Games of 2010

In years past, I would have dedicated an entire entry to each of the games that I liked the most over the span of a year, but I know I don’t have the time (nor particular love of that format) to do that this year. My favorite games of 2010, then, will instead be talked about in a long, rambly, largely unorganized list. I wish I could write entire entries about some of these games (and I may still at some point), but that’s unlikely to happen. So, for now, my favorite games of 2010:

Jump to: Vanquish :: Bayonetta :: Dragon Quest IX :: Halo: Reach :: Cladun :: ZHP :: Gravity Hook HD :: Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker :: Lost Planet 2 :: Other

Vanquish
As a result of reading too much pre-release hype about Vanquish, I went into the game expecting a ridiculous, over-the-top, shoot-em-up-styled third-person shooter where speed, accuracy, and weapon choice were all that mattered. Upon playing the game for the first time, though, I was disappointed to discover how much of a role cover played in the game. I died a dozen or so times in my play-through of the first chapter of a game due to continually attempting to play the game more like The Club than, say, Uncharted or Gears of War. There were always moments where I was enable to enact the shmup-styled projectile absurdity that I went into the game hoping for, though, and that made the first half of my play-through of Vanquish more than enjoyable enough for me.

It wasn’t until I hit the 75% mark of the campaign that I realized how I was supposed to be playing Vanquish. It’s not a cover shooter, it’s a cover-to-cover shooter. If I was ever picking off an abundance of enemies in any given encounter from one single piece of cover, then I was, basically, playing the game wrong. The role of cover in Vanquish is solely to cool down your overheat bar (which is what your power slide, melee, and “bullet time” is based on) before you do another slide through the encounter space taking as many enemies as you can with you. And with this play style mindset, Vanquish is one of the most superb shooters I’ve played.

Much like the Halo series, Vanquish is also one of those games where playing on the harder difficulties makes the game much, much more enjoyable (and challenging). The one systemic aspect of Vanquish which remains a mystery to me, however, is the option to piecemeal weapon upgrades by collecting a weapon pickup for a weapon you have full ammunition for (with this method, three weapon pickups equals one weapon upgrade pickup). This design choice makes the most efficient play-through of the game require players to avoid using the weapons they actually want to use until they have maxed out the upgrade path. What’s more, weapons lose an upgrade rank whenever players die — something which is avoidable if you quit to the main menu at the time of death rather than just reload a checkpoint. These are curious design choices which I have yet to figure out a decent explanation for.

My minor issues with the game aside, Vanquish remains a great game with solid mechanics, great gunplay, gorgeous environments and effects, and an appropriately campy and absurd story.

Bayonetta
I’ve written about Bayonetta in the past and, really, my love of the game has not changed since I wrote that piece. The two active weapons that you can set for Bayonetta allow players to customize the “feel” of combat to an extent that isn’t replicated in any other game in the genre I’ve played. That PlatinumGames manages the fluidity it does given the variety of weapons and moves that the game has continues to impress and amaze me. The combat and movement from encounter-to-encounter in Bayonetta just feels so good and it all has such a remarkable energy to it.

While Bayonetta‘s story is entertaining and thoroughly campy and while Bayonetta herself is one of the most thoroughly clever and original characters to enter the game industry in ages, the integration of this story with the actual gameplay remains my sole issue with the game as a whole. The game sits alongside the Metal Gear Solid series as a poster child for how not to convey a narrative in a video game. The cut scenes are frequent and, what’s more, they are all surprisingly lengthy. As much as I enjoyed the whole experience my first time through the game, my subsequent play-through of the game was almost ruined by the frequency of the interruptions amidst such a superb pace of play through any given level.

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies
Generally, when I play a JRPG, I only care about playing the games that are systemically complex or incredibly confusing or are simply well-made strategy RPGs. I care nothing for story or dialogue trees or anything like that, so most of the recent Final Fantasy games, Lunar, Dragon Age (not a JRPG, but it’s so long and dull that it felt worth mentioning) and so on are all remarkably unappealing to me. Dragon Quest IX — hereby referred to solely as dqicks — is not a particularly deep game. dqicks is, however, an incredibly well-designed, simply and solidly presented, and an exceedingly well-written game in areas that most games simply ignore quality writing in. dqicks also does something that, for whatever reason, a lot of JRPGs seem to ignore: the value of “loot” and the enjoyable aspects of putting a lot of cool-looking shit on your digital dude/dudette doll.

dqicks is spartan JRPG game design done better than, I think, any game before it. No particular aspect of it is complex, but all of the individual parts that compose the game come together well. The hallmark Level-5 shine only adds to the experience and the US release of the game has a brilliant translation full of charming puns and alliteration whether the text is in a dialog text box, combat updates, or ability/spell names. None of this is to say that the game doesn’t have some rough edges, the occasional grind-requiring section, or anachronistic design elements (like the ability to “miss” a target when casting resurrection), but it is, by and large, a remarkably solid game.

It’s a strange thing to commend a game on, but one of the aspects of properties that I enjoyed the most about dqicks is how “portable” it felt. It’s one of only a few DS/PSP games I’ve played over the years where I could play for five minutes or two hours and the game would, generally, feel like it was accommodating to either time window.

Halo: Reach
This one is simple: it’s a “best of” Halo, Halo 3, and Halo: ODST. The campaign feels surprisingly fresh, the multiplayer is exceptional, the dual-wielding has been removed, and it all looks very pretty.

Cladun: This is an RPG!
Cladun is, at times, my favorite game of the year. It is after the times where I only play Cladun for a ten-fifteen minute game session that I think this is the case. I still like it if I play it for more than a ten-fifteen minute session, but the game loses something when played for longer durations. It’s a PSP game, though, so I consider this a positive feature of the game.

The reason for Cladun‘s excellence in short bursts is that it’s a game made, primarily, for those condensed windows of gameplay. Any given level can take anywhere from thirty seconds to three minutes to complete, and a particularly lengthy level may take upwards of eight-ten minutes (though such instances are rare). The Cladun gameplay cycle is this:

  1. Choose which character you want to use.
  2. Update that character’s equipment.
  3. Update that character’s magic circle layout.
  4. Start a level and play through it fairly quickly in a Diablo-ish, action/RPG-ish manner.
  5. Finish the level, see which of the characters in the magic circle leveled up, and repeat as desired.

The “magic circle” is the primary factor in character development and customization and it is filled with a combination of other characters and various upgrade/customization elements. All characters that you place in a magic circle receives experience from a play-through of a level and, in practice, they basically act like shields around your active character that suck up damage on your front, rear, and sides. Once a given character (or pair of characters) in the magic circle dies, your main character becomes vulnerable to attacks from that side and when the main character runs out of health, he dies. What’s generally worse, though, is that when a character in the magic circle dies while playing through a level, you lose access to any upgrades that were dependent on that character’s mana pool. This could mean that your skills cost more to use, that you move slower, take more damage, and so on. It’s a remarkably clever — if a bit complicated and overwhelming at first — system.

Basically, Cladun is one of the most numerically-governed games I’ve ever played and, for this reason, I like it a lot. It also helps that the actual game systems and control response for the action/RPG dungeon gameplay are solid as well.

ZHP: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman
ZHP is a Rogue-like from the same studio that makes the Disgaea series; this should be enough of a description to convey what kind of tone, style, and feel the game has, I think. Beyond that, though, ZHP is the best Rogue-like I’ve ever played. It maintains the “if you die in a dungeon you lose all of your stuff” convention that most Rogue-like games adhere to, but what it changes is that there is a persistent character level and dungeons are not infinite. Every storyline beat has a lengthy dungeon that players go deeper and deeper into, but at some point that chapter of the narrative ends (at either a staircase or a boss battle) and the player goes back to the home base with all of the items/equipment that were found and any levels that were gained on that trip are added to the total character level.

The total character level allows persistent stat growth, but it’s on a much smaller scale than per-dungeon level growth. So, while dying is still a setback, it’s not the “screw everything” setback that these sorts of games generally elicit. And aside from this means of character development, ZHP also has the “shadowgram,” which is a grid-based representation of the character’s body that you can fill with items and boosters that all take their power from a different power source (one on the head, one on the torso, one on each earm, and one on each leg). And, to be honest, I still have yet to fully figure out how the shadowgram works and what allows me to sometimes place upgrades and be completely unable to place upgrades at other times.

In some ways, ZHP is a very similar game to Cladun, just with different goals and focuses. There are still an absurd amount of ways to customize your character, but now you’re focusing exclusively on one character and the goal is to make him as persistently powerful as possible through the “slow burn” total level-ups, statistical modifications to the character’s body in the shadowgram, and continuing to gather more and more powerful item. ZHP is, unlike Cladun, a game which is very easy to sink hours and hours of gameplay into in any given session. Since playing both games, I’ve come to think of them as companion pieces; one which excels in short-bursts and one which excels for long-sessions. This summation is somewhat unfair to ZHP, though, as it works just as well in short gameplay sessions as it does in long ones, it’s just hard to ever stop playing it after a few minutes.

If no one else has figured it out by now, I have an extreme amount of love for games which have a lot of numbers. And speaking of games with a lot of numbers…

Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker
Peacewalker is a dreamy, portable combination of traditional Metal Gear Solid games, X-COM, and Monster Hunter minus the endlessly long cut scenes that the Metal Gear Solid series is generally known for. If this one-line description doesn’t sound like the best game ever then, well, I don’t know what does. Peacewalker is not the best game ever, but it is excellent.

What really struck me about Peacewalker was the approach that Kojima Productions took to making the Metal Gear Solid series work on a portable platform in ways that I don’t think Portable Ops succeeded in doing. Most of the missions in the game take no more than eight-ten minutes to complete and there is a surprising amount of variety in the type of missions that you can undertake. Some of the the missions are solo-friendly, others are designed more for co-op experiences, but most of the missions are somewhere in the middle. It’s all so very similar to the way that Monster Hunter is structured and this absolutely works in the Peacewalker‘s favor. Well, most of it anyway. Peacewalker has moments — almost all of which are related to boss battles — where the difficulty of the game and the amount of time a mission takes to complete seem to absolutely skyrocket before settling back down into the excellent groove where most of the game resides. This is not true of all boss battles, but the ones that it is true of are enough to drag the whole experience down a bit. That said, some of the boss vehicles are superbly designed and the ability to acquire them for your own private army is a nice touch.

The critical design change that Kojima Productions adopted for Peacewalker that manages to make the game far, far better than it would have been purely on its own merits in a more traditional Metal Gear Solid structure is the way that the Outer Heaven hub and in-mission gameplay work together. By knocking out (instead of killing) enemies you can choose to send them to Outer Heaven at which point they will join your ranks. Every enemy that joins your ranks has a particular set of skills and, depending on what a given soldier excels in, you can send that soldier to be a soldier, chef, researcher, medical worker, or mechanic. Soldiers can form mini-armies that you send out on missions for additional items/experience/”money”, chefs bolster the Outer Heaven food supply to support everyone, researchers allow you to developer new items and weapons, medical workers fix up injured soldiers, and mechanics can repair your personal Metal Gear (which I have yet to be able to use) or any vehicles that you acquired from boss battles. It’s an incredibly fun little metagame that serves as the backbone of the entire game. Also: numbers. Lots of numbers. I love it so much.

Gravity Hook HD
Even more so than Osmos and Canabalt, Gravity Hook HD is, in my mind, the benchmark for how to make a game for the iPhone. Any given session of the game is short enough to fit into the kind of downtime I’d have if I’m already pulling out my iPhone and the level of interaction it requires of me is perfect for what I’d want to be playing on my phone in public. It’s actually a surprisingly difficult game to get used to at first — and I remember telling people that the flash game felt better for the first few days I was trying to play Gravity Hook HD (the flash game is also unlockable, as I later found out) — but once that initial learning curve has been passed, it’s just a solid game that I always can rely on for being a quick shot of enjoyment.

Lost Planet 2
I’m firmly convinced that Lost Planet 2 is the most underrated AAA game of the year. It’s a true co-op game that almost requires you to have two-four players playing to get the most out of at least a handful of the missions throughout the game but, hell, I enjoyed the game a great deal playing it as a strictly single-player affair. It’s a solid third-person shooter with, yet again, a Monster Hunter flair to the whole game. It’s not particularly well-presented and has one of the worst interfaces I’ve seen in any game this year, but if you can get past that whole thing, Lost Planet 2 is a strange, varied arcade shooter with a fair amount of character customization possible as you get random pick-ups from giant enemies.

The slot machine is the devil, though, pure and simple. As you play through Lost Planet 2 you’ll acquire enough credits to be able to purchase a spin of the slot machine and, every time, you’ll get something new, but what you really want is a new weapon. And the game taunts you as the weapon icon scrolls by and, instead, you get a new Street Fighter IV-like “title” to attach to your personal license plate-like construct.

And it’s great.

Other
There were some other games I played this year that I can’t quite fully argue their excellence to others or even myself, but that I still find noteworthy. I also wanted a section to briefly mention games that didn’t originally come out in 2010 (or that I did not play until this year).

The first and best examples of this are Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days and Alpha Protocol. I’ve already written about Kane & Lynch 2, but I still feel it’s a series which has a lot of potential. If nothing else, the visual style and atmosphere of Kane & Lynch 2 alone are worth playing through the game for (but it’s also a pretty okay third-person cover shooter as well). Alpha Protocol has an amazing dialogue system and a host of decent ideas all of which are executed at a mediocre level. That said, Alpha Protocol is closer to the kind of action/RPG that I keep hoping Bioware will make some day; it’s interesting, works at times, and provides a lot of dialogue and gameplay choices that are actually interesting instead of the throwaway shooter segments and ridiculous paragon/renegade system of Mass Effect 2.

I also tremendously enjoyed aspects of Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (and, more recently, Battlefield: Bad Company 2: Vietnam). The single-player component of Bad Compnay 2, as I wrote about earlier this year, is a thoroughly disappointed change in design from the original Bad Company. Instead of a uniquely-Battlefield approach to a single-player mission (taking place in large, wide-open, mini-sandboxes), Bad Company 2 chose to move in a more heavily scripted, prescriptive Call of Duty-like mission design. It’s an experience which is saved solely by the excellent core systems which make the game up. The multiplayer of both Bad Company 2 and Bad Company 2: Vietnam is, however, absolutely superb. And the select button “spotting” mechanic which automatically marks a target for everyone on your team (or sets a squad order, depending on the context) is an incredibly clever feature.

I never got a chance to play Persona 3 when it was out Playstation 2, but with the reworked release of the game on PSP earlier this year I got my chance to play it. And, as everyone already knows, it’s great. It’s systemically deep, it’s got catchy music, the writing and universe is superb, and it’s simply a very well-made, unique, polished JRPG.

Some of my systemically favorite games that I played this year, though, all came from a Japanese studio called Sting Entertainment; specifically, Knights in the Nightmare, Riviera: The Promised Land, and Yggdra Union: We’ll Never Fight Alone. Each of these games is unlike any other game I’ve played before and they’re all remarkably well-designed considering how different they are from one another. Knights in the Nightmare is a SRPG combined with a bullet hell shmup. Yggdra Union is an SRPG card-based game where you have a variety of characters on a grid and you can only attack once per turn. Riviera is an item-based SRPG whose closest resemblance is Ogre Battle in terms of its combat flow, but with a character customization/development scheme based entirely on mastery of individual (and limited-use) items. I haven’t really played any of these games enough to do a proper write-up on them yet, but that will happen some day.

And that’s 2010.

Games of 2008: Metal Gear Solid 4

Metal Gear Solid 4 is a strange game to discuss. As a long-time fan of the series it is both a superb gaming experience and an absolutely infuriating one. The game presents itself to players as being almost two separate entities: the one the player is engaged in and the one that Hideo Kojima wants the player to watch.

For a game like Metal Gear Solid 4, franchise history is of paramount importance to any discourse regarding the game. Metal Gear Solid is a franchise that got its North American start back in 1998. The Playstation game was released to pretty wide critical acclaim and commercial success (shipping “six million units worldwide. The game made good on its tag line of “Tactical Espionage Action” by merging its action and stealth gameplay better than any game that preceded it — a feat that went unmatched until the release of Splinter Cell four years later. Metal Gear Solid was, above all else, a game with sublime pacing throughout its duration; the gameplay was the focus, the cut scenes were lengthy for the time, but rarely excessive. The game’s sequel, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, was released two and a half year later and, despite critical and commercial success exceeding the original game, is considered a misstep in the series due to the change in protagonist, a pronounced increase in tangential storylines (especially the romance of two main characters), and more and longer cinematics.

When Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater was released in 2004, the gameplay, characters, overarching story, and level design were all better than they ever were before. And it was with Metal Gear Solid 3 that the franchise’s penchant for unnecessarily lengthy storytelling through non-interactive cut scenes was most pronounced. The increased length of the cut scenes (along with an increased number of them) seemed to also go hand-in-hand with a poorly-crafted script that seemed to rely on a pure bulk of dialogue to present information and storylines. The franchise was always fond of its own verbosity, but each game in the series took it one step further.

And in 2008 Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots was released.

The core gameplay of a Metal Gear Solid game has always involved a conscious choice on the player’s part: does he/she want to kill a lot of people or does he want to never kill a single enemy (or set off a single alarm)? Metal Gear Solid 4 features the finest implementation of these series axioms to date. The stealth mechanics haven’t been drastically redesigned, but the iterative improvements in Metal Gear Solid 4 go a long way. Solid Snake’s camouflage that was introduced in MGS 3 required players to spend a few painful seconds of menu navigation to choose the best pattern for his current environment, in Metal Gear Solid 4 Snake has an active camouflage suit that seamlessly blends with his current environment if the player remains motionless for a few seconds. This process will give Snake a base camouflage value that is at its lowest when he is running and highest/best when he is stationary and prone. It’s a simple change to an old system, but the way it works now makes an already-fun/tactical mechanic from an old game less of a hassle.

My other favorite stealth-related introduction was the new “threat ring.” If a player crouched to the ground and remained stationary for a few seconds, a ring would appear around Snake’s mid-section that would indicate enemy positions/movement around him. If there was no enemy present in a given direction then that segment would be flat, if there was then the size of the hill/wave that was formed would depend on the distance of the enemy from Snake. The threat ring will also be colored based on an enemy’s state of awareness. I think this is an absolutely brilliant interface mechanic for representing the kind of locational and audio information a player would have in the same in-game situation (or out-of-game with a good speaker setup).

While the stealth gameplay was relegated to some iterative changes on the existing framework, the combat and shooting mechanics seemed to have been almost entirely redesigned. Metal Gear Solid 4 allows over-the-shoulder aiming with weapons and a first-person perspective that allows the user to move while aiming. In the original Metal Gear Solid, the only method of shooting guns was by aiming from an isometric-esque viewpoint while using a laser attached to the gun to give the player an idea of the bullet direction. It wasn’t until MGS2 that players were allowed to also shoot from a first-person perspective and, even then, movement was prohibited (the same is true of the non-Subsistence releases of MGS3). Most importantly, the gunplay of Metal Gear Solid 4 felt good. The weaponry all had proper heft, shooting from both the over-the-shoulder and the first-person perspective were both viable and enjoyable, and the controls were, ahem, solid. Also introduced was a weapon dealer that was accessible from anywhere and a fairly simplistic weapon customization system that allowed players to add scopes, grips, grenade launchers, laser sights, silencers and other basic features to the weaponry that supported them.

It’s, actually, the new found strength of the gunplay in Metal Gear Solid 4 that ruins the balance between stealth and action. While the stealth aspects of Snake’s repertoire received minor iterative improvements, it was still a bit archaic compared to the redesigned nature of the combat. There is no proper cover system which has a slight impact on the combat encounters but, primarily, prevents a stealth player from easily jumping from cover-to-cover amidst enemy patrols.

The gameplay of Metal Gear Solid 4 is, without a doubt in my mind, fantastic. It’s actually a shame it had to arrive as a Metal Gear Solid game as the series reaches the peak of its own self-infatuation. The cinematics are so prolific and so unnecessarily lengthy that even I, as a long-time fan of the series, started getting a bit weary of them from time-to-time. This particular game had the lofty task of wrapping up over twenty years worth of storylines (the Metal Gear games and the Metal Gear Solid ones) but, in some ways, so many of those storylines never needed more attention given to them; namely, the romance of Raiden and Rose (two protagonists from Metal Gear Solid 2) and a seemingly-random romance between two characters in Metal Gear Solid 4. The end-game cinematics alone take up the kind of time you’d expect from a feature-length film. As long-winded as Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3 got at times, Metal Gear Solid 4 is still worse.

The casualty of the cut scenes is pacing. Throughout my young adulthood I played through the original Metal Gear Solid about five or six times. I may have watched all of the cinematics during two of those play-throughs. The gameplay still held up through almost the entire game with the cutscenes and story removed entirely. The same simply cannot be said for Guns of the Patriots. In my attempt to play through the game recently the number of cut scenes ruined whatever groove I got into so often that, eventually, I gave up shortly before the third act. I gave up around that specific point because after the end of the first two acts, the amount of gameplay decreases rapidly in favor of more cut scenes. Act four, for instance, is probably going to be one of my greatest memories as a gamer but that is due entirely due to how well the levels and cut scenes touch upon my nostalgia for the franchise. The amount and quality of the playable segments throughout that act is nowhere near that of the first two acts; players are no longer in the middle of a war between two factions but, rather, avoiding annoying little robots. Or big robots. Neither of which are enjoyable to face off against.

It is amazing how Metal Gear Solid 4 manages to wrap up those twenty years of plot lines, though. When I finished the game, it was impressive to see such a complete end to one of my beloved series. I could not think of a single plot line that I felt was unresolved (or resolved poorly). But what I enjoy about games is rarely the storylines as they are dictated to me. As the foremost interactive form of media in the world, a game has the ability to make players the story in their predetermined premise (like one of my other games of 2008). Cutscenes as rewards for completing a gameplay segment successfully or particularly well are one thing, but what Metal Gear Solid 4 does is make the gameplay a reward for finishing a cut scene.

Solid Snake’s story comes to a close in Metal Gear Solid 4. It’s been ten years since I was first introduced to the Metal Gear Solid series (I was too young to enjoy the Metal Gear games) and for my first time through the game, MGS4 did an adequate, and necessary, job of closing the narrative threads that got their start back way back when. In that decade, games have advanced in an uncountable number of ways. Metal Gear Solid 4′s gameplay has managed to not only meet modern expectations, but in some ways it surpassed them. But with MGS4, Kojima Productions has alienated anyone not in their immediate fan base (and those like me who want to play through a game more than once) by not keeping the gameplay/narrative pacing tight and consistently relevant to player actions.

Metal Gear Gameplay

Over the course of the last week I was able to play the final chapter in a franchise which I first played as a rental on my NES way back when I was a munchkin; Metal Gear was a thoroughly confusing game for the four-year-old me. I very much doubt that I made it much past the first few areas as I was not a patient child. I may or may not have played Metal Gear 2. I did, however, play the hell out of Metal Gear Solid for my Playstation back in 1998. I played it through about four or five times, got Snake’s tuxedo on New Year’s Eve 1998, and have very fond memories of Psycho Mantis and Meryl and the boss fight with Revolver Ocelot. I would be hard-pressed to think of a franchise which, to this day, I remain so positively nostalgic about aside from Metal Gear Solid (and Final Fantasy VII and Resident Evil). So, now that I’ve completed my first play-through of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, I want to write about the two halves of this game: thegameplay and the story.

When the first Metal Gear Solid came out the game was absolutely revolutionary. It merged action, stealth, and cinematic storytelling like no game before it had successfully done. Everything had fullvoiceovers , the graphics were phenomenal, and the violence was realistically gruesome. The series stagnated after this first iteration with the release of Metal Gear Solid 2 riding on the first game’s coat-tails and, what’s worse, forcing the player to play as someone other than Solid Snake for 75% of the game and containing unnecessarily lengthycutscenes that felt longer than necessary (especially its heavy-handed ending). Metal Gear Solid 3 improved on the Metal Gear Solid formula by leaps and bounds without changing any specific aspect too radically. Much like Resident Evil, the Metal Gear Solidgameplay was still utilizing fixed camera angles and by the time the third iteration of the franchise rolled around gamers began to tire of it — though Metal Gear Solid was so remarkably well-done that it escaped a large amount of the potential criticisms which could have otherwise befallen it.

Loading up Guns of the Patriots was a fantastic surprise; gone was the top-down camera angle — ditched in favor of an over-the-shoulder camera — and the inability to fire weapons from first-person and still move around. Gone, too, was theHUD’s radar that showed enemy positions and their line-of-sight. In the first ten minutes of Metal Gear Solid 4 a franchise veteran is suddenly faced with an abundance of viable play styles as nonlethal measures, stealth, and murderous rampages are all interchangeable. The nonlethal and stealth approaches both become powerfully tempting the moment that a key character is introduced that is capable of being used as a weapon launderer at any point in the time. Players no longer will face a dearth of ammunition or weaponry as dozens upon dozens of weapons can be purchased and customized with limitless ammunition for each being a triangle button and some in-game currency away. And, oh, these guns have gravity. Each possesses truly booming sound effects and carry with them a feel of destruction like no Metal Gear game in the past.

The implications of making the gunplay of Metal Gear Solid absolutely fantastic are that the entire flow of the game becomes radically different. Players have a deadly arsenal that puts the greatest weapons in Metal Gear Solid 1, 2, and 3 all to shame and this actually makes an entirely offensive strategy completely plausible. Finishing the game with a large number of kills andheadshots yields different end-game items and badges than, say, a game where no one was killed or a game where a single alert was not set off. From my first personal play through I wanted to be stealthy but once I accidentally killed a private military contractor and heard a group of rebels behind me shout phrases of thanks (one threw me some rations as payment) I realized that I could, instead, kill a bunch ofPMCs and aid the rebels in their fight. This, to me, was a far more enjoyable and worthwhile endeavor than sneaking around both groups of combatants. I also earned a lot more currency to upgrade my M4 into a grenade-launching, silenced, long-range killing machine.

There are other subtle additions to Snake’s arsenal this time around as well. Snake’s camouflage will automatically change the match the environment when he goes prone or presses up against a vertical surface and remains stationary for a few seconds — a much improved mechanism from the menu-heavy method of performing the same task in Metal Gear Solid 3. The “threat bubble” that pops up around snake when he remains stationary while crouched or prone is also a superb way of highlighting the danger in Snake’s surroundings by showing “blips” in the translucent circle that hovers and follows Snake around. And the agme is full of streamlined additions to the tried-and-true gameplay of the series and just serves as further evidence of the ridiculous level of polish present in Snake’s final chapter.

For the first time since the original Metal Gear Solid I finished the entire game and still wanted more. The gameplay didn’t feel like a means to advance the story or to just make my way to the next plot point; the story provided the impetus to search my environment, kill the PMCs, and make it to the objective that I actually enjoyed reaching. The basic mechanics all function so responsively and the levels are designed to promote both stealth and violence that alternating between the two feels completely natural.

What’s more telling than this is that I started up a new game on the hardest difficulty tonight because I wanted to jump back into the game world and play more. Maybe this time I’ll actually play through the game without setting off any alerts or attempt for a non-lethal means of progression.

I really, really doubt that will last.

Games as Art

I watched Saving Private Ryan over this past weekend, since I hadn’t seen it in a few years (and had only previously seen it on VHS), and I had forgotten just how great the movie really is. I wasn’t sure how much I would enjoy it after watching Band of Brothers so many times due to the fact that Band of Brothers devoted so much more time to character development, as it had the luxury of a lengthy running-time as opposed to the time constraints placed on Ryan as a theatrical feature movie. The worrying, though, was for nothing, as the movie has held up after a mere eight years and is still one of my favorite movies of all-time. Even though I knew and remembered all of the major plot points of the movie, every scene was still intense, every bit of dialogue still poignant, and every major character death still as difficult to watch as it was the first time I saw the movie back when it was released on video. I’m not much in the way of a legitimate film critic, but I feel fairly confident in my assertion that a movie like Saving Private Ryan can be considered an “artistic work” on the whole.

For whatever reason, though, halfway through the movie I drew a mental comparison between Saving Private Ryan and a number of the World War II first-person shooters that I’ve played over the years, from the various Medal of Honor iterations to the Call of Duty series and Company of Heroes. I’ve played every World War II shooter I can get my hands on over the years and, to this point, have greatly enjoyed every one that I’ve played — so I’m not one of those gamers who laments the fact that there are so many WWII shooters populating the FPS genre.


Call of Duty and Call of Duty 2.

I would go so far as to say that the World War II shooter is, far and away, the most cinematic a game experience is at this point in time (I’d more consider Metal Gear Solid a viewingCall of Duty, I think it actually works very well. When I played through the original Call of Duty, I was absolutely floored with just how well developer Infinity Ward simulated the emotional impact, battle intensity, and overall chaos of World War II. The game, to this day, is still one of those games I look back upon as being one of the most enjoyable games I have ever played, and is a title that I continually use as a benchmark by which I gauge player immersion and atmospheric intensity by for any first-person shooter I play since Call of Duty‘s original release.

This all said, as I sat through Saving Private Ryan, I realized that as fantastic a game (and an experience) as it was, I couldn’t call the game art. Throughout Call of Duty I probably killed over a thousand Nazi soldiers, but not once did I cringe at the sight of their death or the death of a fellow Allied soldier throughout the entirety of the game. Yet, Ryan, I actually had to look away from the screen for a moment several times throughout the movie, a reaction which is very unlike me, as I’m very rarely squeamish when it comes to blood of any sort. And, although it tried at times, Call of Duty cannot even begin to approach the level of complexity and emotional depth that the more low-key, personal scenes throughout Ryan contained. One scene, in particular, near the end of the movie — where the entirety of the squad that the movie followed were on the edge of their wits after losing one of their own in what most of the characters considered a useless, though dangerous, operation given by Tom Hanks’ character — was handled in a way that there was an immense amount of intensity immediately after the sadness experienced by a character’s very visceral death scene, and then there is a complete turnaround where the scene becomes a very thoughtful exposition of a character back story.

Why, at this point in time in the life of the video game industry, can games set in a realistic environment not achieve the necessary level of complexity to evoke the any sort of real emotional response from players? The common response seems to be that the graphical representation of human actors is not to the point yet where games can accurately simulate the necessary human functions to really make players feel some sort of attachment to the in-game models… But I’m not sure that’s really the case at this point. While games are still a far cry away from accurately simulating reality, I don’t think the lack of a highly realistic rendering is what’s holding modern titles away from being considered a legitimate art form. It seems far more likely that the limiting factor of artistic complexity for realistic titles like the war games is the industry’s immaturity as a medium — this isn’t even to mention the immaturity of a large percentage of the target demographic (though this is on the decline as those people who grew up with video games are now entering their middle-ages). Games are still being released which feel the need to add unnecessary “hooks” or add unnecessary or out-of-place mature content for the sake of being edgy.

Although I have difficulty calling a game like Call of Duty an artistic work, I think there are a few classification rules that could be established for games. Firstly, there are the cinematic games, which are the titles designed to feel like movies — which can be accomplished through lengthy cutscenes, very tightly scripted or well-designed missions, or some mixture of the two. Call of Duty is clearly a very cinematic game, but it achieves its movie-like qualities through very well-designed missions and gameplay features rather than lengthy cutscenes. Game like Metal Gear Solid or Indigo Prophecy, on the other hand, are very blatantly modeled on a traditional movie experience. The characters and plot are fleshed-out through a number of very well-done, choreographed cinematics that the player has little-to-no control over.

The second classification of games is the video game industry’s equivalent to Hollywood’s action, horror, or drama franchise films. These are the kinds of games that gamers are used to seeing yearly or biyearly iterations of without fail that provide a very well-defined experience that players are familiar with and typically have no expectations for major change so much as yearly enhancements and additional features added to the franchise mold. I consider series like Tomb Raider, Madden, Tony Hawk, Rainbow Six, and other long-running franchise titles. There is a definite overlap possibility between this category of games and the “cinematic games” classification, but I consider the gameplay franchise titles to be primarily delivering a very specific type of gameplay with little regard to maintaining any level of artistic prowess — not to mention that sequels come at a very fast rate for these kinds of games. A new iteration in a franchise like Madden doesn’t compare, for instance, to a new iteration in the Metal Gear Solid series (which only come once three to five years). This isn’t to say that these types of games are bad in any way, shape, or form; some of my favorite titles are certain iterations within these series… But there’s hardly much in the way of real innovation present in the subsequent titles in these types of franchises (though there are exceptions, such as Resident Evil 4).


Resident Evil 4 and Rainbow Six: Vegas.

The final type of artistic classification for video games is the unclassifiable. These are where the kinds of games which, in my mind, do their part to elevate the idea of video games as an art form. They are typically games that end up being critical darlings but rarely see any sort of commercial success (though there are exceptions to this pattern, they aren’t numerous). The most recent, and surprisingly popular, example of a game in this category is Bioshock. The game is spectacular in terms of its story, graphics, gameplay, and general production values, and is one of the best examples of a game being a work of art as I can think of. It also had a fairly large commercial appeal, selling upwards of 500,000 units in its first month of release between its PC and more popular 360 releases. Another recent game that comes to mind is Psychonauts, which delivered excellent gameplay combined with some of the most intelligently and humorously-written dialogue that I have ever seen in a game, and all of these features were complemented with a fantastic art direction which made every level in the game feel refreshing and unique to the point where no part of the game, except for maybe the asininely difficult final level of the game, feel like recycled content to extend the life of the title.

One of my favorite titles of all-time along with being a game which was very much ahead of its time in terms of atmosphere and maturity was Max Payne. This game, developed by Remedy Entertainment, is a noir crime game which puts the player in control of a New York detective by the name of Max Payne who, as it tends to happen for New York cops in the noir style, lost his family due to a seemingly mindless crime. The game’s story unfolds through a mix of in-mission bits of dialogue with characters but, far more awesomely, through a between-mission comic book style narrative with a very distinct art style (the game’s art style is a photorealistic one) and writing that was handled in a faithfully-noir, over-the-top style. It was the first game, to my memory, which I played that successfully managed a very serious, adult tone without seeming immature or gratuitous.

And then there is, of course, a title like Half-Life 2, which does more to elevate gaming to an art form as any other game I can think of. I was, for the most part, very staunchly against the continual awards that Half-Life2 garnered after its release; I didn’t feel the game was worthy of such a massive amount of acclaim. I thought that the game’s art was phenomenal, the characters deep and interesting, and the story was presented in a very subtle and thoughtful fashion as to never trouble the action-junkie with its details too much, but allowing the “more intelligent” gamer to take his time and explore the relatively deep mythos of the Half-Life universe… But the gameplay simply did not impress me. Yet, the more I think about the sequences in the game, and when I went back to play certain sections of the game for a second time, I realized that while a lot of the gameplay mechanics were gimmicky, Valve did a lot of very interesting things that proved to be the foundation for a lot of to-be-expected gameplay features for titles to be released in the future.


Half-Life 2.

I held off on putting this question in the early portions of this article for a reason, but now that there are several types of games that have been talked about, it seems that this is the time to pose the question: are video games an art form? Every game certainly contains a great deal of items which, on their own, could be considered art (concept art, CG cinematics, musical scores, dialogue scripts, and so on), but are games, taken on their whole, allowed to be considered art like Blue Velvet or Taxi Driver can be considered art?

The answer to the question is invariably based on what a collective people would agree “art” actually is. The problem with considering a video game as art, in my mind, is the pure variance of the experience. The best game imaginable can be designed for the most artistic, thought-provoking, and visually beautiful experience in the history of human existence, but since it is, in fact, a video game where the player is allowed control over the events, what’s to stop the player from just looking at a trash can throughout the duration of his play time?

I wouldn’t have answered this way two years ago, but now I am of the mind that video games can be considered art in the same way that movies can be considered art. Not every title is designed for an artistic experience in the same way that not all films are made for a mentally-enriching or thought-provoking reaction. And, so long as video games are thought of as they were designed to be thought of, not necessarily as what a player would like to make of them, then the experience can be just as intellectual as the most well-done movie — granted, the industry as a whole has a long way to go before its products are as mature a medium as film, but I think that we, as gamers, are privy to a point in time where the transition of a video game as an art form will be an increasingly more popular and mainstream idea.