Dragon Age II Review

Video Game Review: Dragon Age II

     This sequel to Dragon Age: Origins is a pretty typical RPG that’s been streamlined to make it more of an accessible entry in the “series”. I use quotes because this doesn’t feel like a sequel, as much as it does an expansion pack. A watered down expansion pack. So much so that it feels drowned and bloated, washing ashore to be discovered by some horrified early morning joggers.
 
SIGHTPLAY – This game is ugly. I love the fantasy genre, and even with that going for it this game falls flat to deliver any of the charm that Dragon Age: Origins worked so hard to deliver.  Everyone’s hair seems to be made of petrified wood and their faces are equally made of stone. During conversations there are more animations to make dialogue seem a bit less lifeless, but after you’ve seen the pensive back and forth, you’ve pretty much seen it all.
                The game is rife with visual inconsistency, for example during combat enemies burst into geysers of blood and it just doesn’t make sense most of the time. How does getting hit by an ice bolt vaporize you? There isn’t anything wrong with wanting to create a gritty fantasy world, as slaying dragons shouldn’t be a bloodless business, but covering the characters from head to toe in blood is not a convincing way of making a game more realistic. Having serious choices that impact the lives of your party members would be a better way to do this.
           Since you can’t change the equipment of your party members, the armor you get to see is incredibly limited. And even then, when you finally discover a piece of armor that’s worth equipping, you’ll be disappointed to find that 75% of the time it looks exactly the same! Too often I found myself using worse equipment just to have something different to look at. 

 

SOUNDPLAY – One of the only redeeming qualities of this game is the competent voice acting. It holds up just as good as it did in Origins, and it really adds to the atmosphere. The banter between certain characters is usually clever and enjoyable. Spells sound appropriately mystical, and swords banging against shield sound decent enough as well. There are a few skill/techniques that sound like they’re meant for a different class, but it’s a rare occurrence, and is probably just the sound of too many things happening at once.

GAMEPLAY – This is where the game really fails to deliver. In an effort to streamline the game mechanics from the first game, Dragon Age II removes so many choices from the player that the gameplay becomes boring far too quickly. Attacking requires you to continuously press the “attack” button like it’s going out of style (which it very much is in this game).
                If you play as a spell caster or rouge, you’ll find that only being able to have six spells hotkeyed isn’t enough, when considering the bevy of techniques at your disposal. Having your selected skills used up forces you to stop the game, open your skill wheel, and choose one from there, because the six you chose are cooling down still.If you play as a warrior, you'll find yourself waiting for your four or five skills to recharge, as you don't get many more of them.
                Another incredibly tedious method this game employs to artificially draw out combat, is to spawn more enemies from all sides. And they quite literally drop in from the sky/ceiling (yes, even in the middle of a city courtyard). I’m not complaining because suddenly my mages and archers are in danger, more so it’s are you telling me this fight isn’t over yet? It would stand to reason that if those last three minions saw me wipe out twenty of their brethren including their strongest champion, wouldn’t they just run away? The enemy variety is incredibly sparse, and the feared Darkspawn are practically forgotten about in this game. Given the circumstances behind the first game, that’s mildly understandable, but surely there are dens of evil still lying about that require “cleansing” (or “saving”). Get used to bandits and skeletons folks.
                The locations are a real slap in the face to anyone who shelled out their hard earned money for this game. The same handful of settings is reused far too often, and the lazy technique of doors being blocked off, just so they can unlock it during the next act for you to explore does not constitute a new place. Invisible walls is one thing, but when my party of heroes, that can slay a fucking dragon mind you, are unable to enter a cave because its blocked off by an abandoned wagon. This is the epitome of lazy design.
                The story is pretty damn bad too. There are three acts, each shorter than the last, and none of them have an interconnected story arc. Each act’s major dramatic question has a conclusion by the end of it, meaning little in terms of character challenge to overcome. The quests are an array of forgettable fetch missions, and having “Mages vs Templars” as the main source for conflict is not a compelling villain. Is it social commentary? Yes. Is it on-the-nose and trite? Yes. There’s more I could go on about, like the lack of a crafting element, the rivalry/friendship system which is ill-executed, and the ending which is pathetic, but by now I’m sure you’re tired of hearing me make the same point over again.


REPLAY – Ironically, this game actually has less replay value if you import a save file from Dragon Age: Origins. If you import a save and beat the game, you unlock an achievement that would have been obtained had you beat the game twice. This means that if you are a trophy/achievement hunter (like me), and have a previous save from the first game, then it’s possible to earn everyone in a single play through, roughly 40 hours.

SCORE – 1 out of 5. This game is an obvious cash-in on the success of the first game. The best moments I had with Dragon Age II, was when it made me remember how much fun Dragon Age: Origins was.  

L.A. Noire Review

  VIDEO GAME REVIEW: L.A. NOIRE  

   I’m going to be adopting a new, four tier rating system, comprised of visuals, sound, gameplay, replayability, and lastly the score. A game’s ability to be played more than once is very important to me in deciding whether a game should be rented, owned, or played at all. And no, multiplayer doesn't count as replayability, that would still fall under gameplay. Without further ado, let’s get right into the review.

                SIGHTPLAY – This game is absolutely gorgeous. 1940s Los Angeles is recreated rather faithfully (the tar pits seem to have been relocated). This was an era before freeways, so the constant trekking form one side of town to the other is a visual treat. The cars are all authentic and beautiful. It’s a shame there isn’t as much opportunity to see all the hilarious billboards, advertisements, and movie posters as we could in GTA IV, because they are equally clever and well crafted.
                The face mapping technology they used is remarkable and looks better than Heavy Rain in my opinion. The emotions are so clear and lifelike that it truly does look more like a movie than a video game. Most of the cast of Mad Men, one of my favourite shows, is in this game. Other actors you may recognize from Heroes and Fringe are in this game, and deliver more believable performances than the TV shows they are known for! When trying to figure out if a career criminal is lying is pretty exciting. However I couldn’t help but notice that sometimes the people were acting as if they were lying, kind of shooting some of themselves in the foot. Occasionally, the masterful facial graphics can be held back at times by the puppet-esque bodies they're attached too. Some characters, while delivering intense lines, will shift in their seat or tilt their heads in ways that just don’t make sense. Nit picking? Sure. Illusion breaking? Also sure. Deal breaking? Not entirely.


                SOUNDPLAY – Everything sounds exactly as it should in this game. The gunfire. The footsteps. The car engines. The dialogue. It all sounds so very authentic and real that you just don’t question any of it. Footsteps are a big deal to me, in the auditory department, and it’s one of the reasons I hated Final Fantasy 13 so much. No matter the surface that the characters were running on, it always sounded like boots clomping on hollow metal pipes. Such is not the case for L.A. Noire.
                One thing that truly broke my heart about this game was the fact that you have no control over the radio. The music is all lifted from the era, even down to the commercials, news spots, and even comedy bits. Some songs you may even recognize from the Fallout series as well.  Sadly, you’re relegated to one station, that you can’t turn off. This held the game back from being as immersive as it should have been.
 If I want detective Cole to put his feet up in his office/desk and just listen to some radio stations, why shouldn’t I be able to? It would have provided an opportunity to really listen to some of the great music and radio programming that was so painstakingly worked on.
                All of the custom music for this game, like most Rockstar games, is phenomenal. Nothing gets me more pumped than seeing detective Phelps chase down a fleeing criminal while action oriented Jazz starts kicking in. Action oriented Jazz. Never thought I’d say that.


                GAMEPLAY – Most of this game is played while either at a crime scene, or during an interrogation. The crime scene segments feel like streamlined versions of old school adventure games. Or as I like to call them, pointy clicky’s. Inspecting objects for clues is mildly reminiscent of Shenmue, the way items are looked at. There are a handful of junk items that have no bearing on anything sprinkled around each location, which are the equivalent of, fuck all. I was never any good at old school PC adventure games, like Curse of Monkey Island, because I lacked of the requisite patience that comes with those games. This approach minimalizes frustrations in lieu of constantly nudging you down the right track. That track being rather linear in retrospect, but I’m not holding that against a game with such a strong emphasis on narration.
                The interrogations are probably the most fun to be had from this game and offer a unique experience. The only issue I have is that when your two of your three choices, namely TRUTH and DOUBT, can be rather ambiguous. Sometimes when I choose one of these options, Detective Phelps follows a line of inquiry that was not clarified until it was too late. Moments like this were few and far between, but couldn’t help but notice them. Trying to figure out if someone had the motivation and gumption to actually commit a serious crime was riveting. Constantly flipping through my trusty notebook, reviewing evidence and clues made me feel like a detective. You can use intuition points which are earned by leveling up, to help you much like a life line. However, they can still leave you looking at a suspect that you just can’t figure out. 

                That said, this is not a game for those who wish to run over civilians and shoot people mercilessly like they did in GTA 4 or Red Dead Redemption, and those who turn to L.A. Noire will be disappointed. This is not a sandbox game, because you are very clearly tasked with getting from point A to point B, solving cases in linear progression, until the game is over. Sure there are crimes you can respond to when dispatch asks for help, but these boil down to brief moments of action, that last less than five minutes. Usually you spend more time actually driving to get to the side mission, than you actually do in completing them.
The gunplay is solid, sure, but never really factors in for this game. You can double tap the aim button and the targeting reticule will instantly snap to any bad guy in the vicinity, which pretty much does the work for you. The melee combat isn’t anything to write home about, and you probably engage in it less than ten times. Most of the cars feel like they drive the same, save for the occasional special car that you unlock by leveling up. The most rewarding part of leveling up is unlocking new suits to wear, which kind of speaks to how little leveling up bears on the game in actuality.  
There are a few other missed opportunities where the game takes the control away from the player and forces you to watch as your character makes some rather important decisions that affect his life. However since you don’t get to see the before of these events, the after bears less relevance. Without giving too much away, there is a domestic dispute between Detective Phelps and his wife, this is her only appearance in the game (their kids are never shown), and since the player gets no controlled interaction with her, the episode is devoid of evoking sympathy for Cole. I can’t feel bad for his marriage if it never plays a role outside of this one event. Like the rest of the game, if we were allowed to take our time and be able to more fully explore the world a bit better, we could be even more attached to his personal life, not just his professional one. 


                REPLAY – This is where the game doesn’t really follow through. There aren’t multiple endings, and all cases have a definite and pre-determined method of obtaining a five star rating. So unless you’re a trophy/achievement hunter, there isn’t much reason to play this game again. In one comically misunderstood sequence of events, one case ended with me sending the wrong person to jail. The Police Chief berated me at great length how if I screwed up that badly again he’d fire me. Fade to black. Fade in to me having breakfast with the Police Chief at a diner, and he’s congratulating me on doing such a stellar job. What the fuck happened? Wasn't I just on the cusp of being canned two seconds ago?
There is one case in particular, where after sending numerous people to jail, you discover that the real mastermind of the crimes is someone you’ve never heard of before and just shows up to make life miserable. There is nothing you can do to find this person beforehand, despite all the calling cards they leave at the scene of the crime. Things like this remind you of how little control you have over the major events in the game, and really break the illusion that the game works so hard to create. The ending is very similar to this, and frustrated me so much that I didn’t want to play the game again. I can’t say why, and I won’t. Spoiler free here folks. Find out for yourself.
Even if you do everything properly, you can still ruin your score by driving recklessly and causing property damage while getting from place to place. And since you have to do a lot of driving, this can get really annoying if you’re a completionist, because driving safely is boring as all hell! The only way to make the driving sequences any fun is to play like Crazy Taxi and see how many shortcuts through people’s backyards as you can. Let's go make some cuh-razy money! Civilians can never be ran over, only pushed to the side. The same can be said of your firearm, which is only removed from its holster if someone opens fire on you, which we’ve already established is a rare occurrence. 
 
                  SCORE – 4 out of 5. The reason I docked this game down from five is because of the ending. That’s why. The storytelling hiccups? Forgiven. The easy and sparse gunplay? Forgiven. The cars that drive like tanks? Forgiven. The ending? Inexcusable. It feels rushed and unfocused. It’s not bad. It just wasn’t up to the high standard the rest of the game had prepared me for. For the ending, I docked one point. 
                This game has been a revelation of sorts, in that it totally sucked me into the strongly driven narrative and truly made me feel like a 1947 detective for the LAPD. Unfortunately there were moments that truly made me like a person, holding a controller, looking at a screen, wondering just how little input this game wanted from me. I didn’t hate this game, and rank it up there in the most engrossing titles I’ve ever played, right along with titles such as Shenmue or Fallout 3. But there was some brief moments in the game’s story that left me scratching my head. This has got to be the most immersive game released this year, and I highly recommend everyone play it.