Saturday, 21 December 2013

Best Games of 2013

It's that time of year again, where the games cease to release and the game publicists and YouTubers flood to give their opinions backlashing in a fiery rage of idiots complaining about how their favourite game wasn't on someone else's list, instead of, ya know, making their own list. So just like last year, I will make a list of the best games of the year, this year being equally as hard as last year but for different reasons. 2012 was hard to formulate a 'best of' list because it was probably one of the best years in gaming since 2007, which is saying something, because I stand by my opinion that 2007 was the best ever year in Gaming. This year it's hard to formulate a list because there weren't any bloody games worth a mention. Where last year was a year for innovative and delightfully surprising games in which you wouldn't expect, like the unexpectedly fantastic Spec Ops: The Line and Far Cry 3, this year was a breeding ground for mediocre, over-hyped crap.

I am willing to crown 2013 as 'The year of the iterative sequel'. We had retreads of previous instalments like Batman: Arkham Origins, Battlefield 4, Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, COD: Ghosts, Lost Planet 3, and the abysmal, depressing bile that was Dead Space 3, being the last nail in the action-survival-horror (whatever that's supposed to mean) genre. Whilst I do apreciate complete reduxes of old series' like with Tomb Raider and that new Mario thing, they weren't very good games in their own right to be included on the list. There was also self-indulgence and pretension this year, more than most other years, with Beyond: Two Souls, The Last of Us and surprisingly GTA5, trying to be this deep, philosophical satire of modern America, but was too heavy-handed and obvious that it reduced the main characters to caricatures stating the obvious at every turn (notwithstanding the painfully unfunny LifeHacker thing on top of that).

Although the bad vastly out-weighed the good in terms of triple-A releases, the indie sector still remains the last bastion of creative and original content. Although there are plenty games to fill the list, I won't lie when I say there aren't enough great, or even good, games that I feel comfortable calling 'one of the best games of 2013', so let's reduce the top 10 to a top 5 list this year.

Oh, I forgot, honorable mentions to games that aren't on the list that everyone will complain about, games that would be on the list if it weren't for a few disqualifications, and games that aren't on the list that would be if I didn't shrink it to a top 5. The Wolf Among Us would be on here if all 5 episodes (A.K.A. the full game) was released, but it wasn't. The same goes for The Walking Dead: Season 2, only one episode came out and I need to judge the game as a whole. Maybe next year. GTA5 isn't on here because I didn't think it was very good, and The Last of Us isn't on here because, whilst decent, isn't good enough to reach my top 5. If this was a top 10, Dota 2 would be No. 6. Okay? Let's start:

5. Saints Row 4
As much as I love thought-provoking, narrative-focused experiences like Spec Ops: The Line, games that try to have that level of impact (Tomb Raider, Beyond: Two Souls) often fail because they don't understand that you can balance serious, gritty realism and light humour. GTA4 did it, L.A. Noire did it, and Max Payne did it. Games that are all serious and all gritty realism blood-fests are the most immature of the lot because they can't embrace simple immaturities that only give more weight to the seriousness they're presenting. So with the dead-serious, gritty authenticity that's been going on this year and last year, it's refreshing to see a game that completely embraces all the immaturities and stupidity of this medium without being shy about it. We know you love killing innocent bystanders on GTA5, but even GTA5 is shy about its stupidity. It still tries to be realistic and serious, but fails because the balance wasn't right. It goes from 'blowing off a guys head with a phone lol' to 'gritty torture sequence' with no justification or meaning for either. It's silly in a bad way. Saints Row 4 doesn't care about trying to balance levity and gravity, nor does it want to have any gravity of any kind (literally), it just goes all out stupid and crazy. You can jump 30 stories high. You can hit a bystander to the other side of the map with a tentacle. You can kick people in the balls so hard that they fly into the air at jet-pack velocity. It's crazy, immature and unrealistic, but so what? It's fun, the soundtrack is awesome, and being a superhero dressed as either The President, a Heisenberg lookalike or Total Biscuit is hilarious. It's the most inclusive game I've played this year; you can enjoy it even if you consider yourself a high-brow gamer, if you're completely new to video games or if you're just a casual gamer, it is filled with so much fun and humour that it's so fantastically appealing you can't not like it.  It's simple; if you don't like Saints Row 4, you don't like fun.

4. Gone Home
When was the last time you played a game about a love story? Told by notes scattered throughout the house? About a character that you're not playing as? In the same household? You haven't, that's when. This is an incredibly original game that even trying to talk about it will lead to plot spoilers. It's a story told in such an immersive and original way that it's worth playing simply for that. It's even possible to complete the game in a matter of minutes without looking through the notes. You can play at your own pace, discovering letters and items and notes left around the house meticulously, or you can speed run it and miss the bulk of the game. I thought I was taking my time but it turns out I missed about half of the main story. You can choose your own layer of immersion, and it's fantastic. Ok, a game this original that is actually good is at least worth a mention, but this manages to be one of the years best games because it can pull off the high-wire act of being original, innovative, immersive, twisty, surprising, intricate and good. My advice is to play it knowing as little as possible about the story, which I did. There are no guns, no explosions, no foreigners to shoot, just you, an E button and a big ol' house to explore.

3. Bioshock Infinite
People complain that Binfinite becomes too sprawling and ridiculous that it starts to stop making sense around two thirds of the way through, but it can be credited on its sprawling narrative that encompasses so many themes and it's up to the player to care about what they want. Is it a game about infinite parallel universes? A tale of redemption and self-destruction? A story about a sheltered girl facing the reality of Columbia? Or is it just an excuse to kill racists with a buzzsaw? It's a violent game about a violent subject matter that includes graphic violence, and whilst many people complain about how violent it is, its violence is integral to the story it's telling. See, it isn't really about the multi-universes, nor is it really about politics, racism and philosophy, it's a story about a guy, about Booker, and his conflicting personality Comstock. The barrage of politics and racism and philosophy is all a smoke-screen to cover up what's really at the heart of Binfinite, which is a story about one, lonely, miserable jerk struggling to come to terms with his own failure, guilt and inability to accept responsibility for anything he's done. Stop complaining about the ham-fisted way in which it handled its themes of racism and religion, stop complaining about how the multi-verses don't make sense, it's not about that stuff, it's about this one guy and all of his flaws and consequences. It's not as good as the first one, but it's damn, damn good.

2: The Stanley Parable
What is a game? What defines a game? Is it something with objectives and challenges? Something with agency and choice? Or just something with guns and blood? In The Stanley Parable, there is little challenge or a clear objective. You walk around an office block with a narrator commenting on the directions you take and the things you do, which can lead to an array of different endings. That's just about it. There are no difficulty curves to climb, no dragons to kill or foreigners to shoot, yet it's easily one of my favourite games of the year. It's funny, it's original, it has some deeper themes, ideas and messages, and it has an old, British guy narrating it. Oh, the narrator is also hilarious. With all of the hilarity aside, it does have some pretty good commentary on the state of video game choice-mechanics and 'emoshuns' (coined by Jim Sterling, in reference to a game that tries to pull at your heartstrings but fails horribly). Games like this don't come around often.

1. Papers, Please
You could argue that Papers, Please mirrors the soul-crushing tedium of working as a border patrol guard, which only renders the game soul-crushingly tedious. You could argue that looking for discrepancies in other peoples paperwork doesn't make for a video game. And you would be right, but it's not really about the mundane deskjob that you take on in Papers, Please, it's everything surrounding it. It's the bleak and eerie atmosphere, it's putting your families well-being on the line because you want to let a poor mother see her son despite having the wrong paperwork, it's when you're forced to make a decision between the morally right option and the lawful option. Papers, Please is about off-screen conflict, about the conflicting ideologies of surrounding nations and how you're stuck in the middle of it. I've really never played a game like it. A game that original is at least worth a mention if we're talking about Games of the year. A game that can take a seemingly dull job and turn it to something so engaging is even more worthy of a mention. And a game that can include non-binary moral choices (no paragon or renegade bollocks) that truly affects you is even more worthy of a mention. And with all that, it manages to explore subtextual themes like freedom, collateral damage, terrorism, fear, poverty, and xenophobia without being preachy or pretentious, well, that's game of the year material.

Monday, 21 October 2013


I signed up to Audible recently, and it's pretty cool (listen to The Things They Carried, it's narrated by Bryan Cranston), but what I noticed was the 'Me' section on the Audible App. It had a Badge Collection, a listening counter, and a listening level, based on how many hours you listened. It seems like a cheap incentive to carry on with the service, but it's clever in the way that it has counters and progress bars for something as arbitrary as listening to audio books. You see this a lot in games, too. You grind through the next activity just to push that progress bar. The activities you're doing are often unfun or mundane, but you just want to push that progress bar up to the next level. A progress or XP bar can be incorporated into any activity, especially school. It's not fun playing through a dungeon or a level that requires repetitive play, but then having a bar to represent your effort, it feels like tangible progress; like you're actually moving forward. This is called 'gamification'.

Audible aren't the only ones doing this. The popular language-learning app Duolingo had courses like levels in a game. You had 10 stages, a certain amount of lives, and a score for every level. There's an XP count, a streak counter, but most interestingly there are tests. The game equivalent would be boss fights; a test that accounts for all you have learned up to that point. Learning another language is certainly difficult, but having an XP bar with an app that teaches you Spanish is genius. For a difficult task, you need motivation otherwise you could easily just give it a pass. You need an incentive. Duolingo has that incentive. It feels like you're making progress with every lesson you do.

For us gamers, we know that leveling up is awesome, but there has to be an incentive for leveling up, like in Call of Duty you can unlock new guns or somesuch equipment, or on Dota 2 where you're more likely to pick up rare items. Figure that out: you need an incentive for the incentive, but it makes perfect sense. You can't just keep leveling up with nothing to go on, you need a reward. You have put in loads of effort to reach the next level, so some sort of reward would be necessary.

It really depends on what you're implementing it into. For Duolingo, perhaps you could get little things like a translating pack for every level that you progress too, that translates a word you're stuck on, kind of like a health pack in a shooter. For Audible, if you exceed a certain level, you could get a free book token. Maybe you do, I haven't got that far yet. Level incentives are important for gamifying your application.

Think about all the good it can do on a broader scale. It's already done good for me; I plough through my school work with the same work ethic I use in matches in Dota or dungeons in World of Warcraft, Skyrim, or Torchlight 2. It's something the younger generation is accustomed to; they're familiar with games like Call of Duty or Skyrim that require level grinding. Incorporating this into something like Mental Arithmetic application for a school will really encourage the younger generation into learning. Winston Church said "I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught." Maybe gamification will solve this understandable attitude toward learning.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Thoughts on 'Beyond: Two Souls'

Despite the awkward title, I was really looking forward to this, I really was. Ellen Page is my favourite actress and Willem Dafoe is awesome too, and Heavy Rain was somewhat competent as well. I haven't played the game yet, but I want to. I know that it's not going to be as good as I hoped, but I still want to see Ellen Page in every haircut ever, and Willem Dafoe to feature in something that isn't bile. But what else would I expect from David Cage? He's not a very good writer or director. I understand that he wants to progress story in his games but he might just be in the wrong medium.

For those who aren't familiar with David Cage, he directed and wrote Heavy Rain and Farenheight/Indigo Prophecy. He's a fan of the 'choose-your-own-adventure' type of genre; not having much gameplay apart from waggles of the sticks, clunky, awkward movement and Quick-Time Events. Actual gameplay, of course, interferes with the story in David Cage's mind. Having a narrative weaved in to gameplay is an impossible task, apparently, so he chooses to have short moments of a benign gameplay followed by a lengthy cutscene, in which your choices have little effect. But enough of that now.

There's no reason why Heavy Rain couldn't have been a TV drama, or a film, or a murder mystery novel rather than a game. Sure, there are choices to be made, but they're really unnecessary once you complete it. In Heavy Rain, on every playthrough, the identity of the killer is always the same, so there's no point replaying a murder mystery if you already know the mystery, thus making that specific set of choices the only choices that matter. So no, Heavy Rain doesn't belong in games because the interaction is little, the choices, while they result in different endings, are pointless and the atmosphere is little.

So how can David Cage make Beyond: Two Souls any better? By the looks of it, it's very style over substance, in favor of pushing technology than making an actual game, and rather trivial. The whole mocap thing with popular film actors is cool, but it's a very defeatist attitude when you get right down to it. Why have respected game industry veterans in on the project when you can greet video games with Hollywood majestic presence? Almost as if Hollywood is the final frontier for games, or specifically: David Cage.

In recent years, game have been trying to be more cinematic, with Max Payne 3 taking seriousness to its ultimate conclusion, DMC: Devil May Cry having an instagram-esque filter with uber-stylish cutscenes, and The Last of Us trying to be the game equivalent of Oscar-bate. I say leave cinema for cinema. Why make a decent movie with scattered QTE sequences when you can make a great game instead?

By the looks of it, Beyond: Two Souls doesn't look like it has the components to be a great game. It might be a super fine interactive movie with two great film stars, but not a great game. It's a shame, really, because now there's little to look foward to in Gaming Season 2013. Hmm. Well at least there was a Terraria update.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

"The Video Game Crash of 2014"

20 years ago, what was known as the 'Atari shock' was when the video game industry crashed. Its revenues that once had peaked at $3.2 Billion had fallen to $100 Million. That's nearly 97%. What was the cause of this? Games were easier to make back then. Gameplay and level design was extremely basic, it was pretty much just blocks moving around on a screen. Instead of companies being limited due to technology, not being able to create profound experiences, they used this to their advantage.

There were bloody loads of games, and with loads of games, came loads more consoles. There were 12 consoles on the market by 1983, most of which were Atari 2600 clones, and most of their games were clones of those released on the 2600. The shelves were flooded with bile and cheaply-made games. The 2600 was cheap, starting at $199 then going down to £50 ($77). Games were cheap and there were loads of them. Eventually, the market became diluted, no one bought them, and the industry crashed. It was revived again by Nintendo, with its revolutionary NES. They set the standard model for third-party licensing, with its famous 'Nintendo seal of approval', in which not just anyone could put out a game. They had complete control over what games were allowed to be released, reducing cheap bile that once saturated the market.

Compare this to today. Our market is being diluted with the same type of game: the shooter. This is due to the popularity of Halo, Call of Duty and Gears of War at the start of the console cycle. They were reviewed incredibly well and sold millions, becoming the three most popular shooter franchises of the current console cycle. Look at the games on the market now. Watered-down Call of Duty's and Halo's and Gears of War's that appeal to that large crowd. Of course they didn't think as to why Call of Duty fans would leave their beloved franchise for a game that's largely similar, and worse. Of course, there are exceptions, like Far Cry 3, Bioshock, Spec Ops: The Line, Fallout 3, Team Fortress 2, and the Uncharted series. What these games did is use a familiar genre: the shooter, but had a twist; they had something different which distinguished them. Whether is be story, setting or aesthetic, they all had something that Call of Duty or Halo didn't offer. That's why (most) of those games were critically and financially successful. Look at Bodycount, Call of Juarez: The Cartel, Kane and Lynch, Medal of Honor 2010, Fuse, Homefront, just go to your local game store and you will find a heavy slog of samey, greyish-brown shooters. Dead Rising 3 is appealing to Call of Duty fans now, Dead Space 3 added a broken coop, reduced the claustrophobic semi-scares and added more guns to make is appeal to Gears of War and Uncharted fans, and Resi6 had loads of explosions, loads of guns, ridiculous action, more guns, muscle-bound gun-bro's, etc. because anything that isn't Call of Duty isn't Call of Duty enough. Don't publishers see this? Dead Rising 3 is already getting angry fanboys bash it, and Dead Space 3 and Resi6 are considered financial failures, as well as getting lukewarm reviews.

Instead of there being loads of games that are dirt cheap, there are now loads of games that are seemingly made of solid Gold, because who the hell would spend £47 on the new Battlefield? 47 boffing quid on a 4-hour campaign, a handful of maps, and some new skins? Same with the new Call of Duty. Same with Dead Space 3. We spent £40 on your game, now you want us to pay more money for some skins? How do they get away with doing this? How do people not even have a problem with this? A cheap way of making a game last longer is multiplayer. So now all games have to have multiplayer as a default tickbox. Look at Spec Ops: The Line's multiplayer that was shoe-horned in that nobody played and that even the lead designer called a 'cancerous growth'. Look at the unnecessary DRM on SimCity that everyone complained about and made the game near unplayable. Look at the marketplace for Diablo 3 that spawned Error 37 and that even the lead designer regrets it. Does no one see how the industries obsession with multiplayer is damaging the industry? I'm not going to solely lay the blame on the developers, as they're only making games that people want to make...or are they?

Story in games is now on a rise. Spec Ops: The Line started it in shooters, with a main character that became disturbed, deluded and traumatized in a radically different environment, which carried on into Far Cry 3 and the Tomb Raider reboot. Also with the Walking Dead and Journey, which received multiple Game of the Year awards and sold millions. Same with Bioshock Infinite, which dealt with many serious themes and ideas as well as selling 4 million and got a 93 on Metacritic. I may not think The Last of Us is gaming's Citizen Kane, but I certainly like what it tried to do. It had a strong female character, not a ditsy, skinny-waisted, large-breasted female stereotype like most female characters, it had an excellent environment and it had some well-written, truly believable scenes. It's not my game of the year, but it did sell loads and get the best scores of 2013 thusfar. Yet publishers are still churning out samey, greyish-brown shooters that don't sell and receive lukewarm reviews. Why? Why do they keep doing this? Do they think shoe-horning multiplayer and taking away parts of the game for cheap DLC will give them even more money? Because it bloody well won't, and it's up to us to make them realize that.

We are not robots that will automatically buy your *insert popular game here* clone. We are not the same audience we were in 1983, so stop treating us like it. We are entering a new age of gaming. Games go for the price of a burger on Humble Bundles, Steam Sales and the App Store, but the console market thinks 10% off Blood Dragon is a huge deal. Dead Space 3 and Battlefield 3 went on sale with many other games a few weeks ago, for an average price of $5, yet XBLA or PSN think £20 for Borderlands is a steal. When will this end? When the market crashes again? When people stop buying the regurgitated, overpriced, DRM-laden crap on consoles and the market then crashes? What then?

With the new consoles coming out, I am extremely wary of what the industry will become. Whether it will dwell in multiplayer-focused crap or evolve into a truly artistic medium. Whether our community will turn into a hellish, hostile environment of morons, or it will flourish into an educated, smart, analytic consumer-base. This is all up to us. Let us buy not the Call of Duty wannabees and the poorly made, greyish-brown conveyor-belt of creativity-emaciated cardboard boxes made multiplayer, but let us buy the story-driven, significant, deeper-than-a-tea-tray experiences that will resonate and be remembered in years to come. This can turn out positively if we divert out boffing £47 away from EA or Activision, and toward Valve or Telltale or Thatgamecompany. Let this not turn in to 1983.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Best Games of the Year (So Far)

I just wanted to make this list before all the big-hitters come out. The Assassins Creed's, the Call of Duty's, the Battlefield's and whatnot. This is the time of year where there's a wee little game drought. Not in the indie sector, mind. There's been quite a bit of content coming out from there. Not very GOOD content, but content nonetheless. Anyway, let us revel in 2013's best games. Indie, big budget and what bog's ends. Lets go:

5: The Last of Us
I bashed The Last Of Us quite a bit in my initial review, but the truth is that it's not bad. It's pretty competent at best. It's just furiously overrated. 'An emotional journey' my arse, but it's actually just a pretty fun time. It has an awesome world that you can completely lose yourself in. It's achingly sad yet relentlessly beautiful. The Last Of Us is kind of a mess, but it's an entertaining mess at that. It just could have been so much more. The gameplay is alright too, sort of balancing stealth and action whilst having a crafting system that fits with the tone of the game. Explosives and Health Kits are made from the same ingredients, but which one do you value more? I found that to be an awesome touch. Overall, it's pretty fun and well presented, but certainly not gaming's Citizen Kane. 

4: Antichamber 
A cerebral masterpiece. I haven't played a better puzzle game since Portal 2. It isn't as good as Portal 2, but what is, right? It's absolutely mind-bending; distorting reality and physics but it all makes sense within the rules of the game. Making a world as twisty and as sprawling as Antichamber yet still having a consistent rule-set is an incredibly hard thing to do, but the game pulls it off with wonderful style and consistency. 

3: Dota 2
I was very critical of Dota 2 in my previous posts, but once you really sink your teeth into it, it's really God-damn engaging. It's certainly not an easy game, that's for sure. It doesn't have a really low XP barrier for level 2, like after 2 kills you get to level 2. No, it's not like that. It's 1000 XP all the time for every level. It gets better as you get further into it, but it's not impenetrable per say, you want to get better at it. It's like you can see the depth but you're not in the depth, but you want to. For a game with one map, it's huge and varied and awesome. There is actual weight when you a kill an enemy. There's actual weight when you level up. This is all just personal preference, by the way. Other people like the game for different reasons, but I like it most for its depth of challenge. Also, there's a Bastion announcement pack. Not only can you enjoy an awesome MOBA, but you also have Rucks from Bastion doing the game announcements. 'Dire structures... didn't make it.' Thank you, Valve. 

2: Papers, Please
There hasn't been a more original game this year. Original in how they can turn and *insert boring job here* simulator into something with actual charm and engagement, which isn't at all superficial nor does it rely on Skinner Box techniques. The boring job this time is not Euro Truck Driver or Airport Firefighter (yes, Airport firefighter simulator is actually a game that exists and requires money in order for you to play it), but is a border patrol man. Which is mostly a boring job in the civilized western world, but setting it in Communist Russia (A.K.A. Arstotzka and other made up names seemingly lifted from Borat) means that forged passports and terrorist attacks are part and parcel in the divided world of Communist Russia. It manages to balance humour and hilariously fake passports with some serious themes like segregation and xenophobia. Should you let the poor wife in without the correct documents, after her husband passed the border? Or shouldn't you? Because letting the wrong people in who don't have the correct documents or those bearing forged documents can take a toll on your credits. Which you obviously need to pay for your son's medicine because he get's the flu more often than a Somalian. Anyways, it's the most amount of awesome you can get out of $10-£7 this year without buying Breaking Bad Meth Candy (That's actually a thing: click here). 

1. Bioshock Infinite
People complained that there was no weight to any of the gore or killing, which is true for Booker's character, because he's a remorseless bastard who only wants his money. For Elizabeth, however, we actually saw the arc of her character from an innocent woman exploring a fresh new world to a darkened, frightened assistant to a killer, with just a little bit of hope of getting to Paris. Combat-wise, it's awesome. Sky-hooks and all. The Vigors don't really have a place here, as it's mostly in service to the brand, and that's true that they didn't need to be there and didn't have any impact on the otherwise perfect world, but that's (mostly) explained with the ending that I still won't spoil. Most of the flaws in the game (pointed out by Extra Credits and most The Last Of Us fans) are mainly flaws down to the main character. He's drunken, bottom-feeding scum who will do whatever it takes, not to save the girl, but wipe away the dept. But later on, it becomes more than that. Also, it's bloody fun as all hell to plough your way through Columbia. That's it. Fun and detailed and awesome. Play it. 

Now we wait for the swarm of games released at Christmas time that will one day inspire little Jimmy's high-school massacre. See you on the other side.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

There is no such thing as Game "Addiction"

Or internet addiction, or TV addiction, or film addiction, or lolcat's addiction, or anything like that. However, there is such a thing as 'Game compulsion'. This is because games are compelling, not addicting.

Gamers are compelled to play. There are levels, goals, objectives, characters to meet, worlds to explore. All of these factors make games compelling. Because the typical game is longer than the typical movie, and with Humble Bundles, Steam Sales and Gamestop, games are becoming cheaper, there's more games to play and more time to play them. We hear stories of children killing their siblings after playing Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto, but it's mostly due to bad parenting. Why would they leave a loaded handgun in the reach of a child? And because they can't accept the blame, they blame it on Call of Duty, on violent movies, on rock music, on wh
atever the child was mildly influenced by so they can dodge the blame themselves. Who's fault is it that Adam Lanza turned his gun on elementary school students last December? Easy. It was his fault. Just because he played 'violent video games' doesn't make him any less of a mad man.

We hear stories of people ruining their lives playing video games; becoming so heavily invested in games like World of Warcraft or League of Legends that they avoid any kind of human interaction, that they lose their jobs or don't attend school. This can exist without making games a bad thing. I play(ed) both of those games without becoming a basement dwelling troglodyte, and so have my friends. It is the fault of the players for not playing in moderation, or for not controlling themselves or whatever. The reasons why you hear people becoming 'addicted' to World of Warcraft or Call of Duty and not Bastion or McPixel, is that the former games are far more compelling than the latter two independent, smaller games. And that's the bottom line here: video games are not addicting, they're compelling.

We're compelled to play the next dungeon of World of Warcraft. It offers us in-game rewards and suchlike. We're compelled to play the next game of Call of Duty. It offers us XP so we can better our weapons and upgrades and suchlike. If we played 20 hours of it and had our whole data wiped, we'd be in tears. That whole 20 hours is leading up to something. Or is it? Is it just the joy of becoming more leveled and skilled and earning more bragging points? Or is it something deeper than that?

In life, we go to school, then go to work, then earn money, then have a family, then work more, then retire, then we die. A lot of people are happy with this fact. A lot of people also aren't happy with this. Video games offer those people a place, they offer people comfort and a home. Most of our community is very open. We accept outcasts. We accept 'losers'. We accept those with downs syndrome. We accept war veterans who aren't able to participate in some-such sport or other activity. Games give people comfort in a world they wouldn't have normally found comfort in. We can escape who we are. For 4 hours, 12 hours, 40 hours, or 100 hours, we can become someone else. We can elicit power fantasies we normally wouldn't have.

Sadly, people become too invested in video games, and they become the aforementioned basement dwelling troglodyte. Those who play Grand Theft Auto or any other violence video game and turn their gun on innocent people, they don't do that because their life is perfect. No one picks up a game and wants to kill someone. Likewise, no one picks up a game and becomes 'addicted'. Spending over 500 hours on a game isn't an addiction, it's a compulsion. They're compelled to play more because they've already spent 500 hours on it. Nonetheless, these things can exist without games being a bad thing. We drive cars, right? We know the risks of driving a car, right? We still drive cars, right? Just because cars cause accidents and kill people doesn't mean we should ban them. They are essential to our lives.

Apparently it wasn't the teenagers fault for going on a rampage,
it was the games fault, somehow. It's just another way of dodging
As per Wikipedia, 'There is no formal diagnosis of video game addiction in current medical or psychological literature. Video game addiction was excluded from the DSM 5, the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.' In my own words, you know how people become addicted to cigarettes and alcohol or heroin? It's because of a singular drug. Nicotene in cigarettes is addictive. The alcohol in beer is addictive. The heroin, is addictive. These are drugs that require a dependency. You experience withdrawal without taking the drug frequently enough. This doesn't happen in video games. I can easily spend a week away from video games. It would be harder to spend a week away from heroin. There is no fundamental altering of brain chemistry that makes you 'addicted'. I dislike how people can throw around the term 'addiction' like it's nothing. Game 'Compulsion' is real; Game 'Addiction' is not. is possibly the worst website to visit about this subject. I suggest you watch this 25 minute long personal story about game compulsion. It shows that there's a difference between a lot of play and a serious compulsion. "Life always welcomes you back."

Thursday, 22 August 2013

In Defence of Call of Duty

Many of those in the 'highbrow gaming community' slag off COD as being nothing more than a stupid, mindless, racist, artless, homogenized piece of tripe for the masses of annoying 9 to 14-year-olds. Which is mostly true, but there are many things that Call of Duty gets right; things that people don't appreciate as much as I do. So please, at least try to indulge me.

Firstly, 60 Frames-per-Second. Many people complain that Call of Duty has subpar graphics, which is true, the graphical fidelity is inferior to most games that come out, but that's fine, because I prefer swifter, more fast-paced gameplay that an ugly, slugging 30FPS. And Call of Duty is very fast-paced, and the 60FPS benefits the game extremely. Most games prefer huge, sprawling, pointless sky-boxes over swifter gameplay, but Call of Duty doesn't, it prefers a smoother game-feel.

Secondly, the level system. Leveling up in Call of Duty multiplayer mode feels awesome. The first few levels start out easy, then it gets harder, then a lot harder. The difficulty curve on leveling is perfect, encouraging you to play more so you can gain more XP and unlock the new equipment and whatnot. The most interesting part of the multiplayer is Prestige mode. This gives you the option to restart your entire progress from Level 1 to Level 80 or 55 or whatever. All your guns, XP, camos, equipment and unlockables go. And for what? Isn't it much better to be loaded out? But prestiging higher means that you're more respected and well recognized. This isn't a number that goes steadily up, or a bar that gets higher, this is the equivalent to street cred. People treat your ability by your prestiges, and that's awesome. Getting to level 30 on League of Legends is cool, but doing it all again just for a little emblem? That's even cooler. Once you've completed a game, you lose to will to want to play it anymore, but with prestiging, you can play it all again with the added bonus of 'street cred'. You are now a higher being. Awesome.

Thirdly, the aforementioned fast-gameplay is awesome. Small maps are generally better, as they require less trudging from the corner of the map to the battle zone. With a small map, everywhere is a battle zone. With the 60FPS, everything is more clear and fluid, so small maps are actually fun and remind me of the days when shooters weren't a conveyor belt of chest-high walls, which coincidentally is what most Call of Duty campaigns consist of.

Lastly, Black Ops 2 is actually not that bad. It's campaign, whilst short, at least tries to do something more interesting with the series. There are choices, there are alternative endings, there are mini RTS side quests, and the aesthetic and game feel is awesome. The zombies, whilst not great, is still a fun distraction, but it suffered from trying to do to many things, and many of the maps suffered from being heavy on corridors, which just slows down the fast. fluid gameplay to a screaming halt. The multiplayer is pretty much the same with some minor differences, but that's ok, because the multiplayer is actually pretty fun. There are unique game modes and cool guns and there's a focus on small maps, which is much better.

Sure, there are loads of things wrong with Call of Duty, such as a stupid, gaming-illiterate community, most of the campaigns are short and stupid and boring, it's extremely over-rated, it's an incredibly safe series, it's designed for the masses and it made an entire generation of gamers care exclusively about multiplayer and graphics... ok maybe there's a lot wrong with Call of Duty but I still find it to be at least a functional shooter with some cool bits like Zombie mode and those RTS mission in Black Ops 2.

I just felt I needed to defend this game among those who consider themselves to be too high brow for Call of Duty (me partly included), because this series gets a lot of hate, and it seems like most of the hate is for the sake of it, which sucks, but I can understand it. After all, it's got the worst bloody fans in the world. They make me too ashamed to admit that I kinda like Black Ops 2. Defence over. Go back to over-thinking the metaphors of Braid now.

Monday, 19 August 2013

It's Been a Dull Year (So Far)

Seriously, how many good games have come out this year? So far, my Game Of The Year is BioShock Infinite,  which was really bloody good, but there was loads wrong with it. There was also The Last Of Us, which was heavily flawed but still fun and entertaining and was well presented, it's just not the Citizen Kane of gaming. There hasn't been a Spec Ops: The Line yet. A game that really challenges you and the industry as a whole. Maybe Binfinite, but still not as good as The Line. There hasn't been a Journey; a game that's really unique and beautiful. Hell, I'm not asking for beautiful this year, I'm asking for unique. Something short and different and quirky. There was Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, which was pretty much Team America meets the 80s. It was really cool, but was just a Far Cry 3 re-skin. Antichamber is possibly the Fez of 2013. Different, challenging and indie. I haven't completed it, due to how complicated and huge it is, but it's still possibly my second favourite Game Of The Year.

There have been so many disappointments. Crysis 3 for example. On consoles, it runs like a narcoleptic on a PowerPoint Presentation. But as a game, it's just a dull shooter that doesn't even look that nice. It runs at 30FPS, it's in desperate need of ambient occlusion, and it's just really god-damn boring. To think I was actually looking forward to this. Gah. There was also Dead Space 3, which I knew was going to suck, but still, I was expecting it to be somewhat entertaining. It was; I didn't complete it, but it held my attention long enough to stop me remembering that the game is actually really bloody bland. Look at it in contrast to the original Dead Space games. Sure they weren't great, but it was refreshing to see a mainstream game at least try to be survival horror. If not that, they at least they were trying to be something different. Now, it's just Gears of War in space, which is really freakin' disappointing.

And then there were the crap games. Aliens: Colonial Marines, in which Dead Space 3 was a better Aliens game than Aliens. I'm pretty sure it goes without saying now; birds fly, fish swim, and Aliens: Colonial Mariens was crap. What about Star Trek? We all know that video game adaptations of films suck weenus, but I was hoping that this would be at least mildly entertaining. Whatever. Video game adaptations of TV, however... The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct looked quite cool. I like a good DayZ clone that isn't laggy and still in Alpha. But no, it was bland, boring and crap. And too short, like all the other games I've mentioned.

Since there seems to be no life or originality in the Triple-A market, it's up to the indie market to remind us that gaming is still worth defending. There was Antichamber, but what else? Seriously, what else has there been? There was Gone Home and Bleed that look mildly interesting but still haven't played. There was Battleblock Theatre which looks so hilarious and awesome but I don't own an Xbox. It has to come to PC at some point. I mean, it has to.

Oh, DotA 2. Hasn't that been out for a while though? Oh no, it was just in Beta for ages. Its official release date was July 9th, and yes, I have played it, and it gives me a headache. I can tell this is only for the hardcore crowd of PC gamers. I really don't see the appeal in things like DotA and League of Legends. It's bloody impenetrable. I've played an hour of DotA 2  and surely by that time things would start getting interesting, but it doesn't. Oh, you know how when your character moves, the camera moves with you? There's an option to change that on LoL so you have to manually move the camera separate to the character. I hoped the same would be for Dota 2, because they're the same genre. "Well, hope into one hand and s**t in the other, and see which fills up quicker!" says Valve, "Because we don't want you horrible console gaming scum on out turf!". "What's that?" says Valve, "Approachable? Options? FUN?! Not on our PC gaming hardcore crowd, you don't! Paint yourself generic fantasy, add hats and an asshole fanbase, and you've got yourself a hardcore PC game!" I'm sure it gets better later, but that's not an excuse. There are so many brain-cells I'm willing to squander. 

On an unrelated rant, where the bloody hell is Half-Life 2: Episode 3? Valve seem to have enough time to make Left 4 Dead 2, Portal 2, and DotA 2 after the last episode, but not enough time to wrap things up after that?! Valve are really starting to piss me off. They don't even make any announcements about it. Portal 2 was my game of the year, yes, but I would have preferred another episode. Half-Life 2 is my favourite game ever, and Valve fear that. They fear that they will cock-up a beloved franchise, and it only gets worse with time. Do Valve have the ability to make a game that lives up to 6 years of expectations? I think so, but I doubt Valve think so. 

Let us be looking forward. We still have Saints Row 4 and The Bureau: XCOM Declassified to keep us busy until the annual series' start showing up. The COD's, the Battlefields, the FIFA's, the Assassins Creeds, and with the new consoles coming out soon, we might be able to see some new, revolutionary games. Or they could all suck. I'd say 50/50, apart from The Bureau, because there is no way Mad Men combined with XCOM can fail. No way.  

Sunday, 18 August 2013


Play it first, then read this. 

It's a 3-minute flash game. It was made by two guys. One guy did the music and another guy did the actual game. It consists of one block moving into other blocks, and the other blocks disperse once you have done so. Yet this the most touching and deep flash game I've played.

This is an article on the typical school week in Korea. "The Korean Teachers' and Education Workers' Union (KTU) found that 27.9 per cent of students say, "I eat alone."" My friend said that an average study period for a Middle Schooler in Korea is 12 hours a day. More often than not they have a 1-day weekend. Yet South Korea are such a progressive country, economically and culturally. Working that hard and that consistent leaves out any kind of human interaction. But that's off topic...

The topic of Loneliness is indeed loneliness, in which a title has never been more clear in describing the game. It's incredibly simple; you move your block until the game ends, but along the way there are other blocks that are jumping about and moving and having fun, but when you go up to them, they stop, disperse and fade. It has no tutorial, no little speech bubbles or objective markers along the way, no forms of text at all until the end; it simply conveys its message through the gameplay. It does this so powerfully.

Its power is not only expressed through the beautiful, looping piano riff, but through the implicit choice. What did you do whilst playing Loneliness? Did you purposefully avoid the other blocks because you didn't want to ruin their fun? Did you go up to every single group? Did you go up to every group then give up after a while because you knew they would go away? Did you avoid them all throughout the game, but approached that last block in hope that he would partner with you? Only to find out that that block would disperse like the rest of them. More importantly, what do these choices say about you? Are you a person who doesn't want to get involved with other peoples business, and stays away from them? Are you a confident type who approaches everyone anyway? Do you give up trying to socialize after everyone rejecting you?

Think of the symbolism as well. These are small, black blocks. You are a small, black block. You are the same as them. They don't know that though, so they stay away from you because you're not part of their group. You're the same as them, just that they fear change, they fear being challenged by another block. So they leave. There's also the symbol of a black block on a white background. You're black, and the background is white. Hell, the world is white. You contradict the world. It would be better for you to fit in with a crowd of black blocks, so the world wouldn't feel so different, so opposite, so scary, so big.

The background then stops being white, it starts becoming grey, then darker, then darker, then black. You descend into darkness. This means two things. One, that you have become so used to being isolated and lonely, that the world becomes the same colour as you. You are now used to a cold, unwelcoming and lonely world. A world where you fit in. Two, that you descend into darkness. You have become lonely and isolated that you become a darker person. You become darker, and darker, then black.

We've all been lonely once in our lifetime. I had a lonely childhood. I had one or two friends that I had when I was younger, and a friend I was really close with when I was younger. But then he left to Australia. I was on my own from then on. I was constantly excluded, bullied, lonely and picked on. I was picked on because I had no friends, and I had no friends because I was picked on. This game feels a lot like my early school life. I was alone, and decided I was going to join in and play with someone else. They rejected, and went off. I went to another group, which rejected me and went off. This has happened to all of us at some point.

Once you finish the game, it ends with a message. It's a message so powerful and thought-provoking. A message that can convey so much emotion and satisfaction that many games with big budgets and huge man-power fail to do with pages of script. It reads:

Now read that article again. These kids are so forced and pressured into doing well that they don't have time for any human interaction. Despite them doing really well in school and whatever instrument they play, they will still be alone. This is what I think Edmund McMillen's Aether is about. That a kid riding on a monster goes round solving problems and becomes so focused on his work and objectives, that when he returns back to Earth, it's so small that when he touches it, the Earth shatters and then just goes floating in space. It says that when you work so hard and so long on something, you lose sight of Earth and what is real, that when you come back to it, it breaks under your feet.

With Loneliness, you're not encouraged to do anything apart from move until the game ends, just that there are other blocks along the way in which they are optional to interfere. And that's what life is. You keep on moving. It's depressing and unwelcoming, but you deal with it because you have no other options. Your option is to move forward. Move through whatever curve-ball life throws at you. After all, what other option have you got?

Monday, 12 August 2013

Video Games Don't Need To Be Fun

I had a discussion with a friend the other day about Spec Ops: The Line. It mainly consisted of me persuading him to buy an play it. Unsuccessfully, however. I don't know if it was my pitch, or the fact that he doesn't particularly like linear shooters, or the fact that I said the game 'wasn't fun' (which it isn't). He seemed startled by the fact that I spent 10 minutes rambling about the thing then proceeded to call it un-fun. He then asked 'Why would I want to play a game if it isn't fun?' No, not just shooters, which is understandable, because what's the point shooting foreigners to death if you don't get a raging, racist hard-on. He said 'Why would I want to play a game if it isn't fun?' A Game. Just any game. As if all games are supposed to be fun.

A year prior, I also had a heated discussion with a friend about the same topic. He said 'Games are supposed to be fun, that's why they're called games.' It seems the popular opinion is that games are intended to be fun; that they only live to deliver fun. The 'Games' thing really ties into that, almost as if 'games' are synonymous with 'fun'. And it's true, 'games' are synonymous with 'fun'. They're also synonymous with 'distraction'. The gaming industry has evolved enough to become an artform of sorts. We're still working on it, but we're close. I think it's time to shake off the name 'game' the same way Comic Books were then called Graphic Novels.

With Comic Books, because automatically assume it's a lighthearted, fun distraction, primarily for kids, which is untrue, but also understandable. They're called comic books. Comic. Comedic. With the name Graphic Novel, it implies it is as serious and a Novel, but contains animation. Film Critics don't look down upon Pixar because they're animation-focused, so why should Literature Critics look down on Graphic novels simply because they're animation-focused? This can be related to games too.

To me, Video Games are the most interesting medium there is. Not the best or the most artistically profound, but the most interesting. It's interesting as in there's so much to do. Whole genres and ideas that haven't been explored, and all it takes is a little money. All this creative prowess in the industry that can make some of the greatest game experiences; they never lift off due to a lack of money. So we have different consoles, different platforms, different means of playing a game, unlike film, in which the only variation in the experience is what size/quality the screen is. No, we have Steam, XBLA, PSN, Browser-based, iOS and OnLive, all which offer different, unique experiences. What does literature have in comparison? Paper or Kindle? Pff. Also, the artistic side. We can explore worlds, role-play as other people as if they're real living people, discover the undiscovered, tell entire stories though a world. How awesome is that?

Yet, this isn't reaching it's full potential. We're still held back by the idea that is has to be 'fun'. So we shoe-horn Gears of War-like shooting into The Last Of Us, we add ridiculous amounts of blood to BioShock Infinite, and we add loads-guns to a bloody Stealth game (you know who you are, most stealth games). It's silly and unnecessary, and it's halting progression in our medium.  It seems there's only one main theme in triple-A games: fun. And that's it. There are a few exceptions, yes, but imagine if all movies only had one theme, or if all books only had one theme. It would suck, an yet the same happens with games, and people don't seem to care. This is in issue here, an issue involving a medium we all love, that isn't getting the respect and attention is deserves by other mediums.

I don't want all games to stop being fun and start being serious, we can of course have a mix here, like District 9 or Juno, but I do want to see more games prevail as artistically relevant and not just a mindless time-waste like most of television. I recommend you watch this video. This guy expresses my points in a clear manner, as well as being a cool, talented guy.

A good way to stop developers making mind-numbing shooters is with the power of money. If Valve make another masterpiece, go give em some money. If Ghibli make another awesome JRPG, give em some money. If Epic Games make yet another mind-numbing shooter, don't give em your money, and encourage everyone else to side with you. We are not consumers, we are champions. We are going to champion your games, not consume them. We control the success of your product, we are not bloody cattle.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The Last Of Us Review

Story has made a comeback in recent years. With games like Bioshock starting the trend this generation, more developers have tried to compete with movies and try to make a game with a few more brain-cells in their head than Transformers. A few games have succeeded (Spec Ops: The Line), and even more games have failed (Max Payne 3, The Witcher 2 and Heavy Rain). I'm not saying the aforementioned games aren't good, just that they don't live up to their ambitions. Max Payne 3 was hella fun to play, but it took itself to seriously and tried to hard to be a Mystic River type deal, despite being contrasted with jumpy-fun-shooty gameplay. So where does The Last Of Us stand? Sadly, in between.
The transformation of a character.

The problem with trying to have a good story in a shooter is that the story is supposed to inform gameplay, and the story of the typical modern-day shooter is 'Shoot a load of guys in a grey/brown industrial area and get a bad ending'. The thing about killing another human is that it's supposed to affect you in some way. You either go traumatized and deluded like Captain Walker, or power-crazy like Jason Brody. Other games like Bioshock and Half-Life handle this differently, like choosing your own level of immersion in Half-Life, where you as a player can morally decide yourself whether they're affected or crazy, or in Bioshock where you're just a clockwork orange and you have no emotion or choice.

Most shooters, The Last Of Us included, have a main character that can kill all in his path without feeling anything, without being affected at all. You would have thought that in a post-apocalyptic world where human life is few and far between, human life would have some value, but it doesn't, they can just kill whomever they please. Death is part and parcel in their daily life, and maybe that's why they're not affected, because they have become completely desensitized to it. Be that as it may, it doesn't make an interesting story at all. There's no character arc there. If they start out as a disheveled, traumatized killer and end as a disheveled, traumatized killer then bugger all has happened and the story is boring and pointless. Ellie is a really cool character, full with personality and charm, and in a world where everyone is bland and underdeveloped, Ellie seems like fruit in a laundry basket.

The back story is, you know the drill, a zombie apocalypse has wiped out 95% of humanity and the world is left in ruins and the remaining humans have to live under strict supervision in order to survive. But with Ellie, they find hope in a cure, or at least I think so, it becomes kind of hard to follow after a while and it certainly lacks decent direction. Most times, I don't know why I'm going there or why I should care. At first there's a capital building which turns out bogus, then Bob's place, then a bridge, and in the midst of play, caring about where your going isn't important. It's a case of shoot first and ask questions later. The story is actually really well told, with few cutscene's, it rely's on Half-Life's method of storytelling which is to use the world to tell a story. You don't need characters blabbling at your face for half an hour, telling you that the worlds gone all apocalypse-style like we're playing a JRPG. The run-down buildings, the make-shift houses, the way characters respond to your presence, it all adds up to a hugely satisfying world, a world that has been crushed and defeated, where people hold on to whatever shred of hope they have in sheer desperation. It's incredibly effective and well-done. While well-presented, it comes across as too safe and rather predictable, with no huge game-changing twists or moral dilemma's to make things more interesting.

The gameplay? Yeah, it's alright. It's kinda like Uncharted with it's optional but still broken stealth, cover-based shooting, and puzzle things. It even has that thing where if you don't activate the next set-piece, a clue will come up and just tell you what you need to do. The shooting is kinda clunky but you get used to it after a while. I don't like how you have limited ammo with limited clips but the zombies keep charging at you and whacking you. They often come in groups too, making gameplay all the more stressful, trying to handle health packs and reloading and Ellie all at once. I like the lack of objective markers but it often makes it difficult for you to know where you are. In a world where the whole world has been run down, all the environments are alike. You move from run-down town #1, to run-down building, to run-down town #2. If you're in a building and there's a place to be, you'll find yourself running in circles, seeing the same room 50 times, and since all rooms look the same, you'll technically be seeing the same room 2,500 times. However, I do appreciate how Naughty Dog managed to make fun gameplay which also stuck to the tenants of Survival Horror. Gameplay is panicky, resources are few, melee weapons degrade over time (and at least there's a hit meter so you know when your baseball bat's gonna call quits), it's claustrophobic, it encourages stealth so you're not forced to waste resources, and most importantly it's avoidable, especially when cauliflower monster is raging up behind you, all you want to do is swipe that keycard and get out of there before he turns you into cauliflower monster #2.

You can easily stealth past guards to the next room so you don't have to waste time and ammo, but the stealth is often frustrating due to spotty AI and the fact that often times, the ratio of Enemies to Cover is 3:1. You get behind cover to hide from Guard A dead ahead, but Guard B comes to your right, so you try to find further cover to hide from both guards, but Guard C comes to your left and no way will you be able to hide from all 3 of them unless you're hiding in a bloody box.

My main problem with the game is that there's no weight to any of the death and gore. Sure, we get it, everyone's become desensitized to death and blood and zombies because it's been part and parcel in daily life for 20 years and all that bollocks, but there's no transformation, it just skips straight ahead. Literally, it just skips that 20 years of character development and world degradation which would have made a far more interesting game, but instead we're stuck with a game that lacks gravity in it's death. In a survival game, the life of another human should mean something, and it does with Ellie, but Joel doesn't care at all. In Telltale's Walking Dead, the player is utterly shocked when a human takes another human life, and even if that human is unpleasant to us, we still risk our lives to save that human because he's a human being. The Walking Dead handled life and death far better than The Last Of Us did.

Also, the title makes no sense. The last of who exactly? There are loads of humans, enough to make districts and an armed force. If we are the last of the human race, which is what the title implies, surely human life would have value. If we are the last of our kind, why is Joel and Co. oh so happy to rid the world of humans like Skittles? Sure, there's an uprising group called Firefly, but what exactly are they uprising against? The US Military are only trying to stop people getting infected, and Firefly are just whining and pissing their pants, and for what? For the most part, we're killing survivors who we could easily befriend. The survivors even tell us this, that we gave them no choice. It's like a dead serious Spec Ops: The Line without any moral dilemma.

But of course, there's a further complaint: how are we supposed to relate to a character who kills all the time and shows no signs of being affected? More importantly, how can we sympathize with someone who tortures people? Joel, for the most part, is an unpleasant guy. He is completely neglectful to what Ellie wants, and when Ellie dares to try to lighten the mood, all Joel cares about is getting to the next ledge and killing the next cauliflower monster. Then all of a sudden when Ellie goes missing, Joel tortures people for information. What pisses me off is that there's no transformation for Joel, he just suddenly becomes attatched to her apropos of nothing. What pisses me off even further is that he stabs a guys knee off, snaps the dudes neck even when the poor dude gave Joel the information, then proceeds to bludgen a defenseless, subdued 'enemy' to death. And he gets away with it. There's no punishment, not even a moral conflict for Joel, he just carries on.

We can sympathize with the fact that his daughter was killed because of the outbreak, but that's it. That's seriously the only reason why we can sympathise with this tea-tray shallow vessel of a character. At the end, he pretty much kills everyone, yet he shows no remorse, there's no payback for Joel, no moral payback or anything. It's like Michael Haneke's Funny Games except we're supposed to be rooting for the bad guys.

We can see that Joel taking Ellie under her wing as a father figure shows that he's still desperate for a daughter in his life, that he still hasn't got over her death and is channeling his need through Ellie, which does make sense in the end. Thinking about it, why is Ellie even here? She's running round the battlefield, obviously in the enemies sight, but doesn't get spotted. She's neither a hindrance or a help. Sure, she's there for the story, but this is where the dots don't connect: the story and gameplay are almost completely disconnected.

The game is a pretty huge mixed bag, showing pure excellence in some areas and laziness and haphazardness in others. I think Naughty Dog, although great, aren't suited for the job of a game like The Last Of Us, mainly because they aren't all that great with characters and Uncharted was notable for having a 'shoot first, ask questions later' theme to it, which has been continued into The Last Of Us. Maybe this isn't the correct genre for a game like this, perhaps Point-and-Click Adventure would have been perfect. Although a man escorting a young girl through a zombie apocalypse to a safe haven is already a game, a much better game, and maybe that's why The Last Of Us fails: because it tries to be so many things at once. It's immersive, beautiful and fun, but it all fails to come together with all the character development and struggles and the theme of survival.

As a survival game, there's no tension to it. There's no over-hanging long term threat like Far Cry 3's Vaas or Half-Life 2's Dr. Breen. There's no chance of losing everything like XCOM. Most importantly, there's no value to human life like The Walking Dead. What The Last Of Us does well is the gameplay, which is possibly the best example of a survival horror shooter I've seen, far superior to Dead Space. All the realism is in it's gameplay and environments, sadly, there's no realism in it's themes, and in my opinion, that brings the whole game down.

It saddens me, more than anyone, that The Last Of Us didn't succeed for me, and I was bloody pumped for this, because Naughty Dog are excellent. It tried to do so many things at once. It tried to be a fun, bloody zombie-em-up, and also a spellbinding emotional roller-coaster of an epic. In great, story-driven games, the gameplay and story sit in the same room with cups of tea and have a nice chat. In The Last Of Us, the story and gameplay are in separate rooms with merely a peep hole between them, occasionally exchanging eye-contact, if only either one of them had the courage to communicate.

Where The Last Of Us fails the most is that there is no connection between the gameplay and story, thus, this becomes an entertaining, though annoyingly flawed experience. It tries way too hard to impress us with beautiful sprawling environments with a spell-binding Oscar-worthy story, contrasted with limbs blowing apart and heads blowing off, but it doesn't connect the dots. There's Joel with his nailbombs, blowing up survivors left, right and centre, then we're supposed to sympathize with him and his motives. There's no reason why this couldn't have been a movie or a book or a zoetrope, rather than a game. Both the gameplay and the story are good, but the fact that they don't connect brings down the whole experience for me.

If I'm going to leave you with anything, let it be this: "Spinning a plate on a stick is impressive, but try to spin three at once, and you'll just end up digging porcelain out of your face." -Yahtzee Croshaw

Final Verdict: 6.7/10

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Taxing 'Violent Video Games'

Joe Biden's uneducated face
Vice President Joe Biden has proposed the motion of taxing 'violent video games'. I have put 'violent video games' in speech marks because when Biden says 'violent video games', he doesn't realize that the violence exhibited in video games isn't just non-existent, but it's also almost comical in its approach.

Biden says there's 'no restriction on the ability to do that; there's no legal reason why they couldn't' tax violent video games. Does that mean that you should? Just because you have the legal ability to, does that give you the right to lay a tax on video games that are 'violent'? Despite this, there is a legal problem when taxing violent video games due to the way they express violence: The First Amendment. Video Games are protected free speech under The First Amendment, as ruled by the supreme court.

He said that the tax should go towards victims on gun violence, and this is where he really steps out of line. I would say it's outright offensive to liken the gun crime exhibited at Sandy Hook an Aurora to violent video games. Saying that these deplorable, unlikely crimes are the blame of anything other than the perpetrator and/or the mental illness that the perp has, is irresponsible, offensive to the medium, and just wrong despite of all else. How could one know beforehand that their media will exhibit gun crime? As well as that, one does not simply pick up a video game and want to kill people. Also, why gun crime specifically? Is Biden saying that all games are about guns and blood and guns shooting blood? If a brawler game is taxed for its violence, but the taxes go to gun crime victims, what sense does that make?

Where does Biden draw the line between violent and non-violent. Ok, say all 15 and 18 rated games are taxed. There are some 15 rated games that are completely non-violent, like Skate 3 which is rated 16 because of it's bone-breaking Hall of Meat; will that be taxed for gun violence too? Or Spec Ops: The Line, which is anti-violence in it's purest form, which says that killing for entertainment is deplorable too; will that be taxed for influencing gun violence?

Ok, so let's say he taxes games which exhibit any kind of violence. That means he has to start taxing Mario now, as punching bricks and jumping on heads is a form of violence, and we can have a generation of brick-punching head-jumpers. So if that falls flat on it's face, let's just say he taxes games with guns in them. That means he has to tax Portal, even though those guns don't directly kill anything, and even if the game is rated 12, it will still be taxed for influencing gun crime. Oh, and Scribblenauts too, as you can use a gun in that game, it must be responsible for the Sandy Hook shootings.

All three possibilities land flat on their face, but I think the biggest mistake here is leaving Video Game monetization in the hands of a non-gamer. But this isn't just games, this is all media, and I mean all of it. Murder mystery novels, Anti-war films, Police Dramas, they all be taxed, and for what? For inciting gun violence? It doesn't work like that.

City 17
We wish there was a way to stop shootings like this, but these things aren't exactly common. People go to the movies all the time, and the one time there's a shooting out of the millions of times there's a movie showing, it's still a freak occurrence. We can't prepare for these freak occurrences, because they're bloody freak occurrences. They don't happen often at all, so we can't set up policemen and a SWAT team every time someone goes to school or watches a movie or runs a marathon. It would probably make me feel less safe knowing that there are security cameras and guards watching every move, before this becomes a City 17 society, where we're all controlled by Nurse Ratched so that no one will ever commit a crime ever.

Video Games are expensive as it is, and we don't need a bloody tax on top of it; taxing for something so arbitrary and silly.

Friday, 5 April 2013

BioShock Infinite Review

Doesn't it suck that there are hardly any games that explore deeper themes? Doesn't it suck that there are hardly any games that are truly meaningful? There were only 3 games last year (The Walking Dead, Journey, Spec Ops: The Line) that really meant something, when at the movies in 2012, I can pick 20 films off the top of my head that explored deeper themes that don't focus solely on fun. Sure, I still want dumb fun games, and not all games do have to mean something, but isn't it so much better when they do? Isn't a party so much better when it's celebrating something? Not only is BioShock Infinite the most meaningful and surprising game I've played since Spec Ops: The Line, and the most fun I've had in a linear shooter since Max Payne 3.

Warning: Spoiler Alert
I wont directly spoil anything for you, but there might be some details in this review which you can join the dots and figure out the ending, and it's best to go into it knowing little about it anyway. If you want to avoid having any indirect spoilers, don't read this review until you've played it all the way through. If you want a mini-review: Do not miss BioShock Infinite. It is absolutely incredible, and it's the first great game of 2013. Go play it, now. 

This game is notable for being heavily delayed. The first trailer was released in August 2010 and was set for a release date in October 2012, and has been pushed back twice since then. I guess it's good for a developer to spend a few more months polishing a game, as Shigeru Miyamoto once said, 'A delayed game will eventually be good, but a rushed game will be forever bad'. I could wait till 2014 for BioShock Infinite, just as long as it's polished and perfected to a mirror shine. You can see the time and effort that's gone in to Infinite; the world building is extremely effective, but the combat certainly needs a further polish.

The world building is very similar to Dishonored, Hell, the world in general is very similar to Dishonored. Columbia can be described as an American Dunwall, and a good one at that. The buildings look very similar, because they run on the same engine, and the stylisation of the characters is very similar. Much effort has gone into making the world extremely disconcerting, even though it starts out peachy and wonderful and perfect. There are barbershop quarters floating in from the sky, there are rosy-cheeks on happy children and everything is so neat and tidy and bloody happy. It's disquieting how non-disquieting everything is, and you must wonder how the government is keeping the people this way.

Mechanically, Infinite is absolutley perfect. Bullets fly at things you point at and the movement is fast and fluid. The guns are incredibly fun to use, as are the plasmids, I mean Vigors, including a plasmid, I mean Vigor that allows you to wash away several enemies with a load of water, and a plasmid, I mean Vigor that allows you to absorb incoming bullets and throw them back in the enemies face. The weapon menu is incredibly unique: THERE ISN'T ONE! You can only equip 2 weapons at once, so instantly the combat becomes less varied and more limited. I spent most of the game with a Machine Gun and a Shotgun, and just upgraded the Hell out of both of them, so I never needed to do anything else, which kind of sucks. I can't see why they wouldn't allow a weapon wheel like in BioShock 1. Maybe they didn't want Booker to become a walking armoury, or maybe it was more efficient in the midst of battle to just quick select, but still, maybe you could only assign 2 weapons to the quick select to make things easier, or you could just have an 8 weapon limit, as there are a lot of weapons in the game.

On Easy and Normal difficulty, the Vigors seem like a gimmick. On Normal, I got through the entire game without needing to use any plasmids, I mean Vigors, except for the odd boss fight and if I was trophy hunting. You also never really need to go hunting for ammo, health, money or Eve, I mean Salts, as Elizabeth just chucks you some around every corner, so the world becomes less interesting when you're not picking up voice notes all the time. This is why I encourage you to play on Hard. Sure, play it on Normal first, because the controls and movement is something to get used to, but on Hard you can really see the diversity of the combat, and most importantly, you will feel the urge to explore more and learn more about the world of Columbia. Be prepared to play on 1999 mode, though. I could only play an hour of it before I have to give up. When you die, you have to pay some $90 dollars to revive. $90? Seriously? And when you have insufficient funds, you're taken back to the main menu, and forced to start from the most recent auto-save. Unless you've murdered your wife and kids and are seeking for a punishment, go ahead, but otherwise I can't recommend it.

Of course, what would BioShock Infinite be if it weren't for the memorable characters and writing. The writing? Yeah, it's pretty great. At some points it falls a bit flat and cliche, but at other times it's very well written and is overall pretty great. The characters are amazingly well developed, Elizabeth in particular. Here's a complaint: Why isn't Elizabeth on the front cover of the game! Elizabeth is an astonishingly good character, and she's more of the main character than the main character, so why isn't she on the front? The front cover consist of a Bro holding his gun and looking all cool-like, and I'm pretty sure we've seen enough of those covers (what do you mean Battlefield and Call of Duty?). Is it so awful to have a female character on the front cover? Will people not buy it if they see a female taking away the spotlight from the Gun Bro? It's hideously sexist, and borderline misogynistic, and it really shows how little the Gaming Industry and the gaming audience in general has evolved from the basement-dwelling troglodytes of the late 80s and early 90s in which the only female roles are Ditzes or Bad-asses or characters that arbitrarily switch between the two. You know, there are more girl gamers than ever before, and it's up to the industry and the audience to make them feel less alienated.

But I digress. It's refreshing to see a female character that isn't a damsel in distress. When you get down to it, the game is one large escort quest, but she takes care of herself in combat and is regularly an asset to you. When you're low on health, salts or ammo, she will happily chuck some to you in the midst of battle. Hmm, that's strange, a female character that doesn't need the constant assistance of a male? What do you mean Metroid Other M?

From earlier in this review, you might of picked up on the parallel I made with the first Bioshock, and it might seem like just a retread of BioShock 1, and that's understandable; plasmids are now Vigors, Eve is now Salts, Adam is now Infusion, objectivism, materialism and conformity is now racism, american exceptionalism and religious freedom, the wrench is now this awesome sky-hook, Andrew Ryan is now Father Comstock, Jack is now a more developed and empathetic Jack called Booker DeWitt, the Big Daddy is now the Songbird who protects Elizabeth instead of the Little Sisters, and steampunk is, well, steampunk, but a different kind of steampunk, the up-in-the-clouds sort of steampunk instead of the rock-bottom of the ocean kind of steampunk. But all of these parallels, the games uses it to it's favour. I wont tell you how it does it right now, but it's something different, and you have to play it for yourself.

Having a satisfying conclusion is rare for a combat focused game. It's usually rushed and stupid and token and cheap, like every Call of Duty (even the good ones) and every Modern Military Shooter you can care to name. The original BioShock famously failed at drawing a satisfying conclusion, with an awful, pointless bossfight and a 'good' ending which made no sense because the only reason the Little Sisters existed was to provide you with Eve. Infinite's ending however, is so remarkably conclusive and satisfying that it rivals the best of all shooters (especially Spec Ops: The Line), but I won't spoil it here, maybe another time.

Final Verdict: 9.5/10
You want action? It doesn't come much harder. You want story? It doesn't come much better. This is the kind of game I've been waiting for for years, and it was worth it.