Monday, March 4, 2013

Video Game Review - Journey

Well I just reviewed an Xbox exclusive, I gotta get my system karma to balance out somehow.

Art games and I have an interesting relationship. You see, on the one hand I have no doubt that video games are a valid art form. On the other hand, if you ask me to rattle of a list of games which I consider to be art, it would sound something like "Bioshock, Shadow Of The Colossus, Portal, Mass Effect, The Walking Dead, Wind Waker." Each of those titles, for one reason or another, were not only able to tell a high quality, emotionally impacting story, but were able to specifically use the medium of video games to do so. None of those stories would work as well, or at all, if they were translated to film, or literature.

But likewise, none of those games are so-called "art games," a term which seems hazy at best in it's definition. I use the term to refer to small scale games, which primarily exist to tell a story interactively, and have little-to-no traditional gameplay. For example, Limbo, Dear Esther (ugh), The Stanley Parable (yay!), Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, To The Moon, and so on and so forth. Now don't get me wrong, I like some art games quite a lot, To The Moon and The Stanley Parable especially, to use from that specific list. But I also find a lot of them tedious and insufferable.

The thing is, a lot of these art games seem to hide themselves in pretension, under the assumption that, to pull from a TV Tropes article, True Art Is Incomprehensible. That's a load of crap. Each of the games I listed as art games above can be easily accessed, and understood on at least a basic level. You can view Bioshock as a complex teardown of Randian philosophy if you want, or as a deconstruction of modern games themselves, and the choices therein, but you can easily play through the whole thing and see it simply as a sci-fi horror tale with an incredible plot twist. It works fantastically either way.

On the flip side, something like last year's completely intolerable Dear Esther spent the whole time making sure you knew how much smarter than you it was. "Here," the game seemed to say, "let me narrate to you in purple prose the entire time you try to explore this environment. Let me tell you a story, or perhaps several stories, instead of letting you discover things for yourself. Isn't it weird how I tell a different story, but not that different, every time you play? Don't you wish you were smart enough to understand the subtle nuances of my artistic merit there? Oh come on, you know you're dying to ask why you turn into a bird at the end. Wouldn't you like to know the answer? Wouldn't you like to understand? Well I'm afraid to say, you're just not smart enough to learn the answer. Sorry."

Folks, for that particular game, I'm quite confident in saying there was no answer. That game never had a real meaning behind it, it just threw a bunch of random garbage on the screen, and hoped you would be foolish enough to try to infer some meaning from it. It is to narrative, what the emperor's new clothes were to fashion. If there's one thing about "art" which I cannot stand, it is this sort of outright trickery.

Contrast this with something like the terrific To The Moon (which I dare not spoil for you here, GO PLAY IT), which had a coherent, easy to understand, but wonderfully emotional and impactful narrative. To The Moon is an example of an art game done right, in as much as it is not constantly hitting you with pretension. On the other hand though, while I do like To The Moon quite a lot, there wasn't that much impactful interaction there. I believe that To The Moon could have worked just as well as a flim, or book. Now there isn't necessarily anything wrong with that, but it does kind of make it harder for me to defend as an example of games as an art form.

Oh boy, I'm like seven paragraphs in and I haven't even mentioned the game I'm reviewing yet. That might be a new personal record.

The reason I say all of this, is that it's important for you to know what I mean when I say that Journey is perhaps the best example to date of an art game done right. That is to say, Journey has a coherent narrative, never holds up the pretense of being smarter than you, and the most emotionally impactful moments in it are literally only possible because it is a game.

Let's start from the beginning. What is Journey? Well, for starters, it's the most game-like of Thatgamecompany's productions to date. Unlike Flower, for example, which seems like what would happen if you gave a room full of game developers as many drugs as you physically could without killing them (and indeed, I suspect that the sentence "What would happen if you gave a room full of game developers as many drugs as you physically could without killing them?" might be the entire design doc for that one), Journey features a character, who you control with the left and right analog sticks, and are able to press a button to jump with. That's pretty much it, aside from one more button which allows you to sing a single note. Using these tools, you go on an absolutely gorgeous adventure through a desert.

Journey is a game about discovery. The game tells you very little, indeed even some of the controls which I mentioned above are never explicitly stated in the game. You must discover the controls, the story, and even the very game mechanics on your own. Well, not entirely on your own.

You see, Journey's biggest triumph is the way it makes you care about the other player. Journey is a multiplayer game, and I guarantee you it's unlike any online multiplayer you've ever played before. You see, at any time while you're playing the game (assuming you're hooked up to the internet while playing, which you really should be) another real player can suddenly and seamlessly drop into your game. The player has the same abilities as you do, and the two of you must figure out where you're going and how to get there together. The catch, however, is that the game gives you no means of communication. There is no voice chat, there is no text chat, there is no way to tell the other player anything other than by using the one-note singing, and through physically trying to catch their attention. It doesn't even tell you their PSN name until the end credits.

Now, this might sound like a gimmick, but if you're lucky enough as I was to get someone who's interested in playing through the entire game in one sitting with you, and who wants to discover these game mechanics, and the very story with you, then something amazing happens. Through these single notes and physical movements, you start to become very attached to your buddy. In fact, by the time the game ended, I was kind of sad to see him go. As the two of us struggled through the game (and I should add, the actual story to the game is pretty awesome too), trying as hard as we could to make it from the desert, to the top of a frozen mountain, our journey filled with peril, I began crafting my own narrative in my head; the only way these two could keep going, was to stay with each other.

This is the sort of thing which is nearly impossible to explain, but... You really need to play the game to understand what I'm talking about.

Now the other great thing about Journey is that it's utterly gorgeous. Seriously. It's one of the best looking games I've ever seen. Up there with Wind Waker.

Seriously. Rarely have I seen a more gorgeous game. Definitely the best looking game of last year, by a mile, no contest. Indeed, it's worth your time just to see the many, MANY jaw-droppingly gorgeous moments. The question is, is it worth your money? Here's where I kind of hesitate to recommend the game.

Don't get me wrong, Journey is a top-notch game, the experience is unparalleled. The problem, however, is that the entire game run about an hour an forty five minutes. Maybe two hours, if you get stuck somewhere, or reeeeally take your time.

Now those two hours are extremely peaceful, and a wonderful experience, but it still doesn't change the fact that this game is $15. That's a lot for a PSN game, and there are much longer, still very high quality games available for that price, or even cheaper. I got lucky, and ended up paying a mere $5 for my copy, and needless to say I feel very, very confident in my purchase. But at $15? It's going to be up to you whether you think a game that's less than two hours long is worth that.


The game does feature trophies, including several you probably won't get on the first playthrough (indeed, I encourage you not to even look at the trophy list until you've beaten the game, and just focus on exploration for the sake of exploration). At the end of the day though, it's going to be a personal choice. If you're willing to pay $15 for an extremely short, but incredibly high quality experience, then have at it. If you're going to feel bad paying that much money for such a short game, then perhaps wait for a sale. At the end of the day, $15 feels a little steep to me. Yes, I know it's no more than a trip to the movie theater typically is these days, but it still feels a little steep when compared to other games of a similar price on PSN.

Whether you play it now, or wait for another sale, I encourage you, without hesitation, to play Journey. It really is a stellar title, unlike anything I've ever played before.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Video Game Review - Halo 4

There are only a few games which have truly become cultural touchstones. There are classics, recognized by virtually everyone, like Tetris, or Pong, there are beloved Nintendo franchises like Mario, which have attained recognition through sheer persistence, having been around for thirty years at this point, and there are juggernauts like World of Warcraft, or Call of Duty which pushed their way into pop culture through sheer numbers sold.

Halo falls into the latter category.

I do not own an Xbox. I have never owned an Xbox. As such, I've sort of missed out on the phenomenon which is the Halo series. I've followed it only through pop culture osmosis, or the occasional hour-long play session messing around in Forge with friends. Thus, when the opportunity presented itself to play through the entirety of the latest installment of the franchise with my cousin, I knew I had to to take advantage of it.

Halo 4, actually the seventh Halo game, picks up after... Well, I wish I could tell you. The game completely lacks a "Previous on Halo" feature to get me caught up on where we are. I know the basics only through the aforementioned pop culture osmosis, Master Chief is a super soldier, Cortana is a sexy blue lady, and the Covenant are bad for... Some reason. I don't know, the game begins with Master Chief coming out of stasis during a Covenant raid, but it's never explained who these strange dinosaur-men are, so I can only assume they're mad at humanity for displaying the bones of their ancestors, instead of providing them proper funerals. In their defense, if some aliens started exhuming my great granddaddy, I'd be a bit peeved too.

I am a bit confused by the presence of Covenant in this game at all, however. I don't know much about Halo, but I am pretty sure that the Covenant were the baddies of the first trilogy, bringing up the question of why there are so many of them in this game. And I mean, it's a lot. Either my knowledge of Halo lore is even worse than I realized, or you didn't quite "finish the fight" in Halo 3 after all.

Anyways, you fight off the Covenant boarding party just in time to get eaten by a giant metal planet of unknown origin. Unknown to me, that is. Cortana throws out the word "Forerunner" briefly, and acts as if I know what that means. To the game's credit, the name is pretty self explanatory; It turns out the Forerunners are basically the Protheans from Mass Effect, or if you'd rather, the Ancients from Stargate.

It might seem like I'm focusing a bit too hard on the lack of any sort of explanation for many plot elements, but I actually do feel that this is one of the game's biggest failings. This is supposed to be the start of a brand new Halo trilogy, created by a new developer, 343 Studios. It should encourage new players to jump in as much as possible, either by focusing on entirely new concepts, or by briefly explaining old concepts to new players through throwaway dialog ("We'll Chief, that looks like a Forerunner planet. They must have built it billions of years ago!") or through a simple "Previously" segment in front of the game.

That said, although I found it a little hard to follow, the story really isn't that bad. It's a perfectly serviceable sci-fi action story most of the time, with the rare glimpse of brilliance. I find the idea of A.I. rampancy (a degenerative condition A.I.s suffer from in the series after 7 years of service) to be especially interesting, and the all-too-rare moments where Cortana seems actually afraid of her fate are some of the best in the game. I do find it kind of funny that one of the first things 343 apparently decided to do with the franchise was to, *ahem*, accentuate certain aspects of Cortana.

I also appreciate the ways in which the game tries to humanize Master Chief. The idea of a super soldier struggling to come to terms with what he is, and whether he is a real person, or just a machine, is handled with an unexpected degree of sensitivity, and his lack of feeling and emotion works extremely well to contrast the story of the actual machine, Cortana, becoming too emotional. I do think that the Cortana rampancy storyline was put there as a pretty obvious set up for Dark Cortana as a villain in one or both of the next two games, but it here it works, so props for that.

The actual villain of this game is kind of lame though, specifically because he seemed to be of the evil for the sake of being evil variety, and didn't really seem to have much defined motivation beyond being generically bad to me. He looked cool though, kind of like Voldemort's more handsome brother. The end of the game, and specifically how you deal with him, are also disappointingly anti-climactic.

On a gameplay level, and mind you I say this as someone who very vocally does not like console shooters in general, Halo 4 controls extremely well. While I personally still find the controller to be too sluggish a method for player versus player combat, for the purposes of a campaign, it is perfectly functional. It moves like you want it to, and the guns are all very satisfying, and feel just powerful enough.

The campaign ran about 8 hours for me, which is a pretty good length for a FPS campaign. Unlike games with a similar length though, such as last year's Spec Ops: The Line, the game doesn't feel too long, and it's always keeping you engaged. There's no fluff. In fact, it's probably taken it a bit too far. In the end, the game actually suffers from a more mild form of the same issue I have with games like the Call of Duty franchise. The game is always set to eleven.

Do you know why Mass Effect has those ship sequences, where you talk to your crew? Yes, it builds characterization, but it's actually more important than just that. By providing you with those quiet moments, the moments where you're just talking to your crew, with no combat, and no action, the game is actually providing you with a moment to sit back, breath, and take in the action moments which just happened. If a game is constantly set to eleven, you get desensitized to it, and each explosion becomes exactly as interesting as the last. In all honesty, it gets boring. By providing you with quiet moments to contrast the big explosions, or epic story beats, it makes those big moments feel much more grand and exciting by comparison. 

Halo 4 has none of those, and at the end of the day, it really hurts it. If this 8 hour game had added another 90 minutes, split throughout the game, which were just quiet character moments as characters run from point A to B, I think that both the action, and he story, would have been much better for it.

I greatly enjoyed my time with Halo 4. I think it is a very well made game, with a decent story. As far as console shooters go, it's one of the better ones out there. While I'd still take a Mass Effect story any day, it's clear that there are, at least, some people at 343 who care about telling a good story in an interesting universe. Consider this game to have my official seal of approval.