The Storm is bigger and nastier than you think

So a game journalist source of Bill Harris over at Dubious Quality had some things to say about publishers and their renewed interest in screwing journo’s jollies:

There’s a sequel to this post, in which they bring up Eurogamer, Rock Paper Shotgun and others as hallmarks of Game Journalism (they truly are, never think I doubt that), and go on to say that the death of independent ballsy publications like these over the IGNs or the Gamespots of the world will be the loss for all readers.

By looking at the consumer and the industry as one entity aligned against disparate news and websites varied in their quality of journalism, the source is making the same mistake he assumes people make against game journalists.
This is something that also part of the problem loop, as much as you or I wish it weren’t. Consider this: the games industry is not just Gears of War or Skyrim or Modern Warfare, it is also smaller games, and medium tier games. We all know this, and yet we don’t practice it. Some with artistic integrity, and some with just enough spit and polish to be fun, but not wholly original. They are all works that deserve to be talked about, to be shown to people, to be discussed as original/unoriginal, refreshing/bland. And yet we don’t. Most of the coverage you see from even the most respected outlets is about the big names. A slew of Skyrim screenshots is page one news, while a new XBLA or PC game announcement is hardly ever mentioned. Even the publications I most respect are party to this. I do a search for Terraria on Eurogamer, a publication I respect above all else, except maybe RPS, and I see a “No results found” page.

Where is the coverage for Ghost Recon Online for the Wii U? It was on the show floor at the E3 Nintendo booth, and while it may have been too bland/unfinished or anything else to be seen by journos, it is almost as if it wasn’t there. You know why that is? I was at the Nintendo booth at E3, and the VIP and the regular show floors had the game, but the “press” both on the second floor didn’t – understandable as it was Nintendo’s showcase floor and they only wanted to show their own demos. There is your lack of proper journalism right there. Here’s a game announced and playable at the show floor, but the barest of peeps were heard from the news outlets. I could count many such instances, but the fact is that this happens too.

Also thinking of your audience as one huddled mass is quite sad. The death of Eurogamer WILL affect the large Eurogamer community that attends the expo, takes part in discussions on the boards and carries that badge proudly. Same for any other website – but a large percentage of consumers now treat games just the same as films. They see reviews on their favourite general magazine or newspaper or Sunday supplement and go ahead and buy it if their friends also make a fuss about it. The reason they do not turn to specialist outlets has a lot to do with the casual way in which they interact with their gaming time, but I have also seen a lot of hardcore gaming friends completely disenchanted with the journalism on display. The 7 to 9 scale is not a myth or an exaggeration. You know it’s a reality, and even some of the most respected outlets are guilty of that. The fact that competency in craft and polish count for more than artistic integrity, vision or even fun in game reviews is true enough; the PR and publishing wings of most game companies accept that. They may be part of the problem, but they are now working with that – they want to convince the “legitimate” news outlets more than the gaming press which will grant them an 8 anyway (unless the game’s quite boring, in which case they get a 7).

My point is that saying that there are different, better game journalists in the same statement where game companies, games and the audiences are homogenised is just as bad, and contributes to the problem. We are stuck in a vicious cycle of pandering to the biggest and the loudest, and the biggest and loudest publications (in this case being non-specialist press) is getting preferential treatment is not a surprise. By calling themselves part of the “games industry”, gaming press has subjected themselves to the machinations of the very industry which forgets the small ones.

There are defiant small player in every part of this equation – sites like RPS or GWJ, the small, well made games, the indie developer, and the discerning fan who reads better kinds of journalism. We need to celebrate them all equally; the entire cycle is nothing without any of them.

Disclaimer – I work for a games developer, and am a fan of well written games journalism and discussion. None of what I say here comes from my employer.

Call of Duty Black Ops : Shooty mcbangy bang

Call of Duty Black Ops

So I played the new Call of Duty. More specifically Call of Duty: Black Ops. Even more specifically in internetese: COD BLOPS. I love that name, don’t you? BLOPS. Completely devoid of the utter destruction inherent in the game it describes. Come to think of it, I may have eaten some BLOPS sometimes in me life.

Anyway, it was fun. Now I have made posts that may lead one to think I hate generic blockbuster shooters. I don’t. I hate generic blockbuster shooters that want you to think they are an intelligent piece of art commenting on the human condition. Remember no Russian? (see what I did there? Never mind.) BLOPS was entirely fun. It was made to look and act like a stupid 80s action film, and it does that. If you have a specific itch to shoot people in the face while moving along a fixed path whilst things blow up all to kingdom come around you, BLOPS will scratch it to HELL.

It occurs to me that most people are perfectly content to shoot humans in the face with pyrotechnics all around. By that yardstick BLOPS is for most humans. It isn’t especially different or interesting or builds a great world, but that’s not what most people want, yes? It’s not the best Call of Duty game ever made, it’s not even the most polished. For a game that choreographs each set piece, it often breaks its own rules about not keeping the player in the dark. The best thing about it I can say is that it is probably the best game Treyarch has made yet. And after years of mediocre Spider-man games and Calls of Duty, at least Activision’s hajaar dollars have made them competitive enough.

Long the bastard child of the CoD franchise, Treyarch has earned both player ire and mainstream derision by being mediocre and delivering games made by committee. They still do that here, but at least they do that with a sense of humour and a hitherto missing maturity. Maturity in development only, of course. The vision is still the 12 year old gun freak’s porn. Check your boxes for semen.

In any case, the story making a point to establish that it is bunkum makes up for the ludicrous ending, and you can enjoy the Shooty bits without rolling your eyes too much. It looks fantastic too. The production values, or to call it by its technical name, Activision’s 3rd world debt ending budget, are what they are – astounding and beyond comprehension.

I could pretend I give a rat’s ass about the multiplayer, but I can’t be arsed. It’s as good or as bad as you think the last one was. I’ll play it for a few months and then move on to some obscure German RPG, though, so the question is not for me to answer. Meanwhile, here: it is Mostly Harmless.

The set pieces do not overtly steal anything from a famous film, so at least I think the multiplayer will have some originality too, as much as is possible for a Call of Duty game to be original. (Infinity Ward were an amazing developer, but they pegged the biggest moments of their games on moments from iconic films. Back when they were 2015, it was Saving Private Ryan. With the first Call of Duty it was Enemy at the Gates and so on. With Modern Warfare 2, it was Bad Boys 2, so you can imagine how deep the shit hole was in which they found themselves at the end of that game. PS Anyone who likes both should probably try and grow a real beard before they can discuss the merits of any artistic endeavour with me. )

ANYWAY, Call of Duty Black Ops is perfectly okay, and not at all pompous or stuffy like its predecessor, so if you ever wanted to play a Michael Bay movie, this will work just fine.

Now where’s my Risen at.

Shooty shooty bang bang

Bad Company 2

How does it work? There have been may different genres of gaming, some dead (like adventure games, which are are now resurrected, like Dracula, on the PC and the iphone as “indie” games, while they were the height of the money grabbing franchises way back when), some barely alive (I mean look at RTSes. There were 4, count ’em 4 releases in one month because no one wanted to compete in the same blog space even as Blizzard’s behemoth, so scared are they of losing their diminutive market. What happened, they used to epic, EPIC, I say!), and some morphed into their own uber genre (third person action adventure. Time was you saw your character on screen because it helped you sell the fantasy. Now it’s a behemoth that covers superhero fiction, RPG-lits, platformer, action, and the weird God of War/Ninja Gaiden hyper violent space that has no description, just QTE), but no one has been able to change the first person shooter fundamentally.

I mean, we have been playing as Shooty McPistolhands since forever now, no?. Now don’t get the wrong idea. We’ve been playing the same perspective, not the same genre. There have been straight up shooters, on rail shooters, RPGs, stealth and even brawlers in this perspective. But the perspective has not fundamentally changed. You are still an amorphous pair of hands, doing nasty things to (hopefully) evil people.

This isn’t to say that the perspective is broken, but truth be told it isn’t real. When I walk down a street, I don’t see my hands in front of me all the time, and my peripheral vision sure as shit is better than that. I also see the edges of any visor/helmet thing I wear, though why I would wear such a things is questionable.

Safety first?
Safety first?

And yet that perspective, that view of seeing the game world works, persists, and keeps on troubling me with random World War 2 or Afghanistan scenarios.

One argument is, of course that this makes me feel like I AM that guy. That is utter bollocks for everyone but marketing people, and marketing people are evil. I do not for a minute think I am Gordon Freeman or nameless muppet soldier. I am Serious Sam, with Mrs. Serious Sam (though with the way she treats gaming she’s Mrs. Very Serious Sam, which leads me to think of Lolcats. A man’s gotta have hobbies.) shouting at me to eat food, and I am killing these virtual beings because hahaha they ‘splode funny. Maybe 12 year old boys who trick their parents into buying them18 rated games think they are Shooty McPistolhands, but because some parents refuse to educate themselves about their child’s vicious doings is no reason for a genre or perspective to exist.

Marketing dude or a man who got his parents to buy him GTA when he was 5? The latter, but he now works as a former.

The other argument, of course is that it make you see the world better. I would actually tend to believe that if I was a one eyed pirate dwarf from Middle Earth who has not seen more his ship’s masthead and some rocks at any given point. I mean filmmaking 101, right? The more you pull the camera away, the more you see. It’s like magic!

So what remains? That it makes for entertaining gameplay? Sure, but have you played Modern Warfacre 2? How in the world is that entertaining. Clearly entertainment is a factor of well made games, and not a sole purview of how you see the virtual space.

I think the strongest argument that leaps at me is that seeing just the gun and the mark is like Zen shit, or like Arjun only seeing the eye of the bird. “All I see is my target, master”. Though of course, that theory has broken down after modern games choose to dress your target with all sorts of accoutrements like EXPLODING barrels.

I guess ultimately the perspective isn’t the question, what matters is what you do with it. It’s just a bone. Like Carl Weathers said, “There’s still plenty of meat on that bone. Now you take this home, throw it in a pot, add some broth, a potato. Baby, you’ve got a stew going. ”

With modern First Person games, they have enough of a stew going, I guess, though one of these days I’d love to see a truly ballsy First Person game. And I don’t mean like Left 4 Dead, which was a ballsy move as a business, but like Zeno Clash, which has fucking balls of IRON.

Ultimately you might think I made a random post just so that I could quote Arrested Development, and that is true. Because, why not?

Disappointments of 2009 part I – Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2

Modern Warfare 2

I am a very shooty kind of guy, I used to think. I like being plonked in the first person view, seeing my burly forearms and wrists, and shoot things that move.
If it looks angry, shoot it. Heck if it moves, shoot it. You know the sort? I always thought that is what I am. I prided myself in knowing exactly why mastery of control and craft lies in the hands on Valve and Infinity Ward, and no one else.

Nothing I knew about myself has been proven wrong, exactly. But I AM thoroughly surprised by why so few people have not mentioned this: Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 is rubbish.

RPS’s analysis of the No Russian level is bang on as far an analysis of a controversial level goes, but really, they didn’t come out and say this. Or maybe I missed this. In any case, the truth is that I really, really feel that the game is rubbish.

Of course I am only talking about the Single Player campaign here. The multiplayer is a thing of beauty. glitches aside, the crack of shooting things that move to get better and unlock better things to shoot people with is as addictive as ever, and works phenomenally. I could berate it for being too small (9v9? in 2009?), or lack of features other modern shooters have (no cover system, really? Are they still living in 2002?), but that would be unfair. They didn’t set out to make that game that eclipses all features. They knew what they could do well, and delivered a polished experience. It’s insanely fun, this multiplayer game, honestly.

But really, what were they thinking when they set out to make that single player game? First off, it completely robs the entire series of gravitas by going all James Bond on us. It was the same issue that could have been leveled at MW the First, but that game still kept intact the sense of being part of a bigger whole. Modern Warfare 2? That is not a nasty war business. It is jumping off a ski slope on a snowmobile shooting people in the face. It is infiltrating a Russian prison, killing all the guards, and escaping on a zip line while rockets fire all around you. It’s not war in it’s emotional gravity – it’s a Michael Bay movie with no consequences.

Which would probably have been fine by itself. But they wanted to bring that emotional depth despite not having the backbone to support it. So they created the cipher of a level that is No Russian. There’s nothing I can say that hasn’t been said about it – it’s vacuous, and has no heft to it as a storytelling device.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2

Not that the storytelling has anything to it that would need clever devices. It’s downright stupid. Insulting, even. One entire mission has you take command of an SAS team trying to infiltrate a prison to rescue a “guy” who the arch villain apparently hates. Really? That’s your incentive? The enemy of my enemy is my best bud? The last act twist is so asinine that it actually, honestly makes no sense.

The gameplay is sweet, admittedly, but purely on a controls-mechanics-events level. The craft is solid. The design is barely there. At 5 hours of play on Normal mode, I would have expected more from the game experience itself. It’s nothing, it’s faff. The worst part? No one’s called IW’s or Activision’s bluff, though, and I am doing it now. For 74 Dollars, it literally is a rip-off, and a sub par game. There is no doubting the production quality, but the game just isn’t up to snuff. The multiplayer redeems the price point, but it does not redeem the single player experience.

Consider your self finger wagged at and chagrined, Infinity Ward! My not-read blog has chastised you.

(Bah. Humbug.)


Uncharted 2

A good narrative is built up of superbly crafted moments, and a structured, well honed pace. Sure, there are many more things that make a good movie or a game – tone, characters, heck even songs. Yep, the much maligned narrative tool that is the Indian movie staple is a tool of such precise measurement in the right hands, few people realise it when done right. Sholay for example – the pacing and sine-perfect undulations of the narrative are nothing if you take the songs out. Whether it is to build anticipation or to provide respite after tension, there’s a reason the quieter moments, or in this argument, the songs exist.

A good narrative is only as good as it’s pacing.

So confident are developers Naughty Dog of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and the narrative/gameplay structure they have created, even they can’t resist the item number. About 2/3rds of the way in, protagonist Nathan Drake has been double-crossed, blown up, continuously shot at, been in a train wreck, and come within inches of dying by falling off of the Himalayas. He has also murdered two gunships. After the wreck, and after he has been saved by death from a bullet wound and the cold, the game allows you to simply be – you take a stroll in a little Tibetan Village stripped off your running and acrobatics – with the game lavishing it’s details upon you quite matter of factly.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

There is nothing to do for 15 odd minutes (5 if you’re impatient and are entirely missing the point, in which case might I direct you to your Haloz?) except move around the village, taking in the breathtakingly beautiful landscape, the immaculately detailed cottages complete with every household implement and embellishment (and I’ve spent my share of time in sub-Himalayan mountain houses to tell you the detail is indeed authentic), and interact with the scenery. Pat a yak, watch as the roosters flock around, and see a bunch of kids play football. Participate, and you are rewarded with a totally superfluous and yet utterly disarming scene of the kids blushing, giggling and holding on to the ball, unsure of what you are saying.

The game is a masterclass in pacing (everything else is fantastic, yes. The action packs a wallop, and the said murder of gunships is brill. The set-pieces are something Hollywood would aspire to.) and narrative. It is up there with Half Life in terms of how to tell a story, create characters and make you live them. On the face of it, it’s just some running and gunning with a few cutscenes. But the production values and presentation take it that one step further. If I was the kind of person who rated games on the IGNs or the Gamepots of the world, crassly breaking down each individual component, I’d tell you that the platforming isn’t thrilling throughout – the danger of falling off almost does not exist – but then I was too busy gaping at the bloody structure I was scaling. I’d tell you about the occasional animation glitch, but that would be remiss if I didn’t tell you how birds fly realistically away from you, and how snow makes real bootmarks and paths as you trudge along.

But talking about that would miss the point – rare is the film, comic, book, game that realizes the potential of a well structured narrative. Where every ebb and flow of tension, relief and thrill is maintained to keep you entertained and along for the ride, and where at the end of it, despite the foreknowledge of the formula, you care for the characters. Damned be the discussion about art, sometimes all you need is the craft at display. Uncharted 2 is the developer at the top of their craft.