Monday, October 11, 2010

Singularity - Nostalgia at its worst and best

The mighty FPS (First-person shooter) has been the staple of the ever hungry nerd since the spawning of his existence from the primordial soup eons ago. We all know the FPS genre has gone through a few changes with the evolution of physics in Half-Life, the blood and gore of Quake and Doom, and even the progression of storyline in the likes of Bioshock, Fall Out 3 (more so an FPS-RPG hybrid) and even Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 with its cinematic beauty and Hollywood styled fast-paced action. Bioshock was a noteworthy achievement in the history of the FPS, not so much as Half-Life which deserves even more credit, but nonetheless it furthered story elements, plot and issues of morality beyond any of its predecessors. Following Half-Life and Bioshock FPS games have continued along this trend adding moral weight and relying heavily on story to support a game through and through. Recently, with the release of the game Singularity developed by Raven Software, who previously worked with id Software on Quake 4, the nostalgia of the genre as a whole is realised.

When you first begin the game you soon come to realise the striking similarities between Singularity and Bioshock. It’s almost as if minimal game development took place, and Raven Software were off drinking coffee, playing some Modern Warfare 2, ate some day old ramen noodles then realised they were game developers. In essence they’ve produced a lacklustre ‘Borat’ of a game, which as this review will explain, lacks a cohesive story and relies too heavily on repetitive gameplay. In Singularity you play as Renko, a member of an American reconnaissance team, who is investigating the island called Kartorga-12. On the island a catastrophe occurred involving the Element 99 leading to the formation of a ‘singularity’ causing a nuclear fall out, which mutated much of the island’s inhabitants. As the player progresses in the game it becomes apparent that the Soviet Union was pulling a fast one, covering up the horrific experiments they conducted on the island. The result is a variety of Element 99-powered monsters with abilities ranging from teleportation to super human strength. But, don’t worry of course you have some firepower on your side and the TMD (Time Manipulation Device) which gives you mastery of time in all of its glory. With the TMD you can age enemies to dust, move objects backwards and forwards in time and shoot opponents with bursts of time-force killing them in the process. This becomes handy when faced with puzzles and the barrage of enemies you encounter as you travel through the game.

Puzzles are much the same throughout the game, with the simplicity of having to age an object to reveal a new path to moving objects and using them to overcome obstacles. There are a few moments where admittedly the monotony is broken, such as one level where you have to rebuild a whole ship and steal a nuclear war-head, but these are far and few between. The experience ends up in a vice grip with moments of utter bemusement (there are some really WTF moments) to seriously dreary segments where a game of ‘Rock Paper Scissors’ is more invigorating. It’s not that the game is terrible it just lacks a certain spark that other FPS games pull off so well. The reality is most games in the genre end up recycling ideas, this is inevitable, but they do so with some style and add a new dimension of experience. The development team of Singularity tried to take the best bits of the genre and re-package it to eager nerds, expecting us to lap it up like some deranged WOW addict. Singularity is a good attempt but misses the mark entirely. One of the redeeming qualities of the game, ironically, can be found in its weaponry. In terms of weapons Singularity has a lot more going, however that is only in certain instances. The Seeker is one such weapon (a sniper rifle of sorts) with the exception that when shot the player can control the path of the bullet weaving through enemies hitting vital spots dead-on. This is extremely useful (and bad-ass) when in the middle of a gun fight, and enemies are scattered all around the map. Other weapons are pretty standard with a revolver, assault rifle, Spikeshot (a special railgun which can charge its energy and when released ploughs through enemies), Autocannon (a frickin’ huge mother of a machine gun), a grenade launcher, a normal sniper rifle and finally a rocket launcher.

There is no true effort to innovate, with the exclusion of the Seeker and Spikeshot and this extends to the story and the characters that reek of cheese. Renko has no moral urgency and is cardboard-cutout who has no core to his character, yet all we know is he’s American, apparently got some skill and kicks ass like nobody’s business. The only time morality came into the fray was right at the end of the game, and by then you tire of the experience altogether. There’s no true substance to Singularity and by the same accord it doesn’t foster any emotional ties with Renko or the other various characters. Bioshock, and even Half-Life made you feel for the characters, enter their worlds, their experiences. Singularity hardly tries to bring the player into the world of Kartoga-12 let alone uncover Renko’s motivations and feelings of his whole ordeal.

Graphically, Singularity is a beauty to behold utilising the Unreal 3 engine in all its full glory. Everything flows naturally in-game like a well oiled AK-47 in motion firing rapid-fire in a fit of lunacy. Models are highly detailed and the monsters are somewhat non-threatening, offering little of what other horror games achieve on a visual level. Singularity visually brought the world of Kartoga-12 (in all its deformed beauty to life). Yet, at times it felt as if Singularity was more dependent on the graphical side of things, rather than developing a more intriguing plot and storyline.

Now you’re probably wondering how can Singularity be compared to Bioshock, is this dude on crack or something, or has this guy got a few screws running loose. God knows, but Singularity in its design and the way it pans out attempts to be what Bioshock was, with a design approach that is eerily close to said game. Everything down to the voice recordings and 50s styling is all so similar, except for the game being set on dry land and your fight in this instance is against a deranged Soviet dictator. Gameplay involving the TMD is just a substitute for the plasmids from Bioshock which offered more in terms of the powers you could use. In Singularity the variety of time powers is limited, and at times feels like it could have been more fully utilised for its potential. Singularity is also lacking in the story department and ends up being s half-hearted attempt of trying to horrify the player, and doesn’t effectively create tension. On the other hand a game like Metro 2033 achieves tension effortlessly and (albeit more successfully) than Singularity, with the extended periods of silence and sudden scares that come at you out of nowhere. At the end of it all Singularity is so-so and doesn’t do anything new within the genre. Its reminiscent of old-school shoot-em’ up violence, and if that’s what you’re looking for go ahead and buy it. However, the game suffers from flat characters and a cheesy story which leaves Singularity sorely predictable. Time could be more well spent playing a game like Borderlands (with its extensive DLC) if you’re tiring of the whole ‘time travel’ thing.

Singularity is average at best and offers nothing new ending up as a big disappointment with loads of lost potential.

The Wire, Tugging a Pleasurable Cord

Another review assignment for varsity. This time, instead of a movie, I had to review the first episode of 'The Wire'. So what do you think?

'I remember thinking this couldn’t be much more than another court/police show; unavoidable evidentiary treasure hunts, flamboyant interrogations and high octane shoot outs. Not even a professional T.V. reviewer’s praise could shake me from the prospect of another CSI or Law and Order clone. I was sure I would predict every catchy cliché or obvious plot twist the actors would make.

It’s safe to assume I’m no fan of the fishbowl deep characters, unnecessarily witty phrases and the half baked plots of police dramas and reality shows that litter our T.V. stations. They always portray an almost omniscient and an unrealistically well equipped, behaved and organised police force. Who, without fault or with heroic fault in hand; brave the usual primordial savage or intelligent sociopath of a villain. I had to watch it, so I sucked it up and did so.

Credits rolling, the show was over, my (of what I liked to believe) justifiably negative mindset crumbling after what I had just seen. So its plot isn’t entirely original, and yes, it revolves around a murder and trial case within the harsh and economically depressed city of Baltimore. When I consider its story is contingently based upon real events; I can’t really take the plot as fault of its own. Even the characters sometimes witty lines (something I usually hurl fruit at) are original and designed to make you think. Maintaining character over plot is no easy feat. In ‘The Wire’, the over exaggerated usual is dropped and the distinction between what defined a criminal and someone of the law remained completely vacant. The criminals in charge were calm, organised and collected intellectuals; while the cops were far less capable of controlling their emotions and actions, they were a fractioned and mostly squabbling ineffective unit. While not entirely intentional (it being a realist show), the cops represented the barely organised and barely holding on allied forces of World War II; the homicide and drug departments each representing America and Britain. The criminal’s are similar in respect to Germany, maintaining efficiency and fear ridden conscripts. Ironic since one of the characters stated it isn’t a war they’re fighting.
Everything else aside, the cinematic techniques made brilliant use of light and camera angle. They aren’t obvious but subtle and make all the difference. It’s beautifully directed and I’ll gladly admit (to which I don’t do very often at all) I was catastrophically wrong about ‘The Wire’. I give the two thumbs up, and wholly recommend this series as a must watch.' gr33nFIEND

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Games as Art - Roger Ebert is the biggest douche ever

 The recent debate of the integrity of video games as an art form has sparked outbursts of rage across all spheres of nerd-dom resulting in mass flame wars, the likes the internet has never seen. It has long been the art critic’s ass-backward ways to demarcate video games as a hobby, a pastime, an irrelevant audio visual spectacle amounting to nothing more than a form of entertainment equivalent to interactive debauchery.

The legendary film critic Roger Ebert never went as far as my descriptive wording, oh he did something far worse and made the internet very angry (Hulk angry). From the depths of the web emerged resentment of the largest order. Ebert in a recent blog entry claimed that videogames hold no artistic value and should be assessed in terms of a codified scoring system. Essentially, basing a game’s value from certain criteria it fulfils. His claim about videogames stems from the fact that games involve objectives, scores and ultimately achieving an outcome. Ebert feels that art doesn’t require choices and leaves interpretation up to the viewer of the artwork. This argument is two-fold whilst I agree that art is able to influence and have an impact on the individual, with the advent of modern gaming games have surpassed the banal description Ebert provides.  The reality is that modern videogames lack clear cut choices, and blur the lines between art and the videogames of old. Ebert’s critical perspective of videogames and whether they warrant the label of ‘art’ is questionable, when he refuses to experience the evolution of videogames firsthand. He is for all intents and purposes viewing videogames as being of similar artistic merit to Pong, Pac Man or Space Invaders. Even, though it can be disputed whether to consider early videogames artworks. I feel they do deserve a second glance as critics have claimed that the simplest and at times most random of designs such as Bushmen paintings and the art of Jackson Pollock (one of the pioneers of the Abstract Expressionist movement) to be the epitome of art. So, why not Pong or Pac-Man? A videogame is simply not about how exceptionally realistic the graphics are or how new and intuitive the gameplay may be. It is the experience of a videogame which reveals its artistic value.

Videogames for me and many others is art in motion, an experience that builds up momentum as the player immerses themselves in the world of the game releasing them from the trappings of the physical (World of Warcraft players are a prime example). This can occur even when the sole experience of game is gameplay. It is the interactive experience of videogames that leads the player down their own individual garden path and to a deeper connection between both the player and the videogame. No two people will experience a videogame the same way and essentially narrative may be more complex than other works of fiction. By Ebert’s standards some of the great novels he considers art, like Charles Dickens’s works are structured and follow a set narrative comparable to videogames. The same can be said of movies which offer a linear plane of experience more limited than that of a videogame. Yet, interpretation is key to defining what is and isn’t art. Games nowadays cater for a full-on experience crossing the barriers established by different media. A game like Bioshock is about the experience of engrossing the player in an underwater hellhole stuck in the 1950s, and fighting your way through the dangers that lie ahead. The game plays like a novel with the added bonus of self-tailoring your own unique journey in Bioshock’s dystopian setting. It is peppered with dark and somewhat amusing characters and gameplay, while adding an interactive dimension and moral implications to your actions (in harvesting or rescuing the Little Sisters). These have consequence later on in the storyline.

Films and novels fail in the regard of interaction between the medium and player, lacking the level of interaction that videogames encompass. Many games also operate on the artistic level that traditional fine art dominates, but games too welcome creative innovation that fine art so desperately seeks. An example of a game which bares an artistic dimension is the game Okami which incorporates the beauty of Japanese water block painting and merges it with the gameplay mechanic of a paintbrush. This allows the player to execute maneuvers based on paintbrush strokes, and forms a distinctive approach to battling the demonic forces that plague the landscape of Okami. Another game which embraces artistic innovation and imaginative thinking is Scribblenauts, a game for the Nintendo DS. It offers limitless possibilities of overcoming platforming obstacles with your character, by merely writing a word on the touch screen of the DS. The large variety of word play available to the player allows for imaginative approaches to problem solving, and doesn’t lock the player into a predefined way of completing tasks. The point of art is to not confine a person to one interpretation of the artwork, and by the same token videogames achieve this.

In the end this is where the current state of games as an art form lie, in the development of interactivity through creative outlets.  Meaning the player could have a more flexible understanding of the game world, whilst simultaneously permitting the player free reign in their interpretation of the game. Even, games which still forego artistic value for the sake of entertainment can be viewed as artistic. Games are fun and aren’t necessarily thought provoking works of art, in the traditional sense. However no one said art couldn’t be fun, and videogames are evolving further and further beyond preconceptions. All you need to remember is art is art, it all depends on your perspective. Also, Roger Ebert is the biggest 'douche' ever. 

Inception - An idea can start it all

In the new film Inception by acclaimed director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins, Batman The Dark Knight) moviegoers come face-to-face with the depths of the human subconscious, where a heist like no other happens. What are the stakes you may ask? It’s the simple endeavour of extracting ideas from individual targets whilst they slumber in a dream state. During the course of the film the subconscious becomes the playground of a band of thieves (extractors) led by Cobb (played by Leonardo Di Caprio). But, by the same token we learn that dangers lay dormant in the minds that Cobb’s team invades. Ultimately Cobb finds himself facing a danger so intimately linked to his own heart, that it endangers not only him but his whole team.

Inception transverses the landscape of science fiction in a largely different direction than its brethren, like The Matrix which dealt with similar subject matter within a unique perspective. The Matrix was set within a network of human minds confined to a cyberspace world, constructed by machines trying to oppress the freedom of mankind. Inception shares a likening in approach to the science fiction of William Gibson, notably his novel Neuromancer, which bases itself in a physical reality with the added dimension of the cyberspace world as a backdrop to the action. Inception takes a slightly more toned down view of the future in a setting more recognisable to us in the present. 

With our familiarity established Nolan picks the dream world of the human subconscious as the battlefield for our heroes. Led by Cobb, a widowed husband searching for a way back to his children, we learn that all is not what it seems in the world of the subconscious. When a mysterious Japanese businessman (Ken Watanabe) offers a business proposition to Cobb and his team. Cobb reluctantly agrees not knowing fully the repercussions of his decision. The name of the game is inception (the act of planting a wholly original idea in the mind of a target). However, Cobb and his associates encounter dangers they never dreamed of as they travel deeper and deeper into the vastness of the human mind. Yet, as the film progresses they soon realise they’re in for more than they bargained for.

The supporting cast are no newcomers with the likes of Ellen Page (of Juno fame), Josehp Gordon-Levitt (500 Days of Summer), Dileep Rao (Drag Me to Hell) and Tom Hardy (RocknRolla) who bring to life Nolan’s vivid film spectacular of action and jaw-dropping special effects. The stunts in the film carry the weight of the narrative so effortlessly, increasing the tension of the heist as it progresses. Rooms become weightless with people flying everywhere, buildings collapse at mere whim and the questionability of the reality the characters live in is all part of Nolan’s master plan. It seems that Christopher Nolan can do no wrong, however Inception does so much more. Nolan has always been obsessed with perceptions of reality, façade and the frailty of memory (the prime focus of his film Memento), yet Inception trumps all previous efforts. Inception is a solid classic, and can be considered Christoper Nolan’s best film to date parting with a unique experience.