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A Few Thoughts On Games I’ve Recently Played

January 26, 2010 1 comment

BRÜTAL LEGEND, by Double Fine

You have to wonder how Tim Schafer, a brilliant writer and experienced game developer, allowed such an amazing premise to go so utterly wrong. This is a game that happens in a world themed after heavy metal music and features a guitar-jamming, axe-wielding protagonist. And yet, after a promising start, it becomes a tedious drag.

I think this is because Schafer and his team bent over to the trend of open-world games. But that’s not a sign of quality — to the contrary, open-world games better fucking have a good story and great mechanics, because otherwise you won’t have a lot of motivation for driving a bazillion fucking miles to your next mission.

Case in point: the first, linear minutes of BRÜTAL LEGEND are excellent. After a great introduction, you fight some hooded minions with an axe, bring down the walls with the power of your guitarring, descend a mountain of skulls on a huge contraption, drive a heavy-metal car along a collapsing bridge and against a gigantic monster — and then the game just kind of stops and says, “yeah, your next objective’s over there where that beam is shining. Go there, have a cutscene and play a mission. Or just drive around aimlessly. Have fun.” Isn’t it a bit revealing that the demo of this game ended just as you defeated the gigantic monster, leaving you with the impression this is a fast-paced, action-driven game?

And what truly amazes me is that Double Fine just kind of… forgot to fill their world with interesting things. Some creatures spawn as you drive and there’s some side missions, but everything just feels desolate and empty. For fuck’s sake, FALLOUT 3 had better level design than this, and it’s a game that happens in a barren, desolate wasteland after a nuclear war. They had an excuse for lack of content, and yet every few steps you’d come across an abandoned gas station worth checking for supplies, or a new town, or a group of bandits, or a semi-destroyed village. One moment that was for me unforgettable in that game was when I entered a house and found children’s stuff on the bedrooms, and skeletons over the bed — a moment that evoked the end of the world better than any landscape could.

Not to mention BRÜTAL LEGEND wants to be a strategy game as well, apparently. It has you control units that, despite being amusing at first (they bob their heads back and forth nonstop, like they’re perpetually listening to a rock song), it soon gets old and feels out of place. What truly ticked me off, though, was my AI partners failing to follow me during a mission, staying several steps behind. And when a game lacks a proper “follow” A.I. code in this day and age, it doesn’t deserve to be played.

BRÜTAL LEGEND is a game that badly needed a linear, fast-paced structure. Instead, it feels like the developers were interested in some parts of it rather than the game as a whole. You can occasionally get a glimpse of greatness from the combat system or the art direction, but they’re few and not worth the time and boredom to get to them. I gave up on it after the third mission or so.

They managed to make a boring game with a heavy-metal premise. I mean, holy shit.

CALL OF DUTY: MODERN WARFARE 2, by Infinity Ward

Absolute masterpiece. MODERN WARFARE 2 is a game dedicated to making your jaw drop as often as possible, or to just leave it touching the floor for the entire experience. It’s not a long game, but it’s incredibly replayable — after my first playthrough, I immediately started a second and finished it as well, having just as much fun. It manages to upstage its exceptional predecessor, and it was brave enough to add a mission where you witness a civilian massacre caused by terrorists in a Russian airport — but you’re among the terrorists as an undercover agent, not against them, and you can choose to take part in the massacre (just like you can choose to skip the mission). You could argue this controversy was for the sake of selling the game. I disagree. MODERN WARFARE 2 didn’t need any more exposure after its predecessor. This was taking storytelling in games a step further, ignoring the thoughts of idiots like Michael Atkinson and Jack Thompson on the “danger” represented by this relatively new media.

Some called the story confusing, and with so many awesome things happening every twenty seconds as you play, I can understand. But writer Jesse Stern did an amazing job of tying together set-pieces (such as the fantastic moment that happens in space, and the following electromagnetic pulse that changes the course of a battle) in a story that manages to make more than enough sense to support these moments. In fact, the whole plot seems to be a jab at the Bush/Cheney warmongering and the reasons they invented to have a conflict with Iraq. This kind of thematic ambition in a game’s narrative makes me happy, and Stern gracefully avoids going overboard with the epicness, keeping his eye on the ball and writing dialogue of this caliber:

“The healthy human mind doesn’t wake up in the morning thinking this is it’s last day on Earth. But I think that’s a luxury, not a curse. To know you’re close to the end is a kind of freedom. Good time to take… inventory. Outgunned. Outnumbered. Out of our minds on a suicide mission, but the sands and rocks here stained with thousands of years of warfare… they will remember us for this. Because out of all our vast array of nightmares, this is the one we choose for ourselves. We go forward like a breath exhaled from the Earth. With vigor in our hearts and one goal in sight: We will kill him.”

Although yes, Infinity Ward abused its own popularity with the whole dedicated server problem that crippled the multiplayer community regarding this game — but I still enjoyed the multiplayer. And I don’t usually play multiplayer. And I’m playing from Brazil, with several ping problems. And I still could enjoy it.

Absolute masterpiece, as I said.

BIOSHOCK, by 2K Games

I’ve had a bumpy relationship with this game. When I first tried to play it, my computer wasn’t up to it and the experience was crippled. When I tried again on the PS3, the constant fetch quests and repetitive objectives made me stop, along with the subpar writing — honestly, BIOSHOCK is not a well-written game. Let’s get this out of the way first. In a certain moment, a villain lets out an evil laugh. Most of the dialogue is tedious and the game’s moral choices make black-and-white seem like a rainbow. And the writing in a game usually should provide interesting gameplay scenarios, something BIOSHOCK lacks — most of the objectives involve going to get something, or building or inventing something out of several things scattered around the level, which you must find, of course.

What BIOSHOCK has is a brilliant premise, fantastic art direction and a level design that evokes nostalgia and melancholy, as you walk through what’s left of the world’s most advanced city, Rapture. The execution of this premise is the problem here, since the plot is absurd — therefore, as impactful as the plot twist in the middle of the game is, it loses power when you think about it. Skip the rest of this paragraph to avoid SPOILERS if you haven’t played this yet: so Jack is actually Andrew Ryan’s son, grown artificially by his arch-enemy Frank Fontaine, sent away from Rapture so Ryan couldn’t reach him — and his method to return to Rapture is to hijack a plane. Just like that. Hijack a plane, crash it into the ocean and survive that. For fuck’s sake, give me a break.

However, these are my opinions on a game I haven’t yet finished: I’m trying to play it for a third time, on my new, more powerful PC. In fact, after I accidentally pressed the quickload button instead of the quicksave and was sent back to the previous level, I lost my patience and unistalled the game (despite it having been my mistake), and to make sure I wouldn’t play it again and just free myself from the urge to finish what I started (an occasional obsession of mine), I read the plot summary on Wikipedia and watched the plot twist on YouTube before actually playing it. Something that obviously hurts the gameplay experience.

But the next day, I felt I was dismissing a game that deserved to be finished despite its flaws. So I installed it again and continued from my last save, and I’m still playing. It was a good decision — BIOSHOCK is still full of fetch quests, repetitive objectives and unimpressive writing — but its evocative atmosphere, art direction and great combat system, aside from some truly inspired moments (the sequence when the game’s most interesting villain so far throws wave upon wave of enemies at you to the sound of classical music) make it worth it.

And the sheer originality and ambition of this game deserves applause. But it doesn’t forgive its flaws, and I hope the upcoming BIOSHOCK 2 lives up to this series’ great premise with varied gameplay, deeper moral choices and an actually coherent story.

BORDERLANDS, by Gearbox Software

The word I’ve seen associated with this game the most is “fun”. So imagine my surprise when I played it.

There isn’t much to do, or see. No story, no cutscenes, repetitive enemies that spawn everywhere, loot that’s annoying to gather, millions of random guns that, precisely for being randomly created by the game, fail to have a single one that stands out.

“Oh, you’re supposed to play it with friends”. Fuck that. The co-op experience should be optional. Some people prefer NPCs to actual human beings, and I’m among them. Not (just) because I hate human beings, but because human beings know they’re playing a game, while NPCs act like they’re in real life — and the latter is vital for immersion, while the former breaks it.

And played by yourself, BORDERLANDS is a boring and aimless experience. With others, it’s laggy and difficult to find players who are in the same level as you and not too far ahead in the “story” — when you’re playing from Brazil, at least.

The graphics are bland. Seems like Gearbox thought the cel-shading was the sign of a job well-done and forgot to make the world of Pandora look interesting. The combat throws tactics out the window — I understand that fighting an enemy several levels above yours in an action RPG should be a challenge, but not impossible — that’s one of the rewarding things about action RPGs: using tactics to overcome your disadvantages. Sadly, in this game, unloading an entire clip in an enemy’s head won’t do you much good if he’s two or three levels above yours, and when headshots fail to help you regardless of how many different guns you’re using, then we’re talking about a shallow combat system.

This game is the very definition of “meh”. The box art is great, though.

DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS, by Bioware

My God this game doesn’t end.

Not that I really want it to, but I also wouldn’t mind. ORIGINS is a very flawed game, but also compelling enough to keep me playing. I expected more from the developers responsible for one of the greatest games ever made, MASS EFFECT. At least story-wise, since one of MASS EFFECT’s (many, countless) strengths was its exceptional story and amazingly deep sci-fi world.

DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS, on the the other hand, is a mere rip-off of LORD OF THE RINGS and STAR WARS. The story concerns the return of A Great Evil and an order of few but capable warriors called Grey Wardens that must warn everyone about it and fight it. Just replace “A Great Evil” with “Sauron” and “Grey Wardens” with “Jedis” and there you go. The execution is competent, but unimpressive. The characters are as charismatic as I’ve come to expect from Bioware, except for the protagonist, who doesn’t speak after you choose a line of dialogue and shows no emotion. This gameplay decision baffles me. MASS EFFECT proved the power of a protagonist with a defined personality (while still preserving the role-playing aspect), and DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS just goes for a bland drone. This obviously cripples the other characters, since they are mostly defined by their relationship with you, and in this game you are a boring wanker.

Bioware also takes a shameful step backwards in their depiction of sex — something they bravely pushed forward in MASS EFFECT. The sex scenes seen in ORIGINS are ridiculous, with the female characters actually wearing a big bra during the act (something hilarious in Morrigan’s case — you can see more of her breasts in her normal clothes than in the sex scene). Honestly, it’s time for this taboo to fuck off and die. Consensual sex is a good thing. In storytelling, it can be vital to make you intimate of the characters involved. In gaming, you are ONE of the characters, therefore this becomes even more powerful and interesting. Can we move on now and stop behaving like scared children?

Whoever came up with the combat system needs a slap on the back of the head. Hopefully their brain will start working. ORIGINS just plain ignores the many advances in gaming, and the combat is literally two enemies hitting each other repeatedly until one of them dies. It’s even funnier when they’re both using shields, since they never use them to defend themselves. There’s no coreography, and only the very occasional finishing move, such as a decapitation. Mostly, though, enemies just fall dead with the same death animation — yeah, this game doesn’t use any kind of physics system, because apparently the combat wouldn’t be repetitive enough with one. And for fuck’s sake, Bioware, couldn’t you even have gotten the blood right? Those puddles growing beneath the enemies’ corpses grow way too fast, and the bigger enemies have puddles so immense you could swim in them. Although I did think the blood stains on the characters after a battle are a nice, brutal touch (that only I liked, since apparently the entire gaming community thought it was ridiculous).

… I cannot really put my finger on what makes me keep playing DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS. I guess some of the more interesting characters are an important redeeming value, and because the only dragon I came across so far was smaller than my character, so I’m still waiting on a gigantic one.

LEFT 4 DEAD 2, by Valve

Excellent for when you feel like killing some zombies, which can be quite often. As stated previously, I’m not big on co-op or multiplayer. But some times I go on a match on LEFT 4 DEAD 2. Most times, though, I just play one of the single player campaigns. The characters manage to be just as charismatic as the ones from the previous game, and this sequel approaches zombie-killing as an artform: the gunshot wounds, dismemberments and other damage physics received thorough attention from Valve. It’s fun to hack zombies’ limbs off with a machete, or blow a torso open with a shotgun.

That, and the gameplay is tighter, more frenetic and with more enemies to deal with, such as the Charger — who was probably a professional wanker before turning into a zombie, judging by its only (and immense) arm — and the Jockey, who tries to drive you away from your partners, which is fatal in LEFT 4 DEAD 2. This is something this series does brilliantly: you really depend on your partners. Alone, you don’t last two minutes. And this works pretty well when your partners are AI-controlled NPCs, since they’re well-programmed. Hell, it’s actually better than playing with a real human, since they have a tendency to be clueless morons or just assholes (it’s been a very misanthropic week, yes).

The set-pieces are fun and it’s polished, good-looking entertainment. With games like this, PORTAL and the uneven, but often amazing HALF-LIFE series, I’m admiring Valve more and more.

(and goddamn the video that plays as the game’s intro is fantastic)

MEDIEVAL 2: TOTAL WAR, by Creative Assembly

The enemy army marches forward, their cavalry leading the way. I form my spearmen as a wall in front of my army, and put my archers behind them. I send the cavalry to a distance, so they can circle the enemy army and attack them from behind or from the side. And I watch my strategy succeed or fail on its own merits. This is how successful this game is in its depiction of medieval warfare, and the turn-based campaign gives it all a historical context and lets you lead a nation to greatness or ruin (usually to ruin, in my case), being extremely addictive. The Pope will require your nation to do things for Christianity, and other countries can turn on you or want your friendship (then turn on you). Enemies will exploit your moments of weakness, attacking poorly-guarded settlements, or give you a false sense of companionship by establishing trade rights, then attacking you. Monarchs will take power and eventually die, and great generals that have won you many battles will have to be replaced by a less competent novice sooner or later.

So much to deal with, and so fun to do so. MEDIEVAL 2: TOTAL WAR is a brilliantly-programmed and great-looking strategy game. And this from a guy who usually dislikes the RTS genre.

I think that’s enough for now, yes — there’s more, but this post is already three thousand words long, so I might talk about the rest in the future. Needed to get those opinions out of my system. I’ll see if I can give the next games I play individual reviews, since the only review feature that seems to have survived in this website is the MOVIE REVIEW one.

These next games are MASS EFFECT 2, BIOSHOCK 2 and ALIEN VS. PREDATOR.

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