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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Review: Global Conflicts: Palestine

Format: PC
Developer: Serious Games Interactive
Publisher: Serious Games Interactive

I liken my experience of Global Conflicts: Palestine to the average Palestinian's right to freedom of movement within the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza: it's fractured and unreliable, yet impossible to give up on. I digitally downloaded my copy of GC:P from the Serious Games website, expecting an experience that would be more 'serious' than 'game', but thinking the price of twenty Euros a meager one considering that I'd be throwing a few crumbs to a small political fish in the main stream. I was surprised to discover a game that is challenging in three ways: to fickle human preconceptions, to intellectual and emotional disengagement, and to the calm temperament of those who expect a game to be finished before it's put on sale.

Character selection took a broom and rattled it around the recesses of my mind, clearing out cobwebs of comprehension and my assumptions about what defines someone as 'Palestinian', 'Israeli', or indeed 'Impartial'. The player can be represented by either a chap who identifies himself as having a Palestinian heritage or as an Israeli lady. Both characters share in common that they've lived most of their lives in America, they're both established journalists in their mid-thirtees, and they each have a personal interest in returning to a perceived homeland in the Middle East. Don't fret, choice of character doesn't affect much - the player will be thrust into the employ of a balding, bespectacled editor-man either way - and I suspect Serious Games' intention for character choice was to engage the player's imagination rather than to significantly affect the gameplay. The aim of each mission is to collect noteworthy quotes by engaging in conversation with local residents. The player's purpose being the piecing together of an appropriate article for one of three newspapers which each cater to a divergent demographic.

Errands are the currency of friendship, and the desert's denizens won't feel confident enough to confide in the player until their journalist has run a marathon - delivering messages and gifts throughout the domain - and, back in the real world, the player has begun to contemplate the risks of repetitive strain injury after countless clicks, unaided by an autorun. Coaxing a juicy quote out of an Abrahimic esophagus won't be easy even once you've successfully established an American Express franchise in Jerusalem: you'll need to maintain a polite veneer over your mighty pen before directing it towards a pointed question. My experience of GC:P has taught me that, by commencing dialogue with a query about my subject's health or about the status of their family, I'd find myself facing a much easier task and a more malleable interviewee. GC:P's citizens are fickle folk, and they'll quickly void their opinion of you from one day to the next, so you'll need to persuade them to like you all over again if you happen to want their opinion for the next story you write.

GC:P is a game about perspective. The player, as a freelance journalist, must consider the culture, daily life, attitudes, and expectations of the people they'll be interacting with, both individually and as a collective readership for each of the newspapers. A quote that I've collected may have a high news value (reflected by an on-screen display, frustratingly present only after the quote-collection section of the game is over), but if it's been sourced from an Israeli settler claiming a right to land because of the Palestinians' ineptitude to grow or build on it, then the quote is unlikely to generate interest amongst the editors of Palestine Today. I began the game thinking that I'd write for the international press in an effort to maintain impartiality as I strolled boldly between two decisively partisan communities. In actuality, I stumbled upon Hard Mode. Serious Games seem keen to stress an attitude of 'With us or against us' and they show this with their character's aversion to the international press: framed to be both biased and unconcerned with the humanity of the conflict. Intentional or not, I developed an opinion that writing for an Israeli or Palestinian paper would lead to wider recognition for my stories because the conflict is so intensely immediate to the people who live in the occupied territories that they couldn't become apathetic in the way that we 'Others' have the privilege of being able to.

If you wander from the café to the market in GC:P's Jerusalem, you'll be gifted with a bunch of bugs for free. People crossing the street will, for comic effect, adhere themselves to seemingly sticky sides of passing cars, and then proceed to thrash violently until another zombie-like pedestrian bumps them free. A quick flick through your notebook will result in a stuttering effect on the (criminally limited) sound samples of city life. You'll find that important people (who you'll frequently find standing on the pavement, staring at the traffic) won't talk to you - "Sorry, I'm too busy right now" - if you've already talked to them once during the mission. And may your god bless you if you'd like to ring the phone and complete the final mission, because it was impossible for me. I've done a fair bit of forum browsing in an effort to find a solution to this game-ruining bug and found two sources that attest to there being a patch to fix the problem next week.

I've enjoyed playing Global Conflicts: Palestine, to the extent that I felt a pang of sorrow when the game abruptly ended on me without a proper conclusion. Yet, I can't recommend it to you unless you'd like to use the game as a teaching aid instead of for fun. There's a lot to be learned from the conversations you'll have with the well-developed characters of GC:P, and each mission begins with a helpful list of points to consider as you play. If Serious Games patch their creation to a level of reliable functionality then GC:P would be perfect for schools and I'm sure it would provide a wonderfully vivid teaching-aid for the classroom environment.

Playing Columbine

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Snake Seeker

I had intended to write something a little more substantial than what you're soon going to regret reading. That was, until I was approached by a Greek friend and persuaded into proof-reading his 86 page computing dissertation, placing a rather downpour-like dampener on my aspirations to stimulate my readers both intellectually and spiritually. Honestly, this impromptu-essayship is awfully convenient: I enjoy the silly stories.

What more can I say? Click on the thing. Tell me what you think for a change.

It'll be like this only Capcom..ier

Monday, September 10, 2007

Splines Flames Lair

I'm quite certain that Sony's mission won't be complete until a day in the life of a game reviewer goes like this:

Awaiting Instructions. Connecting to Sony ... ... ...
Connection Established.

Commencing Review.

Undue Sony-bashing? No. They've only gone and issued a Lair Reviewer's Guide, for flip's sake.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

One Frustrated Consumer, To Go

If I don't intend to buy a game, is it OK to pirate it? The God and/or EULA-fearing mind would deliver a firm, 'Certainly not, infidel' to a query of this kind, yet I'll persist for the sake of madness, heathens, and blog posts greater than one sentence in length. Let's lay a framework for what will surely earn us rigorous flagellation in the afterlife: my question specifically regards Medieval 2: Total War, which is an ace game and the receiver of hearty compliments across the known world when it came to review-time, yet in using Rome's engine and Medieval 1's source material, it's hardly pushing the boundaries of what The Creative Assembly can achieve. I'll concede that I've made a value-judgement: that Medieval 2's full-price is not worth the samey entertainment I'll receive in playing it. My logic is based on an assumption and could therefore be incorrect.

Through acts of digital piracy, we circumvent the monetary reward-giving that our economy relies upon to drive creativity. The Creative Assembly is thus aptly named because it consists of a group that have come to be united through their profession and the knowledge that their efforts in developing games will provide them with an income and livelihood, stability of existence and intellectual stimulation. I ask you: do we need a games industry for games innovation? A misnomer of a suggestion would be that mod teams excel at applying their skills for creativity, and at no cost to the end-user, framing their serious hobby in a loftier light than those of career-professionals. I say 'misnomer' because the modder's existence is reactive - the act of modification is applied to another group's product - and therefore the foundation of games modding lies upon the software-ceiling defined by a (not necessarily, but often) financially incentivized group.

Piracy is wrong, according to the publishers of games, because the act of creation requires resources (in terms of necessary hardware and software, talented people and their wages), and that these resources were applied under the knowledge that, as in a car factory, the final product would be of greater monetary worth than the combined expenditure. I think that there's something sadly remiss with the computer game industry of today. Whilst a game's demo and many reviews could be analogous to the 'test drive' of a new car - both serve to be testament to the quality of the product and an aid to the consumer's certainty that they'd be correct to make a purchase - cars tend to vary in quality depending on the price a customer is willing to pay, yet computer game prices remain static (according to their system) and only the age rating fluctuates. Game publishers encourage their developers to produce their games at regular and frequent intervals, knowing that they will sell regardless of quality. A game therefore requires itself to be on the shelf and ready for sale before it risks becoming a financial liability. It is thus wrong for publishers to claim that piracy stifles creativity because, I suggest, piracy is a reflection of a game's lack of innovation and, additionally, a game's quality is dictated by market forces long before a publisher could be aware of the harm piracy may do to their game's sales.

I'd like gaming to be placed back at the fingertips of the enthusiast. If energy and curiosity were the driving force behind game creation, and donations were the method of revenue being earned, then I'm sure we'd see a return to technically simple but terrifically original games being in the majority. I believe that the capitalist market-system produces little of worth (see the military-industrial complex), that it engages its consumers in a downward spiral of lowering expectations and rising prices.

So, back to my original question: If I don't intend to buy a game, is it OK to pirate it? I'm sure that it is not. The fact stands that Medieval 2: Total War was produced with economic venture in mind and that I'd be abusing my power as a net-savvy irate individual if I were to obtain a copy against the will of its developers. Instead of swallowing this grey goo that trails all over the face of modern gaming, thinking that we've achieved a sly victory because we've eaten a shallow meal for free, we should be producing our own artefacts of worth: sumptuous everlasting cascades that we can each banquet upon together, rather than queue for yet another McDonalds to be eaten hurriedly amongst greasy, slouched figures in an endless cycle of fast-food life. I, for one, will make a point to create alongside my consumption. In fact, I'll model my life upon the Kinder Egg :)

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Obliterate Homes, Help the Homeless

It's not often that e-philanthropy takes the form of swooping TIE-Fighters 'sploding up the place, so we should be grateful that SOE have gifted Star Wars: Galaxies' players with the opportunity to take wrathful revenge on the derelict housing that (assumedly) has blighted the past few years of their online existence, offering both maniacal satisfaction and the knowledge that a charitable donation will be made for each galactic-emigrant's home destroyed. A department of Sony's Online division is located in Austin (Texas) and so perhaps they've monkeysphered their way to choosing Austin Habitat for Humanity as the charity that will receive the proceeds that result from each of Star Wars Galaxies' ex-resident's living spaces becoming Jawa jewels.

I think that Sony have made the best of a bad situation. Clearly, a plethora of players no longer consider SWG their home, yet their homes still remain in virtual existence on the surface of one of SWG's many planets. SWG's new subscribers now find that living space is at a premium on Tatooine, and they're reasonably disgruntled that most of the existing sandy-coloured shacks lie abandoned and unclaimed. Now, considering SWG's relatively low player base (relative to you know what), server-expansion no longer presents itself as a viable option, making the deletion of accounts and destruction of long-abandoned virtual property a transient 'out with the old and in with the new' necessity. The fact that SOE chooses to contribute to charity (when they could simply edit the residences out of existence) is, to me, evidence of businesses' necessity to retain good public relations becoming a positive force for humanity.

The Sentiment is Shared

I had to rejigger this post because of some copyright issue over at YouTube. Fortunately, Ben 'Yahtzee' Croshaw remains someone for whom I'd gladly donate ten pints of my blood ... and I'd wash out my own milk bottles so he could carry it home to use in case of emergency.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Review: Bioshock

Format: PC
Developer: 2K/Irrational
Publisher: 2K

I'm awash with disappointment. Bioshock is not the exceptional game that I'd been told (and sincerely hoped) it would be. High production values and a no-doubt talented development team have combined to found an exhibit of the most paradoxically ocean-deep yet Serious Sam-shallow soggy mush of storytelling and saline gaming. I summon Sam because Bioshock all too often betrays its simple-shooter essence. The truth is, despite its sprawling cityscape, voice-recorded backstory, and literary-inspiration, Bioshock herds the player along a pre-defined path in a manner akin to a headless kamikaze. Once the basic rules have been defined (hack the cameras, electrify the water, exploit the Daddies), Bioshock is a tiresome and repetitive trawl, although it is trawl through some eye-searing and ear-arousing locales.

Ken Levine - Bioshock's project director -once worked as a screenwriter for Paramount Pictures. I find Mr. Levine fascinating because he opines that a player must retain freedom of control throughout the telling of a game's story, yet I think that Bioshock has failed to bring this premise to fruition. Rapture is introduced through a torrent of set-pieces that revolve like a whirlpool around the player. I think that the first fifteen minutes of Bioshock may be one of choreographed-gaming's greatest achievements. Then, like a hurricane, Bioshock's energy dissipates upon dry land, and tiresome convention sets in. Bioshock's story is largely told through the discovery of superbly voice-acted tape recordings that are scattered like jetsam throughout the city. The recordings serve to permeate ripples from Rapture's past, describing one man's impractical ideology and the dystopian implications of remaining doubtless when reality's tide erodes a ruler's fantasy. One could argue that this system gifts the player with a freedom to continue their game whilst revelling in Rapture's past, yet I felt that the recordings necessitated my standing still in order to avoid triggering combat, or any other such noisy distraction, until the playback ceased. There are a few pipette-drops of genius dispersed within this inverted fish-tank of disembodied storytelling - Brechtian acknowledgments of gaming's similarity with theatre - but they remain sadly infrequent tips to an iceberg that remains largely submerged below the high tide defined by Deus Ex.

Almost every room in Rapture contains a few bad guys and represents an equipment-expending battle. I'm the kind of person who likes to thoroughly explore the games I play, so I felt unduly punished when I found that areas I'd previously cleared of enemies had become re-populated with another happy-go-lucky set of spritely psychopaths. An internal conflict emerged: should I continue to explore this level and risk the loss of my best ammunition or should I continue to the next in the hope that I'll get to appreciate the city's intricacies without suffering through the wasteful chore of combat? There was a solution: play the game like an online shooter and treat the ability to re-spawn upon death as advantageous excuse to skimp on using med-kits. By half way through Bioshock, I'd even grown accustomed to teasing the baddies with telekenetically-thrown scraps of rubbish to the face so that I could be fatally flung as a shortcut to the nearest re-spawn point. When I'd completed the game, I felt as though I'd failed to fully understand Bioshock, yet I'd loathe to live another few hours playing it.

The bloody ballet of Bioshock's combat is renditioned through use of plasmids (think Jedi force powers) and conventional weaponry. Together they fuse to become complimentary methods of mass maiming. An early example of the plasmid and weapon's symbiosis comes in the form of Atlas' 'one-two punch': the sadist's catatonic coupling of the lighting plasmid's stunning shock and the wrench for good old fashioned bludgeoning. I fumbled around in the settings to find the button I should press to lean - to no avail - there isn't one! Merely entering a room is usually enough to alert all of its inhabitants to your presence, signaling the development team's departure from common sense and a welcome to Rapture. Later in the game, two separate tonics (subtle plasmids) negate this problem, imbuing the player with silent footsteps and Predator-style camouflage. Oddly, the player's enemies seem to have their own set of poor-man's plasmids (and, in some cases, no special powers at all) even though their character as 'splicers' hinges on their overuse of super-human augmentation.

If the player wants to save themselves a bit of dosh (and blood), they'll have to learn to plumb. That's because a vital component of Bioshock comes in the form of tubes, which need to be neatly arranged to form a channel so that liquid may flow from one point to another. You see, the organisation of pipes acts as a 'fun' metaphor that represents the hacking of equipment such as turrets and vending machines. I'd previously had a wholly unrealistic and romanticised opinion about the excitement of hacking, but after playing Bioshock I realise that the life of a hacker is simple and brimming with mild stimulations. Hackers are no risk to the US government because their role can be simply outlined using the 'series of tubes' language that senators are able to understand.

Without spoiling anything, I can say that I'd expect to be granted a degree of freedom after a major event that takes place during Bioshock. Perhaps the player's avatar has a chain tattooed on his wrists for a reason: to signify total adherence to each order he will be given during the game. Bioshock's publishers framed their game as an intellectual stimulation, so it's sadly ironic that the only choices to face the player regard violence and occasionally the choice to refrain from killing someone.

Perhaps I've been too harsh on Bioshock. Perhaps it deserves the uproar that it has provoked through its commercial and critical success. I remain firmly unimpressed. I expected so much more. If you've yet to play Bioshock then I recommend you think twice before you make a purchase.