Sunday, 28 November 2010

Deadly Premonition

Probably the last review I post before the inevitable head-scratching over year-end lists. Exciting times / where have the last twelve months gone?, etc etc.

It seems appropriate that Deadly Premonition should arrive in the same year that Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s mould-breaking television show, celebrates its twentieth anniversary. Often cited as the greatest series ever made, Twin Peaks’ heady brew of dark themes, rich symbolism and plain freakery – all wrapped up in the devices of soap opera – has been the source of inspiration for countless cultural works since. In fact, Deadly Premonition is the second videogame this year to draw its chief reference points from Laura Palmer and company, with the other being Remedy’s flawed but absorbing Alan Wake. It’s Hidetaka Suehiro’s game however that is, in terms of tapping into the spirit of Lynch, the more successful creation.

Deadly Premonition arrives on these shores on a wave of hype somewhat out of step for its extremely niche status; indeed few games could be labelled as ‘cult classics’ as soon as they arrive on shop shelves, but this is certainly one. Despite dividing critics, a lot of the reasons for this excitement – ironic or otherwise – rests on YouTube sightings and one particular review, its 10/10 rating proudly stamped to the front of the box, that heralded, quite brilliantly: “This game is so bad, it’s not just become good. It’s pretty close to perfect”.

The story sees you play as FBI agent Francis York Morgan, called to the fictional American town of Greenvale to investigate the murder of a young woman. Although the set-up is fairly conventional, it is Francis’ eccentric powers, which include the ability to deliver hilariously inappropriate dialogue with a straight face, forensically scan a crime scene, as well as have conversations with his invisible alter-ego Zach, that act as preludes to the strangeness within. The perspective of Zach, you quickly learn, is that of you as the player – but having the main protagonist break the fourth wall and address you is the least of Deadly Premonition’s idiosyncrasies.

Gameplay mechanics are built on influences as obvious as the affectionate riff on Twin Peaks is in terms of the game’s aesthetics. Survival horror has been a genre in need of a significant shake up for a while now, but even when that day comes there will always be titles like Deadly Premonition, whose set-up and rigid approach to exposition recalls the Silent Hill series, while the combat takes a leaf out of Resident Evil 4’s book, using an over-the-shoulder perspective. Like the rest of the game, it’s somewhat unrefined and, when looked at in isolation, quite poor – movement isn’t particularly smooth, the results lack gratification – but when put in context of the overall game you can’t help but feel that theses design decisions are all intentional.

It’s this sense of intent that works in Deadly Premonition’s favour; it is, after all, far easier to make a game with poor voice acting, nonsensical narrative and bizarrely motivated characters when your actual intentions are perhaps quite the opposite, than it is to do so with a view to creating an unsettling world, imbued with a quite delicious sense of the absurd. Greenvale is certainly one such open world. There are several side-quests and tasks scattered throughout; because many of the missions are time-sensitive in a manner akin to Dead Rising, there is a freedom afforded to the player to explore the environment when the narrative takes a breather.

What may work against Deadly Premonition are all the surface details that we perhaps take for granted in other higher-budgeted, well-intentioned and overly serious productions. The visuals and use of font are frequently jarring, the lurching tone is probably just as likely to alienate players as it is to engage, and it’s very easy to lose track of just what the hell is supposed to be happening. It’s a tough game to click with, but when it does it’s great.

The somewhat boring truth is that Deadly Premonition isn’t a game that will forever shake up videogames, but neither is it one whose flaws mark it out as a failed experiment. Instead it may yet become a key game for its approach to the feel of horror videogaming; ugly, inelegant and excessively linear it may be in many places, but Deadly Premonition is also very hard to forget, and the aforementioned sense of intent on the part of the developers works in its favour. Like Twin Peaks, it’s as full of as many happy accidents and surreal edges as it is well-engineered shocks and hilarious moments, and while it can’t ever hope to match the impact of Lynch’s classic, those who take the ride will be rewarded.

You can read the original review over at D+PAD Magazine.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Rock Band 3

My original idea was to have kept a Rock Band 3 diary since the game’s launch, charting my daily exploits with this most anticipated of rhythm-action titles. Although it would have been an exceptionally tedious read, it would have also reflected the sheer breadth of the title, and all the scope for drunken party fun and hours lost to an obsessive single-player structure that the last week has entailed. For Rock Band 3 must surely rank as Harmonix’s crowning achievement, the culmination of close to ten years work of experimenting with music, visual feedback, interactivity and social gaming.

The fundamentals of gameplay remain the same of course, but it’s the small touches and impressive level of detail invested in the overall framework that lift Rock Band 3, and make it an essential purchase for those gamers with even a small interest in the series. For instance, an extension of Guitar Hero 5’s drop-in/drop-out device allows each individual player to tailor such variables as difficulty and their on-screen character on the fly, without breaking continuity. The changes aren’t back-of-box unit shifters, but the fact that you almost forget that they’ve been made suggests they work well.

The method of song selection has also improved, with a wide array of filters helping to streamline what for many will now likely be a vast library of tracks. One of the strengths of the Rock Band series has been its’ sensible approach to exporting music you already own into successive games, so with just the Rock Band 3 disc I now also have access to the music from Rock Band 2 and Lego Rock Band (which means repeat plays of Ghostbusters), not to mention the excellent DLC support.

Other tweaks to the existing Rock Band model include a revamped career mode, which now takes the form of Road Challenges bracketed loosely by genre in a manner not unlike that used by the most recent Guitar Hero game, Warriors Of Rock (just without the hilarious sub-Games Workshop narrative and, sadly, Rush). As with other areas of Rock Band 3, the Road Challenges have been designed to encourage you to play the game in different ways, and help you unlock one of the very many career goals available. It’s an engaging approach to what is already a very addictive game. Additionally, because your band follows you from these aforementioned challenges to the multiplayer, there’s a pleasing self-contained cohesion to the whole experience.

All these amendments, as well as the ones not discussed at length in this review – such as the ability to rate songs, the enhanced character customisation tools, the excellent set-list – would in themselves be enough to ensure Rock Band 3’s position as one of the best games of 2010. But Harmonix understand that in these tough times for the genre which they had a significant part in creating, ‘mere’ refinement may not be enough to keep the wider audience interested. This is the point keyboards and Pro Mode step into the spotlight.

The keyboard, like the drums, has the advantage of closely replicating its real-life equivalent; there are no abstract coloured buttons to simulate the idea of playing, but actual real keys, and so their appeal – whether using the keyboard on a stand or, hilariously, as a ‘keytar’ – is instant. It’s startling how a small difference in an input device can have such an impact within the familiar template, as you learn to apply the years of playing with a plastic guitar to a new instrument. Some of the songs on Rock Band 3 don’t include keyboard tracks, while there aren’t as many as you’d expect where the keyboard takes central focus, but we anticipate this will change as further DLC is released.

Although the keyboard Pro mode is playable via the standard peripheral, it’s the guitar-based section that has been the subject of keen interest ever since it was announced that Rock Band 3 would, budget and time willing, let you play along using a stringed instrument. The concept is the perfect antidote to every guitar bore who insists that you might as well learn to play a real guitar instead of messing around with a plastic one, but it’s one that we were unfortunately unable to test ourselves as a) Pro guitars aren’t released in the UK until later in 2010 and b) we’re poor. Every report we’ve read about the Pro mode though has been glowing, and the fine work Harmonix have done elsewhere suggest that it really is the mould-breaker we had hoped it would be. Amusingly one of the Pro mode-related trophies, ‘Play A Real Guitar Already!’, is awarded for playing The Hardest Button To Button on Pro guitar (The White Stripes’ Jack White was one of the most vocal aforementioned music bores, who in 2009 said: “It’s depressing to have a label come and tell you that Guitar Hero is how kids are learning about music and experiencing music”).

Even taking Pro mode out of the equation, Rock Band 3 is still an incredible package of almost limitless depth. From playing online one night to jamming with a room full of friends another, from mastering that tricky guitar solo to taking your first Pro keyboard lessons, from naming your band ‘Aids LOL’ to realising that wasn’t the wisest idea; there is so much to do here that I could conceivably still write that fabled Rock Band 3 diary and end up doing something new and different with the game every single day. It wouldn’t exactly be a riveting read, but it would be the most fun I’ll have had with gaming in ages. Still nobody does this better than Harmonix, and with Rock Band 3 they are at the top of their game.

This review of Rock Band 3 was originally published by D+PAD Magazine, link.