Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Heroes

The vast majority of worthwhile games these days have some sort of protagonist leading the way. Very often, these characters are seen as flag ships for the different consoles. For Nintendo there is Mario, a plumber with a very impressive CV including transferable skills like go karting and dinosaur slaying. Next for the XBOX we have Master Chief, an armour clad soldier who likes to shoot enemies that could have been dreamt up by an infant. Lastly, we have Sony's Playstation and its flag ship character... erm Solid Snake? Crash Bandicoot? This one requires a bit more thought as to my memory, Sony seems to market several characters for the Playstation, but it doesn't really matter. All of these can be regarded as heroes in the various games they star in, but this role is an interesting one to look at.

One of my favourite heroic figures has to be Link from the Legend of Zelda series. He has gone from a pixelated blob to a tunic adorned elf knight thing (or a Hylian as normal people might say), and time has definitely been kind to him as he looks better in every incarnation. The cartoon link from Wind Waker admittedly was not my cup of tea, but it did appeal to some. He proves that a man can wear a dress and still be considered as cool. He has a time travelling sword for goodness sake! Not quite as protective as the Tardis, but slicing your foes to bits is more fun than escaping from them through time.

The thing that really makes me like Link though, is the universe that he fights through. The one man against the rest of the world angle has been used so much, the dead horse being flogged is actually more of a fine paste now. This being said, The Legend of Zelda series always seems to approach this from a different angle each time, and keeps the experience fresh and new. The structure of exploring a wide open world followed by a dungeon and then repeating it over and over again can get a little tiring, but the tasks each one offers are unique once you get past the onslaught of maiming and death dealing.

Solid Snake is the typical sort of hero in so many cliched stories. Again, one man against the odds, but more realistically, he does not always walk away with the happy ending that is so sweet it would give Mario diabetes. He is a character that has quite a troubled past and you feel sorry for him. At the end of his Playstation One outing, he had a fictional terminal disease and, depending how good you were at a single button mashing sequence, lost his love interest. He's the gruff cow boy that saved the cattle by ripping off his own arm and beating the rustlers to death with the bloody stump. You actually see the sacrifices that he makes, and yet still pushes on which makes him seem like a truly noble and courageous gent.

The hero factor with Snake really kicks in though when you see him kick, shoot, sneak and snap his way through legions of highly trained military soldiers. When the final showdown of a game is fighting a bipedal nuclear super robot or three, which are fifty times bigger than you and have enough firepower to take on China, it is nothing short of awesome. A lot of people played through the game tranquilising and simply incapacitating the enemies. Not me. My preferred method was to knock out everyone in an area, and then go back and take their heads off to make sure they would not be waking up, even if Slayer played a two hour set by their side. This would probably draw more attention than would be preferred though. My brutal methods really kicked me hard up the arse though in Snake Eater in a section where all the enemies you killed come back to haunt you. That was a painful half hour sequence...

The final hero that I will list in this chapter is quite interesting, as it could be any of four. The first was a mute, the second a mob boss, the third a gang and the fourth hit the shores of Liberty City yesterday from Eastern Europe. I am of course talking about the protagonists from the Grand Theft Auto series. It is hard when trying to think of these guys as heroes. Generally, they are doing what they do for a good cause, but what they do is steal, murder, shoot, drive dangerously and murder some more. They are very much anti-heroes. I can see why someone would be angry if their mother is murdered, and that the police tell them to kill something every five minutes, but some of the war paths these guys can go on is plain crazy. It is hard to support the 'good guy' when through his actions seems to kill far more people than the 'bad guys'. It is quite a thing to get your mind around, but easy enough to drown out when you are knee deep in limbs and having tons of fun in the process.

Heroes seem to be slowly fading out of games these days, as you are now being forced in to squad combat where you all do rather amazing things, making your actions seem much less fascinating. Not all hope is lost though when it comes to wanting heroes in games. There are still many franchises, some of them mentioned here, that will keep going even after global warming drowns Holland.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Gimmicks

Things that try and keep an idea fresh by introducing a novelty can very often be thought of as gimmicks. For example, the thing that Nintendo are marketing to children and grannies a like is the motion control of the Wii. Instead of using a pad or joystick to select a menu option, you can now point at it, and wave the cursor around like its a mouse on fire. It introduced an exciting new method of control for those gamers who's thumbs have been worn down to nubs from years of pummeling buttons. It is a great idea, but one that I feel has been hit by the gimmick stick hard.

We all love Wii sports. Its fun to play and a new idea. Playing tennis by mimicking the actions of a racket using the Wiimote is what tennis games have always dreamed to be. It was whilst playing this game however that some dimwit thought;

"Wouldn't it be great if I wasted 50 pence worth of plastic and create some hideous malformed racket shape to attach to the top of my controller. Only losers need to use the sensor."

If you need help visualising that what you are holding is the reality side of a virtual tennis racket then it is amazing that you managed to live this long without choking on oxygen. The device is an ugly lump of plastic that serves no purpose other than to make you look like a prat. There is absolutly no practical use for it other than to maybe hit your opponent when he is beating you. The Wii Wheel helps you steer more easily, the Wii Zapper puts the remote in a cradle to make it easier to shoot, this just blocks the sensor and makes you look like a pillock.

The other useless peripherals in this range include a mini gold club and a light sabre attachment. The worst thing about these that has been stressed a lot already, is that the darn things have an awful tendency to block the sensor on the Wiimote. This means that to select options from a menu, you need to detach the rubbish little bit of plastic, and then re-attach it before you get into the game. The Wii Wheel over came this by letting the sensor see out of the frame, something that is a very useful and not too complicated thing to implement!

It is just a bit sad that some companies decide that the IQ of a few gamers is less than a stagnant pool of water, and so these nightmare peripherals get released in order to prey off of the terminally stupid. The fact that some of the offending items provide no practical use and indeed stop one of the intended features from working is just plain daft. It was already uncool that you were pretending that the thing in your hand was a sword, let alone making it look like one. I can only really see such things appealing to children, and sweaty middle edged men who dress up as elves when playing the Legend of Zelda.

Nintendo are diving into the waters of gimmicks again now with Wii Fit. The balance board that is provided with the game looks very novel, but will not possibly be of much use in any other game apart from perhaps another Wii Fit title.

The main culprit of gaming gimmickry as far as I am concerned though is the soon to be released Rock Band by Harmonix. We are all familiar with wielding the fisher price guitars supplied with Guitar Hero, but Rock Band takes it a step further introducing a microphone and midget's drum kit. This may sound cool, but it there are about 99 good reasons not to buy it. That's right, it costs the best part of £100, for a single game! That money could easily go towards two or three other games, or a decent hardware upgrade for a PC. That is a lot to ask for in exchange for virtual rock god/tennis racket strummer. However, if Guitar Hero is any example to go by, devoted fans will not be deterred by the sky high price tag.

Some gimmicks can be good fun, but I really do disagree with having them just for the sake of it. The Guitar Hero games work because you have a toy guitar to play along with, giving your right hand a change of exercise routine for once. A table tennis paddle that you can put on the end of a Wii remote however makes you look silly and increases the life expectancy of your virginity as well.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

A question of taste

Do you ever step back from something that you have said and realise 'wow, I am truly a terrible person'? I do things like this quite a bit. For example, when Steve Irwin died, me and my friends were in the pub hours after the tragedy occurred and were already making jokes about stingrays and the mad Australian bloke. It makes me think though, there are quite a few elements of bad taste around in the gaming world as well.

I shall go straight for the jugular this time. Without a doubt, the most tasteless experience I have ever played through was Postal 2. Any game where you can set people and animals a like on fire and then urinate on their corpse to douse the flames has to be the sickest thing imaginable. Sick and incredibly funny. Everything in it is so very wrong, but it just feels so fun to be an unpleasant b****** for no reason whatsoever. It's a similar concept to having sex in church, you know it is wrong on every level, but it feels so good. The third offering of the game offers an amazing looking new weapon for causing random violent acts of devastation, an angry tame badger thing.

Now that the very obvious is out of the way, I can focus on the ever so slightly more subtle acts of tastelessness in games. Throughout the last decade or so of gaming, there has been a sort of 'flavour of the month' approach to exactly who the player is supposed to slaughter in games. The first fad kicked off with the Medal of Honour series, where it seemed that every other first person shooter put you in World War II fighting Nazis of some description. It was a fun idea to start with, but when one company releases a Nazi killing rampage game, and runs with the ball of success, other producers tend to try and tackle the ball off them. They do not always do this by coming up with something new, exciting and original, but rather they rip the idea off and make a mediocre job of it.

The current bad guy fighting fad seems to be against the middle east. Recent offerings such as Army of Two and Call of Duty 4 had the player murdering quite a few people from Iraq and generic middle eastern country of no name (so Iraq again). The thing that irritates me a bit though is that it is assumed that these countries are full of nutters who decide the best thing to do is strap explosives to their chest and charge head on at you as if your bullets were made of sweets. I know that every month we hear news stories about suicide bombers in these countries injuring dozens, but this does not make it okay to put them behind every corner possible in a virtual world. they are not that fun to fight and appear to be a bit of a joke enemy that can be used to injure other enemies around them. The interesting thing about these 'running bombs' is that they only ever seem to appear in the levels of games that are based in the middle east, which if you ask me is quite serious borderline racism.

I shall end this blog about bad taste with a game series that has been brought up relatively recently in my blogs, but deserves another mention, purely for the gory thought and detail that goes into each title. Mortal Kombat and all of its incarnations. The series has always prided itself on gory finishers, but the fact that each one is so violently gory and detailed, leads me to question the developer's collective sanity. What sort of person wakes up in the morning and thinks:

"You know what would be good? If that guy rips off the other dudes head, and pulls out the spinal column with it to hold up as a trophy. Yeah, that would be neat."

As terrible as the scenes are though, they are awfully funny to watch. When you think about it, the dreadful stereotyping that all middle eastern countries have an unlimited supply of fanatic suicide bombers is so bad, it's laughable. Even mauling someone to death with a pet badger and urinating on their juicy bits of corpse is so disgusting, you can't help but laugh. The grim things that video games portray have to be taken lightly. After all, things like Call of Duty 4 and Medal of Honour: Allied Assault are not meant to be anything like documentaries. It is all there for the sake of fun, which is important to remember about any game, even if it makes you feel rather repulsed.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Are games getting shorter?

I remember how long it took for me to finish the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of time. It took me ages (damn that water temple). When I finally reached the end of this mountain trek of a game, it felt good. It seemed like such a long time since I started it, I could go back to the beginning and it would feel fresh again. In this day and age though, are there really any epically long games which take ages to get through. I don't mean complete them 100%, because whilst this may create replay value for some, playing the game on a difficulty setting that loads your enemies up with x-ray specs, hand held howitsers and more armour than a tank just to get a minutely better score just doesn't seem as fun.

Maybe I've just gotten better at games over the years, but they generally do not seem to last as long as they used to. Metal Gear Solid 2 was the first game that I well and truly blitzed through when I was expecting it to be a truly epic experience like the Playstation classic was. Admittedly I was sat in front of my television like the tinned beans in my apocalyptic bomb shelter, for quite a long time, but I still think it should have taken longer than a weekend to finish. Tearing through a game like a train through an unfortunate damsel's tethered down torso is not what should be happening these days, but I keep finding it to be this case more and more.

Army of Two was an incredible experience. It really was a fun and unique system where you could attract enemy gun fire whilst you partner snuck round behind the bad men ready to sodomise them with bullets. It was so fun in fact that me and my brother completed it in one sitting. Why did they make something so awesome so short? Surely once the amazing mechanics for a game in place, drawing up more unique and fun levels should not be too difficult, especially because there were only six to begin with.

Shorter games might be a good thing, because it means that the good ideas stop before they get old, meaning that sequels could be welcomed in with big open arms from gamers wanting their desperate fix. This was how Portal left us, and most of us have accepted that it was only meant as a taster for what is to come. The sinful part is that a lot of games seem to run through to a definite conclusion only a few hours in to play.

Gone seem to be the days like those of Final Fantasy VII, where wondering around aimlessly was time consuming but oh so rewarding. Side quests in games these days are few and far between and mostly seem to be an after thought. The latest Zelda outing has offered a lot in terms of gameplay, probably about four or five times more than most other games out there, but even this seems short when compared to the Nintendo 64 classic. The side quests I loved from Ocarina of Time seemed very lacking in Twilight Princess, which meant that I could not play extra hard to earn a new, difficult to get, yet very super sword like it was possible in previous games. It is almost as if such things have been dumbed down for the casual player.

It might be just me, but I know that I am not the amazing god of completing games that I usually picture myself as. The challenges in games lately just don't seem as challenging anymore, meaning that the game ends too soon.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Always look on the bright side of death

Death in video games often serves as an annoyance rather than the crippling hindrance it is in reality. The reason it is there is to present a challenge to the player, making it so that he can not just breeze through sections of a game without a care. The manor in which the player has died has seen a lot of change over the years of gaming, and these days, they can be rather entertaining.

Death has been delivered in several million ways over the course of gaming history. Yellow discs eating dots have been devoured by colourful ghosts, fat Italian men have been crushed under cackling concrete blocks and generic American soldier A has shot unfortunate Nazi B into little pieces too many times to count. All I know is, if there is even a shade of truth in the film Tron, I am a terrible, terrible person. Death in a variety of sorts feature in the vast majority of popular games around. They have been getting more and more graphic as the years go by, so much so that they can very often reduce players to fits of laughter, taking a screenshot of the mangled corpse and sending it to their other slightly more disturbed pals.

The introduction of ragdoll physics has had quite an impact on comical corpse positioning. On the rare occasion that I kill two people who are standing close to each other in Counterstrike: Source, I am almost ashamed to admit it that I have stopped and giggled to myself,

"Haha, it looks like they're doing it."

I am obviously not alone in this notion though, because a lot of people use the game Garry's Mod to position people in many lewd and sexual positions, so at least I know there are people out there with very slightly more twisted minds than myself. Apart from the suggestive positioning of ragdolls, it can also be great fun to see them flying for miles when being hit by a blast, or watching the slumped body jiggle as you mercilessly pump excess bullets into it. The potential black humour in computer game deaths is brilliant.

Crash Bandicoot 2 was a fantastic example of comic deaths. When Crash died, it was not just a simple 'keel over and die' animation. He would sprout wings and ascend slowly whilst looking ticked off, feel the wrath of a plant's digestive system or crumble into dust after rubbing the wrong end of a TNT crate. The animations changed depending on the situation which was a fantastic addition to the game, causing my sadistic side to tempt Crash to his doom, just to see how he would depart from the world.

Another game that had rather comical deaths in was Shadow of Rome on the Playstation 2. The game itself switched between amazing gladiatorial battles and mandatory stealth sections which were as close to Metal Gear Solid as I am to driving a Bugatti Veyron. The arena battles were fantastic though because after a while, you would see the damage you did to your opponent. They would look fatigued and drowsy, a bit scratched maybe, waiting for you to go in and finish them off. They could also be walking around minus an arm, or with broken limbs (that would sway from side to side as they walked) making them useless and begging to be put out of their misery. The killings though were anything but merciful. Decapitating a foe would be described as a 'meat fountain', whilst separating his torso from legs was a 'red volcano'.

I could not possibly write a blog about comedic deaths without mentioning the Mortal Kombat series. At the end of a fight, once your opponent is on the brink of death, you could execute a finishing move which would often result in a very bloody affair, leaving you're opponent truly lifeless. This final attack can involve, but is not limited to severing limbs, explosive kisses, torso tearing, head splitting, spine separating, ice freezing, bone smashing gory detail. As well as humiliating your opponent, it is also a hilarious spectacle to watch pixelated people dying in ways only Hitler and Stalin's evil love child could think of.

I will finish with a feature that is in most over the top first person shooters, which is a very sure fire way of knowing that your opponent is dead. 'Insta gibbing' is the lovely term given to a death caused by some form of powerful weapon, that turns all of your flesh, bones, organs and bodily fluids into steak sized hunks of meat which fly out in every direction at high speed. Common weapons in games that yield this effect are rocket launchers, rail guns, grenades and generally hard to get hold of weaponry. To be honest, a crumpling ragdoll would be a disappointing result from a rocket in the chest, and so developers thought that the exact opposite was necessary. They were right. Seeing your once very dangerous opposition explode into a shower of blood, guts and meat is very satisfying, and empowering. It's one thing to put a whole through someone, its an entirely different level to make them explode outward from that hole (honestly, I'm not a serial killer).