Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Great Video Game Debate, Take 6: First Person Shooters

And welcome back. Next up in the "friendly" video gaming discussion between my friends over at Soul Kerfuffle and LastBestAngryMan and myself is First Person Shooters.


Ok, admittedly the last category, Sports Games, was not my "cup o' tea," if you will. To answer LBAM's question, no, I don't really play "real" sports games (i.e. football, baseball, etc...) all that often. I can see the draw, but I prefer watching games and getting my ass royally kicked by Robo-Chuck (The Machete) in fantasy sports. Just not my thing.

What is my thing, however, is the First Person Shooter (FPS) genre. I have loved them since the first time I stepped into Castle Wolfenstein at a friend's house in 1992. I have played just about every major-release FPS on the market as well as many more lesser-known and indy titles. Along with good RPGs and the Civilization games, they are my absolute favorites.

Die, Nazi scum!!!

First person shooters aim to fully emmerse players in the gaming environment. The gamer in essence "becomes" the one staring down the barrel of a gun or running from zombies. Many people find this perspective much more involving. It allows for "direct" interaction with the gaming environment, which can translate into a more personal experience.

Yeah, I know, I need more involvement when playing games. But I digress...

I think the first thing to take into account when looking at FPS games is platform/input device. While consoles like the PS3 and Xbox 360 have made leaping strides in recent years with multi-axis controllers, it is still my opinion that these games are best played on a computer using a mouse and keyboard, which allows for a faster and more presice range of motion and a far more customizable setup. It is true that console systems have "keyboard and mouse" controllers, but it generally doesn't feel as "crisp" as a real computer setup. With that said, however, all you need to do is look at sales figures for the Halo series to see how that is changing.

Anywhoo, and without further ado...

#5 Condemned: Criminal Origins (PC/Xbox 360)

Frank Rooke, the Monolith Lead Designer for Condemned, said in an interview that aspects of the game were inspired by Silence of the Lambs (the procedural investigation), Se7en (the cat-and-mouse between the main character and the main villain), and 28 Days Later (shear deranged human brutality). You can find the interview here.

Condemned takes those aspects and creates an incredible game that is scary as hell and downright frantic at times. You play the part of an FBI agent who was just framed by a serial killer. Your search to catch him and clear your name takes you through all kinds of dark and eerie places including slums, abandoned buildings, and subways. The game very successfully plays every trick possible on your eyes and ears until you sit completely (and gleefully) paranoid at your computer.

The game takes entertaining (and challenging) steps towards semi-realism. Instead of an unending stream of "bad guy" soldiers and evil monsters, most enemies are vagrant drug addicts or gang members hooked on a new PCP-meets-crack drug that makes them nervous and violent. Guns are very few and far between in the game, break easily when misused, and can not be reloaded. Most of the time you find yourself ripping a piece of conduit off the wall or picking up a piece of iron rebar with concrete attached to defend yourself. The hand-to-hand combat system is very well done for a FPS.

There is a plan for a sequel. Unfortunately, however, it is only planned for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, which makes me want to stomp around angrilly.

The absolute most important aspect of this game, however, was that it finally lets me, albeit in a pixilated fashion, rip the arm off of one of those industrial office paper cutters and hit someone with it. Don't even try to tell me you've never thought about it.

Tell me you've never thought about it before...

#4 S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (PC)

Admittedly this game was gunning to be my "worst FPS game" until about two weeks ago. Not because it's bad - quite the opposite - it's an incredible game. It just took a few miserable weeks to get the bugs out. I'd literally sit there and almost be able to play a great game. Frustrating.

But that is neither here nor there now that I figured out the problem and completely reprogrammed the damn thing to work right (if you need any help with crashes, send me a private email and I can help).

Also, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has the most annoying title in the world to type repeatedly. But I refuse to cut any corners. Enough gripes. On to the good stuff.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is loosely based on the classic Russian Sci-Fi novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. No, I've never read this book, but when a FPS is loosely based on literature (Halo and the Aeneid, Half-Life and The Mist), it statistically has to be good. Maybe I'll read it now that I've finished S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. takes place in "the Zone" - the fallout area around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant after a second explosion in the near future. The second disaster leads to several physics anomalies and mutational byproducts called "artifacts." You play a S.T.A.L.K.E.R., a prospector of sorts, who enters the Zone to collect these valuable artifacts. Unfortunately there are other S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s and bandits with the same idea, a military who doesn't think people should be nosing around in the Zone, mercenaries working for wealthy scientists, and packs of mutated wild animals (and people) - all of whom don't want you to succeed.

The Zone in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. makes for an incredible setting. The whole area is littered with decrepit buildings, burned out military bases, abandoned science centers, and a lot of radiation and physical anomalies. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is almost beautiful in it's bleakness. The most striking aspect is how graphically close the game comes to modern day Chernobyl.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s dedication to detail is astounding
and creepy. Which is the real Chernobyl?

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a brutally realistic game at higher levels of difficulty. Different weapons take different bullets, so the really awesome and unique weapon you find may be worth jack when you find out its ammo is difficult to come by. Those bullets tend to be very fatal very fast (and expensive) at lower levels before you find decent body armor. Even then, in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. it's only a few shots and you're out. Throw on top of that the fact that equipment degrades with use, guns can jam, and that you have a very limited (realistic) carrying capacity (and food and medical supply weight adds up fast), and you have an extremely tough game.

But damn does S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game deliver with regards to action, plot twists (the storyline is very well written), and overall creepiness...

Ok, I cheated. I used cut and paste every time I needed to write "S.T.A.L.K.E.R."

#3 Doom 3 (PC)

When it took id Software about 10 years to develop a squel to the classic Doom II, you just knew it had to be good. And was it ever.

Doom 3 really fleshed-out the previous games in the series with a great storyline including awesome writing and animated cutscenes. It was difficult enough to challenge even the most veteran of FPS gamers and was extremely entertaining.

Where Doom 3 was really an innovative viking, however, was in its use of lighting effects. It made you extremely paranoid about every dark corner - you had no idea what, if anything, was about to jump out and grab you. That's why you always lead with the shotgun.

#2 Quake (PC)

The original Quake could possibly be described as a turning point in FPS games. While the storyline was a little mish-mashed (too many cooks in the kitchen a la John Romero and American McGee), it innovated the FPS genre in several areas.

Graphically, its game engine was the first to use three dimensional models for characters as opposed to two dimensional sprites. This brought another level of "realism" to the game which at the time really pushed the envelope.

It was also the first game to really bring "free look" graphics to the forefront. Free look allows the player to look around and target by moving the mouse. Previously in FPS games, the directional keys were used to turn right an left and you targeted whatever was right in front of you. Needless to say, free look let players truly immerse themselves in three dimensional environments. The system has been used in just about every FPS since.

Quake's soundtrack and effects were written by Trent Reznor which makes it inherently awesome. That's really all I can say about that.

Finally, Quake was the first FPS with widespread multiplayer acclaim. People (myself included) spent hours playing, modding, and creating new levels (while they were supposed to be studying calculus) to play online (abusing their college's T1 lines) with their friends (who were also abusing their college's T1 lines).

All in all, Quake was the basic model for the overwhelming majority of FPS games today.

#1 The whole Half-Life series (PC)

This includes Half-Life, Half-Life 2, Half-Life 2, Episode 1, and Half-Life 2, Episode 2.

If you look on Metacritic, these above mentioned games are tied with Baldur's Gate II as the greatest PC games of all time with a score of 96 (universal acclaim). There is a reason for that, and it is simple: they are, in fact, the best computer games of all time.

Storyline, writing, setting, puzzles, gameplay, graphics, challenge, etc... The HL games have it all and are widely considered masterpieces frequently copied in the genre.

Half Life beats Halo.

Literally. With a Crowbar.

For me, on a personal level, nothing comes close to these games for one reason, and one reason only: I used them for maniacal entertainment at Soul Kerfuffle's expense, much in the same way Bugs Bunny used to pick on Elmer Fudd.

After beating him into near submission (just about when he would threaten to quit), my friends and I would allow him to kill us a few times to get his confidence level and excitement up. Then, just when he thought he was getting the hang of it, I would wait for him to take a "tactically superior position," usually on a high cliff or overhang, and then inform him he was standing on a remote detonated bomb.

SK: That's it, I've had it, I quit.

TPTT: Oh come on, just play a little more.

SK: I quit the next time you kill me. I swear to god.

*Six kills for SK later*

SK: Yeah. This is awesome. I'm going to kill your ass with this crossbow again from way up here!!!

TPTT: Well, maybe you will.

SK: What do you mean? I've killed you six times from up here!!!

TPTT: Look at your feet.

SK: Oh Shit.

*KABOOM!!! - SK, not immediately killed in the blast, then falls to his death*

TPTT and friends: bwhahahahahaha

*Nachos (SK's player name) has left the game*

It almost made up for the right straight whoppins I got in Starcraft...

Special Mention: The Halo series (Xbox, Xbox 360, PC)

I feel I should give special mention to the Halo series. I've played the first and second ones (I do not own an Xbox 360 and am disappointed the third isn't out for PC) and they are enjoyable, well-written, graphically beautiful games.

Why not in the top 5 list, you ask? When I played them, I didn't see anything really "new" or "innovative" that made them stand out in particular. Why special mention, then? The Halo series, in my opinion, almost single-handedly updated the FPS for consoles and took them mainstream, and by all means should be commended for that. Hell, Peter Jackson is supposed to produce the movie. Uwe Boll is jealous.

Honorable Mention: F.E.A.R., Quake 2, Descent, Far Cry, Crysis, Call of Cthulu

Worst FPS Ever: NRA Varmint Hunter

The enemy here are squirrels, groundhogs, and parrie dogs, which you blast with a high powered rifle (you sick bastards). If you paid money for this game a) you should be ashamed, b) the last 7 years of American History are all your fault, c) your family tree looks like a telephone pole, and d) Charlton Heston thanks you for the donation.

NRA Varmint Hunter: virtual "big man" training

Highlights from the Metacritic reviews include the following gems:

"Throwing rocks at cars would be a more fun game than shooting rats in NRA Varmint Hunter. Playing this game made me feel like a hobo at a garbage dump with a metal detector." - Cheat Code Central

"All the thrill of the hunt, without the thrill or hunt." - PC Format

"Finally, there’s multiplayer. It doesn’t work. There’s a multiplayer button on the main menu, but it just takes you to the Speedco Web site. That’s ok guys. The game sucks and I doubt shooting varmints along side critterlover678 will make it any better." - G4 TV

"The biggest objection I have with the game, aside from it being roughly on par with a facial performed by a living urinal, is that you can't even move." - IGN

"I've played Flash-game advertisements that are more fun than NRA Varmint Hunter." - PC Gamer

Only one thing could save this game...

Only in a game could The
Sass be put down this easily

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Great Video Game Debate, Take 5: Sports Games

Time for part 5 in the "Gentlemanly Discussion" involving my friends at Soul Kerfuffle and LastBestAngryMan and me. This time we are focusing on the top five (and the worst) sports games of all time. This should be a good one, for rarely does something come along that gets people more riled up than the discussion of sports.

Except for Dwarf Fortress.

#5 Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 (PS2/Xbox/PC/GameCube)

Not only one of the highest rated sports games on Metacritic, THPS3 scored a whopping 97 (Universal Acclaim), placing it in the top echelon of gaming in general.

Admittedly, when this blogger was a young high school-aged hooligan, he loved skateboarding. I was never really good at it though, and spent more time trying unsuccessfully to "ollie" (and sitting around being "alternative" - god I was a dork) than actually pulling off real tricks.

Needless to say, when I found this game, with its incredible "Create-a-Skater" options, I finally got to live the dream of being able to actually skateboard. Well, the "beggar's version" anyway.

Once you get the controls down, you literally can spend hours in any of the expansive levels pulling of amazing trick combos, all while listening to arguably one of the best soundtracks found in any game.

#4 Wii Sports (Wii)

One of the earmarks of a good video game is its ability to enthrall people who aren't "gamers." It was obvious to me that Wii Sports is one of those games when I came home from work to find my fiancée (most decidedly not a gamer) locked in a full-contact "Clash of the Titans"-esque tennis battle with the Wii's CPU. Usually content to sit back and relax with a glass of wine and a book about Medieval Europe, she was hopping around with the Wiimote like a Croutching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fight scene extra. On screen, the little Wii fiancée was backhanding and serving up a storm.

I thought I was going to have to consult Wii Have a Problem...

What I won't discuss, however, is how that mean old Soul Kerfuffle ruined ours and The Machete's fun by teaching us how to beat all the Wii Sports games by sitting on the couch and flicking your wrist...

The dastardly Soul Kerfuffle is currently plotting in his
secret lair how to ruin Wii Sports for people the world over.

#3 SSX (PS2)

I was sitting in the basement of one of my friend's houses one afternoon several years back, when he asked me if I wanted to try a new snowboarding game. And so it began...

SSX is a silky smooth game released with the PS2 in 2000. It received a 93 on Metacritic and is generally regarded as one of the better snowboarding (if not sports in general) games out there.

Much like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3, once you learn the controls, pulling off inhuman stunts on challenging and creative courses becomes easy and the challenge is to either best the high score or beat your friend's score. Or you can just try over and over again to pull off the "double back flipping flying squirrel" which is undoubtedly the coolest move ever in all of sports video games.

Especially when done with Kaori, the rockinest snowboarder ever, who kinda looks like she walked out of the mind of The Machete...

#2 Need for Speed Underground 2 (Xbox/PC)

To me, this is the epitome of racing game. The physics are great, there is a variety of awesome cars, the locations are amazing, and the sound track is top notch (Xzibit, Felix da Housecat, Rise Against, Helmet, etc...).

There are two aspects of the game that really set it apart from its rivals, however. The first is model Brooke Burke, who guides you through the entire game. No really, I can't make things like that up. See for yourself...

The second aspect which takes this game above and beyond is the freedom it gives the gamer. The entire city where the story takes place is completely open: you are free to drive around and explore on your own. You can pick and chose your races as you see fit, and can even use your in-game cell phone to pick race-fights with people who just happen to be driving by when you're out cruising.

You also have the freedom to mod your chosen vehicle as you see fit. Any and all body and internal components are available from a variety of real manufacturers. My weapon of choice: a simply venomous little Black Ford Focus, much like the one pictured below, which cleaned the street with every...


Why you laughin'?

Come one man, seriously...

Dude, that car kicked...

Cut it out, man!!!

Come on, stop laughing!!!

Whatever, I thought it was bad ass...

#1 Pro Wrestling (NES)

The 80's were good years to be a child. Play time with your friends wasn't supposed to be "structured and educational." Unlike today, at around 10 years old, kids weren't being prepped (brainwashed) for the SATs, college, and career. Back then a boy was able to enjoy faux pas things like toy guns, giant robots with laser cannons, ninjas, swords, and sports without the intervention of pushy parents.

This is where some of my fondest video game memories were formed. Back in the days of yore, I would stay with my grandmom in the Summer because there were more kids there than in my neighborhood. In between games of war in the morning and baseball in the afternoon, we would pop in Pro Wrestling at lunch and take turns kicking the crap out of each other with our favorite characters.

All Hail, Kin Corn Karn!!!

Honorable mention goes out to the following games: Excitebike, Grand Turismo 2, Dead or Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball, Pigskin 621 AD.

Special mention needs be made of Rockstar's State of Emergency. While this is not an outright "sports" game, it did serve as such one drunken afternoon at a friend's house. Carnage and violence in the form of a scoring competition has never been so much fun. I think.

Worst Sports Game of All Time: Manchester United Club Football (Xbox/PS2/PC)

All Manchester United had to do last year was beat West Ham. That's it. All the much-touted "god's gift" to soccer had to do was top the "low end of the totem poll" in one game and Sheffield United (aka the MIGHTY BLADES!!!) wouldn't have been relegated. Beat those damn Cheaters. Bunch a tired wankers. The whole thing really pissed off Boromir!!! Ok, I never played the game, but I hate it on principle. I'm not bitter or anything.