Archive for August, 2009

Shadow Complex – “G.I. Joe Complex”

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More than a modern take on “Metroid” (as were the “Prime” entries), “Shadow Complex” is a faithful homage to what is one of the most beloved videogames ever made. Like so many players out there, Donald Mustard is mad in love with “Metroid” and so, everything that made “Metroid” “Metroid”, is recovered almost religiously into his game – the pure 2-D platforming, the non-linear maps, and their never-ending backtracking… pardon me, “exploration”, the armor and weapon upgrades, the environmental puzzles, the wall-crawling enemies, etc, etc, etc. In “Shadow Complex” every motion, space and action, evokes a memory of “Metroid”. And Mustard plays well with that memory, rewriting it subtly to fit with the new century design standards players have developed. More tense and action packed, “Shadow Complex” is an entertaining video-game that doesn’t rely solely on nostalgia to be fun.

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Sadly enough, Mustard’s fond remembrance of “Metroid” is imperfect, dare I say, naive and superficial. One of the greater aspects in “Metroid” was its ambiance: the sense of vacant space mirrored perfectly the part of being alone in an alien landscape. Despite the minimalist details, the dark caves and somber music were essential in establishing that science fiction reality (“Alien”, of course, comes to mind). Mustard did not use a similar background, therefore losing his capability to truly evoke the memory of “Metroid”, but perhaps rightfully so, for who is he to remake “Metroid”? The issue here is that the artistic frame he chose to substitute “Metroid’s” stinks of the most basic consumer-pleasing piece of trash. In other words, he wrapped the “Metroid” gameplay in a first-person shooter aesthetic (something which even the “Prime” series tried to avoid).

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Explosions and explosions and more explosions and lots of shooting and shooting and firefights and kung-fu fist-fights and epic battles with giant-mecha and even more explosions – that’s what Mustard substituted the sci-fi environment with. Even though the script is based on the work of Orson Scott Card (namely his novel “Empire”), it comes off as the sort of preposterous teenager military fantasy about an evil scientist/general who wants to take over the world (or just the U.S.A., doesn’t seem to matter). The B-movie tone can be funny (Nolan North as the leading voice certainly helps), but the narrative often seems to want seriousness and sentimentality, which ultimately ruins any chance of redemption for the whole affair. Character designs only add to the whole comic-book vibe, being  so bad that can even paint the supposedly menacing army as an outlandish brand of villains.

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The new framing is, in one word, horrible. It’s like an even worse copy of Epic’s own games, featuring extensive technical value but less than competent artistic one. It’s not that it was obligatory to evoke an ambiance as powerful as that of “Metroid”, but anything other than “G.I. Joe”  in Unreal Engine’s dull and insipid color palettes would have been preferable. Appealing to the “Gears” crowd just seems irreflected for someone who is trying to recapture the feel of a work that is consensually viewed as a masterpiece. Thus, “Shadow Complex” ends up being somewhat of  a half-breed between a modern action packed shooter and the pondered exploration of “Metroid”. You can’t commend its innovation, because there is none, but it’s extremely well designed and balanced, and if it’s mindless fun you’re looking for, you’ll get your kicks. However, as the self-proclaimed love-letter to “Metroid”, it’s as much of an insult as it is a compliment to Gunpei Yokoi’s and Yoshio Sakamoto’s masterpiece.

[My Xbox 360 just died this mornin’ (thanks Microsoft!), so I won’t be able to complete the game, hence why there is only an Impressions article. Still, I played the game enough to give it a fair review.]

Wave Foam – “Breaking out of the Cage”

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Not everyone recognizes that there is a problem with the current state of videogames. Most are content with the mindless “fun” they afford players, and those that aren’t content, tend to cower beneath the towering weight of money-grubbing companies that just want to maximize their profit. But there are those rare few who have their eyes out on more ambitious goals for videogames and who aren’t afraid to stand up and be pretentious. David Cage is such a man, as this recent presentation shows; as always, it makes for an interesting read coming from someone who actually has something which is worth reading about. Ever since I remember reading about him and his games, he’s always been yapping about games’ legitimacy as art-form, and how he is trying to tell stories through games. He’s perceptive and culturally knowledgeable; like all those who watch a movie or read a book every now and them, he can tell that videogames lack the maturity and emotional depth that other artistic mediums live by, and so he struggles to bring videogames one step closer to those other means. Sadly, his ambition never panned out as much as one would hope, as his games always ended up being shallow replicas of the future for videogames that he so heartily stands by.

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“Omikron” (a.k.a. “Nomad Soul”), was a visionary attempt at capturing the sense of a living breathing world, completely rendered in 3D. Two years before the open-world breakthrough of “Grand Theft Auto III”, Cage was already fiddling with notions of scale in space, gameplay and narrative, which most designers would’ve run from like a devil from a cross, so ambitious they were for that time.  It was a game only rivaled (and let’s be honest, in many ways, surpassed) by the contemporary work of Yu Sukuzi, “Shenmue”. Cage’s work was not without merit though, he managed to devise an entire fictitious world, a provocative, gaudy blend of science fiction aesthetics, deeply rooted in cyberpunk culture, Philip K. Dick-ean themes of personality and identity, and some post modern elements. He was avant-garde in every sense of the world, and even managed to bring David Bowie in to collaborate as actor and singer/composer of the game’s original score, further establishing “Omikron” as an artistically legitimate venture. The game was far from perfect, as the cacophonous mix of gameplay styles (adventure, beat’em up and first person shooter) was convoluted and ill-balanced, and the game suffered from a myriad of bugs and technical issues, all of which reviewers of the time took at heart.

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His next game would suffer a better fate in eyes of both public and critics, though in the humble opinion of this writer, was far less progressive and experimental than its spiritual predecessor… and equally unbalanced. Cage’s self presented challenge in “Fahrenheit” (a.k.a. “Indigo Prophecy”) was to create an interactive narrative system that would permeate seamlessly through game-play. The game eventually became known both by its modern adventure game trappings – which gave players the sort of choices which the old-school linear adventure games had seldom afforded -, and by it consistent use of quick time events, which curiously enough became known as such precisely due to Suzuki’s “Shenmue”, even tough the mechanic itself dated back to “Dragon’s Lair”. Once again, ambitions proved superior to Cage’s capacity to fulfill them: the use of QTE’s was excessive and repetitive, with endlessly drawn out actions sequences (in a sort of daft copy of “Matrix’s”) forcing players to mindlessly mash buttons in Simon Says fashion, and the narrative system, though certainly interactive, yielded some of the most ridiculous and over-the-top story-lines  ever to grace a modern videogame.

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Both his games failed, yes, but criticize as much as we can, we cannot help but admire his achievements and his courage for taking risks. “Omikron” and “Fahrenheit” were attempts at adult forms of storytelling that were genuinely serious and mature: “Omikron” had a virtual space that was palpable and brimmed with character, and “Fahrenheit” (before blowing up with its outrageous plot twists) had realistic characters and an ingenuous sense of suspense and mystery. Even today, the vast majority of games cannot accomplish what David Cage did in his only two games. He may very well be a thinking man’s Molyneux – a sort of pretentious wanna-be that aspires to the moon, but ends up with his knees deep in the Earth’s mud – but he will always have great aspirations and capacity of self-criticism (as his constant recognition of his past failures clearly shows), something which is sadly lacking in most designers. Hopefully (let us pray in tandem), he will soon realize the potential of his ideas in “Heavy Rain” and finally flesh out the sort of mature interactive narratives his games always hinted at, but failed in achieving.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater – “One-Eyed Jack”

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From the title screen to the final credits, you can feel “Snake Eater” is Kojima’s land: the virtuous cut-scene directing, the stylized visuals, the characters with their brooding voices and dramatic performances, the crazy twisted plot scheme filled with glorified heroes and villains and sub-texts and outrageously overlong dialogs – Kojima always knew how to put on a show, and with each new game and improved technology he kept amping up his showmanship. However, the third title in the “Metal Gear” saga is a return to origins, both in chronology and thematic: the game takes place during the 1960’s, amidst the cold war scenario, with the protagonist being, for the first time, Big Boss. At the start of the action he’s dropped into an untamed jungle, with only a knife to survive, the tropical heat to endure, the ferocious animals to hunt for food and an entire army to do battle with – like in the first “Metal Gear”, the sense of a modern “Rambo” re-envisioning is pervasive through and through.

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Kojima follows this premise of the lone soldier in an hostile environment with absolute clarity: never has stealth made more sense than in “Snake Eater”, as the dense foliage and tree-lines serve as the perfect habitat for an invisible assassin. You really have to play the part of the cautious, ever-planning killer: slowly crawling by unseen, assessing the surroundings with your senses, peering the jungle with its lush greens, dark browns and all-encompassing blinding hot sunlight, listening to the chirping birds and croaking frogs and streaming creeks, until you can hear the faint sound of the steps of a soldier trampling the vegetation, and then you wait and wait and wait some more, until he passes by you while you’re hiding in the grass completely camouflaged and you finally strike death upon him, swiftly and silently, so that nature remains unturned and unsettled. It’s in these moments of pure stealth that “Metal Gear Solid 3” clicks and resembles Kojima’s masterpiece. The bosses, after the debacle of “Sons of Liberty”, also show a return to good form, with some memorable battles: the sniper duel with the End being the blossoming of the potential of the original battle with Sniper Wolf, and the confrontation with Sorrow showing off Kojima in his most enigmatic and allegorical, pitting Big Boss against an already dead enemy.

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There are many reasons to adore “Metal Gear Solid 3”, which is why it becomes so troubling to understand exactly who is the man behind the game. Kojima is capable of so much, yet wastes all that creativity and effort with his petty idiosyncrasies. There’s the toilet humor, the cartoonish hyperboles, the self-indulgent 60’s pop references and the constant playing with “Metal Gear” cannon – all of these compromising the depth of  the characters and storyline. But where Kojima’s excesses become simply unacceptable is in the game-play. For the player to have access to all those cool, but insignificant, gadget-y details Kojima puts in his games, every little button in the control pad has a dozen of different uses, making the control scheme a maximalist mess. Add an overview camera that is ill-fitted for the new setting and you have a number of issues that will constantly break up immersion. It becomes obvious that Kojima’s crew never thought of re-designing the original “MGS” style of game-play, and just kept adding stuff as they went by, to the point it became nigh unplayable. Simplification and streamlining would have done wonders for “Snake Eater”, as the later “Subsistence” and “Guns of the Patriots” would show.

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“Snake Eater” certainly has a more mature set of characters, and emotionally evocative storyline than its direct predecessor, which is why if it were not for Kojima’s obnoxious eccentricities, it might very well have been the rightful successor to the original “Metal Gear Solid”. But the truly infuriating thing is how its insignificant flaws can obfuscate the game’s grandiosity when it strikes that rare chord of pure bliss. Flaws that could have easily been removed, but remain as nagging reminders of Kojima’s unflinching desire to be cool and witty. Which is why Kojima needs an editing eye, something which he must surely have had many years ago, but now seems to have lost, like his protagonists, during some imaginary war with his ego. And until he learns that less is more, he will remain blind.

score: 4/5

King’s Field IV – “Out of the Light and into the Darkness”

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There’s a consensual, yet unspoken rule of modern game design which states that for a game to be enjoyable and entertaining, it can’t ever become hard or frustrating, lest players feel bad and lose interest. Surely, such lapallissade could only be a synonym of some obvious universal truth regarding game design, but the superficiality of such a crude assessment could only lead to a misconceived notion. The truth of the matter is, that in the realm of true games, for you to feel that warm sense of enjoyment and self-gratification, you need to overcome challenges. Challenges require skill, skill must be attained through training and trial and error, and trial and error is bound to lead to frustration, whenever the error part comes into place. The greater the challenge, the higher the sense of gratification. But big reward means big penalty, so difficult challenges come at great costs. The equation of “fun” is obviously more complex, but this small prelude should give you enough insight to understand that, while modern design may allow you a superficially more fulfilling experience, it will always lack the sense of accomplishment that difficult games can elicit. You simply can’t remove frustration from the equation without in the process removing part of the fun. Not all designers have forgotten this old truth of game design, and “King’s Field IV”, as its predecessors, comes exactly from such designers (Rintaro Yamada and Satoru Yanagi).

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Playing “King’s Field” feels precisely like playing games from your childhood. You start the game without watching lengthy cut-scenes, or playing through tutorials that help understand the game. The minute you press the start button, the game starts in the proper sense, and in “King’s Field”, that means you’re bound to die from then on. In fact, that’s precisely what happened to me in the first ten seconds of the game, as I stepped on a piece of rock that caved into a pit of hot boiling lava, killing me in the process. No checkpoint nor extra lives; the cold dark game over screen loomed only with a load-game option which I could not use for not being able to reach a save point before my first death. The process repeated with a new game. On my second try though, I could see clearly where I had died, which meant that on my third attempt I knew which path to take to avoid certain death. This is the gist of “King’s Field” – you play, you die, you play again and avoid death till you die again, and slowly but steadily, you advance in the game. As you go by, you start to play the game almost as if you were actually in the game world, desperately clinging to your life, cautiously avoiding any suspicious looking room or enemy. The game’s pace helps immensely – your character trots and attacks very slowly, forcing you to plan every step very carefully. Loneliness, darkness and anxiety will be your only companions while the game lasts. For you will fear the game-space, because at any moment, you may die and have to repeat the long, extenuating track you took since your last save. Such hardships inevitably lead to moments of sheer despair when you die, but with a good deal of patience, you can mitigate such moments to mere interludes before the conquest of the next hard earned goal. In the end it all pays out, and you’ll feel as a true hero, one capable of conquering everything… till you die again, that is.

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The game’s atrocious difficulty serves as the perfect gameplay metaphor for the story the designers are trying to convey. Fantasy stories tell of grand knights capable of epic feats of strength, agility and mind, yet modern role-playing videogames give us challenges that even a baby can overcome. That is why “King’s Field” clicks into place and you get to actually ‘play’ the part of the conquering knight – the game needs to be hard for you to feel like a hero. That being said, it never pulls your leg in cheap ways, it’s all panned out consistently in the game-world, and the game designers were even kind enough to give you sparsely placed save points (shifting the game away from rogue territory). Despite the retro appeal and a limiting budget, the game still manages to make use of modern technology. The aesthetic thoughtfully applies lighting and physics effects to establish the oppressive and gloomy dark fantasy environment, beautifully complementing the dread you feel faced with the dangerous surroundings. In a nutshell, “King’s Field IV” is precisely what it sounds like: a classic first person view dungeon crawler with a fresh coat of paint. Like the recent “Dark Spire”, it’s retro-gaming at its best, completely conscious of its appeal, inherent strengths and flaws, but with the added expressiveness that modern platforms’ technology allows. It’s tough as hell mind you, but as rewarding as only old games can be. Now, where can I get that “Demon Souls”?