Thursday, December 29, 2011

Missing Insight

Deus Ex:HR, The Missing Link is hardly worth your time unless you are a completist, and is a lukewarm enterprise compared to the main game. It does deliver more action-wise, yet this hardly makes up for a story that, while it ties in with the ending of the main adventure, feels a bit thin.

The DLC explores a three day period in the final chapters of the main game after Jensen emerges from a stasis pod. The cargo ship levels are well designed and reminded me of the great Cold Fear, but somehow no game can match the former's watery atmosphere.

There is some backtracking near the end, which is not particularly annoying yet feels a bit like a b-side. Gameplay-wise, there is also nothing new under the sun. I wondered whether I should write this review or not, given how short the add-on is; as they all are. That is, unless you count Bioshock 2 as gaming's longest add-on, as no novelty whatsoever was put into that game.

Some have suggested TML should have been part of the main adventure, and I'm inclined to agree. In the end, there is some great voice acting to be found, although the developers once again incur in the use of clichés. Note to Square Enix; a character should never be defined by nationality or regionalisms alone.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Crisis Point

If Deus Ex: Human Revolution proved that the atmosphere of Blade Runner could be captured in a videogame disc, Crysis 2 is the prime example that popcorn Hollywood blockbusters officially reek of obsolescence. It's the ultimate statement underscoring that gun-for-hire directors like Michael Bay are no longer a necessary variable in the entertainment equation.

A long-time producer of said director's films, Steven Spielberg, has been involved in gaming for years and has stated that "Someday we'll be playing directly on our TV sets, bypassing all of the platforms." The director is wary, however, of videogame cut-scenes. Yet that is partly what's eroding shallow Hollywood fare. Even the opening credits of C2 seem like a reenactment of the latest film remake of The Invasion. In addition, and possibly after witnessing it in the original Crysis, the nanosuit itself seems to have been lifted by the GIJoe film.

Taking place in 2023, in a New York city under martial law, due to the outbreak of the "manhattan" virus, and the threat of the Ceph alien race from the original game, C2 places the gamer in the shoes of a marine who inherits the "nanosuit 2.0" in a near-chance event, and must reach a certain Dr. Nathan Gould to stop the alien invasion.

Crysis 2, released early in this year, may not be an action RPG, yet the upgrades to the nanosuit and the subsequent use of differing strategies to carry out an assault on enemies certainly grants it RPG elements. And you might as well welcome these options, as at times there are dozens of enemies to confront. But it is in the little details that C2 really wins you over; with the ability to kick cars several feet away, slide under cover in the heat of the battle, and having the ability to customize weapons and your HUD, in several modes.

Does it compare, dare I ask, to Half-Life 2, to many the absolute benchmark in FPS gaming? Well, it's as beautifully constructed and just as addictive, that much can be said in its favor. One main difference is that, as it belongs to a new generation, C2's deserted yet lived-in New York is extremely busy visually, enough to induce a mild headache, and if you play in 3D, well; just don't.

Ultimately, it doesn't really matter what critics from a bygone era consider "art" or "entertainment." Games like Crysis 2 will continue to push the envelope, awaiting only for the proper hardware to soon bring the long-promised realization of a true virtual reality.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Undead are All Around

In the beginning, the film Night of the Living Dead inspired the Resident Evil zombie game series. Afterwards, the film remake Dawn of the Dead, became the inspiration for the game Dead Rising. Then came out the game Left 4 Dead, which in turn seemingly inspired the movie Zombieland. After Left 4 Dead II hit the shelves, it is that we encounter Dead Island, which is, in a way, the sum of all sources mentioned, and apparently many more.

Though not an action RPG per se, but rather an action game in which the characters level up and combine weapons, Dead Island offers visual thrills not witnessed since Far Cry II, as well as an open ended, sandbox approach, which has already become commonplace in this gaming generation.

Here, the big primitive attraction is disposing of piles of bodies, or "pulling a GTA," which is something the author took a moment to enjoy even in Deus Ex: HR. While there is a linearity to the missions, somehow the great character models, physics and locale make them far more compelling.

The art department really shines, with an intro movie that reminds of the video to The Prodigy's Smack My B*tch Up, and perhaps not incidentally is backed by a hip-hop song entitled, Who Do You Voodoo, B*tch.

As in Dawn of the Dead, where the zombies cluster together at a quintessential american mall, the zombie horde remains, to this day, a very clever mirror of society. Zombies not only want to slow you down, they want to eat your brain as well, so not only will you join them, but you will lose your ability to think (call it forced socialization).

The implications of consumerism are timid if we pay attention to the greater picture; that deep inside us lies a dangerous mammalian primate, which has been embellished by years of evolution, yet still operates in the deep recesses of our mind, perhaps guiding our most important decisions.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Augmented Virtuality

My exposure to the Deus Ex franchise consists of playing the demo of the highly-acclaimed original classic, and spending a fair amount of hours on the often criticized yet well-made Deus Ex: Invisible War*, on the original Xbox.

Encountering the much anticipated Deus Ex: Human Revolution is quite a thrill, a game boasting an intricate storyline and production values so high as to rival the similarly themed Mass Effect series. In a black and gold dystopian future, and set 25 years before the original, Adam Jensen, an ex SWAT agent turned security specialist, suffers an near-deadly attack, and he is reconstructed with nanotechnology, a staple of the series.

The game portrays the first days of nano-augmentation at Sarif Industries and its competition, via an intricate world and detailed writing, which are the best I've witnessed in a long time. In spite of all the polish, the great advancement in role playing the series strives to present is the ambiguity of existence; your best bet may be to "trust no one." In the Deus Ex universe, it comes down to people trying to survive in complex situations; the game conveys the feeling of one big, unscripted masterpiece, with city hubs that are outstanding, recalling the city maps of The Darkness, only more sophisticated.

The combat mechanics reminded me of Quantum of Solace, switching from first person to third, takedowns included; something which was most welcome, since I regarded QoS as brief but quite remarkable. But there are stealth elements thrown in as well, in a manner reminiscent of The Chronicles of Riddick. Add to this hacking mini-games and you get a title which outshines most similar offerings.

Games are no longer about graphics, but art direction; the Renaissance and Baroque periods DE:HR has taken as two of its themes, may coincide with another exciting new era of creation taking place in gaming, which may very well rival motion pictures. While retaining basic visual and literary landscapes of the original game, DE:HR manages to bring into the new generation a fascinating and sophisticated futuristic world. In truth, the game depicts a reality not dissimilar from our own, with ipads, gene therapy and prosthetics technology.

The idea of self-guided evolution, as presented in the game, is very much alive in reality; Bela H. Banathy's "Guided Evolution of Society" focuses on these concepts. We have entered the anthropocene, "man has become the most influential force shaping the long-term future of the planet. This endows us with a historical responsibility: for the very first time in seven million years of our evolutionary saga it is within our power, indeed it is our moral duty to become the designers of our future, the guides of our own evolution and the evolution of life on earth and possibly beyond."

Yes, there are weak points, such as the boss battles, and the clichéd "russian" enemies. Similarly to how the above-mentioned Mass Effect employed a new composer for their third entry (well, not really), so have the developers of Eidos; in DE:HR, Alexander Brandon's electronica has been replaced by Michael McCann's more experienced, yet less ambient-like compositions, which nonetheless get the job done. *Being able to choose factions on the go, still impresses me to this day.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Half Life as a Gamer

Games Completed: Full Throttle, Doom, Super Mario World, Mortal Kombat II, Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties, Unreal Tournament, Shogo, Half-Life, HL: Opposing Force, Half-Life 2, HL2: Episode II, MDK, Silent Hill 2, Enter the Matrix, Resident Evil: Code Veronica, Shenmue, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Doom 3, Quake 4, Enclave, True Crime: LA, Area 51, Quantum of Solace, The Witcher, The Darkness, 007: Blood Stone, Splinter Cell: Conviction, Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 (+Kasumi, Overlord, Shadow Broker), Dragon Age: Origins (+Leliana's Song, Witch Hunt, Golems), Deus Ex: Human Revolution (+The Missing Link), Crysis 2, Crysis:WH, The Witcher 2, Dragon Age: Awakening, Mass Effect 3, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City, Heavenly Sword, MGS4, Uncharted 2, The Darkness II, Infamous, Infamous: Festival of Blood, Infamous 2, Alpha Protocol, No More Heroes: Heroes' Paradise, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Metro: Last Light, Batman: AC (+Harley Quinn's Revenge), Bayonetta, The Amazing Spiderman, The Last of Us (+Left Behind), Infamous: Second Son, Journey, The Amazing Spiderman 2, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Nier: Automata, Spider-Man. (Updated)

Or maybe I should stick to those cool indie platformers like Machinarium, Limbo, Braid or NightSky.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Real Next Gen

After the cause célèbre that was the marketing campaign for Heavy Rain, developers and gamers alike may wonder just what defines the next gen, or where it is headed. Superb graphics? Novel game-mechanics? Plain innovation?

A game which has been compared to the afore-mentioned title, Alan Wake, is everything the former is not; rather Max Payne with a coat of paint. Many companies, such as the Raven Software/id Software pairing, are particularly guilty of rehashing games whose sole purpose is to shoot everything that moves.

Titles such as Portal and Mirror's Edge, both non-violent FPSs, have shown that the genre is capable of much more without being boring in the least. Even Batman: Arkham Asylum portrays a hero that, while powerful, does not kill his enemies.

Granted, LAN games such as the Unreal Tournament series or similar are a lot of fun, yet the problem arises when a series such as CoD: Modern Warfare, while no doubt immersive, is depicted as "realistic," whereas one like Operation Flashpoint gets little to no credit.

It has been pointed out in the past that gamers from the east have a differing taste from those of the west. Their culture is collectivist while ours is individualistic. Maybe absorbing part of their tradition does not hurt; certainly not in gaming.

Take the following older games, and consider how easily they would fit in the current generation; Cold Fear, Doom III, Riddick: EFBB, Half Life 2; the list goes on. Some of these games have been re-issued for newer consoles, in fact, given that technological advancements sometimes take years to develop.

"Western games have expanded in the true sense of action games," whereas Japanese consumers "prefer more storytelling, more detailed settings within the game, a more narrative kind of style often with anime mixed into it." - Hideo Kojima

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Rise of the White Wolf

A changing world; new, more dangerous monsters; fisstech, slavery, banditry unpunished - Geralt

I was preparing to purchase a certain heavily-promoted, medieval fantasy RPG sequel, when I decided to play the demo beforehand; I was completely underwhelmed with it. Then I recalled another demo I had played some time ago, of a game which is about to release its very own sequel; it was that of The Witcher.

The now classic PC game grabs you right from the start, with excellent presentation and gameplay that matches it. This is by no means an undiscovered gem, though not as much of a bestseller as better marketed RPGs. The Witcher clearly owes its well-deserved success to word of mouth. Is there anything in gaming quite like a rainfall over the outskirts of Vizima?

The Witcher employs a modified version of Bioware's Aurora Engine, so in a sense, CD Projekt's creation is closely related to Dragon Age: Origins, though that game runs on Eclipse. However, the former behaves more like the latter's big brother. Scanning the forums, it is quite remarkable how even non-gamers have been attracted to this title. Elaborate essays can be found there. The Witcher is also riddled with glitches yet its fanbase is resolute in their support. A game in which you get lost in the swamps due to their size, even with a map, speaks for itself; the most gloriously nonlinear game I've ever played.*

Partially based on the book series of the same title by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, the amnesiac Geralt of Rivia and the other Witchers are genetically mutated hunters, in a quest to fight their foe, the Salamandra. Gone is the morality system employed by many games, as the lines are less clear cut. Considering that The Witcher preceedes DA:O, then the treatment of racism, here less thinly disguised, reinforces the excellent execution. Minorities were blamed for everything in medieval times as they are now; the human animal has changed little.

There are various memorable set-pieces, such as a standoff dealing with the witch Abigail in the outskirts of Vizima. If the Temple Quarter is where the plebe and the dirt is, then the Trade Quarter is all about posh intrigue, and in fact, a confrontation takes place between Geralt's more earthy love interest, Shani, and the worldly Triss, over the protection of a powerful child, Alvin. This entire setup is truly well handled, with Dandelion, the bard, offering some spot-on comic relief. The cast of dozens of important characters adds incredible depth.

The game can be played in two isometric views or over the shoulder, all of which function marvelously. There are different fighting styles suited for differing enemies, as well as alchemy, or potions, and levelling up, while Geralt goes to meditate by a fireplace. The Witcher can be upgraded to an Enhanced Edition, with graphical updates and side-missions. At this juncture, european-based developers CD Projekt and Starbreeze have clearly become forces to be reckoned with. Here's hoping the sequel makes it to consoles. *Except for Skyrim.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Choose Your Medieval Adventure

Men's hearts hold shadows darker than any tainted creature - Flemeth

Bioware's titles have had a profound effect on me; given their quality, they have effectively ruined many or most offerings from other studios. Clearly, the Canadian developer has steadily crafted a list of RPGs which have made a mark on the industry. The fact that EA joined forces with the developer further exemplifies that said publisher is extremely savvy in acquiring studios.

From the initial race and class selection, Dragon Age: Origins shines. Tolkien myth may have produced wonderful novels and films, but the open-endedness of a next-gen game stands on its own. Do you want to play as an elf who has been enslaved by ruthless humans? Fine, as the developer wisely presents the notion that humans are far scarier than any Darkspawn.

DA:O presents consequences to your actions; characters join and leave your party, they become angry or content with your opinions and have a very distinct personality. Morrigan, a female mage, is of particular interest here; the ultimate cynic, rejoicing in things like harassing a Cleric, while Leliana offers an interesting counterpoint, that of a self-righteous rogue beginning to doubt herself. The battle system is wonderfully addictive, and for an ex-FPS gamer, a very welcome breath of fresh air.

The inherent freedom the RPG genre presents results in the choice to deal with adversaries as you see fit. The Desire Demon controlling a Templar? Do your thing, fine by me. The Blood Mages at the Circle Tower? I didn't have the least desire to kill them either, I would have joined them given the chance; yet I did not play as a mage. The Tranquil are also of interest in how they deal with the darkness that lurks.

When I finally visited Orzammar, the city of the Dwarves, I couldn't help to think of India when they mentioned their cruel and unjust caste system. I don't know if this is done purposely by the developers, but a vivid example of the injustice in the bleak India is always welcome in any media, and, in how many blockbuster movies do you see this topic depicted, even if only metaphorically?

I managed to track down the Ultimate Edition, which comes packed with all the DLCs released. I have not yet moved to that part, but needless to say it's a wonderful addition any gamer would be happy to enjoy even after Dragon Age II is released.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Shepard Begins

Given how remarkable an experience the action-RPG Mass Effect 2 was, the player who may want to delve deeper into Bioware's universe is likely to pick up a copy of the original Mass Effect, as expectation for the third chapter rises. ME1 may initially be unwelcoming due to the seemingly demanding combat. Yet, as it is customary in the RPG tradition, the character attributes need to be built up, and the game slowly but surely begins to unravel before the player soon thereafter.

ME1 chronicles Commander Shepard's first steps as a Spectre, the tension with the Citadel Council, and the fight against the robotic Geth, led by Saren, the turian, with some, well, rather strong allies. It is very much an origin story, hinting at parts of the backstory which are fleshed out in the sequel. The end result is reminiscent of Star Wars: A New Hope, in that a fresh character like Luke (or Solo, depending on how you play) learns the ropes and how to interact with the team.

Having read the Mass Effect: Redemption comic book beforehand, it was apparent how important a character was Liara, the asari. She's arguably the most interesting team member in ME1 and it is partly through her that we learn that humans are regarded as the bullies of the galaxy. As for the length, while the main adventure is contained in only one disc, it is indeed massive. One surprising aspect is just how much coherent backstory there is, which is exemplified by the game's Codex, as well as various spinoff novels.

It's interesting to note how well Bioware performs at the so-called Bechdel, or female presence, test. Not only can the main character be a female, the developer seems to depict a conservative and a liberal female character clashing against each other on both episodes so far. This speaks volumes on how detailed the series is. The game also features one of the toughest puzzles in gaming history.

The game may offer wonderful setpieces and adecuate combat, but it truly shines during character interaction. The squad characters are well fleshed out, kudos to Bioware's writers. From Kaidan, Tali, Liara, Garrus, Ashley, all the way up to Wrex, each character brings a powerful backstory which further deepens the mythology. The themes which later become preponderant in the sequels are hinted at here; the visit to Ilos, once inhabited by the ancient Protean race, makes for a great gaming moment.

I got the good fortune of getting the Platinum Hits edition of the game, which comes packed with documentaries and concept art, which go a long way into showing just how much effort it took to bring this world to life. The game's save file can be imported into ME2, which is likely to make me replay said game, and I don't mind it one bit. Bioware's releases, and this game series in particular, almost single-handedly brings hope to the emotionally arid and trigger-happy current generation of gaming.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Effect of Mass Effect 2

Good science fiction serves as an analogy of real life. It may contain plot holes, some sketchy characters, but, in the end, it presents a narrative that offers a glimpse into the human endeavor. That is why the highly praised Mass Effect 2 succeeds with such rotundity. Not since the release of the Half-Life series has gaming felt so legitimate. In this space opera, you assemble a team composed of different alien races for a suicide mission against an advanced civilization, The Collectors.

It is after the initial recruitment that your teammates ask you to do personal favors for them. What at first seems like filler, in fact serves to add depth of character and backstory. Throughout these missions, Commander Shepard, who can be played either as a male or female, will have to make moral decisions. The Shepard I chose is not the default; which could easily appear on the cover of a fashion magazine, but a world-weary, worn-out warrior. With a dialogue delivered to perfection, the deep story unfolds; I'd have to go back to Silent Hill 2 for such good overall voice acting.

The "Paragon" & "Renegade" choices the player makes have an added realism, considering that for each interaction you are awarded points on not one but both categories. My experience resulted in that doing the right thing made me feel good. Yes; I have in fact learned a moral lesson from a videogame, something which film is seldom effective at anymore. Mass Effect 2 feels more like Battlestar Galactica in that regard, a series known for tackling hefty themes. The fact that Shepard begins to show glowing scarring if he chooses the Renegade ways may be seen as an attempt at coaxing the player, yet I offer that developer Bioware attempts to show the true face of evil.

This leads to the question; is the human race good or evil? Consider that Subject Zero explicitly states she survived hardship due to "instinct." From studies that show we have a fundamental tendency to be selfish (the over-claiming effect), cruel (the inherent nature of bullying), often clueless (brain economy and sparse coding) and oblivious (high latent inhibition), our perceptions of our own race leave much to be desired. The work of the accomplished scientist Robert M. Sapolsky, strengthens the notion that the pursuit of knowledge may in fact correlate with goodness. As a researcher within the scientific community, he is well aware that Ted Kaczynski was the exception in a field which he clearly sees as the driving force of human progress.

ME2 defines the capabilities of the current gen, and puts half the titles out there to shame. I, for one, am glad that, slowly but surely, gaming has shown not only that the medium can be art, but in contrast to exceedingly bottom-line driven mainstream filmmaking, it may one day surpass that industry, once it outgrows its very own limitations.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Searching for Shenmue

As many gamers clamor for a full trilogy, and videos pop up on the internet regarding cancelled spinoffs or halted versions, I am recalled of when I first explored almost every corner of the marvelous work of art that is Shenmue.

And what a rich palette did Yu Suzuki paint with. Almost every person and element in Yokosuka can be interacted with and I dare say most players won't tire, as Ryo Hazuki's town is particularly charming. Ryo's own USAF bomber jacket, as well as various elements from the surroundings, comment on the fact that the 80s were a time of change, of globalization.

A game which consists, in its first disc, of talking to elaborate characters in a small town with a pleasing weather system, and in its second, of employing fighting techniques, so refined as to appear to be from a fighting videogame.

The project indeed began as a mix between an RPG and Virtua Fighter, yet it started to develop into something far greater. The game cost tens of millions to make, which it certainly did not recover in its time.

It was open-ended, cinematic, fully voice-acted and presented QTEs even when such elements in games were uncommon. The sequel had many things going for it, yet it had a "big city" theme which may have worked for some yet not for all. A gaming landmark, for certain.