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DraugenCP Blog

Centenario - 100 Blog Posts and Counting

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August of 2008 must have been an aftersummer like any other for me. Granted, I had just signed up for university for the second time, after having ended my study of history rather prematurely. But apart from a slightly higher amount of excitement, I was over-occupied doing nothing before the school bell rang again - figuratively or not - at the end of the month. As such, it is hard to say at this point what motivated me to log on to Gamespot - where I had been a member for two years already - on the 12th of August and post my first blog entry. Perhaps it was the rather 'livejournally' vibe of the term 'blog' that had withheld me from giving in to the desire to use my personal Gamespot soapbox in previous years, or maybe I just needed a place to dump my gaming-related articles on.

Regardless from the nobility of my motivations, that particular date saw the "Some people have no opinions" line be changed by a fairly light-hearted article on the appeal of Faxanadu. This obscure NES RPG is remembered for little more than its legendary "this is not enough golds" line, making it the ideal 'unknown-to-many-beloved-by-some' game that is so easy to write about. Like my early reviews, this article was actually taken from the 1337Planet forums, where I had posted it months earlier. As the title implies, the entry was actually the first in a series of articles on cult games. I had at one point written the second instalment, on Hogs of War, but only posted it on the aforementioned forum. A third and final instalment on Conker's Bad Fur Day was planned but never realised.

faxanadu

From that point onwards, I sporadically posted more writings, widely varied in nature, on the tiny but cozy personal space that Gamespot so generously granted me. The first few entries were mostly revamped articles from 1337Planet, but from about 2010 onwards, I started writing material specifically for my GS blog. While I'd probably throw away a considerable portion of my early writings now, I do like how skimming through my blog history gives me, and with that the reader, some insight into how my gaming tastes have developed over the years. Because it is no coincidence that, like with my reviews, just about anything written before 2010 dealt specifically with Nintendo-related games and themes.

Then, in the summer of 2010, I suddenly ended up with a gaming PC (it's a long story...) and my focus switched dramatically. Not only did I dedicate most of my gaming time to PC titles, but I also gained interest in specific genres and niches. Some of my friends now like to joke that I'm only into obscure Russian shooters and won't like a game if it allows me to hit a foe from distances greater than 5 metres. While this is, of course, not to be taken seriously, such a caricature would have been completely unthinkable some three years ago, when I was mostly into platformers and had only finished about 5 first person shooters ever.

eastern-european gaming

With this switch in focus, I also moved away from the 'AAA game' experience. Not that I cherish this infantile, jealous fanboy rage against popular games that seems to be all the fashion these days, but if I look at what games I've enjoyed the most this gen, a lot of them aren't exactly the most polished, high production titles out there. As someone who has always liked to write about video games, my evolving preferences motivated, or possibly even forced me to investigate wherein the appeal of video games lies. This resulted in numerous articles on the (admittedly worn-out) 'video games as art' debate, detailed accounts of my favourite games, and even contemplations over the purpose of reviews and video game journalism themselves.

Pretentious as it may sound, the fact that a fair degree of academic experience ripened both my analytical capabilities and my writing skills contributed greatly to the tangible improvement of my entries over the years. While I by no means claim that I am the only one who at least attempts to write about video games in a fashion more erudite than usual, I do think I have found my own niche in how I approach video games and media in general. By trying to analyse games rather than merely describing and grading them, you become much more aware of the mechanics at play behind the game. If you are not only able to say that you think a game is fun, but also explain what makes it fun to you, it makes deciding whether or not a game is worth your time that much easier. Not only that, but being aware of why a game is so appealing exposes its true brilliance - something that goes further than their shiny packaging. And being able to capture that sentiment in words once in a while generates a genuine sense of accomplishment as a writer.

After that August afternoon in 2008, 99 more articles have been posted, meaning that this marks the centennial entry. But my evolution as a writer and contributor to this community has, of course, gone hand-in-hand with my evolution as a person. Now that I'm a working man, I don't have as much time to dedicate myself to writing as I'd like. As a result, the future of this blog is uncertain. Not in terms of its existence, because I will keep updating this small page as long as GameSpot allows me to, but uncertain in terms of how regular these updates will be. But after 24 years on this planet, it's safe to say that writing will remain my favourite pastime for the 50 or more years that are hopefully still ahead of me. And if, during that time, I can make even the smallest contribution to the evolution of the coverage of media, I'll be more than satisfied.

Thanks to all of those who have, at any point, read and enjoyed my contributions to this website.

getoutofherestalker

The Fence - On the Appeal of Military Games

marching soldiers

"Violence is not the answer" is a phrase that was repeated ad infinitum in our youths. Children in the Western world are brought up with the idea that discussing their problems is always better than talking with their fists. But for a society that claims to strive towards pacifism, violence is still surprisingly ubiquitous. Violence continues to be a part of our society, a daily reality that we all have to deal with. Whether it is war, shoot-outs or general crime, violence enters our living rooms in one way or another every time we turn on the TV.

However, while violence disgusts us, it also fascinates us. Why else would there be so many detective novels, documentaries about serial killers, and television series about police work? It is hard for us to resist a quick peek into the dark side of human nature, which explains why media focusing on violence continue to attract an audience of millions. Dutch comedian Hans Sibbel visualised this fascination by means of a fence. In all of our minds, there is a fence protecting us from potential threats. Within the fence reside all of our pleasant, acceptable thoughts. But outside of the fence, there is a whole other world. A world of violence, murder and hatred: things that cannot enter our minds because the fence protects us. Despite this protection, we can still see through the fence. We can see what is out there, and it fascinates us. When someone tells us to not think of a pink elephant, all we can think about is a pink elephant. Similarly, whenever we are informed that violence is never an option, it triggers our curiosity. What is this thing so terrible that our parents want us to avoid it at all costs? Fortunately, in most of us, the fence is strong enough to prevent us from acting upon violent thoughts, but violence remains a thoroughly interesting topic nonetheless.

moh warfighter

With our fascination with violence in mind, it really should be no surprise that video games reflect this by often including violence as a central element of their gameplay. Violence is present in many different types of video games, be they action RPGs, platformers or military shooters. Out of these genres, though, the military shooter is perhaps the most peculiar. As its name indicates, it does not just focus on violence in itself, but lethal violence on a massive, organised scale: war. But perhaps the most distinctive aspect of war as a subcategory of violence is its reputation as a necessary evil. Because, contrary to 'regular' street violence, war is often (though definitely not always) viewed as a legitimate means of, for example, eliminating a threat or ousting a despotic leader. More often than not, war is viewed as a case of good versus evil, where one party has the right to use necessary force to subdue the other.

The perception of war violence as sometimes being legitimate is reflected by many military games, in which it is made clear that you are fighting for a noble cause. The advertisements for the recently released Medal of Honor: Warfighter, for instance, focus on the player's role as a special forces team member fighting global terror. And it should not prove too difficult to find a link between this concept and real-world political rhetoric. In other military video games, the player's violence is often justified a tad more subtly, but clear enough to counter any moral objections that may arise. The most interesting example of this is the futuristic/military first person shooter Frontlines: Fuel of War, which sees the player invade Moscow as part of the American army. Rather than the Russian army, the main opposing force is formed by armed civilians. Anticipating the moral dubiousness of an organised army taking out civilians, the game tells you that the civilians have been forced by their government to fend off the Americans. Upon closer inspection of this argument, it is nothing short of preposterous that we are supposed to be cleared of all moral objections by the information that they are not fighting out of their own free will. What is even more bizarre, though, is that we are to assume that people would not be prepared to voluntarily defend their country against a foreign invasion (when history proves this wrong on many accounts).

duty calls

As such, the problem with many military shooters is not that they include violence, but rather that this aspect is handled in an immature and morally simplistic fashion. An armed conflict seldom boils down to a good versus evil juxtaposition, and while it is unrealistic to expect video games to include all of the intricate mechanics at play in a war, they should at least include some more nuances in their presentation of military campaigns. The relative immaturity of military video games in this department is perhaps best illustrated by the story of a family friend, whose 13-year old child was a fervent player of Call of Duty. At one point, the child was so impressed with the pseudo-realistic presentation of combat in that game, that he said he wanted to join the army when he grew up. This desire instantly disappeared, however, when he saw some of the gritty combat scenes in the mini-series Band of Brothers.

While the child technically should not have been playing Call of Duty at that age in the first place, it does reveal a lot about utter lack of maturity of the Call of Duty games. And unfortunately, this series is not an exception. In fact, there are only very few, often very recent shooters that make a serious attempt at showing the horrors of war. In Spec Ops: The Line, for example, the border between right and wrong is so blurry that the player's actions are not automatically justified. Sadly, it is still a rare occurrence that games dare take this route, and openly question the actions of the player.

graw 2

Military games should not necessarily condemn war, as for many of us it is a necessary evil. But they should be careful not to glorify it either. Not necessarily because it sends us the wrong message about violence, but because it blatantly misinforms us on what war, or more specifically, the military actually is. There are many teenagers and young adults that buy into the idea that being part of an army means that you just shoot bad guys all the time. However, the reality of military life does not correspond with that image at all. It would thus be interesting to see video games offer a more balanced portrayal of an army's activities. Covering integral elements such as communicating with civilians, supplying remote areas, or any other activities that do not necessarily incorporate the use of deadly force could contribute to a better representation of military life, while also providing the subgenre with some much-needed variation. It is true that some military simulators already do this to an extent, but it would be interesting to see if some more mainstream games could mature a bit while retaining their appeal. It would be much more useful if military games could contextualise violence instead of outright excluding it. After all, we could never completely ignore what is on the other side of the fence.

The Hype Matrix

red or blue pill

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

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

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

suitcase with money

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

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

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

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

brown black sheep

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

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

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

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

dark souls prepare to die edition

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

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

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

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

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

"Equo ne credite"

Written by Draugen for System Wars Magazine

System Wars Magazine's 5th Anniversary

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

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

the swm crew

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

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

shishkin

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

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

stalker

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

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

spetsnaz

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

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

soviet base


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

A Summer of Finished Games

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

Wings of Prey



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

GTA IV: Episodes From Liberty City



The Lost and Damned

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

The Ballad of Gay Tony

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

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

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



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

RAGE



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

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Dawnguard



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

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

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

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

GRAW 2 screenshot

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

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

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

Reading if Fundamental

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Be sure to watch in HD and in fullscreen!