Friday, 12 August 2011

Flashback Friday!

Yes, excessively clever title out of the way, let's take a look at an old favourite of mine.  Hailing from all the way back in 2002, exclusive to Nintendo's silly little purple box, it's Silicon Knight's...

And let me just get this out of the way before I begin with my trip down memory lane.  This game is not just great; it's a bloody masterpiece.

Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem is one of those games that, at the time, I didn't exactly play to death, but now, 9 years later, I constantly think back to as something rather special.  And it really was; few games today are this original, this immersive, and this disturbing.  Now, don't mistake my use of the word 'disturbing' for something blood-smeared with adrenaline-pumping, in-your-face moments of terror like Dead Space or Amnesia.  True, Eternal Darkness has its fair share of blood, gore and violence, but that takes a backseat to something really unnerving.  And that, ladies and gents, is the way this game messes with your head.  The 'Sanity's Requiem' subtitle is not there just for show; sanity plays a crucial role in this game, both on a mechanical level, as well as how it affects you in real life.
Pretty much sets the tone perfectly.  

But just what am I on about?  Is it supposed to be so scary that you lose your mind?  Well no, and it isn't.  Truth be told, at a glance, it's not the scariest horror game out there (technically this is more adventure horror rather than survival horror).  Enemies rarely tread into Silent Hill or Resident Evil level of scary, it's not nearly as atmospheric as modern horror titles, and you're generally well equipped for combat, unlike most survival horror games where you're forced to conserve ammo and health fastidiously.  The real disruption of your brain cells comes from the sanity mechanics within the game.

See, sanity is one of the three bars you have within the game, alongside health and magick (mana, effectively). I honestly cannot remember how you regain it (likely through killing enemies), but as you lose it, you become more susceptible to the game's numerous 'sanity effects', and the game becomes much creepier, with added ambient sound effects and relentless audio and visual trickery.  This is where things really get interesting, and where Eternal Darkness starts to separate itself from the pack.  These effects are effectively hallucinations of sort, which can cause the character you're playing to spontaneously start walking on walls and ceilings, or have their limbs start falling off for no apparent reason in a bloody display, or...well...I don't want to ruin some of the really great stuff if you've got any notion of trying this game.  But, for those of you who love spoilers, there are some examples below.

You've got your fairly tame sanity effects...

And then you've got the stuff that will cause your grasp on reality to slip far more than you'd think a video game had any right to do so.

Now, just watching the effects in succession, or reading about them, might make you think that they're nothing special.  So they throw in some shock value, who cares?  Thing is, it works; it really really works.  You need to play the game to truly understand, but the long and short of it is, when you're this immersed in a game (and Eternal Darkness is that immersive), these randomized sanity effects hit you like a hammerblow.  It is, so far as I know, still to this day completely unique in the world of gaming.

The cast of characters really is impressively diverse, and the
story...the story is unlike anything, in gaming or otherwise.
But the brilliance absolutely does not end with these jarring moments of confusion and fright.  No, because Eternal Darkness has an incredible story to tell.  A story spreading out over the course of 2000 years (that is the correct number of zeros), and tells the story through the eyes of 12 characters, all of which play somewhat differently.  All these characters are as interesting as they are diverse, ranging from a Roman soldier to an Indiana Jones inspired explorer, from a young squire from feudal Europe to a Canadian firefighter cleaning up after the Gulf War.  It's a really great cast of disturbed characters, but what's greater is how their stories intertwine and connect over time, and how it all concludes.  The story is actually extremely complex and mind-bending.

Sure, it's 9 years old, so it's quite dated...but actually, it
rather holds up even by today's standards.  Imagine an
HD version.
Perhaps as fascinating as the story is the gameplay.  While the combat is certainly good, it's not the focus of what I'm talking about here.  What's so interesting is that a relatively blind decision you make very early in the game determines how the rest of the game will play out for the next 15-20 hours.  No seriously, of the three choices you have, enemies will be entirely different, the story will be told in a different manner, and your strengths and weaknesses in combat will be altered.  It's a sort of 'rock paper scissors' system, basically meaning the three choices you have represent the 3 pillars of gameplay and combat; health, magick and sanity.  Whichever you chose, you will suffer the most in that area.  It's just so...mind-blowingly different from games of today.  The fact that the game branches so drastically immediately is telling of just how much more gutsy game developers used to be.  I'm not saying there are 3 different games here, but in terms of replay value, it's one of the most compelling for a single player game that I can think of.

So, although this title was not a blockbuster, and although I did not actually play it beyond one playthrough (albeit fairly meaty at 20 odd hours), it's one of those that has really stuck with me over the years.  Much more so than many more 'big' games of the time.  I mean, if game publishers and developers are so insistent on 'remaking' games into HD versions, for the love of god, turn your attention to Eternal Darkness.  Even if this game was just ported to XBLA or PC digital distribution like Steam, I would be ecstatic to play it again.  Not only that, but I would be excited for others to be able to experience it, no doubt for the first time for many of them.  It's brilliant, it's stunning, it's's classic.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Moral Fibre; Now Only $4.95 From Blizzard Entertainment

Apparently, according to the people at Blizzard Entertainment and Activision, you can indeed put a price on anything, including your own ethics.  Yes, while many may arduously defend the continuously declining business practices of the once-great game developer, the truth of it is that Blizzard Entertainment has shown its true colours.  And they are ugly indeed.

Just what am I on about?  Well, if you've had even a passing interest in Diablo 3, chances are you've already heard about the extremely controversial 'real money auction house' system.  This story is available on just about every gaming website and blog out there, so finding out the details on it should not require much digging.  In brief summary, however, the idea behind it is that this player-driven auction house will allow players to literally sell their own virtual items for real cash.  I am not kidding.  The ramifications of such a stunt are a bit dizzying.

I told you I wasn't kidding.
How this works is that Blizzard will host the auction service, upon which you will pay a fee for every item you put up on the auction house.  You set the prices, and yes, you make real money if your item sells, albeit after Blizzard takes a percentage cut on your profit.  And yes, I am aware that apparently you will get a set number of free auctions per day or per week.  However, first off, I can't imagine the number will be very high, and second, the biggest point to keep in mind is undercutting.  If you've played World of Warcraft or any other MMO, you'll know what I'm talking about.  You set a reasonable price, and Johnny Jackass comes along and undercuts you by 1 copper, 1 credit, 1 ISK, or in this case, 1 cent.  Best case scenario, you've just lost one of your 'free' auctions for the day/week because of undercutting; worst case scenario, you've just paid real money to feel cheated.  Oops.

Now, even if Blizzard prevents undercutting through some technological witchcraft, the fact of the matter is that the BIGGEST problem with this system remains.  What?  Potentially losing money and feeling the fool on a virtual auction system isn't the worst bit?  No sir.  The worst thing about this system is that it breaks the game on a fundamental level.  It allows the most disgusting thing imaginable in an online game; players can BUY power.  It's as simple as that.  Buying gear in an RPG like Diablo makes you more powerful; period.

So this is where obnoxious teenagers and idiots with no understanding of how game development or indeed competition is supposed to work come in and raucously yell and scream about how Blizzard is in the right on this.  Some slightly more logical people may also bring up the point of how people bought items in Diablo 2 anyways, only indirectly through 3rd party websites.  But even those types are missing the point.  The point here is that Blizzard is not just accepting this behaviour, but endorsing it.  They are saying the competitive nature of the game does not matter.  Why doesn't it matter?  Because the gamers with more disposable income have a huge advantage over those who do not.  That should never ever be a factor in any sort of competitive scene.

Take this image, replace World of Warcraft with Diablo 3, and you have
the future vision of Blizzard Entertainment.
Some arguments can be made against this.  The first, and no doubt the first for Blizzard fanboys to run to, is comparing it to World of Warcraft.  In WoW, gold selling and gold buying has been a known entity for a very long time.  It is, however, illegal and immoral.  In the case of that game, Blizzard constantly and consistently stood by their notion over the last 6 years that gold selling and buying is completely unacceptable, and they will never allow players to buy their way into a tangible advantage.  Of course, silly nonsense like the mounts and pets available from the Blizzard store are not tangible advantages; they are vanity pieces for people with too much money and too little sense.

Anyways, back to the point at hand.  Why is it that Blizzard has suddenly changed their mind?  Just what the hell happened to turn them from stoic, anti-cheating do-gooders into seemingly lazy enablers of this bad attitude toward game design philosophy?  To most people, the answer would immediately come to them in the form of Activision, everyone's favourite game publisher to hate.  But don't be fooled.  While it's indeed possible that Activision may have had a hand in corrupting Blizzard's once-pure motives, they also claim that they have an entirely 'hands off' approach with their Blizzard partners, allowing them to, in their own words, write their own cheque.  And while that may not be entirely true, the real point here is that what better opportunity did Blizzard ever have to start performing shady business practices than when it was taken under the wing of the world's most hated publisher?  Naturally, every idiot who can't see through the shroud of ignorance they've encased themselves in will automatically assume Activision is at fault for any shenanigans performed by Blizzard.  Nonsense.

Blizzard continues to dazzle with their exuberant
understanding of their gaming customers and what
they do and do not appreciate.
And don't think this is all Blizzard has in store for you when it comes to less than good ideas.  Here's a real winner in the world of gaming; always online DRM!  Yes, that has certainly worked wonders in the past, treating your customers like criminals.  For those of you who don't know, always-on DRM (or digital rights management) involves you being forced to be online with a constant internet connection for the entire duration of when you play the game.  If your internet connection drops, the game stops.  Simple as that.  Now, this is obviously a real, unavoidable issue for any online multiplayer game, which is indeed the strength of a game like Diablo.  However, the game does have a single player option, and indeed there are situations where just hoping on single player for a time, while you're away from any reliable internet connection, is an attractive idea.

So why is it that Blizzard is saying you cannot do this?  Well, their argument comes in the form of something along the lines of "you should play another game offline", which is garbage of course.  Their real reason for the DRM is to prevent what some people did with Diablo 2; making sure you don't just pirate the game and cleverly find your way online with no cost to you and no profits to Blizzard.  Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but hasn't security for games these days improved enough that this sort of thing just isn't possible for an online game?  Certainly for a company like Blizzard, which requires you to sign in to your Battlenet account in order to login to the game, whether it be Diablo 3, Starcraft 2 or World of Warcraft.  I really can't see how it would be possible for anyone to pirate the game and exploit the online function.  Are they seriously only paranoid about people getting the offline, single player experience for free?  To the point where they're willing and eager to prevent their paying customers from ever experiencing such a thing?  Because here I was thinking that when you buy a game, you own it.  When you buy, say, a car, you generally don't have the manufacturer remotely cutting power to your car when you drive outside of a city.  Why is this not the case for games?  Why are developers becoming more and more paranoid, giving their paying customers the same treatment as pirates that don't contribute a dime to the development of their game?

Replace Ezio with your class of choice, Italy with the world of Sanctuary,
and the sci-fi, Matrix-esque Animus message with something infuriatingly
coddling and pandering from Blizzard, and you have Diablo 3 in offline mode.
Take a look at Assassin's Creed 2.  This is a game that grew in infamy because of its flagrant always-on DRM.  A fact, I will admit, that I was ignorant of when I played the game, since I had a constant internet connection.  However, not everyone does.  Connections may be dodgy or outright nonexistent in some more remote locations, and some people may not have the proper setup at home for connecting their console to the internet.  The latter is not doubt a much smaller issue when it comes to PC gaming, but the fact remains that it's just wrong, and Ubisoft learned the scale of their wronging of their customers.  People did boycott Assassin's Creed 2, and effectively.  To the point where Ubisoft made the decision to remove the DRM.  However, I just don't see that happening with Blizzard.  They're too stubborn, too set in their ways with their heels dug in, and above all, too money driven.  I get the feeling that this isn't something that 'old Blizzard' would have ever even considered back in the days of Diablo 2 and Warcraft 3.  Oh how times change.

And so do my favourite and most respected developers.  Blizzard may have fallen from those graces some time ago, but they're approaching the bottom of the barrel now.  Developers like Bioware, Arenanet and CD Projekt RED continue to produce extremely high quality products without treating their fans and consumers as criminals.  And don't forget Indie companies; these developers have really exploded in popularity more recently, with the popularity of games such as Minecraft, Braid and Limbo.  Some Indie games outright surpass mainstream games when it comes to quality and content, for a fraction of the price.  All the while, they maintain a positive outlook on gaming, whereas their big brother developers would rather start enforcing ridiculous DRM and selling bits of their game as piecemeal DLC on launch day.

In light of all this, I will not be buying Diablo 3 in its current announced form.  If Blizzard decides to remove the DRM and have a rethink of the auction house, I will certainly reconsider.  But I'm sorry, with amazing looking games like Guild Wars 2, The Old Republic, Torchlight 2, Skyrim and Mass Effect 3 coming out, I really do not lack for quality RPGs in the next year or so.  On top of that, the developers for these games generally maintain a positive energy for the world of gaming.  I do not feel the need to give my money to a developer that continues to degrade its moral values in the name of short term cash-ins, thus further enabling them to make more and more controversial decisions.

Where will we be in 10 years time if we continue to support this nickle-and-diming nonsense from the likes of Blizzard?  Will we be spending 60 dollars on an incredibly basic, shell of a game, then be forced to fork out cash for any meaningful content?  Will the concept of the offline game become a relic of the past?  Will competition in gaming devolve down to who has the most spare cash floating around, and is the biggest consumer of virtual items?  I find it to be a bleak future.  That's why I'll only support developers that continue to maintain a positive attitude toward the industry as a whole.  I encourage you to do the same, if you have any objection whatsoever to the world of gaming slipping further and further away from common sense.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Dead Space 2

No.  Not a review.  More of a commentary.

So my game of choice immediately following Dead Space was its sequel...either you might consider this very boring or very predictable.  Nevertheless, I have some thoughts, but I feel like a thorough review isn't entirely necessary, since my opinions on the sequel, particularly those contrasting to the original game, can be compared to my review of Dead Space.

Right then, it's sequel time.  And I'm not talking Activision's 'herp derp let's pump 'em out Call of Duty style' idea of a sequel; this is a proper continuation of the Dead Space storyline, and is no cheap cash-in.  That said, is it comparable to the original?  Does it surpass it?  Many online reviews suggest Dead Space 2 is the superior game, if only by an overall small margin.  Personally, I'm not so sure one way or another.

See, this follows the give-and-take mentally displayed in Dragon Age 2, but in a more subtle, less detrimental way.  On Isaac's second outing, the adventure is more brutal, more difficult, and more intense.  In exchange, I found the overall experience less atmospheric, less immersive, and (generally) less scary.  Now, I want to touch on the point of scariness; Dead Space was creepy and jumpy as all hell, whereas its sequel isn't really that.  The fear factor comes from moments of insane, panic-driven chaos and an impending sense of doom.  Your standard necromorphs just somehow don't have the same terrible impact they had in the first game, but in place of that, there are moments that are genuinely heart-pounding terror, if only for your will to survive a seemingly doomed situation.  This time around, you'll find yourself ocassionally pitted against odds that range from extreme to impossible, forcing you to either run or think and fight unconventionally.  You will not be able to go toe-to-toe and defeat every enemy in this game.

Case in point is the opening sequence (if you don't wish to be spoiled, consider this your warning).  Isaac Clarke, our fearless (well not quite) hero, is found after the incident aboard the Ishimura, and immediately thrown in a straight-jacket due to his questionable sanity.  After being interrogated and simultaneously haunted by his dead girlfriend's ghost (OOPSPOILERS), he wakes up an indeterminate amount of time later and is under attack by everybody's favourite reanimated space abominations before he can even get his bloody straight-jacket off.  Yes, the 'tutorial' of the game involves you running for your life with absolutely no way to fight back (and yes, you can absolutely die within seconds).  Happily, the good people at Visceral Games are merciful and just.  Oh wait, they're not, because your first 'weapon' in the game is your standard telekenisis.  If you opted to skip over TK as a legitimate weapon in the first game (like yours truly), be prepared to unlearn your bad habit.  Thankfully, after some tough love styled learning, you will eventually be given your trusted Plasma Cutter, and from there, a whole host of interesting weapons, some familiar and some new, with variable ways to pick necromorphs apart.

This ugly bastard makes for one of my more memorable moments in recent
gaming history.
Another fantastic example of these intense, relentless sequences is a early-to-mid game boss battle against The Tormentor (dubbed "Kong" by the developers for reasons that become quickly obvious when you face this monster). The whole thing plays out like a roller coaster ride straight out of hell, while on acid, and with nothing to keep you restrained within the cart.  Admittedly, the battle crosses into the realm of absurdity, but the entire 'boss fight' is so incredibly well scripted, so cinematic, so terrifying, so thrilling, that it'll just leave you with a big, nervous, sweaty smile on your face afterward.

On top of these standout moments and events, the combat in Dead Space 2 just feels better.  The melee attack feels functional, the telekinesis has some real meat to it, the gunplay is as good or better (with some of the new weapons feeling quite satisfying), and the zero gravity sections have improved on an already cool concept by scrapping the Star Trek: First Contact-esque jumping around weightlessly with an Iron Man inspired ability to effectively fly on all axes.  Oh, and Isaac talks this time around.  I know that may not have an real direct relation to the gameplay, but it's definitely worth nothing.  Thankfully, it's well done, and while the transition is somewhat surprising, you'll almost immediately stop associating Mr. Clarke with the silent hero type.

So that sounds great, right?  How can Dead Space 2 possibly not trump the original with all this cool stuff?  Well, there are a few reasons, some nitpicky, some less so.

The first is perhaps the most glaring and most controversial.  And that has to do with this notion that the still-fledging Dead Space franchise is heading in a more action-oriented direction, abandoning (or at least reducing) its survival horror roots.  No doubts comparisons will have been drawn to Resident Evil 5, which was accused of a similar crime.  Now, while I enjoyed RE5, I won't claim for a minute that it didn't do exactly that; it is a 3rd person action game, and survival horror no more.  Dead Space 2 is not guilty of that, not to that degree.  Indeed, there are moments throughout the game (sadly these include some of the best moments, such as The Tormentor) that reflect a more gradual move in the action direction, where explosive cinematics start to become reminiscent of some of the more ridiculous portions of...oh deary me...the Modern Warfare franchise.  Now now, don't think EA is Call of Duty'ing Dead Space, because that's nonsense.  However, it is somewhat indicative of the current state of affairs when it comes to this sort of modern digital media and what the masses want.  And what the masses want, unfortunately, seems to be mindless explosions and special effects that are offensive to one's intelligence.  Again, I stress this is NOT the case in Dead Space 2, but there is a feel, perhaps only a mere whiff of it.  But the real threat is the fact that it did not exist in the original game in any capacity.  I'm absolutely pulling for a Dead Space 3, but I'm hoping that they keep the relative balance between action and horror that they managed with Dead Space 2.

Environments like this creepy church area look great, but feel out of place
in a science fiction setting.  It starts feeling very...Resident Evil-y.
Before this opinion article begins to delve further into social psyche, let me move on to reason number two why Dead Space 2 may not entirely trump its predecessor.  This one is a little more nebulous and subjective, but bear with me.  The reason has to do with story and setting.  The first Dead Space pretty much nailed it; a creepy and seemingly abandoned wreck of a ship infested with something absolutely horrible.  Perfect sci-fi horror material, firing on all cylinders.  The second game just somehow feels disjointed and confused by comparison.  I never forgot where I was in Dead Space; the Ishimura was a very well put together and memorable set piece.  The Sprawl, by comparison, sort of does as the name implies.  The variety in environments, while admirable, starts to edge away from sci-fi a bit too much for my tastes, including chapels and nurseries among more standard science fiction fare like engineering bays and bridges.  No doubt some will disagree with me, but I preferred the more traditional approach to sci-fi displayed in the first game to the more lived-in 'human' feel of some of the environments in the second.

The story suffers a similar problem, in that I never really felt like there was a clear, overarching goal.  Not to say that the original was perfect story-wise; the constant convenience of having yet another vital ship system fail immediately after fixing the previous one did get a bit predictable.  However, there was just more of a sense of progression towards something in Dead Space; you are an engineer, you are there to fix the ship, you are fixing the ship and uncovering the mystery behind what went wrong.  In Dead Space 2, there were times when I really had no idea why I was where I was, what exactly I was supposed to be doing, or why I should care.  It's not to say that the story is bad, as there are plenty of redeeming qualities, such as Isaac's constant struggle with his diminishing sanity and grasp on reality, but it doesn't fit the sci-fi horror element quite as well as the first game.  It probably doesn't help that Isaac is pulling some seriously ridiculous and reality-defying (albeit quite cool and satisfying) stunts in this game, such as going for a little swim through space at about 10,000 mph.

The third point is that of pacing and difficulty.  I did mention that Dead Space 2 is, overall, more difficult than its predecessor.  This is true, at least in my experience.  However, my issue is that it's not consistently harder.  Instead, you have periods of time where you're practically untouchable (depending on how good you are), having one or two or small groups of necromorphs thrown at you in a manner quite similar to the first game.  This is familiar territory, and shouldn't be a problem for any Dead Space veteran.  Of course, how predictable would the game be if that's all it was?  Naturally, Visceral needed to up the ante on what the necromorphs would be capable of, and they have indeed.  Does it work?  Sometimes.  Having a necromorph pop out of an elevator you've just called is something you thought yourself safe from after playing Dead Space, so it works. Having an absurd number of necromorphs pile onto you in a tiny room completely out of the blue is something that, in my mind, doesn't work.  It turns into a shooting gallery which quickly turns into a button-mashing, frustrating mess if you slip up slightly.  All this is only on normal difficulty as well.  No doubt at this point, any real hardcore Dead Space enthusiast would be looking to strangle me through the monitor at my utter incompetence with this game.  Well, I won't deny I'm not the best at survival horror games, conserving ammo and resources at the wrong times and conversely spending them in the same manner.  However, I had little issue with the first game, and felt that any deaths I experienced were my own fault entirely.  I didn't necessarily feel this in Dead Space 2.  It's not like I was dying often, but I was experiencing frustration at the notion of having too many health packs one moment, and the next discovering I have none at all.  Granted, some of this was caused by my own brashness, ignorance or lack of skill, but some encounters felt downright unfair, such as throwing unreasonable amounts of foes at you in an obscenely small area.  One particular moment in an elevator stands out.  Unless I was missing something, I was being hit by unpredictable damage.  That's not exactly my idea of good design in a survival horror title.

But pretty much it.  And yes, you can make some arguments against the first game as well.  Part of the reason it was so scary was because of things like shock value and cheap scares, such as something popping out and making a loud noise.  Those are present in Dead Space 2, yes, but the adrenaline-pumping moments of panic and intensity are more unique to the sequel.  They were there in Dead Space, but they were more forgiving and more predictable.

So there you have it.  A bit of give and take.  Which game then would I side with?  Well, as a survival horror game, the original is the classic.  Everything about it just worked.  As a game overall, Dead Space 2 may well edge it out.  The big, cinematic action sequences, borderline silly as they might be at times, are just too cool and too exciting to ignore.  There's also the fact that Isaac is a much more fleshed out and sympathetic character this time around.  There's also more of everything; more guns, more suit variety, more upgrades, more ways to approach combat.  The only thing it has less of is length, unfortunately.  Though the sequel is 2 chapters longer than its predecessor, it's certainly not any longer, and if anything, it's an hour or two shorter on a first playthrough.  That said, it's still an extremely solid 10 or so hours, and if you're a survival horror buff, there's good amounts of replay value.

As for the multiplayer, well, I can't comment, because I have no interest in it.  From all I've heard, it's completely mediocre fare, and an entirely redundant addition, much like the multiplayer in Bioshock 2.  There are better games to play with your friends.  Survival horror generally works best while you're on your own.

Crikey.  My "not a review" ended up being longer than my previous review I think.