Video Game Review: Proteus [PS Vita/PS3]

Proteus [PS Vita/PS3]

Proteus
System: PS Vita/PS3 (also on PC and Mac OS)
Genre: Open World
Developer: Ed Key, David Kanaga, Curve Studios
Publisher: Curve Studios
Price: $13.99 (cross-buy on PSN)
Release Date: October 29, 2013

Labeling Proteus as a video game is a bit of a misnomer. Sure, it is playable on gaming systems (the PSN release is cross-buy for both PS3 and Vita) and there are a handful of trophies to obtain, but that’s about where the familiarity ends. This is more of an experience, one completely unique in the world of gaming.

Proteus is all about exploration from a first-person perspective. Every new “campaign” places you near a randomly-generated island, and your only task is to explore it as you see fit. There is no proper end goal or set destination — what you get out of your experience is entirely up to you.

Proteus [PS Vita/PS3]

Every island is filled with hills, trees and mountains. Leaves float through the air, flowers sway in the wind, the sun rises, the sun sets. It rains, it snows. Small animals — which resemble frogs and rabbits — hop through the forest, hitting musical notes every time they hit the ground. You can’t really interact with them, but you can chase them until something else catches your eye.

Walking throughout the vast, colorful island produces new sounds with nearly every step. Ambient music plays in the background, creating a beautifully tranquil atmosphere, and different areas change the tune in ways that only enhance the mood. It’s as if you are traveling through your very own musical forest in which even random objects alter the soundscape.

Proteus [PS Vita/PS3]

The pixel art style used for the graphics provides a surprisingly lush environment. The visuals, while decidely retro in appearance, actually work quite well in creating alluring scenery. The vibrant colorscape certainly helps in this regard, as do the changes in weather and seasons. Watching the snow fall during winter is especially serene.

A single trip through the island and its seasons can be completed in an hour or less. However, each visit provides an entirely new experience, so this isn’t exactly a one-and-done endeavor. For the Playstation Network release, the inclusion of cryptic trophies strengthens each playthrough, as the descriptions are vague enough that it can take some serious thinking to figure out what to do.

Proteus [PS Vita/PS3]

All of this culminates in a truly special, fantasy-like adventure. The $13.99 price point is a bit steep, but if you have a good imagination and are willing to step outside the boundaries of conventional gaming, Proteus may be just what you’re looking for.

8/10

 
(A copy of this game was provided for review.)

Video Game Review: Grand Theft Auto V [Xbox 360]

Grand Theft Auto V [Xbox 360]

Grand Theft Auto V
System: Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Genre: Action-adventure
Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Release Date: September 17, 2013

I have a confession to make: until Grand Theft Auto V, I had never completed a GTA game. I have played every game in the series, and had a (mostly) positive experience with each one, but I would always seem to lose interest at around the 10-15 hour mark. That is not the case with Rockstar’s latest blockbuster, the first GTA game to finally get nearly everything right.

One of my biggest pet peeves with the series has been its lack of mission checkpoints. There was rarely anything more frustrating than starting a mission, driving to point A, accomplishing set goal, getting killed on the ensuing shootout back, and then having to start it all over again from the very beginning. That is not the case in GTA V — now there are multiple checkpoints within each mission, ensuring that any tedium is kept to the bare minimum.

Another huge, huge addition to the series is a brand new quick save system. That’s right — instead of having to drive to a safe house and walk into your bedroom, you can now just open your cell phone and save at any point you wish. In essence, by fixing these two major issues alone, Rockstar has succeeded in creating what is truly the ultimate Grand Theft Auto experience.

Grand Theft Auto V [Xbox 360]

In another bold move, the game has three protagonists instead of just one rags-to-riches story. These characters — Michael, Franklin and Trevor — are all wildly different and can be switched between at your leisure. Michael is a rich ex-convict who is going through a mid-life crisis, and he can’t resist the urge of getting back into the tempting world of crime once again. He befriends Franklin, a repo man who is trying to get out of the hood while pursuing higher levels of crime. Later, Trevor, an old pal of Michael’s, is introduced, and he is the epitome of the stereotypical GTA gamer’s play style. Trevor is a wild, out-of-control white trash psychopath who has no problems killing and torturing others. He is completely ludicrous, but he is responsible for many of the game’s most memorable moments. All three characters have their own personal missions while also working together on the main storyline.

The absolute highlight of using these three characters together comes in the form of elaborate heist missions. These require intense planning, and the game gives you two different ways to pull off these robberies. One is usually stealth-oriented, whereas the other is guns-a-blazin’. A lot of piecework is required to be successful, including recruiting NPC helpers (the better ones require a higher cut of the score), getting proper getaway vehicles and of course, scoping out the area beforehand. There are only a handful of these heist missions, but they are easily the most fun I have had in any GTA game’s main campaign, period.

Grand Theft Auto V [Xbox 360]

Switching between the three characters is quite easy, and it works surprisingly well. For example, during a heist you can switch from one character who is engaged in a gunfight at ground level to another character who is ready with a sniper from above. Being able to switch back and forth adds a new dimension to these missions, and and they are a blast to play.

Of course, if you really want to, you can avoid missions altogether and just go buckwild in the massive world of Los Santos. Unlike in previous games, the entire map is open to you right from the start, and boy is it massive. The city is full of life, with yuppies walking down the sidewalk with frappucino in hand, bar patrons lounging around outside, people walking their dogs in the park… it truly feels like a living, breathing world. Outside of the city, there’s an impoverished, redneck town (where Trevor’s trailer is located), as well as a large mountain that is begging to be explored.

Grand Theft Auto V [Xbox 360]

The game is full of bonus side quests and little Easter eggs, some of which may not be discovered for months. There are tons of random events, and each character has their own unique interactions. For example, Franklin can tow illegally parked cars to earn more money, while Trevor can work as a bounty hunter. Trevor also has the distinction of being able to kidnap random citizens and then drive them to a cult at the top of a mountain, where they will exchange money for their next human sacrifice victim. Basically, you can be as evil as you want in the game.

Other improvements in GTA V include far superior car handling (especially compared to GTA IV) and much better combat controls. The gunplay, especially, is a huge step-up, as now it is much easier to lock onto an enemy. Also, dying in the game no longer erases your weapons — you will respawn with everything in tact, which is a another nice bonus.

Grand Theft Auto V [Xbox 360]

Now, GTA V isn’t quite perfect. For one, helicopters are incredibly awkward to control, and they are mandatory for a few missions. While I was able to handle most missions with relative ease, I found myself dying much more frequently when I had to fly. It makes sense that there are flying missions since Trevor was a former certified pilot, but I could have done without being forced to use them so often.

There are also problems with the game’s writing and use of satire. The GTA series has always been tongue-in-cheek, and this game is no exception. However, some of the satire and jokes just come across as lazy. For every genuinely amusing moment, there are plenty of groan-worthy spoofs (i.e. FBI = FIB, Facebook = Lifeinvader, etc.) or overly juvenile gags. The game’s characters are also hastily written, and their reasons for working together are vapid at best. Still, shallow writing aside, I am willing to overlook most of these flaws simply because the game does so much right.

Put simply, Grand Theft Auto V is a remarkable achievement in gaming. There is just so much to do in the island of Los Santos, and every foray into its world produces new experiences. The game looks incredible — try not to be impressed the first time you dip your toes in the ocean — and it has a killer soundtrack to boot. There’s even a brand new online mode that is essentially its own full-fledged game (which will get a separate review later). In short, this is the GTA that I have always wanted, and it is easily one of this year’s must-play games.

10/10

Video Game Review: Sleeping Dogs [Xbox 360]

Sleeping Dogs [Xbox 360]

Sleeping Dogs
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3, PC and OnLive)
Genre: Action-Adventure, Open World
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: United Front Games
Release Date: August 13, 2012

It’s too easy to dismiss Sleeping Dogs as “Grand Theft Auto set in Hong Kong”, though the similarities are certainly there. Both are open world adventures set in a world of crime, but this offering from Square Enix is strong enough to stand out on its own.

The game places you in the role of Wei Shen, an undercover cop in Hong Kong who is tasked with infiltrating the infamous Triads gang to take them down from the inside. As the game progresses, the number of crime and mob story clichés increase, but the end result is still satisfying. It’s a well-told story, especially when compared to other like-minded video games, and it is engrossing despite its reliance on familiar tropes.

Sleeping Dogs [Xbox 360]

Since Wei is a highly-trained officer, he has an impressive array of skills at his disposal. Not only does he know how to handle a gun (of which there are many), but he is an expert in hand-to-hand combat. The fighting system is one area where Sleeping Dogs really shines — it’s very similar to Rocksteady’s Batman games, and it is easy to pick up and play. As Wei works through the story and completes different side missions, more fighting combos are unlocked, offering a surprisingly deep system.

Wei can also use his police abilities at various points, and these include hacking security cameras, lockpicking, and tracing cell phones. He is a man of many talents, and this leads to a diverse group of missions that send him all over the streets of Hong Kong.

Sleeping Dogs [Xbox 360]

While working undercover, Wei can perform work for the Triads while also sneaking off to help on police cases. There are dozens of random side quests scattered throughout, some of which include helping pedestrians with small tasks, street racing, or even performing karaoke. Quite simply, there is a lot to do in the game, with no shortage of things to discover.

One gameplay tweak that Sleeping Dogs offers over other sandbox titles is its increased amount of checkpoints. No longer do you need to replay an entire mission if you die — there are checkpoints provided after every major event. Unfortunately, while this sounds great in theory, it’s both a blessing and a curse. It’s a relief to not have to drive halfway across the city just to restart a mission, but having so many checkpoints also lowers the difficulty quite a bit. During my 15+ hours with the game, I was rarely ever challenged. Once I got the hang of the countering system within combat, I was able to breeze through most of the missions, with nary a restart necessary. It’s a bit disappointing that the game is so easy.

Sleeping Dogs [Xbox 360]

On the flip side, one area that Sleeping Dogs absolutely nails is its presentation. A great amount of detail went into building the in-game Hong Kong, and the story is given the full Hollywood treatment, even bringing in big names for voice work, including Tom Wilkinson, Emma Stone and Lucy Liu. Perhaps most impressive is the in-game soundtrack. The score, composed by Jeff Tymoschuk (Nightfire, Everything or Nothing), is fantastic, but the radio stations are some of the best I have found in any game, period. Music buffs will love that there are stations devoted to individual record labels, including Daptone (Budos Band, Charles Bradley, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings), Ninja Tune (Bonobo, Emika, Lorn) and Warp (Bibio, Flying Lotus, !!!).

It’s a shame that Sleeping Dogs got a bit lost in the summer of gaming, but it is a great sandbox title that deserves a good, long look. For fans of open world games, this is a must play, and it will likely be a fixture on my “best of” year-end list.

8.5/10