Archive for March, 2011

Fallout New Vegas – “Where doth Black Isle lie?”

For years, Black Isle was Bioware’s ugly little sister, obfuscated by her flashier, more popular sibling, but owning deeper charms that would give rise to such seminal works as “Fallout” or “Planescape Torment”. While working on an unreleased “Fallout 3”, the company came to pass, leaving behind two promising spawns that rose from its ashes: the now extinct Troika (“Vampire The Masquerade Bloodlines”) and Obsidian. The latter went on to the most promising of starts, “Knights of the Republic II – The Sith Lords”, Chris Avellone’s spiritual sequel to “Torment”, a game of refined, mature storytelling, whose prose remains unmatched in the genre still today. But what befell next? “Neverwinter Nights 2”, a pathetic exercise in meta-humoristic parody, so absorbed in its tropes and typifications it seemed to hark back to an early C-RPG age. “Alpha Protocol”, an insipid and paradoxical convolution between classicist RPG ideals and a populist desire to please the “military shooter” audiences. Knees deep in lesser projects, one began wondering what happened to the creative minds that so utterly defined their genre. And so we come to “New Vegas”, Obsidian’s last redeeming chance to set things right, and tell the world how would “Fallout 3” be, had Black Isle been able to complete it.

Let us get the unfortunate constraints from out of the picture: J.E. Sawyer (“Icewind Dale II”) and company were limited to a game structure not of their own making, forced to work in Bethesda’s engine to deliver their own vision. T’is a heavy burden for Obsidian, to deliver what is, for all intents and purposes, an overwrought “Fallout 3” expansion pack. The engine hasn’t aged well, the aesthetics remain somewhat drab and incoherent, and the gameplay suffers from constant feelings of déjà vu. Minor changes here and there keep our perception of repetition deluded: grey has toned its way for sepia, cold-war zeitgeist has taken western overtones and the barren landscape now contrasts with the neon-lit “New Vegas” casinos, those flashy, gaudy dens of sin that are the focus of the game’s narrative. And therein lies the most notable facet of this adventure: Avelone’s branching penning remain’s witty and bold, delving into harsh subject matters which Bethesda is incapable of pursuing. “New Vegas” deals with Man’s perversions in a society-less world without obfuscating the violence and depravity of it all, tackling such themes as cannibalism, prostitution, the horrors of war, capitalist ambition, religious fanaticism, fascism, etc, etc.

The tone is unpretentious and light, embodying that very special brand of dry humor that is so characteristic of “Fallout”. What ultimately fails here is that this discourse never moves beyond literary expression, remaining ever-enclosed in those eerie first person dialogues inaugurated by “Oblivion”. This represents clearly “New Vegas”  fall from grace: it’s a work filled with potential, but delivered by designers who can’t seem to move beyond the stylistic coordinates of classic RPG tropes. The gameplay ideal that underlies all of the experience is archaic, mechanicist, inorganic and unnaturalist, lacking in aesthetic splendor and quality craftmanship. The game opens with a dated FMV, cherishes abstract, stat-based gameplay, incentivizes hoarding and compulsive quest-solving and is riddled with text and text and more text. For all this, and much more, it soon dawns on you that Obsidian really is a new Black Isle, but one that never got past the nineties. It’s 2010, time to move on.

score: 1/5

Red Dead Redemption – “Unforgiven”

The Houser brothers are a one key affair, unable to move beyond the confining boundaries of their one defining work; if anything, “Red Dead Redemption” is a cruel reminder of this fact. Here we are, yet again, in presence of “GTA’s” sand-box structure, and no matter how much time passes by, we find little change to its core foundations. Surely, minor elements were adapted to the western setting, but remove such secondary drivel, and you’ll find yourself playing “GTA III”, only with horses and sheriffs and desert in place of cars and policemen and cities. Where the game has evolved, it aims to please the saccharine junkies of gamification, inducing players to enter labyrinthine corridors of grinding, in byzantine collections of missions, mini-games, quests, sub-quests, side-quests, in-game achievements, xbox live achievements, trophies, all offering the bliss of abstract rewards with no added value to the experience. For supposed upholders of open-world gameplay, Rockstar has turned out a certified hypocrite of political proportions, promising the myth of Uncle Sam’s freedom and liberty, whilst enslaving players in a myriad of goal infested paraphernalia.  Even main-quest offerings are riddled with minute sub-goals on how to play, dictating your actions to the smallest detail, leaving little, if anything, up to players’ skill, exploration or imagination.

We’d be willing to concede to these  nefarious elements were there any ulterior purpose or aesthetic virtue lying beyond them. But what is “Red Dead Redemption” about? The west’s ruthlessness and savageness? A criminal’s attempt at moral redemption?  The choice between government and free enterprise, fascism and anarchy, corruption and lawlessness? If anyone claims to such foolishness, pay no heed – Rockstar treats these subject matters with the subtlety of an ox at a rodeo, hammering away words, jesting incoherently in a foul attempt at satire. Whereas such a stylistic choice made sense in the morally and culturally decayed urban sprawl of “GTA”, in the wild west it feels like a cop-out.  The western genre holds many rich themes for those that move beyond its formulaic surface (think Cormac McCarthy or Clint Eastwood) and even in parody terrain one finds such modern and unusual revisitations as Coen’s “True Grit”. But here, as elsewhere, Rockstar shows its limitations, mistaking conflict with bullet-time shooting, characters with sources of quests, plot with amalgam of film citations, soundtrack with mess of procedurally generated western music tropes glued together to resemble elevator music.

Redemption seems at hand when it comes to the feel of the old west. There’s true sensorial delight to be found in the exploration of the game’s world, basking in the naturalist splendor of the genre’s iconic landscapes. Journeying through a virtual Monument Valley, rocked by your horse’s rhythmic gallop, playing to it with your interactive spurs, listening to the hard clanking of hooves echoing in the texturey sand… it’s as close to a climax as the game gets. Fortunately, players are even invited to explore the scenery constantly, in long winding trips across the desert, beneath the glaring sun or stark moon. In between the long horse rides, there’s the occasional semi-honest attempt at characterizing life in the west, with menial cowboy tasks  establishing a welcome sense of roleplay. But it would be naïve to jump the bandwagon and simply applaud “Red Dead Redemption” vehemently on account of its audiovisual finesse and occasional simulational flair, since they find little resonance in other expressive vectors.  And if its sheer technique one wishes to evaluate, one can as easily praise the technical marvel of the landscape rendering, as criticize the appalling character modeling, with men tailored with the poise of a retired wrestling ape, and women with the beauty of a travesty Hammer monstrosity. Which is ultimately why it is impossible to take the title’s aspiration to western drama seriously – the characters are ugly and bear the emotional depth of a desert puddle. As far as escapist voyages can go, make no mistake, “Red Dead Redemption” is truly worth for the long hauls towards the sunset… just don’t think there’s anything else to explore in this barren, lifeless land.

score: 3/5