Thursday, January 29, 2009

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

This was one of the big hype monsters of 2008. Man, was it everywhere. A canon Star Wars game? The dark side? Holy shit! And the thing that got me: physics materials that respond believably to your actions; metal that bends, wood that splinters, glass that shatters--this, they dubbed "DMM" for Digital Molecular Matter. And placed in that environment is you, a Sith god with remarkable and dynamic powers we have yet to see in a Star Wars video game.

I didn't actually hear about this game until a couple weeks before it came out. I'd just finished MGS4 and I was waiting for Fallout 3. I figured, even if it sucked huge hippo nuts, it'd feed the monkey. So, I downloaded the demo and played it.

And then I started over, and played it again. And again. I must have played it twenty five times. The combat was just so damn fun.

In the first-person Dark Forces/Jedi Knight games, your force powers essentially boil down to a couple movement powers (jump, run), a couple of trigger-targets only powers (pull, push), and some powers that were essentially just funny-looking guns (lightning, saber throw). The game was fundamentally a shooter, but you were occasionally obliged to jump extra high or pull some piece of junk out of its socket. And the saber combat, while decent enough, didn't feel like fencing so much as a Japanese katana duel: run at each other, attack, run away, repeat. I loved the whole series, and was involved in the mod scene for a while (COG coding), but I was always a bit disappointed with the FPS combat.

The combat in Force Unleashed is nothing like that. It's based around combos and varied use of force powers. You can pick up a storm trooper, blast him with lightning, throw him at a squad of his friends, slice two others with your saber, force-push someone off a cliff, and leap into the air to attack a flying jump trooper all in the space of a couple seconds. Aggressive play is rewarded as each dead enemy replenishes some health.

I'm having trouble coming up with hyperbole big enough to impress upon you how varied and fun the combat is. There's always a new way to slaughter wave after wave of your enemies. I've played the whole game at least ten times now, and I'm still amused by novel ways of slaying a storm trooper.

On top of the standard high jumping and quick running, you have force lightning, force push, force repulse (like a spherical blast of force push, with you at the epicenter), saber throw, some kind of lightning-based shield that I never used, and force telekinesis.

The telekinesis system is done absolutely awesomely. Target a character (or object), press the shoulder button to lift him, move him on the X-Z plane with the left stick and on the X-Y plane with the right stick. Release the shoulder button while pointing the stick in some direction to fling your hapless victim in that direction. It's awesome, and makes for the the basis of much of your combat.

You can levitate pretty big objects, including TIE fighters (both flying and stationary). However, walkers, rancors, and other enemies of that size cannot be levitated for some reason.

Annoyingly, but maybe necessarily, there are a number of enemies who can block your light saber. They do this with a number of weapons, from weird swords made of bone to the Imperial Guard's power staffs. The ones that include a lightsaber-type blade (like the purge troopers), I understand. The rest of them, I don't. Isn't the whole fucking point of a lightsaber that nothing can block it but another lightsaber?

The designers also chose to litter the later levels with force-immune enemies. For the first three levels, any man-sized baddie was fair game to levitate, push, or repel. By the last five levels, you're frequently facing multiple enemies simultaneously who cannot be moved by your force powers. Against these guys, you just spam lightning until you run out, run away to recharge, and do it again. Because, naturally, they can block your saber. But then you start encountering troopers with some sort of force-nullifying field who can only be hit by your saber.

These various immune enemy types don't feel fun or varied... they feel cheap and unimaginative, since they basically reuse existing models. You spend the whole game maxing out your force badassery only to be confronted with a whole bunch of enemies that render your powers useless. And, of course, none of the Jedi bosses can be affected by any of your powers.

There're quicktime events. I hate them. You might not care. But, they're in there, and all bosses and "big" enemies must be defeated with a quicktime event after appropriately decreasing their life bar. Whatever.

The enemy AI is pretty neat. Levitated enemies will grab onto boxes, railings, and their buddies to keep from being thrown across the room. They seem to fall back and regroup if they're hurt but alive. Some of them will call for reinforcements. It's mostly gimmicks and conditional events, but it's a lot of fun to watch.

The physics are excellent. The elements of the levels simulated in "Digital Molecular Matter" react very convincingly. You can take one of the bendable metal doors in the TIE factory and literally wrap it around around the door jamb. The saber-slicable doors in the junk yard level react appropriately, gaping open and showing through along each of the slash lines. The glass shatters beautifully and differently each time. The metal girders in the catwalk of the TIE factory can be bent to any angle. The metal polls holding up the other catwalk in the TIE factory can be sliced away to let the catwalk fall.

But, then there're the objects that weren't simulated in DMM: everything I didn't mention in the list above. If they're not nailed down, you can pick them up and throw them. But that's about it. Saber attacks will result in glowing decals that fade to black decals that recycle and disappear after only about 6 strokes. They *do* follow the track of the saber precisely, but you can slash on a 10-foot computer display all day and not do it the slightest bit of damage. You can slice the droids in two, but the split is always in the same spot.

DMM was very underused. Perhaps it's too computationally expensive to use everywhere; I don't care.. It's jarring to go from seeing glass shatter beautifully just after you smash in a deformable door to seeing a flimsy metal shipping container survive in pristine condition after being slammed into the wall. I don't need everything destructable, but I do need some consistency.

So, the combat and programming are just fucking awesome, with a couple of minor flaws. But the level design is goddamn atrocious, with a couple of major exceptions.

The Imperial levels stand out as fantastic. There's lots of detail, plenty of non-immune enemies, and a whole heap of various junk to throw at your enemies. They use a liberal sprinkling of DMM materials, including corridors completely paneled with DMM metal sheets. I find myself playing the first level over and over again, since it's the best playground for your godlike end-game powers. Your force powers simply work the best in these levels.

Then there's the junkyard world. Rivers of glowing, unidentifiable poison (or is it lava?) that kill if you fall in. Space junk in magnetic beams moving from place to place. About half a dozen saber-slicable DMM doors. Level geometry defined by what appears, even in high def, to be mounds of mac'n'cheese vomit, but is probably supposed to be junk and trash.

There's the obligatory squishy mushroom level. With essentially no objects to throw at anybody, and no interactive DMM objects. Oh, wait, no, the fucking mushrooms wobble if you push or repel them... but, you can't cut them down, you can't knock them over, they just wobble like jelly. There're rancors.

A five-minute mini level in Cloud City.

And then back to the goddamn squishy world, Now With Storm Troopers. And then back to the junkyard world, Now With Storm Troopers. And in the junkyard+Empire level, we find the hypeiest scene in the whole game: you tear a Star Destroyer from the sky with the force.

Except, what you really do is move around a background setpiece as you're blasted by TIEs. It's essentially a quicktime event, not a native use of the physics/force system. You orient the ship until it's pointing at you (while ignoring the lying, lying guidance at the bottom), and then you pull down on both sticks until the TIE fighters blow away most of your health. Deal with the TIEs, and go back to pulling down on the Star Destroyer. When you get the nose close enough to the ground, cue the pre-rendered cutscene.

Yeah, you go to the Death Star. It's the worst of the Imperial levels.

The writing and plot are better than George Lucas has done of late, but still not especially inspired. I did like playing as a Sith, since I could use the cool offensive powers without having to sacrifice the "good" ending. And, hey, look, there's the single, solitary choice you make that determines the good/evil ending. How quaint.

There're a zillion collectibles: costumes and saber crystals, mainly. Some of them look pretty cool. There's seemingly no level cap, so you can eventually max out everything--and you'll have 20+ unused combo points before you amass enough points to max out your powers. There's a bunch of Star Wars art geek bait on the disc that I looked at for about five minutes before getting bored.

The Force Unleashed could have done everything it claimed to. The technology was there; the programmers obviously had their stuff done on time. But, it must have been rushed right the fuck out the door before the level designers had a chance to finish their job. The force might be unleashed, but there's apparently still a fence.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Metal Gear Solid 4

I laid in supplies: a case of Maruchan cup o' noodles (beef flavor), two frozen pizzas (pepperoni), a case of beer, a case of Monster. I explained to my wife that I would be totally unavailable for somewhere between three and five days, that she should consider it an act of worship, of art appreciation, of sublime religious observance. Something akin to watching Wagner's Ring Cycle.

Ever since I'd heard that Hideo Kojima would be recanting his promise that MGS3 would be the last Metal Gear, I was excited, ecstatic. I just knew that after the perfection of Snake Eater, Kojima would produce nothing short of digital nirvana on the PS3. I wallowed in the hype, slavering over every screenshot and trailer that trickled out of Kojima Productions.

On June 12th, I wandered into the local WalMart at 0600, grinning like an idiot and walking with purpose and speed to the electronics section. "Sell me a copy of Metal Gear Solid 4, please," I said to the raggedly tired man behind the counter. Two minutes later, I was walking back out the door with the translucent-boxed electronic bliss in my sweaty hands. I drove home at breakneck speed, drifting my Subaru through the turns I was too excited to stop for.

At home, I fired up the sound system and my TV. I carefully tuned the EQ for maximum bass and checked to be sure the PS3 and TV agreed that 1080p was a viable resolution. I inserted the disk.

Knowing Kojima, I ignored the title screen's insistence that I press start. I watched the camera drift around through the graveyard from MGS3, the nostalgia building. BAM! The gunshot. "So Snake dies," I thought to myself, "A tragedy. I'm in love already."

I started a new game. Sat through the caching-to-disk screen, chortling at the smoking and health warnings, tips, trivia and in-jokes they'd so thoughtfully provided for my amusement. Then I watched the introductory cutscene.

And then I played for ten minutes.

And then I watched another cutscene. Another five minutes' play. And another cutscene. Twenty minutes of play. Fifteen minutes of cutscene. Maybe forty-five minutes of play. And then forty-five minutes of cutscene, except this time I got to drive around a robot while the cutscene played in a little window.

And that's the problem with MGS4. The thing that ruined it. Cheapened the whole enterprise. The cutscenes. The endless, blathering, pseudo-philosophical cutscenes. Unskipped because of the reward for mashing X at the right times to activate cascades of single-frame "flashbacks" from previous MGS games. Made mildly, marginally entertaining only by the ability to zoom in on Otacon's ass or Eva's wrinkly tits--or in the mission briefings, the chance to drive the robot around and look for loot.

Don't get me wrong, MGS4 does a lot of things right. For one, it's beautiful. Kojima managed to pull off smooth in-game 1080p, and then proceeded to fill that ungodly resolution with gorgeous motion captured actors and gritty, lived-in, war-torn locales.

There are a bevy of unique weapons available for use, many of which can be outfitted with a variety of attachments and doodads to improve or tailor them. Unfortunately, the number of non-lethal weapons is very low. So if you're playing in true MGS-style and going for a no-kill run, you'll likely ignore all but a half dozen of the guns available.

Gone is the pointlessly complex and unrealistic "Recovery Screen" from MGS3, replaced with the more familiar rations/noodles/compress health-bar system of previous MGS games. There are a number of other recovery items added, but all of them function essentially identically by refilling some portion of either the stamina or health bars (or both).

The camouflage system is revamped, doing away with manual selections in favor of an automatic "adaptive" system. I especially liked this, since the camo selection screen in MGS3 already removed all guesswork from which pattern to choose by showing the difference in camo index directly on the selection screen. Unfortunately, due to the trend toward interior and urban environments, the camo in MGS4 doesn't look like it functions as well as in MGS3. That is, I never found that I visually disappeared on screen like I did in the previous game.

The locales and settings are varied and well-designed. I especially loved revisiting Shadow Moses from MGS1, and Arsenal Gear is a fun level as well.

But the game doesn't feel like a game. It feels like a movie with occasional interactive playscenes. There are no memorable moments of gameplay, no playable scenes that stick in the mind. There is no analog of climbing the well shaft, or of the tense, methodical, tragic battle with Sniper Wolf. Every plot point, emotionally charged moment, or plot revelation comes jammed in the middle of some fifteen minute smokebreakcutscene.

And the cutscenes are just straight up embarrassing. Since I was monopolizing the TV, my wife watched me play. She laughed at every single cutscene, teasing me for daring to call this art. And I had to agree, blushing deeply and feebly protesting only that "the older games didn't have nearly so much of this bullshit".

The dialog sounds like Kojima cribbed it from Snake/Meryl fan fiction, blathering on forever about a "soldier's heart" and "duty" and "I'm not a hero, never was, never will be". And then there's the endless background exposition on the Patriots, who turn out to be nothing more intriguing than a men's club for folks who failed macroeconomics. And the endless foreground exposition about the nanomachines injected in every soldier, complete with luddite protestations against technological progress--these, at least, were amusing, coming from a man who makes games for toaster-sized supercomputers.

The cutscenes make up the bulk of the "play time". When I first played the game, watching every minute of content presented to me, it took me three days to get through. When I played the game again last week for this review, I skipped almost all of the cutscenes, and finished in an afternoon--before supper. I suppose the play time is longer if you don't have all of the gear and don't know where to go. But, even then, you spend way more time eating popcorn than you do wiggling thumbsticks.

Even without the issue of the cutscenes, MGS4 is by far the weakest game in the franchise. For starters, it's damn near impossible to achieve a no-kill run. In the very first act, you're expected to repel a commando assault while sticking close to a team of friendly soldiers. You can't sneak off and hide yourself without your friends croaking, and there are far too many bad guys in too many weird places doing far too much damage for the tranquilizer pistol to be a viable option. I tried several times, and each time wound up eating it. While I'm sure it's possible, I can pretty much guarantee you'll whip out an assault rifle and murder those commandos.

The whole game is fraught with these situations, where run-and-gun FPS-style play is rewarded over sneaking. It's invariably easier to snipe every guard and advance to the next area before the bodies are discovered than it is to avoid conflict. I tended to do this with the tranq pistol, but since I'd already killed a dozen people in the first act, there was very little incentive not to use my lethal (silenced) sniper rifle at every opportunity.

Except, of course, for the most annoying level ever to grace a Metal Gear Solid game. In some Eastern European ghetto, you're expected to shadow a member of "the resistance" while also avoiding patrols. Get too close, and you spook the resistance guy into taking a longer and more circuitous route. Get popped by the patrols, and you'll totally lose your mark as you run to evade the troops. This scene took me about an hour the first time I played it; and twenty minutes the second. And I hated every goddamn minute of it both times. Technically, I suppose that it does qualify as sneaking, but you aren't free to plan your approach or study guards' movement... let the guy get too far ahead of you, and Otacon informs you that you've lost him, game over.

The boss battles are weak and uninspired. I do like the bosses themselves, as their psychodrama backstories are intriguing. But the battles require no more strategy or thought than "equip the biggest gun you have and shoot when you see them." The secondary battles, after the bosses' power armor is stripped away, consist of nothing more than slowly backpeddling while trying over and over again to land tranq pistol hits--it was creepy the first time, but immediately falls flat afterward.

Also missing from MGS4 is the signature Kojima wit and meta. All of the humor seemed to consist of rehashing played-out jokes from earlier games--yes, he shit himself, how droll--and the only bit of meta in the whole game is a scene where you briefly play the opening area of MGS1. The abrupt, sloppy transition to which had me convinced and enraged for fifteen seconds that my fairly new television had crapped out. Since it was the MGS1 Psycho Mantis battle and the MGS2 You Are Dead scene that cemented Kojima as a great artist in my mind, it would be a vast understatement to say that I was disappointed.

Basically, what I'm saying is that Kojima should have kept his promise and quit after MGS3. And I sure as hell hope he keeps his promise that this is the last one, 'cause I don't think my respect for Hideo Kojima can take another blow like this.

[Oh fuck me with a pine tree... google has hints that there might be an MGS5.]

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Submission Policy

If you are a developer or reader, you are encouraged to send me games to review. If you are a publisher, you are welcome to do so as well. However, there are rules.

1) The game must be for one of the following platforms: PlayStation 3, Wii, DS, PSP, gnu/linux, Mac OS X. For linux games, I have a decent enough rig that I regularly use for 3D programming. For OSX games, I have a Macbook--not pro. Neither my PS3, PSP, Wii, or DS is modded for homebrew.

2) The game must be the final release ("gold") version. A release candidate does not count. I'll make an exception for homebrew or opensource games that have an incremental development and release schedule--but don't send me v0.0.3a, it needs to be approaching 1.0.

3) If it's a commercial retail game sold in brick and mortar stores, it must be delivered physically in its retail packaging along with the manual. It must not be the collector's edition, limited edition, or anything of the sort--it's got to be the same one I'd get for $59.99 at WalMart. You can contact me for a shipping address.

4) If it's a commercial game, you must wait until the game is released in the US before sending it to me. Alternatively, you can send it early, but I won't post a review until on or after the US release date. I don't do previews.

5) If it's homebrew or downloadable, I'll jump through reasonable hoops to get it in terms of going to your website, filling in codes, etc. But, you must not require that I sign up for anything, give you a credit card number, or the like. If the game requires a paid account of some sort, you are welcome to limit the duration of my subscription, so long as I have at least one calendar month from the first day I log in.

6) If you send me physical media, and want them back, I'm happy to do so--especially if you're a gamer who sent me your copy. But, you must include an appropriate shipping package and self-addressed, prepaid shipping label. Think like Netflix: I want to drop the game in the box, and take the box to either the post office or a FedEx/UPS store. If you do not include the packaging and the prepaid label, you're not getting it back--I'm just that lazy.

7) Bribes must be in excess of $100US, in cash. Bribes smaller than the minimum will get your game panned, and your face called ugly. For each $100, I will leave out one bad thing I noticed while playing the game. Given that, if you feel that you need to bribe me for a good review, I think it's best to overshoot.


My goal is to post a new review every Thursday night (by which I mean sometime after noon on Thursday but before dawn on Friday). That means folks not living on the US Pacific Coast will get it Friday morning. Or two weeks ago Saturday, if you're on the other side of the date line--I have no idea how that works.

However, I have other hobbies, a wife, and occasional paying gigs as a programmer. And, as you're all aware, there are also sometimes long periods during which practically nothing is released. As a result, I may not have full reviews of recent games available as frequently as I'd like. In these situations, I'll try to post something, but it might be a mini-review or a review of something years old.

I also reserve the right to post a review early and then not post on Thursday. I'll try not to bunch them all together and short change the future. But, I may be so excited or disgusted by a game (or otherwise bored) that I'll post a review early.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Mirror's Edge

As a fat smoker who completed the high-school-mandated mile “run” in about fifteen minutes, I've never felt fast in my entire life. I've envied my lithe friends who competed in weekly cross country events and could literally run to the gas station up the road before I got to my car. Mirror's Edge gives me a taste of how they must experience the world.

Mirror's Edge is all about speed and, as the game puts it, “flow”. Presented with the conveniently-spaced rooftops of a hypothetical totalitarian city, you are (as the protagonist, Faith) expected to sprint from point A to point B, sliding under obstacles, scaling chain-link fences, and leaping over dizzying gaps. And it feels awesome.

Digital Illusions Creative Entertainment (a mouthful they shorten to DICE) succeeded in capturing the spirit of parkour and encapsulating it in a first-person experience. The choice for first-person perspective is bold and seemingly incompatible with maneuvering through complex 3D environments. We expect that in a first-person game, the best you can do is jog along at a medium clip and hop flat-footed straight into the air about a meter and a half. However, as DICE has shown us, this is merely expectation. There's no physical reason that a first-person character can't interact with the environment as fully as a second-person character or, for that matter, as a real person.

We're used to using the third-person perspective in games that expect us to creep along ledges or make impossible leaps. We're used to this because every other developer has assumed that, unless you can see your character's feet, you won't be able to judge where you are well enough to keep from hurtling to our deaths. And, indeed, I believe that's true. So, DICE included Faith's body. Tilt the camera down, and you can see her size 10 tabi-inspired running shoes; get to running fast enough, and Faith's hands spring into view as she pumps her arms; hang from a ledge, and her feet dangle in the wind. When you do a rolling landing, you gaze into your navel as you tumble ass over head and the world spins around you. On top of giving you a clearer view of how close to the edge you are, the inclusion of Faith's body contributes hugely to the feeling of speed--it gives you a scale against which to compare the distances you're covering. Considering that no amount of contortion can convince Master Chief to see any part of himself but his manacled gun hand, this is a radical departure from the norm.

The number of different moves you can do is pretty extensive. You can grab onto anything that resembles a ledge; drop down, jump up, jump away, mantle, shimmy. You can slide (or duck-walk, if you're not running). You can “coil” yourself in the air after jumping to clear waist-high obstacles. You can wall run, and jump away from the wall while doing so. You can land from a massive jump in a shattered-femur-avoiding roll. You can climb fences, and scrabble a short way up featureless walls. As far as I can tell, none of these moves have been exaggerated beyond the abilities of an athletic and practiced human--I actually found a guy on youtube who can wall run about twice as far as Faith.

All of these moves work everywhere that it looks like they should. There are no specially designated environmental features required to activate them--even light fixtures are valid hanging points. You just move, complete with an excellently-adapted control scheme. The left shoulder buttons are used for all of your moves, with the upper one doing “up movements” and the lower one performing “down movements”. These would be things like jumping, mantling, climbing or crouching, dropping, sliding; respectively. The one exception to the anything-anywhere rule is that horizontal swinging devices (think uneven bars) and their moves go hand in hand, and only appear in specific places.

In general, the moves are chained together to maintain your momentum. A sequence might go something like: run, slide under a pipe, leap and coil over some ductwork, slide under another pipe, climb a chain-link fence, vault off of a pile of detritus, and leap across a fifteen foot gap to a shorter building, landing in a roll. Weirdly, though, that last roll breaks your momentum. Very weirdly, since you'd think that a roll would be absolutely ideal for maintaining forward momentum--the few times I've personally rolled out of wipeouts on my longboard, I came up running faster than I ever could have gotten going on my own. But, that aside, the running feels great. Which is good, because you wind up doing a lot of it as you attempt to escape the cops.

In general, discretion is the better part of gameplay in Mirror's Edge. While you certainly combat enemies (more on that later), for the most part you're better off if you just run away. I find this downright refreshing. It's also thrilling and terrifying. No FPS has ever made me breathe hard, heart racing, as I try desperately just to survive. Sure, I've wailed with frustration as waves of too-strong enemies converge to chew me to pulp, or as I run out of rockets to defeat Satan. But, no other game has made me feel like a rabbit escaping the fox, frantically looking for the tiniest of gaps through which to escape.

The game does give you huge, shining clues as to where you should go (except at the hardest difficulty level). 95% of the game world is rendered in white, with black outlines and shaded blue shadows. There are splashes of color, especially inside buildings, which serve to break up the monotony. And they're memorable, shocking, and beautiful for that reason. But, for instance, even a presumably vibrant tree is nothing but black-outlined white leaves and a black-outlined white trunk. Which isn't to say that any of it is low definition or cartoony; it's just desaturated. Except for the red. Beautiful, beautiful #ff0000.

Red, you see, is the favorite color of parkour couriers. And so various elements integral to your flow will be highlighted in red: hallways, boards, balance beams, ledges, ladders. Following the trail of red gives you the route you should take through the level. It's not necessarily the best route, mind you, but it's the most readily available one. It's the one you choose when there're fifteen SMG-wielding cops behind you and you're panicking. And if there's nothing red around, go up, up, up as high as you can.

Despite the hinting, your path through most levels will be learned through trial and error. You will die many, many times as you misjudge distances and timing, or as you simply pick the wrong route between red hints. However, even falling to your death is immersive and kind of fun. You maintain full camera control as you fall every meter from the top of the building to the street below, watching the little ants of people grow rapidly larger. And when you hit the bottom, you hear a SPLUNCH and the game reloads from your last checkpoint. The reload time is usually under five seconds, and checkpoints are usually less than thirty seconds to one minute beforehand, so your frequent death never becomes annoying. The falls are actually visceral enough to set off my acrophobia, and I could only take so many in a row before my stomach started to churn and I felt light headed.

I enjoyed the combat as well, despite what I've heard from forum whiners. It's certainly not as varied as the parkour moves, but it fits in with them perfectly. It's suicide hang on to a gun, since it slows you down so much and you can't carry spare ammo. So, instead, you rely on a set of disarms plus a couple hand-to-hand moves. Combat feels like a scene from early in a Jet Li movie: slide down the railing, slide into the cop, kick him in the nuts, grab his shotgun (smacking him in the head with it in the process), shoot his buddy on the left, on the right, throw away the gun, and head for the exit--all without stopping or even breaking your stride. The combat isn't much fun if your goal is to eliminate everybody in the area, but as it ties into the flow and completing your objectives, it's great.

Frustratingly, the game has about a half dozen instances where you must eliminate everybody in the area. And in these areas, the combat falls on its face. Either you make your first disarm and then quickly kill everybody with one shot each; or you flub the disarm and the cops shred you in a bukkake of bullets. In these situations, I found myself mostly doing the first disarm and then finding the one dude with a full-on squad-support machine gun, killing him, and using his weapon to finish the rest of the cops. I really can't imagine trying to beat these sections while also going for the trophy (or Achievement) awarded for zero enemies shot--entering hand-to-hand combat with more than one cop around ensures your rapid death. And, honestly, it doesn't make much sense in a game that's supposed to be about running.

The biggest failing of Mirror's Edge is the level design of the last third of the game. While running and leaping feels tremendous out in the open of the rooftops, the game turns into just another puzzle-platformer when you go inside. And the last couple of levels are set in tunnels and corridors. While they're kind of cool from an urban-exploration and puzzle standpoint, they bear almost no resemblance to the previous levels that you've come to love. Instead of long chains of stunt after stunt with nary a pause between, you'll stand in an eight-meter by eight-meter room for five minutes, with no sense of urgency, trying to figure out exactly which of a series of totally-obvious ledges to jump on to get up to a clearly-visible, red-marked ventilation duct. It just made me want the gun from Portal so I could get on with it already. I kept hoping that the interior levels were a phase that Mirror's Edge would grow out of. But, the game ended (with an incomplete story, setting up a sequel) before I ever saw the rooftops again. And that was very sad, because the game started with a bang but ended with a whimper.

The lackluster final levels are especially aggravating because you don't get even close to enough of the fun outdoor levels, as the game is so short. Not quite as short as Portal, but from what I'm seeing on youtube, you can apparently do a speedrun of the whole game in about half an hour (knowing the path, having m4d ski11z, skipping cutscenes). Playing for my first time, watching all of every cutscene, I finished Mirror's Edge in about five or six hours--I finished Portal in only about an hour less, and it doesn't have cutscenes. And unless you're doing a speedrun (or doing a review), there's not much point to playing again: you'll remember the solutions to all the puzzles that challenged you on your first run. While these reviews aren't really about whether a game is worth what they're charging, I was kind of annoyed to have paid $60 for a game about as short as Portal. If they do the sequels as downloadable content, this might be forgiven. But, it's published by EA, so don't hold your breath on that one. They're going to soak those of us who like innovative content and original IP just like they soak the meat heads who buy Madden every year. That said, $60 seemed reasonable for the experience. But, like a roller coaster, I was still disappointed with the duration.

The art, as briefly mentioned above, is distinctive in its desaturation. All exterior environments are rendered in black and white, with blue shadows. There are occasional full-color billboards or logos, which draw the eye and are frequently on or near distant buildings that house your objectives. For contrast, interior locations key to plot advancement are monochromatically colored in bright, supersaturated colors. These come infrequently enough that I literally found myself grinning stupidly at the overwhelming beauty of big green walls (green like #00ff00, by the way). Nowhere do you see objects or level geometry textured in a traditional “realistic” manner. The effect completely sets the levels of Mirror's Edge apart from the endless “rock” brown or “metal” gray corridors of most FPS games. And it's abso-fucking-lutely beautiful.

The cut scenes are a little bizarre, being done as cartoons outside the in-game rendering engine. They fit thematically with the rest of the visual design, but they look like that French anime-knockoff animation from the 80's. I read in an interview that the director chose to go this route because he could have inexpensive 2D animators handle the cutscenes, thereby freeing up his 3D artists to work on in-game content. That decision resulted in superior game art, I'm sure. But, it doesn't change the fact that the cut scenes are of lower quality than the in-game art.

Mirror's Edge is a unique experience. There's nothing else out there that's even close. While you could argue that Prince of Persia also involves parkour, you'd be wrong. PoP is about super-human acrobatics, performed by an inhuman waif rendered in the second person on your screen. Besides, as much fun as it is to watch the Prince flip around, you never feel what he's feeling. Mirror's Edge lets you feel, at least for a little while, what those crazy Frenchmen must feel every time they go for a jog.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Fallout 3

[Please bear with me as I work out style and format. I think that I'm going to skip detailing basic gameplay and setting, as most of that will have been covered in other venues--it's part of the hype.]

The most enthralling element of Fallout 3 has to be the environment. It's detailed, quirky, imaginative, and ultimately immersive. Aside from a few underground locations (the ant tunnels, some of the subways, the mirelurk nests), I never felt like I was playing through a level. The buildings all feel like they have an architectural plan designed for living or working. One of my favorite touches is that most large buildings will have multiple entrances, relieving you of the tedium of retracing your steps just to leave--and offering that much more verisimilitude, since I've never met a house without a back door. Also interesting is that un-enterable buildings invariably have barricaded or boarded doors instead of simply having non-functional doors. The opposite is true as well, if the door looks like it works, you can go in. Admittedly, the flow of a level can be difficult to determine: it's easy to miss huge sections of the larger buildings unless you make a conscious effort to explore it all.

The public buildings feel correct, which seems to me far more important than being correct. Indeed, I imagine that a slavishly detailed reconstruction of every office and room in the Capitol would grow tedious to play. As it is, there're some locations where room-clearing becomes irritating. For instance, the Statesman Hotel is at least eight or ten stories tall, with a dozen mostly-empty hotel rooms on each one.

My one consistent complaint about the environmental design is the relatively low model count. While each building is filled with appropriate stuff (including trash and rubble on the floor), after you've been to one building of that type, you've seen everything that will be in the others. Every factory has the same bank of glowing dials and knobs; every radio is the same design; every fridge is filled with the same mouldering fruit. Even after I'd explored most of the locations, it was still fun to explore the others. But the stuff in those locations stopped being interesting about halfway through the game.

One other prevalent, though lesser, defect in the environment design is the lack of interactive objects. Most objects, in fact, aren't even simulated in physics. You can shoot an office chair with a rocket, and it sits perfectly still in exactly the same position it was before you started. Contrast that with dead bodies that stick around forever (contributing to save files that grow from 1MB at start to 10MB by the end), and it feels more than a little weird. Basically, though, if an object isn't a terminal, a radio, a safe, a door, or an inventory item, you can't touch it.

Combat is acceptable and cinematic, although repetitive and, at high levels, unchallenging. The VATS system is an excellent effort at merging the turn-based combat of the previous Fallout titles with modern realtime expectations. However, this also means that the tactic from the previous titles of spending every action point on head shot after head shot carries through. I almost never found it worthwhile to target any other part of an enemy, except for their weapon in situations where their head was unhittable.

There are certainly annoyances with combat. The VATS system takes your orders and carries them out regardless of changing circumstances, and without any way to belay your instructions. It frequently happened that I would queue up a magazine's worth of head shots, only to have my target move behind cover just as I started shooting, causing me to waste all of my action points and much scarce ammo on decalling a wall. And, when you're out of action points, the only rational tactic is to run backwards shooting wildly. It also tends to focus for seconds on the flying, dismembered head of your target instead of returning control so that you can deal with his friend.

The skill-based combat system also leads to some bizarre results. Since realtime combat depends not only on where you're aiming, but also on your skill with that weapon, it's possible to miss at point blank range. With a shotgun. As a result, the shots from your weapon will sometimes veer away from the muzzle by 45 degrees.

Long range combat is also broken. A rocket launcher scores more kills (due to splash damage) than a sniper rifle at the same range. I found this ridiculous, and it significantly cheapened the value of the semi-automatic rifles and scoped pistols. However, given that most combat happens inside of fifty meters, I just switched to assault rifles and went on my way.

The selection of weaponry is original and varied. While most wasteland raiders are armed with the same rinky-dink rifles, there tends to be at least one unique weapon in each category that can only be gotten by completing a quest or killing a specific NPC. I especially liked the inclusion of Lincoln's Repeater, a high-damage lever-action rifle you retrieve from the National Archives. I don't know that Lincoln ever owned such a weapon (it seems an anachronism), but it was fun to have a weapon with "historical value".

The one complaint I have about the weapons is that Bethesda saw fit to include weapon deterioration. I fucking hate weapon deterioration. I own firearms. And while most firearms need to be maintained and cleaned regularly, they don't go from new to broken in five hundred rounds. Hell, most of my guns don't even need to be cleaned that often.

It really gets in the way of roleplaying. It becomes impossible to play a character with a signature weapon. You can't name your shotgun Betsy and eschew all other weapons, because Betsy is going to break down halfway through clearing the Capitol. You either have to carry a bevy of otherwise-identical shotguns to keep yours in repair, or accept that you'll be using a different weapon until you can find somebody to repair it.

I do understand why game developers feel they need to include such a mechanic. It would be weird in a game with trade and "economy" for me to only be able to pick up the first assault rifle I ever came across, and only take the ammo from the rest (as in an FPS). And, if I could pick them all up, but they're all equally pristine, then it would become the equivalent of a free money glitch--or, perhaps, weapons would have unrealistically low values.

But, couldn't the issues of economy be solved with a non-deteriorating condition system? It doesn't seem at all an unwarranted assumption that all the wasteland raiders and super mutants would have low-quality weapons that went unmaintained in the centuries since their production. Let all of them have crappy weapons that do less damage, and have almost no trade value. Then it becomes a quest to track down a good assault rifle, instead of just paying through the nose to get it repaired--or upping your own repair skill and collecting ten identical weapons to cannibalize.

Mechanical quibbles aside, Fallout 3 has far more going for it than against. The characters are varied and unique. Unique enough that I truly felt that I needed to help some of them, and that I needed to murder others of them. Especially memorable are the proprietor of the general store in Megaton, the radio personality Three Dog, and the duelling super heroes.

Children and main characters are unkillable; the former for the censors' sensibilities, and the latter so that the main quest doesn't stall. But, otherwise, everybody is fair game. And, indeed, I got one of my very best weapons by shooting my unwanted partner in the back after we'd found the loot.

I also especially like the use of radio. Instead of a game score, you can tune in to several different radio stations: from Chinese propaganda to vintage vinyl. The content of these stations can eventually get repetitive (unlike the radio in GTA), but there's something deeply satisfying about blowing away wave after wave of super mutants while listening to The Ink Spots.

The number and variety of quests is also excellent. I can't recall more than a handful of fetch quests. And those tended to be for generic items that I was frequently already carrying. Most of the go-kill-that quests can also be solved non-violently. While the loot guarded by random creatures often seems paltry, the rewards for quests are often unique items or perks that cannot be found anywhere else. The quests also do a good job of leading you in or close to many of the interesting sites in the world, while also leaving plenty of exploration for a motivated player.

And it's that exploration that really gives Fallout 3 its lasting appeal. This is one of the very few games that I've had any desire to explore exhaustively. It never stops feeling like every little house and convenience store could have yet another funny, inscrutable, or horrific tableau inside. At this point, I've put in 150 hours of game time and visited literally every location on the map (I took the Explorer perk). And I have a strong feeling that I'll do it all again next year.


Most video game magazines and websites are based around the concept of the review. The review is a short piece that serves primarily to inform the reader as to whether or not a game is worth their money. Mostly absent from the discourse on video games is honest criticism. A critique differs from a review in that it deconstructs the game, attempts to determine how it fits into a larger social context, and ultimately informs the reader as to whether or not they'll remember the game in a decade. A value judgment of quality or value is frequently implicit in a critique, but is not the point.

(I'm now going to use the terms "critique" and "review" interchangeably. Why? Because "critique" sounds too stuffy to keep using over and over again.)

There are precious few people doing games criticism. Ben Croshaw at Zero Punctuation does it; the folks at Action Button do it. I'm sure there are others, but they're the only ones I've found.

Aside from their obviously vast intelligence, the thing that most seems to separate ZP and AB from the rest of the dross is that they have no conflicted interests. They do not trade high marks for advertising dollars; they do not whine and grovel to get advance copies for preview; they do not feel beholden to the publishers, but rather to gamers. Most importantly, they seem perfectly happy to disagree with every eight-year-old fanboy who just knows that Halo 3 is the best game ever (since Halo 2).

So, I'm going to try my hand at criticism. I have a big library of games, too much free time, and the ability to string words together coherently. To keep me honest, I'm going to post my ground rules:

1) No scores. Not ever. A good game will get a couple thousand words describing in what ways it's good; a bad game will get a couple thousand words eviscerating it. A mediocre game will get a couple hundred words... because most mediocre games are such because they're me-too clones of other, better games.

2) I will ignore everybody else's opinion. My opinion may certainly align with that of others. But, I will never give a good review to a game just because that's what I'm supposed to do.

3) I will not grovel for preview copies. In fact, I won't do previews. If a publisher would like my honest opinion of a game I didn't otherwise intend to buy, they're welcome to send me a copy--and so are any readers, for that matter. But, it must be the final release version, in retail packaging. And, if they don't like the review, well, they can go fuck themselves.

4) I will choose games for review within genres that I actually enjoy. This, hopefully, will keep me from panning a game just because I don't get it. For instance, I'll probably never review a JRPG, party game, or an RTS... I just hate 'em all, and it wouldn't be fair.

5) I will critique primarily gameplay and art. Technical issues will only become a factor when they detract from the gameplay and art. By the way, I include writing under "art".

6) There will be spoilers. But, I will try to keep them to a minimum, and as vague as possible.

7) I make no promises to finish a game before reviewing it. Naturally, since I've bought the game, I'm going to try to squeeze maximum enjoyment out of it. But some games just piss me off too much to finish. I will, however, promise not to review something that I didn't get far enough in to get a feel for.

So, what's up first for review? Let's start with something I like. How about Fallout 3.