Thursday, 29 April 2010

Splinter Cell

Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Conviction is a franchise within a franchise, much like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Conviction is basically a waste of time.

Tom Clancy is also indirectly responsible for Rainbow Six: Vegas 2, a sequel within a franchise, within a franchise, and I just realised the main characters in both Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Conviction and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 look the exact same. Are they actually the same person, or is it just that everyone who produced this game is kind of early forties and has stubble?

Despite the fact he’s a clone of a character with even less personality, I grew to like Sam, the main character, and part of it was just how good at his job he is, and part of it was the little quips he makes to himself. Sometimes when you grab a guy you’ll whisper hi there into his ear. It makes Sam seem a little more casual, more off the clock, and since he’s meant to be this renegade ex-agent, it makes sense.

But by the end of the story I still don’t really care about him, or his friends. The narrator, who you play at one point, is meant to be Sam’s best buddy that he loves like a brother kind of a thing. They build that connection by making you play this character during the most uninspired mission in this, and perhaps any, game, but more on that later. Friendships come about through bonding experiences, sure. But friendships are about people, and there are 0.5 personalities in this game. Sam hints at having one, but he’s just so boring. His buddy makes all the conversation, tries to make a couple of jokes, which aren’t funny, and as such illicit no response from Sam. There’s no engaging dialogue, and I couldn’t care less about the characters as a result.

And the villains: you have to wonder what these guys do when they get home from work. How do they spend their spare time after a day of shooting scientists in an out of town warehouse for no reason? What kind of TV do these guys watch? Do they go to BBQs ever?

What I enjoy about stealth games, i.e. what I enjoyed about Metal Gear Solid (among other things), is just getting fucking ruthlessly efficient at what I’m doing. Killing 20 plus people without any of them knowing they might be about to die. Maybe this is because I’m just nice, you know? Like, I don’t want to put the fear of God in some minimum wage worker just before I drop his face into my knee and break his neck.

But what a lot of stealth games suffer from, and Splinter Cell is truly one of them, is some of the worst AI in any game that has ever existed ever. Seriously, the AI in this game is on a par with the ghosts in Pacman, or a wasp.

The guards the bad guys hire must be real misanthropists, since they clearly don’t like each other. They never cover each other, or even talk to each other. They don’t spend any time together even. They just walk around by themselves shouting abuse at you.
And if two of them set aside their differences to stand there, facing each other, it’s always around the corner from someone who is just hanging out by themselves, so you can silently kill them and do your magical execution spell on the guards you can’t sneak up on.

The stealth system in this game is as follows: when you’re in the shadows everything is black and white, and this means you’re invisible. The bad guys are never black and white, which doesn’t make any fucking sense, but I’ll forgive the game because, though it is tiny, this black and white idea is still an idea. What’s less innovative is the mission briefing projection bullshit.

Every time you start a mission your objective is projected on a wall or some such nearby. This doesn’t look that cool, though I get the feeling, from watching interviews, that the developers were pissing themselves from the eyeballs when they thought of it. It is practical though, for example when you turn a corner and there is your objective sprayed on the wall in front of you. It keeps the rhythm of the game going, helps direct your attention, and this is important. It’s just…Isn’t there a way to make something like that more relevant? The film projector motif plays no role in the story or content of the game, it’s just a cool little visual gimmick and, in a way, sums up how vacuous this game is.

The tutorial, for example, takes place in the past, as Sam recalls telling his daughter about how cool shadows are, how if you’re in shadows bad guys can’t see you (though obviously it turns out later that if bad guys are in shadows you can still see them just fine. The moral of this game? If you’re bad, you glow. Live it up, dicks.)

Your daughter complains about being afraid of the dark because maybe there’s monsters in it. You tell her how to make the monsters go away, and seconds later some actual rapists are actually breaking into your house and you just fucking kill them all. Then your daughter gets all indignant, what did you do to them daddy, it’s like make your fucking mind up, kid.

Later on, however, there’s a fairly long scene where the plot twist, or something, is explained to you. I wasn’t listening really at all. A DJ Shadow song plays in the background, the voice acting is pretty good, and though the characters are talking about other characters I’ve never heard of and know nothing about I was fucking pumped about taking cover in some shadows. Except that’s not what the game wanted me to do. I walked into a room, was instantly spotted by three guys, so I took cover. But I realised I had automatically tagged them all, and was able to pull off my magic execution instant kill power up attack.

This section, as you escape an exploding building, is meant to be this action run scene. You automatically tag everyone in a room, and then you can press a button to kill them all. It would have been pretty cool, pretty fast paced, except I still thought I was playing a stealth game, since Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Conviction is a fucking STEALH GAME, so the fast pace was somewhat marred by my crawling through the first 3 rooms of this section before I figured out what the fuck was going on. That, coupled with the Middle East soldier mission made me think the game didn’t know what it wanted to be.

Normally in games like this I feel nervous. In Metal Gear Solid, for example, I feel like I’m on the run, like I need all the help I can get and don’t have an advantage in the world. Splinter Cell is different, and it is refreshing. You feel like you’re in control of the environment, and everyone in your way is just fucked, and that, as much as anything, makes the game a lot of fun.

Without its stealth system this game would be utter shit, which it proves to you by taking away the entire stealth system for a mission where you play Sam’s buddy, a soldier, who must rescue Sam in some Middle East excursion. Instead of an ok stealth game you have what equates to a really shit Gears of War with, effectively, a world war 2 rifle, since if you fire more than one bullet in 2 months the aiming reticule grows to the size of a planet, and you can’t hit anything. I mean yeah, I played the game on realistic mode, but did these guys have any training at all? Like when they were in the army? Which is more or less the only place people train you how to fire guns accurately?

And yes, thank you for asking, I would like to talk about Realistic mode. Realistic does not mean difficult. Sometimes things in the real world are difficult, realistically. Maths tests, sometimes, for example, or climbing a mountain. Maybe wrestling a body building shark, or getting into space are things which are hard, that I guess you can do in real life.

Realistic does not just mean you have less health and get spotted easier. It would mean that Sam’s arms get tired when he hangs onto a window ledge, with his fingers, for 10 minutes at a time. It would mean if you had a human shield his friends wouldn’t immediately start shooting, which they always do, regardless of whether or not he died. Realistic would mean if you destroyed a urinal by slamming someone’s head into it they would fucking die. They wouldn’t get up, take a swing at you, and be able to think and answer your questions. They probably wouldn’t be able to shit themselves.

Am I being pedantic about the use of realistic here, or am I just fucking correct?

Throw in a couple of aiming glitches (the amount of times I’ve been hidden, lined up a perfect shot and it’s all been ruined because Sam leans back to fire, thus missing wildly and leading to my detection and inevitable death has probably given me cancer) and you have an average game, weak on story and characters (and I can think of maybe 3 games which aren’t) but strong on visceral combat, with a couple (literally 2) of visual flourishes.

The Passing

There has never been a better zombie game than Left 4 Dead 2. Dead Rising was good, and it gave us what we all want from a massive zombie apocalypse: the ability to just kick the shit out of some fucking zombies. I mean Resident Evil, get it together yeah? For fuck’s sake, it’s like great yeah, there’s some kind of evil conspiracy/company plot but can I cut a zombie’s head off with a fucking scythe, or ride a motorbike down an escalator? Can I fuck.

And it is fun to turn a zombie into paste with an automatic shotgun or a chainsaw, but it’s more fun if your friend is watching and it’s even more fun if he’s doing it with you.

You: Dude, I just used my golf club on that zombie’s head and now it doesn’t exist anymore.

Your friend: I know, I fucking just hit this guy with a samurai sword and his intestines were flying around like one of those weird balloon mascot things they have at car showrooms.

You: I fucking love it when that happens. I just get all those intestines and shove them in my mouth and chew on them oh god I love it so much.

Your friend: I fucking know, holy shit I think I just saw a flying jawbone.

Left 4 Dead understands that, and that is what the entire game pivots on. The gameplay is great, but without other people this game would drag. The characters’ personalities are great. I mean I thought humour in games was dead until I heard Ellis from Left 4 Dead 2’s stories about his buddy Keith, but that only goes so far.

It’s one thing to shut the door on a computer game character and listen to their screams as they’re torn asunder by a swarm of the undead, but when it’s someone you know and they’re so angry they’re calling you, for example, a nobasaurus? It just gets you right there, you know? Makes you feel great.

Left 4 Dead 2 expands on everything that was good about Left 4 Dead and improves it with better characters, more variety of weapons and environments and, crucially, changing the rhythm of the levels.

No longer do you reach an elevator and have to wait for 5 minutes, holding off waves of zombies, until it fucking arrives. Now you have to sometimes run around a fenced enclosure to shut off an alarm, fighting hordes of zombies, or get some cola from a shop so a fuel tanker explodes. Yeah, that’s right. There’re explosions.

The only thing that could make Left 4 Dead 2 better, frankly, is if Valve made the zombie apocalypse happen in real life, and instead of zombies trying to kill you if it was babes trying to make out with you. And this is where the new downloadable content, The Passing, falls down.

It’s an extra campaign, three chapters, and the new survivors meet the old survivors. If you played the first game you’ll have bonded with those characters and it’ll be great to see them again. It’s just a shame the characters don’t really talk.

I mean there’s some random dialogue which changes more or less every time you play. Sometimes you meet Zoe right at the start and there’s a little back and forth between her and Ellis. Sometimes it’s Francis you see, and Nick calls him a vest wearing monkey, or some shit.

But man, if that was me in either group, I would have so many questions. I would talk to them for hours if I could. But that’s not really what this game is about. Valve, I imagine, don’t want you to feel like you’re playing the role of your character in some kind of Zombies teen drama like Well I was dating Francis but then he was literally torn in half. The game is about you, and your friends, and how you hang out, go to a mall, stand about in a swamp and visit the funfair, and also how everyone is dead and you have to kill them again because they’re zombies.

The characters are almost a sideline. They’re there to give depth to the world, to indicate there’s more going on than just what you see when you’re playing, and I think, ultimately, Valve have the balance between story telling (or story hinting) and insane violence just about right.

So here it is! Valve have released actual downloadable content. Not some bullshit already on the disc shit like Modern Warfare 2 gave us (for twice the price of the Left 4 Dead 2 dlc, which Valve wanted to be free anyway, but Microsoft demanded they charge for). Thank you Modern Warfare 2. You truly are the shit of shits.

The Passing also contains Mutation mode which is going to bring some more variety to online play, with Valve changing the parameters of the game every week or so. Valve have a real interest in their customer community, which is commendable and fucking rare in the world of computer games, and they deserve as much recognition for that as they do for making fantastic games.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

make games that aren't shit please

Technology has run away with games.

Games and films are compared all the time.

The big difference is film has a heritage that games don’t.

The first film, Strongman Sandow, or whatever it was, which came out in 1890: that’s pong, or space invaders, or whatever.

The silent films translate into Doom, or Super Mario Bros. The graphics are awful, though at, presumably, the peak of what was possible, but there’s a retro charm there.

Even then the stories in silent films are better than their game counterparts. Although admittedly this system of comparison is something I have subjectively made up. And it took me about five seconds to do it.

It has taken films years, literally one hundred and twenty of them, to get from that basic Space Invaders shit, Strongman Sandow, The Great Train Robbery, to where they are now.

This is a debatable point, but technologically speaking games have reached the same point as films in around a fifth of the time.

There hasn’t really been a game like Napoleon, a film by Abel Gance from 1927. He would tie a camera to a pole and film from the side of a running horse. No one had done shit like that in films, and no one has done shit like that in games.

You have games like Portal which mess around with physics systems in games, or Shadow of the Colossus, which mess with the boss fight/minion structure, but these examples are few and far between.

There are too many games like Dante’s Inferno, which are just big visual spectaculars, doing nothing inventive or refreshing for games.

The films we love and the guys who make them; Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, they loved film and they studied it and drew in all kinds of inspirations from the history of film, art, and storytelling in general to make great films. Films which are regarded as classic, timeless works of art which have touched at least two generations of people.

Games don’t have this, because the people who make them think going from 2D to 3D is a beautiful achievement. Would The Incredibles really be a worse film if it was a 2D cartoon?

People who make games think games have developed because of health regen and cover systems, because of open world games and bosses that fill the screen.

These things can be great, but a shit film is still shit even if it has a great actor in it.

It’s not even that games designers need to look at old films. They need to be looking at everything; the films of Tarkovsky, documentaries about Spanish explorers, books about medieval torture, the paintings of Mark Rothko, sunny days.

Then they need to make games which can stand up next to that shit. Or else everyone will keep making shit games that steal from other shit games.