Friday, 8 July 2011

Dragon Age II's first DLC pack revealed.

When almost all of your friends and cohorts are killed by an invading Darkspawn horde and you’re thrown into a deep-rooted political war between two immensely powerful factions - things can only get better, right? Not if your name is Hawke. Which it always is.

Once again players will be given the chance to enter the world of Dragon Age II in the latest downloadable content pack ‘legacy’. The plot of which revolves around you, Mr/Mrs Hawke leaving Kirkwall to find an ancient Grey Warden prison to uncover, you guessed it, a deep and disturbing mystery. Players will find out more about the noble Hawke lineage and just why they’re so special – perhaps you’ll meet your powerful and wise ancestor Ethan.

Hawke’s faithful allies (a.k.a The Hawk-Men) will also return to aid you on your perilous quest – also available will be either of your two siblings Bethany or Carver dependant on which one your parents loved the most. Hawke will also receive an upgradeable new and powerful weapon based on his or her class – mysteriously referred to as ‘Hawke’s Key’. There will also be a handful of levels where Hawke loses his weapon only to have left it on the dining-room table.

Developer Bioware are said to have taken note of some of the gripes players had with the original Dragon Age II and have delivered a new setting for the game – the Vimmark Mountains as well as cranking up the need for more tactical and strategic gameplay. New villains will be encountered over the course of the campaign as well as all new darkspawn rising from the depths of the deep-roads to pester the player – each with varied and unique abilities- such as the power to bite or claw or stab…or claw with the other hand. Ominous voice-overs from the initial teaser trailer also hint at the inclusion of 'the most powerful darkspawn the Grey Wardens have ever encountered'.

The DLC will take place before the events of the end game, though it can be played any time during or after the campaign. It will be released on the 26th of July to coincide with Kate Beckinsale’s birthday (look it up) - happy Birthday Kate and may your divine lineage of dragon slaying warriors be kept a secret for generations to come. Fans of Bioware’s RPG epic should be sure not to miss this, sure to magical, expansion to the magical world of Dragon Age.

Friday, 1 July 2011

The best laid plots of Vice and Men

Games can exist with the most minimal of story-telling - Why do we arrange the blocks in Tetris? Because we are simply asked to. Why does Mario need embark on his quest? Because he has to save the princess. As this ever adapting medium grows however the stories of modern titles seem to be taking on new merit - delivering atmosphere and themes not completely dissimilar to that of acclaimed literature and film.

L.A noire exceeds in this aspect - its story-telling taking on some of the more complex features and formation that would be found in the greatest of texts. Even to the point where this gritty recreation of L.A  parallels Shakespeare.

German dramatist Gustav Freytag stated that many plot-lines, in both literature and stage, follow the structure of what he described as "Freytag's Pyramid" or the dramatic arc. L.A Noire is no exception to this dramatic device. Freytag put forward that most works followed the structure of an Exposition - Rising action - Climax - followed by a Downfall and then a resolution. Usually this formula's "Rising Action" "Climax" and "Downfall"  refer to the journey of the central character. This staple of most classic literature was true for Macbeth and Othello and is similarly true for L.A Noire's Cole Phelps.

Whilst L.A Noire is not split up into the Acts that would commonly be found in a play it is segmented into five distinct parts - the five positions that Phelps holds in the police department. The exposition takes the form of the tutorial levels - Phelps is established as a character through a short burst of action during his time as a beat-cop. This is followed by the rising action which takes the form of Phelp's promotion to Homicide, this is where we see him most grow as a character in terms of both his own opinion and the opinions of others towards him. We see Cole's longing to be a 'legit' cop as well as small incites into his past.

The Climax of Phelps' character development revolves around his time in Vice - at this point in the game's story Phelps comes close to solving a major case that would expose the depths of an underground morphine ring in L.A. It is in the final scenes of this act that Cole is then betrayed by his partner Roy Earle. In many works of Shakespeare the equivalent to this part of the story is the pivotal scene - In Othello, for example, this marks the start of Othello's descent into an almost inhumane rage due to Iago's betrayal. A downfall caused by a conniving 'partner' - that does sound familiar.

Phelps' fall from grace takes the form of his demotion to Arson. Cole is found out to have had an affair with a German singer named Elsa - her addiction to morphine and  the seductively tempting nature of her siren-songs being the ultimate symbol of Vice. This is the point where Cole loses everything- his wife, his daughters and his reputation. It can even be argued that he shows signs of a mental instability at this point - he seems obsessed with 'getting back' at the LAPD higher-ups that have wronged him in conversations with his partner Hershel. There is also a scene where he lashes out at his lover Elsa when he fears his plan to uncover the corruption engraved deep in the heart of L.A is going awry later in the game. Just as Julius Caesar fell victim to his own downfall after meeting the temptress Cleopatra - Cole Phelps falls from a 'War Hero' to the shell of his former self after meeting Elsa.

The final 'act' is the most poetic for Cole - in a similar vain to many works of Shakespeare the 'resolution' isn't always a happy one. Cole dies trying to unmask the deep-rooted corrupt nature of Los Angeles government. Strikingly - he doesn't die a hero and he doesn't succeed in his am. However, this is the most fitting way that Cole could have died. In the end Cole wasn't the hero of the tale - he was a man who cheated on his wife and didn't get to expose the corruption that he worked so hard to fight against. But he never wanted to be the hero and he was never meant to be. Ultimately he was just another man betrayed by forces much greater than him. In a way this is fitting - because it equalises him with the men he felt so guilty losing in the war. The men Cole felt that he had denied heroism - the men that, through constant flash-backs to war, he could never forget. That is Cole's Closure - he was never meant to be special. At one point Kelso tells Cole that "Nobody deserves a medal, it's just the ridiculous situation you find yourself in and how you react to it" - the ending of L.A Noire echoes this sentiment - not everyone who gets put into the forefront of a dangerous situation comes out the hero. A poignant allegory of war. Phelps is even denied heroism to the point where his the final climactic scenes of the game are taken on by his ex-war compatriot Jack Kelso.

Thus the dramatic tale of Cole Phelps' rise and fall is given to the player. The 'Golden Boy' from the city of Angels apparently flew too close to the sun and had his wings burnt.  L.A Noire is aware that its strong suit is story telling and the developers at Team Bondi presented their hand with the type of flare that will mean that L.A  will surely be reminded as one of the strongest stories in Video Game history.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Normal Service Will Resume Shortly

Just a note: Due to Exams, updates have been a bit scarce - this is soon to be rectified.

Rectified. All. The. Way.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Two can be as bad as one (part 2)

You know what sucks? Potentially losing your son to a psychotic serial killer who constantly mocks you and makes you face potentially fatal trials in order to receive titbits of information regarding his whereabouts. Good opportunity to meet women though.

Essentially Heavy Rain presents the human condition under high amounts of pressure, it's a daunting and engaging tale and the conflict of emotion is a central theme in the game's story-telling. Therefore it is not unexpected that the exploration or romantic feeling is available to the player through one of the game's protagonists- Ethan. It is not, however, essential.

Ethan, having faced his share of tragedies in the opening segments of the game finds himself single and alone. In order to cheer himself up a bit he decides to play the worlds most dangerous game of hide and seek with his son, Shaun. That's how I like to remember the game anyway. In reality Shaun is captured by the infamous 'Origami Killer'. A murderer so twisted that he actually folds his victims into the shapes of swans and boats...That doesn't happen either.  

Ethan faces many a peril on his journey to find Shaun and along his path he meets the mysterious journalist Madison Paige. Madison begins to take an interest in Ethan's strange behaviour and impressive facial animation and eventually, through her, Ethan gains moments of solace during his time of anguish. 

From then on an unlikely romance doth bloom. The climax of which revolves around a touching moment far into the game when the player is presented with the opportunity to make your feelings for Madison known. Ethan shares an intimate moment with her, still distraught over not having found your son. You sit together, just the two of you on the floor of a rented apartment. You lean in and press X to shout her name.  The player is then given the choice of whether or not they want to continue romancing Madison.

Once again the player that wants to remain single is catered for, you feel just as emotionally invested in Ethan as a character if he chooses not to engage in romance. The story delivers on whatever choice that the player decides and nothing is lost from the experience if you choose a certain path. Well, except an increasingly awkward cut-scene if you chose to play the game with your parents or significant other in the room. 

Thematically however is there something lost in playing a love-less Heavy rain? In essence the game's opening segment, which depicts Ethan's happy life with his two children and wife, demonstrates to us the wholeness of a character. Through the tragic loss of life that character drains into seemingly a hollow vessel which we as the player must fill with our own new experiences. One of the pieces that's taken from Ethan is that of his love-life, so in choosing not to begin a relationships a-new are we really experiencing the full thematic development of a character?

Well, in a way the player never does lose out, Ethan's life may never be the same again but for the freedom of choice to remain important it must be understood that some things will always permanently be lost. A theme that's revealed early on in the game through the emergence of death in an otherwise idyllic scene.

The single player is still respected. Ethan's journey feels just as complete without romance by the end segments of the game, as does Madison's. For the lone protagonist it's not a case of 'Heavy Pain'.

That was poor.


Monday, 30 May 2011

One is the loneliest number (Part 1)

The cold sting of loneliness is a feeling not completely unfamiliar to most gamers. Many games are designed with the lone-wolf in mind. In fact, I bet you're alone reading this right now. Crying.

However, an interesting phenomena has arisen in many current generation games. The protagonist must always, for some reason, require a significant other. Do we not feel our character whole unless they can wrap their virtual arms around a group of pixels and polygons whom they adore? Do we not respect our gritty action hero as much if he doesn't occasionally throw down his chainsaw-photon-lazer cannon in a mad fit of passion? Or is this just the staple of the medium's progression and maturation - and we  have come to expect the same themes present in the best literature or film in Video Games?

Thus I will take you on a journey, a journey of emotional connection and feelings (but not bitterness) as I examine the way relationships are explored in modern games- and also the way in which the single protagonist is put across (but not because I'm bitter).

(Spoilers may follow)

Mass Effect

Long gone are the days where the potential romance of a blue temptress causes controversy. In fact, most gamers now demand it, which has led to some very questionable decisions on the part of the development team behind the upcoming Smurf tie-in movie game.

Mass Effect has been this generation's flagship title in regards to giving the player a variety of options when it comes to seducing. Do you like anthropomorphic bird people? Or perhaps blue tendril-headed women are more you thing? Even Humans (you sicko) are catered for in Bioware's epic sci-fi series.

Relationships are handled in Mass Effect much in the same way they are in real life. You start a conversation with someone you're interested in, say something stupid, re-load your save file and try again. Your companion will eventually show signs of interest; they may wink at you suggestively, awkwardly fidget whenever you come near or even, sweetest of all, implant their alien spawn ready for it to burst forth from your stomach in an explosion of gore. Whomever you choose to court you're guaranteed by the end of the game to have them reveal their feelings for you, you may then proceed to the bedroom. To discuss battle-tactics and particle acceleration. 

However, do the players who choose to have their Shepard remain single gain the full package? Or is a single Shepard a hollow shell of a being?

In the first instalment of the series not a lot will change if your Shepard chooses to stay focused on his or her mission. The choice is there for you to remain single and you're not penalised for choosing it. This is where Mass Effect excels, choice. It appears that in the modern world of gaming a lot of storylines will thrust romance upon you. (what a terrible choice of words) A lone Commander, in this case, appears to be just as well-rounded as the hero who takes to the stars in search of love. I mean, apart from that cut-scene that plays where he or she curls up in the foetal position and gently cries themselves to sleep in their cabin. Other then that it's fine. Okay, maybe that doesn't happen.

In the second Mass Effect there is also acknowledgement given to those who choose to remain loyal to their love interests from the first game, because if there's one thing gamers long for it's fidelity.(For the sake of not spoiling the game I will replace key words in the next few sentences with code words).

Before the final mission where Shepard ventures off to finally confront the DANDELIONS a cutscene will play - if you have chosen to romance one of your crew they will appear in your cabin - ready for the intimate discussion of battle-tactics. If you remain loyal to a previous love-interest instead of gallivanting about your ship like a interstellar Romeo however, your Shepard will be portrayed longingly gazing at a framed picture of said previous interest. Before gearing up to stop the inevitable DANDELION threat of course. So whilst there may be no reward given to the gamer who wants to remain completely single throughout the entirety of the Mass Effect series at least there is an equal sense of emotional attachment given to those who stay single in the series' second instalment.

Well, in most cases this will happen - for some reason my game portrayed my male Shepard who had romanced Liara as staring intently at a picture of his former lieutenant Kaidan. My Shepard was a deeply conflicted fellow.

Therefore, Mass Effect treats the player who chooses to remain alone just as well as the player who wants to sow his wild space-oats across the galaxy. Ultimately no relationship is forced onto the player and you lose nothing significant for choosing this path. Your hero can still be a hero regardless of whether they do it alone or whether they bring a +1 into the picture.  

Next Heavy Rain...