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The Importance of Tone

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The world of Western superhero comics went through a weird period in the 1990s, known as the “Dark and Gritty” period. The problem with this period is that it makes the phrase, “dark and gritty” a blanket statement for most people. Chances are when you read the phrase, “dark and gritty,” you immediately associated it with a bleak color palette, perverse sexual themes, harsh unrelentingly offensive language, and lots of bone breaking, amputation, spilling of blood and drug use.

In the most superficial sense of the phrase, you would be right, but some mistake this setting for nothing but those elements in the most base, rote, and uninvolving way imaginable. The irony when it came to the comic book “Dark and Gritty” boom was that it started with one of the most popular and critically well received comic books in history: Watchmen. Watchmen was a story about an alternate universe where costumed heroes existed in the real world, and everything goes horribly wrong because of it. It is a story that focuses on the abuse of power, the psychological deterioration of one who fights crime in a costume, even one’s perception of time. It is a dark and gritty story to be sure, but it also has three-dimensional characters, sharp writing, and a level of depth that is like looking at an MC Escher painting through a kaleidoscope.

However, because of  the success of Watchmen, the comic book industry, like most people today, decided to look at the most superficial elements of the material, and force it into established characters like Superman and Spider-Man, as well as creating some pretty cringe-worthy one-note material like Spawn or Young Blood. Just Google Search Death of Superman, Knightfall, Emerald Twilight, Spider-Man’s Clone Saga or Maximum Carnage and you’ll get the picture of where this trend lead. The majority of said stories aren’t looked upon fondly, some for good reason, but it’s an example of history in geek culture of a form of media favored by said demographic trying to be something that it is not due to feelings of inferiority or envy. Watchmen went on to win the Hugo Award and has a place on Time Magazine’s Top 100 Novels of the 20th-Century, whereas Young Blood, a series about a bunch of vulgar anti-social superhuman egomaniacs yelling at eachother and occasionally fighting more vulgar anti-social superhuman egomaniacs, is deemed one of the worst things ever published.

This trend of Dark and Gritty has started popping up in video games, in response to a maturing audience. There are some titles like Bioshock and Spec Ops: The Line which use its dark and adult atmosphere to deliver evocative and powerful experiences. Oddly enough, gaming is having something resembling a reversal of the comic book phenomenon. Anything resembling mature in gaming’s infancy was DOOM, Wolfenstein, and Duke Nukem 3D, first-generation First-Person Shooters on the Build engine. Blood, gore, guts, demons, hot chicks, Hitler in a robot suit, all were present and were simply there for entertainment. It is only after graphical fidelity and more tricks were learned that stories started trying to tell more diverse stories. Chrono Trigger, Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill 2, and Call of Duty 4 come to mind. However, it seems that with graphical hardware power reaching a plateau, a return to grittiness is pervading the industry. I’d like to illustrate a simple “do and do not,” comparison of two games who use a dark and gritty set-up, one that falls flat, and another that genuinely surprised me. The games are Max Payne 3 and Sleeping Dogs, and as such, a spoiler alert is going up for both games. You Have Been Warned!

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Max Payne 3 (How Not to Do Dark and Gritty)

First, a disclaimer. This is observing Max Payne 3 in a vacuum. No baggage or continuity in mind, this is Max Payne 3 on its own merits, so any objections about Max not always being dark to such a degree will have to be disregarded.

Max Payne opens with the character meant to be our protagonist drinking himself stupid on wide-mouth booze, popping vicodin, tearing apart his apartment, vomiting in a sink, then crying over a photo of what appears to be his dead family. Then the title screen pops up. This is not the best possible light to see any person, let alone the main character of a story unless there is some cathartic arc to be had. Unfortunately, there is none to be had. The story flashforwards to Max in a blown apart airport holding a gun over a man who is blown half to hell. His inner monologue chimes in with the line, “I guess I became what they wanted me to become afterall. A killer. You can say all you want about Americans, but we understand capitalism. Then I realized I wouldn’t know right from wrong if one was feeding the homeless and the other was banging my sister.”  Usually a use of in medias res with such a cold open would be to show that the character gets better, or chronicling a time before his fall from grace. Instead, Max Payne 3 goes from hard to watch to downright stomach churning in the first five minutes. With no pretense to the character, the only thing one can gleam from Max Payne is that he is a nihilistic sociopath with a deathwish. That is dark and twisted, but it’s also one-dimensional and bland.

It doesn’t get much better when it comes to showing how Max wound up in said airport realizing he is not a good person at heart. A flashback occurs where he is working as a bodyguard for a wealthy business family in Brazil while having free drinks. The family, by the way, are broad stereotypes of rich people. Female socialite, young party animal, business mogul, the works. There is nothing more to their character other than they are so rich they crap pure platinum. Also, for a guy who got a sweet job hanging out at parties watching dumb rich people be dumb rich people, Max never loses his grim nature. Yes he’s a bodyguard, it’s a job, but some people learn to lighten up every now and then. What follows is a framing device of a politically charged gang war where violent men with guns and harsh vulgar Portugese kidnap the people Max is meant to protect. On that simple thread of connection, goes running in headlong into insane gunfights by himself, killing dozens of foreigners, all while swallowing painkillers and thinking about how he’d love to put a shotgun between his teeth. The levels from here consist of organ harvesting, people getting slaughtered in the streets, deep-rooted corruption, and just unrelenting shock and awe like Max having to protect a pregnant woman from getting gunned down. The absolutely painful moment was where Max finally shaves his head, puts on a Hawaiian shirt, and infiltrates the favelas because he apparently can’t stand to look at himself in a mirror. So inbetween Max hating himself and destroying his body with Jim Beam and Tylenol and Max nihilistically blowing a man in half, we have Max shooting thugs in a nightclub, city streets, New York rooftops, a cemetery where his dead family is buried, on a boat, and a soccer stadium while pounding more Tylenol and wishing he was dead to protect and save a bunch of empty cyphers of characters.

In other words, the dark tone and unrelenting drama amounts to no pathos other than misery and unpleasantness. Max Payne doesn’t evolve as a character, everybody else around him don’t amount to much, and by the time the end credits rolled, I wanted to figure out why the lead writers of the story thought it was a good idea to have no levity or juxtaposition in certain points where the plot really needed it. In this case, Dark and Gritty only exists in Max Payne 3 in the most superficial and shallow way imaginable, trying so hard to elevate what is an otherwise above-average third-person shooter.

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Sleeping Dogs (How to Do Dark and Gritty Right)

Our protagonist in Sleeping Dogs is Wei Shen. He grew up in the ghettos of Hong Kong and he has tattoos to show for it. Because of where he was raised, his sister became addicted to drugs. In an attempt to save the soul of the family, Wei’s mother moves the family to the United States for a while. There, Wei became a brilliant student, and because of his sister finally OD’ing and dying, he trained to become a police officer. Wei returns to Hong Kong after some time, and because of his connections to the criminal underworld in his earlier years, is asked by a joint effort with Interpol to infiltrate the Triad group, the Sun On Yee, and help take it down from the inside. There’s a wrinkle, as early on in the game, Wei discovered who was supplying his sister with the drugs, the very same group. Wei is tormented by his dedication to the badge, to justice and honor, and his desire for personal revenge against the group while also not blowing his cover. Every single cutscene where Wei goes to bed he is tortured by his conflicting interests and if you leave him alone long enough in his apartment, his mannerisms show great body language of long-term psychological duress. All of this is revealed quite well in the first two missions of the game. You have a protagonist with a goal and a dark past who wants to do good but is beset by temptation. He has to become friends with cold-blooded killers to gain their trust, but he can’t forget to also tap their phone lines and learn their weaknesses. The entire danger and arc of Wei’s story is whether or not he succeeds. That doesn’t sound like much but the presentation really sells it.

Early on, Wei becomes friends with Winston Chu, a stereotypical tough guy with a gold-plated Desert Eagle and a bad attitude. His body figure is that of an Asian Vin Diesel, and he is a guy you don’t fuck with. This guy could have easily turned into a one-dimensional gangster, but here’s the other side of him. He loves his family. He shows this time and again as he helps his old mother handle a restaurant. Also, he has a life outside of being a slab of meat for the Triads. He wants to get married. There is a mission where Wei even has to help his wife-to-be to get everything just right for the wedding. The level of trust Winston bestows upon Wei comes to the point where he considers him a part of his family, and not just in the mob sense of the word.

It is only at the point where Winston stops being just another guy to frisk for names and addresses to shake down and becomes a guy who you wouldn’t mind having a drink with if you didn’t know his checkered past does the game decide to pull the rug out from under you. At Winston’s wedding, an attack happens by a rival Triad and everyone inside is torn to ribbons by hailing gunfire. In his death rattle, Winston confesses he didn’t want this life for his woman by saying, “get her out of here, she doesn’t deserve this.” Going beyond this particular story point, there is a set of missions where Winston’s mother, grief-stricken, wants to find the ones responsible for her son’s death, and chop them up into little pieces, which Wei obliges. Nothing makes a gangster talk more than a woman screaming in Cantonese holding a meat cleaver, after all.

Outside of this series of missions involving Winston Chu, there are other examples of this juxtaposition. A personal favorite is Wei being taken to a karaoke bar to make himself known to the owner, which begins by him singing “I Fought The Law and The Law Won.” The level of double entendre with that song choice is fun to contemplate. Later on in a revisit of that same place, Wei must fight out of said club against countless thugs in a desperate power move by another faction.

In short, Sleeping Dogs understands its setting better. It knows what story it wants to tell and knows that a dark narrative must test the prejudices of its audience, and add haunting tension to the protagonist. Not a single mission goes by where there isn’t some doubt on whether or not Wei is doing the right thing, on who is truly delivering justice, the police or the Triads. At the same time, the game knows that levity helps make certain moments of shock even more powerful. Imagine what would happen if you knew nothing about Winston Chu from the information above. You only saw him as some vulgar punk with a gun. Then, suddenly the next mission happens at the wedding where he gets gunned down. There is no pay-off to anything felt for the character, so that moment falls flat. But there was, and it doesn’t.

Dark and Gritty as a setting can work wonders, but if you just apply it with no real change in tone, it will be a boring disgusting slog of an experience all the way down to the bone. But having a bit of a sense of humor, or even just some characters who aren’t scarred individuals out for revenge, helps things out immensely.

All Age Gaming Rises

Hello everyone who takes their time to read this blog. I just have one thing to announce. The indie site I have spent well over a year contributing to has finally found its legs and is up and running once again, with me as its brand new Editor. There are lots of reviews written by myself as well as a bunch of other talents so if you can, follow the link below and show them your support.

http://www.allagegaming.com

 

Thank you again.

Overanalyze This: Game Edition!: Dead Island!

There is a stretched metaphor for the writers of this game here somewhere

This post was on my backburner around the time my first Overanalyze This post was written. Enjoy the microwaved prose.

Dead Island… ohhhh boy. For those of you who don’t remember this game, Dead Island was a decidedly average first-person action game with some RPG elements thrown in about a group of people trying to fight off the living dead on a tropical island. Taken on strict gameplay alone, the game was a relatively serviceable experience. There were a lot of missions to do, lots of zombies to kill, standard variety of weapons, and gameplay length of at least 30 hours.

What most people will remember Dead Island for is its trailer.

On the whole, a very poignant trailer. Sorrowful piano score, emotive characters, and an undercurrent of depressing inevitability. The girl is dead in the beginning of the trailer, young and innocent, and the trailer is being presented Memento-style in reverse order. We know how it ends, and yet we are emotionally attached to her fate and to those around her. In a short trailer, we have an attachment to the scenario, and to the people suffering in it.

Now for some hard truth that can only be given with the power of hindsight. The game is nothing like the trailer protrayed here. The fate of the family in the trailer is never resolved. the emotional punch to the gut that the experience was supposed to entail is non-existant, and anything even entailing likeable characters was kicked off a cliff into a bed of spikes.Then again, characters can be one-dimensional as long as the atmosphere, writing, and pacing is solid right? Well, that is going to be my main focus, a closer examination of Dead Island in these regards.

The plot of Dead Island is actually quite engaging on paper. You play as one of four established characters, all of which are barely contained stereotypes, who are on the island resort of Banoi for one reason or another just in time to be witness to a zombie invasion. This is, upon further examination, a very novel take on an otherwise tired premise for a video game. The island of Banoi houses a vacation resort, which means there aren’t going to be a lot of firearms available. Shooting zombies left and right is one thing, picking up a champagne bottle or a wooden oar to fight off several zombies by the skin of your teeth is another thing entirely. Compounding this invasion of the living dead is a monsoon threatening to hit the island and tear it apart. This is the spice of great horror experiences. It isn’t all about the zombies trying to eat your face, gamers are well accustomed with dealing with that kind of threat. Isolation is a different story. There is no indication of where the zombie outbreak originated, whether or not anyone is immune, and how far spread the virus is. Is the virus in the air? Are the people on Banoi seeking help in vain? On top of it all, a monsoon is no laughing matter. Fierce winds, flash floods, debris flying everywhere, all of these elements could have been a threat in a completely separate game.

Unfortunately, the finished product has a completely incongruous tone which undercut these elements. Weapons were not only abundant, but could be upgraded with extremely silly additions like a kitchen knife with poison damage or an electric machete. How the heck poison even works on a zombie I have no idea. Clashing against this otherwise silly gameplay mechanic is the attempt to give the game a somber and serious tone. Any and all quest giving characters are trying so very hard to give Dead Island verisimilitude, but any attempts to do so is watered down by the gameplay. Also, I’ll be loathed to omit the fact that the main four characters you play as are miraculously immune to the zombie infection, a cop out if I’ve ever seen it. It’s the tonal equivalent of having a serious cop drama unfold, and every five minutes or so two people in clown costumes run around firing water guns at the bad guys.

But some people probably don’t care about aesthetic sense or meander over the details, but there is one thing that is unanimously a major disappointment bordering on the developer just not giving a damn: the introduction of the monsoon in the second act. The build-up for the second act is actually done fairly well. The main adventure has the players armoring up a van in order to break their way into Banoi’s residential district, complete with a moment where a support character has to kill her zombified father with tears in her eyes. The van makes it to the city, just in time to help even more survivors that are locked up in a church, and the monsoon has struck. What kind of change does this have on the environment that has moved from the bright and colorful beach resort? None at all. The colorful and novel look that was Banoi’s island resort has now been replaced by a standard disheveled city, complete with zombies, a hostile criminal element that isn’t racist in the slightest degree (sarcasm) with guns, and the horrible monsoon that was meant to be a big deal is expressed as light rain. Light rain while the sun is still out nonetheless….

This is arguably the biggest disappointment Dead Island could possibly deliver. What’s even worse is that the narrative tries awkwardly to keep tension high with adding in the aforementioned element of scared criminals with firearms on top of the zombie hordes. Unfortunately, this leads to another major clashing of atmopshere and gameplay, specifically the introduction of an abundance of firearms. The melee weapons of Dead Island always come with a set amount of stats determining how much damage an attack will inflict, how fast it hits, and how long it can be used before breaking down into nothing. In its defense, this statistical use of weapons help the player maintain some form of believability to fighting against zombies. As for the introduction of firearms, ammo is hard to come by, and in terms of variety, the only kind that is closest to accessible is a standard pistol. The problem is that these firearms are statistically the same as the melee weapons the player has spent the better part of ten to fifteen hours familiarizing themselves with, the only difference being the benefit of range. With the lack of ammo and no compensating extra firepower offered mechanically, the guns are essentially worthless. Yes, you could use guns, but would you rather pick away at a zombie by using your only ten rounds of ammunition that only inflict a fixed amount of damage, and headshots do nothing, or would you rather bludgeon said zombie’s head into mush with one of several melee weapons you have repaired and refined up to this point?

So the gameplay is becoming inconsistent, the big threat meant to compound the zombie menace is a dud, and anything else added is just an exercise in futile depression. The final straw however comes early on in the third act. After a set amount of missions somewhere on the side of five hours later, the action moves into a lush jungle area, complete with even more zombies and drug lords with, you guessed it, more guns. What ultimately stops the atmosphere, and by extension my interest in the game, is the introduction of a hidden laboratory. Three guesses what is revealed by the doctors in said laboratory? The infection originated on the island because of mad science. The monsoon has passed, the zombies are all over the place, every other human being that isn’t giving you quests to do is trying to kill you, and the easiest way to deal with the threat is a James Cameron style nuke from orbit. The protagonists are immune, and are armed to the teeth with flaming baseball bats and sharpened throwing knives and bombs made from deoderant cans, so obviously they are going to find a way off the island, leaving the rest of the game as pointless padding. And pad the game they did.

Dead Island is a cautionary tale of a great idea handled terribly. Yes it’s not the worst game ever, but it is nowhere near as good as some people believed it was. If a game wants to be serious, it must be taken seriously thoroughly and passionately. If a game wants to be quirky, it must be quirky blood in blood out. Not one piece of fiction has ever benefited from trying to be both unless it was trying to invoke the mindset of someone who is bipolar. If you want a serious zombie survival game with co-op, check out Left 4 Dead. You want a wacky game where you also kill zombies, play Dead Rising 2. If you want both, just get both games and leave Dead Island in the bargain bin where you found it.

The Return of the Geek: Top 5 Projects of E3!

After so much time and a boatload of procrastination, the Geek has returned. One Geek to reference them all, one Geek to find them. One Geek to drive them all and in the Electronic Entertainment Expo bind them. Now that the requisite joke reference is out of the way, it’s about time I start getting back to what I wanted to use this Blog for in the first place, talking about nerd stuff and games. Of course a lot of stuff has happened recently and a lot of stuff is on my mind which means updates a-plenty will be coming. But first and foremost, I am going to half-ass doing any coverage of E3 2012 by just boiling down my coverage to five big titles. Yes, there was always the hipster option to just talk about indie games for some brief Internet points, but the hipsters already got me covered in that regard. Without further ado, let’s get this train wreck started.

Number 1: The Last of Us (PS3) Release Date: To Be Announced

If you asked me a couple of months ago what I thought of Naughty Dog’s latest project, you would have gotten nothing but severe apathy from me. The people behind Uncharted, and by extension the douchebag protagonist of Nathan Drake, haven’t exactly won a lot of favor from me in recent years. Their aforementioned franchise knows without a doubt a thing or two about spectacle. In a Behind-The-Scenes featurette found on Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, one of the designers admitted that they think up the set pieces first then string a narrative around them, and as such, that is all people remember about them. Planes exploding, truck chases, sinking ships, anything lacking in subtlety is something Naughty Dog seems to revel in with their series. So, it is understandable that when I heard their latest project was a post-apocalyptic survival game revolving around a male protagonist and a teenage girl support character, I was apathetic towards it. However, as seen in the footage above, I’m whistling a different tune. The use of warm colors juxtaposing against the now lifeless city, the minor yet endearing dialogue between protagonist, Joel and the girl is just enough to make them likeable, and the brutal organic nature of fighting against scavengers has just enough emotional shock to leave mixed emotions afterward, especially those final couple of seconds. Now if they can just stick the landing, I can forgive them for thinking that a Dane Cook analogue translates to an Everyman.

Number 2: Beyond: Two Souls (PS3) Release Date: Late 2012/Early 2013

From Quantic Dream, the studio responsible for releasing the movie you occasionally play, Heavy Rain, has unveiled this new project at E3. It involves the character of Jodie, who somehow shares an existence with a spirit whom she calls Aiden, and the unusual insight that brings. Credit has to be given to David Cage’s newest project in several areas. First of all, the in-game footage looks absolutely gorgeous. The new technology also shows off the subtle performance of Oscar-Nominated Actress Ellen Page as the protagonist. If there is one thing I have against Beyond’s trailer, the transition from subtle horror to full blown action seems a bit too jarring. In a game like this, which David Cage announced will follow Ellen’s character over the span of 15 years, I would have expected a bit more time to humanize the character before cranking the action knob to an 11. Either way, color me interested.

Number 3: ZombiiU (Wii-U) Release Date: To Be Announced

An otherwise standard zombie survival game from Ubisoft to help showcase the Wii-U console. So why do I have my eye on such a project? Astonishingly enough, it’s the multiplayer. Most games involving zombies either have players fighting zombies alone or with friends, but not once have I heard of a current generation game giving control of the zombies to the player. That’s right. According to those who played the demo at E3, the competitive multiplayer has a certain number of players against another player who commands and controls the zombie hordes. The players fighting the zombies have to complete certain objectives as well as stay alive, and the combat will be First-Person Shooter style. The player directing the zombies, meanwhile, will be using the Wii-U’s tablet controller to orchestrate ambushes, special zombies and the like from a top-down perspective similar to Real-Time Strategy. It’s as if Left 4 Dead let the player be the AI Director, and I am all over that level of griefing.

Number 4: Tomb Raider (PS3/360) Release Date: March 2013

Tomb Raider is getting yet another reboot, and it appears to be borrowing the framing device from the origin story of Green Arrow. It is quite an undertaking to get a video game character from the 1990s and attempt to give them depth. Sometimes it works in tiny steps like Link in the more recent Legend of Zelda games, and sometimes they go horribly horribly wrong as was the case with Metroid: Other M. The task of turning a protagonist that was initially gaming’s first examination of sexuality as a selling point into something more is a great undertaking by itself, what is even more challenging is the addition of other themes seen in the trailer. Lara Croft, originally an unapologetic badass with guns, is now being treated as an innocent 21-year old woman out on her first major expedition that goes horribly wrong, forcing her to survive Man Vs. Wild style. Obviously some fans took this about as well as the reception of a knife to the gut. On the other hand, there is a disturbing undercurrent of, to quote some people, “the sexualization of rape.” Throughout the trailer above, there are sequences where Lara is brutally injured, burned, impaled, beaten up, and almost physically raped. Accompanying these sequences are screams of anguish on behalf of the character, and honestly, wouldn’t you scream? This has lead some people to associate the game treating Lara Croft less of a pragmatic adventurer and more of a female stereotype, being able only to endure great pain, be an object only of a sexual nature, worry about living up to her family’s expectations, and seeking the refuge and comfort of a man.

Of course, being the hopeless optimist that I am, this is indicative of great potential. In a medium where female characters are handled with as much care as a glassblower’s workshop set next to an opera house, this new Tomb Raider might actually do things right. If this game can actually follow through on Lara Croft’s character arc from how she is shown in the trailer to the Lara Croft people are more familiar with and do it in an organic and believable way, it will be a victory for the medium. At the same time, if it botches this character progression, we’ll be back here doing this same song and dance a couple of years later and the medium as a whole will suffer

Number 5: Dishonored (360,PS3,PC) Release Date: October 2012

A First-Person Action-Stealth game set in a Steampunk world about an assassin going after people who have wronged and betrayed him. Sounds just novel enough not to be completely trite, but dammit it works. The plot feels like something out of a 90’s era comic book with the tagline, “Revenge Solves Everything,” and what little we see of the world has a bit too much grime and blood to really be considered campy. but if I ever had to find a game I just wanted to play for the sole purpose that it just looks freaking cool, it’s Dishonored.

That is it for E3 this year! Coming up, more brain droppings passing as legible prose!

Overanalyze This! Halo: Fanbase De-volved

A few months ago I managed to obtain a copy of Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary through my Gamefly account. I had never touched any of the Halo games before save for a newcomer-alienating experience of playing the demo for Halo: Reach. I had never played the multiplayer, had no idea who Master Chief or the Spartans were, and I didn’t know the difference between a Needler and a Plasma Rifle. I heard about the franchise, specifically how it essentially changed how First-Person Shooters were made in the history of gaming and helped Microsoft become the first major Western-made videogame console success story and how it spawned a fanbase of millions. As much as this would make the HD re-release of this pivotal series’ first installment a gaming Anthropologist’s jackpot and essentially what made me give it a shot, it was the utter ravenousness of the fanbase claiming the Halo series to be in the mildest sense,”the greatest gaming story ever told” that made me put on my “overanalyzing” glasses — by extension making a new feature for this blog– and start trying to understand the franchise’s appeal and what exactly has made it last long enough to merit a large 10 Year Anniversary celebration. The results have left me both fascinated and disappointed.

First, it must be said that I went into Halo Anniversary as unbiased and objective as possible. I kept trying to put myself into the mindset I was at in 2001, even going so far as playing the first missions of the game on the original graphics from that time period. Realistically, in 2001 I was 11 so if the ESRB is to be believed I shouldn’t have even been playing Halo to begin with but this is a thought experiment so screw that hiccup.

 It’s 2001, I’m 11 years old, in this alternate universe I did not pick up a Gamecube due to fondness and nostalgia for Nintendo but an Xbox. The X made it sound cool and it was advertised to play big meaty games only meant to be on a computer, but you played them with a controller and on a television. Awesome! I heard about awesome games you could play on a computer but couldn’t afford it.. What game did I get with this new fancy machine? Halo: Combat Evolved. I never played a first-person shooter before, save for Goldeneye and Armorines on the Nintendo 64, but I heard it was supposed to be amazing. It involved tough guys in space armor fighting evil aliens trying to enslave and/or destroy the human race, which sounded a lot like what those religious extremists in the Middle East wanted to do to my country after that attack on our land. I was ready to score some karmic vengeance and beat up those bastards for thinking they could mess with my people. So in the disc went, the title screen came up, and I was off. I experienced the Master Chief being awoken from his pod, the assault by the Covenant on the Human Spaceship, the Pillar of Autumn, and him cutting a swath of destruction through the legions of the alien boarding team. The power of the Assault Rifle as it cut through the Grunts, the kickback and power of a charged up plasma pistol as it burned through one of the tougher troops, the power of the grenades as I lobbed them down narrow hallways. The Master Chief wasn’t some plumber with a quirky Italian accent, he was a supersoldier in armor, he was militarized, hardened and ready to get the job done This game was awesome in every sense of the word, and the eclectic musical score made it feel exotic and otherworldly yet engaging, a lot like how I felt about watching the first Star Wars movie. Then, I fastforwarded my mind ten years and switched the graphics engine to its shiny HD version.

It’s now 2011, I’m 21 years old, and I’m sitting in my mancave with my Xbox 360 playing Halo Combat Evolved Anniversary. With a decade of perspective and more road experience of the geek landscape in mind I started picking the game apart. Surprising no one who is a Science Fiction aficionado, Halo: Combat Evolved feels like a gaming hybrid of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers with some cliffnotes taken from the sci-fi novel, Ringworld, for good measure. This does not make the game bad, not by a long shot. Batman Arkham Asylum turned out to be Game of the Year by many two years ago and that was a game based off a seventy-year old comic book, and its sequel, Arkham City, delivered in spades. In terms of creativity, between the guns and the enemies, it’s not as visually exotic as El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron was with its subject matter being the Hebrew text, The Book of Enoch, but it managed to outdo Armorine’s enemy diversity by being more than just differently skinned variations of giant insect monster. The amazing innovation that Halo as a franchise had ushered in is now so ubiquitous to the genre as a whole that the act of managing only two guns and a handful of grenades became second nature due to my mild experience with the more recent Call of Duty games. Master Chief was no longer a stoic powerful and focused soldier, he became a cardboard cut-out stereotype of a character. He was no longer different, he was the norm. He was no longer an interesting character, he was merely a vessel for the player to inhabit and experience the fantasy of being in his situation. Master Chief went from being a John Wayne in space to being an empty suit of armor for me to run around in while shooting things. The Delta Squad from Gears of War talked and joked amongst themselves, Half Life’s Gordon Freeman had more personality as a scientist thrust into extraordinary situations even if he never talked, Portal’s Chell was essentially a straight character so the entire game could be a comedic foil, Jack from Bioshock was written specifically to experience the world of Rapture along with the player, aka a more structured player vessel. Compared to everything else the Silent Protagonist has been able to do in so many years, Master Chief by comparison comes off as bland and uninteresting.

Of course, this sort of perspective is bound to happen when we are talking about a game as revolutionary yet old as Halo: Combat Evolved. Eventually, those crow’s feet and liver spots are going to show a lot more than those veteran’s badges, Mr. Spartan. So why am I being especially harsh to Halo with games that have come out more recently? Why am I taking my time to deconstruct a game that is ten years old and comparing it to games that were made after its time, leading their experiences to register more favorably in my mind. Because as unbias and objective and in the moment I attempted to put my experience of Halo Anniversary, a continuous problem kept kicking me in the back of my mind. It was as if a man from space had parked his flying Bistro somewhere in the horizon and my brain kept jumping back and forth between registering it as somebody else’s problem. Then, it finally came to me. The gameplay kept reminding me of my small amount of time playing Halo: Reach. Not in terms of narrative, personally I’m really glad Noble Team died as horribly as they did they were just stupid, but in terms of gameplay. The weapons looked the same and felt the same, the enemies looked the same, fought in the same way, the environments were the same, everything was the same. The foundation of this decade old franchise was the exact same game I was playing at that moment, but re-released every couple of years with some small cosmetic tweaks and weapon changes, and the fanbase behind it lapped it all up presumably on nothing more than nostalgia. This was the emotional equivalent of being told I couldn’t join a secret society that had great insight into the world and the human condition due to their experience, only then to my dismay upon being indoctrinated into this group that all I saw were a bunch of man-children running around in cardboard suits shooting eachother with overdesigned squirt guns while a tasteless action movie was blaring in the background. 

To me, this is a major problem. The danger of a series aging into the double-digits is not the threat of running out of ideas, if it got this far and has a large enough following to warrant a decade of praise something has been done right, it is that the fans don’t want things to change so intensely that the designers and producers listen and obey. That is a fast road to stagnation, and the last thing I want any series to do, especially in a video game, is stagnate into a shallow pandering insulary mess. Why videogames especially? Back in the 90s, right when Nintendo’s console boom led to the console war between them and SEGA, the one thing neither company was lacking in was fascinating ideas. Look back at the games that came out on the Genesis and the SNES. The majority of those titles were ridiculous in premise and positively alien compared to today’s market. There were games about people traveling through time to save reality by using magic, technology, and swords, there were games where Sumo wrestlers had fistfights with Indian Hindu practitioners who could breathe fire. Creativity is nowhere near dead in video games, compared to films and books, they’re just getting started. What about other big name franchises that have been around more than a decade? What about Super Mario, Legend of Zelda, Mega Man, Grand Theft Auto, Half-Life, etc.? Do me a favor and look back at the very very first Super Mario Bros. game. Simple side-scroller with simple yet addictive controls and mechanics, basic but it got the job done. Now jump ahead ten years, for time’s sake let’s just round it up to the N64 release of Super Mario 64. 3D polygons with 3D movement, that was huge and revolutionary for its time, and many many franchises tried making the jump, Super Mario did it almost effortlessly. Legend of Zelda, same thing occured. Mega Man more or less became a nostalgia property but it has had multiple spin-offs, including Mega Man X and Battle Network. Mechanically the same but with so many different flavors of it that it is hard to complain. Grand Theft Auto has had a major tonal change in its twenty years of existence. It went from being a zany top-down racer to being gaming’s first major sandbox exploration game. As it progressed and improved the formula of picking up hookers, shooting drug dealers, and generally being one long interactive session of being the world’s most effective murderous psychpath, it tracted countless controversy for its subject matter being done frivolously and in a childish manner only to have its most recent installment paradoxically be a mature, dark, social satire of an immigrant’s life as he comes to America. What did this franchise do to celebrate 20 years, it ported it’s influential 3rd installment, which keep in mind was only playable on a PS2 or an Xbox at the time, to smartphones. That still blows my mind. What has Halo done to break the mold in its ten year existance, where was its major change from formula besides a graphical update in 2007? A hastily made Real Time Strategy spin-off that wasn’t very good, some Expanded Universe books and an animated straight to DVD film. This is disgraceful.

So why the focus on the fans? Because, believe it or not, how the creators of something views its fanbase has an effect on what gets made. Marketing 101. Will it appeal to people who liked the previous product? What’s the risk and reward of broadening our demographic? These are constant questions being asked, and how the fans react negatively to change or postively to fan service is always a factor, especially with this fancy invention called The Internet. Why do Call of Duty games focus so much on Multiplayer and keep churning out sequels once a year? Because of marketing research and the natural progression of a free market. So why isn’t CoD on the chopping block as much as Halo? Call of Duty does manage to innovate with its annual sequel cycle, not as much as I would like but there is always distinct differences between the games. Halo has had identical development cycles and releases to big AAA releases like Arkham Asylum, Gears of War and the like. What Call of Duty has managed to do between four games in four years, Halo hasn’t even touched in four games and ten years So why so little change in ten years mechanically? The fans weren’t expecting more innovation or more additions to the gameplay formula, they wanted more maps to run around in Multiplayer, and more opportunities to play as The Master Chief. They didn’t want the game to change otherwise it will become too much like other games, and essentially kill the allure of the franchise, at the detriment of expanding the fanbase’s numbers.

 But let’s turn off  the high-minded thinking for a minute and let me just ask some basic questions to the Halo Fanbase as a whole. Are the games really so perfect as to not be allowed to be touched period? Do the vehicles really handle that well or do they keep flipping over themselves? Are your ally AI really that dynamic and engaging or do they come off as bipolar as they pound away at a wave of Grunts one minute only to scurry away in terror at the last two coming after them? Are you really satisfied with just having the exact same enemies attacking you in the exact same way for four continuous games? Can a series really be called the “greatest video game story ever told” when it doesn’t learn to change with the times and adapt to survive? Games evolve and change, that is not me being mean, that is a fact.

Halo 4 is intended to come out next year, and it is being brought in by a new studio since Bungie has now left the franchise, and because of this I must ask one thing: will they dare to take the plunge and make this franchise more than ten years worth of nostalgia oozing from an armorclad anachronism, or will they continue listening to the fans and reduce this series to nothing more than a consumer-oriented Ourobouros? Will the fan take a page from their favorite Spartan and learn to adapt to this change and embrace it, or will their devolution of the thing they love progress to its natural conclusion?

Overanalyze This!

For future reference to those expecting a degree of continuity from this blog, I do my best to stay busy with a lot that I do, most telling is a position as a writer for the independent gaming site, All Age Gaming, and being a regular on their All About Games Podcast, of which Season 2 has begun, have a listen, tell your friends, plug plug, etc. I mention such a position not for bragging rights but to illustrate a point and to segway into this post’s title. Game analysis… what happened to it?

 

   I don’t mean the act of analyzing a game all together, I’m talking about the widespread enthusiasm to look deeper into the hobby of videogames, or lack thereof. The act of examining or looking into the subtext of a story has always been accepted in other forms of media, look at book clubs, and yet I don’t see that much being done with video games. This is probably due to some part of me not entirely engrossed into the interconnected cybercommunity as much as I should, but it’s still a problem I see in public. Some argue that it’s a matter of qualification, but even that doesn’t hold much water for me. Some of the most insightful examinations, or at least thought-provoking, of video games have come from, in equal parts in terms of quality and passion, the guys at Extra Credits and Bob “Moviebob” Chipman.

The first is a group of three people, Daniel Floyd, James Portnow, and Allison Theus, all talented people who work within the games industry as animators, artists, game design teachers, etc. Their episodes range from addressing certain issues that have popped up in the industry, such as the Playstation Network outage, and in depth examinations of games such as the God of War games and the newest Call of Juarez. They have a following because they have, to be frank, “battlefield experience.” They have worked on games, they have experienced crunch time, they have faced the ugly dark side of the industry that the public would never have known about. Yet, each episode is a love letter to the industry, and to the potential of the medium.

Moviebob on the other hand is an independent filmmaker that started up a casual series on YouTube called The Game Overthinker, in which he, an average bright human being with little to no knowledge in the field save for being a member of Generation NES, decided to willingly and gladly dissect and examine games, gamer culture, the industry, and what he would like to see more of. This unassuming show, according to the logic most people have saying that analysis of games requires diligent study and a dry, detached demeanor, should have just faded away into obscurity… but it didn’t. The show was picked up by Screw Attack, and is now coming up on its 60th episode. The tone of the show? Peppered with old NES soundchip music and shoutouts to Mario, Zelda, Megaman and the like all with a quirky tongue-in-cheek side story that has recently crept up involving the host of the show dealing with magic ninjas and collaborating with a talking rabbit that happens to be a police commissioner.  His stances? A forced en masse return of his audience to common sense at worst, and controversial at best. One of his most controversial was one in which he actively defended the critically panned, fanbase offending title, Metroid: Other M, even upto saying he preferred seeing the main character of Samus Aran in a flawed, frail and emotional light, as opposed to the hardened stoic intergalactic warrior for which the series was known. Moviebob’s analysis of games, taste, even his opinions on Other M, are not what I want to comment about however; it’s the fact that he has a successful show because he expresses them to begin with.

I have referenced these two shows at the risk of it driving away people from fully reading this post in order to give context to what I have currently been experiencing these past few weeks. I for one, am completely glad and honored to have a position at All Age Gaming. Those who work there are a very nice bunch and have some of the best insightful reviews I’ve read in a while, and I do my best to bring as much knowledge and insight to every recording of the podcast as I am able. Yet, in the past few weeks, I have earned some stick from my fellow contributors for being someone who and I quote, “overanalyze everything.” This retort, for the record, came after a long-winded examination of how Dead Island continuously could have been a lot better beyond graphics and weapon balance. The minute I mused on how much better the game would have been if it retained a consistent tone and atmosphere and other things that wouldn’t have directly impacted the basic catharsis of smashing zombies to bits with a hammer, I was deemed, by the phrase, “overanalyze everything”, someone who couldn’t find fun in something designed to be fun and was trying to be a humorless analyst. This was from a writer on a gaming website. The foundation of great gaming websites such as Kotaku, Destructoid and The Escapist are on analysis, looking deeper but not to the point where they forget that games are inherently meant to be entertainment. Analysis doesn’t require great knowledge in the field, it helps however, and anyone willing to take five minutes to observe what they’re playing can do it. Gaming websites like IGN attempt to make such things trivial and meaningless, but that’s a practice I cannot condone. So why isn’t analysis or deeper examination or thoughts have been building around a medium that has exponentially expanded in the past few years?

The obvious strawman response is because of the sudden notoriety and entitlement given to the medium, note this is mostly North America oriented, by the National Endowment of the Arts now expanding the concept of Art to include games, and the recent Supreme Court case in which any and all attempts to further demonize the medium and attempt to ban it or censor it. The argument goes that, “we don’t have to prove anything anymore. Legally, it’s art, so now we can do whatever we want.” The inclusion of games as being treated in the same legal sense as film or literature seems to be enough to declare it as being as mature and insightful as the other mediums classified as art.  To this argument, I have to completely disagree, my opinion is the exact opposite. While it is true that certain games have managed to hit major philosophical issues, the industry as a whole has been essentially neutered in terms of what subject matter could be presented, an example would be the “Six Days in Fallujah” fiasco. The Supreme Court case essentially making Games protected under the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution wasn’t a sign for the community and industry to become complacent and return to the norm, but a challenge to see what can be done. It’s a much larger version of a five year old yelling that they can dress themselves and the parent finally throwing up their hands and letting the kid do it. For the record, the kid has the shirt on properly, now he’s working on getting the jacket sleeves right, tying his shoes and putting the pants on right, but still a long way away from knowing what parts of clothing go well together. In other words, autonomy has been achieved, now what will be created and done with this freedom? More importantly, how will the examinations and analysis of the industry direct and guide the medium? In short, analyzing and having deep observations about games isn’t meant to be considered dry and vestigial to something that’s “just supposed to be fun,” it’s a sign of deep passion about the medium that’s indicative of wanting more from it.

I might just be shouting to the heavens as far as I know, but if you’re someone who “overanalyzes” games, embrace it!  If you’re part of a gaming website and you noticed something powerful or compelling in a game, voice it and express it. No title is off limits from this, and I mean that. Can be a casual Facebook game, some 3rd party Wii game, or the latest Call of Duty, nothing is off limits. Analysis is an act of passion, not of disdain. It is something that a games writer should love just as much as playing the game itself. It’s that passion that also propels reviews and articles to pieces of great construction to the industry, which will be the foundation of improvement.

The minute the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the game’s industry, my first reaction wasn’t “we won,” but, “now we keep pressing.” The games industry, and by extension the community, are now undergoing a gauntlet of quality of which every amount of thought and examination is critical. I may be overanalyzing things, but I regret nothing.

Review: Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine

Note: This review has no visual aids, if you hate reading, please go soak your head.

 

 

Remember the old days when a 3rd-person action game didn’t have cover-based shooting? The days when a game protagonist was able to take a face full of machine gun fire, spit the rounds out and retaliate with a punch to the face? Relic Entertainment remembers, and so does THQ. Which is why they set out to create Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, a game that does its best to deliver the interactive experience of being a character of the title. But does Relic have the chops to make an action game when their past titles have been Real-Time Strategy? Read on to find out.

 

Gameplay

You play as Captain Titus, who is a part of the Ultramarines, a small group of the legion of killing machines known as Space Marines. He and his squad are deployed to a planet that is being invaded by Orks, which also houses a superweapon that could potentially end the perpetual war of which this grim future is in. Of course, as Titus delves deeper into the events happening on the planet, he discovers a much more pressing threat, a threat that will truly take one who knows no fear to defeat.

If that plot synopsis comes off as dry and tissue thin, that was no accident. Space Marine’s overall story is, to be blunt, dull and predictable. The minute a new character was introduced to the plot I knew immediately what wartime stereotype they were going to fill, which is either a result of lazy writing or me slowly developing ESP. Thankfully, the plot doesn’t try to be deep or ironic, so the result is the feeling of experiencing a small focused story of a bunch of soldiers at a critical point in a major conflict, which I suppose is what the writers were going for.

Gameplay is a resurrection of the 3rd-person Hoard Fighter. You are equipped with ridiculous weapons of preposterous ability, par for the course in the Warhammer 40k universe, and you charge head first into wave after wave of enemies of various toughness, ability and numbers that within the first hour of gameplay I had already managed to kill roughly three-hundred of if my Trophy List is to be trusted. What is notable about fighting countless hoards in the thick of battle is that it is very invigorating. On your HUD you are given a health bar with a shield over it, once the shield goes down, your health starts to get chipped away. Your shield will recover after a while, but your health will not, and Space Marines are about eight feet tall without power armor on so there is a slim chance there is going to be pragmatic forms of cover around, so what to do? While fighting Orks up close with your weapon of choice, by mixing in a stun attack followed by a grab, Captain Titus will perform a devastating execution attack that will grant him health. Combine these elements, seamless dual gameplay between shooting fire arms and slashing up close, as well as a fair variety of enemy types and you have a recipe for brutal yet engaging battles; and that’s before the sequences where they throw you a jetpack. Some might see such battles like tests of attrition than skill, but personally, I’d prefer an engaging challenge that isn’t afraid to press back as opposed to meaningless button pressing through dozens of inconsequential fodder found in Samurai Warriors or Ninety-Nine Nights 2.

As well as the core gameplay of Space Marine works, there are some glaring issues. The problem with transcribing the Tabletop Strategy Game origins of Warhammer 40,000 to a 3rd-person action game is a lack of scope. Seeing a small group of Space Marines battle tooth and nail against an entire planetary invasion of Orks in a war-torn wasteland from a top-down perspective might work from a detached Strategist’s perspective, but when you actually are the Space Marines fighting all of those Orks, after a while it stops becoming fun and just becomes tedious. Unfortunately, this is where Relic’s inexperience in the genre shows. The level design is bland, uninteresting, and only exists to railroad the player from one encounter against the Orks to the next. At first, this is excusable, since the gameplay is such a breath of fresh air from the norm, but too much of anything can be bad. There is not enough variety between battles, no real boss fights to be had, and there is only so much battle-scarred terrain one can see before it becomes meaningless and the visceral catharsis in gutting an Ork to pieces with a Chainsword gets boring once you’ve seen all of the death animations thirty times.

The single player campaign clocks in around eight or nine hours, but the Multiplayer will probably last you a bit longer. It has standard 8 vs. 8 Team Deathmatch and Capture Point, and about six maps inbetween them. This might not sound impressive on the surface but there is a certain degree of catharsis to be had with being able to put on a jetpack, jumping an enemy’s defensive line and chainsawing a fellow player into a pile of gooey chunks. Unfortunately, joining a lobby for a game can take much too long, or not happen at all depending on your patience. Also, while being able to customize the appearance of your Marine is very nice, it can lead to some misunderstandings during a match. More than once I accidentally caught myself shooting at fellow teammates, then getting sniped for telegraphing my location.

Visuals

Visually speaking, Space Marine is nothing remarkable but reliable. The character models are animated very well, the textures are distinct as long as you don’t get too close, and the framerate is consistent from the moment you press Start to when the Credits roll. Aesthetic wise, it feels a bit off. The Warhammer 40,000 universe is unique for having fantasy creatures, Orks, Elves, Demons, etc. all have their own form of sci-fi vehicles and war machines. The world should have an eclectic atmosphere about it, but unfortunately, it sells the “grim” and “dark” parts of the infamous tagline, to the point that the hoards of Orks almost come off as unreal. What little shown of these fantasy elements are really well done, but there’s just not enough here to set it apart from the appearance of other “gritty” shooters.

 

Audio

Mark Strong’s performance as the voice of Captain Titus is definitely the highlight of Space Marine. For all the lack of characterization, Strong manages to lend a certain emotional heft to the character, even if it’s just enough to overlook the well recorded but otherwise insubstantial orchestral score that accompanies the game. On the other hand, the folly effects for the weapons are really well crafted. Chainswords buzz with menace, the Bolter guns feel big and meaty, and grenade explosions feel recorded straight off the battlefield.

 

Delivery

If you’re a fan of Warhammer 40,000, don’t act like Space Marine is not worth your time. The game goes out of its way to make sure it has its mythology and terminology just right, and as such feels like a big love letter to its fans. Furthermore, I’m not going to deny I didn’t have fun playing it, because it was a blast while it lasted. But, in terms of price range, sixty dollars is just too much. That said, the fact that they stayed as true to the material as possible at the expense of making the story feel almost exclusive to the fanbase alone, is reason enough to get it further down the line.

 

Conclusion

Overall, I enjoyed Space Marine. It is not perfect, it’s not going to be getting any awards or medals, but it has to be commended for not following trends. If you’re a fan, wait for the price to drop then have at it, otherwise you can do a lot worse. For the Emperor!

 

Overall Score: 7/10

 

Pros

  • Great Voice performance by Mark Strong
  • Fun and engaging gameplay
  • Interesting (if basic) Multiplayer

 

Cons

  • Bland, uninteresting levels
  • Predictable story and One-Dimensional Characters
  • Gameplay wears thin after a while
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