Archive for August, 2008

Dark Sector – “The Darkness awaits in the Obscure Black Shadow of the Sinister and Gloomy Night”

Why is it, that when something good comes along, everybody rushes to rehash it over and over again? Strange… I wonder why that happens. Anyways, here is “Dark Sector”, aka clone 245 of the (in)famous “Gears of War”, itself being the in vitro synthetic life-form born out of “Resident Evil 4” and “Kill Switch” – you gotta love the wonders of game design genetics. Now, about “Dark Sector”, what can be said that isn’t already present in its cloned DNA? …………………………………………………………………………………….. (the wind blowing outside) Nothing, that’s right! You would’ve thought that the guys over Digital Extremes would have some ideas on how to improve, or at least slightly perfect its genetic father, but… NOPE. No ideas here. Oh, I forgot, there’s some wicked little shuriken thingy called a Glaive, but I could’ve sworn seeing it someplace else. It makes the game much better, having wicked powers, like a shield and a power attack, and invisibility and stuff, it’s just so freakin amazing! And the guns? Don’t get me started on those! AK’s, 9mm’s, Shotguns, it’s all in here. Seriously! And y’know, you can even upgrade them and buy new ones at a black market vendor… (deja vu hits , let it go…… gone, hmm, wonder what that’s all about?). It’s all about epic warfare, killing wave after wave of nasty enemies, wave after wave, after wave, after wave, after wave, (yawn) hmm… where was I, oh right, wave after wave, after wave (just copy-paste this 1235 times in the text and save me the work, ok?). It’s just amazing how many enemies they placed in a double layered DVD, I mean if it were a bluray, one could understand, but in a DVD, that’s a huge achievement, dude. And it has freakin huge bosses too, like a chopter and some big ass monster that’s twelve feet tall. Where else have you seen the sheer class of these enemies? Hmm? That’s it, nowhere! “Gears of War” just doesn’t cut it in number and size of enemies, that’s how badass this “Dark” thingy game is! And they copied “Gears” so thoroughly, just as noble, honest thieves would, including every little detail; faulty gameplay included. I mean, talk about commitment, I would’ve sworn the developers could understand how annoying getting stuck to a wall while being shot at is, but maybe they’re just masochists. Who knows? A lot of freaks prowl game companies these days (I’ve even heard of one crazy japanese guy that has 90 minute cutscenes in a game, and can still get perfect scores, hihihi, but shhhhhh, highly classified, very hush hush, don’t tell anyone about this, no one noticed it yet).

Talk about that Hide-o what’s his name, they even wrote this crazy plot in his homage, about some scientists that build a perfect virus that goes like, out of control and shit, turning people into crazy cyborg zombies, or ninjas, or some stuff like that, I guess it depends on the bloke, and then the CIA wants it, and you’re a spy guy for them, but you’re infected and shit, but that gives you strange powers, and so you have to use them to stop the nutty USSR scientist that feels bad about some mysterious dark event in the past they never disclose, and so wants to destroy the world with the virus, and then there’s some hot, black chick, that’s also pissed about the mysterious dark event in the past they never disclose, but you’re in love with her, big romance, that kind of stuff, but then it all comes down to a big fight for humanity and shit, sacrifices are made… I mean, talk about oscar winning scripts, man. Totally awesome.

Alas, I digress, you can check the story for yourself. The thing that you absolutely need to know about “Dark Sector” is how beautiful it looks. It’s just so… what’s the word? … Dark, that’s it. Really dark. Let’s put it this way, it makes “The Darkness” and “Gears of War” look like gaudy paintings – that’s how dark, gritty and drab the game looks like. I mean, colors? Who needs those? Throw them all away it’s what I tell ya (they hurt the ozone lair, man – join the cause, clean up the planet of those nasty colors). The soundtrack? Freakintastic, I’ve never heard anything like it, its brooding strings and heavy bass lines are simply revolutionary! Well, if you forget every horror movie soundtrack to this day, that is.

There’s just so much good stuff here… If I had one game to take to a desert island it would be this one. It’s that good. Do yourself a favor buy this, Now!

Overall: 5/5

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Sorry for the rant, but some games just make you wanna forget you actually played them. Obviously, the true grade is as follows:

Overall: 0/5

On Roger Ebert’s view of videogames

A non-edited transcript from a comment reply that was written a few months ago follows. While visiting my blog, I just thought it deserved a full post. [take into account these may not reflect my current opinions (people do change…)] This will probably become common practice in the future, in order to spike further discussions with my dear blog readers.

  1. Rez said,

    May 24, 2008 at 5:16 am · Edit

    I agree with Roger Ebert. Movies are a far more superior medium than games. Most game storylines are just generic varations of other plots. Bioshock is basically Roger Corman.

  2. ruicraveirinha said,

    May 25, 2008 at 9:50 am · Edit

    “I agree with Roger Ebert.”
    Well, first up, let me say I’m a big fan of Roger Ebert… as a movie critic. When it comes to games, he clearly knows nothing about what his talking about. Did he ever play a game on his own? Probably not. Did he ever play (or even watch somebody play) the best games in the means? Surely not. When he describes games, he dismisses much of the elements that make the experience unique and interesting. It’s like a theater critic bashing on cinema, without ever being to a movie-theater – would you believe that person? No matter how valid an opinion can be, if it lacks proper justification, it means nothing. And in Ebert’s case, it lacks.

    “Movies are a far more superior medium than games.”
    No means can be seen as superior to another. In my opinion there’s no possible comparison, because each artistic mean uses different semiotic vehicles to express their author’s ideas. Can you compare literature to cinema? Sure, you can say that literature has far more complex narrative structures, dialogs, and whatnot, but Literature lacks the impact and beauty of image and sound. So how do you compare? Music with literature? Theater with Sculpture? How? It’s simple, you can’t, they’re different languages, with different expressions, different focuses, different motifs, different genres, different everything! To compare just seems silly to me.
    Now, what I do admit, is the comparison between means when it comes asserting the fulfillment of their potential. In that regard, I can see film as “superior” medium, but that is to be expected, it has had more than 100 years of history to perfect the craft, as opposed to 30 in the gaming means…

    Most game storylines are just generic varations of other plots.

    That afirmation is just completely generic and reductive, and the same can be said about most works of art. I bet I can reduce any movie to a composition of others works of art, and the same can be done with any other piece, because every bit of art that exists is always a product of previous works, either directly (when it is in the form of an adaptation), or indirectly, (when you can sense the artist’s influences and references). Artists are human beings and thus, a product of their means. They always take something from the past and use it to create their own unique expression. But that doesn’t make it unique, it makes it slightly different than his influences, but never detached from them. Art scholars do just that: examine a piece of art and conjure up the net of influences that rise behind and beyond.
    So, when you say that “Bioshock is basically Roger Corman.” you’re probably right, but it is far from being detracting to the piece, quite on the contrary, it means its authors have good references and know how to translate them into other means, with added value and expression. Reducing “Bioshock” to a single influence, forgetting all of its brilliant art-deco flair, carefully woven script, claustrophobic ambiance and beautiful soundtrack is mean and unjustified, and I think you can understand why. I could say the same about “1984″, “Brave New World”, “Metropolis”, or any other work of art, and it would always be unfair. So be careful when you say… “A” is “B”, don’t you go forgetting what “A” really is.

So, anyone wanna comment through? Please? What’s your view on Roger Ebert’s thoughts? You can visit his blog here.

Braid

“Each moment has its sickle, emulous
Of Time’s enormous scythe, whose ample sweep
Strikes empires from the root.”

Edward Young

The princess is gone… taken away into a castle in a far away land. Tim needs her, longs for her… he cannot fathom life without her. Thus, he embarks on a journey to find her, delving into this mystical land, drafted out of memories and dreams, hand painted with the colors of a man’s life, desperately in search of his lost princess, through time and space. To try and describe “Braid” any further would be a mistake, no, a bitter insult to its author and his work. Yes, because unlike many in the industry, and pardon the cliché, Jonathan Blow, the designer, actually created a work of art that brims with ambiguity and meaning. As Dieubussy once told me – to accurately describe it, one must be a poet, something which I clearly am not (my English prose being as bad as it is, you can imagine my poetry). “Braid” feels like Art, plays like Art, and bloody hell IS Art. And it attains that statute in a way far more evolved than most videogames that attempt the same feat (as the recent “Bioshock”, for example), as for once, gameplay is also a meaningful part of the game’s conceptual themes, motifs and story.

Curiously enough, though it remains an artsy fare, on an interaction level, the game admittedly draws inspiration on other videogames, most notably “Super Mario Bros.”, from where it derives the basic mechanics of platforming, and to some extent, the game’s structure (split into “worlds”), level design (each scene is shaped as 2d sidescrolling panel, much like in Mario) and even some of its quirks (the obvious one being the placement of a castle at the end of each world, where every single time, a dinosaur informs you that the princess isn’t there after all). But there’s a twist, and therein lies “Braid’s” uniqueness. As in “Sands of Time” or “Blinx”, you can spin time backwards, but in “Braid”, each game world makes the time disrupting behave in a different way. For instance, in World 4, after rewinding, Tim leaves a shadow that carries out his actions from the previous time line, thus allowing him to be, literally, in two places at the same time. These powerful new time mechanics are the core of the gameplay, much more so than the platforming roots the game shows at first glance. And fortunately, level design feeds on this factor for intellectual purposes, and instead of turning “Braid” into a “Super Mario Bros.” with time mechanics (which isn’t too far off from “Sands of Time”), it turns “Braid” into the new Time-Bending “Portal”. Yes, that’s right, expect the game’s focus to be centered around tortuous mind bending puzzles that will make your head ache every single time. But even “Portal” can pale in comparison, as “Braid” goes much further in its intellectual stimuli, its puzzles being challenging to the point of making you think all the time about their solution. For example, one of the later puzzles had a solution I only envisioned while reading a book, hours after playing, because in the back of my mind, I was still trying to fit its logic into perspective. But don’t fret; though hard, these puzzles transpire elegance, their logic so perfect and sublime, that you’ll feel an enormous sense of compensation when you actually crack them. And very rarely will you feel frustrated, because the solution is always there, staring at you in the face, and when you finally do find it, you’ll understand that the puzzle wasn’t a cheap trick the developer pulled of his hat; it had a clever solution that relied on a rationally coherent deduction, which will make you think “How did I miss that?!” It’s extremely hard to find such care given to level design, and you’ll never stop admiring the designer’s creativity and sheer genius in the concoction of these brilliant pieces of intellectual madness.

Not only do these work as valid and thought-provoking pieces of gameplay, but these puzzles are also interesting allegories that translate the inner journey of its main character. Blow has placed a number of iconic images and simple phrases that resonate with the gameplay mechanics and levels, adding them another layer of interpretation that transcends their face-value, expressing abstract and symbolic meanings, otherwise inaccessible to the player. This use of gameplay as a meaningful metaphor for the authors’ statements is becoming increasingly common in indie games and Jonathan Blow has himself referenced the works of Jason Rohrer and Rod Humble in his presentations. They’re obvious influences; that he now incorporates their spirit into a commercial game is not only welcome, as it is provocative… almost visionary. Not that I feel this is the first time it is done, quite on the contrary, for since the genesis of games that creators have imposed meaning to the player’s actions, most of which aren’t as obvious as would otherwise seem, but, as Blow also states, the new paradigm in videogaming rarely accepts this notion, opting instead for deriving meaning from non-interactive elements, such as cinematic cutscenes, leaving interactions as straightforward mappings of simple, real-life actions (shoot, punch, jump, etc). Blow believes that breaking away this dogmatic philosophy is essential for games to move forward towards their “Golden Age” and he’s doing his part, and in my opinion, he deserves applause for it.

To flesh out the allegorical nuances present in the gameplay, each world has a number of books the player can read. These provide a more solid, less abstract narrative medium, that fits perfectly with the hazy imagery. Though I can agree that the writing is not as “poetic” or “evocative” as it could be (

And not only is Jonathan Blow aware of this more powerful semiotic language, that takes into account all of videogame’s disciplines to translate a vision, as he does this with an added sense of beauty. The game’s art, by David Hellman (author of the webcomic “A lesson is learned but the Damage is Irreversible“), has a picturesque, hand painted quality, of expressionist influence, that further enhances the dreamlike qualities of “Braid’s” universe. Each landscape is crafted out of numerous layers of delicate images, fused together in a constant motion, giving the illusion of time, perspective and depth of field to what is an otherwise bidimensional background. These resonate perfectly with the score (which you can explore here), a balanced and astonishingly coherent selection of string compositions by Jami Sieber, Shira Kammen, Swan and Cheryl Ann Fulton. The game opens up with in a dark street, dimly lit in yellowish tones [title image], “Maenam”, by Jami Sieber caressing your hears, the perfect overture: a slow, steady crescendo of cellos in a mellow tone, coming into full force with a sad harmony that delivers Tim’s anguish perfectly – you can almost hear the cellos sing that he longs for the Princess to be with him. Following it, as you delve in the first game world, a place of bright colors and lush flora [see above], you’re greeted with “Downstream”, by Shira Kammen, a light bucolic fantasy piece for violin, of mild Celtic inspiration, that can almost make you soar high as in a dream due to its upbeat tempo and gentle, happy melody. And these are just the first few minutes of the game, the remaining also continue this perfect blend of musical harmony and visual style, effectively connecting on an emotional level with the player. Not only is “Braid” thoughtful and inspiring, it’s also touching on an sentimental level, a perfect piece of art in its purest, more emotional state.

What more can one say about “Braid”? It’s intelligent, inspiring, beautiful and touching. I simply lack the adjectives that could make the game justice (I wonder if they exist, really…). Is it perfect? Nothing is: minor flaws abide. But do they matter in the grand scheme of the game? No, not by a mile. I still think there’s a lot of work to be done in order to further develop videogame’s true language, and specially, the way in which interactions can become meaningful metaphors; “Braid” is simply one step forward in the long road that lies ahead. Surely, this is the best game to come out since “Shadow of the Colossus”. That I even dare and place in the same sentence, both this simple, downloadable game and one of Ueda’s glorious masterpieces (that I believe uphold Jonathan’s Blows core philosophy, and to some extent, even further it) is in itself a statement on how big an achievement “Braid” really is. The future of gaming lies here.

Overall: 5/5

Heavenly Sword – “Copying a Masterpiece”

When Sony was getting cornered by Microsoft’s absurd amount of exclusives and almost complete third party support, they did what any company would’ve done: pump up the production costs of their first party titles. One of said examples was “Heavenly Sword”, Sony’s attempt at getting “God of War 3” to arrive earlier than it would. The job was handed down to the “Ninja Theory” team, which clearly had a huge amount of money to make the fans forget about “God of War”. Regrettably, it seems they had neither the time nor the skill to pull that off.

As far as mimicry goes, “Heavenly Sword” is as shallow and mediocre as “God of War” was perfect. Combat system is, for obvious reasons, one of the more important aspects of an action oriented game and “God of War” featured a nicely balanced roster of combos with intuitive weaknesses and strengths that made each one useful for a particular kind of enemy and/or situation. “Heavenly Sword” tries to accomplish the same, but fails to provide any engaging battle mechanics due to the low difficulty of the game, the small variety of enemy templates and the simple minded nature of all combos, which makes them all seem like the same. They do look pretty though, as fast paced and flashy as the ones in “God of War”…

The other element that made “God” a success was the level design that transpired a carefully laid pacing, making the game a rapid succession of crescent climaxes. Its take on arcade action “motifs” masked in a linear action adventure style progression only worked because of this rhythmic directing, that continuously enhanced the player’s sense of entertainment. This was made all the more apparent by bosses that were epic in size and nature, delivering the final note in the player’s epic roller coaster of emotions. There is little, if any, of this care in “Heavenly Sword”, as levels’ structures seem randomly placed, with no “crescendo” to speak of in terms of scale or difficulty, bosses are linear and predictable, and lack any “awe factor”. Besides that, there are some really awkward levels that consistently break the pace, where all you have to do is shoot these crazy controllable arrows in slow-mo, in a mini-game of sorts that is so boring and dull that it can make you wish you’d be playing “Duck Hunt” on the NES. There are some supposedly epic set pieces, where the player must kill hundreds and hundreds of enemies, but for obvious reasons, this hack and slash fare is quick on the boring side… one look at “Dynasty Warriors” would suffice to understand that “too much” is, more often than not, equal to “too boring”.

So, it is fair to say that money can’t buy everything, but there are some things money can buy. On technical and production levels, “Heavenly Sword” shines, boasting incredibly detailed environments that push the PS3 to its graphical boundaries, a completely orchestrated soundtrack (by Nitin Sawhney) that is as grandiose as it is well composed, and even some of the best voice acting in the industry (most notably, a part by Andy Serkis who played Smeagol). The game’s setting: a curious mix of eastern mythology and comic book style dark fantasy, gives birth to beautiful and astonishing oriental landscapes, populated by polychromatic, vibrant characters, as well as “wall of china big” monuments in various architectonic styles. Sadly, this setting, along with the good voice work is wasted due to an unbalanced script (penned by Terry Pratchett’s daughter) that tends to privilege one-off British comedy lines over dramatic scenes, more in tune with the themes at hand. Shame though, since there was a lot of care in producing convincing and expressive character models and animations. Eyes, cheeks and mouths move realistically and even the sets and costumes are used to convey certain character’s personalities. But all this falls flat, because of the dark comedy tone that lurks in every scene. The end result is neither a witty, black comedy nor a grand, dramatic epic, but a twisted hybrid that fails both fronts.

There is nothing truly remarkable about “Heavenly Sword”; everything it does reasonably well has already been done in better fashion by “God of War” or can just be seen as a byproduct of Sony’s megalomaniac production policies. The result is nothing short of uninspired, completely forgettable; and you can be sure that this not the PS3 exclusive that Sony needed to gain momentum in the raging console war. To assume that a balanced blockbuster formula, like that of “God of War’s” can be copied in such a straightforward manner was a mistake, and Ninja Theory learned that the hard way. If anything, “Heavenly Sword’s” greatest achievement is reminding people why “God of War” is an entertainment masterpiece.

Overall: 2/5

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune – “Summer Time”

Art progress is composed of a series of small revolutions which, one after another, chip away conventions and open up new vistas for exploration. Yet sometimes, this continuously disruptive motion, with its ups and downs, can become tiresome, and a generic object can go a long way of entertaining its audience. It is clear that “Uncharted” cares more about getting things right, than getting *new* things right. Its concept is obvious from the get go: mix “tried and true” formulas from popular games, add a new twist in terms of setting, and polish the game to the point of near perfection. The game uses “Tomb Raider’s” mechanics for puzzle and environmental exploring, adds “Gears of War” cover combat for the action portions, and in between, enriches everything with a “Pitfall” setting and a “Romancing the Stone” backstory for cutscene filling. Now how on earth could this simple mish-mash work, you might think? The answer is: perfectionism. Simply put, every detail of “Uncharted” is just damn well executed. The exploration works pretty well, with simple and straightforward puzzles that never feel dull, combat is nicely balanced (just like “Gear’s” was), it’s a visually astonishing game, that can render jungles and ruins with perfect detail and no slowdowns, and the soundtrack is pure gold, featuring a catchy theme, and being once again, fully orchestrated thanks to Sony’s production efforts.

In many ways, “Uncharted” is the perfect embodiment of the action adventure genre. You’ll run, jump and gun away through eerie locations, sinking in gorgeous locales, exploring caves and ancient ruins in search of a long lost treasure. You’ll listen to your colleague’s cheesy, yet funny dialogue that manages the prowess of reminding you of the lost charm of classic summer movies (that’s now reduced to repeating explosions ad infinitum). The game just sucks you in entirely, thanks to its great animations, coherent voice work, beautiful graphics and sound, and the well designed gameplay. So why bother with innovation, when you can have such a balanced game that delivers on all the levels it should? There’s just no better summer game than “Uncharted”; forget everything else: it’s fun and that suffices… If only every game with shallow ambitions bore the sheer class and care with execution as “Uncharted” in every tiny spec of its design, and you could kiss Hollywood blockbusters goodbye and embrace videogames as the new epitome in pure summer entertainment.

Overall: 4/5