Monday, July 4, 2011

Graphic Horror: Game Reviews

By Brian M. Sammons

L.A. NOIRE, by Rockstar Game and Team Bondi, Rated M, PC, PS3, Xbox 360

Now before you start with, “Hey, that’s not a horror game” let me say that for one, not every game I review is a horror game. If that’s all I covered then you would have one game review every other month or so, except for October, naturally. And for two, would you consider an unknown psychopath ripping apart woman in a gruesome fashion a horror story? How about the movie(s) about the infamous and still unsolved Black Dahlia murder case? Well if you say yes to either of those then rejoice, because by that logic this is a horror game! Ok, it’s not really, but it does deal with mature subjects like murder, rape, drugs, child abuse, racism, corruption, infidelity, and all sorts of other unpleasant topics far better than any other video game I can think of. It also plays like nothing out there, and in this day of shooter after cookie cutter shooter, that always gets a round of applause from me. So grab your fedora, your Colt .45 and your gumshoes, were about to step into the seedy underbelly of Tinsel Town in the 1940s.

You play as Cole Phelps, an ex-Marine fresh from the war in the Pacific who becomes a beat cop. After distinguishing yourself in the line of duty you quickly ditch the uniform for a confortable suite and become a L.A. detective. Once there, you will experience different types of detective work, from traffic to vice (oddly, only the drug side of vice, not the sex side) to the “big time”: homicide. Along the way many cases will intersect, as will an impressive cast of very well written characters. You will have to examine crime scenes, talk to witnesses, integrate suspects, drive all over miles of accurately recreated 1940s Hollywood, and get in more than one fistfight or shootout.

Now unlike virtually every other cop game ever made, the focus of L.A. NOIRE is the investigation and character interaction and NOT the combat. That is a breath of very fresh and welcome air, and while investigation a scene for clues has been done well in previous video games, no game has done character interaction as well as NOIRE does it here. That is because of the amazing motion capture equipment and software used to finally make realistic faces in video games. Sure, they have a bit of the uncanny valley still in them, but the amount of detail they have been able to reproduce from the actors’ performances is, once again, amazing. Because of this detail a big part of the game is questioning suspects, reading their faces to determine if they’re telling the truth, and then calling them on it if you catch them in a lie. To see this in action really is incredible, but there two very slight things about it that does give me pause from my adulation for this. First, the lying “tells” from the characters are quite exaggerated to make sure that everyone can get it and sometimes this can be unintentionally comical. The second drawback to having such great facial capturing is when the game makers use recognizable actors. Now this isn’t a big deal, after all actors play more than one role in film and television, but it is weird to be interrogating “Matt Parkman” from the TV show HEROES, the crazy scientist from FRINGE, almost the entire cast of MAD MEN, and even the evil ginger Malachai from CHILDREN OF THE CORN all grown up, but still creepy as hell.

In addition to the integration, the other lion’s share of the game play goes to investigating crime scenes, looking for relevant clues and disregarding the useless ones. This turns the game into a sort of scavenger hunt, but it is an enjoyable one. Perhaps not so enjoyable are the bits when you have to investigate dead people first hand, going through their pockets and poking at their wounds. Sensitive games may blanch at this, as murder is never a pleasant business. Also prudes may get their panties in a bunch as several times there are digital nipples of dead ladies clearly exposed. So consider yourselves warned.

Now if all this sounds a bit boring to you, then perhaps this isn’t the game for you. I mean, it only has a great and original story, amazing graphics, well written, acted and believable characters, tons of mood and style, and more black humor than you can shake a stick at. Also there are some action parts as the afore mentioned gunfights, fisticuffs, and car chases. But hey, it is true that you are not just running around in circles shooting dudes in the head. Back to CALL OF DUTY online for you, I guess.

As for the rest of us, if you’re looking for something different, fresh, and in most ways better than most current video games, L.A. NOIRE is the title for you. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it and would love to see more games take chances like this, if they can pull things together as completely as this game does.

I give L.A. NOIRE a well-deserved 5 dead bodies beaten to a pulp and left out to rot out of 5.

SHADOWS OF THE DAMNED, by EA and Grasshopper Manufacture, Rated M, PS3, Xbox 360.

What do you get when you combine the game mechanics of Shinji Mikami (RESIDENT EVIL 4) the music and sounds of Akira Yamaoka (SILENT HILL) and the over the top weirdness of Suda 51 (NO MORE HEROES – and yeah, that is his name)? One pretty damn crazy, moderately well controlled, and very good sounding game unlike any other. But, is it good? Well demon hunters, grab your Johnsons (no really, you’ll need them) and get ready for a wild trip down to, and through, hell.

Garcia Hotspur is a Latino demon hunter extraordinaire, who pisses off the forces of hell so much that a bigwig demon comes up to earth just to abduct his girlfriend to teach Garcia a lesion. Well, Mr. Hotspur isn’t going to stand for that, so he jumps into hell after them. His only ally is his Johnson, who is a floating skull with a posh British accent that can turn into all sorts of items like a torch, a motorcycle, and a big gun called The Boner. Well that’s because the gun shoots bones. Later, when you upgrade it to shoot explosive goo, it’s called the Hot Boner. And later still, when you upgrade it again to maximum size, it’s called…you guessed it…the Big Boner.

If just reading that puts you off, then go ahead and skip this game, as it only gets weirder, sillier, and more inappropriate from there. I, however, loved that about this game. SHADOWS does the adolescent humor far better than any other game in recent memory, and hell, while I’m at it, better than any recent movie I can remember too. But in addition to giggly toilet humor, there are plenty of surprises and WTF moments spread throughout this third person shooter to keep you guessing and laughing for as long as you play it, which admittedly isn’t too long. You can run through this “Suda 51 trip” (as it’s called on the box) in about six to eight hours. Yeah, for $60 and no multiplayer, that’s a bit on the steep side, no matter how cool and funny I think the style and story is.

But again, it’s a hell of a six to eight hours, so that’s something. And there is more to this game than the usual monster blasting. There’s a cool side scrolling bit, bowling with explosive skulls, plinko with skulls, some changing the room puzzle action, a bunch of in jokes and nods to horror fans like us, oh and a giant nearly naked woman whose ass you get have to walk across. Plus a whole gaggle of old school boss battles, which admittedly are basically “find the glowing spot and shoot it” but still feel weighty and is fun to do.

Now for the bad bits. First and foremost, you can’t skip the cut scenes. Now that isn’t a problem if you’re playing through this game for the first time and never die, as the cut scenes are pretty funny. But if you play through the game for a second time, and at 60 bucks you had better play it more than once, or if you die and have to reload, then you’re going to see the same cut scenes again, and again, and again. Come on guys, its 2011, if you want to skip a longwinded cut scene, you should be able to.

Second, the game controls feel a bit dated and clunky. Worse yet, they are sometimes a tad unresponsive. Example: sometimes you want to run, say from your psychotic demon-possessed girlfriend, and you have to hit the run button twice. Other times you may have your Johnson out and get tagged by a demon and have to hit the aim/draw button more than once to wipe it back out. By and large, these are annoyances rather than game breakers, so they don’t bug me all that much, but I did have to mention them.

The biggest misstep that this game makes is a part in a neon pink city where giant demons trudge towards you from three to five avenues and you have to shoot them with your Big Boner. This part is needlessly hard, as the number of demons that come at you at once is random and each takes multiple shots, or a head shot, to put down. Also, this part goes on for way too long. It sort of feels like padding.

A few boo-boos aside, I enjoyed the hell out of this game, and if you like blasting demons, graphic silliness, potty humor, and weirdness in many shapes and forms, then SHADOWS will provide you with a very memorable trip. So I give SHADOWS OF THE DAMNED 4 hot boners shooting out their sticky loads (yeah, that just doesn’t get old) out of 5.

--Brian M. Sammons