Monthly Archives: April 2013

The scoop on Michigan: Report from Hell

michiganMichigan: Report from Hell is the worst good game of all time.  Wait you say, don’t you mean best worst game?  No, I don’t and let me explain why.  Michigan is full of far too many good ideas executed brilliantly for it to be a steaming pile of excrement.  By the same token though, it has too many flaws that hold it back from being a great, arguably even playable, game.  After a week playing the game I took to twitter in an attempt to describe my feelings on the game – poorly I will admit, because all I could come up with was “Michigan: Report from Hell is like a less accidentally intelligent and more intentionally shit version of Deadly Premonition“.  People that love Deadly Premonition should at a minimum appreciate what developer Grasshopper Manufacture did in creating Michigan: Report from Hell.  But throughout the entire experience I couldn’t help but feel that the game’s designers, including Suda 51 to the extent that he was involved, were fully aware of the game’s limitations, and embraced them fully to create a commentary on the absurdity of survival horror – and perhaps video games as a whole – and how they are as genres and mediums slaves to a small number of all to familiar tropes.  The perfect highs and bottoming lows are too perfect to be accidents – Michigan is the perfect cult game in that people that love it, will defend it to the death.  But for anyone else the barriers to enjoyment are so high you’ll want to rip your own face off before getting any sense of enjoyment from the game.

For every thing Michigan does well, it does something abhorrently.  Getting through the game requires persistence and strong will.  There will be times where it feels like a chore and  throwing the PS2 controller, the PS2 and the disc seems like the best thing to do.  Push through that wall because on the other side is a refreshing, if antiquated, ‘horror’ experience full of deep meaning and social commentary.  Michigan is unashamedly an adult game.  Whether the designers intended it or not, Michigan presents a stark commentary on the role of the media, sex, gender roles and most importantly the role that video games have in discussing all of these themes.  It is game that is as confronting as it is ridiculous, but one that definitely strives to be more than just ‘that scary game’.  

The premise of Michigan isn’t a unique one, Chicago is besieged by fog, faceless monsters, dead bodies, blood stained walls.  Standard survival horror fare.  But the way it inserts you into that story and environment is splendidly original.  Rather than playing the gun-toting every-man who has found himself in a less-than-perfect situation, you play the guy filming that guy.  You are the cameraman that is part of a ZaKA TV news crew looking for a ratings inducing scoop along a trail of dead bodies, filming the city of Chicago unravel from behind the lens.  It wouldn’t be a far stretch to say that you are a bystander rather than a participant.  And it makes for a rather compelling experience as you make decisions as to what kind of story you want to tell: the honest story of a brave man looking out for his team; or the story of a man who would stand idly and sacrifice peoples’ lives for the sake of a scoop.  Once you get to the end you will wonder why more games haven’t stolen the better of Michigan’s game design ideas and taken them for their own.

MichiganSCR1

These decisions are woven perfectly, and fundamentally, into the game’s core mechanics.  You choose what to film and where.  Who to save and who to let die and film their grissly end. When to pursue a more risque, erotic shot up a reporters skirt, or just simply focus on their face.  These decisions are captured by scoring in one of three categories depending on what you film – Suspense, Erotica or Immoral.  All of these decisions, while not tending to have an instantaneous impact on the game you’re playing, shape the ending you will receive.  It is a rather good example of how Michigan, despite its overly budget feel, its horrible english dialogue, its terrible graphics and its poorly written scenario, really was ahead of its time.  It doesn’t compel you to take a moral stance by presenting you with a binary decision point, but with almost every action you are determining  the type of character you are, and perhaps provide you a reflection of the type of person you are in real life.

Honestly though, Michigan: Report from Hell is an essential video game experience.  Not because it is haunting or clever.  And it doesn’t score marks in the graphics, sound design or control departments.  But it is a game that can be discussed, pulled apart and hypothesised on endlessly.  It is the sort of game that begs to be understood but never really leaves itself open to interpretation.  Every sense of wonder you get playing the game is marred by frustration, largely around the game itself.  It is the antithesis of modern thinking on what good game design is, but somehow manages to be one of the most compelling and thought provoking games I have played.  Michigan: Report From Hell isn’t fun to play, but after playing it I’m not sure that’s what it was aiming for.

Of course I could be imagining the depth and it could just be a terrible, terrible game.

MICHIGANSCR2

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On critics: the case of Need for Speed: the Run

NFS_TheRunPS3Need For Speed – The Run (PS3) – I think we as consumers of video games, in general, are getting greedy.  We want more for less.  We want perfection.  And worst of all we want innovation with no concessions made in what we known and love.  In short being a developer would suck because there is no pleasing the audience – which unfortunately can often lead to less than stellar commercial returns on investment and unfortunately, job losses.

And it’s largely because we have so much critique of a game before it even hits our stores.  Online reviews, whats left of magazines and snarky podcasts all influence how we view the games we play, and what we expect from them.

Take Need for Speed: The Run .  It is a well put together, content packed entry into the long running series that has an impressive premise and enjoyable racing action.  Critics were cool on it at best, and scathing at worst.  On average it was a luke-warm response to what I consider to be a pretty enjoyable racer.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not without its problems.

Those problems are mostly in the handling of the cars.   The driving mechanics in the Run are more grounded than we saw in both Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted.  Drifting is entirely optional you can feel the immense friction between the tyre and the road and unlike those games knowing where the apex of a turn will help in getting through it as quickly as possible.  Slow in fast out prevails.   So you can guess from all of this that the cars handle like, you know, cars.  The cars are fast, but the last thing I would describe them as is ‘nimble’.  Driving doesn’t seem to have any subtlety, and at times steering can feel like it’s either full tilt in one direction, which still doesn’t change your trajectory like a real car would, or straight. Which is a problem.  The game often requires precision beyond what the handling model is capable of.  Steering a lumbering piece of metal through a gap slightly larger than its own width can at times only be achieved through sheer fortune.  Which will inevitably lead to a pervasive sense of frustration when the game gives you a task but not the tools to complete it.  Not a terminal problem, but one that you can never quite shake throughout your few hours with the game.

One of the main criticisms of the game was that it was short, which at face value is a fair assessment.  “The Run” aspects of the game, which see you driving from the West coast of the United States to the East, last little more than two hours.  Not a long time even when compared to an ever-shrinking Call of Duty single player campaign.  But that’s not all there is, and while it is the main innovation of the game, there is plenty of racing to be had elsewhere through the racing challenges that open up after every stage of the campaign mode.  They may be conventional point to point races without a premise, and sure it’s not why you came to the pool party, but seeing you’re here you may as well make out with your friend’s sister in the pool room.  Who knows you might just like that a bit more.

There is no doubt that Need for Speed: The Run is pretty good, and while there is always  a feeling that there is a better game sitting underneath somewhere in there, its not worth taking marks off for what it isn’t.  I’d rather add them on for what it is.  In a nutshell The Run is a modern take on outrun, that while not quite as good as Outrun 2 and related properties, is still a rollicking good time.

NFS_TheRun_Scr

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We live in a ‘Sick Sad World’ where a Daria game doesn’t exist

SICKSADWORLDMTV’s Daria may be long gone, but it’s perfect representation of growing up as a teenager in the late 90’s continues to be the most accurate depiction of that time around.  The music, the attitude, the fashion and the general disdain for the cool people, younger people and older people -for humanity basically- viewed through the alternative sub-culture that spawned from the post-grunge movement is memorable, nigh on essential, viewing for people of my age.  The observations of the character of Daria are dry, cynical and jaded and provide for more than a few hilarious but accurate commentaries on growing up and the world around her. To say I see almost every aspect of my youth at some point in one or more of the episodes that spanned five seasons would not be far off of the truth.  Daria is quite simply brilliant.

"Trent" - MTV's Daria

“Trent” – MTV’s Daria

Which is why it is a damned shame that there isn’t an adventure game based on the show.  A point and click adventure game is admittedly not the most creative choice, but it would provide the opportunity for great writing to really evoke the feeling of the show, from the witty observations of ordinary life, objects, social phenomena and the arts, to the dialogue as Daria interacts (and judges) with her peers.  And of course it would allow people like me, those on the verge of being old but resisting that fact by living solidly in the past, to relive the days where the alternative sub-culture was almost the defining feature of a generation.  Nirvana may have been long gone by the time I was spending my teenage years emulating the attitudes of Trent in Daria, but the spirit of the band certainly prevailed, something that the show captures perfectly and that a video game could nail and immortalise if written properly.

The problem is the late 90’s aren’t fashionable.  Yet.  Not old enough to be nostalgic or retro, but not modern enough to be relevant to the burgeoning youth video game market.  In a world where it’s all about hitting as many demographics as possible to reel in the dough, the late 90’s is an era that we probably just won’t see appearing as a setting in video games very often if at all.  Until it’s retro chic, that is.

Dariaanimated

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Bioshock Infinite: a rollicking good ride

Bioshock Infinite PAL coverI finished Bioshock Infinite last week and boy, what a ride it was. It’s not often there’s a video game that keeps me playing just to see what happens next, but for those few days I raced home to pick up the controller and find out where it would take me. It was like being a kid again. But with a complicated meta-narrative.

For one thing it’s easy to see where all those years of development went – the game looks stunning, to the point where I’d often stop just to gawp at the skyline. It’s the attention to detail that really pulled me in though – the fact that all of those bystanders have unique lines of dialogue and react to your presence. One of my big complaints about the previous Bioshock games (see my review) was that the inhabitants of Rapture always reacted murderously to your presence, so it was refreshing to find some inhabitants of Columbia who didn’t have homicide on their mind. Eavesdropping on their conversations turned out to be one of the game’s unexpected pleasures and, as in Dishonored, the city felt like it had a weighty history that you could choose to explore or ignore at your leisure.

Bioshock Infinite screenshot 1

It’s the story that’s the big draw though – the game isn’t afraid to keep you in the dark about what’s going on, and that’s the main reason I wanted to pick up the controller every night. It showers you with questions – “Where do the Vigors come from?” “What’s inside the tower?” – but keeps the answers close to its chest for as long as possible, drip feeding information like a stingy hamster bottle. It all ends in a final reveal that’s truly jaw dropping – I actually mouthed the words “No way!” at one point. I’d love to discuss it at length here (maybe that’s something for a future post), but in the meantime I’d recommend you head over to this spoiler-tastic Eurogamer article (DO NOT CLICK if you haven’t finished the game!).

Earth-shattering ending aside though, there are a few things that niggled me about the game – it’s certainly not the ‘perfect’ achievement that some reviews would lead you to believe. For a start, when the tear-jumping begins about a third of the way through, there are a few things that don’t quite add up – again, I might save these for a later, spoiler-filled post. More important than the odd plot-hole though, the game itself feels like it’s trying to be two conflicting things at once. I agree with the Brainy Gamer that the central shooting mechanic jars horribly with the rest of the game, which invites exploration and thoughtful contemplation of the skewed world of Columbia. The game takes pains to shape Elizabeth as a believable character set in a densely storied world, but at its heart it’s a dumb shooter. By the end you’re simply gunning down hordes of goons with gay abandon.

Bioshock Infinite screenshot 2

It struck me early on that Bioshock Infinite‘s intense focus on narrative and place would make it much better suited to being an RPG than a shooter. I think there was talk of making a Bioshock RPG at some point, and it strikes me as a logical next step: probably the most enjoyable part of the game for me was just wandering around Columbia at the beginning, listening to conversations and learning about this bizarre flying city. In many ways the shooting was superfluous – I’d much rather have been able to explore the city at my leisure, talking to its denizens and only entering a firefight when it was absolutely necessary or when it had a clear purpose.

The game is also intensely linear. Infinite adds in a few new ‘side quests’ along the way, but these simply amount to finding keys for locked doors, and if you miss one there’s no way to return to a previous area. I suppose the linear nature of the game is there for a reason: to propel the central narrative along. However, Fallout 3 showed that you could have a powerful central narrative that also gave you the flexibility to explore of your own free will, and I would have dearly loved to nose around the streets and corridors of Columbia without being shunted along a certain path.

The Vigors also seem a little out of place – despite apparently being freely available throughout the city (you see a salesman flogging them at the beginning), only you and a few hardcore policemen seem to be using them. It’s a little odd that whereas Plasmids led to the eventual downfall of Rapture, Vigors seem to have barely made an impact on Columbia – apparently Columbia’s citizens are immune to the lure of conjuring fire from their bare hands.

Bioshock Infinite screenshot 3

These are generally very minor niggles though, and I rush to say that Bioshock Infinite is truly a joy to play – it’s certainly the most memorable game experience I’ve had in a while. I’ve barely mentioned Elizabeth too, who turned out to be remarkably good company throughout – all memories of the wooden, suicide-happy Natalya in GoldenEye have now been banished. In fact, when at one point Booker is separated from Elizabeth, I really found myself missing her. You don’t hear that said about a game character very often.

All in all, I can’t hesitate to recommend Bioshock Infinite – it’s a truly astonishing game and a definite must-play. At the same time though, it feels like a step along a path – an important step no doubt, but a step nonetheless. There is so much more that could be explored in the Bioshock universe, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

[Written in gay abandon by Lucius Merriweather.]

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On crap.

ToiletI really don’t enjoy mobile (or cell) phone games. You see there are times, believe it or not, where games just aren’t at the forefront of my mind.  Job interviews.  Exercising.  Telling people they are stupid and retarded and that it ‘just isn’t that hard’ at work.   And taking a crap.  These are just not times where I think I should be whipping it out and having a play.   Take the bathroom for example.  That three or four minutes at a maximum (and I mean maximum) I may have while relieving myself isn’t time I consider ‘leisure’, and so while it can get rather boring – what with all the contracting and expelling – it isn’t a time where I think “actually while I’m here I could go a spot of Kentucky Route Zero“.   I’m an in-and-out kind of guy in the bathroom and the prospect of spending anymore time in there than necessary makes me feel like less of a human-being and more of a monster.  We aren’t designed to enjoy the bathroom, and if you’ve ever seen your own face in the mirror while feeling the aftermath of a very large and meaty meal, you understand that.  And on hygiene grounds alone, surely we should be touching as little as possible on the way to the closest basin and anti-bacterial gel.  The phone is the last thing I want to be touching and rubbing.  Call me pedantic but I may have to put that thing up to my face at some point.

I guess mobile games are designed to fill in time I just don’t feel need to be filled by video games.  Or anything else for that matter.

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Death in real life

On 31 July 2012 Tony Sly, frontman for the punk band No Use For a Name, passed away in his sleep. He was 41 years old.  Death is an inevitable part of life and as humans we are cursed with knowing that some day we are going to cease being.  It sucks.

The death of Tony Sly was a tragic loss for I’m sure not only his family, but also those people who listened to his music.  As an avid music fan, particularly punk rock as a genre, I was of course devastated. No Use were there with me as I grew up.  For everything that happened in my life there was a No Use song to match.  The band brought me lifelong friendships and some of the best memories I have through their music, their words, and the ridiculous ability to connect with their fans.  As a result I have a very emotional tie to the music of the band, and in particular, the words of the brilliant wordsmith that was Tony Sly.  For a man I never knew it is strange how much he touched my life in so many ways.

TonySly

I spend as much time with video games these days as I do listening to music.  I have written in the past about how video games have in some ways defined significant times and places in my life. But video games as a medium don’t affect me in the same way that a good piece of music does.  They are there when things happen, and I remember them, but I seldom connect with them in the same way I do other mediums.  That’s not to say that there is not a significant level of craftsmanship involved in making video games, to the contrary, they are a legitimate art-form in many ways.  There is never a personal attachment though, I never look at a video game and see myself, a situation I’ve been in or someone I know.  And for that reason, while I have a tremendous amount of respect (and at times worship) for the developers of the games I love, I don’t feel like I know them as people.  Their impact, at least some of the more visible and notable personalities, has been huge on the industry.  The question is how have they directly affected YOUR life?  Obviously the death of any of these people would be a sad affair, but would it bring the same kind of sadness that the death of your favourite musician would?

Follow me on Twitter @oldgaulian

 

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Bioshock 2 – Not waving but drowning

bioshock2xboxBioshock 2 (Xbox 360) Review – I was not much of a fan of the original Bioshock.  I thought that the story was interesting enough but I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that I wasn’t actually enjoying playing the game.  Add to that that I was never invested in the plight of the characters and I had an experience that I just pushed through for the sake of it – to say I had -rather than because I was having a good time.  The world of Rapture was a fascinating and interesting place to be in an explore, it just sucked that I had no compelling reason to enjoy my time there.

Going in to Bioshock 2, set almost a decade after the events of the first game, I wasn’t expecting to be grabbed by the balls and pulled through Rapture once again by an amazing story.  And for the most part I wasn’t – the story felt like a ‘tales of Bioshock’ pulp novel and never really came together as a cohesive narrative.  Because the first game had slammed home the ‘unreliable narrator’ thing it was almost impossible to trust anyone on their word in Bioshock 2 meaning that deceptions that otherwise may have made for a couple of interesting moments were easy to just take in your stride. Combined, it made Bioshock 2 feel derivative, from a narrative sense, of the original game.  An over reliance on audio journals  did little to soften the blow as it becames pretty clear that the broader world of Rapture is more interesting than the one you’re in.  The Journey to the Surface amusement park ride was a particular highlight, showing just how deluded Rapture’s founder Andrew Ryan actually is.  Unfortunately ‘the past‘ is the only real narrative highlight in the game.  Even significant story beats felt rather lacklustre, resulting in a game that felt like it was searching for a reason to exist and just not coming up trumps in the process.  But I did nonetheless have my balls grabbed from a very unexpected place.

subject delta

Luckily playing as a Big Daddy, in this case Subject Delta, saves the game from its narrative shortcomings and makes Bioshock 2 actually a game worth playing.  Subject Delta, like Jack in the first game, has control of both conventional weaponry and plasmids both of which can  be upgraded over the course of your play through.  The dual wield mechanic improves using both in conjunction much easier by mapping plasmids to the left trigger and weapons on the right, making the old ‘electrocute melee’ routine much easier to pull off.  The weapons are pretty diverse too and you’ll find yourself using all of them equally throughout the course of the game.  Toward the end of the game though I found that I was so powerful with the drill that I wasn’t using anything else, even against the boss-like Big Sister characters.  Either way whatever course you take in upgrading your character, you will be sure to find a combination of plasmids and weapons that will suit your play style.  The upgrades to the combat from Bioshock to this game make are sensible and make Bioshock 2 on the whole a much better game to actually play.  It is just unfortunate that all of the killing and being all super badass and what not wasn’t driving toward a better punchline.

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So I didn’t come away loving Bioshock 2.  The world of Rapture was still as interesting as it was the first time around.  The design, the ambiance and architecture of the world made for an interesting and cohesive setting for the game, even if it isn’t entirely believable.  Despite not being the most technically brilliant game in the world, the art style and direction make Bioshock 2 one of the most stunning games of the generation.  What surprises me the most is how much I enjoyed the combat in Bioshock 2.  Everything felt smoother and more refined than the first game, and I never felt I was in a situation that I didn’t have the tools to approach.  Where the game did falter unfortunately though was its narrative.  It wasn’t abhorrent but I wish that they’d found a better way to explore the many failures of Rapture.  Weaving the protagonist into the story of Rapture again felt a little contrived and I just couldn’t shake the feeling that in some ways I’d rather have played a character who was just an innocent bystander experiencing the madness of Rapture.  At least then there may have been time for sightseeing.

Bioshock2splicer

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