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Assassin’s Creed: Revelations

May 31, 2012 Leave a comment

When we last left off in this series it was with semi-sequel: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood in which Desmond had reached the apple of Minerva below the Colloseum in Rome, Ezio had ended the last of the Borgia’s and had begun the task of rebuilding the Brotherhood. When Revelations was released it was called the end of the Ezio trilogy, which I didn’t realize that this was a thing. In November-ish, Assassin’s Creed III is going to be released taking us from the Renaissance to Pre-Revolutionary Massachussetts. Yet we’ve had three games already, but they are more like sub-games and Revelations is more AC II.3 than it is a straight up sequel. Which isn’t to say that it’s short, or that the story is hasty, or that it is at all similar to the growing number of tepid sequels that are being pumped out by the game companies. It’s a full game, that will sort of stand on its own, although one of the story lines will make absolutely no sense to those picking up this, as their first foray in the series.

Spoilers ahead: but then again you’ve had over six months.

At the end of Brotherhood, Desmond had stabbed Lucy under the control of the alien Minerva. In response to this he lapsed into something like a coma, but the animus is keeping him alive. The only trouble is that he can’t get out and his mind is stuck in the machine. In it he encounters the consciousness of the mysterious subject 16 from the previous three games. A tortured victim of Abstergo who was thought to have died in the machine. In each of the previous games Desmond as Dante has always had a Virgil to guide him to his purpose. In the previous three it has been Lucy, Shaun, and Rebecca all acting as guides. Shaun handled the historical references with his dull saracstic British wit, Rebecca doing the technical, and Lucy with the overall mission. Here none of that is present, it is only the unhinged Subject 16 that seems to be cryptic for the sake of being cryptic, but generally just points and says ‘go there now and figure it out.’

That’s the Desmond story. As I said earlier this is the final of the Ezio trilogy. Ezio, having left the Order in good standing in Rome has traveled to Masyaf, the original headquarters of the order from the very first AC game to unlock a vault to discover the purpose of the order and what he ought to do with the apple. However, it has been captured and occupied by the Templars who try and kill him. Although Ezio escapes he has lost his equipment and most now flee to Constantinople to discover the five keys to the vault of Masyaf. One of which is beneath the Sultan’s palace in the city.

In the city we meet Yusuf Tazim, the leader of the Assassin’s Order in Turkey. We also meet Suleiman, the future Sultan of the Ottaman Empire, also called Suleiman “The Magnificent,” his jealous brother Ahmet, famed explorer/pirate/inventor Piri Reis, and get to tour various famous locales such as the Hagia Sophia. In short, it’s your typical AC game. What’s impressed me in the past about the series continues here but now it’s expected, and the polish has worn off. We’re also stepping away from a period of history and location that I am familiar with so that may contribute as well, but there is a lack of historical information that populated the previous two games. When it does appear it lacks Shaun’s wit and feels almost tacked on.

What is nice is the feeling that you aren’t alone. Having an established order in the city gives more of an epic feeling to the overall historical narrative that didn’t exist in the previous games. Sure, there were other Assassins like Caterina and Machiavelli, but seemed more remnants of a thing that was, rather than a thing that is. Here Tazim represents an a group fighting a war and they need help. This should have given Ezio a few assistants like the incredibly well done system from the last game, but for some reason you still have to go around doing the recruitment. It’s kind of old to be doing this.

What is new is that Tazim has given Ezio a hook for his arm blade that Ezio can use to travel through the city by means of zip lining along the various wires that for some reason are strewn about Constantinople. It’s kind of interesting, and it gives you a bit of an added reach in combat, but that’s really it. The other addition is that of Piri Reis and his bombs. Reis instructs you on how to create a series of hand grenades and anti-personal mines by mixing different kinds of gunpowder, shells, and secondary ingredients for a variety of effects. This is more of a mix and match method of creating chaos. You can use a time delay fuse on a hard shell, to set off either a smoke bomb, or a noise bomb to distract guards, or poison/shrapnel to kill others. There are contact fuses and mine fuses, etc. There are only in, truth, about nine different bombs you will use, with the possibilities being for more novel effect (goat blood and coin bombs).

The brotherhood system has been revamped as well. Now the assassin’s have more levels and can operate strongholds overseas. You don’t choose the weapons anymore, and while the system seems a bit deeper than it was in Revelations its hampered by a ridiculous tower defense minigame that serves no other point than to be a distraction from the story. Luckily though, you don’t have to do this too often, during my first play through of the game I did it twice, failing both times because I didn’t understand the system.

Playing throught the game, the highlight is definintely the interaction of Ezio with the other characters. He’s older now, much older than Revelations, and this is a unique take on the sequel. Typically sequels track the same character but they don’t seem to age or change in anything other than abilities. While Ezio is certainly deadlier than in his Florentine adventure, he is also wiser. The characterization of Ezio has really given the players a sense of the sweep of his life. As the game ends he departs Masyaf weary, retiring from the Order.

After finding one of the keys to the vault, we are also revisiting Altair Ibn Lahad, the central character from the first AC. This was an unexpected treat, as the first game had yet to find its voice and was saddled with repetitive game play. I’m going to spoil the hell out of this so stop reading:

 

The last image of Altair we have is his sealing the vault with the apple inside it. Then we do something that I haven’t seen a game do in a long time, die. That seems odd doesn’t it, I die all of the time in games. But I don’t mean you die and then you have to start over, I mean that the character itself sits down to die. Sure, it’s not a Call of Duty Game unless you get shot in the face or hit by a nuclear weapon, but this is somehow different. This is the end of the character’s life, and he merely sits down to rest. It’s a surprisingly peaceful end, and is treated not for the shock that the CoD series does it for; but merely to cap off the end of the character. Imagine of a Zelda game did that? During one iteration Link just lays down on a bed and closes his eyes…and that’s it. Altair’s time has come to an end, and as an elderly man he just accepts his fate. It’s an actual touching moment in a series that does know how to tell an emotionally compelling story.

 

End Spoiler: Aside from the lack of innovation, or a compelling mystery to solve (the puzzles are gone), the game feels unfinished and rushed into production. There are several glitches during the game, one in the beginning that had Ezio walking off a roof over and over again as soon as he climbed atop it, which made me turn off the game and restart the whole thing because I thought my Xbox was at fault. The weapon selection system (which has always needed some improvement) has an infuriating default system that constantly forces you to draw your weapon when you just want to select one to be at ready. This can be alarming to the numerous guards and can fail a mission right then. While the previous AC games have been great excursions into conspiracy and history this game doesn’t live up the standard they have set. It’s got all of the elements, but lot of it just feels forced. I want to know more about the history of the Hagia Sophia and the grand Bazaar, I want excerpts from the obscure books I had to find (in the previous games it was art, but at least then I was able to see the paintings), I want puzzles that test my logical capacity to the straining point, all of it in this game feels dumbed down and rushed.

If you are a fan of the series than you have to get the game as it fills in some story questions but all in all, this is like the second to last season of Lost. Sure it’s essential to the plot and is better than most of the other crap out there but it’s been done better before, and by the same people.

7/10

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Categories: reviews, video game review

Assassin’s Creed II.1 Brotherhood

May 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood picks up literally right where Assassin’s Creed II ended: in the basement of St. Peter’s in Rome where a ghostly image of Minerva explains to Ezio Auditore of an impending doom facing the planet. Gone is the body of Pope Alexander VI, having survived the fight with Ezio. From there we follow Ezio’s uncle to his fortress town of Montenegro and the past story begins. The present story has Desmond and the fugitive Assassin organization still looking for the pieces of Eden to thwart the Abstergo corporation only this time they’ve also made it to modern day Montenegro where they are using Rebecca’s Animus to hunt for clues in Desmond’s ancestor’s past.

This is the setup for our story. I should warn here that spoilers follow, not just for the game but also for fans of the Showtime series “The Borgias” as historical personages and some events that take place are actual. While the previous game took place in the cities of Florence, Venice, Tuscany, and the Romagna this game takes place entirely in the Eternal City of Rome and the surrounding country side. This makes the game somewhat smaller in area but it is no less diminished by this as Rome has the enough hidden nooks and crannies to make the smaller location seem more varied. I remarked in my review of the previous game that it seemed odd that it would introduce Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI) and then omit his infamous children Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, this game amends that omission. As well as the omission of having introduced people such as Niccolo Machaivelli and Caterina Sforza and then dropping them almost immediately is also amended. No longer are we dealing with the plots of banking families, now Ezio is fighting to free Rome from the grip of a tyrannical Pope and his son who is seeking to become the king of all Italy.

Ezio, is also older in this game. Typically a video game starts with a young gun happy and naive hero. Here, Ezio is wisened by his previous struggle and whose character acts as a seasoned veteran. This is a nice change from the cliche. The game also handles the character ability growth as well. Let me explain that: as a character moves through a game they typically gain health and more abilities, so that by the end of the story they are a much more advanced person than they were in the beginning. This game having begun at the end of the previous game faced a difficult problem in that reducing Ezio’s abilities would have to be done with care or else seem capricious thus breaking immersion. The problem is solved as the previous game placed all of Ezio’s abilities into the equipment he was carrying viz. his health was specifically tied to what kind of armor he was wearing. After a sexual encounter with Caterina Sforza a Borgia cannonball destroys Ezio’s equipment, thus reducing his health and power to almost nothing. It’s a clever device that solves the dilemma that I call the “Doom II problem*.”

The missions themselves in this game closely follow the types introduced in the very first Assassin’s Creed and then refined in the second. Retrieve something, follow someone, kill another, infiltrate this building, etc. The variety is a bit lacking but the different methods in which you go about it rescue them from tedium. What is more concentrated on here is stealth. Many of the missions require you to remain undetected or else the mission is failed.

There some new additions to the game that improve it upon the previous installment. The first are the Leonardo missions. Leonardo has been drafted into constructing weapons for the Borgia family’s wars in Italy (this actually happened), and this was against Leonardo’s will, he conscripts Ezio into destroying these weapons so that Cesare Borgia will be left without them. These are examples of the stealth missions alluded to before, if you get caught locating one (they take place in isolated towns outside Rome) the mission is failed. However once the blueprints are burned you get to take them for a spin. These missions were delightful then, because the inventions aren’t new cannons or Leonardo’s modified siege towers they are the tanks, glider (we saw in the previous game although this time it’s armed), and machine gun that appear in his notebooks based on his actual sketches and engineered by the developers to how they could have worked. The tank is the most fun.

The hidden messages have also returned. Although they have become much more complicated, giving two puzzles per message as well as a chess game that you have to pick one move per message for. Hint to actual chess players, don’t pick the move you would do, just pick the move hinted at by the clue otherwise it’s infuriating.

The most welcome addition for Brotherhood is the brotherhood itself. Ezio seeking to rebuild the Assassin’s Order begins recruiting followers from among the oppressed of Rome. When I initially read a preview of the game highlighting this feature I was less than thrilled. I figured that these would be worthless teammates ala Tie Fighter (and every other game you get wingmen in) that you would spend more time protecting than they would do helping. I was delighted to be wrong. The method for using them is this, you highlight an enemy or a group of enemies and then hit a button causing Ezio to whistle. Out of the nearest hiding spot (or if you are in an open field horses come riding in) your followers come and attack your targets using every ability that Ezio possesses. These are formidable allies and just watching them fight gives you the impression of what exactly it must be to be one of the Borgia soldiers facing you. Although I should say that you have to level them up at least to level 3 before you send them against more than one foe alone since they will only have their hidden blade at first. The other feature regarding them which was surprising is that if the enemy sees them they attack them rather than you. A couple of missions were remaining undetected was necessary were solved by having a group of my followers attack and kill guards out in the open while I snuck in around them. I’ve played plenty of games were if the guards catch your allies they’ve caught you. This not only adds to the gameplay but also to the immersion as these new assassin’s have their own existence.

All in all, fans of the previous game will eat up this version. It takes everything that was great about the Florentine adventure and expands upon it. The money system is re-worked so that you improve Rome itself rebuilding the aqueducts and various monuments, there are some sidequests. And you even get a bit into Machiavelli’s personality (a personal treat). This won’t make people who disliked the series thus far like it. But it will push those on the fence over. 
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*Doom II Problem: so our hero after beating back the hordes of Hell in Doom is now going to invade Hell. What does he arm himself with? A cestus and a pistol.

Categories: reviews, video game review

Halo: Reach (campaign review)

October 5, 2010 Leave a comment

The final installment of the Bungie produced Halo series asks you, “to remember yesterday, when there was a tomorrow.” It’s a question with surprisingly philosophical implications especially for fans of David Hume for whom only yesterday was there ever a tomorrow.*

Planet Reach is the event that touched off humanity’s war with the Covenant, that strange mix of alien races united under a single religious banner bent on chewing their way through the galaxy in search of their salvation. The fall of planet Reach touched off the opening sequence of the very first game oh so many years ago, as the last Spartan-John 117 aka Master Chief-fled the Covenant and arrived at the Halo ring world. The fall of Reach has never been told, like the great Time War in the Dr. Who universe, it was always something that had happened in the past,** something that was definitely important but something that we would just have to imagine as happening. Reach, like Troy, will fall and it needs to fall because the rest of the story has already been written.

Which leads us into the greatest difficulty that the story will have to overcome: we already know what is going to happen. Any time a story takes place where the ending is already known we are going to encounter this. Think of the expectation and then the disappointment surrounding the Star Wars prequels. A good story and good acting (in this case game-play) can overcome the utter lack of surprise at the finale. Lucas couldn’t do it, will Bungie be able to?

Plot wise the game needs to give you the feeling that you are fighting a war you can win, even though you know you are going to lose. It has to put you into the shoes of Leonidas’s Spartans marching toward Thermopylae to do battle against the Persians. Knowing that your character is going to die has to inspire you to fight more not less. If you knew you were going to die would you despair or embrace what little life you have left? More importantly can it successfully put you into the shoes of someone who is going to die, and at the same time make you sympathetic to the character while getting you to forget that hope is only the shadow that despair casts?

We can barely squeak out a yes to that question. The player assumes control of Noble 6, the last member of a six person detachment of Spartan soldiers. 6, is replacing a fallen comrade and is viewed with skepticism by the other members of the team. They are deployed to investigate the disruption of a communications facility on the far side of the planet which was performed by suspected terrorists against the Galactic Government. Which plays out like a mystery at first but quickly it is discovered that this is the work of the alien race known as the Covenant. Once first contact is made the first domino falls.

Most of the early game play missions involve attempts to stave off the invasion, however at a certain point it becomes clear that Reach is finished and your missions are about buying time for the mass exodus from the planet or making the Covenant’s victory as Pyrrhic as possible. This gives the game an overall grim atmosphere that suits it well. There is a sense of desperation and resignation in each of the characters as they attempt to do a job that only delays the inevitable. As one character asks, “I know we are losing, but have we lost?”

Atmosphere and mission variety are definite high points of the game. Gone is the portrayal of the alien grunts as clowns who goof it up and run for their lives. The entire Covenant is thrust back to a primal level, they have become vicious monsters bent on fulfilling their religious obligation. The high points are where it matters the most. Especially when so much care was put into writing a story that would be as immersive as this. Yet their are several direction cues that hamper this:

The first is making the main character “Noble 6” an outcast. Why not make him/her (that aspect is customizable) a long term member of the team thus creating a stronger bond with the five other members? I get that all video games must exploit the lone warrior trope, but usually those people are by themselves. This person works within a team while at the same time seeming to not want to be on that team.

The second is some mysterious floating camera choices. Sometimes its clever to show the action through a detached security camera, but several times in the game you are watching a blurry video of the action through someone else’s eyes. All this does is serve to remind the player that they are playing a game. Who is watching the action that we are watching? Cortanna?

It’s called breaking the fourth wall, or maybe in this case it is the fifth. If I am supposed to be Noble 6, then if the wide shots with all six members of the team are questionable then certainly the shots of “me” picking up my helmet are.

In all the campaign experience is satisfying. Gone is the typical Halo franchise gimmick of making the player walk over the same board several times: the entire planet of Reach is the game. From the winter poles to the super cities you do get the experience of what it must be like to live through a planetary invasion. Some of the storytelling methods are questionable. Your team could have had more developed personalities in order to develop a relationship with them.

Control wise it is standard fare remaining largely true to Halo’s roots back on the original XBOX. The biggest problem here is that the game forces you to recruit NPC soldiers to fight with you but doesn’t give you any way to give them orders. This isn’t a new feature in the game either, the original Halo gave you people that you fought with. However in that game and this they were all doomed, at least in the previous games I didn’t have to know their names.

A recommended game, but it clearly doesn’t deserve the 5/5 ratings that its been getting from the video game reviewership. The campaign is too short, too easy, but is mitigated by a wide variety in missions and some new vehicles that were awfully fun to pilot. More on this later when I tackle the multiplayer and the new credit scheme.

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*In order to sum this up concisely: Hume’s skepticism forced him to only believe in such things that were logical necessities, all other things were out of habit and this included the idea of causation.

** I know how weird it is to describe the “Time-War” as happening in the past.

Categories: reviews, video game review

Mario Kart Wii

August 3, 2010 1 comment

Sometimes game ideas get a little stale, I mean how many different John Madden games are they going to produce before the public realizes that it is the exact same game with updated rosters (which could be done nowadays through downloads)? Unless they make a complete overhaul of control schemes are sports/racing games really that different year after year?

Which brings us to a perennial console favorite since the days of the SNES: Mario Kart. With the exception of the thankfully short lived Virtual Boy, there has been at least one mario kart game for every Nintendo console. N64, Game Cube, Game Boy Advanced, the DS, and now the Nintendo Wii. The series has proven to be an anomaly in video games, each version is remarkably similar to the previous with only some minor changes but enjoy not only commercial success but also critical success. The Wii version, the latest until the inevitable release on the handheld 3d gameboy system when it comes out, uses a steering wheel peripheral for the motion controlled system. Would it work as well as the previous versions?

I have a long history with this series. I played the original SNES version with my friends growing up waaaaaaay too much. For all of those 13 year old psychos on XBOX Live who are too good at Halo or COD I can sort of sympathize because we were those people without a system that connected to the internet. College was no different, my neighbor down the hall had an N64 with the mario kart for that as well. My wife, the Game Cube version. I guess I could admit that this game series is the only one that I am a rabid fan of.

Thankfully, the game works quite well, while preserving the fun of the previous games and also the frustrations that make it a challenge. Mario Kart’s strength was never in the single player grand prix mode. Sure that was there and it is difficult once you master the turning and the various nuances of the new system, but the real addiction of the series has always been multiplayer. The SNES only had two player and now as we enter into the 3rd major generation of consoles we can add 12 player online matches.

I was prepared to hate the online matches. I feared the experiences of COD and Halo to replicate themselves in Mario Kart, with people exposing glitches, winning races before it would normally be possible, however I was delightfully entertained with my ability to maintain some decent rankings despite the fact that I have comparatively no practice. In a couple of matches I lost by landslides (Rainbow Road, I curse thee!) but that was more due to lack of experience than any ignorance of technical loopholes.

The biggest adjustment is definitely the control scheme. For years of playing the previous editions I fought the urge to steer with my arms. I never pitched the controller (or tried not to anyway) while making a sharp turn or leaned forward when making long/high jumps. I knew that it never made a difference in the race, one had to focus on the race still as a stone to win. So now when presented with an edition that compelled you to make those gestures it took a bit of adjustment. Which then became second nature as it hit you that the wheel needs to be turned. In a furiously tight race though a problem begins to hit you, if you turn the wheel so far it loses contact and then resets you to the opposite direction. Not actually owning the Wii, I was unaware of this possibility but it only took a few times before I learned.

The game isn’t perfect, but it’s as close to it as we are going to get in a fun casual racing game. Your AI opponents, in single player, seem to generate the odd speed boost in order to keep the matches close. It’s total BS, but in order to keep the game difficult I suppose it must be done (like how Guile could walk forward and launch his Sonic Book in Street Fighter II). The other problem that I had was in the supposedly randomness of the power up items. I don’t know why but the game seemed to favor the golden mushroom more than random chance would allow. It’s an unlimited nitro boost, which is good but seems redundant with the triple mushroom power up already in the game. Plus on borderless tracks like Rainbow Road it hurts more than anything else.

Fans of the series would do well to pick it up. It completely rocks and is a faithful heir to an already golden franchise.

Categories: reviews, video game review

Red Faction: Guerrilla

April 23, 2010 Leave a comment

I picked up the original Red Faction game back in ’01, it looked promising as it featured a program engine called “GeoMod” which allowed for a destructible environment. The promise behind “GeoMod” was that you could go through the wall blocking your path instead of having to go around it or spend hours and hours looking for an obscure key card. My previous experiences with First-Person-Shooters having been with Id Software’s Doom/Quake series and Duke Nukem, I thought the game would lend more to action than object hunting.

The game did deliver on the promise. Most of the structures in the game could be blown apart. Walls could be demolished, and more importantly enemy cover could be erased leaving the juicy inside ripe for the plucking. The game was too linear for the GeoMod to really make a difference though. The character, Parker, pretty much walked in a straight line and sometimes walls couldn’t be blown up because you aren’t meant to go there. The game did show promise.

And the third game in the series, Red Faction: Guerrilla, delivers on that promise. Taking place fifty years after the rescue of Mars by the Earth Defense Force (EDF), supporting the original hero, Parker from the evil Ultor Corporation, Red Faction: Guerrilla puts you into the shoes of Alex Mason. Mason, arrives on Mars to work with his brother as a miner who is subsequently killed on suspicion of terrorism by the EDF.

The saviors of the last game have become the villains of the new one, as they have adopted the very same oppressive tactics that Ultor had done in the past. As Alex Mason you are tasked with the oldest of motives: vengeance to subvert the rule of the EDF by blowing up barracks, ambushing convoys, rescuing prisoners, and destroying buildings. With the exception of the landscape of Mars, everything can be blown up in this game.

The best comparison I can give is to think of it as Grand Theft Auto: Mars. It’s open world, you can just drive around and explore the area collecting salvage instead of performing your missions until you think you are ready enough to advance forward. As you get better and better at being a freedom fighter, the population will begin to support you. This means that civilians will start fighting along side you when you inevitably run afoul of the EDF troops. Like all revolutions it cannot succeed without support of the population, and neither can you.

The game features many different types of vehicles as well, most of them are utility trucks for use in the mines (which we never actually visit), some are modified with weapons, others are cars/vans in the residential sectors, but you will clamor for the military vehicles as they feature better weapons and armor. The technology the game features seems advanced enough the player knows they are in the future but not so far as to destroy immersion. The Red Faction’s weapons all have the look of being cobbled together from other things while the EDF weaponry is clearly military issue.

Aside from the basic rundown the game play consists of large story missions and several different side missions designed to liberate each sector in the colonized area of Mars. These side missions get repetitive after awhile, consisting of stealing a vehicle, rescuing POWs, raiding EDF installations, defending civilians, or causing general mayhem with Jenkins (an environmental terrorist). The repetition arise mainly from the straighforwardness of your attacks. Sneaking around is beneficial to get the layout of barracks, but you can’t just plant demolition explosives and then run out to detonate them as any guard spotting either you or an explosive will begin shooting.

What the game needs is the ability to recruit fellow Red Faction members, and plan an assault. There were numerous times that I felt a hit and run on a satellite installation would be helpful in drawing away guards from the vehicle storage that I wanted to level. Even if you start the first attack the population that will sometimes help you out in a gun fight won’t stick around, they just blindly follow you even if it means they are walking while you are driving an APC.

Entertainment is offered as well in some side puzzle missions where you are given a couple of explosives and a time limit to bring down a building. These are fun giving you such mission objectives as, “Any idiot with enough explosives can bring down a building, the question is, ‘do you want to be that idiot?”

The story about freeing Mars gets pretty thin at times. One mission involved stealing a high value piece of equipment and then delivering it to a truck then escorting the truck, but you are never given the reasons why. Clearly the main character would be considered a terrorist, and I think the plot of the game would have been much better served if there was some ambiguity as to who the bad guys really were. Perhaps future sequels will put in choices, or make the game more of a mystery.

Finally, for fans of the original there are several nods to it in this game. Two of zones are named after characters from the first, “Parker” and “Eos.” The best is playing through the rusted remnants of Dr. Capek’s lab that looks the same as it did on the PS2 which even brought back the memory of playing it for the first time.

I highly recommend the game, it’s great fun and lends toward expressing that destructive impulse that I’m sure I can’t be alone in feeling from time to time.

Categories: reviews, video game review

Episodes from Liberty City: The Ballad of Gay Tony

March 22, 2010 Leave a comment

It begins with a bank robbery, a bank robbery that you committed in the GTA IV as Niko Bellic. On the floor of the bank trying to talk a man out of being hero before he is gunned down by a sociopathic Irish gangster was a man named Luis Lopez, only you as Bellic couldn’t have known who he was.

In fact you couldn’t have known many things about the hispanic man laying on the floor waiting out the bank robbery so he could call his boss to tell him that the deposit wasn’t going to get made that day. You couldn’t know that his boss, Anthony “Gay Tony” Prince was the biggest nightclub owner in Liberty during the 80s. If you had, he would have made a good hostage as Bellic and the McRearys could have gotten in on what every other criminal enterprise in Liberty was doing. It seems that Gay Tony’s ballad is going to be one of tragedy.

Luis Lopez, is the main character in one of the more unique experiences that I have played in my many years of game playing. The plot centers around you as Lopez, a former corner boy drug dealer, as he attends to the chores of his boss “Gay Tony.” Tony has fallen on hard times in the recent economic troubles, that coupled with addictions to drugs, rent boys, and a certain level of lifestyle means that he has gotten his enterprise in some serious trouble. All of which Lopez has to clean up. The story intertwines several times with the characters of Nico Bellic and Johnny Klebitz, especially concerning the diamond heist from GTA IV, in that now the fate of the Russian diamonds is finally revealed (as the money was taken by The Lost). 

Two features of the plot stand out: the first is that in every previous Grand Theft Auto game the main character is always starting out with nothing. Whether it be a former gangsta from the inner city returning home, a Slavic immigrant, or a mafiosa trying to infiltrate the drug fueled 80s Vice City; each character had to work to get both money, weapons, and good vehicles. Being the protege of Tony, Lopez has access to the best of everything almost immediately. This changes the game in that like the main character Lopez, the player can get a little cocksure knowing the the FP-90 submachine gun (the P-90 for you COD 4 fans) seriously outweighs the 9mm and shotguns of the other criminals. No longer are the initial chases done in badly damaged cars as Lopez starts off driving the very best that Liberty has to offer.

This also changes the missions. No more busting the heads of petty corner dealers, one of the first things you must attend to is the extortion of a rich boy who is tied to a golfcart. Tony and Lopez deal at the top, because Tony owes the crime bosses money that he used to fuel his habits and keep his clubs open. The characters that Lopez meets and works for are more colorful and odd than any GTA players is used to at the beginning of a game.

The other aspect is that unlike “The Lost and the Damned” this game treats you to actual sympathetic characters who haven’t made the best choices in life but are doing their best to scratch their way out of the large holes that they have dug themselves into. Tony Prince is a fallen king, it’s implied that he once ruled the nightlife of Liberty in the 80s and is now reduced to watching the corporations move in as his empire is whittled down to two nightclubs: Maisonette 9 and Hercules. I’m reminded of Sam Rothstein’s narration at the end of Casino, it might be cleaner and less corrupt but Liberty needs Tony.

While Tony’s addictions are an endless plight, Lopez is a genuinely concerned partner with him who knows that his role is to keep the both of them alive and afloat. Lopez is loyal to his friend, because Tony saved him from the life of drug dealing that has swallowed most of the Dominicans-Americans in Aldernay. Lopez is out of place in his old neighborhood as he is viewed as a downtown yuppie by most and Tony’s lover by others. The funny thing is, that the jobs he used to do as a kid aren’t that much different from those that he must do now for the very elite of Liberty society. The only difference is how much firepower one can bring to the party.

Along the way you work for Russian antagonist Ray Bulgarin, the owner of the diamonds from all three games, the Ancelotti crime family (you kidnapped their daughter as Nico Bellic), and my personal favorite Yusuf Amir, whom you tried to “help” under the orders of Playboy X previously. Amir is one of my favorite characters because he is drunk on the money that his Dubai father provides him with. He’s supposed to spend it on real estate development but instead burns through it on hookers, drugs, and solid gold…everything. It’s no coincidence that the soundtrack possesses “Arab Money” by Busta Rhymes and that it is always playing when Amir is around. He makes you steal an attack helicopter, a tank, and a subway car (he subsequently has the chopper gold plated).

While this is a GTA game the side activities get more interesting as well. The game reintroduces the parachute from GTA: San Andreas and gives you several locations to jump from and land on specific targets which is fun but frustrating, it also introduces iron man races which take place in the air, water, and by land. These are more fun than the street races were previously but if you can gain the lead by the time you hit land the race is pretty much over. There’s a dance mini game that I haven’t finished yet, my coordination isn’t that good but it is pretty addictive. And for the character related missions, there is cage fighting which is plagued by the control issues present in all GTA games, drug deals where Lopez helps some of his pals from the neighborhood, and the club management.

Working at the club is easy, it’s basically standing around and then approaching a situation which a cut scene resolves. Doing a couple of these results in trysts with the office manager that while they aren’t graphic go beyond the lame “hot coffee” controversy from San Andreas. The drug missions are easy as well, too easy but the reward system grants much needed weapons at Lopez’s house something that the two previous installments were lacking.

All in all The Ballad of Gay Tony is much better than the biker saga of The Lost and the Damned. The characters are just as flawed but have more likable traits that make the player want to see them succeed. It’s too bad that this is the last foray into Liberty City until Rockstar publishes the next game which will take place in an entirely new location. If only all DLC could be this good.

Categories: reviews, video game review

Episodes from Liberty City: The Lost and the Damned

March 15, 2010 Leave a comment

[The whole idea of looking back at movies I considered classics isn’t really working for me. It’s a nice idea but I can’t get the traction out of it I thought I had the first couple of posts. So I’m switching Sundays to be reserved for posts that are reviews of various media]

One of the average complaints against Grand Theft Auto IV was that the city was just too big. In the previous visit to Liberty City it felt too small but that was only after spending way too much time driving around, causing bedlam and then trying to see how long it would take a six star wanted level to kill/arrest you. We know that Liberty City is a thinly veiled New York City, and NYC I am told is huge. So having a game take place in a world that is too large just makes sense. But it still seemed too large for the story of Serbian immigrant Niko Bellic.

It made sense that Rockstar Games would introduce some new stories ato take place in the immense Liberty City. Released as two separate games “The Lost and the Damned” and “The Ballad of Gay Tony” they are collected on a disc called “Episodes from Liberty City.” Since the two stories are completely different it only makes sense to cover them in two posts, today we deal with the first of these stories “The Lost and the Damned.”

Having played through GTA IV, I was a bit familiar with “The Lost.” A biker gang operating out of Alderney that Niko has some brief encounters with. This story puts you in the shoes of Johnny Klebitz, the acting head of The Lost, as he goes to pick up Billy Grey (the actual president) from rehab. Klebitz has spend some time arranging a general truce between the The Lost and “The Angels of Death,” their largest rival to allow drug and gun running in Liberty City. Billy, is a relic from the past, a hedonistic anarchist with a “fuck the system” philosophy guiding his actions.

The conflict is familiar. One side you have the actual hero, Klebitz who wants an end to the perpetual violence trying to turn the illegal income into at least safe illegal income. Grey, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to understand why his club has made a truce with their oldest enemy. Grey is mentally unstable, prone to irrational violent outbursts and puts the entire club at risk, but loyalty keeps them together. That is until a drug deal with a gang of Triads goes wrong and Grey is arrested.

Klebitz, in addition to waging war on the rival gang, traitors within his own gang, does numerous missions for the various personalities established in GTA IV. He works with drug dealing latina Elizabeth Torres, and senator Tom Stubbs whom we know from the various political ads on the radio.

The series has never shied away from controversy, and for anyone that actually thought the “Hot Coffee Glitch” from GTA: San Andreas was offensive ought to stay away from this game as it features one scene of full frontal male nudity, which caused me to double over in laughter. The real problem is that while Niko Bellic was at the core a reasonable person, no one in the biker gang is redeemable. Grey is the worst of them, and that is obvious, but Klebitz’ reason for hating Grey is that his violent personality is holding down their ability to make money from illegal guns and meth sales. Bellic, didn’t choose this life but your main character here, does and repeatedly reminds everyone that it’s the best way. The moral issues will always trump everything else for me, but you put one instance of male nudity in something and someone will get all uppity.

The game play is largely unchanged which leads to the same frustrations as in GTA IV. The foot mechanics, aiming, and camera issues are untouched. I should emphasize that this is literally a new story in the same engine so not much should be expected to be improved. Although they did make two changes that were well received.

The first are the in mission checkpoints. The previous games were annoying for the extremely long missions that if failed, had to be started over from the very beginning. Meaning that not only did the little tediums of the opening fights have to be replayed but the driving to the mission locations did as well. This game eliminates that by allowing the character to start in the middle of a mission, making deaths less frustrating. The drawback is that it also made some missions very easy, because you could start from the middle with a completely restocked inventory of weapons and armor. Allowing the story to progress was nice but the challenge went completely downhill.

The second is the revamp of the motorcycle physics. Hoping on a motorcycle was usually a decision of last resort because the turning was unforgiving on the bike seemed set to kill the rider. Obviously if the game is going to put you into the skin of the leader of a Biker Gang it better make driving the bikes fun. This it succeeds by making the turning possible at high speeds and making it much more difficult to get thrown from the bike. The converse of this is that Klebitz isn’t great at driving cars, it feels unnatural which is completely consistent with the character.

One of the better experiences in the game is the change in station of the main character. As Bellic, CJ Johnson, Tommy Vercetti, or the nameless character in GTA III are all peons for higher criminals. Klebitz is the boss, and as boss he gets to call for help whether it be in the form of guns, bikes, or trigger-men in missions. Riding in formation through the streets of Liberty was an annoying task until Grey goes to prison, Klebitz rides with the rest of the Lost at the head of the pack. It’s quite the switch. While The Lost is a low key criminal enterprise you are in charge and it gives the missions a sense of urgency as it becomes apparent that the world of The Lost and Klebitz is dying.

The plot of the game intertwines with that of the story of Niko Bellic culminating in two events: the first is a botched diamond heist that takes place in the museum of Liberty and a botched drug deal. In both cases you encounter Bellic and fight alonside him. This is a strange experience that really made me reflect on how much I identified with Bellic. The plot also reveals some more behind the scenes information about Bellic. As Klebitz you kidnap Niko’s brother Roman during one of his gambling losses, setting up a huge confrontation in GTA IV.

These points are obviously for the fans of the original game, I can’t exactly recommend the game unless you are a fan of the series or at the very least GTA IV. Klebitz is a despicable character who only looks good because the alternative of Grey is so much worse, making it harder to want him to succeed. His junkie girlfriend that he is hopelessly fond of, is an annoying side track that not much is done with. She seems to only exist so that Grey can tease Klebitz of needing her to come around for “some hole” but other than that she is pretty useless. The addition of new bikes, radio stations, and television shows is welcome but nothing unexpected in content.

Overall I can say that if this is the future of DLC for this console generation then I am quite pleased. It’s not without flaws but it is definitely a well crafted expansion for the world of Liberty City.

Categories: reviews, video game review