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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.

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Posted in Disappointment, Impressions, Reviews | Tagged: , , , , | 3 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.]

Posted in Impressions, Reviews | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Articles: A Rules of the Game Roundup!

Posted by deckard47 on May 7, 2010

Before I get down to business, I wanted to make a quick note of something I’ll (hopefully) be writing about soon: tragically irony-free, unselfconscious use of retro-chic/”art deco” styles in games to fill in gaping world holes and failings. I’m looking at the Bioshock series and Fallout 3 here. Mostly Bioshock 2 and Fallout 3, but Bioshock muscles it’s way onto the list, somehow. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, since I just beat Bioshock 2, and I’m playing Fallout and Fallout 3 simultaneously (all for Popmatters, actually). Anyway, it’s just impossible to escape the sense that these stylings are approaching unpleasant, completely meaningless levels of recursive, unselfconscious self-referencing and cultural “meaning.” But that’s for another post.

For now, I bring you a trifecta (yes!) of pieces from Rules of the Game. First, there’s Simon’s Section 8 (PS3) review. He feels much the same as I felt about it, especially that awful, nonexistent shooting/feedback issue. Check it out:

Unfortunately, one vital aspect of feedback is lacking from Section 8: the joy of the kill. You don’t notice how important this is in a space marine game until it’s taken away from you: the death scream of a UNSC Spartan flying through the air after getting stuck with a plasma grenade. In Section 8, enemies simply crumple to the ground when they die. Many times, I didn’t even know that I’d scored a kill, or how I’d done it, until I looked at the kill list. This is coupled t0 somewhat vague feedback from gunfire. With weapons that fire slowly, it’s easy to tell whether you’ve scored a hit or not: a significant amount of enemy health decreases, and you’ll notice a tiny radiating color coming off your targeting reticle. But in the case of rapid-firing weapons it can get aggravatingly tough to figure out how many of your shots are making contact.

Absolutely spot-on. Read the rest here, at RotG.

Next, we have Mariam Asad’s excellent piece on Heavy Rain, its camera, and the player. Here’s a bit to entice you:

My reading of the effect of camera angles is grounded in apparatus theory, specifically Jean-Louis Baudry’s essay “The Ideological Effects of the Cinematographic Apparatus.” Baudry argues that the cinema embeds meaning through the camera’s very method of representation. It transforms discrete images (frames) into movement and continuity; the viewer forgets that the apparatus is present. By contrast, the camera in Heavy Rain is jarring and disruptive, which is especially evident through the use of quick cuts during fight sequences. While this is a standard cinematic technique, Heavy Rain takes this to another level by dedicating the L1 button almost entirely to changing the camera angle. This speaks to the significance of camera angles in the narrative design of Heavy Rain, not only as a heavy cinematic influence, but also to the way in which it impacts agency.

There’s a lot of stuff to be said and read about Heavy Rain, but this is definitely one of the more interesting ones. Here’s the link to the full article.

Finally, here’s my review of Zombie Driver. It’s not bad, though I neglect to mention the game’s interesting quest/regard/time passage mechanic, which is quite similar to that used in Dead Rising. It’s basically GTA 2 with hostile zombie hordes, and it’s way more fun than it has any right to be. Plus, those timed quests really are interesting. Here’s an excerpt:

There are so many ways to wreak havoc: hit the turbo button, then throw your car into a power slide, and watch it cut a perfect arc of bloody death through the already dead. Maybe guns are too ostentatious; maybe you’d rather drive as close as possible to the exploding zombies. As you drive by each one, they’ll go off, destroying all zombies nearby, possibly setting off a chain reaction with other exploders. Exor Studios made sure each of these possibilities is as visually violent and tactile as possible. Different zombies make different noises when they attack you and when you run them over. Each gun has a distinctive sound and look, and (of course!) each weapon kills zombies in a childishly pleasing and different way.

So yeah. Go read it, maybe? Here!

Finally, in non-RotG article related news, I’ve a Metro 2033-centric piece up at Game Set Watch. It focuses on the things I wish Metro 2033 had really been about (something I touched on in my review). Here’s a bit of it:

In a game that looks like a scary corridor shooter,  a game whose most common enemies are hard to kill and take an inordinate number of bullets to fell, scavenge-centric survival horror gameplay can be incredibly frustrating. Of course, this scarcity of resources, when combined with an almost overpowering enemy force, creates a powerful atmosphere of danger. Yet Metro 2033 isn’t just content to communicate the horrible conditions everyone in Moscow lives in. They do one better and make combat in the game a pretty horrible experience.

Here’s the rest of it!

That’s it. I apologize for this giant link-dump/article roundup. It’s a bit lazy, but since I’ve been writing so much for these places, I haven’t had time to throw something up on the blog, which seemed unfair. So there they all are, the fruits of my and my comrades’ toil. Until later.

Posted in Analysis, Articles, Reviews | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Updates: Podcasts and a Review

Posted by deckard47 on April 8, 2010

So, once again, I’ve been silent. No apologies. Although I am reading Tintin and the Secret of Literature (great name for a book about Tintin), so I’ve been busy in that way.

I’ll get right down to business. Over the past few weeks I’ve been recording a podcast about Story in Games (some of my regular readers just fell asleep/closed Chrome. Simon probably popped a few blood vessels) for Popmatters, along with three other people. Those three other people are Chris Williams, Nick Dinicola, and Rick Dakan. It’s called the Moving Pixels Podcast, and this is the first episode. I think that’s all the information you’ll need to decide whether or not you want to follow that link. If you do follow it, I apologize for the number of times I say “you know.” It’s sad, and I’m working on it with a trainer. If you’re really interested, here are links to episodes 2, and 3. If you do listen to any of them, I’d like it if you’d leave a comment here, letting me know what you think… I’m a cautious, inefficient Podcaster, so my showing in these recordings is rather iffy. I wish you luck.

We also have this here review of Twin Sector, also over at Popmatters. I didn’t like it, at all. Here’s a bit about why I didn’t like it:

There’s no tension here, no skulking, creeping danger in these subterranean halls. The player character is some kind of slow motion, klutzy science experiment, and the rest of the cast is even less convincing and interesting. A game whose gameplay hardly exists beyond one puzzle solving mechanic absolutely must deliver a promising, compelling story and gameplay/narrative mélange. This game does neither of these things. I wish I could recommend this game. I like the idea behind the gameplay, and I could be convinced to like the story. In this form, Twin Sector is something I want to forget quickly.

If that doesn’t grab you, you obviously have no taste (or, you’re hiding behind something that prevents me from grabbing you). Read the rest of it here.

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Reviews: Stalker Call of Pripyat

Posted by deckard47 on March 4, 2010

A giant Claw Machine! digging into a quarry. I look on, modded pistol in hand.

From Sleeper Hit, I bring you my delighted review of Call of Pripyat. Read on:

I was, and am, incredibly taken with the Stalker games. To a lot of players and reviewers these are fiddly, overly finicky PC games that specialize in bad acting, bad writing, and a seriously retrograde sense of game design (see the cutscenes, quest and map system, and the complete lack of vital information, at points).

Of course, I look at all that and see the most convincing, “atmospheric” (if you’ll permit me that term) game I’ve played recently. As any good Stalker game must, Call of Pripyat tasks you with exploring, mastering, and respecting the wasted, irradiated zone of land surrounding Chernobyl, called, appropriately, “The Zone.” In previous games anomalies were semi-random, floating, often invisible distortions that damaged your avatar in various ways. They were often accompanied by radiation. In Pripyat, “Anomalies” are now huge, environmentally integrated objects in the world. A giant tear through the earth, a clawed hole in a hill (as if attacked by a giant hand), or any number of otherworldly landmarks will confront your hero. Within and about these blights float anomalies. They range from fiery geysers to black hole-like distortions, and while not all of them are deadly (instantaneously), they often conspire to weaken or kill your character.

Exciting, no? Head on over to the review, and find out more exciting things relating to Pripyat than you thought you’d ever need to know. Link.

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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 »

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

Divinity 2: Ego Draconis Review

Posted by deckard47 on January 24, 2010

Divinity 2: Ego Draconis is a video game about dragons, knights, and goblins. It’s like Drakan, but better. Here’s the first couple of paragraphs from my Divinity 2 review. It’s a fun, exciting, rather different game, and I quite liked it. Read this bit here, and if you want:

Divinity 2: Ego Draconis is a bit of a monstrous game, like the dragons that supposedly burst from its world. A third person European RPG, it is like its recent comrade, Risen, in derivation alone. While every second in Risen is a dark, dangerous, desperate fight for survival, Divinity 2 is a long hard slog, for the most part. Surprisingly, it feels quite unique in most ways. It takes familiar settings, plots, characters, and gameplay and turns them just a bit, so that you can see a different side of everything. Similarly, the developers at Larian have managed to twist all of these tired fantasy and gameplay tropes to their own will, making for a game just different enough to stand out from the rest.

Larian has quite a history on the PC. Their breakout title, Divine Divinity, was a game that most took for anotherDiablo clone. It was, in fact, much more akin to one of the more complicated Ultima games, and featured strange, troubling, and sometimes brilliant design decisions and idiosyncrasies. While the game’s sequel, called Beyond Divinity, was less popular, both games shared the same peculiar sense of humor and an interesting view on what was “good” gameplay. These were the kind of games that featured surprisingly intelligent writing, a healthy dose of irony, and incredibly detailed and interactive environments.

Divinity 2, then, looks like somewhat of a departure for the studio behind such quirky, anything-but-mainstream entertainment. While it might seem like just another Tolkien-aping third person fantasy epic from a distance, taken as a whole it is an interesting and surprising game. Divinity 2 takes place in a land where Dragons, Dragon Knights, and Dragon once battled each other for supremacy. Now there is but one Dragon Knight remaining, and you, as a newly minted Dragon Slayer, must destroy that Knight.

If that tickles your fancy, head over to Sleeper Hit and read the whole thing (at this link here).

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Ghostbusters Wii Review

Posted by deckard47 on July 7, 2009

I know you’ve been waiting for it! Actually, I hope you haven’t been waiting that long, or that hard. Because the wait was not at all worth it. Follow this link to read me trying to be nice to Ghostbusters and failing miserably. A tasty morsel of the linked article lies below:

The rest of the game is perfectly passable. You’ll listen to the Ghostbusters trade banter and insults as they encounter their old nemeses, Gozor and Walter Peck. You’ll witness the rise of new, even more ghostly and deadly villains, and the ridiculous romantic antics of Venkman and  Dr. Ilyssa Selwyn. It’s all well and good when you aren’t playing, but even in the relatively well-written story scenes, there’s something missing. First off, there are lines of dialogue that were strangely cut from the Wii version. Watching the same cutscenes in the PC version reveals that the more expansive, graphically intensive cinematics on display house jokes, conversations, and bits of dialogue cut from the Wii version.

It’s too bad that these little snippets were cut, because they often leave certain jokes without the legs on which to stand, or throw plot developments at you with little warning or description. Furthermore, as in the PC version, the conversations are all oddly stilted. As opposed to cutscenes in games like Chronicles of Riddick or Dead Space, the characters all pause artificially between deliveries. It’s as if I’m playing Mass Effect, waiting for a human to choose Egon’s next line. Except I’m not, I’m playing a game with completely scripted cutscenes, and the characters sound flat and far-too-slow, especially when compared to the quick, uninhibited banter shown in the films.

I know, what you’re thinking (unless you’re thinking something else entirely, and are already angry that I’m lying to you about whatever that is). You’re thinking, “Tom, why don’t you ever like the games you review. Even the ones you think you’ll like?” The answer: I haven’t reviewed Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood yet. When that shit hits the Cross estates, all bets are off. Get ready.

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Celbrate the Mass Effect News!

Posted by deckard47 on February 21, 2009

In celebration of the minuscule ME 2 trailer below (and the hilarious responses on Kotaku’s boards), I bring you a new section to the blog. Over on the right (always the right!) there is now the “recent articles” widget. You can read the more recent of my writings there, and they will change as I write new stuff for new places. As of tonight, over there is what is “hot” right now… Don’t burn yourself on it. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the writing interview for DHSGiT is with Keith Nemitz, and you should go read it, now. He’s cool, it’s cool, good writing should be recognized. Serously, go check it out, and by “it” I mean the game. Free demo!. As opposed to a demo that costs money? Whatever, go insult some gym teachers or snag some boyfriends.

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Impressions/Review: Dead Space (or how I learned to stop freaking out and kill aliens)

Posted by deckard47 on November 4, 2008

So, I’m still playing through Dead Space, but I thought I’d stop by and write a bit about it. I’ve recently been thinking that too many games operate in the shadow of Aliens, especially in the atmosphere created by that movies’ characters. So, it’s with amusement that I encounter a game that steals everything else from Ripley’s world: setting, plot, enemies (kinda), and lines of dialogue. I mean, when you hear somebody give the “we’re here to destroy, not to analyze or bring back” line, you know what’s going on.

This has, of course, been pointed out by many people, all over the internet. It seems to me they’re also talking about gameplay. They say that this game is like Aliens, with its frantic action and small scares, and less like Alien’s slow creeping dread. Again, correct. What they don’t mention is that the story, which mixes the aforementioned movies with The Thing and a bit of religious zeal, is hackneyed beyond belief.

The game sends you from one end of the spaceship Ishimura to another, fixing leaks, restarting generators, and basically acting like the meanest, most badass space janitor/engineer in history. Let me say, right out of the gate, that I loved this game. I thought that it was beautiful, fun, tense, and occasionally scary. I never for once thought it was original or creative (except in its depiction of zero gravity and vacuum situations, which are absolutely brilliant).

What Dead Space is, is carefully and stylishly unoriginal. You’ll love playing it, but when you aren’t playing it, it’s hard to say what’s so great about it. It has some really great set-pieces, some sweet effects, and solid gameplay, and that’s all. Every other design move smacks of laziness or lack of creativity.

Let’s take our hero and avatar, Isaac Clark. Mr. Clark (whose face you can only glimpse for a moment or two from start to finish) is a voiceless middle-aged white dude it would appear, who specializes in heavy breathing and killing things. You are ostensibly interested in the plight of the Ishimura becasue your ex is on it, but we never really care about this “relationship.” The problem is that Isaac has been saddled with modern video games’ most ludicrous trope: the “everyman” silent protagonist.

Isaac never speaks, and you never get any indication of his mood, other than that he doesn’t like dying. He wear’s a mask throughout the game, and reacts to little. Apparently, this makes him relatable, because so many of us are demure, voiceless, deep space mechanics who constantly wear masks. Again, really guys? I don’t see how you can relate to a character who does not exist. I guess it lets you make stuff up about him, it lets us call him a “blank slate” or some other foolishness.

What it also does is make me absolutely not care about his plight. I don’t care about his ex, I don’t care about his shipmates (why should I, they just spout dialogue and send me to tighten some screws down in Engineering), and I really don’t care about the [Spoilers ahead] stupid mad scientist who talks at me through windows and wants to meld humans and aliens. Unthinkable. [End of the spoilers] The plot is bad, and it gets worse, and eventually you wonder why you’re still playing.

It doesn’t help that Dead Space makes Drake’s Fortune look scary. It creates a very creapy setting, and does next to nothing with it. I can count on my hand the number of time I was scared by this game:

1) When the unkillable monster is banging around in the walls and coming after me and he has such a scary voice! No really, this part scared me silly, and had me running around without my normal care and caution. Oh, right, that was stolen from Resident Evil 2, and Nemesis unless I’m much mistaken.

2) The first time a vent pops into your face and nothing evil pops out after it. This will happen 500 times throughout the game.

3) The first time the lights go out. For more on numbers 2 and 3, check out Graffiti Gamer’s take on Dead Space. No, seriously, go check it out and come right back, because I am too lazy to say what he put so well.

So there you have it. Three scares. Of course, I kind of like this. I love killing monsters, aiming precisely at their limbs, changing guns manicly (oh, and let us congratulate EA Redwood on the Ripper, my favorite remote controlled spinng saw gun), and cursing my frail engineer’s body. Its fun, and it never got too scary, like some games that make me take a break or two. You get the feeling that they’re trying so very hard, and its a bit sad. When I see a dark shape in the distance, which turns and disappears, I don’t get scared. I know he’ll pop out of a vent later! Likewise, when I find a scientist who promptly slits her throat because of the horror, I just check for an item drop. None of the survivors ever surprise you and go hostile (which I think would have been a brilliant scare), so you never have to worry.

They miss even the basic scares. Where’s the alien dropping on my face when I’m minding my business in an elevator? Where’s the alien that actually surprises me, ever? I’m not sure how to accomplsh this, but I know that AVP 2, Drake’s Fortune, and all of the Resident Evil games did a better job at creating atmosphere than Dead Space does. I mean, the hallway where arms attack/grope Leon Kenedy in the police station scared the living daylights out of me, and that was one of many moments in the game.

This is all to say that the game annoys me on a very deep level, and is still amazingly fun. I want to play it again, on either Impossible mode or on Hard mode again with beefed up weapons. It’s a lot of fun, and I’m sure I can forgive it its faults for another run through its scary spaceship. The interface is fantastic. It’s a holo-inventory/map that you project into the air in front of your suit. It’s sweet and pretty and fun. Oh, and about an hour ago, I realized that it was emitting from the collar of his suit, where there was a little readout. So cool! Must go look at in an elevator for minutes!

In case you were wondering (and who isn’t!), this is what I wanted the next Aliens game to be like. I’m sure Colonial Marines willo be alright, but if this game had been about Ripley’s monsters, I would have been in heaven. If that world could have been realized in the same way as the Ishimura, all would have been right with the world. Oh well. How about in the sequel, Isaac talks? Please? And maybe we all can stop pretending that we empathize with masked space mechanics who don’t speak.

UPDATE: Some guys just dropped into my elevator. They were not sary.

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Braid: Moving Forward, Looking Backward

Posted by deckard47 on September 16, 2008

So I wrote this a while back, but never got around to putting it up. I think it’s pretty good, but you can decide for yourself.

Jonathan Blow’s Braid is being hailed as a landmark game with the potential to revolutionize its genre, and even the video game industry itself. Mr. Blow is a vocal detractor of video game design in its present state, and Braid reflects this dissatisfaction at micro and macro levels, from its basic mechanics and interface to its story and presentation. Blow is unquestionably on to something, but he gets as much wrong as he does right in his critique and his game. Both are revolutionary, but neither in as dramatic a way as he—or the hype—would have you believe.

Read the rest of this entry »

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New MobyGames Articles!

Posted by deckard47 on August 20, 2008

In a quick and terribly exciting update, I’ve updated the MobyGames page of le blog, which you can see up there on the left, next to “About Me.” Exciting, I know. If you want to read reviews of Rock Band (which I just accidentally spelled “Orc Band,” which would be an amazing game), Mass Effect, Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb and other games, head over there and check out the links. One of my reviews got like 5 stars. Amazing. Speaking of changing the subject, I watched a few episodes of Newport Harbor last night. Oh. My. God. That shit is crazy. I’ll write more about it later, but it’s amazing.

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Where the Grass is Green…

Posted by deckard47 on August 1, 2008

After the disappointment of Soul Calibur, I was hoping that my Gamefly queue would pull out a winner, and it has. By the way, isn’t it annoying how you never know what’s going to show up, because half of the games are on crazy availability, half are on medium availability, and half are on NEVER availability (like ICO!)? Yes, it is annoying.

Still, Burnout: Paradise rocks. It really does. It’s everything I’d hoped it would be, a combination of Burnout and Midtown Madness that soothes the soul. I’ve unlocked around 10 cars, I htink, and there are 75 total to find, so I still have a ways to go. The jumps are cool, the crashes are absolutely amazing (no really, they’re fabulous, they’re ridiculously fun), and the ability to explore a (mostly) open city is great. The cars handle differently, even within their respective classes. Personally, I like the Road Rage challenges the best: take down as many cars as you can. I do find it annoying that there isn’t an instant restart option for failed races. It sucks having to drive back to that distant street light to start the race over. Still, no matter where you stop, there’s bound to be a jump or race you can find nearby. You know how you’re supposed to get distracted in GTA and have trouble finishing the game? That actually happens in Paradise. Oh, and the graphics (on my PS3 version)? Really sweet. I could watch tiny bits of glass fly from my broken windshield over and over, and not get tired of it. This game rocks, and if you haven’t rented it, rent it (or buy it). I think it is highly unlikely that you will be disappointed.

On a side note, my brother recently bought me three games as presents: God of War 2, Star Wars Battlefront 2 (is that it’s name?) and Okami, all for PS2. I’ll have to check them all out, but I need to beat God of War first. I gave it a try last night, and I remember why it attracts and repels me better now: the gameplay is solid (yes, better than Heavenly Sword), the puzzles are pretty good, and the setting is pretty interesting. On the other hand, the story is silly (shit, he’s evil…! But he feels bad! But he’s evil! Aaaaaah, moral conundrum!), and the game is just so over-the-top violent/sadistic. Look, a helpless guard in a cage… Burn him! I guess I accept evil gameplay in Bioware games because the point of the game is to force you to make interesting decisions and then show you the consequences. In God of War, you murder people because that shit is cool. Errr, I mean it’s part of the nuanced story. About murdering being cool shit. Also, it’s so weirdly brutal and violent. I was talking with Owen about this, and he was commenting on the way that video games are so slavishly violent. Gears of War 2 and Dead Space are good examples of this. He picked up a GamePro (I think) for me at the airport, and we were both struck by how the coverage of these games is always: “well, you can dismember him in 50 ways,” and then the magazine treats this like an amazing selling point, you know, like I might tell you “and then, you realize that the peanut butter chocolate chip cookies have huge chunks of peanuts and peanut butter, and you fucking lose it.” Really, why so violent? There are so many other gimmicks, but this is the one that is trundled out for all to see, time and again. To be honest, I feel that it’s necessary/appropriate sometimes (Dead Rising), but I’m a callow youth, weaned on violence, sex, and high-resmolution video games. More on the graphic violence later, I guess.

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Arcanum, and Heavenly Sword

Posted by deckard47 on July 28, 2008

First of all, why is LA so hot? I was there for two days, and my body still remembers that oppressive, constant heat. Never, never will I live in that sweltering dust bowl (unless somebody there hires me!).

Enough of that, there are two things from Comic-Con that bear mentioning. First, we have the Tron 2 (or Tr2n… really?) trailer, which features a badass, bearded Jeff Bridges, and some new and possibly improved Light Cycle action. Exciting, yes? I love old Jeff Bridges, I must say. I wonder how he’ll have changed since the last movie. Probably a bit more jaded, from the look of the beardie.

Second, there is the trailer (in two parts) of the Wolverine movie. I was really skeptical about this when I first heard about it. I think everyone remembers how bad the third movie was. It was amazingly bad. Sadly, I’m still pretty skeptical about it. Some of it looks cool, but the mutton chops on Laertes are a bit silly. I guess it’s canonical, or some shit. Still, could be fun, and it would have to work hard to be as bad as X3.

Now, for the title of this post. I am now dead set on downloading Arcanum. I dream of crafting pistols and rifles, and then questing for more parts with my kickass dwarf inventor. Soon.

Finally, Heavenly Sword. There were a lot of mean things said about this game before and after it came out, there were a lot of people who were quick to point out how darn mediocre the game was, and all because a small group of nutso Sony fans (and a larger, more vocal group of Sony PR people) kept on telling this game would rule everybody. In the end, I was actually kind of happy with my experience. Yes, it is absolutely a short game. It makes Drake’s Fortune look long by comparison. I think it is about 5 hours long if that. I must admit, it felt a bit short. Didn’t they have any more story to throw in there? Guess not. The combat was fun, and despite the fact that people found it boring, I loved how ludicrous the combos (and resulting ragdoll effects) got. Everyone was talking about how this game could never be compared to God of War, and they were right. This game might have slightly repetitive combat, small scope, and unambitious design, but it had a few things that God of War sadly lacks.

God of War has a boring story. BORING. I don’t care if you can kill a lost God while riding a sexy demon woman horse bareback while she exhorts you to murder her evil incubus father on a giant, beautifully rendered heaving ship, all while the entire map is being eaten by a mutant armadillo. Yes, I get it, your shit is epic. Luckily, we have a great story to back up that gameplay, right? No, we have a stupid, monosyllabic, pale “Greek” troglodyte who makes his Penny Arcade incarnation look downright Falknerian (is that a word? It might be, I suppose, if I spelled it differently… maybe I should say Jamesian? I think we all know that the most complicated characters of all are written by Terry Goodkind) in his level of character depth.

Yes, the actors in Heavenly Sword do ham it up, and the plot and setting are pretty unimaginative (look, white people with “Asian” culture… why, dunno?). Still, I found myself enjoying the overwrought melodrama and the bizarrely comedic interludes equally. Plus, Nariko and Kai rock the shit, each in their different way. Was I the only one who was reminded of the BBC television series’ Sheriff of Nottingham, every time Bohan/Andy Serkis opened his mouth? I kind a dug it, to tell the truth. He was spitting and laughing and talking in the same fashion, and I forgave him his faults, in the same fashion. Despite all this, there were problems. I could bearly stop myself from laughing at the various bad guys henchmen (especially snake lady and weird flying sword guy), and it was not good laughter. Plus, let’s not forget Nariko’s clothes… Really guys, really? Was your game in that much need of bare legs?

I think that I’m sad that they aren’t planning on a sequel. It was a nice alternative to God of War’s Xtreme Rock n’ Roll take on ancient Greece, and now we may never see it again. I especially will miss the dynamic between Nariko and Kai, which was better than most character relationships in almost any game I’ve ever played. I can’t honestly say that most people will like this game. You can go read a review, and you’ll probably figure out that this game is only worth renting (which is true!). BUT, you’d be making a mistake if you wrote it off as just an IGN 7. It’s an interesting entry in the field of heavily motion-captured games, one that I think more people should experience.

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Assassin’s Creed: A Few Thoughts

Posted by deckard47 on July 13, 2008

I just finished the game for the first time. It took me this long for several reasons: it isn’t exactly a short game, other games kept on getting in the way, I would get fed up with dying (or being spotted by evil deadeye guards) and quit, and in the end, I had the same problems that many people had. To be honest though, my issues with repetitive combat and quest structure (what most people seemed to be annoyed by) were always fleeting. I liked the combat (one understood, difficult to perfect, like The Witcher’s combat, but a bit trickier), I thought that the different story and character of the (mechanically identical) quests was cool, and I liked the story, for all of its silliness. The most annoying thing (well, two things) are these: first, Altair/Desmond. The guy who voiced him? Annoying, more annoying than any other annoying video game voice. Why is he white again? Is the Assassin’s Cult multicultural (last time I checked all other members are Middle Eastern)? Maybe I misunderstood, but it seems weird to have this whiny white boy as the lead… Couldn’t they have gotten a whiny pretend ethnic boy (to have a voice actor who was actually middle eastern, and thus, even more so than a hero of the same descent, would have been highly unpalatable to many gamers, I bet) to play Altair? Whatever, they can be that way. Next problem: Final Assassinations. I think I murdered one guy in a stealthy way. The amount of effort and time it would have taken to stealthily assassinate all of them would have been astronomical if not impossible (here I’m thinking of ***SPOILER*** Robert’s body double). What exactly is this game called again?

Aside from those two complaints, I’m excited for the next game, although I suspect it might descend into even further silliness and camp. I’m willing to give them a chance though. Oh, and could we get rid of the people who assault you in the street randomly next time? Aside from painting an offensive portrait of poor and differently abled people (it basically presents all such people as dangerous, violent, and annoying), that was annoying. If you want to include annoying moving roadbloacks next game, make it a cult full of people who hate those who dress in white! It would be about as believable.

Now I should go do some Flash stuff for class. You have no idea how little I want to do that. What’s next on the game slate? Probably BG2 (loser, loser, loser!), with a bit of Oblivion (need to write a bit about that later) thrown in. Wait, one more thing. Dragon Age teaser… Good, bad, alright? Yes, it looks a bit like the Lord of the Rings, but I’ve seen Bioware take a familiar franchise and make it look and sound different (and fun, as opposed to Meow Skywalker’s latest outings). I don’t doubt their ability to take a familiar look and feel (and remember cats and kittens, that wasn’t gameplay, or all of the races, that was the pasty faux-Englsh dudes) and make a fantastic fucking game out of it.

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