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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Games of the 7th Generation: Bioshock

I don't expect this to be much of a controversial choice, but I will say this might be the game on my list wherein I had the least fun.  The combat was functional but nothing special, the entire key to this game was its story, and more particularly, it's plot. 

My friend and former co-worker Tom Abernathy gave a talk wherein he claimed plot wasn't as important as characters in video games and that gamers could rarely remember plots but could frequently remember characters.  I assume this is accurate as he has great amounts of research data to back it up.  Bioshock is one of maybe 3 or 4 games to buck this trend.

The plot of Bioshock was completely unexpected and the twist in the middle was amazing and questioned the very nature of video games. It was a brilliant moment and the build up to that moment was possibly one of the best examples of plot in a game I have ever seen.  There are characters, to be sure, but the characters are all extremes, larger than life.  The character for whom the plot has such a huge impact is nothing but a cipher; it's you. 

The plot is able to pull you in through a combination of atmosphere and fantasy fulfillment.  The very idea of rapture is so engaging.  The way the game is set up it feels like the whole world is a 1940's nightclub after some horrible event and you're picking through the remains.  It's impossible to play the game and not imagine Rapture at its best though, people drinking and dancing, and everyone somehow special. 

The world looks like an underwater city and the opening moments suck you in like few other games (Half Life 2 comes to mind).  The bathysphere dive, and the first time you see the great underwater structures are forever burned into my gamer memory, incredible moments.  The world itself has a fantastic sense of place.  It doesn't feel like you're progressing through video game levels, it feels as though you're going through a real place.  Areas you go through seem to have utility, and yes, there is backtracking, but that helped me appreciate the "realness" of the place.

The game also manages to set up some intensely creepy moments, the time you meet a "doctor" splicer in the hospital, and there was a particular "treasure chest" in Sander Cohen's level that was in a room with a bunch of mannequin splicers that only moved when you didn't look at them.  Really brilliant stuff.

The storytelling could be a little clumsy, and the dialogue wasn't as natural and easy as Naughty Dog has managed to pull off in their last few efforts, but it was quite impactful and occasionally brilliant.

The game completely fell apart after the twist, unfortunately, and the less said about the remainder is better.  Despite its failings, I still find this to be one of the best games of the seventh generation.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Games of the 7th Generation: Mass Effect

I no longer possess the memory nor the industriousness to sort this list by correct date, so from now on, the games will be in basically random order.  The next game on the list?  Mass Effect. 

Mass Effect was, for me, the first great RPG of this generation.  By this point in my gaming career I was getting tired of Japanese role playing games, mainly because I tend to feel like the story loses something in translation.  I also didn't happen to be a very big Oblivion fan. I played the game for like 60 hours and wondered why the hell I'd wasted all that time (sorry, I realize I'm probably in the minority here)

Mass Effect was something else though.  The hype for the game was unbelievable, I have to admit I was something of a Microsoft fan prior to the release of the X box 360, partly because I had so much fun with the original X box, partly because of Microsoft coming out of the gate first, and Mass Effect was one of those Next Gen titles that made me go "holy shit" with its first few trailers. To be fair at the time I was working for Pandemic, and Bioware had actually merged with Pandemic not too long after announcing Mass Effect, so we got to see some stuff early before the audience.  That only served to whet my appetite. 

Mass Effect was a sprawling space opera, the likes of which hadn't really been seen since Star Wars.  Halo scratched some of the space opera itch, but as a series it tended to focus on one location at a time.  In Mass Effect, I had a ship and a crew and a galaxy to explore.  Star Wars isn't a great comparison for Mass Effect because in practice, it's much more like Star Trek.  Shepard is a hero, to be sure, and is able to perform many heroic deeds, but he still seems limited to normal human standards, much like Captain Kirk from Star Trek.  There can be an element of the Han Solo to him if you choose the renegade path, but Shepard and his crew reminds me much more of an updated Star Trek.

Most of the action takes place on foot or in your rover.  The ship mainly serves as a place to get to know your crew, no amazing space battles, but I never felt like it was missing.  As my friend pointed out, Mass Effect isn't really hard Science Fiction due to The Mass Effect, but given the Mass Effect, Bioware does a great job of explaining the rest of the science in the game. 

The first Mass Effect had somewhat janky combat.  Bioware hadn't mastered how to make RPG combat make sense with a progression curve while still feeling like a fun shooter.  Despite this, once you got the knack of the combat, it rarely got in the way of fun, and I still managed to have some epic moments running with my pistol and mowing down enemies.

The key to Mass Effect was the story.  The game started with a simple premise, Shepard is the first human S.P.E.C.T.R.E and Humanity's chance to enter the galactic conversation in a big way.  He is paired with people who don't necessarily trust him or humanity.  Along the way he learns of the Galaxy's dark secret, the Reapers.  The cast of characters is fantastic, and the side stories are equally amazing.  The Genophage, the Quarian mistake with the Geth.  All of these side stories make the universe feel far larger than most game worlds.  Shepard may not have really had much character growth, but the surrounding characters go through pretty great arcs.  I feel like the original Mass Effect is Bioware at the height of their narrative powers.  I don't feel like the next two games hit this same mark.

Graphically, Mass Effect was, to my eyes, the first really great looking Bioware game.  Baldur's gate looked decent, but not really impressive.  Knights of the Old Republic actually looked somewhat rough, but Mass Effect really sparkles.  They create a fantastic 70's SF Novel style, and everything is clean lines, and idealized future.  Really great art direction, paired with Unreal, arguably the most powerful engine available at the time.  This combination ended up being a visual Tour-de-force, with some of the best video game faces up to that point. 

All in all, a fantastic story wed to fantastic graphics made for a truly amazing experience, and one of my games of the generation.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Games of the 7th Generation: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

So this is the "big one".  This is the game that re-refined the first person shooter genre.  To my mind, the history of first person shooters goes something like this:

Id basically invents the genre with Catacomb Abyss and Wolfenstein 3d.  They make the definitive FPS with Doom, and then they pull it into the 3rd dimension with Quake.  Meanwhile, in Chicago, a company called Bungie is following closely building shooters with their own Bungie twist, the Marathon series, it's not quite as recognized as Id's stuff, partly due to being on Macintosh instead of DOS.

Enter Halo.  Halo basically re-defines the genre by introducing huge refinements.  The player can only carry two weapons at a time, mostly due to the fact that she's playing on a controller.  This means you can't easily scroll a mouse wheel or hit a number to change weapons.  They also introduced the idea of a regenerating shield which means you no longer needed to run around finding health packs, if you made a mistake you weren't screwed, you just had to take cover until your shield regenerated.  Halo was an interesting and innovative game in many other ways, but these are the key refinements to FPS games. 

Then Call of Duty 4 came out.  It was highly anticipated.  Call of Duty on PC released in 2003, was a new standard of polish. Call of Duty 2 was, in most people's opinion, the best X Box 360 launch title.  The studio behind these games, Infinity Ward, hadn't worked on Call of Duty 3, and this was the much anticipated follow up to Call of Duty 2.  Previous Call of Duties had covered World War II, but mainly, they'd covered World War II movies.  Nearly every memorable scene from Call of Duty or Call of Duty 2 could be directly traced back to some World War II move.

With Call of Duty 4, Infinity Ward was stepping away from World War 2 and entering the realm of modern combat.  At the time, this was considered a highly risky move.  It was well known that players loved World War II games, and most modern combat games had been comparative flops (Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon).  The general wisdom was that Modern warfare just wasn't that interesting.  Turns out the general wisdom was completely wrong.

Call of Duty 4 possibly pulled one of the best tricks ever in gaming.  They made an action-movie game that everyone thought was a war-movie game.  Call of Duty 4 was the first time in gaming where I felt like I was controlling the protagonist of an interactive action movie.  Incredible moments from my favorite movies were re-created and I was the hero.  The stealth mission, the sniper shot, the one final shot with a pistol.  A bunch of action movie clich├ęs in playable form.  It also brought Iron Sights to the masses.  A feature that drastically changed the way gunplay in a first person shooter felt. The game was about creating huge moments and letting the player experience them, almost the antithesis of previous games that were more about giving the player tools to create his own moments.

I still remember finishing the game, thinking to myself that there was a new top-tier first person shooter studio now, and then hearing the credits song and just having my mind blown.  It was a really professional sounding rap song and it was playing over the credits like a movie, and it was made for the game (by the development team), just like many 80s movies credits songs.  Then when the credits were done rolling, I noticed that in the "message of the day" area there was a snarky comment from Infinity Ward about hiring (EA had just had lay offs), and I could tell they knew they'd built something really special. 

For the impact this game had on first person shooters for the rest of the generation, this is probably the most likely choice for THE game of the generation if I had to choose one.  All this, and it was only about six hours long, which, at the time was considered way too short for a $60 game.  The developers understood something, though.  For 6 hours, nonstop action is an incredibly fun experience, for much more than six hours, it starts to actually get kind of tedious.  A very interesting insight I didn't have until much later.  Overall an incredible experience.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Year of the 7th generation

I decided to take a break from the "Games of the Generation" because I realized as I was compiling the list, that there was a year the 7th generation really came into its own, and that year was 2007.  That was the year that:

Halo 3
Mass Effect
Assassin's Creed
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
The Orange Box
Uncharted: Drake's Fortune,
and Rock Band came out.

Not all of these games are in my "games of the generation", but they were all major releases that really served to kick the generation off and give some hint as to what was to come in the generation.  Call of Duty heralded in a generation of realistic military shooters, The Orange Box was valve's move to console gaming, Uncharted wasn't quite there, but was the beginning of cementing Naughty Dog as a force in gaming.  Rock band was the bright flare in an ultimately doomed game genre, Mass Effect was the beginning of a generation defining RPG Trilogy, Assassin's Creed is probably the biggest IP created this generation, sales wise, and Bioshock was a commercial and critical smash that introduced the world to Irrational.  

Some of these games will be on my list, some won't, but there's no doubt that 2007 is when the 7th generation really began to shine.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Games of the Generation: Halo 3

This one might seem like a bit of an obvious choice for someone who worked on Halo 4 and now works at Bungie, but it is a bit of a different, interesting milestone for me in this generation.  I highly respect and like Halo 3, I think it's a great achievement, but what sticks out for me, is that Halo 3 is the first game this generation with truly out of control hype.  The hype machine was turned to 50.  Halo 3 brought a ton of stuff with it, four player co-op over live in a game with complicated physics, an incredible matchmaking system and some of the best multiplayer ever in video games.

But man, it also brought an incredible hype train.  The Believe ad campaign, the Starry Night ad, just and incredible tour de force of advertising, making sure the world was ready for another Halo game.  I remember standing in line for my midnight copy outside of Gamestop in Westwood Village in Los Angeles, and not only were there tons of "norms" lined up, there were frat boy types driving by in trucks cheering us on yelling "HALO", not making fun of the people lined up for a video game.  It was really an incredible event, and a turning point in AAA gaming.

A bunch of us at Pandemic (including what turned out to be 3 future Bungie employees) picked it up at midnight and went home and played until we finished the game the next day.  We actually took the day off to play through Halo 3, that's what an event it was for us.  It was a great campaign, but it was buoyed by the incredible hype machine that came before it. It also sort of marks the "end" of an era of shooters.  More run and gun shooters came after Halo 3 (Notably Halo: Reach and Halo 4), but the next game in my Games of the Generation was about to change everything.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Games of the Generation: Gears of War

So let me get it out of the way.  I didn't love Gears of War, I didn't even particularly like it.  I thought it was a fun cooperative experience, but overall I found it to be one of the more overrated games I've played.  So why game of the generation?

Gears of War heralded in the Seventh Console Generation.  As soon as the first ads came out with in-engine cut scenes that looked like CG films, the generation truly started.  The visual fidelity in the game was quite simply unmatched.  Nothing ever looked like that before.  From the material system to the particle and hit effects, it completely redefined video game visuals.

There have been a few games that just set a visual bar.  Where after the game comes out, the rules are fundamentally changed forever.  Doom, Quake, Unreal, Half Life 2, and Gears of War was one such game.  There was simply video game visual before Gears and after Gears.  And this isn't just some love letter to the Unreal Engine team, the art in the game is just fantastic, and the design fits with the engine and art to really make a showcase for the greatest strength that Epic has, the ability to push incredible visuals.

And for all that it had novel mechanics.  Take Killswitch, mix in a little Full Spectrum Warrior, change the camera so you can see your avatar in mind-melting detail, and boom: Next Gen is here.  I didn't love waiting for dudes to pop their heads out in order to get the rare headshot, but I was a fan of the few times I was able to pull off a really nice flank.  I liked the names of the difficulty selection items:  casual and hardcore, as if a "casual" gamer would play it.  Of course some must have, since it went on to sell over five million copies.  There were clever mechanics tricks like action reloading.  Sure the A Button was ridiculously overloaded, but it must be said that Gears of war laid the blueprint for third person shooters for the rest of the generation.  You like Uncharted? Thank Gears.  Similar to the visuals, there were third person shooters before Gears and After Gears.

I didn't really care much for the story or characters, but there is something to the overall notion of how the game was built that feels lost in modern games.  The weapons, though they may be adolescent male power fantasy weapons, feel unique, and weird.  A chainsaw Bayonet is a quirky idea, the Torque Bow, just.... different.  I feel like Gears was one of the last games to come out before the Great Homogenization of games that happened this generation.  It's a throwback to a more creative age of shooter design. Realism wasn't the be-all end-all. 

I didn't find the game's scripting to be all that polished, I ran into several bugs, and found some of the encounters lackluster, but the visuals were polished to a high sheen.  The level where it's raining, was just one of those mind-blowing moments visually.  From the splashes of raindrops to the water dripping down that stops at your body, creating a particle effect.  The overall attention to detail in the environment was ground breaking.  And all this with a relatively small development team.

So even if I didn't love Gears, I have to give it credit as an absolute milestone game of the seventh generation.