Monday, August 20, 2012

Are you Experienced?

Imagine if you bought a new computer, and inside you found a video of a woman pleading for help. Mixing elements of Uplink, a hacking videogame, the film Rear Window, as well as the more recent "found footage" movies, The Experiment; or eXperience112, depending on your geographical area, is respectful of its audience to the point that the heroine in developer Lexis Numérique's game, reminds you when was the last time you booted up the game. It is all geared towards creating a provocative time, and they certainly succeed. It makes one consider the limitless possibilities of gaming, and the fact that they are not being fully explored at the moment.

Lea Nichols wakes up in a derelict ship stranded on a faraway beach, and the only person around is you, looking at her through a security camera. She begins to address you, in her mossy quarters, until the rudimentary communication turns into a more complex cooperative system in which you control various parts of the ship to allow her access, and work towards finding out what happened, as well as what the mysterious 112 number means. The name of the game here is verisimilitude, as we shall see, for how many of us have been in combat, in contrast to how many have used a computer?

Part of the immersion is attained because the game essentially turns your pc into an emulator; you are running a foreign, yet believable, operating system, which happens to control many aspects of a ship. Unless the reader considers CoD:MW his favorite game series, The Experiment is almost sure to suck you in, and for a few hours, make the player pretty much forget about the outside world, with heaps of files, some marked sensitive, hence more enticing, in a similar manner to the new classic, Doom 3.
There is, of course, the voyeuristic component, which creates an eerie feeling, making you wonder if you are playing the game, or it is you who is being played on. Furthermore, Lea is not a cipher, she is a no-nonsense, meticulous scientist, whose actions happen to be currently defined by her predicament. As she finds the corpses of her former colleagues, you may feel empathy. The detective work involved, aided sometimes by controlling a clunky robot, can at times be compelling.
The game plays wonderfully on a widescreen monitor, making great use of screen real estate. In truth, every self-respecting gamer should consider having this game in their collection. For those who think there is something slightly wrong with gaming nowadays, the reader is then advised to find a copy of The Experiment, a game unlike anything the reviewer has ever played, or should I say, experienced.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Generation Alpha's Fantasy Land

"What's your pleasure? We got it all here." - Rufus Riley, Minority Report

It is complex indeed to predict the impact of future technologies, especially when they lie many years down the road. However, the phenomenon pertaining to this essay is right around the corner; and perhaps dangerously so. As children born from 2010 until 2025 are considered generation Alpha, it is their group which will suffer the consequences of the first true virtual worlds, with upcoming hardware and software capable of emulating a hypher-reality similar to that which can be seen in sci-fi movies, yet whose repercussions can tentatively be surmised.

For my generation, known as Gen Y, coming after Generation X, the clash of two realities was hardly palpable, as the games we were brought up on had often rudimentary visuals and lacked realism. But imagine, for a moment, playing Resident Evil 15, completely immersed in the dread and horror, for hours without seeing the light of day, with most of the five senses engaged; enough exposure could affect minds, young and old, considerably, if that is not happening already. What will these people's frame of reference be in the long run; games or reality? This brings me to two products on the market, namely Skyrim, a first-person fantasy RPG, and Google's augmented reality glasses. If that is not enough, there are true-VR glasses also being developed.

Skyrim, the highly praised and addictive RPG, which is by default played from a first person perspective, may begin to offer a glimpse of what's to come. Like the quality-starved GTA series, yet with a fantasy backdrop, Skyrim offers a vast, beautiful snowy land to get lost in. Like its sibling, Fallout 3, the game is non-linearity itself; seeming less like a film soundstage and more like a movie shot on location, so to speak. The player can loot objects and sell them; a winning game mechanic, granting it a Mad-Max feel, as characters fight for resources. The indoor world-building is impressive as well, with hints of the classic game Enclave. Devoid of cut-scenes, the game builds its story through imagery; from the depressing Windhelm to the paradise-like Eldergleam Sanctuary. In Skyrim, you can get married, not to advance the plot, but for the sake of it. The extra content is nearly infinite, since much of it is generated by the user community.

In a culture where there is a tendency for individuals to narrativise their lives, everyone will be able to be a superhero, an antihero, or whichever stance the games on offer may have; the notion that TV will at one point watch us instead of us watching it, will regain significance, if it wasn't evident already. The coming generations may even live in a technological hedonistic state; whether it is a paradise or a hell remains to be seen. Globalization has made people all over the globe a little more similar, a little less distant. The west has steadily exported its individualist culture, reaching even colectivist regions. Yet people crave for transcendence in a silicon era. This army of sedentary people, our hive mind, is begging to jump on the next fad, and if science and technology are coupled in just the right way, the allure of a VR existence, away from existence, could prove to be inescapable for most.

While the next generation of consoles will not quite pass the Turing test, the assumption is they will nevertheless carry enough punch to go further than Team Bondi's realistic characters from LA Noire; which, in addition to the virtual expanses offered by games like Skyrim, will undoubtedly capture the imagination of both casual and hardcore gamers. This scenario presents the possibility that people may no longer care about mundane activities, as fantasies which far surpass the film medium will be available at a low cost. Hence, the fate of the Alpha generation and beyond may be an interesting, yet bleak one. Perhaps, like Geoffrey Miller argues, we've never met aliens because instead of interstellar travel they chose to look inward as an alternative.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Hype Backlash is Back

So a game is released within the Dragon Age universe, and reception is mixed. Would it make a Grey Warden proud? Once again, it seems, the real story is not the game itself, but an initial negative reaction towards Dragon Age II which may well have been unwarranted; the demo is simply not a good representation of the final product. We are speaking, of course, of hype backlash. Sure, the fact that the character creation has been narrowed down to only humans is a letdown, since, if you are anything like me, you might have played Dragon Age: Origins as an Elf Rogue, and even a Human Mage, but never as a boring Human Noble; at least Alistair was a "royal bastard."

Yet the story, or backstory, is quite astute, and it expands on ideas from Origins. The conflict between the Templars and the Mages has now become exacerbated; both see each other as extremists. Other groups, like the cryptic Qunari, are occupying the city with military force. In the middle of all of this, is the Hawke family, to which your character belongs, having fled the Blight in Ferelden. Their rags-to-riches drama unfolds against the above-mentioned backdrop of social unrest. With some exceptions, most characters are well-rounded, though it is the Elves who steal the show; from Merrill to Fenris, and Tallis, who appears on dlc, and should have had a more vital part.

The Witcher 2, gorgeous as it was, was lacking not only in combat, but in an engaging story which went beyond politics. For a story to work, it has to have some degree of melodrama mixed in; a perfect example of this is the second season of the series Game of Thrones. DAII offers multiple pairings which create sparks, especially from the second act onwards. There is Merrill and the Dalish Keeper; Merrill in particular being so well portrayed, she is clearly DAII's own Morrigan, given her importance, except she is a Blood Mage, not an Apostate.

Then there is Anders, a Mage and ex-Grey Warden, whose inner turmoil is shown literally, as he is the host for a spirit called Justice. Aveline is a Templar who, given her occupation, is wary of any and all Mages; her character represents a strong woman, and done so with much class. Varric seems like a one-note character, that is, until we see his relationship to his greedy brother develop. And these are just the main characters, not the ones involved in bureaucratic intrigue.

There is something about the art design; it is much too pristine, not dirty enough, and hence not too evocative of Origins in that regard. Even the Game of Thrones RPG looks more lived-in. This is no accident, though, it is a clear artistic design decision relating to Kirkwall. Considering the fancy interlude animations, it's as though a graphic designer was in charge of some of the art design. I am led to believe that the decision was made to keep the Morrigan story for a third act perhaps, and introduce a contained story in this second act, so newcomers could get in on the action. With all the great stories being told in gaming, one can't help but wonder, after Ricciotto Canudo claimed that film was the seventh art and then Claude Beylie stated that television was the eight and comics were the ninth art, if videogames deserve to be finally called the tenth.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Operation Rescue

I felt compelled to play Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, almost as though it was my "duty" as a gamer, given the current state of affairs with war videogames, and help spread the word. Many have compared OF2 to Arma 2 in an unfavorable light, yet both games have clear similarities. In trying to distance itself from the phony patriotism and sense of grandeur of other shooters, OF2 actually honors, even if to a small degree, the soldiers of any nationality who have gone to war.

OF2 truly presents a refreshing change of pace for a FPS, as you slowly cover positions, work as a team, and issue orders. Console port or not, the controls feel utterly responsive and polished on the PC. The field manual attempts to cover the basics in combat strategies and does so nicely. The team dynamics are basic but solid, it reminded me of the great Swat 4. Every time you load the campaign, the thorough stats kindly remind you need to score more points.There is, in fact, a newer game in the franchise, which unfortunately hasn't exactly gotten glowing reviews.

Taking place on the fictional island of Skira, yet based on the topography of the real-life island of Kiska, the game portrays the Chinese PLA's attempt to seize control of Skira and its newly discovered deposits of oil, by taking it away from the Russian Federation, who calls for American reinforcements, after which a sandbox-style battle in the island occurs. The game was developed by Codemasters, who did not develop the first game, which was made by Bohemia Interactive instead, who would go on to make the Arma series.
In a game that has no cinematics, what is the gameplay like? Rather deep, actually. The movements the marines can make are versatile, and you can issue orders on site or from a map, as well as calling for air support. The radar is more like a compass, which intentionally tells you very little about enemy presence. Vehicle control is smooth, reminding me of Far Cry 2. You can even lower the enemy's morale by being aggressive. And yes, when things get out of control, you feel something akin to fear, in the way a horror game might scare you. OF2 is also difficult, but in the way MDK2 was; always motivating you for another go, because of how rewarding the game is when you get something right.
This brings me to the reason why I picked up this game. For a series of games that have the gameplay depth of Pong, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is far too ideologically charged, even insultingly so. It has become the greatest affront in gaming, dumbing down armed conflicts, global politics, and breeding a sector of twitchy gamers. Let's consider some glaring differences between the two games, to wit; in OF2, Russia and America are allies against China. In CoD:MW, not only are Russia and America enemies, but on the brink of something much more than a minor conflict. In OF2, you make long stretches on foot, whereas in CoD:MW, you land right into combat, like James Bond. And of course, in the former, a well placed bullet kills you, unlike in the latter.
After two patches, the game has grown equally in content and multiplayer possibilities. Considering the number of mods and still-thriving online community, Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising is money well spent indeed. And it may be one of those rare games that entertain while telling you a bit about the world you live in.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Warfare in a Virtual Setting

Six Days in Fallujah, a game which was set against the backdrop of "Operation Iraqi Freedom," became controversial for the simple fact that it explored a recent war scenario, and was promptly pulled off the shelves by its publisher, Konami. The US Marine Corps had actually asked developer Atomic Games to produce the game.

Yet the reality of war games in quite different. Instead, and breaking all records, is the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series, whose nonsensical plot has been summarized succinctly by Russian game site Absolute Games; "their inflamed imagination drew a very alternative Russia. Here, there are printed magazines 'vodka drinker' and 'duck hunter,' Kamchatka shares borders with Norway, an ambulance is marked number "04" wrongly, the police personnel are M-240, and in the middle of Red Square are monuments erected to terrorists, who almost unleashed a nuclear apocalypse. This documentary untruth could only be appreciated by fans of stereotypical series like 'Alias' and '24'."
What occurred with Six Days in Fallujah demonstrates the "extended adolescence" the game industry wishes to promote for gamers. Consider that, in a lab setting, in fact; "Currently, the Department of Defense is testing Virtual Iraq - one of three virtual-reality programs it has funded for P.T.S.D. treatment, and the only one aimed at 'ground pounders'."
The CoD:MW series has become the new Counter-Strike, which is to sadly say, the new top fps with online multiplayer. While the Battlefield series is also caught in a CoD-like frenzy, game series like Arma, Operation Flashpoint and SOCOM,* tell the reality of war in less juvenile ways. Yet these games lack marketing punch and remain in obscurity.This revisionary history is different from, say, medieval fantasy, as it denies that the land which deploys these forces is involved in many conflicts all over the world, resuscitating instead an anachronistic war which belongs in history books.
Regarding Cod:MW and Battlefield 3, a group of real soldiers gave their opinion, one of which stated; "No enemy is going to stand out in the open for you to easily shoot, but most of the time enemies in these games like to stand in front of my weapon. Soldiers learn to cover each other and work as a team covering all line of fire while maintaining a dominant position and then maneuvering to pin the enemy with fire." *As well as Ghost Recon, which is stuck in the middle.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Videogames & Identity

For the annotated version:

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Howl of the White Wolf

Science fiction gaming, with the often poor knowledge of the writers regarding their topic, sometimes cannot avoid the pitfalls of countless clichés. The analogy of gaming as filmmaking is suitable, as many game developers often find themselves relying on proven formulas. In hindsight, Mass Effect 3 was not remarkable in and of itself, but perhaps because it was connected to the first two. Sci-fi, in gaming at least, perhaps in general, may have become a trite arena where new ideas are scarce.

There's arguably more inventiveness in the medieval fantasy genre, in the gaming world, than in the cyberpunk of science fiction. You need look no further than The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition, for some strong evidence. In TW2 EE, we get two additional quests in the once-anemic third act, as well as new animated cinematics and additional cut-scenes. It all comes together to create a more thorough and polished TW2 experience, including new music tracks by Adam Skorupa & Krzysztof Wierzynkiewicz.
The fantasy genre is seen by many as a response to modernism; there's a microcosm of books, series, movies and games centered around medieval fantasy, which may well tell the same story, but do so from cleverly diverse angles. The Witcher series is comprised by more than simple games; it is folklore packed in a game disc, with its visually and thematically arresting Polish vistas. The racial tensions and political back-stabbings echo the books faithfully, the consequences of allegiances are depicted, and gender roles as well as socioeconomic factors are also explored.
As far as additions go, the Arena offers a nice change of pace, by providing battles against humans and creatures in a small coliseum. The companion characters are well developed and even the voice acting for such small endeavor is quite good. Were I still the owner of an Xbox, I'd buy this game twice, one for playing and another for it to sit on the shelf, likely being the best rpg on the system.
The new quests in the third act are of interest; Lilies and Vipers, from Roche's path, introduces some aristocratic characters and intrigues from King Foltest's court, and stands out for me, as good voice performances are always welcome. There is a new forest area as well. The Secrets of Loc Muinne, in Iorveth's path, takes place under the city, and feels a bit claustrophobic, too dark for my taste. The fact that the content is situated near the end, does make a new play-through more desirable.
Technically, however, CDPR floundered, as updating to the EE is utterly clunky. The much-loved developer surely can make remarkable games, but when it comes to glitches they may rank number one as well; the update is larger than the game itself. The Witcher 3 will be interesting for the developer, as this second entry was designed with consoles in mind, if we are to be honest. A worthy sequel to the PC masterpiece.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Beneath a Steel Sky

Some of us have to wait for games to drop their price before we enjoy a new adventure. In this particular case, however, the opportunity opens up to analyze the social phenomenon surrounding Bioware's Mass Effect 3. Having played the demo in addition to the previous installments, I consider myself as much of a fan as any other. But the fact remains that the game is quite good, do not take my word for it; notoriously antagonistic sites have granted it at least an 8.5 score.

I firmly contend that the fan outrage at the endings and other aspects of the game can only be understood as a sign of how game worlds are starting to rival real life. Bioware, truth be told, doesn't make games, they make something in the vicinity of life simulations, a company working at the highest levels, firmly in the pantheon with the best of them, and with innovation strongly in mind.

In a time when there are addictive and sensuous online worlds and communities, it can be seen that, steadily, since the advent of the information age, reality itself can be interacted with like a videogame, as we sort personal matters with a keyboard and mouse setup, in front of an LCD screen. Bioware adds the icing on the cake by providing virtual love interests with detailed exotic personalities, not just mundane cuteness. Mass Effect, it can be argued, is of considerable cultural relevance.
But it's a marvelous moment for gaming since, while temples are being burnt down, so to speak, we witness something that can only yield a boost for the story-telling medium games always were, but are becoming more obviously so, to wit; RPGs make headlines in the west, and visual technology has caught up with narrative; this is positive for the industry, certainly for those developers who stay away from cookie-cutter creations.
If the Technological Singularity ever wanted something from us, then certainly it is that we develop emotional investments towards a game disc. Of course, the same can be said for a book, yet the repercussions will be much different. If Bioware can simply acquire enough time to develop games, it will continue to be perhaps the best developer in gaming history.
When the dust settles, perhaps the Mass Effect series will be seen as a turning point in our past, when games began not just to amuse, but like Heavy Rain, to touch us, to dare us, to become part of our very lives. And in that future, nothing will ever be the same again. Bioware, and the ghastly clutches of EA, are leading and shaping our interactive future. Gaming demographics are now all over the map, there is a tremendously high number of casual gamers, male and female. Rest assured, for better or for worse, their children will be born beneath a steel sky.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Master & Commander

After reviewing the main adventure of Dragon Age: Origins some time ago, I had the chance to play some of the add-ons, yet on a different platform. This series of expansions, particularly Dragon Age: Awakening, may in fact, stand as Origins 1.5, both in style and substance, as DAII was initially not well received. As well, it represents a nice break from the usual Bioware formula.

As stated, the main course is Awakening. You can create your Grey Warden from scratch or import, that which will become the Warden Commander, in order to deal with the aftermath of the victory over the Archdemon during the blight, as was told in Origins. The new team may lack the charisma of the original one, but there are brief cameos from the first one, plus a playable Oghren, and new brand of darkspawn to battle against. Awakening is also more plot-driven than interpersonally explorative in contrast to its predecessor. It may also teach you a thing or two about going against local aristocracy.

Ferelden is now something of a no-man's land, as a powerful new alliance lurks. There's not much to be said about the quests; as in any RPG, you are still required to solve everyone's problems. Yet some levels are particularly well made, such as Kal'Hirol; gaudy but rather well designed. The obligatory visit to the Fade is also quite enjoyable. The battle synergy between your party of four, as in Origins, teaches you by painful example that your team should be well balanced. A considerable problem with triple A titles is their brief length; Dragon Age Origins and its expansions are an exception to the rule, along with The Witcher.

Leliana's Song tells the story of series' regular Leliana and her bard and burglar past, which is alluded to in Origins. Here, she has a wilder, sultrier look, which reflects her life at the time. The fact that you can play with a secondary character here is fairly significant, as in the add-ons from Bioware's Mass Effect series, this was not possible. The adventure is more upbeat than is usual for the goings-on in Ferelden, with quips, stealth, jealousy, and a tight team which dispatches enemies in a breeze. Of note is the presence of Leliana's mentor Marjolaine, whom she confronts about the events from this add-on in Origins.

This particular adventure brings me to the "tricky spot" many RPG developers introduce in some games. For instance, the very character of Leliana could be entirely missed in Origins if you didn't go into an inn in Lothering at one point, as her town would later be decimated. Ditto for having to stock up the ship with minerals in Mass Effect 2 before the "suicide mission." And what to say of The Witcher's fight with the hellhound in the first chapter, which is nigh on impossible unless one prepares well. Just a few examples, though these tend to render the games more interesting.

The unfortunately titled Witch Hunt presents the idea of going after an ex original-team member, Morrigan. As you arrive in her empty house, you realize you are not the only one looking for her. It's not overly exciting, yet there are a few good quips courtesy of the mage du jour. It is, however, the most cinematic, as it plays like a treasure hunt; from inspecting a library to going from one mysterious site in Ferelden to another to gather magical artifacts. In her monologue, Morrigan actually sets things up nicely; considering also Origins, for a sequel. Alas, this was not followed through.

Finally, the Golems of Amgarrak spices things up granting you a Golem and a big Bronto on your team, making it the biggest departure from the usual, but often amusing, team banter. Taking place in the dwarven Deep Roads, there is a bit of puzzle-solving, with switches as well as though opponents. It is somewhat harder than the others, and doesn't offer much story-wise. This may be the least satisfactory of the add-ons here presented.

Add-ons also include Return to Ostagar, Warden's Keep and The Darkspawn Chronicles, among others. While the PC version has more tactical options, some players may lean towards the console ones, as those versions are also quite good. Dragon Age: Awakening brings home the magic yet again.

Friday, February 10, 2012

10.000 Samurai

It's hard to critique a MMO game which has been out for some time and gone through a series of patches and game scenarios. I found however, the free-to-play Dynasty Warriors Online (Heavenly Strike), to be almost irresistible, as the original series was one of the most enduring and appealing on the PS2.

MMORPGs are so ubiquitous, with ads for them on virtually every gaming or technology site, that they have become a force to be reckoned with and a veritable social phenomenon. Whether browser-based or downloadable, they are already defining the path of future game offerings.

DWO conocerns itself with button-mashing, combo-stringing, to some extent, as in any given battle you can rack up more than 600 AI enemy kills on your own. Yet it's tremendous fun, based on a pre-existing engine which accommodates many in-game characters. The engine also sports good textures and nice weather effects. You can of course acquire items for your character and level up; I made mine look like Geralt of Rivia.
The camp factor is rather high. The fact that most NPCs move back and forth as if dancing while they stand, coupled with the Sega-like music, may be disliked by some. I'm certain there is a story here, but it's not entirely clear which it might be, other than factions vying for power; some of which are more populated than others, as DWO had its heyday some time ago. The AI enemies tend to swarm you, but that's ok, as you feel like Neo vs. the multiple Smiths in the famed Burly Brawl movie scene.
One of the main objectives is capturing enemy bases, and the tutorials focus on variations of this scenario. There's an honor system which allows you to make rank, which in turn allows you to finally go on campaigns with human friends and foes. Your AI lieutenant will be of great help here, particularly in attaining the coveted Lt. Major rank; or the beginning of your "pro" career, as it is then that other game areas are opened up.
The best course of action is to join guilds, of which there are many, accommodating different levels of progress. It's no use to scan the forums for such an endeavor, the game's menu works far more efficiently. I initially signed up under emperor Liu Bei, who has the least amount of faction soldiers; quite the underdogs. Yet the game is still populated enough, especially on the weekends, when events are held. All in all, you get to experience the Dynasty Warriors universe in the online arena; massive battles certainly go very well with the MMO model.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Rise of the Nonhumans

The Witcher 2 is phenomenally engrossing interactive story-telling. A perfect example of this comes straight at the prologue, which is a series of recollections, that can be played in any order, from the title character Geralt while serving king Foltest. In a mysterious turn of events, this ends in regicide and Geralt must flee and attempt to clear his name.

TW2 has garnered several awards, among others, in the story category. Few can offer thinly-veiled social commentary quite like CD Projekt Red, with racial conflicts in a fantasy setting, complete with abusive soldiers during wartime; the game doesn't shy away from portraying class warfare. This tale is one of ample freedom, offering abundant room for thought. Characterization is excellent all around, with top-notch voice acting. Triss Merigold, the sorceress from the first game, to the displeasure of some, is a bit more girlie this time around.

And what to say of the overall presentation, with detailed towns and forests; so grandiose and literary that only poetry could do it all justice. In certain ways, more than a game, with vistas that envelop the player, and transport him to Flotsam and Vergen themselves; certain towns in Poland being the obvious inspiration. It puzzles the mind how the developers have crafted something so deliciously complex, not by lifting straight from the novels, but by presenting the games as sequels to the books. Here, Geralt continues putting together his past, as he is still amnesiac.
Technically, the motion capture on TW2 is fantastic, as best seen in the death animations. The fighting system has been simplified, in contrast to the first game; it's been actionized so to speak. The brawling is now done via QTEs. The in-game map, however, seldom provides information on missions unless you track them. The camera options from the original game, as well as the combat stances, may be missed by some. In fact, the combat reminded me of Onimusha 3: Demon Siege, which is odd, to say the least.
Much has been made of the misogyny of TW2; something curious as, at least, the sorceresses have a powerful lodge. Yet let us be honest. While it is true that a game like TW2 covers a diverse demographic, videogames are, by and large, a male fantasy delivery system, much like a James Bond movie. If a female character of the caliber of Alyx Vance can be procured, then all the better. But if the females in the game will be underwritten; as they usually are in Hollywood fare, then I'm unsure there's something wrong with giving most male players that which they desire quite naturally; attractive women. Where can I get the 1C Company TW2 calendar?
Some have complained that the first half of the game is too difficult, as enemies have the habit to swarm Geralt, yet this is fixed with a simple patch. Perhaps some of those individuals didn't play the retail version? In times like these, it's always worth mentioning that professionals from the game industry are hard-working folk and deserve the gamers' support. And TW2 is a clear example of getting bang for your buck, as there are two adventures in one. Game pirates, go plough yourselves!
The 2D interludes are similar in style to the opening ones from the film Priest and the game Dante's Inferno. Depending on in-game decisions, the story can branch out in two different paths; you actually gain something while you lose something else plot-wise. This, plus the multiple endings, provides the opportunity of several play-throughs. There was one wish I had while playing the recent Bioware games and TW2 granted it; due to its complexity, I could act submissively with someone of importance and then gladly betray him afterwards.*
The beasts are of interest, as they are from Polish and Russian folklore. The cases of the dragon, harpies or the Kayran, mythic creatures, make sense. But what of the water Drowners or forest Nekkers, which, truth be told, appear to be simply territorial humanoids yet are treated as animals? Having said that, the spellbinding Witcher world is valuable for its lessons about the human characters, which easily mirror our modern societies. Relationships are fleshed out, and are never an afterthought. It is telling that a monster hunter ends up killing so many humans; perhaps the real monsters are ourselves. *To be fair, this can also be done in DA:O.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Into the Wild

Given that Crytek is making games I find interesting, I decided to give Far Cry II a whirl, a game which uses some of the developer's code but was finally made by Ubisoft, in anticipation of the release of the third part the coming month. As the reader may recall, the original Far Cry was banned in Germany. Yet unlike say, the reality-starved CoD:MW series, here we find actual social commentary, as there are small hints of racial tension in the land, like a hanged black man, all of which could easily represent the outskirts of Johannesburg.

I'm happy to report that one gets to choose a character at the beginning, so this is not your regular FPS. Furthermore, FC2 hopes you will plan your moves strategically, hence there's nothing mindless about it; guerrilla warfare was never stupid. Add to this the free-roaming, which makes it feel like a first person GTA; the difference being FC2 was concocted by developers whose games aren't so overly derivative.

The Heart of Darkness as well as The Day of the Jackal have been mentioned as inspiration for perhaps the most expansive sandbox game of them all, as there are no levels, only checkpoints. Yet the experience reminds me loosely of the Splinter Cell series, as the game certainly makes you watch your step. Just use your monocular; simple, wasn't it? Gladly, there is quite an international cast of characters, in fact, the "Soviet enemy" scenario is somewhat inverted here, as you can play as a mercenary from that land.

There is a randomized "buddy system" wherein one character becomes your main assistance in the game and the other your secondary one. These are the nine playable characters plus three other ones. This is good, because there are gangs looking for trouble everywhere. The NPCs provide missions and establish the plot points.

Ultimately, Far Cry 2 is an evolution of the concepts from the first game; whereas the original took place in an island in Micronesia, the sequel brings the player to the perhaps harsher terrain of South Africa. Gone are the fantasy aspects, now the moral ambiguity of life is reflected in a free-for-all world of mercenaries, in a land with good people, living in a torn country. Considering this trend, it's entirely possible that the third entry will take place in India and you will play a poor man fighting human trafficking.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Blast from the Past

After playing what to me was one of the best games of the year 2011, Crysis 2, I felt compelled to play one of the original games, and got my hands on Crysis: Warhead, the stand-alone expansion to the still graphically advanced Crysis.

Crysis Warhead is a "midquel" which occurs during the events of the original Crysis, yet on the other side of the island in which that game takes place, after "Psycho" splits up with "Nomad" following their raid on the North Korean harbor. The intro may be very nice, but it's quite hard to make heads or tails of it, if you haven't played the original. Psycho, on the other hand, sounds remarkably like actor Jason Statham, which is a welcome addition.

The real attraction may turn out to be just how much the natural-flowing strategy of the game reminds you of Far Cry and Far Cry II (the first also by Crytek), something which has become a bit more stale in the sequel. There is a general need for the adoption of basic survival tactics; it's rather easy to get killed if you don't move across the battlefield with caution, which must be said, also reminds me of a console game as is the excellent Black.

It is rather interesting, it must be said, to see everyone, enemies included, wearing nanosuits, in a "future war" scenario which reminds of MGS but is very much its own thing. The Korean nanosuit army is a force to be reckoned with. As well, the Cephalopods are here more organic, as opposed to the anthropomorphization found in the sequel.

I feel obliged to make a parenthesis and briefly discuss the portrayal of "bad guys" in games and movies. Hollywood filmmakers have a fetish for Arabs, Asians and, more specifically, ex Soviets. Gaming is no different. Yet, for a leading nation with so many enemies within, it all stinks of formulaic decisions; gaming by committee. Unless the game is about fighting robotic aliens, you will be hard-pressed to find a developer that doesn't resort to infuriatingly simplistic clichés. If I listed all the examples of "bad Russians" this essay would go on forever. Let it go!

The wintry graphics do get a bit repetitive, despite excellent level design, but you do encounter new scenery rather quickly. Crysis:WH is certainly worth it as a past-gen shooter which puts you to the test, but for the most part you do not feel like a super-soldier in an advanced, ultra expensive suit.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Switching Platforms

Much has been made of the "console wars" between Microsoft and Sony, and while it is clear that both companies have put out great products, there is a factor of importance which tips the scales to one side, at least from my standpoint; exclusives.

The PS3 has on offer Beyond, GT5, Heavenly Sword, Heavy Rain, Infamous, Lair, MGS4, Siren: Blood Curse, SOCOM, The Last of Us, Uncharted, plus several re-issues of PS2 games.

While the 360 sports the strong Forza series; and now, The Witcher 2, its "response" to Heavy Rain; for the real similarity was the release date, was the tepid Alan Wake, which is to this day the most derivative and over-hyped game I have ever played.

It's just a very exciting time for consoles, especially with an eye on Europe and Eurasia. With studios like Starbreeze (plus splintered MachineGames), 4A Games, CD Projekt, and Crytek putting out above-average action games, which don't insult the player's intelligence, but reward with innovation. And I'm all for a console whose games cannot be so easily pirated.

Yet I will also try my hand at some bargain bins and open betas as a man can't spend all his cash on games!