“The Year of …………” – Action
Besides casual affairs such as “Rock Band”, “Wii Fit”, sports games or the occasional MMORPG (read “World of Warcraft”), action games have become the last bastion of the industry when it comes to the aptly named “hard-core” gamer audience. FPS or third person, linear or open-world, whichever the case, action games have become the norm for most gamers. The trend continued last year with an onslaught of shooters hitting the market: “GTA IV”, “Army of Two”, “Dark Sector”, “Dead Space” (yes, I am also inserting it in this category), “Crysis Warhead”, “Gears of War 2”, “Resistance 2”, “Far Cry 2”, “Left 4 Dead”, “Metal Gear Solid 4“, etc. Not only is this trend concerning for those who appreciate quality as well as diversity, as it hides another heinous trend in video-games – the continuous launch of sequels. Amongst the ten named beforehand, only four are original video-games, which amounts to less than half. Because of that fact, you can’t expect much creativity from this batch, nor any true surprises.
“GTA IV” is, in essence, “GTA III” with a dramatic, socially aware story, which is one of the best of the year (if you forget about its atrocious structure, that is); “Army of Two”, “Dark Sector”, “Dead Space”, “Crysis Warhead”, are all mediocre shooter games, mostly well designed, but with little (anything?) to set them apart from the rest of the pack; “Resistance 2” and “Gears of War 2” are sequels in the worst of senses – they look like exactly the same game with buffed up graphic engines… and well, they’re both “bigger, better, more badass”, whatever that means; “Far Cry 2” could have had an interesting, fresh take on its genre, and yet wastes it with a simplistic interface, bland artistic assets, and a bucket load of generic quests; finally, “Left 4 Dead” the less formulaic of all these titles, showed an on-line mode with a great deal of care in forcing interesting group dynamics unto its players, in the process perfectly translating the defining notions of survival horror (the movie genre), but unfortunately, lacked any of the formal requirements for it to be a memorable experience (decent level design and pacing, ambiance and character design, etc). Curiously enough, of all these games, the only one that sticks out to me… is the one with a big fat “4” stamped on its cover.
“Metal Gear Solid 4” – Despite all my criticisms towards Kojima’s farewell ode to Snake, it is still the only game in this category that at least tries to tell something, to convey a story, to spark some sort of intellectual, emotional reaction in its audience. The care with voice acting and character rendering alone (the facial animations are probably the best of the year), are proof that Kojima is trying to tell stories with his medium; stories about people, of humanistic concerns, and not some random rambling about war with explosions and firefights. It’s a work of superlative beauty as well, conjuring up carefully orchestrated images and sounds into a brainless genre that thrives so much on grey-washed color palettes and bass-filled soundtracks. And notice how inhabiting the popular aesthetic of shooters such as “Call of Duty 4”, “Metal Gear” still comes up as more balanced, aesthetically convincing game in every way. Kojima simply plays with video-games’ expressive elements as much as he can, bending the preconceptions of what defines a genre, and what defines a game even, in the process delivering notions of dramatic construction, aesthetic ambiance and contextualization that go far beyond the crude matter of its peers. In the game’s formal structure, for instance, Kojima divides the game into acts, but instead of being content on establishing different narrative points to match that structure, he went as far as adapting each of the game’s expressive vehicles to the context of each act, establishing different aesthetic moods and game-play styles to fit the story – in essence, altering a dramatic structure (originally designed for theater) to blend with the interactive medium. Who does that? Whether inside or outside the genre? Very, very few designers. And doing all this, while also presenting an entertaining game which even the most simple-minded of gamers can appreciate, makes this title soar high above the rest of its pack. In such a bad year, it’s definitely one of the best the medium offered.
“Biggest Disappointment” – “Metal Gear Solid 4“ – You must be thinking – “What? How can the same game be the best and the most disappointing of the year?” The answer is simple: despite all its qualities, “Metal Gear” is the best also by demerit of its peers; it’s a disappointment because it’s beneath the grandeur of its author. Think about it, here we have one of the best designers of this industry, the man who did “Snatcher” and the original “Metal Gear Solid” – someone who we’ve come to look up to in awe, for his quality both as a script writer and as a revolutionary game designer – and the best he can come up with is a safe sequel, one in which he surrenders creative freedom to please his die-hard fans. “Metal Gear Solid 4” has details of sheer genius, and yet it wastes them on the silliest of plots, one that stinks of fan-service in every cut-scene, just so that the fan-boys can be content with a neat little ending to their precious ten year old saga. The notion that the audience can decide the fate of a work coming from such an influential author is, to say the least, frightful. The game’s form and overall tone only serve to make it even more of an insult, reveling on low humor and tons of silly Anime tropes that break the otherwise tragic tone of “Metal Gear Solid’s” story. And thus, a game that could have been labeled a masterpiece is, in many ways, a mediocre title polluted by all that is wrong with the medium. Which begs me to think that though Kojima is an incredibly talented man, he is now chained to a successful product, dictated by the most prosaic and demeaning laws of franchising – if that is not a reason to despise the state of the industry, I don’t know what is.