The Hype Matrix

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red or blue pill

Allegations of corruption and bias of video game reviewers and even entire websites have been around for nearly as long as reviews themselves. Be it due to post-purchase rationalisation or blatant fanboyism, the notion that lukewarm receptions of highly anticipated games are driven by grudges and money rather than valid complaints about the games themselves has always been attractive to many disappointed gamers. That these accusations are often unfounded or downright irrational is of lesser concern. More recently, this 'corruption card' has been played as a means of damage control for not only negative, but also positive reviews. Particularly high scores on games they do not like are enough reason for the more cynical gamers out there to accuse the responsible reviewer of being bribed by the publisher. In almost all cases, this is an infantile knee-jerk reaction to the seemingly inconceivable revelation that other systems may also have good games.

"It is painfully naive to think that publishers are handing out unmarked dollar bills to reviewers."

Still, it does not take much empathy to understand this sentiment. When you are young and can afford only one system, it is tempting to try and justify your choice by trivialising the merits of other systems. Even more importantly, some of the doubts about the integrity of video game journalists are not completely unfounded. Taking into account the inflated review model, as well as numerous anecdotes of reviewers being pressured into giving out high scores, there are indications - some stronger than others - that there is something peculiar about video game journalism. More explicitly put, it would take a great deal of optimism to take a closer look at what is going on in the video game branch as a whole today, and conclude that all parties are in perfect balance with each other. But to think that this imbalance is the mere result of publishers handing out unmarked dollar bills to reviewers, is painfully naive. The truth about this problem is, sadly, even more grim, for we, the gamers, are as much a part of this process as are the publishers and journalists.

suitcase with money

Anyone with a basic understanding of how our current economy works will grasp the concept of supply and demand. When a certain product or service is required by a substantial group of people, this demand is likely to be met by a company or institution. As such, it is not terribly far-fetched to conclude that, to a large extent, gamers get what they ask for. This not only applies to video games themselves, but also to video game coverage. When we, through clicks or comments, indicate that we want excessively positive, score-focused reviews, that is exactly what many of the major gaming outlets will supply us with. And both the current state of video game reviews and the behaviour of gamers suggest that this is exactly what most of us want.

Even with the most highly acclaimed titles, there will always be a handful of reviewers that are less enthusiastic and judge the game more harshly. What is always fascinating about these reviews, albeit in a slightly twisted sense, is that their writers are often subject to criticism (and mind that I use this term loosely here) from angry fans. Defiant opinions nearly always cause a backlash, with a portion of the gamers even ousting suspicions of a conspiracy, convinced as they are that the relatively mediocre reception is just there to generate hits from ticked off gamers who want to behold the heresy with their own eyes.

"It is no surprise that people who do not walk in line are frowned upon."

Although the possibility that some reviewers defy the norm mainly to be edgy and different cannot be excluded entirely, it is rather bizarre to think that only reviewers willing to ride the hype train are entitled to voicing their opinion. But in a community that is dictated by rampant Metacritic fetishism and a focus on cold numbers over meaningful content, it is no surprise that individuals who do not walk in line are frowned upon. Consequently, it should come as even less of a shock that video game outlets respond to this sentiment by rating games on a 7-10 scale and supplying reviews that are largely void of thoughts that do more than just scratch the surface.

brown black sheep

Dramatic as it may sound, there should be no doubt that video game reviews are currently in a deplorable state. This is the result of there being several misconceptions about what a review entails. Reviewing a game does not mean listing the main features and commenting on them briefly. Nor does it convey systematically throwing around overused superlatives supported by circular reasoning. Yet a large chunk of the professional reviews out there can be captured in either category - sometimes even both. When reviewers praise the enemy AI in an action game, they frequently limit the supporting argument to 'they can flank you'. Even more often are graphics lauded for their technical qualities without any mention of how they contribute concretely to the overall experience. The music fits the action on the screen perfectly, we are told time and again. But the details of this claim are omitted almost as often.

"In absence of objectivity, it is diversity of opinion that must guarantee a balanced offering of information."

Too many reviews are essentially just a culmination of clichés systematically implemented into flaccid, descriptive accounts of the games' main features, resulting in articles more reminiscent of marketing blurbs than actual reviews. Let us not forget, though, that this is what we ask for ourselves. Every time we boast about a Metacritic average; every time we shoot down a review based on its score, we are tacitly endorsing a uniformity of opinions. If we wish to still pretend that reviews serve to inform us, such behaviour is utterly counter-productive. Because, contrary to popular belief, reviews are still subjective. They are - ideally - argumentatively grounded in technical information and correct observations, but still subjective. And in the subsequent absence of objectivity, it is diversity of opinion that must guarantee a balanced offering of information. This raises the question whether gamers turn to reviews to be informed, or to feel good about the game they just purchased.

Despite the strong tone, this article does not intend to insult or patronise gamers. Our behaviour is perfectly understandable when one considers how brilliant video game marketing is in the modern era. While many of us are still inclined to think of marketing as seeing an advert for a product on TV and going to the store to buy it, it embodies so much more. The way hype is built for a game, the way release dates turn into events of their own, and even our very perception of a certain game or series: they are all influenced by the manipulation of marketeers. Manipulation may seem like a scary term, but in this context, it means little more than effecting the way we feel about a certain game, usually by taking existing sentiments and making them stronger. Activision capitalises upon the image of Call of Duty as a social phenomenon, just like Namco Bandai spared no expense to promote Dark Souls' notorious difficulty. And Mario games certainly did not turn into 'fun for the whole family' by themselves.

dark souls prepare to die edition

The flip-side of such ubiquitous marketing buzz is that it is very easy to be drawn into the hype to a point where you swear by the product long before you actually get your hands on it. Assassin's Creed's live-action trailers, for instance, are traditionally very successful at getting people excited for the next instalment, even though they have virtually nothing to do with the game itself. It is this sentimental involvement that explains why gamers tend to include titles in their 'best games' lists long before they are actually released: they are so convinced that the game they have been anticipating for so long will be good, that it is going to take nothing less than radical disappointment for this opinion to be revised at any point.

As long as a long-awaited game receives positive reviews, everybody is happy. The reviewer is happy, because he has played a good game and now gets to tell people about it. The publisher is happy, because it knows better than anyone that bad scores can spell disaster for the performance of products that took years to finish. The gamers are happy, because for so long had they been anticipating this game and, if the score is anything to go by, it appears to have lived up to each and every of their expectations.

"We must be prepared to start judging reviews based on the validity of the content rather than the desirability of the score."

But then steps in a reviewer who criticises said game thoroughly, providing deep, analytical thoughts supported by excellent argumentation. The fans are furious, because the impertinent writer tried to burst their bubble by telling them the game may not be as good as they had hoped. And if it lowers the Metacritic average enough, what do they have left to boast about? The publisher is furious, because it was nice enough to supply the rogue reviewer with a free copy, only to be repaid with a score that is sure to scare off some potential buyers. Lastly, the reviewer is unhappy, because he now has to face the fury of the gaming community.

If we want to ensure the integrity and quality of video game journalism, we must, as gamers, be prepared to start judging reviews based on the validity of the content rather than the desirability of the score. It is true that the 'reviewed' (i.e. the industry) have an abnormal amount of control over the 'reviewers' (i.e. the media) in the video game branch. However, as gamers, we can certainly do our part by ensuring that some balance remains in this chaotic industry. This we do exactly by showing that we appreciate thoughtful, critical content, rather than patting ourselves on the backs in a microcosm void of worthwhile information. If we wish for video game journalism ever to be taken seriously, we need to start taking ourselves seriously and find out just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Or we can pretend nothing is wrong and choose to forever live in the Hype Matrix.

"Equo ne credite"

Written by Draugen for System Wars Magazine

System Wars Magazine's 5th Anniversary

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System Wars Magazine, the brainchild of Willy105, reached the respectable age of 5 today. Even though I only have been working on SWM since the last few issues, I still managed to make a solid contribution to the anniversary issue that appeared today. It can be read here. My part in this was not only contributing a few articles, but also editing the other articles (mainly the reviews) to ensure consistency in terms of both layout and grammar. SWM also happens to be the reason why I haven't been updating this blog as much as I'd like lately, but hey, I'm still around. You just need to click a few buttons to get to me, that's all.

Now excuse me as I go defend my Top 10 FPS list.

the swm crew

Dawai! - The Relevance of Nationality and Culture in Video Game Development

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Like many gamers these days, I have quite an extensive backlog of video games. The amount of games I have installed on my computer but not beaten is discouraging. And that is not even taking into account the tons of games I have never even bothered installing yet. For this reason, I tend to be more and more selective in deciding which games I purchase. As such, I only bought a handful of titles during last summer's Steam sales; games that I knew I would enjoy. Of course, there were still plenty of cases where I pondered for a long time over whether I should by a certain game or not. The air combat title Wings of Prey also fell into this category. The promotional footage featured on the game's Steam page made it seem good, but my minimal experience with flight games in general made me unsure whether I would enjoy the experience to the fullest extent. I eventually resolved the matter in a way that many would perceive as dubious, if not absurd. I looked up who the developer was (Gaijin Entertainment), and when I found out they were based in Russia, that convinced me to buy the game. I've enjoyed a lot of Eastern European games this generation, many of which stood out due to their uncompromising ambition and depth at the cost of polish and production value - a philosophy I can fully get behind. So why pass up on this Russian effort?

shishkin

After having decided my purchase based on the geographical location of the developer, it made me consider the relevance of nationality in the video game industry. I know very well that video game development is an international process that could not take place if it were confined to the borders of a single country. For any serious developer, the target audience is an international one by definition, and the presence of foreign publishers, foreign investors, foreign technology, foreign employees and foreign inspiration makes it more or less impossible to come up with the game that isn't the result of a large melting pot of international cooperation. But, at the same time, it is hard to deny that some regions tend to have a specific developing culture, occasionally making for very characteristic and distinctive titles that you feel could not have been produced somewhere else.

It's not without reason that I used Wings of Prey and its Russian developer as an example, because apart from maybe Japan, Eastern-Europe currently has, in my view, the most distinctive video game design culture in the industry. From the moment I played my first Eastern-European game, the fantastic S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (Ukraine), I noticed there was something very peculiar about this title. It's difficult to point out one specific aspect that evoked this sensation, but in the starting area alone there were many details that grabbed my attention because they dissonated with what I was used to from my experience with Japanese and American games. So many things stood out in my first playthrough: the dreary, yet original aesthetic of the art direction; the unforgiving realism, and, most importantly, the way in which the atmosphere was presented. The player was not immersed through witty dialogue and/or fancy scripted events in the background, but through a deep connection between the player and the game world. [1]

stalker

Subsequent experiences with games from the same region all confirmed that these peculiarities didn't end up showing their face in a Ukrainian game by pure chance. For instance, Metro 2033 (Ukraine) had an atmosphere that may have differed from Shadow of Chernobyl, but relied on similar mechanics: the player's main relationship in the game was with the environment, instead of an NPC of some sort. ArmA 2 (Czech Republic) displayed a similar, yet even more extreme desire for realism. And like S.T.A.L.K.E.R., it took pride in its overambition, making for a totally unrefined but uncannily deep and expansive video game that knows no equal. Yet another fine is example of the peculiarity of the distinct character of Eastern European game development is Cryostasis (Ukraine), an atmospherically rich first person shooter/horror blend that is known for both a notorious lack of optimisation and an engrossing plot that far exceeds the current standards of video game storytelling. There are a lot more examples of games that are unmistakably Eastern European in their design and presentation, and while, naturally, not every game developed by companies situated in Eastern Europe will distinguish itself as such, the simple fact that you can often tell without prior knowledge that a game is from that part of the world, is enough to confirm the hypothesis of a distinct Eastern-European video game tradition existing.

An interesting question is whether the existence of a certain game design culture in a specific region has any cultural implications, or is rather the result of socio-economic factors. A lot can be said for the latter, as the production of a so-called AAA (read: big budget) game requires resources, connections and general know-how that almost none of the developers in Eastern Europe possess (yet). While the days of the Cold War are long behind us and the Iron Curtain fell over two decades ago, Eastern Europe is still the less wealthy half of the continent, so it is not a far stretch to conclude that, on the whole, companies from that region are less likely to rely on the same amount of financial resources as their Western European counterparts. This means they have to be more creative in offering worthwhile gaming experiences without the need for whizz-bang cinematic presentation. And diving into an obscure niche can be an effective way of attracting gamers without having to delve into the same audience as the oversaturated AAA market. Another important factor is the current state of the video games market in Eastern Europe. Particularly in Russia, both PC gaming and piracy are still very prevalent, so developers with a share in this market are often forced to develop low-budget titles to be able to offer their products at a fee that won't price them out of the market.

spetsnaz

However, it is too easy to attribute the huge differences in game design choices between Eastern Europe and, for example, North America to a mere lack of money on the former's behalf. It should come as no surprise to anyone that people from different cultures set different priorities, so why should video games be an exception? To put it more simply, it is no coincidence that Michael Bay's films are produced in America, and not in, say, Spain. Similarly, the recent decline of the share of Japanese video game industry in the global market can be partially blamed on the fact that Western gamers tend to look for different things in video games than their Japanese counterparts. And if these cultural differences manifest themselves in the video game audiences, this implies that the developers themselves also owe part of their philosophy to their cultural background. The art direction of the aforementioned games ArmA 2 and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. clearly draws inspiration from local architecture and environments, making for a distinct aesthetic that may, in its turn, influence the atmosphere and even the very structure of the game in question. In other words, the fact that many Eastern European video games tend to evoke a rather somber vibe may have more to do with the region's turbulent history than we realise.

As stated previously, video game development is by its very definition an international process that cannot be reduced to an isolated, monocultural endeavour. It is not without reason that I talk of an Eastern European video game culture instead of distinct Ukrainian, Russian, Czech or Belarusian cultures. And even at a continental scale, you still cannot ignore the fact that many of these games were supervised by Western-European or American publishers, and that these games may employ technology and ideas that were conceived at the other side of the globe. On the other hand, it is also difficult to deny that games from a specific region often share certain traits that distinguish them from titles from other parts of the globe. Whether these differences are grounded culturally or the mere result of socio-economic factors cannot be said with absolute certainty, but this doesn't prevent us from making - and I stress this - very general and vague outlines of game design cultures based on geography. These models would by no means be obligatory - who would claim that Dark Souls is a typically Japanese game? - but you could certainly identify certain trends and tendencies. With this in mind, being convinced to buy a game because it is from Russia may not be as ridiculous as it sounds at first. In any case, Wings of Prey turned out the ambitious and rich game I expected it to be, and I just may have Mother Russia to thank for that.

soviet base


Notes:
[1] Read more on S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s atmosphere in this magnificent article on Tap Repeatedly.

A Summer of Finished Games

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Even though I've spent most of this summer writing my MA thesis, I still had some time left to play games and forget about all of my intellectual contemplations for a few moments. Like I posted in one of my previous blog entries, I even took advantage of the Steam sales and thus expanded my already considerable backlog, making the need to beat a few games even greater. As such, take a look at my latest batch of finished games, as well as my thoughts on them.

Wings of Prey



I never really was into flight simulation, but when this more arcadey version of IL-2 Sturmovik was on sale, I decided to give the genre a shot, anyway. And I didn't regret it. Oddly enough, the gameplay reminded me of the open-ended stages of Star Fox 64. The game has a light-hearted, arcadey feel to it, with forgiving controls and a relatively easy campaign. This feat will no doubt have angered the more serious flight sim fans, but for a newcomer like me, it was the ideal introduction to an otherwise complex and inaccessible genre. Apart from offering a great experience, the game's presentation was qualitatively impressive as well. The flight models and maps were quite detailed (for as far as the latter is possible in flight sims), yet the game consistently ran at a smooth 60fps. Add to that the epic score composed by Jeremy Soule (of Elder Scrolls fame), and I almost feel guilty only having paid 4 euros for this.

GTA IV: Episodes From Liberty City



The Lost and Damned

While GTA IV scored straight 10s across the board back when it came out, I wasn't too big a fan of it. Though the gameplay had definitely improved compared to the previous instalments in the series, it bothered me that the game strayed away from its origins as a fairly comedic game in favour of a more realistic experience. The game still tried to be funny at the same time, making this next-gen GTA title come across as rather schizophrenic effort. One of the main problems was that the protagonist, Niko Bellic, was presented as this sensitive, emotional guy plagued by a dark past, yet you still spent most of the game killing random people for money and/or pleasure. The standalone expansion Lost & Damned fixes some of these issues by letting you play as Johnny, a psychopathic biker. The game follows him in his endeavours as his beloved motorcycle gang falls apart due to personal conflicts, and trouble with both crooked cops and local mafiosi. This premise makes for a fairly straightforward game, with the majority of the missions consisting of you and your fellow bikers shooting people you don't like. The more team-focused combat and new weapons do give a new twist to this familiar concept, but it couldn't prevent the game from growing stale long before the credits rolled.

The Ballad of Gay Tony

Even though both GTA IV and the Lost & Damned expansion both suffered from design issues, it seems that Rockstar finally hit the nail on the head with The Ballad of Gay Tony. This second and last expansion to GTA IV introduces you to the glamourous high society and nightlife scene of Liberty City. As the bodyguard and business partner of nightclub owner Gay Tony, you will spend most of the game getting him (and with that, yourself) out of trouble, meeting all kinds of colourful characters along the way.

What this expansion does so well compared to Lost & Damned is offering missions that have you do more than just kill people. As you make your way through the many memorable missions, you have to intimidate a blogger until he stops writing slander about you and your boss, beat Brucie's crazy uncle Mori in a triathlon race and sink an expensive yacht using a military helicopter. The expansion also seems to have taken notes from some of the criticism on GTA IV by adding more activities outside of missions, such as cage fighting and skydiving. All in all, this expansion was probably the best that the GTA franchise has had to offer this generation. For me, it's still not as memorable as San Andreas, but it seemed to have made much more of an effort to emulate the crazy fun of San Andreas than the main game.

Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2 (GRAW 2) - PC version



After my disappointment with GRAW 1, I never bothered to even install this direct sequel until a friend assured me it was a significant improvement over the first one. And right he was. With a quicksave feature, more interesting level design and AI that actually played by the rules most of the time, GRAW 2 was a joy to play through. Things could get incredibly tough at times, but for the most part, dying in this game didn't feel as cheap as in the first GRAW. Definitely recommended for those craving a hard-as-nails old-school tactical shooter that isn't plagued by archaic design, although you will have to cope with one of the most horrid stories in recent video gaming memory. Read my full review of GRAW 2 here.

RAGE



With its blend of shooting and racing, RAGE certainly feels like a bipolar game at times. Fortunately, it is also a damn enjoyable one. The game takes the best stuff from old-school shooters (no weapon carrying limit, an incredible amount of enemy types, lots of gore) and implements all kinds of modern shooting features to make action that feels fresh and retro at the same time. The gunplay is just marvellous, with every weapon having significant weight to it, as well as offering several different ammo types to toy around with. The enemy AI is fairly competent and, more importantly, surprisingly varied. This makes for gameplay that can go from light stealth-based shooting to feeling like a full-blown horde shooter in a matter of minutes. The technical quirks (pop-in, low-res textures) and disappointing story drag the experience down somewhat, but all in all I'd still say that this is one of the best shooters to come out of the USA since the first FEAR. It's the game that Duke Nukem Forever should have been.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Dawnguard



Seeing as I was already very impressed by Skyrim, which is one of the most superbly designed open world games to date, getting the Dawnguard expansion was more or less obligatory. This DLC adds a new questline revolving around the struggle between an ancient clan of vampires and the Dawnguard, an order of vampire hunters. After having done a couple of quests, you will have to choose between the two factions, both offering their benefits: the Dawnguard offers you access to crossbows and their ammunition, while the vampire clan allows you to become a Vampire Lord and live in a spooky keep. I personally never felt much for vampire gameplay in the Elder Scrolls games, and seeing as I have a character that excels in sneaking and archery, joining the Dawnguard was the only logical choice for me.

My initial fear that the Dawnguard questline would be as underwhelming as some of the guilds quickly disappeared. The new environments, such as a ghostlike plane of Oblivion, a frozen paradise and a dreamlike cave system, succeeded in giving this expansion its own, fresh vibe. More importantly, however, you are accompanied by, Serana, a mysterious vampire woman throughout most of the questline (regardless of which side you choose), who is not only the best character to date in the entire game, but also a very skilled sister-in-arms to see you through the more difficult missions. Clocking in at around 8-9 hours, the main quest of Dawnguard may not be incredibly long, but for me it is certainly one of the best experiences offered in the Skyrim universe to date. Full reviews of both Skyrim and Dawnguard coming soon.

New Review - Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2 (PC)

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After a period of several months, I finally got around to writing a review again. The game in question is Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2 for PC. It's a pretty old game (2007) that I had stashed into my backlog pretty much immediately after buying it as part of the Ghost Recon collection during the Steam winter sale of 2010. I did try out the first 'GRAW', but it frustrated me so much that I uninstalled it and never even bothered with the second game. But a few weeks back, a friend informed me that GRAW 2 offers considerable improvements over the first game, including a much-needed quicksave feature. So, I decided to give it a try, and I beat it in one weekend.

GRAW 2 screenshot

And now you can read my elaborate opinion on this pretty hardcore tactical shooter in my latest review. As a bonus, I've recorded a 15-minute video of the first mission, in which I shoot some rebels and blow up a bridge with dazzling efficiency. :D Mind, though, that I scrapped the teammates for this mission, so that the session would be a bit shorter. As a consequence, it was also a lot harder, and it is a miracle that I only died once while shooting this. In any case, enjoy watching the video and/or reading the review.

Click here for the review.
Click here for the video (also available in HD).

The Connection Between Literature and Video Games: Its Possibilities and Limits

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Reading if Fundamental

The relationship between video games and other forms of popular media has always been a difficult one. When an upcoming video game is being based on a film, it is very likely to turn out a tacked-on experience that has little going for it other than the familiarity of the characters and setting. And while we may have seen the occasional exception to this rule over the years with high quality-titles such as Goldeneye 007 and Chronicles of Riddick, the 'movie-game', anno 2012, generally still seems to be a recipe for mediocrity. The reverse application of this concept - basing a film on a popular video game - has hardly been more successful. The 1993 film adaptation of Super Mario Bros. is universally regarded as a disaster, and while the Mortal Kombat films have at least had a cult following, there are few who would deny their glaringly low production quality.

A more recent development is the intermingling of video games and literature. The phenomenon itself is not entirely new: a video game based on Terry Pratchett's Discworld already appeared in 1995, and there are undoubtedly even older examples of likewise titles to be found. But the appearance of literature-inspired games only stopped being sporadic in more recent years. Here, the connection again works both ways. There has been an increasing number of novels based on popular video games, but we have also seen quite a few video games that took their inspiration from works of literature.

The trend of releasing a (series of) novel(s) set in the same universe as a video game was popularised - in my own experience, at least - by Halo, and soon spread to other franchises, such as Gears of War, Mass Effect and even the lesser-known S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series. Like with film-based games, the popularity of the original product (in this case, the video game) is like a double-edged sword: on one hand, there is a large group of gamers who are already familiar with the franchise's universe, and are thus more likely to have an immediate interest in a book based on it. However, catering to this very specific group of people also means that the chances of someone who has not played the game being interested in the book are very slim. In short, the success of the book depends, to a large extent, on the popularity of the video game it is based upon.


Cryostasis still
Literature-based video games, like Cryostasis, can be very good in their own right

Fortunately, the second variant, that of literature-based video games, seems to be less restricted by a limited 'install base', and, as such, has much more potential of being successful based on its own merit. This increased sense of flexibility is caused mainly by the fact that a lot of these games appear to be marketed towards a larger group of people, which becomes apparent when you observe how they interpret the work they are inspired by much more liberally. The brilliant Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason, for example, tells an allegorical story that runs parallel to a fairytale written by Maxim Gorsky, but is set in an entirely different time and geographical location. The original fairytale, The Flaming Heart of Danko, is still told through scrap notes found while playing the game, but the events in the game itself are distinct enough to confirm that the game is fully capable of standing on its own, thus preventing the player from getting the idea that he will not fully understand the game if he is unfamiliar with the story.

Even with more direct video game adaptations of literature, there remains a certain distance between the game and the novel. Metro 2033, for instance, covers only a part of the novel of the same name by Dimitry Glukhovsky, and instead uses only story fragments that can be turned into interesting gameplay sequences. As a result, the game, while not showcasing nearly the same amount of depth in terms of its characters or philosophical undercurrent, has successfully utilised the book's setting to make for a gameplay experience that stands on its own. The fact that the developers of Metro 2033 were fully aware of the intrinsic merits of the game became apparent when they chose to not emphasise its literary inspiration too extensively in the marketing: the novel is not mentioned in the launch trailer, nor on the game case. Compare this to the prominent text on the front cover of the Gears of War novel Aspho Fields, "The official prequel to the award-winning video game", and it is obvious that one of these products relies a lot less on the power of its respective franchise than the other.

GoW novel
The Gears of War novels in general are not too subtle about the merits of the games

The difference in nature between literature-based video games and video game-based literature may be caused by the fact that, when making entertainment, it is much easier to capitalise upon the strengths of the video game medium than those of the literature medium. The plot is less essential in a video game, so a developer that uses a book as inspiration has a great amount of liberty in deciding which elements he chooses to use in his video game. The aforementioned Metro 2033 game, for instance, has a world created after that of the novel, with the choking atmosphere to match, while only following the central points of the plot and omitting many details that were mentioned in the book. The developers had, furthermore, complete liberty in deciding upon the game's core mechanics, and virtually all other aspects that make a video game good.

Literature, however, is much more than mere entertainment. It is not just the core structure of a novel that makes it interesting, but especially its ability to transmit complex ideas, themes and topics. When a novel is set in a world with many predetermined characteristics, it is already much harder for an author to approach whatever theme he has in mind in a natural way. Moreover, we must not forget that video game literature is much like 'movie-games' in the sense that it is often born out of commercial motives. With this, I do not wish to imply that commercially-driven literature cannot be good (Dostoyevsky wrote his magnum opus Crime & Punishment to pay off his debts, for example), but it does leave an author with much less space to manoeuvre in when there is a clearly determined and specific target audience to cater to. After all, the best literature tends not to be the most accessible, and accessibility is typically what the publisher of a video game-based game will aim for.

Personally, I am much more interested in literature-based video games than in video game-based literature, as the former has much more potential to contribute to the meaningful development of its respective medium. Both of the aforementioned exemplary games, Cryostasis and Metro 2033, have showcased some comparatively excellent storytelling, which was made possible by their ability to capitalise upon certain aspects of literature, while not being obliged to model themselves entirely after it.

Metro 2033 still
The video game adaptation of Metro 2033 shows that less can sometimes mean more.

However, it is not the aim of this article to dismiss the merit of the video game novel. They can contribute greatly to expanding the lore of a video game universe, seeing as a book simply allows for much more elaboration of something that may have been merely referenced to in the corresponding video game. As such, they open up a whole new perspective for gamers who just cannot get enough of the universe of their favourite video game. True, it may take a long, long while before any game-inspired piece of literature will rank among the absolute finest that the medium has to offer, but even with the obvious and seemingly inevitable limits that come with being geared towards a niche audience, they can certainly be a valuable asset to the enrichment and expansion of a video game franchise.

My Top 10 First Person Shooters 2005 - 2012 (VIDEO)

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I remember writing a blog entry on my top 10 of first person shooters a long while ago, so this may not be entirely new to some of you. In either case, I've revised the old list and converted it into a video. What started out as a video editing excercise has resulted in a rather nice video of over 7 minutes long. It took quite some time and effort to complete, too, as I've had to record all the footage myself (which resulted in having to install some of these games), and I've also created all of the still screens (such as the game info and the credits) myself in GIMP instead of resorting to the boring standard text templates from Windows Live Music Maker.



Before you watch the video, make sure you realise that:
- This is only meant to reflect my personal opinion. These are simply my 10 favourite shooters.
- I've only chosen one game per series maximum. An unvaried list is a boring one.
- I haven't been able to include certain big games such as Halo and Killzone based on the simple fact that I haven't played them sufficiently.

That all being said, enjoy:
My video of the Top 10 FPSs 2005-2012

Be sure to watch in HD and in fullscreen!

ArmA II 4 Noobs - Easy Fun With the Ambient Combat Module

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Arma 2 Russian box art

With the DayZ mod recently hitting 900k unique players(!) and the base game ArmA II: Combined Operations still topping the sales charts on Steam, I think it's safe to say that this military simulator is gradually releasing itself from its niche status and drawing closer to the mainstream of PC gaming. And deservedly so. The game is just too rich in content to be enjoyed by just a small selection of military geeks. I realise that a lot of people will have gotten the game solely for DayZ, but if you have the main game anyway, why not check it out? Of course, the main problem with doing that is that ArmA II, due to its realism, complexity and instability, isn't the most accessible game out there. At first, I didn't really get the appeal of the game either, but after delving into ArmA II's vast universe a bit more, I quickly realised that this game, while flawed, is something special. When I was 'just' 14 hours into the game, I already voiced my enthusiasm about the game's ability to make you feel the perils and panicks of war in this blog entry, posted over 1.5 years ago. At that point, I barely knew anything about the true possibilities of the game's mechanics, let alone grasping anything about scripting. But I knew that this game had the potential to end up very high on my list of all-time favourites. And indeed, about 18 months later, I've logged in over 400 hours in total, made various missions and explored the game's amazing modding community. I still remember, though, how hard it can be to get into ArmA II, as this game pretty much demands that you create your fun. For this reason, I'll tell you about something rather cool I did recently and explain how you can get used to ArmA II's action using this method, as well.

ArmA II scherpschutter

What I did was so simple that it might seem silly to some that I'm explaining it here. Ever since I started playing, I knew about the Ambient Combat module that you can activate to spawn random friendly and enemy units on the map. I used it occasionally to generate some light-hearted action in missions that were mostly designed for me to try out the game's equipment, but the very sporadic appearance of random units made it difficult to get true enjoyment out of this quirky little feature. I was lucky when some units appeared every 5-10 minutes, and it happened frequently that I played for 15 minutes or longer without encountering any enemy or friendly units on the map. Hardly satisfactory when you're looking for a quick fix of balls-to-the-wall action, I'd say.

For one reason or another, I never looked into the matter any further and used the module only on a few occasions. However, when a friend of mine recently got into the game, he decided to look for a way to spice up the Ambient Combat a bit. And he found a rather easy way to do it: it was just a matter of adding a trigger to the mission that makes random units spawn much more frequently, while also decreasing the 'spawn zone'; with the trigger we use, units will always spawn within 300 metres of our vicinity. And the result is baffling. The module will often need some time to catch steam, but usually, after about 10 minutes of relatively tame gameplay, all hell breaks loose. There will be enemy APCs firing explosive rounds at each other over great distances, gunfights breaking out between infantry squads of different factions, and frequently, there will be helicopters and jet planes joining in on the fun by just bombing the place to oblivion. Indeed, staying alive under these circumstances is a challenge in itself, and being able to test your weapons and vehicles of choice on an endless horde of soldiers makes it all the better. Seeing as the all-out chaos may not necessarily make sense from a tactical point of view, it might not satisfy all ArmA II veterans, who are likely to be used to well-coordinated, realistic, team-based missions. But if you want to experience the pure WW3-like hell that this game is capable of generating, this is a good way to get a taste of it.

Arma 2 Takistan

The best part is that it is really easy to make a mission like this yourself. You will only need a couple of things. First, you go into the editor and choose a map. Smaller maps are more intense, but I suggest something bigger, such as Chernarus or Takistan, that will really allow you to go on a large-scale quest for survival. Then, spawn the unit you want to play as. In this sort of mission, I prefer to play as the Russian Spetsnaz, especially the custom units made by colonel stagler. But it doesn't matter, really. Whether you want to play as a US Marine or an Eastern Orthodox Priest with tactical glasses and a Javelin: it's all possible. The next thing you will want to add is the Ambient Combat module. Switch to modules by pressing F7 and select Ambient Combat. Give it the following name: "BIS_ACM", without the quotation marks. Be sure to connect the module to your player unit. You can do this simply by pressing F5 for synchronisation, and dragging a line between the two elements. Using the same method, you can also add a few more modules that may help make your mission feel a bit more alive. For example, you can add "Ambient Civilians" (or "Ambient Civilians (Expansion)" for the Operation Arrowhead maps), "Ambient Civilian Vehicles", "Special Support Module" (which allows you to call in airstrikes and such) and perhaps some visual effects, such as "Film Grain".

With that out of the way, there's only one more thing you will need to do. You press F3 to go to triggers, and you create one by double clicking on the map. In the trigger menu, make sure the trigger can be activated by "anyone". Also, increase the size of the trigger a bit. The default is "axis a: 50" and "axis b: 50". Set those to a nice and safe 400. Then, a bit further down, you will see a row of three different numbers for "Timeout". By default, all of them are set to 0. Change all of these numbers to '10'. This is the amount of seconds it will take before the for the trigger is activated. Then, in the field "on act.", we will need to put what the trigger will actually do once it is activated. Here, we put the following code, again, without the quotation marks: "[1, BIS_ACM] call BIS_ACM_setIntensityFunc; [BIS_ACM, 50, 300] call BIS_ACM_setSpawnDistanceFunc;". You won't have to synchronise the trigger with other elements on the map. All you need to do is make sure that you are inside this trigger when the mission starts. If you've made your trigger 400x400 metres like I always do, this shouldn't be too hard.

Arma 2 Podagorsk

After doing all of the above, your basic mission should work. Note that it may take a few minutes before things really start happening. I don't know which factors influence this, but it seems to be pretty random. The only thing I've noticed is that getting into a vehicle will help speed up the process on occasions, as this will make you a more visible target for any nearby enemy units. What you can do, however, is add some extra elements to help spice up your mission a bit. After all, this piece of elemental action can be the basic frame of something bigger. For starters, you can add some ammo boxes and vehicles close to your spawn point. This will allow you to switch weapons, or to create a custom loadout if you do not yet know how to do this with code (I might make a blog entry on this later). You can also add another playable unit near you and export the mission to multiplayer missions, so you can wreck havoc with a buddy. Make sure that you both have the content you used to create your mission, though. So if you've added mod characters, such as the awesome GRU Spetsnaz soldiers I mentioned, your friend should also have that mod. If you're already familiar with basic mission editing, you can also add some objectives. Something as simple as having to travel from one end of the map to the other can already make for a super-intense experience.

With this, I hope I've encouraged some of the DayZ enthusiasts out there to give the main game a shot, as well. This little mission formula doesn't quite show the full potential of ArmA II, and might make hardcore fans cringe over its lack of depth and complexity, but I think it is at least successful in dismissing the notion that ArmA II is 'boring'. If you have any questions about this small mission template, just ask me in the comments. I'm also available as a co-op buddy for whatever you wish to do in this game.

Arma 2 valscherm

To help you, here are some screenshots of what the trigger and the basic mission layout should look like:
Be sure to name your Ambient Combat module
What the trigger should look like
Notice how all of the modules (but NOT the trigger) are synchronised with both me and my buddy
The result

And to increase the fun, here are some mods for extra units and islands that you may find interesting:
Units: GRU Spetsnaz by colonel stagler
Map: Podagorsk by Goeth
Map/Units/Vehicles: Isla Duala by IceBreakr
Weapons: AKM74 pack by Foxhound
Weapons: AEK pack by yvandrey
Weapons: Eastern weapons pack by RobertHammer

Have fun!

Steam Sales - The Final Tally

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Like anyone with a PC that isn't totally ancient, I've benefitted of some of the Steam sales over the past week. It's been a few days since the sales have ended, so I deemed this a good moment to look back at some of the deals I've gotten, and see if they've been worth it so far. I don't remember the exact prices for the things I bought, but they must've been low, because I have only bought daily deals and flash sales.


Warhammer 40K: Space Marine



Now, I don't really care about the Warhammer universe. Frankly, I'm not sure if I have any idea of what's going on in this game story-wise. But that only testifies to the Space Marine's greatness, as it has been hard to put this frantic TPS down ever since I got it. Much in contrary to my usual behaviour as a gamer, I decided to get the DLC as well, seeing as it was also priced down and the number of maps offered in the base game was supposedly rather meager. And boy, am I glad I invested in that bit of extra content (it was on sale too, after all), because I've filled quite some evenings with multiplayer sessions. What makes this game great is that the three customisable classes cover a wide array of playing styles, making for a quirky, charming TPS that somehow reminds me of Conker: Live & Reloaded. My only worry is that the already modest community will keep being thinned out to a point where you have to be lucky to find a game. But even then, the single player mode I only recently delved into, seems promising as well.

Left 4 Dead 2



This is just one of these games that I had always missed out on for some inexplicable reason, so when this one came up in the 'community's choice' poll, I voted for it, and immediately picked it up after it had won. L4D2 surprised me in multiple ways. Most notably, it is probably the first Source game I've played that actually has good gunplay. Although I'm a bit disappointed by the lack of iron sights (wanna get them headshots), each gun has its own feel and accommodates to a certain play style. However, I'm not overly fond of the horde-based type of shooter, so I already grew bored with it. I had hoped it to be like Killing Floor, but more story-driven, but even though it kinda is that, it just doesn't have the tilt value of that game.

Hard Reset



I played the demo back when the game was about to be released, and even though I liked it, 25 euros seemed a bit steep for an FPS with a short campaign and no multiplayer. So when it went on sale, I finally decided to check it out. I replayed the first level, that was also in the demo, and found out then that the difficulty was significantly higher from that point onwards. I like a challenging shooter, but the absence of a quicksave button will always lead to annoying situations where you accidentally die due to a triviality, and get put back 5-10 minutes. As such, I haven't had the energy to delve much further into it, but gameplay-wise, it seemed solid. I do wonder how long this concept can remain interesting, though.

Mount & Blade Collection



Now, before you go saying that I'm a shooter fanboy (which I am), I have actually gotten games of other genres, as well. Take Mount & Blade, the action RPG that apparently started in a Turkish couple's basement. I must admit, though, that my main reason for getting these games is the Napoleonic Wars DLC, an add-on to Mount & Blade: Warband that puts up to 200 players on a single map and has them duke it out with muskets and swords. Naturally, I also wanted to try out the base games, but there's just something about M&B that keeps putting me off. I'm sure I'll love this game once I get a good game going, but for the time being I am mostly wandering about courtyards without a very clear idea of what it is I'm doing or striving towards.

Wings of Prey



From a genre I'm just not very good at (RPG) to a genre that I was, up until recently, more or less completely unfamiliar with: aerial combat. As I looked at Wings of Prey's sale, I still hesitated to put it in my basket. My main concern was that it might be too inaccessible to someone with no experience with aerial combat games at all, and another one that I do not actually have a joystick. The description said, however, that the game had a wide array of difficulty options to accommodate to both veterans and total noobs like yours truly. Then, someone who owned the game assured me that you can play this game with pretty much any control method, so all of a sudden it seemed like the perfect game to finally get into the genre. And it was. I actually beat it today, and I'm still very impressed by its sense of detail, its smooth controls, its gorgeous graphics and its stunning soundtrack (by Jeremy Soule of Elder Scrolls fame). These aspects easily compensate for the few downsides, such as the occasionally questionable voice acting and the confusing YuPlay connection. I only found out later that this is actually an instalment in the famous IL-2 Sturmovik series that was initially intended for consoles, so I'm going to take a wild guess and say that simulation buffs consider this to be 'dumbed down', but at least that allowed me to play the game. I still ordered IL-2 Sturmovik 1946 and see if I'm ready to really get into the genre. But one thing's for sure: this, along with Space Marine, was my best purchase during the sale.

Dear Esther + Frozen Synapse



I've lumped these two together because, well, I haven't played either of them yet, so I couldn't tell you anything interesting about them. I got Dear Esther on the final moment after a friend talked me into trying it out, and that same friend gifted me his second copy of Frozen Synapse.

In summary, my backlog hasn't exactly become smaller over the past few weeks, but up until now, every game has been worth the modest price I paid for it. This should at least last me to the next Steam sales. So, did you guys buy anything interesting?