Shut up, David Cage

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If you saw David Cage's presentation at Sony's PS4 presser, you were witness to a crystalline example of why he's become gaming's pariah. His cavalier dismissal of The Great Train Robbery simply because it was a silent film speaks to the shallowness of Cage's understanding of the very medium he's attempting to emulate, and the exercise of defining pixels as a kind of emotional currency suggests a fundamental disconnect with the industry he works in.

A recent article by Laura Parker here at Gamespot attempted to reframe Cage's views as those of a visionary attempting to move the medium into a brighter future, but Ms. Parker's only success is in painting herself as a novie public relations rep. She says that Cage's position isn't to bash Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty, only to say that "more mature" games should exist alongside them, but this is wrong in two senses--first, Cage obviously does mean to bash GTA and CoD, otherwise his decrying of their inclusion on the list of top-selling games wouldn't have a point. Secondly, mature games already do exist alongside the top-selers...and Grant Theft Auto is one of them. Rockstar's franchise gained popularity as the finest satire in gaming history, and has grown into a series that also deals with controversial themes, and  arguably handles them better than any of Cage's efforts thusfar. 

Ironically, Cage's ensuing argument is that gaming needs to take its cues from Hollywood to balance the scales. Yet if he were to  look at a list of the top-grossing films, he'd find cringe-worthy such as Transformers, Avatar, and Skyfall--In other words, Call of Duty, Madden, and Assassins' Creed. The top-grossing films are almost always action-filled and  puddle-deep. 

The most infuriating aspect of Cage's pretentious rants isn't that he's fundamentally wrong--though he very clearly is--or even that the kind of emotionally-evocative games don't already exist--even though The Walking Dead is better than anything he's ever done--but the way he makes himself out to be a martyr. Ms. Parker irresponsibly enables him in this effort by advancing the dangerously unfounded claim that Cage's critics are only critics because they feel personally threatened by him. She offers nothing to support this huge accusation, and doesn't give a voice to the people Cage is making the accusation of. This brash tactic is indicative of the apologetics Ms. Parker engages in with this fluff piece disguised as journalism. 

In spite of everything David Cage does and says to damage his own reputation, one thing we can't disagree with is his insistence that the medium continues to make strides, both technologically and artistically. One of the biggest wishes from gamers prior to the PS4 announcement--and while still awaiting the presumed new XBox announcement--was vastly improved hardware. It's probably not possible today to make the obvious graphical leap from the current gen to the next as was the jump from the last gen to the current one, but that's basically what gamers want. The positive response to gripping story-based games like The Walking Dead and artistic efforts like Journey shows that gamers also want the industry to grow in that respect as well. What Cage misses is that the industry actually is growing in such ways. The stagnation he sees seems to be a projection of his own shortcomings, namely is inability to move past the weak interactive cinema experience Quantic Dream has been hung up on since its inception in the 1990s. 

David Cage isn't the prophet we've been waiting for, contrary to what he wants you to believe. He's arrogant, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but he fails to back it up with the kind of innovation he demands of other developers. He comes off as a Hollywood wanna-be, evident in his constant bragging over the inclusion of Ellen Paige in Beyond 2 Souls, as if famous actors have never been in video games before. Games have been emotionally evocative since the Playstation One days, where an entire generation of gamers shed a tear at the death of Aries Gainsborough, and the tradition has carried on ever since. 

What he really wants is photorealism, so he can take advantage of the talented actors he's hiring. And that's fine, if only he'd admit to it, and stop disparaging an industry that he has yet to lead by example. 

 

The Walking Dead - "Clear" Review

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Sunday's episode of The Walking Dead was a refreshing change of pace from the unrest at the prison, and the pseudo-political intrgue of Woodbury. Instead of including the entire cast, as the series has been wont to do this season, this week's story focuses entirely on Rick, Carl, and Michonne as they make their way back to Rick's old neighborhood in a last-ditch effort to find weapons and ammunition for the inevitable showdown with The Governor. It's a road story, something we haven't seen from the series' since the gang first arrived at the farm. 

It's obvious from the outset that Carl does not like Michonne, and requires some convincing from Rick as they free a tire that has been stuck in the mud as to why she should even be there. "We got common interests," the erstwhile sheriff insists, and suggests that, maybe, they can work on them together. Carl accepts this, but only with the caveat that this partnership is "Just for right now." 

Carl is often portrayed as Rick's better angel, sometimes the thing that centers him, and more recently the rational voice to counter Rick's unstable psyche. This week the roles are somewhat reversed, with Rick as the pragmatist, and Carl as the borderline Jingoist dissenter. This too is a nice change, and not without a rationale explanation: Michonne is not to be left alone with Merle, so Rick's deicsion to bring her along is not an olive branch, but a means of keeping the group together by not letting certain members kill each other. And Carl's mistrust is rooted in Michonne's behavior at Woodbury. "It wasn't that simple," Rick assures him, but Carl is unconvinced. 

This opening scene is bookended by the imagery of the trio completely ignoring a fellow survivor--a young man wearing a survivalist's backpack--as he chases after them screaming for help. We've seen Rick send survivors off before, but never have we seen him so callously abandon a sole straggler. Notably, neither Michonne or even Carl give the man a second look, obviously meant to convey how events have eroded the humanity of its survivors. 

The gang returns to Rick's old stomping grounds--the police station--to raid whatever's left of the weapons locker. Predictably, it's empty save for a lone bullet on the floor. Rick suggests trolling the main road, where some bars and the local liquor store were known to hold some concealed weapons (Rick signed the permits himself) but Michonne seems to understand the futility of this endeavor, and draws her leader's ire by not rushing to congratulate him on a great idea. Rick passive-aggressively pulls rank, and Michonne coldly falls in line. 

They eventually come to an encampment blocking off the main road. I call this place Booby Trap Heaven, because it's essentially an amusement park for zombies who like to be impaled on makeshift spears so a masked gunman can pick them off from the rooftop. Being humans and all, the trio actually make it through the traps without a problem, until, of course, the aforementioned masked gunman shows up and demands they drop their weapons and get gone.

What follows is one of the few times the series has done something for its own sake. With the man having a scoped rifle and superior positioning, what should have followed was the gang doing as they were told. Instead, Rick whispers to Carl to make for the car, and proceeds to empty his six-shooter in the man's direction. As one might expect, the heroes are unhurt, and the man disappears. Eventually, when he has the ultimate drop on Rick, Carl saves the day by blowing the man away with a gutshot. Cue the "I told you to go to the car," routine. 

Anyway, it turns out that the masked man is heavily armored, and only unconscious from the force of the impact. The big reveal comes when they remove the man's mask--it's Morgan! Okay, so this really isn't a surprise, thanks to the idiotic "Previously, on the Walking Dead" intro bumper that showed a scene from the first season in which Rick was talking to Morgan through the walkie talkie, thereby completely spoiling the surprise. 

After they traverse the trap-filled house to return Morgan safely to his room, they find that Rick's old friend has been busy stockpiling weapons. The entire haul from the police station and much, much more (box of grenades, anyone?) litter the room. And what a room it is. The walls are covered in senseless scribbles, out of context phrases repeated many times over. But the only words of import are the two written in red: DUANE TURNED.

So it makes sense now, but there's more to the story. After Morgan tries to kill Rick, believing him to be wearing a dead man's face, he screams at him over the promise Rick couldn't keep--turning the walkie talkie on every day at dawn. It's a gripping scene, and does a fantastic job of illustrating the sacrifices made by Rick in order to do the right thing. Keeping his own family safe meant leaving Morgan's behind, and instead of it being some abstraction he never has to deal with, Rick is shown the result of his choices. Here, now, is the man he abandoned, in the flesh, forever changed by these decisions. 

The side-story this week features Michonne and Carl, as the boy sets out to fetch Judith a crib from just around the corner. As Michonne follows, Carl quikcly tries to ditch her, but ends up having to tell her that he doesn't see her as one of them. He sees her as an opportunist, repeating Rick's words about her: "You're here for common interests," he spits. But Michonne is not phazed, and accompanies him to a local pub to fetch a picture of their family hanging above the bar. He wants Judith to know what her mother looked like, he says. A sweet gesture, but one that leads to a pulse-pounding encoutner with walkers. They survive, but the picture is left behind. Until, of course, Michonne offers to return for it. She inexplicably goes back inside without so much as a peep while the camera stays on Carl standing by the front door. No idea what that was about, but ultimately she returns with the picture, a gesture that brings her and Carl closer together. 

Back in the house, Rick tries to convince Morgan to return with them, but his old friend sees through the ruse. It's a recruiting pitch, not a kindness. He knows Rick is taking the guns and knows it means he's trying to fend off someone who wants what he has. You'll die from teeth or bullets, Morgan warns, letting Rick know that he's not going along for the ride. Instead, Morgan says, he needs to "clear," invoking the title of the episode. It isn't explained what exactly is meant by that, and I'm not sure it matters. Contextually, it seems to have something to do with Morgan's guilt at being among the "weak who inherit the earth," but the connection is left intentionally vague. Rick makes one last push, insisting that Morgan "isn't seeing things right," but he "can come back from this. You have to. This can't be it." The look Morgan gives him at the end of the rambling speech says what we're already thinking: The speech wasn't meant for Morgan, but for Rick himself. 

As they're leaving, Carl makes sure Morgan knows why he shot him, and apologizes for it. Morgan, imparting his final words of wisdom, tells the boy "Don't ever be sorry." As they load their haul into the hatch, Carl tells his dad that Michone "might be one of us," bringing a rare smile to the sheriff's face. Michonne and Rick even joke about him seeing things. 

But this is the Walking Dead, so it can't end on such an upbeat note. On the drive back, they find the backpack abandoned near a ravaged corpse and pools of fresh blood. In a wide shot, the car stops, reverses, and Carl leans out to take the bag before they drive off. The cycle of life in the zombie apocalypse. 

Overall, this episode was very good. A much-needed departure from the goings-ons in Woodbury and the prison, it gave Michonne a chance to shine, and answered easily the most-asked question of the series, "What happened to Morgan?" The previews of next week's episode hint at a showdown between The Governor and Rick, and a return to the for-keeps stakes the show is so famous for. 

PlayStation 4: Into the Future's Past

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When discussing all that has happened since the launch of the PS3 in 2006, gamers tend to put it in terms of popular franchises, such as Uncharted, Assassin's Creed, and Bioshock. And that's fair, since in the context of gaming consoles, installations of game franchises are a good way to measure time. 

But easily the biggest event to take place during the PS3's lifespan is, essentially, the entirety of the social media explosion. Sure, sure, Facebook technically existed prior to the PS3, but it was only launched as a completely-open service two months before the PS3's debut. And yeah, Myspace was pretty big before that, but the concept of "social media" didn't begin until Facebook took over, and innovations like Twitter followed even later, so it's fair to say that the world as we know it today was at best in its infancy when Sony's current-gen console was born. 

As a result, console gaming--gaming in general, really--has been forced to live outside of the zeitgeist, a relic of what "social" used  to mean in the context of electronic media. While our smartphones and tablets allow us to share our lives in real-time, the most gamers can hope for in that realm is something like Farmville. If you're a PS3 gamer who wants to share a particularly cool happening in Dark Souls with a friend, you have to invest in a PVR that allows for the recording or streaming of games, and then hope your computer can handle the streaming video. Then you have to edit and upload the video to Youtube, and then  link that video to your Facebook page. Mostly, though, you just sigh, shrug, and let the moment pass. 

With yesterday's announcement of the PS4, gamers finally take their rightful place in pop culture. A single press of the "share" button will allow players to edit and post videos online, even return to the game you're playing while your clip is uploading. If you'd like to have an audience, you can broadcast your gaming sessions live, with no extra equipment or computers necessary. If you're stuck and need help, just have a friend take over your character remotely, and show you how it's done--or have them drop items into your game world to help you along the way.

And the Playstation 4's social functionality avoids the pitfalls of previous innovations such as the Move, Kinect, and WiiU's tablet controller by not relying on developer support. Where the Move is basically dead because nobody makes games for it, your "share" button will work universally, whether a developer decides to build their game around those feautres or not...though I suspect many games will take full advantage of the console's focus on connectivity. 

The most noteworthy features of all, however, have to do with the way digital content is accessed. The biggest hurdle to digital distribution has been file size, a problem made exponentially more diffiuclt as the next generation emerges and games become even larger. Sony's answer to this problem is brilliant: a small executable file is downloaded at the outset of a purchase, and the rest of the game downloads as you play it.  And the addition of Gaikai's cloud technology will allow for game demos to be more expansive, and playable instantly. Sony emphasized wanting gamers to "only buy what you love," and certainly the inclusion of better, easier to access demos can make that a reality. (I wonder how Resident Evil 6 would have fared if its demo had been released in this fashion...) 

There's still more to be learned about the PS4--to say nothing of Microsoft's next-gen offering--and there are plenty of features I didn't discuss here (remote play, anyone?) but what we do know gives gamers reason to be excited. Though, it's perhaps a bit ironic--and in a sad way--that we're asking our next generation of consoles to bring us into the present, rather than the future. But hey, at least it's finally here. 

Four Reboots That Would Be Terrible and Should Never Happen

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Reboots are tricky. The release of Ninja Theory's DMC: Devil May Cry was perhaps gaming's most crystalline example of this; near-unanimous critical praise was largely drowned out by the catterwauling of angry fanboys on topics ranging from the new combat system to the color of Dante's hair. The disparity in reactions between fans and critics is summed up best at Metacritic.com, where the console versions register an average critic score of 85, but a paltry 4.25 among fans. 

The elusiveness of unanimity within the gaming community is not uncommon, but such a divide is almost inevitable when regarding a reboot or reimagining of a popular franchise, and the differences between proponent and detractor tend to be as irreconcilible as those between Israel and Palestine. It's fair to wonder if such an equilibrium is even possible, let alone something worth chasing. In other words, would Ninja Theory have been better off eschewing all but the barest ties to the old franchise, much in the same way Chris Nolan's Batman Begins  bears virtually no resemblance to the train wreck that was Schumacher's Batman & Robin

In any event, the prospect of one's own favorite franchise being handed to a new house is both intriguing and terrifying. Certainly there are some that could use it. And I'm sure we could have a blast opining about which developers would be best for which games, but I think it would be even more fun to imagine the worst-case scenarios. As in, which developer/franchise combinations would result in the worst games? (Okay, not really, but for comedic effect, bear with me)

1. Mass Effect - Valve

me4

 Now, before you have an apoplectic fit, I'm not doubting Valve's chops. They are, after all, the creators of one of the most lauded shooter franchsies of all-time, Half-Life. Given Mass Effect's cookie-cutter gunplay, gamers would probably be better off in that respect with Valve at the helm. And fans of that series--as well as Portal--can attest to the developer's talent for crafting a well-plotted story with smart dialogue, so Valve's interpretation of the Reaper problem would almost certainly be on-par with BioWare's offering.

So what's the problem? At a glance, it looks like this reboot might actually kick some ass. And I'd agree with you...except for one issue: the mute protagonist

Sure, they may have gotten away with it Half-Life, but Chell's silence in the Portal games was downright confounding. Valve's explanations--one being that she might be brain-damaged, and the other that she's just too pissed off at the robots to bother speaking--are by no means satsifactory. The slightly better explanation, offered by Erik Wolpaw, is that the player character is silent to convey that they could be anyone. In other words, Valve believes the player will become more immersed in a game where the protagonist is slient, because they (we) can pretend that we are the protagonist. But even this fails the logic test, since Valve's protagonists aren't  nameless and faceless everymen/everywomen. The illusion is shattered when we have to adopt the role of a scientist with a name and a backstory, or a brunette test monkey who happens to be the daughter of the human whose intelligence now inhabits the very machine trying to kill her. In light of this, their inability to talk, or even emote, becomes a stumbling block in the development of their persona. (Or non-persona, as it were)  

Needless to say, the consequences would be disasterous in Mass Effect. Could you imagine the implications of being Muteshep?  

muteshep

 On second thought, Valve would probably leave out the Starchild...

 

2. Assassin's Creed - Square Enix

Assassin's Creed if made by Square

 

I mean...enough said, right?

 

3. Pac-Man - FROM Software

Pac-Man reimagined by FROM Software

 I'm thirty-two, so trips to the mall as a kid with my dad always involved a stop at the arcade. It's hard to believe that the latest generation of gamers will probably never know the thrill of being handed a crisp five-dollar bill for the change machine, nor the glorious clatter of copper rain as a literal fistful of quarters pour into the dispening cup. Sure, local rest stops may have a cabinet or two, and you can still find games at Chuck E. Cheese's and Dave & Busters, but none of these are a substitue for the genuine article. Arcades--the good ones, at least--were dingy little rooms of electronic awesomeness. Seriously, the best arcades were always a ltitle dark, and a little dirty. I don't know why that necessarily made it better, but then, why is gaming now so much better when you're surrounded by a few old burrito wrappers and an empty twelve pack of Mountain Dew? Probably because the arcade--much like your filthy bachelor gaming lair--was a place where you can be yourself, and the only people who would ever enter were there for the same reason you are.

I'll never forget all the hours I put into games like Golden Axe, Mortal Kombat, and NBA Jam. And my parents will never get back all the money they let me pump into those machines, but the whole point was to make me happy, and, well, mission accomplished. 

One of those classic games--perhaps the most classic of them all--is Pac-Man. Now, we've all played a version of it, even if some of us have never stepped foot into an arcade. My local laundromat still has a cabinet of Ms. Pac-Man, so it's safe to say the brand has miraculously outlived the medium it was created for. But, in spite of many efforts by Namco, nothing (aside from the aforementioned Ms. Pac-Man) has taken hold like the original. So, this retro-gamer wonders, is it time for a new spin on the old circle? 

No. At least, not if FROM gets their hands on it. 

Pac-Souls

I know there are some difficulty-junkies out there, but...come on. 

4. Journey - Bethesda

Journey

Journey was far and away the most celebrated game of 2012, and probably got more recognition outside of the industry than any game since CJ spilled his hot coffee in San Andreas. And while I was impressed by the game's stunning visuals, exploration and unique game mechanics, I was left disappointed by the experience. As I said in a recent blog post, Journey could have been so much more than it was; it could have been the answer to every question we have going into the increasingly-digital world of game distribution, and yet it demurred when the time came to make a case for itself as something truly special.

This isn't to say Journey wasn't a good game. It was. And I am fully aware that there are people making the case that Journey has achieved all of the things I said it didn't. And that's fair, even if I don't agree. But I don't think I'd be alone in my criticisms if Skyrim creators Bethesda got a hold of the title and made a go of it. 

Could you imagine? 

Skyjourney

There's only so much hill-surfing one can do, amirite? 

I was going to do a fifth, but then I decided that it would be better (and easier) if you guys though up some ideas. If you come up with something funny, I'll do a really crappy job Photoshopping together the box art and an "in-game" still, and we'll have our fifth! In the meantime, let's just hope none of these unholy unions ever occur. 

When the Journey Becomes a Slog

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I used to characterize my love of video games in the broadest sense possible: "I like video games." Sort of like how, when we were young and asked to define what music we liked, the answer was almost inevitably "Pretty much everything." (Or, where I grew up in the urban Northeast, "Everything but Country") As I've grown older, I've realized--with some degree of melancholy, though there's a dash of pride in there as well--that my tastes are more...specific? Refined?...than such generalizations allow. And perhaps they always have been, but it's quite the moment in one's life when their demographic changes, even if it is from such a loose and, perhaps, wishy-washy one such as this.

As they pertain to games, this revelation in personal taste came quite recently. Although I was keenly aware of my dislike for the MMO genre since its inception, I always avoided introspection by simply assuming games like Everquest and the like were the, to return to the music allusion, "Except Country" of my gaming pallette. I was similiarly in denial about my hatred for the multiplayer functions on sports and FPS games, always writing it off to the fact that I was simply never going to be as skilled as most of the players online, and therefore was destined to be the whipping boy in most contests. (And not to equivocate, but in the online sessions of games I really do enjoy--like Assassin's Creed--I find that I quite often amthe one getting his butt kicked more often than not)

It wasn't until I saved my pennies and rushed out to pick up Dishonored last year and found myself squarely and nakedly in the role of contrarian that I understood I wasn't quite the omni-gamer I had thought I was. It was a game modelled after Bioshock, but that's where the similarities end. It looked like something released on the original XBox, scripted by the hacks found at your local bookstore's writing workshop, and voiced by some of the most absurdly melodramatic hams this side of Spartacus: Blood and Sand. In short, it was a trainwreck. Yet it has drawn nearly universal critical acclaim, and despite a rash of criticism from gamers early on, it maintains a very strong user score of 8.1 at Metacrtiic.

I tell you this because what I'm about to say about 2012's most adored game might make you think that I'm just another troll who likes to take the contrarian's position on popular items. And...come to think of it, I haven't really said anything to dissuade you of that opinion, have I? Well, then let me say this: I love games. I loved Skyrim, I loved Demon's Souls and Dark Souls (and I'm ever bit as nervous as you are about the change of directors for Dark Souls 2) and I loved the Mass Effect Trilogy...though, I have to say, while I didn't like the original ending, I was among those who loved the Extended Cut, but didn't feel it was a necessary addition.

Okay, you know what? I'm kind of painting myself into a corner here. So, just forget it. Sure, I'm the contrarian who hates everything you love. Hey! I'm Tom Mc Shea!

With that said, I was massively disappointed by Journey.

Not with the core gameplay, or the story-told-through-hieroglyphs narrative style. I very much appreciated those as a change of pace from the hand-holding and utter lack of subtlety present in most games. In fact, the first 2/3 of the game were quite enjoyable. I relished the unexpected ability to explore, I was awed at the best-in-class visuals, and for the first time in my adult gamer life I could not fathom what awaited me around the next corner. It was truly a unique experience.

And then the snow happened.

What had been a thrilling, sometimes challenging, sojourn through a fantasy desert became a slog through snowcapped hell. There was nothing fun about the wintery final section of the game, but that's not necessarily what gaming is all about, and I'm open to games that take a different tack. But all of what Journey was up until that point disappeared--the amazing vistas, the cinematic scope, the very uniqueness of the game, gone. It was replaced by slow, repetitive, familiar play. Waiting out rhythmic wind gusts behind gravestones? Trudging blindly through the snowpocalypse while the game gives you the unshakable sensation that you're going the wrong way? And from a narrative standpoint, what was with the death and rebirth? The appearance of the White Robes as a kind of gatekeeper or guardian throughout the game means this isn't quite an example of deus ex machina, but it sure feels like one, and in either case it's an acquiesence to convention that I wasn't expecting.

In spite of its last few minutes, Journey still accomplishes something few other indy titles have, in becoming a necessary experience for anyone who wants to know where gaming was in 2012, and protentially where it's going in the future. Sadly, this snapshot of a moment in gaming history could have been much more than that. Where it raises interesting and important corallaries regarding the relevance of game length, the pricing model, and what all of this means for AAA titles (and, by extention, retail stores) Journey could have been the answer to those questions. It could have stood as an example, a proof-of-concept for games that can take their rightful place as art rather than meekly waiting for it to be given, as if an honor rather than a birthright. Perhaps most importantly, it could have been a transcendent game that did not require a physical copy to play, which would have been a first, in my view, in console gaming history, and perhaps the first log on GameStop's funeral pyre.

Many will still make these arguments on Journey's behalf, but a tremendous opportunity was missed, and a great game became a flawed one. But hey, maybe I'm just that guy who disagrees with popular opinion. Or maybe I'm not. Do yourself a favor when you play this game: Shake off all the glowing reviews and just play the damn thing. See if the critics who claim Journey accomplishes all of these things are saying so because it's true, or because they desperately want it to be so. I think you'll be surprised by the answer.

Bad Endings or Bad Fans?

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Disclaimer: The following post contains buttloads of spoilers for Assassin's Creed III and Mass Effect 3, including (but not limited to) the endings of both games. In the case of ACIII, the endings of previous titles in the series may also be mentioned.

Several hours into Assassin's Creed III, I become suspicious of something I had not anticipated: This might just be the end. Not of the franchise, of course--no, they'll still be milking that heffer well into the PS9's lifecycle--but of the main arc. Of Desmond's arc. I mean, sure, it's not so much of a reach considering the game opens on its release date (October 30, 2012) and progresses ever closer to the fateful December 21st doomsday date, but knowing Ubisoft as we do, one needs more than a ticking clock to believe that they're about to put a bow on things. (They made THREE Ezio games, remember. Three.)

As Desmond willingly smote himself upon Juno's altar (a scene eerily reminiscent of the "Control" ending of ME3) and the civilization-wiping solar flare fizzles against her (magical?) barrier, I said aloud "Oh no, here come the crybabies again."

Look, I'm not going to pretend that the ending was perfect. It wasn't. Juno's solution for saving the planet was (quite literally) a bad case of Deus Ex Machina.But this little faux pas can be forgiven. After all, we're talking about video games here, not Oscar-worthy scriptwriting. Like professional wrestling, soap operas, or your favorite TV show, you have to be willing to accept a few inconsisntencies and plot holes. What isn't acceptable is what we saw earlier this year from Bioware, when they half-assedly threw together a few disparate cinematics and called it an ending.

Assassin's Creed III is not Mass Effect 3. It will not require an "Extended Cut" to fill in the blanks. There was no "Where the eff is Joker going?" moment in ACIII's finale. It was, for the most part, a smart, sophisticated ending that treated me like an adult. No, it didn't lay everything out on a platter for you, but if you think about it, most of what you need to know was provided during the course of the game. Yes, you have to take a little while and think about it afterwards, but isn't that a good thing?

If you need some help, here's the gist of what we learned: The First Civvers discovered that there was an order to the universe, a pattern that could be plotted, accounted for, and even manipulated. While hugely promising, there just wasn't enough time to use this new information and its ensuing technology to stop the solar flare. What theydid manage before the end was a means of looking into the future, and even communicating with it--which means that Ezio wasn't talking to an elaborate recording or sophisticated AI, but actually Minerva from the past. This also explains why Minerva isn't always around (Juno accuses her of leaving in various emails)

The plan was to lead the assassins to the temple so that they could finish the work the First Civ started. What they don't account for is Juno, who in the First Civ had designs on conquering the world, managed to successfully upload her consciousness into a computer 70,000 years ago. In a bit of good news, she actually did figure out how to save the world, but can't figure out how to free herself (download herself?) from the machine. That bit of magic requires Desmond. It also requires Desmond tonot allow the earth to be cleansed by fire and for civilization to begin anew, which is what the game continually hints is precisely what the Templars would have wanted, and why Juno needs to get rid of Templar Lucy,the one person who might have convinced Desmond to make a different choice.

So both Minerva and Juno need Desmond to reach the temple, just for very different reasons. It's important to remember that up until this point, the First Civvers have only ever spoken to Desmond through Ezio...hundreds of years in the past. They don't know what the Assassins and Templars have done with the warnings until Minerva steps in just before Desmond touches the pedestal. This is why it's only then Minerva says it's too late. It took me a little while to piece that together, as my first instinct was to ask why Minerva lead me there at all if she knew it was never going to work in the first place. Turns out, she didn't know it wasn't going to work, since her last visit to the future was during Ezio's lifetime, nearly 500 years prior to present-day.

So the only choices Desmond is given are either to save the world--in the process freeing the world-conquerer Juno--or hit the reset button and let the world burn.

He's shown the consequences of the latter choice: mankind survives, Desmond becomes a hero, then a demigod, then the reason for war and oppression as his words are twisted to serve the purposes of zealots. Desmond naturally cringes at this and chooses to free Juno and save the world from the flare, hoping that the remaining Assassins can find a way to stop her. What he fails to see in his zeal is that the path of destruction is pretty much exactly what happened last time. Remember the Truth video from ACII? It showed the real Adam and Eve stealing an Apple of Eden and escaping some kind of slave camp. In the game universe, their words and warnings for humanity is twisted into the religious dogma of Judeo-Christian lore. This is a pretty ugly scenario, but it at least gives humanity another chance to prepare for the inevitable next flare. And freeing Juno actually sets humanity further back than the flare, because now they're enslaved by a god again, as they were prior to the war.

I have no doubt there will be an ACIV, or perhaps a half-sequel or two, featuring Connor, just as there was for Ezio in Brotherhood and Revelations, and I also have no doubt that whatever the next game is, it will center around stopping Juno, and I'm sure they'll ultimately be successful. But what's great about Assassin's Creed III is that it doesn't rely on those future titles. In fact, it kind of slams the door on them by making Desmond's mistake a key theme of the game. You see, Desmond's story parallels Connors. In both arcs, the protagonist's (and his order's) rigid adherence to their ideals leads to ultimate failure. Yes, Connor gets his revenge on Lee, and yes, Desmond stops the flare, but these are pyrrhic victories. Connor's people are chased off their land by the very government he thought would ensure their sovereignty, and Earth is enslaved by a power-mad Juno on December 21, 2012.

This is agreat ending. It's a dark ending, sure. It's not in a neat box, and it requires you to pay attention to details throughout the game, but it really is fantastic. Of course, this is just one man's opinion, but the complaints against it really only amount to people **** that Desmond dies, or that the earth is screwed. In other words, people are mad that it's not ahappy ending. And the loudest detractors of Mass Effect 3's ending said pretty much the same thing: "Why's Shepherd got to die?" and "Did they really need to destroy the relays?" While there really were significant issues with the original ME3 release, the EC addressed and corrected them, yet did nothing to silence the naysayers. Why? Because Shepherd didn't tuck them into bed at the end, apparently.

So before you buy into all the forum trolls saying this was the worst year ever for game endings, ask yourself if the endings themselves really are bad, or if it's just a bunch of whining from immature punks who can't hanlde a story that doesn't end with "And they all lived happily ever after?"

DLC: It's Still Your Choice

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It seems every Tom, Dick, and Harry on GameSpot these days is opining about downloadable content, whether it be the viability of the medium, the moral implications of unlockable content, or the difference between "true" DLC and its money-grubbing doppleganger. There isn't much left to say about it, really, but what ground has been left untread is fertile and should be explored. Namely, how the gamer--that's you--plays the role of judge, jury, and (hopefully) executioner on this topic.

The argument boils down to one of self-preservation: Do what's in your own best interest, and the problem will resolve itself.The longer version? A publisher's job is to make as much profit as possible while satisfying the customer base. Unfortunately, most developers only measure "customer satisfaction" in sales figures, meaning that all of your complaints are falling on deaf ears so long as there are people willing to shell out the cash for their product.

In light of the industry's trend toward in-game, real money transactions and Season Passes, it may seem like the devaluation of your gaming dollar is on an inexorable course. Don't be discouraged. While there are some realities of the industry that gamers have no choice to face, such as rising production costs with each technology generation facing a solid upper-limit on retail prices (remember Neo Geo?), there's nothing that says consumers therefore have to accept content ripped from their games and sold back to them. We can all put an end to rip-off DLC.

This is the tough part, of course. Such an endeavor requires some consumer savvy. For instance, not purchasing that map pack download for your favorite multiplayer war game. Or not bothering with one of Bioware's we-left-this-out-intentionally-so-we-could-sell-it-later DLC scams. Avoding games that offer microtransactions in-game would help us all, or, if you really have to have it, doing the grinding necessary to earn the items for free ("free" being a relative term here, obviously). If you exercise prejudice as a consumer, rather than purchasing DLC "just because," you may miss out on a level or two, but you can take comfort in the knowledge that you're helping all of gaming-kind.

At the very least, if you just can't help yourself, or happen to enjoy paying $120 for what would have fit in a $50 game six years ago, only purchase content based on glowing critical reviews. You may think gaming media sites like Metacritic and GameSpot are here to help you find good games, but they're also serve a secondary role as quality assurance. Or at least that what you can tell yourself while you're flittering your savings away on downloadable crap that you don't need and should have come with the original release anyway.

Dishonored is Really Bad

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This is my Mitzvah for the day: Save. Your. Money.

Seriously, I don't know what the gaming media was thinking when they en mass dropped to their knees and chugged down some Bethesda Softworks' Hardworks (if ya know what I mean...nudge, wink) because unless somebody played a cruel joke on me by switching out my copy of Dishonored for some crappy indie title of the same name from 2002 (which is how dated the graphics look, by the way) they could not have been more off the mark about this game.

To put it succinctly, Dishonored sucks. It sucks hard. I don't give games numbered scores anymore, but this game sucks so bad that words alone are not enough to convey just how awful this game really is. So here goes: 3. Yep, a 3.

Where to begin? Okay, how bad do you want your graphics? How about boxy, featureless geometry? Textures so flat and bland they could be mistaken for being from the previous console generation? Good, because that's what you're getting. Everything from the enviromental textures to the character models is absolute trash. There's nothing even remotely impressive about how this game looks.

How bad do you want the AI? Do you want guards to follow easily identifiable paths that provide no challenge whatsoever? Do you want them to be entirely oblivious to you unless you are directly in front of them? Do you want them to repeatedly run through traps, lemming-like, in spite of watching nine of their brethren die in the process? Excellent, because that's precisely the Dishonored experience.

How bad do you want the story to be? Is the painfully-generic steampunk setting enough, or would you also like for the dialogue to pendulum between ridiculous and overwrought? How about voice acting so melodramatic that you'll begin to appreicate when it is merely amateurish? There's nothing quite so unpalatable as bad dialogue delivered poorly, is there?

How about the length? Does it matter? (This is the first time in my life I've hoped for a "yes" after asking that question...) If you play this game as it is intended to be played--that is, by gunning down everyone in sight, and executing a multitude of brutal kills--you'll find the campaign weighing in at just under 10 hours. No, seriously! And that's with some serious exploration! I bet you could nail it in five if you didn't look for runes or bone charms!

Okay, snark and sarcasm aside, this is the most disappointing title of the year for me. Not just because it means at best I'm out more than half of my investment, (I'll be returning it today) but becasue my faith in the gaming review process has been fundamentally shaken. Mere days after publicly appreciating how subtantive reviews tend to be when you look past the score, those very same outlets lead me down the primrose path. They said the game was exciting, exhilerating, and good brutal fun. It is none of that. Sure, there's some mild enjoyment to be had in executing foes, but the animations are so quick, and the graphics so poor, that the novelty quickly wanes. And this is to say nothing of the fact the game actually punishes you for playing it the way it was advertised. Want the good ending? Don't kill anybody. "Wait, isn't killing people the only fun to be had?" Why yes, Little Johnny, that's right. "Then what's the point of not killing anyone, paw?" Shut up, Johnny. Shut up before I smack you in the mouth.

I can't think of a more poorly-written or -acted game. I mean, okay, so maybe Final Fantasy XIII, but at least that has the excuse of being Japanese! And how did Bethesda allow this game to release when they released games themselves with better graphics five freaking years ago?

Avoid this one like the plague (you'd get that joke if you played the game. Trust me, it's not worth it.)

Review Goes Here

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Since there seems to be some fatal error in the user reviews section that results in each one coming out as a gigantic wall of text with odd (and apparently useless) HTML tags peppered in where the line breaks and paragraph breaks shoudl be, I'm just going to go ahead and put my reviews in the blog section until the mess is sorted out. And since GameSpot isn't quick in fixing these issues (see how long it took them to fix the blogs) I'm just going to go ahead and set up shop here permanently. Besides, I'm not required to give numbered scores here, which gives me the freedom to be a pretentious douche and pretend I'm too good for them.

As for the review, I'll be tackling Sleeping Dogs today.

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To begin, I want to say that this review is sort of just a riff on Carolyn Petit's. After all, you've probably already read hers, so I might as well use it a point of reference.

Where to begin? Oh, I know! I'll do one of those "The Good, The Bad" lists that the official reviewers do! Okay, it won't look as nice, but here goes:

The Good:

Strong characters, great voice acting, fantastic combat mechanics, fun missions, good story

The Bad:

Environmental textures are sometimes disappointing; mission scoring system is annoying

Okay, the first thing I'll talk about here are the textures, because the comments section of the official review was basically full of people bashing Carolyn for saying she thought they were poor. A common response was to tell her to play it on the 360 and review it again. Well, I happened to play it on the 360, and arrived at the same conclusion.

Fact is, some of the textures in the game are bad. Up-close, everything is kind of featureless and bland. I get that the game is semi-stylized ("stylized" being lingo for anything that isn't attempting photorealism), but that's not the issue here. We're talking about poor textures, not stylized ones. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that at night, and in the rain (and particularly in the rain at night) the game is absolutely stunning. It's as if all of their resources went into making the rain look really good, and they skipped out on everything else.

Before you do a fanboy freakout, consider that this game almost died once, and lapses in quality tend to happen with projects that are interrupted and then picked up again on an abbreviated schedule. That they were able to make a great game with so few glaring issues under such duress is super impressive, but there's no reason to pretend that there are no issues.

Now that thatugly business is out of the way, let's get to the good stuff: Sleeping Dogs is a blast! I don't think I've ever had more fun playing an open-world game. I'm a huge fan of the GTA series, but I have to admit that this game does a number of things better. It tells a better story, the voice acting is better, and it has none of the increasingly out-of-place satire found in more recent GTA games. Oh, and the combat--both gunplay and hand-to-hand--is phenomenal. The ways to kill your enemies is seemingly endless, and made brutally satisfying by the environmental interactions. Whether it's throwing them in a dumpster, tossing them into an ice grinder, or hanging them from a meathook, there are hours of fun to be had just beating people to death. You'll find yourself stopping to fight at every opportunity just so you can use a new combo you learned, or just to experiment.

While this Hong Kong isn't exactly beautiful, it's certainly worth exploring. What's great about it (at least for me) is that exploration is made easy, as side-missions tend to take you in the vicinity of collectible items, particularly the jade statues you need to learn moves from your master at the martial arts school, so there's none of the endless and mindless pigeon hunting like in GTA IV that you probably ddin't even bother with. The collectibles are not only weaved into the natural flow of the game, they also reward you by giving you stuff as you go, rather than making you wait until you've gotten them all. For example, opening up lockboxes around town will give you money, or money and a weapon, or a special outfit (two of my favorites came from lockboxes: Mr. Black, a nod to Reservoir Dogs, the description reads: "Because you can pick your own color" and a familiar yellow jumpsuit). Health statues upgrade your health by 10% after every fifth find, and the aforementioned jade statues each earn you a new grapple or combination.

On top of that, there are bonuses to be had for missions scores, which are doled out in the form of police badges and triad triangles. The badges begin full and depleat as you do things unbecoming of an officer, such as damaging property and hurting/killing civilians, and the tringles fill as you do things like kill bad guys and execute power strikes and combos. This was perhaps my biggest beef with Sleeping Dogs. While I appreciate the concept of the badge system and how it's supposed to be a reward for being "good" during your missions (it should be noted, both the badges and the triangles are only tallied during missions, not outside of them), but the system becomes really annoying once you realize that you have points deducted not just for, say, running over a pedestrian, but also for bumping into a guard rail, or failing to execute a perfectly-timed wall climb. This wouldn't be terrible if just one infraction didn't lose you that entire badge...but it does! A -5 for clumsily climbing a wall effectively becomes an entire badge-worth of deductions, as you lose the entire badge even if that's your only transgression. I get that this is supposed to be incentive for replay--and I guess it works as such--but it feels tacked on and ill-considered. Rather than replay the missions, I found myself grousing over the lost points and moving on with my game.

Anyway, the scores accumulate until you reach the next respective levels, at which point you are given a chance to upgrade powers from a tree with two branches, with powers ranging from weapon-based (increased damage with your firearms) to new mele grapples, and even some new abilities, like having your car brought to you by a personal valet with a simple phone call.

For those expecting a GTA clone, you'll either be pleasantly surprised or sorely disappointed to know that Sleeping Dogs is to the sandox genre what LA Noire was to Rockstar Games. It may have the appearance of being a totally free-roaming game, but it really isn't. Your contact list, for example, is contextual, and when prompted to call someone, that person will be the only name in your phone book. Aside from races and a couple of little side missions, there really are only two threads that can be followed--the triad story, and the police story. Don't get me wrong; this semi-linear style actually works really well. At times, however, you can kind of wish there was a bit more to do, and bit more freedom. Oh well, maybe in Sleeping Dogs 2.

In any case, I highly recommend this game to anyone who loves fun, brutal mele combat, great storytelling and voice acting, and collectibles. This game will knock your freaking socks off. In fact, in an era when Saints Row is widely considered to be the only alternative to Grand Theft Auto, it's Sleeping Dogs that is the first game to actually rival it. It's sort of like they took some of the cool stuff about Saints Row--like the arcade-style driving, the scorekeeping for accidents and stuff, etc--and the cool stuff about GTA--story, acting, great missions--and threw them into one game.

What are you still reading this for? Go buy it!

I Gave This Blog Post a 6.5, So Don't Bother Reading

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I've always been a tactile kind of guy, so after a year of watching my WPM plummet on the iPhone 4s' touchscreen keypad (something about snails, molasses, and coital grandparents goes here), I finally relented and went back to my old Blackberry. I text like a pro once more, but in the process I unwittingly traded one social faux pas for another: I was now the guy carrying around two pocket electronic devices.

Since I'm already prematurely graying and slightly overweight, I figured Mother Nature had set me too far behind the 8-ball to go about giving hip folk any more of a reason to look at me sideways. So I brought my erstwhile phone to the nearest game store, traded her in for a handsome amount of store credit, and went about spending it on games I had been too cautious to buy when there was real currency at stake.

The first--and only one of relevance to this post--was inFamous 2, the follow up to one of my all-time favorite games. You might ask, "Why so skittish of an anticipated sequel?" Well, the review, of course.

Okay, not so much the review as the review score. GameSpot gave it a 7.5.

To be fair, that's not a bad score. But when games cost $60 plus tax, I ain't looking for a good time, I'm looking for a great time. You will find no indy darlings in my (predictably small) current-gen game collection. I only play the hits, sweetheart.

Yet as I rode the powerlines around New Marais, snuffing out redneck militia with blasts of blue lightning from my fingertips, I couldn't shake the feeling that I had been duped by some rogue reviewer. As it happens, the review was done by Tom Mc Shea, professional contrarian and general na'er-do-well (who is no doubt attending boot camp in anticipation of Medal of Honor: Warfighter. You know, realism and all that). Had I known this at the time, I would have dismissed it out of hand. Of course, had I actually read the damn thing, I would have seen that all the stuff I liked about the original was back and, in most cases, bigger and better. Based on his review--in other words, the words--I would have bought the game on release day.

Tom gave an accurate review of the game, and our disagreement was simply in the weight given to each of the disparate aspects. Where he lamented the lack of gray in the morality system, I felt its clearer lines gave each playthrough (one paragon, one rat bastard) a more distinct feel. While difficult morality decisions throughout the game may have been more interesting, I didn't feel any loss in their absence.

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Next, Tom will LARP a six-month stay at Walter Reed for wounds sustained in Battlefield 3

The point is that I stayed away from a game that I ended up loving, all because of an arbitrary number. I say arbitrary because, for all intents and purposes, it seems to be exactly that. Consider Game Informer's review of inFamous 2, which hits all of the same notes as GameSpot's, yet hangs an 88 on it. Maybe the best example of this is in the mixed reviews for Resident Evil 6. GameSpot gave it a 4.5, IGN gave it a 7.9 (oh call it 8 already), and the reviews say pretty much the same thing.

It could be argued that sites like Metacritic, which compiles all of the major critical scores and puts a number to them, can give gamers a basic idea of whether or not critics liked something. Even then, the more telling numbers are the tally of good, bad, and mixed reviews, as opposed to the average score. For inFamous 2, I found 77 positive, 13 mixed, and 0 negative. Based on that, I could say the general consensus is that I'll like this game. But consider that GameSpot's 7.5 is considered "positive," rather than "mixed," since the categories are segregated by--you guessed it--numbered score as opposed to substantive review. So even at Metacritic, we're just looking at a bunch of arbitrary numbers, and not getting anywhere closer to finding out whether or not you will like this game.

Yet these arbitrary numbers matter. In a recent study, it was shown that review scores can actually affect a gamer's experience, and have a huge influence on whether or not they'll make a purchase. Unlike film and television--which has a second life on disc and the digital marketplace--gaming's secondary market doesn't put a dime in publishers' pockets, making those initial reviews all the more vital. Given this, isn't it time the gaming media revisited its review system?

I recently purchased Arguably, a collection of essays by Christopher Hitchens. Many of them are book reviews, and each could be treated as a companion piece to the work itself--an in-depth and qualitative review of the material--without employing a number, star, or point system. While I don't expect anything on GameSpot for an essay by The Hitch, it would be nice to eschew the scores while highlighting the substantive reviews. It could expose gamers to a wider range of quality titles, while potentially keeping smaller developers and publishers in business. And since gaming has always been driven by the innovations of smaller developers, isn't their survival something we should be striving for?

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