.A. Noire -- a project that Rockstar has been cooking up for many years now -- and saw a concept that appears not only focused, but novel and ambitious as well. The game's use of facial capture animation produces some of the most realistic character visuals the medium has ever seen, and the trailers would have you believe that it's not just for show: players will have to intuit characters' body language and act on hunches in order to get to the bottom of each case. The feeling I'm getting is less Grand Theft Maltese Falcon and more Phoenix Wright: Cynical Detective. I'm skeptical that it will quite live up to what I have in mind, but I'm more than willing to let it try.

    The following video is a taste of L.A. Noire's third case, which should give you an idea of a detective's duty and how to do it with all the bumbling inadequacy of Inspector Jacques Clouseau.

  • Crysis 2 - Video

    First Hour Review

    Crysis 2 CoverPC game development is hard. Unlike consoles and their mass-manufactured conformity, every PC has a different set of guts, so there comes a time when the development team needs to test their code through dozens of Frankenstein computer setups to make sure the game actually works on an acceptable percentage of PCs on the market.

    Crytek had a fairly genius solution to this annoyance: they made a game that no computer assembled in the present day would be powerful enough to process, and figured that the future would solve their problems for them. It was called Crysis; Crytek's prophecy was fulfilled when NASA aborted the space program in order to refocus its priorities towards creating a machine capable of playing this game [citation needed].

    For whatever reason, Crytek abandoned this strategy with the game's sequel. Crysis 2 was created to be played not only on PCs assembled on Earth and before the year 2018, but on current consoles as well. I played a bit of Crysis 2 and got a sense of what the distant future will be like when consumer machinery finally catches up to the original Crysis' requirements.

    I recorded the first hour of the game in glorious 480p and trimmed the downscaled footage to give you a taste of the game's opening sixty. A busted monument, superpower lessons, robot spiders, and choke-slams await.

  • Suikoden

    First Hour Review

    Suikoden CoverI tend to be conscious of the games I buy. When I plunk the cash onto the counter, I've usually made the decision to do so months in advance. I've read some previews, watched plenty of gameplay clips, and probably played a demo (if available). This is normal for people to do when they're about to shell out $60 and tax, but I tend to do my research even when the game can be bought for a Hamilton. What can I say? I'm kind of stingy. Chicks love a pennypincher.

    I indulged in a blind-buy some time ago, when a game called Suikoden went on sale from the infallible PlayStation Network for a scant three dollars. I guess I can't really call it a "blind" purchase, considering I'd heard of the series, knew it was some sort of JRPG, and recalled some praise for it throughout the years. Still, this was a small triumph for my freewheeling, devil-may-care side. The side that grins mischievously as a tossed beer can ends up in the trash rather than the recycling bin. The side that saunters across the street with reckless abandon when the orange hand in the crosswalk orders me to halt.

    I've finally worked up the courage to start playing this recklessly-bought game. Will it turn out to be as thrilling as the initial purchase, or will I pledge to never blind-buy again?

  • Red Steel 2 - Video

    Blog Post

    red Steel 2 CoverA few days ago, it dawned on me that I've been contributing to The First Hour for a year now. A whole year, no fake! Just remembering last week can be a trying experience for me, so thinking back twelve months is like trying to visualize the guts of a black hole.

    To assist my trip down memory lane, I decided to play a bit of Red Steel 2, the first game I reviewed. I gave it a pretty glowing writeup at the time, and it ended up as the runner-up for my Game of the Year 2010 across all systems. The game isn't without its foibles, but it delivered the hardcore shooty-swordy experience that the target render for the original game fooled many into believing possible at the Wii's launch in 2006. That was enough for me to excuse most of its shortcomings.

    To commemorate this one-year anniversary, I decided to capture a bit of video from Red Steel 2 to share. Originally, I planned on making a montage of the dozens of cool abilities, finishing moves, and cinematics that made the experience so fun for me, but then I stumbled across one six-minute mission around the game's midpoint that makes for a good standalone exhibition. It also cut way down on the video editing workload for me, which was admittedly the primary factor for the change of plans. Still, I think it turned out just fine.

  • Nintendo 3DS: One month later

    Blog Post

    3ds Cosmo BlackMy first encounter with a 3DS was less than perfect. I had the privilege of playing Pilotwings Resort for about fifteen minutes in the midst of a particularly loud and busy Best Buy. The stereoscopic 3D was hardly noticeable, though it may have been because the system was locked into the cabinet a few feet below my face. And Pilotwings was...well, Pilotwings. A fine game, but hardly the one I'd choose to impress somebody.

    What was impressive, however, was the strength and duration of the resulting headache. The drive home was almost unbearable, with temples flaring to the beat of my heart and some eye strain to boot. I went to bed and nursed a hangover-level headache for about three hours.

    Maybe I'm just a glutton for punishment, but I decided to buy a 3DS anyway. It's hard to believe that the system's already been on the market for a month, but here we are. I've found plenty to love with Nintendo's DS successor but have some concerns as well.

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