Archive for March, 2009

Resident Evil 5 – “Bigger, Better, more Bad-ass!”

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Lately, it seems as though Japanese developers have bowed down before the commercial and artistic logic of USA-based mainstream video-games. The loss of their cultural identity, as people and as developers, has severely impoverished the video-game medium; “Resident Evil 5” is the latest sign of that impoverishment. Because “Resident Evil 4” was already a very action-oriented game, it seems that the developers at Capcom used the new sequel as a way to further step beyond the boundaries of the survival horror genre into the action foray. It’s a logical move from the big producer, as it allows “Resident Evil 5” to reach a much wider audience, as the “Gears of War” and “Killzone 2” fans will surely be interested in playing the game, whether or not they were fans of the series before its last incarnation. The result of this commercial rationale is a game that is heavily sustained by its ancestors design, but that incorporates much of the tropes present in modern shooters, curiously enough, going as far as taking inspiration from games which “Resident Evil 4” itself inspired (“Gears of War” comes to mind). Such is “Resident Evil 5” greatest fault, the fact that it destroys its individual identity as a survival horror, action-adventure game, by trading its core ideas with the popularized elements of modern shooters.

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It is true however, that there was very little left in “Resident Evil 4” that could be associated with its predecessors. Adventure motifs were all but absent, save for the occasional “fetch” puzzle, and horror codes such as frights or psychological mind-games were completely missing. What wasn’t lacking however, was a creepy atmosphere and a tension oriented game-play that effectively forced players to feel the stress of encountering the dangers of a massive zombie attack. The biggest difference in “5” is that it lacks the quality aesthetic work that made its predecessor’s atmosphere so foreboding, and focuses solely on the empowering of stressful encounters with enemies. Keeping in tradition with an Americanized view on entertainment, the first way of enhancing the sense of stress and dread that the new “Resident Evil” feeds on is by upping the scale. On one hand, by using bigger monsters and boss-fights, by delivering larger set-pieces and backgrounds for game-play, and by increasing the sheer numbers of enemies that the player has to get rid of to finish the game. A fair estimate would be that there are more zombies in “Resi 5” than in the rest of the series all together. The other change in scale comes from one of the game’s most important design decisions: the co-op mode.

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Though “Resident Evil” always had more than one main protagonist to its stories, only the fifth iteration allows players to play side by side with a friend. It’s immediately obvious when you pick up the controller and start playing, that the game was designed and tested to fit into co-op play. Level design, inventory management, boss battles and even the rare puzzles all need a form of cooperative effort to overcome difficulties. This cooperative dynamic allows co-op play to be engaging, by making communication a valid asset for the development of mutual strategies, thus increasing the liberty players have to tackle each scenario and each encounter. The downside is that the game is so focused on co-op, that the single player mode becomes irrelevant and almost unplayable. There’s a good AI controlled companion there to assist you, but it’s severely limited in the ways in which it can communicate and interact with the player, making complex strategies nigh impossible. And since the game makes its greatest asset that dual player logic, this transforms the single player mode into an empty chore, filled with constant struggles to make the virtual companion take the proper actions in order to pass each of the game’s challenges.

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Truth be said, co-op makes for an exciting way of playing, and makes the game shine as a pure action game, like few have been able to in the recent past. However, that isn’t, nor ever was, the core of the “Resident Evil” experience. This misunderstanding of the series’ legacy, and its core design, becomes fully apparent in the nature of the final levels of the game, in which it takes a form that seems straight out of “Tomb Raider” – a large, eerie tomb from an ancient civilization filled with small puzzles – or “Gears of War” – a military base populated with fully armed zombies, wrapped around a cover-oriented level design scheme. And these are only the worst examples of the loss of identity on part of this “Resident Evil”,  because even the when the game behaves similarly to “4” it misses out on important notions of aesthetic that were integrate part of the series – by using serious voice acting for a cheesy storyline, or daylight flooded African shanty towns as a scenario for a horror tale.

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Every design choice in “Resident Evil 5” screams of an attempt at capturing American FPS audiences, from the embodiment of action-oriented staples such as co-op play, a cover-based battle system and epic-sized set-pieces, to the more buffed-up character designs and supposedly more serious narrative. Trampled beneath these realizations is the past of “Resident Evil”, completely forgotten by the game’s designers. Instead of trying to re-frame the action oriented nature of “4” in a an action-adventure context, closer to the series’ classic ideas, “Resident Evil 5” designers chose to upgrade “Resident Evil 4” by taking inspiration from mainstream shooters. Had it been a thoughtful reinterpretation of Capcom’s most beloved series, then it might have been a unique game to explore, but as it stands, it’s as “unique” as the latest entry of “Killzone”, “Call of Duty” or “Gears of War”. “Resident Evil 5” may be a very tense, well paced shooter, or if you prefer, a “bigger, better, more bad-ass” version of its predecessor, but make no mistake, there’s already too much of that around nowadays.

score: 2/5

Gears of War 2 – “Apparently bigger, but the same… just with more testosterone.”

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“Gears of War” was a decent game, nothing spectacular or revolutionary, and certainly not impervious to criticism for its lack of originality, but as it stood then, it still stands today – an uncompromising blockbuster game, more brawn than brain, well paced and with impressive production values.  Cliffy B., lead designer, summed up the sequel as “Bigger, better, more bad-ass”. Or is it? A more accurate account would be: “Apparently bigger, but the same, just with more testosterone.

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“Bigger!” No matter how much technical verbiage Epic throws at players, the fact is that “Gears 2” maintains the claustrophobic, highly constrained level design of its predecessor. It’s not a bad thing per se, as it remains a necessary evil for the maintaining of one of the game’s best features – pacing and tension control. The difference in the sequel is that the surrounding environment, more so than in the first game, is built to give a jaw dropping sense of scale. Huge caverns, numerous boss-sized enemies, hundreds of foot soldiers, all parade about in an inaccessible background. However, because of the game’s controlled environment, and the technical limitations of the game-engine, that scale never materializes into the actual game, making it completely virtual, with little to no interaction going on between the epic-sized background scenarios and the spatial plane in which the player is set. Most times, it’s just an impressive curtain that you can shoot at, with enemies that don’t even react to your gunfire. The sense of presence in an actual war is slightly enhanced, but it’s still far from the large, completely interactive set-pieces from games like “Halo 3”.

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“Better!” Unfortunately, “Gears 2” adds nothing substantial to its predecessor. Better art design (especially in the second half of the game) and perfected controls are the best anyone can come up in terms of actual improvements. That being said, it still abuses dry, washed out color palettes, and game-play could still be further improved. Soundtrack maintains the same repetitive humdrum of battle epics, effective enough as a background for the shooting and explosions, just as long as you don’t tune in to the soundtrack to actually listen. On a side note, the storyline now actually goes somewhere, in an attempt at mitigating the hollowness of the first iteration. Yet, apart from a particularly well directed, dramatic cut-scene (which involves plot spoilers, so I won’t digress on its nature), it still doesn’t makeup for a truly captivating storyline.

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“More Bad-ass!” Cliffy B. never hides the straight-up manliness of his game. Big buffed up space marines, screaming in their coarse voices, hulking in their heavy gear, ridding mankind of pesky, butt-ugly aliens, by shooting them with heavy guns. For the most time, the insanely ridiculous male bravado can be seen as pleasant, in a dumb, B-movie kind of way. However, the effort put up by designers to crank up blood, gore and the “Cole Train” all-American one-liners,  while still trying to make it look dark, gritty and serious (as opposed to light-hearted or campy) makes the game feel excessive and gratuitous.

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All that aside, “Gears 2” is still the action game done right – a fair chunk of rock solid, unapologetic entertainment. And there’s nothing really wrong with that, as long as you don’t keep in mind the big picture… and the big picture is that there are too many “Gears of War” out there. Shooters have become such a banal place for big companies to go back to, replicating their models year after year, in straight sequels that add nothing to the genre or the means. “Gears 2” may even be the best of its lot, but that’s not much on my book. It’s a safe sequel, for a safe franchise, in a safe genre. If that’s what designers call “bad-ass” nowadays, then something is definitely wrong with the industry.

score: 2/5

flower – “Wind of Change”

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The wind blows softly, a petal rises in the air. A gust of wind carries it in a wisp of flower petals, all dancing in harmony in a flying sea of color and magic. Its beauty is contagious to the surrounding landscape: flowers bloom in a rainbow of vibrant hues, the grass becomes lush with a new-found green, the sky shines brightly as if flooded by the very light of nature. You smile at the delicate marvel that engulfs your senses. As you guide the wind to yet another flower, its petal flies high in a pirouette worthy of a ballet – it has joined the petals’ wind. It is the most beautiful of winds. It is a wind of change.

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There’s no easy way to sum up “flower”, it’s one of those games that must be experienced firsthand to be fully understood. The premise is simple – guide the wind, through the use of the six-axis motion control, into flowers, allowing them to bloom, in the process collecting their petals. Doing so, allows nature to rejoice all around, rejuvenating the once worn down landscape into a stunning painting, vivid with color and  light – an effect similar to that of restoring guardian trees in “Ôkami”. There’s really not much else to “flower”. You simply gather petals with the wind, watching nature bloom, and sink in the beauty of the process. Like a symphony, each level has a different variation on the same theme, providing a different background to the interaction in everyone of its expressive dimensions. Like “flOw”, there’s an elegant simplicity to the way the game is played; however beneath it, lies an aesthetic voyage unlike any other in the video-game realm.

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The abstract look of “flOw” has been replaced by a picturesque visual style that tends to echo impressionist themes. Though completely three-dimensional, there’s a great contrast between levels of detail. Flowers are rendered with stunning accuracy, their incredibly detailed lines reminiscent of a painter’s brushstrokes, brimming with finesse and care. The surrounding landscape on the other hand, is very minimalist, borderline empty and vacant, giving it an eerie, dream-like vibe. The soundtrack itself is hauntingly beautiful, not only because of the way in which the score, by Vincent Diamante, complements the ongoing action, but also in the form in which sound effects make up a tune of their own to complement the static soundtrack. For example, whenever the player makes a flower bloom, there’s a stroke of pure synesthesic bliss, as each flower emits their own musical note, one that blends perfectly into the sound-scape of the game. The final result is what Jenova Chen pretended of course, a zen-like environment that transports the player into a symbolic, mystical realm.

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Naturally, the symbolic aspect of “flower” is crucial for its message. The game is really an environmentalist message, trying to make a point about how industrialized society should live in balance with the surrounding nature. The sub-text is simple and elegantly translated via a series of brief interludes, and more importantly, through the actual game-play, which becomes increasingly meaningful towards the end of the game. That is “flower’s” most important achievement – the way in which, through a carefully laden aesthetic backdrop, it gives meaning to the interactions of the game, conveying feelings and emotions through that same interactive dimension… an absolute rarity in video-games.

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The million dollar question about “flower” though, is… “is it Art?” Is it the solution for the immaturity of the means? Is it the sign of a possible avenue for artistic endeavors in the means? The answer is anything but straightforward. “flower” is a video-game in every sense of the word, that much is certain. It abides by many of the laws that define the means: it presents challenge to the player, it warrants skill and dexterity, and it encourages the most basic collectivism; it’s more thrilling than contemplative (a fact not indifferent to the use of a six-axis control scheme), and it’s a game not easily presentable to a non-gamer. “flower” is a game, and a game that would not be deemed as Art according to the principles of Tale of TalesRealtime Art Manifesto. And yet, “flower” is Art… a fact that makes it puzzling in many ways. It’s a game, that while subscribing to some of the crudest notions of its means, can still convey its message, by subscribing to a unique aesthetic and artistic identity. Perhaps then “flower” is the solution for video-games as an Art form. Its metaphor for the change of Mankind’s ways can thus also serve as a metaphor for the change that it represents to video-games. Indeed, “flower” is the wind of change we’ve all been yearning for.

score: 5/5