Prototype Revealed My Inner Bastard

•July 2, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Power corrupts.

It’s an old saying, half of an old saying to be precise, but it’s a good one. Even the strongest of wills or purest of hearts can fall prey to its insidious tendrils. With enough justification, the greatest hero can become the most vile font of depravity to walk the Earth. Now, thanks to Prototype, I can say that I’ve experienced it first hand. It’s an odd feeling, as a matter of fact, comparable to learning a profound life lesson from a Michael Bay movie.

When I started Prototype, I hadn’t given much thought to moral issues. I was more concerned with the visceral pleasures of hacking up soldiers with a blade formed from my arm and elbow-dropping tanks from off the top of sky scrapers. I launched into the game and was soon gliding around Manhattan with gay abandon. Zipping around with innocent exuberance, I had little idea how far Alex Mercer would fall and even less that he would be dragging me down with him.

Alex set off on his quest to rediscover his memories and became even more ridiculously powerful in the process. When you consider that you can run right up to the top of a skyscraper from the very start of the game, that’s pretty impressive. It also turns out that Mr Mercer is a bit of a dick and is quite happy to barge, punch, slice and chop through anyone who gets between him and revenge. It’s not a video game first, not by a long shot, but Prototype is distinguished by its complete obliviousness to its moral vacuum of a protagonist. Alex scares his sister, once, and then says sorry. He monologues a bit at the end. Other than that, he isn’t bothered by all the collateral damage caused in his three-way war with the infection and the military.

Scarily, neither was I.

It was early in the game that I took my first step down that slippery slope. At ground level, for a change, I spied a female character that I hadn’t seen before. Wondering if it would be just simple model change (it was) or a different animation set and voice, I grabbed the poor woman and consumed her. It crossed my mind that I had just devoured an innocent woman for my own amusement, but I wrote it off as an experiment, a freak occurrence, a one off. No more casual disregard for virtual human life coming from this corner, nosiree.

Not long after, I was being pursued by soldiers and low on health. I grabbed the nearest pedestrian and scampered up onto a roof to consume the poor sod for a little health. A necessary sacrifice, obviously. It soon became a regular occurrence. Like a character from an Anne Rice novel, killing to feed, to continue one’s own existence, had become normal.

It wasn’t until some time later that I realised what I’d become. I’m standing in a crowded street after a gruelling battle, battered, yet victorious, resplendent in my bio-armour exoskeleton. Flinging my whipfist down the street, I skewer a struggling civilian and pluck him from the crowd before devouring him mercilessly. My arm lashes out a second time, with similarly gruesome results. A third time, a fourth. Again and again until I have eaten my fill. Then the terrible truth dawns; Alex has become a monster and so have I.

I no longer gave a thought to the innocents who died in the crossfire. Even worse, I snacked on them whenever I wanted, snuffing out their lives in an instant. They had become meaningless; walking health packs.

I’m not one to shy away from playing a bad guy in games, however I rarely have the same attachment I do to my more heroic alter-egos. My first character in an RPG is usually a larger-than-life version of myself and I generally feel compelled to take the noble path, although not always, as Vault 13’s Overseer would be able to attest to if not for a slightly terminal case of bullet in the brainpan. Villainy is always a self-aware choice to behave differently to how I would normally.

This wasn’t about being evil. I’ve punched stupid reporters in the face. I’ve run over crowds of pedestrians while listening to “99 Red Balloons.” I’ve risen to lead the Dark Brotherhood. I’ve sacrificed my wife at the Temple of Shadow. I even made Zaalbar the Wookie…well…you know what I’m talking about, right? I’ve been a complete and utter bastard many a time, but this time was different.

This time I hadn’t noticed. This time there was no conscious decision, no choice to be a bad guy. I had been presented with near-limitless power and I had fallen. I’ve always felt that how you play games is a reflection of you as a person. Even simple things, like your favourite FPS weapon, can tell a lot about you. I’d always thought of myself as a good guy, a hero saving countless virtual worlds from destruction. Sure, I dabbled in evil, but that was to get the other ending, more achievements or to really get my money’s worth. Besides, it was the character that was evil, not me.

Prototype taught me that, no matter what I think about myself, that potential for wrongdoing is there. I don’t think for a moment that I’m going to start slaughtering people wholesale any time soon, but it’s made me painfully aware that even if I believe I’m the good guy, I can still be a bit of a dick.

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Battlefield Extortion

•June 26, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Battlefield Heroes is now open to all. I would call this a time for rejoicing as I had the pleasure of playing in the beta and would certainly recommend giving it a go. I’m something of a dabbler when it comes to online shooters; I enjoy them, but I have the attention span of a gnat when it comes to anything that isn’t story-based. My hardcore FPS days are long behind me. A free BF game that I could entice my friends and family to play is definitely something I can get behind, especially with the cartoon style and tongue-in-cheek attitude. I could even see me paying some real cash money for some new threads. I like micropayments, they give me something to do with the odd few quid left in my bank account at the end of the month.

So it was with great dismay that I viewed the release version of the BFH store. The more I think about it, the more I feel that I was being a bit soft on EA when describing it as extortion. I’m not sure if there is a harsher word for extortion, but if there is, then this is it.

For starters, there are no micropayments. You have to buy “Battlefunds” in chunks, much like MS Points. The smallest denomination is 700 Battlefunds for £4.50, so it’s not too bad. I mess around with the store for a bit and play dress-up with my avatar like some kind of virtual Action Man. Totting up the clothes I’ve chosen gives me a result of 910 Battlefunds. A spot of maths and I work out that’s £5.85. Nearly six quid for an outfit for an online shooter. Bloody hell. You’d be hard pressed to find a clothes designer in Second Life that charges that much and SL wrote the book on overcharging for virtual clothing.

Then I notice that 910 Battlefunds would only buy me that outfit for a month. Can you imagine the outcry if Blizzard declared they were going to start charging you £5.85 a month for every set of armour you had in WoW? Thankfully, there is an alternative. I could buy my outfit permanently. For £23.40.

£23.40!

£23.40 for an outfit for virtual man-Barbie? You can get a real set of clothes for £23.40!

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The basic BFH Royal outfit and the one EA wants to charge £23.40 for.

I think I speak for the rest of the rational individuals in gaming (all seventeen of us) when I say that EA have fucked this one up royally. It’s not often that I wish bad things to happen to free games, but I sincerely hope that BFH crashes and burns due to no-one spending any money on it whatsoever.

Grumpy Old Gamer Strikes!: Little Wheel

•June 13, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Go and play Little Wheel now. It’s short, beautiful and I can almost guarantee that you’ll enjoy it. I know I did.

Back?

Good, because now I’m going to tell you why it’s a bloody horrible abomination.

You just got suckered in by Dragon’s Lair.

For anyone who doesn’t remember it, Dragon’s Lair was a laserdisc-based “game” that was just a cartoon that occasionally required the correct joystick input in order to progress. Get it wrong and you’d be treated to a “hilarious” animation showing you the consequences of your ill-advised actions. Then you’d do it again. And again. And again. Until you got it right and proceeded to the next segment. The big draw was the visuals. It was a fully hand-animated cartoon in 1983 and it was bloody impressive, but as a game, it sucked. I can’t remember any game being as derided in the Spectrum and Amiga magazines I read growing up.

Fast forward to 2009 and you’ve just played Little Wheel. I bet you were won over by its aesthetics and charm and generally Pixar-like characterful loveliness, weren’t you? The fact that it was developed in Slovakia gives it super-duper, indie game bonus cred too.

Now put your gamer head back on and ask yourself, “Where was the game in that?” I counted two screens that contained what I would call puzzles, simple ones at that, and the rest was clicking on the white circles in the correct order. Even that just wasn’t remotely challenging, as by clicking on each circle to find out what it does, the solution is made immediately obvious.

If it wasn’t for how beautiful Little Wheel is ( and it is absolutely gorgeous in every way, I’ve got to restate how much I love the graphics, the sound, the animation, the visual storytelling, everything but the “gameplay”) I wouldn’t be writing about it. You wouldn’t have played it. I wouldn’t have read Bandango’s really rather great “Free and Worth Every Penny” column about it. It would have been just another sad little face in the browser game crowd.

Don’t get me wrong, it was an entertaining few minutes and I’m glad of it, but gamers and the gaming media seem intent on forgiving all manner of sins as long as games are sufficiently arty. We’ve become so obsessed with gaining acceptance as an art form that we’ll ignore flaws that would be inexcusable in other games. On the other hand, we’re decrying the insidiuous influence of the traitor Nintendo and their allies as the Fat Plumber subverts everything we love about our hobby with his “mainstream” and his “casual gamers.”

If you remove everything from Little Wheel that could be done in a regular cartoon, you’re left with precious bloody little. It’s on par with the “games” you occasionally get as extra features on children’s DVDs. You push a pre-determined button to get more animation. That’s even less like a game than the random waggling of Wii shovelware.

Little Wheel is getting well-deserved praise for its presentation, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be critical of its failings as a game. If the trend continues and developers realise that being arty will get them more credit than solid gameplay, they will take that route. The dumbing down of gaming will not be the fault of the casual, the mainstream or Nintendo; the blame will be laid squarely at the feet of hardcore gamers who are desperate for the medium to be accepted as art.

Holy shit!

•June 1, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The teeny-tiny bit of me that is excited about Natal just had a Wine Gum-fueled epiphany and proceeded to start beating the rest of my conscious mind until it consented to comprehend the full-possibilities.

Take that Natal demo-boy Milo, all the gesture/face/everything recognition elements and combine them with Fable. Think back to all your gesture-recognition sword fighting and spell casting fantasies you had when the Wii was announced. Stop being a cynical curmudgeon (or a curmudgeonly cynic, you choose) and allow the possibilities to sink in.

Holy shit!

Labour pains

•June 1, 2009 • Leave a Comment

No, this isn’t a post about Gordon Brown.

Microsoft have just announced “Natal,” a video camera-based, controllerless interface. There is a teeny-tiny part of me that is excited about it. A few years ago, I would have been shouting to anyone with in earshot about how “the future had arrived!” and pissing my pants like an over-excited old codger.

Several years of Wii disappointment, however, have made me more sceptical than Agent “I’m exposed to the paranormal on a weekly basis yet I’d still rather believe in bizarre pseudo-scientific theories than actual aliens” Scully. Natal may be the best things since analogue sticks, but I have absolutely no faith in the development community to do anything genuinely revolutionary with it. How many Wii games have we had that weren’t either gimmicky, cash-in shite or perfectly doable with a joypad?

I’m also wondering if I’m the only person slightly disturbed by the name. Okay, the meaning is completely innocuous, but I can’t remember ever hearing the word without “ante-” shoved in front. I keep thinking MS are going to offer classes on how to care for your 360 during her pregnancy.

Creepy.

On a positive note, I’m happy to see MS pulling out all the stops for the conference. I WANT E3 to be a big, brash, overblown affair with moderately seedy undertones. Let all the serious business be done behind closed doors, in private meetings between guys in grey suits. Bring on the spectacle! Everyone loves a show, except for miserable old bastards and nobody gives a monkey’s about them.