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Archive for the ‘Impressions’ Category

Fallout 3 and New Vegas

Posted by deckard47 on November 9, 2010

 

 

Fallout: New Vegas

Raul Tejada. He's a Hispanic ghoul in a game set in the post-apocalyptic Mojave, a Mojave free of brown people! Humor!

I kind of despise Fallout 3. It’s bland, in its level design, its art, and its writing. The actors behind the characters are (like all Bethesda actors) complete villains: their voices are so completely unemotional and uninteresting that they sound like they’re acting from beyond the grave. It takes things from the original Fallout games (games I enjoyed) and updates them in the least imaginative ways possible. Turn based combat? It’s now a shoddy slow-mo combat mode, a poor copy of the kind of tactical brilliance and visual excellence found in Max Payne games, and ultimately the only thing that stops the gunplay from being a broken, unplayable nightmare. Try shooting something out of VATS in Fallout 3. I think this is what people think of when they trollishly mutter about “dice rolls” determining their bullets’ paths. Every gunshot feels wrong. The sounds are off, the animations are all wrong, and the interface can barely keep up with human input. VATS fixes the horrible controls and responsiveness, and reveals new problems: every other shot will hit an invisible barrier, or miss completely, even if there’s no chance of a miss. Combat is a demoralizing, unpleasant kind of busy-work.

Fallout: New Vegas wasn’t developed by Bethesda. It’s been farmed out to Obsidian, who really seem can’t escape from their gun-for-hire roots (unless it’s to produce the awful Alpha Protocol). New Vegas is also a better game than Fallout 3, and it’s certainly a better game than Alpha Protocol. It’s also a bit boring, despite having held my interest for 40 hours. It repeats almost all of the same mechanical and interface issues seen in Fallout 3. The new “true” iron sights mechanic feels better than the previous aiming, but there’s still the same bogus math behind the scenes. Try this out, devs: go play a game like Deus Ex. Hell, go play Singularity or Wolfenstein. Watch how those games have a base spread of fire for each gun, and how upgrades tighten that spread, depending on gun type. There’s never a time when my fire just fucking misses, if I’ve lined up the shot and my skill is high enough. That’s the problem at the core of VATS. Even when firing at point blank range, I can miss, sometimes because VATS glitches (actually, this happens quite often), or because the game’s math decrees it so. If the way you fix your broken shooting system is to introduce a broken slow-mo system, you’re well and truly screwed. The game feels like and action-shooter-RPG in every respect but the act of pulling a trigger. It’s surprising, because Bethesda’s system for To-Hit-Ratio and damage in Oblivion was strait-forward and fun. Here, melee is the best option, because as in Oblivion, assholes can’t dodge a lead pipe, but they can certainly resist its damage (though melee was useless in Fallout 3, so I have to credit Obsidian again for unbreaking it).

Fallout: New Vegas

My evil melee character. I quit playing him, because ED-E, that floating robot (who obviously uses invisible legs to navigate in-game terrain) behind me, broke my save.

But I’ve played a ton of New Vegas. I can certainly censure Obsidian for not removing Fallout 3‘s multitudinous interface issues, completely wretched voice acting, and crappy game engine implementation (that extra half-step-while moving problem is even worse in Vegas), I have to appreciate that they approached this new Wasteland with more than an ounce or two of thought and originality. There are things ingame that aren’t brown anymore. There are also trees and foliage. The world instantly becomes a few times less boring, thanks to these additions. There are more than 3 good guns. You can mod and upgrade guns in a way that’s fun, if limited to a degree I’d prefer it wasn’t. Upgrades are visually evident on every gun (that last should be a requirement for every game, EVER). There are more monsters and character models. Melee isn’t completely broken. Energy weapons aren’t completely broken (by this I mean that a player can set out to master these two tracks and not create a character destined for swift death). Water doesn’t irradiate you instantly. Cars don’t instantly irradiate you. As a result, it’s possible to explore most areas without bringing 50 Radaways.

The writing is also better, by a small measure. Obsidian does not commit the awful sin of having a 3 hour long tutorial that cannot be skipped, as did Fallout 3. They do make you answer a surprisingly annoying set of character-forming “questions,” though. Certainly, Caesar’s Legion are a boring lot (though their acting is what really ruins interactions with them). The game can feel a little small-scale (every Casino has its own loading zone in the strip, because the engine can’t handle more, apparently. It feels nothing like a city and everything like a corridor with glowing doors), and many of the locations feel perfunctorily written and designed (Primm is a complete nonentity, aside from its delightful cowboy robot). The central plot and quest line feel both inspired by and derivative of (awfully) Bioshock.

Fallout: New Vegas

Cass, preparing to harrow my soul with her voice.

New Vegas also competently recreates a variety of standard RPG quest tropes and traditions. There’s a Vault full of Thorian Creepers (I mean spore humans), a vault full of radiation, a messianic ghoul leader, betrayal within a small community, and gang allegiances. It’s all competently executed, though the rigid, instantly-boring graphics and animation rob the world of any excitement I might have found in its fictions. Despite all of this, it feels like what Fallout 3 should have been: an inferior first person version of Fallout, with a host of “modern” FPS and RPG innovations thrown in to keep things from getting boring. New Vegas recaptures a bit of the wit and cynicism that Fallout 1 and 2 honestly expressed and Fallout 3 callowly pantomimed. Certain characters were written in such a way that they produce amusing and entertaining dialogue (the aforementioned robot cowboy), while others produce similarly passable dialogue that’s absolutely murdered by the actors (Cass is the worst culprit. Amusing dialogue, horrid acting).

The radio stations are alright, but there aren’t nearly enough songs. There are 27 songs in New Vegas, while Fallout 3 had 37. Somehow, Bethesda managed to make those 37 sound like double that. Obsidian also managed to make it so that the same song would play back-to-back, so that probably has something to do with my hatred for the soundtrack. Likewise, fallout 3 had the outrageously hammy Malcolm McDowell murmuring on about America in a surprisingly (for that game) entertaining way. New Vegas replaces him with a silly, one-note joke station about stupid, stupid mutants.

Fallout: New Vegas

The Strip. Two casinos of it, that is, before you load the next road/set of casinos. You can see the door down there on the left.

New Vegas is also broken in about 20 other ways. I’ve had to download patches, sneak altered .dll’s in, and mod the crap out of this game, just to get it to work. I’ve had to reload countless games, waste hours of play time, and generally cover for a mountain of shit Obsidian, Bethesda, and Microsoft QA left in the game. Really, it’s like they went in and broke a bunch of stuff and then shipped the game. It still crashes my system regularly.

I’m not sorry I’ve played 40 hours of New Vegas. It can be a fun, engrossing game, when it’s not breaking, or the engine, UI, and developers aren’t tarnishing the experience. Apparently it sold 5 million units already. I hope this means Obsidian can make another game, a non-Fallout, non-Alpha Protocol game. One that isn’t Dungeon Siege 3, also (though maybe Square Enix will make these people produce a non-broken game, so…). I’d love to see Obsidian make a game whose play is at least equal to its writing (though they really need to work on never, ever writing Alpha Protocol-quality dialogue again). I can’t say I care what Bethesda does next. probably another Elder Scrolls game with a depressingly bad and broken leveling system and wooden, awful celebrity voice-work. maybe John Carmack and company will teach Bethesda how to make a game with guns and bullets. I can dream.

PS: So Rage looks like Borderlands mixes with Doom mixed with Fallout 3. I think it’s going to better than all three games, because it won’t be hilariously, ironically character-less and toneless like Borderlands was, and it won’t be shit to play, like Fallout 3 was. Maybe if we all believe in faeries…

PPS: The screenshot save/notation system for New Vegas is really very good.

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Disappointment: My Name is Michael Thorton. I Used to Be a Spy…

Posted by deckard47 on September 14, 2010

Alpha Protocol

Commence Operation: Bropocalypse

Alpha Protocol is about spies and spying, nominally and narratively. Everyone in-game talks about how dastardly and sneaky their cloak-and-dagger endeavors are. Michael Thorton, the game’s hero and our PC, talks a lot about how he and other spies do their thing. Interestingly, if Alpha Protocol is any indicator, real spies are clumsy, violent boors who can barely walk down a hallway without murdering someone. Worse, real spies can’t shoot for shit, and they couldn’t land a punch of a turtle-necked goon walked right into it. Oh, and they have a lot of trouble getting into and out of cover. Oh, spies.

Alpha Protocol‘s writing and acting don’t hold up well to repeat playings and viewings; the dialogue generally doesn’t even hold up to the first viewing. Characters ponderously explain who and what they are, and what they’re doing. It’s as if the two and a half hour experiment in continuous exposition that is Inception was part of Alpha Protocol‘s script’s inspiration. The cast may be flat and boring and their motives and speeches may be worse, but Michael Thorton is in a wretched class of his own. He’s halfway between Roger Moor and Jack Bauer: he’s a violent, crude egomaniac, no matter how you play him. The game’s one interesting conversational mechanic, the timed, non-repeatable talking cutscene, is wasted on Thorton and his glum cohorts. AP‘s conversation system (always comprised of four options, each option generally corresponding to “suave,” “agressive,” “professional,” and “get to the point/kill” dialogue options) is different than the system used in the Mass Effect series, but only slightly. Whereas in Mass Effect players could (as they can in most games) loop basic conversations with NPC’s over and over, in AP, players have a limited time to choose what to say, and can never go back and talk about already discussed topics. Conversations become even more like games in AP. Now, if you mess up or do something dramatic, there’s no way to return, save for using the reload button. None of this means much, since suave Michael Thorton is just as much of a dick as Professional Michael Thorton.

Alpha Protocol Tuxedo

I think the suit is supposed to make him look like a suave adult, when he's really just looking for the Natty Light.

Maybe Obsidian was trying to say something about spies when they created this leering, “funny” bro? Sadly I think that the script (and thus the stupid, chuckling Thorton) are deadly serious. It’s unfortunate that there’s so little to like about the talking and decision-making (limited though it ultimately is) in AP, because playing the game (outside of conversations) is difficult, frustrating, and often next-to-impossible.

AP‘s engine and UI are badly, unintuitively designed and presented, and badly optimized. Going from menu to menu (in inventory, in-store, or in the meta-game save menu) often causes the game to stutter or completely halt for a few seconds. The same hangups occur while transitioning from area to area, opening and closing boxes, using keypads and locked items, and often simply looking at different bits of the environment. These aren’t performance issues. Alpha Protocol is in no way a system hog. It’s possible to turn every setting down (on my already too-fast computer), or even install the game on a comparable, different computer. The issues remain; there’s no way to get rid o them.

These pauses and glitches, while annoying out of combat and in-menu, often spell instant death for Thorton when they occur during firefights. Sadly, these severe usability issues go hand in hand with the game’s awkward, unimaginative approach to third person shooters, RPGs, and “spy” combat in general. Thorton aims, shoots, moves, and punches stiffly and often uselessly. It’s hard to tell what I’m punching while I’m punching it, just as it’s hard to tell whether or not my bullets will actually fly from my gun to their target, thanks to a bad cover system and all-around mysterious, ever-changing hit boxes. Ranged and melee attacks (that hit) provide the bare minimum of feedback. Enemies are mostly bloodless, and only sometimes jerk around  a bit when I shoot them. The strict, rigid nature of melee chains means that it’s easy to punch air, over and over, while an enemy stands millimeters away from your fists’ field of fire. Grenades often bounce off invisible corners, getting into and out of cover takes repeated, frantic button presses, and guns are (in a strange, RPG way) innaccurate to the point of silliness.

Alpha Protocol Ladder

Spies hate ladders. It's so hard to climb them!

This last makes more of a difference than you’d think, as do the game’s difficult-to-predict combat animations and player movement. Since enemies can run around corners with robotic precision (and the shooting controls seem to have been badly calibrated to enhance moving targets’ bullet-shy alacrity), shooting and grappling with them is often a chance affair. I’m just as likely to kill an enemy as I am to punch the boxes next to him, stuck in a combo loop until he shoots me and kills me. The stealth system in AP (which mixes the awful, unresponsive cover mechanic with ludicrously wide enemy site cones and instant enemy reinforcements vis-à-vis alarms) is incredibly hard to navigate. It’s only on my second playthrough (what exactly is wrong with me, you may ask?) that I’ve gotten a handle on it. This means that I only reveal my location to enemies a third of the time, instead of my original average of fifty percent.

Thus, the life of a spy becomes one long, discombobulated journey from mob to mob. I’ll bump into walls, accidentally shoot desks, and generally fuck up more often than I succeed, all thanks to unintuitive controls, awful game feedback and information output, and an almost broken framerate and loading system. The spy game this creates is a spy game that lacks any sense of subtlety or grace. It’s quite clear that the developers wanted to create a mix of different conversational approaches, and several ways of moving through levels and dispatching opponents. Thanks to the worst controls I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with this generation, a bad script, and clichéd characters, Alpha Protocol fails at everything it sets out to do.

I’m impressed that SEGA released this game at all, instead of scrapping it like they did the Aliens RPG. Not only did I have to wait a half year to play this game (I was one of those gullible fools who pre-ordered the game on Steam), but what I played is the least complete “AAA” release I’ve ever played. I sincerely hope that Fallout: New Vegas and Dungeon Seige 3 are better-managed and designed than Alpha Protocol was, or I find it hard to believe that publishers will continue to knock on Obsidian’s door.

Posted in Disappointment, Impressions, Reviews | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Updates: Everything’s Fine, Situation Normal

Posted by deckard47 on August 17, 2010

The Blacktooth Keep! SO SCARY.

The Blacktooth Keep! SO SCARY.

I’m fantastically busy, so I thought I’d touch on the various (exciting) things that I’ve been doing recently.

I’ve been playing a ton of fantasy-y, TBS games recently, like King Arthur: The Role-Playing Wargame – The Saxons (see, y’all this is why you don’t have a long silly name with a colon for your game), King’s Bounty: The Legend (again!), and Dawn of War 2. That last isn’t really a fantasy game, but A) it’s pretty damn close, and B) it’s a lot of fun. I’ve also been playing Risen (let’s pause as some of our regular readers make ugly faces and go somewhere else), and I just re-installed both Divinity 2: Ego Draconis (Aaaah!), and Stalker: Call of Pripyat.

So, really, there are just too many damn colons in videogame names. Returning to these games, I’m struck (sometimes for the first time, often for the somethingth time) by how all of them have interesting, different-feeling worlds and tones (aside from DoW 2, which couldn’t be more conventional if it had tried). Risen may be Fantasy, but it’s weirdly depressing, rainy jungle isle, pseudo Eropean Inquisition and horrible repression Fantasy, which appeals to me. It’s also as awful and difficult as it always was, which still appeals to me. Divinity 2 is not quite as bleak, but it’s Fantasy stuff is still pretty unique, if not (when examined alone) particularly memorable. The leveling system is a bunch of fun though, so I’ll wend my way back through it, if only to make annoying comments about it to Simon when I see him next.

Dawn of War 2 is only up on that list because I was driven to it by Starcraft 2 (more on that later). It’s less offensive narratively, and for all of the tricks up Blizzard’s sleeve gameplay-wise, Chaos Throne‘s loot and excellent squad play are the more exciting brand of RTS, for me. When’s the next one, Relic?!

Epic. But not an RTS.

Epic. But not an RTS.

King’s Bounty and King Arthur are both vibrant and, but Arthur really nails a kind of creepy, Old World-y approach to fantasy in the British Isles that games don’t give a shit about. I love deciding whether or not my king will spread Christianity or worship the old gods. In the Saxons it’s easier to go Christian, but in the original game paganism is by far the more amusing option. King’s Bounty is well known for its bright, exciting world (full of weird quests worded weirdly), but Arthur‘s England is about a million times more verdant and lush than the real thing (even it’s Winters and Autumns seem more full of life). Plus, you can recruit ogres!

I suspect I’m going to be writing a bunch about King Arthur and King’s Bounty. Both games I’ve played through, in another life, though I’m playing the Armored Princess expansion to KB, and The Saxons expansion to KA, so they’re new games, honest. I also suspect that this hypothetical article will be about games that mess up their play with story crap, and that it’ll be on Game Set Watch, so that’ll be exciting.

Speaking of which, I’ve a new column up at Game Set Watch, about Starcraft 2 and its wretched story (duh), and how it does more to mess with the surprisingly entertaining Single Player gameplay than you’d initially expect. An excerpt here, for consumption:

When I have to sit and watch my units talk, I accept that the single player portion of the game needs a reason, a purpose, for all of that toing and froing (more properly, gamers need these things). Likewise, there’s a certain pleasure to be had in watching quick mission briefings: I’m a commander, and commanders get briefed, or brief people, right? Starcraft 2 goes ahead and makes a significant portion of Wings of Liberty about upgrading a dude’s sweet ship, and about upgrading ingame assets using resources (rather incomprehensibly) earned from previous ingame missions.

Starcraft 2’s upgrade mechanics are mostly lifted from upgrades previously available ingame in Starcraft. If you want your marines to have stimpacks, or want to build medics without having to build a Barracks add-on, you must unlock those capabilities in the Armory. Percentage upgrades to damage and race-specific combat (damage to Zerg only, for instance) can be unlocked using research points collected in the field, and the lab lets players upgrade their forces using alien technology. It’s all here in the beautiful Hyperion, and it means that I’ve spent hours outside of the game proper fiddling with NPCs and upgrades.

Right. It’s pretty awful, and it makes the game bits worse, in a somewhat unavoidable way. The whole post, linked here.

Mafia 2… The music is all purty and old timey, the suits are so crisp, and the gunplay is a sight better than that which is provided us by Rockstar’s various megahits. The acting and writing (in the demo alone) are also better than GTA and RDR‘s affected junk.

That’s it. More on the Kings of fantasy strategy soon?

Posted in Impressions, Random | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Impressions: Starcraft 2 is a Great Starcraft Game and a Crappy Relic Game

Posted by deckard47 on July 27, 2010

Look, an UNCLEAN Planet!

Look, an UNCLEAN Planet!

Hey, it’s Starcraft 2! My brother and I went to a midnight opening last night (the whole affair was incredibly creepy, as one would expect things to be when one mixes Best Buy and the eager, bedraggled young Starcraft devotees of Connecticut), figuring we’d get it out of our system overnight, and be able to get back to work the next day. Of course, it’s 4pm here, and we’ve only now stopped playing. It’s basically the same game, but fancier (in many ways). I’m still awful at it, and the late game especially is opaque to me, as the super units are so rarely used that when I do buy one, I’m paralyzed by indecision. What is a giant walking robot good for? Apparently, dying in a hail of gunfire.

It looks very pretty, even close up. The single player storyline is massively stupid, just as you’d expect. Jim Raynor spends most of his screen time trying to decide whether to ape Mal, Han, or (awfully) Marcus Fenix. He’s not interesting or convincing, no matter which hat he’s wearing. That’s entirely irrelevant. Starcraft 2 is the same game as Starcraft in many ways, but it’s designed with more than one kind of gamer in mind, and it’s designed (often) with me in mind: I’m completely useless at remembering build tress, stats, potential build orders, and the best responses to sudden assaults.

In Starcraft, whenever I ventured online to stick my neck out for a stranger’s ax, the reasons for my inevitable loss were mostly opaque to me. Starcraft 2 takes everything about every match and makes it transparent and accessible (after the fact, via graphs and replay). I can watch every click, every decision my enemy made, and hopefully learn from them. The game’s still mind-bogglingly hard, for a gamer like me. I’m not smart enough, adaptable enough, and creative enough to win all but the most simple of skirmishes (with the least capable of opponents).

I got nothing

I got nothing

I do enjoy playing it, mostly because it’s pretty, the campaign and achievements are distracting, and it feels “new” again, something Starcraft hasn’t felt like in ages. The heart of the game, the multiplayer is still fast and fun and often impossible to follow. The only other RTS’s I’ll allow myself to play are those made by Relic. They’re more measured, meticulous affairs, for me, at least. Those games allow me to turtle a bit more, they allow me to build up my strength as I might in an RPG. It’s nice to come back to a game that is more about mastering an intricate set of tools, even if I’m incapable of mastering said tools.

There is, oddly, a bolted-on bit of a progression/upgrade mechanic in Starcraft 2. Raynor can visit his lab, armory, and bar (on-board his ship) and buy upgrades for his troops. These are mostly small things (increased health, say), but they’re also upgrades that used to be purchasable in the first game. Your marines won’t have stimpacks until you buy those stimpacks in the armory, for instance. This means that as you progress through the campaign, your armies gain in strength and breadth of ability. It also encourages retroactive mastery of particularly hard single player missions. If you can’t get all of the achievements for one mission, you can always go back when your medics are stronger, more powerful healers. It adds a little something to the straight-up Starcraft gameplay, but it feels a bit off. It’s as if different abilities and items could have been ingame, once-a-match upgrades, but were slotted into the meta/upgrade mechanic because it gave the game a more “full” or RPG-like feel. It’s much less enticing, much less immediately effective and exciting, than the progression mechanics available in Warcraft 3, Blizzard’s last RTS.

In Warcraft 3, items and skills leveled up over the course of each mission: items and skills were all optional; I upgraded what I could, what I wanted, but it felt like I was making interesting decisions for my character, making him or her change in exciting, powerful ways. Starcraft 2‘s upgrade mechanics just feels as if they were carted over from the single player campaign proper, refashioned to look like some kind of persistent mechanic, when they’re nothing of the sort. None of these abilities are game-changers: as I mentioned before, they’re the same powers you used to be able to upgrade at the machine shop. There aren’t any trees, paths, or upgrade decisions (you’ll never cut off one avenue of progression because you followed another, as far as I can tell). There’s no choice, no loss or equivalent gain, not yet. It’s almost entirely meaningless. It’s an excuse for Raynor to wander around talking to people (which might have been neat if they weren’t all boring and silly), and sway back and forth, idling in bars, on bridges, and in cargo bays.

Only space-pimps dress like this, have muscles like this, and sport ROCKING hair like this.

Only space-pimps dress like this, have muscles like this, and sport ROCKING hair like this.

Obviously Blizzard didn’t want to turn Starcraft 2 into an RPG. They’re taking Warcraft in that direction, and it’s an interesting direction, to be sure. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t continue to make Starcraft the deep building/combat strategy game that it is. It’s just strange that they excised these bits and pieces of the game (for the single player campaign, that is) and tacked them back on in such an obviously, unfortunately ineffectual fashion. I still like leveling things up, but I can tell when I’m making choices and when I’m unlocking the next node on my “upgrade” tree, following the path laid out for me. This isn’t an RPG, it isn’t even whatever Company of Heroes and Dawn of War have become. It’s Starcraft mark 2. Were they worried that might not be enough? At least the menu, web/game interface, and learning tools attached to Starcraft 2 feel like organic extensions of the original game’s powerful Battle.net interface and mod tools. They work, and they make the game immensely fun (much more fun than it would be if it were delivered by the bare-bones Starcraft menu and UI). I’m looking forward to the next two portions of Starcraft 2 (although I’m not happy about what a huge, obvious scam this all is… I just paid 60$ for 1/3 of a game), but sure as hell hope I’m not upgrading my Zerglings in the Spwaning Pool research bay, or buying new armor for my Zealots at the Sexy Protoss Night Club. That would be even sillier than Jim Raynor’s bulging muscles and Sexy, Sexy facial hair.

[PS: In Starcraft 2, the media is controlling things. It doesn’t want the public to know things! The douchey newscaster totally cuts off the reporter in the field who’s a real human being! I half expected The Voice of the Agency to appear and tell me that Bangers were headed my way. It’s incredibly juvenile. There aren’t any hawt chicks yet, but there have to be, right? Otherwise the game would implode.]

[PPS: Also, SWEET Soft Outer Space Rock is still the name of the game in the Starcraft 2 universe. That, along with the game’s constant cribbing from 80’s Sci Fi and action movies (along with the painfully uncreative theft of almost all of Firefly’s tone and setting) makes for a depressing, 80’s vibe that never lets. Really, they just needed Tom Cruise to star as Jim Raynor, and the effect would be complete.]

Posted in Impressions | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

Impressions: Alan Wake, Dearest of All My Friends?

Posted by deckard47 on June 10, 2010

Alan reads a page. He's the narrating and narrative subject!

Alan reads a page. He's the narrating and narrative subject!

A while ago, I wrote a little bit about why the Max Payne games were so great. Mostly, I talked about those games’ excellent, responsive controls, and the way both Paynes were fun, exciting games to play. Alan Wake certainly doesn’t look like Max Payne, and aside from a few slow motion flourishes, it doesn’t feel like it either. What it does share is the same penchant for not-quite-sensible grammar and tone. Instead of film noire, Remedy took inspiration from literary horror, specifically the (dubiously) famous works of the super-successful Stephen King. Remedy’s also wasted a lot of breath touting their love for David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, and other such weird, quirky treatments of small, mysterious towns.

I haven’t watched Twin Peaks (oh no he didn’t!), but after playing  Alan Wake, I can safely say that the game bears little resemblance to Stephen King and his work (aside from lifting the author’s favorite plot device, the horrifying living work of the author), or to the little I’ve seen of Lynch’s show. Alan Wake both isn’t trying hard enough to be weird, and trying much too hard.

Instead (of Lynch/King pretension), it feels like the logical extension of the reasoning behind Max Payne‘s tone and story: take what is most obviously iconic and supposedly resonant about a genre and pound those themes into the ground, through story, but also through gameplay. That’s why in Alan Wake, light kills enemies made up of shadows. Nothing is ever what it seems, except that the unexpected and unknown is the most obvious kind of unexpected and unknown. Thus, the absurd and horrific becomes normal and everyday, simply because these are the most banal kinds of “horrific” and “absurd” things. What’s so scary about the darkness in Bright Falls (hardly the game’s least subtle moment, that name)? Well, at night, things are dark, and people made of darkness try to kill Alan Wake (and the people he meets). That might sound bad, but it’s really the same aesthetic Remedy brought to bear on Noir for Payne. Remedy doesn’t do anything by half measures, it seems.

This town is so quirky, it feels almost... European. Not as European as Heavy Rain felt!

This town is so quirky, it feels almost... European. Not as European as Heavy Rain felt!

What the game does have (and this will come as no surprise to veterans of Payne 1 & 2) is a constant barrage of references to previous Remedy games and ideas. In a flashback, Alan is working on a manuscript for what is clearly a story about a Max Payne-type detective. The narration that accompanies each page is even told using Max’s distinctive monotone. In it, Max bemoans his reliance on pain pills, and explains his troubles using self-consciously purple, “noir” prose. It’s obvious that the team at Remedy have an ear for criticism directed at their own game, which means that their next game will include heavy-handed narrators, blazer-hoodie-wearing writers (really, it’s the most ludicrous getup), and Light and Darkness. That actually sounds hilarious and fun.

What also isn’t surprising is that regardless of how seriously Remedy takes Wake and the game that surrounds him, the Finnish team still knows its way around a video game combat system. Wake is easy enough to control, and like most heroes these days, he has a limited sprint to get him out of (or into) dangerous situations faster than would normally be possible. As Wake, I’ve fought shadowy axe men, and shadowy axe men. I’m sure slightly more varied enemies are on the way (larger axe men, perhaps?), but what concernes me about these sometimes-insubstantial enemies is how I fight them. All enemies in Alan Wake are spun out of a book written by Alan the author. Of course, it’s a book he never wrote, or rather a book he plans on writing, and yet he regularly finds pages from this nonexistent book, pages that either reveal key bits of backstory or presage coming scares and threats.

If all of Wake’s enemies (called the Taken) are mixtures of shadows and men (no axe women, just yet), then by Wake‘s logic, the only way to kill them is with light and steel. Thus, flashlights, flares, and conventional firearms become Wake’s only methods of fending off the shambling, shadowy masses. To this end, every enemy is initially wreathed in shadow. The only way to kill an enemy is to shoot him several times, but an enemy is invulnerable to bullets while cloaked in shadow. To remove shadows from an enemy, Wake has to keep his flashlight focused on his assailant for an extended period of time. That’s where the combat gets fun, and slightly fiddly.

Alan lights up some shadowy fools. Oh damn. Did you see what I did there?

Alan lights up some shadowy fools. Oh damn. Did you see what I did there?

It’d be easy to light up each enemy in turn, wearing away their shadowy defenses, if one was to fight uninterrupted. That’s why enemies come in packs of two or three (at least), and are constantly trying to remove Wake’s head from his neck. To dodge the swing of an axe or a thrown object (an attack that feels like it was smoothly lifted from Resident Evil 4), I need to tap the left bumper. That’s all there is to combat. Different weapons can mix things up a bit: shotguns have a shorter range but are more powerful, flares guns are basically rocket launchers (all Taken explode in a burst of light when near the flare’s point of impact), and lamps and streetlights act as pools of safety. Despite all of this, it’s the light/gun/dodge dynamic that ends up defining every confrontation. A well-placed flare or shotgun blast can quickly turn the tide of battle in Wake’s favor, but bungled dodges and clumsy use of batteries and the flashlight lead to quick death.

It wouldn’t be a Remedy game, of course, if the last enemy in every group didn’t die in a quick slow motion tumble. Likewise, a successful dodge will often play out in slow motion, allowing you to watch as a swung or flung axe sails by. It’s this extra kick, this little touch, that makes every combat encounter in Alan Wake feel exciting and wonderfully choreographed (even if it isn’t). That might seem to imply that the rest of combat is bad: it’s not. Combat is fluid, aiming is perfectly accurate, and Wake can do everything you need him to do to dance around your enemies and destroy them without taking a hit.

I’d also like to attempt to explain why the woods and mountains of Alan Wake are really excellent. Part of their appeal stems from their beauty. They’ve been carefully rendered, and some excellent sounds give voice to their mysterious depths. Even without the game’s shadowy enemies roaming the forests of Bright Falls, these woods feel threatening and exciting. You can see quite clearly through the night, which makes sudden fog-banks dangerous and frightening. When the wind kicks up and the silence of the forest disappears, it’s not just an annoying enemy spawn-indicator: it lets you know that nothing is right about this night or this forest. All of these elements blend together to make the forest bits of the game by turns peaceful and suddenly violent.

A forest scene. Things are creepy. They may even be atmospheric. Are they psychologically thrilling yet?

A forest scene. Things are creepy. They may even be atmospheric. Are they psychologically thrilling yet?

Just as carefully realized are the old and disused buildings of Bright Falls. The ghost town surrounding the mine, the hotels and logging cabins, all look as they should, in a campy, X-Files way. Likewise, Remedy’s (by now ubiquitous) penchant for unsubtle self-awareness is out in full force for the duration of Alan Wake. The Twilight Zone knockoff “Night Springs” once again appear to have been filmed using actors and models taken from the developer’s ranks, and these short “shows” (found on various TVs ingame) are both amusing commentaries on the genre’s (and the game’s) tropes, and a chance for Remedy to do what they do best: break up the action into little pieces, in obvious, incredibly frustrating ways.

Every time an enemy spawns into the forest, ruin, or dank cabin that contains Alan, some special sound effects play. Often, the camera pulls out to focus on them. When this happens, two things are certain. First, there are enemies in front of and behind Alan. Second, the best option is to circle strafe/retreat until you’ve used your light to disperse the creatures’ shadowy protection. This reveal takes all of the suspense and tension out of combat. Every once in awhile, I’ll miss the telltale signs of the Taken’s (what Alan calls them) arrival, and those moments are precious. Dodging an incoming ax swing because I heard the quiet sound of its flight is a wonderful feeling. The frustration (and momentary shock) I feel when I miss those warning sounds and signs is just as acute. It’s baffling and disappointing that Alan Wake sets up this dark, frightening atmosphere, and then does its best to ruin that atmosphere at every turn.

Of course, one could argue that Wake is an action game first, “psychological thriller” second (whatever the hell that means), and horror game third. As far as the game and the designers are concerned, that’s an accurate analysis. I understand that this is a game about weird, amusingly acted and written Euro-Americans and smooth shooter controls, just as much as it’s about running around in the dark being scared by things. I just wish that the game didn’t go out of its way to take the few scary sections it includes and completely undermine them. It’s hard enough getting into the game, what with Alan’s meandering, out-of-touch (he doesn’t appear to be reacting to anything in-game) narration. I don’t need these blatantly telegraphed “surprise” attacks thrown in to add insult to injury.

Alan prepares to have his palate cleansed. Ew.

Alan prepares to have his palate cleansed. Ew.

I like the combat, but I hate the way that it is integrated in to the story and the world. It certainly doesn’t make things better that the aforementioned TV shows (and occasional radio shows) break up the action in a stilted, mood-breaking way. It’s possible that these diversions are meant as palette-cleansers, but they come off (along with the other completely pointless, “game-y” collectibles) as artificial-feeling: instead of adding to the game’s atmosphere or sense of fun/tension, they seem to exist in their own narrative world, one the in-game cutscenes and action don’t give a shit about.

That’s not to suggest that I dislike the game’s most obvious, ostentatious throat-clearing, pallet-cleansing act: it’s TV episode-like outros. I like the music that plays during the end of each episode, and I really like the idea of chunks of play separated into narratively discrete “episodes.” After all, a lot of games already do this, they just separate these different plot zones using “hubs” or the amusingly pretentious “Acts.” Games (Deus Ex, Diablo 2, etc.) love to do this. It gives the play a sense of narrative (temporal and spatial) progression that the game probably doesn’t possess, honestly. Alan Wake, for all its narrative absurdity and heavy-handed writing, certainly has a narrative that goes from place to place and time to time. It has to, thanks to the action’s (near) ubiquitous night-time settings. There are times when the jumps made by the story (in between Chapters 1 and 2, specifically) don’t feel necessary or meaningful, but some of the chapter endings feel like perfect places to stop and take a break, musically, play-wise, and plot-wise (I’m thinking of how Nick Cave’s “Up Jumped the Devil caps off Episode 3). This is how you do an action full stop: do it when your character gets knocked out, underwater. Do not do it while he’s hiding inside a cabin, watching for scary shadow beasts.

I like Alan Wake, but I’m aware that it isn’t as good as I’d hoped it would be, and I certainly don’t think it’s as good as Max Payne 2. Unlike Payne 2, it’s not honest with itself, or with us players. It constantly undercuts itself, downgrading its successes and triumphs into failures and annoyances. I hope it sells well, because I like a lot of Remedy’s quirks and self-referential proclivities (I was quite amused to hear James McCaffrey, who voiced Max Payne, narrating Alan’s “film noir” book pages, and I still think Remedy does shooting and dodging better than just about every other developer out there). They’re willing to mock themselves, to mock the things most game studios take as deadly serious (how many developers spend much of one game mercilessly mocking their last game?). So, here’s to Alan Wake, a game that obviously had its troubles and still has many of them. It’s not the dearest of all my friends I’d hoped it would be (and that particular friend is in the hands of a group of people I have no love or trust for), but maybe it’ll let Remedy go on and make a really great game. I’d even take a second Alan Wake, if they mixed up their formula a lot. Adios, Alan, and good luck Remedy.

Alan fights a possessed train or something else no one cares about. Even Alan doesn't care.

Alan fights a possessed train or something else no one cares about. Even Alan doesn't care.

[PS: Those stupid fucking animated farm implements can die in a fire. There is nothing scary about every single damn thing in the world “animating” and flying at Alan. It looks silly, it’s broken (just hide behind a lamp post and Shine the things into oblivion), and it sure as hell isn’t fun. Never take your cues from Stephen King. He’s the reason Super Scary Native American burial grounds are in every damn thing. Think about that.]

[PPS: GiantBomb has nice screen shots. No one else uses screens in their articles (except Eurogamer?). Also, you should all thank Ashelia for this post getting written. I was planning on not writing/forgetting about it in favor of other posts. Unless you hate this post, in which case it’s totally not my fault.]

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Impressions: Red Dead Redemption

Posted by deckard47 on May 20, 2010

Red Dead Redemption

Well, this is a fairly straightforward post, obviously. I bought two games. I’ll talk about Read Dead Redemption first, just because.

I’ve been getting more and more annoyed by all of the reviews talking about “what Rockstar’s done,” and this new “Rockstar developed game.” There’s no doubt in my mind that the corporate overlords in New York came in at various points and game this game the flavor and airs that come with a Rockstar Title. That’s what they do. It makes them oodles of money, thanks to all of those funny, funny jokes (that’s a link to the “Dastardly” achievement, which players get for tying a woman up and leaving her in front of a train).

This is also a Rockstar San Diego game. They are their own development team, and however awful and constricted their workplace has been, they did their own work and made their own game. These are the people who, a long time ago, made the Midtown Madness games (on PC, before the series went to shit on the Hexbox). That’s actually really weird. Anyway.

RDR is obviously a “Rockstar Game.” It’s also obviously a game made by a team that knows a thing or two more than the GTA IV team. The shooting isn’t crap. The cover isn’t crap. The horses handle better than the cars ever did. You can save anywhere, mostly! Marston doesn’t handle like a bathtub on centuries-old wheels. No one’s talked to me about Teeties! Really, it’s a bright new world, and I kind of dig it.

It’s a slow, ponderous open world, and it feels just right. I don’t want to jet around like Rico or Alec Mason. I don’t want to insta-travel, or at least not often. More than Just Cause 2, even, this is a world I like wandering around. Even when I don’t find wildlife to hunt or instanced quests or bandits, the world is beautiful and character-ful enough that I’m not yet bored with it. I’m pleased with the game’s economy so far: ammo and money are everywhere (bandits, mostly), but so far, prices are high enough that I never have more than a few dollars on me after a trip to town.

Fighting, hunting, and running away from wildlife is more fun than I thought it would be. They’re hard to shoot, and they drop valuable pelts and skins. Combat is a measured, solid affair: it takes a while to properly kill or contain each batch of desperadoes, and reloading, Dead Eye (bullet time), and corpse looting all slow down combat. Combat encounters are either concluded instantly (thanks to perfect Dead Eye use) or slowly. The latter occurred when I chased down a group of bandits in a long canyon. It took about half an hour, but it felt like just the right amount of time for such a mission. I haven’t died yet in combat, so I don’t know if GTA IV‘s hideously spaced checkpoints have made a return. Honestly, the combat is easy enough (and fun enough) that I might not mind.

That’s the good stuff.

What’s not so great? The cutscenes and expository sections do the game, its story, and its writing a great disservice. Don’t get me wrong: the writing isn’t brilliant. The dialog and acting do, however, set an appropriate mood, and I haven’t encountered too many cringe-worthy story turns yet. It’s a serviceable Western, a story of loyalty, old and new friendships, and journeys home. I like Bonnie McFarlane, Armadillo’s Sheriff is entertaining enough, and John Marston is gruff, if bland. The problem arises in the absolutely interminable cutscenes and driving sequences. Cutscenes in this game last anywhere from 2 minutes to 10 minutes. Some are entertaining, some are boring, but all of them are too long. The periods where I sit, watching cowboys talk, never seem to end. This isn’t how you engage players: don’t take away my ability to do things for minutes and minutes on end.

The long horseback conversations (identical to the long car trip conversations en route to missions in GTA IV) are almost as bad. They’re glorified cutscenes. Marston and his chosen companion talk about the job ahead, their lives, or how they know each other. Luckily, if you ever have to repeat a mission, the dialogue will change. It makes a boring, frequent process slightly less boring. It never excuses these long, protracted sequences. I’d rather watch a cutscene, if I’m just going to be riding along a set path anyway.

So, it’s quite fun, if a little longwinded at (all) times. It’s also beautiful (really, the draw distance, level of detail, and quality of animation are all excellent) and wonderfully scored. The core and sound effects are great, with bullets, animals, and everyday sounds coming out just right, while the music feels just as whimsical, lonesome, and Morricone-like as one could hope for.

Alan Wake is (pretty obviously) an entirely different beast, but I’ll get to that in the next post

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Impressions: Just Cause 2 and the Unserious Game

Posted by deckard47 on April 12, 2010

My name is Bolo Santosi…

It’s not actually, which is good for you, otherwise you’d have to listen to me discuss island revolutions using an alarming number of double entendres and nonsensically sexual language.

Just Cause 2 is what I thought everyone in this industry had been waiting for. It’s a fleeter, less self-serious open world game than Red Faction: Guerrilla, and it’s more exuberantly destructive, beautiful, and full of possibilities than every other open-world game (though RF:G beats JC2 out in terms of destructibility). This isn’t to say that Guerrilla (or any game) should be free from critique as regards its failings and narrative aspirations. Guerrilla obviously drew heavily from two narratives (the general American discourse surrounding insurgency, and the Mars of the Red Mars books) to build its own sub-par story. It should not be forgotten that it took these two complicated topics and ran roughshod over them, destroying most nuance and meaning in the process. This is not what happened in Just Cause 2, mostly because Just Cause 2 doesn’t give a shit about anything, unless it’s exploding in mid-air.

People keep on asking when we’ll get our B game, a game that competently entertains you but self-consciously provides you with a hilarious, wretched story. This is such a game. In reviews, I keep on reading about how the game’s story is nothing to write home about, how the voice acting is terrible and the plot is utterly nonsensical. People love the game (even if it gets a little old after a while), but they can’t help but put on their story-critic hats and look askance at Rico and his husky, cackling cohorts.

I cannot understand how these reviewers and writers could call for a good game that knowingly flaunts and plays with narrative genre (action adventure in this case) conventions and then reject those aspects of Just Cause 2. This is the same industry that tolerates God of War‘s offensive lack of humor, its lack of self-awareness and irony. Like all games, God of War is unable to escape from the vicious cycle of self-reference and intra-industry “inspiration” that plagues all games. It can’t see its way toward interesting, out-of-the-way inspirations beyond  action games, 300, and simplistic Disney treatments of different cultures’ tales and traditions (though I’d totally play a Hercules game made by a good game company).

In a world where Kratos (and his hilariously stupid whitewashing of “Greece”) can be taken at all seriously, how can a character and world so obviously, knowingly, and winkingly stolen from 80’s action movies be seen as an attempt at gravity and “deep” meaning?  This isn’t Bad Company 2, which suggests that you take its tired narrative at all seriously just as you laugh at its levity and insincerity. It’s also not Modern Warfare 2, a game obsessed with its own insipid narrative and grandiose take on serious issues.

I’ve no doubt that Just Cause 2 could have concerned itself with neo-colonialism and imperialism as practiced by the United States government and the CIA in numerous countries around the world. There’s a lot of history, and a lot of fiction surrounding the actual and conceptual meeting point between oppressed peoples, oppressive governments, and destructive US meddling and US-funded violence. It didn’t it doesn’t even try to do this. As Trent Polack pointed out (on Twitter!), one bit of dialogue from Bolo Santosi reads like this: “Now you have the limo, Scorpion. That symbol of Western degeneration. Pick up the whore, Miss Stacey.” Avalanche Studios couldn’t care less about “Western degeneration” (and really, what exactly the hell does she mean? Is she talking about the gross consumption endorsed and required by American Capitalism? Who knows!?), they care about throwing as many ludicrous clichés, horrible accents, offensive caricatures (though the game apparently has only a vague understanding of what country or culture it’s mocking/representing…), and B-movie references as they can into one game.

Movies that are “so bad they’re good,” or movies that competently and entertainingly present stupid or tired plots are quite popular. People seem to want the same thing in games, but they also want readers, writers, and gamers to take games more seriously. We’re tired of listening to that kind of person, who keeps on saying that “it’s just a game.” Let me fill you in on a secret: we can do both! It’s possible, when one is both mature and intelligent (and is possessed of a strong sense of the ironic, of humor), to appreciate games that are serious and well-intentioned, and games that do their best to be ironic and knowingly campy. We might want to try not confusing the one for the other, or at least admitting that one does not have to be the other, if we’re going to hold ourselves to such “high” standards. That’s part of the problem with Guerrilla. It doesn’t know how to leverage its potent literary and real-world inspirations, but it’s also much too serious and vapidly preachy to infuse its fiction with a healthy, necessary sense of irony. I mean, you’re a bald space dude who breaks things, has no personality, and is part of a “people’s” revolution. If you can’t make that story resonate (even if you do so by accident, possibly unintentionally, as Simon explains here in his “Proceduralizing Terror” piece), then you have to turn it into satire or knowing, winking (often annoyingly) smirking “commentary” on the story you are in the process of telling (see Rockstar’s misplaced, badly performed attempts at “satire” for a great example of this).

That’s what Just Cause 2 is. Everything, from Rico’s outrageous voice (everyone’s voice, really) to Rico’s methods of island “liberation” (destroying everything “owned” by the government, including water towers), is Avalanche Studios flippantly, uncaringly leveraging our shared memory of various kinds of violence and oppression in countries around the world. Of course, they’re making a game about a thing that actually (in whatever modulated sense) happens, so the text of Just cause 2 isn’t impervious to helpful, insightful readings. It’s telling that Rico frees the people of Panau by destroying everything around them, that he works with dangerous people whose good intentions (toward Panau) are dubious at best, and that no one asks him for this “help.” Again, to say this would be to give these characters some kind of depth or moral agency: they have none, every single one is a cardboard cutout of a 2-dimensional character, every one is as flat and boring as possible. This is a game that ends with Rico and his buddy partying with some ladies as the nukes (that Rico stopped from hitting Japan, Russia, America, and China) explode in the ocean near Panau. Rico then makes a joke about barbecue, or something… It’s a deeply stupid, outrageous ending to an equally stupid story.

Again, I’m not excusing how dumb this story is. I’m simply saying that to critique the game for not being serious is one (legitimate) thing. Critiquing it for that same crime and claiming that it was trying to be serious is a massive error on the part of any writer. That’s not what this game is trying to do: don’t attack a game based on sins it hasn’t committed. Just Cause 2 is so cheekily, joyously nonchalant in its trivialization of so many things, it’s a shame so many people are unhappy with its “failure” to tell a good story. It’s a very fun game marred by some very bad balance and design decisions (mostly focused in the “why won’t you let me have some damn fun” area), and deliberately tells an incoherent, willfully ignorant tale of US-funded terrorism. Let’s not treat it like something it isn’t, and forget that “deliberately” in that last sentence.

[PS: The real crime here is that there are no pictures of Bolo Santosi up on the internet. What the hell internet?]

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PAX East: APB

Posted by deckard47 on March 26, 2010

It’s the game from the people (mostly) who made Crackdown, and a lot of people are really, really excited about it. I’m not sure why. We watched a bunmch of people demoing it while a totally excited guy talked about how exciting the game they were playing was.

What they were playingg looked like a high-res version of The Matrix Online or Fallen Earth, but in a modern, drab city. We watched as people activated timed meters and (while  a bar/circle filled) beat up a passerby. We watched as they crashed cars into each other. We listened as the excited guy explained the APB/bounty system (which admittedly sounds interesting).

Why is this so exciting? The world and characters look incredibly boring. The overarching mechanics and ingame rewards/impetus to play system might be interesting (no way to tell from this demonstration), but the world and the characters themselves look like less exciting, more gray and brown versions of Saints Row 2.

Let me remind you: Saints Row 2 was not a visually exciting game, beyond really bright cars and hair. I can’t see being interested in this game for the world its characters inhabit. It looks as static and unappealing as any other “real city” MMO (like City of  Heroes or the aforementioned games).

What’s exciting about this? To beat up an NPC, you start a timed meter. You don’t just punch them a bunch. How do you go from the ludicrous punching of Crackdown to this? And how does this barren wasteland of a an MMO grab the press’ attention in this way? They must be seeing stuff I haven’t (easy to do, I should point out). It’s an open world where the only attraction would appear to be the mechanic by which players are matched up with each other.

It’s a giant, faceless city full of carefully designed thugs wearing (I’m sure) sweet tattoos and customizable bodies. Shouldn’t the world be  somewhat interesting? Is a neat matchmaking (’cause that’s what it is) mechanic enough to sell bloodless Saints Row 2 squad play? Apparently it is.

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Impressions: Battlefield Bad Company 2

Posted by deckard47 on March 8, 2010

Snow-soldiers being buzzed by a snowy helicopter. In the Snow!

Let’s start this off with a joke. Something about not being able to play the game while Simon plays it with impunity. That’s because he bought the console version, while I bought the PC version, which had broken-at-launch multiplayer (a week out, it still doesn’t work half of the time). He’s won this one, since he’s played the game for many hours more than me, but in the long run he’s a big loser. He loses, because PC gamers get the absolutely phenomenal BFBC 2 UI and menus. I’d like to post a screen of these menus, because they really are quite something. They’re responsive, clearly and brightly colored, and let you get to whatever information you’re lookingfor quickly. They aren’t a hideous crimson or blood-red, and there aren’t flames, helicopters, or other silly crap floating and animating in the background. True, the art itself isn’t fantastic (a brurning army guy and some tanks), but the fact that it isn’t trying to claw my eyes out as I play is both surprising and welcome. This menu is here (in a somehow understated Bumblebee color scheme) to fill you in on everything. I can’t remember another menu that does this so well. Congratulations, DICE.

What about that game, then? Here’s the real question : is is as good as that fabulous menu? Read the rest of this entry »

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Impressions: Heavy Rain

Posted by deckard47 on February 24, 2010

A tense convenience store splitscreen scene, starring the Private Detective PC.

Here there be spoilers. So, yeah…

I’m now a few chapters into Heavy Rain, and I have all kinds of exciting things to tell you. First, despite the fact that the game’s dingy, decaying urbam settings are carefully, artfully crafted, it’s an incredibly European game. It’s supposed to be set on the East Coast (somewhere, who knows where, it’s like a movie shot in Vancouver, that “takes place” in Chicago), but every single thing is French. The toilets and bathrooms are separate, the children have some kind of awful Tintin-like Tipi in their room, and all kinds of other little things are just not (to use a phrase I don’t often use) in any way American. Your average hipster Architecture family would have graduated to different racist presents for their kids, I’d think. Casual racism towards Native Americans (of this strange, twice diluted variety, not in the garden variety, institutionalized, brutal way we practice it here in the US) is a specialty of the French, it would seem (watch the movie Cliente, if you want a lesson in this particular brand of bizarre second-hand bigotry).  This serves to undermine the (obviously incredibly careful) work that has gone into world-building in Heavy Rain. Instead of Somewhere, America, it feels like some kind of surreal, Prisoner-like sham is constantly underway. You aren’t really in America, you’re trapped in a not-quite perfectly realized version of America that hides a dark dystopian reality… Or something.

Really though, I find most of that quite charming (although if this game replicates Heavy Rain‘s treatment of African American’s, I’ll be forced to amend that judgment), much like I find the odd, all-over-the-place voice acting to be charming, in its mostly appropriate but always tonally off way. If you play with French subtitles, the sense of living in Mirror Universe America is strengthened, excellently. Unsurprisingly, the game is also incredibly worried about the possibility of the destruction of a happy bourgeois life. They’re all just so happy, but the, their suburban paradise is destroyed! Destroyed, so that they’re forced to move into a scary, poor part of town. Oh no.

The action scenes are really quit fun. I’m not sure what everyone is complaining about when it comes to Heavy Rain‘s controls. They’re too abstract, or something? They’re not like “real” game controls? It’s really unclear. I understand Edge’s issues (article linked here) with the game: button cues are sometimes inexpertly presented or represented… But then there are the reviews that delight in pointing out that the game isn’t always an action game, that it isn’t always “thrilling.” From the Destructoid review (link here):

Fortunately, however, the game’s many boring moments are offset by some of the most intense and sometimes terrifying sequences ever found in a game.

Actually, I’m happy to play games that actually try to inexpertly create an in-game “normal,” only to destroy that normal with the abnormal. Even if action/fighting are a common thing in a game, it’s nice to know that games can tell stories (however badly) with something that isn’t a gun or a fist. Let’s move on to this peculiar nugget of wisdom, again from the Destructoid review:

the very fact that Quantic Dream even attempts a serial killer story in a videogame is worthy of respect.

Really? They are? Actually, I wish they hadn’t. It’s not a genre I find compelling in any media, and it seems to me (from the story so far) that they’ve used it to pigeon-hole their narrative into a rather narrow, uninventive (aside from the TWISTS) space. It just means that their dark gray pallet comes from Poverty and Crime, and not Aliens and Space.

Ultimately, Heavy Rain is an experiment that both succeeded and failed, when it could easily have been a total success if the brains behind it weren’t trying so hard to be smart, and cared more about providing a sensible plot as opposed to a shocking one.

Well then… It’s like some kind of paradox, right? It’s one thing, and the other. I’m trying to remember where I read it, but someone (Quinns from RPS?) recently pointed out that saying that a game was “trying too hard to be smart” was a rather large journalistic mistake. First of all, how many mainstream games “try to be smart” in a way that doesn’t include Retro Chic and Art Deco, Cover mechanics, or Moral Choices? How many? None of them! Personally, I think the fact that the writing behind Heavy Rain was done by someone who actually had an abiding interest in something interesting is almost revolutionary. It’s not a game based on the insipid, stupid ramblings of an asshole, couched in the obvious struggles of robotic fathers and mutated sons (similar to Heavy Rain, I’ll admit), and it’s not a thrice-regurgitated, stupidly self-referential attempt at gravity, bombast, or “morality.” It may be badly written (edit: I can now safely say that it is badly written), have bad voice acting (I actually like the French voice work, although any Francophones in the audience can mock me for that), and traffic in clichés, but it’s still not a story about a Man who Travels through a Dangerous Shooting Gallery to Save his Girlfriend/City/Ship/People/World. Just in that, it’s (sadly) somewhat unique among video games. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

You know what is annoying about Heavy Rain? The awful, badly-explained difficulty setting. I spent a minute or two figuring out which was hard and which wasn’t. Likewise, the way many scenes always end one way or another (their “choices” are in no way choices) is pretty transparent, even to a first-time player. That’s the kind of thing we should be critiquing. Making fun of a game simply because it isn’t like what you think “games” should be is a pretty arrogant, foolish thing to do. I’d like to think that no one is that arrogant, to think that they can guard the gates of Gaming High Culture, but I’m obviously wrong. I’ll leave this one in the hands of Corvus Elrod (link to Semionaut’s Notebook!):

1a) If I ever suggest there is only one “correct” method of telling stories with video games–smack me.
1b) If I ever suggest that there should only be one method of examining any media–smack me again.

Let’s add a third, silent point there: If I ever suggest that there is only one “correct” method of controlling games and game characters, smack me. Yes, I think that should do it nicely.

This might be a good time to say that I’m really digging Call of Pripyat and Neptune’s Bounty. So much. More on those two later this week.

[Edit]: I just finished the first part where you play as Madison, and it was pretty bad. It’s a creepy, highly sexualized home assault where Madison gets attacked by a bunch of masked men, one of whom then slits her throat (but it’s a dream!). Of course, she does this all in her underwear, or naked, or in post-shower underwear again. It’s so obviously, cheaply about the threat of gynocide (BSG example linky) and rape. It really telegraphs the level of sophistication that went into writing parts (or all?) of this game. Fantastique.

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Impression/Review: Mass Effect 2

Posted by deckard47 on February 21, 2010

A Real Villain!

Hi there. It’s been a while. Back to work.

I’ve recently finished a game (from this year!), which makes me think that the End of Days may be upon us. This, of course, means I need to prepare myself: when you all get Raptured, I’m going to steal all of your cats and live with them in the giant treehouse at Disneyland. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Sadly, I’m disappointed in Mass Effect 2. While it has its own issues regarding the way in which its characters and world are written (a clue: you can’t be gay unless you’re a hot blue alien Woman, and you can’t be a woman unless you’re Quarian, Human, or Asari), it left me unfulfilled in other ways.

There going to be spoilers here. So, yeah: Read the rest of this entry »

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Impressions: Modern Warfare 2

Posted by deckard47 on January 6, 2010

I’ve just finished Modern Warfare 2‘s single player, and I’ve played around 20 hours of the multiplayer. While the multiplayer is as addictive and well-balanced as always (despite a few strange issues here and there), the single player is a truly unique, unpleasant beast. I’m not going to write specifically about “No Russian” here (maybe Owen and I can have it out about that later?), instead I’m just going to work my way though my notes and thoughts, having just completed the game (a warning: I will tell you who the villain is. So. SPOILERS: No Really, if You Care About the Plot, GO AWAY): Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Impressions, Rant | Tagged: , , , | 10 Comments »

Impressions and Articles: Left 4 Dead 2, Archetypes, and “Larger-than-Life” Personalities

Posted by deckard47 on December 24, 2009

I’ve been reading a lot of articles on Left 4 Dead 2, Ben Abraham’s post on the reasons why (initially, he hasn’t done a follow-up yet) he found the second game less compelling than the first. He has many reasons for thinking this. He singles out the new game’s failure in the area of education: more options are thrown at you than before, ill-explained options. As any newcomer to L4D2 could attest, he’s right about this. Even for a L4D1 veteran, this game is hard (at first), and I’m still working my way up to the harder difficulties. While I don’t think this is a horrible thing (I’m happy that you have to relearn the game. It makes it feel like its own thing, a separate identity from the first, unlike so many MP-centric sequels), he’s right that Valve doesn’t teach you as brilliantly and quickly as they did the first time around.

Still, I’d like to point out that a friend of mine who never played the first game picked it up 3 days ago. Under the dubious tutelage of myself and Owen, he learned quickly, and over the past three days he’s grown as a player. He isn’t as good as we are today (nor is he as good as those people online who can determine the exact location of all enemies by sound alone), but he can hold his own. That’s not bad, for a game as complicated and intricate as Left 4 Dead 2. While most games require you to learn how to shoot and how to follow different rulesets, Left 4 Dead 2 requires you to learn to entirely different skill sets: the mechanics of play against the computer, the mechanics of play against humans, and the mechanics of play with humans. When you think about it, that’s more than most shooters, and you still learn pretty fast. Really, why I started writing this post was to address his issues with the cast of Left 4 Dead 2. I’ll let him speak for himself, and then start blabbing:

Lastly on my list of gripes, and my major concern, is the four new characters. This is entering the realms of personal preference and taste, but to me it seems that Nick, Ellis, Rochelle and Coach aren’t as memorable as the original quartet. Perhaps it’s because they are less obvious archetypes. Coach seems the closest to a recognisable archetype and for his larger-than-life personality he remains my personal favourite. Nick and Ellis both feel too similar – Nick, I know from the pre-release publicity, is ostensibly a conman but he’s much too nice and average. That aspect of his character is struggling to shine through, however and the only quote of his that has stood out for me is most revealing of that aspect of his character.

In a game recently I heard him admonish someone for shooting him, saying “You did not just shoot the man in the three-thousand dollar suit!” Nick needs to be talking about his suit way more, and Ellis needs something to give his character a similar focus. Valve has said that they wanted him to be “southern” and innocent and naive, while avoiding representing him as a stereotypical hick. While this effort is laudable for wanting to portray southern American culture in a mature light, I wonder if the character suffers for it.

Perhaps Nick’s character too suffers for being in a game as devoted to cooperation as Left 4 Dead 2. Thinking on it, it’s possible that a sharkskin-suited conman could still be an appropriate character for L4D, as he could easily be cast as The Reluctant Help, much like Francis in the original. Francis was a grouch, but he was a lovablegrouch, and it was always communicated that his character had your back. But how does one pull off “the lovable conman?” I guess what I’m suggesting is that Nick is not wisecracking enough for it; he’s not even sarcastic enough.

Regardless of personal preference, it is obvious that the characters are slightly different than they were in L4D1 (aside from the obvious differences). As he says, Coach is the one with the “larger-than-life” personality. I suppose this makes him more relatable, for some. What I think it does is make Coach the least interesting of all of the characters. Regardless of taste (I think a large portion of the things Coch says are amusing, and I can easily discern what his “character” is supposed to be), Coach is the easy way out, he’s almost the opposite of good characterization; he’s a shortcut, a cop-out (a minor one, to be sure), compared to his companions. Ellis, Nick, and Rochelle all have personalities, and they all have interesting and funny things to say about their surroundings. Coach talks through most of the Dark Carnival (about funnel cake, among many things), but everyone (as before) has enough quips and banter to keep things flowing. Everyone who has played Dark Carnival knows about the “Tunnel of Love,” since Nick spends a good deal of time talking about it.

Abraham’s issue with Ellis also seems unfortunate. I don’t think that “While this effort is laudable for wanting to portray southern American culture in a mature light, I wonder if the character suffers for it.” I don’t think Ellis suffers for it. Yes, he could have been like Jason Stackhouse. He could have been a badly written stock character, a southern hick with charm to spare and not a thought in his head. Instead, he’s (along with Coach) a Midnight Riders enthusiast, a devoted follower of Jimmy Gibbs Jr. (his love speech to the abandoned car is excellent), and he’s nota huge fan of swamp people. Likewise, Nick may seem somewhat average at the start, but he’s quickly become my favorite character. His sarcastic complaining is always amusing, as are his and Coach’s Love Tunnel conversations (how many experiences have you had?). In fact, he’s the easiest to like: he’s that smart ass, the loner (to Abraham’s chagrin), the man who wants to tell everyone else how much everything annoys him. In fact, he’s a lot like Francis, in some respects, the man who “hates” everything. The difference is, Nick is angry. He’s scared, and he deals with it by snarking on everything. It means he can’t just say “I hate _____” and get a laugh. It means the writers write better dialogue, and more of it. They have to think of how a person would say one thing, and then think how a different person would say the same thing.

Now that I think about it, all of the characters strike me that way. They all have hidden depths, you have to get to know them to see those hidden depths, but they are there. Part of the disconnect between Ben and me may be Left 4 Dead 2‘s fault. If you don’t play campaign or SP, you will never hear any of this incidental dialogue. In Versus, Scavenge, and Survival modes, you won’t hear much banter. Playing a SP game on easy, I was delighted and surprised to hear my characters talk to each to and about each other, or the environment, or the zombies. Just today I heard Rochelle apologize to the swamp people zombies that she had to kill them.

Why is this a bad thing? It is not a bad thing that a major company has decided (mostly) to create new characters for its sequel who aren’t (as obviously or as completely) tired stereotypes. I still like Coach, but I like Nick and Rochell more. They aren’t obviously, annoyingly stereotyped. They aren’t The _____ White Conman, and The _____ Black Woman. Coach almost is. Is that what it means to be “larger-than-life?” I’ll skip that, thank you very much. Broad, “relatable” characters might be more easily relatable, but they’re almost always weaker. They’re uneasily infused with nuance and heft. They’re annoyingly flat.

You have to watch, listen, and learn with everyone, even Coach. They have their squabbles, and their triumphs, and they can’t (thank God!) be boiled down to “Francis hates something again,” or “Bill made another war joke.” I like it when my characters are written in a way that makes me stop and listen, that tricks me into thinking they have more than one tic or joke. I wish more companies did it, and I hope that when Valve makes Left 4 Dead 3 (might I recommend an exciting Non-American locale? Hell, I’d love Left 4 Dead: Alpine Edition), every one of the characters is the opposite of the Snarky College Girl, or the “Lovable,” Heart of Gold Biker. It would be really nice, actually.

Posted in Articles, Impressions | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Grab Bag: Zombies and Ghosts

Posted by deckard47 on December 20, 2009

The holiday season has intervened between you and me, reader, and I have just now fought my way back to you (and to the blog, which misses me). Luckily, something besides the bighting, dangerous cold (left safely behind in New Haven) has been keeping me busy. Away from my computer (the powerful one, that is) I have sunk myself back into Left 4 Dead 2. Owen, Henry, and I play almost every night now, and it’s a welcome escape from the exciting familial homestead and all of its attending wonders.

I’ve also delved briefly into The Blackwell Legacy, an independent adventure game That stars Rosangela, a young writer in New York who discovers that she is a medium. It’s pretty fun so far. The music ranges from vaguely moody appropriately (for the various settings) mysterious tunes to some strangely appropriate techno beats. The main actress takes a little getting used to, but after a while, she and the rest of the voice cast quietly, modestly sell their world.

By far the most interesting part of the game so far (aside from the story, which I very much like) is the puzzle format surrounding Rosangela’s notebook. There, she makes note of people and places that are important to her present investigation. Thus, while reporting on the death of a college student (or learning more about your aunt’s death), you can click on each topic and hear Rosangela’s thoughts. This is nothing new. What is new is the fact that getting her to go over something in her head will often reveal a new idea or topic and add it to the notebook. In this way, a normally standard item mechanic (using items on each other or examining items to take them apart or find hidden information) is transformed into a kind of verbal archaeology. As the player, you must explore Rosangela’s thoughts and opinions on the situation at hand to solve several puzzles (I’m sure there will be more than the few I have encountered).

It feels great to explore Rosangela’s thoughts and find the answers to problems inside your own head. It has a great Blade Runner feel to it, actually (the game, that is), calling to mind the deep codex trees and investigative photo work done in that great adventure game. There a few other games asking me for some of my time, but only LittleBigPlanet (on the PSP) is getting any of it. I never played the original game, so I’m new to the catchy music (half of it seemingly cribbed from Thievery Corporation. Ironic, right?), weird levels, and the pleasant voice of Stephen Fry. I enjoy the game, for what it is, but I wish Fry had something to say about every level. I’m in Africa now (I think?), and he’s been silent for a while. Hopefully that will change soon.

Posted in Grab Bag, Impressions | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Grab Bag: A Great Disturbance in the Force

Posted by deckard47 on November 30, 2009

A lot of things to go over. So:

There’s a new Prince of Persia game coming in May 2010 (link).  It is not a sequel to PoP 2008. It is a continuation of the Sands of Time franchise. Let me just go make myself a stiff drink, and then we can discuss this. Right. I do not dislike Sands of Time. I kind of like Two Thrones. But I am not sure what they hope to accomplish by going back to this world. They are going to need to hire some great writers (and fire everyone who want s to make the combat include more combos and weapons) to bring this series back (sans the stink of WW). They might be able to pull it off. What gets me about all of this is that this announcement is tantamount to Ubisoft saying “so that PoP 2008… That was a mistake. We’ll be going back to our regular programming.”

Maybe this isn’t the case. Maybe the next game in Elika’s series will come out in a few years. Maybe they are preparing for a potentially unsuccessful 2008 sequel by releasing a (supposedly) surefire SoT continuation. But it looks like Ubisoft wasn’t as confidant in their new series as they said they were. I wish they’d stick with it (the way they did, to great success and acclaim, with Assassin’s Creed 2), and make a second game however they pleased. Screw us critics. Of course, AC 1 may have been a critical meh, but it also sold 1 million+ copies. I don’t think PoP 2008 did quite that well. So I will wait, and mumble under my breath about kid these days, and their difficulty.

After the break, what I’ve been playing and why I like it, oddly enough. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Grab Bag, Impressions, News | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »