Sunday, August 10, 2014

Agent Provocateur

Most gamers have played either fantasy RPGs or sci-fi RPGs. But what happens when a game developer makes a present-day action Role Playing Game? A valuable concept I learned from my favorite film critic, is that sometimes "interesting" movies can often be better than "good" movies. I believe the same applies to other forms of media. Hence, it could be said that Alpha Protocol, a fairly ambitious title, certainly presents a rather compelling scenario.

The game opens with a an attack resulting in a downed aircraft, something which was seen recently on the daily news; we are dealing with a mostly timely and plausible plot. Espionage is indeed pervasive, the region this writer inhabits, saw in the past the grave consequences of US intel sector intervention, culminating in Operation Condor. Alpha Protocol may indulge in some creative license, but the world it depicts is faithful to its real-life counterpart. Yet, instead of sticking to one enemy, the gamble is made to tackle the Arabs, the Russians and the Chinese all at once; most of the real, or imagined, enemies of the US. Being a spy story, you can also expect the mandatory plot twists, as well as globe-trotting.

At the menu screen, you are presented with five classes to choose for your agent, Michael Thorton's background; Soldier, Field Agent, Tech Specialist, Freelancer and Recruit, plus the additional Veteran, once the game is completed, and later, specializations. There are three training missions, which will outline what's in store during the rest of the adventure. At this point, you can also customize Thorton's appearance. As the game progresses, you can work under several different handlers, or analysts. As for the missions themselves, they aren't exactly Splinter Cell material, but they work nicely. As is the case with most action RPGs, you have your talent tree, as well as weapon upgrades.
I often ponder how RPGs can become such deep personal experiences; consider, for instance, the times an acquaintance plays a section of your game, and you hope they will not screw with your intended actions, your story, which you are building alongside the game's creators, and it is here that I find a resemblance to the relationship between author and reader; it takes two to make these narratives work. Alpha Protocol's story is credited to Brian Mitsoda, a writer and video game designer known for his screenplay to Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. In this title, he is responsible for at least two absolutely memorable characters; the shady Henry Leland, from the enigmatic Halbech Corp and his daunting ex chief of security, Conrad Marburg.
Some reviewers have written off this game due to its lack of polish; an appraisal which I find to be a huge blunder. I played the initial sections of this espionage game twice, and in doing so, came to the  realization of just how much the experience can differ if you make contrasting decisions. From how to engage the enemies, to winning over, or being disliked, by your co-workers, the freedom this game grants the player is rather unique. You can even negotiate with key opponents, a truly winning and innovative game mechanic, making the game a more organic experience, which somewhat reminded me of the digital-only I Am Alive.
The white elephant in the room, is that there are similarities between this game and Mass Effect 2, romancing and hacking mini-games included. Having said that, the sheer craftsmanship and attention to detail behind Alpha Protocol, makes it very much its own thing. In truth, Obsidian Entertainment's game may be even with the space opera trilogy, since for instance, the use of intel here, such as email, which you can even reply to, becomes of vital importance for your interactions and missions, in a similar manner to Bioware's admittedly thorough codex entries. Ultimately, Alpha Protocol offers a level of depth seldom seen in games; a good indication of this is that this reviewer actually read the game's manual.
In the end, this ingenious title seems to have ended up being everything the game The Bourne Conspiracy had aspired to, and then some. Also worthy of note, the game data, or hard drive installation, works in an enigmatic fashion, at least on the ps3. While on the back of the box, it reads "7 MB Required," in reality, the game data file increases as you progress in the title, finally reaching a much larger file size. As well, halfway through the game, the game began to ask for more memory, since I have a small HD. Nonetheless, it was most certainly worth it. Now where is the Game+ option?

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Beast is One Mile from New Marais

The original Infamous was released in the early days of the ps3, and this was evident in the graphical department, yet the game had a lot of verve, and rather polished gameplay, so it comes as no surprise that Infamous 2, presents graphical improvements, both in-game and during cut-scenes. After a showstopper of a prologue, featuring the powerful new enemy, The Beast, the game reveals the changes in the engine; the environment being much more responsive, in other words, you can now destroy things aplenty.

An even greater surprise is the political undercurrent present, as New Marais, where our hero Cole is supposed to get his new powers, is a thinly veiled post-Katrina New Orleans; as we are told through motion-comics, Cole had been there before practicing urban exploration, or parkour, during the disaster, and during this episode it is highlighted that the police were less than useful, in a place turned lawless. In fact, an area in New Marais' map, is actually called Flood Town; I doubt you can see people struggling to walk in waist-high water in other games. Now, the citizens of New Marais have employed a militia, of rednecks, as Cole puts it, to guard them against so-called deviants; powerful conduits such as Cole himself.

The greatest addition, is being able to work with other conduits similar to Cole; such as Kuo, the good girl, and Nix, the evil one; who are basically shoulder angels. These companions come in handy while fighting the beastly Ravagers. Melee combat has been greatly improved, with the introduction of The Amp, a weapon built by our hero's pal, Zeke, which is sort of an oversized metallic cattle prod, which Cole can swing at his enemies, often resulting in finishing moves. This becomes useful when going one-on-one against other conduits, such as the Corrupted, mutated citizens connected to the Big Bad; Bertrand. After all, as in the first game, the story's backdrop is constituted by a web of espionage and intrigue, with characters from different spy agencies, all salivating over the power of conduits.
The Infamous titles seem to always excel in the music department, and this proves to be true once again, with the delivery of another stupendous soundtrack. Contrary to what occurred with The Darkness II, in which they downtraded the main voice actor, Infamous 2 benefits from Cole's new voice, as it displays more pathos. The karma system doesn't break any new ground, it acts more like an excuse for a second playthrough, in which you may choose the path opposite from your original one. However, it dawned on me that, the moral system manifests itself more effectively in the little details; if you play as a hero, you are rewarded by cheering crowds, whereas, if you choose the evil path, citizens nearly hurl stones at you. There is even distinct good and evil music.
There are some memorable gaming moments found in Infamous 2; such a Godzilla-inspired section, and a turret mission with a twist; using a powerful UV light beam to ward off an attack of the Corrupted. As well, since there are areas constituted mainly of swamps, Cole has to be watchful of not getting electrocuted in the water, for instance, while being knocked over with force by a Ravager. This watery scenario can lead to the hilariously-named trophy, aptly titled "I'm As Shocked As You Are." Ultimately, what makes the series so enthralling, are the engaging sci-fi concepts, intermingled with the more grounded element of the friendship between two men, and its evolution.
New Marais is one of the best-crafted, most accomplished game cities on the ps3, with attention payed to the littlest details. The train tracks from the original have been replaced, in this outing, by trolley lines which you can grind on. Also this time around, the news reports made popular in the first game, appear in the corner of the screen, picture-in-picture. There is User-Generated-Content; admittedly, a great concept, and it adds longevity to the game. For this author, Infamous 2 is part of one of the most exciting sci-fi franchises released as of late; with continued expansion in gaming's Gen 8.