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I feel like ranting.

I’ve always, ever since I was just a little kid and first playing games, loved turn-based combat. I wonder if that makes me strange. It certainly makes me geeky, but there’s something really, tangibly satisfying about it. RPGs have been my bread and butter genre, the one I’ve subscribed to and paid the most to over my gaming career. I’ve played RPGs of every make, from the Southwest to the Far East, the colorful and childish and the grim and grotesque and in all of them–well, for a long period of time in the 90′s and early 2000′s at least–all of them were united by turn-based combat. A system where, rather than actively approach and assault your target, you eliminate your enemies in a thoughtful, strategic manner, combing various skills from various units or characters in order to eliminate the foe in the most efficient way possible. It was a thinking man’s game–like chess, but with big fucking explosions and dragons and shit.

I love it. I love being able to lean forward, chin in hand, analyzing boss patterns. Looking for strengths and weaknesses, figuring out the absolute best moment to attack and when to defend. People, I’ve found, mock turn-based combat as slow and boring, but to me it’s just the opposite. Combined with a deep customization system, turn-based combat is a visceral canvass in which your stat-building and character customization choices are painted and the paint is the blood of your enemies. You can mold a unit into a uniquely devastating force of nature through your knowledge of mechanics and your analysis of individual strengths and weaknesses. Through numbers and foresight you mold unto this digital world a God of Destruction, a living embodiment of power everlasting. The satisfaction from this is richly succulent and well worth the effort.

Sadly, RPGs are evolving and, reluctantly, I say for the better. I’m starting to realize that turn-based combat may become, if it isn’t already doing so, archaic and obsolete. New generations may reject it entirely, and I feel that–with evidence being in the absolutely palpable and heart-wrenchingly dramatic and tense Demon’s Souls–action RPGS are finally coming into their own, and managing to craft the dramatic tension present in many turn-based duels from RPG classics, like Final Fantasy IX or Chrono Trigger. The satisfaction from these games and the strategy involved–beyond pointless gimmicks or button-mashing–is also improving. I’m predicting that we will soon see a vein of action-oriented RPGs with a deep emphasis on stat-building and strategy, and that day will be a good day indeed.

Anyway, my point here is that I want you to remember the turn-based RPG, and I’d like to see its place honored. I’d hate for the mechanic to die completely. I hope, much like 2-D games, turn-based RPGs find a strong niche market and explore next generation systems in new and interesting ways. Just as we still use dice to run games of chance, so too may we still allow enemies and allies to face each other in parallel lines and politely take turns whacking each other with sticks. For some us, it’s a lot of fun.

Boy howdy it sure has been awhile since my last post. Blame the last semester of college and the fact that I’m pretty lazy. I also haven’t been playing as many games as I used to, so I haven’t has as much to comment on. But now I’m graduated and unemployed and boy do I suddenly have a lot of spare time I’m totally not filling in with sleep. So, this fell onto the back-burner for awhile, but I’m turning up the fires and gonna try to really stick to this now. We’ll see how that goes, but I promise to be as entertaining and informative as possible.

Look forward to my write-up on an unpolished gem, a Portal 2 review (far too late for relevancy) and maybe some hot L.A. Noire action. And whatever else I feel like doing. Which could be anything.

Anything.

So yeah, we’re back and better than ever, so let’s get this shit started.

Dead Space 2

This is a bit later than I’d have liked, but I didn’t want to review the game until I’d beaten it and that took a bit because the last sections of the game are a load of crispy-fried bullshit. But we’ll get to that in a second. Dead Space is the wildly well-received sequel to the moderately well-received horror/shooter game Dead Space, in which you go to a creepy space ship to fix a problem and get attacked by zombies. Dead Space 2 fixes many of the problems that plagued its predecessor (while adding in a few new ones) and, for the most part, remains an excellent third-person shooter with a thick atmosphere and a steep challenge.

He looks scary, but all he really wants to do is play fetch.

The story picks up 3 years after the first game. Our hero, Isaac Clark, has been in a psych ward for 3 years, a period of time he completely doesn’t remember. He gets woken up to discover that Necromorphs have infested Titan Station, otherwise known as the Sprawl, an impressive-looking space station/city in orbit of Saturn, and has to stomp their skulls into paste. Right off the bat, the absolute best sequence in the game is the very first section. You get woken up and immediately swarmed by monsters. You can’t fight back, you can only run and they are everywhere. There’s a pitched chase sequence and you manage to escape to relative safety. Then the game continues to keep guns away from you and forces you to learn-as-you-go how to properly use the Kinesis and other similar power-ups. It gets a big grating on multiple playthroughs, but it’s easily one of the scariest parts of the game and a great way to introduce you to the adventure.

That said, the story is complete shit. You have characters whose motivations are nonsensical or unexplained, Isaac himself now has a personality, that of a block of wood, and while the voice acting is actually pretty good, none of the characters really have any dimensions or depth–not even shallow depth. They’re just…there. The story itself isn’t much better, being hard to follow and mind-numbing when you do. All of the best stuff in it is packed into the first half of the game and once you reach the second disc (on the 360 at least) the story just simply stops for long periods of time, and much of the “twists” are either silly or nonsensical.

But no one plays Dead Space for the story, even if it is god awful. We play it to shoot alien zombies and that part of the game is just as good as before. Enemies are a bit tougher now, they come in greater numbers and attack more aggressively. There’s a gaggle of new enemy types, like the Puker, and new weapon types to match. All the previous game’s weapons are back, though some have been tweaked and adjusted. The Force Gun is a lot less powerful now, though it is still a god-like extension of your power. Flamethrower has been improved too, so now it’s actually one of the more powerful weapons in the game if you ever can bother to use it. The new guns include the Javelin Gun, which is a lot of fun once you get used to how it works (think a spear gun but you can charge up the spears with electricity and later on they will explode) and the Seeker Rifle,a  sniper rifle which is kind of limited in its use. All in all, the new weapons are fun and the changes to the old ones make them seem new as well. I would like to have seen a few more of both weapons and enemy types, but both feel varied enough to last the whole game.

Though here’s the kicker–make sure you have a wide-spread weapon by the end of the game. I found myself incapable of winning until I went back to an earlier save and picked up the Force Gun because the final boss–which is part of the laziest section of the game, a lengthy gauntlet that you cannot survive without fleeing–is a tacked on wave of tiny fast enemies and a walking instant-death trap. It’s pretty terrible and not at all fun to play through.

All in all, I enjoyed Dead Space 2 a lot. It does lack something however, something the first one also lacked. We have a talented studio with talented developers who are clearly passionate about the project–the level of detail packed into the game is staggering and it’s clear that they wanted to make the best game they could. But here’s the problem: the scares are cheap, the atmosphere only holds intact on the harder difficulties (if you are at all good at video games, start your game on Survivalist. Normal and Casual are way, way too easy.), the enemies start to get annoying, especially when their corpses just magically disappear, taking all their items with them (and leaving you with three shots and a horny Brute sniffing at your ass) and there’s also tacked on multiplayer which is supposed to be alright but nothing great and I don’t know why the hell they included it in the first place. The game IS fun to play, and if you loved the original Dead Space, pick this up and enjoy. If you are easily scared and like a good horror game, you can’t go too wrong with this one either. More jaded gamers might have better luck elsewhere, because for all the things Dead Space changes, it is ultimately just more of the same.

Take Me Back to Mossflower

Well, I was going to write a review about Dead Space today, but the last act of the game is literally dismembering me like an overzealous inquisitor so, instead you’ll have to make do with this little post about a bit of sad news. Today, I was distressed to discover that beloved children’s book author Brian Jacques has died.

1939-2011: A life well-lived.

Brian Jacques has nothing to do with video games. He’s never made one and I doubt he’s ever even played one. Brian Jacques wrote books, a whole lot of books, books about an idyllic little wood called Mossflower and a sturdy, aged abbey called Redwall. And these books changed my life. I was first introduced to the Redwall series by one of my earliest, bestest teachers, a woman by the name of Bickford, who was at the time the head of my elementary school’s Talented and Gifted Program. She showed me the cover of the book, I said it looked really boring, and she insisted that I would really like it. I snorted and rolled my eyes. Whatever–a book with a mouse on the cover? What do I care about the adventures of mice, besides An American Tale? Nevertheless, at some point I did pick up the book and open it with a reserved sigh…and everything changed.

Brian Jacques wrote stories of high adventure, of song and dance and food and revelry, of friendship and bravery, sadness and fear, wars and warriors. Collected in each and every book in the ever-expanding Redwall series was a saga that sucked me in and refused to let go. He crafted a world vivid, yet simple, a fantastical yet instantly relate-able landscape that you recognized immediately, despite it being populated by questionably talking woodland creatures. It had the simple black/white morality of Star Wars combined with the elegance and sophistication of any great folk tale, of any work by Chaucer or Spenser. These books introduced me to things I’d never thought existed. Boooks could be…not just good. Good books are plentiful enough, and I understood quite well what a good book was. But these books were more than good. To my young mind, still supple and naive, these books were captivating. They blossomed in my imagination, the characters and locations taking root like some magical tree, growing and growing and growing until the branches threatened to break out of my skull.

Jacques fed my love of reading and not only that, he also gave me a lust for storytelling. I never felt more convinced that I wanted to tell stories until I put down perhaps my fifth Redwall book and thought “I want to write a book that Brian Jacques would like”. I was enthralled by his love for the craft and though the more modern books in the series lacked some of the charm and sophistication of earlier entries, Jacques passion for the story and the world never seemed to flicker. He showed me that a children’s story didn’t have to be childish or immature, that death and sadness go hand-in-hand with joy and triumph, and that even the littlest, meekest of mice can rise to be a true hero.

His stories had everything I can to want from a book–intrigue, mystery, romance, adventure, action–and these stories were almost interactive in the way the narrative fit your brain. There were riddles to solve, songs to learn, mysteries to ponder, and with an endless stream of colorful characters and amazing vistas, my imagination wanted for nothing, yet longed for everything.

I wonder what Jacques legacy will be. To me, he will always be one of the first authors who really inspired me, who really made me yearn to write and read. He showed me just how real fiction can be, how meaningful it can be. I don’t know what I’d be doing had I never opened that first book. I certainly learned that there’s more to a book than a cover, and I learned that even as stubborn as I am, my mind can always be changed. These are timeless stories–modern classics that I hope will be passed down from generation to generation. I can think of no finer series of books to whet a young child’s literary teeth on, no more fantastic and wonderful tales to be told to audiences young and old. There’s something in these books for everyone, and Jacques illuminated the world in a way only he could. His death has left my world a little more empty, and we’ve lost a visionary and gained a legacy.

I’ll miss you Brian. I’ll miss Redwall and Mossflower and the towering mountain of Salamandastrom, the hares of the Long Patrol, the wild and tribal shrews, the incomprehensible moles and voles and the seasonal feasts at the great table in the main hall. I’ll miss the tapestry of Martin the Warrior and all the tales its tattered fibers held, the rich songs and wonderful verses. I’ll miss the coarse sea rats, the vile serpents and scheming foxes, the titanic badgers who carved through battlefields like furry tanks. I’ll miss the quarry, the rivers, the patches of ruin and wonder hidden deep in the many forests of Mossflower. I’ll miss the maps that I’d pore over for hours, following the journies of the many characters with my finger late into the night when I should’ve been sleeping. But that’s the wonderful thing about books, isn’t it? They remain, long after the author has passed on, and I know that no matter how sad it is, Redwall hasn’t died with its creator. It lives on in the memories and hearts of all those who read and loved these books as I did. I know that it isn’t the end of these adventures–they’re just a page away, and they’ll be there forever.

Now, if you excuse me, I need to comfort my weeping inner child. I think a nice book will help him–and I think I know just the one…

When I’m watching recent trailers for games like Deus Ex 3 or Dead Space 2 I am both impressed by the visuals and the cinematics, yet somewhat put off by one simple thing: these trailers don’t make me think of a video game. They could be trailers for a movie or TV show–they utilize the same tricks of the trade, the same juxtaposition of brooding monologues or music against a rapidly changing series of scenes, edited together. They often don’t show gameplay. They often use non-game music, or maybe a particularly grandiose track from the game’s score. But they don’t make me think of a video game–as I imagine video games to be.

Gaming has become much more cinematic as technology has evolved, and more power to it. Games look better now, certainly, and there are many truly amazing spectacle moments, such as the Stage Fight in Alan Wake or scaling the destroyed train in Uncharted 2, and these are examples of a great blending of beautiful graphics and Hollywood-esque dramatic flair with engrossing and hard-hitting gameplay. It lets you feel as though you really are doing whatever it is you are doing on screen. But a part of me is victim to that crippling industry curse of nostalgia, and so I wonder at times if games have lost a bit of their identity.

Look at Anamanaguchi.

THAT is the sound of games. Something you could never imagine seeing in a movie or any other medium. An artistic blend of primitive sounds for primitive visuals, yet stellar gameplay. When I hear bands like Crystal Castles, I think of games–when I listen to the soundtrack for Alan Wake, I don’t. Music in games has always been important, but there’s more to a game soundtrack than it just sounding good. When games were stuck in the 16-bit era, games had an identity–every pixel and animation was unique, imitating nothing but previous games, while at the same time invoking unique art styles or cartoons or even attempting to replicate real life. Pixels were a paint all of their own, and talented artists who had no histories to draw upon instead had to craft something truly different, using tools untested and unproven, and the result was a collection of some of the most, if not THE most memorable games of all time.

Look at Megaman. Megaman is one of the oldest and most enduring (if maybe the most overplayed and oversold) franchises in gaming history. Anamanaguchi takes great inspiration from the stage themes for these games, the strange, off-kilter, synthesized Midi tracks that were all they could fit into the cartridges. You take one look at Megaman, any old Megaman, and you know it is a game. You immediately recognize everything a game has: a life bar, side-scrolling, pixel art, Midi music, enemies and power-ups. It’s the absolute quintessential game experience–a test of a gamer’s skill and reflexes as he or she must win against insurmountable odds and forge the adventure forward. The plot relies on the gamer completing the levels–whether the story ends happily is entirely in the hands of the player, and all that transpires on-screen is because of your actions.

This is a video game.

Modern games are not bad, and I don’t want you to think that this is a criticism of modern games in anything more than maybe aesthetics. This is really just me being  nostalgic for a time when games had their own identity–when the medium was unique and vibrant, more than just a simulator or pastiche.

Compare. What tells you this is a game, despite the CG model?

The above screenshot might as well be an actual gameplay shot. Or how about this:

Take away the ammo counter and the nametags, and what is this?

Games have only gotten better over the years. Yes, there’s tons of derivative games on the market and, yes, many would say that the market stifles innovation, but games play better, look better, and generally have better stories and writing. But I can’t help but wonder if the term “video game” really means much nowadays. I wonder if games have an identity anymore. 3-D models are now the norm, but 3-D models don’t invoke the same degree of…I want to say charm, but perhaps the better term is “uniqueness”. Old 3-D graphics, like Silent Hill 1, look horrible in today’s day and age, whereas old NES graphics, like Megaman up above, still hold up, despite their age and the jutting pixels. 2-D has aged incredibly well, all things considered, and it’s nice to see it isn’t completely dead and that pixel art can still be seen even in modern games like Call of Duty: Black Ops. Back in the day, games simply had a look that was wholly and completely their own. Now, that’s less the case.

There are many games that have a distinctive appearance, of course. Many modern Nintendo franchises retain something of their 8 and 16-bit sensibilities even in their more modern offerings–probably because the Wii might as well be a 16-bit console (no no, I kid, Wii games look very nice for 5 years ago). Sonic as well, though god forbid they’ve done everything they can to  make Sonic as anime as possible. For a realistic-looking game, Assassin’s Creed also has a rather distinct visual style, integrated into the story as well by the Animus and the means through which you are actually viewing the past. It’s actually a sterling example of explaining gameplay mechanics in a way that furthers the story and immersion, rather than requiring gamers to ignore it in favor thereof. But the traditional trappings of games are falling by the wayside. Scores are gone from everything but arcade titles or those trying to BE arcade styles, health bars are being replaced by red screens and blood spatters, and music is becoming traditional, utilizing orchestras or heavy guitars and all that business. And it is good, yes.

But a part of me can’t help but sigh a little, as nostalgia creeps into my cynical mind, when I listen to the Scott Pilgrim Videogame soundtrack and I remember how games looked, and how games sounded. I still think it’s good. I still think these older titles hold up in aesthetics and sound, and while I’m not one who goes on about  how older games are much better than current ones (They aren’t, for the most part) I do feel that older games were more…game-like. They had a feel,a  voice, a look all of their own, and of all the casualties of innovation that we’ve shed a tear for, this may be the only one that really strikes me. I don’t want a return to health bars and three lives, score counters or anything like that. I don’t feel the trappings are as necessary to a game’s identity moreso than the feel of the experience is.

Gaming is going through a tough adolescence. It was a prodigal child, ambitious and impressive, full of attitude and vigor, and underneath the corporate manufacturing process, the demographic-fueled imitation industry that grips game development like an infant with a rattle, I feel that there remains a potent lust to make games their own again. Give gaming back its identity, its sense of self. How can we do this without sacrificing variety or innovation? That I don’t know. How can we do this while still pushing graphics engines as far as they can go? I don’t know. What I do know is, there must be a way. Maybe someone can tell me. Maybe someone will make a game that shows me.

For now, I’ll toast my nostalgia and listen to my midi soundtracks and let out a single wistful sigh. Then I’ll plug in Bioshock 2 and see how many Splicers I can get in one Electro-bolt chain.

IGN wrote:

” Heavy Rain is a hell of an experience. Its controversial control scheme actually works really well in allowing the fantastic story to dictate how events play out, and many of the game’s scenes will keep you on the edge of your seat. It starts slow and the presentation isn’t perfect, but the character development, dialog and story twists will hook you like few games can. Heavy Rain is not to be missed.”

I suppose “controversial” is good enough a term for “endless Quick Time Events that have no rhyme or reason”. This review gushes over the quality of the written dialog, which…eh…doesn’t really hold up. We get such fantastic gems as “Time to be the sexy girl” (from the token female character whose role it is to be naked or a shoe-horned love interest for the main male lead) and “The rain never hurt nobody; c’mon let’s go play” from one of the most insipid flashback sequences I’ve seen anywhere. I suppose you can call the dialog passable–it certainly is dialog, that is words exchanged from two characters to advance the plot. If you ignore the AWFUL delivery of just about every individual line by the myriad voice actors who can’t figure out how to fake sounding French or the fact that much of the dialog serves only to cement how cliche and shallow the plot is, then yes, the dialog will hook you. I was certainly hooked by Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room”, much as watching a train-wreck will hook you too, which is perhaps the most generous comparison I can give to Heavy Rain, so there’s that. It seems to me that Chris Roper has maybe never read a book beyond the instruction manual to a video game, and god knows it’s not like there are examples in gaming of actually good writing and dialog.

1Up.com wrote: “But a game that prides itself on its story is only as good as its writing and actors. The quality and detail of Heavy Rain’s sets are truly spectacular — whether it’s a faded wallpaper pattern or dilapidated apartment, this is a world that feels lived-in and genuine. The characters have a similar gritty realness, but occasionally veer into uncanny valley territory due to some inelegant animations. Regardless, the game conveys a subtlety of emotion that very few games have ever succeeded at.”

A “lived-in” world with the exact same six pedestrian models, all of whom are young-to-middle-aged white people, a world where a drug dealer in a shitty neighborhood lives in a five-room sprawling apartment or a hooker has a spacious and lushly decorated loft or the fact that actually every location in the game, while nice to look at, is completely incongruous and some of them make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Every store and brand is essentially named “Brand”, like “Asthma” brand inhalers or “Video Store” video store. It’s funny at first, but quickly seems to be just plain lazy. The “subtlety of emotion” is wonderfully broadcast by the main character, who is sad because he looks sad the entire game, except for his eyes which never stop staring blankly forward, like a dead fish. Considering the animators took the time to put in nervous habits for many characters, like foot-tapping or twitches of the mouth, it’s odd that no one’s emotive abilities extends to their eyes, and most of the time you have character’s lips flapping up and down while their faces remain completely neutral, even as they’re yelling angrily.

Joystiq wrote: “
Of all the games on our list, Heavy Rain was the only one whose appearance — even at the most humble position on the pedestal — was called into question. With such apparent spite for the title coursing through our collective veins, you might wonder how it made any showing at all. The answer is indicative of the game’s overall reception in the gaming community’s collective consciousness: Many writers gave the game no weight in the discussion at all, while few gave it just about as much weight as they could possibly throw.”

I read this as them basically saying “Well, actually a lot of people are saying this game is shit but it’s really popular and got great reviews, so it’s on our top ten!” and it makes me laugh a little, a sort of sad, choking laugh that quickly gives way to tears. I also love how all of these reviews point out things that I take issue with–like the questionable voice acting and the primitive animations–yet still reward the game 9′s and A’s, as though they forgot that their “criticism” should carry some weight. I understand that reviewers don’t control the weight and meaning behind their point scores, having to please the myriad of insipid scorehounds and advertisers who just want shiny numbers to slap on the back of their game boxes to drum up sales, but come ON. Can’t we qualify this a little bit? Is it not so hard to say “Well, okay, this part is bad, so I’ll subtract a point”? Either assume a game starts at zero and moves its way up, or starts at 10 and moves its way down–I don’t care, but if you’re not going to take your review system seriously, why the hell should I?

Gamerant says: “

Does Heavy Rain utilize quick-time events for a number of the game’s action sequences (brawls, shootouts, and a highway chase)? Yes. Is it fair to categorize Heavy Rain as a quick-time game? Absolutely not, because in Heavy Rain, QTEs aren’t patched in as a means of testing the player’s skills or a gimmick to keep you from getting a snack during a rendered cut scene.

The QTEs are as essential to the game as the story because the story continues regardless of your success or failures – which makes the action scenes that much more tense and nerve-racking.”

Bullshit. The QTE’s are a measure of testing a player’s skill, because passing or failing some of the hardest ones dictates who lives and who dies. If you can’t press the buttons fast enough, you fail and somebody dies. Except for the one character who can’t ever die, or the many times where failure doesn’t matter at all, but I digress. The action scenes are thusly not that tense or  nerve-racking  because most of them just go overlong as an excuse to try and shoe-horn some measure of excitement into a game slower than a stoned snail crawling through molasses. But if this statement is meant to be taken at face value, then are they saying that this game doesn’t test the player, and that the player’s involvement is passive and unnecessary? Hm.

Gamerant said: “In addition, the four playable characters have distinct personalities as well as approaches to following the trail of the Origami Killer. Each character utilizes specific gameplay mechanics (one character might be more analytical, another more physical) offering the player a varied gameplay-experience in a title that could have been hammering the same note too often.”

I’m not exactly sure if they understand the meaning of “gameplay mechanics” because the characters all have the same gameplay mechanics, i.e. press or hold a button for a certain amount of time, or twist a control stick in a specific direction for five seconds to make X happen. The difference in characters is that one has X=punching someone in the face while the other has X=JAYSOOOOOON or SHAAAAAWN! The mechanics only very loosely change when you are playing as the FBI agent, who has the only really interesting gimmick of the bunch, a pair of super-sci-fi glasses that can magically analyze DNA and fingerprints instantly from a crime scene, can ID cars from their tire tracks, and basically do everything you see on CSI (regardless of whether it’s something that can actually be done) and eliminating all actual player involvement from crime-scene investigation beyond “Go here and click this”. Imagine a point and click adventure game without any actual puzzle solving and you’ll have Heavy Rain in a nutshell.

What’s most ludicrous about these reviews is that they all end with something along the lines of “If you are twitch-gamer who only plays teh Haloz or shooty-bang-bang kill games, you’ll hate this game, but the more sophisticated gamer will love it” as some excuse for why they are giving almost perfect scores to an over-hyped boring piece of shit with lousy writing and directing and completely uninspiring gameplay, because anyone–say, me–who argues against the game must clearly by a left-brained neanderthal who can’t enjoy a game unless I’m BOOM headshotting everyone from 100 yards away. But as much as I hold modern shooters with a degree of scorn due to their sameness, at least they have some measure of gameplay. Even the most retarded modern FPS at least is more fun to actually play and, in truth, is a better game because I, the player, have more influence over what happens then I ever do when playing Heavy Rain.

The game lovingly rendered his ass too, so in the first five minutes of gameplay it literally moons us.

I just don’t understand it. Are our game reviewers just hype machines? Are we really going to get perfect scores for games whose only great achievment is being kind of “different”? I know we’re starved for innovation in this industry, but this game doesn’t innovate at all–it just says it innovates. It thinks it innovates, but all it does is craft an utterly insipid, cliche-ridden story with a few really good scenes sprinkled about. And yes, there are good scenes, and even good ideas here and there. I’d love to play a game that only featured FBI-man and his magic know-it-all glasses. Like “The Room”, this game is so bad it’s actually very entertaining. But it’s entertaining in every way it doesn’t want to be. It trumps itself as a serious and gritty story, but all it is is a shallow, superficial piece of pompous crap. It’s an ego piece, and not even a very good one. Everything it does well has been done better by other movies–not games, mind you, but movies, because mere video games aren’t worthy of emulation by auteur David Cage, no sir! Again, I recommend watching this Let’s Play to see this game in action, because you’ll laugh your ass off at all the parts you aren’t angrily demanding it explain any one of its many, many, many plotholes.

Maybe I wouldn’t be so upset at this game if it wasn’t for the fact that there is not one big-name video game publication that gave it a bad score. Not one. And it’s not like this game is a flawed gem or that I’m being overly critical, because believe me, I wanted very much to like this game, I did. I went into it expecting to be able to dismiss the many forum-going naysayers and find the good in it. But within the first hours of the game, if you aren’t bored by the lack of anything substantial to do, you’ll likely just be pissed off by the arbitrary melodrama, the unimaginitve gameplay, and the utter lack of respect for the intelligence of the player, who is expected to just quietly bask in awe at the emotional maelstrom this game revels in. Instead, we have a pretty shit game with some good bits here and there–and yet this game, this fucking game sells 2 million copies on the strength of the nigh-perfect scores it earned across the board. How? How the fuck does that happen?

I guess you could sum up this entry as me disagreeing with someone else’s opinions, and I guess that’s true. After all, maybe it’s just me. Maybe I just didn’t find myself riveted by this game, and these reviewers really, genuinely felt it was fun enough to award such sterling scores to. Then again, maybe somebody ought to say “y’know what? This game’s fine, but does it deserve such a high score?” Maybe somebody should point out that IGN and 1Up’s reviews move copies, and if we’re trusting this people to judge a game fairly and not just hype up a shit game for the sake of hype, maybe somebody should say something once in awhile.

I look forward to being ostracized by the gaming journalism community and never being employed by any of these people as a result of this blog post, leaving me penniless and destitute. But maybe it was worth it.

Heavy Rain is shit and you are shit for liking it.

There, that’s a way to start off a new year. Happy 2011 everyone! It seems that the general consensus about 2010 was that it was quite awful and so everyone’s looking forward to this year being better, and what better way to improve your year by bitching about game’s journalism and likely black-listing myself from ever having a respectable job with a credible gaming website ever again, but god damn it.

This is not going to be a review for Heavy Rain. Having not literally played the entire game all the way through–having played bits and pieces here and there–since I don’t own a PS3, I’ve only experienced Heavy Rain via a rather informative Let’s Play. This particular LP is a better criticism of the game than anything I could possibly write, illustrating the game’s few strengths and many flaws in a very hands-off manner and I’d recommend anyone still on the fence about buying this pile of shit interactive storytelling experience to watch at least the first four or five videos of the LP to see exactly what you are getting into.

Origami: Waterproof I want to talk about the fact that everybody and their mother fucking loved Heavy Rain. It’s gotten high scores and rave reviews across the board. IGN gave it a 9.0, 1Up awarded it an A+, GameRant 5 stars, and Joystiq said it was one of the top ten games of 2010. Well, damn, with that degree of praise, it must be good, right? Surely it couldn’t actually by a mysoginistic cliched piece of crap with poor writing, enormous plot holes, absolutely horrid voice acting, and character and facial animations that look like somebody with Downs syndrome tried to make clay figurines. Except that it is. It’s ludicrous–seriously, go and watch that Let’s Play if you have never played this game and tell me that this game isn’t a series of cliched scenes bodily ripped out of a dozen different Hollywood movies and strung together with Quick Time Events and bullshit. There’s a character who exists solely to be sexually objectified, plot twists that make no sense, plot threads that are abruptly abandoned, and across the board you see complete ignorance as to how actual law enforcement officers operate, how psychiatry is practiced in the United States, and generally how human beings actually interact with each other.

But I’m just a shithead with a blog. What’s my opinion matter? Let’s take a look at what the professionals have to say:

IGN: “Rather than taking out the bad guy right then, you might get knocked down but get another chance right after that. Miss too many and the bad guy might get away, but like I said, the story will continue on, no matter the result. In other instances, these options (as there is often more than one button available to you at any one time) will decide what a character says, how they react to something, what you interact with or so on and so forth.

The result is that although you’re still matching button prompts, Heavy Rain feels much more like you’re choosing and influencing what happens in the game, rather than simply reacting to it.”

This is talking about how  there’s no “game over” in Heavy Rain, nor indeed, any permenant fail state at all. Even if you fuck up the QTE’s, the game continues on, and you have to live with your fuck-up, and every action has far-reaching consequences. Except that they don’t. To IGN reviewer Chris Roper’s credit, you have no real idea that this isn’t true just playing through the game normally. It’s been said by the game’s fruitbat designer David Cage that this game should only be played once. Just once–no replays, no going back and trying a different route, just once, so as to maximize your emotional investment in the game. Really, though, the reason he says this is because, for pretty much the first half of the game, your actions have no consequences at all. Missing vital clues at a crime scene just results in you being given those clues an hour later. Abandon a woman to be beaten half-to-death and she still comes to your aid later in the game. It gets worse than that: let a suspect escape you? Doesn’t matter, his plot thread is dropped immediately afterwards. Kill a man thanks to an itchy trigger finger or let him live? Doesn’t matter! You get one line of dialogue, maybe a slightly different read on the next scene, and that’s all.

This game is painfully linear, despite its pretensions to the contrary, and in execution it plays out much the same as Yahtzee describes: The “best” ending is so happy and complete that everything else just feels like a nonstandard game over. You have a game lauded on choices having meaning, but choices in this game have almost NO meaning at all, and the ones that do are painfully obvious as such and almost impossible to do “wrong”–unless you suck at inputting thumb-breaking button combinations.

From the same review:

“Each of the four, main playable characters is interesting, developed well and important to the story. The way that everything comes together and winds up feeding into the story progression is nothing short of fantastic. Games have come pretty far in terms of how well stories are told and the level of writing quality that some of them are able to achieve, but Heavy Rain is easily amongst the best that’s ever been put onto a disc. Were this filmed as a Hollywood picture, it would perfectly fit the body of work of someone like Martin Scorsese or David Fincher.”

This statement is an insult to Scorsese or Fincher. It would almost be an insult to Michael Bay. But we’ll come back to this in a second, as it continues:

“Now, that doesn’t mean that the story is told flawlessly. Like I said at the start of this review, the first couple hours are a little slow. As I’ve mentioned in previous coverage for Heavy Rain, this is largely due to the fact that, with a film, you’re able to edit out dull bits like walking down stairs or going from the kitchen to the living room. The exposition and character development that happens in these opening chapters wind up being very important to what happens later, but the pacing is a little on the sluggish side. And, when some of the first things that you’re able to do include drinking orange juice and taking a shower, it may seem like things will get lost in unimportant actions and details of everyday life.”

Yes, so this narrative, comparable to the director of fucking Goodfellas, includes such important details as peeing in any available toilet, showering, drinking juice, and shaving. Because that’s exactly the best way to get me engaged in a story–by letting me piss all over it. The problem here is that this review gives you the mistaken notion that there is character development at the beginning of this game–a much-ridiculed and rightly so beginning that cements that “your choices matter” by having you do absolutely nothing of consequence and then losing your son without any ability to save him or, indeed, any ability to influence the plot at all. The “character” development is: Ethan Mars is happy. He is an architect. It is his son’s birthday. He plays with his sons. They go to the mall. One son runs away. Despite all his efforts, Ethan loses him in a crowd. Ethan finds his son. His son is hit by a car going five miles per hour and dies. Ethan is sad. Two years go by. Ethan is sad.”

There’s no character development at all in this game. Ethan’s motivations are never explored, his thoughts and feelings are thoroughly single-minded: he is always trying to save his son and when he isn’t saving his son he is either happy or sad, and that’s the only defining trait he has. Considering he is more or less the protagonist of the game, my only guess is that they wanted to make him a tabula rasa so the player could project him or herself onto him, but that falls flat because Ethan is a complete moron whose actions do not accurately mimic any sensible person’s actions. Much of the drama in the plot relies on Ethan–and basically every other major character–being as stupid as possible, showcasing not even the slightest degree of common sense towards their situation. On top of that, Ethan is a character with one mystery–blackouts that cause him to wake up on some street hours later holding a piece of origami in his hands, with no memory of what he did in the intervening time–that is never actually explained. So if he is a character for the gamer to project upon, he fails completely because his actions are pre-determined ahead of time and all you, the player, can do is steer him in one direction or the other.

This is a pretty lengthy post, so I’m going to stop here. Tune in tomorrow when I finish up this rant and maybe actually have a point to it all! Thanks for reading.

Voice of Gamers

Greetings programs. Long time no update, eh? Well fear not, because I’m back and this time I’m going to kick this shit into high gear. College managed to rob me of any desire to keep updates steady, but I’ve resolved to turn this blog into something to fear, so get ready. In the meantime, though, have this. It’s what kept me so busy–an end-of-semester project about the Gaming Community. The project was beset with problems and delays, and I can’t say I’m very happy with the final product, but this is probably the best thing that came out of it. It’s gamers on gaming. Big kudos to all who agreed to interviews, and to the Something Awful Forums for their assistance. So, without further ado, here it is: the Voice of Gamers

 

Radioactive Falling Out

Fallout 3 is and was one of my favorite games to come out in the past few years. Taking the open-world sandbox formula of the popular Elder Scrolls series and adapting it to fit an interesting and vibrant universe, Fallout 3 managed to streamline the somewhat clunky gameplay of the Elder Scrolls games and create a flawed, but deeply engrossing and highly addictive First Person Role Playing Game. So, when they announced a sequel, New Vegas, I was understandably pumped. Ready to start another 100+ hour epic journey, I shelled out full price and got my copy. How’s it hold up?

It doesn’t.

In a post-apocalyptic future, pink-eye becomes a serious problem.

In a post-apocalyptic future, pink-eye becomes a serious problem.

New Vegas was brought to us not by the Fallout 3/Elder Scrolls developers, Bethesda, but rather by Obsidian Entertainment, a company made up of numerous employees from Black Isle Studios, the company that made the first two Fallout games. Exciting news for many, especially since a lot of old-school Fallout fans called foul over numerous formula changes in Fallout 3. The game shows its history–the writing and world-building is top-notch, with varied locations, factions and characters to interact with, all of whom just “fit” the Fallout world, bringing it to life easily. The writing and plot is superior to Fallout 3 in every way. With more missions and a more complicated dialogue system and storyline, New Vegas should have been the game Fallout 3 was trying to be. Key word being should of.

Right off the bat I was immediately not blown away when, after making my character and stepping into the sun for the first time, the game chugged and whirred ominously before blinding me with a burst of sunlight and slowly revealing a desolate desert town. Entering a building, I was not impressed by the large quantities of items, set pieces, character models and props that had been taken wholesale from Fallout 3. Indeed, of the many many locations in this game, maybe a handful of them are actually “new” locations, in the sense that they don’t reuse templates from the previous game. The sense of familiarity pervaded every inch of the game.

New Vegas is quite clearly an expansion pack. Yes, it is a BIG expansion pack (easily on par with FO3 in terms of size) but it is still an expansion pack. Not only did it reuse 90% of the original game’s locations and models, it also brought over all of the original games bugs and glitches–and then proceeded to make its own.

This game is buggy as hell. One of the bigger complaints about FO3 was that it glitched out a lot–and it did–but these glitches very rarely made it difficult to progress or complete the game, and with only a few exceptions the quests and missions played out as they were scripted with no problems. Exploration was not hindered by jaggy environments that grasped your character like a hungry octopus and refused to let go, the game froze infrequently and never twice in the same place, and indeed all of the bugs were at least isolated to locations that you never really HAD to go to. It worked–it functioned.

New Vegas does not function. The frame rate chugs like a spastic child shaking a soda can, exploding into a frothy mess at the slightest push. Where it does not freeze, it chugs. Enemies constantly get caught on the environment, A.I. bugs out, NPCs randomly attack you, and on top of all that, there’s a very distinct “unfinished” feeling to most of the game. Many quests, upon completion, simply END, with almost no visible change in NPC dialogue or behavior. Indeed, had I not known that the game had the series’ trademark “epilogue” structure to its ending, I would feel even more cheated of impact and worth than I did in FO3, which at the very least had characters thank or curse me for my actions towards them.

 

Retirement didn't treat Godzilla kindly.

Every aspect of this game seemed to have a %5o chance of failing, and the fun I had exploring the environment and interacting with characters was curtailed by this ominous dread of something going wrong and forcing me to restart. It gets especially bad towards the end, where it seemed the game just gave up completely, constantly dropping random encounters on my head, freezing when I attempted to fast travel, having characters glitch and bug out, and sending any companions I’d managed to recruit running headlong into the nearest landmine to end their tenure in my employ prematurely.

I made the mistake of playing on Hardcore mode, believing myself to be sufficiently “hardcore”. I like the concept of Hardcore mode a lot–it is, essentially, a packaged version of a mod released for the PC version of FO3 that gave your character hunger, sleep and dehydration meters that had to be regulated by eating food, drinking water, and sleeping. It also makes it a lot harder to heal yourself, as beds no longer magically restore your limbs and health, meaning you’d have to trek to a doctor’s office or carry a lot of stimpacks to keep yourself healthy. Additionally, at least in New Vegas, the enemies hit a lot harder, ammo has weight (which limits how much you can carry) and stat growth is greatly limited. In short, New Vegas is far and above more challenging than FO3, which would be great were it not for the constant glitching that I described above. Instead of making exploration a worthy challenge, the game simply became unbearably frustrating, with even basic encounters managing to tear me apart in new and interesting ways.

In retrospect, I think I would have enjoyed New Vegas far more if I hadn’t chosen Hardcore mode, and that depresses me to no end. Hardcore mode should have been an amazing, in-depth simulation of the harshness of Wasteland life, but “life” in this wasteland is a 2-D facade. The characters start to lose their depth and vibrancy when they continue to putter about, spouting the same few phrases and enduring no change or impact. The shallowness of FO3′s world remains here stronger than ever, exacerbated by the endless strings of glitches and bugs and made frustrating by the ludicrously strong enemies and the more limited means of stat growth and character development.

 

The guy is you, and Hardcore mode is the hammer about to crush your skull.

There is a patch that’s going to be released that is said to fix a lot of the glitches, but fuck that. I buy a game–a CONSOLE game no less–and I expect it to at least function when I put it in. The truth of the matter is, New Vegas is a 60-dollar expansion pack. It’s a very well-written, more detailed one, and that’s what makes it all the worse, because the potential for an amazing game is there. It just falls apart on the coding level. If you have Fallout 3, just replay it, maybe get the generally excellent DLC for it. If you haven’t, go buy the Game of the Year edition, which has all 5 prepackaged.  It has its flaws, but at least it is playable. That’s more than I can say for New Vegas, and trust me, I really wish that wasn’t the case.

Ef Pee Ess

Let’s talk about the humble First Person Shooter genre. Boy, there’s an enduring game genre. Ever since Wolfenstein 3-D first handed us a pixellated pistol and had us kill Nazis for fun and profit, gamers have time and time again gotten behind the barrel of their favorite rifle to make a nameless bad guy a little holier than thou.

I like FPSes. There’s a simplicity to them–point, shoot, dodge–that makes just about any given FPS easy to pick up and play, and the fun is right there in the title–shooter. Who doesn’t like shooting things? And what about the novel concept of the first person at all? Beyond the world of literature, the first person perspective has been ignored by most entertainment mediums, for a variety of reasons–in movies, it makes you dizzy, it’s hard to film. In comics you COULD do it, but why would you? It’s far more dramatic to have two superheroes visibly punching each other than to have just one giant fist filling a panel. But games? There’s a different story. It’s instant immersion–you and I see the world through the first person every moment of every day, and it’s a natural transition from the real world to the digital one as soon as you pick up the controller.

An image for the smudgy pixel history books.

But it’s not exactly fresh discourse to say that FPSes have grown just a tad bit…stale. I mean, how many times can you shoot an alien with a plasma rifle, or snipe a sneaky Kraut from atop a clocktower 100 yards away before you start to get a sense of deja vu? The FPS genre is very generational–each gaming generation, a new FPS introduces a fresh, innovative mechanic that captures the hearts and minds of gamers, and then for the next three years every other game studio tries to emulate that mechanic until it has been run into the ground like Mufasa.

It started getting really bad around the Halo years. Now, Halo was a great game–it wasn’t exactly innovative, but it took a variety of different gameplay mechanics from a bunch of other shooters and combined them in a slick package with a fun story and co-op so that you and your friends can do more than just shoot each other. It popularized the shield mechanic, limited weapon inventories, and grenade-heavy combat scenarios against multiple, varied, and deadly intelligent enemies. It was lauded for the ground it broke and heaped with awards and awards. So how did the game’s industry respond?

They ripped it off. Boom! Space Marines everywhere! Limited weapons everywhere! Dodgy vehicle sections everywhere! A female voice in your ear telling you where to go! Bang, boom, and only the World War II shooters–who have been stuck in their own inescapable quagmire since the mists of time were still fresh upon this earth–were spared from the unending rush to be Halo–or to beat Halo. Problem is, everyone wanted to beat Halo at its own game, ignoring completely the reason why Halo was so popular–not because it had space marines or grenades or blue aliens, but because it was something new.

Remember when this was new?

Then Halo 2 came along, changed the formula even more (regenerating health! Smarter enemies! Not shit level design! Bigger storyline!) and shit went bananas. I’d argue that we’re STILL ripping off Halo 2, almost unavoidable at this point when you start making a game about space marines.  Everything was basically “Halo with X Gimmick” and very few of them were particularly good. Now, though, we stopped ripping off Halo because a new kid came to town and kicked Halo in the balls, took his lunch money, and then shock-tortured him with a car battery.

Of course, I’m talking about COD.

It's starting to look...

No, wait, wrong one. I meant Call of Duty–specifically, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. While the Call of Duty franchise has always been a somewhat above-average World War 2 shooter franchise (never seen that one before) doomed to the comfortable quiet mediocrity that has afflicted the World War II shooter genre (and by Christ, am I the only one who is bothered that that is an actual genre?) and it would have remained as such if not for the fact that, in a stroke of utter brilliance, Treyarch decided to hand development over to a studio called Infinity Ward, who promptly dropped the played out WWII trappings, set the game in present day, and created a tense, powerfully cinematic, poignant and topical first person experience. So good was Modern Warfare that its sequel, cementing it as an official spin-off series, Modern Warfare 2 was like a nuclear bomb made out of money, exploding into millions and millions of dollars and leaving the poor bastards stuck in ground zero a slow and painful death of ten thousand papercuts.

And thus…you may have guessed it…everyone ripped it off. It’s kind of a vicious cycle, isn’t it? A camo-clad, alien Ouroburos, the genre continues to churn out derivative and samey shooters, each one like a fat man at a buffet, desperate to get all the fresh chicken wings before they all go cold, heedless of the flecks of hot sauce staining his shirt, dribbling down his triple chins, splashing everywhere. Let’s keep pumping this shit out, because people buy them. And they will. And you have. Remember the idea of an economic vote? Y’know, where the games you decide to buy determine what games will be made? Yeah, well, you fuckers love shooting things and apparantly you love shooting things the exact same way. We’ve had Call of Duty with Vehicles, Call of Duty with Dust, Call of Duty with Vehicles and Dust, Call of Duty in a Jungle, Call of Duty in my Pants–it’s unending!

...so very very...

And when it isn’t Call of Duty, it’s Halo! Still! Halo evolved combat in 2001–almost ten years ago, and we are still playing it. I understand why of course–there’s many reasons, chief amongst them I would say is the accessibility as well as the emphasis on multiplayer over single-player. FPS games basically thrive off their competitive (or occasionally cooperative) play, and when a formula works, folks don’t seem to want to change it. Half the people who contributed to the 55  million Modern Warfare 2 units sold are the kinds of gamers who only play first person shooters anyway. They’re the ones who want a simple, familiar, pick-up and play experience so they can shoot people online for hours on end. It’s a kind of sad reality, especially considering just how innovative FPS games can be.

Look at Metroid Prime. Or Half Life 2. Mirror’s Edge, Vampire: The Masquerade, Fallout 3–also first person, mostly shooters. But each is radically different from each other, and from the mainstays of the genre–Metroid focuses on platforming and exploration, Half-Life on story and physics, Mirror’s Edge on falling off tall buildings a lot, Fallout on the 1950′s. The first person perspective opens up as of yet untouched, fertile avenues for storytelling and gameplay. The idea, the concept of not just experiencing events through an avatar, but through your own literal two eyes is incredibly alluring, and there’s still so much to be done. The shooter genre has fallen behind even the most conservative gaming genres, and while the smart developers have taken the FP part of FPS to new and exciting places, the S remains stuck in 1944, still trying to liberate France.

...familiar.

So what can we do? Simple. Stop it. Stop buying this shit. Stop accepting the bare minimum–you have Modern Warfare, you have it. Don’t pretend like you don’t, everybody does. If you want it, you have it–why buy the same game again and again and again? Wake up and smell the ashes! We live in a world of easy information, where we can compare and contrast anything and everything, where we can be as informed about what we buy and consume as we care to. Does nobody care? Does nobody care that one of gaming’s cornerstones–one of the most enduring and historic gaming genre in the history of the medium–is also one of the most stagnant, most bereft of creativity, thought or innovation? Who is going to be the first person to shoot these lazy games in the kneecaps and shake them until they give you something new and unique? Will it be you?

Or do you just not care?

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