L.A. Noire & The Battle Between DLC & Pacing

It is weird to think that L.A. Noire came out eight years ago, back in the good old days of 2011. And being in development of some kind for nearly six years, we are fast coming up on fifteen years of L.A. Noire being a “thing”.

And in the past few years the game got somewhat of a new lease on life, being released for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch in November 2017, with enhancements to accommodate for new features such as the touch screen on the Switch and VR abilities for the PlayStation.

With these new enhancements came the “complete” story, compiling all of the cases that had previously been DLC (short for downloadable content) into the experience. For me however, these “new” cases being placed into the story has made the game feel a little disjointed.

La Noire VR
L.A. Noire VR allowed to players to step into the (gum)shoes of Cole Phelps in specific cases made for the system. (Source: dualshockers.com)

Let’s have a look at the cases, because while I love nearly all of them, the fact that they are DLC makes me view them differently. And part of it is to do with pacing.

This isn’t me railing against the fact that these are cases that should have been in the original retail experience. The game is already 20+ hours long, five cases of varying length is hardly going to up the playtime.

I can also understand why DLC cases work for something like L.A. Noire. L.A. Noire is designed almost like a TV serial, with each new case being a new episode. It will have scenarios that link between cases such as the Black Dahlia in Homicide and morphine in Vice, but each case is mainly self-contained. And yet these new cases seem to alter the balance of the pacing of the game.

From Snails To Speeding Bullets – A Quick Look At Pacing

Pacing is something that never gets much attention when it comes to games. Similar to editing in film, it is a phenomenon that you don’t know is there until it is not there. For example, pacing is only really brought up when it is a detriment to the game, with many walking simulators or opening hours in open-world games being criticised for their slower pace.

Open-world games are probably the hardest to do; how can you have a character-driven story if the player can decide to head off and not focus on the narrative (see Bethesda’s games). Pacing can also affect a sense of time, feeling like scenes are shunted together. I felt this in AC: Unity, where a moody European white boy became an Assassin and then due to the breakneck presentation felt like he attained the rank of Grand Master within a week.

Talking of assassins, AC: Syndicate’s pacing is better than many of the previous games by virtue of one screen; the shot of Big Ben ticking by. Any time the game wanted to move forward in time the screen cut to sped-up footage of Big Ben cycling through the hours. That at least gives us a sense of progression rather than the Frye Twins seemingly dissolving the criminal underbelly of London over a weekend.

AC Syndicate Big Ben
This one aspect of presentation helped Syndicate’s narrative feel more expansive than previous entries. (Source: steamcommunity.com)

I’ll hold up Spec Ops: The Line as a game with excellent pace and flow. While the twist doesn’t fully work as it shows new material, the pacing goes a long way to help play up the insanity that fuels the twist. Each new chapter from the very start to the very end, starts slow before methodically upping the action, drawing you into the experience and mimicking Walker’s slow descent into brutality and madness. You have your peaks and troughs, intense action with stealth.

That’s why CoD4: Modern Warfare works well too. The game starts slow with the SAS in Russia before becoming an all out action game with the Americans in the Middle East. Once the nuke has gone off, the SAS take over the main action, but the game starts with a distinct “medium” in between stealth and OTT action in the level “Safehouse”.

This works wonders because after the two stealth levels of “All Ghillied Up” and “One Shot, One Kill”, we have the level “Heat”, which uses the same map as “Safehouse”, but has the action on full. CoD4 gives us the stealth to get to grips with the level before ramping up the action. This is seen in the micro in levels such as “Crew Expendable” and “Sins Of The Father”, as well as the macro in how the acts are structured and levels follow on from each other.

CoD4 Crew Expendable
CoD4 starts with stealth to ease players into the controls, before slowly ratcheting up the action. (Source: nerdreactor.com)

Call Of Duty: World At War has some interesting pacing issues. Since the campaign of WaW can be played co-op, certain levels had to be left out. This means that the excellent stealth level “Vendetta” is cut. The following level, “Their Land, Their Blood” works because of the juxtaposition and slower pace of the preceding level, going from being on the back foot to charging at the enemy.

Going straight from “Hard Landing” to “Their Land, Their Blood” feels exhausting. It could be argued that the change of character may add to this jarring tone, however we hardly get any character introduction in “Vendetta” or even at the start of the game, so it feels more to do with the unrelenting gameplay.

This is the same reason I had real trouble with the original Black Ops. My favourite level of the game is “U.S.D.D.”, a level without any shooting and is one big cutscene. I love it because it allows a break after the all-out action of “Operation 40” and “Vorkuta”. And while there are stealth sections in Black Ops, they aren’t mandatory or last an entire level (such as WMD and Rebirth). This can get instill a sense of weariness when explosions end each level.

Now you see how pacing can make a good game turn into a great game. So, back to L.A. Noire.

Back On The Beat – L.A. Noire & Pacing

As previously mentioned, while nearly each case in L.A. Noire is its own story, some cases add together to form a larger picture. These mostly happen on the Vice desk. There is a running B story throughout the whole of L.A. Noire about gangster Mickey Cohen staging a heist of army surplus morphine, which the majority of the Vice desk is spent dealing with.

These cases then lead into the Arson desk that has its own mini arc. Another B story is about property land developers in a building scam, pretending to build homes for returning GIs before burning them and then collecting the insurance. But the man they have sent to burn down the houses (a mentally scarred flamethrower from WW2) has started targeting any and all houses rather than the ones they told him to.

The Arson desk follows this plotline all the way to the conclusion, with every case about the arson attacks and the development fund.

The DLC cases slide into each desk and end the steady pace that the game has because of these running B stories.

LA Noire Gunfight
The DLC is at least thrilling, with several action sequences and memorable investigations. (Source: geforce.com).

Traffic seems to get away pretty unscathed. Each case of Traffic features new suspects and scenarios and has no overarching narrative like the other desks. The new case, A Slip Of The Tongue, slots easily into Traffic, following the same one-off pattern as the previous crimes.

In Vice, things start to get a little tricky. In the original edition, there are only three cases (the same as Traffic), compared to six of Homicide and five of Arson.

The new cases add more variety meaning the Vice desk isn’t all about morphine. One of the new cases, The Naked City, also sets up that Det. Bekowsky, the partner on the Traffic Desk, eventually moved up to Homicide and was partnered with Rusty Galloway, the partner from the Homicide desk.

It is strange how this case was cut, especially as it introduces Bekowksy as part of Homicide before he appears in the final Vice case, Manifest Destiny.

Another reason why it is strange that these cases were cut is that they actually foreshadow Cole’s later infidelity. During driving sequences, Roy mentions Cole’s regular visits to the Blue Room and Bekowsky asking what Cole looks for in a woman. But these lines should have been in the original experience to make that character turn actually feel plausible instead of bizarre.

Arson is the “worst” offender when it comes to pacing. I like the Nicholson Electroplating case and I think it is the best of the DLCs, but when looking at the game as a whole it feels out of place.

First, some background.

Elsa Lichtmann, jazz singer and mistress of lead character Cole Phelps, receives the life insurance payment of her friend, Lou Buchwalter.

Lou was working as carpenter on one of the doomed housing projects, but the timbre he was working on gave way and he fell to his death. The house fires that Cole has been investigating are on the land that the property developers want to build on.

After putting two and two together (the house fires are perpetrated by the developers so they can build shoddy houses), Cole gets threatened by his higher-ups and told to close his investigation.

To keep pressure on the situation outside of the police force, Cole enlists comrade-now-turned insurance investigator Jack Kelso to inspect Elsa’s friend’s death, thus exposing the racket. Jack’s cases play one after the other in the original experience (including the final level), but the DLC case Nicholson Electroplating slots in right before the final level.

LA Noire Nicholson
Nicholson Electroplating starts with a bang…and puts a stop to the Kelso-centric cases. (Source: dsogaming.com).

This completely upends the narrative, with a case that has no bearing on the story while said story is hurtling towards its conclusion.

But that is why they work perfectly as DLC.

Instead of just ANOTHER case in a long line of cases, the DLC is a reminder of that appealing central core of the game. Seeing these old friends again, Bekowsky, Rusty, Roy, and Biggs, and getting to do the old “crack the case” thing one last time (which could get tiring after having several in a row), it feels comfortable, safe even.

So while these new additions can feel out of place, seemingly halting the steady pace of the game, the episodic nature of L.A. Noire allows them to work as individual cases, unmoored to the extravagant length of the base game.

Remasters and definitive editions are becoming a bigger draw in the industry than ever before. Games like Dark Souls and Resident Evil 2 have been remade and changed aspects like bonfire warping and enemy introductions. So that is why we must remember and catalogue the original way that games were played and delivered.

The way L.A. Noire was originally published must be remembered for posterity, a testament to excellent story pacing within the art form, as well as the power in how a narrative can be structured.

Banner Photo Source: ign.com.

El Shaddai: Ascension Of The Metatron & Game Cinematography

I have been on a backlog binge recently. Games that I missed the first time around, I’ve been rooting out copies and giving them a try. A lot of these games are outside of my usual genres, but have something that brought it to my attention.

IL2-Sturmovik: Birds Of Prey is a WW2 flight simulation that subtly evokes themes common in Russian literature and film. Enslaved: Odyssey To The West is a western adaptation of an 16th century Chinese text with motion-capture courtesy of Andy Serkis and was written by Alex Garland (of Ex Machina fame). And Shadows Of The Damned is a puerile and phallus-infused grindhouse romp through hell from legendary creators Suda 51, Shinji Mikami and Akira Yamaoka.

Following the running theme of games with confusingly long titles, recently I’ve been playing El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. The reason I became interested in playing El Shaddai is that it is an adaptation of the Book of Enoch, an ancient Jewish text not part of biblical canon and that it was infused with anime visuals. It sounds like an fun prospect.

El-Shaddai Waterfall
From the very first level, El Shaddai is a visually-arresting game. (Source: thesixthaxis.com).

El Shaddai is an odd duck.

You play Enoch, a human and scribe of Heaven, sent down to Earth to capture the souls of fallen angels. If he fails then the archangels have permission to send a great flood and wipe away the world.

Aiding Enoch is the archangel Lucifel who follows along and calls God on his mobile phone to report Enoch’s progress. Oh, and he wears skinny black jeans and snaps his fingers with the frequency of a Broadway actor on opening night (he only snaps with his left hand, which is a neat touch given his name). He also rides a motorbike and constantly breaks the fourth wall.

An example of the latter is where he at one point rewinds time, but ends up going so far back that you get booted to the main menu and have to hit the start button again. Another is when he tells the PLAYER, “You can clear this in seven hours, if you are good enough,” (34:00) which is literally just under the standard play-length of the game

Enoch must make his way through the different realms to take on the fallen angels one at a time. Each realm has a different art style; the first is a cave rave with chanting hordes and psychedelic light shows. Another is filled with soft colours and fluffy clouds. Another seems to be influenced by Tron and another is a 70s glam rock concert complete with back-up dancers.

It gets even weirder when you finish some levels by being eaten whole by a Nephilim; human/angel crossbreeds that roam the land eating each other and destroying the landscape. I would call it Gilliam-esque but even Monty Python wouldn’t think up anything this brazenly ludicrous.

el-shaddai Nephelim
From Sariel’s realm in El Shaddai, featuring an art style similar to Studio Ghibli. (Source: mcmbuzz.com).

It is full of themes to deconstruct; the presence of religion, the nature of silent protagonists, or directionless combat. But let’s get away from those heavy topics and onto something a bit more artistic.

Today I want to talk about one of the aspects that made El Shaddai stand out from the other games I’m playing; the use of the camera.

Double Exposure – The Use Of Camera Techniques in El Shaddai

El Shaddai doesn’t give the player any control over the camera. This usually proves a detriment to player engagement, leading to annoyance at only having a certain degree of gameplay to view. But the limitations give El Shaddai a unique look, one that couldn’t be found in traditional camera controls.

el-shaddai-veil
The entrance to the Fallen Angels’ Tower, always in the player’s view, no matter which way they move. (Source: lifeculturegeekstuff.wordpress.com)

El Shaddai is a mix of genres, mainly hack’n’slash and a third person platformer. Enoch runs through the realms, navigating pathways and pitfalls, as well as taking on hordes of demons, martyrs and, erm…heavily armoured giant pigs.

Like I said, odd duck.

Most hack’n’slashers like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta have a camera that hangs back; with so many enemies on screen you need to keep track of all of them. If the camera is too close to the action then it can cause problems, with the player getting tagged by enemies they were unaware of.

El Shaddai during its hack’n’slash sections draws the camera back until the characters are incredibly small in the frame. While being in-keeping with the genre, it also lends thematic resonance. Enoch is a human, not a omni-competent world-shattering entity like the archangels are shown to be (that is when they aren’t being portrayed as talking swans, which is a good 97% of the game. Yeah, have you gathered how weird this game is yet?) The enemies and the landscape dwarf Enoch, as he fights against a world that seems too big to comprehend.

El Shaddai Cave
The Fallen Angels’ Tower stretches onwards and upwards, changing art styles and gameplay on a consistent basis. (Source: newgamenetwork.com).

The hack’n’slash elements are structured in El Shaddai. As Enoch runs along he will come across a circular arena and the enemies will enter into combat. Nearly every encounter works like this, which is understandable. The arena gives the player a safe space to fight without having the fear of falling off the map.

In the boss battles with some the fallen angels such as Sariel, Azazel, and Armaros, they shape-shift into other forms (Sariel becomes a giant bat, Azazel becomes a Locust-like insect and Armaros transforms into some weird bug/whale/dinosaur/Sith lord hybrid, that is as simple as I can describe it).

When these forms appear, the camera shifts downwards, artificially making their scale appear larger. During boss fights, the fallen angel is the only enemy, allowing the fixed camera to not be intrusive. As soon as regular enemies appear, the camera moves higher to accommodate the player.

El Shaddai Sariel
“So long as I can protect this world, I don’t need to be human.” As Sariel takes to the skies, the camera moves closer to the ground, making Enoch seem smaller. (Source: trueachievements.com).

Once these combat sections are done, the game turns back into a platformer and changes its camera subtly. It moves more into a birds-eye view to aid jumping, especially since 3D platforming doesn’t have the precision of its 2D cousin. It is a light touch and is a smooth transition, accommodating for the dual gameplay but without large changes in gameplay or design.

A lot of the time during gameplay the player is running on a singular path, making their way through the expansive locations. The gameplay is predominately 3D, but sometimes the camera becomes stationery, morphing gameplay from 3D to 2D and back again. It creates these beautiful sequences that feel epic in their scope despite how limited they are.

Certain sections of gameplay will only be 2D, but these are usually for narrative reasons. The first section has us admiring a stained-glass window of the archangels. As the silhouette of Enoch climbs upwards, we are treated to beautiful renditions of Michael, Uriel, Raphael and Gabriel (who in this interpretation uses female pronouns, an interesting change from biblical tradition). This sequence is used to set up these characters and to inform the player that they are by your side during the adventure.

El Shaddai Window
The depiction of the angel Gabriel in the Fallen Angels’ Tower. “This atmosphere of wisdom truly befits her.” (Source: neogaf.com).

The second time the game uses this technique is after Enoch wakes from his Indecision after he journeyed into Purgatory. Once his soul is purified, Enoch awakens and goes to find Nanna, a little girl who helped guide him through a few of the realms. During his time out, she has grown up and has led a revolt against the fallen angels.

As Enoch runs along the 2D plain, the background shows a silhouette of Nanna fighting the fallen angel Ezekiel, the latter besting the former. The sequence is to illustrate how long Enoch’s journey has been and his desperation to help Nanna against the Fallen Angels.

During these cases, El Shaddai almost feels like an endless runner, focussing more on jumping pitfalls than actually changing direction or speed. It also brings you into the run at a pace, which I love. In certain games they’ll be a “run away from the bad guys/object” segment. Games like UnchartedTomb Raider, Crash Bandicoot, even L.A. Noire has a sequence like this.

El Shaddai has these running sequences, but the first few seconds of gameplay already have Enoch running away. It helps guide the player back into the action without losing a sense of flow.

el shaddai ezekiel
Enoch making his way into Ezekiel’s realm. As he reaches the bottom of the stairs the camera moves upward to facilitate gameplay. (Source: paste magazine.com).

Despite the camera moving all around the environment,  El Shaddai always highlights which way you have to go to progress the story through. The camera guides your vision, unobtrusively showing us the way without a mere hint of an objective marker. There are only a few times El Shaddai breaks this rule, but all in service of gameplay.

The first time I realised it was just before Enoch heads into Ezekiel’s realm, the second of the Fallen Angels (9:04). Enoch is heading down a corridor before it is revealed that it is opening up. There is no floor beyond the corridor, only empty space.

A faint outline can be seen outside, but nothing concrete. In essence you are taking a leap of faith. When you do take the leap, the screen blooms and a staircase is revealed where the faint outline was. Much like the walkway at the end of Indiana Jones 3, the path is only fully visible once the player makes that leap and is both stylistically and thematically fitting. The game does this a few times during important moments, where the art will slightly obscure the path to allow those moments of revelation to the player.

Conclusion

Many games try and create a world, but only a few capture an excellent sense of location and space in their camera movements. It is something that Japanese games work well with. Metal Gear Solid, Silent HillResident Evil, Shadow Of The Colossus, 3D Mario games, they are very precise on shot placement and movement in gameplay.

That is not to say Western developers don’t also use these techniques. Gone Home’s use of first-person camera and lighting definitely created a sense of foreboding during gameplay. The original Alone In The Dark is credited with inspiring Silent Hill‘s and Resident Evil‘s camera techniques. Quantic Dream does everything in their power to create cinematic shots in their games. And Ready At Dawn mimicked lens focus and aspect ratios for their launch title The Order: 1886.

Another example may be Uncharted 3 during its chases sequences.

Looking at this sequence in Yemen, the camera moves with the action; zooming, focussing, and wiping to aid player progression.

When main character Nathan Drake and bad guy Talbot are inside, the camera zooms closer in, when they are running on the rooftops the camera heads into more of a birds-eye view to help jumping. My favourite moments are in changes of direction.

Similar to how film editors “wipe” the screen during long takes, Uncharted 3 will make these small adjustments to aid players, such as Nathan banging into walls or being hit by a door (4:23, 5:30, and 6:56).

Control is taken away for a second, the camera shifts where it needs to be (the new direction the player is moving) and then control is given back. It is a smooth transition yet it is distinct; players know that when the camera resets to a certain distance, they are back in control.

Cinematography is alive and well in games and when thought is given to how it is used, a slight camera change can make an intense action set piece more thrilling and enjoyable than it would with a bog-standard third-person view.

An example might be the Skate series. The major skating series, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, uses a standard camera to aid traversal and give the player a sense of spatial awareness when moving. Skate on the other hand brings the camera lower, almost touching the ground. This is to mimic home-made skating videos, and somehow makes Skate feel richer, even if the camera can sometimes obscure geography.

With games being able to perform angles and shots that are almost impossible in film, it is always interesting to see where the format will go.

Photo Source: polygon.com

How Animations Help Build Character

A sense of character is one of the things that I look for when playing a game. I play games mainly for the story and a large part of that is the character. If we can’t get emotionally attached to the protagonist, it can create a disconnect between them and us. I have stopped playing games because I can’t see or connect to the main character’s motivation.

Games are an interesting medium to view characters due to player input. Can a character be labeled a badass secret agent if he has trouble navigating tables? In this feature I wanted to zone in on an aspect that can highlight character traits, that being the animation.

Small animations can help fill a character backstory or tell us something about their personality, usually without an ounce of dialogue. To modify an old saying, “A picture paints a thousands words. And an animation at 60FPS conveys a book.”

The inspiration behind this post was the animation of Doom Guy from 2016’s Doom. His animations are intentional. The way he nonchalantly pushes computer screens with vital intelligence on them aside or smashes scientifically important power sources in direct violation of orders shows so much of his personality, all without ever seeing his reactions (here is a video by critic Jim Sterling highlighting these points).

An example of an accidental animation could be how Ned Luke, the actor who plays Michael De Santa in Grand Theft Auto V, moves during gameplay. Luke is deaf in his right ear and in cutscenes he will move to his right if someone is talking to him. This can be seen as a happy accident as it fills in Michael’s backstory. Being partially deaf could be an indication of him being close to guns for a portion of his life (for example, the entire opening of GTAV). Michael was also meant to be slower than the other playable characters Trevor and Franklin, so Luke put on weight for his motion-capture.

So here are five animations that give us a peek at a character’s personality. These aren’t in any ranking, but just five from my some of my favorite games.

  1. Cortez’s Gun Spin in Timesplitters: Future Perfect

When a character picked up a gun in the first two Timesplitters games it would simply pop up on screen. That changed in the third entry, where each weapon had an equipping animation.

The animation I want to highlight is in the third game, at the very start of the second level. Main character Sgt. Cortez is sent back in time to 1924 and teams up with WW1 veteran Captain Ash to retake a Scottish island from some vaguely foreign types. After landing on the shores of the island, Ash gives Cortez a Luger and the duo head off.

When control is given back to the player, Cortez equips the gun and spins it like a Wild West gunslinger.

We’ve seen in the previous mission that Cortez is kind of a super soldier; crashing his spaceship in the middle of a battle zone, holding off Splitter charges singlehandedly, and sniping enemies from impossible distances. But throughout the story he shows a goofier side; fan-boying over his future self, dancing with the R110 war robot, and constantly saying his catchphrase, “Time to Split!” which everyone but him thinks is incredibly uncool.

The gun spin is a distillation of these two traits. It shows his “cool factor” off by being able to pull off the move, but also shows his incredible dorky side that he would do it, instead of just lock and load the gun like very other pistol in the game.

(Start at 2:11)

  1. Haytham Moving Through The Audience in Assassin’s Creed 3

We start AC3 playing as Templar Agent Haytham Kenway on a mission in the Theatre Royal in London. He has to assassinate a British Assassin and steal the First Civilization Medallion that said target keeps around his neck.

It is a great opening to the game and gets us invested in the character. Haytham sits down in the auditorium with Templar Master Reginald Birch as they talk about the performance that night. During his dialogue with Birch, as well as with the Assassin Miko, Haytham displays a veneer of civility, a quintessential Britishness.

After receiving his mission to kill Miko, Haytham starts to make his way past the audience in the auditorium row. As he goes, Haytham whispers out apologies, “A thousand pardons…my apologies…”

One audience member decides to stand up to allow Haytham to pass by. WHAM! Haytham roughly pushes the man back down into his seat and continues moving through the audience. It is such a small animation, but the ferocity and power behind the gesture shows there is much more behind the warm front that Haytham puts on when speaking.

(Start at 2:00)

  1. The Scarecrow’s Running Animation in Lego Batman: The Videogame

The great thing about the Lego games in their infancy is they had to communicate plot points entirely through gestures. While I’m not bashing the later games in the series, it was hilarious to see them riff on Indiana Jones and Star Wars in the vein of Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy (especially in Episodes IV-VI, with scenes like this 3:54-4:25).

When creating the first Lego Batman game, the folks over at Travellers Tales created their own plots. These stories made allusions to the films, television shows, and comics, but were mainly their own thing. While they have the building blocks (aha!) of the characters, they need to transpose them to the Lego world. So let’s look at Scarecrow.

The major factor in Scarecrow’s run is his arms. When Batman runs, his arms pump up and down to indicate his strength and stamina. When Poison Ivy runs, her arms sway, demonstrating a delicate side. When Scarecrow runs, he holds his arms out in front of him, as if he were a frightening monster chasing someone.

His shoulders bunch up as he runs and there is a definite swing to his movements. The former is indicative of his desire to reach forward and catch whoever he may be chasing, the latter shows that he having fun and delighted that he is chasing some poor, frightened citizen.

Scarecrow doesn’t have a single line of dialogue in the entire game, yet he manages to portray a multi-faceted personality through his over-acted run.

(Start at 3:34)

  1. Larson Conway in Tomb Raider: Anniversary

Switching up the structure here, as this is an enemy rather than a playable character. Yet the animations portray a very layered individual.

We can tell from the start of TR: Anniversary that heroine Lara Croft and anti-hero Larson Conway know each other. The two are on first name terms and have some flirtatious banter (1:34). This banter is important because it feeds into Larson’s later fight animations.

When the two square up against each other, Larson declares he “…prefers a more hands-on approach.” He leaps at Lara and she fends him off using her fists. As Lara continues to best him, Larson becomes more irate until he finally pulls out his gun. The fight takes place during a quick time event and Larson only draws his gun on the final button press.

During another quick time event involving all of the scheming bad guys, Larson doesn’t shoot at Lara, instead trying to strike her with his gun (18:27).

Designer Toby Gard revealed in the developer commentary that Larson has a soft spot for Lara (56:13). You can see this in the animation. He never tries to kill her, instead going for non-lethal attacks and only pulling out a gun when she does the same to him. When she flees during the aforementioned quick time event, he intentionally pushes away other bad guys and aims his shot wayward (18:42).

They are small tweaks but create a character that isn’t a straight-up bad guy, which gives his death at Lara’s hands later in the game a sense of pathos.

  1. Captain Walker’s Changing Animations in Spec Ops: The Line

I love Spec Ops: The Line partly because it is a great deconstruction of the art form as well as being a fun “tactical” shooter.

I’ve talked about how the visual design of Walker changes through the course of the narrative with his design becoming less and less human with each important moment within the story. But this decline is also featured in the audio clips and the animations.

At the start Walker and his team are professional; knocking people unconscious with either the butt of their rifle or with a swift punch/karate chop. But as Walker’s mind slowly descends into insanity, his animations become more violent.

His rifle strikes become longer and more sadistic. He jumps on fallen enemies and gouges at their eyes with his fingernails. He starts breaking necks with ferocity but also indifference, doing so without a second’s hesitation. And when he has finally snapped, Walker drops all pretence of professionalism and starts executing unarmed soldiers with a gunshot to the head.

The cool thing is that most of these are hidden due to player choice. While the player will have to take on close range enemies it is entirely possible that a player could shoot them and not have to engage in hand-to-hand combat. The developers could have just had one or two repeated animations, but decided to have a variety with the possibility that a player would never see their hard work.

Despite the optional aspect, there is one “mandatory” execution in the twelfth chapter (5:28). This helps show the descent into primitive violence without taking control away from the player. In the sequence, Walker ziplines between buildings and lands on a soldier. While it is possible to shoot him, the “execute” button flashes up. If the player chooses execute then Walker goes crazy, smashing the soldier’s head in with his rifle, much to the shock of his sidekicks Adams and Lugo.

And just like the character design and voice barks, the change in animation is seamless. This slow but steady change makes the game that much richer and expresses Walker’s character excellently.

(Start at 3:13)

Conclusion

There are a series of smaller animations that are also great examples of character backstory. Silent Hill 2 is a great example of a variety of animations. The main character James Sunderland has the habit of looking down when people are talking to him, indicative of a feeling of shame or embarrassment. He also has the habit of touching his head when remembering, as pointed out by the YouTube channel The Gaming Muse; I’ll let them explain the reason behind the animation.

Silent Hill 2’s creature animations are also fascinating. Art Director Masahiro Ito said his, “…basic idea for creating the monsters…was to give them a human aspect…then I proceeded to undermine this human aspect.” (16:24). He based the movements on, “…drunk people or the tentative walk of a young child.” (17:19). This is reflective of the idea of the “Unheimlich”, a Freudian concept of something being both familiar and unknown, and is used constantly in horror games and films to create a sense of unease.

The recent Splinter Cell games also have some small animations that lent to the character. In the fifth entry, Conviction, secret agent Sam Fisher has gone rogue, trying to find his daughter’s killer. His hand-to-hand animations are incredibly violent, using pianos, urinals, and even flag poles to interrogate enemies. Much like Walker in Spec Ops, this shows how far the former spy has fallen, but also shows how far he would go to find out what happened to his family.

Another small set of animations that caught my eye were the idle animations of Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. Part of the appeal of MUA is creating your own four-person squad of heroes from Marvel Comics. When you choose one from the Heroes Gallery, the hero has a ‘move’. Iron Man boots up his suit, Captain America salutes, Human Torch fixes his hair, Luke Cage cracks his knuckles, and Spiderman crouches, it goes on and on. Each tiny move tells us all we need to know to get a general idea on the character without learning their backstory.

Talking about how animations feed into characters is a simple idea and I’m definitely not the first to talk about it. I just find it fascinating that entire characters can be found in the smallest movements. That we can find meaning in a wave of a hand, the twinge of a smile, or the placement of a foot.

 

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Driver (1999)…Two Decades Later

Introduction

Games are an outlet for our sometimes drab and dreary lives. The stories and locations that video games transport us to can give us a taste of a life different from ours.

Being able to travel across the entirety of the USA in a muscle car, keeping the gas pedal to the tarmac, while an army of pursuing police cars grows in your rear-view mirror is something that I can’t claim to have done in real life. But for nearly twenty years I’ve been doing it in several games. One stands out however, for being exactly twenty years old in 2019. That game is Driver.

And as it has been two decades since the original entry was released, I thought a deconstruction was due. Does Driver still hold up?

Reflections In The Car Mirror – A Look Back At Driver

Part I: First Gear – Pre-Production

During the late 90s, driving games had been on a string of hits. Every style was catered for; Gran Turismo was simulation, Need For Speed brought underground drag racing, and SF: Rush brought arcade physics and gameplay to home consoles.

During the latter half of the decade, two British teams were working on games with a heavy emphasis on driving, both with a distinctly criminal tone to them. One was DMA Design, who released crime simulator Grand Theft Auto in 1997. With the ability to drive and steal motor vehicles and partake in joyriding and hit-and-runs, the game was blasted by moral guardians and even debated in the House of Lords to be refused classification.

The other game, by Newcastle-based Reflections Interactive also had shades of reckless driving, but had a more cinematic angle to its freewheeling antics rather than the psychotic gameplay of GTA. Reflections were a well-known studio with several successes under their belt including Shadow Of The Beast and Destruction Derby. The latter game and its sequel were pioneers of 3D driving and in Reflections own words were, “Hailed as a significant step forward…” (1999, para. 5), with both games selling over a million copies each.

With the release of Grand Theft Auto, Reflections saw an opportunity. One of the drawbacks of the GTA series in its infancy was the top-down camera, limiting the action to the 2D plain. The team at Reflections had a thought; could the open-world of GTA be married to the 3D design and driving mechanics of Destruction Derby?

Reflections co-founder Martin Edmondson was a fan of car chase films, stating in an interview with gamesindustry.biz that,

“…one of the first movies I remember going to see at the cinema…was Walter Hill’s The Driver. And then any other car chase film that came along, I was first in line to go and see it.” (2011, Meer).

Edmondson was passionate about the idea and designed Driver to be a reflection (aha!) of his personal love of car chase movies. In the same interview, Edmondson highlighted that was the feeling that the team was aiming for,

“There are plenty of driving games and racing games, but something that really nails or attempts to nail the car chase environment, there really isn’t anything out there. I’m talking about the movie car chase style, not a videogame car chase.” (2011, Meer).

So the team got to work on developing a new title. The game would evoke the feel of the classic car chase films of the 60s and 70s while marrying it to the 3D work of their previous titles and the open-world aspect that was taking the industry by storm.

According to then Project Manager Gareth Edmondson (brother of Martin) it was a tough production cycle as,

“…we were reinventing gameplay technology in many new ways. It was the first game to; tackle the free-roaming city environment; re-create an entirely new vehicle-destruction system, and develop an entirely new in-game AI system.” (Edmondson, 2006, para. 3).

But all that hard worked paid off. Two and half years after the release of Grant Theft AutoDriver released to the public on PC and PSOne.

the driver (1976)
Reflections took many inspirations from car chase films of the 70s, with The Driver (1976) sharing many aspects of presentation. (Source: forum.blu-ray.com).

Part II: Five Wheels & An Engine – Controls and Gameplay

It is interesting that if you updated Driver’s graphics it could stand toe-to-toe with any open-world game with driving segments.

While the controls have some kinks (Triangle as handbrake is always a little hard to perform as it is further away than X, the accelerate button) it is a solid basis and is intuitive enough that after a few missions you have mastered it. This was Reflections intention, with the original website for Driver stating, “[Our] titles can be picked up and played instantly by a novice yet provide a tough enough challenge for experienced players.” (1999, para. 12).

X is accelerate, Square is brake/reverse, Triangle is handbrake, L2/R2 are camera controls, and the directional arrows or analog stick are for control, all pretty standard stuff. But Driver has a few unique tricks under its bonnet.

Circle is burnout, which spins your wheels to build up speed. R1 is a horn, seemingly to get cars in front of you to move lanes, although on my playthrough I didn’t see a notable difference of cars getting out of the way. But the one new button that I haven’t seen anywhere else is L1, which locks your wheels to whatever side you press the directional arrows or stick. This button is integral to many of the evasive and film-worthy moves that you can pull off such as drifting and the beautiful 180 Reverse. It is also needed as most of the cars in the game have a habit to understeer, so having a button that can flick the back wheels out helps in certain cornering situations.

And that is pretty much it.

The player car has two bars at the top of the screen, one for “Damage” and the other for “Felony”. Damage is straightforward. Every time your prang your car the bar fills up until the car is busted and you fail whatever mission you were playing.

Felony applies to any laws broken in front of a police vehicle. Burnouts, running red lights, crashing into other vehicles, being a public menace, and going over the speed limit (the latter is only available in the PC version) in view of a police officer will start to fill up your Felony bar. Luckily you can’t kill any pedestrians when driving as each one seems to be related to The Flash and can zip out of the way a second before you flatten them. It is a nice addition after the wanton rampages of Grand Theft Auto. 

With more infractions the Felony bar continues to fill and more police pile in, chasing you and setting up roadblocks. They hunt you down with the ruthlessness of a tiger but the intelligence of a goldfish. With some chases having upwards of ten police cars, their AI is neutered, making them come at you like the Keystone cops (hey, film reference!). Police cars will fly right by you, ping themselves off geometry, or Austin Powers themselves against lampposts and garbage bins.

The main obstacle you’ll come across in the game is the police. Or rival mobsters. Or the FBI. Or just anyone in a car that is gunning for you. Most rival cars are faster than yours, meaning that they can easily catch you and appear constantly in your back mirror. Luckily a lot of them are weaker than your car, meaning they will get damaged quicker and can be dispatched with relative ease. This is obviously done with the intention to keep the tension high while also being able to shake off your pursuers. The game does also have a selectable difficulty level, allowing players to decide their level of challenge.

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Flying around corners in Miami, the first city that Tanner visits in Driver. Notice the wheel lock to aid cornering. (Source: Sega-16.com).

Part III: Manual or Automatic? – Game Modes

Speaking of drifting and the 180 Reverse, before you start the narrative you have to pass “The Interview”. Vaguely reminiscent of a scene from 1976’s The Driver, the player must show off their driving skills to some prospective clients in a parking garage.

This mission is infamous for being incredibly difficult; with a sixty-second time limit and only allowing four “penalties” (crashing your car into objects), many players never actually saw the rest of the game because of this “tutorial”. There is a video on the main menu that tells the player the inputs to perform the moves, but isn’t exactly intuitive.

The narrative (known as Undercover) is the meat of the game. It features several types of driving missions; pursuit, evade, rampage, every single idea you could have about driving a car around a city, Driver probably has it. That does cause a problem in that a lot of the missions have the same objectives, just starting at different ends of the map. This repetitive nature does serve a purpose though, as will be highlighted in Part IV.

Alongside the narrative are a collection of mini games. There are time trials, checkpoint hits, pursuit, getaway, and survival (a variant horde mode where the police will never stop pursuing you). While many are similar to scenarios that the player will perform in Undercover, these are bite-size gameplay modes that provide their own unique fun.

There is also the Take A Ride mode. This is essentially a free roam option, with the player dropped into the map with no restrictions. I bet a lot of memories of this game are based in this mode, featuring high-octane chases and crazy collisions without a time limit to ruin a player’s fun. The player can visit any of the locations in free roam, but must unlock them in the narrative first, with the same being true for the mini games as well. The first two cities are open from the start though, allowing for reckless fun even if you can’t beat The Interview.

Alongside the game modes was a mechanic that elevated the cinematic design that Martin Edmondson wanted from Driver. At any time during the game the player can hit pause and enter the Director Mode. Said mode plays the entirety of the gameplay up to that moment and gives the player control over a slew of camera angles and techniques, letting players create exciting short movies of their car chases. It is quietly revolutionary and predates things like Machinima and sharing/streaming options that have become a major force within the industry.

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Director Mode allowed you to place cameras anywhere on the map to capture the action. (Source: playstation.com).

Part IV: Does Anyone Have A Map? – The Cities and Roads

Driver takes place across four cities from all corners of the United States. The cities are Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, as well as a small track in the desert (possibly outside Las Vegas?). There is also a secret city, Newcastle (where Reflections are based) that can be unlocked using cheats and also viewed on the credits. Each city has a day/night variation (except L.A.) and have several weather effects such as rain and snow.

The cities are all distinct from one another, with geography that helps set up the possibility of great movie-esque chases. Miami has wide-open roads for four lane drifts, San Francisco has steep hills to catch some air while speeding, L.A. has long straights that are perfect for police pursuits, and New York has tight-knit neighbourhoods that require excellent use of slaloming. Each city has its own car with unique traits, be it having greater speed or greater traction. While it could be annoying to not be able to choose your favourite car, limiting us to a single vehicle allows you to get to grips with its individual quirks.

Each city is rather small compared to today’s MAHOOSIVE open-worlds (due to obvious memory issues). I timed a drive from one side to the other and it took roughly two minutes to go from point to point on each map. But the smaller intimate design is an asset to the game. With a tight control over player movement, it means that the map gets imprinted on our memory, allowing for quicker recognition and a better game experience, where we know which roads link together rather than relying on the mini map. This is heightened by the fact that a lot of the back streets and alleys aren’t on the mini map. We have to use our minds and instincts rather than the handy GPS in the corner.

Just like using one car per location, the game inadvertently teaches us by dropping us in the deep end. Even just basic map knowledge and semi-competent car control allows for easier getaways and it is more rewarding when you remember which way gives you the best advantage because you know about it, rather than a shiny arrow telling you the way to go.

That’s why the greatest asset to the open-world is the Take A Ride function. Being able to free-roam the map at any point without a time limit holding you back helps novice drivers figure out the basics and lets experienced drivers search for shortcuts to aid in the missions.

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San Francisco during the daytime. While not exactly realistic, Driver managed to capture the feel of each location perfectly. (Source: listal.com).

Part V: Start From The Top  – The Narrative & Characters

Driver does have a narrative, but to call it threadbare is almost a compliment in how non-existent the storyline is.

Inspired by the same car chase films that gave birth to the gameplay, Driver follows NYPD officer John Tanner as he is drafted to go undercover. His target is the powerful and wealthy Castaldi crime family who has set up operations in Miami. Soon the story will take Tanner to different cities all across the USA in a bid to stop the Castaldi family from carrying out a series of high-profile assassinations, culminating in an attempt on the President Of The United States’ life.

Tanner’s backstory is that before he became a police officer he was a racing champion. This is referenced through the story with criminals recognising him from his track days as well as the Police Lieutenant who recruits Tanner saying he is the best driver on the force. That’s pretty much all we get on the man.

Tanner’s dialogue doesn’t give us any hints to his personality either. I would be surprised if his dialogue passes the twenty-word mark from start to finish. It seems the cars we drive have more personality than the protagonist. Sure, he fits the mould of a silent badass (like most great car chase films) and he shows his character through his driving, but it would be nice to learn a little more about the person we are playing as.

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A newspaper that can be seen in Tanner’s apartment. This is the most characterisation we get outside of gameplay. (Source: driver.wikia.com).

Tanner heads to Miami and sets himself up as a wheelman for hire. The game then puts you in Tanner’s spartan apartment, with nothing but a TV and VCR, a toolbox, and an answering machine. Tanner’s apartment is the main menu with each object as a category (VCR is save, toolbox is options, door is quit, and the car keys is Take A Ride). It is a fun concept and cool that the layout changes when the game changes city.

The answering machine is the level select. You listen through messages left by prospective clients in need of your particular driving skills and accept jobs. At the start there is only one message waiting for you, but as you rise through the ranks you will get calls from other criminals in need of your expertise.

It is a limited choice system with only a few branches, but broad enough that a player can have a different experience on a second playthrough. Some missions give a deeper intrigue into the conspiracy at the heart of the story and Driver even has multiple endings depending on the missions that you’ve taken, with distinctly “good” and “bad” endings. The answering machine also houses a few Easter eggs such as repeated wrong numbers.

The game is interspersed with cutscenes. The majority of these are used to set up missions or to help us switch cities. It is apparent that the team were mastering character models, as most walk ramrod straight, with still frames being used when characters are on phones. But there is a charm to it, an obvious want rather than a need. It would have been easy to have talking cars and buildings (much like the more recent Crash Time/Cobra 11 series), but the team went and built over half an hour of cutscenes with character models and camera angles that weren’t needed in the base game.

The voices are delightfully hammy, giving off that 70s grindhouse feel of amateur filmmakers and actors producing a film. The script also has inflections of films from the era, with smooth-talking hustlers, high-pitched squealers, and smoky-voiced police chiefs. These inflections can inadvertently make it hard to understand certain mission briefings, as characters are using 70s slang that hasn’t carried over to the modern day. But since most missions resort to driving fast, we are rarely stuck as what to do.

As mentioned in Part III, the gameplay doesn’t have many variations, only having a few unique missions due to non-standard cars or scenarios. These include levels such as chasing a cable car/yacht, protecting a shipment of guns in a pick-up truck, or escaping an assassination attempt with the President Of The United States. But the team knew that the missions and storyline weren’t the best. In a Developer Diary Interview with GameSpot during the development of Driver: Parallel Lines, original Project Manager Gareth Edmondson said,

“…we were ultimately disappointed in the storyline overall, and we believed the mission design to be weak because it didn’t support the story very well.” (Edmondson, 2006, para. 4).

That narrative may have been weak, but it served its purpose. It got us out into the world that Reflections had created and from there they could only go up. And despite the sometimes ropey presentation, there is definitely an attempt at cinematic flair to some shots.

Part VI: Into The Sunset – Legacy

Driver was a smash hit across all markets, quickly going Gold and Platinum. It is the 27th best-selling game on PSOne with over three million copies sold and the 42nd best-selling PC game between 2000 and 2006, with an estimate of close to four million copies.

Despite releasing at the tail end of the PSOne development cycle, the game was massive, spawning a sequel in 2000 named Driver 2: Back On The Streets/The Wheelman Is Back.

Reflections spent only fourteen months on the sequel (Edmondson, 2006, para.5) using the same tech but tweaking it to add more complex road structures and curved objects. The open-ended story was dropped for a more linear structure, with a stronger narrative throughout. The player could also get out of their car and hijack other vehicles around the city, although there was still no interaction besides cars.

Reflections pushed the aging console to its breaking point, trying to squeeze every ounce of processing power into Driver 2. This proved a detriment however with numerous bugs and framerate issues plaguing the entry.

Driver 2 was released just after the release of the PlayStation 2 in 2000. A year later, DMA Design, now renamed Rockstar North, released Grand Theft Auto 3 to the public.

Taking the open world that Driver had popularised, GTAIII took things even further, with out-of-car and shooting sections, allowing player to cause havoc and play at their own pace. GTA even started poking fun at Driver, with missions in both III (GTA Series Videos, 2009) and its sequel Vice City (SebyGaming, 2016) allowing players to kill an undercover cop/driver named Tanner. In the sequel, San Andreas, a rival gangster plays a game made by “Refractions” and says, “Tanner, you suck ass.” (GTA Series Videos, 2010).

driver_2_screenshot
Driver 2 allowed players to explore on-foot. Tanner’s odd running animation was highlighted and mocked in Grand Theft Auto III. (Source: thecheapferret.wordpress.com)

With GTA taking the spotlight, Reflections tried to step up their game. The third entry (stylised as Driv3r) tried to tell a sprawling crime tale with several cities, vehicles, and on-foot segments, but came up weak against Rockstar’s efforts. Driv3r was also mired in controversy before it launched, with exclusive access given in exchange for perfect review scores. Driver: Parallel Lines followed up in 2006, fixing many of Driv3r’s problems but feeling more and more like a Rockstar knock-off.

In late 2006, publisher Atari sold Reflections to Ubisoft. After developing a sequel to Parallel Lines, Driver 76,  which was released for the fledgling PSP, the series would go dormant for a few years.

It took until 2011 for the series, and protagonist John Tanner, to come back in Driver: San Francisco. With a huge city and a new mechanic called “Shift” allowing players to move seamlessly between cars (alleviating any on-foot gameplay), the series seemed to be revived. The notorious garage tutorial of Driver was even remade in San Francisco, unlocked when a player finds a DeLorean and reaches 88mph (ha, more film references!).

Since 2011, there have been a few rumours but no official moves on the Driver series, despite a few mobile and handheld games. San Francisco was a nice return to form and if it is sadly the last we see of the series, then it means it goes out on a high.

driver_san_francisco_screenshot_1
Driver San Francisco brought the series back to its roots and did an excellent job of capturing those movie-quality high speed chases. (Source: gamepur.com).

Part VII: Park it Right Here – Conclusion

Driver was one of the first games I remember playing as a child. I didn’t play the story at all, just Take A Ride. So when I decided to pick up the game twenty years after it was published, I was essentially doing a blind playthrough.

The graphics are obviously a sore point. The draw distance isn’t the best and the environments and cars are blocky boxes. You have to look at it when it came out. This was revolutionary design in 1999, giving the small sandbox genre a much-needed shot in the arm.

The story isn’t exactly presented well, but it does the job fine. As I said previously, it gets us into the cities and into the gameplay with little fanfare. It is kind of refreshing after playing games like Detroit: Become Human and The Pillars Of The Earth (both fantastic games in their own right) that Driver gets straight into gameplay without spending minutes at a time in cutscenes.

Controls are fine. It is a strange mix of sim and arcade, but they are easy to learn. Things like the L1 button were completely new to me and it became invaluable during my playthrough. Even Triangle became intuitive after a while. It caused problems when going back to open-world games on my PS4, as most controllers nowadays use the L2/R2 configuration for accelerate and brake. It led to moments where I would accidentally throw myself out of speeding cars because I mistakenly pressed Triangle or Square.

Driver is a curio, maybe one for driving enthusiasts or for those yearning for nostalgic days of the late 90s. It even became available on the PS Now online service for a short time for less than two quid.

And there is really nothing like it. I bought my copy after watching a slew of car chase films, notably Drive, which game critic Keith Stuart highlighted as a film taking from games, “…I do not believe that film would look the way it does if it wasn’t for Grand Theft Auto…” (Ikoc Voice, 2016).

Just like Martin Edmondson said, there isn’t a game that fully captures a real movie-esque chase scene. The only one that comes close is Driver.

And that means it deserves to be remembered and to be played.

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Battlefield V’s Campaign: A Follow-Up

In my last article I wrote about the opening of Battlefield V. I hadn’t completed the campaign at the time of publishing, just wanting a first snapshot of my feelings. I was a little unimpressed, feeling that BFV had lost the spark that BF1 had due to the latter’s setting and time period.

So with a hint more apprehension I booted up the narrative proper.

And damn, I was hooked. I had missed out on an excellent addition to the opening. So I needed to follow up.

I adore Battlefield V’s campaign and it fixes the small problems I had with Battlefield 1’s (also stellar) campaign. My fears of the War Stories not comparing to BF1 were completely unfounded. The dialogue, performance, and design are of the highest quality (DICE always makes things looks pretty), with each story having a different tone yet all to feeding into one another.

BFV continues where BF1 started (quite literally with the still that opens the game). It features the lesser-known stories filled with misfits and malcontents, the people usually not remembered in sanitised history books. I was particularly looking forward to story featuring the young female resistance fighter in Norway, echoing the story of the female Bedouin fighter from BF1.

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With throwing knives and hit-and-run tactics (courtesy of a handy set of skis), The Norway section of the game carves its own niche in WW2-set games. (Source: junkee.com)

It was nice that after the bombastic opening that the game settled back into a groove, allowing the player to approach how they wanted. It can be easy to guide the player through a linear story progression and keep up that cinematic edge (I love Remember Me), but having the player tackle each task how they want fits for a series like Battlefield (obviously gearing up for the multiplayer). Compared to the limited open-ended sections in BF1, nearly every story in BFV has a degree of player choice, allowing players to tackle objectives in any order.

While the gameplay is open, the story is a little more guided. The main issue I had with BF1 was the lack of narrative cohesion. Each story was self-contained and focused on a different aspect of the war. While getting to play the levels in any order is great for individual personalisation it means that you can’t effectively have a difficulty curve or sense of progression.

BFV now has that through line yet the story is still free form. You can play the story in any order, but if you play the game chronologically (as they are listed in the menu) starting with “Under No Flag” and ending with “The Last Tiger”, the game builds with each new step adding on from the last one.

“Under No Flag” starts as a stealth mission with an AI buddy and enemy squads far apart. “Nordlys” continues the stealth aspect but with you alone and with enemies in closer proximity to each other. “Tirailleur” puts you as a member of a squad of soldiers pushing through German lines, before “The Last Tiger” casts you against overwhelming odds and fighting alone. Each level builds on the last by putting you in familiar territory yet changing a small aspect each time. This slowly but surely ratchets up the difficulty curve without any immersion-breaking spikes.

Due to “The Last Tiger” not being available at launch a lot of players (including myself) would have played that chapter last. It is a fitting end and not just for having the word “last” in the title (other games such as Timesplitters Future Perfect, Halo 3, and Tomb Raider all follow this model with level names referencing their place within the story).

I had railed against the cinematic introduction to BFV, but “The Last Tiger” pulled the game into morally dark territory (and not just because we’re playing as the Nazis), ending the game on a perfect note. With the surrounding landscape wreathed in flames and the framed Nazi banner on the final bridge burning up, it paints a perfect metaphor for the tank crew and player character Müller’s unravelling allegiance to the Swastika. The darker edge fits better as an ending in general, having the player reminded at the end of the game of the destruction of war.

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“The Last Tiger” is the high point of not just BFV but most campaigns in the franchise. (Source: eurogamer.net)

I also really liked how “The Last Tiger” broke tropes. When the radio in the tank is busted, Müller goes out in search of one. At first I believed we were going to go on an extended on-foot section to find several radios to repair, but it turns out there is a radio right next to the tank. Having a large map to explore would have killed the tension that the final section was building up and it was nice that pacing was chosen over an extended gameplay segment.

After hearing the broadcast on said radio, enemy tanks and soldiers roll in during gameplay. From the POV of the Tiger tank, the following sequence is setup like a stage; there is a slight border (mimicking curtains) and a raised section where the Allies appear. It is a beautiful tableau (in a game full of awe-inspiring vistas) and the fact that it is during gameplay makes it that more memorable.

In the end it almost felt like the opening was a bait-and-switch, aiming for a broader audience by being a bit more “intense” instead of mournful like the opening to BF1. Whether it was deliberate or accidental, I still love this campaign and look on it more fondly than I did when I started.

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Why Battlefield V’s Opening Lacks Pace

It was with a mix of trepidation and eagerness that I picked up Battlefield V. I had enjoyed the excellent War Stories in the previous game, Battlefield 1, and wished to see what creators DICE had followed up with. Yet I remained cautious. The previous War Stories had been a high point of my gaming experience of recent times and I didn’t want to raise my hopes too high in case they were dashed.

The sequence started beautifully, reusing the iconic shot from BF1 of the two opposing troops levelling their weapons at each other as the sun breaks through to the battlefield. That was one of the defining moments of BF1; it is abrupt from the carnage that we have been a part of and distinct in its imagery.

I had previously written about how even though I liked the War Stories of BF1 and the opening, it could have toyed with player expectations a little more with its use of death. BFV’s opening reuses this defeatist attitude and makes it work. We aren’t told that are characters are destined to die yet most of them do. But unlike BF1 we do not see their names upon death, an aspect that is sorely missing. While I am happy that DICE isn’t directly lifting from BF1 for the semi-sequel, the inclusion of character names added a sense of humanity that can usually get lost in the larger stories of a world war.

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A shot from the opening of BF1. It is an excellent and artistically significant image that helped set DICE’s new tone for the series. Source: fraghero.com.

BFV also switches characters through its opening, circling around the locations that appear in the later War Stories. On the surface this is good. The major problem with the shorter stories in BF1 was the lack of narrative cohesion. With each story lasting around an hour, the overall arc falls flat with predictable peaks and troughs, leaving the game without a strong climax and resolution. The opening of BFV helps aid the previous lack of narrative structure by having the opening focus on the locations, but not always on the playable characters.

The paratroopers dropping into Norway, the German tank crew driving forward in the desert, the troops in Algeria providing covering sniper fire and the German planes flying overhead, they give us a taster of what is to come and also help set up the story. For example, the paratroopers in Norway get slaughtered in the first few minutes of gameplay, with the playable character in the Norway section being the resistance member they were meant to rendezvous with.

The opening is also a beautiful example of editing within gaming. Each scene leads into one another and connected with excellent scene transitions. The tank in the Norway section rolls out into Libya, the plane flying overhead in Algeria moves into dogfights over Germany, before said plane crashes into the Netherlands right in front of our new character. It is a nice flow of scenes and heightens that feeling of a world consumed by war.

However, while the changing characters help create that crux for the larger narrative, it means it loses something of its previous identity. BF1’s opening was set entirely on a singular battlefield. The fight was contained to one narrative with sweeping long shots taking us across the lines to the next solider after one had died. It told a solid story on its own and helped set that “anything goes” precedent of that game.

Swapping between five different fronts and fighting styles in the BFV opening feels disjointed and uneven and it is partly because of the change of scenery. The stakes change on a dime and the enemy we were previously charging is now half a valley away. It loses that excellent pace and momentum that the opening of BF1 had. This isn’t helped by the gameplay. In BF1 you could fight for as long as you wanted, but eventually you were going to be brought down by the enemy soldiers. In BFV the onus is on you to continue the story. This was especially evident in the Algerian sniping and the German dogfight sections.

As I was getting to grips with the controls, my sniper aim lacked finesse, with shots widely missing the enemy targets. Only when all the targets are down will the prologue continue. In the German dogfight section I managed to shoot down several Allied bombers, but was unable to see the tiny red marker that indicated the ONE plane I was meant to shoot to continue the sequence.

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With gameplay swapping every few minutes, BFV assaults us with a flurry of imagery. It is just sad that none of it feels connected. Source: VGR.com.

The whole pacing is off. Each section starts the same; the player slowly moves forward before being presented with a few enemies and then ends with explosions. At least BF1 kept the explosions as a constant, throwing the players into disarray and keeping them on edge. It feels like there is a distinct lull in BFV’s opening and feels antithesis to the tone that it seems to be aiming for.

This comes to a head at the final playable section. After shooting some soldiers on a turret, you turn said turret around and direct the fire back. Your squad is bombed and you are paralysed, trying to hold off the oncoming enemies with only your pistol. It feels so odd to go from the excellent Remarquism of BF1 to this Hollywood-ised, last-man-standing depiction of battle.

I understand why it was done. This is the final scene, the gameplay needs to end at the same time as the narration for the pacing, but it doesn’t have that brutal edge that worked wonders in BF1. This final scene could have worked if we had control of our movement, if we were allowed to charge, retreat, anything other that having to sit still, playing out a sequence ripped straight out of Call Of Duty 4.

It is also a context problem. BF1 worked because it wasn’t about the grand ideas, rather focusing on the little person caught in the whirlwind of history. It was a pointless war with both sides fighting for pretty much the same reason and therefore could focus on the personal stories.

While there are flourishes of these individual stories in BFV’s campaign, the grand ideas can’t help but push through. Every fight (bar the Tiger tank story) is about pushing back the forces of darkness from enveloping the world. Every fight is about how to weaken and dismantle the Nazi war machine. It can’t help but BE that.

That’s not to say that grander stories are bad. Grand ideas work well in several games; Civilization, various CoDs, the first Assassin’s Creed, but the smaller stories are what gave BF1 a bit of bite and it is sad that BFV is without it. It means the characters in BFV don’t get a chance to shine since we don’t focus on them.

Characters like Zara Ghufran and Frederick Bishop in BF1 get small moments in between all the fighting, giving us hints of their personality and time outside the war. This makes them richer, making them more than the “stoic badass” or “stealthy assassin” archetypes. And I haven’t got that from a single lead in BFV yet.

Either way, I’m still enjoying BFV. I’m blazing through the campaign and will hopefully look fondly on my time spent with it. And while the opening fixes a lot of the issues I had with BF1’s, it can’t help but produce a few of its own.

Edit: Now that I have finished the campaign my feelings on BFV have changed. I started to really like the story and have written a follow up. You can read it here.

 

Banner Photo Source: wccftech.com

1500 Words Gushing Over Mafia 3

I recently finished Mafia 3 after a good few months playing it. It was one of the first games I got when I upgraded to the newest console generation and I was pretty much playing it non-stop, leaving other newer games by the wayside just to come back to this one again and again.

And after finishing the game I’m certain this will be among my favourite games I will play on this system.

Not since Remember Me has a whole game caught with me rather than just one or two good parts of it. So I thought a little breakdown about the points that hooked me into staying in New Bordeaux for much longer than I would ever imagine…

“We Are A Cruel And Wicked People”– Why I love Mafia 3

  1. The Story And Characters.

The story is the high point of the game. Telling the story of bi-racial orphan and Vietnam veteran Lincoln Clay, the narrative is told in a documentary flashback format. Characters tell their story in interview format, evoking recent films like Precinct Seven Five.

This feeds into the linear game structure, as we are being told a story (much like the previous Mafia games) which helps keep the pace up which can sometimes suffer in a game where you can go anywhere, anytime.

Despite having this linear structure the multiple endings all fit the character depending on the player’s reading of Lincoln.

I was surprised we didn’t start in Vietnam, similar to Mafia 2 starting in WW2 Italy, but that added to the characters, leaving us open to interpret Lincoln actions in Vietnam from his and comrade Donavan’s stories.

The story is beautifully realised with several standout characters. We have the three main bosses, Burke, Cassandra, and Vito, each with their own unique quirks. Vito is especially interesting, it’s fun to see a once playable character from the other side (again), where his simple layers in Mafia 2 (due to being a playable character) become a lot greyer with age and antagonism.

The second-in-commands too are well defined and have some interesting layers to them, making them more than cardboard cut outs that sometimes arrive with games as big as this. Emmanuel, the once refugee-saver reduced to dope peddling, Alma, the businesswoman not afraid to use female charms for her own gain, and Nicki, a woman struggling with her sexuality in a time and place that does not care for it, they all add something to the game, all through optional dialogue (which I am a big fan of ever since I first encountered it in PoP 2008).

But highest praise must go to Alex Hernandez for his portrayal of Lincoln Clay. Convincingly switching from cocky and confident to anger, sadness, joviality and eventually blood-driven when the time comes, he is truly an asset to the game.

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(From L to R) Father James, Sal Marcano, “Cassandra”, Lincoln Clay, Vito Scaletta, Thomas Burke and John Donavan, some of the most layered characters I’ve played alongside. (Source: mafiagame.fandom.com)
  1. The Missions

One of the main criticisms of Mafia is its mission structure. Very much like the first Assassin’s Creed, the game centers itself around taking down members of the Marcano crime family one district at a time.

Once you talk to a contact in the district you have several tasks dealt out to you, but these always follow the same path; kill some people, interrogate a member of the crime family or destroy their shipments. Once done then you can take over the rackets in that area before going after the main controller of the area.

This is just going to be one of those cases where I find enjoyment that others don’t. I think it might be because I really enjoyed the driving and combat (more on the latter next) so I had fun being given new scenarios lasting a few minutes to make my way through.

Hangar 13 said their approach to the missions, at least side missions, was “Lincoln doesn’t go fishing”. Essentially, this means the mission must make sense for the character to do (why does psychopathic murderer Michael De Santa do yoga in GTAV?). This feeds back into the story, again, keeping the pace and flow up rather than bogging the game down.

The Marcano capo missions are fun due to their added story and setting with each one being a completely unique situation; a shootout on a sinking steamboat, sneaking into a swanky whites-only party, breaking up a KKK-inspired cross burning, the list goes on and on (all involving excellent and period-fitting musical accompaniment such as the Rolling Stones, Del Shannon, and Janis Joplin).

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With missions in mob-enforced saunas, partially built casinos, supremacist rallies, burlesque houses and drug dens, Mafia 3 can at least boast of having some memorable places for action sequences. (Source: geforce.com)

While most devolve into shootouts the combat is so fun I never got bored. Speaking of which…

  1. The Combat

I can’t actually remember how long it’s been to have a combat system this satisfying, but it was probably at least back on the PS2 (I’m going to have a wild guess and say 007: Everything Or Nothing).

It’s your standard shooting, melee, and stealth tri-factor, but each one is done so well.

The gunplay feels responsive and sounds meaty, with a vast array of weapons to choose from.

At the start I was on-the-fly, picking up weapons due to limited ammo. Then I specialized in a sawn-off shotgun and sniper for both range advantages, before coming round to silenced pistol and assault weapons for an action/stealth combination. This is a perfect distillation of Hangar 13’s motto, “Every player’s story is unique”, and can be seen in the multiple approaches to combat as well as hidden pathways through the missions.

The animations in combat as well are a nice detail. With lovely smooth transitions from running (where Lincoln holds the gun one handed), to ADS, to the short sidestep after coming out of sights, the little points make the game feel rich and loved by the creators.

While the melee can become stale after the fiftieth whistle-come-stab, it does have moments of intense fun especially with the running takedowns. Only in a handful of games have I audibly “oohhhed” at the brutality I’ve dished out on NPCs (Sleeping Dogs is probably the main one), and Mafia 3’s American Football-style takedowns are poetry in motion.

You can choose between lethal and non-lethal attack as well. Even if the change is hidden in the pause menu rather than switching in gameplay it’s nice that you at least have the option. Especially since most games just give you “kill” as a catch-all for their combat.

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The feeling of combat is one of the better from an open world game, and has several variables and the opportunity to customise. (Source: geforce.com)
  1. The Open World and Travel

The world of New Bordeaux is a lovely city to drive around in. The cars seem more arcade-y than the previous Mafia games (there is an option of a Simulation mode for purists in the option menu). Lincoln’s signature vehicle is a classic, wheel spinning, fire spitting, drifting muscle car, and sliding across three lanes of traffic or 180 hand brake turns are easy to pull off and create that sense of spectacle and wonder we want from games.

As usual in Mafia games the setting is an approximation of a real city (this one being New Orleans), but has enough of its own style to stand out rather than feel like a copy/paste of Google Maps. The South has been the setting before in games, with indie hits like Virginia being in, well…Virginia, Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season 1 in Georgia, GTA: Vice City in Vice City (a version of Miami) and Left 4 Dead 2 in a swathe of southern states.

I would say only the latter two come close to creating a sense of place as good as New Bordeaux with Vice City also having Haitian and Cuban influences (but better at creating a sense of time rather than place) and L4D2 having a wide range of locales like Mafia 3 (but most feeling more like shells rather than a fleshed-out world). Mafia 3 is the first one that actually feels like a living place with countless indoor locations, pedestrians, and drivers.

Talking of the variety of locations, Mafia 3 has a selection to rival most other open world games. With settings such as the bayou, junkyards, quarries, downtown areas, and its own version to the French Quarter, the city has a tremendous scope of backgrounds for Lincoln to dish out punishment on the Italian mob.

And despite having these completely distinct sections the map, New Bordeaux doesn’t feel disjointed when moving from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, which has happened within other open world titles focusing on rising criminal empires.

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With customisable cars and easy inputs to pull of a variety of stunt-worthy moves, the driving is a wholly enjoyable experience. (Source: microsoft.com)

End

The interesting part about my time with Mafia 3 is I was completely sick of open world games when I started. I was sick of the endless stream of side missions, the “revealing” of the world through climbing towers, the largely meandering story that can sometimes come with having a sandbox as big as it can be.

I had been wanting a more refined experience and Mafia 3 delivered. That’s what sets it apart from its contemporaries; GTA has the bustling modern metropolis filled to the brim, AC has the historical fiction,  Fallout has the nuclear dys/utopia, and The Witcher/Skyrim have the magical fantasy. The Mafia series works because it has a focused central story that fires straight as an arrow carving out its niche in the market.

And that niche made me adore Mafia 3. Add in a cracking sense of time and history, as well as vivid locations and brutal, satisfying combat sections, Mafia 3 is a gem in my game library.

 

Photo Banner Source: wccftech.com