Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Lost Art of Storytelling: A Rant

Through a glass eye darkly

Do you know what I miss these days? A good and solid story in my video games. I ranted about L.A. Noire's flaws as far as plot goes, and yet it's hard to think of a recent title that fared better. Mass Effect 3, like most of Bioware's games, builds a wonderful world but flounders at delivering a solid plot. Part of the problem is the necessity to provide multiple results for multiple actions and the obligation to keep Shepards' character malleability. Which ultimately means that the characters seem to have less to say to each other from game to game. The short conversations that made Mass Effect 1's loading elevators bearable, are all but absent from 3. And the war against the reaper culminates in a series of battles and a deus ex machina (still haven't played the extended ending.

Fallout: New Vegas had a decent plot, but it to was one that sacrificed character and focus to accommodate a "choose your own adventure" narrative. A similar problem plagues Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Adam Jensen is bland and characterless so he can accommodate the player's action. The story happens around him, not to him. It's hard to think of the last time I played a strong character. It seems that my library is filled with silent protagonists and customizable avatars.

Going Tribal In New Vegas

Lone Survivor is worth more then a mention. But for our purposes, it was one of the most satisfying game stories I played of late. It worked on emotional levels rather then boasting a strong plot. And the amount of identification I injected into the protagonist prevents me from calling him a strong character. And yet, he was sympathetic, and the few things I learned about him through his dreams and day-dreams where enough to give him depth that few other games managed to evoke in me lately.

To conjure up a strong character as a protagonist, playing a significant part in a plot with other characters around him, forces me to journey too far into the past. Psychonauts easily falls into this category, as well as Anachronox and Legacy of Kain. But these are now old games. Assassin's Creed (2 and Brotherhood) almost manage to make the cut, if not for their thin plot, minimal character relationships and the sad fact that the main character plays second fiddle to the blandest man in video games: Desmond Miles. Almost every other title in my recent memory has a silent protagonist, weak plot, no character relationships or all of the above. I really miss games that had a clear story to tell and a plot and characters to tell it with.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Registration Rage

GTA IV is one of the biggest culprits. My copy is activated through Steam and Games For Windows Live. Rockstar Social Club is thrown in for good measure.
When Steam came into my life, sometime in 2004 it was as welcome as a sequel to Daikatana. It came with Half-Life 2, and the only reason I was willing to put up with it was because it came with Half-Life 2. I would have provably have accepted a root canal if it came with Half-Life 2. But in an age where DVD where not yet common and the average PC game started using four Compact Discs and making a mess of your filing system, Steam began to be a bit more welcome. Especially because publishers thought it would be an excellent idea to force paying customers to play with a disk in their drive. Pirates and savvy gamers just used a cracked exe file, while everyone else had to juggle CD's on their fingers.
But it wasn't until the Orange Box that I actually started using Steam for more then just launching Valve games. While playing Portal and Team Fortress 2, I started noticing the sales Steam offered. And some of them were so much cheaper then buying from a store that I managed to overcome my crippling fear of changes and new things, and actually buy games digitally. Later that year I bought a new computer and was delighted to discover how easy it was to reinstall all those steam games again, even without the original disks. As my Steam library grew, I started to like Steam more and more. I met some friends through it and kept contact with old ones through it. Today, it is always open on my computer and a reliable friend in my life as a gamer.
Other services try to emulate Steam. I had three games on Impulse, most notably Galactic Civilizations 2. But I had no friends there and the games on sale were usually not my cup of tea. Then came the horrible "Games For Windows Live", a service I already complained about in my Bioshock 2 post. It had certainly not improved since and since I tend to encounter it in games already on Steam, it remains unnecessary and useless. "Rockstar Social Club" is another failed attempt to capture my attention, but thankfully it has the decency to include an option to "Play Offline", which is the reason I don't need to know about its functionality. If I registered I would be able to play L.A. Noire and GTA 4 online, I barely played GTA 4 by myself and Noire needs an online play as much as a Aquaman would need a submarine. Blizzard still tries to lift up BattleNet beyond its humble and unobtrusive roots with mixed success. But at least it's only relevant to the 5 games Blizzard intends to release this decade.
And now comes Origin. From a company too big to like and too devious to trust. EA provably plans to lure players with popular games like Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect 3, the same way Steam wormed into our hearts with Half-Life 2. One obvious problem is that Steam had no competitors at the time of it's launch as a digital distribution platform, and it has taken it about four years to become relevant. EA thinks it can pull the same trick a decade after the fact and facing a dominant service that managed to endear itself to players. Another problem is that EA has a horrible public persona. Justified or not, they are viewed with suspicion and scrutiny. And a few questionable lines in the EULA do not encourage me to trust them more.  Vavle felt that the big publishers exploited Half-Life's success and didn't always paid the designers their due. Steam was their attempt to shake of the yolk of publishers like EA. It was also introduced shortly after a crippling security breach which leaked Half-Life 2 and postponed its development.
EA has had no such troubles, they are a big company wanting to become even bigger. And their record of mishandling developers, properties and players isn't something to be proud of. Even the name "Origin", reminds of that brilliant developer of the same name. A developer house that brought us Wing Commander and Ultima, and then was lost in EA's ever expanding maw.
I will give EA the opportunity to surprise me. And I hope that if it fail, it wont go the "Games For Windows Live" route of continuing to shove Origin fruitlessly where it is unwanted.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

A Requiem for Cole Phelps

L.A. Noire is a great game, but it feels like a greater game was sacrificed to make it. The gameplay is simply standard GTA style driving and shooting with the exception of the interrogation. The interrogations are both the best part of the game and yet they are also the game's greatest weakness. The game can be seen as Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy to Americans) done right. A story focused game carried by a strong script and excellent voice work by professional actors.

A Thousand Stories in the Naked City

The player takes the role of Cole Phelps, a former marine in the Japanese theater of World War II and a recent addition to the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department. At first Cole seems like another bland white male, but slowly he is reviled as a little more complex of a character. His stern morals are more in line with 21st century outlook then the middle 20th century world he lives in. His subtle disdain towards the rampant chauvinism and racism endears him to the player and creates subtle conflicts with the people around him. He never develops into a very complex character, but as we learn about his experience in the war, we discover he is a flawed man trying to come to term with his failures and ambitions. Sadly, we are given barely a glimpse into his life beyond these flashbacks. His wife appears on screen only once for a few seconds, despite the fact that his relationship with her plays a significant part in the plot. His personal life is a mystery as well as the reasons for his choice of lovers. The game paints him as the unintended catalyst to some of the greatest plot events, yet avoids the immense dramatic potential of revealing it to Cole himself. We are thus left with a character who has a devastating effect on the people around him, yet is seldom touched by their actions in turn. Unfortunately this does not seem as a calculated effort to create a tragedy in which the protagonist is unaware of his role, but rather an unintended result of a hasty trim to a much more complex and grandiose story.
The open city in which the game takes place doesn't has the gameplay to justify it's existence. The game could have function just as well without the ability to drive from the police station to the crime scenes or to any other location in the city. There are some hidden collectables and various cars, but collecting them has no game-play advantage or significance. The chase sequence and trailing segments might have served as justification if they were not as restrictive and linear as they are. Escaping persons and vehicles always follow the same route and there is no real advantage to the sandbox-like city in any of the action sequences. What it does though is provide a layer of realism and immersion. Pedestrians talk about your exploits when you're around and react to your driving. It still feels like a wasted aspect of the gameplay, and many times I took advantage of the option to reach my destination automatically and instantly, since there was no reason to navigate the streets on my own.

Phelps grills an old woman for information. A common situation for the diligent detective.

Three Simple Questions
The heart of L.A. Noire is the Interrogations. Here the game gets to shine with amazingly detailed and complex faces, animated in a realistic way and allowing the actors to make the most out of their performances. And yet it also the stage of the games' greatest missteps. The scenario is always simple: You ask a suspect of a witness a question, he responds and you are given three replay options: Lie, Doubt and Truth. These are your responses to the testimony and "Lie"allows you to confront a suspect with evidence. Only one choice will reveal more clues and information. And you only get one chance to get it right. The problem is obvious- these are very vague descriptions for the innumerable angles an investigator might choose to confront his opponent. And so many times I was surprised to discover that the game interpreted "Doubt" very differently then I had expected. Or that the "Lie" I was supposed to expose was a detail not directly related to the question.
Another problem is the drastic change of tone Cole might make from question to answer. Sometimes it seems as if Cole adopted the"Good Cop, Bad Cop" routine and decided to play both alternatively. Another less common problem is a disconnection that sometimes pops-up between Cole's conclusions and the Player's. From time to time Cole seems to be ahead of the player or far behind on the trail toward the truth. Which becomes a bit jarring when Cole confront a suspect with an unexpected theory or when Cole doesn't ask the right questions when the player already deduced the solution. These are thankfully rare, but do expose the limitation of the game.
The game tends to forgives the player's mistake and keeps the story rolling even if the player missed a clue or has chosen the wrong response. So failing an interrogation is frustrating but doesn't impedes the progress of the story. The problem is that unlike other challenges in the game, the interrogation scenes are really the only realm where you are immediately penalized. A chase scene will allow you to close the distance to your quarry even if you took a wrong turn, you can wander around a crime scene as long as you like to inspect potential clues. But if you choose the wrong response in an interrogation, your only option is to exit and reload your game and try it all over again.

A dead body and a head full of questions: A common opening for many fascinating cases in Cole's career.

 M is for Murder
Noire is divided into five parts representing Cole's career. Patrol is a series of well done tutorials, Traffic has you investigating abandoned cars and road accidents, Homicide is about solving murders, Vice is where the story really picks up and finally Arson is where the plot enters the last act. Of the four major chapter, Homicide is the best in my opinion, and yet it has almost nothing to do with the overall plot.
It is an aberration. Much of the chapter focuses on a serial killer. And this is where Cole really works as a character. He is already established as an overqualified cop. He is intelligent, fluent in Japanese, quotes poetry and the occasional Latin phrase, all of which contribute to his failure to endear himself to his co-workers. They see him as smug and patronizing and naturally resent his rapid rise through the ranks. And then comes the serial killer, and Cole is suddenly the only cop equipped to deal with him. The killer is an intelligent madman who communicates in prose, and Cole matches his wits against this illusive adversary.
Unfortunately what could have been epic, feels rushed. Every murder in this chapter is linked to the serial killer and the final confrontation against him resolves itself too quickly to satisfy. The killer's identity is another aspect that gets glossed over and despite the dramatic potential he is not revealed to be a person with which Cole had significant contact before.
The Arson chapter again feels rushed. Here events that were only hinted at previously suddenly take the center stage. The major plot developments that took place in the Vice chapter, take a peripheral role as the plot changes focus unexpectedly. The man who I suspected to be the leading villain turns out to be part of a group of villains and towards the end he is dispatched and another character becomes the focus of the finale. Similarly the game which previously progressed the grand plot elements slowly, suddenly rushes to tie them all up rather ungracefully.
The conspiracy hinted at throughout the game, now reveals itself to the characters with a propaganda film. Yes, the conspirators operating in the shadows decided for some unknown reason to film their sinister meeting, edit in a commercial oriented opening and leave the film reel in a working projector inside an abandoned warehouse for the protagonist to find. This is as blunt and as ridicules as I describe I assure you.
The ending is dark and morose. But not wholly unsatisfactory. After the credits we are treated with a much more powerful scene of one of the events that drove much of the plot throughout the last two chapters of the game. There we are given a new tragic angle when we learn how Cole again served as a catalyst to events that will haunt him. And we are also hear a much more comforting message as the final words of the story.

Smile! You are the star of a crime scene.
I spent almost 40 hours playing L.A. Noire. A player that prefers to rush through it might finish it in less then 20. Players who will take the time to collect the optional cars and street crime might manage to stretch it to 60 hours. I found myself postponing the ending, playing in small chunks to prolong the experience. And thus I must admit that despite my critique, I enjoyed Noire very much. And yet, I cannot shake the feeling that I was playing in the skeleton remains of a much more ambitious project. One that had a much more complicated plot and that would have used the vast cast of characters it surrounded you with for more then window dressing. Somewhere there might have been a game where the player knew Cole's wife as a full character and where the serial killer played a significant part in the overall plot. I find myself imagining Noire taking full advantage of the sandbox city gameplay, giving you reason and opportunity to explore the setting.
The studio behind Noire is rumored to have experienced quite a bit of trouble through the development of the game. And so, I find it easy to imagine how sacrifices led Noire to become what it it. And ultimately, it is a good game with a very good script, a relatively original setting and dialog technique as well as some of the best acting ever seen in a video game.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

It's full of stars Part I: Star Trek Online

Action! Adventure! But mostly Action.

While the whole world and his wife (Mrs. World, PHD) are playing "The Old Republic" I spent the last two weeks playing Star Trek Online, which went free to play.

Strange Old Worlds

I wouldn't consider myself a Trekkie, because I know people who can recite the "Rules of Acquisition" by heart. But most would agree I know more about Star Trek then a healthy person should, and STO is nothing if not fan service. It starts with the familiar races at character creation like Vulcans or Trill. But just on that same page you have much less familiar ones, like Bolians or Pakled (Seriously? Pakled?). And the fan service never stops. While most of the main quest givers and enemies are new characters, there is scarcely a paragraph that does not reference a character, incident, episode or a quote. While the game is set long after Voyager or The Next Generation, you will see and interact with major characters from the series from time to time. Although you will encounter their children with much more regularity.
The last decade was tough for any Star Trek fan. Voyager was wasting its potential for interesting stories while Enterprise searched for direction for over two seasons. The last two Next Generation movies, Insurrection and Nemesis, were mediocre to outright horrible and it is still uncertain if Star Trek (2009) will reignite the franchise. And all of these introduced controversial elements into the Star Trek universe. From Nemesis' never before seen or heard about Remans to the destruction of the Romulan homeworld in Star Trek (2009). STO embraces these awkward elements with a degree of grace. Even the conflicting information about the supernova that destroyed Romulous is incorporated, as the game builds a comprehensive story around what was originally sloppy writing. Similarly, rather then push the Remans aside, it flashes out their plight and relationship with the Romulans. All of which contributes to a feeling of a cohesive universe.

A Space battle. In fluidic space- Species 8472 territory.
Not a Final Frontier
The gameplay is very traditional massive multyplayer stuff. So traditional in fact, it reminds me of the Anarchy Online era rather then its contemporary competitors. The number line on the keyboard sees more use than it has in a long time. And you find yourself spending agonizing minutes on arranging your various skills and abilities on the UI. It's a bit weird to return to such busywork after DC Universe Online and Champions Online allowed you to play with a controller with relative ease. Likewise, you will find all the staples of MMO's are on full display. There's an enigmatic crafting system and the game world is divided into blocks and further-more into sectors. You can leave to feed your cats in the time it takes your ship to cross a sector, but you provably wont be able to make a sandwich (it's not Eve Online after-all). It feels very early 2000's in its design, whether this is good or bad is up to personal taste. The space combat manages to shine with emphasis on power allocation and attack vectors and a simple use of two basic weapon types, all the while remaining quite accessible to new players. Ground combat is, again, a very traditional affair that will be familiar to anyone who played an MMO in the last decade. There's really not much to the game-play beyond the combat. A few missions will run you around from character to character, trading information or solving the occasional riddle, but these are both rare and completely text based. Its amusing that at it best, the shows were rarely about direct conflict, while the game focuses on it almost completely. Similarly, there's a complex monetary system despite the Federation anti-capitalist nature. But this will only offend people who liked the preachy tone of the first season of TNG, all three of them.
A typical away team.

Darmok and Jellad at Tanagra
Where STO shines is in its ability to tell a story. Given through "episodes", the main quests tell a series of enjoyable if simple stories. At first you'll chase a demented Klingon General in his quest to prolong the conflict between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. But soon you'll do everything from time-traveling to ferreting conspiracies using the show's vast cannon. And these missions are really fun. While you almost always run, shoot, fly and shoot again, it is always delivered in a way that keeps you interested in the plot around you and the conflict at hand. Leonard Nemoy is so far the only familiar voiced character I encountered, but seeing the digital faces of Worf, Bones and others, was almost as gratifying. Apart from the episodes are user created mission. Some of which are really good and rival the official content in quality. Another area where STO does good is the customization. While nowhere near as extensive as Cryptic's Champions or City of Heroes, the character editor still lets you feel you are creating a face rather then choosing an archetype. If you choose to play as an unknown alien, the editor opens up and allows you to run wild with your imagination. Customizing your space-ship is much more limited. And yet I experienced a weird feeling of pride, when I gazed upon the name I've chosen for it embedded on the hull. Similarly you build a little crew of mini-characters in the form of Bridge Officers. These are the faces that will deliver most of the routine messages. While it is nice to receive such dialog from faces you have chosen, they have little to flesh them out beside your own imagination. The Bridge Officers grant you special powers during space combat and join you as fighters on the ground, but your interaction with them is sadly limited. In fact when I think of Star Trek I think on the characters, exploration and diplomacy. And STO doesn't mange to capture these in spirit or gameplay. As I mentioned, a few missions offer non-combat challenges in the form of text based puzzles, but non of them are involving. Exploration takes the form of randomly generated missions. But the possibilities are soon reveled to be quite limited.
Get to the choppa!

On the technical side, STO is a mixed bag. It is far stabler then any of the MMO's I played recently. I was able to Alt-Tab to my heart's content. Graphics are nothing special, nor are they bad. A few areas even impressed me with the occasional shimmering planet or nebulous comet. But most planets and zones just feel like palette swaps. Some of the randomized areas had minor graphical glitches on my machine, I have no idea if this issue is universal. What is really missing in STO is a sense of scale. Every planet seems to be the same size and all of them feel like objects. They have no gravity and only your vision is impaired if your starship gets to close to them. All of the maps have invisible boundaries marked clearly on the map, further diluting any illusion of space you might cultivate.
Server downtimes were annoyingly frequent for the first week of play, but hopefully this was anomalous. Despite going free to play, the servers held nicely and I encountered non of the problems that plagued Champions Online or DC Universe Online when they opened their gates to the public. Bug however, are still a problem. A recent patch turned off Auto-fire for space combat, and a patch fixing the problem took almost three days to arrive. Aggravating affair with the dominance of combat in the game. Fortunately, a relatively easy to type command allowed players to bypass the problem for its duration. But this was not a singular incident. I encountered two separate bugs which prevented me from completing missions. And while these were quickly corrected, it was evident that the game has some polishing problems despite the long time in which it has been active.
A game of Dabo on Deep Space 9.

Star Trek Online relays on fan familiarity to sell itself. But for once, I think it is doing it well. If it could just elevate itself above the superficial and manage to grasp the shows' spirit of exploration and adventure, it could evolve into a truly unique and rewarding experience. As it is, the gameplay is very traditional and the content will endear itself to fans only. For fans it is refreshing to enjoy Star Trek once more without feeling exploited and used, but I doubt anyone else will manage to derive similar value from it. It is sadly average. By no means bad, nor will it impress you.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Too many players on the field: Nuclear Dawn and Brink

Nuclear Dawn and population drop
Nuclear Dawn's main problem is a saturated market. It's a game that really has no glaring flaws, but it stands in too large a crowd to hope and draw our attention. It is a class based team-multiplayer, like Team Fortress, Brink, Enemy Territory, Killing Floor, Day of Defeat and countless other games who compete for our attention in the genre. Its unique feature is the role of Commander- in which you view the battle-field from above, building and directing the other players similarly to an RTS. Unfortunately, unless you are playing said commander, there is little to distinguish the FPS gameplay from its competitors. And so, a month after the discount that drove me to buy Nuclear Dawn, the server list got much shorter as the number of players continues to dwindle. Being rather a good game, there's really not a lot one can say about it. Unlike a similar victim, Brink.

The strange case of Brink
Brink is a weird creature. It suffered from a shaky start due to early technical difficulties and lukewarm reviews. And in a few short months it quickly offered free weekends on Steam along with heftier and heftier discounts. When it came out in May, its price was about the 40 dollars range, I picked it on early December for little more than 6 dollars.
Brink had some good ideas; few of them were executed properly. The parkhor style movement became almost irrelevant due to maps that didn't take advantage of it, first person perspective that does not compliment it and a very traditional "heavy" movement control. All of which combined into a feeling you are driving a man shaped truck rather than controlling a person. Another idea that became a hindrance is the attempt to smooth out the server logging process. You do not choose a server, but instead just choose to play online- the game populates the server with human players and bots by itself. But when fewer and fewer players were actively playing, you found yourself playing with bots more often than not. And the way the system is set meant that you don't know whether you were looking at a bot or a player until you played for a while and notice the lack of chatter or the AI patterns.
The customization of character is another idea that was executed badly. You are able to choose a basic face out of about ten options (All men, of course) and have almost no option to customize them beyond hair style and a few scars. Which means you will look at the same faces over and over. Clothing is where real customization options are abound. So much so, that you will find yourself relaying on color to identify members of your team from your enemies, rather than on the clothes themselves. Unfortunately there are more than a few color options which allow you to have a character colored in such a way that it easy to mistake her for a member of the opposite team.
Brink tries to distinguish itself from other games with a more caricature inspired visual style, but that too has backfired as people compare it to Team Fortress 2 similarly exaggerated art style. There is also a story outlining the game but the cutscenes are too verbose to pay attention to in online game, yet to anemic to draw your attention when playing alone.
It almost seems that Brink managed to bring every one of its features into a delicate equilibrium where they are both too strong and too weak at the same time. It is a game that shows a lot of effort was put into it, yet somehow turned every advantage it had into a disadvantage. The movement system made it both cumbersome and unnatural, instead of fast and flowing as intended. The server system made it alienating instead of enhancing emergence. Customization turned out to be a hindrance rather than an asset. And the plot revealed itself to be too intrusive to be ignored and too flimsy to drive the game. It is by no means a bad game, but one that cannot be considered good either.

Equal measures of failure
Despite being very different games, both Brink and Nuclear Dawn ultimately suffer the most from lack of players. They are competing with cheaper games and less complicated games over a pool of players too small to populate them all. And they cannot serve the few players who will play them loyally with servers half empty. The dedicated multiplayer first person shooter genre has become too saturated for games like Nuclear Dawn to shine through, and defiantly too tough for games like Brink to survive.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Prototype: Crisis of identity

The gameplay is simply wonderful. It's a joy to get around the environment. Gliding from roof to roof, climbing building with ease or just running at parkhor style over cars and pedestrians. Various tools at your disposal allow you to cause seven times of mayhem. Not the least of them are the abilities to disguise yourself as enemy soldiers or hijack helicopters off the skies.
Like many other sand-box games, the city design is not distinctive enough. This is what Rockstar does well and all other developers seem to struggle with, designing a city that feels distinct. Like the cities in the first Assassin' Creed, the city feels very uniform and few buildings stand out from the others. The game does a good job, however, of showing the city succumbing to the infection. With the zombie-like infected praying on civilians and a red hue distinguishing the plagued areas of the city.
Playing it with a gamepad is almost a must since many of the more impressive maneuvers depend on holding three buttons at once, which is about as much as my keyboard could handle. Pulling these moves mid movement was almost impossible, leaving me stuck at one of the late levels of the game. A few months later with an X-box controller in hand, and maneuvers I previously had trouble to execute, were now done with relative ease. Thus, allowing me to pass the more troublesome spots in the storyline missions. And eventually finish the game.
The plot of Prototype is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand it has a unique way of giving you the back-story. Alex Mercer, the game's protagonist absorbs the memories of people he kills. And so much of the back-story is told through these short condensed flashes of foreign memories. And as his own memory of the events leading up to the game's start are missing, he relays heavily on information he abducts from his enemies. The slow process of piecing together Alex's identity and the origin of the virus attacking the city manage to drive the plot more than the cutcscenes do.
But the plot is also the weakest part of Prototype. It focuses almost exclusively on Mercer's quest for identity. But Mercer, is not exactly very endearing with his mindless vendetta, amnesia and lack of regret over the atrocities he must cause as he absorbs innocent people. And worse, learning about that his actions led to the disaster that now threatens the lives of millions and that he is essentially an intelligent virus, further paints him in an unsympathetic light. In a way it is similar to Alan Moore's run of Swamp-Thing. Swamp Thing thought he was Alec Holland, a victim of a lab accident. When he discovers that he was never the human he thought he was, it's devastating because it comes with the realization that he can never become human again. This revelation forces the creature to come to term with what he is and has been all along and to reexamine his connections to other characters around him. Mercer on the other hand, is untouched by the revelation. He remains as emotionally detached, brooding character on the path of revenge who seeks to stop the virus infecting the city to ensure his own survival more than anything else.
The supporting cast could have been a good way to explore Mercer without imposing on the player too strong a characterization of the protagonist, but they serve very instrumental roles in the overall plot. Both enemies and allies have goals that are either vague or morally unclear and you find yourself following mission objectives without any conviction. Mercer himself seems just as indifferent to anything not directly related to his personal vendetta and consequently it's almost impossible to care for the people and events around you. The characters learned about through flashes of absorbed memories manage to strike an emotional cord from time to time when the characters we actually see on the screen fail. Every interaction carries the hint of a personal story that could be told about Mercer's relationships and the hints that he was more of a monster as a human being, but such moments never come. Too many times does Mercer is called to hinder his enemies' sincere attempts to purge the city of the plague but no one addresses the strong moral dilemmas these situations create. Indeed, many a time it feels as though the game is about to engage in relevant political and moral issues in the real world, only to veer away at the last minute.
A sequel to Prototype is on the horizon and while I'm confident that the gameplay will be at least as fun as the first, I'm hoping a lot was done to improve the story and character aspects of the game as well.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Supreme Commander one versus two

(Originally written on May 15, 2011)

Unlike many other media, video games sequels tend to improve on the originals. Street Fighter 2 is more beloved then Street Fighter 1, Final Fantasy 1 is nearly forgotten while Final Fantasy 7 is a well-known classic and Warcraft 2 eclipses the first in almost every category. Of course there's exceptions to the rule. And while Supreme Commander 2 is not bad, it pales in comparable to the original.
The Devil in the Detail
On first glance the games don't look that much different and SC2 even seem to improve on the UI which was a bit cumbersome in SC1. But soon the game reveals that it shed the complexity and layers that made SC1 such a refreshing and unique game.
Like the original, you can convert dead units into resources, unlike the original everything else is off limits. SC1 lets you assimilate trees, neutral buildings and rocks, in SC2 these objects are untouchable obstacles. It's frustrating to see what in SC1 is a much needed emergency source of income, and discovering it's nothing but scenery now. The scale of maps is also much reduced. SC1's maps were huge, they were gigantic battlefields that had oceans rather then lakes and landmasses rather then island. SC2's maps are smaller by far and use those untouchable obstacles as boundaries.
Another seemingly small change is the base building mechanic. SC1 had a system in which placing buildings next to each other gave them maintenance bonuses. But building in tight clusters meant being vulnerable to attacks as destroyed buildings damage those around them. SC2 has none of that.
The economy is again, simplified. In SC1 balancing your economy and production was an art. In SC2 your units wont start building if they don't have the resources. In the original it was a dynamic mechanic that balanced attention with automation. SC2 just automates the whole process.
Technology tiers are replaced with a rather simplistic system of upgrades using automatically accumulated "Research Points" which are then invested in a research tree. Thus, instead of upgraded factories which produce improved units, the research tree strengthen existing units and unlocks new ones. While this method removes what was admittedly an overwhelming array of units , it also means that it's hard to know how powerful an opposing army is. Since the units are always the same and most upgrades have no visual identifier. The same goes for defenses, which are also much easier to set up. Shields do not drain energy as they did in SC1 and no building is upgradable.
Minor issues are the fact that there are less of those sophisticated interface shortcuts which allowed, for example, factories to copy building ques with a click of a button.
SC2 is much more simplified. Not to say that that makes it a bad game. But when complexity was so much of what made SC1 special, SC2 feels much more mundane.

A Thousand Miles from Mortal Sun
Putting aside the mechanical side, SC2 lost the unique atmosphere of SC1. Granted, SC1 owes most of its tone and theme to Total Annihilation. Both do a fine job of painting a conflict as endless as it is wasteful and as grand as it is futile. Armies locked in a war that has lost all purpose and doomed to destroy both sides. Having the option to reclaim lost units off the battlefield really cements that feeling of impotence futility, as is the awesome scale of the battles.
Your commander appears on the battlefield in a blinding flash in a center of a crater with scorched trees all around. As your base grows, natural artifacts such as rocks and trees are replaces with industrial buildings. SC2 misses these small undertones. The single player story is populated by characters that sound like they were transferred from Zone of the Enders or Tactics Ogre. And the atmosphere suffers because they don't feel like part of the setting.
In the first mission of SC1 the map expands and the battlefield continues to grow, creating a breathtaking sense of scale. SC2 doesn't manage to do the same, even sabotaging what little there is with missions in which obstacles block a quarter of the map. It feels almost claustrophobic at times.
Having the experimental units built unseen in a special factory pales against those gargantuan units in SC1 which you needed to build in the open, too big for any factory to contain. discovering your enemy building something that rivals half your base in space was a teeth gnashing sight. The simplified economy means that building these monstrosities is far from being the undertaking it was in SC1.
Supreme Commander 2 is not a bad game. But it is an unforgivable step backwards. The sequel abandons most of what made the original innovative and novel. It is much easier to pick-up and play but it lacks the charm and sophistication that made the first one of my favorite games. What SC2 did well, is remind me how amazing was the first. Replaying the original, it still manged to awe me graphically, even surpassing the sequel from time to time despite being more then a few years older. But seeing that blinding flash of nuclear impact swallows up a corner of the map as you watch your forces making their last move... There is no game that delivers such empowering moments as Supreme Commander does.

Playing Bioshock 2: Choosing the impossible

(Originally written on April 15, 2011)
I Finished Bioshock 2, it took me 14.6 hours.
It's disappointing. Not bad, certainly. The gameplay is fine, in some ways it improves on the original. Guarding the sisters while they extract Adam is a good way to encourage players to use plasmids in creative ways. It's a shame that there aren't more interesting gameplay scenarios, but really it's a pretty solid experience.
The big problem is the plot and the characters.
It's really a very straight forward story. Lamb doesn't have the charm of Ryan as a villain and her motivations remains vague and unestablished. She is pretty much a mad-man with a mad scheme that must be stopped. Ryan was a tragic character- a man who escaped tyrants only to become one himself. Lamb experienced tragedy, but it seems it did not changed her personality or goals in the least. There's no real place to sympathize with her or her motives. In my previous note I described her as a leader of a communistic cult in Rapture, but I think now this was too generous a description. Aside from her ambition to annihilate the Ego, she has no ideology to speak of. Her cult seems to be a manipulative ruse to ally people with her. And even so their beliefs never evolve beyond the few catchphrases and one-liners adorning the walls. If there was something more complex here, its lost.
Lamb's book "Unity and Metamorphosis" is everywhere but the player never has a clue what it's about. The few characters who reveal their reason for alliance with Lamb are doing so for personal reasons rather then any adherence to faith or ideology.
The other characters don't far much better. Tenenbaum has no role in the story beyond a single appearance and Sinclare is a ruthless capitalist who guides you sympathetically. Frankly, he is the only character with any dept. Elenore remains a maiden in distress and your own identity is thrown at you without warning or impact.
Its not an easy task to try and tell a compelling story in the world of Rapture without retreading old ground or departing from it altogether. And although it is clear that Bioshock 2 mad quite an effort to expand on the original without rehearsing it, it failed in creating something that can stand on the same ground. Bioshock 1 had some interesting things to say about objectivism, choices and the role of a player in video games. Bioshock 2 has nothing interesting to say, although it tries very hard to pretend that it does.

Playing Bioshock 2: Rupture in Rapture

(Originally written on April 14, 2011)
I'm a little more then six hours into Bioshock 2, and I'm trying to verbalize why it doesn't work as well as Bioshock 1. That is not to say I don't enjoy it, but I find my self playing it in small chunks rather then feeling myself absorbed into the experience. Which was the way I played the first Bioshock, eager to discover more about the world and the characters around me.
Technical Deficiencies
First there's "Games for Windows Live" a system as cumbersome as its name. It means that it tells you about updates after you started the game, forcing you to quit, update and launch the game again. It means that you cannot save or load until you are logged in. The logging takes about ten seconds once you reached the main menu and god-forbid if you try to navigate the menu before it has logged you in. For in that case you are directed back to the main menu.
A second and perhaps more annoying problem is that B2 is an obvious port. While thankfully it doesn't refer you to the buttons on the X-Box controller, the default key settings are far from ideal. The real problem however is the fact that there is no Quick Save. Every time I wish to save, I must go the the menu and do it manually. Even more annoying is when I die. Since I disabled the Vita-Chambers (as an option through the gameplay settings), death means you have to reload. This would not be a problem save that the moment you die, you cannot activate the menu and the game throws you back to the main menu once the death animation had run its course. Which also means you have to endure the longer loading time of a save compared to the loading time while in the level.
Underwater Atmosphere
I remember Bioshock 1 so clearly. Swimming up to the watchtower among burning debris, seeing Atlas' family sink in their Bathysphere, the epic moments of Man and Slave and even little moments like turning around to face a splicer in the dentistry or seeing the remains of a 1959 party. B2 has yet to make such as impact, aside from the opening movie.
There's a lot more fighting in B2 and a lot less time to soak in the place you are fighting in. There's a lot more characters actually active in the plot but they feel a bit to one-dimensional. Lamb is a cold manipulator who seeks to establish a communist cult-like society in Rapture. Tenenbaum who made some chilling remarks in B1 is presented as totally altruistic. Sinclare fills a role similar to Fontain from B1, that of a morally scrupulous capitalist.
The audio diaries are not as memorable as in B1. They give you the plot and the character's history in a pretty straight forward way. They do a good job at outlining the character's ideologies and rivalries but they lack the charm that accompanied B1's diaries. There was a diary I remember clearly from B1 about a plumber describing the job he did on a toilet for Ryan and how it got him to Rapture. The diary gave you a look into Ryan's ideology, his life before Rapture, the men he brought here and how Objectivism is supposed to work. But as the game progressed and you discover more about Rapture, you also understand how such simple hard working man were trapped in the system and why they sided with Fontain.
B2 gives you the barest characterization for side characters and rambling speeches for the main characters that sound a little too heavy handed with their message.
Theme and Ideology
Again, this is how things look six hours in. B1 was interesting. Objectivism is not an ideology one encounters regularly and B1 did a good job of presenting its merits and flaws. But B2 seems to be about Communism. And really, is there anything left to say about it? I think most everyone is familiar with the ideological merits and flaws of Communism, it has been the subject of countless films and books. I'm having trouble seeing how B2 will bring something new to the table.

Losing my humanity: Space Siege

(Originally written on September 14, 2010)

At the heart of Space Siege is a choice.
Human kind is under a relentless attack by an alien species called the Kerak. These aliens seem to be responding to a religious transgression, but they cannot be reasoned with and they cannot be stopped. The game opens with the Kerak breaching Earth's defenses, ready to annihilate the human race. The only choice left is to run.
The colony ship ISCS Armstrong, is one of several ships who try to escape the Kerak during their siege of earth. But despite managing to breach through the siege, one alien vessel manages to attach itself to the fleeing ship. And now the Armstrong is overrun by the aliens and their numbers are endless. The crew enters suspended animation while the ship's AI, PILOT, floods the interior with a gas which supposed to kill the on-board Kerak. But when they are revived several weeks later, the crew is horrified to discover that not only are the Kerak alive and well, but that a significant number of the crew have been abducted from their sleep and transformed into cybernetically augmented zombies.
Playing a robotic specialist named Seth Walker, the player must fight these threats and secure what may be the last of humankind. The choice which the game attempts to paddle, is whether you sacrifice your humanity for cybernetic implants that augment your fighting prowess.
This is where the game really fails to deliver what could have been a meaningful temptation.
Everything about the game tries to dissuade you from installing the cybernetics parts you find. From the horrified remarks of Gina, the only female character on the crew to the encouragement of characters who are painted as jerks. When installing the parts, Seth cries with a blood curling shriek. And a bar measuring your 'humanity' shrinks with each part installed. And when you discover that zombie cybers are roaming the ship, the threat of becoming one of them is just another reason not to install any cybernetics. The mechanical advantages that cybernetics offer are the only thing that might nudge you to install them, but even these are too small to be really tempting.
Eventually you discover that while you were asleep, PILOT has been waging a war against the Kerak by converting the crew into mindless cybernetic soldiers. And that this army has managed to keep the Kerak at bay. His success has led him to the conclusion that humanity's survival will be best facilitated by conversion into cybernetics, even at the cost of free will. When the crew discovers it they decide that PILOT is a greater threat then the Kerak and you are sent to destroy him.
Despite the fact that his actions have saved the lives of the surviving crew, PILOT is depicted as a megalomaniac and callus entity. His original plan to preserve the crew as a nucleus of unmodified humans for recreation purposes is summarily abandoned despite the implication that this dooms humanity's future. And after this thorough character assassination, you are offered to join him.
Again, this decision could have presented a real conflict of morality, but the game's narrative has rendered it sterile. PILOT is the clear antagonist, he is robbed of anything that might have made him a sympathetic character and his promise to save humanity is overshadowed by an attempt to kidnap you and modify you against your will. The choice becomes a clear choice between Good and so EEvil it needs and extra E'.
It's a pity too because Space Siege does has potential to be more then the simple narrative it forms. The ship is littered with crew logs and some of them paint a darker picture of humanity then the dialogs with the crew suggests. It seems that the attack of the Kerak have brought about a swift curtailing of civil liberties and that the colony ships themselves are governed by a cruel dictatorship. These could have painted a much more complex story of the sacrifices that survival demands. Also of note is the fact that throughout the game you have visions of a little girl roaming the ship, while several logs depict a man searching for his daughter while his sanity seem to deteriorate. The conclusion to this is witnessing a heavily modified human embraces the girl and carry her to presumed safety.While brief this might have cast cyborgs in a much more positive light, but the narrative ignores it.
Better writing might have redeemed what is ultimately a rather unimpressive Diablo Clone. One that suffers from an unmanageable interface, a weirdly limiting camera and a control scheme that doesn't mesh well with the gameplay.

Replaying Deus Ex 2: Invisible War - Meaningful Choices

(Originally written on July 15, 201)

DE2 is much more focused then I remembered. It tells a story that goes beyond the conspiracy thriller of the first, and tries to ask some serious questions about government and political freedom. But where in the original you felt your choices were meaningful, DE2 devalues your choices with each new revelation.

The turning point: A microcosm of the politics withing the world of DE2 is the war between two rival coffee chains. In almost every city you visit in the game you will find them, Pequods and QueeQuegs. And you have plenty of opportunities to support one or the other through sabotage, bribery and espionage as they compete over location, sponsorship and prices. Pequods is the respected brand which enjoys the patronship of the well-to-do, while QueeQuegs is the coffee of the lower classes.
And then, toward the end of the game you discover the truth. Both are owned by the same company. The competition between them is artificial and the people who struggle against each other never know that they serve the same master.
It's a cruel revelation for the player as well. Because now the choices he made, to help one rather then the other have become empty and meaningless. Both are the same, despite their pretenses, and no matter who you supported, the same entity prospered regardless.

A similar thing happens in the main storyline:
The game asks you to side with one of three factions. Apostlecorp, WTO or The Church of the Order. The WTO is a political organization that tries to unify the various city-states who survived the first game. While the Church unites all the world's religions into one and opposes the WTO attempts to form a unified goverment. The struggle between the two colors the game and the question of a centralized power vs autonomous states is one that pops up time and time again. Apostlecorp is a conspiracy which seeks neither, opting instead to create a new type of government through the modification of the human race.

The revelation comes when you discover that the same people created and lead both the Church and the WTO, trying to forge a global political organization that allows the illusion of freedom while preserving social and political order. The WTO representing the martial centralization of power, in the form of government, army and law. While the Church represents the centralization of social power, in the form of belief and ideology.
Discovering that both sides are the hands of the same entity, again devalues your choices. Throughout the game you helped one faction or the other and fought against material and ideological temptations, as each side tried to sway you. Now your choices, whatever they where, are meaningless.

It's a fascinating concept that manages to send a strong political message, but fails as a gaming experience. The game leads you to believe you are an important part of the story, that your actions change the world. And then, robs you of that promise. Your actions still change the story, but the impact you were supposed to have had on the world has become negligible. It's like struggling to win a rope-pulling competition, only to discover the to ends of the rope are tied together. As a gamer, there is something immensely frustrating about this revelation.

I wonder how I would have designed the game. Whether it is possible to deliver the same message, without devaluing the player's choice.