Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Yvonne Abraham thinks you're dumb

Why does Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham need to bring video games into this screed about lunatic sports fans -- not once, but twice?

In fact, one of the many reasons I wasn't out rioting when the Celtics won the championship was because I was at home, playing Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. It's one of numerous non-idiotic things I do with my time. I also like to read books, cook, and spend time outdoors hiking and snowboarding. But none of those things would mark me as the kind of drooling ape only Yvonne Abraham has the courage to take on in the pages of a major metropolitan newspaper.

Abraham's implication, which I'm sure she spent upwards of a second and half cogitating, is clear: rioting is a brainless activity, and playing games is a brainless activity. Can't have one without the other. There you go! That's your lede! Now to break this column into several vapid, Bill Plaschke-like one-sentence paragraphs, and sit back and wait for the accolades to roll in. Yvonne, you've done it again!

(I am glad to see that it's not just sports bloggers who are always accused of plying their trade from their mother's basements, though.)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

But the thing is, the cutscenes are really long

Apparently, you're not supposed to complain about the length of the cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid 4. If you're the game's Associate Producer Ryan Payton, you're not even supposed to acknowledge that they are long.

I already talked about some of the problems with these scenes on a dramatic level. In that post, I brushed aside the question of length, but it's something I want to get back to because I'm getting the impression that it's something people would rather we not discuss -- and I don't just mean Konami's PR department.

Cutscenes are integral to the game's identity. I get that. To remove them would be to make it something else, something not Metal Gear. That still doesn't make them off-limits for criticism. Kojima and company included long, non-interactive narrative sections as a major focus of their game, so logically those sequences should also be well represented in any critical discussion. The question is: Would MGS4 be better if the cutscenes were shorter?

I say yes.

Here's why: At their core, what these cutscenes do is take control from the player. They do so in a couple of ways. First, and most obviously, they simply show events unfolding without any player input. In MGS4, there are several moments during cinemas in which the player can hit a button to view brief, hallucinatory flashbacks, but while that's a cool feature it's really not the same as feeling like you're directing the scene. So these scenes take away one of the most fundamental characteristics of the medium. Whether they add enough in return to make up for that is open to debate.

On another level -- and this has always been one of my biggest pet peeves about games -- they don't let the player control something as basic as starting and stopping according to his whims. When you load up Metal Gear Solid 4, you need to do so with the expectation that you don't know when you'll be stopping. You need to accept that Hideo Kojima will make that decision for you. I do not consider this a virtue, although I'd be happy to hear arguments to the contrary.

Here's an example of when the cutscene length starts to seem silly. I had about an hour to squeeze in some playing time last night, and since I had last saved at the end of some long cinematics, I was eager to get in a little bit of sneaking before dinner. I turned the PlayStation 3 on at 5 o'clock. At 5:50, I saved and turned it off, having not touched the controller once. There wasn't one instance of gameplay that whole time. While some of the scenes I had watched had been entertaining, at about the 20-minute mark I began to feel irritated that I wasn't doing anything, and by the time I was done "playing" I was just this side of pissed off. My only other option would have been to skip the movies entirely, but then I wouldn't have known why I was doing anything. Some choice.

Some games do clever things with the notion of eliminating player control, BioShock and The Darkness being two recent examples. Although Metal Gear Solid 4 is often inventive during gameplay, it fails to break conceptual ground with its cinematics. They're awfully traditional. They're just amped up, loud, and long. The player's actions are the bridge that connects cutscenes, instead of the other way around. This seems misguided to me.

I am trying to remember if the cutscenes bothered me so much in past MGS games. They certainly didn't in the first one, although I remember one afternoon when a particular scene resulted in my being 20 minutes late to work. When I think about that game, though, what I remember are the mindblowing in-game moments: The first fight against an invisible Gray Fox, rappelling down the communications tower under helicopter fire, battling Sniper Wolf across a snowy field.

3/5 of the way in, I don't feel that MGS4 is creating the same kinds of memories for me. That's why, although I'm certainly enjoying the game, I keep writing these long, negative posts about it. There is still a ways to go, though. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Why does everybody in Metal Gear Solid talk like that?

Above: "Funny you should mention the war economy; I was just drafting a ten-minute speech about it."

Tycho from Penny Arcade has an unorthodox opinion about the cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid 4:
I actually like the story of Metal Gear, but it's not told well. I don't care if a cutscene is long provided that it's well paced, but these cutscenes aren't simply long, they're eternal - and they feel even longer than they are because they're pure overreach. The script is insipid, didactic, and its insights are trite. The humor doesn't work, period, and it works even less against the backdrop of perpetual war.

Usually, when people talk about the cutscenes in the Metal Gear Solid series, it's only to argue for or against their length, and the quality of their integration with the gameplay. Most people seem to agree that the cutscenes, taken at face value, are done well.

And in Metal Gear Solid 4, from a production standpoint, they're better than they've ever been. Graphically, there seems to be little separating cinematic cutscenes and in-game, player-controlled actions. With no loading time between them, Kojima's team has achieved a seamlessness that has eluded past MGS games. (I should mention here that I've only just finished Act 1, so these are just my impressions so far.)

It's not just the technical side. Artistically, maybe only SquareSoft can compete with Kojima on the cinematic level. I agree with Michael Abbott: "...[Kojima] is a fine and gifted filmmaker. One can easily track his maturation from the original MGS. Unlike other so-called cinematic games like Mass Effect, the filmmaking in MGS4 is visually creative, high-caliber stuff." Kojima uses depth of field and simulated handheld cameras, among other tools, to showcase an aesthetic sensibility that outstrips that of many Hollywood directors.

As a writer, Kojima is less successful. The MGS series has drawn praise for its story, not least because after four games, it's clear that we're dealing with a science-fiction saga as epic in scope as anything comparable in literature or film. These games have real ideas about human conflict, about free will and fate, and now about the intersection of warfare and commerce. That they are not terribly penetrating insights almost seems not to matter -- we're just glad to see a game that takes a point of view at all (compare MGS4's take to the rigidly moralistic viewpoint of Call of Duty 4).

But that's not where I think the writing falters. I'm talking about the nuts and bolts. I'm talking about the words Kojima uses, and the manner in which they are communicated. This man needs an editor.

No one ever lived in Kojima's universe who wasn't waiting for an opportunity to wax rhapsodic about the deepest philosophical questions to anybody willing to listen -- or even to those, like Tycho, who aren't. Characters make their points, and then they keep talking. No one is reluctant to bare his soul. Everyone speaks in paragraph form. People in Metal Gear Solid don't have conversations; they trade soliloquies. The cutscenes are so long because nobody ever shuts up.

This post probably gives the impression that I'm not a fan of the game, and so far nothing could be further from the truth. I'm all the way in, to the point where I've been spending my non-playing time counting the minutes until I could get back to it. But Tycho's comment rang me like a bell, because I do think he's right, and I think in some ways Metal Gear Solid 4, like Grand Theft Auto IV before it, has provided another excuse for the community to anoint a savior. MGS4 ain't it.

In fact, I'd be willing to bet this game would be one of the worst things you could show to a Roger Ebert type in a bid to gain respectability. It focuses so much on the virtual performances that someone with no prior investment in the characters would be unable to look past the clunkiness of the storytelling. For us as players, it's easy to see why we're absorbed: We have a stake in Solid Snake's fate, which makes the game's long sequences of passivity acceptable.

Would the same be true of someone who wasn't playing? I doubt it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Invitation to a beheading

Well, my Ninja Gaiden II review is up now at thephoenix.com. I hold the original in high regard, but that might be because I was able to simply stop playing once it got too difficult. That wasn't the case here. But I also didn't notice quite so many glaring problems with the game camera in the original, possibly because I never got past the second boss. In the sequel, the capricious camera had me tearing my hair out at points.

What's either the best or worst part about Ninja Gaiden II, depending on your point of view, is how much of a throwback it seems like. If not for the fancypants visuals, you might think you'd stepped through a wormhole and were playing a 16-bit sidescroller. It's just hordes of enemies strewn along a linear path, culminating at the end of each level with a brutal boss battle. There's no more sophistication than that, and I think for a lot of people that's the game's biggest selling point. I might have appreciated it more, too, if I hadn't been so busy trying to avoid another control pad stress test.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

25 years of Capcom

Kotaku says today marks the 25th anniversary of Capcom's founding, which seems like an appropriate occasion to revisit this post: "In praise of Capcom." The post is reprinted below, in its entirety.

That Umbrella Chronicles post reminded me of something. Whenever I get to thinking about my favorite game development houses and publishers -- and, believe me, this is what I spend most of my time thinking about -- one name invariably rises to the top: Capcom.

I could spend all day lauding the work of other companies, but not often without caveats. Valve has never made anything but a great game, but they barely ever release anything. Nintendo has been making great games for decades, but many of their 3D flagship games have struck me as a tad overrated, or at least less interesting than what their competitors are doing. Square Enix falters whenever they step outside their comfort zone, going back at least to Einhander. I have the utmost respect for what Atlus does, although their games are usually a bit too out there for me. Konami is one of the more reliable large publishers, but particularly with their 3D Castlevania offerings they can be guilty of one of gaming's cardinal sins: making boring games.

Capcom, on the other hand, may not always make great games, but even their failures are more interesting than other companies' successes. Dead Rising, for example, was so obtuse as to be maddening, but the bold vision behind it was unmistakable, and those who took the time to delve into it were amply rewarded. Lost Planet, a rather rote third-person shooter, presented a chilly Arctic setting that stood out among the gray and brown mechanical nightmares of other science-fiction-inspired games. Even God Hand, a gigantic mess by any measure, was an audacious joke that cleverly tweaked video game clich├ęs.

And when Capcom connects, they get all of it. Capcom released my game of the year for 2005 (Resident Evil 4) and 2006 (Okami). This year's Resident Evil 4 Wii Edition was a more thrilling, complete game than any new intellectual property. It's quite likely that the upcoming Wii remake of Okami will do the same thing next year. With RE4, Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles, and Zack and Wiki, Capcom is showing a mastery of the Wii that's far beyond the half-baked mini-game collections of their competitors.

They're no upstarts, either: Capcom has been rocking consoles and arcades for decades. Check out Wikipedia's list of Capcom games and try to count all the classics. Tally up the high-quality franchises. Mega Man. Street Fighter. Resident Evil. Devil May Cry. Phoenix Wright. Look at the memorable arcade games: Bionic Commando, Ghosts 'n Goblins, all those great beat-'em-ups and shooters.

And, of course, they also made Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo. I rest my case.

Review: The Bourne Conspiracy

My review of The Bourne Conspiracy is up now at thephoenix.com.

I've noticed in the past that I seem to have a tendency to go easier on games that actually suck, while I savage games that are just mediocre -- which is the case here. It's not a badly made game. But it's repetitive, and pretty much blows its wad right away. The fighting never gets more interesting than the first time you do it. For some reason, enemies can use weapons against Bourne, but unless it's a contextual "takedown," Bourne can't reciprocate. That's annoying. But it is cool to watch, and there's a good chance that some people would enjoy this game more than I did.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Backpacking: The Official Game

Over a long weekend, I had the chance to sink nearly 48 hours into a superb new game called Backpacking: The Official Game. Part strategy and part survival simulator, Backpacking also prominently features a Wii Fit-style exercise component (with the peripherals to match). I've enjoyed the developer's previous efforts in the past (among other things, the creators of Backpacking: The Official Game brought us Non-Virtual Snowboarding and Actual Paintball), so I was excited to dig in and review this one.

Above: Real-time rendered scenery includes bump mapping and transparency effects.

Graphics

Let's get it out of the way first: this game is gorgeous. My computer couldn't meet the minimum specs to run Crysis, but somehow, without any computer at all, I was treated to visuals that blew even Crytek's best away. The broad strokes of the game's forest setting are impressive enough. The draw distance can seem infinite at times, and there are some cleverly implemented twists and turns that seem maze-like. But the details are where Backpacking really shines. Individual leaves sway in the breeze, rippling streams cascade over rocks, and bugs scurry over gnarled tree roots. One might expect the all-green palette to get monotonous, but somehow it never does. (Still, it's a treat when the level design opens up to reveal an electric blue sky!)

Sound

I usually associate a thumping, orchestral score with games of this genre. Somewhat surprisingly, Backpacking eschews a musical soundtrack altogether in order to focus on an authentic ambient experience. Sometimes, the environmental noises are so subtle that you have to stop and listen to pick them up. With several channels of audio playing simultaneously, it's stunning that most sounds are crisp and distinct. Birds chirp in full surround. Twigs snap underfoot. A late-night thunderstorm sequence is the closest Backpacking gets to grandstanding, but it's executed so well that you forgive the developers for showing off a bit. You can really feel the rumbling of the bass!

Play Control

To be honest, it's a bit tricky to get the hang of Backpacking. The somewhat onerous peripherals necessitate a slower pace in navigating the maps than in most games. The emphasis isn't so much on ease of use as on realistic player feedback. For example, when the terrain in the game world slopes upward, you'll need to push your buttons harder, in order to adjust. Taking a page from classic sidescrollers, Backpacking also has plenty of obstacles that require the player to jump from one platform to another. But unlike Super Mario Bros., Backpacking has advanced logarithms to calculate momentum, and requires constant fine-tuning. Still, folks who've spent some time with the balance games on Wii Fit ought to find it easy to adapt. Although the learning curve seems a bit steep at first, it's well worth the effort. In no time, you'll be hopping from rock to rock and charging up hills.

Above: The author's realistically modeled avatar (right), alongside three others imported from his friends list.

Gameplay

Backpacking is a little strange because there aren't very many developer-defined goals. You can stick to the trails they've mapped out for you -- although you don't have to -- but as a player you can pretty much choose where to start and where to end. (Imagine a land-based Endless Ocean). Backpacking has a robust multiplayer component. You can invite anyone on your friends list to join in. There's no cap on the number of players, but it may get complicated to handle with more than about ten or so. As a group, you can decide where on the map to head next, what difficulty level to play on, and even share resources easily. I didn't try the single player mode. I imagine it has its charms, but probably is less rewarding.

Backpacking isn't without its challenges, however. You have two power meters that run down as you progress through the game, and if either one of them hits zero, your character will die. (Bizarrely, there's no "continue" option. What is this, 1982?) The first, a hunger meter, runs down a bit slowly. You can boost it sporadically throughout the day by pre-selecting rations, as in The Oregon Trail, and deploying them intelligently. The thirst meter runs down faster, and can be filled back up when you find water sources hidden throughout the game map (there's even a water-pumping mini-game in which you strain out impurities through a tiny sieve). Although the developers went so far as to include an optional pooping side quest, only the most rigid completionists among us attempted it.

Above: The climactic escape from the forest.

Conclusion

Open-world games haven't always been my cup of tea, but Backpacking puts it all together in a brilliant package. Like with the similarly superb Grand Theft Auto IV, the experience is really what the player makes of it. Variable difficulty settings and customizable game parameters make for a robust, user-defined experience. All told, Backpacking: The Official Game is one of the best games I've played in awhile, and I'm eagerly awaiting the follow-up.

However, in the sequel, I'd really like to see a boss battle against a T. Rex.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Break like the wind

My review of LostWinds is up now at thephoenix.com. Consider me not blown away -- this really is half a game, at best. If I'd known going in that it was intended to be episodic, my reaction might have been different.

I've read that one of the guys at Frontier thinks LostWinds' length compares favorably to bigger titles on a dollars-to-length ratio, and he may be correct on that math. But think about all the cheap casual games you can download with endless replay value, like puzzle games, and suddenly it's a less tempting proposition. No matter what I pay for a game, I want it to be a complete and fulfilling experience. While I'm not sorry that I spent ten bucks on this game, I wouldn't necessarily recommend that others do the same.

Monday, June 02, 2008

I blame the editors!

I got zinged pretty good in a letter to the editor regarding the improper use of the word "touchstone" in my Grand Theft Auto IV review. Consider me enlightened!

Although it's not quite as clever as this recent letter to the New Yorker regarding what is, and is not, iambic quadrameter.