Choose Your Weapons Well, My Friend.

Minor spoilers for Bioshock, Mass Effect 2 and The Last Express.

For an interactive medium, video games are remarkably picky when it comes to choices. Many games are bipolar in this sense; offering a billion weapons to help you carve your path, but it must be on this path. Take the pinnacle of the modern FPS – CODBLOPS, or Call of Duty: Black Ops. Here, the choices made by the player are combat choices — Which gun do I use? When should I use my grenades? Where should I be aiming my gun at any moment? Yet, essentially, you are locked onto rails, a puppet sent hurtling down whatever wacky adventures have been set up for you to survive. I say survive, because failure in games pretty much lacks any meaning. You can always restart.

The illusion of choice makes a frequent appearance – you can go here and kill dudes, or go here and kill dudes, but not both. Unfortunately, it doesnt really matter which dudes you kill — the game will end the same way, and you will probably replay it anyway to “experience it differently”.

Then there’s the Bioshock/Fable/Infamous system of good vs evil. This essentially splits the track off into two seperate endings, with some minimal gameplay changes

Peter Molyneux believes putting in the "good" option is pointless.

depending what you choose. The problem with this system is that you are usually locked into one path or the other — you’re either a paragon of virtue or a high-threat sex offender. Both of these options feel ridiculous and extremely videogamey. By giving you a bar to fill with good/bad deeds, players begin to stop caring about what they’re actually doing; these interactions are just there to fill this bar. If developers expect us to care for this interaction, then we must stop relying on numbers and pursue other methods of immersion.

Which leads me to Mass Effect 2, which I have now completed, but maybe not finished. In general, it’s a weird game. Not only did I basically start the series in Act II, it basically is a game composed entirely of Act II. In the first 2 minutes of the game, you die. Two game-years later, you’re revived to work for a shady organisiation to destroy a race of aliens working for the Galactic Harbingers of Doom ™. From talking to other people, it seems this is pretty much what you did

Shit's getting real.

in the first game, except now the alien race in question has changed.You set off and spend most of your time gathering homies and upgrading your ship before the ultimate suicide mission. This “suicide mission” is basically the Serenity to the rest of the game’s Firefly. Many choices and precautions taken previously cumulate at the end. Everytime you make a decision, you know that you could very well be sending these people, whom you have spent nearly 35 hours grouping, to their death. In the end, you are left to deal with the consequences of your actions. Your favourite teammate died? Your fault. You didn’t reach your crew fast enough? Your fault. You die? Your fault.

Yet even this attempt at choice was pretty heavy handed. Everything was brought together in the end, but you don’t really have an effect up until then. Another game I played recently, Jordan Mechner’s The Last Express, represents the tragic demise of consequence in games. In this wonderfully animated adventure game, you play as Robert Cath — an American doctor on the run. You join your best bud on a trip across Europe in 1914 on The Orient Express. You walk in to find your bro murdered, and the game basically unfolds like an interactive Cluedo — in real time. Every person on the train has a timetable. You miss that guy at dinner? Well he might knock on your cabin later, or else you’ll have to track him down.

Groups have conversations — even when you’re not there. It’s weird, in a generation of “press X to start dialogue tree” to walk into a room and only be able to eavesdrop on half of a conversation. Yet all of this represents the vast amount of choices possible. You could just sit in the dinner cabin all day, listening to the

So awesome that characters have conversations in different languages.

amazing voice actors chat away in Frence or Russian. Or, you could wait for the Inspector to leave his post and sneak past to scout the baggage car. Regardless of how you spend those few hours, you will get an ending. It may not be the ending you hoped for though, but you reap what you sow. If you don’t investigate that ticking sound and then discover and disarm a bomb, then damn right the game should end with you as a charred heap on the burnt ground.

Unfortunately, The Last Express was a flop, as the movie industry would put it. One of the most expensive games ever, back in 1999, and these poor sales did not help the adventure game genre’s reputation. So few people finish games that developers realised that by making games more scripted, they became more successful. Which may be ok when the main focus of the game is purely combat, but surely video games, as a medium, has to move past that? Even RPGs like Final Fantasy, which are dialogue heavy to say the last, offer no sense failure or reward for your efforts. You kill the monsters, then the shiny cut scene will do the rest. In the end you say  “Well, that was nice for them”. When we finish a game, we should be saying “Well, that was nice for me.”. By numbing any sense of self-induced failure, you numb any sense of self-induced achievment. I know it’s a scary thought developers, but let your players burn their bridges. Let your players have the opportunity to burn their bridges.

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Florence Welch

I don’t know why.

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Video Games Are My Favourite Video Games

via http://www.supermegacomics.com/

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Deciding Who I Hate Least

Once again, I’m behind the curve. When Mass Effect 2 came out last year on systems I couldnt play it on, I didn’t really mind. I hadn’t played the first and was never big into Bioware RPGs. Then I played Dragon Age. So naturally, I was really excited when they announced that ME2 was coming to PS3, and even more excited that there was a demo out. It was just as cool as Dragon Age was, but maybe even more so; this one was in space.

Derp

JACOOOOOB

The first time I played, I chose male Shepard. Who happens to look like a douchier version of Jack from Lost. Yet the main problem, was his voice. Mark Meer has managed to bring more apathy and bewilderment via sound waves, than any writer could ever dream. I guess it’s a talent. Of sorts. Also a problem I found with the male Shepard character – his eyes never quite look at what they should be. Yeah, it’s a Bioware game, they never quite line up perfectly, but Shepard’s was the only one that stood out for me.

 

MEGABITCH

Her one weakness is the bin.

So I then played through it as female Shepard. A few minutes in, I thought “Hallelujah! Some emotion in her voice!”. Then it gradually creeped up on me that it was the same emotion all the time. Jennifer Hale, in what I presume was an attempt to make female Shepard the tough commanding leader she is, overcompensated. Instead of being a strong female character, she comes across as a constant snarky bitch. Also, she looks like a younger version of The Gravedigger. That never helps.

So as the player, I’m left with a dilemma. These are the main protagonist – these are you for all intents and porpoises. You choose their abilities, you choose their back story, you choose their dialogue responses. But when, as a character, they have a personality of their own, this creates a dissonance. Sure, I choose what they say, but they choose how it’s said. This is an increasingly frequent problem as more RPGs give characters voices, and there’s no easy way to fix it. To say “Just get better voice actors” is no solution, as what I imagine the voice of my character  to be, could just as easily be off-putting to another.

So in the end, I’ll choose male Shepard. While he will probably bore the shit out of me during the tens of hours I spend as him, at least he won’t be a complete cunt. Which at the end of the day, is probably good enough.

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Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood

Firstly, did anyone else see that Brotherhood ad that was the still image of Ezio and his groupies, except someone thought “People need to see moving images for an ad to work!” so a poor animator was tasked with making it so. I can’t find a copy of it now, but basically, he took Ezio’s hood and added an animation of pure black wavy lines, like this:

It was honestly the worst looking thing ever.

Anyway, the actual game! (SPOILER WARNING)

AC:B, as it shall affectionately be known, continues straight on from AC2. You play as Desmond, the most generic chatacter to ever have existed. Desmond is strapped into a machine which lets him re-live the memories of his anscestors. Of course, all of his relatives are assassins. So for most of the game, you play as Ezio, who arrives with neither family nor friend in Rome. As it’s set in Italy, this instantly becomes a tale of revenge da familia. You gather some cronies (such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Machiavelli, Catherina Sforza) and together on your quest, with your goal to kill the Pope and the Pope’s fucked up family. But all of this time, there’s no real motivation for commiting the atrocious acts you do. You’re told the Borgia are evil, but honestly, Ezio’s probably killed just as many. In AC1, there was the theme of “Nothing is true, everything is permitted“. Each time you killed a target, he proclaimed himself innocent, calling you the monster. There was a constant doubt present – maybe I am the asshole in this world? Yet in AC:B, nope. Ezio’s right, everyone else is wrong.

Rome's economy wasn't looking too well. They need a bailout of 7.5 million florins, thrown directly onto the ground.

The one neat thing they tried was by making Machiavelli look like the most evil bastard in the game. The minute you meet him I thought  “Bet this guys going to betray me” and halfway through when I found out he had indeed been the traitor, I thought “Oh, big surprise”. Yet they switch it again! You find out right before you were about to put an end to him that he wasn’t the traitor after all! So fair play to Ubisoft for not making the evil looking one, well, evil. I’d like to coin this technique as “The Lenihan”.

So you kill the Pope, take his wizard off-hand item that instantly kills anyone and blahblahblah. The more intersting story, for me anyway, was Desmond’s. In between missions, you can leave the animus, and walk around talking to your modern-day friends. Rebecca, the tech-savy one. Shaun, the SBD (Snarky British Dude) and let’s not forget, Fish-Lips.

The turtleneck hides her gills.

In these little intermissions, you get to walk around, chat for a bit, and read everyone’s emails. The fights over guard duty, the “who stole my yoghurts”, the “hey, where’s my iPod gone?” and the hinted romance between Rebecca and SBD all bring these characters some likability. Whereas in Rome, everyone’s too busy stabbing others to actually come across as real people. This bond to these characters pays off in the end, when, being controlled by a God, Desmond is forced to stab Fish-Lips.

They used a technique which, in my circle of friends, has become known as “Pressing Square”. Named after the bit in Metal Gear Solid 3, where you stand over your mentor/final boss, and have to press square to deliver the final bullet yourself. That was a big deal, usually the cutscene would do that for you, and the blood didn’t feel so very, very real on your hands. AC:B doesn’t pull it off quite so well, but it still had a “Noooooo whyyyyyyyyyyyy” moment. So I can safely say, this one had the best story in the whole series, not because it had the most explosions, or most sex-in-a-bath scenes (it did), but because it had little things which made you actually care about these characters.

One of the major systems they carried over from AC2 was the currency system. Most people seemed to like the Buying/Refurbishing property game, where you got to spruce up your own little town, and these upgrades shops couls sell you better things, and also, in turn, raked in more money. Which led to a major problem. About halfway through the game, you’d find your wallet bursting at the seams, but with nothing to actually spend your money on. AC:B makes these exact same mistakes again, but the process is drawn out a bit. This time, major landmarks are purchasable too. (No, before you ask, you cannot buy the Colosseum. Which is such a major letdown! Picture this: During a thrilling mission, Ezio gets captured by his enemies, and forced into a shady dueling tournament held in ol’ Colosso. Ezio climbs the ranks, one head-on-a-spike at a time, until he wins the competition, assassinates the head dude, and claims the Colosseum for his own. Ezio then runs the shady dueling tournaments, forcing captured enemies to fight his fledgling assassins. The mission would be called Gla-Die-Ator.)

So as you can see, this currency issue snowballs out of control. Once every amphitheatre has been purchased, aquaduct repaired and brothel opened, Ezio is stuck sitting on his pile of gold. The single, only, way to decrease your riches ever so slightly, is to throw gold on the ground. No matter how many people you have murdered in the area, how many horses stolen, how many lives ruined by Ezio Auditore, he simply has to throw 10 coins – 10! That’s all it takes to win the heart of a crowd. Yet to make even a dent in your fortunes, you’d basically have to pave the entire city with gold.

They're actually hostages by the looks of it...

Ezio and his Brotherhood

There’s a reason playing Monopoly by yourself isn’t interesting…not that I’ve tried…cough. Another frustrating new system was the city liberation mechanic. Every time you go to a new district of Rome, you would find the most heavily-guarded area, kill the guy with the arrow over his head, then climb a tower, set it on fire and voila! Liberation, my friend. But this drags on the 12th time. If there was an Opression meter for the area, and a few different ways to lower it (buying shops, killing guards, looting enemy banks), but also, the enemy could fight back and reclaim some sweet sweet opressions, then I feel it could be a bit more satisfying.

Yet at the other side of the coin, in gameplay terms, is the mission-based open world game. To compensate for a lack of new features, Ubisoft has packed AC/BC with a bijillion missions, each simlutaneously vying for your undying attention. Firstly, there’s story missions. Then there’s GTA style quest givers which include the Thieves Guild, the local Brothel, and the Mercenary Barracks. There’s also assassination contracts, viewpoint sychronization and races. This time though, they’re sneaky about it. Y’see, you’re not “racing”, you’re delivering letters of warning  from Copernicus to other scholarly scholars (Easily recognised as the dudes with long hair and berets). This actually made me do race missions. Other annoying quests that returned also include feather-collecting and flag-collecting. But hey, achievment whores need something to give them a buzz.

Some of the best times I had were with the Prince of Persia -esque climbing/acrobatic sections. While some of the sewer-based ones dragged on forever, some were challenging while bringing in a new art style (whoever designed the Pope’s Abandoned House level, I salute you). While doing these, I realised how fluid and capable the free-running system actually can be. It’s just a shame it’s never pushed to be challenging. Falling is rarely super detrimental, and the path up a building is usually pretty clear. More advanced moves like wall-jumping sideways are never necessary, meaning the puzzles are never set out with the full system in mind.

A major problem I had was the “Synchronizaton” status at the end of missions. At the start of a mission, you’re given what seems like a side-objective, such as “Do not swim” or “Only lose 3 blocks of health”. Which I thought was a really cool idea, until I didn’t do them. Rather than giving you a bonus for following them, they give you 50% if you don’t. Put one goddamn toe in that fucking puddle and you lose 50% of your score. The only way to not feel like a failure in this game is to replay and replay missions until you’re soulless.  Even worse are the ones that say “Kill your target with X weapon”. One of the best concepts on Assassin’s Creed was the fact you had a wide arsenal, many of which are suited to certain conditions, but in the end, it’s up to how you want to kill dudes. Then this sync system comes along, forever frowning over your shoulder, tutting loudly when you use a crossbow instead of the deafeningly loud pistol.

The fighting system in general has been greatly improved. It’s become way more fluid, almost solely because of one new feature: the ability to kick enemies in the balls. Yet in spite of this, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood still fails to ever make you use some of it’s features. The sword is pretty useless – the knife is quicker and easier to change target with. Pistol has been made redundant by the crossbow. I never once had to pick up, let alone dispose of  a body. All this is really a shame, because when combined, some of these killing methods becomes almost wonderous.

In the run-up to the release, the spotlight was focused on the ability  to recruit other assassins and have them help out. You train them by sending them on text-based missions around europe, they are gone for 5 minutes, and return with loot and xp. And while it’s fun to send your minions to do your bidding, and I’ll admit, the ceremony when my first recruit became a full-fledged assassin brought a slight tear to my eye (she was just such a trooper), the real wondrous feature lies in Ezio’s ability to control eagles. Every time you whistle to call an apprentice, and eagle flies over head and caws. You jump off a tower? Eagle call. Ezio’s hood? Looks like an eagle.

Oh! Multiplayer, yeah. It’s what a always dreamt it would be – a game where you have to act like an NPC. It’s just too bad most other players  don’t realise that and run around rooftops waving their arms and yelling at the top of their voices: Noob.

In the end, AC:B was a lot of fun most ofthe time. If you like running round jumping off buildings, and riding terrible looking horses, hours of fun to be found! Maybe you want to play more as an actual assassin, who’s careful and strategic? Hitman: Blood Money.

Let the money hit the floor, let the money hit the floor, let the money hit the floor, let the money hit the floor.

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Wake Up In A Car Crash, No Clue How You Got There

Hello!

Well, the title isn’t completely true in this case, I know how I got here. Originally, I wanted http://www.FirstLevel.wordpress.com but that was taken by some woman with a single post. The nerve! I mean, who stops blogging on a domain and then forgets about it?

Next on the list was http://www.LevelOne.wordpress.com which again, was Taken. Staring Liam Neeson.

The blue brings out his eyes.

I made this MONTHS ago. Have no idea why.

Then I actually registered http://www.StarterZone.wordpress.com, and halfway through the first blog post I realised it was a bit mid-90’s-freeweb-html-effects-y. Also, I would have had terrible trouble from people looking for http://www.ShatnerZone.wordpress.com or, heaven forbid, http://www.SharterZone.wordpress.com. (A quick check shows both of these are still free! What are you waiting for? Get on this and grab this slice of internet while it’s still hot. Like Shatner.)

Anyway, this blog is here for video games. Not reviews per se. Probably not even proper discussion, but thoughts at least, and maybe a picture or a video of a cat to go with it. Then again, I might just abandon this now, and let it drift back into the cold embrace of url scavengers.

Only time will tell.

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