As much as I’d love to offer some serious, considered commentary on this week’s E3, I can’t.  I’m not there, obviously, and so everything I’m hearing about it is 100% hearsay.   I watched streams of the Microsoft, EA and Ubi presentations, but missed both Sony and Nintendo – and those would seem to be the 2 most important ones of the show.  Still, I’m a man with opinions, and so here’s my take on the week so far:

1.  First thing’s first – Giant Bomb’s podcasts have been amazing.  The first night featured an extended, uncensored conversation between Jonathan “Braid” Blow and Microsoft’s E and Stepto which got heated, a little bit, although still being respectful – I’d like to think that it was viewed as “constructive” on both sides.  The second night featured a riveting discussion between the outspoken David Jaffe (God of War, Twisted Metal), a programmer from the Uncharted team, and 2 dudes from DoubleFine, focusing on any number of interesting, “inside-baseball” topics – the development process, the creative process, the marketing process, the trouble with today’s games journalism, etc.  No idea how they’re going to top it tonight, but I’m very much looking forward to it.

2.  Everyone else has moved on by this point, but it bears mentioning:  when all is said and done, Mr. Caffeine was perhaps the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever seen.  I sincerely hope that guy’s out of a job by the end of the week.

3.  I have absolutely no desire for a Wii U.  I think it’s a colossal misstep for Nintendo.  And it’s got the dumbest name I’ve ever heard.

4.  The Playstation Vita is a damned sexy device, and I have to admit that $250 for the wi-fi only model is a very appealing price.  But I still think that the iPhone has fundamentally changed the handheld space, in almost every way that matters, and I can’t help but feel that I wouldn’t really play it all that much.

5.  Hearing lots of positive things about Uncharted 3, Batman, Tomb Raider, Bioshock Infinite, and Skyrim.  I am intrigued by Battlefield but maybe not enough to actually spring for it.  I am less intrigued by Modern Warfare 3.

Beyond that, there’s not much I can offer that you can’t see for yourself.  In the meantime, I can say that I’ve played the first 20 minutes of Infamous 2 – it’s pretty much the same game as last time, which isn’t the worst thing in the world.

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That was a pretty great press conference, actually – a lot better than I thought it would be.  I’m definitely glad to own a Kinect unit, that’s for sure; sure it’s been dry lately, but there’s a lot of really cool stuff coming.

OK, running down the list here…

Call Of Duty Modern Warfare 3 – that was a pretty great looking trailer, certainly; I’m kinda lukewarm on the COD series in general, and especially in light of the Infinity Ward craziness, but I could see myself renting this and enjoying the single-player campaign.

Tomb Raider – whoa.  Looks fantastic.  Love that Lara isn’t sassy and full of quips – she looks scared and vulnerable and the animation really reflects this well.  Nice QTE stuff, very Heavy Rain-esque.

EA Sports – not a lot revealed here, though it’s about time that Tiger Woods got some Kinect support.  (Not sure it’ll improve the putting game, but still.)  I wonder what the 4th game will be (besides Madden, Tiger and Fifa).

Mass Effect 3 – OK, here’s where the Kinect integration got exciting.  Voice recognition for dialogue trees is really cool.  Not so sure about giving combat orders through voice, but still – the conversation stuff looks great.

Ghost Recon Future Soldier – that Gunsmith thing looks fucking insane.

The new dashboard looks pretty rad.  YouTube is a great addition, and if there’s Kinect voice search to go along with it my wife and I may never leave the couch.  The Bing! stuff is interesting, too.  I’ll be more interested in the Live TV stuff if they get Time Warner Cable involved.

I don’t give a shit about the UFC, so…

Gears 3 – that looks like Gears 3.  At this point, my live stream was starting to fall apart, so I had a really tough time seeing how good this actually looked.  I wonder who would win in an arm wrestling / machismo contest between Marcus and Duke Nukem.

Ryse – OK, that’s a hard-core Kinect game.  I might need to get in shape in order to play this one properly.

Halo CE Anniversary – This sounds great in theory, but unless they fix all that backtracking in the 2nd half I kinda don’t give a shit.

Forza 4 – there’ll be more of this at the show, right?  Hard to judge from a trailer.  Still, I’m a fan of the series and this looks promising, as always.

Fable Journey – first person on-rails spellcasting?  OK…

Minecraft/Kinect – Fuck and yes.

Disney – don’t care.  Super-happy children freak me out.  Nobody should be that cheerful.

Kinect Star Wars – my wife will love the shit out of this.  Controls still look laggy, though, and I wonder if Kinect will record video of us playing and have us be the new Star Wars Kids.

Once Upon A Monster – if my wife and I ever have a kid, we’ll be playing this.  Hell, even if we don’t, we’ll be playing this.  THIS is how you have kids on stage, also.

Kinect Fun Labs – so this is where we get to play with all the cool Kinect hacks that were on YouTube last year?  SIGN ME UP.

Kinect Sports 2 – again, my video connection shorted out here, but I saw the intro, and I can at least get behind some of the sports involved.  Still not sure I’ll care after a week or so.

Dance Central 2 – I only know about this from Twitter.

Halo 4 – Yeah, I guess that’s pretty big news.

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So I more or less did everything I said I was going to do on Friday.

  • Played the Duke Nukem Forever demo.  I sincerely hope it’s the same demo that was released at PAX, which would explain how… unfinished it looks.  That said, it is what it is.  And in a strange way, I kinda like how dated it is – it’s almost refreshing.
  • Played the Infamous 2 demo, which also is what it is.  In related news, I got my “Welcome Back to PSN” freebies, one of which was the original Infamous.  Infamous 2 certainly looks better than the first one, which is no mean feat; the original looked great.  The new game has been getting generally positive reviews, although nobody thinks it’s better than the original; I suppose I can live with that.
  • Almost finished The Witcher 2 prologue; I’m done with the flashbacks and am now trying to escape from prison.  I am wondering if I should bother staying with it, now that a 360 version has been officially announced; I know it won’t look any better than it currently does on my PC (and it looks phenomenal there, to be sure), but I’m hoping it’ll at least have a better tutorial system.
  • Finished L.A. Noire – did both DLC missions, cleaned up a bunch of side missions, and also went back and 5-starred “The Golden Butterfly”, a Homicide case that I kept screwing up.  Still not happy with how that mission works.  ****MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD***** For one thing, I didn’t like either of the 2 suspects for the murder, but I had to choose one of them, and I’d kept choosing the husband (which kept resulting in a 2-star result).  Cole Phelps is too much of a golden boy to deliberately choose the pedophile, especially since the pedophile clearly didn’t do it.  There are way too many unanswered questions, also – certainly Cole should check out the pedophile’s workplace to see about the rope and the overalls?  And considering what happens at the conclusion of the Homicide story arc, the whole thing just feels pointless.
  • Inched my way forward in Dirt 3.  Did a little bit more of the Outbreak multiplayer mode; goddamn, that’s fun.

Microsoft’s press conference is in less than an hour from the time of this writing, and major news is breaking on Twitter – Halo 4 and an HD remake of Halo CE being the biggest.  I’m more or less done with the Halo franchise, but I suppose this is pretty big news all the same; I just hope it’s not the only big surprise.

Will post later today with impressions of the day’s keynotes.

I’m not entirely sure just how much gaming I’m going to be doing this weekend, but let’s get the obvious out of the way – as soon as I have the living room free, I’m firing up the Duke Nukem Forever demo.  I can’t tell you how weird it is to type that and not have it be part of some fever dream.  I do not expect it to be amazing – I expect it to feel somewhat dated and look a little rough around the edges, especially as this appears to be the same demo that was at PAX.  Be that as it may, I just want to play the damned thing.

Also hoping to get some time with the Infamous 2 demo.  I know the full game’s coming out next week, but still; I enjoyed the first one.  Glad I returned my copy of the first one, too, as it’s one of the Welcome Back freebies I plan on picking up just as soon as the bandwidth evens out.

Probably will get some Witcher 2 happening, as well as some Dirt 3.  I’m more or less done with L.A. Noire for the time being; I’ve downloaded all the DLC but I think I’m a little burned out on it.  I’m certainly burned out on the music that plays during the crime scene inspection sequences – that little horn swell has been stuck in my head for days.

As for E3 – I must admit, I’m getting a little excited.  I have no interest in Nintendo’s new console, but certainly I want to know what it is.  Likewise, I’m probably not going to get Sony’s new handheld, but I have to admit that it’s a pretty sexy piece of tech… it’s just that the iPhone covers all my handheld bases more than adequately.  Microsoft, having no new hardware to show off, would presumably be focusing on software – and that’s important, as their first-party lineup has been somewhat weak of late.

Beyond that, I’m really just looking forward to hearing about all the stuff I don’t know about yet.  Certainly I’m wanting to hear more details about Bioshock Infinite, Assassin’s Creed Revelations, Mass Effect 3, Tomb Raider, Uncharted 3, Skyrim and Batman: Arkham City, and I’d certainly like a fresh look at Bioware’s Star Wars MMO.  But, for whatever it’s worth, I’m not really aware of any major press conference leaks, which means that we might actually get some surprises next week.

What are you playing this weekend, then?

For a 3-day weekend, I didn’t get a tremendous amount of gaming happening.  I did finish Lego Pirates of the Caribbean, which is to say that I finished all the stages and unlocked a fair amount of extras.  And I did a bit more Dirt 3, including some of the amazingly fun multiplayer – the Zombie mode, or whatever it’s called, is incredibly fun.  But I ultimately spent the most time getting back into L.A. Noire.

I was emailing back and forth with a friend about it.  He had been asking when I was going to be online in Dirt 3, and I’d told him I was almost done with L.A. Noire and that I’d be all over Dirt 3 once I’d finished the last few cases.  And so then he asked:

So now that you are most of the way through [the game] and well into the development of the over-arching story, are you loving it?

And I responded:

I don’t know that I’m loving it.  I’m enjoying it, certainly, and I am appreciative of what it is and what it took to make it.  But for all it does to immerse you in the world, it does a thousand other small, subtle things that totally throw you out and reminds you that it is a game.  The interrogations, in particular, are so beholden to a particular, specific formula that you almost wonder why they bothered with the facial animation tech in the first place.  And there’s been lots of times where my own brain is ahead of Cole Phelps’ brain, and so he never asks the questions that I want to ask.  Part of this is because of those newspapers – I don’t know if you’ve been diligent in picking them up, but they’ve been telegraphing where the overall story is headed – so much so that it almost broke the game for me at several points.

I should also confess that I’ve been using a walkthrough for the last few missions, because I hate getting questions wrong.  Does that take all the challenge out of the game?  Yes, pretty much; I’d been doing great in terms of clue gathering, and I’ve been having my partner do all the driving since it’s impossible for me to not crash into a thousand cars and lampposts and pedestrians just going around the corner.  The sandbox element feels totally unnecessary and not particularly interesting, either – certainly not in the way that it worked for RDR and GTA.

Now, look – I’ll be the first person to acknowledge that using walkthroughs, especially in a game like L.A. Noire, essentially defeats the purpose of playing the game in the first place, even if the walkthrough in question doesn’t actually spoil the story, but rather simply gives you all the right answers to the interrogations.  I’ve been saying ever since the beginning that the interrogations are the most problematic part of L.A. Noire, and judging from all the podcasts I’ve listened to, I know I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Like I said above, the essential problem with the interrogations is that once you get past the astoundingly good facial animation, you are left with a very basic template that never, ever changes or deviates, and so whatever immersion you might have had in the animation is ripped out from under you as soon as it’s time to react.  Let’s say that you ask the Person of Interest a question.  The POI will say something in response to your question, and then immediately start acting, usually betraying everything that they just saidThey’ll forcefully say “There’s absolutely no goddamned way that I could’ve murdered that person,” and then as soon as they stop talking they’ll immediately start twitching and grinding their teeth, and if you think they’re lying they’ll suddenly get brazen and say “Well why don’t you prove it, flatfoot!”   Let’s leave aside the obvious observation that real conversations never work like this, and let’s also leave side the weird disconnect in the player character’s attitudes when confronting a lie (gently) and being doubtful (flying off the handle).  The main problem that I’ve been having is that I never seem to be able to ask the questions that I want to ask.  Either my own personal brain is ahead of the game, or else I’m on a path that’s utterly disconnected from the correct line of questioning.  And when I’m actually asking the right questions, I’m still generally 50/50 when it comes to confronting a lie with what I believe is the right piece of corroborating evidence.

That’s mostly my problem, I suppose.  But the fact that lots of other people are having problems with it leads me to believe that maybe it isn’t just my fault.

The last thing in my email, though, is part of the larger problem I have with the game – that the sandbox element feels unnecessary.  I totally get that having a real post-war L.A. is an incredible achievement, and I really truly wish that I could spend more time exploring it.  Problem is, there’s really no incentive to do so; the side missions feel obligatory (most of them are 20 second shoot-outs) and the hidden collectibles are so well hidden that I wouldn’t even know about them if I hadn’t been told they were there.  The one side thing that I’ve been diligent about collecting is the newspapers, and even then, they’ve revealed so much of the backstory that I almost feel like I know too much – for example, the events that mark the transition from Ad Vice to Arson were more or less telegraphed in one particular newspaper that was almost impossible to ignore, which more or less ruined the surprise.

But there’s a solution to this problem.  In fact, there’s a solution to most of the problems I have with L.A. Noire, and it’s a solution that would make L.A. Noire 2 better for everybody.  And it’s a solution that seems kinda obvious, so much so that I have to wonder if the developers knew it also, but had spent so long working on what they’d already come up with that to switch gears would cause more problems than it would solve.

The solution:  your player character in L.A. Noire 2 is a private detective.  Here’s 4 quick reasons why that works:

1.  Suddenly, the sandbox makes sense.  A private detective can run around L.A. and do things – he can go to the fights, he can gamble at the tracks, he can explore – he’s not beholden to the law in the same way a police officer is, especially a golden boy like Cole Phelps.

2.  Similarly, the side missions could be more varied.  The photography missions alone would be more interesting than the shoot-outs we’re currently working with.

3.  A private eye fits the noir mold a thousand times more than a police officer.  He can be darker, he can be mysterious, he can be drunk, he can wear his regret on his sleeves.  Cole Phelps is more of an automaton than a living, breathing person – and while there might be a good, as yet unrevealed reason why that is, a private eye is more interesting right from the get-go.

4.  I’m guessing that a private eye’s interrogations wouldn’t be as formalized as a police officer’s interrogations, but that would certainly make them a hell of a lot more interesting and varied.

I appreciate that L.A. Noire’s current set-up works, in a certain way – the progression of Cole’s career is broken into desks, which also vary up the cases and put him in different situations.  It’s just that it never feels as gritty or as dirty as it could.  I’m not saying that a future L.A. Noire game has to be like GTA – it’s just that it has the potential to be so much more than it already is.

1.  I downloaded The Witcher 2 yesterday, in a moment of weakness.  (As it happens, I downloaded it right when the 1.1 patch was coming out, which meant that I ended up downloading the whole thing twice.)  I gave it a very quick 5 minute look, just to see it.  And you know what?  The reviewers weren’t kidding around – this game doesn’t explain anything.  I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing and no idea how to do anything.  At a certain point the game told me about meditating before battle, and how to pull up the meditation menu.  OK, but the menu is just filled with runes, without any explanation as to what the runes mean, or why I need to meditate.  The game’s gotten too many great reviews for me to dismiss it so quickly, but when a game makes such a horrendous first impression, what the hell are you supposed to do?

2.  Spent a number of hours powering through Lego Pirates of the Caribbean; I finished the 3rd movie yesterday before powering off.  I’ve played a lot of Lego games – not all of them, but certainly most of them – and Pirates is pretty good, I guess.  Certainly it’s the prettiest.  But it’s also locked up on my 360 more than a few times – Lego games in general tend to do that, but Pirates is the worst offender by far.  I haven’t seen the 4th movie yet and so I’m not sure what enjoyment I’m going to get out of playing the 4th movie, especially since the cutscene shorthand really only makes sense if you know what the scenes are referring to.  Still, it’s fun enough, I suppose, and Lego Jack Sparrow is a sight (and sound!) to behold.

3.  I’m a few races into my 2nd season in Dirt 3.  I’ve been starting to mess around with the assists; I turned all of them off yesterday for a few races, and found that I had a much easier time staying on the road (although the cars felt a lot heavier and stiffer).  I don’t hate the Gymkhana events the way other people do; I’m not very good at them, but they’re certainly a pleasant enough diversion and you don’t have to try terribly hard in order to pass each event and move on to the next thing.  My only real complaint is that one of the announcers has an overtly “dude” vibe and likes to call me “amigo” and I kinda want to punch him in the face, repeatedly.

4.  With all this going on, I’ve kinda put L.A. Noire on hold, and this worries me a bit because I’m afraid that if I wait too much longer, I’m never going to go back.  And that would be a shame.  I’ve certainly cooled off on it a little bit, but it’s still a remarkably unique experience and I’d very much like to see where it goes.

You’re not going to be coming here for your E3 needs, I know, but I’ll be offering up some opinions just the same.  I’m not entirely sure how this year’s edition is going to pan out.  Last year’s had some clear themes – motion control and 3D – and I suppose that the bulk of the media attention this year will be focused on the new Nintendo console and Sony’s new handheld.  2011’s release calendar doesn’t leave a lot of room for surprises – we all know what’s coming at this point – so my personal focus will be on what’s coming up in 2012.

Have a wonderful 3-day weekend, everyone.  Stay safe!  And I’ll most likely be on XBL Saturday night, if you want to get something going.

This past weekend was my 7-year anniversary with the wife, so you can probably surmise that there wasn’t a tremendous amount of videogame time to be had.  Still, I managed to finish the Homicide desk in L.A. Noire, and the wife and I knocked out the first level of Lego Pirates of the Caribbean in co-op.

Let me get the Lego game out of the way – it’s quite good, as far as Lego games go, and it doesn’t seem to radically change the tried-and-true formula.  Certainly it’s very good looking.  My main problem with it, after about 20 minutes of gameplay, is the co-op camera.  I’ve not really done much co-op in other Lego games, so I’m not sure how the camera compares, but the co-op camera in Pirates is fucking ridiculous.  I appreciate what it’s trying to do, but it’s incredibly distracting and ultra-sensitive when it doesn’t need to be, and if anything it causes more harm than good.

My wife isn’t a gamer, as she’ll readily admit.  But she knows I am, obviously, and I try my darnedest to either (a) keep my gaming time from intruding on her TV time, or (b) keep her engaged with what I’m doing.  We’ve played Rock Band together, which is fun, and we recently completed the Portal 2 co-op campaign together, which was wonderful.  (She wrote about her experience here.)  I’d very much like to keep playing Lego Pirates with her, but that camera will need to be dealt with.

As to L.A. Noire… well, as I said before, I finished the Homicide desk very late on Saturday, and the wife helped me a bit with the interrogations.  It’s hard to talk about what I want to talk about without getting into spoiler territory, but I’m going to work under the presumption that if you’re reading this, you probably don’t care.  In any event, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.

**********SPOILERS BELOW************

Let me say, firstly, that I’m enjoying L.A. Noire immensely.  I’m not totally 100% in love with it, but it should be noted that it’s a fantastic technical achievement, and I must salute Rockstar, Take Two and Team Bondi for taking such a bold, experimental risk.

I’ve read a bunch of complaints from players and reviewers (this Kotaku piece in particular) about how the game isn’t open enough; you don’t really have much to do in this meticulously-designed city when you’re not in the mood to crack a case.  I guess I understand that, but I think that’s their own fault for expecting the game to be something it never claimed to be.  If anything, I think that the open-world element feels a bit shoe-horned in; it’s not really all that necessary, and considering that you can fast-travel from location to location anyway, it can be downright irrelevant.  I generally ignore radio dispatches when I’m working a case, and I haven’t really done any exploring beyond figuring out the map system and simply trying to get from point A to point B.  Considering how much collateral damage I incur when I drive, I prefer fast-travelling, frankly.

If I have any real complaints at this stage in the game, it’s that, well, for all of its valiant attempts at immersion and cinematic presentation, it can still feel very game-y in spots, especially in the interrogation sequences.  I’ve gotten a little bit better at them since my first write-up, but I’ve still never gotten all of them right in a case.  The irony, of course, is that the conclusion of the Homicide desk story arc pretty much renders all the previous interrogations irrelevant anyway.  I suppose it’s a neat twist if you didn’t see it coming, but I knew something was off, and as soon as I’d heard mention of a temp bartender in one of the later cases (after already meeting one towards the beginning of the arc – and a “temp bartender” is somewhat eye-catching to begin with), I started getting ideas that would soon be confirmed.

That story arc has some other significant plot holes, too, that don’t really hold up under scrutiny, the main one being that it just seems a bit too contrived that the serial killer could find that many women to murder with husbands that easy to frame.

More to the point, though, it makes me less inclined to replay those missions in an effort to 5-star all the cases since I know I’m going to be putting the wrong people away every time.

**********END SPOILERS**************

Tomorrow comes the arrival of Dirt 3, which I’m tremendously excited about.  It’s been too long since I’ve played a good driving game.

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