DraugenCP's dumping site
An oasis of intellect, with views clear as water and thoughts green as trees. In other words, the place where I dump all of my video game-related reviews and ramblings. Much obliged, I'm sure.
Ever since I started thinking about video games more seriously, I have had to acknowledge the significant advantages media such as literature and film have over video games when it comes to such elements as storytelling, pacing and composition. The obligatory focus on gameplay in video games causes them to have a virtually unsurpassable disadvantage when it comes to the development of these secondary but still important aspects. However, this does not automatically condemn gaming to being an inferior form of entertainment. Due to the high level of interaction with the player, video games offer unique possibilities in terms of immersion and emotional involvement. The only catch is that video game developers do not always capitalise fully upon the potential.
Much like how horror films are seldom about the sensation of fear itself, horror games frequently focus on secondary elements such as gore and violence, relegating the nightmarish horror universe to a fancy backdrop rather than the centre of the experience. Even when the horror aspects do become the central focus, convenience dictates they take the form of short-lived jump scares rather than a more constant, suspenseful sense of dread. Many horror games give the impression the developers made the core game first and only then started creating the horror setting around it. This method leads to several fundamental errors finding their way into the design of even the most renowned horror titles of today.
Better bring a shopping list.
A major problem lies in the fact that many of the more traditional horror titles are, at their core, puzzle games. It is absolutely true that a well-designed puzzler can offer the same flow as the smoothest action titles, but lamentably, many developers lack the finesse to prevent the difficulty of their puzzles from hindering the overall pacing. Finding the right item or speaking to the right NPC in order to progress the game does not need to be complicated, but all too often, developers are too ambitious when they expect the player to come up with the far-fetched solution to the situation at hand. Swedish developer Frictional Games seemed to have realised this after it finished making the Penumbra series: its spiritual successor, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, presented items and locations in a much more logical fashion, their purpose being more obvious off the bat and puzzles being less convoluted in general.
"Ironically, video game developers can learn from even the most cheesy, unscary horror flicks."
However, there is an even bigger obstacle on the way of horror games becoming truly scary. Ironically, video game developers can learn from even the most cheesy, unscary horror flicks in this department: things do not become scary until the protagonists (or victims, if you will) become vulnerable. You can put all the creepy noises and eerie locales you want in a game, but if you subsequently give the player the arsenal to overcome all these terrors, they will never feel truly threatened by the game world, reducing the moments of fear to jump scares. The latter have a very limited effect, because more intelligent players are likely to quickly familiarise themselves with the pattern enough to be able to roughly predict what is coming.
Time to soil some loins, perhaps?
Granting the player too much power resulted in a game such as F.E.A.R. being only mildly frightening during the first few levels, when the details of the story are still alien to the player. In more advanced stages of the game, though, the knowledge of the player about the context of his surroundings, as well as his rather excessive arsenal make it hard for the game world to feel as hostile and dangerous as it did in the first two hours of gameplay. By the time F.E.A.R. 2 came out, the mystery surrounding the story about the ghostlike girl Alma had been unveiled and the game barely managed to live up to its horror pretence any more.
"The feeling of being hunted creates a more genuine sensation of fear."
Fortunately, the indie scene has managed to revitalise the horror genre, to a point where outlook is bright for those who look for a new influx of truly terrifying video game experiences. The afore-mentioned PC hit Amnesia: The Dark Descent hit the sweet spot of terror when it stripped players of the possibility to fight the hideous monsters they encountered. The feeling of being hunted and not being able to do anything about it creates a more genuine sensation of fear, as players realise that the game world is essentially way more powerful than they are, and can strike them down at any given moment. The effectiveness of this method was further confirmed by the cult hit Slender. This primitive, home-made game proved that the simple concept of having the player be chased around a forest at night can make for an experience easily more terrifying than many AAA horror titles. The reaction videos will attest to that.
Granted, F.E.A.R. did have moments of absolute terror.
Still, the key to suspense is not only vulnerability, but also surprise. Slender in particular spawned tons of clones on Steam (aided by the fact that the Slenderman is an internet fabrication that does not seem to be copyrighted), and it is only a matter of time before the concept becomes obsolete - once players know what to expect, their anticipation may render numb any terror derived from it. Fortunately, recent developments in the genre have been promising, as developers all over the world finally seem to have realised that it takes more than just severed limbs and spooky faces to make the modern audience sweat. But they will have to innovate if they want to keep catching us off-guard.
It is not often that a small-time blogger such as myself would risk his head by sticking it into the hornets nest that is the gun crime debate, but when American President Barack Obama introduced new measures to fight gun-related violence, a response was warranted. Among a wide array of new measures, Obama called for the US Congress to invest 10 million dollars into researching a possible link between gun violence and the depiction of violence in media, such as video games. Unsurprisingly, the suggestion sparked outrage among gamers. The implication that their favourite pastime might be related to the recent bloodbaths is a tough pill to swallow for the millions that grew up on games such as Mortal Kombat and Doom without ever having hurt a fly. Though the vast majority of the gamers will have rejected the presidents words immediately, a more thorough analysis makes his proposal seem even more bizarre.
"It would be sensible to save the 10 million dollars for more fruitful scientific endeavours."
Should Congress heed Obamas call for more research, the subsequent study would not be the first attempt to establish a link between virtual and real-world violence. Those who witnessed the media coverage of the Columbine shooting will surely remember how the shooters affinity for Doom was presented as a possible cause of their violent actions. Even more recently, the fact that Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik owned a copy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (along with 22 million other people) spawned the rumour that he used the game to practice before he went out to kill 69 people. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, these and similar claims have never been substantiated, likely because they were motivated by the necessity of a clear scapegoat rather than factual information.
Do video game developers have blood on their hands?
Still, Obamas main argument in favour of more research we dont benefit from ignorance implies that a link between violent behaviour and violent games has never been taken into consideration before. Given that there have in fact been numerous studies on violent video games, it would be sensible to save the 10 million dollars for more fruitful scientific endeavours. Out of the countless studies that have been conducted on the subject, some found basis to speculate on (temporarily) augmented levels of aggression in gamers, whereas others saw no reason to further explore the hypothesis that violent games cause violent behaviour. At any rate, the ignorance mentioned by the President says more about his own obliviousness to decades of research than the existence of a scientific niche.
"One would think that there is no better time than now to stop beating around the bush."
Curiously, it is still unclear how serious the suggestion of Obama will turn out to be. The 10 million dollar research was but one of many ideas, and it could well be that it was solely intended as an attempt to appease vociferous opponents of gun control by offering a broad range of measures, as to demonstrate that the White House is taking everything into consideration. After all, in the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, the National Rifle Association was quick to point its trigger-fingers at films and video games. Moreover, the Presidents desire for more research does not explicitly mean that he believes there is indeed a link, let alone that the conclusions of the research will lead to censorship. After all, the idea that virtual violence could be a decisive factor in Americas current gun crime epidemic seems far-fetched when you realise that the same games are being played all over the world without necessarily causing similar patterns of violence. As such, it is to be expected that the President of the United States is wise enough to realise that restricting the depiction of violence in video games is unlikely to contribute to a drop in gun-related crime.
Games such as Grand Theft Auto are often accused of promoting violence.
However, even if Obamas plans turn out empty shells, he has insulted not only gamers, but also the academic community. It is not without reason that Dutch video game researcher and journalist dr. David Nieborg described the words of the President as a slap in the face. For to suggest that decades of thorough scientific research have resulted in ignorance displays a lack of either knowledge of or respect for the many academics who have dedicated their careers to investigating the possibility of a link between virtual and real-world violence. Moreover, now that gun violence is sweeping across America, one would think that there is no better time than now to stop beating around the bush and address the problem with measures that will harvest results rather than votes. A red herring may temporarily boost approval rates, but it will surely not prevent more lives being lost.
Links and sources:
 "Barack Obama begrijpt niets van game-onderzoek", nrc.next 7, no. 216, p. 16. 18-01-13
Also posted on System Wars Magazine.
Anyone who is active on System Wars even sporadically, is forced to take a stance in the ongoing conflict of adolescent fanboyism. Playing games on your computer, for instance, will automatically grant you permanent membership of the glorious PC-gaming master race. But flattering as this status might be, the reality is that, outside of this alternate universe known as SW, PC gamers such as myself are willing to admit that consoles have their fair share of worthwhile games. So much so, that members of the 'master race' will sometimes cave in and go out to buy a console. And what better time than Christmas to get an Xbox 360 and catch up on 7 years of exclusives and so-called 'console exclusives'?
Hence the latest addition to my gaming connection. Fable 3 and Halo: Reach came with the package, and I got Forza Horizon, the game that eventually triggered me to buy the console, separately. Halo's Anniversary Edition was added to the family at a later point. With about a week of 360 experience under my belt, I do not regret the purchase at all, mostly on the account of the many, many hours of fun I've already had with Horizon, a game that does just about everything right when you are willing to ignore its obnoxious presentation and the constant in-game promotion of its DLC.
Still, the experience also reminded me why the PC is my main gaming platform. It is a common complaint that PC gaming is a hassle compared to the convenience of consoles, but even if this were true, that hassle is a small price to pay if it allows you to avoid being surrendered to the crazy antics of console manufacturers. One week was enough to bring back all the frustration I had experienced with the classic Xbox. I'm willing to accept that they charge a small fee to provide a streamlined online experience, but when I discovered that half of the functions on my 360 were practically disabled without a Gold subscription, the temptation to move 2 metres to the right, and sit behind my PC was already considerable. And as I was familiarising myself with the console interface, I came across more and more indicators of a complete absence of ethics on the manufacturer's behalf. Ten dollars to change my Gamertag? Oh, please. Where combining the full enjoyment of PC gaming with a set of principles is difficult already, I am slowly coming to the conclusion that it just can't be done on a console like the 360.
Although the sour taste left by Microsoft's cash-grabbing schemes has not been completely washed away, I did already get considerable amounts of enjoyment out of my new console. The allegation that PC gamers aren't missing out on anything can henceforth be classified as biased tripe. Having been left slightly disappointed by Burnout Paradise's repetitiveness, Hot Pursuit 2010's lacking open world gameplay, and Test Drive Unlimited 2's problematic racing AI, Forza Horizon absolutely, 100% nails the arcade racing genre. The races themselves remind an awful lot of Dirt 2, in the sense that they are accessible, yet with numerous options allowing more seasoned players to give the experience an air of quasi simulation. Meanwhile, the open world is littered with extra challenges, races and collectibles, so that exploring Horizon's fictional rendition of Colorado never feels like you are wasting time. It is simply perplexing how a Forza spin-off seems to have taken all the strong elements from the most prominent open world racing games and combined them into one, seamless experience.
As an avid FPS player, I was pleased to finally catch up with the biggest series I've missed out on since the start of this generation. I quickly noticed, however, that my interest in this title over the years painted a picture in my head that was perhaps a little too bright. While the single player campaign of Reach was a versatile ordeal showcasing some excellent direction, its pacing seemed off, with the campaign becoming interesting too late into the game. Maybe the green hills and large, open-ended zones made me expect too much of a tactical sandbox flavour à la Crysis from this title, but the first few stages in particular made the game feel a lot like a horde shooter, yet without the joy of over-the-top carnage that is imperative in that subgenre. Maybe the multiplayer will do more justice to the game's potential.
Halo: Combat Evolved (Anniversary Edition)
Seeing as I am planning to go through the entire Halo series, this purchase was only logical. I owned the original on the Xbox, but wasn't very good at it, as is attested to by the fact that it took me one playthrough in the Anniversary Edition to get to the point where I quit all these years ago. One thing that immediately caught my attention was the incredible similarity to Reach in terms of gameplay. It is only logical that instalments in the same series feel alike, but some more evolution in the gameplay would certainly not have been an unwelcome addition. It must be said, however, that the pacing of Combat Evolved in comparison to that of Reach is what betrays the game's age. Even the most tedious stages of Reach still showed some sense of progression, whereas Combat Evolved relies an awful lot on the 'ship full of bad guys lands on open space; repeat ad infinitum' configuration for its combat sequences. But of course, it is inevitable that any game comes across as archaic in some areas a decade later, and the fact that improved (though by no means fantastic) graphics proved sufficient in obscuring the game's aging process for the most part, only confirms its rightful status as a classic.
With a big portion of free time lying ahead, my 360 will probably work over hours during the final days of the year. And naturally, I'm more than willing to share the holiday joy. So if you want to play any of the above-mentioned games with me, just add Gamertag Draugen1P to your friend list, and we'll see each other online. I'm mainly looking for co-op partners, but even if you want to finally seize that opportunity to shoot me in the face after all these years, I'm game. Suggestions for what other 360 games I should get are also welcome.
August of 2008 must have been an aftersummer like any other for me. Granted, I had just signed up for university for the second time, after having ended my study of history rather prematurely. But apart from a slightly higher amount of excitement, I was over-occupied doing nothing before the school bell rang again - figuratively or not - at the end of the month. As such, it is hard to say at this point what motivated me to log on to Gamespot - where I had been a member for two years already - on the 12th of August and post my first blog entry. Perhaps it was the rather 'livejournally' vibe of the term 'blog' that had withheld me from giving in to the desire to use my personal Gamespot soapbox in previous years, or maybe I just needed a place to dump my gaming-related articles on.
Regardless from the nobility of my motivations, that particular date saw the "Some people have no opinions" line be changed by a fairly light-hearted article on the appeal of Faxanadu. This obscure NES RPG is remembered for little more than its legendary "this is not enough golds" line, making it the ideal 'unknown-to-many-beloved-by-some' game that is so easy to write about. Like my early reviews, this article was actually taken from the 1337Planet forums, where I had posted it months earlier. As the title implies, the entry was actually the first in a series of articles on cult games. I had at one point written the second instalment, on Hogs of War, but only posted it on the aforementioned forum. A third and final instalment on Conker's Bad Fur Day was planned but never realised.
From that point onwards, I sporadically posted more writings, widely varied in nature, on the tiny but cozy personal space that Gamespot so generously granted me. The first few entries were mostly revamped articles from 1337Planet, but from about 2010 onwards, I started writing material specifically for my GS blog. While I'd probably throw away a considerable portion of my early writings now, I do like how skimming through my blog history gives me, and with that the reader, some insight into how my gaming tastes have developed over the years. Because it is no coincidence that, like with my reviews, just about anything written before 2010 dealt specifically with Nintendo-related games and themes.
Then, in the summer of 2010, I suddenly ended up with a gaming PC (it's a long story...) and my focus switched dramatically. Not only did I dedicate most of my gaming time to PC titles, but I also gained interest in specific genres and niches. Some of my friends now like to joke that I'm only into obscure Russian shooters and won't like a game if it allows me to hit a foe from distances greater than 5 metres. While this is, of course, not to be taken seriously, such a caricature would have been completely unthinkable some three years ago, when I was mostly into platformers and had only finished about 5 first person shooters ever.
With this switch in focus, I also moved away from the 'AAA game' experience. Not that I cherish this infantile, jealous fanboy rage against popular games that seems to be all the fashion these days, but if I look at what games I've enjoyed the most this gen, a lot of them aren't exactly the most polished, high production titles out there. As someone who has always liked to write about video games, my evolving preferences motivated, or possibly even forced me to investigate wherein the appeal of video games lies. This resulted in numerous articles on the (admittedly worn-out) 'video games as art' debate, detailed accounts of my favourite games, and even contemplations over the purpose of reviews and video game journalism themselves.
Pretentious as it may sound, the fact that a fair degree of academic experience ripened both my analytical capabilities and my writing skills contributed greatly to the tangible improvement of my entries over the years. While I by no means claim that I am the only one who at least attempts to write about video games in a fashion more erudite than usual, I do think I have found my own niche in how I approach video games and media in general. By trying to analyse games rather than merely describing and grading them, you become much more aware of the mechanics at play behind the game. If you are not only able to say that you think a game is fun, but also explain what makes it fun to you, it makes deciding whether or not a game is worth your time that much easier. Not only that, but being aware of why a game is so appealing exposes its true brilliance - something that goes further than their shiny packaging. And being able to capture that sentiment in words once in a while generates a genuine sense of accomplishment as a writer.
After that August afternoon in 2008, 99 more articles have been posted, meaning that this marks the centennial entry. But my evolution as a writer and contributor to this community has, of course, gone hand-in-hand with my evolution as a person. Now that I'm a working man, I don't have as much time to dedicate myself to writing as I'd like. As a result, the future of this blog is uncertain. Not in terms of its existence, because I will keep updating this small page as long as GameSpot allows me to, but uncertain in terms of how regular these updates will be. But after 24 years on this planet, it's safe to say that writing will remain my favourite pastime for the 50 or more years that are hopefully still ahead of me. And if, during that time, I can make even the smallest contribution to the evolution of the coverage of media, I'll be more than satisfied.
Thanks to all of those who have, at any point, read and enjoyed my contributions to this website.
"Violence is not the answer" is a phrase that was repeated ad infinitum in our youths. Children in the Western world are brought up with the idea that discussing their problems is always better than talking with their fists. But for a society that claims to strive towards pacifism, violence is still surprisingly ubiquitous. Violence continues to be a part of our society, a daily reality that we all have to deal with. Whether it is war, shoot-outs or general crime, violence enters our living rooms in one way or another every time we turn on the TV.
However, while violence disgusts us, it also fascinates us. Why else would there be so many detective novels, documentaries about serial killers, and television series about police work? It is hard for us to resist a quick peek into the dark side of human nature, which explains why media focusing on violence continue to attract an audience of millions. Dutch comedian Hans Sibbel visualised this fascination by means of a fence. In all of our minds, there is a fence protecting us from potential threats. Within the fence reside all of our pleasant, acceptable thoughts. But outside of the fence, there is a whole other world. A world of violence, murder and hatred: things that cannot enter our minds because the fence protects us. Despite this protection, we can still see through the fence. We can see what is out there, and it fascinates us. When someone tells us to not think of a pink elephant, all we can think about is a pink elephant. Similarly, whenever we are informed that violence is never an option, it triggers our curiosity. What is this thing so terrible that our parents want us to avoid it at all costs? Fortunately, in most of us, the fence is strong enough to prevent us from acting upon violent thoughts, but violence remains a thoroughly interesting topic nonetheless.
With our fascination with violence in mind, it really should be no surprise that video games reflect this by often including violence as a central element of their gameplay. Violence is present in many different types of video games, be they action RPGs, platformers or military shooters. Out of these genres, though, the military shooter is perhaps the most peculiar. As its name indicates, it does not just focus on violence in itself, but lethal violence on a massive, organised scale: war. But perhaps the most distinctive aspect of war as a subcategory of violence is its reputation as a necessary evil. Because, contrary to 'regular' street violence, war is often (though definitely not always) viewed as a legitimate means of, for example, eliminating a threat or ousting a despotic leader. More often than not, war is viewed as a case of good versus evil, where one party has the right to use necessary force to subdue the other.
The perception of war violence as sometimes being legitimate is reflected by many military games, in which it is made clear that you are fighting for a noble cause. The advertisements for the recently released Medal of Honor: Warfighter, for instance, focus on the player's role as a special forces team member fighting global terror. And it should not prove too difficult to find a link between this concept and real-world political rhetoric. In other military video games, the player's violence is often justified a tad more subtly, but clear enough to counter any moral objections that may arise. The most interesting example of this is the futuristic/military first person shooter Frontlines: Fuel of War, which sees the player invade Moscow as part of the American army. Rather than the Russian army, the main opposing force is formed by armed civilians. Anticipating the moral dubiousness of an organised army taking out civilians, the game tells you that the civilians have been forced by their government to fend off the Americans. Upon closer inspection of this argument, it is nothing short of preposterous that we are supposed to be cleared of all moral objections by the information that they are not fighting out of their own free will. What is even more bizarre, though, is that we are to assume that people would not be prepared to voluntarily defend their country against a foreign invasion (when history proves this wrong on many accounts).
As such, the problem with many military shooters is not that they include violence, but rather that this aspect is handled in an immature and morally simplistic fashion. An armed conflict seldom boils down to a good versus evil juxtaposition, and while it is unrealistic to expect video games to include all of the intricate mechanics at play in a war, they should at least include some more nuances in their presentation of military campaigns. The relative immaturity of military video games in this department is perhaps best illustrated by the story of a family friend, whose 13-year old child was a fervent player of Call of Duty. At one point, the child was so impressed with the pseudo-realistic presentation of combat in that game, that he said he wanted to join the army when he grew up. This desire instantly disappeared, however, when he saw some of the gritty combat scenes in the mini-series Band of Brothers.
While the child technically should not have been playing Call of Duty at that age in the first place, it does reveal a lot about utter lack of maturity of the Call of Duty games. And unfortunately, this series is not an exception. In fact, there are only very few, often very recent shooters that make a serious attempt at showing the horrors of war. In Spec Ops: The Line, for example, the border between right and wrong is so blurry that the player's actions are not automatically justified. Sadly, it is still a rare occurrence that games dare take this route, and openly question the actions of the player.
Military games should not necessarily condemn war, as for many of us it is a necessary evil. But they should be careful not to glorify it either. Not necessarily because it sends us the wrong message about violence, but because it blatantly misinforms us on what war, or more specifically, the military actually is. There are many teenagers and young adults that buy into the idea that being part of an army means that you just shoot bad guys all the time. However, the reality of military life does not correspond with that image at all. It would thus be interesting to see video games offer a more balanced portrayal of an army's activities. Covering integral elements such as communicating with civilians, supplying remote areas, or any other activities that do not necessarily incorporate the use of deadly force could contribute to a better representation of military life, while also providing the subgenre with some much-needed variation. It is true that some military simulators already do this to an extent, but it would be interesting to see if some more mainstream games could mature a bit while retaining their appeal. It would be much more useful if military games could contextualise violence instead of outright excluding it. After all, we could never completely ignore what is on the other side of the fence.
Allegations of corruption and bias of video game reviewers and even entire websites have been around for nearly as long as reviews themselves. Be it due to post-purchase rationalisation or blatant fanboyism, the notion that lukewarm receptions of highly anticipated games are driven by grudges and money rather than valid complaints about the games themselves has always been attractive to many disappointed gamers. That these accusations are often unfounded or downright irrational is of lesser concern. More recently, this 'corruption card' has been played as a means of damage control for not only negative, but also positive reviews. Particularly high scores on games they do not like are enough reason for the more cynical gamers out there to accuse the responsible reviewer of being bribed by the publisher. In almost all cases, this is an infantile knee-jerk reaction to the seemingly inconceivable revelation that other systems may also have good games.
"It is painfully naive to think that publishers are handing out unmarked dollar bills to reviewers."
Still, it does not take much empathy to understand this sentiment. When you are young and can afford only one system, it is tempting to try and justify your choice by trivialising the merits of other systems. Even more importantly, some of the doubts about the integrity of video game journalists are not completely unfounded. Taking into account the inflated review model, as well as numerous anecdotes of reviewers being pressured into giving out high scores, there are indications - some stronger than others - that there is something peculiar about video game journalism. More explicitly put, it would take a great deal of optimism to take a closer look at what is going on in the video game branch as a whole today, and conclude that all parties are in perfect balance with each other. But to think that this imbalance is the mere result of publishers handing out unmarked dollar bills to reviewers, is painfully naive. The truth about this problem is, sadly, even more grim, for we, the gamers, are as much a part of this process as are the publishers and journalists.
Anyone with a basic understanding of how our current economy works will grasp the concept of supply and demand. When a certain product or service is required by a substantial group of people, this demand is likely to be met by a company or institution. As such, it is not terribly far-fetched to conclude that, to a large extent, gamers get what they ask for. This not only applies to video games themselves, but also to video game coverage. When we, through clicks or comments, indicate that we want excessively positive, score-focused reviews, that is exactly what many of the major gaming outlets will supply us with. And both the current state of video game reviews and the behaviour of gamers suggest that this is exactly what most of us want.
Even with the most highly acclaimed titles, there will always be a handful of reviewers that are less enthusiastic and judge the game more harshly. What is always fascinating about these reviews, albeit in a slightly twisted sense, is that their writers are often subject to criticism (and mind that I use this term loosely here) from angry fans. Defiant opinions nearly always cause a backlash, with a portion of the gamers even ousting suspicions of a conspiracy, convinced as they are that the relatively mediocre reception is just there to generate hits from ticked off gamers who want to behold the heresy with their own eyes.
"It is no surprise that people who do not walk in line are frowned upon."
Although the possibility that some reviewers defy the norm mainly to be edgy and different cannot be excluded entirely, it is rather bizarre to think that only reviewers willing to ride the hype train are entitled to voicing their opinion. But in a community that is dictated by rampant Metacritic fetishism and a focus on cold numbers over meaningful content, it is no surprise that individuals who do not walk in line are frowned upon. Consequently, it should come as even less of a shock that video game outlets respond to this sentiment by rating games on a 7-10 scale and supplying reviews that are largely void of thoughts that do more than just scratch the surface.
Dramatic as it may sound, there should be no doubt that video game reviews are currently in a deplorable state. This is the result of there being several misconceptions about what a review entails. Reviewing a game does not mean listing the main features and commenting on them briefly. Nor does it convey systematically throwing around overused superlatives supported by circular reasoning. Yet a large chunk of the professional reviews out there can be captured in either category - sometimes even both. When reviewers praise the enemy AI in an action game, they frequently limit the supporting argument to 'they can flank you'. Even more often are graphics lauded for their technical qualities without any mention of how they contribute concretely to the overall experience. The music fits the action on the screen perfectly, we are told time and again. But the details of this claim are omitted almost as often.
"In absence of objectivity, it is diversity of opinion that must guarantee a balanced offering of information."
Too many reviews are essentially just a culmination of clichés systematically implemented into flaccid, descriptive accounts of the games' main features, resulting in articles more reminiscent of marketing blurbs than actual reviews. Let us not forget, though, that this is what we ask for ourselves. Every time we boast about a Metacritic average; every time we shoot down a review based on its score, we are tacitly endorsing a uniformity of opinions. If we wish to still pretend that reviews serve to inform us, such behaviour is utterly counter-productive. Because, contrary to popular belief, reviews are still subjective. They are - ideally - argumentatively grounded in technical information and correct observations, but still subjective. And in the subsequent absence of objectivity, it is diversity of opinion that must guarantee a balanced offering of information. This raises the question whether gamers turn to reviews to be informed, or to feel good about the game they just purchased.
Despite the strong tone, this article does not intend to insult or patronise gamers. Our behaviour is perfectly understandable when one considers how brilliant video game marketing is in the modern era. While many of us are still inclined to think of marketing as seeing an advert for a product on TV and going to the store to buy it, it embodies so much more. The way hype is built for a game, the way release dates turn into events of their own, and even our very perception of a certain game or series: they are all influenced by the manipulation of marketeers. Manipulation may seem like a scary term, but in this context, it means little more than effecting the way we feel about a certain game, usually by taking existing sentiments and making them stronger. Activision capitalises upon the image of Call of Duty as a social phenomenon, just like Namco Bandai spared no expense to promote Dark Souls' notorious difficulty. And Mario games certainly did not turn into 'fun for the whole family' by themselves.
The flip-side of such ubiquitous marketing buzz is that it is very easy to be drawn into the hype to a point where you swear by the product long before you actually get your hands on it. Assassin's Creed's live-action trailers, for instance, are traditionally very successful at getting people excited for the next instalment, even though they have virtually nothing to do with the game itself. It is this sentimental involvement that explains why gamers tend to include titles in their 'best games' lists long before they are actually released: they are so convinced that the game they have been anticipating for so long will be good, that it is going to take nothing less than radical disappointment for this opinion to be revised at any point.
As long as a long-awaited game receives positive reviews, everybody is happy. The reviewer is happy, because he has played a good game and now gets to tell people about it. The publisher is happy, because it knows better than anyone that bad scores can spell disaster for the performance of products that took years to finish. The gamers are happy, because for so long had they been anticipating this game and, if the score is anything to go by, it appears to have lived up to each and every of their expectations.
"We must be prepared to start judging reviews based on the validity of the content rather than the desirability of the score."
But then steps in a reviewer who criticises said game thoroughly, providing deep, analytical thoughts supported by excellent argumentation. The fans are furious, because the impertinent writer tried to burst their bubble by telling them the game may not be as good as they had hoped. And if it lowers the Metacritic average enough, what do they have left to boast about? The publisher is furious, because it was nice enough to supply the rogue reviewer with a free copy, only to be repaid with a score that is sure to scare off some potential buyers. Lastly, the reviewer is unhappy, because he now has to face the fury of the gaming community.
If we want to ensure the integrity and quality of video game journalism, we must, as gamers, be prepared to start judging reviews based on the validity of the content rather than the desirability of the score. It is true that the 'reviewed' (i.e. the industry) have an abnormal amount of control over the 'reviewers' (i.e. the media) in the video game branch. However, as gamers, we can certainly do our part by ensuring that some balance remains in this chaotic industry. This we do exactly by showing that we appreciate thoughtful, critical content, rather than patting ourselves on the backs in a microcosm void of worthwhile information. If we wish for video game journalism ever to be taken seriously, we need to start taking ourselves seriously and find out just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Or we can pretend nothing is wrong and choose to forever live in the Hype Matrix.
"Equo ne credite"
Written by Draugen for System Wars Magazine
System Wars Magazine, the brainchild of Willy105, reached the respectable age of 5 today. Even though I only have been working on SWM since the last few issues, I still managed to make a solid contribution to the anniversary issue that appeared today. It can be read here. My part in this was not only contributing a few articles, but also editing the other articles (mainly the reviews) to ensure consistency in terms of both layout and grammar. SWM also happens to be the reason why I haven't been updating this blog as much as I'd like lately, but hey, I'm still around. You just need to click a few buttons to get to me, that's all.
Now excuse me as I go defend my Top 10 FPS list.
Like many gamers these days, I have quite an extensive backlog of video games. The amount of games I have installed on my computer but not beaten is discouraging. And that is not even taking into account the tons of games I have never even bothered installing yet. For this reason, I tend to be more and more selective in deciding which games I purchase. As such, I only bought a handful of titles during last summer's Steam sales; games that I knew I would enjoy. Of course, there were still plenty of cases where I pondered for a long time over whether I should by a certain game or not. The air combat title Wings of Prey also fell into this category. The promotional footage featured on the game's Steam page made it seem good, but my minimal experience with flight games in general made me unsure whether I would enjoy the experience to the fullest extent. I eventually resolved the matter in a way that many would perceive as dubious, if not absurd. I looked up who the developer was (Gaijin Entertainment), and when I found out they were based in Russia, that convinced me to buy the game. I've enjoyed a lot of Eastern European games this generation, many of which stood out due to their uncompromising ambition and depth at the cost of polish and production value - a philosophy I can fully get behind. So why pass up on this Russian effort?
After having decided my purchase based on the geographical location of the developer, it made me consider the relevance of nationality in the video game industry. I know very well that video game development is an international process that could not take place if it were confined to the borders of a single country. For any serious developer, the target audience is an international one by definition, and the presence of foreign publishers, foreign investors, foreign technology, foreign employees and foreign inspiration makes it more or less impossible to come up with the game that isn't the result of a large melting pot of international cooperation. But, at the same time, it is hard to deny that some regions tend to have a specific developing culture, occasionally making for very characteristic and distinctive titles that you feel could not have been produced somewhere else.
It's not without reason that I used Wings of Prey and its Russian developer as an example, because apart from maybe Japan, Eastern-Europe currently has, in my view, the most distinctive video game design culture in the industry. From the moment I played my first Eastern-European game, the fantastic S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (Ukraine), I noticed there was something very peculiar about this title. It's difficult to point out one specific aspect that evoked this sensation, but in the starting area alone there were many details that grabbed my attention because they dissonated with what I was used to from my experience with Japanese and American games. So many things stood out in my first playthrough: the dreary, yet original aesthetic of the art direction; the unforgiving realism, and, most importantly, the way in which the atmosphere was presented. The player was not immersed through witty dialogue and/or fancy scripted events in the background, but through a deep connection between the player and the game world. 
Subsequent experiences with games from the same region all confirmed that these peculiarities didn't end up showing their face in a Ukrainian game by pure chance. For instance, Metro 2033 (Ukraine) had an atmosphere that may have differed from Shadow of Chernobyl, but relied on similar mechanics: the player's main relationship in the game was with the environment, instead of an NPC of some sort. ArmA 2 (Czech Republic) displayed a similar, yet even more extreme desire for realism. And like S.T.A.L.K.E.R., it took pride in its overambition, making for a totally unrefined but uncannily deep and expansive video game that knows no equal. Yet another fine is example of the peculiarity of the distinct character of Eastern European game development is Cryostasis (Ukraine), an atmospherically rich first person shooter/horror blend that is known for both a notorious lack of optimisation and an engrossing plot that far exceeds the current standards of video game storytelling. There are a lot more examples of games that are unmistakably Eastern European in their design and presentation, and while, naturally, not every game developed by companies situated in Eastern Europe will distinguish itself as such, the simple fact that you can often tell without prior knowledge that a game is from that part of the world, is enough to confirm the hypothesis of a distinct Eastern-European video game tradition existing.
An interesting question is whether the existence of a certain game design culture in a specific region has any cultural implications, or is rather the result of socio-economic factors. A lot can be said for the latter, as the production of a so-called AAA (read: big budget) game requires resources, connections and general know-how that almost none of the developers in Eastern Europe possess (yet). While the days of the Cold War are long behind us and the Iron Curtain fell over two decades ago, Eastern Europe is still the less wealthy half of the continent, so it is not a far stretch to conclude that, on the whole, companies from that region are less likely to rely on the same amount of financial resources as their Western European counterparts. This means they have to be more creative in offering worthwhile gaming experiences without the need for whizz-bang cinematic presentation. And diving into an obscure niche can be an effective way of attracting gamers without having to delve into the same audience as the oversaturated AAA market. Another important factor is the current state of the video games market in Eastern Europe. Particularly in Russia, both PC gaming and piracy are still very prevalent, so developers with a share in this market are often forced to develop low-budget titles to be able to offer their products at a fee that won't price them out of the market.
However, it is too easy to attribute the huge differences in game design choices between Eastern Europe and, for example, North America to a mere lack of money on the former's behalf. It should come as no surprise to anyone that people from different cultures set different priorities, so why should video games be an exception? To put it more simply, it is no coincidence that Michael Bay's films are produced in America, and not in, say, Spain. Similarly, the recent decline of the share of Japanese video game industry in the global market can be partially blamed on the fact that Western gamers tend to look for different things in video games than their Japanese counterparts. And if these cultural differences manifest themselves in the video game audiences, this implies that the developers themselves also owe part of their philosophy to their cultural background. The art direction of the aforementioned games ArmA 2 and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. clearly draws inspiration from local architecture and environments, making for a distinct aesthetic that may, in its turn, influence the atmosphere and even the very structure of the game in question. In other words, the fact that many Eastern European video games tend to evoke a rather somber vibe may have more to do with the region's turbulent history than we realise.
As stated previously, video game development is by its very definition an international process that cannot be reduced to an isolated, monocultural endeavour. It is not without reason that I talk of an Eastern European video game culture instead of distinct Ukrainian, Russian, Czech or Belarusian cultures. And even at a continental scale, you still cannot ignore the fact that many of these games were supervised by Western-European or American publishers, and that these games may employ technology and ideas that were conceived at the other side of the globe. On the other hand, it is also difficult to deny that games from a specific region often share certain traits that distinguish them from titles from other parts of the globe. Whether these differences are grounded culturally or the mere result of socio-economic factors cannot be said with absolute certainty, but this doesn't prevent us from making - and I stress this - very general and vague outlines of game design cultures based on geography. These models would by no means be obligatory - who would claim that Dark Souls is a typically Japanese game? - but you could certainly identify certain trends and tendencies. With this in mind, being convinced to buy a game because it is from Russia may not be as ridiculous as it sounds at first. In any case, Wings of Prey turned out the ambitious and rich game I expected it to be, and I just may have Mother Russia to thank for that.
 Read more on S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s atmosphere in this magnificent article on Tap Repeatedly.
Even though I've spent most of this summer writing my MA thesis, I still had some time left to play games and forget about all of my intellectual contemplations for a few moments. Like I posted in one of my previous blog entries, I even took advantage of the Steam sales and thus expanded my already considerable backlog, making the need to beat a few games even greater. As such, take a look at my latest batch of finished games, as well as my thoughts on them.
Wings of Prey
I never really was into flight simulation, but when this more arcadey version of IL-2 Sturmovik was on sale, I decided to give the genre a shot, anyway. And I didn't regret it. Oddly enough, the gameplay reminded me of the open-ended stages of Star Fox 64. The game has a light-hearted, arcadey feel to it, with forgiving controls and a relatively easy campaign. This feat will no doubt have angered the more serious flight sim fans, but for a newcomer like me, it was the ideal introduction to an otherwise complex and inaccessible genre. Apart from offering a great experience, the game's presentation was qualitatively impressive as well. The flight models and maps were quite detailed (for as far as the latter is possible in flight sims), yet the game consistently ran at a smooth 60fps. Add to that the epic score composed by Jeremy Soule (of Elder Scrolls fame), and I almost feel guilty only having paid 4 euros for this.
GTA IV: Episodes From Liberty City
The Lost and Damned
While GTA IV scored straight 10s across the board back when it came out, I wasn't too big a fan of it. Though the gameplay had definitely improved compared to the previous instalments in the series, it bothered me that the game strayed away from its origins as a fairly comedic game in favour of a more realistic experience. The game still tried to be funny at the same time, making this next-gen GTA title come across as rather schizophrenic effort. One of the main problems was that the protagonist, Niko Bellic, was presented as this sensitive, emotional guy plagued by a dark past, yet you still spent most of the game killing random people for money and/or pleasure. The standalone expansion Lost & Damned fixes some of these issues by letting you play as Johnny, a psychopathic biker. The game follows him in his endeavours as his beloved motorcycle gang falls apart due to personal conflicts, and trouble with both crooked cops and local mafiosi. This premise makes for a fairly straightforward game, with the majority of the missions consisting of you and your fellow bikers shooting people you don't like. The more team-focused combat and new weapons do give a new twist to this familiar concept, but it couldn't prevent the game from growing stale long before the credits rolled.
The Ballad of Gay Tony
Even though both GTA IV and the Lost & Damned expansion both suffered from design issues, it seems that Rockstar finally hit the nail on the head with The Ballad of Gay Tony. This second and last expansion to GTA IV introduces you to the glamourous high society and nightlife scene of Liberty City. As the bodyguard and business partner of nightclub owner Gay Tony, you will spend most of the game getting him (and with that, yourself) out of trouble, meeting all kinds of colourful characters along the way.
What this expansion does so well compared to Lost & Damned is offering missions that have you do more than just kill people. As you make your way through the many memorable missions, you have to intimidate a blogger until he stops writing slander about you and your boss, beat Brucie's crazy uncle Mori in a triathlon race and sink an expensive yacht using a military helicopter. The expansion also seems to have taken notes from some of the criticism on GTA IV by adding more activities outside of missions, such as cage fighting and skydiving. All in all, this expansion was probably the best that the GTA franchise has had to offer this generation. For me, it's still not as memorable as San Andreas, but it seemed to have made much more of an effort to emulate the crazy fun of San Andreas than the main game.
Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2 (GRAW 2) - PC version
After my disappointment with GRAW 1, I never bothered to even install this direct sequel until a friend assured me it was a significant improvement over the first one. And right he was. With a quicksave feature, more interesting level design and AI that actually played by the rules most of the time, GRAW 2 was a joy to play through. Things could get incredibly tough at times, but for the most part, dying in this game didn't feel as cheap as in the first GRAW. Definitely recommended for those craving a hard-as-nails old-school tactical shooter that isn't plagued by archaic design, although you will have to cope with one of the most horrid stories in recent video gaming memory. Read my full review of GRAW 2 here.
With its blend of shooting and racing, RAGE certainly feels like a bipolar game at times. Fortunately, it is also a damn enjoyable one. The game takes the best stuff from old-school shooters (no weapon carrying limit, an incredible amount of enemy types, lots of gore) and implements all kinds of modern shooting features to make action that feels fresh and retro at the same time. The gunplay is just marvellous, with every weapon having significant weight to it, as well as offering several different ammo types to toy around with. The enemy AI is fairly competent and, more importantly, surprisingly varied. This makes for gameplay that can go from light stealth-based shooting to feeling like a full-blown horde shooter in a matter of minutes. The technical quirks (pop-in, low-res textures) and disappointing story drag the experience down somewhat, but all in all I'd still say that this is one of the best shooters to come out of the USA since the first FEAR. It's the game that Duke Nukem Forever should have been.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Dawnguard
Seeing as I was already very impressed by Skyrim, which is one of the most superbly designed open world games to date, getting the Dawnguard expansion was more or less obligatory. This DLC adds a new questline revolving around the struggle between an ancient clan of vampires and the Dawnguard, an order of vampire hunters. After having done a couple of quests, you will have to choose between the two factions, both offering their benefits: the Dawnguard offers you access to crossbows and their ammunition, while the vampire clan allows you to become a Vampire Lord and live in a spooky keep. I personally never felt much for vampire gameplay in the Elder Scrolls games, and seeing as I have a character that excels in sneaking and archery, joining the Dawnguard was the only logical choice for me.
My initial fear that the Dawnguard questline would be as underwhelming as some of the guilds quickly disappeared. The new environments, such as a ghostlike plane of Oblivion, a frozen paradise and a dreamlike cave system, succeeded in giving this expansion its own, fresh vibe. More importantly, however, you are accompanied by, Serana, a mysterious vampire woman throughout most of the questline (regardless of which side you choose), who is not only the best character to date in the entire game, but also a very skilled sister-in-arms to see you through the more difficult missions. Clocking in at around 8-9 hours, the main quest of Dawnguard may not be incredibly long, but for me it is certainly one of the best experiences offered in the Skyrim universe to date. Full reviews of both Skyrim and Dawnguard coming soon.
After a period of several months, I finally got around to writing a review again. The game in question is Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2 for PC. It's a pretty old game (2007) that I had stashed into my backlog pretty much immediately after buying it as part of the Ghost Recon collection during the Steam winter sale of 2010. I did try out the first 'GRAW', but it frustrated me so much that I uninstalled it and never even bothered with the second game. But a few weeks back, a friend informed me that GRAW 2 offers considerable improvements over the first game, including a much-needed quicksave feature. So, I decided to give it a try, and I beat it in one weekend.
And now you can read my elaborate opinion on this pretty hardcore tactical shooter in my latest review. As a bonus, I've recorded a 15-minute video of the first mission, in which I shoot some rebels and blow up a bridge with dazzling efficiency. Mind, though, that I scrapped the teammates for this mission, so that the session would be a bit shorter. As a consequence, it was also a lot harder, and it is a miracle that I only died once while shooting this. In any case, enjoy watching the video and/or reading the review.
Click here for the review.
Click here for the video (also available in HD).
The relationship between video games and other forms of popular media has always been a difficult one. When an upcoming video game is being based on a film, it is very likely to turn out a tacked-on experience that has little going for it other than the familiarity of the characters and setting. And while we may have seen the occasional exception to this rule over the years with high quality-titles such as Goldeneye 007 and Chronicles of Riddick, the 'movie-game', anno 2012, generally still seems to be a recipe for mediocrity. The reverse application of this concept - basing a film on a popular video game - has hardly been more successful. The 1993 film adaptation of Super Mario Bros. is universally regarded as a disaster, and while the Mortal Kombat films have at least had a cult following, there are few who would deny their glaringly low production quality.
A more recent development is the intermingling of video games and literature. The phenomenon itself is not entirely new: a video game based on Terry Pratchett's Discworld already appeared in 1995, and there are undoubtedly even older examples of likewise titles to be found. But the appearance of literature-inspired games only stopped being sporadic in more recent years. Here, the connection again works both ways. There has been an increasing number of novels based on popular video games, but we have also seen quite a few video games that took their inspiration from works of literature.
The trend of releasing a (series of) novel(s) set in the same universe as a video game was popularised - in my own experience, at least - by Halo, and soon spread to other franchises, such as Gears of War, Mass Effect and even the lesser-known S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series. Like with film-based games, the popularity of the original product (in this case, the video game) is like a double-edged sword: on one hand, there is a large group of gamers who are already familiar with the franchise's universe, and are thus more likely to have an immediate interest in a book based on it. However, catering to this very specific group of people also means that the chances of someone who has not played the game being interested in the book are very slim. In short, the success of the book depends, to a large extent, on the popularity of the video game it is based upon.
Literature-based video games, like Cryostasis, can be very good in their own right
Fortunately, the second variant, that of literature-based video games, seems to be less restricted by a limited 'install base', and, as such, has much more potential of being successful based on its own merit. This increased sense of flexibility is caused mainly by the fact that a lot of these games appear to be marketed towards a larger group of people, which becomes apparent when you observe how they interpret the work they are inspired by much more liberally. The brilliant Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason, for example, tells an allegorical story that runs parallel to a fairytale written by Maxim Gorsky, but is set in an entirely different time and geographical location. The original fairytale, The Flaming Heart of Danko, is still told through scrap notes found while playing the game, but the events in the game itself are distinct enough to confirm that the game is fully capable of standing on its own, thus preventing the player from getting the idea that he will not fully understand the game if he is unfamiliar with the story.
Even with more direct video game adaptations of literature, there remains a certain distance between the game and the novel. Metro 2033, for instance, covers only a part of the novel of the same name by Dimitry Glukhovsky, and instead uses only story fragments that can be turned into interesting gameplay sequences. As a result, the game, while not showcasing nearly the same amount of depth in terms of its characters or philosophical undercurrent, has successfully utilised the book's setting to make for a gameplay experience that stands on its own. The fact that the developers of Metro 2033 were fully aware of the intrinsic merits of the game became apparent when they chose to not emphasise its literary inspiration too extensively in the marketing: the novel is not mentioned in the launch trailer, nor on the game case. Compare this to the prominent text on the front cover of the Gears of War novel Aspho Fields, "The official prequel to the award-winning video game", and it is obvious that one of these products relies a lot less on the power of its respective franchise than the other.
The Gears of War novels in general are not too subtle about the merits of the games
The difference in nature between literature-based video games and video game-based literature may be caused by the fact that, when making entertainment, it is much easier to capitalise upon the strengths of the video game medium than those of the literature medium. The plot is less essential in a video game, so a developer that uses a book as inspiration has a great amount of liberty in deciding which elements he chooses to use in his video game. The aforementioned Metro 2033 game, for instance, has a world created after that of the novel, with the choking atmosphere to match, while only following the central points of the plot and omitting many details that were mentioned in the book. The developers had, furthermore, complete liberty in deciding upon the game's core mechanics, and virtually all other aspects that make a video game good.
Literature, however, is much more than mere entertainment. It is not just the core structure of a novel that makes it interesting, but especially its ability to transmit complex ideas, themes and topics. When a novel is set in a world with many predetermined characteristics, it is already much harder for an author to approach whatever theme he has in mind in a natural way. Moreover, we must not forget that video game literature is much like 'movie-games' in the sense that it is often born out of commercial motives. With this, I do not wish to imply that commercially-driven literature cannot be good (Dostoyevsky wrote his magnum opus Crime & Punishment to pay off his debts, for example), but it does leave an author with much less space to manoeuvre in when there is a clearly determined and specific target audience to cater to. After all, the best literature tends not to be the most accessible, and accessibility is typically what the publisher of a video game-based game will aim for.
Personally, I am much more interested in literature-based video games than in video game-based literature, as the former has much more potential to contribute to the meaningful development of its respective medium. Both of the aforementioned exemplary games, Cryostasis and Metro 2033, have showcased some comparatively excellent storytelling, which was made possible by their ability to capitalise upon certain aspects of literature, while not being obliged to model themselves entirely after it.
The video game adaptation of Metro 2033 shows that less can sometimes mean more.
However, it is not the aim of this article to dismiss the merit of the video game novel. They can contribute greatly to expanding the lore of a video game universe, seeing as a book simply allows for much more elaboration of something that may have been merely referenced to in the corresponding video game. As such, they open up a whole new perspective for gamers who just cannot get enough of the universe of their favourite video game. True, it may take a long, long while before any game-inspired piece of literature will rank among the absolute finest that the medium has to offer, but even with the obvious and seemingly inevitable limits that come with being geared towards a niche audience, they can certainly be a valuable asset to the enrichment and expansion of a video game franchise.
I remember writing a blog entry on my top 10 of first person shooters a long while ago, so this may not be entirely new to some of you. In either case, I've revised the old list and converted it into a video. What started out as a video editing excercise has resulted in a rather nice video of over 7 minutes long. It took quite some time and effort to complete, too, as I've had to record all the footage myself (which resulted in having to install some of these games), and I've also created all of the still screens (such as the game info and the credits) myself in GIMP instead of resorting to the boring standard text templates from Windows Live Music Maker.
Before you watch the video, make sure you realise that:
- This is only meant to reflect my personal opinion. These are simply my 10 favourite shooters.
- I've only chosen one game per series maximum. An unvaried list is a boring one.
- I haven't been able to include certain big games such as Halo and Killzone based on the simple fact that I haven't played them sufficiently.
That all being said, enjoy:
My video of the Top 10 FPSs 2005-2012
Be sure to watch in HD and in fullscreen!
With the DayZ mod recently hitting 900k unique players(!) and the base game ArmA II: Combined Operations still topping the sales charts on Steam, I think it's safe to say that this military simulator is gradually releasing itself from its niche status and drawing closer to the mainstream of PC gaming. And deservedly so. The game is just too rich in content to be enjoyed by just a small selection of military geeks. I realise that a lot of people will have gotten the game solely for DayZ, but if you have the main game anyway, why not check it out? Of course, the main problem with doing that is that ArmA II, due to its realism, complexity and instability, isn't the most accessible game out there. At first, I didn't really get the appeal of the game either, but after delving into ArmA II's vast universe a bit more, I quickly realised that this game, while flawed, is something special. When I was 'just' 14 hours into the game, I already voiced my enthusiasm about the game's ability to make you feel the perils and panicks of war in this blog entry, posted over 1.5 years ago. At that point, I barely knew anything about the true possibilities of the game's mechanics, let alone grasping anything about scripting. But I knew that this game had the potential to end up very high on my list of all-time favourites. And indeed, about 18 months later, I've logged in over 400 hours in total, made various missions and explored the game's amazing modding community. I still remember, though, how hard it can be to get into ArmA II, as this game pretty much demands that you create your fun. For this reason, I'll tell you about something rather cool I did recently and explain how you can get used to ArmA II's action using this method, as well.
What I did was so simple that it might seem silly to some that I'm explaining it here. Ever since I started playing, I knew about the Ambient Combat module that you can activate to spawn random friendly and enemy units on the map. I used it occasionally to generate some light-hearted action in missions that were mostly designed for me to try out the game's equipment, but the very sporadic appearance of random units made it difficult to get true enjoyment out of this quirky little feature. I was lucky when some units appeared every 5-10 minutes, and it happened frequently that I played for 15 minutes or longer without encountering any enemy or friendly units on the map. Hardly satisfactory when you're looking for a quick fix of balls-to-the-wall action, I'd say.
For one reason or another, I never looked into the matter any further and used the module only on a few occasions. However, when a friend of mine recently got into the game, he decided to look for a way to spice up the Ambient Combat a bit. And he found a rather easy way to do it: it was just a matter of adding a trigger to the mission that makes random units spawn much more frequently, while also decreasing the 'spawn zone'; with the trigger we use, units will always spawn within 300 metres of our vicinity. And the result is baffling. The module will often need some time to catch steam, but usually, after about 10 minutes of relatively tame gameplay, all hell breaks loose. There will be enemy APCs firing explosive rounds at each other over great distances, gunfights breaking out between infantry squads of different factions, and frequently, there will be helicopters and jet planes joining in on the fun by just bombing the place to oblivion. Indeed, staying alive under these circumstances is a challenge in itself, and being able to test your weapons and vehicles of choice on an endless horde of soldiers makes it all the better. Seeing as the all-out chaos may not necessarily make sense from a tactical point of view, it might not satisfy all ArmA II veterans, who are likely to be used to well-coordinated, realistic, team-based missions. But if you want to experience the pure WW3-like hell that this game is capable of generating, this is a good way to get a taste of it.
The best part is that it is really easy to make a mission like this yourself. You will only need a couple of things. First, you go into the editor and choose a map. Smaller maps are more intense, but I suggest something bigger, such as Chernarus or Takistan, that will really allow you to go on a large-scale quest for survival. Then, spawn the unit you want to play as. In this sort of mission, I prefer to play as the Russian Spetsnaz, especially the custom units made by colonel stagler. But it doesn't matter, really. Whether you want to play as a US Marine or an Eastern Orthodox Priest with tactical glasses and a Javelin: it's all possible. The next thing you will want to add is the Ambient Combat module. Switch to modules by pressing F7 and select Ambient Combat. Give it the following name: "BIS_ACM", without the quotation marks. Be sure to connect the module to your player unit. You can do this simply by pressing F5 for synchronisation, and dragging a line between the two elements. Using the same method, you can also add a few more modules that may help make your mission feel a bit more alive. For example, you can add "Ambient Civilians" (or "Ambient Civilians (Expansion)" for the Operation Arrowhead maps), "Ambient Civilian Vehicles", "Special Support Module" (which allows you to call in airstrikes and such) and perhaps some visual effects, such as "Film Grain".
With that out of the way, there's only one more thing you will need to do. You press F3 to go to triggers, and you create one by double clicking on the map. In the trigger menu, make sure the trigger can be activated by "anyone". Also, increase the size of the trigger a bit. The default is "axis a: 50" and "axis b: 50". Set those to a nice and safe 400. Then, a bit further down, you will see a row of three different numbers for "Timeout". By default, all of them are set to 0. Change all of these numbers to '10'. This is the amount of seconds it will take before the for the trigger is activated. Then, in the field "on act.", we will need to put what the trigger will actually do once it is activated. Here, we put the following code, again, without the quotation marks: "[1, BIS_ACM] call BIS_ACM_setIntensityFunc; [BIS_ACM, 50, 300] call BIS_ACM_setSpawnDistanceFunc;". You won't have to synchronise the trigger with other elements on the map. All you need to do is make sure that you are inside this trigger when the mission starts. If you've made your trigger 400x400 metres like I always do, this shouldn't be too hard.
After doing all of the above, your basic mission should work. Note that it may take a few minutes before things really start happening. I don't know which factors influence this, but it seems to be pretty random. The only thing I've noticed is that getting into a vehicle will help speed up the process on occasions, as this will make you a more visible target for any nearby enemy units. What you can do, however, is add some extra elements to help spice up your mission a bit. After all, this piece of elemental action can be the basic frame of something bigger. For starters, you can add some ammo boxes and vehicles close to your spawn point. This will allow you to switch weapons, or to create a custom loadout if you do not yet know how to do this with code (I might make a blog entry on this later). You can also add another playable unit near you and export the mission to multiplayer missions, so you can wreck havoc with a buddy. Make sure that you both have the content you used to create your mission, though. So if you've added mod characters, such as the awesome GRU Spetsnaz soldiers I mentioned, your friend should also have that mod. If you're already familiar with basic mission editing, you can also add some objectives. Something as simple as having to travel from one end of the map to the other can already make for a super-intense experience.
With this, I hope I've encouraged some of the DayZ enthusiasts out there to give the main game a shot, as well. This little mission formula doesn't quite show the full potential of ArmA II, and might make hardcore fans cringe over its lack of depth and complexity, but I think it is at least successful in dismissing the notion that ArmA II is 'boring'. If you have any questions about this small mission template, just ask me in the comments. I'm also available as a co-op buddy for whatever you wish to do in this game.
To help you, here are some screenshots of what the trigger and the basic mission layout should look like:
Be sure to name your Ambient Combat module
What the trigger should look like
Notice how all of the modules (but NOT the trigger) are synchronised with both me and my buddy
And to increase the fun, here are some mods for extra units and islands that you may find interesting:
Units: GRU Spetsnaz by colonel stagler
Map: Podagorsk by Goeth
Map/Units/Vehicles: Isla Duala by IceBreakr
Weapons: AKM74 pack by Foxhound
Weapons: AEK pack by yvandrey
Weapons: Eastern weapons pack by RobertHammer
Like anyone with a PC that isn't totally ancient, I've benefitted of some of the Steam sales over the past week. It's been a few days since the sales have ended, so I deemed this a good moment to look back at some of the deals I've gotten, and see if they've been worth it so far. I don't remember the exact prices for the things I bought, but they must've been low, because I have only bought daily deals and flash sales.
Warhammer 40K: Space Marine
Now, I don't really care about the Warhammer universe. Frankly, I'm not sure if I have any idea of what's going on in this game story-wise. But that only testifies to the Space Marine's greatness, as it has been hard to put this frantic TPS down ever since I got it. Much in contrary to my usual behaviour as a gamer, I decided to get the DLC as well, seeing as it was also priced down and the number of maps offered in the base game was supposedly rather meager. And boy, am I glad I invested in that bit of extra content (it was on sale too, after all), because I've filled quite some evenings with multiplayer sessions. What makes this game great is that the three customisable classes cover a wide array of playing styles, making for a quirky, charming TPS that somehow reminds me of Conker: Live & Reloaded. My only worry is that the already modest community will keep being thinned out to a point where you have to be lucky to find a game. But even then, the single player mode I only recently delved into, seems promising as well.
Left 4 Dead 2
This is just one of these games that I had always missed out on for some inexplicable reason, so when this one came up in the 'community's choice' poll, I voted for it, and immediately picked it up after it had won. L4D2 surprised me in multiple ways. Most notably, it is probably the first Source game I've played that actually has good gunplay. Although I'm a bit disappointed by the lack of iron sights (wanna get them headshots), each gun has its own feel and accommodates to a certain play style. However, I'm not overly fond of the horde-based type of shooter, so I already grew bored with it. I had hoped it to be like Killing Floor, but more story-driven, but even though it kinda is that, it just doesn't have the tilt value of that game.
I played the demo back when the game was about to be released, and even though I liked it, 25 euros seemed a bit steep for an FPS with a short campaign and no multiplayer. So when it went on sale, I finally decided to check it out. I replayed the first level, that was also in the demo, and found out then that the difficulty was significantly higher from that point onwards. I like a challenging shooter, but the absence of a quicksave button will always lead to annoying situations where you accidentally die due to a triviality, and get put back 5-10 minutes. As such, I haven't had the energy to delve much further into it, but gameplay-wise, it seemed solid. I do wonder how long this concept can remain interesting, though.
Mount & Blade Collection
Now, before you go saying that I'm a shooter fanboy (which I am), I have actually gotten games of other genres, as well. Take Mount & Blade, the action RPG that apparently started in a Turkish couple's basement. I must admit, though, that my main reason for getting these games is the Napoleonic Wars DLC, an add-on to Mount & Blade: Warband that puts up to 200 players on a single map and has them duke it out with muskets and swords. Naturally, I also wanted to try out the base games, but there's just something about M&B that keeps putting me off. I'm sure I'll love this game once I get a good game going, but for the time being I am mostly wandering about courtyards without a very clear idea of what it is I'm doing or striving towards.
Wings of Prey
From a genre I'm just not very good at (RPG) to a genre that I was, up until recently, more or less completely unfamiliar with: aerial combat. As I looked at Wings of Prey's sale, I still hesitated to put it in my basket. My main concern was that it might be too inaccessible to someone with no experience with aerial combat games at all, and another one that I do not actually have a joystick. The description said, however, that the game had a wide array of difficulty options to accommodate to both veterans and total noobs like yours truly. Then, someone who owned the game assured me that you can play this game with pretty much any control method, so all of a sudden it seemed like the perfect game to finally get into the genre. And it was. I actually beat it today, and I'm still very impressed by its sense of detail, its smooth controls, its gorgeous graphics and its stunning soundtrack (by Jeremy Soule of Elder Scrolls fame). These aspects easily compensate for the few downsides, such as the occasionally questionable voice acting and the confusing YuPlay connection. I only found out later that this is actually an instalment in the famous IL-2 Sturmovik series that was initially intended for consoles, so I'm going to take a wild guess and say that simulation buffs consider this to be 'dumbed down', but at least that allowed me to play the game. I still ordered IL-2 Sturmovik 1946 and see if I'm ready to really get into the genre. But one thing's for sure: this, along with Space Marine, was my best purchase during the sale.
Dear Esther + Frozen Synapse
I've lumped these two together because, well, I haven't played either of them yet, so I couldn't tell you anything interesting about them. I got Dear Esther on the final moment after a friend talked me into trying it out, and that same friend gifted me his second copy of Frozen Synapse.
In summary, my backlog hasn't exactly become smaller over the past few weeks, but up until now, every game has been worth the modest price I paid for it. This should at least last me to the next Steam sales. So, did you guys buy anything interesting?
Many of you will have already heard of this strange new horror game called 'Slender'. For those who don't, it is the raw (and free) version of a, give or take, 15-minute game that is apparently the result of someone experimenting with developing tools. As such, this is essentially the demo of something that was not originally intended to be released to the public. However, now that it has found its way onto the internet, the game has gone viral. Why? Because, contrary to most so-called horror games, this one will actually make you change your loins.
What's so impressive about this project is its simplicity. The game has no backstory, other than that it takes its antagonist from the Slenderman 'universe', an X-File-like urban legend that was created on SomethingAwful forums just a few years back. Posters would photoshop pictures of an unusually tall and slender (big hint) man, usually dressed in a suit, into normal photographs, with his main eerie characteristic being his lack of a face. Internet users rapidly built a mythos around him, which can be summarised by his kidnapping of children and his inclination to appear near woods and rivers.
The woods, the darkness, and the howling wind!
The game itself only borrows Slenderman's appearance and provides no plotline of any kind, as it simply doesn't need one. Once the game drops you in the woods with only a flashlight and a limited amount of stamina, you already realise that something's terribly off. The only hint you are provided with is "collect the 8 pages", and off you go. As soon as you pick up the first page, you can hear distant footsteps gradually creeping closer to you - resonant thumping sounds that hint towards the evil that lurks between the trees. It takes either a brave or a stupid man to not realise that this is bicycle clip time.
What Slender does so well is create this looming, anxious atmosphere without actually showing you that much. It capitalises upon the fact that, given the right circumstances, humans are still scared of the dark. Other than that, all the game does is make us realise that we are being chased by something which we cannot fight, creating a sentiment that I think is derived from our worst nightmares. The means to establish this are as minimalistic as the rest of the game: with every page, a sound effect is added, gradually building up to a more and more ominous soundtrack to accompany the pursuit. The Slenderman himself will appear every now and then, first in the distance, but closer as you run out of stamina from running away. The basic objective is to not let him catch you, and to not look him in the eye for too long. Well, where his eye would have been, anyway.
There's just something about this 'not being able to do anything back' premise that makes games such as this way more scary than the usual horror-themed shooters. One of the reasons Amnesia was so frightening was that you weren't able to fight back. The constant threat thus created made for a panic-inducing experience that took the player out of his usual position of the hunter, turning him into the hunted.
Fortunately, the game provides you with a toilet building to crap in.
However, I'm not saying that Slender is anywhere close to matching the quality of Amnesia. The game is, after all, nothing more than an amateur demo and becomes a lot less scary after the novelty wears off, especially once you realise that Slenderman never actually moves. But what makes this game so fascinating is how it understands that the recipe ofa good horror experience often includes limiting the player in his possibilities to do something about the unpleasantness that you, as developer, are about to bestow upon him. When you take a closer look at this demo, Slender isn't even really about Slenderman. It's about being pursued by an evil entity that may or may not even be physical. Whether that evil manifests itself as a stick figure in a suit or a seven-headed dragon is essentially irrelevant.
Slender, as it stands, is a quirky little demo that may not ever be developed into a full-blown game. After all, the premise is so simple that trying to stretch it for 5 or 6 hours would be a tricky endeavour. Still, it is impressive to see that someone fooling around with developing technology has already succeeded at what so many professional developers of horror games have failed to do: to give us a good scare.
Not convinced? Watch me play the game here in full HD. Spoiler: I didn't quite make it to the end.
PS: The link I used to download this seems to be down, so I'm afraid that you'll have to go look for it yourself if you want to play it.
I do not quite remember when the debate on the relation between video games and art began, but it seems that Roger Ebert's dismissal of the possibility of games ever being art has sparked so much reactions and debate that the issue soon became ubiquitous and is currently even on the brink of being downright tedious. As such, the point of this article is not to answer that seemingly unresolvable base question - "are video games art?" - but rather to provide a critical look at the redundant argumentation that is often employed during discussions on this issue by both sides.
The first problem that surfaces in the vast majority of the cases also happens to be one of the biggest ones, namely that 'art' is an unusually vague term. Over the centuries, libraries worth of books have aimed to provide definitions and different visions of art, but still nobody can explain what exactly the concept embodies without generating a tidal wave of dissent among experts on the subject.
Marcel Duchamp's Fountain exposed the relativity of art.
In the debate on video games as art, many supporters of this idea will thus see the ambiguity of the concept as proof that the term can be applied to virtually anything. While there is a core of truth in this, it is an absolute misconception that art is anything you want it to be. Some experts would definitely underline that everything has artistic potential, but that does not automatically mean that everything is art. The absence of an absolute authoritarian truth on what art is does not omit the fact that you will need to use theoretical concepts in order to justify your views. In literary science, for instance, the reader is free to interpret the work in question as he sees fit, but only if he is able to justify his claims by using accepted theoretical concepts. So while this science is far from exact in nature, its flexibility does not give leeway to an endless stream of wild, baseless claims and interpretations. Art in general is similar in that the term enjoys an equal amount of flexibility, but also has to withstand excessive amounts of relativism that would leave the concept bereft of all meaning. After all, why are we so eager to label video games as art while, according to a lot of gamers, the term does not even mean anything?
Still, the main problem with gamers in this debate is not so much that they frequently have difficulties reasoning why they think games are art, but rather that they demonstrate through all of their behaviour that they do not actually perceive video games as art even when their stance on the issue would suggest otherwise. The proof for this claim can be found anywhere on Gamespot. Whether it is an article on the portrayal of women in games or a forum discussion on the alleged negative portrayal of Brits in Assassin's Creed 3: a considerable chunk of the reactions by gamers will always consist of little more than "chill out, it's just a game".
It is at least remarkable to see that many gamers are open to the idea of accepting video games as art, yet when someone tries to assess its cultural and social implications, this brand new art form is just as easily dismissed as mindless entertainment. Now, I have attended a few literature classes in my 'career' as a university student, and while I was encouraged to think for myself and form my own opinions on the topics at hand, I severely doubt that "it's just a book" would have been accepted as a valid argument in an analysis of the concept of captivity in Cervantes's Exemplary Novels. This comparison may seem a bit far-fetched, but that is probably due to most of us feeling instinctively that video games and literature are still rather far from being on the same level intellectually. This is not so much because games have, as Ebert claimed, no artistic potential, but the result of the complete lack of ability on behalf of gamers to view and judge video games as pieces of art rather than products of entertainment.
However, the relative lack of artistic vision among supporters of the idea of video games as an art form does not exclude its opponents from sometimes having equally naive or even downright infantile ideas on what art is. An often-heard claim, for example, is that entertainment cannot be art. If this were true, 'true' art probably would not even exist. Paintings, classic pieces of literature and operas may not be entertainment in the same way that football, Jackie Chan films and show wrestling are, but at the end of the day, even something as abstract as poetry often aims to satisfy our senses and provoke certain emotions, which is, at its core, what entertainment embodies.
Contrary to popular belief, this place is not void of commercial interests.
An even bigger misconception is that whether or not something is art depends solely on the intentions of the artist. While I am not much of a supporter of the whole "the artist is completely irrelevant" bandwagon that seems to be rampant in universities these days, I have just as much difficulty swallowing this antiquated, romantic ideal of the artist as a solitary, hermitical genius that creates his work purely out of aesthetic considerations. Despite this being an attractive image, it does not correspond with reality in the slightest. The renowned Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, for example, wrote his magnum opus Crime and Punishment out of very earthly motivations: he simply needed the money to be able to buy food. Still, you will be hard-pressed to find a scholar willing to dismiss this book as a piece of art. In an identical fashion, it is illogical to deny the artistic potential of video games because they were primarily conceived for economic purposes. Art does not stop being art just because its creator had a commercial mindset.
With the discussion on video games as art already being as redundant as it currently is, it is perhaps a rather unfortunate conclusion that it will still need much more time before it can develop into an intellectually mature debate. But it will be a necessary step to take if we are to ever reach an acceptable conclusion of this issue. As it stands, both supporters and opponents are too often hindered by a limited perception, which prevents them not only from understanding where their opponents are coming from, but also from supplying conclusive arguments that are acceptable for both sides of the fence. Ultimately, a more satisfactory course of the debate will start with a change in perception on behalf of gamers themselves. Until then, we might want to consider that games can be worthwhile and admirable even if they are just games.
Image sources: Wikipedia; topartgallery.my
Very recently, I posted some teaser clips of a video project I was working on. And finally, after a whole night of troubles with Windows Live Movie Maker, the final versions of the videos are finished and uploaded. No watermarks, filmed and uploaded in full HD; all killer, no filler. The videos are mash-ups of footage from both ArmA 2 and Iron Front: Liberation 1944. They draw a link between WW2-era Soviet soldiers and modern Russian troops, also evoking a nostalgic (Post-)Soviet atmosphere.
Please take your time to check both of these videos out, and be sure to watch in HD.
Recently, I earned a quick buck by proofreading a part of someone's PhD thesis. It took me a while to think of a good purpose for the money, but eventually I deemed it a smart idea to invest in a Premium account of Fraps. Why? So I can make some kick-a$s videos, that's why. For ages, I've had ideas about creating videos for ArmA and, more recently, Iron Front. Both games support a free camera that allows you to create the most amazing shots.
I'm still waiting for the money to be transferred to my PayPal account, so in the meanwhile, I went into the editor with the free version of Fraps and checked whether or not I could take the images I had in my head and recreate them in-game. The result is three separate 'teaser' videos that show some of the ideas came up with for the real thing. Check them out and let me know what you think.
Video 1 (just separate shots, no music)
Video 2 (some more advanced shots put to music)
Video 3 (some more pseudo-artistic shots put to different, more melancholic music)
SPOILER: the third one is the best.