Red Dead Redemption (2010) Xbox 360 Review

red-dead-redemption

Six years ago, my brother bought home a little game called Red Dead Redemption for the Xbox 360. After watching him play it a little bit, I decided to give it a go and boy did I love the game back then. Motivated by the announcement of the sequel, I decided to give it a replay. Now, even though every man and his dog (and perhaps horse too) has played this game, this review will probably remind you why you should play it again.

The graphics still impress six years after release. The dusty trails and dense short vegetation, the rocky mesas and the starry night skies of the border region in which the game takes place all evoke a beautiful and classic western aesthetic which is accentuated wonderfully with Billy Elm and Woody Jackson’s original soundtrack. Modernity is also creeping in on this frontier land with the hooting of the steam train, the telegraph pole and the automobile in these dying days of the Wild West. Much of the game is spent travelling through rough wilderness, but also through Mexican villages and small American towns that will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a western film or two. The lighting and weather effects, as well as audio quality in general are top notch. The lightning is naturalistic but at the same time greatly expressive and no matter what time of day one does a mission in, it is always beautiful and dramatic.
On a technical level, it has a couple problems with some very low res textures that look clearly tiled and the framerate sometimes goes to absolute shit in certain areas, as well as there being quite a bit of aliasing, it’s still a marvel to look at in spite of all this, even now. And when you consider that its designed to run on hardware from 2005, it’s even more impressive.

In terms of actual mechanics, the game is often described as GTA with horses and that is true to some extent. However, there are a lot of notable differences in mostly little details. The way missions work should be familiar to anyone who has played Grand Theft Auto and so should the interface, more or less. You can do things like straight up rob people in the street, shoot up saloons, get in duels, play horseshoes, play poker, hogtie people, go bounty hunting, break horses and so on. The shooting is a combination of cover shooting and run and gun with a fairly diverse arsenal that rangers from revolvers and repeaters to bolt action rifles, lassos and Mausers. The physics are quite good too. When you should someone off their sprinting steed, they will be dragged by their legs in the stirrups or collapse off. If you shoot someone in the legs, they will collapse and eventually get up and try limping away. This is good for capturing bounties alive. You can also throw hogtied individuals into water and they will drown. There are also side quests, some which are interesting and others which are fetch quests, which are pretty inconsistent. The story missions have plenty of variety within it’s Grand Theft Auto framework and are mostly very fun, except for the few cattle herding missions, which can be pretty annoying. Another good thing about the missions is that when all are taken into account, almost all of the open world is utilised in a story mission, which is something not all open world games do well.

What makes this game so memorable, however, is the narrative and characters. You play as John Marston, a former outlaw who is coerced by the United States government to hunt down and capture or kill his former gang members so that his family can be returned to him. It’s a beautiful and tragic story that has you meet drunken Irishmen, eccentric drug addicted academics, good and honest sheriffs, a forgetful mexican revolutionary, an old gunslinger, lecherous Generals and the wonderful Bonnie McFarlane and much more. It’s a cast of diverse and interesting characters that play well off of Marston’s sarcastic,cynical and angry attitude. Voice performances are excellent and John Marston is a protagonist players grow to like very much throughout his adventures and escapades in the dying west. It is a story and world that unlike most of the Grand Theft Auto games, is not steeped in parody, but a very serious drama with regular moments of comic relief.

Currently, the best way to play this game is through the Xbox One (i played on a 360 slim)  as it smooths out the framerate issues.

In the interests of brevity, I will cut straight to the verdict. Not only is Red Dead Redemption one of the best games of the last console generation or one of the best games ever made in general taken holistically, but I would go so far as to say it is one of the best Westerns ever made.

Advertisements

Silent Hill 4: The Room (2004) Review

20161012215650_1

Silent Hill 4 is perhaps the low point of the original part of the series. But in saying that, it was originally supposed to be a different game altogether.

The concept behind this entry to the series is this: you play as Henry Townsend, an average joe who finds himself trapped in his apartment, Room 302 and can’t get out and enters the nightmare world of Walter Sullivan through dreams. In the apartment, these sections play out in first person with you interacting with various objects, your item boxes and so on. The controls in these sections are simple but occassionally fiddly, having to wrestle with them at times to make it behave the way you want. But your time in the nightmare world is played very similarly to the rest of the series, with a few catches. The first is that you have a dodge move, which is welcome. But what is removed are the flashlight and the radio and now your inventory is limited. This last aspect is quite frustrating as it requires constant backtracking to the apartment to deposit and remove items from the item box, especially since items cannot be dropped in the nightmare world where you stand. So if you have a golf club and you need to pick up that key but you have no space, you have to backtrack to the nearest hole, deposit it in your apartment, come back and pick it up then do the puzzle. It’s tedious and annoying, but somewhat mitigated by the small level size and frequency of holes.Some weapons also break, but most don’t so you’ll want to stick with those that don’t , such as the pipe or axe. Other than these changes, the game plays mostly the same as previous entries.

Visually, the game has not aged as well as it’s predecessors, especially the first person apartment section, with some very very shoddy textures.The nightmare worlds fare better, which comprise of a subway world, forest world, water prison, building world and apartment world and they don’t have the same level of quality as the previous games in texture work and light.The noise effect seems to be of lower quality too. Character models are still of good quality, however.  The designs of the monsters seem uninspired and while the game has some creepy moments and disturbing imagery and sounds, such as Eileen’s HUGE head in the hospital or the footsteps in the cells in the water prison, they again do not match up to the previous entries. The soundtrack is nothing to write home about either and neither is the voice acting.

20161015152354_1

Some of the more annoying things include some unkillable enemies and most egregiously, the game pulls a Devil May Cry 4 and has you go through the same levels again through the second half of the game and even worse, you have to do it as an escort mission which can at times be very frustrating. While Eileen cannot die, she runs very slowly and you have to wait because she does not go through doors with you unless she’s very close to you. This can get you quite damaged. Thankfully she cannot actually dies otherwise this part of the game would go from frustrating to hellish. This second half of the game is quite the difficulty spike as well.

All said, Silent Hill 4 isn’t a terrible game, but it just doesn’t live up to it’s predecessors and has many frustrations of it’s own along the way. But I would say it is a skippable entry of the series despite being the last one made in japan.

5.5/10

 

Silent Hill 3 (2003) Review

20161005221912_1

Silent Hill 3 is a direct sequel to the original 1999 game, where you play as a teenage girl, Heather Mason who is drawn to the town of Silent Hill, creepy through industrial looking otherworlds,the frightening Lakeside Amusement Park which are all appropriately disgusting, bloody dirty and grimy, like a higher fidelity rendering of the original’s aesthetic.  The game also took me 6 hours to complete.

The story of Silent Hill 3 follows up 17 years after the original and the plot is more or less a repetition of the original (like our good friend George Lucas says, “it’s like poetry, it rhymes”) but in a good way. The cult is trying to birth their god again The first at least third of the game doesn’t even have you in Silent Hill at all, which is a nice change of pace as it avoids too much familiarity and thus keeps the tension higher. With the creature design, which is fantastic and importantly, different from the previous two games in behaviour and aesthetic (with some nurses being able to shoot you), the game continues the series tradition of using symbolism through these monsters to provide extra depth to the story, although their meanings might not be immediately obvious in the heat of play. The lore of the series is also nicely expanded upon in this game.

But there are nice moments when you do revisit locations from previous entries. For example, you can go into the Heaven’s Night bar for some items and to look around and reminisce of your experience playing Silent Hill 2. Brookhaven Hospital is back and the design of the objectives manages to keep the area feeling both familiar and fresh. At some parts in the game, I saw notepads that looked exactly like the save points in the original game and interacting them let me read the notes of Harry Mason, which were nice moments. The scares here are often ones of tension, with a few unexpected jumpscares here and there, or the fright experienced when entering trap rooms or the discomfort of hearing the moans of Closers.

Visually, the game holds up very well when emulated and the noise filter is improved from the original game (although in stills it looks the same but it’s great in motion I promise), a depth of field effect is occassionally used. The lighting and shadows are also excellent as always. Akira Yamaoka’s sound design and music is on point as per usual, creating a perfectly dreadful atmosphere. The voice acting also feels much like normal people instead of Hollywood voice actors, whilst still mostly avoiding the cheese of the Resident Evil games, with the exception of the detective Douglas, who walks a fine line between a grizzled gruff voice that can be taken seriously and one that can’t. Most of the characters also sound a bit off in a way that works out very well for this series as it does in David Lynch films.

20160930153436_1

In terms of the mechanics of the game, there is not much deviation from the previous two. However, there are some welcome improvements. First, the inventory has been streamlined so that instead of scrolling through every item just to get some specific item for a puzzle or to reload your gun, items have been divided into Items (for puzzles, flashlight, radio, etc), weapons and supplies. Another welcome improvement is that more guns allow movement while shooting and that most melee weapons also allow movement while attacking. There are also equippable items, such as the bulletproof vest which reduce damage taken whilst also reducing movement speed, an obvious tradeoff. However, while for me it did elevate the tension when trying to get out the way of monsters, it still allowed me to move fast enough to avoid hits so I kept it on pretty much the whole game. There was one superfluous addition to the game, which was the use of distraction items through beef jerky, in which the game showers on you early on. It stops giving them to you once you reach Silent Hill proper as if the game is self aware that they’re pretty much useless.

Whilst not as original or emotionally involving as the narrative of Silent Hill 2, Silent Hill 3 is a worthy addition to the series that maintains a high level of quality, some fresh ideas even within the repetitious plot and welcome mechanical improvements that make it a worthwhile experience for any survival horror fans. Just play the previous two first and don’t let your first experience with the game be the HD Collection version because it’s fucked.

8/10

Outlast 2 Demo (PC) impressions

20161006164710_1

After some inexplicable helicopter crash, you, a camera guy are found seperated from your journalist wife. You put on your glasses and wander through the bright moonlit night through somewhere in  Southern, rural America and find yourself stumbling into the village of a crazy redneck cult, in which something seemingly supernatural or otherwise is occurring. This is the set up for developer Red Barrels latest game, Outlast 2.

Anyone that has any familiarity with indie horror games from the last half decade will find Outlast 2 familiar, even more obviously if you’ve played any of the original. For those not in the know, Outlast 2 is part of that trend in survival horror games in which you are totally disarmed, with no hope of fighting back, so you must either run or hide or run and hide. Maybe you can walk past slowly sometimes instead. You also have a camcorder with a green night vision filter in order to help you see in the more dimly lit surroundings, like in the original and is a cool effect that adds to the tension. But gone are the classic mechanics of survival horror. While this demo is 15 minutes long and is perhaps only the introduction of the game or some kind of vertical slice, there are not even any puzzles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent which started this whole sub genre. In addition to no combat or a seeming lack of puzzles, there does not seem like there will be any further development to stealth mechanics ala Alien: Isolation with it’s flares, noisemakers, molotovs and so forth. Maybe this game will surprise us and have parts where you can actually fight back, I won’t hold my breath. The key problem with being unable to fight back means the game has a much more difficult job in trying to be more than a one note and dynamic experience, as the hyperlinked video above discusses in more detail.

While the mechanics of the game seem underdeveloped, there are a few things I do like about this game is that the visuals are amazing, being finely detailed and having a nice and not too aggressive noise filter, with excellent performance and overall polish. I also liked the really confronting rooms. For example, there is one room you pass by that is lit by one crucifix shaped hole, with the pale moonlight shining right through onto a pile of charred baby corpses that crunch under your feet as you walk past. It’s not exactly subtle, but it was effective. However, it would be wise for the full release to pace these sorts of things out properly because otherwise it would be exhausting. I do appreciate from this demo that the game won’t shy away from disturbing imagery that would also work as a Deicide album cover.

Check out the demo for some spookiness and if you liked the previous Outlast or this type of horror in general, you’ll probably like this. The full game doesn’t have a release date apart from 2017, so it will have some pretty stiff competition from Resident Evil 7, which is also set in the rural American south.

Europa (1991) Review

europa

Europa grabs your attention straight away, with it’s held take of the railway line as Max von Sydow’s voice provides narration that is deliberately hypnotic. The basic plot of the film is this: an America, Leopold Kessler travels to Germany after the second world war, intending to help, in his own way, with the reconstruction effort and gets employed by the Zentropa rail company.However, he soon finds himself entangled and torn between the Americans and the post war German insurgent group, the Werewolves.

Shot in mostly a beautiful high contrast black and white, it is a visually striking film that carries a somewhat noir aesthetic, mixed in with the occasional colour sequence that is transitioned into seamlessly, Europa carries a strong visual identity of it’s own. Another part of this look is it’s very frequent use of rear screen projection that when combined with the film’s score serve to recreate the visuals, the sounds and the feelings of films from the golden age of hollywood.

Part romance and part political thriller, Europa provides a slightly different look at post war Germany, a part of the chaos of the time that is usually overshadowed by the Checkpoint Charlie type situations. The multilingual performances of almost all of the cast is solid and von Trier’s camerawork is slow and clear and edits are all well paced and never appear like he’s trying to show off. von Sydow continues to provide narration well spread throughout the film, all the way to the tragic end.

von Trier invests all the principal characters of the film with their own personalities and humanity and built well off of what is typically very familiar archetypes, with dialogue occassionally being metaphoric and literary in nature, with great emotional pay off. Even minor characters have their own subplots that increase the richness of the film. The violence in the film is impactful within the film’s aesthetic and the sets and effects are detailed, giving an excellent sense of scale and place and while the shots aren’t sweeping in nature, we are shown enough to have a good sense of the situation, with bombed out buildings, damaged interiors and a roofless Cathedral.

Europa is also, at least from the von Trier films I have seen up to this point, is probably among the more accessible, whilst remaining generally excellent. With it’s own unique, yet familiar identity, Europa provides a thriller of great emotional depth and political complexity, wrapped up in an engaging and easy to follow thriller/romance plot making it essential viewing.

9/10