Monday, December 12, 2005

Cashing my chips

Originally posted at WayIPlay.com (now defunct)

I first played Final Fantasy VII in 1997 on my friend’s Playstation. I admired its atmosphere: the typically fine (if sometimes overburdened) Nobuo Uematsu score; the gorgeous prerendered backgrounds; the attractive adaptation of the Final Fantasy battle system to 3d. When the game was released for Windows PC the following year, I bought it. I played on and off over the summer of 1998, and then shelved the game during the school year. This became a typical pattern: brief flurries of progress, spaced out over months or even years.

I didn’t even finish the first disc (of three) until the summer of 2001, 4 years after starting the game. During my tenure with the game, I’ve played it on five computers: four of my own and, during one winter break, one of my parents’. And in that time, I earned a Bachelor’s and a Master’s Degree, completed a five-level course in improvisation, am now a year and a half into a career in engineering, and have met a lovely girl (Note 3/18/10: We're married now. -F).
One thing I haven’t done in the past 8 years is finish the damn game. At the beginning of 2005, I made a New Year’s resolution: to finish Final Fantasy VII before the year was out. Last night, I decided to call it off. I will not finish the game, or play any more of it.
The thing is, it’s a deeply flawed game. The gameplay is just fine. I like fighting monsters, gathering equipment, managing a party of warriors. But the gameplay is increasingly spread out between ponderous stretches of PLOT. The story also has potential interest. But the delivery is abysmal. Scenes of plot or character development are presented in a combination of nicely-rendered, 30-second full motion videos (of the kind that was used to foist the game on the public in TV ads) and tone-deaf, emotionless, in-game scenes, such as the “moving” death of Aeris, pictured above. The former are pretty but feel out of place, seeing as they account for about 1% of game time. The latter are like watching Lego people try to emote, which gets especially tricky when it’s not always clear which one of them is supposed to be talking, and their lines are poorly translated from the original Japanese.
The in-game scenes are further hampered by a total lack of change in the music. The same midi tune that accompanied your 20-minute wanderings in a given cave will also accompany the 20-minute scene — and all its dramatic turns — at the end of the cave. These bits that are supposed to keep you going through the hundreds of random battles, minigames, and Chocobo breeding stints spread over a hundred hours? No, thank you.
As previously mentioned, I don’t dislike console RPG mechanics, or the Final Fantasy series. I don’t even have a problem with long scenes between gameplay. I just prefer it to be in a game capable of making me care. My buddy Nels hates the Metal Gear Solid series for this reason, but I enjoy it, because at least I can perceive dramatic highs and lows in those scenes. I also give a pass to Final Fantasy IV, because when I first played it, I was 14, and by the time I went back to play it, they had fixed the translation.
So, it’s been a long time coming, but I have finally decided to stop my quixotic and poorly-paced quest to complete Final Fantasy VII. I feel as though a load has been lifted, which will allow me to refocus my energy on more important goals.
Like Final Fantasy Tactics.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Why Sony cannot and should not win the portable gaming market

Originally posted at WayIPlay.com

I bought Burnout: Legends tonight. Looking forward to playing it, I popped it into my PSP. After the PSP loading screen, it said:

“To start you must update the system software.”

Ok, fair enough. Out to the main menu. Find the System 1.52 update.

“The AC adapter is not attached. Please attach the AC adapter, and then try again.”

Alright, you’re throwing up a lot of barriers, but I’ll dig it out and hook it up.

“The battery is low. Please charge the battery, and then try again.”

Screw you, Sony, I’m going to play Go! Fight! Cheersquad.

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Ravenholm update

Originally posted at WayIPlay.com

I played Half-Life 2 on Friday for the first time since February. I am now in the thick of Ravenholm, and have encountered every horrible thing that the sleepy little hamlet has to offer: all three varieties of headcrab and zombie.

As I’ve blogged about here and elsewhere, I’m a great big wuss when it comes to Ravenholm. I actually wouldn’t mind the lightning-fast, shrieking, skeletal zombies leaping at me from the rooftops if giant spidery-looking things didn’t subsequently jump off of them.

The worst, of course, are the poison headcrabs. They look like giant spiders, they move like giant spiders (say what you will about the creepiness of the original headcrabs — I could usually remind myself that they looked like walking Thanksgiving turkeys), and they make rattling/hissing noises like the giant spiders in movies. These things scare the bejeezus out of me. Given the opportunity, if I know or suspect that one of these is around the corner, I will saturate the area with grenades rather than face the potential of having to watch one of these move. I should also note that I’ve been playing through Ravenholm on God mode, so none of these things can actually HURT me.

If that wasn’t enough, the poison zombies each carry four poison headcrabs, and can throw them at you from up to two stories below. Typically at that point I’m too busy spontaneously evacuating my bowels to actually kill the things.

2009 Addition: SEE! Horrifying!

Monday, July 25, 2005

Guess what: got gaffled by one-time

Originally posted at WayIPlay.com

GTA: San Andreas Update

The PC version of San Andreas has made all my Being-Able-to-Play-the-Game dreams come true. The Just Business mission was a breeze, and I am now much farther (San Fiero) than I ever got in the PS2 version.

Just to get this out of the way, and so you don’t get me wrong: I love this game. I love the size and scope. I love exploring the cities and countryside. The game has even inspired some research into real Californian geography and landmarks, to see what parts of the game’s landscape have real-world counterparts (Rockstar did a remarkable job of condensing LA), and into the history of LA gangs (check out these pages on graffiti and gang territories — I suspect someone from Rockstar may have visited this site in developing the game).

All that said, this game has some serious problems, likely as a result of that size & scope I so enjoy. There are some game mechanics that seem buggy or not fully fleshed-out (no pun intended), such as the girlfriends. And then there’s the problem of that lumbering dinosaur called the Renderware engine.

When I reached San Fiero, I spent some time exploring before I started any missions, and I started a relationship with Katie, the nurse. It was my understanding that the benefit of the girlfriends in the game was that you got fringe benefits, depending on the girlfriend. In this case, if I’m wasted, instead of ending up outside a hospital short $100 and all my equipment, I end up outside of Katie’s house with all my stuff. That ain’t nothin’. And later on, if the relationship gets far enough, I get access to her car (a hearse) and a medic uniform. Oh, and if I were to download a patch, I could play a totally unsexy sex minigame gloriously rendered by the lumbering dinosaur.

What I didn’t understand was how glitchy and poorly implemented the girlfriend stuff would be. I can initiate a date with Katie whenever she’s home, which is nominally noon to midnight every day. She isn’t always there, which isn’t a problem. Sometimes she’ll call while I’m wandering around on foot, to ask me to come pick her up. Also not a problem. What is a problem is when she hasn’t been at home for several days, and hasn’t called, and the relationship progress spontaneously, arbitrarily decreases. So I’ve been stuck at ~30% progress since date 1, because every date’s progress gets deleted.

What’s more, I understood that there are several kinds of dates you can go on. Sometimes she’ll ask to go get food. Sometimes she’ll want to go dancing. And sometimes she’ll just want to go for a drive. Problem here is that on all dozen or so dates we’ve been on, she always wants to go eat. Way to make the subgame compelling, Rockstar.

So all in all, the girlfriend mechanic is a pain. I get some benefit in the hospital thing, but it means putting a lot of time in to a crappy game mechanic, and getting randomly called to do so while I’m wandering around taking photos of little spinning orbs. Actually, you know what? In writing this, I’ve realized that whoever at Rockstar was responsible for the girlfriends must believe that women in general are fickle and irrational. A certain amount of misogyny certainly wouldn’t surprise me, given how women are portrayed in the rest of the game. He just decided to inflict his own dating history on the player.

Now, as for Renderware: ugly. In San Andreas, the playable portions work well enough, since generally the camera is zoomed out enough that details don’t matter much. But in those cutscenes… bleh. The characters have weirdly long forearms that jut at odd angles, the facial animation isn’t expressive at all, and the clothes are blocky as hell. The worst is Peter Fonda’s character “The Truth” (pictured). He looks ok, until he starts moving. If I’ve seen an uglier character that’s supposed to look normal in recent videogaming history (post-Quake II, lets say), I’ve forgotten it.

Oh, wait, I thought of one: girlfiriend Katie, during a date at a diner.

But even when you are zoomed-out, parts of the background disappear and rerender, or seem to shimmer, all thanks to the 5+ year-old engine powering the game. And that’s on the PC version, which is even high-res, instead of dull and blurry like the PS2 version. Rockstar & Take-Two need to find a new engine. Apart from anything else, it’ll mean they can stop helping to line EA’s pockets. But I’m not sure I’ll want to play another 50 hour game based on this thing.

But I do enjoy the game.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Nancy Grace

Originally posted at WayIPlay.com

This is a little bit political, but mostly about video games vs. stupidity. It’s partially cross-posted from the general section of an improv bulliten board that the WayIPlayers populate:

Nancy Grace is a former prosecutor from the Atlanta Fulton County DA’s Office and now hosts a self-titled court show on CNN Headline News. She does not seem to understand the constitution, from presumption of innocence to the 4th Amendment.

I’m going to let quotes mostly speak for themselves on this one. I encourage you to follow the links to learn. More. First, from The Daily Howler:

Might cable "news" panels convict someone innocent? They already have, in one high-profile case. That is the case of Elizabeth Smart, in which harpies like Grace "convicted" a man who is now plainly known to have been innocent.

That man, of course, is Richard Ricci, a convicted felon who had worked as a handy-man in the Smarts' home and fell under King panel suspicion. During the summer of 2002, Grace had Ricci tried and convicted. During the original search for Smart's abductor, Ricci was arrested for other crimes, and regarded by police as a "person of interest." He died of an aneurysm while in jail. At the time that Ricci died, brilliant pundits said he was The One. But with the March arrest of Brian David Mitchell, it is now abundantly clear that Ricci did not abduct Smart.

Predictably, Grace denied all. "As far as Ricci," she said, "I'm not going on a guilt trip and I'm not letting you take the police with me on a guilt trip because Ricci was a convicted criminal in the home and had problems with his alibi since that night, and considering him as a suspect is not unthinkable." Note the way the subhuman Grace tried to pretend that the police had been challenged.

But of course, Nancy Grace had convicted Ricci of Smart's abduction (and probable murder). From June 2002 to the end, Grace had Ricci in her sights, and every detail seemed to suggest that he had committed the crime. The odometer showed it. The seat covers showed it. The post-hole digger showed it. The dirty car showed it. The second car showed it. The two "accomplices" showed it. Ricci's history as a cat burglar showed it. So did the things Neth Moul had said. Here was one of her edifying exchanges, offered July 11:

CALLER: Hi. Is it possible for the FBI or the law officers involved in the case to use sodium pentothal on Mr. Ricci and find out if he has any involvement with this girl's disappearance? Whether or not it can be used against him after?

KING: Nancy, is that allowed?

GRACE: Oh, how I wish, Larry! Unfortunately, it's not allowed under our Constitution. No sodium pentothal, truth serum, no beating, no torture. We have to wait for Ricci to crack. That's right.

Now (and here we go, back on topic!) she’s set her sights on video games. She had a panel discussion on her own show last week, discussing the upcoming game “25 to Life”. Senator Chuck Shumer (D-NY) recently decided this game was so immoral that it deserved his attention more than terrorism, poverty, or education, and condemned it. He, of course, was a guest. As was the lawyer who has repeatedly tried to make Rockstar Games culpable for murders by kids who played Grand Theft Auto.

Anyway, Grace starts things off with: “A violent video game aimed at our children is all about one thing: Killing cops. It`s called ‘25 to Life.’”

In the first place - aimed at our kids? It’s rated M. It’s not FOR them! Was Goodfellas aimed at our kids? Was Pulp Fiction? I’m over the age of 18, Nancy, why can’t there be hyper-violent games for me? And what’s more (emphasis added):

“This third-person shooter will let you play as either a cop trying to enforce the law or a gangster trying to make his way up in the crime world.” - Gamespot.com Preview (see also, the game’s website)

Idiot.

(For much more on Nancy Grace, check out John Cole of Balloon Juice. She’s a pet project of his. It turns out she’s been occused of all kinds of ethical misconduct from her time as a prosecutor. Apparently she twisted a number of things in pursuit of her own brand of “justice.” Also check out this Washington Post article about Grace. Apparently her interest in criminal prosecution stems from a tragedy in her own past. While I am certainly sorry for her loss, I wish she hadn’t decided to do damage to the public understanding of the justice system. This, I guess, is the closest we get to a Batman.)

Anyway, to start a discussion on violent video games and public policy, here are some thoughts and questions. I believe that designing a video game, like making a movie, is a form of speech protected under the First Amendment, and therefore the “congress shall make no law infringing [it]”. Do I believe little kids should be playing GTA3? No. That’s why we have ratings, and why I have absolutely no problems with the proposed laws that would restrict sales of M-rated games to minors.

Now, I think the retail industry’s already got a policy in place that does exactly that, but the word is that it’s not airtight. While I have seen clerks take a certain pleasure in shooting down 14-year-olds trying to buy God of War, I can’t imagine that all of them are so scrupulous, especially when there are fewer people around in the store. But I see no qualitative difference between how the sale of an M-rated game should be handled, and the sale of an R-rated movie.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Movie Games and Game Movies

Originally posted at WayIPlay.com

I wrote this first bit as a comment to Aric’s “Jaws Unleashed” post below. I’m pulling it out here to try to generate some chatter:

Sadly, Jaws Unleashed is part of a larger pattern in current games of mining older movies for their videogamability. Witness The Godfather, The Warriors, The Great Escape, Scarface, and From Russia With Love. I'm genuinely excited about the latter, and don't give enough of a shit about the Warriors to feel one way or the other. Scarface can only be less fun than GTA Vice City, and turning The Godfather into a video game is an abomination unto the Lord.

Let's make some predictions. What old movies will be turned into video games? I'm asking for serious predictions, so save "Ernest Scared Stupid" for another time.

Mine:
Chinatown
The French Connection
Bullitt
Dirty Harry or The Good the Bad and the Ugly or The Outlaw Josey Wales

So, whaddaya think, WayIPlayers?

On a related note, I read on 1up the other day that German director Uwe Boll has been tapped to direct a film based on the hyperviolent Postal series of PC games. Boll is the man responsible (liable?) for the awful adaptations of video games House of the Dead and Alone in the Dark (the latter a Christian Slater / Tara Reid vehicle!).

A look at his upcoming filmography is instructive: Bloodrayne, Dungeon Seige, Fear Effect, Far Cry. Why, it seems that Boll is in a race with Paul W.S. Anderson (Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, Alien vs. Predator) for who can make the most shitty movies based on video games.

Last year Warner Bros. announced a new policy in which a video game company could be penalized for “damaging the brand” if the game based on a movie gets poor reviews. This was supposedly in reaction to the deservedly bad reviews of Enter the Matrix and Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness (never mind that Tomb Raider was Eidos’ brand to begin with). What if the game companies held movie studios to the same standards? Are there any video game movies that really HELPED their brands? Mortal Kombat, maybe. Tomb Raider, maybe. Wait, oh yeah: Pok√©mon.

Also in the news this week: Microsoft has been shopping around the Halo movie with a stipulation that the studio that produces it must stick to Bungie’s “Bible” of plot and character for the franchise. This is a savvy move on Bungie’s part — here’s hoping the stipulation stands and that the film doesn’t land in Uwe or Paul WS’s inbox.

UPDATE: When I was looking for video-game-based movies on IMDB, I found a lot that are in the works that I didn’t know about. Here’s a list of those, for you all to shake your head over: Carmen Sandiego, Crazy Taxi (what?), Deus Ex, Doom, Driver, Metroid, Silent Hill, Spy Hunter, Tekken.

Tuesday, June 7, 2005

Break Yo'self!

Originally posted at WayIPlay.com

Although I already own it for PS2, I do believe I’ll be getting Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for PC. In the first place, it stands to be prettier and to avoid the drawing glitches of the original. In the second place, I am useless at aiming with an analog stick. These are my PC shooter roots showing, folks: I still naturally reach for the mouse and WASD when I sit down at a computer.

When I played GTA:SA last fall, I got hopelessly stuck on the “Just Business” mission (pictured), in which a bunch of Russians on bikes pursue you through the LA River, just like in 30% of all action movies ever. Then a car carrier careens off an overpass, suggesting T2 in particular. Anyway, I played this mission about ten times, never successfully completing it. I got a little better, and then progressively worse, all because I couldn’t aim for crap. So now I can correct one of my major gaming failures of last fall. Now if only there was a “make headcrabs less like spiders” patch for Half-Life 2.

In related news, word came round last week that one particular prefecture in Japan had banned the sale of GTA:SA to minors. Stateside, a similar law is pending in Illinois. Rockstar of course isn’t happy about this, since it represents the possibility of losing some sales. But only maybe. In the US, most of the major retailers already will not sell M-rated games to kids under 17, so from a business standpoint, the law is moot.

In general, I don’t really get why regulating M-rated sales to minors is a big deal. To me, the situation is exactly analagous to R-rated films. If a 16-year-old can’t go see Menace II Society without a parent, he shouldn’t be able to buy GTA. Now, the one difference here is that while the ESRB, like the MPAA, enacted a ratings system, the stores were a little slower to decide that M-rated games shouldn’t be sold to minors, whereas the movie theaters enforced R ratings immediately. So now the politcal pressure is on.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Finally, Final Fantasy

Originally posted at WayIPlay.com

While waiting for my laundry to finish up on Thursday, I started playing Final Fantasy I on my GBA. It’d been a long time, of course. I played it through a couple times back in the early 90s when it first came out for NES, but hadn’t touched it until the Dawn of Souls combo of FFI & FFII came out.

All of the time I spent playing on Thursday was spent fighting the Goblins (Imps, on the NES) around the first town, to level up enough to go fight Garland. So nearly all of this time was spent repeatedly pressing the A button, since there’s not a lot of strategy involved in fighting Imps. I have no patience for this. I know I’m not alone in that sentiment, but until recently it didn’t matter. When I was a kid, or even when I was in college, I felt ok wasting a half hour in one area of an RPG, fighting the same half-dozen monsters over and over to reach level [multiple of 5] to comfortably move on. Or pressing the A button over and over to scroll through the poorly-translated text one sentence at a time. But these days, my time, and in particular my video gaming time, is at a premium.

Therefore I declare a new rule for myself: no new RPGs.

I hereby resolve to not play any RPGs that I do not already own. And even then, I probably won’t be playing FFII or Chrono Trigger (which I have because they’re packed with FFI and FFIV, respectively). The one exception I may make is that Nels and I are talking about trying out City of Heroes. And action RPGs like Diablo or X-Men Legends are acceptable, since they tend to be a bit more fast-paced than a Final Fantasy / Dragon Quest type of game.

So, for the rest of my life, or until this rule is recinded, I have only a handful of games to deal with. And only three (Knights of the Old Republic, Final Fantasy Tactics and Paper Mario 2) that I haven’t really made any progress in. But this year — this year is the year that I finish FFVII on the PC. I started in 1998.