On Infamous Second Son…

 

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The gift of power has long been an entertaining topic in the world of video games. Even before then, novels and comic books have detailed histories exploring what happens when someone with nothing is given the ability to have everything. Infamous Second Son is Suckerpunch Studios’ third foray into the world of superheroes born from the common man, and from the first few hours it is evident they have honed their process to a fine science. Though Second Son’s moral impact and karma system don’t hold up as strongly as its two predecessors, Second Son shines brightest through its incredible visuals and near-perfect game play. Delsin Rowe is a fine evolution from the days of Cole McGrath, even if the implications of his actions don’t weigh as heavily upon him as one might hope.

 

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Seven years after the events of Infamous 2, the world has turned against Conduits and seeks to wrangle every last one into custody to keep the world from becoming a battleground like New Marais. Unlike before, Second Son utilizes a real city as the setting for the next chapter, and it is obvious that Suckerpunch went to great lengths to render Seattle in all its hip, indie vibe and beauty. Utilizing the PS4′s hefty processing horsepower, Seattle comes alive around every street corner and rooftop. As sunlight reflects off of puddles and casts shadows through the trees, its a wonder how easily the PS4 can keep up as Delsin turns picture-perfect parkways into smoking disasters. Particle effects flow brilliantly from Delsin’s hands, swirling into concentrated projectiles and laying waste to enemy squadrons and vehicles. And at the center of even the most intense of firefights, the framerate never stumbles or shows the slightest hiccup. If this is any indication of the PS4′s potential, it’s difficult to fathom what future games will look like in just a few years’ time.

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Speaking of Delsin, Second Son’s protagonist is decidedly different than the franchise’s previous hero, Cole McGrath, which at times feels like a double-edged sword. Troy Baker’s performance of Delsin is refreshingly energetic and more animated than Cole, lending to a more believable main character who receives super powers. Akin to a kid in a candy store without an adult, it is fun to see Delsin react accordingly and find entertainment in his new abilities at first, while his law-enforcing brother juxtaposes him by reminding him that he is labeled a “bio-terrorist”. Their abrasive relationship does lead to some funny banter and a kind of brotherly love that I could certainly relate to, but it does not resonate as well as Cole’s relationship with Zeke was. Delsin does make a decent attempt at showing the inner turmoil of controlling his emotions and his new powers, but this conflict fades into obscurity rather quickly, and is all but gone by the game’s final act.

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The Infamous franchise has also hinted at the breadth of various superpowers controlled by different conduits, but it isn’t until Second Son that we get to see how unique these powers can be. Delsin’s smoke powers are a visually distinctive start, but the game’s later powers really take Second Son’s creativity to another plateau. If the point of the Infamous franchise is about becoming powerful, Second Son succeeds brilliantly. Enemy forces grow in strength and number as the story progresses, but they fail to keep up with Delsin as you perfect each of your abilities. By the final few hours, Delsin is nothing short of a one-man apacolypse. In the end, only the story’s stoic villain Augustine proves to be any real challenge, and even she proves to be a disappointingly linear boss fight.

 

Delsin’s powers and some portions of the story depend on the karmic choices you are faced with as the story progresses, and it is here where Second Son falls a bit short of its previous titles. Karma-specific missions are few and far in between, and even when Delsin is faced with making a decision between good or evil, the repercussions don’t ripple out nearly as much as they should. Rather than add more emotional turmoil or impact between Delsin and his brother, the karma system feels more like a mechanism by which you grow your powers in a certain way. The story’s resolution is the only thing that truly changes depending on your choices, and in all honesty I found the evil ending more satisfying than the positive one (to be fair, though, the game isn’t called Hero Second Son).

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Open-world action games like Infamous are almost always centered on toppling those on top or growing in strength to finally enact their revenge upon those that did them wrong, and Second Son is no different. This, however, is a fantastic example of how such a game can be done with expertise and style and infused with a good dose of humor. While it may not have been as morally thoughtful as Cole’s legacy, Delsin’s Rowe’s chapter in the human vs. conduit world of Infamous is incredibly fun and aesthetically hypnotizing from start to finish.

 

See you in the next level,

Gray

Computer America: Gamer Tuesday

On the second Tuesday of each month, the Computer America Radio Show hosts “Gamer Tuesday” in which Craig and Ben devote the entire show to news and reviews about video games and the video game industry. Invited on as a guest host, I debate the latest topics with them and how they might affect the future of the industry.

 

This month, we take one final look at the upcoming launches of the PS4 and Xbox One:their advantages, challenges, exclusive titles, and which product is the best fit for the average consumer. We also recap Blizzcon 2013 and detail some of their bigger announcements, including details on a live-action Warcraft movie due out in 2015. 

 

Click here for hour 1, and click here for hour 2. Hope you enjoy!

 

See you in the next level,

Gray

On Beyond: Two Souls

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Some of the hardest moments in life come not from what is said, but rather what is not. Everyone can confess to a memory where they think “if I had just said this” or “If I had one more minute to tell them…”, and yet we must struggle onward carrying that one message we believe could have changed everything. The human element to a story is the soul that gives meaning to the entire experience, and it is precisely that in which Beyond: Two Souls wishes to convey. Underneath the complicated and sometimes frustrating story-telling scheme, there is a beautiful, yet tragic tale thriving with emotion and brimming with a desire to share it with the world. Unfortunately, David Cage’s narrative creativity is stretched too far with non-linearity, diluting the emotional impact and, quite simply, making what could have been a fantastic two-hour movie into a 12-hour obstacle course.

Beyond: Two Souls is what the gaming community has started referring to as an ‘interactive drama’, in that Quantic Dream sought to create a video game experience that is profoundly emotional while keeping the player as an active participant. While this was proven difficult to achieve in their prior efforts with Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain, both titles pushed the boundaries of what kinds of stories can and cannot be told through video games. While Beyond does reach new heights in motion-capture performance and emphasizing emotional response, the overall experience is far more dramatic than interactive. 

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Beyond: Two Souls tells the story of Jodie Holmes, a little girl psychically tethered to a supernatural force she calls Aiden. Invisible yet always present, Aiden is the other half of Cage’s opus. Protector and assailant, guardian and schoolyard bully, the story of Beyond unfolds through 15 years of Jodie’s life and how she desperately fights to live a normal life despite being connected to an entity she never fully understands. The story jumps between different chapter of Jodie’s life, sometimes going from young adult to six year-old child. Cage tries desperately to weave a linear tale through non-linear means, thus giving the experience a disjointed and schizophrenic feel to it.  Jodie’s story is also burdened with so many genres that it suffers from an identity crisis of sorts, never fully able to focus on one main element and provide depth. Just when it starts to feel like a horror story, it violently turns into a sci-fi game or an elaborate action sequence. 

Much like Heavy Rain, Beyond is a story told through a new evolution of quick time events, with very little puzzle solving or personal logic required. While the idea was to tell Jodie’s story through the player’s hands, it comes off more as a simple mechanism through which the story is told, rather than being discovered. Even the game’s camera provides blatant clues as to where to go or what to do next, instead of the player figuring it out on their own. While it’s understood that such a mechanic was meant to help the player along, the underlying effect detracts from the ability to immerse the player into the story.

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From a technical perspective, Beyond is beautiful, imaginative and very polished. Quantic Dream spent ample time to ensure that every subtle moment played out just as they wanted to. As a result, there are some moments that are profoundly touching, due in no small part to the motion-capture performances of Ellen Page, Willem Defoe and the rest of the cast. They help infuse sincerity and humanity into the quiet moments and when they are at their darkest, a quality not easily obtained in video game storytelling.

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Playing Jodie and Aiden are two distinct processes, with Aiden being the more interesting option. In the more intense moments, Aiden becomes the natural option to switch to in order to save Jodie or stop whatever obstacle is present. Although Jodie has her share of action, Aiden has the ability to pass through walls, move objects, and even possess people to obey to it’s every whim. Objects and people are given a colored hue that helps the player understand the extent to which they can manipulate their environment, as not everything (or everyone) can be influenced.Yet again, Quantic Dream provides blatant clues as to how Aiden is supposed to help Jodie in certain situations, almost eradicating the need to think about your next move.

Although Jodie is capable of combat, the entire system is simplistic and slow (literally). Almost every encounter ends up being a mixture of button-mashing and right stick maneuvers based on how Jodie is moving. While this sounds simple, reading Jodie’s body language is easily the most confusing part of the game, as it is never explicitly stated if she must move into the combat (such as blocking a punch or kick) or avoid incoming harm (such as rolling or jumping away from something). 

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Jodie’s conclusion is open-ended, as David Cage is wont to do with his stories, but even in this avenue it feels as though the player is cheated in some manner. Throughout the entire game, the player has the opportunity to choose what Jodie does. And while that may convey the idea that the player has some kind of input on what ultimately happens to Jodie, it does not change the outcome of the critical points that tie the story together. On one side, you have the freedom to choose what she wears or what she cooks on a date, both of which can affect the outcome; on the other, you can choose whether or not to save a man’s life as he is dying, but it will not change the final outcome. Even when faced with Jodie’s most important choice of all, the narrative will still end as similarly as possible, with some form of resolution coming to Jodie and those close to her. With a story so mired in the nebula between life and death, there is too much room for ‘gray area’ endings that do not answer every question or give every character hope. After all, in a topic as sensitive and difficult as death, why can’t we live with an ending that leaves us with questions?

I wanted to love Beyond: Two Souls for many reasons, the largest of which being how we are so often left with questions without answers. The interplay between life and death–both emotionally and mentally–is an ever-changing palace filled with questions and no answers. Although Beyond: Two Souls is not a good video game by most standards, it boldly asks questions and postulates futures that few people have the courage to entertain. It is easy to feign ignorance toward impossible riddles, but to attempt an answer toward life’s greatest mystery through a video game is not only bold, but admirable as well.

 

See you in the next level,

Gray

Advantage–Sony: Compete Finds PS4 Gaining More Interest Than Xbox One

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With the next-generation consoles just a month away from release, consumer interest is starting to swell. Those unable to snag a reservation last summer are still combing through the web looking for any chance to lock in a console come November. According to a study released yesterday by digital intelligence firm Compete, consumers are showing more interest in the Playstation 4 than the Xbox One by a margin of 2 to 1.

Matt Pace, vice president of retail and consumer products at Compete, studied online shopping habits and trends from June through September and found that 61% of next generation shoppers were considering the PS4 exclusively, and 27% were considering the Xbox One exclusively.

“The fact that 12% of these online shoppers have shown interest in both systems, suggests that at least so far the next-generation consoles are attracting platform loyalists, rather than casual gamers,” wrote Pace.

Although interest has declined 53% since June, Pace expects consumer interest to rise significantly in the next few weeks. While pre-orders accounted for most of the traffic in the summer months, TV commercials and marketing tie-ins have already begun to drive up consumer interest. Sony’s tie-in commercial with Taco Bell started airing last week, and given that the PS4 has been projected by other analysts to be publicly favored over the Xbox One, it is expected by many that Sony will take the lead in the holiday season. In response, Microsoft commented that the next-gen race is “a marathon, not a sprint.”

The Playstation 4 launches on November 15 for $399.99, and the Xbox One launches a week later on November 22 for $499.99.

Gamer Tuesday with Computer America

On the second Tuesday of each month, the Computer America Radio Show hosts “Gamer Tuesday” in which Craig and Ben devote the entire show to news and reviews about video games and the video game industry. Invited on as a guest host, I debate the latest topics with them and how they might affect the future of the industry.

This month, Craig, Charles and I discuss Valve’s announcement of Steam OS, Steam Machine and their new controller, and we talk all about Grand Theft Auto 5. Click here for hour 1, and here for hour 2

See you in the next level,

Gray

On The Walking Dead: 400 Days…

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Telltale is a studio of many colors; despite spanning a breadth of genres and video game fictions over the past few years, they have never failed to emulate and capture the essence that drives that particular narrative forward. Over the course of five intense episodes, The Walking Dead is perhaps their finest and most polished video game series to date, leading little question as to whether or not there would be sequel. While not the official beginning of season 2, The Walking Dead: 400 Days is a stellar bridging point between seasons that continues the harsh–and most often graphic–tales of survival in a post-apocalyptic country.

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Those looking for resolution regarding season 1′s open-ending might be disappointed to find themselves introduced to new characters, but such feelings quickly fade when you pick up any one of the five stories. Occurring at various times in the 400 days since the outbreak, we are given a small vignette of each person’s struggle to survive in a world where showing humanity means weakness. 

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It is impressive to see how Telltale deviates from their proven formula in the previous season and go in new narrative directions, yet still succeed at making us care about these new faces so quickly. Jesse, a convict en route to jail when the outbreak hits, is perhaps the least original story of the bunch, but it is no less adrenaline pumping when walkers storm the bus and Jesse must take grave measures to save himself. The choice system is still the cornerstone of TWD and every character invariably faces an impossible choice that seeks to challenge everything they are as humans and survivors. Shel desperately wants to protect her sister from the evils brought by their new life, but when is it more important to be a good survivor, instead of a caring human? Underlining the point that no choice is right or wrong, Telltale continues to highlight great storytelling by emphasizing consequence with every choice you make, and it succeeds at crafting emotionally jarring stories in relatively no time at all. 

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Each arc is condensed and abrupt, with the entire episode lasting no more than 90 minutes. While that may seem like an insufficient amount of time to create a bond to so many new faces, Telltale finds a proper balance between the formula that worked before and experimenting with new things. Graphically, 400 Days is identical to the animated/cel-shaded look of Season 1 and the voice-acting very spot on. 

 

The ending is a culmination of the choices you made leading to that point, leading to a potentially interesting start of Season 2. With such a strong emphasis on player choice, coupled with how Telltale will take your previous game into account, future Walking Dead episodes may become quite varied and nuanced journeys for each and every player, which I gather has been Telltale’s point all along.

See you in the next level,

Gray

On The Last of Us…

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Trust and survival are mortal enemies. In a world torn asunder by disease and strife, inviting one into the world of the other undoubtedly means death. When one is forced to live day by day, ration by ration, and bullet by bullet, trusting your fellow man can often be the siren luring you into a false comfort. This kind of dance has been done many times before in other popular movies, TV series and games, but the Last of Us is something much more. Smartly avoiding simple plot structures such as finding a cure or massacring hundreds of infected in blood-soaked fervor, Naughty Dog’s latest title strips down a standard survival-horror game and infuses heart and sorrow into every corner. Complete with intensely gripping character performances and an almost-perfect stealth and combat system, The Last of Us is a visceral, graphic, and moving story about some of our most intense emotional experiences.

Many years after mankind has been ravaged by Cordyceps–a real fungus that infects several species of insects–those that are left are quarantined and monitored. Joel, a grizzled and by-the-numbers survivor, takes on jobs as they come and doesn’t look back. But when a certain job goes south, he is entrusted to protect and transport Ellie, a 14-year old teenager, to a group of rebels for unknown reasons. While the various narrative twists and turns bring more depth to what is really going on involving Ellie, Naughty Dog went to great lengths to ensure such details do not occlude the primary story they meant to tell. The Last of Us is, first and foremost, about Ellie and Joel. Pitted against a world of lawless marauders and ravenous infected, their journey is as much emotional as it is physical. Drawing several comparisons to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the pair will face the harshness of reality in the darkest of ways. And yet, in such times of darkness and sadness, they also remember parts of humanity they had both given up on.

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Rooted in the survival-horror genre, The Last of Us is just that–surviving the horrors of a world that has long since fallen apart. Switching frequently between fighting humans and the infected, you quickly adopt two styles of play that take up most of the game. While there are portions of the story that make combat and gun play the best means of moving forward, the key of The Last of Us is patience. Huddled in dark corners and hiding behind debris, Joel’s best offense is knowing when and when not to strike. When faced with several infected creatures and only six bullets at hand, you quickly start to understand the kind of desperation Naughty Dog wanted you to experience. Although crafty and quick-thinking, Joel is no hero, and he can die very easily and very quickly.

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Joel is no stranger to death, however, and knows how to deal it out. It is important to understand that although The Last of Us is very graphic and violent, it does not abuse the use of it. Having become accustomed to a world of “him or me”, Joel’s kill animations are graphic, but necessarily so. Unlike other stealth games that strive for the silent kill, Naughty Dog ensured The Last of Us was up-front about what they wanted you to see; strangling someone is not quick and silent, but long, guttural and awkward. Makeshift weapons you craft do not last long, but leave a very fatal mark on whomever you use it on. No matter the victim or fashion, choosing to kill is, in this game, brutal and hard to watch. It is in this manner that I applaud Naughty Dog for handling violent scenes in such a mature way, opting to contextualize the necessity for such violence instead of making it so gratuitous.

On a visual level, The Last of Us might be the PS3′s swan song. Whether it’s wading through a jungle of metal and vegetation or slowly creeping down a pitch-black corridor lit only by your flashlight, nearly every detail of the world is beautiful and lush. Even more impressive are the characters themselves, who convey some of the most impressive emotional performances I have ever seen. Over the course of the journey, Joel and Ellie not only experience a gamut of emotions, but they express them convincingly with amazing facial fluidity and expression and tight script writing. By the game’s conclusion, you will firmly believe these people are quite human.

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In the oft moment you are not hiding from your enemies, much of your time is spent searching the nooks and crannies for ingredients used to fashion supplies. Certain items such as pills or tools are used for upgrades such as health or weapon improvements, but the majority are shared between more common concoctions that are equally important. Because of their rarity (at least in the harder difficulties), you will still be making tough choices about which supply might be more important in the near future. Do you use your last bottle of alcohol to create a med kit, or a molotov cocktail? You’ll find yourself weighing this decision more times than you can count, and it’s yet another welcome detail that helps cement the feelings of desperation and survival.

The game’s greatest flaw, like most games that incorporate an AI partner, comes in Ellie. While her vocal performance is spot on and her interactions with Joel are organic and believable, her actions during stealth are not. Since the enemy is programmed to react to your movements and actions, Ellie is left to her own devices as she follows you. While she is competent for the most part, there are times when you will see her move and act right in front of enemies that would normally see or hear her. Seeing her get away with such liberal acts of movement take you out of the intended experience only for a moment, but the occurrence is far too frequent to not be noticed. It is a minor grievance compared to the rest of the game, but it is still worth noting.

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The game’s climax is a melting pot of questions and emotions, neither of which are less important than the other. Naughty Dog was very deliberate to leave us with such feelings because it is the very philosophy that The Last of Us wanted to follow. In times of desperation, anger and uncertainty, the most human reaction is precisely how Joel and Ellie have acted the entire story. Do we rely on our instinct to survive, or do we open ourselves up to the potential pitfalls of trust and reliability? After such a journey that couldn’t be possible without trusting another, how do we grapple with our humanity in a world that is without it? These questions, and many others, remain the crux of the story that The Last of Us wanted to tell, and I don’t think there is a better example of it.

See you in the next level,

Gray