Thursday, October 18, 2012

Dishonored (PS3)

I haven't written a review here in a long time. Partially because I've been busy building video games. But, mainly it's because I've had little to say about the games I've played. My feelings toward them have been uncomplicated. Dishonored is different. I just can't figure out what's wrong with it.

On the surface, Dishonored seems flawless. The controls feel smooth. The stealth system is well polished. The combat feels visceral and punishing, but still winnable. The world is intriguing and dynamic. The characters are believable. The graphics are beautiful.

And yet, the whole time, I felt somehow disconnected from the game. Like I was playing with a stocking over my head. But, I don't think it was one thing that spoiled what boded so well.

The first flaw pulling me out of the story is the complete lack of characterization of the protagonist. I suspect the designers did this with the hopes that you would then better insert yourself into the story. But, they name your character. He has intimate ties with other characters. He's supposedly important in court politics. And yet you never see Corvo. You never even hear his voice.

For me, this was a substantial design defect. A protagonist's voice could have given players a much more detailed commentary on the politics of the world. Similarly, I would have felt more engaged with the hunt for the Empress' daughter if I had somebody indicating why I should care. Lacking a connection to the world's characters, I was chasing the bad guys simply because that's how you advance--I never felt like I wanted to push forward.

For Chell or Gordon Freeman, their silence works because their motivations and goals are uncomplicated or obvious. But Dishonored's framing story is one of political intrigue. But without some characterization for the protagonist, it's kind of hard to give a fuck about his struggles.

Next there's the standard video game binary moral choice. If you kill too many people in the game, you get the bad ending. Use non-lethal means, and you get the good ending. It doesn't matter whatsoever that I played through without killing a single civilian, and no more than a handful of city watch officers. Slaughtering my way through the pack of assassins was enough to ensure that I got the bad ending, complete with my former allies kvetching about my "brutality".

This sort of infantile morality always pisses me off in games. It's easy to code; it's easy to understand. But it completely misses the mark in making me feel "responsible for my actions". I think most people would agree that there's a moral difference between killing a police officer who's in the way of you committing a crime, and killing an assassin who's wrongfully imprisoning you.

But I think the real reason that I couldn't really forget that I was playing a game is that the levels were just too easy.

The level design in Dishonored always includes multiple paths to reach your goal. But one (or maybe more) of these paths will be truly optimal, in that they completely sidestep all of the challenges in the level. Faced with an open courtyard full of cover, patrolled by guards, I never once skirted my way from cover to cover avoiding the gaze of the AI. Instead, I just looked up, and was nearly always rewarded with an easily-accessible aerial path that completely skipped any interaction with the guards. And if there's no path above, there'll be a path bellow accessible to anybody who's spent the points on the Possession power.

These paths never seem to require much skill to access, and I can't recall any real time limits. So, unless you're terminally lacking in patience, I don't understand why you would ever choose not to explore for a better path.

And perhaps that's what I'm missing: impatience. I can imagine Dishonored being far more challenging (and therefore perhaps more engaging) if I had to constantly struggle with a childish urge to run out into the open and deliver doom with a crossbow. But with the stick of a "bad ending", and the carrot of conflict-free gameplay, I never felt tempted to dispense with my patient play style.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Alpha Protocol (PS3)

I gave in and bought a new copy of Alpha Protocol. And I played it straight through for two nights and an afternoon. I'm left with a weird taste in my mouth, like I'm sucking on a chocolate-covered penny.

The main complaint of the mainstream critics about this game is the lack of technical polish. And it's certainly true that Alpha Protocol's technical issues are legion. The guns are woefully inaccurate. The enemy AI is exploitably stupid. The cover system works most of the time, except that you'll often encounter walls you can't hide behind. Some enemies can spot you from a mile away, while others can't see you from across the room. The movement controls are mushy, and the item switching controls are just wrong. The item description text needs a copy editor like Glenn Beck needs a muzzle.

However, most of that can be overlooked if you come into Alpha Protocol with the understanding that it isn't a shooter. It's an RPG with shooting. This semantic distinction may seem minor, but it can make the difference between smirking at the clunky mechanics or throwing your controller in rage. But, the chocolate-penny taste lingers with me even when I look through the RPG lens.

Alpha Protocol's major selling point, its gimmick perhaps, is that dialog choices are not made explicitly. Instead, you're presented with three or four "attitudes" to take at each choice point in the conversation. So, unlike most RPGs where you select from specific lines of dialog (e.g. "Where are you keeping the shipment?"), you'll instead be presented with the option to be, for example, Cocky, Suave, or Matter-of-Fact. Oh, and you only have a few seconds to choose your attitude--usually just the time it takes for the other person to complete their dialog.

The option you choose determines what the next line of dialog is from Agent Thornton. It also determines your reputation with the person to whom you're speaking. This system of reputation then wins you allies and enemies as you progress through the game. These allies can have very real in-level effects, including providing allied troops for support. And since you only have a few seconds to make your attitude choice, you don't have the luxury of contemplating which approach will yield the best results.

I love this dialog system. It does an excellent job of capturing the nerve-wracking excitement of fast talking your way through an encounter with somebody. For a spy, whose life depends on his ability to quickly and convincingly lie, this is the central experience of their job. Which is why I'm so disappointed with how these dialog scenes fit into the rest of the gameplay.

A real spy's life does not revolve primarily around covert infiltration and explosions. It's about gathering information by working contacts. But, in Alpha Protocol, the bulk of the gameplay consists of sneaking and shooting. And the big confrontations, the climaxes of the various missions, are all woefully conventional boss fights.

The basic structure of the game is that you travel to a city, gather intelligence through infiltration and making contacts, and then use that intel to thwart the enemy operation planned in that city. Along the way, you make a great number of choices (kill that dude or not, save the girl or the innocents, join up or fight) that come back to haunt you in later missions.

But only one of the cities, and its missions, feels like a real intelligence operation (that would be Rome, if you're curious). This is the only city in which the majority of the missions are basically non-violent. You infiltrate a CIA listening post, observe partygoers through a sniper scope, and meet with various scary individuals. It's also, unfortunately, the shortest series of missions in the game.

The bulk of the rest of the missions are basic Metal Gear Solid knockoff sneak-and-shoots. And because of the technical and design failures, these are often more tedious than fun or challenging. Trying to complete every mission by sneaking is probably the most fun, but there are routinely areas where it's basically impossible. Shooting your way through everything isn't fun at all, and yet whenever you take advantage of your allies, the entire mission devolves into a pitched fire fight.

What also bewilders me is the character development system. Each character level you advance, you get ten AP to spend on various skills. These include Pistols, SMGs, Assault Rifles, Toughness, Martial Arts, Sabotage, and Stealth. The only skill that has significant game-changing scope is Stealth, since you eventually gain the ability to become invisible for a period of time. The rest of the skills have occasional perks, but I almost never used the active ones, and rarely noticed the passive ones. In a Western-style RPG, there should be some sense of utility in improving a skill. And I routinely found none, only spending the points to get whatever high-level ability might be hidden at the top of the ladder. I suppose that the designers realized that the Stealth skill was so unbalancing in itself that adding legitimately useful skills on other paths would simply make you invincible.

The writing and characterization are pretty decent. Not Red Dead Redemption-level, but definitely better than average. And the game does a good job of letting you choose your actions at major plot points. The number of variations in different missions, dialog sequences, and endings as a result of your earlier choices must be staggering. Mind you, many of them are minor, a mere throwaway line by another character. But, it does a very good job of making you feel like your choices have real impact and consequences.

The penny-taste comes from the contrast between how well done the dialog/choice system is, and how slapdash the sneaking/shooting system is. I understand that there's little market appeal for a game consisting entirely of talking to people, and that if you go to the trouble of building a sneaker/shooter engine you're going justify its existence by using it extensively.

But the balance between the two in Alpha Protocol is tipped way too far toward the action side. It doesn't feel like espionage to me. It feels like covert special operations.

In short, I was hoping for Michael Westen and I got Jason Bourne.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey (PS3)

While I'm waiting for a used copy of Alpha Protocol to show up, I've been playing IL-2. This is a WWII fighter game made by 1C (a Russian game developer), named after the most-produced military aircraft in history (the IL-2).

As an interesting turn of events, IL-2 focuses on the Eastern Front of the war--for those of you rusty on history, that'd be the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Personally, I love this decision, since it's introduced me to an aspect of aviation history with which I was unfamiliar. I had never considered the fact that the Soviet Union must have had an airforce during the war. But, they did, and having done a fair bit of reading now, it appears that the skies over the Soviet Union actually saw significant action.

Unfortunately, the game rather fails to provide any idea of the historical context for the air battles you fight. The campaign is broken down into various real battles (Stalingrad, The Bulge, etc.), but the only real context given is "diary entries" by the playable pilots. These are exceptionally boring, and focus on trying to build sympathetic characters instead of exploring the history of the air battles.

History aside, I have rather mixed feelings on this game. On the one hand, it doesn't play like X-Wings Over Europe. But, it also has some deep playability issues.

There are three difficulty modes: arcade, realistic, and simulation. The basic flight model is the same in all of them, but arcade mode includes a bunch of flight assistance. Your angle of attack is restricted such that you never stall, and your wings self-level if you let go of the aileron stick. Additionally, your rudder provides heading corrections with yaw--a real rudder does not control the heading of an airplane, but is rather used in coordination with the other control surfaces to maintain proper flight.

In realistic mode, section-by-section damage is turned on, and the flight aids are turned off. You're responsible for keeping the airplane out of a stall. And herein lies the problem.

In a real airplane, a stall is pretty much a non-event. Your angle of attack increases beyond the critical angle for the speed at which you're flying, the controls lose authority, the nose drops, the angle of attack corrects, you gain speed, and you're out of the stall. It looks like this. But, in IL-2 every stall results in a spin. A spin is far more difficult to recover from. And, while it's true that fighter planes certainly spin more easily than, say, a Cessna, having every goddamn stall result in a spin makes flying in realistic mode in IL-2 very, very difficult.

Realistic mode also turns off the bullet lead calculation, so you have to lead your targets yourself without the assistance of a computed aiming point. This isn't a big deal early in the game. But as the enemy dogfighting AI gets better in later missions, I found it impossible to down enemy planes without the computer assistance.

Simulator mode is even more impossible, since it turns off the radar. Given that there's no head tracking on the PS3, it becomes quite impossible to even find the enemy. I couldn't even make it through the simulator mode tutorial, as I kept losing sight of the enemy fighters.

The ultimate problem here treating the flight realism options as difficulty modes, where you have to take or leave everything. In arcade mode, the flight controls do not act like a real airplane--I was constantly fighting the auto-leveling. Meanwhile, in realistic mode the lack of bullet deflection calculation made dogfighting tedious. I would kill to play this game with a la carte assistance options: I'd like to play with realistic flight controls, moderate stall assistance, and bullet deflection assistance. Instead, I played the first half of the game in realistic mode, and then was forced to arcade mode for the rest of it.

Another annoyance is that there's no AI to control the turrets of a bomber. So, if you're in a slow-ass ground attack plane, like the titular IL-2, and a fighter is on your tail, you're forced to switch views and manually operate the turret. While it's nice to be able to shoot the turret, it would be even nicer if there was also at least some brain-dead AI to run it while you concentrate on bombing Panzers.

This is a game that's probably best for existing fans of WWII fighter sims. It's certainly the best I've seen yet on any of the consoles. But, if you aren't already into airplanes, then this game almost certainly is not for you. And if you're a pilot, or have played a lot of high-fidelity simulators on PC (like X-Plane), it's probably also not for you--the physics are just real enough to make you think you know what you're doing.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Fuck that noise

Okay, so, I made a mistake and read some initial reviews of the European release of Alpha Protocol. They say it's well-written and kind of innovative. And that the actual gameplay is clunky, broken, and obnoxious.

Yeah. I'm gonna wait to find a cheaper, used copy before I play it.

(I did buy an older WWII fighter sim, though, that I'll be reviewing in the near future.)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

I'm having trouble waiting

Alpha Protocol comes out next week. I'm pretty fucking excited.

If it sucks, though, I'm going to have a supercritical brain meltdown.

Also, what is it with everything for download on the Playstation Network sucking? Only things worth it are Echochrome and Marvel vs. Capcom.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Red Dead Redemption (PS3)

Red Dead Redemption is just straight awesome. From the opening scene on your train ride out West, to the painful climax, Redemption is excellence in gaming. I don't even know where to start telling you how stupendous this game is. How 'bout let's start with the writing?

I'm really having trouble thinking of an equally well-written game. The characters are varied, vivid, and colorful without being caricatures. The protagonist, John Marston, feels like a real gentleman outlaw: intricately polite, plain-spoken, and forceful. One detail I find deeply endearing is that Marston remains faithful to his wife throughout the entire game--fucking the numerous saloon whores is not an option, and there is no obligatory love interest shoehorned into the game.

Nearly every line of dialog rings true. There are a few anachronistic word choices (I don't think anybody used "snarky" in 1911), but they're easily overlooked. Within seconds of meeting them, you find yourself adoring the sympathetic characters and despising the antagonists.

I can't say that I was too taken with the gay character, given that he was quite unpleasant; there is no sympathetic gay character to balance him out. And I also found parts of the game a little lacking in the racial diversity that certainly existed on the frontier (apparently, in real life, about 40% of cowboys were Black). But, in the more metropolitan areas of the game, racial diversity isn't an issue; in fact, social institutions (like saloons) are anachronistically integrated.

The story feels powerful and brutal, just as one imagines life on the frontier to be. I really don't want to say very much about it, because I don't at all want to spoil even one second of it for you. But suffice it to say that I didn't once want to skip a cutscene. And the ending damn-near brought a tear to my eye. It definitely left me in the same sort of a melancholy haze one experiences after watching, say, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The setting is a truly genius choice. As I mentioned above, Rockstar chose the year 1911 for their story to take place. With this choice, they're able to seamlessly mix electric lights and horseback rides. They can even include sniper rifles and semi-automatic pistols without people like me screaming bloody murder about anachronism (as I did in my Call of Juarez review). As a result of their choice for a latter-day West, Redemption manages to almost completely avoid the cliche settings that plague most media set in the Old West. It's recognizable as the Wild West, and yet it feels fantastically fresh.

Gameplay mechanics are quite excellent. Gunplay is intuitive and smooth. The Dead Eye bullet-time mode works great, allowing both queued and manual shooting. The minigames, from Texas Hold'em to horseshoes, are well-designed and fleshed out fully--although the gambling AI, once you learn its idiosyncracies, is guaranteed easy money. They even went with a simple white dot as the aiming reticle. It's like they read my Call of Juarez review and said, "Let's not do any of this shit Aubrey hates."

The only thing I found poorly-executed in terms of gameplay is shooting from horseback. In order to maintain speed on the horse, you must hold X. In order to aim, you use the right analog stick. This means that you cannot aim without your horse slowing to a crawl. I seriously think it's probably easier to shoot and ride a horse in real life than it is in Red Dead Redemption. And since combat from horseback is such an extensive part of the game, its clunkiness must be considered a major oversight on the part of the developers. It doesn't make the game unplayable, but it does mean that you'll wind up using Dead Eye for absolutely every shot you take from horseback.

My only major gripe is with the second act of the game. Without giving too much away, you journey to a Mexican border state embroiled in a civil war between an oppressive, reprehensible general and a peasant's revolution. In order to advance through the game, you must complete missions for both sides of this conflict.

However, the general's missions are largely despicable. In one of them, you're tasked with pacifying a rebel-held village. So you shoot all the revolutionaries trying to kill you. Then, the Mexican soldiers round up all the women, who are taken back to the general for use as sex slaves--and if that isn't bad enough, the general implies that he kills these rape victims when he's through with them. And, after all that, you help set fire to the village.

Now, I'm not inherently opposed to stomach-turning missions in video games. Scenes like No Russian (from Modern Warfare 2) don't phase me, and resonant as powerful art. But in a sandbox game, with a moral choice and reputation system, it seems like you should be, you know, given a damn choice. It seems to go against the very notion of an open world to be railroaded down such an obviously morally bankrupt path. It's hard to feel like I'm on the road to redeeming my murderous outlaw past, so that I can return to my farm with a clear conscience, when I'm literally forced to oppress and debase peasants in order to advance. It seems that mutually exclusive branching missions would have been easily accomplished, allowing people playing the sociopath to help the general, and those of us interested in a more well-adjusted Marston to help the rebels.

That said, the brutality of the second act is totally balanced out by the gentle beauty of the fourth act. Having finally recovered your family from the clutches of the US Marshal, the fourth act is about ranching with your family. You drive cattle, break wild mustangs, kiss your wife, and teach your son to hunt. As denouement, it succeeds without blemish.

Please don't let my couple of complaints turn you off of playing this game. There's so much to do that the objectionable missions make up a tiny percentage of the time you'll spend with Redemption. This is one of those games where you'll play through the story missions, grinning nearly the whole time, gleefully enjoying all but a few moments. And then, when you're done, you'll go back to roam the world and suck every last bit of marrow from the game's bones.

This game is a masterpiece. This game is a triumph. I'm making a note here, "huge success".

Monday, April 5, 2010

Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga (PS3)

Why did I buy a kid's game? Well, you see, all sorts of people whom I respect over on my favorite website suggest, in every game-related thread, that the Lego games are excellent and great light-hearted fun. And they're completely wrong. Wrong enough that I'm beginning to question their taste in general.

This game is garbage. I don't mean that it's juvenile and kiddy. I mean that it's not fun on any level.

I'm not sure what exactly I expected. I guess I expected that it'd be like Force Unleashed, slightly simplified for little hands, and thoroughly de-violenced. That's a reasonable expectation, right? But, instead, it's this nearly indescribable game-like thing. A pseudo-game.

First off, there is literally zero challenge. You cannot die. You cannot lose. You cannot be set back. If you are hit too many times, you fall apart, three seconds pass, and you are resurrected to exactly the same spot. Even as a child, I could cope with Sonic dying for the last time and having to start over. And because there was some feeling of risk, there was a feeling of reward when I finally triumphed.

There's some sort of mechanic wherein you collect coins during the level, and then lose coins for dying. So, in theory, you could say that the "challenge" in the game is to get as many coins as you can. But I can't find any use for the coins, or any reason to care about them. It's like getting the high score on an arcade machine set to free play... it shows resistance to tedium, not skill.

Lacking a challenge, I'd at least hope for some sort of spectacle or experience. But I'm disappointed on that front as well. Since it's a Lego game, the graphics are intentionally low-fi and plasticy. They're impressively photorealistic, though. They look exactly like photos of Lego.

The experience is horribly lacking as well. While the box gushed about more Force powers, they're all essentially identical. You press the circle button, and Force shit happens. Mostly what you'll be doing, though, is picking up Lego bricks and reassembling them. You achieve this by standing near the bricks and holding down the circle button until it's finished assembling. Exciting.

The combat is just as dull. You press the attack button, and the character attacks the nearest badguy (either with a lightsaber or a blaster). The attacks take forever to execute, so combat just drags. Also, getting around between combats drags, because all of your characters run like Jabba the Hutt.

There are some puzzles. Well, three types of puzzles repeated ad nauseum. 1) Use the correct kind of character to open a door; 2) Stand on a button; 3) Smash random set pieces until you find a pile of bricks, then reassemble them into a door panel. That last one is particularly obnoxious. I spent about ten minutes running around the first level bitching about lack of progress in a game made for children before I my wife told me I needed to use the Force on that particular pile of Lego rubble.

Anyway, don't buy this game. No, I don't care if you're the parent of a small child, enormously worried about the psychological and neurological effects of violent video games on young humans. If your kid is that young, and you're that worried, then you should just buy him or her a bigass set of actual Lego. You can get a fuckton of bricks for $60.