Wednesday, April 24, 2024

First Play Review - Beyond: Two Souls [2020]

Continuing my exploration of Quantic Dream's former PlayStation exclusive interactive drama games, I find myself at 2013's Beyond: Two Souls which finally got a Steam release in 2020 Following up Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain was a tall enough order for writer producer David Cage whose games stand out for their cinematic presentation, emotional storytelling, and unique gameplay mechanics.

Beyond: Two Souls follows the life of Jodie Holmes, wonderfully portrayed by the talented Elliot Page (credited as Ellen Page), a young woman linked to an incorporeal entity named Aiden. Over 15 years of Jodie's life, we witness her struggles, triumphs, and the mysterious connection she shares with Aiden. It can be played in a chronological fashion but the original narrative is non-linear, jumping back and forth through different periods of Jodie's life, which adds more depth layers to the story and keeps one engaged. Willem Defoe also stars as Nathan Dawkins, a researcher in the Department of Paranormal Activity who studies Jodie and her connection to Aiden and is also her surrogate-father-figure.

While it will come across as a bit contrived and one might notice some plot threads not satisfactory concluded, it's the storytelling that is the hallmark of Quantic Dream's catalogue. Beyond: Two Souls is no different and not unlike the investigations of Cage's previous characters, the narrative here tackles themes of identity, love, loss, life and death, and the supernatural with both maturity and depth. You guide Jodie through pivotal moments in her life, and you are confronted with moral dilemmas that have far-reaching consequences, shaping the eventual outcome(s) of the story. The branching narrative does encourage multiple playthroughs to explore alternate paths and endings but I committed myself to explore one path and live with the consequences even if it meant only experiencing 80% of the game. I believe save-scumming would be much more disruptive to the narrative flow in this genre than in an RPG. The story suffers slightly from a pacing issue with some sequences being overly long while others too short and feel rushed, but this isn't enough to detract from the overall experience too much.

In a game that is telling a cinematic quality story, the visuals are just as important and graphically the game is stunning for a 2013 PS3 game representing a high point for the console. It did receive an update for the PS4 in 2015 and the PC version supports 4K 60FPS with HBAO making it the definitive experience, and what an experience it is. The motion capture performances, lifelike character models and detailed environments blur the line between cinema and gaming, lending a greater sense of immersion. 

Quantic Dream have always created unique control systems for their games and Beyond: Two Souls is no different. It might be more intuitive on the PS controller but there is a learning curve on the PC. You have the point, click and drag mechanics as in previous titles but it's a different system here that certainly isn't everyone's cup of tea. Quick Time Events remain at the forefront, and you have to press specific buttons or perform actions within a time limit to progress. It's more involved than clicking a choice or "next" in a visual novel but nowhere near the complexity of an action game. The gameplay here serves the purpose of driving the story forward while immersing you in the cinematic experience in a unique interactive way and not as significant an aspect as in most other games. New to this game is being able to switch the player character, here between Jodie and Aiden, where the entity can manipulate the environment with supernatural abilities to aid Jodie in her activity.

The performances by Page and Dafoe, both award winning actors are flawlessly captured, incredibly nuanced, and elevate the emotional depth of the narrative significantly. The script for the game was around 2,000 pages long (compared with an average screenplay between 95 and 125 pages where each page is approximately one minute of screen time). "We'd do 30, 40 pages a day. It's insane compared to a film," Page said in an interview. "Jodie goes through a lot". Scottish composer Lorne Balfe composed a haunting and evocative score for score producer Hans Zimmer following the death of Fahrenheit score supervisor and Heavy Rain composer Normand Corbeil for whom this game is dedicated to.

Final Verdict: Beyond: Two Souls was the second game ever to be premiered at the Tribecca Film Festival so deep rooted is Cage's commitment to blurring the lines and pushing the boundaries between gaming and cinema and to even appeal to non-gamers. With its stellar performances, stunning visuals, and emotionally resonant narrative, it stands as a testament to the potential of interactive storytelling. While it certainly won't appeal to more hard-core gamers who desire total control over their in-game actions I maintain it's a unique and memorable journey that deserves to be experienced.

Technicals: 11.1 hours playtime though Windows 11 with RTX4070Ti @ 3440x1440/60.

Bugs: There was one sequence where I failed to manipulate the character's actions on screen. After a dozen attempts I gave up and continued on without issue without performing the action. I don't get the impression it was a significant branching choice in retrospect.

Beyond: Two Souls is available from Steam or GOG for €19.99 with significant sales occasionally. Reviewed copy purchased from Green Man Gaming in Dec 2020 for 7.96.

Quantic Dream releases (PS3/Console)[PC]

Parts of this review were generated by Chat GPT for time.

Sunday, April 07, 2024

First Play Review: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered [2016]

Note this review is for the 2016 release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered, a remastered version of the original Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare from 2007 and not to be confused with the 'reboot' Call of Duty: Modern Warfare from 2019. 

In 2007 Infinity Ward left the WWII era behind after phenomenal success with Call of Duty and Call of Duty 2 and brought the franchise to the modern day for their third game Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. It was quite a gamble to break from the comfort zone of Nazi-occupied Europe and leap into present day warfare, but it paid off. CoD4:MW was even more of a success, garnering countless awards from arts organisations and gaming publications. By 2013 it had sold more than 15 million copies.

In 2016 a remastered version of CoD4:MW was released with special edition copies of that years Infinity Ward release Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. The remaster was developed by long time Call of Duty franchise assistant developers Raven Software who have made some of my favourite games. So rather than purchase a digital version of CoD4:MW to replay at some point in the future I decided to obtain Raven's remaster instead. 

The remaster itself is perfect because other than obviously superior visuals, there was no discernable changes. I was once again able to to wield many of the incredible tools of war used today such as manning the weapons of an AC-130 Gunship, which flies above the battlefield and fires 105mm rounds that decimate the enemy; make big explosions with Javelin missiles, which drop straight down to hit the thinner top armour of tanks; and cycle through a small arsenal of both light and heavy personal weapons featuring a variety of scopes and augmentations.
Unlike the previous Call of Duty's, Modern Warfare presents one continuous story. You hop between perspectives of a British S.A.S. soldier and a U.S. Marine 1st Force Recon operator. These leaps continue the progression of the story. Although I recalled many elements of the story since I last played, I had forgotten how a very effective tool the different perspectives were in telling it. The story itself isn't quite Tom Clancy but it still one of the most dramatically cinematic and exciting video-game plots as you can get, revolving around stolen Russian nukes and Middle-Eastern terrorists. The game is enhanced by Harry Gregson-Williams and Steven Barton's score lending a Hollywood class accompaniment to the experience.

The best thing here is the combat and gameplay. It's as much a linear and corridor shooter as its predecessors but the speed at which you need to perform actions is increased significantly. There many more enemies than the WWII CoDs and they're smarter too thanks to some refined AI. The bastards usually know to stay in cover. And they also know that you, being a well-trained soldier, aren't going to fight in the open, so they fling dozens of grenades and fire RPGs at you. They are trying to flush you out. Most cars explode and will kill you if you are standing beside them so one has to MOVE! Stay still and you die; Movement is life.

Fortunately, your squad-mates also benefit from some audacious programming. In this CoD game you're not in command either; you do the following not the leading and you're treated like a grunt from the start by your teammates. Speaking of: watch out for Billy Murray (The Bill) playing a decedent of the WWII CoD's Captain Price and Craig Fairbrass (Cliffhanger) as Gaz. It might be my imagination but in the remaster they don't stand in your way as much as they used to, and while you're aiming and fighting faster than ever now, that's only a good thing as you're less likely to kill your own men.

Final Verdict: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was one of the best first-person-shooters on the market. While it was easily Infinity Ward's greatest work at the time, it was actually not too revolutionary, nor did it have to be. Raven did the did the best thing they could have done here and changed relatively nothing other than give an already perfect game a new coat of paint to be enjoyed by a new generation just as veterans enjoyed the original. Replaying the story here, however short (it is at just 5 hours) brought back how well crafted the whole original experience was and the remaster makes it absolutely sublime.

Technicals: 5 hours playtime using a Nvidia 4070Ti @ 3440x1440 with max settings on Windows 11. Windows HDR enabled.

Bugs: Two crashes. Solved by turning off shader preloading.

Availability: The pricing of the Call of Duty franchise still suffers from a phenomenal level of greed from Activision, even following the Microsoft acquisition. The €40 pricetag that's placed on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered cannot be justified as multiplayer is filled with hackerbots. Review copy purchased from Steam while on sale for €25.99 in Nov 2017.

Call of Duty series (PC Only):

Call of Duty [2003]
- Call of Duty: United Offensive [2004]
Call of Duty 2 [2005]
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare  [2007]
Call of Duty: World at War [2008]
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 [2009]
Call of Duty: Black Ops [2010]
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 [2011]
Call of Duty: Black Ops II [2012]
Call of Duty: Ghosts [2013]
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare [2014]
Call of Duty: Black Ops III [2015]
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare [2016]

- Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered [2016]
Call of Duty: WWII [2017]
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 [2018]
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare [2019]
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War [2020]

- Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Campaign Remastered [2020]
Call of Duty: Vanguard [2021]
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II [2022]
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III [2023]