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Friday, Jan 9, 2009
A defense of the narrative elements in Gears of War 2.

You’ve read the reviews.  Gears of War 2 has a marked lack of depth.  It’s relentlessly immature.  Its characters are a little corny.


As our own Ryan Smith puts it, “The rating on the game says it’s Mature, but half the time it feels like it was the brainchild of a 15-year-old boy.”


All of this is entirely true.  I have no argument refuting any of it.  What I will argue against, however, is the idea that somehow the story (or lack thereof) in Gears of War 2 makes it less of a game.  On the contrary, I don’t know that I’ve found a game whose story complements the gameplay quite so well as that in Gears of War 2 in quite some time.


Perhaps it’s a matter of expectations.  When you pick up a game that says Gears of War on it, to expect any sort of meaningful story is to be asking something of a game that it was never intended to provide.  The entire point of the Gears of War series is to blow stuff up and, if possible, look good doing it.  If you blast an enemy in the head enough times, that head explodes into a crimson gush of alien blood.  If you’ve got the guts to run up to a baddie, you’re rewarded with the opportunity to take a chainsaw to said baddie.  Your reward for doing all of this is to fight bigger bad guys and see the sights that new terrain has to offer.


The strength of the “story” in Gears 2 is that it is almost entirely motivated by moving the player from one dangerous situation to another.  The game starts in a bombed-out gray ‘n brown environment that looks entirely familiar to just about anyone who played the first game, but then you’re given an excuse to shoot reavers (giant airborn squid things) in lush greenery.  Then you end up inside(!) a giant worm.  Then you end up dodging “razor rain” in an all-too open environment.  Then you’re in a giant temple.  Along the way you blast away some humongous beastly looking things, ride a reaver and a brumak, and confront the Locust Queen.


The longer cutscenes in the game do their part in heightening the player’s anticipation.  A long sequence at the beginning features the gears’ commander giving a Big Important Military Speech.  Yes, it’s a clichéd trope when it comes to this sort of movie or game, but while he’s doing all of that, you get these tremendous panoramic shots that convey the scale of the operation you’re embarking on.  The scripting and the cinematography of the scene is perfect, and it’s a great way to get motivated for the operation ahead.


The intimate conversation with the Locust Queen does the same thing, but in a completely different sort of way.  Her quiet confidence and the constant presence of the impossibly agile, impossibly strong Skorge by her side as she speaks heightens the dread you feel as you know you’re about to face off against the Predator-like beast that caused so much havok early in the game.  She’s rambling on and on about infected locusts and lambent whatnots and maybe western philosophy and how to balance a checkbook, but it doesn’t really matter because, again, the game is not really about the narrative, the game is about look and feel.


Ah, but then there is Maria.


Maria, the captured love of Dom’s life, is where my argument is in danger of falling apart.  Maria is the closest thing here to narrative for the sake of narrative, because nowhere is the search for Maria truly integral to the progression of the story.  Still, in a land where the toughest guy wins, the search for Maria served to make Dom tougher, even as it gave him a gooey center.  Maria is his motivation, before and after we learn her ultimate fate.  His anger at losing her rubs off on the player, which actually makes chainsawing enemies into bloody giblets even more satisfying.  Again, the story feeds the sense of scope, heightening the drama and determination of the player. 


Of course this won’t be true for everyone; for every player that thinks the story works wonderfully with the game, there’s one that thinks it’s a distracting mess.  I have a theory as to determining which side of the fence you’ll fall on: Did you like Independence Day?  Did Armageddon make you tear up a little at the end?  Did you think The Rock was a cinematic masterpiece?  Aside from proving I’d never make it as a film critic, the fact that I can say yes to the aforementioned three questions (or anything similar that relates to big, stupid, Michael Bay-style action movies) has a lot to do with why I find the story elements of Gears of War 2 not only tolerable, but pretty fantastic.  The story makes everything bigger, and it gives me even more reasons to enjoy blowing things up.  What’s not to like?


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Thursday, Jan 8, 2009
Some thoughts on the demise of the one-time top dog of gaming magazines.

If you’re the type to follow a blog like this one, you’ve no doubt heard the news of UGO Entertainment’s purchase of the 1Up network and all of the properties underneath it, followed closely by the news of game rag stalwart EGM’s sudden (not to mention unfortunately timed, at one month before its 20th anniversary) cancellation.  The entire fiasco has resulted in a confirmed list of at least 30 staffers suddenly finding themselves having to check the “unemployed” box on every form they fill out for at least the near-term future.


Thus far, UGO’s been saying lots of nice things about letting 1up remain its own brand while simultaneously getting rid of a whole bunch of the people that made that site stand out (that is, the podcasters) among the major game sites, but I’m not going to be too hard on UGO here, because when you get down to it, it’s just business, as much as we’d prefer to think of it as more than that.  That’s small comfort to those who were just pink slipped, but turnover always happens in these situations, and we’re just not in the sort of economy that welcomes exceptions to that rule.


Gamers of a certain age will never forget this page.

Gamers of a certain age will never forget the Sheng Long hoax.


For many older gamers such as myself, the disappearance of EGM is really hitting home.  This is the magazine that gave us the infamous secret of Sheng Long, the magazine that started the “Lair is crap” wave of anti-publicity, the only magazine that most of us would ever have thought to have bought despite the presence of Fabio on the cover.  Heck, I remember the first one, which I bought shortly after spending way too much time with an Issue of Nintendo Power trying to figure out whether those Mega Man 2 screens were too spectacular to be real.


Still, the departure of EGM is just another domino to drop in the course of print media’s apparent march to extinction.


One could argue that print is already flirting with complete irrelevance as far as gaming goes, given that the only major American gaming rags left are Play (whose primary claim to fame is its “girls of gaming” feature), Game Informer (whose circulation will continue to thrive due to its status as a “free” bonus for signing up for GameStop’s membership card), GamePro (I’m sorry, I just never much cared for GamePro) and the official platform-specific magazines.  Europe still has a couple of solid mags in the form of Eurogamer and Edge, and Japan’s Famitsu continues to be a nationwide tastemaker (nothing solidifies the hype of a Japanese release like a 39 or 40 out of 40 from a Famitsu review).  Even so, with the ease of internet access still exponentially increasing and the shrinking window that separates “breaking” with “outdated”, it’s hard to see much of a future for print.  On an online source, you can see video previews of upcoming games; in print, you need to look at pictures.  Online sources can publish instantly, leaving print sources at least two weeks in the dust when it comes to news.


Maybe if they put Fabio on every cover…

Maybe if they put Fabio on every cover…


If a print publication is to succeed, it is going to need to a) appeal to the nostalgia of an audience that grew up with print, and b) provide a service that online outlets can’t.  In the case of Famitsu, for example, that service is in the presentation of scored reviews by a core set of reviewers which still garners as much or more respect than any of the current online crop of reviewers.  For English-language audiences, however, this approach is more difficult because any of the writers who could pull this sort of clout are already gainfully employed online.


Perhaps if there were a print mag that was structured more like an academic journal, in which experts, scholars, and the rest of us were encouraged to submit essays to a prestigious editorial board, the best of which would be published, we would want to subscribe to it.  Of course, The Escapist already does this online, so it’s difficult to see it succeeding in a subscription-centered arena.  Gonzo game journalism already has its place online, as does some surprisingly well-constructed fan-fiction.


The truth is, there really isn’t anything that print magazines can offer that online outlets can’t, and even the most nostalgically-minded reader is going to favor something free, current, and dynamic.  Even I’ll admit that despite my own subscription to EGM, I wasn’t really reading it anymore; maybe I maintained it for the fresh-ink smell that a just-delivered magazine has.  Still, EGM was something of an institution in its own right, a holdover from the Nintendo age that managed to hold on longer than it could have thanks to some sharp editorial minds and solid writing.  Inevitable as EGM’s demise may have been, January 6, 2009 was still a sad day for gaming as we knew it.


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Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009

Dear Supreme Ruler 2020,


I don’t think we should see each other any more. 


You’ve probably seen this coming for a long time now.  Ever since you came into my life back in July, things have been somewhat strained between us.  I thought I could handle your eighty pages of documentation—after all, who actually reads that stuff anyway?  After a cursory glance at the table of contents, I was eager to get to know you, and after I navigated your tutorials, I thought I understood you pretty well.  But when we started getting serious, it didn’t take me long to realize that there is far more to you than meets the eye. 


It’s not you, SR2020, it’s me.  You’re a real catch, with your lovely graphics, excellent ambient musical score, and your substantially varied level design.  You deserve a gamer who will treat you the way you deserve to be treated—with the respect and devotion a game like you requires.  I’m just not looking for a serious gaming relationship right now. 


There’s so much to love about you, SR2020.  You’re a fantastically in-depth turn-based strategy with a well-constructed and believable, historically-based backstory.  I thought that you would be a perfect match for someone like me, with a Master’s degree in US History, or anyone with an interest in military history, international diplomacy, or combat strategy.  And I think that there are gamers out there for you.  I know there are.  But I’m not one of them, I’m sorry.  It’s a personal failing of mine that I can’t keep straight the difference between an A4D and an A3J, and I’m working through this. 


You’ve got to believe me, SR2020, I gave it my best shot.  I read the entire user manual.  I played the tutorials, which I have to admit left me a bit cold.  I was okay with that, because you seemed to have such promise.  And then I played a vehicle-transport level, and everything was great.  But when I tried to defend the borders of the US against simultaneous attacks from Canada and Mexico, things really started to break down.  Maybe things would be better if we tried again with the help of the Supreme Wiki.  It’s constantly expanding and has grown considerably since last time I saw you.  But I just feel like I need some time off right now, to cry and learn and grow. 


So, SR2020, I guess this is goodbye.  I’ll never regret our time together, and I’ll always remember you with affection.  I know you’ll make some lucky wargamer very happy someday. 


I hope we can still be friends. 


Always,


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Monday, Jan 5, 2009
Speculation and opinions on what kind of changes will be proficient in 2009.


To kick off the year 2009, I thought we’d start by looking at the business and culture of video games as it stands to develop now. What are the current trends and possible outcomes? How is the medium evolving due to technology and economic demands? There are some new video game genres developing, some new trends with distribution, and the smoke settling from the console war to gauge. To start, I was stuck at a Christmas Party this year where I met a guy who runs a beverage distribution business. He’s the person who supplies vending machines, stores, and gas stations with soda and beer, in other words. We got to talking shop and he told me that the major trend going on in the beverage industry is what he called functionality. People, particularly people in their twenties and younger, no longer purchase by brand. We’re instead attracted to drinks that perform a service like energy, vitamins, or some other perceived benefit. We don’t care if it’s a Budweiser, instead we ask what is it going to do that makes it better than other beers? This coincidentally sums up the exact same direction video games are headed in. Looking back over 2008, function was one of the major advantages the Wii had with its user-friendly games and Wii Fit. The idea of a console and fitness machine proved more than enough to move units for Nintendo. How will this growing concept play out in 2009?


 


The idea of gauging a video game console by its function isn’t anything new, one of the biggest selling points of the PS2 back when it came out was that it played DVDs. Making your console do something besides just play video games adds enormous value in the consumer’s eye. The trick is that you have to improve on that additional function, not just repeat it. A strong example would be the PS3’s Blu-Ray, because even though the technology is clearly of superior quality, it lacks any major improvement in terms of the DVD’s ability to play movies. I hate to use the dreaded comparison to Betamax, but that’s another case of quality not being a decisive advantage. The DVD was an improvement over VHS tapes because you didn’t have to rewind or risk degradation of visual quality from repeated use. DVDs, in turn, suffer from potential scratching and the ever-present issue of not having access to one when you want to watch a program. The Xbox 360, with its inclusion of Netflix and a downloadable movie service, has upped the convenience of the initial functionality of playing movies on your console. No scratching of discs and instant access to films means the Xbox 360 is the more convenient media center. Blu Ray may be superior, but it’s also still suffering from all the issues of a DVD. There’s still room for improvement in this new media, Netflix’s visual quality leaves something to be desired when watched on High-Def. Yet with Netflix’s growing line-up of digital shows and movies, particularly a superb selection of independent films, it’s hard to argue with the edge that the Xbox 360 has established.


 


Even the act of paying for something is technically a form of functionality when it comes to media. Piracy and the second-hand market for music, movies, and games are a testament to this. As an old essay by Ray Kurzweil on Copy Protection in the Music Industry outlines, the eventual alternative music has already had to accept is going to start applying to other media. In order to beat digital pirates, you have to beat them at functionality. You have to make it so it’s easier and more beneficial to get media your way than their way. An example is the iPod, which made itself an essential mp3 player that led to people buying mp3s for it. Netflix going online is also a good start to this, but its catalog of popular films is still somewhat lacking. Kurzweil noted in his book The Singularity that the new digital distribution method would be characterized by an unholy intellectual property bidding war and you can already see the symptoms. The other problem is establishing a pricing model that still generates enough revenue to make the whole thing worthwhile. Subscription services like emusic, which has now passed 100 million users, are paving the way for this new distribution model. A media service like Netflix will eventually offer a similar tiered subscription service, although regulating the number of videos one can download is creating an unnecessary weakness. Downloading an entire movie and watching it is inane when I can just click and watch it streaming. The best model for profitability while sustaining function would be to use anticipation and time delay depending on which subscription the person has paid for. Gold members get instant access to a film the day it goes online, Silver has to wait, Bronze even longer, and so on as companies find ways to continue to keep the business profitable.


 


Which leaves the question of games themselves and the new market of downloadable games. The perk is that you have no pawn shop losses, no contending for shelf space, and can allow a game to continually make money without an expensive PR campaign. The downside, as Soren Johnson explains, is that you lose perceived market value and potential customers. Not everybody has sixty bucks to drop on a game, so the secondhand market allows these people to participate in gaming where they otherwise would spend the money on something cheaper. There is also the bonus of knowing that when you’re done with a sixty-dollar game, you’re going to get some of that money back. Functionality is, once again, the way they’re going to maintain the profits. Presuming developers have begun to acknowledge that sixty dollars can no longer be the only pricing model for new releases, there are a couple of alternative. The first is the The Force Unleashed experiment, which involved selling an individual level to the player, an approach that has already proven successful for Telltale Games. Since games have already begun to mimic television episodes in their pacing, it stands to reason they’ll just start copying the way episodes are sold. You can buy the entire game for sixty bucks, or you can buy individual episodes and eventually play the whole game that way. Buying the entire game gets you bonus content, buying each individual episode means paying more money in the long run.


Downloadable content is particularly significant in the multiplayer aspects of a game. Adjusting distribution and pricing models is probably not going to come about anytime soon, but there are still ways to maintain profitability by keeping the player from selling the game back in the first place. The trick to multiplayer longevity is to maintain a constant stream of new content while tweaking gameplay so that new players are never discouraged. An excellent article at The Escapist by Tom Endo outlines the downfall of the multiplayer game ARC. The more you allow your game to remain static, the more people become proficient at it and dominate new players in a way that discourages playing online. As a consequence, they’re more likely to sell the game back. Players memorize maps, master unbeatable moves, and generally make the learning curve much steeper than it should be. It also accounts for the fact that no amount of play testing can handle millions of people playing your game and looking for an edge. The gold standard for this is Blizzard, whose games made over ten years ago are still played today because of the constant tweaking. Once you factor in that new maps and guns not only sustain the game, they also earn you money, then it’s easy to see how this will continue as a trend in gaming. Johnson, in the essay above, also noted that DLC ensures sales for both pirated and second-hand games by making sure purchasers still must download the additional content, thus in turn ensuring an extra sale from even these games.


 


Finally, the genre to keep an eye on for 2009 is that of the forum game. Greg Costikyan has recently released a Myspace and Facebook Vampire RPG, and the satirical ForumWarz has demonstrated how easily an RPG game design can be applied to social networks. The two basic systems are to either let people do a few things each day or to incorporate the game’s use into the actual website itself with unrestricted moves. Either design aesthetic has the same goal—find a way for people to play while cruising Facebook or MySpace—but I’m not sure anyone has mastered the formula of how to make money off it yet.  That isn’t a sign of weakness in the market, as you’ve already got people sitting on the websites mindlessly clicking around, it’s just finding a way to coordinate this in a productive manner. The most probable change will be an adjustment in design aesthetic that adjusts its purpose towards generating traffic to the hosting website rather than being a game for its own sake. The most sophisticated website I’ve seen incorporate game design into the actual participation with the site is The Escapist, but others have their own methods that are similar. Forum badges, notification when someone quotes you, and ranks based on number of posts demonstrate a website that has designed the very fundamentals of socializing into a game of its own. Attempts to shoehorn micro-transactions or induce extraneous conduct are a bit misguided here. Functionality and using the game design to improve the actual goals of the website itself is going to be the trait of whoever finds the decisive model. As with all successful innovation, by the time someone is getting rich off of it, it’s too late to copy the idea.


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Text:AAA
Sunday, Jan 4, 2009
New releases for the week of 2009-01-05...

Way back in June, back when “The Week in Games” was still relatively new (because, well, Moving Pixels was still relatively new), it seemed like kind of a big deal that a game was coming out for every single platform in a single week. It’s the sort of event that takes serious coordination on the parts of both developers and publishers, and it usually signals the arrival of a pretty major release.


Hotel for Dogs

Hotel for Dogs


Well, I’m never going to make a big deal about it again, because this week another game is coming out for every platform imaginable, and that game is…Hotel for Dogs. Look, I didn’t even know this thing was based on a Nickelodeon movie starring Emma Roberts and Diego’s voice until I started madly Googling for information on this game…information that is surprisingly hard to find, as it turns out.  There’s barely a whisper of the game on the movie’s official website, the usually comprehensive gametrailers.com yields nothing on the search results, and searching on YouTube reveals but a single trailer for the Wii/DS side of the gaming equation, which looks really terrible.  Chances are, even high-end graphics won’t save this thing.  Of course, it’ll probably still sell more than LittleBigPlanet.


Fishing Master World Tour

Fishing Master World Tour


If you’re going to go after anything, your best bet this week would probably be to give Saints Row 2 a runthrough if you haven’t yet.  The game is the type that seems to divide critics and players, but if you’re into the whole sandbox thing and you don’t mind a hefty dose of highly immoral behavior, it’ll probably entertain you until next week.  Otherwise, Fishing Master World Tour for the Wii is the sequel to the highly underrated Fishing Master, which actually makes fishing fun with a pleasing, cartoony presentation style and a surprisingly fast-paced take on reeling ‘em in.  Honestly, if you’re looking for a family game, you’ll probably have about ten times as much fun with Fishing Master World Tour as you ever will with Hotel for Dogs.


That said,  I’m putting the Hotel for Dogs trailer after the jump anyway, just because there’s a place for “hilariously bad” when nothing quite qualifies as “highly anticipated”.  Enjoy!


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