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Freeware PC

Warframe (PC)

Warframe screenshot
Warframe screenshot

The core gamer free to play field is filling fast. Most of my gaming time on the PC is already spent on Ghost Recon Online, with the occasional night of Hawken, Mechwarrior Online or World Of Tanks. Warframe represents something we haven’t really seen before: it’s a third-person dungeoncrawling brawler, with heavy co-op focus. Kind of like Gears Of War with loot grinding, except there’s no shooting from cover.

Other references I could drop: Hellgate London. The setup with reclaiming a lost world from monsters, the general feel of the combat, and the structure of the game, as well as some of the art style, reminds me of that lost opportunity. Then there’s the Dreamcast cult favorite, Phantasy Star Online, which is invoked with the default four-man co-op questing in enclosed arenas.

The fighting is tactical and does require both thought and skill to a degree, but it’s no Devil May Cry. Most closely it resembles Mass Effect’s fighting, if you played that in un-paused realtime, which can get confusing and lacks solidity. It’s not quite competent and a little fleeting as an action game, but for an MMO style fight it’s much more active and skill-focused. It’s a good enough take on an action game to get by.

The narrative is a problem, as you might expect with an action oriented online title. How to narrate, when you can’t require slowing down during the mission, because people are going to be running through maps? Left 4 Dead did this well, but they had the very well understood zombie apocalypse scenario for support. Here they’re trying to convey a world after humanity, with presumably human-manufactured “warframes” being activated to re-take the Solar system from the hostile force. Or something. I don’t quite get what the hostiles are, maybe a sort of alien? They seem to be using human parts. All told, it’s quite powerful stuff, something I’m really a sucker for, but it could use much stronger environmental storytelling, mission assignments, evocative menus and so forth. Since they can’t have us talk to NPCs during a mission, they really should pay more attention to what they can tell.

It’s not like there’s no effort made. The slightly too samey levels do have plenty of intriguing detail and it does leave me wanting to know more. I’ll take mysterious and vague over identikit tastelessness any day.

The level layouts are confusing. While they’re not randomly generated as in Hellgate London, they look like they are, and the layouts feel random. I spend a lot of time lost, tyring to figure out where to go, and I’ve completed entire missions without seeing anyone, including my squadmates, who’ve run off before me, doing everything.

If you play this as a single-player action game – you can – it doesn’t really work. The grindy elements become too apparent, and the fighting isn’t good enough to work solo. But co-op is where it shines. Playing with a group is faster and you tend to run into trouble instead of scouting it out and figuring out your approach calmly, which leads to much more exciting play, but also confused brawls and becoming lost in a quickly evolving situation, spread all over the map. They make the grouping exceptionally easy. It would be very hard to grief in this game, and while the teamplay is nowhere as tight as Left 4 Dead’s, it’s still solid. The defense missions, with waves of baddies converging on a target you’re all protecting, work best as teamplay. In the other missions it’s too easy for the objective to become lost.

Until very recently this would’ve been a pay to play game and as such it feels like a vision of how a lot of games are going to be in the near future. Combined with a game like Warface, a Call Of Duty like multiplayer FPS, playable in a browser – it does actually install and runs a separate executable, I think, but you never leave Chrome – the identity of a videogame is fast changing. It’s all just media that people are consuming wherever they happen to be. The idea of a dedicated game machine may feel antiquated much sooner than we as hardcore gamers like to think. It’s not hard at all to imagine next year’s mobile hardware sizing up to today’s Xbox 360 and PS3 – now six years old technology.

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PC

Strike Suit Zero (PC)

Strike Suit Zero screenshot
The Strike Suit Zero space is really very pretty almost all the time. No dogfight has ever looked this nice.

I almost didn’t get to write this post, as initially Strike Suit Zero was way too hardcore for me. I just couldn’t get through the first mission with the actual giant robot – essentially part of the tutorial. They’ve since added an easy mode and mid-mission checkpoints, and hey – now I can enjoy this game!

There’s a pen and paper RPG and tabletop war game that’s always fired up my imagination much more than the media it’s based on. That game is Dream Pod 9’s (now discontinued) Jovian Chronicles and the stuff it’s aping is space anime – mostly Gundam. The war game flavor is called Lightning Strike. They have mecha design to die for, combined with a mind for drama and a smooth system. It’s very good.

I haven’t ever got to play those kinds of colorful, crowded space battles in a videogame. Closest experience is Wing Commander, with its space cats and frantic pace, and it’s been quite a few years since that. Strike Suit Zero is basically made for me – it gives me precisely that fantasy, even serving its mecha with a combined western-eastern flavor, as JC does.

It is very pretty, obscenely so at times. Beautiful trails chase every space craft, missiles streak across the stars in clouds, lasers and kinetic weapons explode everywhere around you. The constant, tight dogfighting sees you diving through an exploding enemy ace’s craft every thirty seconds or so.

The ship designs are good to great, although I really don’t care for the cockpit design, and the Strike Suit itself is masterclass space mecha design. I love it very much and would like to see more of it, considering that when I’m using it myself I’m way too busy to really appreciate it.

I would very much like to fly my giant space robot all the time, but the way Strike Suit Zero rations it out is very effective. You need to zoom around in a furious little fighter most of the time, dogfighting dozens of enemies, collecting something called “flux” from debris to power your transformation sequence. Then you have a timespan of seconds to unleash glorious space hell on your foes, filling the sky with missile trails and laser death, before zipping away as a fighter once more. Time it incorrectly and your woefully inadequate armor leaves you dead in the sky.

The long missions grate, typically at around half an hour, with lots of interminable talking heads narration inbetween, all of which is thankfully skippable. A much bigger problem is the nature of the missions, far too often based on escorting utterly useless, defenseless ships assailed by waves of torpedo ships.

Shooting down torpedoes is not exactly thrilling.

Otherwise the campaign works, with medals to chase based on your performance and space ship options to unlock.

The controls work, but they never come naturally. There’s too much conscious thought going into every weapon change and transformation, as accomplished and interesting as the combat systems are on paper. Using all of the different weapon systems is empowering and tactical, but it’s a bit of a chore in the heat of battle. It does make you feel like a proper, trained ace when you do nail a complex sequence.

But the dogfighting works and hitting that ideal moment and spot to transform into space god, wiping your enemies into so much stardust, is pure space nerd gold, every time. And for this first proper space war game in a far too long time, that is enough.

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culture Games PC

Goodbye, Lucasarts: The things you gave me

I want to say that Lucasarts made me love videogames, but that’s not true. I do think I learned to love them more deeply thanks to Lucasarts. Here’s my most cherished memories with their games.

Maniac Mansion cover art
Maniac Mansion’s awesome cover art

MANIAC MANSION

The Finnish review in MikroBitti was great, recalling slasher flicks and painting it quite a bit more macabre than it really was. Maniac Mansion still feels progressive with its choose your own cast mechanics and dynamic NPCs. Rarely has so much been attained with such a limited playspace.

ZAK MCKRACKEN (AND THE ALIEN MINDBENDERS)

Zak always felt like Lucasarts’ most ambitious game to me. I’m not sure how complicated it actually was, but it felt like a very big game with lots of paths you could go down. Its mix of the mundane with the surreal and the fantastic remains fresh. What a lovely oddball world and cast. From airline pranks to the Sphinx and two-headed squirrels to alien invaders, the cover perfectly covered the atmosphere.

LOOM

I can’t actually recall all that much about LOOM save for realizing that I either have no ear for tone or the friend I was playing with was so much better that it didn’t matter.

INDIANA JONES (AND THE LAST CRUSADE)

For a long time I thought that this is the only way you should do a movie license, honoring the characters and the plot of the original. The accomplishment here is following the original story very closely, yet creating enough new stuff to make the game feel fresh. I still don’t think you could do a straight movie adaptation better than this – generally I’d rather you take the route The Walking Dead did, retelling the same kind of story, but not the same one.

X-WING

TIE Fighter gets all the love, but I was an X-Wing guy. At the time I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to play as the bad guys. With its movie sensibilities and simulation approach, it plunged you deeper into a movie world than any game before or since. (Well, I guess except for TIE Fighter.)

(THE SECRET OF) MONKEY ISLAND (2: LECHUCK’S REVENGE)

I bought so wholesale into the brilliantly realized Monkey Island fantasy, going to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disneyland last year felt like coming home for the very same flavor of Caribbean fantasy world they offer. The games feature some brilliant characters and unforgettable scenes – breaking into the mansion, the coffin ride, the voodoo priestess, the drowning… Monkey Island 2 was a big game for me just for looking so unbelievably good, I had a hard time believing it was real. At least until you got to the disc-swapping.

GRIM FANDANGO

I love Grim Fandango mostly for its esthetic values. Very few early 3D games can stand up to light today, but with its sense of style and adaptation of real-world art, Grim Fandango is a masterclass in art direction. It doesn’t overshadow its qualities in writing and characters at all – this is a dance you should learn, even if the very strange world it depicts may be a little much to get your head around at first brush.

GLADIUS

I don’t actually have that strong memories of this title, but it was one of the best games on the original Xbox and something that’s often overlooked, so I want to bring it up. A turn-based tactical gladiator title, it was never going to be a big seller, no matter how good it was. Without doing the research I can’t be sure, but I believe it was Lucasarts’ last truly good game.

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PC

Defense Grid (PC)

Defense Grid screenshot
Defense Grid

Comfort gaming

It’s a common question. “What game do you go back to, over and over again?” I always thought I didn’t have an answer to that as I’m always looking for new things to play, but some time ago I realized I do, actually. My comfort game is Defense Grid (PC).

Defense Grid was the first game I installed on my new home desktop PC and my new work laptop. Doing this, I had to acknowledge that the game holds a special place in my library. I’ve been playing it since December 2008 and it’s now held its status in my gaming life for over four years. I am in no way less enthralled by it now than I ever was.

I have over 200 hours clocked with Defense Grid on Steam. I know I’ve played close to a hundred more, lost in a Steam offline sync. It’s the game I have by far the most hours in, surpassing titles like Skyrim or Oblivion, perhaps only approached by my first addiction with Tetris back on the Commodore 64 or the only game I ever played in a clan, the first Ghost Recon on the PC.

Defense Grid is a tower defence game. I’m not very familiar with the genre – the iOS title Radiant TD is great and I did play all the way through Plants vs Zombies a couple of times – but it’s not something that innately pulls me. But there’s something about Defense Grid that I not only can’t resist, but find comforting. It’s like a friend that lives in Steam on all of my computers.

One part is just the design, which borders on genius. I have replayed completed levels dozens of times in hunt of higher awards. There are levels of understanding you go through, as in any genuinely good game – first you learn how to survive through the levels, then you make sure you don’t lose any of the shiny power cores the alien hordes are after. This only gets you a silver medal. To get gold, you start working on your highscores, trying to get by with just what’s absolutely required.

For a long time that’s enough, but then you start falling short. The game is over, you’re confident you did supremely well… and you’re presented with a silver medal. In disbelief you check the gold requirements and see that you’re short by a thousand, or often just hundreds, from a total of 60 000 – 100 000. And you start thinking how you could be a tiny bit more economical still. Maybe you could postpone building that missile tower? Or gather a little bit more resources by allowing the spawner alien to get further in, releasing more troops? The way the game loves to tell me how I’m still only good enough for a silver, even after hundreds of hours of experimentation, just eggs me on. It’s like I’m completely in synch with the designers. (When you finally manage it, you take it up a notch with the “challenge” mode, which is the same scenario, except with tougher aliens, requiring you to further fine-tune your solution, with much smaller margins for error.)

It feels like a dialogue, especially after all the expansions. The game has been supported by ongoing expansions over the years to keep it fresh. In addition to new levels, the expansions have also added new challenges to old levels, giving you an excuse to return to old haunting grounds, more than doubling the playtime you’re getting out of the existing content. Interestingly, there are no new aliens or weapons, just new ways of looking at the same play set. They have seen that for a long time you could solve most of your problems with maxed out cannon type towers… So they made a whole series of challenges with no kinetic power weapons. Or the mode where the power cores don’t float back to their housing after the alien carrying them has been killed. Or the one where there’s only one core, but it kills all aliens on touch when it’s free floating, and you don’t get any resources for the aliens killed that way.

But maybe it’s actually the story that it comes back to, in the end. It’s endearing. There’s the faceless, voiceless “commander” (that’s you), and the chatty, charming AI that’s helping you. It’s not the actual story anybody cares about, it’s the AI character. The AI makes the game feel warm. Human. I like hanging out with him. Every time I eat raspberries in real life, I think about this guy (he has a thing with raspberries.)

Defense Grid is comfort gaming. I don’t have to think, yet I’m completely engrossed. I feel good about myself, yet challenged to my limits. I’m glad I don’t know of other games quite like it, because I would not play any new games.

Categories
culture Games PC

Thirty Flights Of Loving (PC)

Thirty Flights Of Loving screenshot
Thirty Flights Of Loving

Small form gaming

In journalism the long-form is making a return. That’s a great development, if somewhat paradoxical with the proliferation of time spent on smartphones and ever smaller chunks at a time on one specific thing. The rise of tablets is certainly a part of it, being more suited to reading than phones or computer screens are. But I attribute a big part of it to people simply wanting content they care about, instead of machinegun news. We used to say that you can’t charge for news or online journalism, but it turns out you can – it’s now just a matter of figuring out how much and for how many consumers. I believe the shift happened once so much of our lives and content was online, the line between a tangible newspaper and an incorporeal news site blurred to something that just doesn’t matter to many people. The tangible isn’t seen as value anymore. On the contrary, young people are proud of how little stuff they have or need.

There is another interesting parallel in TVs and movies. Movies are getting dumber by the year, Hollywood largely settling on the “sure bets” of remakes and reboots and re-imaginings and movies as events (”you gotta see it!” “Why?”), while Youtube and other online video has largely already replaced the TV for younger people. When my ISP asked me if I had used the TV functionality, I had to actually think (I had, once). At the same time the TV show is in full-blown renaissance. We’re getting better TV than ever, and that’s because writers have embraced the form as something that’s very valuable and substantial on its own, not as an offshoot of cinema or something cheap and dumb you do when you don’t have the energy for anything else – be it as a creator or a consumer. The TV show has turned into the long-form moving image. The TV shows of today demand and reward attention and thinking.

Meanwhile, in games

I believe it’s time for games to embrace a shift like this. They need to, to be in line with the changing lives and perspectives of their audience.

The problem is that most modern games are way too long. If you’re a hardcore gamer and especially if you’re in your teens, you’re going to make a face and dismiss this outright. But if you’re not hardcore or in your teens, you’re likely nodding along there.

This is getting better now as production costs are so sky-high that we can’t afford to make more than 6-8 hours of linear content. But that’s not a shift to better get on with the times, that’s something you do because you’re forced to. The audience doesn’t appreciate it, because they feel they’re getting less than they used to for their 50-70 USD/EUR.

What you need to do is accept that your audience wants new experiences. They want games that matter to them and give them things to talk about. They want something they can consume instead of watching some more Youtube – the threshold to jump into a game shouldn’t exist.

Now it does, for a lot of reasons. For one, games are just too big. I haven’t played Skyrim in months and the thought of going back to it is intimidating. It’s like the game is towering before me, and starting again on that path is just too much. This is great is all you do is play one game day-in day-out, but for a lot of gamers it isn’t ideal.

Another problem is that games are so goddamn complex. I’ve started Vanquish and want to go back to it, but the controls are so complex that I have to accept spending at least half an hour of being bad before hopefully, maybe re-acquiring what skills I had. And that’s a very in-your-face action game, supposed to be immediately accessible, jump-in fun.

Third problem is that games demand constant attention. They’re generally very bad in acknowledging that you might have other things to do and can only give them, say, half an hour this week. This is getting better with examples from mobile games and things like the PlayStation 4’s instant suspend and resume, but there’s still ways to go before we’re at the level of TV shows. Not that this is a unique problem to games – books in general require effort to follow all the way through, if you don’t do it in a small enough span of time.

I’m not saying all of these problems even need to be solved or that solving them would be good for all games, but Thirty Flights Of Loving is an example of solving all these problems at once.

A First-Person Shooter

Thirty Flights Of Loving says it’s an FPS without being one. It tells a story that stays with you with very few words, no dialogue and super low “production values”. Instead, it embraces the videogame form and does things with it that you couldn’t do with any other medium. It does this in around 30 minutes, if that. It’s more focused and confident than anything I can think of.

I had no idea what to expect, going in, and what I left with when I turned off the game was memories of an episode of my life I didn’t know I had. You can’t really say anything about the story without spoiling it and whereas for the most part videogame spoilers are something I could not care less about, in this case they really are. Just play it.

You could spend time arguing if it’s even a game as you can’t lose as far as I know and you’re effectively going through a linear story. I don’t particularly care – it looks and feels like a game.

Thirty Flights Of Loving is a videogame short story, a short movie, a single issue comic book, a single. I would like there to be many more games like it.

Categories
culture PC

Spec Ops: The Line (PC)

Critics have been hard on the game’s graphics, but I found it beautiful. And it’s all set in sand. I expected it would be boring visually.

Spec Ops: The Line is a game that was as defining to videogames last year as The Walking Dead and Hotline Miami. This is a spoiler-free article – I’m not uncovering any major plot points – but if you’re super sensitive to that sort of thing, do yourself a favor and play the game first. It’s only around eight hours.

You’re still a good person.

Spec Ops: The Line is an action game about war. You play as a member of Delta Force, sent into sandstorm-stricken modern Dubai to look for survivors after a failed evacuation attempt. It’s a squad-based, third-person cover shooter.

Unlike most shooters, you spend a lot of time looking at guys you’ve just shot in this game. And generally, you also just come across bodies a lot. After a firefight there’s always a number of guys wounded, crying and screaming. The dead do not look like they’re at peace. They look like they’ve been shot and suffered before dying. At one time I die when a grenade falls nearby. The protagonist’s, Walker’s, face passes close to the camera, mouth open in shock and horror, eyes bulging out of the head. I haven’t seen anything that graphic being done to the hero in a war game before. It feels like the moments after a firefight are as important as the actual fighting.

There’s a pivotal scene in the game in which you use your authority as the commanding officer and have your team commit something that results in an atrocity. Once the totality of what I had done was uncovered, I was horrified by my actions unlike ever before in a game. First the dying guy with the burned, blackened face accusing me (calmly and rightfully), then the piles of the dead, then my comrades losing their shit over what I did. What I had them commit.

I felt really sick aiming down my sights in the next scene. So much so that I actually had to stop playing for the night. I didn’t want to go on. I didn’t want to shoot another guy. In Brandon Keogh’s “Killing Is Harmless”, he notes that the first song in the game proper is Mogwai’s “R U Still In 2 It?”, and if that’s what the game is asking me (it is), this is the point where I was no longer into it. I did not want to pull the trigger anymore.

When you come across another pile of bodies, you can’t help but think if it’s about the same amount you’ve killed during your stay in Dubai.

Not only do you deal with death, you deal with the dying. Frequently by your own hand.

There’s always a choice.

Because it’s a squad shooter, there’s always two guys following you around. Having them around has dramatic weight. Your squad mates are witnesses and a moral compass, you care about how they feel about things. When things start to heat up, it’s your buddies who really give you an idea of how far you’ve fallen. “We must keep moving”, Walker says a number of times when the other hardened Delta operators are struck by the events and their role and need to take a break. They make convincing, natural comments on what’s happened and can’t just take things in stride. They can’t forgive and forget.

It’s a good third person shooter, actually. I don’t remember the reviews saying that. The enemy variety isn’t on the level of a Gears, but it’s really solid and smooth. I do enjoy playing it, there’s none of that Kane & Lynch issue of lack of quality and polish detracting from the game’s other virtues evident here.

I’m struck by how much color and ambience they get out of the setting, starting from the very first shots. They do wonderful things with light. The animation is really good and it’s actually important in bringing across everybody’s humanity and the deteriorating control and composure of the protagonists. As the story progresses, the Delta operators become bleeding, ragged wildmen, half-burnt and disfigured. Their animation and expressions match this gradual change. You likely don’t even realize it’s happening until you have a flashback scene back to the beginning of the game, where the protagonists are all clean-shaven and confident. At the end they’re little more than animals.

2013-01-20_00264
The transformation of the protagonists is thrown into stark contrast with the way they started out as towards the end of the game.

It’s all your fault.

The Line is really well written, not just on the thematic level, but on the micro level. All the chatter and the small cutscenes between the fighting and the reveals flow along and there’s never a feeling of “just let me play the game”. I’m actually interested in what everybody is saying and doing and becoming, because none of it is inconsequential. There’s weight to everything – everything is said and done for a reason. It’s amazing that a military shooter manages to carry tension with just the character drama. You are never worried about or anxious about the “mission parameters”, or actually even the enemy threat. It’s all about the insecurity of what you’re doing.

There is no right or wrong here, save to not come into a situation you don’t understand and try to make everyone do what you want at gunpoint. Everybody involved has committed atrocities and seeing how you’ve done so yourself – out of necessity, or desperation, but surely with the best of intentions? – it’s not hard at all to understand how it all came to pass. What possible good outcome could there be? The Line doesn’t give out answers, but it does require you to ask the questions.

Because the game is so well written, you take it seriously, and you start to view parts of the whole differently. For instance, you have the option to use silencers. There isn’t actually any point to it because every single encounter will result in a loud shoot-out. At most I’ve been able to take out two guys silently before it goes to hell. The only reason I still use silencers after I realized how pointless they are is because the violence makes me queasy and I’d rather not have my gun reporting loudly all the time. That and there’s the thought that maybe, just maybe in this instance we’re actually able to avoid more bloodshed by playing it tidy. That never happens. In any other game I would say it has pointless and broken stealth mechanics, but here it feels deliberate.

Most games pretend they don’t have all the incoherent videogame stuff going on, quietly asking you to shrug to yourself. “It’s just a game.” Spec Ops: The Line acknowledges discord and when things are out of joint. It’s not accidental. It’s there on purpose. The contrast of the the game doing its best to make violence hard to stomach on a thematic level while making it as enjoyable as possible on a tactile, reactive level, is never accidental. The protagonists question the wisdom of the choices they make and try to make sense of a deteriorating situation, try to redeem themselves.

Well, I’ll take any excuse for a shark shot.

Killing for entertainment is harmless.

I am amazed that 2K agreed to publish the game as-is. For instance, there’s a couple of moments when the surrounding world is reacting to what you’ve done. They’re calling you a murderer, aghast and enraged, and with good cause. It feels really bad. You’re the monster. You’ve become the enemy. They’re appalled by your actions, and how do you respond? By killing some more.

You descend into an emotional state that’s really removed from the way you feel in other shooters. The developer, a German studio called Yager, is smart enough to have everything descend with you – the actors start screaming obscenities, firing in anger, using excessive force as you become more desperate. Your buddies fall out with you and start not just questioning you but outright blaming you for what they’ve become. It’s a weird place to be.

The game is full of hallucinatory details you don’t necessarily notice at all, even upon the introduction of overt hallucinatory sequences later in the game. Yager does a good job of playing its cards closely and leaving the details to be discovered. There are moments where I went “wait a minute” over something, but then chalked it up to “a videogame” and shrugged. Case in point: the Hellish view of the dozens of hanged soldiers on the highway. Even if you don’t see anything wrong about what you’re perceiving, it all adds up in the back of your head.

There is an outstanding use of music throughout. It’s not your typical macho military score, either, rather distorted, echoing guitars and selected rock pieces to give emotional weight and depth to scenes. It further skews things into a questioning space. It’s rare that I want to listen to game soundtracks these days, but having completed the game, I had to revisit the important songs to review my emotions and thoughts.

As sun sets on Dubai, there's a strong feeling the darkness is descending on everybody involved.
As sun sets on Dubai, there’s a strong feeling the darkness is descending on everybody involved.

There is not a man righteous. 

The Line has been criticized for not truly allowing choice. Like this military shooter should have an option of… not… shooting everyone in the face. Of course it doesn’t, because it’s a shooter. You know you’re playing one. The choice you have is to not play the game. The Line knows this and reminds you of it all the time. It wants you to take responsibility in what you’re doing, and think about what you’re playing.

Walt Williams, the writer of The Line: “That’s what we were looking to do, particularly in [that one pivotal scene], is give direct proof that this is not a world that you are in control of, this world is directly in opposition to you as a game and a gamer.” (http://www.giantbomb.com/news/this-is-all-your-fault/4291/)

But actually the game is smarter than that. It does give you a number of important choices, although you may not even realize you’re making them at the time. The overt binary choices, by contrast, feel like red herrings to satisfy your gamer instincts.

The way you get into the protagonist’s – Walker’s – head is much more powerful than in most “roleplaying” games. It’s a state you don’t really want to be in, but it’s effective nonetheless. It’s wrong, but you understand it. These may be “just” soldiers shooting people and doing horrible things on the battlefield, but for once, you’re there with them and you live through it. Even with its intentionally fourth wall breaking moments, The Line never stops treating you as a player in the drama. You can’t escape the blame.

Your perspective on the factions at play – the 33rd, the CIA, the insurgents, the refugees, your own squad, yourself as a player – changes all the time, rather deliberately. Now you’re working to save the soldiers, now you’re killing them, now they’re the good guys and you’re the bad guys – but that can’t be right? It not so much asks you to keep up but aims to confuse you, to have you shoved from conflict to conflict, spinning in your head, trying to do the right thing, ending up making things worse for everyone.

The fights in sandstorms are intense.
The fights in sandstorms are intense.

Do you feel like a hero yet?

Crucially, even with a number of big reveals and turnarounds, there is no “right” way to interpret The Line. Nothing quite seems to click with any one explanation. What parts were real? What were not? All that matters is the journey the player took.

Spec Ops: The Line was a financial failure and a mixed critical success. It’s disappointing and frustrating that a game so objectively good (in my subjective opinion, obviously) and so important can’t find a market. How should a game like this be sold? I’m not sure, but you can’t sell it as a Call Of Duty style title, because it isn’t one.

The things I would hope many more games would take from The Line are giving player room to think and reflect, and actually asking them to do so. Obviously you also need content that is worthy of that contemplation. Any decent movie, action or otherwise, does this. There is no reason why a game shouldn’t.

Rock Paper Shotgun’s Alec Meer said it: “Most of all, Spec Ops’ uncompromising gaze into the heart of darkness left me feeling abjectly awful, as though I’d been somewhere intrinsically rotten and done worse things in it. I almost can’t believe this got made, let alone released by a major publisher. That’s exactly why it impressed me so much.” (http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/06/29/spec-ops-review-pc/)

Spec Ops: The Line is an important game. Even if you disagree with what it’s doing, you can’t deny that it has a message and it has meaning – so much meaning, in fact, that it’s the game I’ve read the most about… ever. I completed the game last Sunday, then read 50’000 words about it, and then proceeded to read a further dozen in-depth interviews and critiques of it, and then I had trouble going to sleep because I was thinking so hard about the fact that it’s something I want to make.

I’ve said for some years now that I want to make games that matter, but I’ve had trouble showing an example of that. The Line is that game.

Further reading:

Brendan Keogh’s book-length critical reading of the game, scene by scene, “Killing Is Harmless”: http://stolenprojects.com/

Polygon’s in-depth discussion of the narrative with the developer: http://www.polygon.com/2012/11/14/3590430/dont-be-a-hero-the-full-story-behind-spec-ops-the-line “Davis and Williams wanted to create a game that would challenge the player, and bother them a little. They didn’t want it to be necessarily fun. They wanted to say something.”

Lots of insight from The Line’s writer, Walt Williams: http://www.giantbomb.com/news/this-is-all-your-fault/4291/

Tom Bissell’s thoughts on The Line in the context of violent (military) videogames: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8157257/line-explores-reasons-why-play-shooter-games

Categories
PC

Far Cry 2 revisited (PC)

Far Cry 2 screenshot
Far Cry 2. This is what my view looks like, most of the time. It’s “Orienteering – The Game”, basically.

I returned to the Africa of Far Cry 2 after listening to the guys of Idle Thumbs being very disappointed with Far Cry 3. I didn’t expect it to feel so fresh.

My initial time with Far Cry 2 was so bewildering that I gave up a couple of times before finally hitting it off with the game. I like to think I would’ve appreciated it the first time, if it came out now. A lot of what it’s doing (from 2008) is so anti-thetical to current (2013) triple-A videogame rules, it’s rebellious, anarchistic.

There is no UI save for a flash of health when you take damage or heal, or the ammo counters when you fire or reload. This doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, but it is, immersing you in the game’s world so much more fully when there is no crosshairs, no mini-map, no compass on screen. You need to bring up the map and the compass as an equipped item instead of holding a weapon, if you want to orient yourself. The last few years there’s been a proliferation of ridiculous UI elements – I hear Far Cry 3 is especially bad in this sense, but my pet peeve is with Ghost Recon Online. I love that game, but they’re really going overboard with the “futuristic”, needless UI crap that actually manages to get in the way of playing the game. Everything shines and blinks and zooms and draws vectors all over the place. It’s like the game is afraid of letting you focus on just what’s going on in it for a second and instead seeks to distract you. None of that here. To begin with it can be frustrating how hard it is to spot the enemies in the jungle, but it’s still a novel experience. When was the last time you actually had to look for the enemy, listen for them? In Far Cry 2 that’s “every fight”.

Far Cry 2 is all about player agency. You’re dropped in the world and left on your own. You’ve got malaria (resulting in random blackouts), your guns are jamming all the time and everybody wants you dead. There’s a ton of stuff to find and conquer – diamond cases, Jackal tapes, golden AK parts, safe houses – and just going after all that is as valid as running after the quests. This is what initially put me off the game – it’s easy to lose sight of the main questline and effectively become lost in the jungle. Once you appreciate that’s exactly what the game is trying to do, make you feel like a small man in a big, messy world, all your weapon prowess so much inconsequential noise in the grand scheme of things, you wake up, and become free.

Of course that freedom is mostly about who you want to shoot in the face, and which weapons you’d like to do it with, but it’s intoxicating all the same.

It’s hard to say if the exact same mechanics would work as well in another setting. Far Cry 2 gets a lot out of its civil war torn African country, with the last plane heading out as you head in, stricken with malaria, getting pitiful looks from the locals. It sets a mood. The jungle with its rivers, savannahs, monkeys, zebras and fortified camps makes you explore with very little pushing on the game’s part. When I crossed the first river in my beat-up sedan, there was a very strong urge to just jump out of the car, dive in, and see where the river takes me.

The experience does lose some of its sheen once you’ve upgraded your weapons and got your illness in check. It is at its best the way you’re thrown into it, completely out of your comfort zone. Savor that feeling and don’t play safe to get the best experience. But even when you know it all, Far Cry 2 is such a rare success of systems interplay with player actions, it results in unforeseen moments all the time.

Then there’s the story, which doesn’t get at all in the way of playing the game, completely backed by what you’re actually doing in the game, the buddy system, the whole reveal of the second map – I couldn’t believe how big this game was when that first happened! – and the powerful ending… Far Cry 2 does so many things nigh-on perfectly, I honestly can’t fault it for its shortcomings. Yes, the respawning checkpoints are a game-y crutch, yes, the buddy system is really superficial despite the emotional pay-off later on, yes, it’s a shame there’s nothing else to do here but shoot guys in the face, yes, the story clearly wasn’t delivered quite as they hoped. And none of that matters.

The strongest memory I come back to was the time I couldn’t save a buddy who had rushed in to drag me, dying, out of the fire. His head lying there in my lap, out of medicine, I had no other option but to put him out of his misery. That was a powerful moment, much more so than any scripted cutscene I can think of. We had fought together in very dire situations so many times, when I finally had to admit I just couldn’t help him and that he was going to die… man. The language of videogames is neither spoken nor written.

If you haven’t played it yet, do yourself a favor and lose yourself in the jungle. You might not want to come out. It plays perfectly on the PCs of today and still looks very nice with everything maxed out, and is often available for around 5-10€. My initial playthrough was on PS3, and that was equally good save for the inability to save anywhere. It is the only game where I’ve almost reached a Platinum Trophy.

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culture Freeware PC

Planetside 2 (PC)

Planetside 2 wallpaper
Planetside 2

I was very excited about Planetside 2. The promise of planet-scale warfare with thousands of other players is something no other game has. It’s enough to make a thirty four year old gamer’s mind spin. It’s inspiring.

After only a couple of hours with the game, I uninstalled it. The reason is not its gameplay, which works fine, even if it’s very disorienting to a newcomer. I had no performance issues, either. What it came down to was art.

How is it that the developers of the game do not seem excited about the promise of Planetside 2? The game is just bland – so bland I found out I have no interest in playing it anymore.

There’s two sides to this and both are big issues in games.

One is technical art quality. If you can’t run the game on “high” settings, it looks very bad.  The “low” settings are reminiscent of bad Playstation 2 titles. This is something many PC games have been suffering from lately. The engines running the games no longer scale properly. Gone are the days when you could be sure that the game would look nice, and it was a matter of how much extra candy you could layer on top. I think this is also the domain of art direction – you should think about how the majority of your players are going to play the game and make sure it’s something you’re happy with.

If you can crank everything up, things do improve. It’s flashy enough and the scale of the game offsets a lot of the problems. What it doesn’t help with is (and this is the second issue) art direction in terms of identity. Not only should you be able to conjure a look that’s your own, you should evoke something that’s worthy of tens and hundreds of hours of play.

Planetside 2’s visual design is not based on anything. It’s cheap Saturday morning cartoon science fiction meets 90s PC gaming – cheap in terms of textures and polygons, lazy in terms of imagination and structure. There is no reason a shooter couldn’t look beyond make-believe ray guns. Aliens is the building block of most Western scifi because it’s so plausible – functional and based on what we know works in today’s world. Star Wars (IV-VI) are so powerful visually because of the believable, used and worn and lived-in look of its whole universe. Even places like the Death Star feel like something that could exist. You can go as far as basing your shooter on art deco like Bioshock did: it doesn’t matter that nobody in your audience knows what art deco is, but they know a consistent, unique, cool look when they see it.

The non-existent basis of the art leads to problems you don’t have when you’re dealing with reality. Even in something completely non-imaginative like Battlefield 3 or Ghost Recon Online, I care more about my avatars because I understand soldiers. I don’t understand these weird classes of Planetside 2 that don’t seem to exist anywhere. An interesting comparison is Tribes Ascend which is directly based on 90s shooters. It doesn’t make any more sense, but there is a stronger (visual) identity present and thus it makes me care.

Even on a purely functional level, there’s a lot the art should address. It’s very hard to tell apart the various guns, gadgets and classes in Planetside 2. It’s hard to even tell apart the fighting sides. Vehicle and building silhouettes don’t evoke anything. It’s just… stuff.

Normally I eat up concept art because it’s so evocative, even when it ends up normalized and weak in-game. In the case of Planetside 2, even the concept art is just as uninteresting. They don’t seem to care, and neither do I. I was insulted by seeing the first enemy tank that killed me. Surely nothing so lazy and worthless should be able to kill me!

Another big budget title that baffles me with its uninteresting art is The Elder Scrolls Online. When it should be evocative and exciting, it comes across as matter of factly and bland, like something directly descended from the “it’s just a game” identity of Everquest.  Compare that to World Of Warcraft or Guild Wars 2, which both have visual identities so strong they make people play them on their looks alone. And this is a world with titles as breathtaking as Morrowind and Skyrim in it! It’s not enough to just present art as a quantity anymore. You need soul in it to stand out.

Categories
culture Freeware PC

Hawken (PC)

Hawken screenshot
Hawken. It’s really pretty.

Every artist in the studio knew when that trailer hit. Hawken became a household name overnight. It took a while to register for a larger audience, but if you attended any game tradeshow over the past year or so, you couldn’t miss Hawken. This tiny team out of nowhere was seriously competing with the triple-A productions.

It’s still something of a mystery how they do it. They’re punching so much above their weight it’s like the rules and the laws just don’t apply.

When the previews started hitting, it was obvious Hawken was going to be big. It reaches that place where you’re effectively above casual criticism – you’re great and everybody wants to love you.

It’s now in open beta. I wasn’t too impressed by my time in the closed beta, but hey – happy to be proven wrong! It’s come a long way since, being much more responsive, looking the part, and performing a ways better. There is no way I’m not going to play this a lot in the immediate future. It’s a fast-moving shooter in a super-cool, original world with its own language and mood. It’s free to play and very simple to pick up and run and gun, so go ahead and see if you like it. For me it hits a nice spot between Mechwarrior Online’s slow pace and the too-fast-for-me modern shooters like Call Of Duty.

All of that’s beside the point, because what’s interesting to me is the fact that this phenomenon of a free to play title is a… mecha title through and through. That’s not supposed to be marketable.

Science fiction in general is not supposed to sell – even though, hello, Gears Of War, Halo, Mass Effect – and come on, giant robots. Like anybody gives a toss about those! Today’s marketplace is all about serious soldiers. Mechwarrior was the one somewhat big name way back when, but in the west, there hasn’t been a giant robot IP that did well since.

I was talking to someone who deals with giant robots and markets and he was really surprised to hear that Hawken was a mecha title. “But giant robots and the west don’t mix!” I tried to explain why he had the view that he did and why this could be changed, but did a poor job of it. Here’s a better take on it.

It’s true that there haven’t been very many successful mecha titles in the west since Battletech/Mechwarrior. That franchise enjoys a die-hard reputation among old-time PC geeks, but nobody outside of that group really knows it. It’s so old and clunky, it’s like comparing a 1950s car to whatever the kids want to drive these days. You can’t draw too many conclusions from Battletech.

Myself, I’ve always been all over the mecha designs of the east. I never cared for any of the series they came from. The few games that have found some fans in the west are Armored Core and Front Mission. They are both far too obscure and hardcore for their own good, not built for mainstream audiences, much as I adore them. It doesn’t matter if they were built in the east or the west: this kind of game will never reach a big audience (a dedicated, super faithful hardcore audience? Sure!).

The notable omission from Japanese mainstays is the complete lack of Gundam. The impression is that the western audience doesn’t care for Gundam, but as far as I know, they never really attempted to make it popular over here. I don’t actually know if any of the Gundam shows or game series are any good – the only one I ever played was the decent 2D brawler (SNES, I believe). I just worship the art and design of the machines.

Based on what I’ve seen of Gundam games, I don’t really believe they could be popular in the west. They seem like they’re too much fan service, simplistic gameplay, token fandom. You can’t build them for the fans if you want to grab a western audience that knows next to nothing about your world. As an example, I reviewed one of the recent Naruto games. It was actually really good (much to my surprise, I admit), but I didn’t understand anything that was going on. It was hard to care when I was so painfully obviously not the target audience. I suspect there’s a similar problem with the Gundam games.

So I don’t believe the west care about giant robots per se. You need to have a good game and a world we’re welcome to enter.

That’s what Hawken is doing. It’s a bona fide mecha property, all about the machines, built from the ground up. Everybody is exploring it at the same time, starting with zero knowledge. It’s got a lot that you know: even though you’re customizing a walking tank, it’s not that different from customizing a tank in World Of Tanks. Yeah, it’s gorgeous mecha blowing each other to bits, but it’s the domination gameplay you know from Battlefield. The action is straight out of slowed down Unreal Tournament or even Counter-Strike. It’s a great shooter – just with a cool world and unique looks.

It can compete with anything you care to throw at it. Plus it’s got these cool giant robots.

Hawken has only surprised me once, but it’s oozing quality. Everything they put in there is just shining. The single surprise was my new starter mech, the one that looks like a walking microwave oven or CRT monitor with legs? It’s funny and sympathetic. Pulling that off in a supposedly serious military-themed shooter is a grand feat.

Oh and Transformers? That’s no giant robot series. Watch the trailer for Pacific Rim – though the mecha designs are uninspired, all the mecha tropes are there, straight out of Neon Genesis Evangelion. That’s a giant robot movie.

Categories
PC

Hotline Miami (PC)

Hotline Miami cover art
Hotline Miami

Hotline Miami is a simple game. It is hard to describe, though. On the surface it’s simple – “you go into a house and kill everybody.”

Trying to convey what makes it interesting in a comment or two to a wondering friend or colleague has proven frustrating. “I love this game!” “This is the year’s second best game, right after The Walking Dead.” “It’s an acid-dripping trippy take on GTA One and Two, oozing style and atmosphere.” “It’s weird, it keeps you guessing.” “It’s super hard. I died 510 times in my initial session.” “It was made in Game Maker by just one guy, and another on the art.” “It’s got the best soundtrack since anything (well maybe Super Hexagon).”

All of that is accurate. Little of it matters.

I only saw the release trailer after playing the game. It’s a great trailer – it captures the mood of the game and shows what it’s about, but doesn’t actually show you what it’s like.

Hotline Miami is a game set in Florida in 1989. It depicts you as a Mafia hitman. You’re called to go on sites to kill everybody in the address you’re given. The addresses only ever contain white-clad Mafia thugs. You don a plastic animal mask to hide your identity. Shot in a top-down, retro pixel style with blaring colors, you use any weapons you can find to kill everything that moves. Once the last body falls, the super stylish, action pumping music stops and you retrace your steps back to your car, a DeLorean. Sometimes you get lost in the carnage, the hallways now awash with crimson gore.

Often you can’t quite tell how you succeeded in single-handedly taking out some twenty armed guys, sometimes just with your bare fists and any thrown items you came across. The action flows so fast and frantic, the best-laid plans thrown out the window the instant the first door is kicked in. Typically you die dozens of times before nailing a mission. It’s not a shooter, it’s a reaction puzzle. It’s an unforgiving gauntlet, with the tiniest mistake killing you and restarting you at the start of the floor you’re in, time elapsed between attempts typically counted in seconds in the single digits.

This alone would make Hotline Miami an interesting title, albeit a small, limited scope curiosity. It’s elevated by a harsh, feverish narrative that pulls no punches. You don’t know who you are or what the hell you’re doing, yet you’re killing everybody the voices on the phone tell you to. Or are you? Other characters fade in and out of your life. The reality of entire locations is suspect.

That it’s all then wrapped in the drug-addled, bass-pumping, sun-bleached Miami of the late 80s, the image zooming and panning and tilting to reflect the skewed world it’s depicting, makes it a triumph. Hotline Miami is a rare, perfect union of style and substance, form and function. Nothing in this game is out of place and everything is necessary. If you removed any component, it wouldn’t work anymore. It’s perfect the way it is. I wouldn’t even remove the bugs or the somewhat suspiciously designed boss and stealth sections.

When you come to the end and the narrative has crashed you into a wall repeatedly, leaving you dazed and confused, you’ll likely feel an equal mix of satisfaction of a job well done, of vengeance unleashed, of closure, and an uneasy feeling that you’ve barely begun. The initially confusing branching narrative with its non-linear paradoxes comes together on reflection. It makes you value and question your role as a consumer of violent entertainment in a way Call Of Duty never will – nor can. Between its hypnotic, gory orgies of satisfying carnage, it gives you room to think. More than that, it makes you think. It’s an important game.