Sunday, June 6, 2010

Review // Red Dead Redemption

While it makes an extremely strong first impression, somewhere along the way, Red Dead Redemption lost me. It's still a good game, but it made enough mistakes that I couldn't help but come away feeling disappointed.

Which Button Do I Press To Saunter?

It's not reductive to describe Red Dead Redemption as "Grand Theft Auto but with horses." Everything from the gunplay to the basic feel of movement to the structure of missions is almost identical to Grand Theft Auto IV, coming with the same exhilarating moment-to-moment gameplay and the same litany of problems. For example, firing a gun feels great, especially with the new Dead Eye system that allows you to slow time, paint targets over multiple enemies, and take them all out at once, but using cover still feels awkward and outdated. Sometimes everything worked perfectly and my character slid right into cover; other times he just stood there as I frantically jammed the cover button, as though on strike.

That's about how it goes in Red Dead: When everything works, it's a really fun game. When it doesn't, it can get frustrating. I failed several missions because my character refused to take cover, or decided to take cover in such a way that he could still easily be shot, or because I couldn't accurately gauge how much health I had left, or thanks to the unrealistically "realistic" movement speed and momentum that work okay in large, open areas but fail miserably whenever precise movements are needed, like indoors or near ledges. Still, the game is at its best during basic missions that involve you and a posse riding out to a set location to kill dozens of enemies, though the lack of mission variety definitely hurts; it often felt like the same few objectives were being recycled again and again.

The simple joy of having a good Wild West shootout is why the game's multiplayer can be incredibly satisfying at times. Matches generally start out with a tense Mexican standoff where all players have guns pointed at each other, and the last man standing has the advantage of a slight head start to go position himself. Despite being extremely brief, these segments became my favorite part of multiplayer. Unfortunately, it's all kind of unbalanced as the unlock system grants players huge benefits, like significantly upgraded weapons and horses, the more they play. Control issues are more evident against human opponents, and lock-on aiming, while enjoyable in single-player, turns the game into a race to see who can run toward dots on the minimap and lock-on to barely visible targets in the distance the fastest.

This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Forty Of Us

What excited and disappointed me most, though, was Red Dead Redemption's story. John Marston, a reformed outlaw, is forced by the government to hunt down key members of his former gang. The tale starts off incredibly strong and very focused, showcasing some of the best pacing, voice acting, and writing I've ever had the pleasure to experience in a video game. But very quickly, it branches off in a thousand different directions, completely losing the pinpoint focus of earlier sections. Marston is a driven man with a clear goal and a lack of tolerance for anything that gets in his way, so attempts to artificially extend the game's length by having him help everyone he meets and shoehorning obvious double crosses are audaciously transparent and detrimental to the overall narrative.

After the game's mostly sublime first act, everything falls apart. Truly interesting characters you'd just spent hours with, like Bonnie MacFarlane and the phenomenal Marshal Johnson, are tossed to the wayside and never revisited in a meaningful way. Taking their place are droves of worthless, unlikeable characters during the game's second act in Mexico that drags on and on and should've been cut entirely. Rockstar delivered a fantastic lead in John Marston, who is constantly presented as the kind of man you do not lie to or jerk around, not ever, then completely squandered it by allowing every lowlife around to lie to and jerk him around, wasting both mine and Marston's time. His tale concludes in such a remarkable way that it's definitely worth seeing through to the end credits, but the journey there is not always easy.

While the frontier presented is stunningly beautiful at times, a shocking amount of technical problems broke any sense of immersion for me on many occasions. During one mission, a critical enemy was spawned inside of a wall, so I had to restart from the last checkpoint. While roaming, I encountered a man riding a horse five feet in the air. After losing a duel mere feet away from a save point, I hit an infinite loading screen and had to restart my console. Most tragically though, were the times when the game clearly went to great lengths to set up powerful moments where songs with vocals kick in while you play. These are brilliant conceptually, but in my experience, each song was cut off within seconds because I got on or off my horse, triggering different music, utterly ruining each scene and reminding me how clumsy the game can be.

Red Dead Redemption isn't perfect. In fact, it's pretty deeply flawed in a lot of ways I hadn't expected it to be. But it takes a setting not explored often enough and makes a good enough game out of it that you should at least check out.

Red Dead Redemption / $59.99 / PS3 [reviewed], 360

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Review // Just Cause 2

Despite featuring some unforgivably bland, forgettable missions and a boring, cliched story, Just Cause 2 still might just be the most fun sandbox game ever created.

All Hail The Grappling Hook And Parachute

The amount of stupid, ridiculous shit you can do in this game is staggering. It really all comes down to your imagination. There were so many moments while playing Just Cause 2 that I saw something interesting that I just had blow up, or launch a car into, or tether to a helicopter and fly away. There's also an in-game recording and uploading feature, making it super easy to save moments like my mid-air car hijack above. The most fun I had here came from hours and hours of unscripted exploration and experimentation as I flew around the sprawling world, wreaking havoc and destruction. It's the kind of game where the sheer act of playing, even without any direction, is enough to put a smile on your face and cause you to lose track of time.

Most of the joy you'll experience will be directly linked to the game's absolutely brilliant grappling hook and parachute combination. You can grapple to anything in the world from a good distance away, then use the parachute to start gliding. While parachuting, you can use the grappling hook to keep yourself propelled, essentially allowing you to fly forever, cover ground incredibly fast, and reach ridiculous heights. You can also use the grappling hook to pull people toward you, latch onto buildings, quickly zip away from danger, hijack helicopters and planes, or tether any two things together, like a human being to a flying propane tank. I wish I could use the grappling hook in almost every game; it's that good.

What's really shocking though, is how, with all the crazy stunts possible in this game, the missions still end up being the same tedious chores you do in every other open world game. With this many tools for creating awesome scenarios, there's simply no excuse for falling back on tired concepts like escort missions where you drive a VIP in a slow limousine from Point A to Point B. There are some legitimately cool moments here, like jumping back and forth between speeding jeeps to disarm bombs or the insane final mission, but there just aren't enough of them. What makes it really insulting is that the game makes you do the exact same missions over and over for different factions.

I Barely Remember What Happened Here

Apparently you play as Rico Rodriguez, an agent for a US agency called, well, the Agency, as he tries to overthrow an evil dictator and track down a rogue agent. I say "apparently" because the story here is so bad and so poorly executed that, by the end, I could barely bring myself to pay attention to what was going on, much less care. At first, the lackluster story and awful voice acting was kind of amusing since I typically enjoy movies and games where the story is so bad that it's good, but as the game dragged on, it overstayed its welcome and wasn't so amusing anymore. In a game like this, clearly the story isn't supposed to be the focus, but it isn't supposed to bore me either.

The real beauty of this game could never have anything to do with whether or not the story is good, though. The best part of Just Cause 2 is conceptualizing increasingly dangerous and moronic stunts to pull off, practicing them again and again until you finally succeed, then thinking up some absurd way to make them even more dangerous and moronic. Topping myself became the whole game after awhile. Whereas anything scripted was practically guaranteed to disappoint, roaming around making my own fun never ceased to entertain. However, this is definitely a game meant to be played on easy difficulty. Worrying about dying will only hamper your creativity.

I highly recommend Just Cause 2. It both allows and encourages the kind of creative play that throws caution to the wind and favors fun over logic. The missions and story are a waste of time, but everything else is a blast.

Just Cause 2 / $59.99 / PS3 [reviewed], 360, PC