Friday, December 31, 2010

Gaming is better than watching TV

Happy new year everyone! Boy, did I spread the love and glory last week with Christmas. I usually write a post for this blog and tell the server to publish it on friday at midnight. Last week that particularly midnight just happened to be Christmas eve and that particularly post just happened to be my first negative review. Not a nice coincidence. Now this week I'll also do something a little different. This week will not be a review, but more of a scientific/philosophical post. It's scientific for quoting researches and philosophical for not quoting enough researches ;).

Games have received a lot of negative attention since they came into existence. They would be addicting and have a lot of violence, therefore making the gamer neglect his/her social duties and instead injuring and killing anyone who comes near. I am not going to deny that games are addictive and violent, because they are. Those who didn't see the movie about the Skinner box from Extra Credits on Escapist Magazine should do so, it's a great explanation about the addictiveness of games. Violence should be self evident, but I am linking to a movie from Call of duty: Black Ops anyway. The fun thing about this movie is that without shooting a gun you'll partake in violence anyway.

Now what other medium is addictive and violent? Right! TV! And without beating around the bush I'll just go ahead and claim that playing games is better for you and your children than watching TV. First of all gaming is active, the player is always responsible for his/her actions. This way you or your kids learn to solve problems. Television is passive, everything that you or your kids learn is dependent on the characters in the story or reality show. This is a fundamental difference I will exploit here.

Now if all goes well, you are a good parent and you will give your kids all the attention they'll need, right? I don't have kids of myself yet, so I might not be in a position to argue, but I will do so anyway. You will most likely leave your kids at the TV at some point, because you want some quiet time for yourself. Even worse: a lot of parents park their kids at the TV and let it raise their kids.
At this point things start going wrong. Your kids are left to people who are not primarily interested in their upbringing, but in making a quick buck out of entertaining them. There are some fail-safes in the system, your children will not be exposed to extreme violence, drugs or sex. They will not always work, like this example of the deaths in the original Transformers movie, but that is a different thing. Somewhere along the line s/he will be taught that "violence is bad" and everything is alright, so extreme violence is not the worst thing that can be seen by a kid.

Jafar from Disney's Aladin. Not a badly
written villain, but I liked his picture :)
The problem is that with making a quick buck in entertainment comes bad writing and with bad writing comes weird character reactions. The problems with those are way harder to identify and rectify. If a writer doesn't think of the motivation of the characters in a story, the characters are doing things just for the sake of the plot. This results in weird behaviour which includes:
- declaring to be friends, while nothing really happened. Creating artificial companions.
- love at first sight, while nothing else between the two involved will be happening. Creating a non-reason to risk one's life.
- keeping secrets from parents, while the parents are completely trustworthy. This results in stories like "I have creatures in my room, hilarity ensues".
- randomly denying things from people, creating a new story arc of how to get it. This is usually left for the villains.
If you'd like more of this pointed out, go watch the nostalgia critic at thatguywiththeglasses or just his review of little monsters which has most of this bad writing.

How about explicitly bad
writing? No? Hmm...
Now imagine your kid seeing this. What will this teach him/her? Plot holes as described above are not a good influence on the behaviour if you'd ask me. Bad writing damages our kids! I don't know if this has been questioned yet by science. If not, it probably won't, since it is very difficult to find people who didn't watch TV when they were young. Even if it is proven by science, just try making a parental advisory sticker saying "badly written content".

But even if the TV programmes are well written throughout, you can't help the fact that when one show is finished, another show will immediately follow to keep you or your kid watching the channel. Eventually there will come along something I'd like to call a brain melt moment, a moment that just breaks the way you are thinking. This can vary from the extremely confusing Transformers movie from 1986, where all the heroes are killed off while happy music is still playing, to the movie of a melting chocolate bunny like this link.

To take the bunny as an example, it is legit to show it to your kids. It has no violence, it is educational explaining the three ways of heat transportation and it is varied by adding a little drama. Yet, you force the kids to watch a character die three horrible deaths while the music expresses its desperate struggle.
Karbonkel as seen in the first
part of the series

Karbonkel's less known
second appearance
This might sound weird, but something as twisted as 'horrible education' has already happened. In the Netherlands, a reading method was employed from 1994 to 2002 called "Ik Mik Loreland" (sorry for the Dutch link). The method was accompanied with a TV series to be watched on schools where the protagonist 'Mik' was sent to Loreland to get letters for the antagonist monster 'Karbonkel' who had the habit of appearing out of nowhere. The creators thought it was a good idea to make Karbonkel a parody on the murderer called Bob from Twin peaks. Needless to say none of the kids understood the parody which resulted in stories of kids who were excused from class, because Karbonkel was too scary. They later changed his appearance, but the damage was done.

Now let's relate the downsides of movies and TV shows to games. Have you ever seen how much fun kids have with badly designed or broken toys? They will try to play with it anyway and if it doesn't succeed, they get help or go find it. The same goes for games. Badly written characters aren't the main focus, the focus lies on the problems presented in the game. If the problem is badly written, when it is too hard they will try to get help. Moreover, games are more consistent and when it ends there will not be another game immediately viewed after it. If you give a game to a kid, you will know s/he will keep viewing the same material. If the game tries a brain-melt, it will not last very long.

For what it's worth to randomly throw a good fact in, your kids have less nightmares if they play games.

There are a bunch of ifs here, because you always have the 'too much' factor. Too much gaming will be just as bad as too much TV and addiction might be lingering more with games than with TV. I also want to stress that I don't want to imply you should let your kids watch no TV at all. What I want to show is that we might want to re-evaluate the way we think about the damaging aspects of both the mediums. We also might want to re-evaluate the rating of media, because I remember seeing a lot of violence in Transformers and the A-team and feeling fine, while I do remember some brain-melts on an art-channel that gave me nightmares for weeks.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Fear and loathing in San Andreas (or Liberty City for that matter)

After maintaining this blog for over a month with only positive messages, I think it's time to break the trend. Sure, I want this blog to be a place of relaxation and recommendation, but let's be honest, would reviewers like the nostalgia critic and zero punctuation be believed if they only wrote positive reviews? Probably not. So, without further ado in all caps: I HATE GTA!
I give you 3 guesses to which
game this logo belongs ;)

That said I don't think this will improve my popularity. Grand Theft Auto, or GTA for short, was started as a series in 1997 and, as you all know, was hailed for having a wide open world where you as a player could wreak havoc by stealing cars, racing around town, killing people and occasionally do some criminal missions. That is where the problem starts.

Don't get me wrong, I had a lot of fun playing the first GTA. It was colourful, it was fast and wreaking havoc with a tank never gets old. The missions were not that great, though. It mostly was along the lines of "go there, pick something up, kill something, done". "Go there" was easy. You'd steal a car and hit the gas. There were enough cars anyway. "Pick something up" was lame and just meant to advance some mission plot to go somewhere. "Kill something" was rubbish, since the weapons you got were mostly a pistol or rifle which were needlessly hard to aim. Usually I'd scare a guy with a gun and then run him over with a car. Needless to say, I didn't do the missions and used cheat-codes just to wreak havoc on the other two cities.

Then things went wrong. In development you should look to bad things in your last product and improve them in the next. Apparently colourfulness and fast cars are bad things, so GTA2 was dark and slow while the weapons were still hard to aim and the missions were still as dull. Man, did I not enjoy that one. There is occasional humour in those missions to give you a faint smile, but other than that there is no redeeming factor for anyone to play the missions.

Then came GTA3, or let's say GTA3D, since it was the first that was fully 3D rendered with a nice following camera that put you in the 'heat' of the 'action'. I wanted to give it a try when it came out. A friend of mine had it and showed there were even planes in it, yay!. Since 1 and 2 weren't that great on the game aspect, I was kind of hesitant. It took me eventually 9 years to finally buy it and fire it up first time last month. Before that I briefly tried San Andreas, but it has such a overly dramatic storyline that I was put off right after some kind of bicycle mission. Really, my mom died, so now I become a gangster? You need half an hour to tell me this in cutscenes? Taurus fecals!

So when I fired up GTA3, I initially liked it. The 3D gives nice immersion and there are no dramatic characters screaming down your ear. I played some like 15 missions before things went wrong. Let me tell my experiences in an ad hoc fashion:

Instead of having 3 cities as in the first part, you now have one city which is in lock down in 3 zones. Okay, I can live with that. The weapons still aim like your arm is in a bucket of dried out concrete. Pity. Then some guy from the 'Diablos' wanted me to kill some Chinese because they stole his car with his prized rare donkey collection. The racism! It burns so badly! Also do this with 1 given weapon in a limited amount of time when there are not enough Chinese around. NOT A GOOD GAME MECHANIC, PEOPLE! Let's try another mission. Hey, that guy has already given me a couple of missions and every time he is tinkering under his car... that's literally a flat personality. Right, let's do this bank job he gives me.

Then the unthinkable happened. I got a 4 seater car to get the bandits (they were very specific about the car). I pull over and honk to get them. A cut-scene follows and in this cut-scene one of the bandits walks into the nose of my car and dies. Mission failed. Urge to play more missions: non-existent. Cheats available to open the rest of town: nope.
Being foreign - is no reason - to grow your beard -
or misbehave - Burma Shave

That was the moment that I gave up on GTA. The idea of an open world where you can screw around is awesome. They were the first and they deserve the credit, but somehow the designers leave the bad stuff in and replace the good stuff with worse stuff. I don't want to play newer episodes, especially since the characters seem to be getting more angry and whiny every episode. Also: why are they sticking to the three cities they used in the very first GTA? It's always Liberty City, Vice City and San Andreas with GTA4 being Liberty City again. Those 3 cities were probably thought up in 5 minutes when they made the first and they are sticking to it for over 10 years! Has anyone there thought of something like novelty?

And now to kill all fanboy arguments: I understand that in real life you have to do not-fun work to get fun rewards. The argument goes that therefore I am not allowed to complain for not-fun missions, since they give me money and more places of the town with possibly airplanes. Let me counter this argument by telling you I play a game for fun and any reward system only increases the Skinner box factor. In short: the Skinner box factor makes you conditioned to play the game without it being fun making the player somesort of masochist. For more on the Skinner box in games, see this movie from 'Extra Credits' in Escapist magazine.

I refuse to play any more GTA. It is gray, it has controls that do not satisfy the game's target and the characters are stupid and generally discriminating. It is NOT fun and everyone that wants to make me or anyone else play more is either a torturer or in denial over wasted time. I was relieved to hear that the developers are making profit without GTA this year, which will probably mean they are trying to put effort in something else in the future. I doubt it, since their latest creation was Red dead redemption, a.k.a. GTA with horses.

I will not leave you, dear readers, without a recommendation this week. Recently I took up Saints Row 2, which I will probably write about pretty soon. I like to recommend it as "It's like GTA, but fun!". It is colourful, the controls are satisfying, the characters are awesome and the humour is quite witty. I enjoyed it and every time I completed a mission I thought to myself "This is what GTA should have been".

Friday, December 17, 2010

Raptor: Call of the shadows

The title screen, which will be better recognised
than the box art
'Raptor: call of the shadows' is a 2D side scroll shooter released by Apogee in 1994. The game featured you as a jetfighter flying mercenary against hordes and hordes of other planes, tanks and other weirdly shaped ground units that obviously don't want you flying around there.

I just recently bought Raptor: call of the shadows for PC from GOG, but I played this game way back when I was just a kid in elementary school. Apogee took a market model to distribute Raptor just as they did with Commander Keen and Duke Nukem, release the first episode for free and sell the other two to the user if he wants more. It's like most games nowadays with DLC, only you got the thing that made you buy more for free!

As is with every game I write about here, I didn't play it as the programmers intended. The programmers were very smart by putting a failsafe in the game that if you quit a level halfway through, you'd lose all your money earned in that level and your shield would be as damaged as it was when you hit escape. Marvelous! But the same went for your never-depleting weapons. Usually free weapons were given so far into the level that it didn't pay off to fly to it, pick it up and sell it again. There is just one level where you get a very expensive rocket pack at the beginning and then you suddenly have a 20 second loop that gives you endless money. (It's Bravo Sector wave 6, if you are interested) When I played it way back with a friend we took half an hour exploiting the loop, selling the rockets and then buying all but the most expensive weapons in the store. The dreaded pulse cannon was enough for us.

Now you can also cheat without the money loop. If you make sure you have an arsenal of a lot of rockets which have a high reload time you can also exploit what I like to call 'the switch glitch'. If you switch from one rocket to the other the reload time for that rocket is counted different from the other rockets. If you constantly switch rockets you can fire a rocket, loop through all other rockets whilst firing them and you are back at your initial rocket when its reload time is over. A sane person would look for a gamepad with turbo-function using auto-fire for the fire button and set the turbo to switching. Me and my friend, being kids with not enough money to even buy the full game, let one of us fly whilst the other shot and switched weapons.

Look, Maw! I'm fighting a building!
Note that even with exploiting these glitches, the game is still quite difficult. In the later levels the enemy acquires some kind of laser that can take a quarter of your shield out when hit and believe me, you won't see it coming. When I bought Raptor and GOG and played it I spent an two hours exploiting the money loop and buying the three most expensive weapons. The switch glitch isn't usefull with the new weapons I bought, because the reload time per weapon is so much shorter you'll eventually only slow the weapons down.

As was usual with these games, when you eventually do get through it it rewards you with the biggest reward possible: You may play it again! On a higher difficulty level! Here's the reaction of Mr Cricket:


Okay, that was not totally deserved. The fun in raptor is that when you set the difficulty level higher, you get to see never seen before enemies. I've only come as far as finishing medium (aka 'Rookie') difficulty, but the new enemies you get too see are already insane. My favourite is a ship that starts of big and then appears to have two massive jetfighter pods. You already have a 'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot!' feeling when it comes on screen, then it transforms to three ships whilst spamming you with loads of rockets. I can't get enough of seeing it and it's always a rewarding challenge to get revenge on that son of a heap of scrap metal.

So did Raptor age well? Yes. Even worse: I think it was (part of) the start of the style of modern games. This is where this post gets a sour note. Raptor is a great game, well balanced, still fun to play, but I don't like the art style. Granted: the enemies are awesome and the weapons you use to annihilate them with are even better, but it was also one of the first games to have that greyish feel in the graphics. At the time it was awesome, because this game took itself serious and was different from the rainbow colored gamesupply of that time. Being a breath of fresh air then, I blame it for having set the trend of the 'brown filter' we see in most games nowadays. The result was that after approximately 13 years of wondering how the other two episodes looked like, it was a let down to find out that it was just as grey as the one I'd played before. The level on the moon didn't even feel as exciting as I'd expect from that kind of level.

Don't let it get you down, though. The new enemies are still awesome, I was especially surprised by their new laser weapons. Though it might've sparked what I did not want, Raptor is one of those games you can play over and over without getting bored.

Friday, December 10, 2010

"Deus Ex" or "Sneak-em up with a rocket launcher"

This week I am reviewing a less obscure game, the all famous Deus-ex by Ion Storm from the year 2000. After mentioning it in my Motorhead review I thought it might have been nice to write about it before I referenced to it. Deus-ex was a cross-over between a sneak-em up and a shooter. The main selling point was that you can make your own choices and you could create your own play style by choosing to upgrade different skills which ranged from heavy weapons to lock-picking to swimming. You probably knew that and/or played it since it is bound to be called "best game of all time". If you haven't, give it a try, it's just $10 on steam. It may be a bit ugly and jittery, but it works even on Windows 7, which is more than you can say about its infamous sequal. And no, I will not say more about "that sequal".
It's blue! It's a poster! It's that one game!

The first time I played through Deus-Ex was four years ago. I didn't really know it existed, but I heard about it from a friend. I went for the most boring way of playing through: the average load out. My protagonist, JC Denton, could do a bit of shooting, a bit of sneaking and therefore sucked at everything. Although I got through eventually. I don't know how long I took my first time around, but it was long enough not to want to play again very eagerly, but the game was engaging enough to pick it up again a few months ago. This time things would be different. I got into a discussion with a friend of mine, which will be impersonated by Mr Cricket. It went something like this:

"Dude, you're playing the Deus-Ex theme on the piano."
"So you played it too, ey? What was your skill load-out?"
"Dude, you don't need swimming. I think you don't even need hacking, lockpicking, electronics or any sneaky skills. Weapons only should be enough."
"Oh, I will PROVE that you can do that! You just watch!"

So I had to plan a little. You can open doors in 3 ways: get a key/code, hack yourself in or occasionally blow it up if the door is penetrable. I have a short attention span, so had trouble with the first. I couldn't use the second, because that would be compromising the proof. Therefore I had to blow everything up with either grenades (called Light Attack Munition or LAM's) or rocket launchers (called GEP-guns, forgot what it stand for), so I had to choose between demolition (grenades) and heavy weapon (rocket launcher). I went for the rocket launcher, because it's big and awesome.

The game gives you the option to choose the rocket launcher at the very beginning, so the terrorists of the first level didn't really stand a chance. I saved a couple of rockets by collecting keys and codes, but it was way too much fun to blow up a door, then selecting your gun and wipe out the survivors in the room. It all goes well when you are on the government's side, but then comes the mission where you defact to the terrorists and you have to make a secret unauthorised transmission from a computer in a building you have been before.
Surely this would pass security, right?

I needed to find a username and password to a computer, but it was behind a lot of locked doors. Naturally I was hasitant, but when I was finally out of options, I pulled out the GEP gun between a lot of guards who were still on my side. I fired a rocket, blew up a door, walked through, picked up some stuff, went out and the guards didn't mind. I got my password, sent the transmission and became enemy of the state.

This strategy got its hilarious peak when I was infiltrating the office building in Hong Kong. JC Denton pretends to be a new employee and everybody claims to be watching him and saying that he shouldn't try anything funny. At a point I had to get a password from a locked cupboard in a full meeting room, so I pull out a grenade, blow up the cupboard and everybody flees the room. I walk out of the room and nobody suspects me. The most weird moment was when I blew up the 2 guards in the huge, red hall. They both walk asynchonally up and down the hall, so I tried to hit them with one rocket when they meet eachother halfway. I shot the rocket and apparently the distance was long enough for nobody to see it. Eventually you'll need to download a code from a computer. This computer is in a very isolated spot with not that much people around. When you are at the computer practically nobody can see you. Yet, when I transmitted the code, an action that should not attract as much attention as, say, an explosion, everybody was out to get me. Oh well...

So, is Deus-Ex solvable with just weapons? The answer: No, but it should be. Practically you can blow up every door and if you can't, you can find a key or a code for it. There is one place where you need to break in a place with a multitool to get your stuff back, but there are enough multitools lying around to hack it without any electronics skill. Unfortunatly, I encountered a very nasty bug that's only hindering this kind of play-through. After I defeated Walten Simons in the submarine base the game didn't want me to open doors the conventional way anymore. Keys, lockpicks and multitools were still usefull, but numeric locks and computers suddenly refused every pass and code. In the submarine base I had no other choice than to fill in a little computer hacking, hack a terminal and open the doors. I got to the final part where you defeat the evil mastermind Bob Page, but every alternative ending is blocked by numeric locks and impenetrable doors. I had no multitool on me and I couldn't find any of them. I was inevitably stuck.

Got this pic probably from very demotivational

As said in my Motorhead review, Deus-Ex's graphics didn't age well, but weird play-throughs like this make it so much more fun than the games nowadays. If you are interested in screwing around with games, you should check this anti-walkthrough. There should be more of games like this, butI don't think you can make a game like the first Deus-Ex anymore. With the graphic standard being this high, I doubt you can get enough artists together for a reasonable price to make a game with this much options and so much locations. The follow up 'Deus-Ex Invisible war' failed miserably due to everything that can make a complete seperate rant that will someday end up here. They are trying again with Deus-Ex Human revolution which at least has a better premise than Invisible war, but I still have to see the feeling I had of the first being matched.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Total Annihilation

Ah yes, things are going fine. Mr Cricket is chirping along, I am going to write about another favourite old game of mine and Mr Tumbleweed is Rolling On the Floor, Not Laughing. So, Total Annihilation this week.
The CD jewel case art

As you can see from the Wikipedia link, Total Annihilation or TA is a real time strategy published by the now bankrupt Cavedog entertainment company in 1997. In the game you command an army of robots who will say nothing else to you than a couple of grunts and beeps. The amount of units is vast. There are 2 parties in the game which by default have around 50 different units and buildings. These were divided over infantry, vehicles, aircrafts and ships. The explosions are massive and you will blow stuff up, what is not to like about it?All this is given extra ambiance with the epic soundtrack.

I recently bought Total Annihilation again from Good Old Games with all the expansions. I had the game in 1998, but I didn't have the money to buy the expansions back then, I was 13. Was I in for a surprise when one of the expansion packs gave access to hovercrafts. Those things ROCK!

The story was short, yet deep in a way. In this time and age where you are smacked to death with long cut-scenes and quick-time events it's refreshing to see the brilliance of TA's intro movie. This is what you get to hear when you boot-up the game

Premise: What began as a conflict over the transfer of consciousness from flesh to machines escalated into a war which has decimated a million worlds.
Introduction of characters/parties: The Core and the Arm have all but exhausted the resources of a galaxy in their struggle for domination.
Motivation of parties: Both sides now crippled beyond repair, the remnants of their armies continue to battle on ravaged planets, their hatred fueled by over four thousand years of total war.
Why you play the game: This is a fight to the death. For each side, the only acceptable outcome is the complete elimination of the other.

Four thousand years of a universe told in an engaging way in just five sentences just over the half minute mark! Nobody questions the story, everybody fully understands what is going on and it is a spankin' good excuse to have a forest-world, a beach-world, a purple world, a lava-world and a metal world without explaining why and how you got there. The intro-movie continues to show only war over an incredible soundtrack and when that's over, you'll only need a couple of clicks and you're right in the game. That brilliance is what I find lacking in modern games.
Just a normal day in the TA life

By now you should be wondering, "So, why aren't you telling about the gameplay yet?" Well, I generally suck at real time strategies. So bad, it's embarrassing, really. Although I am bad at them, if they are well designed I find them a bucket-load of fun to play and Total Annihilation pushes all the right buttons. My strategy usually is to make a lot of one unit, usually bombers or rapid firing units, then some support for if they are attacked by something they couldn't handle and then just let them march like a carpet over the enemies base. If the enemy is still standing, turn 180 degrees and repeat. Here lies the problem: I refuse to employ strategy in my strategy games. This makes multiplayer in Total Annihilation double fun, since nobody knows what in Pete's name I will do next. I won from a semi-TA-veteran that way once. He flipped me the finger, it was awesome and then we had a beer.

I am aware that aging of a game is purely subjective, but in my opinion it did age very well. The game still works on Windows 7 and even under Linux when using wine. The graphics are no eyesore, since most terrain are rendered pictures with a 3D collision detection and the 3D rendered robots are meant to be blocky. Come on! Round robots are from the 60's!

There are 2 downsides, however. The first is that it was one of the first multiplayer RTSs and in multiplayer you are in the game when you are not yet beaten. When you get beaten, you get booted, this includes the host. So if you are playing with more than two people and the host is killed not as last, the game is interrupted, thrown away, never to be seen again. This gave my semi-veteran victory mentioned above a bit of bitter taste, because I was still having fun and he was the host. (Note: they might have fixed it in the GOG version, but I haven't tried yet)

The other downside is that the designer got too famous too fast when he created TA and later on he made Supreme Commander, which is made by exact the same people and might be more known to you all. Let me make one thing clear: SC sucks. Why? Too sophisticated tech-trees and worst of all: voice acting. In TA you had 3 levels of tech and you were left alone to have fun. In SC it is 5 levels to learn by heart and some 'assistant' nagging you to reach a goal. I sometimes missed the last tech level in TA, because I didn't need it, but in SC it takes you too long to build something nice, because you need to go through a lot of tech levels. Although I can manage to grow to a new game-mechanic I refuse to do it with this kind of appalling writing and voice acting. To start off: the introduction of SC has way too much blabbering and drama in it to a degree that you don't care anymore after the first minute. Worse: after the first minute they didn't even start the premise! Then, when you finally get to play a mission every other minute somebody starts yelling over your shoulder saying something like 'Do this and that ASAP' where they use ASAP as if it's a full word. SHADDAP! Can't you see I was having fun before you started yelling? I am glad to be at home without my boss/mom/girlfriend/boyfriend breathing down my neck. I don't want a game to do that too!

But I digress, Total Annihilation is still a game that is played everywhere by fans. There is even an open-source reboot called the spring project, which I haven't gotten around to try yet. There was also the Unreal Annihilation project, which went horribly wrong. Maybe I'll write about them some other time, Total Annihilation is awesome enough for that.