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Steam Sales - The Final Tally

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?

My Impressions of 'Slender' (includes video footage)

Many of you will have already heard of this strange new horror game called 'Slender'. For those who don't, it is the raw (and free) version of a, give or take, 15-minute game that is apparently the result of someone experimenting with developing tools. As such, this is essentially the demo of something that was not originally intended to be released to the public. However, now that it has found its way onto the internet, the game has gone viral. Why? Because, contrary to most so-called horror games, this one will actually make you change your loins.

What's so impressive about this project is its simplicity. The game has no backstory, other than that it takes its antagonist from the Slenderman 'universe', an X-File-like urban legend that was created on SomethingAwful forums just a few years back. Posters would photoshop pictures of an unusually tall and slender (big hint) man, usually dressed in a suit, into normal photographs, with his main eerie characteristic being his lack of a face. Internet users rapidly built a mythos around him, which can be summarised by his kidnapping of children and his inclination to appear near woods and rivers.

Scared yet?
The woods, the darkness, and the howling wind!

The game itself only borrows Slenderman's appearance and provides no plotline of any kind, as it simply doesn't need one. Once the game drops you in the woods with only a flashlight and a limited amount of stamina, you already realise that something's terribly off. The only hint you are provided with is "collect the 8 pages", and off you go. As soon as you pick up the first page, you can hear distant footsteps gradually creeping closer to you - resonant thumping sounds that hint towards the evil that lurks between the trees. It takes either a brave or a stupid man to not realise that this is bicycle clip time.

What Slender does so well is create this looming, anxious atmosphere without actually showing you that much. It capitalises upon the fact that, given the right circumstances, humans are still scared of the dark. Other than that, all the game does is make us realise that we are being chased by something which we cannot fight, creating a sentiment that I think is derived from our worst nightmares. The means to establish this are as minimalistic as the rest of the game: with every page, a sound effect is added, gradually building up to a more and more ominous soundtrack to accompany the pursuit. The Slenderman himself will appear every now and then, first in the distance, but closer as you run out of stamina from running away. The basic objective is to not let him catch you, and to not look him in the eye for too long. Well, where his eye would have been, anyway.

There's just something about this 'not being able to do anything back' premise that makes games such as this way more scary than the usual horror-themed shooters. One of the reasons Amnesia was so frightening was that you weren't able to fight back. The constant threat thus created made for a panic-inducing experience that took the player out of his usual position of the hunter, turning him into the hunted.

a good place to crap your pants
Fortunately, the game provides you with a toilet building to crap in.

However, I'm not saying that Slender is anywhere close to matching the quality of Amnesia. The game is, after all, nothing more than an amateur demo and becomes a lot less scary after the novelty wears off, especially once you realise that Slenderman never actually moves. But what makes this game so fascinating is how it understands that the recipe ofa good horror experience often includes limiting the player in his possibilities to do something about the unpleasantness that you, as developer, are about to bestow upon him. When you take a closer look at this demo, Slender isn't even really about Slenderman. It's about being pursued by an evil entity that may or may not even be physical. Whether that evil manifests itself as a stick figure in a suit or a seven-headed dragon is essentially irrelevant.

Slender, as it stands, is a quirky little demo that may not ever be developed into a full-blown game. After all, the premise is so simple that trying to stretch it for 5 or 6 hours would be a tricky endeavour. Still, it is impressive to see that someone fooling around with developing technology has already succeeded at what so many professional developers of horror games have failed to do: to give us a good scare.

Not convinced? Watch me play the game here in full HD. Spoiler: I didn't quite make it to the end.

PS: The link I used to download this seems to be down, so I'm afraid that you'll have to go look for it yourself if you want to play it.

Why gamers themselves are the reason video games are not considered art

I do not quite remember when the debate on the relation between video games and art began, but it seems that Roger Ebert's dismissal of the possibility of games ever being art has sparked so much reactions and debate that the issue soon became ubiquitous and is currently even on the brink of being downright tedious. As such, the point of this article is not to answer that seemingly unresolvable base question - "are video games art?" - but rather to provide a critical look at the redundant argumentation that is often employed during discussions on this issue by both sides.

The first problem that surfaces in the vast majority of the cases also happens to be one of the biggest ones, namely that 'art' is an unusually vague term. Over the centuries, libraries worth of books have aimed to provide definitions and different visions of art, but still nobody can explain what exactly the concept embodies without generating a tidal wave of dissent among experts on the subject.

fountain
Marcel Duchamp's Fountain exposed the relativity of art.

In the debate on video games as art, many supporters of this idea will thus see the ambiguity of the concept as proof that the term can be applied to virtually anything. While there is a core of truth in this, it is an absolute misconception that art is anything you want it to be. Some experts would definitely underline that everything has artistic potential, but that does not automatically mean that everything is art. The absence of an absolute authoritarian truth on what art is does not omit the fact that you will need to use theoretical concepts in order to justify your views. In literary science, for instance, the reader is free to interpret the work in question as he sees fit, but only if he is able to justify his claims by using accepted theoretical concepts. So while this science is far from exact in nature, its flexibility does not give leeway to an endless stream of wild, baseless claims and interpretations. Art in general is similar in that the term enjoys an equal amount of flexibility, but also has to withstand excessive amounts of relativism that would leave the concept bereft of all meaning. After all, why are we so eager to label video games as art while, according to a lot of gamers, the term does not even mean anything?

Still, the main problem with gamers in this debate is not so much that they frequently have difficulties reasoning why they think games are art, but rather that they demonstrate through all of their behaviour that they do not actually perceive video games as art even when their stance on the issue would suggest otherwise. The proof for this claim can be found anywhere on Gamespot. Whether it is an article on the portrayal of women in games or a forum discussion on the alleged negative portrayal of Brits in Assassin's Creed 3: a considerable chunk of the reactions by gamers will always consist of little more than "chill out, it's just a game".

It is at least remarkable to see that many gamers are open to the idea of accepting video games as art, yet when someone tries to assess its cultural and social implications, this brand new art form is just as easily dismissed as mindless entertainment. Now, I have attended a few literature classes in my 'career' as a university student, and while I was encouraged to think for myself and form my own opinions on the topics at hand, I severely doubt that "it's just a book" would have been accepted as a valid argument in an analysis of the concept of captivity in Cervantes's Exemplary Novels. This comparison may seem a bit far-fetched, but that is probably due to most of us feeling instinctively that video games and literature are still rather far from being on the same level intellectually. This is not so much because games have, as Ebert claimed, no artistic potential, but the result of the complete lack of ability on behalf of gamers to view and judge video games as pieces of art rather than products of entertainment.

However, the relative lack of artistic vision among supporters of the idea of video games as an art form does not exclude its opponents from sometimes having equally naive or even downright infantile ideas on what art is. An often-heard claim, for example, is that entertainment cannot be art. If this were true, 'true' art probably would not even exist. Paintings, classic pieces of literature and operas may not be entertainment in the same way that football, Jackie Chan films and show wrestling are, but at the end of the day, even something as abstract as poetry often aims to satisfy our senses and provoke certain emotions, which is, at its core, what entertainment embodies.

art gallery
Contrary to popular belief, this place is not void of commercial interests.

An even bigger misconception is that whether or not something is art depends solely on the intentions of the artist. While I am not much of a supporter of the whole "the artist is completely irrelevant" bandwagon that seems to be rampant in universities these days, I have just as much difficulty swallowing this antiquated, romantic ideal of the artist as a solitary, hermitical genius that creates his work purely out of aesthetic considerations. Despite this being an attractive image, it does not correspond with reality in the slightest. The renowned Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, for example, wrote his magnum opus Crime and Punishment out of very earthly motivations: he simply needed the money to be able to buy food. Still, you will be hard-pressed to find a scholar willing to dismiss this book as a piece of art. In an identical fashion, it is illogical to deny the artistic potential of video games because they were primarily conceived for economic purposes. Art does not stop being art just because its creator had a commercial mindset.

With the discussion on video games as art already being as redundant as it currently is, it is perhaps a rather unfortunate conclusion that it will still need much more time before it can develop into an intellectually mature debate. But it will be a necessary step to take if we are to ever reach an acceptable conclusion of this issue. As it stands, both supporters and opponents are too often hindered by a limited perception, which prevents them not only from understanding where their opponents are coming from, but also from supplying conclusive arguments that are acceptable for both sides of the fence. Ultimately, a more satisfactory course of the debate will start with a change in perception on behalf of gamers themselves. Until then, we might want to consider that games can be worthwhile and admirable even if they are just games.


Image sources: Wikipedia; topartgallery.my

Videos, videos, videos!

Very recently, I posted some teaser clips of a video project I was working on. And finally, after a whole night of troubles with Windows Live Movie Maker, the final versions of the videos are finished and uploaded. No watermarks, filmed and uploaded in full HD; all killer, no filler. The videos are mash-ups of footage from both ArmA 2 and Iron Front: Liberation 1944. They draw a link between WW2-era Soviet soldiers and modern Russian troops, also evoking a nostalgic (Post-)Soviet atmosphere.

Please take your time to check both of these videos out, and be sure to watch in HD.

In Monumentum
In Monumentum photo

Red Spring
Red Spring photo

Draugen the In-Game Film Director

Recently, I earned a quick buck by proofreading a part of someone's PhD thesis. It took me a while to think of a good purpose for the money, but eventually I deemed it a smart idea to invest in a Premium account of Fraps. Why? So I can make some kick-a$s videos, that's why. For ages, I've had ideas about creating videos for ArmA and, more recently, Iron Front. Both games support a free camera that allows you to create the most amazing shots.

I'm still waiting for the money to be transferred to my PayPal account, so in the meanwhile, I went into the editor with the free version of Fraps and checked whether or not I could take the images I had in my head and recreate them in-game. The result is three separate 'teaser' videos that show some of the ideas came up with for the real thing. Check them out and let me know what you think.

Video 1 (just separate shots, no music)
Video 2 (some more advanced shots put to music)
Video 3 (some more pseudo-artistic shots put to different, more melancholic music)

SPOILER: the third one is the best.

New DLC announced for ArmA 2: Combined Operations

Now, that's the spirit! WIth ArmA 3 already around the corner, developer Bohemia Interactive has announced that it will still be adding new content to the already meaty game that is ArmA 2. This second instalment in the series of military simulators already got some substantial extra content with the Operation Arrowhead expansion, after which two more worthwhile DLCs were added to the mix, titled British Armed Forces and Private MIlitary Company. Recently, the all-new Army of the Czech Republic add-on was announced to be scheduled for Q3 2012.

Army of the Czech Republic logo

It's not coincidental that Bohemia chose to add the Czech army, for the Czech Republic is indeed the homebase of the developer and publisher of the ArmA series, which finds its roots in the original Operation Flashpoint of 2001. The new DLC contains not only new units, but also the designated weaponry and even vehicles. There's even a whole new single player mode ready to be played, as well as separate scenario's, making the total new mission count of Army of the Czech Republic stop at no less than 15. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this DLC is the inclusion of two brand-new islands, Brystrica and Bukovina, which will both have a summer atmosphere.

To be able to play the DLC, you will need to have the ArmA 2: Combined Operations edition, which consists of both the original base game and the Operation Arrowhead expansion. And if the previous add-ons are anything to go by, the new DLC will probably launch with a new patch, which is always welcome in a gigantic and therefore rather unstable sandbox game such as ArmA 2.

ArmA 2: Army of the Czech Republic is scheduled for release in Q3 of this year. It can already be pre-ordered at Bohemia's webstore for a modest 10 euros.

Source of the info and the image: Bohemia Interactive's official website.

One-Sentence E3 Conference Reviews

Normally, I don't really like the extreme brevity that comes with catering to the ADHD generation, but with megalomanic press events such as E3, it is probably best to keep things short and to the point. So here goes; every major conference on E3 described in one sentence!

Microsoft - Halo 4: Metroid Prime edition, a buttload of social stuff you can already do better on your PC anyway, and some guy yelling at his Xbox in Spanish.

Sony - Vita (apparently pronounced 'Vida') is dead, and the PS3 is showcased best by multiplatform titles you already saw in previous conferences anyway.

Nintendo - Memetastic Zombie Reggie thinks 30 minutes of Nintendoland footage isn't quite enough, so here, have some fireworks.

EA - Didn't watch, lol (the GS stream didn't work for me).

Ubisoft - Some great games and a good host managed to neutralise the potentially catastrophic damage that would've been done by the annoying backstage guy, who is clearly related to Mr. Caffeine.

And there you have it. If you haven't been able to watch the conference, you now know all you need to know. What? You still think I'm being too-longwinded? Well then, here's the whole of E3 summed up in one sentence: I like French food!


zombiereggie

Iron Front: Liberation 1944 - First Impressions

Wehrmacht

In my previous blog entry, I expressed my enthusiasm over the WW2 game Iron Front: Liberation 1944, which lets the players assume the role of either a Red Army or Wehrmacht soldier on the Eastern Front. While the Eastern Front setting is already interesting in itself (and HEAVILY underrepresented in Western media*), I was particularly interested in the game due to it using the Arma 2 engine, Real Virtuality 3. This may be a bit of a double-edged sword because of the notorious instability of the engine, but the possibilities generated by it more than compensate, at least in Arma 2. The game was released on the 25th of May, the date on which I ordered the boxed version on a Dutch website for as little as ?21 and about 1,50 euros for the packaging. Even though the game only arrived yesterday, this technically was a Day 1 Buy; my first one since Crysis 2. I've already played a good few hours worth of Iron Front, so far, and even though I've only scratched the surface still, I must say that this game lives up to most of my expectations, and has the potential to be one of the best WW2 games released in many years.

I say 'potential' because the worries about instability have been just for the most part. The game apparently runs on an older version of the Arma 2 engine, meaning that the game uses more resources than Arma 2: Combined Operations. This isn't a problem for the most part, seeing as the maps are more countryside-based, but when a lot of units appear on-screen and/or a lot of stuff goes on at the same time, the framerate can occasionally drop to the unplayable level of 10-15, or turn into a downright slideshow when these events take place in or around a big city. The game also crashes seemingly randomly once in a while (it has done so 2-3 times so far in about 5-6 hours of gameplay), a problem experienced by a lot of players. The two patches released so far haven't taken care of the problem, but I trust that a combination of further patching and subsequent driver updates will eventually take care of the problem.

dusk

However, despite these unfortunate, glaring errors, I love Iron Front already. The sheer scale made possible by the Real Virtuality engine works as well as you'd imagine in an Eastern Front setting. The garden-to-garden infantry combat, huge tank battles and hectic aeroplane dog fights all feel very authentic without having to resort to the cinematic bombasticness of Call of Duty, or the pseudo-realistic gimmicks of Brothers in Arms. When you and a couple of teammates are taking cover behind a barn as you hear enemy soldiers yell commands in their native tongue on the other side of it, you are likely to be overtaken by the tense atmosphere we all know from films/series such as Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. The catch is that whenver this game does resort to cinematic sequences, as has often been the case so far in the game's campaign, you can tell the engine clearly wasn't designed for this kind of ordeals. As such, it's as easy to be immersed into this game by the hard-as-nails combat as it is to be sucked right out of it by the archaic presentation.

The huge potential for military simulation in a WW2 setting was already shown partially by 31st Normandy (which was a buggy, unfunctional mess for the most part), and the reportedly great Invasion 1944, both mods for Arma 2. But while Iron Front has game mechanics and an interface that are near identical to Arma 2, it would be too harsh to call this a glorified Arma mod. Instead, a glorified Arma spin-off might be a more acceptable label, seeing as the game has more depth than any Arma mod I've ever played and even improves upon the game its technology was designed for in multiple ways: machine guns can now be deployed, character models are more detailed, and much more buildings are enterable.

parachutes

One problematic aspect of World War 2 games has been that, due to the reluctance of developers to let gamers play as the Germans, many famous battles could only be approached from the allied perspective. Iron Front, rather bravely, features both a German and a Soviet campaign. Red Orchestra 2 already did this as well, but Iron Front just takes it a little bit further, seeing as the writers have done their best to include the mindset of the contemporary soldiers in the script. I was rather surprised when one German NPC told a joke about the incompetence of the Italian army, and other NPCs made many allusions to their blind faith in the German high command (while the war, in reality, had already been all but lost by the Germans in 1944). These aspects of the German mindset during WW2 may be well-known among people interested in the subject, but I can't recall their explicit presence in previous video games covering World War 2. It should also be noted that both the Soviet and German campaigns can be played with the original languages of the parties involved, subtitled in English. Another recent trend in video gaming (Metro 2033 and Red Orchestra 2 also had this feature) I welcome with open arms.

I have tried to check out every aspect of the game, and while I have not quite succeeded in doing so just yet, I can already safely say that the Blitzkrieg mode in particular will eat up a lot of my time. In this multiplayer game mode (that can also be played with bots), the objective is for one team to conquer several checkpoints on the map, with the other team defending. It's like old Battlefield with a twist, and on a much bigger scale. There are a lot of missions (at least 20) included in the game, and every one I've played so far has been memorable and fantastic. Each mission highlights a different type of gameplay and is suited for a different group of classes. In short, it's an amazing, relatively fast-paced way of getting familiar with Iron Front's weaponry and gameplay mechanics.

fog

I still have a long way to go before I can attempt reviewing Iron Front, but I can already gladly announce that this game, despite all of its problems, is a breath of fresh air when it comes to games themed after WW2, a setting once dubbed 'oversaturated'. But with games such as this and Red Orchestra 2, I wouldn't really mind a revival of the WW2 craze of the previous generation.


* Media in the sense of films, games, books, etc. rather than news outlets.

PS: I'll upload some short gameplay clips later, and put them in this thread.

The Revenge of the WW2 Game?

Most of the people who know me around here will be aware of the fact that I am a massive and blatant ArmA fanboy. The superior tactical combat offered by the series is something that, for me, has rendered many an FPS obsolete. As such, I would definitely appreciate it if, despite the buggy nature of ArmA's Real Virtuality engine, the design behind this legendary military simulator were to be used in more games.

Arma 2 screenshot
(ArmA 2 screenshot taken by myself)

Lady Fortuna must have taken notice of my inner murmurings, for Deep Silver is about to release a first person shooter called Iron Front: Liberation 1944. Generic as the title may be, I nearly fainted when I read the announcement over at Bohemia's website due to several reasons. Firstly, it is built around ArmA 2's technology, promising a tactical approach that was unseen in all of the major WW2 shooters I dedicated a big chunk of my high school-era leisure time to. But perhaps more importantly, if you would ask me to compile a list of wishes for a World War 2-themed game, it would come uncannily close to the list of features given on Bohemia's official webpage. @Bamul can attest to this, as a while ago we were talking about how there was still a lot more potential in World War 2 games than was materialised by developers back when WW2 games enjoyed an amount of popularity similar to what modern warfare-themed games do now. Our main complaint focused on how the Eastern Front hardly received any exposure in most of the WW2 games, while a large part of the warfare indeed took place on the fields of Eastern Europe. As its subtitle implies, this game revolves around the 1944 summer offensive, when the Soviet Red Army started pushing the German Wehrmacht back to Western Europe. Quite daringly, the game allows you to play as both the Soviets and the Germans, inadvertedly allowing you to use a vast variety of iconic weaponry from both sides.

Iron Front screenshot
(promotional screenshot taken from Deep Silver's website)

Words can barely describe how excited I am for this game, although I feel I should reserve some of my enthusiasm until after I try it out and/or the first reviews start pouring in. After all, the game only uses ArmA's technology and is, for as far as I know, not actually being developed by Bohemia, but rather by two rather unknown studios called AWAR and X1 Software. Moreover, it is not unreasonable to fear that the notorious bugginess of the ArmA series will also hit Iron Front, especially in the first weeks after its release. On the other hand, everything from the features to the gameplay footage to the screenshots looks great, so I have high hopes that this may be one of those hidden gems, and maybe even the World War 2 game I've been waiting for all these years.

Some links:
Announcement by Bohemia Interactive
Official Iron Front page by publisher Deep Silver