Posted by: Derek | July 17, 2012

Comic-Con 2012 Video Game Impressions

Comic-Con 2012 is over and I got to play a surprising amount of games while I was there so here are my impressions in no particular order:

Halo 4 Multiplayer

Man I’m rusty at this. I’m not a big enough Halo player to know if there was anything intricate changed like weapon balance but what I do know is that it SOUNDS amazing. I’ve always thought that the Halo series had sound that was lacking in weight and punch. I’ve never felt like Master Chief because my weapons sound like pea shooters and I have no footsteps. The melee attack sound was pretty good though. A lot of other sounds just felt inadequate or flat out missing. Halo 4 finally fixes this!

Right off the bat I noticed that there are indeed metallic sounding footsteps which instantly make the soldiers feel less floaty. All of the weapons I used (assault rifle, DMR) are from previous Halo games but the sound effects on them sound completely redone. The assault rifle especially has traditionally sounded pretty weak, but now you really hear every bullet coming out and they all have a real PUNCH. DMR used to sound like a pistol in a canyon but now has a more solid feel to it.

The sound of instant melee kills, getting hit by a warthog or hijacking someone off a ghost all have really hard hitting crunches. It’s like they made real armor and rammed a car into it. In fact, the audio was so good I barely minded that I was playing terribly. Make no mistake, the sound effects still sound like Halo. The plasma grenade still has the same elements, but more sound effects have been layered over it. Even if the experience was amplified by playing with their super gamer headphones I think the sound effects will still hold up when I hear them on my TV.

Graphically it’s shiiiiiny. I think I caught moments of that effect when the framerate speeds up because you’re looking at a corner of the world without much geometry in it. I’m sure there’s a technical term for that. Not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. I usually find it distracting and prefer when the framerate is capped instead.

So far Halo 4 is shaping up to be what I was hoping for which is a set of fresh eyes looking to improve on the series which I’ve always felt never made serious leaps and bounds with its sequels. Hopefully they can do the same for Halo’s storytelling which has been rather flat except for ODST which was a step in the right direction but a little insubstantial by the end.

Okami HD

It’s still Okami but the MOST important thing is that the Playstation Move controls feel better than the Wii AND you can use buttons to attack! I’m not even sure waggle was an option for attack which is a great thing. Playing this very long game won’t cause permanent damage to your wrist and the digging minigame will be actually playable. I was playing very close to the screen but the brush usage was fast and responsive during combat. The large “Move” button on the wand was mapped to painting and attacking. I was surprised by how small the square, triangle, circle, and X buttons were. The only slightly awkward control is using the d-pad to tilt the camera up and down on the left nunchuk.

The graphics looked absolutely beautiful. The paper texture that covers the screen was sharper and the 2D and 3D graphics looked very clear. I was worried the 2D elements wouldn’t scale up since the original was SD but it looks like it all works in higher resolution. According to the Capcom rep the ORIGINAL END CREDITS are in the game!!! This is shaping up to be the definitive release!

Sleeping Dogs

This game used to be “True Crime: Hong Kong” before it was jettisoned by Activision and then bought up by Square Enix. The section I played was mostly a chase scene and hand to hand combat. The cutscenes are in English but they mix in some Chinese similar to how Assassin’s Creed II uses its Italian. The Chinese pronunciation worked to varying degrees of success. It seems between missions there’s some walking around you can do to soak in the ambience of the streets of Hong Kong. There’s a lot of animation for the NPCs that you walk by and if the rest of the game is as well populated with unique then it’ll be an impressive looking open world (I’m not actually sure if the game is open world or not)

I bought from all the food vendors I found. A nice detail was when he bought fried rice he’d eat it quickly and discard the bowl on the street. There was a brief chase scene which involved pressing X to jump over some obstacles but wasn’t terribly difficult. I never felt for a moment that I might fail like in an Assassin’s Creed game and it didn’t get as cinematic as in an Uncharted, but it felt fun enough.

The hand to hand combat was what made up most of the demo. There’s some basic attacks, grapples and throws. There are also environmental objects which glow red to indicate there’s a special attack associated with it. These were things like knocking a guy into an air vent, closing shutters on a guy, or grinding a guy’s face into a fan on a rooftop. This game clearly wants to be gritty and visceral in its presentation.  The combat wasn’t terribly difficult but I had fun playing it and trying out all the environmental attacks. If you learn new kung fu attacks in the game then it could be a lot of fun. I wouldn’t say I’m banging the doors down to play Sleeping Dogs but I’d consider getting it on sale. Then again, I wait for most games to go on sale.

Resident Evil 6 Leon Demo

Resident Evil continues to look very shiny and it was nice to see Leon all HD-ified. This demo was sort of flat because it was extremely easy. I know that demos are made to be easier so that players can beat them and get a good impression but so many parts of the demo had only one zombie who never attacked. Only one time did they pile enough on to increase the difficulty but even then it wasn’t very hard. Maybe having played RE games, I don’t find them as tense as when I first played RE4.

The other reason is that Leon has more melee attacks in his arsenal. Before, your last resort was the knife which was best used on downed opponents. Leon can now take an axe from a zombie and use it on them which is pretty cool. He also has kick melee attacks which can be used on zombies or double teaming stubborn doors with his partner. Yes, when you need a partner to open a door with they both do turning side kicks to open them :P

The other new thing is model dismemberment. If you shoot the center of the chest you’re going to make a hole which is all you’re going to be shooting through if you don’t shoot a different part of the body. If you shoot a head off it’ll either explode or fall backwards while still attached to the body. Other parts of the body damage like you’d expect them to.

Parts of the game weren’t working like whenever your partner helps you up the animations skipped around and all of a sudden I’d be standing up. Same went for if I was on the ground and a zombie attacked me. Either animations are flat out missing at this point in development or some code needs fixing up. Also I think your partner sprinkles herbs in your mouth when you’re dying. Not sure if the “herbal spray” from RE5 has been replaced (heh, sounds like a cosmetic).

There were some quicktime events too of course which were functionally the same. So it seems like Resident Evil 6 is more Resident Evil. I’m curious what the multiple storylines will be like.

Tomb Raider Hunting Demo

Despite the negative press and the ridiculous moans and groans coming from this new Lara Croft I’ve still been interested because I’m a fan of the Uncharted 3rd person adventure (like the excellent Enslaved). This demo was rather limited in scope so there wasn’t much to go off of. It covered Lara finding a bow and hunting for food. The graphics I think looked nice and the character animates well whether running, crawling, jumping etc. Like Uncharted it looks like there will be a lot of context sensitive motion captured or keyframe animated movements.

This demo showed the “hub” which is your base camp on a rather large world map. There are menus upon menus of skills that you can level up as you play. It turns out, it takes experience points to pick up arrows off the ground because “arrow retrieval” is a skill. There are other skills such as “toughness” and various melee kills or bow and arrow skills. You’ll get xp as you play, for example when I did my first climbing section I got 100 xp. While hunting I saw deer, rabbits and birds. I have a feeling that despite Lara’s reluctance to kill animals, she’ll be killing a lot of them if you want to get the experience or achievement points. Gameplay will probably be somewhat at odds with the character like how Drake is a nice guy but kills hundreds of people.

My biggest question about this game is if/how the character’s presentation will change as you level up and the story progresses. When the demo started, the nearly every jump she made or stunt performed was accompanied by screams and groans. This could easily get grating after a while, so my question is if by the end she’ll be more confident in her jumps and the panicked cries will turn into Nathan Drake-like grunts. If the sound designer is reading this, please add more breathing sound effects. Every inhale and exhale in the demo sounded exactly the same to me which is even more distracting than the unnatural breathing the children in Heavy Rain made.

I’m still interested in Tomb Raider because it has a lot of elements that I like. Story, Uncharted set piece moments and character skill leveling. If they can evolve the character in cinematic and also in-game then it could be a lot of fun.

Dust: An Elysian Tail

This is an XBLA Summer of Arcade title that I’ve been looking forward to. It’s a combo based action game and it has Metroidvania style map exploration and GORGEOUS art and animation. The other big story about it is that the entire game was made by one guy Dean Dodrill (except the music). He’s an artist by trade but short version of the story is that he wanted to learn to program so he decided to make a game. The hard work definitely shows because how many people can do something so successfully when it’s a field of work totally foreign to what we’re used to doing everyday?

You play the titular character Dust who looks like a cat humanoid sort of thing accompanied by a cat/bat looking mascot character. Dust has a sword and can combo it with a flashy looking spinning move which can then amplify the projectile attacks from the companion character, and he can spin attack through the air. As you play you’ll unlock more moves to make better combos. There’s a LOT of animation in this game that flows and is super “juicy.” It reminds me of the smooth animation from Wayforward who made the new “Boy and his Blob” and “Bloodrayne Betrayal.” The color palette is well, colorful. This game has bright beautiful colors and the environments are lush and varied. Beyond the animation there are a lot of nice special effects like how the background distorts as Dust spins and swipes his sword around. It’s not stuff that hasn’t been seen before but it really spices up the look of the game.

The menus are replete with item slots, character stats and lots of food pickups like chicken and cakes used to restore health. The jumping feels a tad floaty but I can already see how once you could get a nice flow going juggling enemies around the screen. Also there are damage numbers which are always good in my book because of the sense of progression they elicit.

Did I mention the game is pretty? Because it really is. The animation is so juicy I want to eat it up with a spoon. Cannot wait for this one!

Deadlight

I’ve been interested in this since PAX East because I like the 2.5D Shadow Complex look. It’s a post apocalyptic zombie game set in the 80s. The demo focuses on traversal and puzzle solving. It’s clearly not a game where you’re meant to fight the zombies when you encounter them because for one thing you don’t even have weapons. You do get an axe later on in the demo but it’s not like you’re going to be swinging it around and messing zombies up. The look is a desaturated brown look with lots of rubble, old run down buildings etc. and the character animates well. Cutscenes are done in motion comic style with some good voice acting. I wonder how the 80s time period will influence the story.

Clearly the demo was the tutorial portion of the game, but it didn’t give me a good impression of what the rest of the game will be like. One of the developers was there and asked me what I thought of the game. I asked him what the rest of the game would be like in terms of gameplay. He emphasized that it wasn’t an action focused game and that it was mainly traversal and puzzle solving. He said that the puzzles would indeed get much more difficult later in the game. I forgot to ask him if there was a story reason that the main character couldn’t swim.

What I should’ve asked him was how the game challenged the player, because the demo was too easy to get a firm grasp of what to expect. I’ll definitely get it when it comes out since I like 2.5D games but I wish the demo had made me more confident about what to expect.

DMC (Devil May Cry)

I’ve wanted to try the new Devil May Cry ever since I heard that Ninja Theory (developers of Enslaved) were making it. I’ve only played the first and third Devil May Cry and the demo of the 4th. I’m really bad at combo based 3D action games. I’m a little better at the 2D ones because I can keep better track of the movement. The best players are the ones who can mix combos on the fly and make it look fluid and pretty. My litmus test for whether I’ll like a combo based action game is based on how well I can button mash or how confident I am that I could learn some decent combos.

The DMC demo starts you off with only a shoot button, double jump, a sword attack and a button to launch enemies into the air. I was almost worried it’d been dumbed down too much and get boring. Later they revealed the LT and RT as angel/devil modifier buttons for the combat and a grab move that can be used either to pull enemies to you or pull yourself to an enemy. This for me was the right mix of God of War button mashing that I do and the skill based Devil May Cry, Bayonetta and Ninja Gaiden games. I think I can work with this. I realized that any action game which has a grapple move is what makes me feel like I’m doing well so I think this will be a good fit.

The colorful Ninja Theory art style from Enslaved is just as evident here. There are moments where the environments impressively crumble and split apart in scripted events. The pacing of short dialogue cutscenes intercut with the action along with the dynamic environments make it feel more cinematic and modern. The technical side also looks much improved from previous games because as good as Enslaved was, there was a little bit of jank here and there that occasionally bogged the framerate down. The dialogue somehow maintains the series’ juvenile cockiness and cursing but is acted well enough that it’s not annoying. Devil May Cry has traditionally had really stupid dialogue but I think DMC looks like it’ll be stupid but self-aware enough to totally work. The performance capture in the game adds that extra layer of polish.

Long story short it looks like DMC will have all the heart of Devil May Cry but with enough modern twists to make it a worthy reboot to the series.

Hitman: Absolution

I’ve always been intrigued by the Hitman series from afar but the controls never felt good to me. I tried the demo of Hitman Blood Money but my experience felt really janky and that’s putting it nicely. I’ve been looking forward to Absolution because it looks like it’ll control better and be more polished all around. The demo was an assassination in Chinatown which incorporates an extremely impressive crowd scene. It’s very much like Assassin’s Creed but since it’s not an open world game there are a LOT more people in this crowd. It animated nicely and didn’t feel very glitchy at all. Very smooth looking presentation.

There are lot of things you can interact with in the game like petrol cans, bottles, knifes, dumpsters, fuse boxes etc. I didn’t feel bad hitting the hint prompts because I think this is the sort of game where there are so many ways to approach it that you have to know just how interactive the world is. Aside from just shooting the target or strangling him, the other options I saw were poisoning his food, poisoning his drugs, sabotaging his car or just sniping him. I opted for the approach to poison his drugs ( the staff person manning the station had to give me the hint after I royally messed up my first attempt).

I distracted a policeman by sabotaging a fuse box which let me sneak into the nearby drug dealer’s hangout. The dealer held me at gunpoint and after feigning defeat by raising my hands I followed button prompts to take him out and wear his clothes. To poison the drugs I needed fugu fish from the fish market. What I had assumed I’d end up doing was poisoning the drugs (wouldn’t he notice his cocaine was wet with fish poison?) and giving the drugs to the target. It turns out the target wanted to do the drugs at the dealer’s apartment. I realized too late that I left the body just lying around so he figured me out and pulled a gun on me. I feigned defeat again, broke his neck and walked out of Chinatown.

For me Hitman isn’t a great game to play at a show because I want to be slow and methodical but I don’t want to hold up the line too much. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on this once it comes out. What I played was a good enough taste that I feel confident the rest of the game will be fun in a more refined and varied Assassin’s Creed format.

Sidenote, the Microsoft employee was ALLOWING children under the age of 17 to play Hitman!!! I saw kids as young as 8 playing the game, and in fact the kid to my left playing it decided to kill EVERY single person in the massive crowd scene down to the last fish salesman. The woman at the demo station only scolded the children when they put their drink or snacks on the table in front of the TV “Come on, you know better” is what she said to them. Excuse me?? YOU should know better than to let children play M rated games! Unacceptable Microsoft, train your staff better. There was also a mother who should’ve known better than to watch as her young child played the game. People.

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron

I had heard that the “War for Cybertron” game was really good but “Fall of Cybertron” is looking to up the ante for Transformers games. These games are being made by fans of the original cartoon (Generation 1) and going from that instead of the spikey bug-like Transformers from the Michael Bay movies. I managed to catch the panel for this game  which featured some devs along with Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime), Gregg Berger (Grimlock) and Nolan North (Cliffjumper and Bruticus). The thing the devs emphasized was that the game would follow several different Transformers in the game and that each one would play differently from the other. So Cliffjumper would play differently than Grimlock, Optimus Prime or Bumblebee. Also they confirmed that there will indeed be a Stan Bush song in this game.

I played the demo for Bumblebee which had him defending the bridge of a ship then retrieving a fuse to re-activate the ship’s cannons. The action is 3rd person shooter with lots of scripted events going on around you like hapless Transformers getting destroyed as Decepticon robot tendrils tear the ship apart. It’s kind of cool that the hull can be breached but it doesn’t entirely matter because they don’t need air to breathe. All the while there was epic orchestral music going on in the background which really sets the mood. I’ve never though Bumblebee was very cool (I mean his name is Bumblebee) but after the demo he’s definitely looking a lot cooler. The combat feels good and sounds great. A lot of care has gone into the sound because those giant robots sound like you want them to.

Doing a boost forward into a melee attack knocked a Decepticon out the window and was super satisfying. It never hurts that you can hear Nolan North as various generic autobots screaming and yelling while this is going on. Was it ever a question that the voice acting from a cartoon show would be good? The presentation is really top notch here and got me amped up in all the right ways. The gameplay moments shown during the panel have the environments dynamically changing in the way you’d expect them to on a robot planet.

Fall of Cybertron looks like the best kind of Transformers fan service that 80s kids could hope for now that they’re in their 30s. I’m looking forward to playing the first game before I pick this one up. Also in case you forgot, Stan Bush WILL have a song in this game.

Papo & Yo

I’ve been following this game for a while even though I had no inkling of what it was going to play like. The backstory of the game is that it’s inspired by the experience of the developer growing up with an alcoholic father who was a violent drunk. The father is represented by a monster in the game who is the main character’s friend but goes crazy whenever he eats frogs.

The demo seemed rather limited in scope and like Deadlight I was wondering if the whole game was like the demo or if there were more mechanics to be introduced later. The core of the demo was a village area which had several shacks with wind-up keys in their sides. The keys from afar look like they’re drawn in glowing chalk but are actually 3D. When you wind up the keys the buildings then float away and stacked up on a building in the center. When you go there you can pull a lever which causes the stacked buildings to articulate like a segmented worm. They could then be positioned so that you can walk on top of them to reach parts of the village you couldn’t before. Eventually you stack up enough of them to reach your goal on the other side of the village.

Meanwhile the monster would be running around looking for large lemons which you could bait him with to activate monster hotspots that would also manipulate the environment. It seems that Papo & Yo is a platforming puzzle game, I’m just wondering how devious the puzzles will get eventually and how the story will be told as it goes along.

Sly Cooper 4: Thieves in Time

I never played the original games so I can’t compare this. This demo wasn’t very good because it was very limited in scope. You have access to two different costumes, one is the normal Sly and the other is an archer. This level involved getting to a platform with a bucketful of arrows, shooting a rope arrow across to a target and walking there. Maybe breaking some barrels for coins along the way. There were some trampolines and the targets you had to shoot would get a bit more difficult to hit, but adjusting the arrow movement while in the air made it not very difficult.

The most curious thing to me was that the various surfaces that you jump on or climb have to be attached to by pressing the Circle button. That meant that whenever I jumped towards a rope I had to press circle to land on it, lest I fall to my death. I don’t understand why something you’ll be doing in a platform (you know, like jumping on platforms) would require an additional button press. It seemed like an unnecessary complication, but the guy manning the booth looked like hired help and not a dev so I didn’t push the question. Demo was extremely “meh.”

Sound Shapes

I had heard people who were very interested in this game but knew very little about it except that there was some dynamic music in it. I played the level by Superbrothers and Jim Guthrie. The character is an eyeball looking thing which can make itself sticky to cling to certain surfaces. Think about the spider ball in Metroid 2. Just about every surface you touch creates a musical note as you traverse the different screens. In order to move around I’d have to bump security guards to cause doors to open and bump women at desks which would cause elevators to move up and down. I could tell that there’s probably an ideal sort of way to play it to make the song sound really good, but even hitting objects randomly it manages to sound like odd music instead of a loud racket.

The game is stage based so I’m guessing there will be timing based trophies and DLC later on. Looking forward to seeing more!

Darksiders II

This demo didn’t really show much that indicated how it would differ from the original Darksiders. You play as Death instead of War, complete with his huge torso and tiny little waist. Death has a horse of course (hehe) and he can do a little scramble up the wall to reach higher up ledges. There are also damage numbers when you’re doing attacks, but other than that it played like Darksiders. I enjoyed the original so I’ll pick this up at some point but also like the original won’t be rushing to get it on day 1.

Little Big Planet Karting

I’m terrible at kart racers so this seemed about on point. There were collectibles like those bubbles from LBP and also some powerups like a giant rocket boxing glove and some other things that I didn’t know how to use properly. There were obstacles like you’d see in LBP such as electrical pinball posts. Also there were long jumps where you had to use your grappling hook to cling to and swing to the other side. Also you can slap players on either side.

Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale

It certainly looks and sounds just like Smash Bros. I played Nathan Drake (of course) who is a really slow character. His attacks were punches, drop kicks, a desert eagle and some power moves like throwing a propane tank or hilariously generating a large stone pillar and pushing it onto anyone in its path. I was confused about whether the bar on screen was my life or the super meter. I’m pretty sure now it was the life bar. When you’re killed you’re taken off screen for a few seconds and respawn. Maybe it’s because Drake is a slow character but the control felt sluggish.

Posted by: Derek | May 7, 2012

Premiere Pro CS6 New and Missing Features

Being a Final Cut Pro 7 editor converting to Premiere Pro I had a laundry list of things that I was hoping would be added to CS6, several of which I figured were no brainers in order to to fix up an editing program which was most of the way there but still had a ton of really odd and un-user friendly design choices. So of my list what has been fixed and what has not?

This is going to skip over all the well documented features such as Speedgrade integration, warp stabilizer, and all the bullet points you’ll see on every Premiere Pro CS6 review. Those are great new features and don’t need to be praised any more. Here I’m going to delve into minutiae that saves me a few seconds here and there, but over time add up a great deal. If anyone knows the quick solutions for any of these, please chime in ’cause I’d love to know if I’m just missing a shortcut here or there.

I removed most of the buttons off the bottom ’cause I never press those manually anyway. Here my playhead is just about at the end of my sequence, yet it’s less than a 1/6th of the way to the end of the scrubber. I can’t see why this would be a good thing for anyone.

Improvements

Timeline

Brighter colors – Clip colors are much brighter, more readable and just better looking in general.

Full Screen mode – Sorely missing before and even with the Shift-tilde command which maximized the program window it became abundantly clear that there were too many buttons and switches taking up the Program window interface. Now fullscreen is here and the other good news is that when you leave full screen, your playhead cursor will be directly in the center of the screen where you stopped playback. In CS 5.5 it would be way off screen nowhere to be found until you zoomed out then back in.

Work Area OFF – The work area similar to that of After Effects was functionally another set of in and out points to keep track of. It can now be shut off forever. It will not be missed.

Continuous Playback – If you have something playing, it’ll continue playing even if you switch to other applications. This is great, however if you click around it will stop playback. Unlike FCP which would continue playing when you clicked which would make it easy to go through footage quickly. I guess PPro’s continuous playback is serving a slightly different purpose than FCP’s which stopped when you switched applications.

Audio tracks – It’s nice that they got rid of the stereo/mono specific tracks, but I still wish they’d just function like in FCP where they were easily splittable and re-joinable.

Audio meters – Oh god, they’re huge, they’re beautiful and they’re silky smooth. YES.

Mouse scroll behavior – Preference for choosing whether mouse scrolls vertically or horizontal. Also modifier keys to change scroll to horizontal or to zoom. YES!

Trim mode – PPro added a trim mode that functions like Avid’s trim mode complete with +1 +5 buttons for trimming. BUT the keyboard shortcuts to trim back and forth do not work until the Program window has been selected. More unnecessary mouse clicks. (what happened to me before was I had multiple functions assigned to the keys I wanted to use for trimming, but for some reason Premiere didn’t warn me that I had which meant the shortcuts didn’t work). Oddly enough when you press the shortcut to get out of trim mode, the program window gets out of trim mode, but the timeline does not. You can deselect it with the “deselect all” keyboard shortcut though.

YEEEEEESSSSSS!

Keyboard Shortcuts

Audio scrubbing – Finally you can toggle this with a keyboard shortcut. It’s amazing it took this many versions before this was added. Adobe editors must love listening to digital audio scrubbing.

Next/Prev Edit
– Activating tracks before skipping between edits no longer required, but the option for shortcuts between active tracks or all tracks are now an option. This is a real time saver which will mean fewer times when I press “next” or “prev” edit and end up on the other side of the timeline.

Zoom in/Out in Source – Say you need to look closer at the audio waveform in the source window, you can do that now with a keyboard shortcut instead of dragging the edge of the viewing area bar. I’m sad to say that the viewing area bar is still a thing. In the above image you can see why I’m not a fan of it. Seriously, I don’t need the range of my Program scrubbing area to go to 12 minutes when my sequence is only two minutes long.

Audio Gain – In CS 5.5, when you pressed the shortcut to adjust audio levels, the default field was “Set gain to” but usually people are only adjusting by adding or subtracting db. CS6 defaults to the field for “adjust gain by.” YES!!!!

I have no time to do math, take me STRAIGHT to the “adjust gain” field. YEEESSSS!!!!

Project Window

Bin autosorting - In CS 5.5 if you imported a file, it would sort that file to the bottom of the bin you were importing into which would require you to then refresh the bin before it would go back to alphabetical order. Sadly this is still true of renamed bins and folders.

Wish List/Omissions

Timeline

Solo/Mute switches – You can do this via the mixer only. In the timeline you have to shift-click to deselect all, then re-select, then shift click again to re-select all. FCP had a switch for both and Avid you can do the same by Command-clicking the speakers.

Okay, wanna hear the sound on audio track 9 soloed. Oh, I’ll just pick up my mouse, open the audio mixer and click the “S” Oh wait crap, first I have to scroll to the right and…

Thru-edits – You still can’t see them and you still can’t rejoin them.

Transition duration adjustment – One thing I liked in FCP is that if you double clicked a transition, changing the duration was one tab press away. Changing the duration in Premiere Pro is FIVE tab presses away.

Replace edit from source monitor, match frame – Replace edits are super duper time savers and great for syncing, in FCP and MC I don’t need to click the clip first and then press the keyboard shortcut.

Slip keyboard shortcut – Glad this was actually added, but just like replace edit, the clip has to be clicked first.

Clip Labels – Clip labels in the timeline are currently unrelated to clip labels in the Project window. They should be one and the same so that clips colored in the project are then colored in the timeline. This is a fantastic and easy way to organize clips from different sources. Avid does it best with the entire clip changing color. FCP7 did it half-assed where the clip thumbnail and text would be highlighted.

Project window clip colors and timeline clip colors don’t correspond.

In-out points select - in FCP7 if you use in and out points, it’ll highlight the clip on the selected tracks. This meant that you could cut and paste using in and out points instead of having to use the mouse. This additional way to select clips made editing a lot faster and is sorely missed in Premiere.

Shuttle with no pitch shift – in Premiere and Avid, when you shuttle forward at faster than real time, everyone sounds like a chipmunk. Final Cut Pro would make sure that the pitch stayed the same while playing faster which made it easier to go through lots of audio. In Premiere after pressing play you can use shift as a modifier to play faster with less of a pitch shift but it’s still there. I don’t think there’s anyone who thinks that their NLE is superior because it has the chipmunk pitch shift when shuttling.

Source

In-point defaults to playhead – What I mean is that when no in and out points are designated I wish that the current playhead position would be the default in point instead of the beginning of the clip. This is how it works in Avid, though PPro functions as FCP7 did. This could be a fundamental thing that some editors are used to and others like me dislike.

Program

Timecode – There’s a new window for timecode, but it only shows one timecode at a time. While you can see the source timecode of all the tracks individually, you can’t see them together. Media Composer has a few places where you can choose what timecode is displayed and FCP has timecode overlays.

Markers – Would be nice to see marker label overlays in the Program window.

Tools

Razor – This tool still doesn’t have a snap to playhead option a la Final Cut Pro. The razor turns out does snap to the playhead when snapping is turned on BUT there’s no visual that indicates this is happening so I don’t think I’m the first person out there who was assuming it wasn’t snapping at all. A visual would probably help a lot more people actually use it.

Even zoomed in this far I still don’t know where my cut is going to end up.

Keyboard shortcuts

  • Keyboard shortcut visual guide – Avid has had it for ages and FCP has it where you can see the keyboard and the corresponding shortcuts. Makes it a lot easier to organize shortcuts and figure out what’s an efficient layout.
  • Multiple shortcuts for the same functions – This was a great thing that made FCP super versatile. I’d often have multiple ways to do one thing just so that when my hands were in any position I’d be able to do certain functions like add a marker.
  • Render selected clip – This isn’t possible period. PPro is very mouse friendly and yet a simple “click and render” isn’t an option.
  • Next/Prev Timeline Tab – If you use a lot of tabs like I do then cycling through them all by pressin Shift-3 just doesn’t cut it.
  • Reveal in Project – This exists, but you can’t do it from the Source Window, and in some cases in the timeline (see below in “Bugs?”

Bugs?

  • Some keyboard shortcuts just seem flat out broken. Or sometimes they’ll work with a one button shortcut but not a multiple button shortcut. Right now I’m fighting with “reveal in project” which refuses to work.
Posted by: Derek | April 23, 2012

Food Review – Mexican Fiesta

Mexican Fiesta – 1460 India S between W Beech St and W Ash St.

One of the things I heard constantly before I moved to California was that the Mexican food was amazing. Taste is not a quantifiable thing though so it was difficult to find any more descriptors for it other than that it would be better and cheaper.

Mexican Fiesta is a hole in the wall takeout food stand where you order from a small window, pay in cash and wait for your number to be called. No seriously, the window is really small. The Yelp reviews say that there’s usually a long line, but when I went around 1:30 there were only two other people and they were already waiting for their food.

I got a California burrito (adventurous I know) which cost $4.45. Back in New York I couldn’t get a burrito for lower than $7 but usually $8 or more. The burrito isn’t as large as the ones I had in NYC, but those ones tended to make me over full, this was a very good size for a lunch.

Anyway, it was DELICIOUS! Right from the first bite it was different already because the tortilla was made from scratch so that tasted better already. The pre-made tortillas I’m used to are just kind of there and don’t draw attention to themselves. They exist as food texture but are incidental to the experience. This tortilla was flaked and crisped in the singed spots. Definitely made a difference in the flavor.

Inside was beef, tomatoes, possibly some other veggies and cheddar cheese. The strongest flavor was definitely from the beef. I’m not sure what was in it, but with each bite I could taste seasonings that I’m not used to having in a burrito. I was thinking it was like an orchestra of flavors where there are several components that work together to make one thing. I think the meat was moist, but not juicy which works well because you don’t want your burrito to be slippery.

I don’t think I’ve ever savored the flavor while eating a burrito but I definitely did this time and almost felt guilty if I swallowed too quickly. I’ll definitely go back again to try out something else on the menu. Highly recommended!

Ratings (out of 5) – Rating Guide
Taste: ✩✩✩✩✩
Atmosphere: ✩
Price: $

Posted by: Derek | February 24, 2012

Video Game Review – Deus Ex Human Revolution

Deus Ex Human Revolution – 2011, Eidos Montreal/Square Enix, Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC.

I didn’t own a PC in the late 90s, so I was never able to experience the original Deus Ex which I still only have a vague understanding of its significance. I did have enough knowledge to know that Deus Ex: HR had some very big shoes to fill. When the Game of the Year Awards came around at the end of 2011, Deus Ex was pretty absent. But when I think back to Deus Ex I realize that despite some questionable design choices here and there and a bit of technical jank the game is really a lot of fun.

The original game was famous for its absurdly flexible system by which game scenarios could be beat. Did you want to go in guns blazing? Did you want to sneak? Did you want to hack? Any of those you could do if that’s how you chose to do it. Human Revolution I understand is not nearly as ambitious, but there is still a very nice variety to it which encourages multiple play throughs.

The game is set in a not too distant future where humans are enhancing their physical and mental capabilities via “augments” which usually come in the form of cybernetic prostheses. You play Adam Jensen, a private security enforcer hired to protect some important people from reaching Washington D.C. There are many people out there who are completely destitute because their body is rejecting their augments which forces them to be slaves to an anti-rejection drug that is very expensive. The people you’re escorting have found the solution and certain interests don’t want that information to get out.

"You're just lucky I like these sunglasses"

During the introduction you’re ambushed and cybernetic mercenaries are killing everyone in site and you’re critically injured. When you wake up you find that your previously all natural body now has just about every augmentation known to man, plus some sweet ass sunglasses built into your face and make you look came straight out of The Matrix.

There’s a lot going on in the world of Human Revolution. Evil corporations, corrupt governments, rebels, gangs and private militaries. The more you talk to people and do sidequests the more that you’ll learn about it. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t balk at the idea of reading emails and articles while playing a game then this is the game for you. There’re a lot of characters and a lot of twists and turns that you can influence depending on how you play the game. What’s fun and intriguing about the game is that it doesn’t usually come down to a black or white situation where one is 100% evil and other 100% good. Sometimes there’s a third option and sometimes it’s not through dialogue choices but gameplay that you affect the narrative.

The gameplay of Human Revolution is where it’s at. For my first play through I chose the pacifist route which meant tranquilizing and stunning a lot of people. This involved a lot of sneaking through air ducts, peeking around corners, and observing guard routes. Also hacking security doors helped a great deal too. No one method of playing is the right or wrong way to go and the game always ensures that you can proceed.

Wall in the way? NO PROBLEM.

For example, in one scenario I might have to get past a security door with a keypad password. If I have strong hacking skills I can break into it. Or if I have strength augments I could lift a bunch of dumpsters, climb onto them and make my way up to an otherwise out of reach fire escape. Or maybe I could shoot a guard who is carrying the passcode. The game has tons of these scenarios and it’s awesome.

The only place where the game breaks down is in its boss battles. If you haven’t been getting weapon upgrades or combat upgrades you’re going to find yourself in a difficult position when you get to the first boss who has to be defeated by brute force. There’s enough weapon variety that you might be able to take him down differently than how someone else did it, but it’s still going to come down to shooting him or exploding barrels he walks near. Some of the later boss battles have more flexibility in how you approach them, but if you’ve been playing slowly and methodically you’ll find the experience change drastically in these encounters. It was later revealed that the boss battles were farmed out to another developer than the core Deus Ex team which could be part of the explanation for their shift in style.

The game is mostly a first person shooter, but it smoothly transitions to 3rd person when taking cover which is a welcome feature because stealth in first person is not always the easiest to do when you have no idea if any of your limbs are peeking around corners. You gain experience for just about every action like killing enemies, stealth takedowns and hacking. The game has a bias towards stealth as those yield the greatest experience points. Every 5000 XP gained you’re given a “Praxis point” which can be used to enhance your augmentations. Praxis points can also be bought and discovered as hidden items in the world.

Give me ALL THE UPGRADES.

In the average run it’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to upgrade everything so choose your skills wisely. The various upgrades you have can also affect your options when trying to enter a certain region. There are upgrades that allow you to breathe poisonous air, not get electrocuted, punch through solid walls or fall from great heights. These are other ways the game makes each experience unique.

The game is fully voice acted and there are dialogue choices similar to a Bioware dialogue wheel where you have the choice between being a nice guy, neutral or a total dick. Also there’s an augment that you can use to read what a character’s personality type is and often talk your way past a situation if you’ve read them correctly.

Deus Ex is great looking game. It might not be the most technically detailed game, but it has a total old school cyberpunk aesthetic complete with Ghost in the Shell orange glow. Some character models  received a lot more attention than others so sometimes side characters can look a little janky especially when they don’t match their voice acting well. Voice acting is good all around with a few outliers of which were executed with at best questionable racial sensitivity. Adam himself sounds totally ridiculous with his gruff trying to sound cool attitude. It’s hard not to imitate him as you play the game because it’s just… yeah.

Would I want to live here? Probably not, but I'd play in there forever.

The sound effects are also top notch. The guns have all the nice clicks, snaps and locking sounds you’d want and have nice power behind them. Walls break with appropriate rocky crumbling sounds, dumpsters have a nice weight to them and god damn is it fun to cold cock a guy in the face with that really satisfying cybernetic punch sound. Seriously, punching dudes in the face has never been this much fun.

I’ve wanted the music ever since I saw the first trailers and they really sell the epic yet somber nature of the world of Deus Ex. Take some Vangelis Blade Runner, Gladiator-like vocals, Ghost in the Shell ambience and it comes out with something truly awesome. This is the stuff that trailer music is made from and it’s totally sweet. This music could make a video about anything seem like the most epic thing you ever saw. In the context of something that’s actually epic it heightens it that much. I love this soundtrack.

It’s been several months since I played Deus Ex but after reviewing all the elements of the game (sans the boss battles) it just makes me want to play it again. The characters aren’t necessarily terribly memorable and it’s difficult to remember what really happened in the story, but the game itself is just so much fun to play. The world is fun to walk around and the “what if” science-fiction environment feels great to be in. If you like freedom of choice in your games, cyberpunk visuals, lots of guns and stealth then play this game already!

Posted by: Derek | July 25, 2011

Video Game Review – Bastion

Bastion – 2011, Supergiant Games, Xbox Live Arcade

Bastion is a beautiful 2D fantasy game with a unique storytelling method of an ever present voice narrating the story as it happens. The voice’s register hovers somewhere in the vicinity of Sam Elliott and Ron Perlman and serves as a constant companion that elegantly toes the line between pure exposition but also a character in the game itself. In addition to this unique conceit, the game itself is a fun action-RPG with great weapons, upgrade systems and a lot of well thought out gameplay design.

The story follows The Kid who is a white-haired chibi style character and a survivor of a recent catastrophic event known only as The Calamity. During the course of the game’s 8-10 hours you’ll learn more about the world of The Bastion, the different races of people and cities surrounding it. In many ways, the story of Bastion literally unfolds as you play it. The world first appears empty until the ground literally pops up from under your feet and the narrator tells the story like a parent telling a bedtime story.

This is the smallest level in the game... I'm just foolin'

You’ll meet a few characters on your journey, but for the most part the narrator is the only voice that you’ll be hearing during the game. Reportedly they recorded over 3000 lines of dialogue for the entire game. Somewhere out there exists a spreadsheet all the different scenarios they decided should have accompanying narration. Most of it is for story, but an impressive amount is contextual. Sometimes it directly relates to actions you take in the game like destroying environmental objects or even your choice of weapons that you use in each level.

It might sound like a gimmick which it totally is, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work. It’s easy to see how this idea could’ve gone horribly wrong, but it’s implemented incredibly well and never feels unnatural. While playing you can tell that special care was taken to prevent the narrator from repeating himself or to have anything interrupt the narration, whether it’s a pause screen or when story and contextual narration have to happen one after another. Also some narration is reserved entirely for the New Game Plus second play through which extends its replayability. As of the writing of this review I’ve beat the game twice, and I’m still convinced that there’s a lot of narration I still haven’t heard.

Just about everything there is destructible. This game takes much longer if you're OCD.

Okay so the narration is really cool, but how does it play? The game is seen from an isometric perspective and The Kid will be shooting and hacking away at enemies large and small. The Bastion itself serves as a hub world from which you’ll fly to each new world discovered. It’s essentially entirely linear, but you have the option of going to training levels or taking other challenges to increase your skill before moving on. Bastion is a tad Diablo/Deathspank style with its damage numbers and critical hits, but not a straight up button masher especially at the higher difficulties. In addition to hitting and shooting, you can roll out of the way and counter using your shield. The control is precise and responsive which makes things like dodging and evading very easy.

What really separates Bastion from Diablo style action RPGs are the variety of weapons and their properties. The Kid has at his disposal a choice of two weapons and one special skill. There are eleven weapons total which you gradually discover and also a large number of special skills to unlock as well. Having played with all the weapons it’s surprisingly tough to pick favorites. Each one has very different properties, uses and scenarios where they work best. They boil down to melee and projectile weapons, but all handle quite differently in terms of range, strength, speed, area of effect and accuracy. I was skeptical of the variety at first because usually there are clear favorites, but the game really lets you customize your arsenal to your play style. I would encourage you to change things up every now and then in order to play the game differently.

Rifle vs Pick Axe.

When you destroy objects and kill enemies you receive experience points and currency which can be used to purchase weapon upgrades. Each weapon has five levels of upgrades with a choice of two on each level. One nice touch is that upgrades can be swapped at any time after purchase which adds even more variety to each weapon. Another passive upgrade come in the form of “tonics” which are different buffs that The Kid can equip that affect things like health, percent chance of critical hits, damage and a number of other properties. The higher your level, the more tonics you can equip at one time making your character even stronger.

Another way to further your weapon skills come in “Proving Grounds” one of which exists for each weapon. These are like training areas where you must accomplish a specific goal using a particular weapon and based on your performance you’ll receive rewards. At the highest reward you’ll receive a new special attack for that weapon, but very few of these can be achieved without an upgraded weapon. There’re also in-game achievements for which you receive money that you can put towards more upgrades.

Your mission should you choose to accept it. Smash everything here. Oh and do it in 25 seconds.

With all these upgrades it sounds like you’ll hit a wall where you’re just too powerful for everything around you which is why they added a special way of increasing the difficulty of the game. There is no Easy, Medium and Hard mode in Bastion. Instead there’s a shrine where you can invoke idols of certain gods in order to increase the challenge and receive more experience points as a reward. There are ten gods in total and even invoking only a few of them can dramatically change your experience. Some modifications include: faster enemies, stronger enemies, regenerating enemies, damage from touching enemies, enemies that randomly deflect attacks and exploding enemies and more. If you’re not quick on your feet you can find yourself dying very quickly the more idols you invoke.

The art in Bastion is gorgeously realized with a broad color palette and beautiful painterly strokes for everything from the characters to the random boxes you’ll smash in a level. The paint style recalls Braid, but there’s much more detail and variety to be found. The saturation of color really makes everything pop out of the screen. It’s a nice and rare treat nowadays to have a 2D game that makes you want to stop to appreciate its artwork. Even more impressive is that it’s all the work of only one person out of the very small team.

Awww who's a beautifully colored little... OH GOD! HEALTH POTION NOW!

Plenty has been said about the narration, but it’s still worth noting just how seamless it works into the game. There are times when the next bit of narration won’t happen until you finish a battle, but somehow the pacing always seems to work. I wish I were more versed in music so that I would have the vocabulary to describe the music from Bastion, but it’s a great soundtrack and complements the game wonderfully. Sometimes it’s the slow leisurely strumming of a guitar and others it’s the urgent stringing of violins. It’s a short enough game that the music never gets repetitive, but even if it were longer I still don’t think I would’ve minded. There were even some musical beats that I wasn’t expecting to find in such an indie developed game, but worked great for the story.

If there were one criticism I would make about Bastion it would be the sound effects. I’m not sure if it could simply be a matter of mixing the weapon and impact sounds up a bit more, but I felt like they could’ve had more punch. Even though I loved using all the weapons in the game, they didn’t feel as satisfying as I wanted them to be when either the shot of a rifle went off or the slash of the machete hit an enemy. The impacts, shots and slashes are pretty understated and I wished felt more tactile than they did. I’m sure it’s tough finding just the right sound especially when it’s something that will be heard thousands of times in quick succession, but I found it a little bit lacking. Another minor quibble is that there are a lot of loading screens, but there are a lot of contextual story bits put there which make them less annoying.

Ewwww, cleanup on aisle 4!

Any complaints I have are only minor nitpicks, because Bastion is still a great game that should be played by anyone with an Xbox (and later PC). The gameplay is really well designed with several small considerations that streamline the experience. For example, when you equip a new weapon, that weapon’s special skill is automatically sorted to the top of the list. Another nice touch is that in the game’s version of wave based challenge rooms they make the experience less monotonous by having story narration in between waves. A lot of thought has been put in to make the game inclusive to all manner of players. From the most casual to the hardcore in search of a bigger challenge.

There’s a lot to do in Bastion and it’s well worth the 1200 MS points (or $15). As of the writing of this review is not yet available on PC but will be later in 2011. It’s a unique and fun experience and well worth your while. Highly recommended!

Uncharted 3 Drake’s Deception Multiplayer beta – 2011, Naughty Dog, PS3.

Hey guys, can I grab a lift?

Historically I haven’t been a multiplayer focused sort of person, but Uncharted 2 was the first game that I got really addicted to its multiplayer and played the heck out of it. Understandably I had been looking forward to the Uncharted 3 multiplayer beta ever since I heard the announcement. Thanks to Sony getting hacked I was able to play that first week only for Playstation Plus members (and really, anyone who wanted to play this beta just had to wait before cashing in that membership, so there’s no excuse for not getting in).

Naughty Dog has said that they want this to be the definitive multiplayer experience on the Playstation 3, and that they’re in this to compete with the other major multiplayer games. They’ve made a significant number of improvements that give more variety, incentives to play and excitement to the experience. The thing that separated Uncharted from other games is its third-person perspective and also how much traversal plays a part in the game’s maps. Nathan Drake has more upper body strength than anyone in the world and this means that he can do a heck of a lot of climbing. This translates into maps with a lot of verticality, so you’re constantly having to keep your eyes above and below you for possible targets.

Pretty lighting.

Right now there are two maps: Airstrip and The Chateau. If you’re playing Team Deathmatch, The Airstrip starts on a commercial plane taking off and being chased by trucks. Depending on which team you’re on you’ll be defending or storming the plane. This is pretty amazing and has a unique Uncharted level of excitement to it. How balanced this map is remains to be seen, but it’s still really cool. The Chateau is more of a closer quarters kind of map with a lot of verticality and small rooms with big gun fights. This map and the second phase of The Airstrip both have scripted events like a floor collapsing or a plane flying overhead shooting or blowing stuff up. These sort of things existed in UC2, but they’re still fun to experience.

In the beta there are five modes: team death match, free for all, three team deathmatch, hardcore and co-op. These are actually almost all new additions except for TDM and aspects of co-op. Team Deathmatch are two teams of 5 trying to get 50 kills. This mode has all the bells and whistles of the new gameplay additions in the game. The biggest addition are Power Plays which are intended to balance out the score when one team is dominating by at least 5-6 kills. In those situations the losing team gets a bonus like “Marked Man” where a specific player on the opposing team has an icon visible from anywhere on the map and their death now counts for 3. This causes the defenders to go crazy and the attackers to drop what they’re doing and seek this guy out.

Jumping from one moving vehicle to another? Yep, this is an Uncharted game.

The other Power Plays include abilities like seeing all enemies’ arrows through walls and double damage. If you’re not ahead by the time all three have gone off then you’re on your own. These Power Plays really bring some excitement to the game and sometimes they’ll work so well that you’ll find yourself on the other side of the Power Play. In most of the games I’ve played in this mode the games end up very close in the end. If by the end of the round a team is only winning by 1 then it goes into a one minute sudden death mode. If the score is still tied after sudden death, everyone’s arrows become visible and everyone has only one life.

Power Plays and boosters also work in Free for All and Three Team Deathmatch which consists of three teams of two. For those who don’t want all the boosters, power plays and extra abilities there’s a hardcore mode for those who want everything to be purely skill based.

Co-op mode teams you up with two additional players. This is ten rounds of three game types. There’s survival which is just waves and waves of enemies until the timer goes down. There’s Siege which requires you all to be in one specific region in order for your points to count, and then there’s Gold Rush where you have to take treasure from one part of the map to another. One addition in that mode is that you can now shoot your pistol while holding the treasure. In UC2 you were at the mercy of your teammates if the bullets started flying.

The first stealth kill I got I said "OH SNAP!" The medal for stealth kills is "Oh Snap!" Naughty Dog, you understand me too well.

There are a lot of other small gameplay additions too. There’s a new buddy system where if you’re not playing with friends you’re assigned a buddy, and you can respawn near them after getting killed provided they’re not currently under direct fire. If they’re shooting at someone then you can spawn in and help out. Also, kills which you accomplish together give a D-pad down prompt which can let you high five or fist bump your buddy which is a lot of fun and gives you a medal. I hope Naughty Dog adds some more of these.

Now there’s also a sprint ability you can activate by clicking in the left thumbstick. This is great for people like me who enjoy sneaking up on guys who aren’t sprinting. In UC2 if I wanted to sneak up on someone I had to hope that eventually they paused or took a break if I wanted to overtake them. Also there are Treasures which appear randomly in designated treasure boxes or when you kill an enemy. There are quite a few of them in dozens of sets. These unlock different outfits for your characters and just add another thing to do while playing. Treasure chests either hold new treasures or special one-time paid boosters. Either way you receive a medal for collecting treasure, but you’ll never have to worry about getting the same treasure over and over again which is good for collectors.

No he's not shooting the plane, but dammit that would be amazing.

Some other tweaks are that a quick tap of the triangle button can let you throw grenades back at people if you do it in time. Also you find yourself hanging from a ledge next to someone else also on the same ledge, you can kick them down. There are a few new stealth kill animations, but some look smoother than others, another thing that is hopefully smoothed out for the full release.

Boosters have received a nice overhaul that make them more relevant and also provide more incentives. There are a number of booster abilities like: faster respawn, ability to see power weapons, quieter traversal, ammo for taunting or being able to see the arrow of the last guy who killed you. There are many more in the beta, and sure to be more in the full release. Like in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, these abilities can be leveled up for improved versions of them. To level up the boosters involves winning certain medals like medals for stealth killing, killing with power weapons, running around a lot or collecting treasure. There are also co-op specific boosters which can be even more powerful, but since they’re intended for use vs AI opponents then it’s not game breaking.

No no guys, we want to go IN the plane. IN!

There are also paid boosters which you can purchase before matches. These are powerful one-match boosters like an additional grenade slot, short range radar and stronger bullets. Early on these aren’t really much bang for your buck because it’s in your better interest to buy permanent boosters. Lastly, the big ability addition are kickbacks. These are special skills you can use once you’ve attained the required number of medals. For example 12 medals could get you an instant RPG, or 7 medals lets you move very quickly, or my personal favorite 10 medals gives you a cluster grenade that blows up into several other grenades. In higher level play these will make matches very interesting indeed.

That’s an overview of the biggest game changers, but they’ve also made some very small cosmetic tweaks that I really enjoyed. For one thing the guns all sound differently now. They were almost all different in the original, but the pistols used to sound exactly the same, but now they’re all completely distinct. They also added a sound effect for bullets hitting your target which is nice because then you know you’re hitting your mark. Previously you’d have to look closely for the blood splatter, but sometimes at a distance it was more difficult.

Drake vs three pirates. Poor pirates.

Another cosmetic addition are emblems. You can customize an emblem for yourself, and if you do well enough during the match it’ll appear on certain landmarks which doesn’t affect gameplay but it’s kind of cool to see your emblem on a huge wall or on ammo crates.

So far I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself in the UC3 Multiplayer beta, and I can’t wait to see all the other stuff that is in the full version. I think they’ve made smart decisions that make the game more exciting and dozens of medal rewards keep that positive reinforcement pleasure button running while you play. My only complaint is that my co-op teammates keep on acting like total morons during survival mode. I mean come on, why go to an open space when there’s so much cover around you???

Posted by: Derek | June 20, 2011

Video Game Review – Darksiders

Darksiders – 2010, Vigil Games, Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC.

If you know anything about the game Darksiders, you know that it’s earned its reputation for being a darker “mature” version of Legend of Zelda. After playing the game I have no problem saying that the comparison is entirely apt, and what parts of the game aren’t from Zelda are from God of War or Devil May Cry. In addition there are a few pepperings of Panzer Dragoon and even some Portal. But you know what? Lack of originality in those regards doesn’t really matter all that much because the combination of these inspirations still make Darksiders a fun game.

The story centers around War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The universe is governed by The Council, a neutral party that keeps Heaven and Hell in check. It’s decided that at the time of the Apocalypse, Heaven, Hell and the Kingdom of Man will battle and the ultimate victor will be decided. Turns out, someone couldn’t wait for the Apocalypse and it starts prematurely, but for some reason only War is summoned with the other three nowhere in sight. Thus it’s assumed that War jumped the gun and caused all this chaos, and The Council seeks to punish him, but allows War to return to Earth in order to find out who was really responsible. When he gets back to Earth a century has passed, and the world has been fallen into ruin with nothing but demons roaming the streets. War is accompanied by The Watcher (voiced by Mark Hamill) who is kind of like a demonic Navi from Ocarina of Time.

Look, I'm not Link. He wears green, I wear red. Totally opposite.

Because of its inspirations (calling it a ripoff or homage is strictly up to you) Darksiders is simultaneously difficult and quite easy to talk about. On one hand it’s easy because if I tell you the things it takes from other games you’ll know right away what playing the game is like. By the same token it’s kind of difficult to talk about because there doesn’t seem much left to talk about after explaining what it plays like.

All right, to simplify let’s go through everything that Darksiders takes from Legend of Zelda. The game centers around going to a number of different dungeons, each of which will give you a new item that you’re going to use to defeat the boss with after hitting him three times. That item then opens up other regions of the world where you couldn’t go to before. When you solve puzzles there’s a music cue, but in the form of an all men’s choir. In combat you hold the left trigger to target specific enemies which also letterboxes the window. You push blocks, ride a horse, throw boomerangs, use a hookshot, use bomb plants, collect four pieces of each new health container and see into a shadow world. When you fall into a pit, you respawn with some life depleted. All of these things from Zelda exist in Darksiders, except they’re, you know… darker.

Would Link do this???

What Darksiders doesn’t take from Zelda is inspired by the God of War and Devil May Cry games. It’s not terribly difficult to button mash your way through the game, and with all combos using only the X button it’s not even as deep as God of War. The combat system comes with a few weapons, upgrades, special abilities and magic. When you kill enemies you receive souls which you use to buy health items, new combos, magic skills and other upgrades. A “Rage” meter slowly fills up while fighting and can be used to do some high powered cleanup. The game mostly draws the line at quick time events, but enemies can be finished off with a B-button prompt once they’re weak enough.

This isn't your daddy's wussy boomerang. It's a veritable self quadra-bladed shredder of doom!

The game is mostly combat focused, but the dungeons break up the pacing with long sections of puzzle solving. The puzzles are more involved than you’d find in God of War, but I didn’t always have the moments of immense satisfaction usually associated with solving complicated puzzles like in a Zelda game. Usually my moments of confusion during the game were related to where to go to next. The camera would often show me the way when I didn’t want to know what to do next, and when I was confused there was no help at all.

When you're this big, do you really need to resort to throwing cars to hurt people?

The art style is very spikey with a good variety of hideous creatures and environments. War himself is incredibly wide and has numerous attachments added to his very spikey gauntlets. The settings are befitting of a post apocalyptic urban environment, and most of the boss battles are quite huge and epic in scope. Some bosses more than others echo Shadow of the Colossus, but in all fairness, Link has been fighting monsters many times his size for a while.

While the art does a good job of realizing the world, I had trouble any of it too seriously, and the game does take itself very seriously. Just about every voice in the game is a deep baritone if not lower and sometimes, but not always involves some voice processing to make it even more rumbly. Items have very silly names like “Chaoseater”, “Tremor Gauntlet” and “Armageddon Blade.” There are some fleeting moments when the game reveals a sense of humor, but they’re usually unrelated to the main storyline which is always deathly serious. I’m not sure if it’s just me, but it might be that a game with this art style and tone is very difficult to take.

Without a doubt, the most fabulous demon in hell.

The collection system is fun because there are rewards for everything that you collect. Items you collect will increase your health, magic, give you money and also reward you with the special “Abyssal Armor.” Thankfully the game has several items that reveal the location of collectible items, so getting 100% of all the items is mostly painless. The only frustration I had while doing my collecting was the game’s save system didn’t seem to always save my collecting progress. While games like Assassin’s Creed quicksave after every collectible, Darksiders for some reason doesn’t save everything even after a hard save. As a result one artifact I was sure I collected had been lost in a save. I’m not sure what the 100% reliable way of saving was, but just in case I would go past several checkpoints in hopes the multiple save points would work.

Angel statue boobage.

There are a few technical hitches in the game. When there are a lot of enemies and a lot of fire effects the framerate can choke, but they’re not game breaking. There’re very few load screens in the game because the game disguises its loading with transitional stages that you have to walk through in between regions. Every now and then the game will freeze for a moment when going from one area to another, but again nothing that really affects gameplay.

I enjoyed Darksiders despite my misgivings about the tone and problems I had sometimes understanding the story. Like Zelda it’s much more gameplay focused of a game with infrequent cutscenes that usually come at the beginning and end of dungeon areas. Because of this it doesn’t make the most entertaining game to watch someone play, but the mix of combat and puzzle solving still made it a fun game. Right now Darksiders is $20 or less so if you’re looking for a 16-20 hour adventure game then Darksiders should work for you.

Posted by: Derek | May 31, 2011

Video Game Review – L.A. Noire

L.A. Noire – 2011, Team Bondi, Rockstar, Playstation 3/Xbox 360.

Contrary to the “Grand Theft Noir” vibe that it gives, L.A. Noire is more of a modern take on old school slow and methodical adventure games than a GTA open world action game. Using cutting edge technology the game requires you to read the facial expressions of characters you interrogate in order to determine whether or not they’re telling the truth or not. Fitting somewhere in between a straight linear adventure game narrative and open world game, L.A. Noire is probably not going to completely satisfy fans of either. If you’re a fan of fast paced modern Call of Duty games or GTA then it’s very likely you’re going to be disappointed by this style of gameplay and I’d recommend you rent it. If however you like point and click adventure games, the chase scenes and especially driving portions of the game might frustrate you. That said, L.A. Noire is much friendlier for the less action focused gamer and at times even goes out of its way to accomodate gamers who would rather advance the plot than try a twitch reflex action sequence over and over again.

Story is king in L.A. Noire so it’s fortunate that for the most part everything is excellently plotted. You play as Cole Phelps, a war veteran starting as a beat cop for the LAPD. The game covers his rise through the ranks as he quickly distinguishes himself amongst his peers and proves himself an excellent detective no matter what department. You’ll investigate cases from fraud up through homicide, drugs and arson. The structure of the game starts very episodic, but gradually cases start to interconnect and build up a bigger story. In addition to the main plotline there are a few other story threads including flashbacks to Cole in the war and also collectible newspapers reveal another story arc destined to collide with Cole’s story. There are a few plot holes here and there, but they’re the exception to the rule in what is a very engaging approximately 20 hour game.

I'm sorry, what did you say again?

When you boil down the tasks you have in the game it sounds monotonous and repetitive. It is repetitive, but if you’re absorbed into the story it’s certainly not monotonous. After you receive a case you go to the crime scene to start your investigation by looking for evidence. As you walk around, the controller will vibrate and you’ll hear a piano chime indicating you’re nearby evidence. Some will be relevant and some will be completely incidental. Some pieces of evidence allow for additional interaction like flipping through books, fitting pieces together, reading brand names, serial numbers and other things that will give Cole his next lead. Relevant evidence is then sorted into Cole’s notebook. After finding all the evidence there’s a brass music cue that indicates all evidence has been found.

Aside from the evidence, the most prominent feature by far are the interrogation sequences. New motion capture technology allowed the developers to translate the actors’ facial expressions and put them onto the game characters. The results are the most realistic facial movements ever seen in a video game. Every forehead wrinkle, crease of the mouth, and eyeball movement is perfectly put onto the screen. As you interrogate you’ll be given the option to decide whether they’re telling the truth, lying or lying about something in direct contradiction your evidence. Just like old adventure games there is only one right answer per question, which may frustrate players looking to get all the achievements.

Don't be surprised if you recognize actors.

Depending on how well you do, the interrogation can go a number of different ways. If you do well then you’ll usually be better equipped to make the right decision in the investigation. I played through some cases multiple times and was often surprised how just one wrong answer could reveal a piece of information that would make the difference between convicting the right and wrong person. The first cases have characters who sweat like a pig when they’re lying, but by the end of the game you’ll be dealing with less savory characters who are much more capable liars. If there’s no evidence to work off of, it’s usually best to trust your gut instincts.  This is by far the most interesting thing about L.A. Noire because the subtle shades of gray make the investigative work feel very authentic. Many times a character will be lying about something not because they’re guilty of the crime you’re investigating, but something else they don’t want to reveal for entirely different reasons. It’s these ulterior motivations and agendas that really flesh out even the smallest of characters and makes them feel like real people.

As simple and repetitive as the core gameplay can seem, it’s a fantastic way of giving the player control over how the story is slowly revealed. I’m not one of those people who figure out the killer from the first ten minutes of the movie, so I hung on every piece of evidence and dialogue as the story unfolded. No matter what you do, the story will go on and even though your game will end the same way as everyone else, the process by which you get there is likely to have a lot of different turns from someone else’s game.

Woops no gloves, guess I'm the suspect now.

There’s a light experience system built in. For each correct question you get experience points and as you rank up you’re rewarded with hidden cars, outfits and “intuition points.” These points can be stored for a maximum of 5. If you’re stumped on a question you can use a point to eliminate question options or use the PSN “ask the community” option to see what other people chose (though this isn’t always correct). Intuition points can also reveal the location of all evidence in a crime scene. It’s best to use them only when you’re really stuck since there level 20 is the maximum rank. Experience is also gained from street crimes and landmarks you find around the city.

The other parts of the game are the ones more GTA-like.. Your mileage may vary depending on how much you enjoy those games. The city of Los Angeles has been painstakingly recreated and is quite vast. Reportedly it’s the largest city ever to be in a Rockstar game. There’re dozens of cars to drive, and many different items to collect. There aren’t side missions or factions like in GTA, but instead there are some very quick and short street crimes that you can answer the call of when they come over your police radio. There are 40 of these in total, but most of them can be finished in a few minutes.

It's called "aim assist" beatch!

Usually they boil down to chasing targets down, shootouts and car chases. The gunplay is very simplified in this game with no HUD for your weapons, ammo counters or arsenals. The default gun settings have an aim assist mode that basically guarantees when you come out of cover you’re already aiming at an enemy. This expedites action sequences and is probably something action game fans will find wholly unsatisfying. But for someone more focused on the story, it’s a welcome decision. Cars handle much like in a GTA game and were by far my least favorite part of the game because of the learning curve for driving and the fact that I almost never ever wanted to look behind my car when reversing, but the game is designed to reverse camera angles then. If you so choose you can let your partner drive to all locations which brings you there instantly. If there’s some dialogue, the game will let it play out before transporting you to your designated location.

At the end of each case you’re given a rating from 1-5 stars based on how many questions you judged correctly, how much evidence you gathered and the property damage you caused while on the case. Seeing as you’re a cop it’s not the kind of game where you go around willfully destroying everything (though there is an achievement for doing that). In fact, the pedestrians are very resilient and I’m pretty sure won’t die no matter what, but I never tested the limits of how many times I could hit one guy.

Finished cases can be easily replayed via the main menu if you want to improve your rating or go back and do more street missions.The game helps you out with notifications for street crime you’ve finished and also newspapers you’ve found, but for other items you’re collecting there’s no easily accessible list of what you have which means I won’t be going back in without a map and a FAQ. It would’ve been nice if they had a reward which was a map of collectibles like in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.

50 film reels in the biggest video game city ever made? Yep, using a FAQ map.

L.A. Noire is a great looking game, but it’s not without its flaws. The facial motion capture is a victim of its own success because by comparison the body animation can look quite stilted and awkward at times. At worst, the characters look like stuntmen in movies who have had their faces replaced with the actors’ face. When it happens, the visual disconnect really breaks the illusion. But if you focus primarily on the faces it’s very impressive to look at. From what little I know of the time period it appears to have been excellently reproduced from the building exteriors, clothing and cars.

This being a film noir game they’ve also added an option to play the game in black & white. I did a comparison with turning the saturation down on my TV, and the black/white mode makes the contrast higher and looks quite good, but the game is still rather gray. I wish that the game had better lighting contrast typical of film noir films. The main menu is the best looking bit of black/white in the game with the dark shadows and bright light contrast. I wish there could’ve been more of that visual style in the game.

just like games used to be in the 1940s!

Most of my complaints about the game stem from the GTA-like elements like the driving, unforgiving collecting and also very light checkpointing in the game. I’m guessing the developers didn’t want people stopping the game for the sake of 100% completion, because this gives the game replay value. Still, they must’ve known that people were going to quit and retry missions in order to get all the questions correct, but the game isn’t set up to do that with any efficiency. If you mess up and want to try again there are cutscenes you have to rewatch (not all of which are skippable), evidence to recollect and of course the questions to answer. I think it would’ve been a good choice to add more checkpoints. At the very least, a checkpoint after evidence is collected.

Pretty much everything else is top notch. The acting is excellent all around, and real kudos to the director for getting good performances out of actors isolated sitting in a chair surrounded by HD cameras. It can be hard enough to marry motion capture with actors in a sound booth with no other actors to play off of, but this extra step for the facial capture must’ve made it that much more difficult. Sometimes the tone and energy can go up and down without any warning, but all things considered it fits together very well. The sheer scale of scanned in faces for the game is staggering with every minor NPC having facial motion capture. Yes, there is a disconnect between the fidelity of the face and body, but it’s still a very impressive achievement.

Oh yeah forgot to mention. This game is for mature audiences ONLY.

L.A. Noire is a very exciting evolution of the adventure game which has traditionally had very little innovation of its mechanics, but I hope that other companies take some cues and find more ways to make modern takes on point and click adventure. I don’t think that this sort of facial motion capture would be good in all games, because in certain games it feels better to have stylized humans, but it’s interesting technology that if used correctly could really enhance video games and take them in exciting new directions. I could see games like Heavy Rain adopting this technology well for sequels.

So once again, if you like adventure games and want some more action in them, then definitely play L.A. Noire. If you’re looking for another sand boxy GTA game with a world to cause wacky hijinks and destruction then do yourself a favor and look elsewhere. At the very least the game has to be seen just for the technical achievement alone. Your enjoyment will depend on your attention span and your personal requirements for gameplay/story ratio.

Posted by: Derek | May 13, 2011

Video Game Review – Portal 2

Portal 2 – 2011, Valve, PC, Xbox 360, Playstation 3

Portal 2 is a spectacular game that’s both easy and difficult to review at the same time because there’s plenty to say about what’s good, but also I want to make sure I do proper justice to it. This review will definitely contain massive spoilers so don’t even think about reading this before you’ve played the game. Play it. At the writing of this review it’s already gone down to $40 so there’s no excuse. If you don’t have $40 you must have $40 worth of stuff you can sell that’s less entertaining than Portal 2. Read More…

Posted by: Derek | May 9, 2011

Video Game Review – Outland

Outland – 2011, Housemarque, Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation 3 Network.

Outland is a game easy to describe using a combination of other games, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a unique and stylist platformer that is very easy to recommend to anyone with an Xbox 360 or PS3. Okay so let’s get it out of the way, the game takes the art style of Patapon, the exploration of Metroid, the color switching mechanics of Ikaruga and boss battles reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus. Though admittedly side scrolling platforms have had a long history of huge bosses that tower over the game protagonist.

The story doesn’t break any new ground with its themes of ancient gods becoming corrupt, deciding to destroy the world and then a hero destined to save the world. That said, it’s interesting enough to keep things going. If anything, the art design does more for the story with unique levels littered by ancient statues, hieroglyphics and runes that provide more context to the world of the game. Read More…

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