Archive for November, 2008

Call of Duty World at War – “Call of Duty four World War II”

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If there’s anything that sticks out in the “Call of Duty” series, is its focus on delivering a thrilling, cinematic in-your-face depiction of war. It’s not by chance that the first major inspiration for the series was Steven Spielberg’s opus of the Normandy landing in “Saving Private Ryan”: the shaking of the camera, blurring the gritty colors of war-machines and destroyed landscapes, with red sprouts of blood emerging in the bloody onslaught of human life, bullet by bullet, explosion by explosion… limb by limb, man by man. Capturing that chaotic experience of horror and sacrifice is the kind of thing you’d expect games would be known and respected for. But it isn’t, and we all know that. In that sense, “Call of Duty” was definitely a small step forward. Firstly, with its audiovisual fidelity, which successfully established the same atmosphere that Spielberg’s film became known for. Secondly, because the game adapted the classic FPS formula to the war context. Most FPS games forced you to go for point A to point B, while obliging you to, single-handily, kill every possible enemy in sight. “Call of Duty” (like its predecessor “Medal of Honor: Allied Assault”) opted to encompass the player in an army, making him choose ways in which to avoid direct confrontation with enemies, through flanking and the use of indirect fire. Also, player’s comrades take some of the burden into their hands, killing a considerable amount of enemies. Stripped to its barest, “Call of Duty” forces the player to accomplish a certain objective (break a defense line, clear a location of enemies, plant a bomb, protect a convoy), but framing in it in a convincing way that doesn’t make it (too) ridiculous. You still play a hero like in most shooters, but it isn’t a lonely or utterly invincible hero. “Call of Duty 4” tuned the series’ formula to near perfection, by harmoniously weaving Level, Art and Sound Design to produce a rising tension in each set piece, and in the overarching experience. It was still the same game, but the audacity and scale of its confrontations, coupled with great cutscene directing, made its campaign a glorious ode to war… in a videogame-y kind of way. “World at War” is the same. No more, no less. It stumbles in the same faults as its predecessor, and can be lacking in some of the more creative assets which made it a success, but “World at War” really is “Call of Duty 4″… in a World War II scenario.

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Using the same narrative vehicles as its predecessors, “World at War” presents each set piece by utilizing snazzy power-point-ish presentations, as your ranking officer briefs you in on the details concerning the upcoming battle. You get to experience two campaigns: one in which you fight on the pacific front to crush the Japanese armada, following the steps of a traditional American style hero, the compassionate, yet tough Seargant Roebuck, played by Kiefer ‘Bauer’ Sutherland in his already cliched monotonic voice; the other storyline, more interesting and provocative, places you as the right-wing man of Seargant Reznov, a vindictive, cruel hearted Soviet, who seeks revenge against the Germans for the destruction of Stalingrad. It’s immediately clear that the first campaign is more of the same epic set pieces in which great American heroes go about freeing the world from the dreaded enemy, in this case, the Japanese, herein portrayed as vicious monsters bent on winning a war at all costs, whether it involves sneaking techniques, kamikaze attacks or plain old backstabbing. You’d think that in a war, killing would be a despicable act whichever the surrounding conditions, but apparently the Japanese kill in an “evil” way. The Soviet campaign is more original, as it does try to portray a different side of the war. The Soviets are depicted as more realistic characters, in the sense that their personalities reflect the unquestionable fact that they are fighting a bloody war. They are ruthless and moved by selfish goals, unbent by hypocritical notions of moral or military conduct, which ends up making their campaign more truthful and moving… and of course, Gary Oldman’s amazing voice-work can really make you wanna go kill some Nazi scourge. However, it needs to be pointed out that in both plot-lines, the subjectivity of American perspective is prevalent, so expect a great deal of prejudice, xenophobia, social, and historical inaccuracies. Like Churchill said, History is written by the victors.

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As you’re thrust into the battlefield proper, you get to presence everything in first person, your presence diluted with that of the mute and otherwise irrelevant main character. The action unfolds on screen just as it did in “Call of Duty 4”, in which the barrier between cutscene and gameplay was blurred to a degree which made you wonder if you could change the course of certain events. Some you can and some you don’t, which doesn’t really matter since it never really changes how the story ultimately unfolds. It’s a bit less linear for that, and it adds to the notion of immersion and false choice that helps create a sense of a credible world. Because the transition between story and action is seamless, the breathtaking action pieces are made all the more emotional for it, especially in the Soviet Campaign. From Stalingrad to Berlin, you’ll be in constant awe with the scale of each war set, fleshed out by a beautifully crafted mise en scène, courtesy of the Infinity Engine, which once again provides the same ambient lighting and particle effects that made “Call of Duty 4” so visually captivating. The final showdown in Berlin gives a whole new meaning to the concept of destroyed beauty, as you endure the ravishing of the opulent Reichstag, covered in smoke, dust and flames, a stark palette of death and war covering the landscape. Trust me when I say that images don’t do it justice [for some strange reason, I could only find one image that accurately represented the graphics of the game (the one above, click on it to see it in high-res), as all of the images available on the net are blurred out or badly compressed; so sorry about that]. But the multitude of moody color palettes can only serve as background for the cacophony of raining bullets, explosions and frenetic shouts of pain and camaraderie. Once again, the soundtrack steals the show, thanks to its pitch perfect fidelity, and the smart use of musical crescendos to enhance the epic grandeur of war. The score (by Sean Murray) is still a competently mixed miscellany of electronic, industrial, metal and classical sonorities that successfully punctuate the emotional impact of the game. And yet again, the Soviet portions of the soundtrack are the best: you simply cannot beat the visceral impact of a beautifully orchestrated chorus.

Despite the arresting power of the “Call of Duty” games, they still have a long road ahead in terms of creating meaningful and realistic war experiences. Their more important fault still lies in their dramatic core. Though the Soviet Campaign does take it a step forward, by trying to introduce nuanced characters, the series is still lacking when it comes to true drama, because it has no real characters, subtext or emotion. And “Call of Duty” does need drama to make the experience feel genuine, because the essence of war is death and loss, and the emotional responses associated with those events are missing. Only when the player hesitates before mindlessly shooting an enemy, or resents his inability to save a comrade, will the War FPS genre achieve plenitude. Unfortunately, the series never went in that direction, and continues to lethargically tread in its own FPS convention laden path. But, even forgetting any aspirations the series’ authors dismiss, the fact is that this episode doesn’t improve the series one bit, allowing easy to fix flaws to maintain one more year. The most glaring of which is the stubborn use of a noisy, aesthetically displeasing HUD… a baffling notion for a 2008 top tier game that puts so much weight on immersion. And though it can be useful in terms of helping the player move along, there are a number of available alternatives that don’t break up immersion (see “Peter Jackson’s King Kong” game). Just imagine “Saving Private Ryan” with golden stars, numbers and icons flying about the screen like in a football match transmission; if that doesn’t remind you that “Call of Duty” is a game, as opposed to a 1st person war-experience, then nothing does. And sure, there are still AI problems, level design model eccentricities that need fixing, and the overall sense that this is just one more World War II FPS. But, truth be told, forgetting the game’s lack of originality can be simple while playing the game. It’s just entertaining, and sadly, in this medium that’s really all it needs to be. Personally, I’m still wishing they can someday come up with a dramatic first-person experience that is akin to “Saving Private Ryan”… in more than just the aesthetic qualities of the film. But I know, it’s a hopeless dream.

Overall: 2/5

Call of Cthulhu Dark Corners of The Earth – “Mythos”

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents… some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new Dark Age.”

H.P. Lovecraft, in “The Call of Cthulhu”

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The depth of the human imagination might seem endless to us, but humanity seems feeble when grasping concepts that go beyond its existence, beyond that which makes itself apparent. No matter what most scientists might tell you, even science has limitations. We are small; a mere spec of dust in the grand scheme of the World, our existence equivalent to that of a microbe when put into perspective with the vast great unknown that surrounds us… so how could we ever aspire to understand it? To control it? To surpass it? Lovecraft was aware of these great truths; his tales of alien civilizations, strange cults and the shaping of humanity’s history are all defined by the insignificance and meaninglessness of Man’s place face the infinite, unknown Universe. His characters, when faced with the grand truths of the Universe, go on to become clinically insane, as true knowledge becomes so horrifying to them that they feel it would be best to shun it. Ignorance would be bliss face the horrors they come to know, and still, they try to grasp them, in a folly’s quest for true knowledge. Lovecraft’s cynicism towards science and human knowledge is pervasive in his tales, thus molding dark, brooding worlds where no light can be shed about its ancient, occult secrets, and where mankind faces indescribable horrors, powerless to defend itself against them. If anything else, “Dark Corners of The Earth” is an accomplishment because it manages to replicate, on a certain level, the strange, menacing world of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraftian lore is priceless, and one can only imagine why it hasn’t been translated more often into new media formats. There are a few videogames based on his works, from “Alone in the Dark” (the original, quite obviously) to “Eternal Darkness”, not forgetting “Shadow of the Comet” (which I never had the pleasure to play), all of which are classic games that are still revered as of today. “Dark Corners of the Earth” follows in that tradition; developed by a small, British company, Headfirst Productions, it was meant to be the first of many horror themed action adventure games to use the Cthulhu mythos as influence. Sadly, due to poor results, they were canned, and never got to complete the other games. It’s a tough medium, especially for small developers with little resources, constantly forced to compete with big leaguers. It doesn’t help that gamers and journalists are quick to rant about small technical flaws which are common in low budget productions, and frequently despise any game that isn’t meant to be “fun” through and through. And it’s a shame really, because despite all its glaring technical and design flaws, there’s a great work hiding beneath “Dark Corners of The Earth”.

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A dark New England port town named Innsmouth: that is where you enter Lovecraft’s nightmarish realms. It’s a rainy, foggy night, the sky is brooding, the sound of the wind and the waves can be heard from afar, the old 19th century industrial revolution buildings loom high in every street, their sepia-toned bricks barely lit by small street lamps: it’s an oppressive, menacing scenario. You play a detective looking out for a missing young man; as you arrive in town, you instantly know that something is fundamentally wrong with it. The citizens that roam the streets are ugly and grotesque, their features distorted, their skin pale and grayish, their eyes emotionless and sickening. To investigate, you take on the role of Jack Walters in first person view, questioning the strange citizens of the town and searching for clues in hopes of finding out the truth about what’s really happening. At that point the game feels like a masterpiece, faithfully depicting the dark ambiance of Lovecraft’s Universe, the air so thick and heavy that you know you are entering a “Dark Corner of the Earth”. The moody adventure pieces are carefully punctuated with precious (yet sparse) action sequences, that help keep up pace and establish a sense of imminent danger. You might have to sneak by a guard, or escape the attack of the menacing villagers, running through winding, old corridors, nervously shutting doors behind you, jumping through balconies, and hiding in the shadows as your pursuers pass by. The use of the first person perspective provides these action sequences a real sense of panic and stress, and also allows the adventure portions of the game (the dialogues and puzzle solving), to feel more personal and lively than in traditional point and click games. However, as the game progresses, the first person perspective goes from a blessing to a curse.

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At some point, the game starts giving you weapons. At first they are small and powerless, but with time they start to ramp up, until they become traditional first person shooter weapons (there’s even a lightning rifle near the end). The game dynamics change as these weapons are introduced, the adventure elements are toned down: dialogues disappear, puzzles become rarer and exploration gives way to shooting sequences and boss fights. It never fully becomes a shooter, because the game still relies on stealth, exploration and the odd puzzle, but it gets too close to a FPS for my taste. As it does so, the game loses heart: the environments become bland and uninteresting, levels’ sizes are increased only to make the game longer, the story crawls to a halt. All the while, Headfirst limitations surface and become more obvious, making the game a real pain: there are showstopper bugs, faulty AI’s, clunky shooting mechanics, trial and error sequences with poorly placed savepoints, etc. All of these problems unnecessarily destroy the experience of the brilliant first act of the game, offering as a replacement a derivative horror themed FPS that constantly forces you to repeat shooting sequences ad-infinitum due to a bad check-pointing system.

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Fortunately, the overall experience has a lot of small details that will stick with you. There’s a thoughtful plot to discover (despite the odd voice work) that not only is faithful to its references as it quotes profusely the works of one of the greatest 20th century writers. There are also a number of really powerful set pieces, such as the epic survival struggle aboard a ship attacked by sea monsters, or the eerie nightmares of the main character, in which you’re thrust into the Arkham Asylum (with a black and white grainy filter), to witness strange hallucinations that will surely send chills down your spine. Still, these are details that don’t change the fact that by the end of the game, the magic of Lovecraft’s Universe has given way to the “magic” of videogamish nonsense. And despite all efforts at making such an interesting world a commercial venture, the game tanked… there’s a certain irony to the affair. However, there’s still a wondrous first act to discover here, one that transcends genre trappings and can feed on H.P. Lovecraft to produce brilliant moody environments and a twisted tale of the occult. So if you’re capable of suffering a poor game to experience Lovecraft’s world, then “Dark Corners of the Earth” is a brilliant game you should definitely play. But if you’re not, then you can always buy his books, and if “Dark Corners of the Earth” can at least achieve that sprout of interest in its universe, it’ll be a success.

Overall: 4/5

 

Fallout 3 – “Take a Vacation! Explore the Future of America, Today!”

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Have you ever felt lost in a videogame? That’s a feeling you’ll often get from “Fallout 3”, this sense of bewilderment on account of the scale and size of this vast, sprawling wasteland. It’s everywhere, it surrounds you, it needs you to explore it, to feed on its expansive horizon, to delve into its bowels and actually *live* in that virtual space. It’s the kind of suck-your-life-dry environment you expect from a MMORPG, except it’s in a single player game, so it’s more of a Massive Singleplayer Offline RPG. Coming from Bethesda, it’s no surprise, as the “Elder Scrolls” series has always attempted to deliver on the same kind of free-roaming, pseudo non-linear, vast world experience. “Fallout” on the other hand, was much more focused and plot oriented, so it’s kind of awkward to see its world propelled into a vast metropolis of post apocalyptic settlements. An Obsidian-based sequel would probably make more sense (since the main authors of “Fallout”, Feargus Urquhart and Chris Avellone are currently in that company), but with time, you come to accept the fact that “Fallout 3” is different from its predecessors, and despite many comments in that sense, it’s also different from the recent “Oblivion”.

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The vast world dynamics are clearly ported from “Oblivion”, with its heavy stat based character development, its go-anywhere exploration and grab-all-you-can-get looting, but there’s a striking difference in “Fallout 3”, one that changes the way you perceive the landscape: “Fallout’s” world is actually worth getting sucked into. Face it, “Oblivion” was a high-fantasy cliché, a sum of postcard vistas with an unhealthy amount of shallow fetch/kill/loot quests replicating all the useless and worn-out motifs of mediocre fantasy videogames; it lacked the originality, substance and proper writing that could create the sense of a breathing, living world. The only steady pillar in its foundation was its lore, which took the form of hundreds of books, each meticulously describing past events, myths, religious beliefs and legends. But it was painful to endure so much in-depth reading, more so because a majority of these books spawned randomly with no proper in-game contextualization, or even some semblance of a relationship with the actions you partake in the game… and let’s not forget they weren’t exactly Shakespeare material. This was the area where “Fallout” excelled, its careful rendering of post apocalyptic USA was well written and aesthetically cohesive (albeit not really that original). Bethesda apparently sensed this, and used it in its behalf in “Fallout 3”. Now, their game-world feels real because it has a story to it, and a fine one at that. Every village, settlement, tribe and character has their own little back story, which the game properly entices you to discover through well designed quests; each of them sustained by a healthy dose of well written plot exposure, in the shape of dialogues, log notes and use of the environment itself. It’s also a more focused experience than “Oblivion”, relegating fetch quest nonsense to the background, and properly fleshing out the more important locations and story-lines. Furthermore, there are tons of subtext and satirical remarks beneath these apparently unrelated missions; with time, these help shape the Wasteland not only as a physical space which you can explore, but also as a timeless, allegorical reflection of modern USA and its excesses: consumerism, unilateral war, pseudo-democracy, and glorified capitalism. The main storyline still is a letdown when compared to other modern RPG’s (and even the other “Fallout’s”), but at least it has decent characters and drama, something completely absent from Bethesda’s previous games.

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The aesthetic has changed as well, as the derelict cityscape of the Wasteland has very little color and shining flowers; it’s post apocalyptic sci-fi heaven, with a twist of gory humor and art deco flair. Sure, with time, the desert wasteland and destroyed city landscapes can become old, but there are unique elements that always make “Fallout 3” stand out from other tiresome gritty aesthetics. Previous “Fallout’s” aesthetic themes, such as educational propaganda commercials, mid twentieth century songs (delivered through in game radio stations) and Ron Perlman’s cynic narration (war… war never changes), all make a fortunate comeback. In some portions of the game, “Fallout’s” signature themes are stretched to the limit, in order to provide brilliant, over the top settings; e.g. in one quest you’re inside a 50’s soap (don’t ask), complete with black and white photography, chiaroscuro lighting, upbeat soundtrack and characters that seem straight out of “Pleasantville”. The only big letdown in the art department is Inon Zur’s (“Fallout Tactics”, “Crysis”) score, which despite one or two eerie tracks in honor of Mark Morgan’s (“Fallout”, “Fallout 2”) original work, provides an unnecessary light fantasy feel, too much in the lines of Jeremy Soule (“Oblivion”) to make the Wasteland feel as dark, creepy and unsettling as it should be (“S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s” soundtrack would be perfect, by the way).

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For all its drab colors, grim, dry aesthetic and rundown environments, “Fallout 3” manages to feel lively and dynamic; there’s always something happening out in the wasteland, and it’s not always about you. “Oblivion’s” Radiant AI is to blame, as it shapes the Wasteland’s citizen’s behavior in the world: characters walk, eat, work, sleep, talk (and fight!) with each other, all on their own schedules and mostly impervious to your actions. And it’s not scripted, it’s dynamic, which helps give these actions credibility and a sense of surprise. The voice acting was greatly improved, as you no longer feel like you’re listening to the same old man and woman making slight tonal variations in every single character (out of hundreds). Unfortunately, character’s physical incarnations still breakup the immersion with their clunky animations and poor facial expressions. For instance, when talking, mouths move, but not the eyes or cheeks, nor even the rest of the body: the hands, the arms, the torso are always stiff – it makes characters lifeless and robotic. These, of course, provide an uncanny inconsistency with their expressive voice and generally intelligent behavior. It’s not hard to dismiss this flaw, as Bethesda added so much quality content into the “Oblivion” framework in just 2 years… but they really need to fix those horrid character animations.

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The game also responds to your actions, as you can now choose a moral standpoint to enact in the world. It’s a return of the karma mechanic, a straight good vs evil kind of deal, but for once, the gameworld really responds to your choice, and not just in some generic ending sequence. Character’s perceptions change depending if you’re good or evil, they might assist you by giving items or joining your quest, then again, they might simply try to kill you for no other reason than being evil. Some quests have specific alignments, and can even alter the Wasteland’s geography, as you can be a harbinger of destruction to certain settlements, or their savior against a nuclear attack. It forces you to adapt certain quest-solving to the alignment you choose, and guarantees that the game has to be experienced more than once to be fully appreciated.

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Like in “Oblivion”, there are tons of small flaws and imperfections: silly inventory interfaces, buggy physics and AI break the game once in a while, etc. The combat system’s twist, the V.A.T.S. system, which gives the FPS “light” action a turn-based “light” dynamic, makes combat speedier and more tactic than the overlong hectic brawl of “Oblivion”, which coupled with a classic experience driven level up system, helps the game feel less of a grind in the long run. It’s still repetitive like any other massive RPG, but at least, it gives you a point to all of its aimless wandering, as the world constantly repays your exploration with further understanding of the narrative context. And there are so many good stories waiting there for your mind to explore, that you know that you’ll never fully grasp the immensity of this monster of a world. So, if you have the time… how about checking out how Washington DC would’ve become had Bush stayed in office a couple more years? Experience the Future, Today!

Overall: 4/5