Thursday, May 27, 2010

ModNation Racers: Less a review, more a rant.

As has been written in every article about ModNation Racers since its announcement, it brings the Play, Create, Share philosophy of LittleBigPlanet to the mechanics of Mario Kart. Overall, ModNation achieves this quite well: throwing together a basic-but-practical track is simple while the tools exist to craft some amazing spectacles; driving is tight, enjoyable, and familiar to anyone who has played Mario Kart, Crash Team Racing, Speed Freaks, etc. while several unique abilities are introduced to add an extra layer of split-second tactics; and all of it is held together with delightful, adorable characters no less tactile than LittleBigPlanet’s Sackboy, if just a bit less remarkable. The thought of being able to cross the finish line on a practically infinite number of tracks is giddying. It is a pity, then, that the games seems adamant to do whatever it takes to prevent you from ever actually rolling up to the starting grid.

Firstly, the loading times are horrendous—horrendously long and no less frequent. I picked up ModNation Racers the same day as Red Dead Redemption, and it is beyond my understanding that my 360 can load the entire Wild West in the time my PS3 takes to load a cutscene—after an half-hour installation. Worse, the painstakingly slow loads are drawn out by the dullest loading screens this side of the original PlayStation; one of five-or-so tips that you have probably read a dozen times already sits in the corner as the number ticks towards 100% with all the speed of Windows troubleshooting why Firefox just crashed. Worse still, that loading screen just loaded a cutscene—an admittedly adorable cutscene with some very dry humour, but a cutscene nonetheless—and now you are stuck on yet another load screen before you finally begin the race. Surely it would not have been too hard to figure out some way of having the race load while the cutscene was taking place? I don’t mind waiting through long loading times if I am about to enter, say, Liberty City, Tamriel, or The Capital Wasteland; but a single track in a kart racing game? Really?

The problem is further complicated by the game’s menu navigation, or lack thereof. Working similarly to a public version of LittleBigPlanet’s pod, ModNation’s central hub lets the player enter races; create new racers, karts, or tracks; browse high scores and popular downloads; etc. This is all very pretty, but considering it takes as long to load as a whole race, I wonder if a simple menu would have sufficed. After every race, the game kicks you back to this hub, complete with loading times. So, for example, let’s say you just want a play a couple of ‘quick’ races. This will be your process:

1. Load hub (slowly).
2. Drive across hub to the “Quick Race” section.

3. Load “Quick Race menu (slowly).

4. Choose map.

5. Load map (so slowly).

6. Boring pre-race banter.

7. The actual race!

8. Kicked back to the hub, which needs to load again (slowly).

9. Drive across hub to the “Quick Race” section (again).

10. Load “Quick Race" menu (slowly, again).

11. Choose map (again).

12. Load map (so slowly, yet again).

13. Boring pre-race banter (yawn).

14. The actual race!

15. Kicked back to the hub, which needs to load yet again (slowly).

After all this time, you have only played two races, and are ready to give-up and pull out Mario Kart DS. It boggles me that any designer would think that after a quick race, I would want to be thrown back to what is essentially a main menu. These people have obviously played a lot of Mario Kart in their time, so how did they fail to implement even the most basic fundamentals of menu navigation? At worst, I would expect to be thrown back to the map selection screen to choose a new map and go again. At best, I would want the option to jump straight from the finish line of one track to the start of the next.

So much is potentially lost here. There will be (if there isn’t already) hundreds of thousands of tracks out there. Why not allow me to press “random” and just throw me new track after new track? Between the glacial loading times and constantly being kicked back to the hub, you spend a stupefyingly small amount of time actually racing.

This only frustrates me as much as it does because the actual races are so fun. ModNation obviously understands the fundamentals that make kart games so fun, just as LittleBigPlanet understands the 2D platformer. It gets the feel and controls just right so that anyone who has spent time with any kart cam easily skip the tutorials, yet it adds enough interesting new features to keep things from going stale.

Among these, my favourite is certainly the shield. Pressing O briefly activates a bubble-shield that deflects incoming attacks; however, it chews through your turbo bar (which you fill much like in Burnout by drifting, jumping, spinning, attacking, etc.). This leaves you with a difficult choice: boost to the front, or consume the turbo for that inevitable swarm of rockets on the last corner of the last lap.

“Swarm” is not an understatement, either. The weapons are fun to use and can pack quite a punch, even if they all do pretty much the same thing. ModNation adds more of its unique flare here by giving each weapon three tiers. If, instead of shooting straight away, you hang on to your power-up, you upgrade it by picking up more power-ups. Kind of like upgrading your green shell to a red shell, and your red shell to a blue shell. This leaves you with another tactical choice: try to take out the next racer with your lower-tier attack, or hold out until you power it up, by which time it might be too late. This is all well and good, but ModNation lacks the diversity of other kart games with ranges of defensive, offensive, and support power-ups. Each weapon in ModNation works the same way: tier one will hit one opponent if your aim is good (green shell); tier two will seek the person in front of you (red shell); and tier three will obliterate everyone in front of you who doesn’t get their shields up (blue shell). This is a minor complaint as each weapon is still so fun to use—a tier three rocket swarm really has to be seen to be believed—and even sans weapons, racing is a blast.

But it all comes back to the near game-breaking menus and loading screens. You cannot just play a quick round of races before work; by the time you have started your first race, you have already been playing for ten minutes. Frustrating, as this is exactly the game that you just want to play. Imagine if Geometry Wars forced you through a one-minute loading screen between every game. I for one would not have put nearly as many hours into it as I did, and I am afraid that is the fate ModNation Racers will ultimately be burdened with once my “new game” eagerness wears off. My eyes will drift over it, consider pulling it out for a quick spin before, sadly, realising that a quick spin just isn’t possible. Sad, as the loading screens hide such a magnificently enjoyable game.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Heroes of the Metro

Nothing brings people together, nor, conversely, divides ideologies like a tragedy, and what tragedy could be greater than the nuclear obliteration of our entire world? Metro 2033’s survivors exist in such a world—a world of close-knit communities and conflicting ideals. Perhaps it is the socialist roots, but while North American’s apocalypse survivor seems intent on shooting their neighbour in the back for the sake of their own doomed survival in fictions such as Fallout 3 and (to my understanding) The Road, Russia’s survivors are hell-bent on rebuilding society and returning to the surface. Sure, humans still fight humans, but over ideologies and principles, not a handful of bottlecaps. In this post-apocalypse, people are willing to help others, to risk their lives, for more than mere payment. Metro 2033 is a world of heroes.

Artyom, the playable character, is but one of these heroes. I do not mean ‘hero’ in the simple way we often use the word to mean ‘main character.’ Niko Bellic is not a hero—he just wants revenge; the mercenaries of Borderlands and Far Cry 2 are not heroes—they are in it for the treasure. Bioshock’s playable character is doing what he is ordered to do, and Master Chief is doing what he has been constructed to do. But how many playable characters are truly heroes? How many playable characters aren’t extraordinary beings but simple, ordinary people doing extraordinary things for the sake of someone else?

I cannot think of many, but Artyom is certainly one of the few. He is no biological super soldier; he is not a brainwashed killing machine; he is merely a young man, no different from every other young man on Exhibit Station. No different, except that he does not think twice about disobeying his stepfather and risking his own life in a seemingly suicidal trek across the Metro to save his home and the people he loves. He does not do this for fame or glory; everyone surely assumes he is dead before his journey is anywhere near complete. The thought that no one even knows he is out here is gut-wrenching, but that is what a hero must deal with. It makes the going harder, but as every tunnel, every station, every mad dash across the toxic surface takes Artyom further from home, I remember the faces of those back at Exhibition and push on.

But Artyom is not the exception—the Metro survives on the blood of heroes. Artyom would be dead and Exhibition lost many times over if not for the numerous men that help him on his journey—men who have never been to Exhibition but risk their lives for Artyom anyway. Sure, the threat to Exhibition Station will eventually threaten the entire Metro, but for now, these men are risking their lives solely for the people I care about. ‘Love’ is a word I have never before considered using for a non-payable character, but I love these men that risked their lives for my story. From the old man on the caravan to Riga Station that holds back the flamethrowers until he can pull Artyom behind the barricade, to Bourbon’s(sometimes unfortunate) connections, to the poor communist whose name I never learnt and was in the company of for mere seconds. Each of these men cared for me, in their own way, and I was saddened when we had to part ways.

Most of all, though, Artyom and I would have been doomed without Miller and his Rangers. When everything seemed helpless, they came with us on our suicidal mission to D6. Some died, inevitably, and Artyom and I mourned every life sacraficed for our home. We could never repay the debt these brave men earned, but they always knew this—they weren’t doing it for fame and glory, and that is what made them heroes.

Despite its bleak post-apocalyptic setting, its bandits, its civil wars, its mutant monsters, Metro 2033 felt warmer and more optimistic than many games I have recently played. While elements of humanity still seem eager to slaughter each other over ideologies, there are still men (and women, I don’t doubt) willing to give up their own lives for someone they have never met. These heroes of the Metro are some of the finest gentlemen I have ever had the privilege of knowing. I think the future is going to be just fine.

Metro 2033 on Kotaku Australia

Kotaku Australia saw fit to publish my reader review of Metro 2033 that I submitted. Cool!

I am aware that I have not posted a real article here for over a week now. Between a large university paper (which I will probably post here at the end of the semester if I cannot get it published in a journal or something), work, and Red Dead Redemption, I have been a tad busy. I do have three pieces in the works that you can expect soon, though. One is going to explore how the three characters we play across Grand Theft Auto IV and its DLCs influences the way we view and use the city; another is going to discuss the various heroes of Metro 2033 and why I love them. I am also going to be writing my second 'Moments' column about a memorable Red Dead Redemption free-roam match that began with a two-day battle (two game days) between our posse and the green posse for possession of a stagecoach, and ended in a vicious battle for the Mexico border.

In the meantime, read this excellent little tale over at The Brainy Gamer about the writer's repeated run-ins with Armadillo's anti-Semite shopkeeper.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Game Diary 02: 16 May 2010

[Game Diary is a semi-regular column reflecting on the games I am currently playing, articles I have recently read, and work I am currently writing.]

Games I Played

I've moved on from every game I was playing in my previous post. I completed Pixeljunk: Shooter (though, I still have more scientists to save); I am stuck on the same boss on Dishwasher; and my veteran-difficulty attempt of Call of Duty 4 has stalled about 1.5 levels from the end. Instead, in the past ten days I have bgan exploring yet another apocalypse in Metro 2033; returned to Liberty City and Nico Bellic in Grand Theft Auto 4; I was lured back to Borderlands by some unresolved achievements; and I belatedly discovered the LittleBigPlanet water update.

Metro 2033. I entered the Moscow Metro with trepidation. I had read such positive things about the game's storytelling ambitions, but such poor things about the gameplay. Overall, though, my fears were for naught. The gunplay is nothing to write home about, and the generic mutated monsters are nothing exciting, but the snapshot of humanity clutching onto survival like it has no right to is beautifully captured. Every little detail expresses a society adapted to this existence. The most enjoyable moments of gameplay have been simply walking through the stations (or sneaking through the hostile stations). The characters look and act beautifully, and the comradeship with npcs is heartfelt. The game is far from perfect, but the overall sense of atmosphere and place is great.

Key Moment: Crossing the front line of a war between communist and Nazi stations. Just as in Fallout 3, it is depressing to see that even the apocalypse won't stop us from killing ourselves, but witnessing the fantastical ways in which war might be adapted to play out between two subway stations feels like something out of a Neil Gaiman or China Meiville story--horrible and beautiful in equal measure.

Grand Theft Auto IV.
A paper I am currently writing for uni about the relationship between player and character has been focusing greatly on Nico Bellic, and has lured back to my third playthrough of GTAIV. This is my first playthrough since completing The Ballad of Gay Tony, and I am really appreciating the coherence of the fiction. It's the little things, like when Ray's man, while driving the garbage truck to pick up the diamond stash, says, "Ray got the bikers to steal the diamonds off some nightclub owner." I had always known the DLCs would tie in closely to the original story, but that the original story ties into toe DLCs is great. How many other stories are criss-crossing Liberty City?

Key Moment: So, so many. But just from recent play, seeing Luis Lopez interrupt the diamond deal, and this time knowing exactly where he came from this time.

Borderlands. I thought I was done with Borderlands. I hadn't finished my second playthrough, but I was more powerful than anything Pandora was throwing at me so the challenge was gone. However, after a spontaneous motivation to get the few achievements I was missing (or rather, an apathy towards all my other games), I decided to wrap up my original character, for tidiness sake. This only took a couple of hours, but then I discovered how utterly powerful every enemy became afterwards. I was no longer the most powerful being on Pandora. This could not be. So forgetting any promises I had made to myself on the contrary, I purchased The Secret Armory of General Knoxx solely for the raised level cap. The new levels and enemies of the DLC are nothing special so far--just a lot more driving, but driving itself is no more fun. So Borderlands has its teeth into me again, and probably won't let go until I am once again the most powerful mercenary on the planet.

Key Moment: Borderlands doesn't have moments. It is just one long, long grind.

LittleBigPlanet. On account of being in French-Canada at the time, I completely missed LBP's water update. I knew it was coming eventually, but up until this week, I was still (somewhat embarrassingly) still eagerly anticipating its release. My girlfriend had the genius idea of googling its release date, and we discovered it was part of the Pirates of the Caribbean DLC, months ago. So we spent a good night working through the awesome new levels and squeeing as we watched the cute little sackboy and sackgirl gasp for air as they broke the water's surface. And then we were lured back to the level editor and made a giant, bizarre, crossdressing-sackboy paddle-steamer.

Key Moment: Water!

Honorable Mention: The Humble Indie Bundle. So I grabbed the Humble Indie Bundle, as everyone should, but am yet to really explore it. Penumbra is interesting, but strains my poor, old laptop. Waking up two days after purchasing it to discover I now also had Samorost 2 was a delightful surprise, too.

Articles I Read.

"Who Killed The High Score?" (Part One and Part Two) at RedKingsDream.
Fraser Allison's two-part, thought-provoking article addresses a question I have only every asked rhetorically, one that is repeated in Part One's comments: "Why can’t you do it for yourself and not because someone simply slapped some numbers down on the bottom of the screen?" It turns out, this is actually a question it is seriously worth asking. While we may feel that games have 'transcended' the need for numeric scores, they are still in fact everywhere, and we as players still rely on them to gauge our experience.

"Why Won't You Let Me Be Stupid?" at EDGE. Chris Dahlen's piece is an excellently written criticism on the tendency of modern games to not let the player figure things out themselves.

"Characters: The Building Blocks of Your Reality" at GameSetWatch. Christian Nutt's piece relates very closely with my current work on the shared agency between player and character. This article demonstrates why blank-slate characters can only exist in blank-slate worlds. If you want your game-world to be meaningful to the player, then the character must have a meaningful existence.

"Reflections of a Five Year Vet" by Manveer Heir. Manveer's blog, Design Rampage, has been hibernating for some time, yet I never removed it from my RSS feed. Now I know why. This massive, heartfelt, at time rambling piece provides a rollercoaster montage of Manveer's first five years in the industry. It makes me feel regret and relief that I gave up on my own interactive entertainment major when I did.

What I Wrote.

I wrote two pieces in Critical Damage this past week. I started another semi-regular column called Moments where I am trying to use my creative writing a little bit more and record some of moments of my gaming that have stuck with me. This week I looked at a highlight of my Far Cry 2 days. I also wrote a piece about disempowered play in Call of Duty 4 that I am less pleased with. I don't think it could decide if it was academic or personal. Either way, it tries to figure out why I enjoyed the game's story so much when by any right it was not really a story worth enjoying.

And that is what I have been up to. By the time I write another Game Diary, I imagine my time will have been taken up almost completely by Red Dead Redemption, but Mod Nation Racers might get in there as well. Time will tell!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Disempowered Play

I imagine that a soldier under fire doesn’t have the liberty of either agreeing or disagreeing with the reasons the war is being fought. Whether they are invading or defending would cease to matter beyond tactical importance. Who the enemy is, what they stand for, would cease to matter beyond the fact they want the soldier dead. The soldier joined the army/navy/air-force, and now they are here—killing in order to not die.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’s story is nothing special, but once I started, I found myself committing to it as enthusiastically as the better game-stories out there. In a sense, I didn’t have a choice. I chose to play the game originally, but now I am in a warzone, and who I am fighting (and why) no longer matters. I am just a soldier; I do not make decisions; I do not question the merits of the conflict; I simply kill in order to not die.

My characters (I control about five throughout the game) rarely possess much agency over their situations. Someone else is always in charge, making the shots so I don’t have to: my squad’s sergeant barks orders; my gunship’s pilot points out targets; my kidnapper keeps an eye on me. Does this lack of agency, this disempowered play, detract from the overall experience? I think not. Personally, I felt that by removing my agency, Modern Warfare ensures my experience is meaningful. The game holds my hand through carefully staged battlefields to ensure key plot moments are experienced in a certain way. However, like any decent game, I am always in complete control of my character. It is not me, but my character who is never really in control of their situation. In this way, Modern Warfare justifies its removal of my agency: I am just a soldier; following orders is what I do.

My disempowerment begins—symbolically and literally—as the game’s opening credits role. I am pulled from my presidential palace and thrown into the back of a car—two gun-wielding goons keep an eye on me as what was my country descends into war beyond the windows. I know, somehow, that I am being driven to my own execution. This level is as powerful because of the agency I do not have, as for the agency I have left. My death is inevitable; I cannot escape, but I can still look around. As this is all I have, I savour it. I glance left and right, desperate to take in the final moments of my country’s existence.

Importantly, though, this scene is completely scripted. I still have complete control over the character—the character just has no control over his circumstances. This minimal agency, this emphasis on the fact that I cannot meaningfully effect the world I exist in, this undeniable proof that I cannot meaningfully interact the world around me, is a powerful way to tell a story, and not one I imagined to ever work in a videogame.

When the bullet finally comes, there is no fanfare, no shock, no time to accept that this is really happening. I am dead. This story can and will go on without me. This is the precedent for the rest of my time with this game: I am not in charge anymore; I will go where I am told to go and do what I am told to do. My agency as a player just got executed.

Once I learnt to cede the power one normally expects as a player, I became quite good at staying alive, at following orders, at doing exactly what I was told. Or perhaps, when it came down to it and the barrel of that pistol pressed against my head, I did not so much cede power as simply accept how little power I have ever truly had in any linear shooter.

And then I am in Chernobyl, levels later: I am the second man of a two-man sniper team, sneaking into the abandoned city of Pripyat to assassinate some terrorist leader. By this stage of the game, I am well used to following order. If the game had been holding my hand before this mission, now I am clutching it for dear life—if my grip slips for a moment, I am dead. My CO, Captain Macmillan, dictates my every step through this level. “Stop. Duck. Move. Shoot. Don’t Shoot. Follow me.” This man is a professional and it does not take long for me to build up a kind of reverent awe towards him. His every move is flawless; his every shot is perfect. His constant orders do not detract from my experience; rather, I am happy to follow this man, to perhaps prove to him I am worthy to be on his team. Certainly, I would be dead a dozen times over if I had to find my own way through the enemy patrols and radiation hotspots. I have grown comfortable with following orders and not making them, to cede power and responsibility.

Most memorable moment of this level (even if utterly unrealistic) is dashing between and under cars of a large patrol. I don’t know how Macmillan got me through it. My heart pounded the whole time. The game was holding my hand, yes, but that hand was all that protected me from a very, very sudden death.

But then I got too comfortable in my powerless, responsibility-less position as Number Two. Macmillan is crippled and now it is up to me to carry him (literally) through the level. The sudden empowering is not as intoxicating as I would expect—it is utterly paralysing. I am just a lowly lieutenant—this guy just sniped a helicopter out of the air. Who am I to lead him? I do not think I have ever been so concerned with what a fictional character thinks of me.

Thankfully, the empowerment doesn’t last. Set consistently in warzones, Modern Warfare makes good use of the technique of crippling my character to further disempower me and further control what I experience. The infamous nuke scene (which I had known was coming) was breathtaking and all the more hard-hitting because I was all alone and there was nothing I could do except limp stupidly towards the mushroom cloud.

However, it is the game’s final minutes that I found the most exhilarating, when I finally had a chance to reclaim just a pinch of my own power that was taken from me in the opening level (as opposed to near-drowning in all of Macmillan’s power that was suddenly thrust upon me in Pipyat). I finally stopped holding on to someone else, and took matters into my own hands.

I lay crippled on a Russian bridge after an attack helicopter obliterated my squad. Everyone is dead and, judging by the way I can’t move, I am fairly certain I am about to join them. I’m not sure where I am hit, but it doesn’t really matter. My vision is beginning to blur, everything sounds like my head is underwater. No one is left to tell me what to do.

Zakhaev, the terrorist that removed me from power and assassinated me at the start of the game, is standing right before me, shouting orders as his troops command the bridge. He doesn’t realise I am alive, but it hardly matters—I am alone; I have no weapon. I look to my left (or perhaps I just collapse) where another soldier is writhing in pain, out of sight behind a burning car.

“C’mon! Pass me a gun!” I actually shout at the television.

The game is using slow motion for dramatic effect, but it is unnecessary—everything slows for me as the pistol slides across the asphalt. As my character’s arm stretches and picks it up, my fingers begin to tremble on the controller. I am not taking orders; I am making this decision myself. But neither am I free to make any other choice. After all, I am a soldier—I kill in order to stay alive.

I am still unsure if Zakhaev took away my power, or merely exposed how little power I had to begin with. Either way, this final action won’t empower me, but it is the closest I will get in the entire game, and I am desperate for it. The scene is scripted, but it isn’t a cutscene—if Zakhaev is to go down, it is I who must take the shot.

I grab the pistol and turn. In a split-second of clarity I expect is my last, I fire a shot into Zakhaev’s head, dropping him. His two bodyguards are confused and I franticly empty the clip into both of them before I collapse back again.
I am aware that my agency in this scene was minimal and identical to every other player’s experience. But because my agency, my power as a player, had been stripped from me so convincingly at the start of the game, Modern Warfare enticed me through to an exhilarating endgame with breadcrumbs of empowerment scattered through the levels. For ten seconds, I didn’t care that the scene was scripted—the fate of the war was in my hands. I didn’t take the shot because I had no choice. I took the shot because I wanted my palace back.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Moments 01: Far Cry 2

[In this new regular section, I’m going to record some of my more memorable gaming moments, the moments that remind me why I play games. In this entry I return to the game that has probably immersed me more than any other in the past couple of years, a first-person shooter in which I spent the vast majority of the time avoiding shooting: Far Cry 2.]

I haven’t moved for about a minute now. I haven’t twitched either analogue stick; I haven’t pressed a single button save my controller’s left trigger, which has been held in for what must approaching ninety seconds. My finger is beginning to cramp. Part of me knows it is unwise to keep my sniper rifle’s scope up for this long, but the rest of me knows that if I lower it, Murphy’s Law dictates that the mercenary guard at the other end of my sight will spot me instantly.

I am lying in a bush beside a dirt road, perhaps two hundred metres from the security checkpoint and perhaps half a dozen mercenaries. I do not need to take this checkpoint; hell, I don’t even have to pass through it. All I have to do is get across the road. According to my map, there is a narrow gap between the mountains on the far side; I need to get through it to get to my next objective.

But first I have to cross the road.

This isn’t my first attempt at doing this. The first time, I was too cocky. I drove the motorboat right up to the shore beneath the checkpoint—I was dead before my feet hit the dirt. This time, I dumped the boat upstream and swam the rest of the way. I snuck up the far bank and got to this shrub before I remembered the checkpoint’s sniper.

Through the scope of my rifle, I can see him looking right at the shrub, but he doesn't seem to have noticed me yet--at least, he isn't shouting. My crosshair hovers firmly over his forehead. If he does see me, I’ll fire before he can bring his own rifle up, but the rest of the camp will be alerted by the gunshot and surely kill me. Still, those chances are better than being sniped as I cross the road.

If only he would turn away.

I haven't moved for over two minutes now. It doesn't sound like long, but standing still for two minutes in a first-person shooter is a long time. My mind begins to play tricks on me. He has been standing still for an awfully long time. Perhaps he knows I am here; perhaps he is just distracting me while the other mercs come up behind me with shotguns and grenades. No, that is ridiculous; he hasn’t moved at all.

Why is he even here? What leads a man to risk his life for another country's civil war? Is he a citizen of this country? Some old colonial’s descendant? Doubtful. What amount of money buys a man’s loyalty? Then again, how is my character any different from him? After all, I am just a hired gun, too. The only goddamn reason I am cowering in this bush is because the local warlord offered me a pouch of diamonds.

He turns and my meandering musings are instantly abandoned. I release the left trigger, lower my rifle, and am sprinting across the road before I remember to listen for car motors. Foolish, but luck is on my side, and no jeep patrols are nearby. I run.
There is another shrub on the other side of the road, but I am sick of hiding. I need to get away from here, now. I am past the shrub, but there is another good hundred metres or so of open grassland before the foothills of the mountains. I turn my back on the checkpoint and sprint towards the gap. I expect the crack of a rifle at any moment; if the mercenary turns back around, he won’t be able to not see me dashing across the open ground. But the shot doesn’t come. I’ve made it. I dive into the undergrowth and wait another thirty seconds, listening for any shouts that I have been spotted before I gather my nerves and continue towards my objective.

My brother mercenary has no idea how close we both came to death this day.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Game Diary 01: 5 May 2010

[So to break up the musty, academic-ish tone that this blog seems to have fallen into, I am going to start breaking it up with this semi-regular column reflecting on the games I am currently playing, articles I have recently read, and work I am currently writing. I'll try to post a new Game Diary once ever seven or so days. Let's see how that goes.]

Four title-colon-subtitle games have dominated my gaming hours for the past week or so: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (360), Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (PS2), The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai (XBLA), and Pixeljunk: Shooter (PSN). I also read three great articles that were made no less great by the fact that I have not played the central game to any of them, and took my podcast virginity.

Games I Played

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Somehow I entirely missed the hype that surrounded Modern Warfare back on 2007. I put off playing it for a long time, ignorantly labelling it as just another brainless, macho, pro-American shooter. Then I had a moment and realised that my disregard was no better than all the people who disregard Halo without playing it. Afraid that I was missing out on something as special as the Halo naysayers are, I picked up a cheap copy from GAME and gave it a go.

By the end of the first level, I remembered why I really enjoyed Call of Duty 2 back in the day. Certainly, Modern Warfare's story is cliche and even a bit crass (Russians and Arabs threatening The West with nukes, oh my!), but it was so excellently executed that not only didn't I particularly mind, I truly felt like I had a responsibility to this fictional world, to see the job done. In the final few levels, particularly, I really felt the urgency. Infinity Ward have done a great job of making you feel like "just another soldier" and, simultaneously and conversely, as thought the fate of the entire world is on your shoulders.

Key Moments: The game probably warrants its own post, but some high points for me were the opening credits, in the back of the jeep; the entire Chernobyl level; and the utterly brilliant final moments of the game. This is how you present a linear story in the first-person mode.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. I dusted off my Playstation2 over the weekend and started a new game of Vice City. It took me awhile to get reacquainted with the archaic, auto-aiming controls, but one I did, I remembered why I loved this game so much. The style, the music, the script, all of it is so extravagant. I remember reading an OPS2 preview back before it came out that stated "the jump from GTA3 to Vice City is as big as the jump from GTA2 to GTA3". I couldn't believe this then, but now I must concede it is true. So many elements and mechanics still prolific in Grand Theft Auto IV can be traced back to Vice City, but no further.

Key Moment: Hooning down the beach on a PCJ600 with the sun rising over the water, the wind flapping through my Hawaiian shirt, and A Flock Of Seagulls on Flash FM. The urge to watch The Wedding Singer was almost irresistible.

The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai. XBLA is running some undead promotion at the moment and last week I was able to pick up The Dishwasher at half-price. It is unforgivingly hard, but the style is brilliant (if not a bit flat) and the pace is constant and fast. I am currently stuck on some kind of macho viking boss, but replaying past levels for more swirly currency is keeping me playing.

Key Moment: When my mindless button bashing transformed into frantic, deliberate combos and parrying.

Pixeljunk: Shooter. I have been meaning to play this game for I while. I have never played a Pixeljunk game before, but I have always been intrigued by their art style. Shooter has beautiful physics, beautiful music, beautiful charm. It is refreshing to see a dual-stick shooting game whose key goal is saving lives and puzzle-solving, rather than constant killing. The world reacts organically and predictably to your actions. I would like to find something to criticize about this game, but so far I have nothing.

Key Moment: Realising the ice encroaching from the bottom of the lake was actually forcing the water level to rise.

Articles I Read
"Bow Nigger" at Always Black. I stumbled across this older article thanks to a tweet of a retweet (you know how it is). Not only is it excellently written, but it deals with two things I am currently interested in: shared player/character responsibility to the fictional world, and etiquette between players in online play.

"The Delightful Absurdity of Just Cause 2" at Above 49. Nels Anderson's article went a long way in explaining why I enjoyed the Just Cause 2 demo as much as I did while simultaneously thinking how horrible it was. I found the discussion on 'camp' in videogames particularly interesting as it is something that has come up in my Film Studies at uni recently.

"Toy Soldiers" at The Supercollider. I found this article through Critical Distance's weekly blogroll. Overall, it is just a great read on war as represented in games and journalism. I have never played the XBLA title, but I downloaded the demo halfway through reading this article.

Podcasts I Listened To
Podcast Episode 33: Games With Great Storytelling.
The first podcast I have ever listened to! I became "that guy" on the bus who chuckled out loud because of something said in his earphones. After a 15minute rant about Ebert, the episode got into the meat of things about how games do (and more often, don't) tell great stories. I think they shot themselves in the foot more than once by pretty much admitting that the best videogame stories are 'told' through cutscenes and linear-ness and what not. I think they are just opening themselves up to rebuttals claiming that this is why videogames and stories are incompatible. Rather, I think they needed to make a point that videogames shouldn't try to tell stories, but should present stories. That said, they still make some great points about the fact that many game developers neglect the story until it is too late, etc. Worth a listen, if only for argument's sake.