Saturday, January 05, 2008

Half Life 2

I have been hearing about this development studio called Valve for a almost a decade. They were supposedly this cutting edge developer taking first person shooters to the proverbial next level. But they were making games for the PC. I can't play games the same place I write my tragic poetry. It's like using the shower soap in the kitchen! I have been happily playing Perfect Dark and Halo this century, completely oblivious to their rather impressive achievements. That has all changed now. I have seen the light. Valve's three year old opus running on outdated technology even the Wii would be capable of emulating has opened my eyes to a whole new world of first person shooting.

It's crazy how much I have changed during these years I have written for G-Pinions. During the Early Years, Nick and I used to argue about the relative merits of story and presentation in video games. I was feverishly against anything that could potentially spoil my gameplay. "Games are about about action and reaction," I would yell. "No fancy color scheme or generic video game personality is going to get in the way of my gameplay!" I was adamant. Things are obviously different now, or I wouldn't have brought up this example. I would argue that games have evolved during that stretch. Half Life 2 is a great example of games that just didn't exist a few years ago. The gameplay isn't exactly jaw-dropping, but the story is so well-told and engrossing, the world is so real, the problems so immediate, that it was impossible for me not to be swept up in the damning saga of City 17.

I have never played a game with levels comparable to Half Life 2's. It is almost like a straight forward puzzle game, if that makes any sense. There is only one path through the majority of the adventure, but finding that path is where the problems lie. The full environment is your playground as you try to get from the terrifying Point A in which you currently reside to the glorious Point B that awaits. Sometimes you'll need to hop along structures that seem at first to be too unstable to hold a leaping man. Other times, you'll have to mold the environment yourself, blowing up bridges or moving heavy objects out of the way to make the pass accessible. And then there are the myriad scripted events - when you reach a certain point, a gift from god will open a door. Be it an enemy laser or a helpful hand from your mechanical friend, d0g.

The reason the level design works so well is that no section is overly difficult, but most present some slight obstacle. It works as a pacing device, to keep your focus shifting throughout the journey so your actions never get tedious. The game does a good job of shifting quickly between shooting, exploration and story sections to keep the player constantly accomplishing something new.

The story is handled in a fairly unique way as well. Instead of game-halting cut scenes, players talk to you without binding your movements. Feel free to toss boxes around the laboratory or strike your ally with a crowbar while they tell you about the plight of your rather oppressed people. It's a way to keep the player fully involved while important motivation devices are being layed out.

I'm sure other games have stolen pieces of Half Life 2's structure since it was released three years ago, but I have never played a game that fully incorporates all these ideas in one tight package. Half Life 2 may be the best single-player FPS I have ever played. It does not hold a candle to the complex story or striking ethical choices found in Bioshock, nor does it offer the unbridled fun of riding a Warthog with a buddy in any of the Halo games, but it has a much more complete package than any FPS since Goldeneye.

Two more quick notes before I end this review. First, the only real problem this game has is unforgiving collision detection while trying to navigate. It's easy to get caught on broken crates during the most hectic moments of a firefight or accidentally missing a ledge you should be able to jump to with ease. Not a game-breaking flaw, but it is certainly frustrating.

Second, Half Life 2 does not allow you to regain full health by simply avoiding fire for a few seconds. Theres are actual med packs scattered throughout levels. I forgot how much I enjoyed having to seek extra health instead of having it handed to me. I hope this trend of automatically refilling life bars ends soon. It's a very lame game mechanic.

I realize I am extremely late relaying this information. Clearly, G-Pinions has never prided itself on cutting edge PC information. The Orange Box just happens to include the first version of Half Life 2 that is actually playable on consoles, without severe framerate compromises. If you've never played Half Life 2, Orange Box is a mighty fine package. And if you have played Half Life 2 before, stop laughing. Not everyone can be as hip as you are.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

Is it possible to review only a portion of a video game? The first 90% of Uncharted is, without a doubt, one of the best games I have played this year. The level design can serve as the ultimate blueprint for developers trying to understand how to make a treasure hunting adventure. The shooting, platforming and puzzle solving are combined in a realistic manner, making the quest a pure joy that never suffers from boredom, repetition or unrealistic leaps of faith. The story, which appears to be a standard tomb raiding affair on the surface, offers a few twists towards the end that offer more than a slight nod of inspiration towards the literary classic Robinson Crusoe. The only thing holding this back from hyperbolic-less perfection is a harsh turn away from the established gameplay conventions towards the very end of the adventure. For a game as focused and well-constructed as Uncharted, it's a shame to see Naughty Dog's vision falter slightly. Those small sections aside, this is a landmark of game design and a true video game marvel.

Uncharted does borrow elements from some of the most popular video game franchises in the world, but it tweaks the ideas to make them fit into this ultimately unique adventure. First of all, the shooting elements seem to be ripped straight from the code of Gears of War. In other words, you can use cover in Uncharted. But the comparisons start and stop immediately. There are three main elements that separate Uncharted's gunplay from Gears'.

First: weapon strength. Fights in Gears of War seemed to drag on far too long because your enemies were overpowered Locusts from the center of the Earth. In Uncharted, you use man-made guns against humans, so individuals fights can be won in no more than three shots. I found myself wishing the fights would last slightly longer in Uncharted rather than growing tired long before the last enemy fell like I did in Gears.

Second: agility. Gears of War has you controlling a rather large man with the innate quickness of a dying slug. Your movement was restricting to plodding from one piece of cover to the next, making each fight seem like an extreme case of deja vu. In Uncharted, you control a man who could have been a world class gymnast had his love of treasure not gotten in the way. You can approach battles just like you would in Gears if you prefer. Or you can run around the battlefield, taking down one enemy at a time as you quickly zoom around your enemies. Or, if you're feeling particularly nasty, you can use your speed and athleticism to get close to your foes, breaking their necks to send a message to everyone else. The ability to approach each battle from many different angles is a welcome addition to duck and cover gunplay.

Third: level design. In Gears, the battlefields were artificially covered with huge rocks to make sure the stop 'n pop technique could be used ad nauseam. Because of the unabashed repetition of the level design, Gears actually reused landscapes, making players fight through the same arenas multiple times. Not only were your techniques extremely limited in Gears, but the battlefields all looked the same. In Uncharted, the level design varies in every new location. Some sections could have been pulled straight from Gears but others offer much more variety. Certain sections remove almost all the cover, so you are forced to brave into the open. Other times, you will have to traverse platforms while avoiding gunfire. The world is also much more vertical than any section in Gears. You'll have to fight your way up and down stairs, take down snipers perched up high and climb up statues to find tactical position. By using a combination of these elements in every fight, the game is able to avoid the repetition of the world's most famous cover shooter.

Basically, aside from the most superficial element of using cover in a gunfight, there is nothing in Uncharted that actually feel like Gears of War. Comparisons have been brought up in almost every review, though, so I thought it was important to address this concern. I just hope I don't have to go through the same checklist with every game that uses cover. Just like every open world shooter does not feels like Doom, every game that uses cover will not actually resemble Gears of War.

Another apparent inspiration: Prince of Persia. Nathan Drake, the star of Uncharted, is almost as agile as everyone's favorite Prince. Uncharted is not in the same league as The Sands of Time for platforming prowess, but it doesn't try to be. Like the gunfights, the platforming in Uncharted is organic. Have you ever stood atop a building (in real life), looked across the way at the building next door and said aloud "I bet I could make that jump." That is how the platforming is designed in Uncharted. Instead of arbitrary constructs and conveniently placed handholds, Uncharted realistically emulates crumbling ruins. This is a slight distinction, but the fictional tombs present in Uncharted are so expertly designed, so utterly realistic, it makes the platforming seem somehow real. Though the complexity of PoP's awesome levels is never even attempted in Uncharted, the platforming elements are still very entertaining and do a good job of providing a break from the shooting.

Now that obvious comparisons are out of the way, I can bring up the story. First of all, I have no clue where the idea that Nathan Drake is an "every man" springs from, but that is decidedly false. From that description, I always assumed Drake found himself trapped on an anarchistic island and had to fight his way off it. This couldn't be further from the truth. Drake is a treasure hunter. That's actually his job. He is fluent in ancient Spanish, can wield a wide variety of guns and is in peak athletic condition. He is not some lost Gap model who can't figure out how to take the safety off his gun. He has been in this position before. His companion throughout the journey, Elena, brings back fond memories of Jade from Beyond Good and Evil fame. Attractive without defying physics, and even brings a camera with her.

Towards the end of the journey, you find out there are other people inhabiting this island. Unfortunately, all the fighting techniques you learned through the majority of your quest are thrown out the window at this point. Whereas before, cover was vital and any time spent in the open all but assured your untimely death, cover is completely eschewed while fighting your final foes. They are not intelligent, so if you duck and cry behind the nearest brick wall, they will simply climb over and attack you. The most efficient way to kill them is to simply stand in the open and let your auto aim do the rest. It's not bad, and can still be quite fun, but it is a drastic departure from what made Uncharted so great. When I think about how focused the journey was before these new enemies appeared, I can only curse with frustration. Like I said, these few battles at the end are the only thing keeping this game from perfection.

When these new foes appeared, I initially chalked it up to lazy video game conventions. Many games change enemies at the end, a twist to unnecessarily prolong an adventure. But then I realized how this story mirrors Robinson Crusoe. You know how weak I am to classic British literature. First of all, both stories have a lead character shunning the standard ideals of humanity and making their own way through life. Crusoe deliberately disobeys his father's wishes and becomes a sailor, looking to get rich on supposedly uncivilized islands. Drake is a treasure hunter. He's looking to get rich by discovering his dead ancestor Francis Drake's lost fortune on some supposedly deserted island. Still not convinced? After settling in on an island and assuming they are fully aware of every obstacle they might face, both characters happen upon a lone footprint in the mud. Both characters realize the implications of a footprint, but a long time passes without any change in their respective circumstances. Eventually, Crusoe realizes the peaceful island he has been stranded on is really overrun by tribes of warring cannibals. Drake also finds new life on his island, though I won't go into specific details what he finds.

Since the parallels are pretty obvious, I assume there are one or two more major points that I have forgotten since I read Robinson Crusoe. But I find it pretty awesome that Naughty Dog was able to seamlessly bring one of the first and most well-known works of literature to gaming. I'm really interested to see if more developers try such a convergence in the future. It may not be long before the cannibalistic cravings of Gulliver creep into a holiday blockbuster. Personally, I can't wait until Link utters his first words, "Can I have more gruel, sir?"

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the jaw-dropping graphics at some point in this review. Uncharted is easily the best looking game I have ever played. Period. I may not know the names of the fancy graphical techniques Naughty Dog has on display, but I do know that nothing - not Bioshock or Ratchet or even Earth Defense Force - comes close to this game. The lighting is completely realistic, from the shafts of light breaking through thick foliage to the dimly lit underground tombs; it looks just like I would imagine a crumbling Incan rune would. And the animation! Oh my, how impressive. Every little nuance is on full display here. It's almost eerie. The cut scenes are also brimming with life. Sure, they aren't in the same league as Heavenly Sword, which more closely resembles an animated film than a mere video game cinema, but the impressive animation and well-thought out story make the usually abrasive cut scenes something I eagerly anticipated.

Despite one unfortunate design choice towards the end of the game, Uncharted is one of the most focused, well-designed and overall fun games released this year. Though it may seems like a clever combination of the best elements from Tomb Raider, Gears of War and Prince of Persia on the surface, the end result is an entirely unique adventure. Yes, the idea of buying a system for just one game is still a poor idea at best. But, if you are looking for a justification for owning a PS3 and Blu Ray movies just aren't cutting it anymore, Uncharted is without a doubt the best game on the system and one of the best games, for any system, released this year.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A taste of Mario

I am freaking out with the sheer awesomeness that is Super Mario Galaxy. I am bursting with Mario love and need to contain it somewhere while I'm trapped at work. My expectations for this game were simply Game of the Year. After playing it for a few hours yesterday, it has risen to a place far above simple awards. Galaxy has redefined platforming and adventure games forever. It has fundamentally changed how to construct a level in 3D space. Most importantly, Mario Galaxy is the new high water mark for pure gaming fun.

I am not prepared to write a full review yet, but I have to at least give you a taste of this experience. Bear with me as I try to arrange mere words to describe this truly revolutionary experience. I won't try to explain why this game is so very different from everything else quite yet. Let me play through the whole game and digest its gooey center first. But I can say, it will make everything smell like septic slime for quite some time. If it is possible for a game to be too good, this would be the prime candidate to take this award.

Note: The following three paragraphs describe three separate experiences I have had in the early goings of what promises to be one of the greatest games ever created. If you would like your Galaxy experience to be completely pure, you should probably skip this column entirely.

At one point early in the game I found myself inside a small cube. Gravity was not welcomed in this domain. The walls and ceiling were fair game for my wanderlust. Using ramps to navigate the six sides, I was sprinting around the enclosed world like an overactive rat on amphetamines. It was fun and pointless, just like a game should be. But then, as I set foot on the ceiling, a box beckoned to me. I am well-trained in Mario. I know to open tempting boxes. I spun into it, revealing... notes? Rainbow colored musical notes bounced out, forming a line along the ceiling and walls. As I collected them, the music changed. With each note I picked up, one note from the original Mario theme was played. As I sped up, so too did the tune. I would have clapped with joy had I not been holding a controller, but I did shout.

At another section, I found myself in an open world with a towering mountain ahead of me. From the bottom hole, a cave three times as high as Mario and ten times as wide, a black thing began to slowly emerge. I walked towards this hole, eager to see what would spring forth. I walked in front of it just as a boulder came rushing out. I did a turn-flip and sprinted down the path in front of me. Just as it was about to squash me, I did a long jump. The boulder turned slightly and rolled harmless away from me. Just as I caught my breath from a near-death experience, a whoosh of black flashed from my left. I spun the camera and saw a Bullet Bill speeding towards me. His nose was turning red (was he about to explode?) as I started to run away. I jumped over a little hill and ran back around to the front side. I had lost him. His little arms waved in frustration as he crashed into the hill.

During a race on the back of a manta ray, I accelerated into an approaching wave at an odd angle. My craft shot into the air with me still firmly attached to it. I landed an inch from the edge of a bottomless pit, my momentum carrying me to sudden doom. I grabbed the controller with two hands and slammed it to the side. My ray turned sharply, still drifting towards our mutual death. With one fin hanging precariously off the side, we both finally stopped. Thanking our lucky stars, I turned us back towards the race track and began to speed off towards the finish line. As I was trying to reorient myself, another wave crashed into us, finally knocking us into the dark reaches of space.

In every section of the game, Galaxy offers memorable experiences like this. It quickly changes between an exploration heavy adventure to a combat oriented action game to an intense platforming challenge to an off-the-wall gravity-be-damned navigational nightmare and back to exploration without even a blink or a warning. This is the most tightly designed game I have ever experienced. If Mario 64 showed how a 3D adventure game could be made, Galaxy shows how one should be made.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

If the world was an entirely just place, my review of Phantom Hourglass would be a carbon copy of what I wrote in my Ratchet and Clank Future review last week. Both are uninspired sequels that are virtually indistinguishable from past entries in the series. Since both games are the first for their respective consoles, the developers seemed content to throw a bone to the novelties these systems make possible without enhancing the tried and true gameplay one bit. But while I ripped Ratchet for its blatant unoriginality, I am actually going to praise Zelda. Not because it's unoriginal, but because, even despite its familiar gameplay and world, it's still noticeably better than recent Zelda games. Phantom Hourglass is undoubtedly a flawed game that further exposes the problems inherent in the Zelda formula, but the streamlined experience is infinitely more enjoyable than what I was starting to expect of this series.

The main reason Phantom Hourglass is so much more fun than Twilight Princess and Wind Waker is simple: Nintendo removed the boring parts. It's such a brilliant idea! Oh, how many hours I could have saved if Nintendo had only made this change years ago. Both Twilight Princess and Wind Waker were chuck-full of excruciating side quests between dungeons that just dragged the entire experience through a pig's poop-filled bathroom. Do you realize how huge Hyrule is? Why do I have to continually walk across the whole damn thing running errands for ungrateful brats in TP? And Wind Waker, with its tedious boat navigation, who thought that was good idea? If I wanted to spend a week on a boat I would join the Navy's "Ride a Boat for 7 Days" program. Phantom Hourglass thankfully removed those grueling bits so you can quickly jump from one dungeon to the next. I can't believe it took Nintendo this long to emphasize the strength of one of their biggest series.

The dungeon design in PH is simply awesome. First of all, Nintendo did an excellent job designing this for the portable crowd. Most dungeons allow you to unlock doors at various points so you can take a break without having to trudge through the whole damn thing all over again. More importantly, the puzzles are a joy. I had forgotten just how fun a traditional Zelda dungeon can be after wading through all that torturous crap in previous games. Everything is completely logical this time around too. No more puzzles where you have to light all the candles in a room. In fact, the pointless lantern isn't even in this game! You still have the occasional lever to pull or switch to stand on, but the game does force you to use your mind more often than Zeldas past. At one point, you have to shoot a shy eyeball that closes when you look at it. I was stuck for a few minutes at this point. I tried to turn really quickly and catch it staring dumbly (I think everyone does this, as if the game is alive and not a flawless computer program). I tried to toss my boomerang. I tried to leave the room, like I didn't care about the eye at all. Eventually, I realized I had to string my grappling hook between two posts. I could shoot the rope with my back turned to the eye, causing an epic ricochet that would blind that stupid statue. Puzzles like this made each dungeon a blast to play through.

The main problem with Phantom Hourglass, and the Zelda franchise as a whole, is the actual combat is simply awful. In PH, both movement and swordplay is controlled using only the touchscreen. This is a very bad idea. First of all, your movement is way too limited now since you're using a touchscreen to do what used to takes an analog stick and multiple buttons. Rolling is almost impossible to execute and circle strafing around an enemy feels clunky and unresponsive. It also means you will swing when you want to run and vice versa way too often. Thankfully, Nintendo seemed to acknowledge this problem. There are very few times in the game where you have to partake in hardcore sword combat, and it is so easy when you do that you won't be hampered by the crappy controls. A Zelda experience with worthwhile combat would be a much better option than simply avoiding the problem altogether, though.

Another Zelda mainstay rears its ugly head in Phantom Hourglass: the story is insultingly bad. I have no problem with crappy stories in games. Two of my favorite games this year - Earth Defense Force and Crackdown - had completely useless stories. You know why that wasn't a problem? These games just ignored the whole story thing completely. In Phantom Hourglass, like every Zelda game, you have to sit through long, boring cutscenes when all you really need is someone to point you in the direction of your next dungeon. If a game is going to make you sit through a story, it better be worthwhile. There should be some work put into it. I would love to play a Zelda game where Link had a personality. I would love to have an actual plot instead of elaborate fetch quests. But if Nintendo is not wiling to let this universe grow, they should just cut out the pointless crap entirely.

The Zelda franchise will never evolve until Nintendo spends some time crafting an intelligent story and making sure the combat is on par with other adventure games. Until that happens, everything other than dungeon puzzle solving will just be a giant waste of time. I really have no idea why Nintendo is completely unwilling to include an interesting story in any of their games. Yes, the Nintendo fanbase is predominantly much younger than Microsoft's and Sony's, but that is not a valid excuse anymore. Harry Potter has proven that children love compelling stories. Nintendo can claim they are just trying to appeal to the family until they are blue in face, but it is apparent they simply think their fanbase is comprised of individuals who do not want to be intellectually challenged while playing a game. This strategy will ultimately hurt Nintendo more than their harshest competitor will ever be able to.

Until that time comes, Phantom Hourglass will be one of the showcase entries in the Zelda franchise. It may not be particularly deep, but it is fun in ways recent Zelda games could only grasp in small doses. In the future, Nintendo does need to realize that quirky controls alone do not make a game innovative. The last two Zelda games have relied entirely on their new-fangled control schemes rather than push the gameplay further with actual innovation. Now that we have seen what a traditional Zelda game plays like with motion and touchscreen controls, I hope Nintendo tries something drastically different in the future. Fun is the most important part of gaming, but when so many titles offer a deeper experience on top of unbridled fun, it has become clear that Nintendo will need to evolve along with everyone else.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction

I've been sitting on this review for a week now. It's not often that I came across a game so wonderfully fun but still woefully unspectacular. I simply love the Ratchet and Clank franchise. It offers unabashed fun even the kings of the genre, Mario and Banjo, cannot come close to. By stripping away the standard problems associated with 3D platforming, namely platform navigation and sparse environments, R&C has always been able to hone in on pure fun much quicker than its exploration heavy counterparts. But this newest Ratchet, the sixth in seven years, simply feels too similar to prior outings. Though the only game that has given me more pleasure this year is the nearly perfect God of War II, Ratchet and Clank Future is so far from what I demand in a next generation experience that I am genuinely shocked Insomniac would release it in this state.

Ratchet and Clank Future is more of a next generation remake than a true sequel. The graphics are impressive and the game makes heavy use of Sony's motion controller, but everything else had already been done in previous entries. And much better to boot. The weapons, always the trademark of this franchise, are a complete let down this time around. Aside from two unique standouts, the game compiles a catalogue of slightly retooled versions of classic weapons. The two most interesting weapons make use of the game's next generation home. The Pyro Blaster, a flamethrower, most likely could not be done with the PS2's limited power. The flame is quite impressive and made me giggle with glee as a mowed down row upon row of emotionless robots. And the Tornado Launcher (guess what it does) can be a trying experience but I found it a blast to use. Ratchet shoots out a mini twister and, using the Sixaxis controller, you tilt you controller to steer it around the stage. Again, a very satisfying and useful weapon that simply could not be done last generaton. A few more of these and Insomniac might have had something special.

However, every other weapon falls flat simply because I have played three previous Ratchet and Clank games so thoroughly. For instance, you'll find a blade throwing weapon called the Buzz Blades in Ratchet and Clank Future. The same weapon was known as the Chopper in Going Commando. Future has a whip-like weapon known as the Shock Ravenger whereas Up Your Arsenal called it a Plasma Whip. Since the main lure of the franchise is the fantastic weapons Insomniac comes up with, I was disheartened to see so many of them had appeared in previous games. Usually, you are able to purchase classic weapons at a discounted price (game price, not real dollars) if a game save from an older title was found on your memory card. With the jump to a new system and potentially a new audience, it seems Insomniac was content offering classic weapons almost exclusively.

Even worse than bland weapons, the motion-controlled mini games are more of a chore than even your average Wii game. From rolling a ball to connect circuits in a security hacking game to tilting the controller away from missiles in a sky diving excursion, the distractions add annoyance to what is predominantly a very fun game. An even bigger problem is the return of the awful flying missions from Going Commando. I have no idea why Insomniac keeps forcing a crappy flying game in their otherwise awesome games. This is just a poor version of Star Fox that once again takes away from the brilliant action that should be the sole focus of a Ratchet and Clank game. These side missions certainly aren't game killers, but they do take away from the experience as a whole.

Essentially, Ratchet and Clank Future follows the same blueprint Insomniac created six years ago without adding anything significant to the equation. In fact, they have even removed modes. The online multiplayer mode from Up Your Arsenal has been taken out completely as has the co-op mode from Deadlocked. Though the core experience of Ratchet is the robust single player mode, it's surprising they would choose to release a less diverse product than previous offerings. And while I wouldn't have gone online anyway, one subtraction really does anger me. The arena modes, where you battle hundreds of enemies in adverse conditions, have also been toned down considerably from previous games. Not only are they much easier this time around (no more 100 rounds of death), but the diversity is once again lacking. There are only about 20 such challenges in the entire game. Since this is probably my favorite part of the franchise, I was sad to see such a poor representation of it.

However, even with all that negativity spread across this page, I still had a very good time playing the game. The weapons may be uninspired but I still thoroughly enjoy leveling up my Tools of Destruction and seeing what new features my guns developed. As expected, the game is simply gorgeous now. And though you travel to the most cliche places in the universe (ice, fire, and dinosaur-laden planets), it's still really fun to explore each world. I hate having to bash a game I really loved, but I have already written all about the positive aspects of the Ratchet and Clank franchise in previous reviews. I simply expected more in Ratchet's next generation debut.

Don't let my negativity get you down. This is still the best game on the PS3 and, if you aren't a stickler for innovation, it's another near perfect release for Insomniac. It should still be a must buy for any PS3 owners who demand fun in their games. But it's going to seem pretty insignificant when Mario Galaxy, a truly revolutionary platformer, comes out next week.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Everyday Shooter

Everyday Shooter is one of the few games I have ever played that seamlessly combines the creative appeal of conceptual art with the exhausting demands of a hardcore game. My favorite games that strive towards something bigger - games that are commonly referred to as art - rely on movie conventions to create an emotional bridge between the game and player. Titles such as Okami and BioShock use epic stories and clever characters to deliver their message. And they do that beautifully. But Everyday Shooter attacks the art debate from a much different angle and provides an experience that is just as compelling.

Everyday Shooter is an extremely ironic game. Though the action itself is all about blowing up enemies in classic shooter fashion, the art elements create a backbone of beauty and creation. From a purely gameplay perspective, ES is merely a Geometry Wars clone. You control a tiny ship lost in a sea of antagonistic debris. Using the left stick to move and the right stick to shoot, you fly around the arena trying to dispense deadly objects in the most efficient way possible. This type of game has existed since the very first video games were created thirty years ago. But to look at just the gameplay in Everyday Shooter would be doing a huge disservice to this incredibly deep game.

From a visual standpoint, this game is every bit as striking as high budget productions tearing up the sales charts. But it will not make you scream "Wow" with particle effects or bump mapping. Rather, it is the color and patterns of your enemies that is truly breathtaking. Every level offers a completely unique visual experience that made me literally smile with joy. The pictures are so simple, composed predominantly of primary colors, that it seems as though a small child may have been the lead art designer. But the way the colors contrast with the background, or explode and evaporate, is just so striking. It's a gorgeous game.

The sound is even more impressive than the graphics. Instead of listening to the roar of your missiles and the blast of exploding objects, the world spits out a song with every one of your attacks. Your shots and kills essentially provide the harmony to the ever changing background music. With a random assortment of notes bursting through your speakers, you would think this musical mishmash would sound unpleasant. And sometimes the music does sound rather abrasive. But when you find the correct pattern in a stage, and you start to execute the correct strategy, the music comes together as well.

To me, this game is about creation and living in the present. The creation element comes from this ability to make music while you are destroying objects. Even if a swarm of enemies is overwhelming your tiny ship, you can still create a riveting soundtrack and beautiful images to make the passing into your next life really easy. Believe me, I spend a lot of time dying in this ridiculously hard game, so I know all about making the process as enjoyable as possible.

But the second thematic element of this game is what is really striking to me. So many games seem to focus primarily on getting to that next point. Whether it's the next level or a new high score, the act of playing is oftentimes overshadowed by the ultimate goal. Though Everyday Shooter still has levels to pass and high scores to strive for, the actual levels are constructed very differently. I spend so much time trying to make everything look and sound "right" that I don't really get bothered by my low scores or my inability to get far in the game. It is about being in the present, making my level perfect, more than anything else.

Everyday Shooter is not the gameplay revolution people may expect from the PlayStation 3, but it is a new level of art game. It is physically beautiful and aurally pleasing. Without question, it's one of the most interesting and rewarding games to come out this year.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Heavenly Sword

Heavenly Sword is one of the easiest games around to dissect. On one hand, the story is as strong as you will find in a video game. With an engaging plot, unpredictable characters and genuine emotion, the experience wrapped my attention in a neat bow for my entire time with the game. And though the story alone is good enough to deserve applause from gamers and non-gamers alike, it is the presentation that pushes this beyond the realm of mere video game greatness. The acting and cinematography (is that the first time I've used that word on this site?) are so striking, it makes every other video game cut scene look like a Full House puppet show. On the other hand, this is a game you will play just so you can get to the sections where you idly watch. Heavenly Sword has fundamental gameplay flaws that keep it from pure gaming goodness, but the story is strong enough to ignore that pesky, predictable gameplay.

I fear that dwelling on the faults of Heavenly Sword will steer people away from this entirely worthy game, but I can't just ignore the gamplay completely. Can I? The combat, which borrows heavily from God of War, is simply not all that engaging. It is a game that focuses entirely on the bland relationship between blocks and counter attacks. You know what's not fun? Having my flashy attacks respond with the dull clink of steel hitting steel. Shouldn't I be carving into heretic flesh with every strike? Furthermore, shouldn't I be able to see what I'm hitting? The camera does its best to show the beautiful locale where you are fighting while avoiding the actual combat. The camera and fighting are serviceable, but rarely rise above mediocrity. Though some will surely find the give and take of combat rewarding, I found the experience exhausting and repetitive. Sometimes it is just more fun to ignore the standard rules of combat and spin around as fast as you can with your super sharp swords of death. Heavenly Sword is not difficult, but the fighting was drawn out to the point of boredom on more than one occasion. With a more diverse array of attacks or simply less focus on blocking and more on position, the combat would have been much more rewarding. As it is, combat is the cauliflower you choke down to get to the tasty desert.

So what is the meat in this food metaphor? Twing twang! Parts of this game have you controlling Kai, protagonist Nariko's adopted sister. I could shoot arrows from her crossbow all day and still make time to shoot some more tomorrow. In the finest use of motion control since Wii Tennis, you manually control your arrows in midair with the Sixaxis controller. It may sound gimmicky, and in truth it really is, but that doesn't detract from the fun one bit. From bending your arrows around a corner to hit a cowering foe in the face to guiding it through a level to set off some fireworks, archery is an extremely visceral, rewarding experience. And I'm not using those as buzz words either. You try steering an arrow around a barrel and into a man's skull without laughing.

When I think back about Heavenly Sword years from now, when the pretty graphics and intricate plot have long since been forgotten, the one thing I will still hold on to is Kai. She is one of the most unexpectedly interesting characters I have ever seen in a game. She is presented as having a Lenny mindset, for those familiar with Of Mice and Men. Though she is slight in stature, she is more than willing to kill anyone in her path. But like Lenny, she does not realize the power she possesses. Her family refers to her displays of killing as "Twing twang." She refers to it as "playtime." She does not seem to grasp the concept that an arrow into someone's forehead will kill them. She does as she is told, with a smile on her face, while I cringed and turned away. It is an extraordinarily dark concept. To use a mere child to kill your enemies, when they are completely ignorant of their power, is almost terrifying. Though that was my impression through half the game, by the end I had a whole new view of Kai. She has a horrible past and a legitimate dark streak, but she is fueled by love. She is a fascinating character and one I would love to see further explored in the future.

If you can't tell, I thoroughly enjoyed Heavenly Sword despite the cumbersome combat. It carries a creative vision rarely attempted in a mainstream game. From sweeping camera angles to picturesque landscapes, this is a showcase title for the future convergence of gaming and film. I would love to see the vision of Heavenly Sword's artistic director combined with the gameplay fundamentals of someone who has spent their life making fun video games. As it is, I am content with a game that only gets one of those elements right. Honestly, in a game this beautiful, even the finest gameplay would take a backseat.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Halo 3 Campaign

There comes a point during the life of a franchise when a developer simply has to raise their middle finger to all the dissenters and focus on what makes their property unique. Though Halo 3 is merely a greatest hits retrospective of the first two Halo games, it is so true to itself and so focused on unrestrained fun, it has carved out its own niche as one of the most polished, vibrant and downright exhilarating experiences ever captured on silicon. Bungie was able to ensnare gamer's attentions earlier this year with an unrefined multiplayer demo that was still the most fun multiplayer experience on the Xbox 360. Now that Halo 3 is finished, and it surpasses all the hype heaped upon it, I fear for the productivity of this nation.

I run through the gamut of emotions when I play a video game. Rainbow Six produced the pure boredom usually reserved for war documentaries. Okami? A misty-eyed finish that would make David Jaffe proud. And who could forget my impression of an overeager child looking for praise after my latest Graffiti Kingdom creation? Games are able to manipulate my emotions on the same level as literature and cinema. Do you know what I was feeling playing Halo 3? Giddiness. I was actually laughing with sheer joy through most of this game. I cannot remember the last time I have done that. During the last level, I was laughing so hard and loud, with a smile simply plastered on my face, someone walked into the room and said, "Well if that isn't the picture of happiness." For all the technical magic and brilliant art direction, the thing Bungie should be praised and honored for is their ability to mass produce happiness. I laughed and yelled with joy for most of the seven hour Campaign, and the first thing I thought of when the ending played out was how much I wanted to go through it again.

There was one part halfway through the game which just epitomizes the Halo experience for me. Nick and I were hand delivered an assortment of vehicles to tackle those nasty alien imperialists. Our mission was to take our vehicles and drive into the very belly of the beast, fighting tons of troops along the way until we reached the behemoth at the end. Nick, being a sucker for virtual power, jumped into the Scorpion. An imposing force, yes, but a little on the slow side for someone as eager as I was. I grabbed the Mongoose, a tiny transport vehicle that doesn't have a single weapon but does have a ton of horsepower. Within seconds, I was but a tiny, still shrinking speck on Nick's screen. I weaved down a mountain path, swerving in and out of opposing troops, flying past turrets and speeding away from oncoming rockets. For a solid minute, I whooshed down the hill, laughing at my kamikaze attempt at victory and Nick's slow decent down the same mountain. Eventually, I reached my opponent and, so anxious to defeat the boss before Nick could even see the fight, I guided my Mongoose right into his lumbering body. I flew off a ramp, hoping I would be able to take him out with the explosive impact from my tiny vehicle. Instead, I smashed into his moving leg, which sent me spiraling away from him at 100 MPH. Yes, I was dead, but I had more fun in that short life than in just about any other game on the market.

Instead of trying to bog gamers down with redundant missions and technical feats that don't add a lick to gameplay, Bungie has made sure every element of this game enhances the overall experience to previously unheard of levels. The artificial intelligence, something that is usually derided or forgotten, is goofy and awesome in Halo 3. Enemies will dive away from your grenades and rockets. Or, if you happen to stick one enemy with a plasma grenade, his former friends will sprint from him before they share his dark fate. Sometimes, enemies will use a bubble shield just after you fire a shot, causing a perfectly aimed sniper bullet to thud harmlessly inches from their face. It's not the intelligence that makes the experience more fun, it's the sheer variety of what the enemies do. It is their ability to approach the same situation from different angles. There are moments when enemies will actually lure you out of a hiding place so a sniper can take a few pot shots at you. Or a Ghost will slam into your tattered vehicle, sacrificing their own lives so they can kill you with style. It makes every encounter unique and - do I sound like a broken record yet? - really frickin' fun

This is the first Halo game I have instantly fallen in love with. Halo 3 has absolutely perfect pacing. It always switches things up right before they become stale. From tight corridor battles to raging vehicle wars to bloody fights surrounded by a seemingly endless flow of ill-humored beasts, Halo packs everything people could possible want from a Halo game into one tight package. If this really is Bungie's last Halo game, I can not thank them enough for their effort and vision through the years. Halo: CE sent the standard by which all FPS have been judged for the last six years. Halo 3 has now raised that mark to insurmountable levels.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

John Woo's Stranglehold

How could a person laugh uproariously throughout the supremely stupid The Brothers Solomon but somehow be insulted by John Woo's Stranglehold? Continuing on the theme of stupidity which will crop up throughout this review, my first sentence proposes a question I cannot answer. But the facts are right there in the open. Even the modern day love child of Dumb and Dumber and Dirty Work has more intelligence than Stranglehold. This is not an example of a game with a misguided focus or one in which the potential was not realized. This is the sad vision of a development team that simply does not understand how to make a worthwhile video game. It may have its fun moments, but it's not worth the loss of precious IQ points this game will surely extract.

Let me get this out there before angry John Woo zealots grab a pitchfork in each hand to forcibly silence me: Stranglehold is fun. But what kind of criticism is that? I have fun with almost every game I play. Stranglehold is a poor representation of a video game, but it resides in a genre that is inherently fun. You run, you shoot and people die. This has been a winning formula since the beginning of time. However, even in a genre as basic as this, Stranglehold still stands as the new low point for intelligence. Whereas some shooters provide an incentive for mindless killing - in the form of upgradeable weapons, different playable characters or bonus levels - Stranglehold's gameplay does not waver in the slightest. Shooting is fun, but when the same movements are repeated ad nauseam, it starts to hurt me more than the virtual victims in game.

Unfortunately, though you only have a few different moves at your disposal, you'll still find your character doing moves you never intended. This is because the controls are extremely strict. This game is built around slow motion jumping and sliding on pieces of the environment. It should be easy to string together combos - sliding down a railing then jumping off a wall and onto a pushcart - but it doesn't happen nearly that easily. When you approach an object you can interact with, it is highlighted. Without bullets whizzing by your head, it would be easy to position your character at the perfect angle before you begin your attack. In the heat of action, though, it's difficult to highlight the correct object when you need to. Instead of jumping onto a railing, you'll find yourself diving to the side. Or you'll jump into a wall instead of using it as cover. It's a janky, broken system that quickly gets frustrating.

This problem could be lessened by some creative level designs, but obviously the developers messed that up as well. The levels are all extremely linear. There is only one path through, which means the vast array of pushcarts and railings become merely ornamental. More annoying is how claustrophobic everything feels. It would be much easier to perform ridiculous combos if there weren't four or five different objects immediately in front of you at all times. Though the basic gameplay mechanic could be cool, fights generally devolve into slow motion jumping until your time meter runs out followed by a brief rest and then you jump right back in the action.

Even the few new moves you earn do not ultimately add much to the game. Two of the three abilities are quite lame. One gives you infinite ammo and near invincibility for a short while. Again, it's fun, but it doesn't play any different than the main game. The other lame power is a kind of nuclear bomb. It's not an actual bomb, that would be far too cool for this game, but a move that kills all the enemies on screen. Your character just spins and shoots until his enemies are vanquished. It sounds fun, but it's merely a non-interactive cut scene in the middle of a fight. If you think summons are boring in a Final Fantasy game, wait until your gun slinging action is interrupted by a trite cut scene.

The final move is actually my favorite element of the game. It's merely a slow motion sniper zoom that instantly kills your enemy. But it is really fun to use. You can aim at any point in the body and see a graphic representation of what would happen if a bullet were to enter that location. Sick, yes, but very satisfying. Granted, this move makes boss fights quick and easy, but it does a nice job of breaking up the monotony of slow motion jumping.

Stranglehold is a bad game. It seems like it should be the Tony Hawk of shooters. You receive a score for each kill, the game should compel you to keep trying to up that score by jumping off more walls and sliding on more pushcarts. But with clunky controls and no in game rewards, it makes little sense to improve your kill score. The sheer repetition of the action and unimaginative level design bring the game to a crashing halt. Even the cooler action scenes seem like soulless filling, delivering more empty calories without an ounce of substance. The story is even bad when compared to kung fu movies. Though the game is ultimately fun, there is no reason to recommend this over any other action title.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Lunch with Tom - Bioshock

It is impossible to talk about Bioshock without going deep into the extremely dark story and the almost perfect way it is presented. Because video games do not exist in a vacuum, the ideas Bioshock presents are not completely original. You find a dystopian society at the bottom of the sea where the residents have gone completely crazy after overdosing on genetic modification. It's just like a bedtime story my mom used to tell me. But what Bioshock seems to understand better than almost any game I have played is that this is entirely a video game. The story may come straight from a science fiction novel, but the way it is presented takes full advantage of the interactive medium it is being relayed on. This is a story about empathy versus greed, where the choice actually matters because you are making the ultimate decision. Video games have a long way to go before they are on par with the finest art cinema and literature have to offer, but if every developer takes a cue from Bioshock, we'll be living in a utopian society before long.

Now I'm going to move away from ridiculous hyperbole and explain why Bioshock is one of the best games around. Throughout the journey, you will periodically find people known as Big Daddy. Though armed with a construction grade drill that could bore through a diamond wall if given the opportunity, the Big Daddies are actually entirely peaceful beings. They exist only to protect the Little Sisters. These little girls, no older than eight years old, have been genetically modified to do the bidding of the most evil villain in all of Rapture (they actually called this society Rapture and didn't except consequences?). Their role is to collect Adam, the life force of dead citizens. Because Adam fuels this entire underground horror town, the Little Sisters are in constant danger of being attacked. Enter Big Daddy and his hulking drill. His job is to stand guard while the Little Sister extracts the precious fluid. You can walk right up to him if you wish, take a picture of his mug, and even kneel beside the little girl as she goes about her job. The Big Daddy is there to protect. If you aren't trying to harm him or his little friend, you are free to pass unscathed.

And this relationship is where the developers have manipulated human emotions like no other game I have played. You can choose to just walk right past these people if you want. But they have the precious Adam. Adam gives you more power. With Adam, you can shoot electricity from your hands and kill all who challenge you. Adam is power, and Big Daddy and the Little Sisters are the controllers of Adam. This dilemma has presented itself in countless video games. How often have you merciless mowed down an enemy and collected the loot they left behind? But Bioshock recognizes these conflicting motivations and presents this encounter as a serious moral dilemma.

When your first shot is fired, the Big Daddy roars with rage. Like a tyrannosaurs trapped in an underwater hellhole, it charges at you with the drill already raised. They are big, fast and incredibly strong. To provoke a Big Daddy is to spit in the face of death. But with Adam so close, how could I possibly just walk away? I need Adam! I need power. So I fought the Big Daddy. I would electrocute him so he couldn't move. I would litter the battlefield with proximity mines so he couldn't drill into my heart. I would lure him near security guns and into the random fire of the demented citizens. I would do whatever I needed to take him out. And all the while, his Little Sister stands by, crying for us to stop fighting. But we only stopped when he was dead.

I killed many peaceful bodyguards. It's what I had to do. What happened next was entirely my choice. After the battle, the Little Sister will run alongside her fallen companion. He is so large, even lying flat on his stomach he is as tall as the Little Sister. She kneels beside him and cries. She does not shed tears because she is in the middle of this horrible city without a bodyguard. She cries because her best friend in the world was just murdered in front of her eyes. She tries to wake him up, hoping that he is only faking. But she knows he isn't. She knows he's dead. So she sits beside him and mourns.

And then I killed her. I killed all of them. I killed every Little Sister in the game. I had already killed Big Daddy. I had already killed one innocent being. Why not one more? I needed to get more Adam. I needed to get more power. The game gives you a choice. You can Harvest the Little Sisters, extracting every ounce of Adam from their tiny bodies. Or you can let them go, taking just enough Adam to free them from their genetic prison, allowing them to live the life of a normal little girl. I choose to kill them. I wanted more Adam. They screamed every time. I would grab her with one hand, her tiny body could fit in just one of my hands, and I would extract her precious Adam with my free hand. Every time, over and over, for more than 20 hours, I killed every Little Sister in the game. And I am completely ashamed.

It feels pointless to dissect the other parts of this game. Bioshock is not about combat or graphics. It is not about how many weapons are present or how detailed the textures are. It is not even about water physics, of which there is no equal. Every element of this game is tied into the encounter between you and the Little Sisters. To make you feel the weight of your actions. The pieces of this game are not outstanding alone, but together they form a complete, emotionally exhausting experience. As a gamer, you can find better games out there. But as a human being, this is as jarring and real as you'll be able to handle.

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