Monday, February 21, 2011

In Rotation, January/February 2011

Although I've neglected to tally them here until now, I have managed to play a surprising number of games these past few months. Without further ado, here's the Winter 2010-2011 edition of In Rotation:

XBOX 360
  • Finished up Just Cause 2. Well, the story, anyway. After 50+ hours I'm still only at 55% complete. Wish I had picked it up when it first came out - it's become one of my go-to games. Wrote about it a few weeks back.
  • Also polished off the main story of Red Dead Redemption and maybe half of the main questline in the Undead Nightmare add-on. I'm a bit RDR'ed out, I think, although I do plan to finish the DLC, which I'm digging. The final act of the main game left such a weird (not bad - just uncanny) taste in my mouth that I'm not quite sure how to reconcile it all. Without getting into too much detail or trespassing into spoiler country, let's just say I remain baffled by why the final act wasn't the first act.
  • Singularity. Discussed that one already.
  • Dante's Inferno. Ditto.
  • Rock Band 3. A great selection of tracks, although I confess I haven't spent as much time as I'd like with it yet; still waiting on the twice-delayed MIDI adapter attachment so I can hook up my keyboard.
  • Splinter Cell: Conviction. Okay, so now I understand Fisher-Fest 2010. I don't really have much to say about this game other than that playing through it was like idly half-watching a rerun of Commando on TV while killing a bag of Jax on a lazy Sunday. It is what it is. And you feel vaguely guilty afterward.
  • Mass Effect 2: Lair of the Shadow Broker. Well, it's more Mass Effect 2. And, um, remember Mass Effect 2? That was awesome.
  • Two Worlds II. Honestly, I was rooting for this one. A few critics I admire spoke highly of this B-movie fantasy title, and knowing my predilection for somewhat broken yet charming games, I thought this'd be right up my alley. Nope. In the few hours I played before I gave up - and I hate giving up - the combat was just far too broken. At least my frustration prompted Mrs. JPG's suggested review title: "Two Worlds II: Drop This Deuce."
  • Cthulhu Saves the World. Check out my review of this old-school indie gem at Kill Screen.
  • Ilomilo. This brain-twisting puzzler is extraordinarily well-made and unrelentingly adorable. I'll have a lot more to say about this one once the wife and I finish our co-op playthrough, but for now, please enjoy this image of our friendly "thumb-creatures" enjoying a nice cup of tea.
  • Puzzle Quest 2. Although there's no doubt the presentation, role-playing elements, and puzzle variety are much improved over the original, the battles are freakin' interminable. I wonder if the scaling system is broken; at level 37, I don't feel significantly more powerful than my adversaries. I like the addition of "action points" gems and the search, disarm, unlock, and loot minigames, but I feel like I'm treading water in the story.
    • Amnesia: The Dark Descent. A few hours in, I'm still wondering when this gets scary. There have been a few tense and cool setpiece moments - the monster's footprints in the water come to mind - but my primary reaction has not been fear but annoyance so far. It's difficult for me to parse which elements of the game world can be interacted with and which are static; for example, I wasted two oil canisters trying to escape a room by jumping through a hole in the ceiling when all I had to do was move some rocks. That'd be a "duh" moment except for the fact that the rocks I'd encountered earlier, in other rooms, were immovable. I do have to praise Amnesia for its audio design, though - one of the best examples of ambient sound in recent memory.
    • ...But That Was [Yesterday]. I also reviewed this one for Kill Screen; very worth the 15 minutes it'll take you to complete.
    • Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. I LOVE IT. SHUT UP.

    Friday, February 11, 2011

    Liberate Me Ex Inferno

    Dante vs. a Rancor. IT'S IN THE POEM, LOOK IT UP.
    Because it’s apparently Catch Up On Mediocre Games You Missed In 2010 Month at Infinite Lag, I went against the advice of Mitch Dyer and popped in my latest library rental, Visceral Games' Dante’s Inferno, last night.


    Like everyone else with a moderately-developed sense of decorum, I was perplexed by the over-the-top marketing campaign for this game. Lost in the bewildering reports of "lust contests" and $200 checks sent to journalists was any idea of what the game actually was.

    Turns out it's a brawler. And, at least a few chapters in, not a very good one.

    Generally, there's nothing like intentionally idiotic PR to cool any interest I might have in a game. But I eventually became interested in Dante's Inferno for a few reasons. 

    The game had stayed off my radar until a few months ago, when one of my favorite critics, L.B. Jeffries, praised it in his year-end ranking for Kill Screen. "Dante's Inferno gets top marks," he wrote, "for having the audacity to focus on creating an artistic space instead of a spiffy plot or anything but familiar gameplay." Back in March, he'd written a PopMatters column called "The Literary Merits of Dante's Inferno," where he described a number of connections between the poem and the game and explained how certain game mechanics - like absolving or damning characters from the poem - reflect the themes of the Divine Comedy. As a game, he implies, Dante's Inferno is not that great; but with a copy of the poem nearby, there are a lot of cool flourishes to look for and find. (This is true: Mrs. JPG enjoyed trawling Wikipedia for info on each of the poor souls I encountered, and helping me determine how to judge them for their sins.) Jeffries concludes with this piece of irony: Despite its emphasis on mass appeal, "the only people who will really enjoy the game are fans of the poem."

    Having been a lit major in college, I was appropriately scandalized when they turned Beowulf into a shitty CG action movie, and I didn't even like that text. The idea of a videogame adaptation of the Inferno, which I had loved, certainly rankled at first. (The PR nonsense didn't help.) But as I read Jeffries' piece and reflected on my own experience with Deadly Premonition, another game with a rich setting and lousy mechanics, I thought: what the Hell. Maybe they've done something creative. After all, Dante's language is incredibly visual; the Inferno could be fascinating territory for world-building.

    Instead, in the first two hours of the game, I got the following:
    • An extravaganza of inexplicable button-mashing combat
    • A duel with Death Himself that somehow did not involve Battleship
    • Tedious platforming sequences remixed with insipid puzzles
    • Incongruously-styled motion comic backstory cutscenes
    • Tits
    • More tits
    • God of War Lite boss battles
    • More QTEs than you can shake a scythe at
    • Glitchy Virgil
    • Space Marine Mark Antony
    • Blade-armed Hellbabies spilling out of MegaCleopatra's nipples
    • Vagina demons/penis pillars
    • The Power of Christ Impales You
    "Best three out of five!"
    And in the latest edition of OMG What Have I Done To My Wife, this choice quote from Mrs. JPG:
    • " is this game not Japanese?"
    Facetiousness aside, the biggest issue with Dante's Inferno so far is that Visceral just picked the wrong genre. Nothing about the poem recommends itself to a hack-'n-slash more than to, say, an adventure game. The sacrilege here is not appropriating a literary masterpiece for a videogame, or even reformulating the plot and characters. It's appropriating this particular masterpiece for this particular kind of game.

    Witness the following statements from creative director Jonathan Knight, who spoke to Gamasutra in this pillow-soft interview:
    Again, it's an action game, and it's a game in which you do a lot of combat, and that combat is the heart of the game; that's what it is, first and foremost, and that's why it's entertaining, is that the combat feels so good.
    And so, we absolutely had to craft a narrative around a very aggressive protagonist with supernatural weapons, and the ability to break into Hell and fight through the nine circles. So, knowing that that's what video games are, and that's what video games are going to be, we definitely had to craft a narrative around that.
    Not sure that Dante's Inferno's combat actually does feel good, but regardless, I understand the idea. If you're making an action game, it's common practice to feature a badass power fantasy protagonist. And it's okay, then, to stretch the boundaries of the fiction in service of fun gameplay. Got it.

    The fact remains that none of this preposterous stretching - the slaying of Death with his own magical scythe, the slaughtering of endless identical minions, the use of collected souls to upgrade combos, the health-restoring fountains found all over Hell - would be necessary if they had not chosen to make a damn action game. Visceral designed themselves into a corner. This, more than the marketing campaign, was the real bonehead move.

    I agree with Jeffries that there are some interesting things going on in the environments, especially with how the designers chose to represent certain characters and locations visually. I actually liked their version of Cerberus as a bizarre H.R. Geiger sandworm alien, with its hundred chomping mouths, guarding the entry to the Gluttony level. That makes sense thematically, if not narratively.

    But what makes the bulleted list above so silly is that so many of the elements in Dante's Inferno appear to have been inserted explicitly for action-game shock/coolness value. Killing babies! Giant wall-mounted genitalia! Blood! Boobs! Regardless of whether we'd seen them before in the God of War series, there's no consistent thematic or symbolic value there, as far as I can tell thus far. Dante's set of interactions is limited to looking at things, climbing over/around them, and killing them. The player's set of responses is limited to "Ugh!" or "Sweet!"

    By their nature, action games are, with rare exceptions, intellectually lean. The Divine Comedy is not. Imagine how much richer the experience would have been had Dante's Inferno followed suit.

    Friday, February 4, 2011

    The Sincerest Form of Flattery

    Raven Software's Singularity is technically an original IP. But playing through the game, as I did this week, it's difficult to call it anything other than pastiche.

    That doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it, of course. For a paint-by-numbers FPS, it was entertaining enough, with some nifty animations and satisfying, if unoriginal, action. It was quick and fun and utterly familiar, a Hershey's Kiss of a game.

    What should be unique about Singularity is its core mechanic: manipulating time. The setup in brief: Your American soldier, abandoned in 2010 on a Russian island home to a secret experimental facility that went supernova back in the mid-50s, acquires a Time Manipulation Device (TMD), powered by unobtanium E99, a mysterious element found only on the island. With this Power Glove he can age or "revert" objects, people, and the requisite vestigial mutants inhabiting the facility. Fire at a soldier, for example, and he'll age to dust before your eyes.

    Now you're playing with power, indeed.
    The TMD is also handy for solving environmental puzzles, which are generally so simple and repetitive as to be laughable. Revert a collapsed crate to its unbroken state and use it to jump up to the ledge above you. Collapse the crate again, grab it using the TMD's gravity-manipulation power, and squeeze it through a small crevice so you can use it in the next room. Rinse and repeat.

    The problem, as I'm sure every review has pointed out, is that the TMD only works on certain highlighted objects. That makes sense - you wouldn't want to fall through the floor every time you accidentally tapped the bumper - but it does lead to some incredibly constrained puzzle design. If I was stumped for more than a few seconds at any point during Singularity, I don't recall it. The level design is not so much bad as just remarkably uninspired. The ability to manipulate time should be a selling point, allowing the player a wealth of creative opportunities. Instead we get the same tired set of interactions over and over. So I suppose time is being manipulated, in the same way it was for Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

    Naturally, you'll do your share of time-traveling throughout the course of the B-movie story, and there are a few neat little setpieces along the way. Nothing that'll make your brain hurt, but some cool, if way too familiar, sci-fi flourishes.

    That's the thing that defines Singularity: like Bill Murray's bedraggled weatherman, we can't help feeling like we've been here before. And with good reason: Singularity steals from other recent high-profile games with such brazenness and regularity that it's actually quite endearing. It's so obvious about its thievery that in a few instances, it even confused Mrs. JPG into thinking I was playing a different game.

    There's the ghostly figures echoing through time, for example,

    which are reminiscent of the "bleeding effect" between Desmond and Ezio in Assassin's Creed II. And even casual observers can see the similarities between "time rifts" in Singularity and the orange portals from a certain Valve blockbuster:

    They even use light blue and orange as visual cues for reversion and aging on the targeting reticule. You know, like a certain Aperture Science Handheld Device?

    Of course, there's the question of how much of the theft was intentional. I don't know a thing about Singularity's development cycle. It's possible none of these elements were purposefully nicked, but given the very obvious Borat reference found in a late level, I doubt the designers weren't aware of what they were doing. To quote my favorite composer, Igor Stravinsky, "Good composers borrow. Great composers steal."

    I happen to like pastiche every so often. Maybe there's some part of me that craves the familiarity of the known quantity. There's something oddly comforting about Singularity in that way; you know it's retreading the trodden path, but it's nice to find yourself in familiar surroundings.

    Below I've collected some of Singularity's more egregious and enjoyable thieveries. What else have I forgotten? Let me know in the comments.

    Singularity                                                  BioShock                                           
    Giant tape recorder audio logs                      Giant tape recorder audio logs
    E99 Tech                                                         ADAM
    Bio-Formulas                                                  Tonics
    Augmenter                                                      Gatherer's Garden
    Encourages scavenging                                  Encourages the crap out of scavenging

                                                                           Dead Space
    Chrono-ping                                                  Holographic pathfinder line
    Reverts                                                           Necromorphs
    Giant monster boss fights                              Giant monster boss fights
    TMD gravity manipulation                            Kinesis

    Phase Ticks                                                    Flood parasites

                                                                           Fallout 3
    Seeker slo-mo animations                             VATS death animations
    Hero Perks                                                      Perks
    Alternate 1950s future tech dystopia             Better alt. 1950s future tech dystopia

                                                                            Half-Life 2
    "Interactive cutscenes" w/ NPCs                   Better "interactive cutscenes" w/ NPCs
    TMD gravity manipulation                            Gravity Gun
    TMD gets supercharged at end                     Gravity Gun gets supercharged at end