Archive for February, 2010

Dragon Age: Origins – “Ancient Lore”

Seldom have we felt such dismay and sheer disappointment when presented with a new Bioware title. Theirs is surely not the most consistent of libraries, but it would be a disservice not to recognize their continuous establishment of new standards in the western role-playing genre. But “Dragon Age” seems to be a mere compendium of all that has been done before under the Bioware banner, with every element screaming of unfathomable familiarity, just now stripped of its time-bound ingenuity that granted its past appeal. This makes “Dragon Age” feel, from the very early moments, awkwardly dated. Such matter is all too evident in the tactical combat system – a hark back to the old days of over-complicated micro-management and hard-plodding of “Baldur Gate’s” “Dungeons & Dragons” skeleton, with but a scent of modern game design in the form of a poorly implemented “Final Fantasy XII-esque gambit system. This spirit of sodded revivalism goes to the point of overlooking simple technical evolutions, with a return to pre-“Mass Effect” dialog trees and generic character designs and animations. Such musings may not ruin the experience, and could even content players who still revere those massive tomes of rules and numbers and written lore that defined pre-computer role-playing, but their nature is ill-fit for the realm of the video game, where the experience of adventuring and storytelling can be made so much more elegant and dynamic, not to mention more intuitive and natural to the senses, with real time interactions and cinematic exposition.

Granted, such glaring faults could’ve been easily downplayed, as others have in the past, should the narrative background prove captivating enough to warrant involvement of players in that world. But Ferelden, the realm where action takes place, is probably the most derivative piece of pseudo-Tolkien fantasy since “Neverwinter Nights”, more even, one visibly corrupted by Peter Jackson’s film adaptation and a hedious, absurdly violent, comic-book dark-fantasy aesthetic. And one cannot even immerse in such a poor virtual world properly, because exploration feels confined by claustrophobic loading screens and over-world maps, robbing the space of that precious sense of physical presence and vast, unshackled exploration that recent RPG’s such as “Fallout 3” and “Mass Effect” reveled in. But most telling of all coming from Bioware, is the lack of a proper cast of characters (with minor exceptions) and a mere skimming of Drew Karpyshyn’s traditional themes of morality. This, and the fact that development was helmed by what appears to be a secondary team inside the studio (Brent Knowles, Mike Laidlaw and James Ohlen), makes it painfully clear that “Dragon Age” never was meant to be one of Bioware’s finest, but a mere back-step in their long run of role-plays.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories – “Gimmick Hill”

If “Homecoming” was a desperate attempt at winning over the “Resident Evil” crowd, “Shattered Memories” at first, seems the logic step backwards: try to win back “Silent Hill” adepts. Climax did choose to re-imagine the first “Silent Hill” in a clear sign of reverence for the past of the series. They also appealed to the adventure crowd by removing combat from the game, and focusing it on exploration, as well as shifting core narrative themes from the dreary occult to the realm of the human psyche. Climax knew what every “Silent Hill” fan desired – a mature storyline in a survival horror focused on ambiance – and aimed at pleasing. But, whilst the marketing angle was perfect, everything else was not. But blame what we will, and we will blame many things, let us assure you, it’s undeniable that their purpose seems well-intentioned, perhaps even moved by a genuine love for the original Team Silent creations. Nonetheless, in the cruel world of the arts, such good intentions do not a work make… let alone a good “Silent Hill”. Back in the now distant days of “0rigins” you could already perceive Climax’s limitations. Their simple-minded and to the point interpretation of narrative ambiguities, surreal aesthetics and symbolic undertones, their utter lack of creative spark in the visual art department and their greatest sin: the inability to understand that “Silent Hill” had always been an authorial work inconceivable of franchise treatment. These claustrophobic maladies of the heart are now increased tenfold by greater authorial control of the Climax team, now seemingly liberated of any weight the Konami staff  ensured during the transition period from east to west… and hell is it painful to watch the end-result.

In “Shattered Memories”, the series is, using popular video game journalism terminology, re-booted, which means that no “Silent Hill” cannon is reprised. Now, even “Homecoming”, and may god punish us for speaking on a positive tone of such an ill-begotten bastard, had an occasional semblance of a “Silent Hill” atmosphere, with its dreary fog and eerie vacant streets and hellish red-rusted otherworld. But despite this being a remake, Climax thought, in a momentary lapse of arrogant folly, that they were capable of coming up with something fresh to replace what defined its predecessors. One look at the early artwork of the game was enough to understand how unprepared Climax was for this task. And so, they came up with a new aesthetic theme to “Silent Hill” – a blizzard stricken town, rendered in dark blacks (it’s dark and scary), vibrant blue ice (apparently it’s the colour of ice in Brittain) and covered in a whitish snow blanket (well, snow is white). The resulting artistic direction is bland, lacking character, detail and meaning, so woefully uninspired and understated in a video game that used to be known precisely for its emotional impact.

And what could Climax possibly add to compensate for such an outrageous aesthetic? In a nutshell, a modern, gimmick oriented style of gameplay. There are the mini-game-like puzzles with that familiar shallowness that the Wii has accustomed us to, a labirynth-like running game to replace combat that feels like a stripped down, trial and error version of “Clock Tower”, and a useless “GTA IV” cell-phone that delivers back-story in SMS or voice-chat format – it’s the twitter angle on narrative. Now, all these could be sufferable, had the aesthetic any flash of creativity that would allow for the surreal ambiance to shine. But there’s not. Even the plot, while decent and interesting, has its delivery falling flat. Characters and events from the original “Silent Hill” have lost all the details that made them unique, reduced, as is common in game-to-film adaptations, to mere names and archetypes in a sprawled out synopsis that bears no relationship with the source material. Gone are the surreal elements, the bizarrerie, the allegoric and metaphoric… In the end, nothing is left that could possibly stick out in your memory – a character, a dialogue line, an image, a sound (even Yamaoka seems unusually melodic and uncharacteristic), a place, an object,  an ambiance… an idea. “Shattered Memories”, like its environments, feels vacant and soul-less, an empty puppet stand-in lying in the place of a once great masterpiece.

score: 0/5

Cryostasis – “From Russia with Cold”

As western game development grows thick in its arrogance and nigh religious faith in the formulaic, and the far eastern dwindles in its inability to appeal to the new found world masses in any way but the mimicking of the western ways, only those left in the middle can still make a stand. Russia and other eastern countries’ economical limbo has given rise to a number of small independent studios that the far reaching arm of the industry still hasn’t a complete clutch over. This small harbor of creative freedom is showing signs of  being able to protagonize a cold wave of video games, as interesting titles such as “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.” and “Metro 2033” creep in the commercial mainstream, and the bizarre ventures of Ice-Pick Lodge, “Pathologic” and “The Void”, show that an auteur approach is still possible in the medium. “Cryostasis” lies somewhere in between these two approaches, but despite its compromise, is unequivocally another eastern promise.

Something in these eastern countries… something about the weather there has a powerful effect on the region’s cultural legacy. Something which explains that fatalist tendency for the dark and violent, that weighty existentialist anxiety, the ever-present gloom and cold and frigid, the icy and slow, the rugged and gauntly. This artistic propension is ever clear in “Cryostasis”. As an explorer stuck in an abandoned nuclear ice-breaker somewhere in the northern pole, you set out in search of answers about the ship’s predicament. You dive into that icy purgatory’s bowels, as you slowly pave way through a labyrinth of dark, rusted metal corridors, covered in crisp ice crystals and snow and clear stalactites, overrun by a dreaded silence that is only muffled by the cruel howls of the blizzard that runs amok in the white-clad exterior. “Cryostasis” is precisely about how humans can survive in face of harsh environments, posing its key themes not only through the core exploration of the ship, but also through narrative exposition, via a re-telling of Maxim Gorky’s tale “Old Izergil” and re-living of the ship’s defunct crew memories, in a series of bizarre flashbacks. Revelations are slow to come, but subtle and profound, and the authors’ propension for the extraordinary and the strange and cryptic make the game altogether more captivating for those who like a good narrative conundrum.

There’s a bit of the old survival horror cannon here as well, as the ice-breaker holds some of its former crew hidden and mutated into ghastly creatures. Though far from being the game’s highlight, combat with these monsters is particularly intense, thanks to a great use of sound effects, and the game’s unrelentingly slow rhythm. In the end, this is what makes “Cryostasis” a valid entry into its genre, as despite its first person perspective and shooting interactions, its pacing and exploratory moods utterly distantiate it from the military action aesthetic which pervasively corrodes the survival horror genre. Indeed, “Cryostasis” only failure lies in its authors not recognizing that they should not compete with the likes of these games. In what seems to have been an urge to stick to standard mainstream games’ length, the experience ends up sprawling for far too many hours, with little variation in both aesthetic content and narrative development. But, even so, after a depressing number of these nautious action-horror hybrids, such as “Dead Space“, “Resident Evil 5” and “Silent Hill Homecoming“, it is great to, once again, be able to experience a true survival horror game that lives and breathes atmosphere.

score: 3/5

GTA Chinatown Wars – “Diminished”

I was quite surprised with the reception “Chinatown Wars”, the portable “GTA”, got in the video game media. I guess I’d never expect such acceptance regarding a game that leaves out so much of that which reviewers tend to demand in home console games. “Chinatown Wars” has a very simple and neat design, harking back to the simpler days of the mid 90’s, and while incredibly polished and detailed – something we know Rockstar has the money and quality standards to back – we’re basically talking about a re-invention of the original 1997 title. The old bird’s eye point of view makes a comeback, complex control schemes for elaborate shooting sequences are left in the drawer and the cartoonish aesthetic and tone are revived with social issues once more delegated to not-so-subtle comedy gags. Sure, there’s the issue of increased side-quest variety, the linearized storyline and the QTE-style mini-games, but apart from those minor details,  this is once more that pure sandbox experience where you can get your kicks out of blowing stuff up. And in that regard, this portable iteration is surely more effective and to the point than its older siblings.

Lamentably, entertaining as it may be, “Chinatown Wars” loses the crucial aspect which made “GTA III” and its followers a different brand of game – the subjective perspective. “GTA III” isn’t heralded as masterpiece because of its increased scale or side-quests breadth. “GTA III” is a landmark in video games because of its ability to make you feel a part of that world, to immerse you in a virtual reality that is tangible to your senses. As you explore liberty city’s streets, you’re inhabiting that space, experiencing a simulated stroll through that avenue, driving your car, watching people pass by, hearing their banter muffled by the sound of passing vehicles, listening in on the radio, watching as day and night change, rain and fog give their way to the sun’s light… you’re living in that reality, a reality which with you can identify, a gorgeous and lively 3D painting that your senses immediately relate to real-life experiences. And you just can’t pull that effect, by looking downward on the action as if you were some bird of prey, flying guardian angel or police chopper. Your mind simply doesn’t connect, no matter how well the game renders its city and environments. You’re just not inside that place, and that is the best sensation you can get out of a “GTA” game, so if it isn’t in there, it just seems as pointless and diminished as any other well designed ludic game.

score: 1/5

Assassin’s Creed II – “Authorship by Proxy”

Has it really come to this? I remember a time when designers, whether good or bad, creative or conformed, loved or despised, were authors. A time when authorship lived and died by their creators’ passions and views on what a video game should be like, and regarding a select few, their values and ideas on life.  Sadly, “Assassin’s Creed II”, in more ways than one, reminds us that in the video game medium and business, there is no such thing as an author. There is an audience and its proxy and a whole bunch of middle men. Naturally, the job of the Proxy is to serve as conceptual avatar to the audience’s demands, whichever they may be. If the audience finds the game not to be as fun, violent, lengthy or varied as they want, it is the Proxy’s job to channel those expectations into a neatly fitted piece of game design worthy of their money. It makes me wonder if it still makes sense for game designers to take courses on the subject matter… it’d be easier to just let the marketing blokes take them instead, since it is obvious they are currently in charge of video games’ authorship. I know, I know, disheartening, is it not?

Take “Assassin’s Creed”. A game Patrice Désilets and Jade Raymond claimed, with a little help from a well crafted marketing campaign, to be the first ‘true’ next-gen game. A game so revolutionary, it would change the medium’s landscape. Despite its new take on the genre, some black sheep (myself included) disagreed on the game’s status as groundbreaking masterpiece, though the game still sold millions. “Assassin’s Creed” had some glaring flaws: quests were composed of generic tasks, game design was limited and ill-fit with the subject matter (an assassin that kills by day, and spends most of its time fencing with soldiers, had anyone heard of stealth?), story was under-developed, and to nail the coffin, the game repeated itself far too many times, with the game’s nine levels being exactly the same, with merely different wallpaper cities in the back. Flash forward two years down the line, and the accolades are plentiful – “Assassin’s Creed II” is a reinvigorated sequel, its flaws completely corrected, its charm fully blossomed. What changed? Actually, nothing did, except that the audience’s desires having been answered.

Every single critical voice was heard. The People demanded more quest variety – the Proxy gave it. The People demanded “Prince of Persia”-like linear platforming sequences – the Proxy offered them. The People demanded a meaty storyline – the Proxy obliged. The People wanted to swim – the Proxy cast the game in Venice and gave the People swimming abilities. It’s almost pathetic how Ubisoft simply bowed down and let every suggestion become an integral part of the game’s core. Where was Désilets, the quote on quote, “creative director”, during this process? Instead of analyzing his game’s faults, something which requires a deep understanding of game design and its intricacies, he appears to have been occupied checking boxes in complaint lists from a (sadly) uneducated mob. Think about it, does it really matter that you can now explore five generic cities instead of three, undertake a dozen bland side-quest types for obtaining bland generic collectibles instead of just half a dozen, and go through a story with twice the archetypal characters, triple the pseudo-historical context and an exponentially raised number of events that still do not make the plot move one tiny bit before the grand final twist? Oh, but you can now customize your character, with some vague, inventory-oriented character progression system, wonderful! Did I mention, there’s also some of the best (read worst) cut-scene directing and animation in a top-tier game in years? These now revised minutiae were never the problem, but a symptom of “Assassin’s Creed” malady. Of course, the People careth not about such negative ramblings, and looked in awe at all the new blessings the Proxy had giveth them, and all was made well.

I’m not saying that everything is ill about the sequel. The new-age meets catastrophe movie sci-fi plot and Italian setting certainly make it far more compelling to explore “Assassin’s” world, and some of the cities’ real-life monuments are rendered with an architectural beauty worthy of gawking in amazement. Moreover, the original’s parkour platforming and elegant combat system haven’t aged one bit and are still  some of the most enticing interactive mechanics in the action-adventure genre. But make no mistake, “Assassin’s Creed II” few artistic merits can never hide that the sequel still is a hollow, generic, procedurally generated, author-less piece of game design. Alas, the People rejoiceth, for the Proxy has listened.

score: 2/5