Game Review: Grand Theft Auto V (PS3)

February 20, 2014 in Best Of, Game Reviews, Reviews

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I don’t get much time play video games these days, so when I do, it has to be something totally awesome. Grand Theft Auto 5 is such a game.

The first game I got on the PS3 was GTA IV, all the way back in 2008. I never got to finish that game, but I remember at the time thinking it would be very difficult for an open-world game to top it. Five very long-awaited years later, Rockstar has finally done it with GTA V,  one of the most immersive and entertaining games I have ever played — on any console.

Like its predecessors in the series, GTA 5 is also an open world which the player can run around and explore to their heart’s content. As usual, there is a central story line which requires you to complete core missions in order to progress in the game (if you want to eventually “finish” it), but if you want, you can just live a virtual life for as long as you want, wandering the streets, checking out the sights and sounds, or even just sit at home and watch TV while smoking weed (and yes, there are TV shows to watch and weed to smoke!).

I applaud Rockstar for taking their time to develop a real masterpiece rather than hastily belting the game out following the success of GTA IV. The world of Los Santos (a fictional version of Los Angeles) where the game is set is so vast, and the game itself has so many improvements and additions across the board that you can potentially spend more time playing GTA 5 than all of the previous instalments in the franchise combined (according to Wikipedia that’s 14 other games dating back to 1997).

It’s hard to know where to start when discussing this game, but I’ll give it a shot.

Graphics and cinematic presentation

I’ll start with the obvious, which is how amazing the game looks. When I played GTA IV I thought the graphics were incredible, but GTA V, despite being on the same console, blows it right out of the water. The characters have a smooth design that has this semi-realistic comic feel to them, one that is consistent with the rest of their surroundings such as animals, trees and cars. Of course, given how incredibly large the world in this game is — it’s literally an entire city with bridges, tunnels, beaches, oceans and buildings you can walk into — it’s unreasonable to expect the detail to be as spectacular or as intricate as some of the best-looking games on the PS3 such as say God of War III, but everything that needs to be there is there. Put it this way — the in-game graphics are every bit as good as the cut scenes.

gta sky

The other thing that immediately jumped out at me was the game’s cinematic presentation. The camera angles — whether during cut scenes, normal gameplay or specific missions — all have a cinematic edge to them, almost like you are watching a great film unfold. You can tell a lot of thought has been put into where the cameras are situated and how they can be used to capture the best angles. The way the camera angles chop and change is also very crafty, and I even noticed handheld camera techniques in some of the cut scenes. These are not things you would usually think about, but when they are done this well you tend to notice them.

Multiple playable characters

One of the main additions to GTA V is the introduction of multiple playable characters. As far as I know, in past renditions of the game you only get one character to play, which can sometimes get a little boring. This time, you get to play three very different characters. There’s Michael, the smooth, seasoned middle-age criminal with a dysfunctional family. There’s Franklin, a young gansta from the hood trying to work his way up the food chain. And there’s my favourite, Trevor, the psychopathic, sadistic hillbilly with anger management issues and a stubborn loyalty for his buddies.

Usually you can choose which character you want to play — you just need to press a couple of buttons and the camera pans to whoever you choose, wherever they are in the city  – but sometimes a specific mission might require a specific character, in which case the computer will designate him for you to use. Often there are also core missions where the three guys will team up, and you have to switch between them to accomplish different objectives. For example, Michael might be in charge of stealing computer data, while Trevor will protect him with a sniper rifle from afar, and Franklin will be in charge of the getaway vehicle.

The multiple character idea is a stroke of genius, but what is even more impressive is how well these vastly different characters are written and developed. Each one of them have their own personalities and quirks, and they are as well rounded as any criminal you might see in a critically acclaimed movie. The voice acting also does a great job of bringing them to life.

GTAV

In addition to the team missions, each character will have their own story arc and specific missions that only involve them. And because they are so different, you’ll tend to find that the missions are also very varied. Michael’s missions, for example, will often involve cleaning up after his dropkick son or skanky daughter. Franklin’s missions might involve a lot of driving and muscle work, while Trevor’s are usually about pissing people off and going on killing rampages. It provides wonderful balance and keeps the game fresh and unrepetitive, while also adding an extra layer of strategy to the team missions. Each character also has their own “special ability”, which can come in handy during certain missions.

Improved gameplay

The gameplay in GTA IV was already quite mature, but Rockstar still found ways to improve the gameplay in GTA V. One of the big additions is the shoot-and-cover element which I had already experienced in the excellent Sleeping Dogs last year. As this is a crime game, there are naturally a lot of shootouts, and during these scenes characters can find objects to help them take cover from enemy fire, but also quickly come out of cover to take their own shots. I really enjoy the shotoouts as they can get really epic, and often survival is contingent upon finding the right objects and locations to help you take cover from surrounding enemies.

Another addition that makes the game more physical is that in addition to running, climbing and swimming, players can propel themselves over objects when running, kind of like Parkour. Similar to an RPG game, characters can also improve their physical abilities, like running speed, stamina, ability to hold their breath under water, and shooting accuracy.

Immersive missions

The missions, in my opinion, are the biggest improvement in GTA V. In previous editions of the game, the missions usually had a singular objective, such as drive from point A to B, or kill person X, and when you achieve that the mission is over. They start off fun, but after a while they become really repetitive and almost blend into one another. The missions in GTA V are completely different. For starters, each mission has a story behind it and feels almost like a mini-movie. They are immersive, and they feel like they have a purpose. Secondly, rarely are the missions single-faceted. Most of them have multiple objectives that need to be achieved one after the other and you rarely feel like you are doing the same thing. Even the side missions (that don’t need to be completed to finish the game), which are called “strangers and freaks”, are a lot more well thought out than side missions in previous GTA games.

The core missions, in particular, are incredible and can take a significant amount of time to complete. Every now and then there will also be an opportunity to carry out a heist that can earn you a lot of money. But before you commence a heist, you need to do a lot of preparatory work, such as scoping out the scene, preparing vehicles and weapons, and selecting your crew. The better the crew members, the bigger the cut of the loot you have to hand over. It’s a lower risk, lower reward situation. Moreover, you usually have two choices of how to go about the heist. For example, one might involve stealth, and the other could be to shoot your way in. The best part about the heists is that they always involve all three characters who each have different tasks, so you have to keep interchanging between them to make sure you not only grab the loot but also get out alive.

During missions there are also lots of little things you might have to do, such as learn how to pilot of plane or helicopter, or drive a submarine or crane, or abseil down the side of the building. These all add to variations in the gameplay and prevent the missions from becoming repetitive.

Expansive world

Los Santos is so huge that it blows my mind. It’s a genuine metropolis that features all the same major regions and landmarks as Los Angeles. You can ride the ferris wheel at Santa Monica Pier, take a stroll along Venice Beach, go shopping at Rodeo Drive, take a drive into the Hollywood Hills or visit the TCL Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.

The missions will take you all around the city, where you can find a lot of cool stuff to check out if you have the time to spare. You can actually go and play a full 5-set game of tennis or go for 18 holes on a golf course, and the amazing thing is that these mini-games are really fun. If you want to do something more constructive, you can go to the shooting range at the weapon store and practice your shots. Shop for clothes, get tattoos, practice your piloting skills, steal cars and store them at a garage, see your therapist, pick up a hooker off the street, or even drive a taxi to earn fares. Go to the cinemas to watch a movie or go get a private dance from a strip club. If you want to build an empire, start buying real estate and earn rent, but sometimes there could be problems you’ll have to go deal with in person. There are a zillion things to do, and even if you don’t play any of the core missions you can still spend weeks or even months exploring the world of GTA V.

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Attention to detail

The makers of GTA V have, like they’ve always done, paid a lot of attention to detail, and I don’t mean just the graphics and the designs of the characters or their environment.  Each of your players has a smartphone which can be used to receive emails and text messages. You can also call people in your phone book to “hang out” or use the built-in camera to take photos, even selfies! Franklin also has a dog, which you can train to help you do things. They’ve even created a real-life iPhone/iPad app(it’s called “iFruit”) for you to train the dog and then sync it with the game. I haven’t had the time to do any of this but it’s fun knowing that they exist.

Things are always going on around you in Los Santos. The people on the street are a lot more interactive than they were in past games, and running into them can cause them to run their mouths, run off, or start a street fight. GTA V has also included some daily occurrences you can stumble upon — such as a robbery — and it’s up to you whether you do something about it. If you help someone chase down a pickpocket, you can choose to return the wallet for a reward or keep the wallet’s contents for yourself. Occasionally you might stumble onto someone apparently in need of help, only to find out that you’re being hustled.

I haven’t found many yet, but apparently there are also bucketloads of Easter Eggs to be discovered throughout the city, like a Walking Dead-style zombie, the Thelma and Loiuse car and a tribute to High Hefner’s Playboy Mansion. There are hippie cults, weed farms and nude colonies. Again, these are probably only things people with a lot of time on their hands will care about, but the thought and effort the makers have put into the game is undoubtedly impressive.

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Summary

GTA V is by far the best-looking, most interactive, compelling and playable game of the franchise to date. The size of the Los Santos map in the game is apparently twice the size of real-life Manhattan. Just imagine how much effort went into creating every building, every car type and every minor character in a world of this size, and then to bring it all to life with great protagonists (and great interaction between the protagonists), an engaging script, exhilarating missions and hilarious dialogue.

Last night, for example, I played as Michael on a home invasion mission where I had to fend off multiple attackers to protect my family. Not long after that my cell phone rings and I have to decide whether I want to go rescue my son after he is kidnapped by people he trolled on the internet. As I chase off his kidnappers and drive him home, he tries to explain to me what “trolling” means. It’s genuinely funny stuff.

The GTA franchise has always very much been a very adult-oriented one, and it’s primary selling point is offering players the chance to be a reckless criminal without having to worry about the consequences. It’s escapist fun, and that’s all it is, so I don’t really understand all the criticism being leveled against the game. Yes, it is over-the-top violent but it’s not done in a realistic way, so it’s not at all confronting. Yes, the female characters are portrayed badly, but then again, the male characters are too, so why is the game misogynistic? The game actually provides some very interesting  and witty satirical insights into Western culture, pop culture and politics, and you just need to approach it with the right frame of mind to see them.

On the whole, GTA V is as close to a modern masterpiece as you can get on a console. It may lack that jaw-dropping “wow” power of some of the PS3′s most visually spectacular games, but whether it is in terms of storytelling, gameplay or lasting power, GTA V ticks all the boxes. Pound-for-pound, minute-for-minute of gameplay, it’s hard to find a game that’s better.

10/10

Game Review: Sleeping Dogs (PS3)

December 9, 2012 in Game Reviews, Reviews

I hadn’t played a video game with a storyline since I was immersed in Heavy Rain and Infamous well over a year ago, mainly because such games require a significant investment of time which I don’t have these days. Nonetheless, I kept hearing rave reviews about this Grand Theft Auto-like game based in a Hong Kong called Sleeping Dogs (I would have thought Eating Dogs was more appropriate), so I decided to put away some spare time to tackle it.

It turned out to be an investment with great returns, as Sleeping Dogs was an addictive and fun experience that has enough distinctive qualities to separate itself from all the other open world games out on the market. If you’re a fan of open world games such as GTA and Infamous and/or fans of Hong Kong gangster movies then it’s likely you’ll enjoy Sleeping Dogs as much as I did.

You play Wei Shen (a transliteration of “dangerous” in Mandarin), a HK native who has returned after spending years in California to work undercover for the HK police. He infiltrates the Sun On Yee triad organization, starting off from a low-level enforcer and, over the course of the game, rises through the ranks to become an invaluable member of both the triads and the police. As the stakes get higher and higher, Wei Shen finds himself torn between the two sides, blurring the line between good and evil  and forcing him to decide where his loyalty ultimately lies.

From a story perspective, it’s a game that steals from HK gangster movies such as old classics like A Better Tomorrow and newer hits like Infernal Affairs. The swearing and violence are full-on; there are street brawls with kung fu moves, meat cleavers and machetes, car chases and crazy shootouts. You can drift up and down the mountain paths like Initial D, run all day and swim in the ocean, sample local delicacies, hack computers and install surveillance cameras. It’s old fashioned yet refreshing in a lot of ways.

The gameplay also steals from many of the more successful video game franchises. It is based on the GTA foundation which allows open world exploration with a main core mission, dozens of side missions, mini games and plenty of other stuff to check out and do if you can’t get enough. It’s not quite like Infamous in the sense that you can choose to be “good” or “evil” by selecting a certain route of missions, but it is similar in the way you can attempt both “police” and “triad” missions and level-up both sides to learn different skills and abilities (eg, car jacking without setting off alarms, etc).

The graphics are excellent but by no means revolutionary. The game provides a sprawling, glittering vision of HK that isn’t quite “realistic” but captures the city’s reputation and charm with a mix of high rise buildings, traditional ghettos and neon lights. The characters’ faces look genuine enough, although a little more facial movement could have added to their emotions. It’s one of the better looking games out there but you can’t really it to the best of the best because of the vastness of its open world nature. As often is the case with such games, camera angles occasionally become problematic, but not to the point where they become annoying.

The voice acting is brilliant, led by Will Yun Lee, who voices Wei Shen. He’s not particularly well known right now, but that could change after he plays the Silver Samurai in The Wolverine next year (though perhaps not Mortal Kombat Legacy). Many of the supporting characters are played by Asian and Hollywood stars, including Edison Chen (sorry, no sex scandals this time), Emma Stone, Lucy Liu, Tom Wilkinson, Kelly Hu and Lost‘s Yunjin Kim — but its Mrs Chu (voice by Irene Tsu), an old-fashioned triad mother who works in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant, gets my vote as the best of the lot.

You don’t wanna mess with Mrs Chu

The combat system is apparently modelled on the Batman: Arkham Asylum/City games, which I have not played but understand it is a freeflow combat system which features both hand-to-hand fighting and melee weapons. You can punch and kick, perform roundhouses, tackle people, trip people, break arms and legs — the whole shebang. You can also accomplish cool/sick kills by utilising the surrounding environment, which ranges from phone booths and electrical panels to wood saws and swordfish (!).

As the story progresses, you get to use a variety of guns which adds a new dimension to the game by allowing players to take cover, fire blindly and target specific enemies and body parts. You can even leap over certain obstacles and fire while time slows down. It’s all pretty cool, and there are always tutorials to make sure you get the hang of things before you start testing them out on the streets.

The driving system is similar to GTA and allows players to shoot from moving vehicles. Also added is the ability to jump from moving vehicles and guiding indicator arrows to let you know where and when to turn if you have a set destination, which really helps if you have trouble keeping an eye on the road and the map at the same time. My favourite is the ability to hail down taxis to take you to a destination of your choice, which saves a lot of driving time especially when you have to drive all the way across town.

In-game driving footage

The biggest strength of the game is the compelling core story, which is what makes it as good as any of the other open world classics. I was surprised by the effectiveness of the storytelling and the well drawn out characters. I inexplicably grew to care about Wei Shen’s plight and understood his obsession and rage. And some of the multi-part core missions involving one-on-everyone fights and shootouts are simply incredible, as epic as the climax of any HK gangster flick. The introductory mission, the wedding, the hospital shootout and the final mission are the high watermarks in my opinion.

The shorter side missions are nice too. Wei Shen can go on dates with various girls, go drag racing (on a bike or car), do favours for people, go on drug busts, gamble, bet on cockfighting, join a fight club or collect stolen statues to learn new martial arts moves from his master. Most of them will pop up from time to time on your map, but some can be random happenings you stumble across on the street. They do get repetitive after a while, but the same can be said for most open world games.

The trimmings are really for the die-hard fanatics. I’m talking about finding all the health-increasing shrines and locked suitcases littered throughout the city, becoming a karaoke master and improving the collection of outfits, cars/bikes and paintings in your possession.

It’s really a question of how much you want to explore. The game took me around 23 hours to finish on its maiden (and probably only) run, which included a lot of time on the fight clubs, side missions and especially the drug busts. A friend of mine, however, told me it took him just over 10 hours to complete when just focused on the core missions, so it’s up to the individual how immersed they want to be.

At the end of the day, regardless of whether you want to go straight through to the end or take the scenic tour, Sleeping Dogs is a whole lotta fun. There are ample open world games out there these days but Sleeping Dogs takes the best of those games and adds a unique HK flavour to go with its compelling core story, superb voice acting and timely humour. I might even consider buying the some of the online add-ons, in particular the Nightmare in North Point expansion title with Chinese vampires/zombies!

9/10

Game Review: InFAMOUS (PS3)

July 9, 2011 in Game Reviews, Reviews

I’m a bit slow. Just about everyone is finishing off Infamous 2 on the PS3 and I’ve only recently played the original (purchased about 2 years ago when it first came out). I remember seeing previews for the game back in 2009, and they looked so cool that I just had to get it.

The premise was promising. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world and you are a mean-looking dude by the name of Cole McGrath, a bike messenger who may have started it all with a massive explosion. As a result of that explosion you have gained nasty superpowers, and it’s up to you how to want to use them. Save the world and become a hero, or destroy it and become infamous.

For whatever reason I didn’t get to play the game until now, but I’m glad I finally got around to it. If I were to summarise the essence of the game, I would say that it’s like Grand Theft Auto except your character is like an invincible, ass-kicking Jedi master.

Positives

There are several elements to Infamous that make it a whole lot of fun. The first is that it is a ‘sandbox’ game, which means there is a big open world (much like GTA) which allows you to run around and do whatever you want in it. The finely designed post-apocalyptic world is pretty big (3 districts) and there are train tracks, underground sewers, wharves, warehouses, industrial areas, police stations, hospitals and so forth. You can’t really go indoors but the outside world is big enough for you to explore for hours on end.

When I played GTA, I often wished I could just scale the walls, climb trees, jump from building to building, or even fly. In Infamous, you can do all of that and more. Cole McGrath is like Spiderman in that he can climb just about every object in the game, and he doesn’t even get hurt when he takes a massive fall. For me, this was the best aspect of the game, and kudos to the makers for creating such an interactive environment. The only downside is that Cole can’t drive (he’s one heck of a runner though).

Secondly, like GTA, Infamous has a variety of missions for Cole to tackle. There are the main plot missions, which are longer and more difficult, but progress the overarching story (I’ll get to that in a sec). Then there are the shorter side missions which help you clear specific areas (so they are safe from enemies), including the good/evil missions, the objective of which is either good (like helping the police) or evil (like blowing them up).

That brings me to the third element of Infamous, that is, the Karma meter. In the missions, Cole will often be faced with a decision where he can either choose to do good or do evil. During non-mission periods Cole can also do good or evil, such as healing injured pedestrians or killing them. The repercussions from his choices will push the Karma meter in one way or the other (between the extremes of ‘Hero’ and ‘Infamous’).

How is this relevant to the game (apart from influencing the ending)? That brings me to the fourth element of Infamous — the awesome superpowers. At various points Cole learns new superpowers which he can upgrade with experience points received throughout the game. However, the upgrades of a certain power may only be available if you reach a particular point on the Karma meter — the more extreme the Karma, the more powerful the superpower.

Cole’s superpowers are insanely cool. Some help his movement (such as being able to skid along wires and train tracks and being able to glide through the air), some are defensive (such as creating an electrical shield), but the majority of powers are offensive — from powerful electrical blasts, throwing electrical shock grenades, a sniper blast (for far away enemies), and even massive electrical storms. Collecting these new powers and knowing when and how to use them to your advantage is one of the most fun and rewarding aspects of the game. Most of these powers will use up Cole’s energy gauge, which he can recharge from n assortment of electrical items on the street (such as telephone booths and telegraph poles).

Difficulty and Replay Value

Another thing I should mention is that Infamous does run at a fairly good difficulty level. While the majority of missions are not particularly difficult, many do take more than one attempt, and the good thing about the game is that ‘dying’ has no real consequence, which significantly reduces frustration. One thing you learn quickly in this game is strategy matters — you can’t simply run into enemy territory and expect to blast everybody away. Taking cover and finding high ground are imperative if you want to be successful.

In terms of replay value, Infamous is also relatively decent. The game does take a little while to complete, and can be elongated if you enjoy exploring the city to look for ‘blast shards’ (which lengthen your electric gauage) or ‘dead drops’ (which are recordings of information that feed you bits and pieces of the back story), and try and perform one of the 20 ‘stunts’. And because of the way the game is designed, you must play through it twice if want to experience both endings (the good and the evil).

Negatives

That brings me to some of the shortcomings of the game. First of all, while the Karma meter idea is interesting, its design has a serious flaw — Cole is always better off being either really good or really evil and there is no point being anywhere in between.

Furthermore, being good or evil doesn’t have enough of a bearing on the game. The outcome of each mission is almost always the same regardless of which path you choose, and the only real impact is when doing good missions lock out evil missions, and vice versa.

A second complaint is that some of the missions get a little repetitive. To be fair, I think there is enough variety to keep you going, but several of the main missions are similar and quite a number of the side missions are basically identical.

My main gripe about Infamous, however, is the story itself. Honestly, it is not very well written at all. Despite the promising premise, the progression of the Cole’s story is convoluted, often confusing, and simply not very compelling at all. None of the key supporting characters are very interesting either. Villains suddenly appear and you get a long spiel about their background and life story, but it’s all too crammed and lacks conviction. I tuned out after a while and stopped trying to figure out what the heck was going on.

Some people might disagree, but I also didn’t like the way the cut scenes were designed. Infamous uses ‘comic’ style hand-drawn cut scenes rather than the traditional high quality videos you see in most PS3 games these days. I don’t have a problem with them per se, but they almost always try to tell too much of the story in one go. You might take half an hour to complete a single mission, then all of a sudden the cut scene crams three days of plot progression into thirty seconds. The disparity in pace was disorienting.

Conclusion

In short, notwithstanding a few flaws, Infamous is a very very good game. It looks good and sounds good. It combines many elements of other successful games and adds its own touch to it. There are some weaknesses and it certainly could have been better, but as the first iteration of a fairly fresh concept, you really can’t ask for too much more.

Will be looking forward to getting the sequel when the price comes down a bit more. Anyone know if it is a substantial upgrade on the original?

8.5 out of 10

Game Review: Heavy Rain (PS3)

February 2, 2011 in Best Of, Game Reviews

In a nutshell, Heavy Rain is a ‘choose your own adventure’ cinematic experience squeezed into a PS3 game.  It’s a unique and important game, one that relies on a well-written plot, interesting characters, touching drama, moody atmosphere, and plenty of suspenseful action.  While it does have its fair share of faults, Heavy Rain is one of the most immersive and addictive games I’ve played in a long time.

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