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Shades of Grey

Now is a good time to be an adult gamer, with two fantastic new mature releases in totally different genres. The first and most high-profile, with adverts coating tube stations, is L.A. Noire. Published by Rockstar (of Grand Theft Auto fame) but developed primarily by the Australian Team Bondi, it is nominally an open world game but in reality nothing like previous Rockstar offerings. Instead the narrative-driven game following the rise of straight-as-an-arrow Detective Phelps draws its inspiration from police procedurals and, naturally, film noir’s atmosphere and aesthetics.

The big draw is the highly impressive MotionScan technology, a substantial leap forward in facial animation, if at times straddling the uncanny valley. Actors’ faces were recorded with an array of 32 cameras so that, when interviewing witnesses, the player must watch for reactions like nervous twitches or shifting eyes to ascertain lies. The fine line between doubting a suspect and confronting them on a lie feels clunky at first but soon becomes natural as you learn how to use the evidence in your notebook. I suspect it was an error instantly to inform the player at the end of an interview how many questions they dealt with “correctly”, since it sparks an intrinsic desire to retry the sequence. Cases are arguably more interesting with an occasionally fumbled interview but ultimately enough evidence to nail the culprit. And earning a five-star rating at the end of an investigation (which doesn’t require 100% success) is always rewarding. However gamers are taught to treat success as being black and white at every stage, and in generally are not wired to accept any level of “failure” as acceptable if the game highlights it as such. While it may be a helpful gauge early in the game, this is a case where providing too much immediate feedback arguably damages the experience.

Indeed L.A. Noire stumbles only when it attempts to fall back on traditional gameplay. The open world approach lets its 1940s Los Angeles feel alive, but the loose GTA-style driving mechanics feel at odds with the the rest of the game, often resulting in unintentional destruction. Similarly the generally violent side-missions are a great diversion but the body-count Phelps builds up seems both unrealistic and out of character (notwithstanding that he is a war veteran), much the same problem that plagues the Uncharted series. The short, disjointed tutorial cases may not give the best first impression but as soon as they open up into full-length investigations, L.A. Noire shines.

The second game, Polish RPG The Witcher 2, deals more overtly with moral ambiguity like its predecessor. Based upon the novels of Andrzej Sapkowski, the world inhabited by supernatural monster-hunter Geralt is a far cry from the typical good versus evil fantasy landscape. Political machinations and racial mistrust underlie much of the experience (more successfully than the other recent fantasy sequel, the rather rushed Dragon Age 2), and even those giving you quests may be lying to you. While Geralt is out to help people, he is also a mercenary with his own code of ethics; this duality between nobility and cynicism has led to comparisons with Raymond Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlow. So despite very different protagonists, these two games are loosely linked by their murky worlds.

Many gamers will find The Witcher 2 hard going, beyond its inexplicable refusal to teach you its own mechanics (without delving into the manual, which feels somewhat archaic these days), because its shades of grey feel inherently unfamiliar. They are too used to simplistic binary moral choices, even from games that boast of more complex morality. Some argue that videogame fantasy is escapism, and so a sharp delineation between “good” and “bad” actions is essential to the player’s enjoyment. Yet such a narrow view is like suggesting all cinema should conform to the simplicity of the summer blockbuster’s “good guys” and “bad guys”. Such escapism is fine, but cinematic gems tend to be rooted precisely in those shades of grey in between. The further games explore such spaces, the more the medium can evolve. And as developers’ skill in crafting such worlds improves, we may find their interactive nature makes videogames better equipped for the job.

The Face of Gaming in 2009

Modern Warfare 2At the end of last year Modern Warfare 2 landed with such explosive force that it not only breached its way into mainstream press headlines, but it also sent dozens of excellent games scurrying for cover in Q1 2010, which is now the most impressively packed first quarter I can recall. The hype was justified given Infinity Ward’s past performance, the impressive in-game footage already shown off, and the fact pre-orders alone guaranteed profits dwarfing pretty much any other title this year. It is, for all intents and purposes, the public face of gaming for 2009. Which is hugely disappointing.

It is not, let me be clear, because it is a bad game. On the contrary, I’ve just finished playing it and am on the same high as with the climax of its predecessor. While it had a rocky start jumping erratically around the world with short missions that felt like a greatest hits of Bond locations, it gradually sucked me in so that I really did care by the final twists and turns of its tale. It is a stellar title at the peak of the shooter genre, but in some ways therein lies the problem. This is a genre that has existed in much the same form since the early 90s, though the graphical technology and AI has improved in leaps and bounds. It is still what springs to most non-gamers’ minds when they think of videogames. I am not about to apologise for the genre — it can be vibrant, creative and in some cases is arguably a valid competitive sport. However given the wealth of varied experiences offered through videogaming in the past year, it’s a shame the mainstream public will just think of another military shooter.

So what were the best games this year?

Batman: Arkham Asylum: A licensed game that did not poorly ape the recent film but instead struck out its own path, drawing on Batman’s comicbook heritage. Mark Hamill’s deliciously insane turn as the Joker rivals Heath Ledger’s performance (in a different way). Combining intelligent investigatory and brawler elements with the back-catalogue of villains locked away in Arkham, it was a surprise debut hit from Rocksteady Studios this summer.

BraidBraid: Independent developer Jonathan Blow lovingly crafted this beautiful, haunting, artistic and fiendish puzzle platformer in which you affect time to complete your goals. Its careful learning curve may sharply steepen but it does reward the patient. Its ingenuity on par with Valve’s Portal (though Braid’s indie development arguably compares more directly to its predecessor Narbacular Drop).

Assassin’s Creed 2: While it might seem there is only so creative a sequel can be, this was the consumate sequel, as if Ubisoft had listened to every single complaint about the first game and addressed it, particularly the repetitiveness. The action shifted to Renaissance Italy, once again recreated in stunning architectural detail (right to the peak of every church and tower since you can scale them all) but now feeling much more alive. Perhaps not wishing to waste all the historical data they gathered during development, the in-game database is fascinatingly educational as you explore Florence, Venice and more. Depending on your perspective it could be as much an art history project as a videogame.

Uncharted 2: There is a long-running debate as to whether games should become more cinematic and story-driven or strive to differentiate themselves. There are merits to both approaches, but none nailed the cinematic feel so much as Uncharted 2. Arguably the only reason people were not even more impressed by this game is that the first installment was already so good.

Dragon Age: OriginsDragon Age: Origins: this adult fantasy roleplaying game opens with a different Origins story depending on your chosen class, which then affects portions of the main story, may be something of a gimmick. Very real, however, are the characters Bioware has created, each with their own personalities and rich backstories that really drive the game forward moreso than the overt (and somewhat derivative) plot. Fully voice-acted, the biggest disappointment is that whenever selecting party members for a quest, you know will be missing great dialogue and banter from the others. And if they dislike you, they’ll even leave. Meanwhile, ike 2007’s The Witcher, its darker tone also allows it to deal with heavy themes like racial tensions.

"Luck is the residue of design."

(CC) BY-NC 2004-2021 Priyan Meewella

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