Monthly Archives: October 2013

Lego Marvel Super Heroes Review

I’ve battled robots, supervillains, and henchmen beyond number through the streets of New York, through the halls of Asgard, under the sea, on the deck of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, and in space. And I’m only moments away from foiling Doctor Doom’s nefarious, world-threatening plans, whatever they may be. Lego Marvel Super Heroes has arrived, transforming the Marvel universe into a Lego playground bursting with wit and diversity.

Lego Marvel Super Heroes starts with a standard comic book plot and runs with it. In the game’s opening cutscene, Doctor Doom has destroyed the Silver Surfer’s surfboard and hired every available supervillain to gather the board’s cosmic brick components in order to create his Doom Ray of Doom. The plot has various super teams, such as the Avengers, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four–as well as solo heroes–working to recover the cosmic bricks while various villains swoop in to stop them.

Just three of the 150 characters you can unlock in Lego Marvel Super Heroes.

The game revels in the cheesiness and over-the-top attitude that characterize Marvel comics. The playful writing has the characters bouncing jokes off each other, and skilled voice actors chew up the scenery with every snarl. A series of background jokes–such as Nick Fury evoking the 2012 Avengers movie by asking about lunch, and a nearby S.H.I.E.L.D. agent quickly producing a takeout shawarma menu–rewards a keen eye and comic book knowledge. Upon finishing a level, you see Lego workers sweep up the damage you’ve caused, while Agent Coulson amusingly offers coffee and snacks to those around him.

The Lego games have always found ways to sing new songs to a familiar rhythm. You enter a level, smash or blast everything around you, snag the Lego pips that rain down, and perform superpowers and assemble machines that allow you to enter the next area. You’ve tapped your feet to this gameplay beat before, but Lego Marvel Super Heroes keeps things snappy, barely giving you time to breathe before ushering you to the next heroic task. The Marvel connection is a delightful complement to the spirited pace from the very beginning; the first characters you play with are Iron Man and the Hulk, and the first level involves smashing everything within New York’s Grand Central Station.

What better way to fight evil than Howard the Duck with a rocket launcher?

Unlocking new playable characters is another returning joy, thanks to the varied array of superpowers at your disposal. You can dive into a group of enemies as Wolverine and claw through everything in front of you, or harness Jean Grey’s significant powers and hurl opponents into each other like human bowling pins. Either way, your slain opponents explode into dozens of tiny Lego blocks that serve as the game’s primary currency. Each major character offers a different kind of gameplay mechanic, making it fun to jump into the battle and take down groups of enemies–even if your character of choice is Howard the Duck toting a powerful rocket launcher.

Your first campaign runthrough is only the starter course: you unlock loads of characters and content that make Lego Marvel Super Heroes worth returning to. Dizzying numbers of characters, locations, vehicles, and landmarks you’ve loved from the Marvel world have been translated into Lego form, and once you discover the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, you may explore New York as any character you’ve unlocked and take on missions as you see fit. The game’s Free Play mode taps into the compulsive need to unearth every secret and unlock every door by encouraging you to replay levels as different characters, thus gaining access to areas previously closed off.

Inviting graphics, surging music, and great interactions between characters make for breezy entertainment.

Lego Marvel Super Heroes looks and sounds lovely, but its presentation quirks often prove distracting. Certain characters repeat the same lines of dialogue ad infinitum, which can get tiresome; there are only so many times you can hear Tony Stark proudly describe himself as “Tony Stark…genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” before it gets old. The frame rate occasionally drops, particularly upon entering co-op mode, and a small black box occasionally appeared in the air over my characters’ heads towards the end of the game. At one point, my character would respawn directly next to his still-present corpse, while a boss fight against Red Skull had me wandering around the room for several minutes looking for scenery to smash before I realized I had encountered a bug and had to restart the level.

In spite of such troubles, inviting visuals, surging music, and hilarious character interactions make for breezy entertainment. Weird moments, such as accidentally turning Mr. Fantastic into a tea kettle, and Iron Man doing the robot, further widen the smile you’re sure to be wearing on your face. It’s moments like these, along with taking down a suit of flying Hulkbuster armor via the House Party protocol from Iron Man 3–wherein half a dozen Iron Man suits soar in to pound on your opponent–that keep you coming back for more. Whether you’re looking for a way to take down the Juggernaut or working to help a random citizen in Free Play mode, Lego Marvel Super Heroes is all sorts of web-slinging, shield-flinging, Hulk-smashing fun.

Call of Duty: Ghosts – Free Fall Gameplay Trailer

Watch the first gameplay footage from Free Fall, a downloadable bonus multiplayer map for Call of Duty: Ghosts.

Call of Duty: Ghosts to be available for pre-load on PS3

Activision’s upcoming first-person shooter Call of Duty: Ghosts will be available for PlayStation 3 users to pre-load prior to launch.

As revealed on the official PlayStation blog, customers who pre-order Call of Duty: Ghosts via the PlayStation Store will be able to begin downloading the game on Sunday, November 3, from 3pm Pacific Time. The game will be available to play on release day, November 5, from midnight PT.

Both the standard game and Digital Hardened Edition will be available for pre-load.

Developer Infinity Ward recently confirmed that the game would be run in native 720p on the Xbox One, while the PS4 version will be native 1080p. Call of Duty: Ghosts will be available as a launch title on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

The game launches on November 5 for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, and Wii U.

Path of Exile – Ask GameSpot

We explore the depths of Path of Exile by answering some general questions about the game.

Eidos-developed Final Fantasy possible, says Lighting Returns director

Square Enix has considered tapping Tomb Raider and Deus Ex developer Eidos to create an all-new Final Fantasy game, though no decisions have been made. Speaking with OXM, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII gameplay director Yuji Abe said Square Enix is open to the idea, if the circumstances supported it.

“Obviously, Square Enix bought out Eidos a number of years ago, and now we have direct access to American development teams,” Abe said. “That’s certainly been discussed within the company, the possibility of say, Eidos or maybe someone else to look after or maybe take on the Final Fantasy series.”

“And we obviously haven’t decided anything concrete, but if we find the right team of developers, the right people who really wanted to do it, and we had the right game, then yes, certainly we’d think about it,” he continued.

Lightning Returns director Motomu Toriyama agreed.

“The whole thing about the Final Fantasy series is that for every iteration, for every game we do, we have a very different game,” Toriyama said. “So the development team is also different every time, so that there’s different ideas and different concepts driving it.”

“So obviously within that framework, having a very different type of team could work,” he added. “So if we got the right team of people, it could produce something very interesting in the end.”

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII will be released in February 2014 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

WWE 2K14 Review

Who’s the greatest showman of the 20th century? Michael Jackson? Harry Houdini? Or maybe you’re partial to Ted Danson. These are all fine choices, if you like going the obvious route. How about someone who transformed the flashy fisticuffs of professional wrestling into an art form? Enter Randy Savage. No one else could have made sequined robes seem like the perfect attire for a burly man. And it’s not like my high opinion of Savage is because of my hazy memory. His gruff, stilted speech and deliberate mannerisms enthrall me just as much today as they did so many years ago. The Macho Man was a theatrical genius, and the embodiment of everything that makes professional wrestling so compelling.

When the wrestlers of my youth faded into the sunset, so too did my interest in the WWE. But the nostalgic flame of yesteryear still burns inside me. All of those old feelings were rekindled in WWE 2K14. There’s a mode called 30 Years of WrestleMania that focuses on the history of wrestling’s Super Bowl. I got a warm glow in my chest when I replayed some of these classic matches. Remember when The Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan exchanged clotheslines in the center of the ring? Oh, how thrilling it was to see these two titans go toe-to-toe to settle whatever feud they had. By the end of the fight, Warrior’s face paint had chipped away, and we could finally see what the real man looked like. And then there was the time Andre the Giant callously tossed hundred-dollar bills after triumphing over Big John Studd. Such a blatant and hilarious disregard for money!

Randy Savage will always be a champion.

WWE 2K14’s celebration of its prestigious history is very well done. We expect entrance themes and costumes to be ripped from the archives, but the game goes even further than that. By completing historical objectives within each match, brief cutscenes are cued up that mirror what happened in real life so many years ago. Have Hulk initiate a grapple outside of the ring against Andre the Giant, and watch the galoot from Grenoble headbutt the ring post just as Hogan ducks away. These scenarios are so expertly crafted that they drew me in completely to the main event. And even when I had never seen the match in the first place, I was still roped in to the drama because of how well it’s presented.

By the end of the fight, Warrior’s face paint had chipped away, and we could finally see what the real man looked like.

Before I realized that wrestling was scripted, I would recoil when one of my heroes would take a chair to his back or have his head forcibly slammed into the ground. But even once I knew their tricks, I would still wince. My emotions would overwhelm my senses, and I would think how much it would hurt to be thrown to and fro. Have you ever slammed your elbow into a ring after missing a flying leap off the top rope? It must be at least a little painful. WWE 2K14 communicates the dramatic punishment of professional wrestling. Most hits have serious impact, so much so that you wonder how someone could possibly survive some of these moves. Thunderous sound effects and elaborate wind-up animations make you grimace despite yourself.

If only strikes carried as much weight as other moves. When WWE 2K14’s wrestlers mimic bar-room brawlers by throwing haymakers, the game’s relationship to reality crumbles away. The wrestlers punch and kick so quickly that there’s no weight behind them. And considering how often you perform these moves, there’s an odd separation that makes matches feel imbalanced. Furthermore, the core action is so reliant on counterattacks that it’s closer to a sequence of quick-time events than a body slam ballet. Instead of rewarding positioning or smart tactics, victory goes to the wrestler who taps a button first. This strips away much of the appeal of competitive matches because the same tactics can be used to win, no matter who you are or who you play against. After participating in one clunky, awkward match after another, I longed for the fluid choreography of the real thing. Absent WrestleMania’s finest moments, the matches are dry affairs that do little to spark the imagination.

Such issues cut even deeper when more than two men enter the ring. The utter chaos of multi-man bouts never comes close to being captured in WWE 2K14. What should be satisfyingly crazy turns into a series of clunky one-on-one battles with no one quite sure what’s expected of him. Really, all of the non-traditional fights lack the excitement that should exist when rules are shaken up. Escaping a steel cage, for instance, requires you to tap a button at the optimal position to go faster. Cramming your main objective into a simple minigames is oddly disconnected from the core action. And if you should climb to the top of a Hell in a Cell cage, don’t expect to be able to recreate the infamous match between Mick Folley and The Undertaker. You can neither toss your opponent off nor fall through the cage, and the awkward animations preventing such disasters look hopelessly cartoonish. Stick to traditional fights in WWE 2K14 unless you want to see just how limited the combat is.

An abomination only possible in the character creator. You should see his feet.

If you ever wanted to be Vince McMahon (minus the ridiculous walk), Universe mode lets you tinker with the behind-the-scenes drama. Create feuds between wrestlers who used to be best friends and shake up the calendar if you’ve ever wished that Raw would air on Tuesdays. Universe mode is certainly interesting if you’ve ever dreamed of crazy scenarios, but it doesn’t make up for the lackluster wrestling once you step back in the ring. At least there’s one element outside the ring that anyone could enjoy. Creation mode let’s you design an unholy monster to be your champion, which is absolutely riveting if you have a maniacal disposition. Make someone with teeny, tiny legs and cross your fingers that his femur doesn’t snap in the middle of a bout. Or maybe you want his bones to break. Whatever floats your boat.

It’s a shame the wrestling isn’t up to par in WWE 2K14 because the elements surrounding it are so interesting. Though not nearly as captivating as Randy Savage, The Undertaker has a mode dedicated to his undefeated record in WrestleManias. You have the option to knock him from his lofty perch with a willing participant, or fend off everyone clamoring for your throne as The Undertaker. It’s a neat mode that embraces one of the iconic personalities in the sport, but none of these activities have lasting appeal because fights are so dreary. When WWE 2K14 does work, its because of its recreation of history. For anyone who grew up loving professional wrestling, be prepared to be swept away in a tide of nostalgia. If only the core action could have been as compelling.

Review in Progress: Lego Marvel Super Heroes

In spite of the fact that it was “Unofficial Batman Week” around the GameSpot offices last week (MANvsGAME’s Jason Love ran a marathon livestream session of the three console Batman games, Batman t-shirts abounded and a small canine in a Batman costume wandering around…), the Marvel universe has my attention at the moment. Lego Marvel Super Heroes has arrived.

And it shipped with a free Loki keychain.

You can’t argue with a free Loki keychain.

While a full review is in progress for Monday, I’ve been playing the game for the past couple of days and having a great time, TT Games having lovingly crafted a sumptuous meal for Lego and Marvel fans alike. With roughly 150 characters to unlock and play as–including side characters such as Aunt May, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson and pop culture tropes such as Howard the Duck (who comes equipped with a rocket launcher)–there appears to be something for everyone here.

This, and the pleasure of exploration, make for the joy of this game. Granted, this isn’t the brainiest title you’ll pick up this year, nor will it be regarded as subtle or nuanced (the game’s relatively simple plot centers around preventing Doctor Doom and cohorts from collecting cosmic bricks to build Doom’s Doom Ray of Doom), there’s an undeniable joy in what can be called the “Lego Formula.” In the Lego Formula, you’ll readily jump into the level, smash or blast everything destructible around you, battle your enemies, see what Lego pieces can be picked up, what machines can be assembled or what superpowers can be used to solve the on-screen puzzles and move on from there. Yes, it’s an established method and the Lego franchise has long done this, but you’re fully immersed in the Lego-ized Marvel universe as you do this, unlocking more and more content in the process, and it’s still as rewarding as it ever was.

Superb attention to detail shows what a Lego variant of a Marvel world can truly be and for every landmark, location or item that you ever loved in a Marvel movie or comic book.

Where Lego Marvel Super Heroes truly shines is in its warmth and attention to detail. The game’s humor is light, playful and genuinely fun, the writers reveling in the implied cheesiness of the comic book genre and the super hero characters therein and hamming up the dialogue to make the cutscenes enjoyable. Background jokes such as Lego workers trying to sweep up the destruction from the last level’s epic battle, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson constantly bringing Nick Fury and other heroes snacks and the Hulk growing frustrated with a computer that he winds up smashing, keep the mood where it needs to be. Superb attention to detail shows what a Lego variant of a Marvel world can truly be and for every landmark, location or item that you ever loved in a Marvel movie or comic book (such as the Helicarrier, Asteroid M, downtown Manhattan, etc.), there’s usually a Lego version of it that catches your attention and proves fun to explore.

It’s been fun to see the Lego games grow over the last decade and Lego Marvel Super Heroes is no exception. Improved modeling, lighting and details make the game visually inviting, responsive controls make the simple act of moving around enjoyable and improvements in the combat engine have turned what seemed to be two Lego figures slap-fighting in the early Lego games into a genuine fight between the two characters being shown on screen.

Unfortunately, a few glitches have interrupted my fun. A small, unexplained black square briefly appeared above my characters’ heads towards the end of the game and a graphical glitch showed both the dead and alive versions of the Thing on screen simultaneously, the protocol calling for a dead character to explode in a shower of Lego bricks, disappear and come back again a moment later.

Between the visceral joy of pounding your opponents into dozens of exploding Legos, unlocking every character you can and taking down a set of flying Hulkbuster armor via the Iron Man 3 “House Party” protocol (wherein half a dozen Iron Man suits fly in to assist you), there’s always something fun to do in Lego Marvel Super Heroes. This is the blend of Lego and the Marvel universe you’ve been waiting for, a joyously geeky concoction worthy of your attention.

I’ll have the full review come Monday.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a Lego version of Carnage to unlock and frighten a metropolitan populace with…

Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate Review

Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate should, in theory, be amazing. The recent pair of Batman games from Rocksteady Studios are the best featuring the caped crusader in years, if not decades, and mixing the constants of the Arkham games with a bit of Metroid-inspired design sounds like a winning formula. The prequel to Arkham Asylum, set after the console version of Arkham Origins, pits Batman against three familiar faces: Joker, the Penguin, and Black Mask. Each villain has taken control of a section of the Blackgate prison, amassing small armies along the way. Of course, only Batman can quell the uprising, but not without a little help from Catwoman, whose inside info is the key to identifying important locations within Blackgate. After the two penetrate the front lines, you’re off to the races, free to tackle the three sections of the prison in any order you wish.

Blackgate does have a lot in common with its older siblings, but everything is presented in 2.5D rather than full 3D. Despite the change in perspective, close-quarters combat remains fluid and simple; relentlessly attack enemies, and press the counter button when a warning icon flashes above their heads. It’s a straightforward dance that’s effortlessly strung together in a simple but satisfying way. You aren’t controlling every facet of the action, but you are performing complex combo attacks and acrobatic takedowns with ease. Occasionally, advanced enemies with weapons or increased defenses appear, and you may have to stun them with your cape or leap over them to attack from behind, but overt button prompts make it easy to keep things moving right along.

Solomon Grundy wants love, too!

Unfortunately, it’s not all good news. One of the few problems with combat occurs when you’re dealing with a variety of enemy types. Quite often, fights take place on two planes, but you don’t have control over which plane you’re fighting on. Instead, Batman attacks the closest enemy regardless of whether the opponent is in the foreground or background. Following the simple attack and counter formula works well enough when against common enemies, but that which makes multi-plane combat easy, however, breaks any attempt at strategy when fighting complex enemies. Stunning one enemy, only to attack a different enemy on another plane by accident, for example, is an all-too-common occurrence.

As you might expect, you eventually encounter well-known villains from the Batman series, and these boss fights come in two flavors. Mid-boss encounters, such as Bronze Tiger and Solomon Grundy, largely stick to the pattern of counter and attack found in typical fights, but the three big bosses are puzzle oriented in nature. These somewhat complex scenarios typically have strict conditions for success and extreme punishments for failure. A single misstep against Black Mask or the Penguin leads to near-instant death. Tackling these puzzles requires a trial-and-error approach, which doesn’t work well with near-instant deathblows. Worst of all, you have to wait through an extended loading screen and start over a room or two before the boss fight. Until you know exactly what to do, it takes longer to get back into a boss fight than it does to fail.

When you aren’t fending off clowns and thugs, you spend the majority of your time exploring the prison depths in search of the villainous trio. A sprawling map, filled with hidden passages, dangerous obstacles, and encrypted security panels, represents each of the game’s three sections. Catwoman points you in the right direction, but once you’re inside, you have to rely on the map and Batman’s detective vision to find your way around. Entering detective mode by tapping the Vita’s touchscreen reveals an X-ray-like representation of your surroundings. Perches, enemies, and other common elements are highlighted to stand out, and you can analyze each object’s properties by touching them for a few seconds. It’s important to search the screen for hidden objects that weren’t immediately recognized in detective mode, and it’s the most common way to not only discover solutions to environmental puzzles, but also the locations of secret rooms and items.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer maps that don’t keep track of where I’ve been.

With mostly enjoyable combat and the discovery-driven model of exploration, Blackgate looks great on paper. However, the implementation of the latter feels rushed and chaotic, often leading to frustration with the level design, and most critically, the map. This is, for the most part, a side-scrolling experience, but you’re often driven into an air duct in the background, around a corner, or onto an elevator, deviating away from the typical side-on perspective. This shouldn’t be a problem, but thanks to the top-down map, and a constantly-shifting relationship with your surroundings, it is.

The map is, by far, the most frustrating element of Blackgate, because it fails to provide the kind helpful information you’d expect to find. In a multistory environment with complex webs of air ducts, grapnel points, and hidden rooms, a map that fails to indicate what floor you’re on is next to useless. Quite often, you’re told to go to a specific room, but even if it appears that you’re within the boundary of said room according to the map, you may in fact be floors and a complicated journey away. You may even need to come from an entirely different entrance to the building, but you won’t figure any of this out until you spend lots of time analyzing every inch of your environment, chasing trails that lead to dead ends, and eventually stumble upon a hidden path that doubles back to the goal, albeit a floor above where you started. Then, nine times out of 10, when you finally make it to the goal, you have to head to yet another far-away location to briefly interact with an object to restore power to a generator, disable a security device, or something similar.

Essentially, your journey is as follows: make your way from point A to point B, fight some enemies, head to point C to interact with an object, then return to point B to fight a boss. This pattern is common, and it’s also frustrating, due in no small part to weak pathfinding and an utterly confusing map.

Prepare to analyze everything in sight, constantly.

When you’ve grown tired of the typical mission, you have plenty of opportunities to seek out hidden objects, represented by a question mark on the map. Most of these are out of reach until you’ve acquired the proper tools: the batarang, line launcher, gel launcher, and batclaw. All of these tools are used to interact with objects and, with the exception of the line launcher, act as variations on the same principle: impact another object and apply some kind of force upon it. With the line launcher, you can create zip lines that allow you to fly across the environment, and even use it as a tightrope to reach areas overhead. Since Batman can’t jump, the line launcher and the starting grapnel gun are your only means of vertical movement.

The Metroid-inspired world design, where tools are the key to reaching certain areas, is a welcome element, but the rewards for your explorative efforts are deflating. Most of the time, the items you find are one component of a four- or five-part object. It’s a disappointing experience after struggling with the inadequate map and the need to endlessly analyze your environment. If you could analyze your environment while on the move, maybe the process wouldn’t feel like such a chore, but as it is, you have to stand still to scrutinize your surroundings. In all, you spend far too much time stopping and starting, when all you want to do is solve puzzles, fight, and grapnel your way through the world.

And this is the major conflict within Blackgate’s design. When you’re making forward progress, interacting with your environment, and occasionally fighting, it’s a simple but enjoyable gameplay experience, but once you’re forced to wrestle with the map while backtracking, and attempt to collect enough pieces to assemble a new batsuit, things start to fall apart, and Blackgate becomes a slow and frustrating slog. There is a New Game Plus option to explore after beating the game, in case you want to tackle the main villains in a different order, but there are too many frustrating elements to make that an attractive option. The first few hours of Blackgate provide an exciting glimpse of what might have been a great game, but it slowly falls apart, hour by hour, villain by villain.

Top 5 Skyrim Mods of the Week – Halloween Special!

There’s nothing Kevin VanNord fears, not even fear itself. He laughs at it. Hahaha. Surely swarms of bats, spooky pumpkins, and haunted houses should be no problem, right?

Grand Theft Auto V Review – Southland Sprawl

Grand Theft Auto V deserves accolades for its innovative triumvirate of antiheroes, its many and varied missions, and the sprawling depiction of Los Santos and the hillbilly outbacks. But to rip off what an erudite author once said about Oakland, there is no “there” there. I can’t imagine any scenario in which a literary icon like Gertrude Stein would be critiquing a video game, but that legendary putdown can also apply to the Greater Los Santos Area. There is something missing in GTAV that makes the game less engaging than the sociopathic sandboxes of GTA: Vice City and GTA: San Andreas, the two GTA games that will perpetually be my measuring sticks for the franchise.

What is missing most of all is a solid sense of place. Both Vice City and San Andreas reveled in nostalgia. Vice City reeked of the ’80s, from the pitch-perfect radio stations to the Crockett and Tubbs lookalikes that showed up in their Testarossas–er, Cheetahs–when you cranked your wanted level to three stars. San Andreas evoked the early 1990s in a similar way. San Andreas’ theme was not as developed as Vice City’s, but the game still depicted a recognizable time and place in its grim cartoon look at Los Angeles–with sidelong glances at LA County, San Francisco, and Las Vegas–during the explosion of rap and the racial tension that saw a good chunk of SoCal go up in flames after the Rodney King verdict.

Both San Andreas and Vice City seemed like real places. Rockstar’s biggest achievement in these games was in creating places that you wanted to visit. Vice City was most successful at this. I practically moved to Vice City; I knew the streets by name and could find my way around there better than in the real world. This devotion speaks to Vice City’s power to invade my waking thoughts. Long after the game’s release, I would go for long drives around town, listening to the radio and indulging my inner hooligan in a rampage or three. The same is true of San Andreas, although the allure of the ’80s theme usually won out before I got the San Andreas disc into the system. Rockstar hasn’t forgotten how to do this sort of thing. I liked visiting the faux West of Red Dead Redemption just as much as I did Vice City, and still load up the game to ride around the lonely prairie.

GTAV, much like its immediate predecessor, GTAIV, is too almost-modern for its own good. While the setting is ostensibly today, the plot goes back to the 2008-2009 depths of the Great Recession. The story feels dated, and not in the good way of Vice City and San Andreas, which were intentionally retro. Instead of thinking, “Cool! That Exploder: Evacuator Part II movie commercial perfectly sums up how dumb action movies really were in 1986!” you’re thinking, “Man, the developers started writing this stuff a long time ago.”

Look beyond the jokey stuff, and you discover an unrelentingly bleak, black-hearted look at humanity.

Not that the economy is really a whole lot better today, of course. But worries about the housing crisis, the implosion of Lehman Brothers, and the bursting of the housing bubble in the US–all things that clearly motivated a lot of the storyline in GTAV–are not exactly current. We’ve moved on to new economic meltdowns, like the stateside debt ceiling crisis. It’s critique of mainstream media is equally archaic; taking shots at reality television for being crass also isn’t cutting-edge comedy. Grand Theft Auto V was a clearly expensive game to make and obviously took a long time to develop, but a story that is only contemporary when work begins in earnest on a project of this magnitude ultimately looks dated. It suffers from the curse of trying to be too current.

The triumvirate of protagonists represents the before, after, and way after of humanity.

Los Santos, at least, is brilliantly realized, particularly as a technical achievement. The city and the surrounding meth-producing rural environs form the most realistic depiction of a metropolitan area to ever grace a game. The whole burg lives and breathes, offering colorful slices of life whether you’re creeping through backyards in the dead of night or just wandering down the sidewalk in the middle of the afternoon. I don’t think I ever encountered any window dressing; all of the people seemed to be present in their own moments, not just there to serve as my personal backdrop. But it’s so damn big. I long for the simpler layouts of Vice City and even the more sprawling San Andreas. You could get to know them in a reasonable amount of time, which added to that easy sense of familiarity that turned them into real places in short order.

This is the most personable GTA game, with a strong emphasis on the three lead characters that delves into their psyches (and even into your own psyche by the end of the storyline). That isn’t always a good thing, especially when it comes to Trevor, who’s probably the most reprehensible dirtbag protagonist in the history of gaming, if not everything. Still, I couldn’t look away. Trevor’s most malevolent lines were also some of the most hilarious in the game. He forms a vital part of the triumvirate of playable characters, which are a commentary on life in 2008-era America. Trevor represents bottoming out, while burned-out Michael is the guy who’s got it all and is still up to his neck in ennui (he’s sort of Tommy Vercetti, 25 years later), and up-and-coming Franklin is the man on the rise who’s eager to do anything to make the money needed to be regarded as a success in Los Santos. The three are a before, after, and way after.

Scripted missions are the best part of GTAV, especially the multipart heists.

The script is brilliant, from the start with Franklin and his idiotic buddy Lamar, through Michael’s spoiled-brat family life, through Trevor’s meth-lab murders, through the multiple-choice endings. GTAV gets back to the psychopathic comic strip best represented in the craziness of Tommy Vercetti in Vice City, but with more plot points and tighter characterizations to hold the story together. This game hates everyone and everything, expressing an unrelentingly bleak, black-hearted look at humanity, with even the few rays of sunlight bookended by atrocity. Trevor shows mercy on occasion, though the biggest act of charity he offers in the entire game comes right after introducing a guy to creative uses for a car battery and a monkey wrench.

The appeal of exploring the map on your own has been diminished.

If you have a dark sense of humor, there are more laugh-out-loud moments here than in all of the previous GTA games combined. Being able to switch between the members of this trio at will is a great mechanic that accentuates the humor. Flipping over to see what Trevor is doing almost always results in tuning in to pure insanity. My favorite such event was dropping in on him just as he was looming over a bikini-clad girl on Vespucci Beach, while wearing nothing but a filthy muscle shirt and tighty whities, saying something about her licking his white bits. Such moments are likely scripted, given how this Walter White moment led directly into a mission opening where Trevor dropped his undies in front of hapless Floyd, but it all seems organic when you’re playing.

Missions have also been laid out almost perfectly, with loads of options as to how you play them, especially when it comes to the big multipart heists that see you planning and executing jobs with the help of hired operatives. Events get overly surreal at times, with the trio working together to form something of a James Bond team adept at everything from flying planes to scuba diving. Still, it’s all incredibly captivating, and the game does everything at least reasonably well. Flying and landing planes, for instance, still aren’t fully enjoyable tasks, but they’ve come a long way since San Andreas.

Women have few roles to play in GTA V. Here’s the most common.

Unfortunately, the appeal of exploring the map on your own has been diminished. Attempts at free-form chaos inevitably had me switching back to the scripted stories and missions, which yielded far more entertainment. The only thing I enjoyed about exploring was stumbling upon random occurrences, such as robberies, an apparent bus hijacking, and police shootouts with other criminals. Yet even these great little touches paled in comparison with the scripted missions, and core components of the game design have been tweaked to raise the profile of scripted story at the cost of the open-world concept that has powered previous GTAs. You can still go gonzo in style, but it’s not nearly as easy to explode in a random manner when the mood strikes you.

One reason the zaniness feels so limited is that the police are extraordinarily good at what they do and extremely aggressive. They arrive on the scene of even one- and two-star wanted level incidents almost immediately, and a police chopper is quick to show up the moment you hit three stars. Police boats roar up quickly if you try to take to the waves, and cops shoot extremely well, to the point where they can tag you with bullets from a good block away. Basic patrol cars accelerate almost as well as the average Pegassi Infernus, and their drivers are expert at cutting you off and blocking you in. If you want to go on a satisfying tear, you need to armor up, make sure you have loads of the best hardware that Ammu-Nation carries, and have a zippy car nearby. Walking out of a hospital in a bad mood and going berserk with cathartic anger generally gets you wasted again in very short order.

It’s a lot more fun to escape the cops by slamming a car into a Pay ‘n’ Spray booth at a hundred miles an hour than it is to cower in an alley for five minutes while the police gradually give up their pursuit.

You can still go on rampages and evade the police, of course, but you have to do it more realistically by switching cars, hiding in bushes, ducking into somebody’s backyard, hanging out in a parking garage, and so forth. This is a more lifelike way of ditching the boys in blue, but it’s not very entertaining, especially if you like the intensity of one-man-stand firefights. The best way to eliminate a wanted level now is to hide. I had the most success by driving off-road where the cops couldn’t follow me very well. Then I just stuck the car in a gully and sat back until my wanted level vanished completely.

Long gone are the days when you could clock six stars (the game now tops out at five stars), get the army after you, and still escape justice simply by scraping into a Pay ‘n’ Spray a second ahead of the long arm of the law. Pay ‘n’ Spray shops have actually been pulled out of GTAV entirely in favor of Los Santos Customs, which is more of a car modification garage than a ready way to escape the cops, since it’s useless unless you’ve already lost your pursuers. Magic car paint in Vice City and San Andreas may have been pretty ridiculous, but it was also a great game mechanism that emphasized the catch-me-if-you-can excitement that made sandbox rampages so integral a part of the GTA experience. It’s a lot more fun to escape the cops by slamming a car into a Pay ‘n’ Spray booth at a hundred miles an hour than it is to cower in an alley for five minutes while the police gradually give up their pursuit.

World-weary Michael is a memorable character who seems like a Behind the Music look at Tommy Vercetti, 25 years later.

This is a considerably different style of game than either San Andreas or Vice City, with more structure and less of that eyes-wide-open world where the most fun was surveying the landscape and seeing what kind of trouble you could get into. This is a new GTA, one that is a great game on its own terms, but also one that fails to capture the magic of the freestyle adventures that set the tone for the series. I can’t see myself coming back to GTAV very often now that I’ve wrapped the main storyline, save to check out the expansions that Rockstar is undoubtedly prepping for 2014, or to get into the multiplayer, if and when it lives up to its potential. Here, because the game’s structure is so tight, done is done. That’s typical of how I play games. But it isn’t typical of how I play GTA games.