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: Max Payne 3 [Xbox 360]

Max Payne 3 [Xbox 360]

Max Payne 3
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3 and PC)
Genre: Third-person shooter
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Vancouver
Release Date: May 15, 2012

Max Payne is an alcoholic, a pill addict and a chain smoker. He is also one tough son of a bitch. After hitting rock bottom following the death of his wife and infant daughter, Max finds himself in São Paulo, Brazil, working as a bodyguard for the wealthy Branco family. Both on the clock and off, he struggles to cope with his past by hitting the bottle. The man is in bad shape.

While Max’s job as a bodyguard is simple in theory, his commitment is immediately tested when the Brancos are targeted by kidnappers. Having failed at his job of protecting them, Max becomes determined to recover the missing family members, even if it means leaving hundreds of dead bodies along the way. Trouble seems to follow him everywhere, even all the way down to Brazil.

The game’s plot does not play out chronologically; instead, we are given occasional flashbacks to Max’s last days in New Jersey. This is where he meets Raul Passos, the man who recruits him to work security in Brazil. They immediately share a bond by pissing off the local mobsters, and Raul is about the closest thing to a friend that poor Max has anymore.

The storyline, while admittedly familiar, is presented phenomenally in a way that makes the game feel like an action movie. Cutscenes are frequent, but they are used during what would normally be dull loading screens. These scenes use the in-game graphics, providing a seamless transition to the actual gameplay. The presentation is cinematic in that Max provides voiceover narration (often in a snarky tone), and certain words of importance are emphasized on screen. It takes a few chapters before the story and subsequent gameplay takes off, but once it does it sure becomes hard to stop playing.

The core gameplay comes across as a third person shooter, with an emphasis on using cover in the form of walls, benches, couches and the like. What sets this apart from other likeminded shooters is that the game provides the option to use the addictive Bullet Time format. In this, time slows down to a screeching halt, allowing Max to fire off some better aimed shots. This can only be used sporadically so as not to hinder the enemy AI too much, but Max also has the ability to dive at any point and trigger the same sequence. It’s a little tricky to pull off the diving method, especially when multiple enemies are firing at your suddenly prone body, but it can be a great last ditch effort if necessary. Another twist to this formula comes in the “last man standing” feature — in this, when Max is down to his last bar of health, time slows down and he is given the chance to fire off a kill shot on the shooter. If he succeeds in killing him, Max survives. If not, he dies. It’s actually quite amazing just how much this Bullet Time dynamic adds to the overall gameplay, as it surprisingly never grows old during the single player campaign’s 10 hour run time.

Max Payne 3 is a challenging game, even on Normal difficulty. In order to level the playing field, there are options for “Soft Lock” and “Hard Lock”, both of which provide aiming assistance. These are incredibly helpful during some of the more infuriating moments, and thankfully they can be switched at any time.

After completing the single player campaign, which I greatly enjoyed, I moved onto the other facet of the game: the multiplayer mode. I wasn’t expecting much from this; after all, so many games today just tack on one or two lackluster online modes and call it good. Thankfully, that isn’t the case here at all. Max Payne 3 has a surprisingly deep amount of online options, all of which are presented with a thorough Call of Duty-like progression system. Standard battles such as team deathmatch and capture-the-flag are provided, but the real treat is the storyline-driven Gang Wars mode. In this, a collection of objective-based games are linked together in a longer series in order to determine gang supremacy. The story arc changes based on the performance of each round. It’s a neat twist on the standard online gameplay, and it makes for some tense encounters.

Max Payne 3 [Xbox 360]

Oh, and if an in-depth online mode wasn’t enough, there are also options to play through the single player campaign again in arcade scoring format. In these, points are accrued via how fast levels are completed, as well as the quality of Max’s shooting (i.e. headshots are worth more than knee blasts). An online leaderboard helps keep competition fierce.

In a nutshell, Max Payne 3 is the complete package. The single player campaign plays out like a badass action movie, one that feels better than most of the filth that Hollywood has produced in the last decade, and the multiplayer just adds to the overall value. For those worried about needing to play the first two games in the series, don’t fret — the in-game cinematics will get newbies right up to speed. It took me a few chapters to get into what Max Payne 3 had to offer, but by the end I was breathless. This is another fantastic effort from Rockstar, and it is an early game of the year contender.

9/10

Video Game Review: L.A. Noire [PS3, 2011]

L.A. Noire [PS3, 2011]

L.A. Noire
System: Playstation 3 [also on Xbox 360]
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Team Bondi
Release Date: May 17, 2011

The first thing you should know about L.A. Noire is that this is not a traditional Rockstar game. If you come in expecting a Grand Theft Auto-style adventure, you will be sorely disappointed.

Having said that, L.A. Noire is pretty damn brilliant in its own right.

Set in 1947 Los Angeles, the game places you in the role of Cole Phelps, an LAPD Officer who is trying to work his way through the ranks after just coming home from World War II. In a world filled with crime and shady characters (as in the classic film noirs that this borrows heavily from), Phelps is one of the rare few who seems interested in doing the right thing. Phelps doesn’t believe in covering up evidence or tampering with crime scenes; he does his job strictly by the book. This is a refreshing change of pace from previous Rockstar titles in which the lead character basically has free reign to wreak havoc in the game environment.

L.A. Noire [PS3, 2011]

Cole’s job is to investigate crime scenes and to figure out exactly what the hell happened at them. This involves inspecting areas for clues, examining dead bodies, chatting up witnesses and interrogating suspects. While maintaining the open-world environments found in other Rockstar games, L.A. Noire is much more linear overall. You are given case after case to solve, and outside of some side missions that usually involve shootouts or chasing after suspects, there isn’t as much to do in the game world. This is not a problem at all, however, because the cases are long and extremely engrossing. It’s hard not to get caught up in the particulars of certain cases, especially while working in the homicide department. Many of these crimes are based on true stories, which adds even more to the game’s authenticity. In terms of creating 1940s Los Angeles, this is pretty f’n incredible.

The gameplay plays out as something like a hybrid of Heavy Rain’s detailed theatrics and the old point-and-click PC adventure titles prominent in the 1990s, with bits of action sequences sprinkled in. But really, L.A. Noire has developed its own unique style that sets it apart from other titles.

While the action sequences are fun — ramming suspects off the road or chasing them on foot over rooftops never gets old — the most intriguing part of the game is when you interview potential suspects. L.A. Noire’s big developmental feature is the use of a new MotionScan technology that uses astounding facial accuracy to make the characters truly come to life. Seriously, L.A. Noire has the best facial expressions ever seen in a video game. This is absolutely crucial to the gameplay as well since you are required to study the faces of suspects, witnesses and anyone else you talk to. When someone answers one of your questions, you are given three choices: “truth,” “doubt,” or “lie.” It’s up to you if you believe the person of interest or not, but if you believe they are lying then you have to show some kind of proof. If you are unable to accurately determine if they are telling the truth or not, you will be penalized and this can change the outcome of the case. It is possible to send the wrong person to jail in some cases, so it is extremely important to study character reactions.

L.A. Noire [PS3, 2011]

The aforementioned MotionScan technology is made of even greater use by employing real actors to play out the in-game characters. The game borrows heavily from the cast of Mad Men, as more than a handful of the popular TV show’s actors have been used for various roles (including Aaron Staton aka “Ken Cosgrove” as Cole Phelps). The combination of outstanding facial animations, authentic acting and an immaculately-detailed LA game environment makes this one of the better looking games on the market today. Throw in some phenomenal voice acting and 1940s radio and you have a fantastic work of art.

For all of its brilliance, however, L.A. Noire is not perfect. The game offers 21 cases in total to solve, but they start to grow repetitive around the final third of the campaign. This happens after the homicide chapter, which is so good that it would have been really hard to top. Considering the way the story goes, it makes sense to have it in the middle, but it’s almost like Team Bondi gave away its main event too early. Outside of this, there are some occasional annoyances that hinder the gameplay such as idiotic pedestrians who have a habit of running like maniacs directly into your car’s driving path, as well as some occasional glitches and slowdown. Late in the game, I stumbled across one of the most bizarre glitches I have ever seen: I was driving to a crime scene and cut through someone’s backyard. Not a big deal, but apparently the game randomly decided that their yard was made of quicksand and my car slowly started to sink into the ground, tail-end first. The game jolted Phelps and his partner out of the car while the vehicle proceeded to tilt straight up, with just the front half of the car remaining above ground. It was definitely a strange sight to behold. I got a kick out of it, and this will probably not happen for too many people, but I couldn’t help but to share this weird little story.

In essence, L.A. Noire is pretty damn incredible despite its flaws. This is a game unlike any other, and it is one that will surely spawn its own copycats in the future. There is room for growth, which I am sure the inevitable sequel will expand upon, but this is still an engaging experience for anyone interested in detective fiction and film noir. As long as you don’t expect a wild action ride like GTA, chances are you will enjoy L.A. Noire as much as I have.

8.5/10

Video Game Review: Grand Theft Auto IV [Xbox 360, 2008]

Grand Theft Auto IV [Xbox 360, 2008]

Grand Theft Auto IV
System: Xbox 360
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar North
Release Date: April 29, 2008

In a series rife with over-the-top entries such as Vice City and San Andreas, Grand Theft Auto IV takes things in a new direction: gritty realism. This time around you play as Niko Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant who has arrived in Liberty City in pursuit of the American Dream (and I’m not talking about Dusty Rhodes). Upon arriving, he gets caught up in the criminal lifestyle found in other GTA games, eventually racking up countless murders and other violent crimes. Along the way, he meets a colorful cast of characters (some brilliant, some annoying) who help push the story along by providing new missions.

The core sandbox gameplay found in previous titles is largely the same, but everything is more realistic, beginning with the driving controls. A lot of people were instantly turned off to the game due to its vehicle handling, which is drastically different from years past. Cars are a little more difficult to handle, at least at first, and it’s a little too easy to lose control while traveling at high speeds. The learning curve will bother some gamers, but I found the controls to be satisfactory as I grew more comfortable with them.

Grand Theft Auto IV [Xbox 360, 2008]

Another aspect that tries to make the game more “real” is the heavy reliance on Niko’s cell phone. People are always calling Niko. If they aren’t telling him about new missions, they are wanting to hang out and go bowling, play pool or go get some drinks. Going out with friends is, unfortunately, a necessity if you are looking to do everything the game has to offer. This means that in between missions you will often have to call some friends (or potential girlfriends), pick them up, go out and do something, then drop them back off. While hanging out to sustain relationships is realistic, it’s more of a nuisance than anything in video game form.

The game’s main missions are pretty much what you would expect — meet with someone, drive to a location, kill some people, outrun the cops and then pick up your reward. This is the basic formula that encompasses the majority of the missions, although every now and then there is something unique to liven things up. My personal favorite involves participating in a bank heist gone bad and then having to shoot your way out; it reminded me a lot of the Michael Mann classic, Heat. While there is some redundancy involved, the occasional spurts of different tasks keeps the game fresh.

Grand Theft Auto IV [Xbox 360, 2008]

Unfortunately, the game’s mission checkpoint system still feels like it is in the stone age. This is a major issue for me, as it can be unbearably frustrating to start a mission, drive all the way across the city, complete a task or two and then end up dying before completion. If you die or get arrested, you are screwed. You can’t restart at the point you died; instead, you have to start the entire mission all over again. Times have changed, Rockstar. This shit does not fly anymore.

Another thing that can be grating is the clunky combat/shooting system. While certainly improved over past entries in the series, GTA IV’s combat still does not feel natural. The new cover system is a good idea in theory, but sometimes it can be difficult to actually get into cover and remain there. This can lead to being left prone for enemy fire. The new targeting system is improved, but again, it still leaves something to be desired. The appropriate steps have been taken, but Rockstar just isn’t quite there yet.

Grand Theft Auto IV [Xbox 360, 2008]

Really, even though all of these gripes are perfectly justifiable, Grand Theft Auto IV is an impressive video game, hands down. It’s not perfect, but I have never played a game that has created such a massive, living and breathing city like Liberty City. There is just so much to do, and you can play the game to your liking. Liberty City feels like the sadistic little brother of New York City, with its own distinct areas modeled after real life locales. Quite frankly, the game’s world is beautiful in its own dark and grimy way. The graphics are slick, and even breathtaking at times (I love driving on the bridge with the skyline in the background). The soundtrack is as great as ever, and even the hilarious satire news stations are back.

Grand Theft Auto IV is a major technical achievement in the video game industry, and it really is something to behold. Even with its flaws, GTA IV is a great experience that is worthy of the many, many hours that so many gamers have invested in it.

8/10