Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dead Space 2.

Bare with me with this, 'cause I haven't written an actual review of much of anything in ages.

In 2008, Electronic Arts released a game called Dead Space. Developed by Visceral Games, Dead Space was a horror game in the same vein as the Resident Evil series with a high emphasis on jump scare tactics, dread inducing confrontations, and very little in terms of provisions and what not. The sub-genre is called "survival horror," a label that Capcom created for it's Resident Evil and Dino Crisis games. At around the same time, I had just about given up the hopes that anyone would make a truly great horror game any time soon. Something that would instill a sense of immediate dread and not just rely on the jump scare routine that has populated Hollywood horror films since its inception. But Dead Space was different. The first lure that got my attention with the game was that Warren Ellis had worked on the story aspects of the game, followed by Antony Johnston. Two comic book writers whose work I am familiar with and fond of.

Playing Dead Space came with a new sort of precedent in interactive horror that I hadn't experienced before in a game. Dread was always there, always present. Even with the somewhat predictable jump scares they used, they never really prepared me for what was coming next, or, even worse, what COULD come next. The end result was the best horror related experience in video games that I had participated in.

Dead Space 2 is a different creature altogether. I relate the two games to Ridley Scott's Alien and James Cameron's Aliens. Dead Space was the introduction. It was often a slow burn sort of horror to establish the world it takes place in and the characters that populate it, including the character you play as, Isaac Clarke. You don't know what's going on, and a lot of the focus of the narrative is spent on figuring out what's going on. By the time the sequel comes around, you already know what's going on, and it becomes a different sort of narrative. Dead Space 2, like Aliens, is about closure, but from a different perspective. Where Sigourney Weaver's character is slowly coerced into going back to LV-426, Isaac is just dropped into the mess (so to speak). One of the main differences between Dead Space and its sequel is that Isaac now has a voice. He can speak his own mind, and his reactions to what's going on are now something he possesses. In the original game, by not giving him a voice, they're essentially giving you that voice. Isaac's reactions are your reactions. In Dead Space 2, Isaac becomes his own character, and he's someone you don't mind following around and pushing through the meat and viscera of the problem. The other main difference is that in Dead Space, because it's an introductory sort of chapter, you do wonder what happened to the Ishimura, and you put into narrative induced situations that revolve around the answering of those questions. In the sequel, the answers are already there from the get go -- for the most part, there are new questions to be asked, however -- and instead you're provided with a new narrative aspect on the game, which is to get out alive, to survive, and reach that ultimate climax for Isaac and find closure.

Fear plays a pretty decent role in horror, but it isn't the end all, nor begin all aspect of it. Fear is also an entirely subjective thing. That's why I, as a 34 year old guy, am terrified of spiders while other men my age may or may not have a problem with them whatsoever. The intention of Dead Space 2, at times, may be to scare you indeed. A lot of what makes Dead Space 2 (and the first one for that matter) has little to do with fear. The guys and gals at Visceral Games have attempted to instill the sense of dread in you from the get go. They never want you to be able to play the game casually, to shrug off what's going on, or to not let if effect you. They're trying to emulate what all good horror does and should do: disturb you, set you off balance, emit emotions that are often best left in that dark space in your brain that you really don't want to think about. Throughout the first game, I was never calm. Dread was always present 'cause I never knew what was going to happen next, what I was going bare witness to next, or what sort of monstrosity was just waiting around the corner to do very, very nasty things to me. That's where the gore comes in. I've never been too big of an admirer of gore-less horror fiction. I don't like the philosophy of leaving it to the imagination of readers/viewers because that nulls the point of even trying to write, paint, or film horror to begin with. As a reader of horror fiction, I want the author to use his imagination to try to disturb me, not for you to try to get me to use my imagination. That's why I write horror myself. Nevertheless, the gore in Dead Space is there for a reason. Gore isn't a natural thing to behold in the landscape of the human condition. It's there, but not for the majority of the populace. Not everyone works in an abbatoir or as a forensic pathologist. It's stuff we do not see, and the mere idea of seeing what's inside us -- or another living creature for that matter -- is a repulsive, revolting act. In horror, it's often there to unsettle you, and weaken your immunity so that the presenter of the fiction has easier access to the psychological aspects of the horror. Dead Space is rife with it, as is the sequel. The sequel out does the original in terms of gore, and it has that aspect to it. There is a lot of psychological stuff going on in the game (from red herrings, to being hunted by men and monster alike, to the main character literally going insane), and the gore is there to keep you vulnerable to it. It's never the same kind of gore, either, in terms of the presentation of the fiction. In the action sequences (when the monsters are attacking you and whatnot) it's always the same, but in the cinematic, plot-driven sequences of the game, it's really threatening to your psychological make up in terms of how you consume fiction. There is a lot of stuff in Dead Space 2 that is truly unsettling, even to my experienced eyes. The plot elements present in Dead Space 2 are much more frantic and quick paced, while not lessening the horror elements from the first one at all. It's very, very, very much like the transition from Alien to Aliens, but not losing anything in between. Alien was pure horror, while Aliens was more sci-fi action with horror elements. Dead Space 2 is pure horror with some sci-fi action elements here and there that create a much more pulse-pounding pace. Another really key storytelling aspect of Dead Space 2 that was established in the original is paranoia -- which goes hand in hand with the dementia that plagues Isaac. You don't know who to trust, especially because of the original, and in this one it's taken a step further so you don't even know if you can trust Isaac. Especially towards the game's conclusion.

Another aspect of the story element of Dead Space 2 that really gave me a unique feeling was how seamless the plot unravels. In the original -- and with most other games -- there is a bridge between one level and the next. In Dead Space, the bridge was riding the tram from one location to the next, and while you're riding the tram the game goes to a loading screen. Other games use this same method as well. Dead Space 2 did away with it, and I, personally, felt that it was quite an innovative way to present a game that is heavy on storytelling. There aren't any loading screens in Dead Space 2, there aren't any moments where you ride a vehicle from point a to point b and don't get to enjoy the ride because the game is loading the data. There aren't any smoke breaks for Isaac while the game installs the next level (sorry, Snake, but I gotta poke fun at the smoke breaks). It was one of the reasons I finished the entire game in one sitting because not having those chapter breaks between levels and whatnot worked towards immersing you in the fiction better. I think that the guys and gals at Visceral Games took cues and notes from the folks at Naughty Dog and what they've done with Uncharted, to present you with a storytelling method that's not only immersive, but seamless.

Unlike a lot of gamers, or anyone who writes a review of video games, I don't rate or rank the graphics or visual presentation in any sort of normal way. I genuinely gave up caring about graphics as a focal point of gaming towards the end of the last generation of consoles (the PlayStation 2, GameCube and Xbox). I base my appreciation, or disgust, with the visual aspects of gaming depending on how it serves the game's story. So, with that in mind, Dead Space 2's graphics are very, very impressive. Just like the original, Dead Space 2 manages to create tension, dread, and anxiety through atmosphere alone. Be it in darkened cafeterias, dimly lit corridors, brutally ransacked shopping areas, and even a brightly lit school-like district. The game takes place on the Sprawl, a massive space station near Saturn, which differentiates it from the previous game in a very distinct fashion. These were normal people that got all mutilated here, not engineers and the rest of the crew of the Ishimura. It was actually that section of the space station that disturbed me the most: the School district location. It was very brightly light, with lots of color... and lots of children monsters. There was a level of creepiness there that I hadn't seen in a long time in any sort of horror, but there was some levity there, too. The visuals in Dead Space 2 fit the fiction they're trying to tell almost perfectly. The in game menus are all holograms and fit nicely into the world they've created, the technology seems well thought out and has practical uses for everything you see (from plastic cups, to the more high tech gadgetry) and everything is animated very well. It doesn't hurt at all that Visceral dedicated a lot of effort in providing as much detail as possible. At lot of the environments reminded me of putting stickers on G.I. Joe vehicles when I was younger. There's a lot of detail to the point where you see warning stickers everywhere and they're clear and readable. The sound is also on par with the fiction they're telling. There's lots of creepiness provided through sound alone, whether it be through the music, the noises the monster's make, creepy children's songs, insane gibberish being spoken by one character or another. There are times when the sound drops out completely, which only fuels the dread. In the zero gravity sections of the game -- much like the first game -- they really hammered home the tag line from Ridley Scott's Alien to a very believable and frightening reality. In space, no one can hear you scream, indeed.

The meat of the game, as with all games, is the gameplay. Through my three play-throughs of Dead Space 2, I couldn't find a single flaw in the game play whatsoever. It's tight and fluid, just like the original. I think they may or may not have switched up a few button pushes here and there, but for the most part it plays identical to the first game, which is the way sequels to games should play. If you go into the sequel of a game and it plays drastically different than the original, then you're playing against the learning curve and it can take you out and away from the experience. I don't know if I had an unfair advantage in Dead Space 2 or not. I played the original a lot, and when I picked up Dead Space 2, there was no learning curve to be learned for me. I knew what did what, and I knew how to move fluidly throughout the environment. Of course, there were still plenty of moments when I was overwhelmed by the game and was reduced to a panicking little feather of a man just trying to get out of the chaos. But that's a perfectly acceptable in a game where horror is the main theme.

The replay value, something that is also a very important part of gaming, of this game is tremendous to me. I gotta stress that part of it. To me. The Dead Space games put me in an environment I'm quite comfortable with due to my love and adoration of horror, and replaying them never lessens the quality of the fiction they're giving me. It's to the experience I have when I re-read Clive Barker's the Books of Blood or re-watch many, many different horror films. I enjoy it thoroughly. And the dread, I'm happy to say, is always present -- even if I'm going through with all weapons maxed out and I can dispatch enemies with the greatest of ease. The atmosphere they've created is one I enjoy to experience again again. That said, however, unless you have the same particular fascinations that I do with horror, I'm not so sure one would find the pleasure in subjecting themselves to the atrocities that are present in the game on more than one occasion.

Dead Space 2, like the game before it, isn't just a good, quality made game. It's a good, quality made horror experience rife with shocking, jaw-dropping, and uncomfortable experiences. This kind of horror works its way into your bones, settles in your nerves, and shakes the very core of your humanity.

Just like all good horror should.

...fuckin' needles...

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2010 in Games.

2010 was a crazy year for games. Lots of shit going on all over the place, and as a gamer I've decided to give quick reviews and whathaveyou for what I bought and played in 2010. Leaving out the stuff I have from previous years and whatnot.

I rented some games in January, for the first time in over a decade, but I won't really be covering them. They were Bayonetta, Darksiders, and MiniNinja. All three were fun, but not something I could see myself committing to spend sixty bucks on.

My 2010 year in gaming began in February when BioShock 2, Dante's Inferno, Aliens vs. Predator and Heavy Rain were released.

BioShock 2

The BioShock series, along with the Resistance series, is what got me to give first person shooter games another try after not really caring about them for a very long time. BioShock isn't like a Call of Duty or a HALO, or any of the psuedo-military shooters out there, as the narrative plays a huge role and it falls more into the dark fantasy genre than a war-like or military genre. BioShock 2 isn't really a sequel, as you don't continue on as the same character from the previous game and instead play as another individual set in the same world. I think the stories were connected, but I don't really remember how. It takes place eight years after the first game, and you play as Subject Delta, a prototype Big Daddy that apparently was forced to commit suicide and is resurrected. The game was quite fun and the overall narrative is very pleasing in the end, and very twisted which is always a plus for me. One of the downsides to BioShock 2 is the graphics. It's running on the same engine as the previous installment, but for some reason or another, it looks a lot worse. A lot of muddy textures and detail pop up happened a lot. There were also some very hilarious issues with the physics engine that involved a man doing an endo on the back of his head after I killed him (located on the right) and some humorous twitcher glitches, which you can see in the video below.

Despite these humorous glitches and some minor graphical issues, the game still played really well and the narrative held me through from beginning to end. Which is all I really ask of games anymore, and it's becoming harder and harder for the more "elite" games to do that, and I'm finding it easier to enjoy games that used to be known for being relatively shitty.

Dante's Inferno

I don't have any neat pictures or videos about Dante's Inferno, but I did like the game. It was crazy, hellish and offered some really interesting moments. One of which was the first giant cock of video game, or at least it was the first time I had seen a giant cock in a video game. Lucifer's pecker hung to his knees, I shit you not. It was just there, flopping about while you're trying to kill the bastard fallen angel. Anyway, the game was designed around the same make up of God of War, and told the story of a Crusader/Templar Knight that broke his vows to his wife while on the Crusade, thus throwing her into Hell. Literally, Lucifer comes for her. Then you follow the path created by Dante Alighieri's Devine Comedy. It's a very interesting visual interpretation of the Christian mythological destination known as Hell and is full of all sorts of nasty demons and Cleopatra, who, like Lucifer, is also showing off her gigantic assets.

I do have to admit, at first, the idea of making an action adventure game based on Dante's Inferno was an odd one. The poem doesn't really translate to the video game medium all that well, but through the minor changes they made (making the main character a templar for instance) made the game work for me. A funny side note to it is: I let a friend borrow the game after I finished it, and he got freaked out by it to the point that he couldn't finish it.

Some of the best aspects of the game, or one of them at least, was taking the metaphor of "beating death" and turning it into a virtual reality. You actually do beat death after being killed in an elaborate boss battle. You kill him with his own Scythe after taking it as your own weapon.

Aliens vs. Predator

I wanted to really like this game. I did. But it kinda failed as an experience that could have been so much better than what it was. Why it raised all the controversy that it did is beyond me. The violence wasn't that over the top and was in perfect harmony with what had been established in both series of films. You can play as either a Space Marine (from Aliens) one of the xenomorphs (from the Alien franchise) or a Predator (from the Predator franchise, duh) but the end result is a lackluster video game that fails to capture the essence of either film franchise, but melds perfectly into the mehness of the two Aliens vs. Predator films. There's no tension, there's no buildup, and it's just a bit of a messy FPS game. Which is really, really sad. Though, I did play the crap out of it and had fun.

Heavy Rain

Hyper-analytical hat is going on. I wanted to like this game. I really did. I love horror -- yes, I consider this game to be horror, regardless of its lack of anything remotely supernatural -- but this game failed to reel me in from the get go. Which is a damned shame, because the originality of it, the presentation of it, and the design that went into it is all unique and pretty much awesome. But, I'm a consumer of fiction, and fiction takes precedence over everything when there's a narrative to be followed, or dragged through, or to be bored to death by.

Psychological thrillers, as critics and film studios call them, are a fun little sub-genre of horror that I really do enjoy. I'm something of a fan of Thomas Harris' Hannibal novels, and I love movies like Se7en, Zodiac (not minding the David Fincher connection there for a moment) and several others that are escaping my brain right now. So when it comes to this type of fiction, I'm going to hold it up against the things that impressed me the most, and not just compare it to other video games out there.

The writing was dull and uninteresting from the get go. You play as a wide range of characters (from what I understand) but you start out as a boring as fuck drawer of buildings and such, and you meddle around doing random uninteresting things that you do in daily life. You know, showering, doing some work, making some coffee, wandering around aimlessly in the back yard, all before the big tragic event happens. And said big tragic event in my eyes was nothing more than a cheap pop. First, you're presented with uninteresting character to play as that you have no emotional connection to whatsoever, and the game doesn't do much in terms of character building to devote an attachment to that character, then his child gets hit by a car. It's a cheap pop, which is a wrestling term if you hadn't realized so far. A cheap pop is something you do that will get an instant reaction out of an audience. Wrestlers do it by talking about the city they're performing in, or the local city's sports team that just won or lost. It gets an instant reaction out of people. As does anything tragic happening to a child in the first few frames of a movie. People, especially in this country, have abnormal attachments to children, and by doing something godawful to a child in any entertainment medium, you're going to get instant empathy from certain audiences. But, for me, it just doesn't work. I'm a writer, and I knew what they were doing when it happened, and I just groaned and rolled my eyes.

The game continues doing every day tasks, changing diapers, taking your kid to school, and all this stuff, until it gets to the main plot about a guy that's kidnapping children and murdering them. Which is kinda interesting, but it's not the kind of serial murderer fiction I care to ingest because it's associated to the cheap pop. Then there's the fantastical science fiction aspects of it that are the same reason I can't enjoy television shows like CSI and the like. The other aspects of the game try to adopt the prime time drama atmosphere and the psychological thriller atmosphere by presenting to us a real world looking environment. Until this detective/investigator guy shows up and he has a futuristic, I Am Robot (the Will Smith filmed version) detective gear that breaks the already established real world environments the game has delivered thus far. You even get to create a VR bouncy ball to help you wait in the police station.

Aside from a fictional standpoint, the game was pretty cool. Visually, it was beautifully designed (well, the character animations were a bit stiff, but other than that), and the gameplay was intricate and quite innovative. But, I'm not the kind of person that's going to give all sorts of accolades based on innovation and prettiness. I'm always much more focussed on the fiction I'm being told, and this one didn't sell me a good story. The voice actors were unconvincing, the dialog was pretty shoddy, and the overall plot was more akin to a Hallmark film than a serious psychological thriller piece. It really does play out like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books I read in gradeschool, and the dialog shows it. You're given a lot of options in terms of what the character says, all of it has recorded audio, but in doing that they broke the natural ebb and flow of human conversation.

And then this happened:

I was attempting to make the character walk up a flight of stairs to the second floor of a hotel. She absolutely refused, turned around and began walking up an invisible flight of stairs into the sky. She never stopped, just kept going. That's about when I gave up trying to find something to keep me interested in the game.

Final Fantasy XIII

I don't have a lot to say about this game, 'cause I haven't finished it yet and I have to start over. My PS3 gave up mid-year, and I had to replace it. In doing so, the firmware update said THIS IS NOT THE HARDDRIVE I'M LOOKING FOR and I had to reformat it, losing everything. What I can say about it is that I liked it. Final Fantasy has gone from the old JRR Tolkein inspired RPGs that still populate the land, to a more Star Wars influenced Space Fantasy world while covering everything in between. FFVI and FFVII were more steampunkish than Middle-Earth based, and I quite enjoy that. I discovered later that I hadn't even made it out of the so-called twenty-hour tutorial for the game yet, and that kinda took the air out of my sails in starting over. I'll get to it, but not any time soon, I don't think.

God of War III

What can I say? Some people have hobbits, I have a god killing spartan. The God of War series met its ultimate conclusion this year with the spectacular God of War III. A game that really made me question the necessity of badly written, overly CGI ridden Hollywood films every step of the way. For instance, go rent and watch the remake or the original of Clash of the Titans (the original actually inspired the God of War development team, as can be seen with the inclusion of a kraken in God of War II, a mythological monster that doesn't exist in Greek mythology) then sit down and play God of War III. I loved every minute of the game, including the end -- which apparently left a lot of other gamers and critics feeling a little flat. The entire presentation of the game felt very polished, even the opening credits sequence that also recapped the first two games in the series, and did so artfully.

To catch up, God of War is about a Spartan warrior that became a commander of an army at a very early age. He finds himself in a battle he's inevitably going to lose, and essentially, sells his soul to a devil. That devil just happens to be Ares, the God of War, who then uses Kratos to his own means. He eventually leads Kratos to do something that should not be done (he slaughters his own wife and daughter) and vows revenge on the God of War, but not before fulfilling the duties of the other gods for ten years. Ares attacks Athens, which angers Athena, and she helps Kratos (along with several others from the Pantheon) to retrieve Pandora's Box and eventually slay the God of War. Athena and the other gods then make Kratos the new God of War, but that doesn't last long, 'cause then he starts doing the same thing that Ares did. The gods take away his powers and try to kill him, but Gaia (who, for the sake of the game's narrative, has been rendered a titan) revives him once again and sets him on a path to get revenge on the gods. A tale of revenge that culminates in God of War III, where Kratos eventually destroys all of them.

The game is really a sword and sorcery piece in the vein of Robert E. Howard's Conan set in the insane world of Greek mythology, and it plays out quite beautifully, and in perfect tone with a lot of the tales from Greek mythology. Except the gods get theirs in the end.

The image to the right is one of those funny glitches you don't expect to happen, but happens anyway. Like in the Grand Theft Auto games from the previous generation, the ground disappeared beneath Kratos' feet. I had a good laugh at it, so I took a picture. be continued tomorrow...