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Column: Diamond In The Rough

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': The Almighty Kick

September 14, 2010 12:00 AM |

dmomm2.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch opinion column by Tom Cross focusing on the best bits of less-than-excellent games. This week, Tom rejoices at the brilliant combat and character simulation trapped in the sometimes unpleasant Dark Messiah of Might and Magic.]

I like to talk about “physicality” and “sense of space” in games. Most games do their best to trick players, to make their ingame characters move and look as realistic and believable as possible. Lots of games have little gimmicks and tricks that work towards this lofty goal. Those same games also use these tricks to gloss over the fact that little about them suggests physicality, character-world interaction, or momentum and weight.

Still, it’s interesting to look at how different games approach this tricky issue. Oblivion and Fallout 3 have so many movable, interactive (to the touch, at least) objects that I’m always knocking things over ingame. Of course, in both of these games, to move or twirl an object one is not holding (a skull or chain, say), one simply holds down a key and moves the mouse. What follows is both impressive and underwhelming. The object will tumble in midair as if handled by a ghost; the avatar’s hands and body are completely nonexistent in these situations. It turns what should be a neat, unobtrusive feature into a joke for players.

Most open world (and pseudo open-world) games employ similar tricks, tricks that seem neat at first and then just seem silly. They’re full of overly long animations (Risen is far and away the worst offender in this area), objects with text floating above them, and pointless physics tricks.

Dark Messiah of Might and Magic may share “high” fantasy setting with games like Oblivion, but unlike these games, it doesn’t need an open world or giant inventory of touchable items to back up its enhanced physicality. Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is a first person combat game. I could call it an FPS, and I did spend a lot of time shooting orcs with arrows and magic, but it’s not concerned with shooting.

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Defense

August 31, 2010 12:00 PM |

clearsky4.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch opinion column by Tom Cross focusing on the best bits of less-than-excellent games. This week, Tom loads up Stalker: Clear Sky and thinks of Defense of the Ancients.]

Uber Entertainment's new XBLA title Monday Night Combat is set to introduce the shooter to the Defense of The Ancients-inspired Tower Defense genre in a big way. The former is a new, exciting genre, whose early successes have been mostly relegated to the realm of RTS’s, from League of Legends to Demigod.

Here and there, mods and lesser-known indie games pop up that attempt to do what Monday Night Combat is doing. What no one seems to realize is that while MNC may be the flashiest entry to the first and third person action shooter tower defense genre (an impermanent name, I hope), it has a strange, unsuccessful predecessor in the form of GSC Game World's Stalker: Clear Sky.

Stalker certainly isn’t a franchise that screams “tower defense.” The original Stalker game, Shadow of Chernobyl, is an open-world “immersive” sim. It’s set in the ruins of Chernobyl (as are the other games in the series, Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat), where mysterious anomalies, mutated horrors, and scavengers (called “Stalkers”) fight for breathing space and primacy.

My first playthrough of SOC remains one of the more frightening, unique experiences I’ve had in a game. The open valleys, ragged settlements, and deadly horrifying tunnels and warrens of The Zone (as the blasted area is called in-game) are home to deadly, dark, and meticulously realized encounters with murderous forces.

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': Choose Your Own Adventure, Arthur

August 18, 2010 12:02 AM |

kingarthur1.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch opinion column by Tom Cross focusing on the best bits of less-than-excellent games. This week, Tom enjoys King Arthur: The Role-Playing Wargame.]

In my last column, I expressed my disappointment with Starcraft 2’s wasteful, inelegant mixture of RTS, upgrade menu, Normandy Mark 2 spaceship time-wasting, and turgid narrative. It’s not easy to find exciting, convincing strategy game narratives, to let Starcraft 2 off the hook just a bit. My favorite RTS, Dawn of War 2 has a better story than Starcraft 2 mostly because Dawn of War 2 doesn’t rub your face in its story, unlike Blizzard’s new masterpiece.

As is the case with most games, when story and play are well-interwoven, the gameplay that emerges is all the more exciting. When Left 4 Dead 2’s characters exclaim over new finds, it makes the game and its action feel much more reactive. The same can’t be said for the Prince and Elika’s conversations in PoP 2008.

They may be entertaining, but the fact that I had to sit through every one (you can’t move while talking) caused the game to lose any sense of momentum or pacing. The more unimpeded and granular the flow of play and story are, the less jarring the transition (or cohabitation) between the two are.

Opinion: 'Diamond in the Rough': Starcraft 2's Jim Raynor And His 'Hyperion'

August 10, 2010 12:00 AM |

Screenshot2010-04-16-15_46_23.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch opinion column by Tom Cross focusing game narratives and the ways that play, gaming, and narrative mix. This week, Tom slogs through Starcraft 2's single player campaign.]

Starcraft’s designers plugged many spot-on references and jokes into their space-strategy game. From the three race’s relative similarity to FOX’s extraterrestrial heavy hitters (now the stars of the wretched AvP movie series), to almost every scene and line from Aliens, Starcraft wore its heart and its inspiration on its sleeve.

It may have pioneered a certain brand of space epic (that stars garrulous space hicks), but for the most part it kept such antics to the brief cinematics that interspersed the Terran campaign.

All the rest of the exposition was delivered by serious space bugs and serious space zealots, talking about chrysalides and the like. I am thankful for that small blessing, considering what I think is the overloaded, painfully insistent plotting and long-winded exposition found in Starcraft 2.

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': Different Playthrough, Same Story

July 8, 2010 12:00 AM |

ac7.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch opinion column by Tom Cross focusing game narratives and the ways that play, gaming, and narrative mix. This week, Tom is surprised by the narrative in Firaxis' 1999 PC real-time strategy title Alpha Centauri.]

Some observers have been known to cynically note that real-time strategy and turn-based strategy narratives are lacking -- and have been for a while. Blizzard still drops hours of deadly serious cinematic full of sadly unironic bombast in our laps with every RTS, HoMM only recently started including interesting stories in their games, and Red Alert insists on throwing weird FMV and cheesecake at us with every new release.

But for the most part, a story in a strategy game is something that everyone pretends doesn’t exist. It makes it easier to enjoy the game itself if you ignore these laughable cutscenes and strange frame stories.

That’s the kind of story the Civilization series has always had. You’re leader, of some sort (you have the face of a famous person in Civ IV), but why you’re leading and how you’re leading are fairly unimportant as Civilizations’ “story” is concerned. It’s all about expanding, bettering, and guiding your civilization, trying to build that spaceship so you can blast off to Alpha Centauri.

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': A Reluctant, Uncertain Predator

May 11, 2010 12:00 AM |

prey1.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch opinion column by Tom Cross focusing game narratives and the ways that play, gaming, and narrative mix. This week, Tom gets a bit lost in Prey for the wrong reasons.]

Human Head Studios’ Prey is an unusual game. It’s also incredibly old-fashioned. Its mechanics, narrative, and systems all reek of age, even in 2006 when it was released. It certainly isn’t unique because of its general plot: its tale of alien invasion and abduction is a well-trodden one, especially among video games.

However, the hero of this tale is Domasi, a Cherokee Native American struggling to save his girlfriend Jen from the alien invaders. The fact that Domasi isn’t a bald white space marine (though he was in the Army) is already a huge departure from most video games, but the blatant symbolism apparent in the game’s plot (Domasi is fighting an overwhelming, destructive group of invaders who capture his friends and family and kill his elders…) further distances it from most space shooters, and most video games, for that matter.

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': Living Under Moscow

April 22, 2010 12:00 PM |

rw5.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch opinion column by Tom Cross focusing game narratives and the ways that play, gaming, and narrative mix. This week, Tom examine's 4A Games' Metro 2033 and its use of dialogue, timing, and characterization to create believable post-apocalyptic communities.]

It’s rather hard to believe that people in video games ever go to the bathroom, given the lack of such facilities (or their equivalents) in most game worlds. For long, long years, we’ve been witness to the most bizarre phenomena: entire races, entire galaxies of people who seem content never go to the bathroom. Or at least, that’s what we as players must infer, thanks to the total absence of restrooms in the future, or in magic medieval land, or in the pseudo-steampunk Wild West.

We know that these people sleep, because from time to time we see a bed (or, rarely, beds). Of course, it’s hard to believe that these people use them much since for every 10 in-game humans there might be half a bed. It’s just how games are. We’re playing in worlds populated by sleepless, bladderless monsters.

Not all games should be required to feature perfectly rendered bathrooms, I’ll concede. I spend a good deal of my day not being in or seeing bathrooms, and I’m not a globetrotting archaeologist, bug-shooting space marine (I bet they can just pee in their suits), or a vengeful angel/demon/poet/muscled guy.

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': Creatively, Destructively Irresponsible

April 14, 2010 12:00 PM |

rfg5.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch opinion column by Tom Cross focusing game narratives and the ways that play, gaming, and narrative mix. This week, Tom relishes employing highly inappropriate destructive powers in Red Faction: Guerrilla and Just Cause 2.]

Video games of the first and third-person action variant put a lot of effort into their environments. They live and die by how a player negotiates her way through, grapples with, and comes to comprehend and enjoy those environments. A game that works its story, main character, and method of environment traversal into a cohesive, fun, and interesting whole is a game that will succeed, a game that will cross genre lines and earn fans in ever echelon of games design and criticism.

Games that manage this particular balancing act are few and far between. It doesn’t matter if you blame ludo-narrative dissonance, inaccurate and mismatched controls and inputs, or bad level design and narrative design: most players can sense the cracks underneath the smooth surface of a new game. Often, we can see these faults from a gameplay video.

That’s because, at the most basic level, environment interaction and avatar control are things we’ve unconsciously trained ourselves to look out for. We can identify bad eggs and misfires at a distance. It’s why Dark Void had so many people leery of its arrival long before gameplay was on the table: the gunplay just looks wrong, as does most of the narrative, acting, and writing.

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': "Modern" Warfare

January 26, 2010 12:00 PM |

-['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch opinion column by Tom Cross focusing game narratives and the ways that play, gaming, and narrative mix. This week, Tom examines the pitfalls of an industry dominated by Modern Warfare.]

Infinity Ward's Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 has come and gone, although it isn't really gone: it lives on, unstoppable, powered by XBL and the PSN. The game's release may have been highly lucrative (750 million dollars, the last time I checked), but it was also fraught with controversy. Most notable among them were the “F.A.G.S.” scandal (and Infinity Ward's response to such criticisms), the lack of dedicated servers, and, of course, the “No Russian” level.

As Michael Abbott points out, while a small slice of the hardcore demographic and gaming press took offense, a large portion of the game's potential customers were either unaware of or unmoved by any of those issues. For them, the game lives and dies by its multiplayer.

We may natter on about FPS narrative conceits, forced participation, and issues of player agency, but this game doesn't care. It doesn't need to. It's built as a multiplayer juggernaut, and its single player is like some kind of vestigial malformed appendage: it sticks around almost out of habit.

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': Sexualization Among Thieves

January 7, 2010 12:00 AM |

chloef500.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive opinion column by Tom Cross focusing game narratives and the ways that play, gaming, and narrative mix. This week, Tom continues his earlier examination of the sexual politics behind games by examining the sexual narrative and characters of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

In my last article, I expounded upon the more obvious and systematic methods of conservative, regressive sexualization that can be found throughout games, the video games industry, game critics, and gamers themselves. While I singled out Prince of Persia as a game that stepped (slightly) outside of these traditional boundaries, I also pointed to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves as a game that both subtly continues these traditions, and blatantly, brashly confounds them. It’s a game that is both safe and radical in its depiction of sex.

This isn’t to say that Drake (and the relationships he is a part of) is not sexual in any way. In fact, he and his various compatriots stand out as some of the few video game characters that are crafted to evince sexual desires and frustrations that are connected to actual human emotions. In that way he, Elena, Sully, and Chloe are similar to the Prince and Elika.

However, their romantic entanglements fall into extremely comfortable filmic roles: the plucky, independent female lead (who will end up with the roguish, devil-may-care male lead even though they have their differences), the lecherous old guy who isn’t really that bad, and the so bad she’s good femme fatale. They may be ahead of the grade by being empathetic, emotionally heartfelt, and sexual, but it’s well-worn territory they’re treading on. It doesn’t turn any heads.