September 5, 2012

Spoilers for RAGE

I paid $10 for this, and I think that's what it's worth.

It's not a bad game. It has beautiful scenery and smooth gameplay. But it feels like it's straight from the late 90s. It doesn't offer anything really new to the genre. Even the levels are linear, not so much like a line but a horseshoe. Each board loops back around and has some form of boss fight.

Plot-wise, there is some, but there isn't much room for the player to care or even understand the conflict or antagonism. Penny Arcade sums it up pretty well. There was even a mission where I was supposed to kill a bunch of people who were running a power plant. The NPC was tired of paying these people money and wanted me to murder everyone so he could control it. My thoughts? You want me to kill these businessmen? And aren't they important to keep alive, since they are providing the only source of power in the whole region?

And of course there is no way to decline the mission without grinding the plot to a halt.

Lastly, unless you play all of the side mission, the game is really short; less than 15 hours. Was it 10 hours? This is fine for a sandbox game, but this wasn't a sandbox game.

So RAGE has modern technology, but ten year old game design. $10 for me and it's off my hard drive already.

Borderlands 1

August 11, 2012

Supposed spoilers for Borderlands 1

The spoiler is that there are no spoilers. Borderlands, the first one, not the one coming out, has absolutely no plot. Not in the Campbell Hero Cycle sense, not in the Aristotle character arc sense, not in the Shakespearean tragedy sense. There are a series of quests that have a cause and effect series of steps (i.e. go shoot a thing, thing dies, you get reward, and the thing doesn't come back to life).

Since the story has no real bearing on the game other than to get you to the ending boss fight that has no real bearing on the plot, why not take it out and make it a semi-open world sandboxy game that is all about grinding and loot?

Because that's where Borderlands really excels. It has a unique visual tone and style. It has a comprehensive item generation engine. It has a wide variety of creatures. Why spoil it with plotting that actually distracts from the game?

The game has a lot of replay value in its item generation engine. Instead of playing it like an RPG, play it like a shooter but with a variety of weapons and builds to experiment with. And better yet, play it with a group of friends. Chatting and hanging out takes the edge of the boring parts of the game.

I bought the game on Steam for $26. Despite the fact that as a writer, the "story" made me so frustrated that I yelled at my computer at the end, I have played the game several times with my friends, which more than makes up for the initial disappointment. I feel at $26 I got more than my money's worth. I wouldn't have paid $40, so the range between those two prices would depend a lot on how often you and your friends get together to play Borderlands.

Alan Wake

July 27, 2012

Spoilers for Alan Wake, the DLC, and Alan Wake: American Nightmare

There are plenty of reviews for Alan Wake. All of them take only individual installments of the franchise into account with their reviews. I acquired the set through the steam Summer Sale, and I enjoyed the series very much, even as I was frustrated with it.

As a struggling writer, I identified with the protagonist's own struggles with creativity, career, and success (although Alan Wake is presented as far more successful than I am of course). And I enjoyed the whole meta-narrative of a story within a story written by the writer, with constant nods toward the creative process. In an insane asylum in the fourth chapter, Alan Wake meets a game designer gone insane by the constant and contradictory demands of game creation; to create an original work of possible art but one that people will instantly recognize as familiar, and market forces will recognize as profitable.

But the story is incredibly muddled, with two chapters devoted to a couple of minor antagonists that really provide random plots to keep the protagonist from his goal. A completely insane FBI agent appears from nowhere to chase, shoot, and threaten Alan Wake, and we never learn why and how he fits into the story. He literally disappears into darkness and is never seen again. Meanwhile, a demented psychologist at the insane asylum plots to bend Alan to his will, but has no other motivation than to be creepy, and to delay Alan one more time.

The game and story really makes sense and becomes compelling at the last and fifth chapter of the original game with a sacrifice that comes out of the blue because we are given no information on why the sacrifice is necessary. And despite being the object of his plot goal, saving the life of his wife, we get very little screen time with her to see her as a fully realized character. If I had bought the game originally, I would have been frustrated and furious at such as ambiguous ending that appears to highlight a tragedy yet never builds up to it properly.

The DLC episodes, "The Signal" and "The Writer" are perhaps the real ending to the original game, since it explains the mysterious darkness and its reality of origin in a more compelling way. Not only does it give the player a sense of closure, I think it better encapsulates the games original premise; that Alan is a self-destructive person with the potential to overcome his weakness and become a better person, and thus a better writer.

The semi-sequel, American Nightmare, presents the next step of Alan's evolution, as someone who is mastering the physics of the darkness reality. The time loop storyline, which it appears to reuse the same assets, is at least presented with the realization that the material repeats itself. The characters know they are looping, and with each iteration they take steps to make their lives easier for them and the protagonist.

The game is incredibly linear. Even Silent Hill, which was very linear, allowed the player to explore the town on their own, giving at least the illusion of playing in a pseudo-sandbox, but Alan Wake, like Half Life 2, doesn't really have any place to explore (but Half Life 2 breaks up the action with interesting set pieces). And for a game that is supposed to be about personal, psychological horror, the player spends a lot of time picking up bigger guns and shooting their problems. Lastly, the game is incredibly short. I finished the whole franchise within 20 to 25 hours.

I bought (or my girlfriend actually bought for me) the franchise for $10. Because of the linearity and shortness of the game, I don't think I ever would have paid full price. Maybe $36 because I really enjoyed the story and see so much potential for the format, style, and sequels. But probably $25 before I felt too let down with that lost potential.