Prey (2017)

What’s immediately striking about Prey has little to do with the actual game. It’s a complete marketing disaster. It has the same name as a forgettable game from the late oughts that never got a true sequel, except it’s actually a spiritual sequel to the shock style of games (System Shock/Bioshock). My first encounter with it was a commercial during the NBA playoffs, my reaction something along the lines of “huh, OK”. I forgot about it until I chanced upon mention of it in a forum thread months later.

Which is too bad. It’s a decent game. Though far from perfect and ultimately dissatisfying.

After a delightfully creepy intro, you, Morgan Yu, wake up aboard Talos I, a spacestation floating between the Earth and moon that was slowly assembled in an alternate history wherein JFK was never assassinated and the US/Soviets reached some kind of peace & cooperation w/r/t space exploration. It’s now 2035 and technology has gone down different paths than our own timestream. The hip new tech in Prey is the “neuromod”, which allows you to inject other people’s skills (whether being a great athlete or musician or whatever) into your own brain to gain that knowledge and affinity. This is what is used to augment your character as well, though the gameplay mechanics here don’t live up to the premise (largely limited to: take a few neuromods for your basic +10 to shooting or movespeed).

I’m not certain if this gametype has a name. I’ve pejoratively termed it the “sneak around and read people’s mail” genre. What’s interesting about games from Bioshock to Prey is they build this utterly compelling, immersive environment — Talos 1 is absolutely believable as a real place — and then construct a bafflingly implausible and gamey method of delivering the narrative. Whether this be Bioshock’s audio diaries scattered everywhichwhere, various actors proclaiming every private aspect of their lives, or Prey’s workstations with their conveniently left behind passwords, identical interfaces and 3-email inboxes. Indeed, 3 emails that happen to reveal tantalizing morsels of plot. These titles take far more pride in their narrative than most video games yet remain shackled to “shoot things and read/listen to static things.”

Anyway, the environments are so good, that it still kind of works. For a while. Sneaking around Talos I, using my paltry skills to dodge or eliminate the aliens skulking around, piecing together stories of just what went wrong, was engaging. When my enthusiasm started to flag, the game smartly introduced some survivors for me to worry about. But the fact of the matter is that you can only sustain a game so long on dubious combat and reading emails. Prey does itself no favors by having sparse plot, stretched entirely too thin. You could break the whole narrative down to a few story beats, with too many distractions in between.

You encounter intriguing plot device —
Oh no, you can’t reach the intriguing plot device because the power is out —
You turn the power back on —
You’re treated with a tiny morsel of plot, but oh no, the macguffin you need to see the next part is broken
You go fix it —
But now you’re locked out of the station
Etc etc etc.

I must have played through about 80% of the game in a week and spent the next two+ limping to the conclusion. Not limping — holding down sprint and running by all the new enemies just to reach the story’s end. It’s a very uneven experience.

 

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Firewatch

firewatch

You’re Henry.

A burly, bearded man from Boulder, fond of skiing and beer and a blend of all the attributes of your affable Colorado bro. In your late 30s and happily married, until life takes a serious nose-dive for the worse when your wife, Julia, develops early onset dementia. A couple years of this misery and, unable to cope, you fuck off to the wilderness to become a scout.

In recent years, we’ve been inundated by ’interactive novels’, wherein we guide characters down a narrative path and most of our ‘playing’ is comprised of:

1) walking from point A to point B and

2) making key dialogue choices that will change the story going forward, or at least give the illusion the story is being changed.

It’s the Choose Your Own Adventure paperbooks of yore, spruced up for the digital age. Telltale Games have been particularly prolific here, turning TV shows and comics from The Walking Dead to Game of Thrones to Fables to Batman into interactive novels. A sort of sub-genre labeled ‘walking simulators’ is also occasionally referenced here.  A beautiful environment is built, but all you can really do is walk around and ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ and not engage in your typical gaming actions — shooting, jumping, etc.

Firewatch is a walking simulator in its most pejorative sense, and interactive novel at its most limited and milquetoast, skewing very far towards the ‘novel’ or ‘short film’ path and very little on the side of game.

Shoshone National Forest is quite pretty, especially when burnished by the setting sun. You’d like to walk around there. Camp. But it’s difficult to acknowledge as an actual place. You’re largely walking down very defined paths with little room for deviation. There’s not much you can do unless the game has a very specific purpose in mind for you (find a backpack, see a raccoon). Your freedom is basically quashed. Exploration is pointless because there’s nothing to find. I’ve played plenty of games that are engaging while requiring you to do mundane tasks — farming virtual crops, climbing buildings to collect flags. But the tasks you’re set to in Firewatch feel pointless and rote, more like busywork to get you to the next dialogue segment instead of goals unto themselves.

Moreover, it’s hard to feel like you really are Henry, a person taking up physical space. The point of view is first person and all you ever see is his stubby legs when he’s climbing up and down things, in a perspective that holds little in common with how your legs actually look when you observe them. Instead, you’re more like a floating camera observing the story. 

In fact, that sort of spatial disconnect can link us to the real failing of Firewatch: for such a deeply personal story, I never felt like I could really own Henry. The game is spent communicating via radio with Henry’s  sarcastic boss, Delilah, a woman with a sordid past of her own. The whole draw of the game is Henry and Deliah’s relationship, and supposedly the impact the player can have on it. The dialogue is fairly snappy and engaging, but my agency within it was slight. Many times I was not given a choice in how to respond. I had to select a single line reporting something I had seen or a pre-decided sentence to respond to Deliliah. Even when I had choices, it never felt like they mattered. The choice was typically one of tone, not of content (angry / sarcastic / timid). What made things supremely annoying was that if you don’t respond quick enough, Delilah thinks you’re being purposely silent and responds as such. This response window is shockingly short. You have to read 3-4 different sentences and decide how you want to respond. Even as a real-life gap in conversation it was too short. Baffling.

What I’m getting at here is: Why did this need to be a game at all? It’s appeal is a human relationship and its composite back-and-forth dialogue. You barely have an effect on it. Were it a short film, we’d have some features enhanced: We could see the emotions on Henry’s face, and if he were a good actor, it would improve the narrative. Other negative features  would be removed: Actor Henry would not get stuck on a short hill he should be able to cross but can’t for whatever gameplay reasons. I mean, it’s not like some sort of cardinal sin to make a video game that would have been better as a movie, but it feels pretty wasteful to not actually use the elements of video games that film does not have to improve the experience.

My last complaint is going to be about the conclusion of the narrative itself, which wouldn’t really matter whether it was game or film or book or whatever. Some very general spoilers follow. When you have a plot based on ‘weird shit happening’, there’s a few different effective reveals we typically see.

  1. Character suspects something weird is happening. Turns out some really weird shit is happening. Aliens recently landed in his backyard and replaced his family with drones. It doesn’t have to be supernatural, but it often is. 
  2. Something bad happens to a character and it’s a completely plausible (albeit troubling) mystery. A child goes missing, but it’s never suggested to be anything more than the real-life, day-to-day misery of a child going missing.
  3. Basically a combination of 2 followed by 1. Audience is lead to believe it’s a “real-life” tragedy and then finds out it is something more. Character A spends 75% of the movie looking for a lost child and then stumbles upon the gateway to hell.

Those are all fine, workable plots. It’s #4 that I have a problem with.

4. The reverse of 3. Something really damn weird is happening, same start as #1. The plot wants us to believe in the supernatural. But, oops, turns out it was really just banal human ignorance and cruelty all along. Gotcha! You might call this the ‘Scooby Doo’ plot. It wasn’t a ghost, it was your dad wearing a sheet. You have to be a clever creator indeed to pull this off without leaving the viewer dissatisfied.

Needless to say, Firewatch hit me with #4. Worse, the ending is completely set in stone. Your choices, insofar as they exist, cannot affect the outcome. That’s anathema to the whole notion of choose your own adventure and yet another reason the game failed for me.

Dark Souls III

dark souls 3

Once more unto the breach. For the third time in five years, the first flame is dying; nearly dead. When it dies, an age of Dark will commence and light will become no more. Granted, the world is a twisted, corpse-littered mess and it’s a dubious notion that it’s worth saving in the first place, but here you are, another mute undead warrior stumbling on to the scene to make things right (or worse).

The Dark Souls series, including the main trilogy and its predecessor Demon’s Souls and spinoff Bloodborne are some of my favorite games, ever. The uncompromising vision, the gorgeous rendering of hellish medieval ruin, the drive to try something new. In an industry that was moving more and more towards accessibility as the ultimate goal, Dark Souls popularized a philosophy already apparent and contentious in literature: Demanding effort and attention from the reader/player can lead to a finer, more rewarding experience. Dismissing the axiom that entertainment need be ‘easy’ is Dark Souls gift to posterity.

The bedrock of Dark Souls is that by thrusting the player into a dangerous world that does not hold their hand or explain much at all, both the oppressive atmosphere of the gameworld is heightened and the high the player feels after finally overcoming a difficult challenge is far more satisfying than it would be otherwise. And this practice is proven true, again and again. I can say this from experience, when after narrowly taking down The Nameless King, one of the harder bosses, I was in a shaky but exultant state indeed.

What this does for the narrative is key too: I rescued a smooth talking but frankly creepy fellow and brought him back to my home pad. He then offered to ‘unlock my true power’ and give me a free level up. In other games, I would just blindly accept the reward. But this is Dark Souls, which has taught me to be suspicious of anything free, especially from the mouths of shady individuals. This is the series that, in past games, allowed me to bring back friendlies to my base who later murdered everyone else there. The narrative and its choices are enhanced by the gameplay. The risk.

(I took the offer anyway; naturally, nothing comes without a price)

We’re five games deep now. Elements of the series have filtered down into other games — from cosmetics like bonfires being used as checkpoints to feature adoption like being able to leave templated messages to other players to a general philosophy that fine tuned difficulty is an admirable design philosophy. Can Dark Souls maintain its innovation? It doesn’t try. Rather than re-invent the wheel, DS3 is satisfied with simply doing what it already does very well. Something none of its imitators have ever really approached. The tightness of the core systems, the haunting strangeness of its world. It basically gives a clinic on level design with the wonderful Undead Settlement, a crumbling shantytown that constantly intertwines and twists back on itself, while maintaining the fiction of being a real place where people once lived.

While I thoroughly enjoyed my time playing the game, if not as quite so much as Bloodborne*, there were times like I felt like I was going through the motions. There’s only so many times you can roll-dodge the wide swing of an animate suit of armor’s greatsword, or throw the same fireball or get stabbed to death by another cackling skeleton. DS3 seems to acknowledge that its players could have played up to four separate but similar games by this point, so everything seems to move much faster and hit much harder. We’re still pros by this point, though. It would be laughable to say the game wasn’t difficult, but it’s a controlled, familiar difficult that doesn’t challenge me for long anymore. We’ve seen the decaying land of Lothric/Drangleic/Lordran many times by this point, and while it’s still haunting and enchanting, it’s no longer fresh. The game acknowledges this by doubling back to previous titles — locations and familiar faces abound. 

This is the finale. The victory lap. Visionary Director Hidetaka Miyazaki has called this his final Dark Souls game. Another impressive feat is to quit when the time is right and not when the money runs out. I cannot wait to see where he will take us next. 


*I’m not going to say much about Bloodbourne because I already wrote plenty on it here; but I will say it remains the pinnacle of the series for me. The highly focused trick weapons and speedy gameplay ultimately trumped the greater armament diversity of Dark Souls and I loved the focused Victorian/Lovecraftian story. That said, there’s still expansion packs lurking out there in the future for DS3

 

Nostalgia and Ducktales

Nostalgia is a funny thing. It used to connote a pleasant kind of yearning for the past. Maybe a little bittersweet but an ultimately positive feeling. But lately we’ve become skeptical of it. Some call it a barrier to innovation. Corporations cashing in on thirty-somethings who have families now and maybe some wealth. Just throw something in front of them that they remember fondly from their childhood and they’ll munch it right up. Blame endless sequels or our infinite obsession with superheroes on this. Watch your peers rapidly become how you remember your parents, crotchetly declaring that things used to be better.

I attributed these feelings to an nameless, amorphous critic here, but I share them in part. I don’t mind a good remake or rehash, but I want to see new things more. I’ve vowed I won’t end up one of those old guys afraid of new things and unable to adapt to new technology or music or yes, video games.

Which brings us to Ducktales Remastered, a remake of a 1989 NES game. Let’s be real here: Ducktales is not relevant anymore. It does not interest modern kids, all of whom are much too young to remember the heyday of early 90s Disney cartoons and video games. Ducktales is a kids game aimed at adults, even going so far as to use the cartoon’s original voice actors, which is kind of an outstanding feat. Scrooge and co. all sound much older and gravellier, but still nail their signature voices. It’s worthy to note that ‘kid’s game’ also meant something entirely different, gameplay-wise, in the NES days. While Remastered added an easy mode with infinite lives/checkpoints, it’s still dramatically more difficult than most currently produced, age-accessible games.

ducktales

Before we circle back to nostalgia, let’s ask: does a 1989 game hold up in 2016?

Sort of.

The innovation of Ducktales, a platformer like many others following the Super Mario or Megaman greats, was that Scrooge McDuck can use his cane as a pogo stick. Indeed, that’s how you navigate the world. Always be pogo’ing. It’s a cool mechanic. Remastered also obviously updated the graphics. The characters and enemies are sharply done, and look like they hopped right out of the cartoon, though the backgrounds and items are quite muddy and unremarkable. The thing is: other than Scrooge’s unique method of movement, the levels are very simple and forgettable. Enemies don’t do much. The bosses have simple patterns and take too many hits to kill. Add it all up and it’s a fun diversion but not timeless like say, Super Mario Bros 3 or Mega Man 2. Nor does it to compare well to modern re-envisioning like Shovel Knight. It’s appeal is steeped in nostalgia.

The etymology of nostalgia is the Greek nostos, meaning ‘homecoming’, and algos, meaning ‘pain, grief, distress’. When originally used in the 19th century, it was something very dire indeed. Associated with a fictional (& fatal) Swiss disease or the terrible homesickness felt by African slaves. The modern interpretation is far more tame than its origins.

Ducktales made me feel some of the most acute nostalgia of my adult life. I played it at 4-6 years old; naturally amidst some major developmental times. There was a point, here in 2016, where I selected the Moon level and the music played and it was so distantly familiar,I felt a piercing jolt to my upper spine and literally got the chills, so deeply did it connect me to myself, twenty five years removed. Not the nostalgia of watching the next dumb superhero movie or listening to the same old radio station you listened to in your teens, playing the same old music. But the intense, greek version. It wasn’t like I was a slave yearning for a home I was ripped from. Nor do I want to be five years old again by any means. It wasn’t painful. Yet. The combination of intense connection or loss to/of a time gone by combined with that homey feel cannot but remind you of your own mortality. To connect with the past and see yourself now is also to know some day you won’t be experiencing anything at all.

Salt and Sanctuary

salt3

While hired on as a guard to transport a princess across the sea and broker peace-via-marriage between two endlessly warring kingdoms, your ship is hijacked by bandits and tentacled sea monsters (alas) and you’re hurled into the sea. Naturally, you wash up on a mysterious island, unstuck in time, littered with all manner of beasts and creeping haunts and apocrypha.

Salt and Sanctuary is a game that is actively trying to be a 2D version of Dark Souls.

To say that it was merely inspired by Dark Souls or that it is a homage does not do justice to what is actually going on here. It’s a gloomy, abstract game-world that is difficult and requires patience and trial and error to traverse. You pick from an analogue of Dark Souls type classes, right down to the ill-equipped deprived. You collect salt/souls to level up and lose them at death and have one chance to return and reclaim them. At it’s most egregious, and the only point where I found it just too much, you journey to the bottom of the world and see many other world trees in the distance, a nearly 1:1 pasting of one of Dark Souls most iconic areas.

It’s effective. More love-letter than cash-in. And of course, morphing a 3d game into two dimensions changes the gameplay completely. Platforming plays a much bigger role; being knocked off platforms was easily my highest cause of death. A jump button is huge — I could play a slow-rolling, fat armored knight type character because being able to jump (and later dash) solved nearly any mobility woe. As a result, along with some easily exploitable systems and easy bosses, it’s much easier than Dark Souls. It does maintain the heavy feel of combat, and basic enemies can still kill you quickly if you’re not quick and alert.

The places where it deviates from the formula are hit-and-miss. For example, the sanctuary system replaces the bonfire checkpoints; A sanctuary is a sacred area dedicated to one of the various creeds of the island. You pick your character’s religion (or absence of one) at the start and find several others along the way. This allows you to locate defunct sanctuaries and spruce them up and populate them with various merchants — blacksmith, cleric, guide, etc — to make the place more homey and give you access to various tools. When you find opposing creeds’ sanctuaries, you can still perform basic functions like saving your progress and leveling up, but little else. By crushing a ‘bloodstained page’, you can declare (holy) war on the heretic sanctuary and fight its adherents; if you win, the sanctuary now belongs to your creed. It’s cool and a more atmospheric and robust system than a mere checkpoint, but it would have been nice to take it a little further. There’s not much point to converting other creeds and the faction system just requires tedious farming of enemies to level up.

Likewise, the art, sound and animation is usually pretty good, with caveats. I like good 2d art and S&S is mostly there. The environments are beautiful in a cloudy washed-out way, the art merges with the sparse storyline perfectly and it captures the visual excitement an RPG should have at equipping your character with a new piece of gear. On the other hand, sometimes it’s a little too murky and it can be hard to discern enemies and their attacks. And what is up with those faces?

The game’s biggest failing is they clearly ran out of time by the end of the game. Environments go from complex, many-leveled labyrinths with several exits and entrances and shortcuts to boss corridors without much else in them. Possibly worse is that the number-tuning of the game gets thrown out the window. The last bosses all collapse in a few hits, leading to a bizarre situation where the last boss is much easier than the first one (or second or third or etc). It would benefit greatly from a rebalancing patch, and it does leave a poor impression indeed when you feel like you’re playing a legitimately great game that turns into a merely average one for the final twenty percent.

That said, it was the kind of impressive, joyful discovery that instantly made me a fan of the indie studio, Ska Studios, who created it. 

 

Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal

realityisbrokenWherein a Berkeley Phd and game design thinker explains to us how applying gamification to every aspect of life will make us happier.

The first half of Reality is Broken is fascinating. McGonigal examines the question of why we play games — from Chess to Baseball to Halo — in the first place. A huge number of people born after some time in the late the eighties/early nineties will have spent at least 10,000 hours playing video games, which is the number Malcolm Gladwell popularized as a requirement for mastery. And of course, playing a game is simply a deliberate attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.

Why does something completely unnecessary and seemingly pointless garner such dedication and time investment?

According to McGonigal, it’s because humans are wired to enjoy good, hard work with clear results and obvious feedback. Especially when voluntary. And society is increasingly removed from this in day-to-day work, which gets more and more abstract as so many of our roles involve being an unspecific gear in a much larger corporation. All those middle roles in tech and finance giants make it difficult to say what sort of direct impact you might be making. By contrast, all the elements of a good game — the rules, the stakes, the rewards, the social ties — are implicitly clear and obvious. Hitting those marks fires off chemical responses in the brain that make us feel good.

The author’s pitch is basically: if we can harness this motivation and power, think of all the amazing things we could do with it. Think of how happy we’d be doing them!

Which brings us to the second half of the book, where Jane McGonigal applies these gaming principles to real life causes, from getting people to visit cemeteries more to trying to solve climate change. Many of the games in this portion were created or worked on by the author herself, a fact ever present to the reader. 

The long and short of it is that I found it entirely unconvincing. For instance, the climate change ‘game’ involved bringing a whole bunch of people together to pretend it was 2019 and various resource shortages are occurring. The players pitched ideas about how to solve it by creating wiki articles, videos, recordings, etc. Scoring was based on participation and other players giving you +1 personality stats like intelligence or exuberance. The end result was a whole bunch of involved people creating some interesting ideas. Interesting ideas maybe someone could pitch to an investor like powering your phone from solar panels on your clothes. Innovation, investing, and start-up tech culture permeate this whole book. It has that Bay Area-feel through and through.

The participation level is great, especially when it makes people change wasteful activity in the present. But is this really even a game? In the sense that Halo and baseball are games? Is all it takes a bland framing device (welcome to 2019) and extremely basic feedback (+1 willpower) that doesn’t do anything other than give a social glow only some people will feel? I’m not convinced. At all. I tried one of the habit forming games she recommends (https://habitica.com/), which awards points to buy your avatar gear upon completing your to-dos. I forgot about it after a few days and feel no inclination to keep trying. By contrast, I’ve played ‘real’ games (and watched some real life sports) several hours in the past week.

Also, I’d be remiss in not pointing out one of the my favorite TV episode ever — Black Mirror’s second episode, “Fifteen Million Merits” — is an amazing dystopian future that emerges due to society becoming a giant game. Life is one long quest to amass experience points (merits) from various activities (metaphorized as riding a spin bike). There is some saturation point reached way before Jane McGonigal’s ideal reality-game world that makes gamification feel extremely cheap and somewhat oppressive.

I have one last major, but significant point of contention with the author. Surely games can be rewarding as good, hard work. Especially puzzle games. Or competitive multiplayer. But I know for me personally, games can trigger the same feelings as a good book or a good movie. What about narrative? Exploration? Simply beholding what human creativity is capable of? Joan Didion famously wrote that:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

Aren’t video games often stories too? Stories we can interact with.

Rise of the Tomb Raider

tombraider

So. Tomb Raider. Check out the baffling news that the Writer’s Guild Awards gave it an outstanding achievement in video game writing. Not only that, it beat out The Witcher!

Now I thoroughly enjoyed this game but narrative is nowhere near the reason why. Let’s recap the plot: Lara Croft, following the legacy of her father, stumbles across some clues that the secret to immortality is somehow hidden in a lost Byzantine city located in Siberia. Why is Lara seeking this? To, uh, better humanity or something. Naturally and predictably, like hundreds of action heroes before her, she comes to learn that maybe humans shouldn’t live forever. But, I’m getting ahead of myself here. Opposed to Lara is a group called ‘Trinity’, a bunch of militant malcontents who have been seeking this divine source for millennia. They’ve been foiled repeatedly by a prophet and his followers, the architects of the aforementioned hidden city. This is not the only similarity RotTR will have with Assassin’s Creed.

The story is fun like a Godzilla movie is fun. I don’t mean the early Godzilla movies that legitimately were trying to grapple with the unthinkable destruction of the atom bomb, but all the later ones that were primarily about a man in a dragon/t-rex suit kicking down buildings. Tomb Raider’s ultimate set piece is a three way fight between immortal Byzantine warriors, black ops soldiers, and a cadre of Russian elves with trebuchets in the middle of a city buried under a glacier.

Shit explodes. And you run and jump through it. Thrilling? Yes. Outstanding writing? No.

I’m trying to think of specific line-by-line examples and very little of it is memorable enough to stick. It’s just a lot of Lara urgently exclaiming she needs to do this or that right now now now. Or the villain delivering soliloquies of how he needs to find the divine source to ‘please God’, which is banal and creatively timid, because the the game doesn’t even try to engage with which God or where his conviction comes from. Lara’s character arc, the titular ‘Rise’, is delivered in terms of gameplay, not narrative. From shivering cold in the wilderness and killing enemies one at a time, to casually wiping out full-on military squads single-handedly, to becoming the predator, and finally ascending to goddess-hood and slinging blue flame like a wizard. This game has better writing than The Witcher?? 

The gameplay and especially atmosphere does not cohere to a believable plot either. Lara can swim under frozen icy water and hop out and shake the water out of her hair and she’s good to go. Despite taking place in Siberia, with supposedly multi-national villains, and including a group of natives who have been living in isolation in the wilderness for a thousand years, every single character speaks american english. Except for Lara, whose dialect is british.

Play this game for the gorgeous vistas, the tight gameplay, and the explosions. Not the outstanding writing.

Assassin’s Creed: Unity

unity

The thing about playing these games a year or more after they’ve come out is I know the critical and fan reception beforehand. Thus I knew this was the most maligned Creed game yet, and everyone seemed to hate it so much that, as a form of apology, Ubisoft gave away its only downloadable expansion for free.

Was it all that bad?

Well, the first thing I noticed was the ghastly decision to give the people of revolutionary France english accents. I found I could switch the language to french (with english subtitles) in the options menu and never looked back. Indeed, it was quite educational. I now understand the lyrics to that Talking Heads song:

Psycho killerrr
Qu’est-ce que c-est?
Qu’est-ce que c-est?

Anyway. Other than the language mishap, the game seemed pretty good. After two games on the high seas and the North American frontier, it was nice to be back in a real city again. Paris is beautiful and fun to run around and parkour in. There’s gameplay improvements that seemed to improve the run and climb gameplay of the series. At first.

Naturally, it didn’t last.

To start with, for some baffling reason, a game set during the iconic French Revolution barely engages with the revolution at all. You spend a few minutes hanging out with a young Napoleon and then at the end of the game, they throw you a bone and reveal Robespierre was a pawn of the villainous Templar. The Marquis De Sade is the historical figure you spend the most time with (OK, that’s kind of funny). Danton is shunted to some lame co-op side missions and everyone else may as well not exist, along with the major events they partook in. This is the same damn game that two installments ago had me holding the reins of Paul Revere’s horse, while he sat on its rump performing the Midnight Ride! Moreover, the game plays it even more safe and blandly, by refusing to even touch the political and moral murk of the revolution. The enemies are merely labeled ‘extremists’, and the templar’s goals are unbelievably vague (Do stuff! Kill the king! Now, kill Robespierre!).

The story is instead a linear revenge narrative, that aside from hitting one or two good beats, is predictable and largely boring. This game earned Ubisoft a lot of heat when they gave some lame explanation of why there’s no women assassins in multiplayer. I’ll raise you that complaint and take it to single player — the protagonist is Arno Dorian, this guy who bumbles around trying to avenge his lover’s Dad. Elise, the lover in question, drives most of the plot. Her arc — raised as a templar from birth and forced to ally with the assassins by necessity — is more interesting and relevant than Arno’s non-story/non-arc. It’s bizarre. To top it all off, by the end of the game, you’ve realized the plot is a sidestory to the greater AC storyline. It’s completely self contained and if you never played it, you wouldn’t miss a thing.

Worse, the combat and stealth is horrendous. I’m not sure I’ve seen its like in high budget games ever before. In the old games, you could just sit there holding the block button and counter every attack any enemy launched with ease as they attacked one by one. Granted, that’s not the best system. Unity kills it though. Now you attack enemies that constantly block until an attack gets through and you kill a guy and during the ‘you’re killing a guy, wow!’ animation, other enemies can attack you. It’s bullshit! If another guy is gonna stab me, I’m not gonna do this fancy spin-flip-kill moves like Arno is doing, I’m gonna stab him and turn around! The end result is that I just stocked up on smoke grenades and spent every fight in the game dropping a smoke grenade, kill 2-3 coughing enemies, drop a smoke grenade, kill 2-3 more.

And the stealth! Listen, there’s 2 ways to do stealth correctly.

  1. The enemies are stupid and go ‘wait, huh? Is someone there?’ when you’re executing their buddy 5 feet away (Old AC games worked like this, as did old Metal Gear Solid games)
  2. The enemies are much smarter and behave more like real people, but the player has the tools to handle this and the enemies are not too plentiful to make stealth impossible (Splinter Cell / New Metal Gear Solid games)

Unity fails on both fronts! Enemies appear en masse. Go to a dinner party and there’s as many guards as guests. And get anywhere near them and the whole building is alerted. Is it outside in a courtyard? Congrats, now you’re going to have a dozen snipers shooting you up for 75% of your health a pop.

By the way, the controls suck too.

To sum this all up: I had one assassination mission where I had to kill a dude sitting in a room with honestly like 20 guards surrounding him. I peppered the room with smoke grenades, ready to dash in and kill him and dash out before anyone noticed. Instead, the mere sound of the grenades triggered an alert and one guard knew where I was, so as Arno ran up to complete the assassination job, instead of killing the guy right in front of him, he leapt through the air backwards at the one alert guard. Totally ruining what would have been a fun, emergent gameplay opportunity.

But, whatever. What can I say? I still played through the whole game and got most of the collectibles. I still had fun. Is all I really need a virtual historic city to run around in to be satisfied, even when the gameplay is such shit? Maybe. At least for one game. I hear the next one is better and I hope so. I’d rather not see the series tank and fade away.

The Spooking Orb #2: Fatal Frame: Maiden of the Black Water

fatal frameblack

Fatal Frame 2 on the Playstation 2 was the scariest game I ever played. I straight up did not finish it. Couldn’t handle it. Only game that I can claim that. I could only play in very short bursts before the atmosphere got to me and I shut it off.

Why was it so frightening? For several reasons. Even though most horror games I had played were Japanese in origin, they were based on American mythos (Resident Evil, Silent Hill) with zombies and mad scientists with a vision and bioweapons gone wrong and Freudian rape monsters. Instead, Fatal Frame was full J-Horror — drowned women, hanged women, broken necked women, women weeping tears of blood, all pale with creepy, flowing black hair. (Why is J-Horror so feminine? I’m sure someone’s written about that.) That shit is scary. They bust out of a wall screaming, or creep around the corner awkwardly bent over backwards and grinning at you upside down.

And unlike the other horror games, you had these ethereal, shrieking creatures pursuing you but you weren’t some burly dude with a gun, but instead a little girl with a camera, which you could use to trap the ghosts in, ghostbuster style. You actually start as twins with a camera — the protagonist and her identical sister who has a lame leg, which she drags along after you as you navigate the game’s setting. An effect used for scares of course (…wait a second, I can’t hear the other girl dragging her leg anymore, how long has it been???). I’m telling you the avatar you control in games is a big deal.

After I shamefully put down Fatal Frame 2 (I think I sold it, actually; total banishment!), I did not pick up further entries in the series. Then the other day my Wii U controller started blinking to alert me a new Fatal Frame game had come out. Not only that — I could download the first few levels for free! Just in time for Halloween.

Long story short: It’s extremely boring and mediocre, a clunky, difficult to control mess. 

Like another favorite Japanese genre, RPGS, Japanese horror seems to have stagnated. This game feels like, mechanically, it could have been a PS2 game. We don’t put up with terrible controls anymore! The story, the dialogue and voice acting does not feel modern. There’s some sort of hair monster that looks more like a Final Fantasy boss than something that’s supposed to cause a fright. Enemies take forever to kill — the scariest ghost becomes kind of joke when you have to take dozens of pictures of him to kill, while fighting off the horrendous controls (what kind of game in 2015 doesn’t let you move the game camera while walking??).

I think if I somehow recovered a copy of FF2, it would have many of the same shortcomings. Well, actually the environment didn’t stuff me into narrow hallways where I couldn’t see anything like the Black Water demo and I don’t recall the enemies being quite so annoying to fight. But otherwise, probably the controls and camera and whatever weren’t great. But that was like ten years ago! I need a game to be enjoyable to actually play before I can get scared nowadays.

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker HD

peace walker

I am an A rank Metal Gear Solid player. I’m generally unseen, armed with a tranquilizer and some kung fu moves. But sometimes I do get spotted. Or I run out of tranquilizer darts and, regretfully, I have to bust out my machine gun. Sorry bud, out of ammo. Hence why I am not an S rank player, who would never be seen, even while dismantling a helicopter, who’d rather die or restart than lethally end some unsuspecting grunt.

Anyway, I was almost not a Metal Gear Solid player anymore at all, as I completely forgot about the series for years. You see, there are two major plotlines in the MGS universe, which is especially convoluted and dense. The first, which includes games 1, 2, and 4 are about Solid Snake, who is a clone of a man born some time in the first half of the 20th century. They’re thematically anti-war stealth games with an emphasis on sci-fi near future tech, mercenaries and private military organizations, and endless monologues/cutscene sequences. These ones are OK —  I mean, there’s psychic boss who knew your every move in the first one, who could only be defeated by plugging your control in the second player port. That’s creative. And they were freakin’ weird… partially due to the singular vision of their director — Hideo Kojima. Video games rarely are subject to a single all-encompassing mind like films or novels often are.

It’s the second major plot line that really grabbed me. MGS3, Peace Walker, and now 5 are about that man Snake was cloned from, Big Boss, who also happens to be the villain of the old 8 bit NES Metal Gear games. Indeed the story of Big Boss is that of US soldier who is betrayed by his own government and later turns to terrorism for various ideological reasons (sound familiar?). The plot of 3 specifically: Weird shit is happening in the Cold War Russian jungle, including a mad astronaut with a flamethrower and a man who throws grenades made of bees. I loved it. Many years later, it still remains vivid in memory. The sucker punch ending succeeded in its goal of making me hopeless and ineffectually angry at the US government.

And then Konami greenlit a sequel! …on the PSP, Sony’s handheld system that I never had a reason to own. I completely forgot about it. For years. It wasn’t until the prologue of part 5 became free on Xbox live last month that I remembered, and also found out that the PSP game, Peace Walker had been released on last gen consoles at some point. Which brings us to this review!

Peace Walker is a smaller scale game compared to its predecessors, to match its initial smaller medium. Basically: In the 70’s, Costa Rica’s commitment to peace led them to abolish their military. This was amidst America and Russia being kingmaker assholes all around Latin America. Following the events of MGS3 (complete disillusionment with the US government) Big Boss split and created his own for-hire military group: Militeries Sans Frontieres. MSF agrees to hire themselves out to some shadowy Costa Rican fellas to investigate the sudden CIA presence in Costa Rica. Boss rapidly discovers that not only is the US stashing nukes nearby, but actually giant robots carrying nukes. Yikes.

The CIA villain, a man by the dubious name of ‘Hot Coldman’ has determined that the Cold War strategy of nuclear deterrence simply will not work. The reason? Humans are weak and no single human would have the will to destroy the entire planet, even if a nuke was heading in their direction*. His solution? Build a giant robot that will launch the retaliatory nukes instead. This is the eponymous Peace Walker and most of the narrative of the game involves chasing it down and eventually blowing it up.

It’s fine. The fact of the matter is that giant robots! nukes! just does not have much thematic weight. Moreover, Kojima continuously draws our attention to great anti-war, anti-deterrence films and novels, going so far as to name a character ‘Strangelove’, but his narrative not only cannot compare, it’s also like 40 years too late. MGS used the Cold War to illustrate problems that still persist to this day. Peace Walker is more like: Man, the CIA/KGB really did suck in the 70s, didn’t they? Good thing they they didn’t have giant robots, huh?

The gameplay itself is bite size. Each level is a few small areas tied together and generally completed in 2-8 minutes. The AI is really terrible — you have to be standing on their toes to be seen, but it works out since the levels are so short it’s more like trying to do things as quickly and efficiently as possible and not so much a ‘true’ stealth experience, which the demo of MGS5 showcases instead. It’s the perfect pacing for a handheld game, like it was designed to be. It’s still fun enough as a console game. In between levels, you can actually build up MSF — assign people to R&D to create new weapons, put them in the mess hall to feed everyone else, gather intel, send squads out on missions. It’s a little simplistic since in the intervening years so many RPGs have embraced this concept, but it’s a good setup for the more robust version promised in MGS5.

The biggest gameplay complaints I have are thus: The series is known for its creative and exhilarating boss fights but the ones here are pretty lame. There’s three different vehicles that show up repeatedly — a tank, a helicopter, an APC — that play out exactly the same. Kill/tranq a group soldiers and shoot up the vehicle until its captain pops out. There’s fights with giant robots too, but other than maybe the fortress on treads that you literally have to ascend to defeat, they’re not very good and sitting there holding down the machine gun trigger doesn’t really mesh with the rest of the game. Indeed, repetitiveness is major issue. The game boasts a ton of extra missions (ExOps) that go beyond the main story but they’re like constant variations of 3-4 core concepts.

I was rereading this review, ready to post, and oh my gosh, how could I forget one of the most stand out features of this game? The Fulton Recovery System. So, to recruit soldiers for MSF, Boss and co. have an inventive idea: Knock them out and tie a balloon to their ass. Literally. You recruit soldiers by knocking them unconscious and then tying a mini-hot air balloon to them; They’re whisked into the sky for an unseen helicopter to take them back to base, to either initiate them in Boss’s private army or stick them in the brig until they capitulate and do the same. Yeah. Weird game.

*I found this idea pretty nonsensical. OK, most humans would not press the button for mutually assured destruction, but all of them? No way. Someone would. It was gratifying towards the end of the game when it turns out Coldman is wrong, and men will press the damn button. But it also kind of undermined the whole plot, so ehh.