Wednesday, November 28

Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line - Book Review

This post contains spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line.

This marks a first for me: a book review. I've undertaken quite a few critical readings of modern fiction texts over the course of my university studies, but never have I actually thought to write a conventional review. The principal reason for this is because it usually takes me weeks -- if not months -- to read a book and I'm not in a position to effectively criticize most of the books I've read because the finer details are usually lost on me by the time I reach the farthest page to the right.

The best thing I can say about Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line is that it's written in accessible language, and provided that you have some experience with shooters and video games in general, you should breeze through it. Keogh's a gifted writer, and this is an easy read which confirms a lot of what I thought, points to some finer details that I missed on my admittedly fast playthrough, and gives me some reasons to consider revisiting what was an ugly, though engrossing tale. Killing is Harmless is pretty much the only reason I picked up the game that’s the subject of this reading, and the foreword has to be one of the best advertisements for a video game mine eyes have seen.

The greatest criticism I can level at Killing is Harmless is that it's not -- at least in my opinion -- a critical reading of a game. It's long-form "new games writing" that relates the author's experience with the game to what I presume to be a lifetime spent playing games. There's a lack of real criticism levelled at the game itself, and a lot of the observations made in the text felt natural to me: a man who's received a quality education and has some knowledge of the Vietnam War, protest music, semiotics, US imperialism/interventionism and who had -- perhaps most importantly -- completed the game solely as preparation to read this text. I went in looking for stuff to read (puns!).

There’s no perspective adhered to for the length of the text either, giving further weight to this being more of a meditation than a critical reading; though there are some recurring themes. Keogh spends a lot of time focussing on an observation from the game’s lead writer, and this influences a great deal of his character analysis. Interpreting the podcast utterances of a creative doesn't equate to a reading here, and it won't register as profound to anyone's who has witnessed the gradual degradation of Captain Walker and Co. in Spec Ops: The Line. Another constant in Keogh's deliberations is focussing on the meaning of the protagonist's name. I agree that it may have some significance in terms of critiquing games in general, as linear progression is a common video game trope (read: it's not exclusive to shooters). However, his repeated attempts to squeeze meaning out of Walker's name start to wring hollow.

I think it's hard to read too deep into Spec Ops if you focus on the concept of "advancing = complicity" because the game itself forces the player to engage in two major atrocities. The argument Keogh presents is that the player could stop playing (even though the game wants you to realise that you won’t stop playing) if they don’t want to participate in or otherwise witness war crimes, but this is a copout. Wanting to stop play isn't normally a cause for in-depth investigation in games journalism, it's a reason to lower a score (if you’re reading a publication that tends to assign one). Having the player abandon the game to either trade it in or get a refund is NOT a design choice. Any person who willingly creates a game with even a whiff of intent for the player to give up only to subsequently dispose of it probably shouldn’t be involved in games design. If Keogh’s theory runs true and the developers did indeed want for players to consider abandoning their trek through Dubai, then Spec Ops’ disappointing sales could be proof of my assertions.

One thing I thoroughly enjoyed about Keogh’s comprehensive recollection of The Line was realising that I’d missed a lot of symbols in my quick playthrough. In fact, seeing what I had missed opens up some possibilities for… well… actual readings of Spec Ops. Like how about the unrequited love story between Walker and Konrad, for instance? That shit would get some copies moving off the shelves. Granted, you couldn’t get fifty thousand words out of that one (though my wife, the product of a similar education argues otherwise); but I think there’s something there.

For what it’s worth, Keogh has written something important and – ultimately -- readable. This may not be the first long form critical reading of a game (it’s still coming), but it is a lengthy and entertaining read. There may be some obvious calls and some drawing of long bows, but it’s nice to know someone saw and felt something similar to you when playing through this ordeal (believe me when I say that calling Spec Ops an ordeal is no overstatement). Killing is Harmless, much like Spec Ops: The Line, is important: it’s fresh ground, and I hope there’s room for more long form games writing in the market – much like I hope that Yager again tries its hand at the thoughtful shooter and finds commercial success. We need to think about what we do when we play games and shooters specifically, and we need more people prepared to write about the experience of playing and questioning at length.  

Keogh is Walker is Konrad is the player is the reader.  

You can purchase Killing is Harmless: A critical reading of Spec Ops: The Line from for the introductory price of $2.99 (valid until 21 December, 2012). 

Saturday, November 17

Call of Duty: Black Ops II Review (PS3 - Single player): Terms of Enrampagement

Note 1: I've decided to review the single and multiplayer component of the game separately, as this is a pretty meaty package. I'm not even going to bother looking at Zombies in detail because I've never really seen the appeal of this mode, and what I did play was fairly uninspiring anyway. 

Note 2: This review contains minor spoilers because real talk.

I've been watching a lot of Archer recently. For those of you not familiar with the show, it's an animated super spy comedy that airs on ABC2 in Australia, and just happens to be one of the greatest shows currently on television (Disclaimer: I don't watch much TV, so make of this endorsement what you will). Normally dealing with the more sexy and violent aspects of the secret agent lifestyle, the character of Sterling Archer is delightfully self-obsessed and carries the excess baggage you'd assume would come with a globe-hopping, partner-swapping, murderous lifestyle. 

Call of Duty: Black Ops II (henceforth referred to as BLOPS 2) is Archer without the sense of irony. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as Treyarch's itinerary for Team Live Badass is so dripping with bombast that it often out-CoDs the average CoD instalment.

In Soviet-invaded Afghanistan, horse shoots you!

Seriously, I don't want to spoil anything, but at one point where I stopped to note a sequence where I took out a tank on horseback, I destroyed a helicopter from the saddle on my loyal steed literally seconds later. Shit gets that ridonkulous; and just when you think, "No way they can top that last bit," sure enough, you'll be flying through a valley in a futuristic wingsuit. While it would've been easy enough for the developers to rest on their laurels - with record-breaking sales for each new instalment almost being a given - it's apparent that they wanted to get players out of the corridor grind I've come to associate with the series. It works, believe me. 

While the series has escaped from the sterile hallways of many a military facility, be prepared for some truly gruesome scripted sequences. There wasn't anything that I thought was unbecoming in terms of the series gore portfolio, but is it too much to ask for the violence to be dialed back from the fabled 11? Throat slitting, immolation and good old fashioned stabbing is all par for the course, and I'd forgive the squeamish for opting out of the more violent sequences. I guess I should note that to Treyarch's credit, you have the option to disable graphic content; but there are times where the level of violence enters Farce City. 

Like I said at the outset, however, the game seems intent on taking itself a wee bit too seriously. There's one level in particular, where you play an enraged character who doesn't seem able to die. He's that pissed that he can tear through throngs of militia when his atomic structure is comprised almost entirely of lead. So angry is he, that at times he simply refuses to use his guns; he'd rather butcher his enemies with a machete. Interspersed between these displays of violence, brought to you by the colour red, the player character screams a loved one's name in time with a track more becoming of a Zumba workout than a gun fight. I actually laughed out loud during this particular level, as I wasn't quite sure how to take it.

While we're on the soundtrack, I should probably mention that it's fantastic. I know, right? Brilliant music in a Call of Duty game that isn't a series of predictable, if not competently-performed, pieces of lofty orchestral music or cliched guitar riffs. Crazy! Trent Reznor's theme is the clear stand out: it has the prerequisite futuristic, espionage-y tones, and is rich in understated brilliance. Other highlights include a Skrillex number that's played in a crowded club, and a twist on the multiplayer theme that scores a plane ride (funnily enough, both pieces of music are in the same level). The dubstep set piece is another one of those instances that just reeks of dudebro, but in a tolerable fashion. I wouldn't normally listen to the wub wub on the commute or while engaging in physical activity, yet here it's presented in a way that seems authentic and inoffensive to my ear holes. Apart from a truly awful track from Avenged Sevenfold that serves as a "reward" for completing the game, your ears are in for a treat.  

The story is as ridiculous as the action; which is to say that it's crazy but somewhat plausible, given the futuristic setting. Central to the plot is Alex Mason - the protagonist from the original BLOPS - and his son, David. As Alex and co, you'll explore some Cold War era scenarios that are, for the most part, interesting, well-paced, and surprisingly fun to play through. David, otherwise know by his codename, Section, is privy to the lion's share of balls-out craziness. The story is broken up by a busted, though commendable attempt at fusing RTS with Assault (a la Unreal Tournament) dubbed "Strike Force". These mercifully-short experiments would be fun if not for the fact that support AI is completely broken. Still, it's nice to have the intensity in Ten City that is the character-driven story missions mixed up with something that doesn't feel as significant. 

While the central characters are shown a great deal of care with respect to the lifelike way in which they're rendered and animated, the generation-old Modern Warfare engine is starting to show its age. Wide shots of large structures can look very fuzzy, and a lot of textures look very muddy and washed out. To be fair though, everything moves at such a cracking pace that I very rarely had time to stop and smell the proverbial polygonal roses. That, and most of the weapon effects and the omnipresent explosions do more than enough to make the mundane seem spectacular.

They say it's much safer than driving to work

The last thing I wanted to touch on was the "choices" players make throughout the campaign, or at least the illusion of choice in certain situations. When I'd hit the halfway point of the campaign, I wanted to see if other games writers were as enthusiastic as I was for BLOPS 2's brand of "Oh no, he did not," action shenanigans. Some were, but most were making a huge deal over the choices that players could make. One reviewer even commented that "[the story is] so full of choices big and small that you might not even be aware that you're making them." If not sure you're making a choice, I don't believe that it's a choice in the case of BLOPS 2: it's a coincidence. It was a coincidence that I didn't notice guards torching a pile of documents that could have been useful. It was a coincidence that I swerved to avoid the obstacle that I believed potentially fatal to both my passenger and my player character. These choices do become more explicit as the story progresses, but earlier on you're not prompted or otherwise informed that there are choices to make!

The single player component of BLOPS 2 is the best I've seen in a Call of Duty instalment since the original Modern Warfare. Almost every scenario that players are confronted with is ridiculous, and entirely worth experiencing.  You may think it hard to pilot a fighter jet with a throbbing erection (Archer reference), but Treyarch strap you into the aircraft and ask you to give it your best shot regardless.  If you have any love of first person shooters, you'll put your name on the sign-up sheet for Team Live Badass.  

Wednesday, November 14

Of clocks and cakes

Veteran  Australian games writer, David Wildgoose has told staff writers under his tutelage that games are not clocks. Presumably because:

a) Not all games employ the same systems and work the same way
b) "There's more to games than just how well they operate" (Henderson, 2011; p36)
c) When reviewing games, you shouldn't be checking features against a checklist 

Brendan Keogh - another prolific writer of Australian stock - recently tweeted the analogy that games are not like cakes. He said (and I am paraphrasing somewhat) he's more interested in how the cake makes you feel (how it tastes), as opposed to the quality of the ingredients.

Hybrid Theory

I agree with both theories to an extent, but my recent experience with Assassin's Creed: Liberation would have me ask Ubisoft Sofia and Montreal where they source some of their ingredients. Don't get me wrong, I like the game, but there are two elements of it that are driving me to madness. 

Firstly there's the control scheme, which needlessly shoehorns in some loathsome, Vita-specific input (read: touch controls) that have marred a game that I'd otherwise recommend without question. Firstly, there's pick-pocketing: an action that's effortlessly performed in the home console iterations by holding the X/A button around the citizenry of Renaissance Italy. In Liberation, you need to hold down the left shoulder and swipe down the rear touchpad. Doesn't sound like it involves too much effort, but when you've been playing a game a certain way for a matter of years, the change is unwelcome. Worse still, the implementation of gyroscopic controls for a specific puzzle sequence nearly had me hurling the expensive portable against the wall. Both these scenarios comprise a small part of the Liberation experience, but they've done enough to taint my opinion of it thus far. 

The visuals and soundtrack combine to make one dreary looking layer of sponge cake: like someone added blue and green food colouring to the mix to make grey batter. It's not that the game doesn't look good, rather the omnipresent brown of the ground and structures in New Orleans (where you'll spend the majority of your time) combined with a Creole spin on the Nolan Batman score had me wallowing in the pits of despair. Regardless of whether Aveline adopts her vibrant lady persona, assassin garb, or slave costume, you're treated to the same rotation of tracks that evoke little but dread and thoughts of violence. I'm not so naive or insensitive to think a rousing, light-hearted track would be appropriate fodder for our hero to sneak through a plantation, but surely high society has more pleasant notes to offer? 

In any case, Assassin's Creed: Liberation is shaping up to be one of the better games on the fledgling handheld; at the very least, it's proving more enjoyable than Revelations. I can only hope that there's less improvised motion and touch controls thrown into what's left of the game. 

Wildgoose, D (Editor), 2011. Hyper, Special Japan Issue, p65. 

Sunday, November 11

Home away from home

Please forgive my protracted absence from this space. I was trying to give games writing the good old college try, but then life happened.

I'm proud of the small body of work that I produced at Games Are Evil, but my wife and I are in the midst of  a huge life decision. One that is so incredibly exciting and terrifying at the same time. For all of my life I've lived in Queensland; and by Queensland, I mean two parts of it where life can become pretty bloody comfortable. Now it may be time to move on: we'd still be in Australia, but in a different state. All of those people and places that make up our security blanket will have to be put into storage. We want to move to Melbourne.

"Why Melbourne?" you might ask. My knee-jerk response is that Melbourne -- in my limited experience with it -- feels alive. Every aspect of it: the places, the people, the weather; there seems to be a genuine exuberance that I've seen there that isn't tangible where I live now. Look, on a sunny day, the Gold Coast is a beautiful place; but this is a fucking hard place to make friends. I know I could just jump on the train to Brisbane to be with loved ones, but that's hard to accommodate in the working week when you're a couple of hours away. Plus life has happened to a lot of them too. My beautiful niece turned one recently, my brother flew in from Thailand for a week (with the odd stop-off), and I've been writing (or at least contemplating) a good dozen positions interstate.

Life is happening, friends!... and it scares the shit out of me.

Dutch note: Oh right, what this means for here is that I don't have a specific brief to write to anymore. So you'll see more updates.

Friday, November 2

First Impressions of NBA 2K13 (Xbox 360): Art Imitates Life

In a nutshell, I'm a pretty dodgy basketballer, both in the real world and the virtual. One would think with the assistance of LeBron James and Dwayne Wade I could successfully pull off a layup - even a spectacular backboard breaking dunk - but alas, no. 

Thanks for nothing, LeBron
In the hope of inspiring confidence in my abilities, I recently downloaded the demo of NBA 2K13, the latest basketball release from 2K Sports and the gaming world's most popular basketball series. While my sessions were brief, I liked what I saw.

In the real world I am well aware my significant lack of sporting confidence and spacial awareness are part of the reason for poor on-court performance, however this is not the reason why I suck at 2K13.

It has nothing to do with poor controls or a steep learning curve; NBA 2K13 is actually easier to pick up than its predecessor. This iteration has a new feature that utilizes the right stick to initiate advanced dribbling and, in conjunction with the left trigger, can be used for fine tuning your shot.

Previously the right stick was only used for adjusting your shot, however, in my opinion, this change has helped the controls become easier to grasp. To be honest there were times when I found it to be an inconvenience when shooting and often resorted to mashing buttons but I found myself drawn back to using the new style, even if it was just to play.

As with the real world, my inability to sink baskets comes down to me having no clue. Sports games are not my forte (just ask anyone who's played FIFA with me) and for me to get my head back in the genre, I'll need to bank a few hours of game time.

I actually find the whole concept confusing - marking players, initiating plays; as a button masher I lack the finesse, maybe even cognitive capacity, to make the most of my team. Once I know what makes my player run, I'll just hold that button down the entire time and wonder why the team is tired by the end of the first quarter. Then other questions arise such as why am I pivoting when I want to shoot? Oh because I'm also holding down some other button with my gorilla sized hand while simultaneously hitting the wrong button.

Despite this lack of experience holding back my high score, I did enjoy what I saw of the game and am keen to explore it further in the full release. Produced by Jay Z, NBA 2K13 has a fresh slickness to it, boasting an eclectic soundtrack and an enjoyable NBA experience.

The full version includes all 30 teams along with the 1992 USA Dream Team (with Scottie Pippen) and the 2012 US Mens National team to settle the vigorously debated question of which generation is the better baller. My money's on the Dream Team...unless I'm holding the controller...

Have you played 2K13? What are your thoughts and would you prefer EA's NBA Live series over the 2K offer?