Month: November 2018

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review — Say No to Rockstar

by Jed Pressgrove

Red Dead Redemption 2 is another glorified riff on Grand Theft Auto III, best enjoyed by those looking to control something of a juvenile delinquent in a sandbox. The game tries to gussy itself up as an immersive western in a world full of possibilities, but even a 10-year-old could make a grocery list of everything that developer Rockstar botches along the way.

The game’s “You can be a cowboy” conceit comes from its attention to the details of everyday life. You have to eat, but eat too much and you become overweight, which affects health and stamina. You have to clean your horse, as well as ride it for uneventful distances so as to feel the toil of travel. You have to take baths (or have, predictably, a woman do the scrubbing for you, with her hand seemingly going straight for the protagonist’s crotch when all you told her to do was wash one of your arms — an open world indeed!). One could go on and on. While these rote activities are neither fun, nor inventive, nor representative of everything that would need to be taken care of in a western setting, the intention is for players to lose themselves in some sense of realism.

Rockstar can’t sell realism however, as Red Dead Redemption 2 is the same game where if you’re on the run after committing murder, all you have to do is stay away from the red part of your map and, later, pay a bounty at a post office. Rockstar fanboys might quickly point out that the player could clear bounties in the first Red Dead Redemption, but once you stop pretending that you work for Rockstar PR and consider that this sequel obviously wants its western setting to be more convincing, you might realize that the entire game is not consistent or creative.

It’s also difficult to become immersed when you have to press and hold a button — as opposed to efficiently tapping a button once — to make your character hitch his horse and when your character doesn’t do anything for 5 to 10 seconds before awkwardly getting down and performing the action. (Note: This scenario assumes that when you approach a place to hitch a horse, the on-screen prompt to hitch your horse will appear, which doesn’t always happen.) The lack of basic responsiveness in the controls puts a spotlight on the fact that you are playing a 2018 game that feels clunkier than the average title. This is the same kind of problem that, earlier this year, prevented Kingdom Come: Deliverance from achieving a degree of verisimilitude on the PS4.

Let’s say we want to be 15 years old and think of an open world game as a place to cut up and be a depraved, no-good, piece-of-shit maniac. You can’t do it in this game. You can’t, say, kill your entire camp and forget about all of those generic missions they send you on. You can’t even draw your weapon in the camp. The game actually forces you to move slower in the camp, just to remind you that these people are your friends (even though, after eating some community stew, Arthur Morgan throws the bowl and utensil on the ground like an entitled 2-year-old). Red Dead Redemption 2 is too conservative to offer real freedom and meaningful consequences, unlike 1997’s Fallout.

The silliest thing about Red Dead Redemption 2 is how clumsily it strives to be a good western by evoking elements of popular western stories. Dutch, the leader of the gang of which Arthur Morgan is a member, recalls the voices of western actors Richard Boone and Powers Boothe but carries none of their palpable menace. A prominent fistfight in the mud during the game clearly wants to compete with a similar scene in the third season of Deadwood, but it can’t because it barely takes enough time to build dramatic tension before the fight and drags on anti-climatically as you grapple with the delay between when you press buttons and when your avatar moves. Dutch’s gang resembles that group of lawbreakers in The Wild Bunch, and as with that (in)famous squad in Sam Peckinpah’s brilliant film, their mythological way of life can’t last in an increasingly modernized world. But even though Peckinpah’s film displays some sentimentality for the loss of myth, The Wild Bunch doesn’t have a musing as corny as the one in Red Dead Redemption 2 that goes, “We’re bad men, but we ain’t them, so it’s ok.” That bit, along with another character’s patronizing white-guilt observation about the plight of American Indians (“Poor bastards … we really screwed them over down here”), epitomizes the phony maturity on display in Rockstar’s latest tired nod to formula.

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Guacamelee! 2 Review — A Tremendous Step Forward

by Jed Pressgrove

As entertaining as the original Guacamelee! could be as a brawler-platformer and ode to Mexican culture, its imagination only went so far. You could see that in the patronizing and predictable reference to the falling-bridge dynamic in Super Mario Bros.’s Bowser battles; the very limited abilities of hero Juan’s chicken form (an inferior nod to Metroid’s morph ball); and the inclusion of a basic turbo meter in the Super Turbo Championship Edition of the game, just in case you couldn’t already imagine that the developers loved Street Fighter II.

Guacamelee! 2 doesn’t repeat these mistakes. The homages have become vehicles for increasingly complex mechanics and bizarre parody. Hilariously, the chicken form now comes with an intricate moveset that introduces new ways to extinguish enemies and land on seemingly out-of-reach platforms. And because you must switch dimensions as in the first game, Guacamelee! 2 presents numerous situations where you must decide which form will aid you the most as you try to keep up with the tests of ever-evolving level design. Not since Resident Evil 4 has a game maintained such a ferocious pace.

This sequel also sets a higher bar for video-game comedy. Although the game stumbles when it mocks turn-based combat (Jack King-Spooner’s Will You Ever Return? 2 features a more emotionally charged, not to mention more concise, takedown of such conventions), its humor is otherwise sharp and welcome, as when the entitled gamer mentality is satirized (“Is there a mod for removing the rubbish memes?”). In a send-up of pop gaming’s lack of proper suspense, at one point you come across at least five signs warning you of danger ahead on a path. And while Guacamelee! 2 centers itself on the idea of gaining new abilities, it also invites one to laugh at the overplayed obsession with becoming more powerful in games with nonsensical allusions to the protagonist’s newly gained “Fresh Breath,” “Papercut Immunity,” and “Stain Resistance.”

Since Guacamelee! 2 demands the player to integrate a wider variety of techniques, it can be a trial at times to play, as when you find yourself on a treadmill where you must strategically transform between human and cock to avoid being incinerated by moving walls of lava that speak to the game’s interdimensional madness. But there is not a more strangely cathartic moment in 2018 than when the game predestines the player to achieve a 600-hit combo as an overgrown chicken. If Guacamelee! shows that DrinkBox Studios merely adores the art form of video games, then Guacamelee! 2, like 2016’s spectacular dungeon-crawler Severed, proves that the developer is one of the most brilliant artists working in the medium.

Dead Cells Review — Moderation Is Boring

by Jed Pressgrove

I’ve seen more than one person say that Dead Cells is for people who dislike that type of game in which players must replay stages every time they die. But in pandering to such a close-minded audience, Dead Cells shows little conviction. When you die in this game, you do have to replay certain levels, but others may be skipped once you gain fundamental abilities. This arbitrary contradiction in design leaves me not wanting to play any of the game; Dead Cells’ lukewarm approach to levels reminds me of that silly moderate who condemns the atrocities of Hitler but always points out that the thin-mustached villain did some good things. It doesn’t help that its action is shallow and predictable compared to that of Guacamelee! 2, Spider-Man, and God of War; that its humor is as forced as Axiom Verge’s; and that its random item drops and occasional souped-up enemies suggest that developer Motion Twin has a superficial understanding of what made the first two Diablo games memorable.