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

Video Game DLC Review: Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare [Xbox 360, 2010]

Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare [Xbox 360, 2010]

Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3)
Genre: Third-person shooter
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar San Diego
Release Date: November 22, 2010

Whoever came up with the idea for Undead Nightmare deserves a pat on the back. Inserting zombies into the wild western world of Red Dead Redemption? That is a stroke of genius, my friends.

What makes Undead Nightmare so great is that it isn’t just a killer concept — this is premium downloadable content. For a mere $9.99, you get access to a lengthy single player campaign (approx. 10 hours to get 100% completion) as well as two new multiplayer modes. That’s more than some full-priced retail games offer! Expansion packs don’t get much better than this.

Reformed outlaw John Marston is once again the main protagonist, and this time he is out to find a cure for the terrifying new plague that is sweeping the land, all so he can get his wife and child back to normal. The entire Wild West is being overrun with zombies, with the undead rising from their graves all over the area.

Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare [Xbox 360, 2010]

The plague hasn’t just infected humans. It has spread to animals, too, even in John’s preferred method of transportation: horses. I was horrified (yet also amused) when I whistled for a horse, only to have one arrive with half of its face missing. It must also be stated that you don’t know fear until you are attacked out of nowhere by a zombie bear.

Rockstar didn’t just include zombie animals, they also opted to entertain by introducing mythical creatures to the game. Now you can randomly come across chupacabras, sasquatches and unicorns. It’s pretty clear that the developers had a damn good time making this DLC.

As stated earlier, the single player campaign can last a good ten hours or so to finish completely. Aside from the main storyline that brings back some old favorite characters, there are also side quests and random encounters with loners out in the wilderness. Perhaps most fun are the objectives where you can clear out a whole town’s mess of zombies and let them live in peace, albeit most likely for just a few days. This brings a sense of heroism to John’s meandering adventure.

Fans of Red Dead Redemption’s multiplayer will be pleased with Undead Nightmare’s two new modes: Land Grab and Undead Overrun. The former is a free roam feature in which you attempt to hold onto a piece of territory for a certain amount of time, all while fighting off any attackers. The latter mode is my personal favorite, as it is basically a Horde mode against increasingly difficult waves of zombies. Even with a good group of players, this mode can get pretty damn crazy. There were times when I was the last survivor and had to run for my life against a seemingly endless onslaught of zombies. It beats the hell out of Call of Duty’s Nazi Zombies feature, that’s for sure.

Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare [Xbox 360, 2010]

While Undead Nightmare offers an impressive amount of content, it isn’t quite perfect. I ran into some weird glitches, including one particular annoying bug in which I had cleared out the zombies in a town except for one that remained somehow stuck in the walls of a building. I couldn’t get to the bastard, so I had to restart at the last checkpoint and save the town again. Not a huge deal, but an inconvenience nonetheless.

Glitches be damned, this is still a fantastic expansion for those looking to continue the wonderful Red Dead Redemption experience. It is a shame that more developers do not create such engrossing DLC as Undead Nightmare, as this really is one of the best that I have come across. Every now and then this expansion goes on sale for $5, but even at its $9.99 price it is more than worth purchasing.

9/10

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

The Saboteur [Xbox 360, 2009]

The Saboteur [Xbox 360, 2009]

The Saboteur
System: Xbox 360
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Pandemic Studios
Release Date: December 8, 2009

One of the most criminally overlooked games to come out in the last couple years.

The Saboteur is a Grand Theft Auto-style sandbox adventure game that is set during World War II in Nazi-occupied Paris, France. It also happens to be Pandemic’s last game before the studio was shut down for good. You play as Sean Devlin, an Irish racecar mechanic who gets cheated out of a race and subsequently becomes involved in a serious revenge plot against the Germans. The story revolves around a number of ethnic stereotypical characters, but this never becomes an issue since it is presented in an easygoing “adventure movie” narrative. Some liberties were taken with the realism factor, but it is all done in the name of making this a fun video game.

Other than the 1940’s France setting, which is really freakin’ cool, what sets this game apart from other sandbox titles is its style. The Saboteur utilizes both color and black & white to its full advantage. In areas of heavy Nazi occupance, the game’s world turns black and white. As Sean helps areas of the city fight back and resist the Germans, color slowly starts to seep back into the locales. This transformation is so simple, yet so utterly brilliant. I can’t think of any other games that do something like this, and it’s amazing that merely a different palette can evoke such power in a video game.
The Saboteur [Xbox 360, 2009]

Whether you want to play through the story missions or just blow up Nazi installations is entirely up to you. You have the freedom to do whatever you please, and you are given the entire city of Paris (as well as some of the countryside) to do it in. The game takes pride in the fact that you can play through guns-a-blazin’ or opt for a stealth route by sneaking around in Nazi gear. While this option is nice, it is much more fun to run around Rambo-style than it is to sneak past guards. The stealth mode is actually a lot more difficult than it should be, as the enemies are often way too quick to sniff you out and blow your cover. It’s possible to get through the game this way, but not really optimal.

In terms of pure gameplay, The Saboteur is a blast. The 1940s setting is perfectly encapsulated with music from the era, classic vehicles and old-style fashion. Devlin has free reign and can steal any car he wants, climb any building (with slick Uncharted-esque controls) and purchase weapon upgrades from a number of black market dealers. When you tack on the side missions and hundreds of “freeplay events” scattered around the game world, it could take a good 40 hours or so to 100% the game (it takes roughly 10 hours to complete just the story on its own). In a world like The Saboteur, it is easy to get sucked in and not want to leave.

It amazes me that this game flew under the radar when it was released in December 2009. I didn’t know anything about it until just recently myself. The Saboteur is an all-around fun game with a good amount of depth, and it excels partly because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. While the stealth features could have been polished up a bit, this is still one of the best sandbox games I have played. Definitely a steal at the $20 or so it runs for these days.

8/10

Video Game Review: Just Cause 2 [Xbox 360, 2010]

Just Cause 2 [Xbox 360]

Just Cause 2
System: Xbox 360
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Avalanche Studios
Release Date: March 23, 2010

Just Cause 2’s appeal lies in one simple concept: blowing shit up. Given an entire massive island as your playground, the possibilities to wreak havoc are endless. Want to hijack that helicopter flying above you? Go ahead and use your grappling hook to attach yourself to it, then throw out the pilot and take control. Bored of flying that helicopter? Jump out of it and use your parachute to safely get back to ground level, then watch the copter explode upon impact. Want to see more stuff explode? Head to one of the hundreds of locations scattered throughout the island and start shooting everything in sight — fuel tanks warrant the biggest explosions. Seriously, this game is a pyromaniac’s wet dream.

I played the first Just Cause a couple years ago, and it was underwhelming. The original promised a gigantic island to run around in, and it delivered in that aspect, but everything else was just dull and the Xbox 360 version did little to differentiate itself from its Xbox/PS2 brethren. Just Cause 2 is one of those elusive sequels that truly improves upon its predecessor in every single way. The island is even bigger, the graphics are vastly improved, and the game is just more fun in general. It’s still not perfect, but it is more enjoyable.

The game has a story mode that is beyond cheesy, and apparently that’s what the developers were going for. You play as Rico Rodriguez, a field agent for “The Agency” who is sent to the war torn island of Panau to overthrow its newest dictator. In order to do so, Rico aids a number of criminal factions in the area and causes destruction to anything he can see. The story limps along via cut scenes that showcase some of the most over-the-top and downright terrible voice acting that I have ever heard in a video game. It’s obvious that the game doesn’t take itself seriously, for better or for worse.

While you have the ability to progress through the main story missions, the most fun is had just exploring the ridiculously large island and finding more stuff to explode. This is one of the biggest open world games ever made, and it is nearly impossible to run out of things to do. The replay value is extremely high since you are given the ability to try to 100% all 368 locations, max out your weapons, perform street races, and do a plethora of side missions.

There are a few problems that hamper the experience, however. I can’t help but feel the game could have been more polished overall. The gun targeting system is floaty and does not feel right at all. There are occasions when controlling Rico in general feels awkward, although that is a minor problem. Ammunition is scarce in the early portions of the game, and it’s not until you upgrade your weapons that the ammo does not become as much of an issue. Also, the game does get repetitive after a while. I love to blow shit up just as much as the next guy, but a little more variety would have been nice.

In short, Just Cause 2 is a big improvement over the original game, and it offers a hell of a lot of things to do. Although it has a handful of flaws that hold it back from greatness, JC2 is still a fun sandbox adventure game that is worth looking into. Just don’t expect a particularly deep experience.

7/10