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My 50th Review On Gamespot!

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Today, I submitted my 50th review on Gamespot!

About 2,5 years after posting my first review on this website, I can finally celebrate a little anniversary. Because since I posted my opinion on Star Fox: Assault, I wrote up another 49 reviews, adding up to a tally of (surprise!) 50!

Since then, quite a lot has changed in terms ofstyIe: I stopped adding a breakdown to my reviews with my Jazz Jackrabbit 2 review, and I took up the habit of actually checking my reviews before submitting them sometime earlier, probably when I elaborated my opinion on Metroid Prime Trilogy, which, by the way, also happens to be the only release I ever gave a 10/10 so far. I'm not too sure about that now, though.

Another turning point was my review of STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl. Not only because it's a review of my favourite game of all time, but because it's the first game I reviewed after getting my gaming PC. Up until that point, I had mainly reviewed console games. But seeing as my focus was now on PC gaming, my writing started to reflect that.

The change in focus wasn't limited to merely reviewing games of another platform: I started becoming stricter and more objective, and spent even more time trying to explain why I thought a game was good/bad, regardless from whether or not I enjoyed playing it. I also started paying more attention to obscure, independent titles rather than just sticking to the big budget stuff. This led me to review several indie games and quite a few Eastern European games.

The most recent turning point is Zombie Driver, because that was the first game I reviewed for NoobFeed.com. On that site, I do not only get the chance to post fancier versions of my review (with pictures and videos and all that), but also to play games before they are released by means of preview codes given out by publishers. As such, my Men of War: Assault Squad review was posted on NoobFeed the day it came out.

And thus it was that my latest 3 reviews carried the overall tally to 50. But it will definitely not stop there. A Streets of Moscow review is already scheduled for next week, and a Crysis 2 review can be expected in April. Until then, I kindly demand you to read my 3 latest entries:

FUEL

(read on GameSpot)
(read on NoobFeed)

Men of War: Assault Squad

(read on GameSpot)
(read on NoobFeed)

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

(read on GameSpot)
(read on NoobFeed)

Before I end this article and start working on the next 50 reviews, here are a few fun facts about my work so far:

- Going by recommendations, my most popular review is STALKER: Call of Pripyat (recommended by 13 out of 16 people). My least popular review is the original Legend of Zelda (recommended by 0 out of 4 people).

- My personal favourite review is Cryostasis - The Sleep of Reason, because I really feel like I managed to explain very accurately why this game is so good. My least favourite review is BioShock. While I think it's one of my best reviews in terms of writing, I disagree with its content. It's just not that good.

- The highest score I've given out is the 10 I gave to Metroid Prime Trilogy. The lowest is Carmageddon 64, which got a generous 2.

- If my memory serves me correct, the oldest review on the list actually is Mario Kart Wii. I wrote it for a now near-dead website called 1337Planet right before writing up the Star Fox Assault review, but for whatever reason I reversed the order when posting them. There are much older reviews - I actually found a bunch from as early as 2004 - but they weren't worth posting by then as I saw how poorly constructed they were. Not to mention the flawed grammar.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who has been following my contributions over the past 2,5 years. I hope you will stick around long enough for my 100 review anniversary. :)

Meanwhile, you can browse all of my reviews by going here. And no, I didn't spellcheck this article, in honour of the good old days. :)

Job at NoobFeed + New Reviews

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My blog has been a bit inactive for the past few weeks, but you'll find that has a very good reason. Because with the help of Daavpuke of the Gamespot Reviewers Union, I got a chance to prove myself at the gaming website NoobFeed.com. This means I get to post news, reviews, previews and other gaming-related articles there several times per week.

Unfortunately, this also means I will not be able to update my blog as often. But don't worry - I will post all my reviews on here as well, so you won't have to miss those. Of course, I strongly urge you to also check out my work at NoobFeed, as that site always gets the 'definitive' version of my work, seeing as I get to add my own pictures and a couple more bells and whistles. I will also include videos in my reviews over there if I can ever figure out how that works. I post there under the name Degtyarev, so be sure to track my contributions if you decide to sign up there.

So again, I will still be updating this blog, but a little less frequently, seeing as I only have so many hours to write every week.

I have already written two reviews for the site, as well as several news articles. You can read the reviews over at NoobFeed, or just by scrolling down to the bottom if you're okay with missing out on the fancy pictures. The games I reviewed are Zombie Driver, a vehicular combat game by Polish indie developer Exor Studios, and Far Cry 2, the controversial sandbox FPS by Ubisoft. Check it out!

Russians are not evil

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This is going to be a long read, a long but worthwhile read about something that has been bugging me over the past few months. First of all, I'd like to say to everyone that is reading these words, that this article is not about you or your countrymen, but about the way certain nations are portrayed and presented in video games. For I won't have to tell you, or anyone with gaming experience for that matter, that the majority of the video game stories, especially when they're action-oriented, involve bulky American or otherwise Anglosaxon (super) soldiers whose objective is to single handedly rid the world of communists, nazis, aliens, terrorists or terrorist alien nazicommies.

Perhaps the most known example of this odd phenomenon is Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Some Russian terrorists have managed to obtain a nuclear warhead, and they're not afraid of using it to pursue their clearly evil goals. You play as both a British and an American soldier, and spend the entire game shooting Russians and Arabs in an effort to try and prevent a disaster from happening.

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When you look at that story for what it is, nothing much seems wrong with it. Sure, it has all the clichés you could come up with, from crashing helicopters to the story revolving around nukes acquired on the black market, and it's basically just another variation on the crappy B-movie plot we've seen about a million times before. But that's just the way the cookie crumbles in video game land, where story and storytelling usually aren't the main focus of the experience.

It's when placed in a larger context, though, that you'll notice a trend that is actually becoming a little bit disturbing. Whether it's Medal of Honor, Halo*, the other Call of Duties, or even non-American games such as Battlefield: Bad Company, Vanquish, Arma II** and Crysis: Americans, occasionally aided by Brits, are always busy saving us from some kind of world threatening situation, often caused by the aforementioned array of enemies.

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So where does this fascination with a bunch of roided-up potty mouths saving us from Russians, Arabs or random sentient evil thingies from outer space come from? I'm not the one to quickly attach political motives to a seemingly unrelated industry, but I can't help but think that the origins of this phenomenon have something to do with the social context in which these games were developed.

These suspicions arose when I compared the industry's fetish with American super soldiers to the Dutch habit of cracking jokes about Belgians being dumb. This is a cultural thing that's a bit difficult to explain to someone who's not from either one of those countries, but it's roughly in the same ballpark as Americans and their frequent jokes about the French and their alleged military incompetence. The curious thing is, though, that the 'dumb Belgian' funnies started emerging when the Dutch where at war with the Belgians, back in the 19th century. As is normal in a war, the fear of being captured and/or killed by the enemy was omnipresent, and as a result, Dutch soldiers started sharing jokes about their Belgian opponents, insulting their intelligence, in an effort to trivialise the fear for their enemies.

While it's a long way from there to the present state of the video game industry, it's very likely that the virtual humiliation of, say, Russia, is in fact the trivialisation of the threat the country still poses in the eyes of many. Because while the thousands of Russian Spetsnaz soldiers that have perished at your hands in any random war game may have been pushovers, the American government still considers their real life equivalents a huge threat, and trains specifically dedicated units to counter these Russian spec ops to this very day.

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Even though the vast majority of the general populace, including video game designers, isn't aware of such details, the mistrust towards Russians is still widely spread among the Western world. A lot of people have lived through the Cold War, and have thus always learned to fear and maybe even hate Russians. While the Iron Curtain has been raised long ago, tons of Hollywood movies have since reminded us that there's no reason to get too cozy with our Eastern neighbours. With September 11 in mind, it's not very hard to guess where the more recent obsession with Middle Eastern terrorists in scruffy clothing comes from.

I personally do not share sentiments of the category described above, as I consider it inherently flawed to judge entire nations on the way their policies are portrayed by Western media. Yet it wasn't long ago that I blasted anyone with a Slavic accent in whatever video game without hesitation. You'll notice that the previous sentence was written in past tense, because the sheer overkill (literally) of this stuff in said video games made me become more aware of the political context that often guides a video game plot in the background. I'm not ashamed to admit that, nowadays, I am quite often disgusted by events in some of the previously listed games.

Sure, you can dismiss all of this by simply playing the 'it's just a video game' card, and that's understandable, because a lot of gamers never think this far into it. But we all know that the moment an established developer presents us with a first person shooter that puts us in the shoes of a Russian soldier who has to save the world by annihilating Americans by the numbers, public figures and individuals alike would give a new meaning to the word 'controversy'.

Something along these lines already occurred when it was announced that Medal of Honor would offer the possibility of playing as the Taliban. At one point, the developers were even accused of sabotaging the NATO cause. Not that I approve of what the Taliban does, nor do I want to compare a Talib to the common Russian man, but it showed that a lot of people suddenly didn't see Medal of Honor as being 'just a video game' anymore. Of course, the critics played it safe by saying they were against the idea because the Afghanistan war is an ongoing conflict that still demands the lives of many, but it doesn't take a lot of cynism or imagination to see what the underlying arguement is here: A lot of people seemingly had more issues with the idea of scruffy Middle Eastern men shooting god-fearing, square-chinned American roughnecks than when the non-Westerners were on the receiving end of the gun barrel. Allegations of the game 'sabotaging' or 'damaging the NATO cause' and the subsequent calls for boycotting or even banning the game showed that a lot of people out there seem to recognise the influence video games can have on our perception of the real world. What was it they were afraid of? That playing from the perspective of a Talib would somehow create more sympathy for their cause?

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Then what does that say about the possible effects of the extremely negative portrayal of Russians game after game? Not that I want to go all 'video games are controlling the minds of our children', but it'd be naive to deny the possibility of this having an influence on how some of the gamers view the world. Maybe it's because I, unlike many other Westerners, don't have such a raging hard-on for the NATO and as a result am more sceptical towards that organisation, but the more I play (mainly American-made) war games, the more I get the idea that I'm actually playing interactive propaganda material. The fact that the US Navy has long advertised on this very website with Modern Warfare-esque videos only raises the suspicion, and when both the US Army and some British government officials protested when the tables were about to be turned in Medal of Honor, they confirmed that Western governmental bodies also recognise the ability to influence the public opinion through a medium such as video gaming. And they have enough reason to do so. If we are to believe the commonly used phrase that if you repeat something often enough, people will start believing you, then what are the odds of someone who's constantly being told that Russians are evil and dangerous, eventually starting to consider this a credible idea?

As said, I don't believe that video games can put ideas into our heads just like that, but I do believe that the opinion of some, generally more weak-minded people can be guided by whatever medium they have frequent contact with. Often it's not even the general idea that influences us the most, but the small details. Notice, for example, how it's always the enemies in war-themed games that commit war crimes and use dirty tactics. It's like we constantly have to be reminded that it is morally justified to shoot anyone with a funny accent. Take, for example, Frontlines: Fuel of War. Now, the story of that game is as horrid as you'd expect from a pretty basic shooter, but it was like the writers purposefully tried to evade all real world-logic in presenting the war between America and Russia in that game. When the American troops enter Moscow, they are resisted by armed civilians. We are then informed that the civilians were 'forced by the Russian authorities' to either fight the Americans or face the death penalty. It was probably too risky to present us with the possibility of innocent civilians actually wanting to fight any invader that came rolling over their front lawn in search for oil. With this in mind, it's not very surprising that Homefront, the next game by Kaos Studios, the developers of Frontlines, will show us scenes of Koreans murdering children to allegedly remind us how horrible war is.

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If the Wikileaks scandal has taught us anything, it's that war is always dirty. And be it ordered from above or conducted by a few mentally twisted individuals, atrocities are always committed by both sides. I'm not saying that video game developers should start incorporating this reality into products that ultimately serve as entertainment, but let them never claim again that their upcoming that war-themed game will realistically portray the idea of war as long as that alleged realism actually consists of the same fictional, heroic, black-and-white tripe that you normally see in propaganda movies.

I am fully aware that me pointing this out will not change anything, but consider it my own modest version of an awareness campaign. If anything, I want to confirm what you already know: video games ARE just video games. Never be fooled into thinking that what you see on your computer or TV screen holds any corelation to the real world, even if the developers claim it does. The mere idea of war being used as entertainment proves that there's an unbridgeable gap between video games and reality. I know it's easy to forget this at times, especially with the realistic appearance a lot of modern games have. As such, I'm often still annoyed by the socio-political context of video games.

Luckily, some titles do offer a way out. For example, I mostly play as the Russians in Arma II. Not that I prefer one nation over another, but at least I won't feel like I'm playing the lead role in Hollywood's latest crappy war flick. So far, I've spent about 50 hours among the virtual Russians I used to shoot all the time. And you know what? They're not so bad after all.

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___
* The protagonists in Halo technically aren't from the USA, but it's blatantly obvious that they were modelled after the US military.
** Arma II also lets you play as the Russians in separate missions, and as anyone you'd like in the sandbox editor, but I'm refering to the main campaign, in which you play as an American.

An End to Fossilisation

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Most of you will know by now that I'm not from an English-speaking region. Not that my English is bad by any means - I'm far past the phase where I'd imply that so people would tell me how much I rock at English - but I've frequently hinted towards my European/Dutch origin in previous blog entries. In case you haven't picked up on any of those hints, you now know where that strange but charming touch of European flair in my reviews comes from. Okay, so that may be a bit of a pompous overstatement, but at least I can say that my knowledge of Dutch has allowed me to come up with some pretty creative expressions in English, if only because I didn't know the proper equivalent in that language.

However, whilst skimming through some of my old reviews, I noticed that my acquisition of the English language has stagnated a bit over the past few years. Although I have learned new things in the past, say, 2 years (how to pronounce 'default', for example), I feel like my knowledge of the language as a whole has not improved much. There's a term for this: Fossilisation. It's a term derived from the linguistics jargon I've had to master as part of my studies. It basically means that, at one point (mostly later in life), one's knowledge of a language stops improving in spite of study. Technically, this term does not apply to my situation, seeing as I haven't really studied the language ever since I graduated from high school, and I'm still in a position where I CAN improve, but just don't. But it was the first time that I got to use the term outside of an exam, so I thought what the hell.

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Fossilisation or not, I've noticed that, in recent reviews and articles, I struggle more and more to not use the same array of words in every paragraph. This is partially caused by the video game jargon being rather limited (how many synonyms for 'video game' can you come up with?), but especially when I compare my work to that of others, I see there is still a lot of ground to gain when it comes to the richness my vocabulary. It has even occurred to me (and others) that there's a lot more variation linguistically in my Dutch reviews than in my English ones. And not only because I can use the English term 'game' as a loanword alongside its Dutch translation, 'spel'.

Fortunately, I might be making some significant progress again soon, as I have signed up for an 'Academic English' cIass at my University. I don't know until what extent the expansion of my Academic jargon (anyone know a synonym to that word, by the way?) in English is going to aid me in improving my reviews, but it can never hurt to broaden my perspective of the language a bit.

Whatever the outcome of this linguistic adventure is, I do plan on maintaining my own styIe, as I like to think I've developed a rather idiosyncratic way of composing and writing my reviews. (I just looked up 'idiosyncratic' in the dictionary. Cool huh?) This means I will continue literally translating Dutch phrases into English, I will continue being longwinded, and I will continue writing longer sentences than English purists can handle. Mwa-ha.

ARMA II: First impressions

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14 hours of scratching the surface

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Arma II is an extraordinary game. I've played it for nearly 14 hours so far, meaning that I've already spent more time on it than games such as BioShock 1 & 2, Mirror's Edge, Cryostasis and Metro 2033. Yet while I know these games insideout, and was able to write detailed reviews on all of them, I feel like I have barely scratched the surface in Arma II. I haven't touched the campaign and I have only worked my way through 50% of the tutorial. I still have trouble controlling the tank and I keep crashing in the VTOL tutorial. I haven't memorised the controls and I don't even know what a lot of actions even MEAN. Completed scenarios? One and counting. But... damn, this game already fascinates me thoroughly. And it ought to. I went to quite a lot of trouble to get a working copy (one store forgot to supply the CD-key), and I eventually ended up paying €25 (about 32USD) for it. This was a few months back, and I hadn't touched the game for quite a while. Still, Bohemia's tactical shooter fascinated me even during that hiatus. I knew Arma II was an activity in itself that I needed to learn, and mastering it was and still is quite a distant dream. However, I didn't want to be the type of gamer that writes a title off after an hour because it doesn't do handholding and the familiar run and gun tactics aren't rewarded. So after a few days of staring at Arma II's box, which had sat on my shelf untouched for a few months, I finally had the guts to fire it up again last week.

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And I'm glad that I did. Apart from doing a few tutorial missions to familiarise myself with the basic game mechanics, I delved into the sandbox editor. With this tool, you can create your own scenarios on either two of the gigantic maps. It's the kind of editor that's easy to learn but incredibly difficult to master, so obviously, my current efforts aren't anything special.

Still, I managed to create a pretty damn enjoyable mission yesterday. The entire mission came down to the elimination of several enemy squads scattered across the foresty Chernarus map. The whole thing turned out to be more of a survival test, because after I finished the missions nearly 2,5 hours later(!), the Russian special ops team I started out with was reduced from 9 to 3 men, with me and the team's sniper being wounded.

And that's what brings me to the essence of Arma II and why it is so fascinating: it really manages to capture and portray accurately the essence of warfare. You know how reviewers always attribute such qualities to games like Medal of Honor and Call of Duty? While those games are enjoyable in their own right, such claims couldn't be further away from the truth. When was the last time you were actually afraid to get hit in such games? Why even be careful if you can just hide behind the nearest rock and have your health fully replenished? In Arma II, get hit once in the wrong place and you're done for. Get hit in your leg and you're wounded, making you slower and diminishing your aim.

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I actually felt increasingly terrified whenever we (I or my AI teammates) spotted an enemy squad. Our numbers kept getting smaller while the size of their squads only seemed to increase. At one moment, I actually started to feel sorry for the AI teammates who died under my command one by one. For the first time in a video game, I started to understand, if only for a little, what must go to a soldier's head in real warfare. Of course I had the save/load options to help me out, but I realised that one wrong move or maneuver could mean the difference between life and death, and that the latter phenomenon is constantly lurking around the corner.

The environments help emphasise the believability of the game, and my fondness of it. According to the game, they take place in a fictional Eastern-European country called Chernarus ('Black Russia'), but in reality, the maps are heavily based on the geography of the Czech Republic, the home country of developer Bohemia Interactive. Either way, it makes for the typical Eastern European atmosphere which I love so much. Not to mention the atmosphere comes across as very believable as well. The impressive graphics and amazing sound design make walking through the woods feel so real that it's nearly frightening. Especially if there's a squad of guerrilla riflemen waiting for you on the other side.

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There are still tons of other things I'd like to talk to you about, but I realise that if I am to mention all the things that caught my attention during the 14 hours I played game, I'm going to have to write a 30-page essay on it, and I don't want to do that to you, nor to myself. And to think that I'm still just scratching the surface. The possibilities of this game seem endless, and the extremely confined way in which I experienced the game so far already is enough to have me hooked. I don't know if I will ever be able to do a proper review on this game, if only because I actually have very limited knowledge of military simulators and tactical shooters in general. But if that review ever comes, expect it to be long.

Gotta love Crysis

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My brother and I did some screwing around in Crysis this afternoon, piling up of the rubbish in the village and several cars and bottles of gas into one nice heap. Of course, it all had to go in one big bang, which took some calculating and preparation, but we managed to pull it off while the camera was rolling. I've uploaded the video, which you can see:

Here.

Coincidentally, this shows why Crysis is such a fun game. The possibilities really are endless, and now I'm convinced all the more that people who think Crysis is boring just lack the imagination to make it fun. :)

A new idea

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Ever since I had so much fun doing my first ever GOTY awards, I've had this obsession when playing games. If a game is from, say, 2009, I always ask myself how that game would do in my personal GOTY choices. Alas, I never got to do 2009 awards, seeing as I only had a Wii with like 5 games from 2009 on it, one of which was a rerelease, and the rest wasn't GOTY-worthy. Now that I've caught up with a lot of that damage, and played some of the finest games 2009 had to offer, I am toying with the idea of doing a retrospective GOTY ceremony. Not only is it just pure fun for me to write it (writing and video gaming are my biggest hobbies, so why not combine the two?), but it might shed some light on lesser-known games that deserve some attention, both on the PC and on the Wii.

So that's my little idea, and you can expect it sometime soon, although I can't really say when I will start. One might say I have too much time on my hands, and for the moment that's kind of true. I have time off from uni until at least Wednesday or Friday next week (depending on if I have to retake an exam). Seeing as, at our university, we don't have spring/autumn breaks, our summer and winter holidays are extended a bit, and only used for organising retakes. As such, I have some time to spare, and although I like a healthy dosis of partying and socialising (which I've also done quite a lot of in the past few weeks), the ultimate holiday activity for me is still staying in and around the house, letting all the stress flow out of my body, playing video games and watching movies until 5AM. So that's the story behind my seemingly random time killing projects. ;)

In other news, you might have noticed that I exceeded the bandwidth of my Photobucket account. This means that you won't be able to see any pictures uploaded with it for probably the remainder of this month. I also use imageshack for pictures, and you can still see those. I'll probably upgrade my Photbucket account sometime soon, though, so I won't have to deal with this problem anymore.

Two new reviews!

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As some of you might have noticed, I haven't written a lot of reviews in the past few months, focusing instead on my blog and of course the usual irl things that require attention. Seeing as my holiday lasts for another week, though, I deemed it an excellent opportunity to catch up with the review writing again. The two games I reviewed are vastly different in nature. One is an indie first person beat 'em up, while the other is a big budget arcade racer. What both games have in common, though, is that I found them both to be quite enjoyable, although which one that is, is something you can find out for yourself:

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Click on one of the two box arts to read my review for that game, Zeno Clash and Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit respectively. Unfortunately, I am not very satisfied with my Hot Pursuit review, as it lacks much of the fancy writing that characterised some of my previous reviews (yes, I'm allowed to give myself a compliment from time to time), and it's just not as well structured as I had intended it to be. Nevertheless, I hope you find both of these reviews useful and entertaining.

As an added bonus, I recorded a gameplay video of an entire race of Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit. Unfortunately, it was too big in size for it to be uploaded on this site, so you can watch it instead through my XFire profile:

Clickety click!

Achievement unlocked - no, really

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I just logged into Gamespot, only to find out I got a rather amazing Gamespot achievement. Normally I don't really care about achievements as they don't really say much about me, except that I performed a certain action at a certain time. However, this one is rather special. Check it out:

Top 100 Community Reviewers

Power and influence. Those who rank amongst this hallowed 100 greatly benefit those searching for critical information about games. These individuals' thoughtful, analytical reviews tend to be much more detailed and sophisticated than most of the so-called professional game reviews you could find elsewhere. Sure enough, the top 100 tend to be prolific writers and avid game players.

Needless to say, I'll take that as a compliment. Review writing has always been a great passion of me, and it's nice that the powers that be acknowledge the talents I apparently have (ignore the traditional Dutch modesty in that sentence). Of course, I also would like to thank those who have been reading my reviews at Gamespot, because a review has little use if it doesn't help people gather more information about a certain game, or at least provide them with an entertaining read.

In honour of this recognition, I'll try to write some reviews over the weekend. Stay tuned and have a nice weekend!

Cryostasis Review

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In case you haven't noticed, I submitted a review of the Ukrainian horror shooter Cryostasis just before the new year. It's certainly one of the best games I've played in 2010, so be sure to check out the review. In this very post you can read the 'pretty' version, with pictures other bells and whistles. Be sure to 'thumb up' my review here if you like it.

Cryostasis - Sleep of Reason

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General information:
Year of release: 2009
Platform(s): PC
Available control type(s): Keyboard + Mouse
Developed by: Posted Image Action Forms
Published by: Posted Image 1C Company

Frequently, the ultimate goal of an artistically oriented medium is to tell a story. Obviously, books tell stories, but so do movies, pieces of music, and even paintings. Anyone who takes interest in art in whatever form will tell you that the story behind the piece of art is at least as important as its physical representation. Why else would man have dedicated so much labour and study to the comprehension and interpretation of art, ever since the dawn of civilisation? The story is not only important, it's essential. A good story can even provide a seemingly random object with a meaning that goes beyond its everyday use. More importantly, it can justify the very existance of art, because where is art without purpose?

With this in mind, it's not wholly surprising that, amidst the polemic surrounding video games as art, the sceptics direct most of their criticism towards the fact that, generally, video game stories pale in comparison to the stories told by established artistic media such as literature and film. This is not more than logical, seeing as the main purpose of games is still to entertain, and that entertainment is first and foremost derived from fascinating gameplay mechanics, and maybe technical aspects such as graphics and sound. Story is not yet an integral and essential part of the video game medium, and even if developers do try to make the effort to tell an interesting story, they often struggle to make it relevant to the gameplay, with the balance between the two components lacking as a result.

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In order to avoid bringing up the entire debate again, it will suffice to say that even sceptics (such as yours truly) will see a potential turning point in Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason. The 2009 PC exclusive is hard to cIassify. The limited parameters that come with genre labels do not do this game justice. It could be named a first person shooter, but the heavy shooting mechanics are hardly where this game stands out. It could be called horror, but, eventually, the goal of Cryostasis is not to scare us, but to tell us a story, a story from which we may even learn something. The dark atmosphere that breathes throughout this entire game may very well be a coincidental side effect of the dark nature of that which it tries to tell us.

It must be said, though, that the setting of Cryostasis certainly aids in stimulating sentiments such as fear and anxiety. Set in the year 1981, the player assumes the role of Alexander Nesterov, a meteorologist whose job is to investigate the mysterious shipwreck of the North Wind, a Soviet nuclear ice breaker that has met its Waterloo in the thick ice of the North Pole. What at first seems like an unfortunate but, within the context, fairly 'regular' shipwreck at the hand of an iceberg, resembling the fate that befell the Titanic, the true cause gradually appears to be something far more sinister.

As Nesterov quickly discovers, he isn't alone on the ship. The frozen remains of the deceased crew members turn to life, and they don't greet his arrival with much cordiality. Fortunately, Nesterov is able to resist their attacks with the various weapons he gradually finds and collects as he explores the enormous ship. An axe, several rifles, a machine gun and a water gun are among his arsenal, and while nearly all of these weapons are heavy and rusty, and require some getting used to, they are enough to repel the attacks of some of the bizarre creations that are encountered along the way.

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Fittingly, Nesterov's health is determined by how warm he is, meaning that enemy attacks can hurt him, but so can cold areas. Although in most rooms, health will only very gradually decrease to the temperature of that space, the fierce blizzards that Nesterov has to resist from time to time can prove to be fatal eventually. In an equally fitting fashion, Nesterov's health can be regenerated by 'charging up' at heat sources, such as light bulbs, heaters, and fire.

This innovative system helps emphasise the cold, cold atmosphere of Cryostasis. As you make your way through the frozen, decayed chambers of the ship, it's easy to forget that this environment was created by humans. What was once a proud ship, now bears more resemblance to a frozen, depressing wasteland surrounded by innummerable intimidating walls.

To help make this contradiction more apparent, the game makes use of 'interactive' cutscenes. This means that, instead of the game taking control for a while to show you a movie, you can instead walk around in these cutscenes to see the action unfold from different angles. These 'cutscenes', if they may be even defined as such, are usually flashbacks that display the situation from before the ship was consumed by the forces of nature. Even though the North Wind wasn't the most cheerful place on Earth even before disaster hit, the contrast with its even darker present is jaw dropping at times. One particular section involves walking through the ship's old hospital, and confronts the player with countless flashbacks. This eerie experience is definitely among the most memorable moments the game has to offer.

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Even more important than these flashbacks is the Mental Echo system. This allows Nesterov to penetrate the minds of deceased crew members, and relive their last memory. By handling the situation differently than the crew member originally did, he can prevent said crew member's death, and even directly influence the present, for example clearing a path that was previously inaccessible. Along with the combat, the Mental Echo puzzles are the central element of Cryostasis's gameplay. They can be as simple as ducking in order to avoid being penetrated by shards of glass, but they can also involve shooting hordes of enemies. Some Mental Echoes even reveal essential parts of the plot.

And plot is where Cryostasis truly shines. The story is revealed to the player in various ways. Alongside the aforementioned flashbacks and Mental Echoes, you will also find various notes that contain impressive philosophical monologues written by the ship's captain, as well as passages of an old Russian legend. While the latter may seem irrelevant at first, it quickly becomes apparent that the legend runs parallel with the fatal history of the North Wind. Especially later in the game, the story will also be provided with an increasingly complicated philosophical context, taking the plot as far as to a point where it mirrors the human tragedy in all its complexity. While this aspect is for individual players to discover and intepret by themselves, it must be said that it is remarkable how far the developers allow this philosophical context to interweave with the very core of the gameplay and presentation. Especially near the end, the game delves so deep into the human mind, and crosses the borders of what is customary in video game storytelling to such an extent, that it makes BioShock look like a bedtime story in comparison.

As with many brave efforts from creative Eastern European minds, it is clear that the Ukrainian developer Action Forms did not have the same resources at its disposal as some of the bigger Western gaming companies. While its presentation is thoroughly impressive in terms of both vision and sound, the optimisation of this game is very poor. As it does not support multicore rendering, it may even bring the most advanced systems to their knees. Moreover, the game relies heavily on PhsyX, special effects exclusive to nVidia cards, so especially ATI users will have to concede on some of the eye candy this game provides in potential. Particularly the framerate suffers from the heavy engine, causing some of the enemy encounters to be way more clunky than they were intended to be. Fortunately, the game itself is fairly stable, and crashes and bugs occur no more than they do in other games.

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Let it be said, though, that Cryostasis is still worth every bit of trouble, even with some of the unreasonably high demands it presents us with. At times, the game feels much like watching an astonishing movie on a shoddy VHS recorder, but even the occasional annoyance caused by the questionable quality of the VHS does not change the fact that the movie is astonishing. Cryostasis, as a video game, is no different. It is a game that requires patience and a certain amount of tolerance from the player, but once it gets going, the experience really is like no other. As more chapters are concluded, the game takes its beholder further and further into the incredible depth it harbours. By means of immersion, atmosphere and creativity, the game slowly charms the player, and it's determined to not let him go before the very end.

Cryostasis truly is a unique game. On one hand, it differentiates itself by creating an immersive world filled with creative gameplay and unforgettable sequences. On the other, it does so by not only wanting to tell us something, but wanting to teach us something. What that lesson is may be interpreted differently by each player, but let it never be said again that video games can only scratch the surface in terms of story. In fact, finishing Cryostasis is much like finishing a great book. After you turn the final page, your enthusiasm makes you want to tell what you've just read to everyone you run into. Soon you realise, however, that they must read the book themselves if they are to truly comprehend it, and appreciate it in the same way that you do.

Such is the nature of the true masterpiece, and such is the nature of Cryostasis. As said, finishing the game is like finishing a good book. And a wise man once said that finishing a good book is like saying goodbye to a good friend.

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Score:
9/10