GTAV: it’s not always about the story missions

It was the perfect afternoon for a drive.

I turned the convertible from the wide-laned freeway onto a mountain road, headed back towards the suburbs of Los Santos, the Pacific Ocean glistening to my right. Not a cloud in the clear, blue sky. Phil Collins, I think, was playing on the radio. It was the perfect day. Serene and calm.

I spotted what looked like a cyclist up a head, dancing on the pedals of his road bike, his body gently rocking from side to side as he made his way up the incline. A lot of small touches had impressed me before in GTAV but this one felt personal, this one resonated with me:  A tanned and fit cyclist, kitted out in sponsor-emblazoned  lycra, riding a sleek racing bike was out for an afternoon bike ride.

GTAVMichaelFranklinTrevorI slowed down and just followed him: transfixed at this virtual cyclist ascending a mountain road. I sped ahead and got out, activating the camera on my smart phone, hoping to get a good photo of what I’d seen. I snapped as he rode past. I’m sure he looked at me, strangely, but he kept on climbing.

Unfortunately, as I walked back to the car, a few hundred metres up the road, another vehicle drove past, wiping out my open door. My convertible now not only had the top down, but it only had one door. Still, this was a day where nothing could bother me.

I passed the cyclist again, stopped and took some more photos. He gave me another funny look as he rode past.

On the descent I followed quietly behind, the cyclist freewheeling and gliding down the hill, pedaling every now and then to keep his momentum up.

Nearing the bottom of the hill, as the road joined a larger road, there was a service station (gas station) and the cyclist rode into the car parking area, dismounted and pulled out his smart phone.  Mysteriously, his bike just stood upright by itself but that’s OK. This is a game: Sometimes I can suspend belief.

He was a well-tanned individual, slightly European looking, but he was acting weird. I took some snaps of him and his bike, but as I focussed in on the bike frame (I am somewhat obsessed by bicycle frames) I heard him talking to someone on his phone: It was the police. He was saying some like I was being an arsehole and could they get here.

I stood amazed. Here was a non-integral person in the game having an impact on how things were shaping. My mini map suddenly turned a shade of light blue and a blue and red dot appeared on the screen: I knew what had happened here. The police were on their way to have a chat to me about harassing the cyclist.

For the record, I didn’t harass him: I was just taking photos. It’s a pity I can post the screen shots here.

A brief chase ensued but I managed to escape the police by running through a few luxury homes down the road, avoiding their cones of vision and confusing the heck of them.

Some other things I’ve observed; if you almost run over a person in a car and you’re stopped at a set of lights, bystanders will sometimes run over, pull you out of your car and start beating the crap out of you. One of my friends on XB Live told me to stand next a police man and see what happens.  I haven’t done it yet but it’s on my list of things to do.

I also want to buy a dock so I can do scuba diving.  I hijacked a speed boat one morning and just travelled around the island, seeing how far I could go, what I could see. During one mission involving a submersible in the Pacific Ocean and playing as Trevor, while I waited for Franklin and Michael to arrive, a large shark circled, giving me a bit of a shiver. It was a biggun,

GTAbikeI drove past a house to see a man imploring his wife to stop throwing his golf belongings from the balcony to the roadside. “Who plays golf at midnight?” the wife argues as she throws another bag onto the drive. I gave him and his favourite iron a ride to the golf club and he said he wouldn’t go home until he’d had a “few drinks in me and her meds had kicked in”.

GTAV isn’t just always about the missions and the story but I have to say the game has an appalling attitude towards the depiction of women: They’re either prostitutes, stripper or disgruntled wives/girlfriends/aunts – and that’s really not good in this day and age.

To be honest, I didn’t really start seriously tackling the story missions until I’d explored for a few hours, and that’s where GTAV’s strengths are: Just exploring and trying things. The stats at the Rockstar Social Club says I’ve sunk 21 hours into GTAV and completed about 40 per cent of everything there is to do.

So, I say go forth and explore. You might be surprised what you find.

Red Dead Redemption retrospective: one man and his horse

1696977-red_dead_redemption__lake_ While I wait for GTAV to arrive (I’ll be picking it up tomorrow morning), I thought I’d do a bit of a retrospective on Red Dead Redemption, a game that I think is one of the best of this console generation and I’m currently replaying.  

If my ageing memory serves me correctly, there’s a moment in Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption that, for me, empahsises why it’s one of finest video games of this generation.

It’s the moment when the game’s hero (or is he an anti-hero?) John Marston crests a hill, crossing from the United States to Mexico. As Marston starts ascending the hill towards Mexico, Jose Gonzalez’s haunting song Far Away starts playing and continues as Marston trots through Mexico, the bright orange sun setting in the distance.  It’s a powerful, poignant moment that illustrates just how great this game is.

It’s moments like this that make Red Dead Redemption a tour de force of story telling and characterisation. It’s a game that deserves a second play through. And perhaps a third and a fourth.

I finished RDR a while ago – a long while ago, actually – but while I wait for GTAV to land this week (I pre-ordered it over the weekend) I decided to pull on the boots of grizzled cowboy John Marston again and see if the game was as great as I remember. It is.

RDR came out in 2010, a couple of years after GTAIV, and is the sequel to Red Dead Revolver. It tells the tale of John Marston, a former outlaw who is forced to turn bounty hunter after his wife and son are kidnapped by the US government and he has to bring his former outlaw colleagues to justice. It spans  two fictitious United States counties – New Austin and West Elizabeth –  and a fictitious Mexican state – Nuevo Paraiso, and it seems that to secure his family’s future, Marston must return to the life he desperately tried to escape.

The game opens with Marston in the company of two US Marshalls: It’s 1911 and the decline of the American frontier. After walking through the streets of Blackwater, he boards a train bound for the region of New Austin, where he will start his quest to track down his adversaries. As he sits on the train travelling to Armadillo, Marston listens to the conversations of other passengers. It’s the dawn of a new age, it seems.

In terms of visuals, RDR and GTAIV are a world apart, with the former a breathtakingly beautiful game. At times the sunsets resemble water-colour paintings, with burnt orange and yellow smeared across the sky.  The attention to detail is amazing as well, and if RDR shows the advances Rockstar made since GTAIV, then it just blows my mind as to think just how much more advanced the visuals are between RDR and GTAV. Remember, we’re at the end of a console generation but it seems, as happened with the previous one, developers are eking every last drop of processing power to produce graphically stunning games.


RDR isn’t just an improvement visually on GTAIV, though, its game play is much better, especially in terms of how the combat is handled (although I still struggled at times when I had to drive a horse and buggy, maintain speed and shoot at the same time).

Marston has a Dead Eye system which means when activated he can slow down time and paint individual targets, taking out several bad guys in a single sequence. The cover system, too, is much improved,  with Marston often sliding into the protection he is heading towards if he’s hot footing it.  RDR just feels so much easier to play than GTAIV, too, despite featuring a similar mission structure. I revisited GTAIV a week or so ago: It just feels outdated and boring compared to RDR.

In terms of open-world games, RDR is insanely large, with tracts of tracts of land stretching out as far as the eye can see, but perhaps one of the best things I like about RDR is that the  world feels alive: bars are populated with boozed patrons and working girls, dogs wander around dusty towns sniffing for scraps of food, poker games take place behind closed doors, horses roam the prairies, but perhaps the most impressive element is the random events Marston comes across. These events can happen anywhere, anytime and can range from public hangings to having to chase down escaped prisoners for an ageing lawman, to Marston having to save abducted women from strange men and attacks by wild animals.

Example? At one point, as I guided Marston to a deer he had just shot, two wild coyotes suddenly attacked his horse just as I guided him over to where the animal’s body lay. In an instant, Marston was stranded in the middle of nowhere, his horse run off, with  two coyotes to take care of. These events make the world feel alive. I also stuck with that horse through most of the game. He was faithful and loyal.

The game has a morality system that affects how NPCs react to Marston: if he stops some drunken guy harassing a woman, he receives a bit more honour and some fame, which means he gets more respect from people, but if Marston shoots an old man to get the deed for a parcel of land wanted by a greedy prospector (as he does in a mission early in the game) his honour ranking will take a hit. The higher the fame ranking the more respect people will show towards Marston.

red-dead-redemption-vga2010Flashy visuals aside, I think it’s the writing and dialogue in RDR that resonates with me, and surely it’s no coincidence that Marston has a sort of Clint Eastwood feel about him. Writers Dan Houser and Michael Unsworth do a fantastic job in creating a believable character in Marston, even if the dialogue sometimes devolves into the clichéd and clunky. Marston’s interactions with key characters is crucial to the success of RDR, and I wish I’d written down the conversation Marston has with ranch owner Bonnie Macfarlane as they ride to Armadillo because it was just so engaging.

Sure, RDR is visually amazing but it’s the story telling that lifts it a notch – or ten – above other open-world games.

GTAV may well come and eclipse Red Dead Redemption in terms of grandeur and storytelling but it’ll have to try damn hard to do it. But even if it GTAV does prove to be the best Rockstar game ever, Red Dead Redemption will always hold a place in my heart as one of the best gaming experiences I’ve ever encountered. And the ride into Mexico just re-enforces how great the game is.

Your move, GTAV.

COD Ghosts: the helicopter-attacking dog edtion


Sorry about all the caps but this is the third game trailer that I’ve posted in as many days, and this one’s for Call of Duty: Ghosts, a game that I have to admit hasn’t caught my attention at all … until now, that is.

I mean, you’ve played one COD game and you’ve played them all, right? At least that’s what I think. I enjoyed Black Ops 2 but in my mind, the original Modern Warfare is the best COD game in recent times.

And I know this trailer is most likely a montage of stuff you can do in-game but it actually looks like it could be interesting.

The trailer opens in space, showing astronauts popping out of a space station and firing guns in space, then there’s a missile attack on the United States which leaves it open to attack from forces “south of the equator”. There are explosions, crashing helicopters and a soldier (and his dog?) jumping from car to car on a cable car – then perhaps the coolest part of the whole trailer: A freaking german shepherd attacking a passenger in a helicopter. Go, Fido, go!

So, yeah, check it out and maybe, like me, you’re a little (not a lot, just a little) more interested in COD: Ghosts. Me? I’m going to watch that trailer again and watch the dog bit over and over again. I can’t get enough of that.

Pirate Tuesday: Assassin’s Creed IV trailer

What is this madness, I hear you mutter to yourself? “Is it worth putting down my controller/mouse to check out?”

Well, it depends on what your thoughts on Assassin’s Creed are, I guess, but yes, this is the second game play trailer on Game Junkie 2.0 in one week.

Now, I’m tempering any expectations about Black Flag until (if?) I actually play it: I adored Assassin’s Creed 2 but was disappointed by AC3 – it just wasn’t fun and almost felt as if it was trying to be a little bit Red Dead Redemption with all the crafting and stuff. I’m hoping ACIV is going to learn from the mistakes in AC3, to be honest.

Anyway, enjoy the video. Looking forward to ACIV: Black Flag or going to give it a miss?

Watch Dogs game play trailer

We like videos here at Game Junkie 2.0: It means we don’t have to concentrate so hard and just have to look at the pretty moving pictures.

Watch Dogs, from Ubisoft, is looking to be pretty good – it has a real Person of Interest TV show vibe to it (Person of Interest is a TV show about a computer network that can predict crime before it happens and the two guys out to stop those crimes) – but, of course, I’ll wait to pass judgement  on it when I eventually play it (and it could be some time before I play it as I expect Grand Theft Auto V to suck up a lot of my free time).

Any way, here’s a 14-minute game play trailer from Ubisoft that shows how protagonist Aidan Pierce can hack just about anything around him to gain access to things. Watch Dogs (I refuse to do the underscore between the two words) is either going to be an amazing game or it’ll be a run-of-the-mill third-person game that’ll be swallowed up in the wake of GTAV.

Hmmmm, I wonder if GTAV will be so big that we’ll start talking about games as “post-GTAV”?

Time will tell I guess. Let me know what you think of the video.

Killzone: Mercenary – the review

Killzone Mercenary (PS Vita)

Looking good: a screen grab from Killzone Mercenary taken from my PS Vita.

Looking good: a screen grab from Killzone Mercenary taken from my PS Vita.

Killzone: Mercenary, where have you been all my PS Vita’s life?

Mercenary is a shooter that you’ll actually want to play. It’s the shooter that my PS Vita has been crying out for. Oh, sure developers have tried FPS games on the Vita before but let’s face it: They sucked. Pure and simple (I’m looking at you Black Ops: Declassified and Resistance Burning Skies. You were shit).

Killzone Mercenary is the real deal. And if Mercenary had been available earlier,  my Vita would have seen more action over the past few months rather than pretty much gathering dust, sitting unused.

Why, Sony, why has it taken it has taken so long for a great first-person shooter to appear on the Vita? Not through lack of talent as there are plenty of talented people in your development studios. There was really no excuse for it. I mean, the Vita has two analogue sticks: It’s made for the FPS, right?

Placing the player in the shoes of soldier-for-hire Arran Danner, Killzone Mercenary is set between the events of Killzone 2 and Killzone 3 and interestingly, in a first for the series, the player will fight alongside both the ISA and Helghan after a twist near the end. Danner is a, after all, a mercenary so he goes where the green is.

Let’s get the visuals out of the way first, though: they are stupendous. The two images with captions are screen captures I did during game play. Looks pretty good, right? It’s like the developer took the PlayStation 3’s Killzone and zapped it with a shrink ray: It really does look that good. Is is too much to say this is the best looking game the Vita because I think it is. It is jaw-droppingly beautiful and really is the best looking game on the Vita.

But good graphics does not a game  make, it needs a solid story to back it up. Well, Mercenary’s story is nothing we haven’t seen in countless shooters before (filled with betrayal and backstabbing) and you can see what’s coming a mile off but it’s a shooter, after all: It’s not a Shakespearean play filled with enlightened exposition and wonderment. It’s a game where you shoot people to earn money and complete objectives. I also found the controls took a bit of time getting used to – crouch and sprint are mapped to the circle button which makes things interesting during an intense firefight – but things fell into place soon enough.

Killzone-Mercenary-Preview-03-600x339Mercenary uses the Vita’s touch screen cleverly, too, letting you melee kill foes by tapping the triangle button then following an on-screen prompt indicating which way to swipe.

Being able to do that means you’ll use it – and I used it a lot, against both normal Helghast grunts and heavily armed heavies. In fact, I probably used it too much (and handily, many of the Helghan turn their back on you when you melee them), but there’s just something satisfying about swiping the touch screen to kill a Helghan (although, does Danner really have to stab some of them in the balls before knifing them in the head? That just made me squirm)

The touch screen is also used to set mines (placing each thumb on the screen then rotating them charges the mine) and kills earn valour, or money, which can be used to buy new weapons, ammunition, better armour and other gadgets  from black market weapons chest conveniently dotted about the game world. Every kill earns you money: headshots earning you more than a shot to the chest.

If there’s one thing frustrating about Mercenary’s game play, it’s its checkpoint system, which isn’t very good. I would have liked to have seen a more robust save system and while yes, the Vita has a good standby mode, if you quit a level mid-mission expect to have to start again from the beginning. It’s annoying.

I’ve only touched on the single player campaign here because, well, I haven’t had a chance to try any online yet. I got a code to do that but haven’t had the time. Perhaps when more people are playing it I’ll give it a whirl.

Airborne assault: Flying in a Helghast ship to assault an ISA cruiser.

Airborne assault: Flying in a Helghast ship to assault an ISA cruiser.

OK, to round up. Yes, Killzone Mercenary shows little innovation when it comes to game play (and Killzone is a stupid name for a game) and yes, the story is cliched and yes, if you hate the Killzone series then this portable version isn’t going to change your mind, but it’s a freaking console quality shooter on a handheld and it’s a good one  –  and that should be celebrated as far as I’m concerned (and if it was shit, I would tell you as much).

Not so long ago I was thinking Sony had forgotten about the Vita completely and hoped no-one would notice. Well, we did notice  but if Mercenary is Sony’s way of saying, “Sorry about the previous shit Vita FPS games. Try this for size” then I forgive you, Sony. I forgive you.

Game Junkie Verdict: buy, buy,  buy.

Skulking in the shadows with Sam Fisher

SCFisherblacklistI have to admit that before I even started playing Splinter Cell Blacklist I jumped on the “It’s not Michael Ironside voicing Sam Fisher” bandwagon. And to be honest, that wasn’t fair to new actor Eric Johnson, who was hired by Ubisoft because they apparently needed an actor who could also do motion-capture. I guess Ironside  is a little past motion-capture work these days.

Anyway, Johnson does a creditable job as Fisher but it took a few hours for his younger voice to start working for me: I’ve played every Splinter Cell game to date and it’s always been Ironside’s dulcet tones that have soothed me as I took out an enemy or wandered about. It seems that the adage never judge a book by its cover is true here, at least in my opinion.

So, the Blacklist in the title: It’s a list of locations in the United States where a terrorist group called The Engineers – lead by a former British MI6 agent no less –  are going to strike and it’s up to Sam Fisher, the special forces guy with all the cool kit, to take it out. Now leading the secretive Fourth Echelon (after Third Echelon was disbanded by the US president), Fisher leads a top-notch team that includes recurring character Anna “Grimm” Grimsdottir and new characters Issac Brigs, a fellow operative, and whizzkid gadget guy Charlie Cole.

SCBlacklistThe story is clichéd and clumsily handled at times but despite that, for me, Blacklist is a return to form for the Splinter Cell series and wipes out the abomination that was Conviction, which just seemed to lose the plot completely as to what a Splinter Cell game was meant to be. It almost forgot that stealth was a core element of the series.  In fact, Blacklist could be spoken in the same breath as Chaos Theory, the best Splinter Cell game in my mind.

Blacklist is a return to form for the series because stealth is given a starring role it deserves and with numerous ways to complete objectives it feels remarkable open-ended and fresh, Fisher is now again able to hide bodies and you can tackle missions in one of three play styles (Ghost, Panther and Assault), one of which is ghost-like and stealthy, which is how I like my Splinter Cell games to be.  I never grew sick of taking enemies unawares, either through stabbing them silently as they walked past or jumping down from an overhead pipe.

Blacklist brings back the Mark and Execute feature found in Conviction  which lets you target up to three enemies at once (a silent kill will activate the feature) then take them out when you’re close enough in a slow-mo style one-shot kill.  Yes, it makes things easier but it’s still a tonne of fun – although the feature proves less useful once you start encountering helmet-wearing heavy-armoured foes as the two shots are needed to take them down with the first just knocking off their helmet.

I can say it enough but Blacklist succeeds as a Splinter Cell game because it lets you rely on stealth to take down enemies, if you want, and for me, that’s what a Splinter Cell game should be all about. The cover system works exactly how it’s supposed to as well, with Fisher sticking to cover when you tell him too and moves from point to point fluidly and with haste.

Enemy AI is pretty good on the whole – most of the time – although sometimes a patrolling guard won’t see a dead colleagues feet sticking out from behind a concrete barrier or that you’re gripping a ledge a few metres from their head. I only came across a couple of times when guards were walking on the spot, and that was during side missions outside the main story campaign.

The story mode delivers a great experience but I question a couple of instances where the game takes a first-person perspective in a few missions. It just seemed a little out of place in a game where third-person action is its main focus.

Grimsdottir, Briggs and Cole each have side missions that can be tackled any time you like – be it after story missions or at the end of the game (which seems weird a bit because the characters talk about events that need to be stop although you’ve already finished the game).  I played some of the co-op missions with friend Chris Leggett (@Leggetron) – him in Seattle, me in Christchurch – and it was a blast. It’s always nice to be able to discuss tactics with a friend before tackling an objective. Co-op missions can be completed solo but certain entry points on maps will be “dual breech” or co-op only.

Also worth a look is the co-operative play and online Mercs vs Spies mode, first introduced in SC: Pandora Tomorrow. Spies vs Mercs pits one team as  Mercs out to stop hacking spies. While I fared poorly, it’s an interesting premise.

I went into Blacklist unsure what to expect, especially given that Michael Ironside wasn’t voicing lead character Fisher and following the disappointing SC: Conviction.  But thankfully, I sat back after the final cut scene satisfied in a game worthy of the Splinter Cell moniker.