Saturday, May 28, 2011

Behind The Wheel Of GT5: Racing Rivals

I’ve talked about how Gran Turismo 5 fares as a product and where it sits in its franchise; now let’s look at how it stands amongst its competition.

For years the Gran Turismo series was king of console racing simulation, sitting untouched at the throne for over a decade and remaining the pinnacle of graphical fidelity. Sure, there were imitators -- it’s quite similar to the GTA III open world issue, actually -- but Gran Turismo stayed on top due to its sheer quantity of cars and tracks, incredible production values and, most importantly, superior physics and handling model. Most copycats were content to cash in on this success -- it might not seem like it now with the likes of Call Of Duty and Uncharted around, but the Gran Turismo franchise is one of the biggest sellers in the industry -- or use it as foundation to go in a different direction, but GT’s presence on top was significant and defined the racing genre for years, much in the same way as Burnout did for Arcade racing. Microsoft’s increasing success and presence in the industry, however, brought with it a new challenger, one that in my eyes eventually overtook Gran Turismo for the lead.

There’s no denying that Forza Motorsport found success pretty quickly (after Forza 2 in particular) and soon became Gran Turismo’s main competitor. More significant, however, was just how serious of a rival Forza ended up being, and how, indirectly, it challenged not only GT but the entire genre to lift its game. Like previous attempts, the original Forza was mostly a copy of the PS2 generation Gran Turismos: GT3 and GT4. It took what worked from those games, added customisation, and focused on tire physics specifically rather than weight and momentum as I described in my last post. It had similar tracks -- including the obligatory New York street circuit and notorious Nürburgring Nordschleife (which I’ll cover in more detail soon) -- and a comparable range of vehicles; showcased a similar dedication and respect to cars and Motorsport to that of Polyphony’s franchise; and delivered on ideas of precision, consistency and accuracy just as Gran Turismo did. It was a competent game and a remarkable introduction to a new series, but it had nothing on its inspiration and, combined with various flaws, mostly underwhelmed the audience it was chasing. It was Forza Motorsport 2 and the transition into the HD generation of consoles that saw things change, and it is here where it passed Polyphony’s baby and took the chequered flag.

The reasons Forza 2 took the lead are simple to list but complex to understand. On paper we have improved graphics thanks to a generation change, a stronger emphasis on customisation and (importantly) community, and refinement in every facet of the production, making it an extremely well made game. Under the hood, however, we have the physics and handling engine which saw remarkable refinement and alterations that didn’t just deliver an improved level of control, but one with nuance and subtlety that, in hindsight, Gran Turismo was lacking. That’s not to say that GT’s achievements weren’t impressive or that it didn’t contain complexities to its own engine, but rather that its position on top for so long allowed Polyphony to become complacent with their handling model, so much so that only minor improvements were considered necessary. Forza 2 demonstrated what could be done and, crucially, why it should be, and the disparity between it and Gran Turismo 4 (the last game since Gran Turismo 5 was taking so long to develop) was so strong that it was almost unfair.

And it is unfair, for the most part, comparing a current generation game -- long since outclassed, yet again, by its sequel Forza 3 -- to one from the last generation, but on console racing simulation terms these two games were the only respectable ones and Polyphony’s pursuit for perfection allowed their competition to reach the top of the podium. The release of Gran Turismo 5, after years of delays and uncertainty, was supposed to be when the series retook first place and sat on that throne once again but, after playing it comprehensively, the Forza series still has it beat. Now this opinion is obviously mine and, I’ll quite happily admit, is debatable depending on how you approach the two: in terms of features, graphics (for the most part) and content Gran Turismo 5 is the clear leader as I described in my first post, but approach it from a driver’s perspective (so to speak) where the handling is crucial, and it’s another story. That nuance and subtlety I mentioned in Forza exists in Gran Turismo 5, too, which is commendable and pleasing to see, but it still lacks a lot of the small details -- the stuff most people wouldn’t notice -- that Forza has. I will do my best to articulate these and describe in detail why both Forza 3 and GT5 are what they are, but for now the level of depth that Forza 3’s physics/handling model has keeps it in front. There’s simply more that you can do with Forza’s system and now that Polyphony have indicated that they understand that (by including some of Turn 10’s innovation in their own game), it appears that it will take some refinement and the release of Gran Turismo 6 before the two will be on par, if it can’t retake its position as the leader altogether.

Move beyond the inevitable comparison between Gran Turismo and Forza -- preferably before the fanboys bring both games down with their immature insults and obvious ignorance -- and you find that other games have stepped up to the plate too, making the present day even more interesting and the past domination a relic of videogame history. Need For Speed: Shift, another mainstream and relatively popular title, delivers impressive graphics that match Gran Turismo 5’s beauty; Codemasters’ GRiD tapped into what it was like to race rather than drive (meaning techniques for executing passes and avoiding crashes mattered, rather than aiming for apexes and judicial use of the accelerator); and even a game like Race Pro -- one that definitely flew under the radar for most people -- matches the big two franchises when it comes to handling. I will explore all of these games (and many more) in future posts but the point is that while Gran Turismo might have been king for an incredibly long time, now it’s just another pawn fighting to get noticed and struggling to win, and Polyphony’s blissful ignorance of this fact makes Gran Turismo 5 even more disappointing than it needs to be.

It’s a fantastic game, I’ve already explained that, but it’s no longer the clear winner and has been surpassed by its rivals even though Polyphony (and Sony, for that matter) would suggest otherwise. What it brings to the table is wonderful -- if long overdue -- and it’s great to see that, for the most part, Gran Turismo 5 delivered on expectations, but in the time it took to do so everyone else ended up doing it first, ensuring that the title was left behind even though it thought it was ahead. As a fan of the franchise, that’s a little discouraging, but as an even bigger fan of genre competition (because it means I get to play more games), this result makes the race fascinating to watch, and even better to participate in.

Next time I will take a look at Gran Turismo 5’s licenses, break down the various features I’ve constantly made reference to in these recent posts, and also look at the handling system a little more closely. Before that, however, I turn my attention to Test Drive Unlimited 2, and how it fares in this incredibly competitive genre.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Mafia II

Oh Mafia II, what can I say about you? I love you so much and yet you left me feeling puzzled, confused and conflicted. You enticed me with your beautiful city, strong focus on narrative and realism, and your prospect of taking me on a virtual trip to the 1940s, a time I will never get to experience in reality. You did those things but then didn’t allow me to explore Empire Bay; to inhabit that wonderful time period or, indeed, Mafia story; and your attention to realism -- admirable as it is -- was a letdown once I realised it was barely enforced and that I could treat the “rules” like I would in any other open world game. You were supposed to be different, supposed to be unique, and certainly supposed to deliver something that couldn’t be found in other games. Instead, you are more like them than you realise. You deal with things just like they do, portray them in the same light, and the results of my actions are the same they have always been. You relied on genre conventions and tropes, on familiarity rather than something new, and became just another example of how right games like Grand Theft Auto actually got it. But you’re not GTA. You’re not concerned with mayhem or freedom or the relationship between player and world, of protagonist and ally. You are much more interested in conveying a story in a cool setting. So why didn’t you?

It’s no secret that I was pretty keen on Mafia II. At the time I was excited about it because it truly seemed like something different, something I hadn’t experienced before. In some ways, it was. The time period and therefore setting -- particularly aesthetically -- was new (to me) and definitely a change from more modern surroundings and post apocalyptic adventures. But go beyond its looks and sounds, its sights and period-appropriate melodies, and what you get is just another game city, one impressive in size, scope and activity, but also one that has been done before. Liberty City, despite being released in early 2008, is still the most active, appealing metropolis that videogames have ever seen. Even L.A. Noire’s meticulous recreation of 1940s L.A. has nothing on the city that never sleeps, the city where there is always something to see and do. Mafia II’s Empire Bay tried to replicate some of the amazing diversity and sense of wonder that Liberty City inspires with almost every visit, and in some respects even achieved this, with a compelling atmosphere; similar sense of a “living and breathing” city; and places to go and explore, but then it takes it all away again in order to continue on with the story it is trying to tell. At first it is awe-inspiring, the beauty of skyscrapers in the distance and the little (scripted) moments that can take place due to the strong focus on story and the structure that reinforces it of particular note, but before too long you start to notice how deceiving it is, how it’s more of an illusion than a real city, and how little reason there is for it to actually exist. You only go places because you have to, because the story demands it. This might make these locations fascinating in their own right, because your attachment to the characters or the details you find within are relevant to you (think Heavy Rain), but consequently it leaves the rest of the city behind and makes it feel mostly irrelevant. There’s no motivation to go and explore; no incentive to see what Empire Bay has to offer. Sure, you could go for a drive or stroll and admire the architecture and personality, but your interest wouldn’t last long because there’s very little to see, very little to do, and the game keeps demanding you to go home, to go to your next mission or destination, all of the time anyway. You might be able to break free from the story’s linear structure and do your own thing, but that doesn’t mean the game wants you to. And why should it, anyway? It’s not as if time will pass or the weather will change. That goes against the game’s scripted focus, and we can’t have that.

And what about that realism that was so intriguing for me personally? Surely that added weight and meaning to that environment; to that time period? Nope, instead it is just there, not really crucial to the overall experience. Sure, like Empire Bay itself, engaging it can be interesting and offers something to break up the game’s forward-looking pace, but ignoring it won’t affect your time with the game in any significant way, and you certainly won’t be punished for your diversionary actions either. Following the speed limit (something made particularly convenient given a simple button press activates a limiter, making driving almost automatic), obeying red lights or parking your car in the garage might seem like something you should be doing given the setting and atmosphere of Empire Bay, but you don’t have to and, honestly, it’s easier if you don’t -- you’d just be wasting time. Police are mostly oblivious to your presence in the world, ignoring you unless you do something right in their face or because a mission caused them to take notice of you. They will chase you for speeding but only if you zoom right past them; do it a few metres down the road or going the opposite way and they won’t care. Red lights? By all means go through them, just slow down first so you’re not seen as a menace -- in other words drive slowly enough that civilians won’t panic but fast enough that the speed limit means nothing -- and the cops will turn a blind eye, no doubt enjoying their blissful ignorance and the quicker pace with which they can despawn, again, since they’re obviously only around when you are anyway. Brandishing a weapon in public is more dangerous for you and rousing for the Police of Empire Bay than driving erratically is. But, should you get in trouble either way, your indiscretions and misdemeanors can be quickly overlooked through bribery or a simple visit to a phone booth. Or you could, you know, kill them and outrun their pursuit like you would in other games, but this isn’t supposed to be like other games, remember? *sigh*

Don’t get me wrong, I loved Mafia II and I am definitely glad I got to play it, but it’s disappointing not because it is a bad game -- quite the opposite, in fact -- but because it didn’t execute on what I thought its qualities would be, and because it doesn’t appear to know what it wants to be, either. Not since Mirror’s Edge has a game left me feeling so conflicted, confused about how I feel, and dismayed by its failure to meet its potential. It lacks identity; delivers arena-style shootouts and over-exaggerated action, just like other games of its ilk; and doesn’t even recognise, perhaps ironically, that it is a game about the Mafia. It could be so much more than it is, then, but thankfully what it did end up being is still pretty good. I’ll have more on that, soon.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Behind The Wheel Of GT5: Grand Tour

In yesterday’s post I claimed, without hesitation, that Gran Turismo 5 is the best game in the series. The reason for that, on a personal level, is its much improved handling and physics model but go beyond my interests and you find a feature-rich, mostly beautiful and thrilling racing game.

Since I’ve already mentioned it, I’ll start with the physics. The Gran Turismo series simulates the act of driving cars fast through, mostly, weight distribution. Where a game like Forza focuses on tires and the way grip affects the car, GT focuses on how the bulk of a car’s body and chassis affects speed, and how G-forces and the lurch forward under brakes affects momentum. This key difference, and Forza’s impressive evolution in its recent titles, almost separates the two rival franchises into completely different categories but, more than that, it provides interesting insight into car behaviour -- in the real world and virtually -- that I’d like to explore in detail later. For now, however, Gran Turismo 5’s additions to the handling and physics system ensures that it’s not only the most refined of the franchise, but that it also allows for more subtlety and a stronger level of depth: crucial for conveying the intricacies that driving a car around a track, at speed, reveal.

This is perhaps most evident in the game’s wide array of cars. Gran Turismo as a series is renowned for its car selection, perhaps even going over-board with its multiple Skylines, RX-7s and -- in this version (finally!) -- Ferraris. But, unlike previous installments, the difference with these vehicles is actually noticeable, and getting acquainted with each car actually requires time and effort. Drivetrains matter, for example, and it’s no longer a case of front-wheel drive cars under-steering and rear-wheel drive cars over-steering. You can actually feel the car responding -- or not -- to your input and can recognise, instantly, when you need to react to it veering off track or why it’s not putting the acceleration down. Now I won’t deny that in my experience of playing racing games over the years and my understanding of Motorsport, I can recognise the traits and issues that the average player -- the kind who goes for a burn around Laguna Seca on the weekends simply because it’s fun -- might not, but the fact that the refinement and difference is there goes a long way in improving the simulation as a whole, not to mention, indirectly, teaching its players the finer techniques and understanding that racing cars requires. Throw in the diversity of NASCAR, rallying and Go-Karts, and consider how drastically different those disciplines are, and you have a system that’s not only impressive, it’s a robust, technical feat. I’ll be honest and say that I still think Forza has it beat in this department -- and I’ll explain why in a future post -- but that Gran Turismo stepped up is wonderful, especially when it was so close to being left behind.

Going beyond the mechanics Gran Turismo 5 features an insane amount of content, far more than what is expected from the first installment in a generation -- and perhaps only, given the lengthy development time -- that it’s amazing that it works at all, let alone came out as polished (if inconsistent) as it did. Instead of waiting for the second release in a generation like it has previously to offer more cars and things to do, Gran Turismo 5 hits the track with a number that outdoes the competition, if not its own-self. 1000+ cars out of the box; a multitude of tracks -- both real and fictional -- which includes their many variants; and a variety of modes, disciplines and features that were unthinkable in the last game, Gran Turismo 4. Rally returns, drifting is included for the first time (GT5: Prologue doesn’t count) and NASCAR, karting and even WRC (the World Rally Championship) finally get some of the attention that they deserve. It may only be a dabble here and a dabble there -- GT5’s main focus is still absolutely on the many road cars available -- but it’s a lot more than other games, and paves the way for an enticing future where all cars, all disciplines of racing across the Globe, can receive the respect and level of appreciation/admiration that this series prides itself on. Weather was added, damage included, and dynamic conditions and the transition from day to night and back again in the longer races make for a much more realistic simulation experience, as well as a more enthralling, immersive one. I’ll break these features down in an upcoming post but the fact they are there is remarkable -- even if flawed as I suggested yesterday -- and justifies, somewhat, the incredibly long development time Gran Turismo 5 had. This variety is important pedagogically, too, something I’ll expand on later.

Gran Turismo 5 isn’t perfect, however, and a wealth of content means nothing if their implementation is odd and confusing. Furthermore, the disparity between Premium and Standard cars visually, omission of classic Gran Turismo circuits and last generation design decisions make GT5 a game that, while brilliant, should have been better, too; particularly as its competition catches up, if they haven’t passed it already. More on that next time.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Behind The Wheel Of Gran Turismo 5: Product Placement

As I briefly alluded to in the overview to this series, Gran Turismo 5 can be approached in three different ways: as the latest installment in the franchise, as a game that competes with other racing properties, and as a product whose development has been long and arduous. Depending on these approaches the qualities and flaws change, as does the general impression one can derive from it, making GT5 not only a complicated beast but one that deserves analysis from all angles. Today, we focus on the product side of the equation.

As it stands, Gran Turismo 5 is a quality title. It brings the renowned franchise into the modern-day, high-definition era with lush visuals, features that were requested for years (weather, night racing, etc.) and even 3DTV support, given Sony’s recent push in that domain. Like previous entries in the series Gran Turismo 5 is at the forefront of technology and fidelity, pushing the PS3 like no other game and standing out as a culmination, of sorts, of everything Sony wanted to achieve with their black beast. Or, so Sony would have you believe.

In reality, Gran Turismo 5, while impressive, is also quite disappointing and it’s the features I refer to above -- the very things that get mentioned when trying to demonstrate GT5’s supposed superiority over its competition -- that make it so. There’s no denying that graphically, Gran Turismo 5 is beautiful, the cars and tracks shining (literally, in some cases) like never before, demonstrating the power of the PlayStation 3. Add in the weather effects, in-car camera view and day/night transitions and you have an awe-inspiring racing game that not only shows how far we have come, but why we should have made this progress to begin with. It’s not consistent, however, and the game can be quite ugly and jarring at times, too.

A good example of the jarring graphics. This WRC car looks good... until you notice the inside of the front wheel.

The obvious issue is the difference between the cars. Gran Turismo 5 has a wealth of cars that is arguably too many but respectful in the way it celebrates car engineering as I alluded to when discussing my games of 2010. Within its 1000-plus lineup exists what Polyphony call Standard and Premium vehicles. Premium cars come with all the bells and whistles, featuring immaculate replications of stunning cars such as Ferraris and Lamborghinis with meticulously detailed interiors, the ability to drive them using the in-car view, and more polygons than should be allowed for each car. There are about 200 of them, and they truly are a sight to behold. The Standard vehicles, on the other hand, are appallingly low-res and look, frankly, terrible. Their windows are tinted so interiors don’t have to be modeled; it’s impossible to drive them with the in-car view; and their shapes are nowhere near as smooth as the Premium selection, featuring jagged edges, blurry lines and a generally rough appearance. They scream Gran Turismo 4 fidelity rather than the pristine presentation of GT5, meaning that yes, they are essentially last generation cars. Considered separately the difference is irrelevant and, as a flaw, can be mostly overlooked, but every time you do an event in a Premium car and then need to switch to a Standard one, the contrast is jarring and the game jolts you back into reality, reminding you that you’re playing a videogame. Basically it’s the uncanny valley issue rearing its head again but instead of taking you out of the immersion of another game, here it just stuns you momentarily before you remember the pathetic difference between cars and resume racing. The contrast -- ugly as it is -- isn’t the problem here; instead, it stands out as inexcusable because of how long Gran Turismo 5 was in development, and because it is at such incredible odds with what the game and, indeed, the franchise has always tried to be: the pinnacle of graphical progress.

The cars aren’t the only area of the game where this discrepancy lies, however; tracks also contain jarring differences that are not only baffling, they impede on the enjoyment of the game. As gorgeous as the Madrid street circuit or the High Speed Ring are, it means nothing when tracks like the Top Gear Test Track, Laguna Seca and Circuit De La Sarthe (Le Mans) have flat, blurry textures, 2D ‘paper’ trees* and crowds with boxy heads and faces. Seeing the aforementioned Premium cars zoom around while the grass looks like it has been filled in using Microsoft Paint is not only an insult to the game’s credibility and Sony/Polyphony’s strong focus on leading the way with technology, it strongly affects enjoyment of the game seeing what feels like something from the PlayStation 2 era featuring so prominently on the PS3. When you consider that the Top Gear track in particular gets showcased on the game’s main menu screen sporadically, it’s simply inexplicable. Had Gran Turismo 5 released when it was originally supposed to way back in 2007 or even in 2008, the problem wouldn’t be as apparent and it wouldn’t be such a scar on an otherwise pleasant racing experience. Since it came out in (late) 2010 instead, after so many other racing games upped the ante and matched -- if not outclassed -- the GT franchise visually, the issue is appalling and a severe letdown to those who were expecting it to, like every other installment in the franchise before it, once again lead the way and pioneer, pushing the graphical -- not to mention photo-realistic -- limits possible in the virtual space.

Changing focus now, the aspects that were heavily marketed are a letdown as well. As nice as it is to finally have inclusions such as damage and weather, it’s beside the point if they’re not executed well or come across as if their implementation was rushed. Strangely, damage doesn’t even exist until you’ve reached a certain level (40, to be precise) in the game meaning that only the dedicated are going to get to experience the addition, despite the incessant requests for it to be included over the years. Casual players and those who just want to drive some exquisite cars around some lovely locations won’t get to see the damage modeling the way it was intended -- where bumpers and the like can come off -- and instead will only get to see the unrealistic (and, it has to be said, jarring given the otherwise impressive visuals) bounces and bumps -- with no visible affect to the presentation of the car -- that the Gran Turismo series is synonymous with. They might, if they’re lucky, start to see some scrapes and scratches if they make it past level 10 or so but, like the entirety of the damage model anyway, it will remain cosmetic at best and doesn’t change the experience of playing the game. Speaking of which, this superficial damage -- one of the biggest touted features in the lead up to the game’s release -- isn’t even the best we’ve seen in the genre, once again disappointing anyone who expected it to live up to its predecessors’ prestige. Weather and night racing were the other big elements celebrated before launch, the suggestion being that they were new to the series and included to satisfy those wanting them ever since Gran Turismo 4. They’re not new, however, with night racing existing in every single installment since the original game in the Super Special Stage courses, and wet roads (read: no dynamic weather, that is new) also appearing along the way as well. What this means is that the former is false advertising -- though admittedly, racing as day transitions to night is new and absolutely stunning too -- in terms of how its implementation was implied, and the latter already catered to the difference wet driving can have on the gameplay experience, people (and seemingly Sony too) have just appeared to have forgotten about it. So that makes both features not new, then, though to their credit they are what they should have been from the get-go, alleviating some of the issues that this attempt at marketing arose. That doesn’t make them perfect, however, with night’s appearance looking blurry at times -- particularly while watching replays -- and rainfall being 2D like the trees, not to mention inconsistent (in terms of density) with what you see fall on the windscreen in the in-car view, or the water spray from the tires as a vehicle passes. It’s minor and, personally, I’d much prefer the idea that these additions were finally implemented than for them to be perfect, but it’s worth mentioning anyway, especially considering Sony and Polyphony’s strong focus on trying to be at the forefront of fidelity and innovation. Other games have done it better but they don’t want you to realise it.

Beyond that, elements of the game’s handling physics (which I will explore in a future post); the omission of classic tracks such as El Capitan, Seattle and New York; and archaic problems such as invisible walls (particularly on the Top Gear track) make for a confusing product, one that is so inherently amazing whilst, at the same time, a disappointing and lackluster experience. Gran Turismo 5 is undoubtedly the best game in the series but its flaws are bizarre, its handful of last generation (or worse, beyond) design choices are baffling, and, overall, as a product released in 2010, it’s a game that’s not only a letdown, it’s an inexplicable disappointment.

Why that is remains to be seen; why the game is so good is something I’ll reveal in the next post of this series.

*To be fair, Gran Turismo 5 isn’t the only game to feature 2D ‘paper’ trees. They can be found in its main competitor Forza 3, as well as in games such as Alan Wake. No matter which game they exist in, I always shudder when I find them as it certainly breaks the immersion during play.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Behind The Wheel Series: Overview

It’s no secret by now that I am a racing game fanatic and play practically any racing game I can get my hands on. Whether it’s a simulation like F1 2010 or an arcade racer like Burnout, I play these games because I enjoy them and because they satisfy my appetite for speed. Even a bout of Mario Kart is worth the drive, in my opinion. It’s also no secret, however, that I believe that the genre as a whole doesn’t get the critical attention that it deserves, seemingly acting as a fun diversion for the majority of players while the big-name shooters and RPGs of the world get all the attention. This bothers me, as I’ve expressed before, and part of my motivations for Raptured Reality these days is to try and change that perception and give the genre the investigation, analysis and dedication that it deserves. Enter my newest series, Behind The Wheel, in which I’ll discuss racing games thoroughly, and where (almost) anything goes.

I’ve played around with the idea of writing in depth about racing games before, approaching it from a variety of angles but not really finding one that meets the desires I have when it comes to covering the genre critically. My Friday Night Forza series lasted only two posts because I felt like it focused on one game far too much, and wasn’t really discussing the actual game in any analytical sense. What I did cover in those two articles, however, was important because they highlighted how racing games can go beyond the simple act of going fast and become so much more, teaching players, indirectly, experiences that they might not have been aware of previously. My F1 2010 Living The Life series, on the other hand, demonstrates the genre’s potential to -- again -- go beyond the act of going fast and tell stories, even if those stories are created out of a particular approach to playing. I’m proud of a lot of what I have written in the three years I have been blogging here -- stuff like my Heavy Rain and Fahrenheit coverage comes to mind -- but I can say with confidence that the Living The Life series is the best thing I’ve ever done, not necessarily due to its content but because of how it enlightened me to so many things that I was oblivious to. From the aforementioned storytelling to the emotions playing it in that way has inspired in me, the approach has been invigorating and I hope to use that experience to enhance not only other games in the future, but possibly other aspects of my life as well.

But it’s not criticism, is it? Playing F1 2010 with an intentional “I’m the driver, here’s how my races fared” approach isn’t taking the actual game, analyzing it, and discovering why it’s so good, what flaws it has and where it should go in the future. Talking about driver mentalities or hard to describe phenomena in relation to a simulation like Forza Motorsport 3 isn’t breaking that game down, investigating what it does and doesn’t do within the franchise it exists in, or the competition it aims to overthrow. Hell, even answering the question as to what my favourite racing game ever may be isn’t doing anything substantial other than offering my opinion and explaining why. This annoys me because it goes against my intentions for covering the genre here on the blog: it’s not discussing them in depth and offering a perspective that others cannot, because they don’t have the same experience with the genre as I do. It’s fine to experiment the way I have in the past if it’s alongside these genuine criticisms and analysis of individual racing games, but if doing one is to the exclusion of the other then I am doing it wrong (so to speak) and this is something I’d like to change.

So that’s what this new series is about. Instead of experimentations that could go anywhere or discussion on subjects that mean little to anyone other than me, I’ll actually be focusing on games like Gran Turismo 5, Wipeout HD, Blur (etc.) to understand them and explain, to you guys, why they are what they are and why I find them so enjoyable (or not). I’ll still continue to experiment as I find ways to articulate the many thoughts I have about the genre, but it will be tangential to the criticism and analysis and, hopefully, enhance the discussion rather than control it. I will also continue my F1 2010 story because, as I said before, I find it fascinating and want to relay that to you, but I will also analyse the game so it is clear as to why I love it so much, and why it has enabled me to tell my story to begin with.

First, however, I’m going to turn my attention towards Gran Turismo 5 -- a controversial and inconsistent racing game -- and the recently released Test Drive Unlimited 2, as a nice (and intentional) contrast of styles within the racing genre. Join me again tomorrow for the first of these posts, looking at where GT5 stands as a product (as opposed to a simulation, or to its competition).

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Preview Power: L.A. Noire

[Part of a series of smaller posts that I'll be doing about various upcoming games. I don't jump on board the hype train too often, but when I do I like to think that there's a pretty significant reason for why, and in this series I will attempt to explain my anticipation for each game.]

By now it would be pretty obvious that I really like games that feature cities. Whether it’s the big names in Liberty City or Rapture, or the smaller and perhaps more interesting locales such as Bullworth Town in Bully, or the many different towns and settlements that can be found in games like Fallout 3 and Red Dead Redemption, exploring, learning about and ultimately inhabiting these places is very appealing to me. Games by their very nature have the ability to take me anywhere I may want to go, either because it might be fun to do so or because we can gain a lot out of the experience. L.A. Noire’s recreation of a 1940s Los Angeles is, then, incredibly interesting to consider as we approach the game’s release later this week.

L.A. is, easily, one of the most famous cities around the globe and certainly a big name location to set a videogame in. Home to Hollywood, it’s synonymous with glitz, glamour and celebrity culture. It’s also known for its corruption, crime and character -- something Rockstar are also famous for. And there’s the other big name: this is Rockstar’s next big game. They might not have made it internally like Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption, and it’s most certainly Team Bondi’s baby, but Rockstar’s support and influence brings with it a level of respect and expectation that you can’t help but be excited about. Rockstar means ambition. It means attention to detail. It means pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in the videogame medium and it means discovering what’s yet to come, too. Combine this with the city of L.A. -- and that’s before considering the technology, period setting and strong focus on storytelling L.A. Noire seems to be championing -- and you have a game, an experience, that doesn’t just deserve the attention, but strong investigation when it releases this week. But it’s that, too, which makes L.A. Noire so enticing: this isn’t a crime game in the traditional sense; it’s one where the police matter -- a key difference to games like GTA.

Just by virtue of playing a cop, L.A. Noire’s gameplay changes dramatically to games before it. Instead of breaking and entering, in L.A. Noire you are discovering clues and investigating them. Instead of receiving errand missions from wanted criminals, you’re hauling them in and interrogating them. Instead of causing murder, you are attempting to solve it. This distinction separates L.A. Noire by simply shifting focus, and the results of that will be intriguing to say the least. But how is clue investigation and crime solving going to be as exciting and fun as the crime is in other games, and how will it be balanced with the exploration and variety -- not to mention unexpected humour -- those titles bring? The answer lies partly in the impressive facial technology that currently has everyone salivating and justifies their anticipation. It also lies with what the game, hopefully, represents going forward.

Open world crime games are great because the crimes they portray and the actions they enable make for incredible, personal moments that change based on what the player wants to do. But these are usually exaggerated, over the top antics that, while fun, hold games back and restrict them to the kind of false maturity -- which is usually the opposite and, instead, immature -- that the medium seems so enamoured by lately. It’s where violence and gore reign supreme, and where sex is either a joke or an after-thought because it’s too risky to do properly, and will spark controversy as if games were child’s play, anyway. By focusing on the cop angle and, seemingly, toning down the action to let character development and case progression take centre stage, L.A. Noire has the real potential to be that adult videogame that everyone claims to want but so few are willing to actually try. It’s an opportunity to pioneer, once again, while everyone else plays it safe and releases yet another, probably unnecessary, sequel. It’s a chance to display the impact of violence, however brutal, in a way that doesn’t glorify it and instead highlights how serious it can be, and how it affects the people and society that is troubled by it. It’s an ability to display sex, nudity and anything that goes with that in a more tasteful, more -- dare I say it -- natural way, ignoring the sex for sex’s sake angle in favour of discovering why, for example, a murder victim’s body was left naked rather than fully clothed. On this point, the setting suggests that sex will still be celebrated to some extent, but treated right it can portray and even enhance the period that it exists in positively, whilst also being the most ‘modern’ videogame take on content that, in reality, we see and deal with on a daily basis. The ability to pick up a prostitute for a little fun on the side should be something left in the past; the chance to gain insight into prostitution because it’s relevant to a case (or something like that), on the other hand, could really change the way games are made in future, if not perceived as a whole.

Whether any of these possibilities are met remains to be seen, but it’s a testament to L.A. Noire that I can be excited about them while barely mentioning the things everyone else can’t wait to see, namely that facial animation and how it will affect games going forward from a technological point of view. A meticulously detailed replica of L.A. set in a period that oozes style and class, and one in which I get to investigate, both literally and figuratively, at my leisure. That’s why I want to play L.A. Noire, that’s an experience I want to inhabit, and if it manages to move things forward while delivering it, well even better. It wouldn’t be a surprise, though -- it is Rockstar and L.A. after all; dreams come naturally when they’re involved.