Thursday, June 26, 2008

How can anything be so right and so wrong at the same time... I mean besides me, of course...

Ahh yes, Metal Gear Solid! We come to it at last! If the blithering of pungent otaku hermits is to be believed this legendary videogame franchise is said to act like a combination of Viagra and powdered rhinoceros horn on the superfluous appendage of the fanboy elite. Crafted over the course of years by the very kensai of console gaming, Hideo Kojima, Metal Gear Solid 4 – Guns of the Patriots is said to be the conclusion and crowning achievement of this twenty year old epic. The game’s protagonist, Solid Snake, nears the end of his life and with his last remaining days he will battle all adversaries, both old and new, for the freedom of the very future itself!

Not bad, eh? So after all that let me just come out and tell you what you want to know right off the bat: Guns of the Patriots is a must-have PS3 title for two reasons. The first is because the latest Metal Gear has some of the greatest things I’ve seen in a videogame. The second is because this game has some of the most ridiculously pathetic things I’ve seen in a videogame. With but a single Blu-Ray disk you get all the heady highs and basement-bottom lows this medium has to offer. I regard Guns as an old high school girlfriend; gorgeous, tight, and thoroughly fucking retarded every time she opened her mouth. The constant hassle of breaking up and making up (read: cut-scenes and load times) are more than ameliorated by the high quality hate-sex (read: game play.)

First, the sex - I mean game play. From the moment the menu screen loads up you know that you are in for a treat! Metal Gear Solid 4 truly is a game that has to be seen to be believed. Graphics-wise whatever measuring stick you want to whip out, this Metal Gear will satisfy. Environments, textures, particle effects - the game excels on all fronts and is one of the finest looking console titles around. The sound, both in music and effects, is right in step with the visuals.

That however is not the great part. The game engine is capable of real time cut-scene quality close-ups that can then swing out seamlessly into the third person view. They prove this by often transitioning directly from cut-scene to combat and the only way you can tell the difference is because your H.U.D. returns to view. With the touch of a button you can shift between the traditional third person, to the newer over-the-shoulder view, to the first person/aiming down the sights perspective at any time. You can play this game in any of those modes and it will serve you well to use all three on the fly in any given scene in order to see exactly what you want to see.

What this amazing multi-view does is make Guns not only the decent stealth game it always was but a truly great shooting game too boot. There are seventy weapons to find or buy and while you can only hold five at a time the other sixty-five can be quickly accessed out of the pause menu and then equipped. You can even buy ammo and special attachments mid-battle. Assault rifle not thrilling you like it use to? Pull out your drum-fed grenade launcher or perhaps one of the Javelin or Stinger missile systems. The sheer volume of weaponry at your fingertips, from tranquiller darts to rail cannons, makes it a Metal Gear for all players and all playing styles.

This variety, the level design, the difficulty settings, plus the tons of secrets to find and special rewards to earn give the single player story more re-playability than most narrative-driven games. Perks like an in-game digital camera and virtual iPod allow you to take pictures while you play and create your own soundtrack with music from the current and all previous Metal Gears. The on-line component – aside from a torturous registration procedure – is surprisingly good once you understand that this is a multiplayer shooter that is not in direct competition with games like Call of Duty 4 or Halo 3. The game’s stealth elements are married very well with the standard on-line modes and encourage you to mix up your techniques. The overall polish, thoughtfulness, and product depth say one thing above all: there was a lot of skill and love put into this game.

The sad irony to be found in Metal Gear Solid 4 is that a title with such excellent game play and features doesn’t require the crutches of complex narrative or elaborate cut-scenes to add value to the product. Alas poor Guns has been not only been saddled with such conventions but brought to its knees under the weight it must bear. In my experience Metal Gear Solid 4 stands alone in this regard: not only is it the most comically horrible action story ever told, it requires HOURS of your patience to tell it.

There are chapters or acts in this title where the game play and the cut-scenes share equal time! This goes far beyond getting up to make a sandwich. True Story: One time my lovely wife was watching me play this game until a cut-scene came up. She then went into the kitchen and started preparing lasagna for our dinner; four layers of meat, tomato sauce, cheese and pasta sheets. She finished this noteworthy task, popped it in the oven and then returned to the living room.

“Are you on the same cut-scene?” She asks me.
“Uh-huh,” I nod, suddenly realising a film or glaze had fogged my eyes.
“Wankers,” she cursed and then went to mix herself another Cosmo.

Wankers indeed. Metal Gear’s storyline is a leviathan of narrative excess, an effort that is too galling and self-indulgent to simply ignore or gloss over as we do with so many of the games we love. Every single melodramatic Japanese anime cliché can be found within from cute animal sidekicks to weapons-laden weddings, emo ninjas to giant robots. Dead people come back to life only to give a monologue and then they die again!

Spoilers, you gasp? Respectfully, I say fuck you sir. This trite nonsense needs to be dragged out into the cleansing sunshine where we can all watch it shrivel and expire. Skipping cut-scenes would normally render my outrage moot but within these vignettes are button prompts that earn you cash and opportunities to move around the area in order to find extra equipment. Suffer through the cut-scenes and you are rewarded in ways other players won’t be. “Watch my movies” the developer is telling you, “and I’ll give you the camera.” In my mind this is the very height of egotism.

I will admit there were a few exciting action sequences and truly touching scenes, rare moments that were smothered by the meandering dialogue and pointless back-story. I have played all of the four main Metal Gear Solid titles and I can appreciate the reams of fan service this game provides. Defensive diehards have proposed that such things are what a “Metal Gear” game is made of, as if this point somehow makes the title beyond critique. This story and the huge swaths of time it takes to tell doesn’t merely besmirch the game play however, it actively works against it. The narrative destroys all manner of pacing. The excitement you feel after finishing a scene is left to dwindle and die once the cut-scenes enter double digit minutes. Having started my second go-through and skipping the cut-scenes I’m happy to report that unfettered the game takes flight. The pacing is restored despite the fact that you will still sit through multiple load screens between chapters.

Writing about this most bi-polar of games has brought out my own extremist reactions and so I thank you, gentle reader, for my own spot of self-indulgence. Again I reiterate my recommendation to put this game in the collection. While playing, I think you will find it a superlative experience and while watching, you will bear witness to something… Well something truly unique anyway. At last we gamers have our Ishtar! We have our Waterworld! It is an entertainment milestone worth mentioning.

Words from people you don't know on games you don't care about...

Jay from approached me with the opportunity to have my writing appear on his website! After reading several articles I thought it would be a good fit. The site is equal parts irreverent and insightful with a good measure of the potty humour that you know I love to roll around in. This review also appears on videolamer and I hope others will follow. If you're are looking for a new and interesting gamer site then I recommend checking out the above link.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

On Writing and Video Games...

The importance of video games to human development cannot be overstated. I believe there have been three major inventions that have radically expanded the human species and the reality we continue to create for ourselves. The first would be movable type and the advent of the printed word, the second would be motion pictures, and the latest revolutionary intellectual force would be interactivity. Video games and the internet that many of them run on has irreversibly transformed the human race and set our consciousness on an exciting new course of development.

I marvel at the advancements this medium has displayed in my lifetime. From photo realistic graphics to complex game mechanics to real world physics we are seeing video games mature and match sophistication with the other, older mediums in a relatively short period of time. I feel however that in one particular area video games are stagnating, shockingly and perplexingly so.

Not nearly enough games are telling us stories worth paying attention to.

These personal thoughts have coalesced into this essay over the past few months where I have played some of the most technically impressive games of my life, all the while having to suffer through some terribly ineffective stories. The magnum opus that is Grand Theft Auto IV is really just a thin tale of crime and retribution made even cheaper by how much material it shamelessly lifts from other sources such as The Wire. The latest Metal Gear Solid is even worse; a melodramatic abortion without subtlety or restraint. You may disagree with my two examples and of course that’s fine. To make my point I instead ask you to look over your own collection of games and take note of the many worthwhile titles where the narrative runs from poor to just plain awful. More often than not, story is the weakest part of any game. Resident Evil 4, Gears of War, Army of Two, Dark Sector, Devil May Cry 4, Halo 3, and Condemned 2 are titles I’ve recently played or replayed that easily come to mind. I loved the game play in each of these titles but the story in all of them was very poorly imparted. There were interesting concepts and imaginative scenes but the good writing needed to thread them all together was absent.

Good writing can and does take place, which is why the culture of narrative failure present in the video game industry is all the more mystifying. Epic, far-reaching stories have been effectively told in this medium. As recent examples I thought Mass Effect, Bioshock, and the Half-Life episodes did a fine job, at least fine enough given the overall ineptitude of their peers. Small, contained and compelling stories have also been told. In Portal we have the simple arc of a malfunctioning A.I. who hopes to lure a test subject to their doom only to be outwitted and destroyed… That and cake. Portal exemplifies the fact that it’s not what story you’re telling but how you tell it. How come so many video game developers don’t know how to tell their own stories?

Being an avid game consumer but admittedly looking from the outside – in, I have come to speculate on why effective storytelling seems so vexing to game development. Just as movie writing isn’t the same as book writing, is there some radical, hereto forth yet to be discovered skill-set needed to create the video game equivalent of a page-turner? Has the industry not committed to the writing process as they have to coding or animation? Are video games inherently at cross purposes with story telling and only rare geniuses can occasionally skirt this inevitability? Perhaps each major development house has a different answer to my question but what I can say with absolute certainly is that we, the players, should be taking some of the blame.

We accept these stories, you see. We pay, we play, we praise, and all the while we remain mostly silent on the quality of the narrative. We are silent because we have accepted that poor storytelling is the norm. We tell ourselves that the medium is still in its infancy, or that the luminary artists of literature have not yet embraced games as a career path, or that story is naturally going to take the back seat to a product that allows you to shoot people in the head for hours on end. We make excuses for the developers who in turn fail to consider story as a priority. They are not motivated to evolve.

We should demand they evolve!

If a story goes nowhere, falls flat, is uninteresting, has been told too many times, or is just preposterously stupid then it should be pointed out, emphatically. The enthusiast media’s ranking system leaves much to be desired and has been rightly vilified as of late, yet it is the only system we have and it should be made to take the writing more into account. If a game comes with an idiotic or half-assed story it should be mentioned and a perfect or near perfect score should be out of reach.

Our personal criticisms should always be constructive of course, but they should be vocal enough so that they are taken to heart by the game creators. By the same token if a game tells a fine story it should be encouraged, even if the other aspects of the game are not up to snuff. After all, isn’t turnabout fair play? For too long we have accepted awful writing because the visuals and game play are excellent.

We should be putting the writing up to the same kind of scrutiny we give the screenshots and trailers. Dedicated game players no longer accept poor quality graphics and surprise; the vast majority of games these days look beautiful, I dare say even excessively so. We the players can and have affected the culture of gaming on a wide variety of issues - for both good and ill depending on who you ask. Now we need to begin a new groundswell to bring the writing proficiency in step with the other, more advanced aspects of game design.

Video game industry to exceed 68 Billion dollars by 2012.

Last year the industry made over 40 Billion in revenue, double what it earn just five short years ago. The industry is massive and seems to be growing at an incredible rate.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

If they start selling this thing at Walmart then you'll know I was right all along...

I’m surfacing from yet another blog hiatus. This time is was a vacation away from all family and children; just me alone at the house for two weeks. I KNOW!!! First there was shell shock, then gibbering insanity, then relaxation, then deep relaxation, then underwear-deep relaxation, then pizza. The last time both wife and children visited relations in the old country I partied like a fiend of various varieties and found suitable alternatives to sleep. I remember barbecuing a chicken with a beer in its butt-hole. Why should he be the only one left out at the party? This time around I surrounded myself with the hobbies and home improvement projects I would never get around to otherwise. It seems age has rubbed me into but a nub of what I use to be. I even lack the youthful hellfire to complain.

I finished Grand Theft Auto IV or at least finished the main story. In my case this accounted for around 65% of the game’s total content over a 45 hour period. Since the remaining side missions are sure to be more of the same I’ll take a break and get back to it during a lull in the release schedule. Rockstar’s latest opus was a very nice game overall with decent value. In parts it was suitably exciting and in others was surprisingly therapeutic. My fondest memories are driving in the early morning or sunset with that perfect radio tune kicking in. Liberty City was made for cruising.

It is not the perfect or revolutionary experience proclaimed by the videogame enthusiast media. These people are getting worse, not better at observation and objectivity. Lots of post mortem internet discussions have brought up a litany of critiques; things that honest reviewers could have easily pointed out from the get-go rather than the tongue bath they twirled out. My personal gripe was that the camera control and shooting mechanics are inferior to all of GTA’s third-person peers. Seeing as you’re moving the camera and shooting all the time it definitely detracts from the game. Others have remarked about the lack of interactivity; the city seems in place only to tell the main story. Driving controls have frustrated some. The constant barrage of annoying cell phone calls the character is subjected to is another common complaint. These points have merit but in the end I think the spirit and style of the game exceeds its short-comings. So get a copy, borrow mine, have fun with the good.

I re-played a ton of good games, most in co-op modes with friends. There is a thirst amongst all my friends, some who don’t own consoles, for more cooperative content. Some developers are hearing the message. I played the demo for Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution; an updated console version of this seminal franchise. Most of you have played Civilization; the first versions of this game could be stored on a single floppy and made the rounds in high school. Really it’s just a big monopoly game where you build cities and armies, promote science, earn wealth and survive in the world against opponents trying to do the same. This new version is great fun and really, really cute! It looks appealing, is simple to learn, is suitable for gamers of all ages, and has infinite re-playability. It’s coming out on multiple consoles and I can’t think of anyone who will be disappointed by this game. Sid Meier’s has been making whimsical games forever and it’s nice to see that he still has it.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition has come out. I love it. It’s everything a bunch of geeky books should be. Yes, I am indeed deserving of your pity should you have any to spare.

So this was the obligatory nerd post and I will try for world events and politics later in the week. Thanks to Marc for sending me this article. The cracker-jack FBI investigation in this piece is only eclipsed by the journalistic integrity of the expose. First, hit the link and see the picture…

Can the Democrats and Captain Obama stop this picture from becoming reality?

This article has Al-Qaeda, WMD, the White House in ruins and the FBI getting all over it! There’s only one problem; that picture is art for an upcoming video game called Fallout 3. In it America has suffered a nuclear war that had nothing to do with terrorism or the Middle East. The so-called “Islamic extremists” website posted a picture it found on the internet and this is somehow newsworthy to you and me. I don’t expect government agents or “journalists” to know these things on sight. I was however hoping they would have the fact-finding acumen to prevent this kind of nonsensical embarrassment. After the Iraqi invasion’s own form of fallout it is more chilling than ever to think that our opinions of people on the other side of the world are being potentially swayed by hacks who don’t know what the hell they are talking about.

In other news it seems the Chinese have developed a new ultimate weapon; man of metal or iron – an Iron Man if you will. This strange and certain threat has been seen flying at jet speeds by means of all-powerful boot propulsion and the footage has been witnessed by yours truly on the television. This deadly opponent to democracy wraps himself smugly in red and yellow; the very colours of the Communist Chinese flag! Surely their Maoist mandarin pride got the best of them. I don’t think they thought we would notice. Luckily for us every single solitary toy I’ve either bought or stolen for my children hails from that empire and their lead-painted standard is known to me.

Watch the skies, true believers! It’s not like there’s anything you can do because Iron Man will blast to atoms while his suit disperses his pent-up urine over your crops but watch the skies nonetheless. It’s both the least and most we can do!

(Seriously, how does a guy pee in that thing?)