Part two? Part two? Oh my goodness, you're totally lost, aren't you? Part one's right here, and it ended with this really rad cliffhanger with a car chase and everything. Basically, you have to read it, or part two won't make a lick of sense to you. So get to it. Or try your luck with part two. But you'd have to be, like, some kind of mega-genius to even begin to comprehend the complexities of an ordered list like this one without proper introduction.
Metal Gear Solid 3
“Eh. Metal Gear’s all right, I guess.”
No one has ever said this. You either love the zany stealth franchise and all its fat men on rollerskates, nanotech vampires, and cyborg ninjas -- despite their tendency to speak in cryptic psycho-babble for 45 minutes at a time – or you completely reject it as the human body would an amputated arm that occasionally takes control of your brain and tries to conquer the world. Point is, Metal Gear’s crazy, Japanese, and crazy.
And I love it.
Metal Gear Solid 3, in my opinion, is the height of Snake and co.’s adventures, with creator Hideo Kojima’s eccentricities toned down just enough to create an emotionally captivating tale that’s still unabashedly strange – but not mind-bogglingly so. The game mixed tense “hide in plain sight” stealth sections, battles with everything from masochistic bee men to ancient wheelchair-bound snipers, and a backstab-heavy plot that’d make even James Bond’s head spin to create a balanced concoction of Kojima’s mad science that actually didn’t eventually explode in players’ faces. (The game's bosses, however, did.) After Metal Gear Solid 2’s many missteps, I kept waiting for MGS3 to take a colossal leap off the deep end, but it never did. Instead, it upped the ante at a near-perfect pace, culminating in my favorite boss fight of all time.
The battle with “The End,” as the aforementioned seemingly comatose oldster was known, absolutely blew me away. In a single confrontation, I was forced to make use of nearly every skill Metal Gear Solid had ever taught me. He used a sniper rifle, so naturally, I evaded, gave him the slip, and tip-toed until I was right behind him. Metal Gear Stealth 101, in other words. But then he did something that surprised me: he sprinted like a six-legged cheetah. On his brittle old stick-legs. So much for the wheelchair.
So here we are. The ball’s just about to drop on 2010, and while we’re not controlling games with our brains or Vulcan nerve pinching aliens on the holodeck just yet, it’s been a pretty great decade for games, all told. So I’ve written an arbitrarily numbered list of my favorite games of the past decade, because what else are you going to do to ring in a new decade? Your glamorous parties, oceans of alcohol, and prison cell slumber parties can wait. Read this list now.
My memory’s all right, I think. It’s not bad, by any means, but it’s also not great. As a result, looking back on a linear first-person shooter – for me – is kind of like looking back on a really good sandwich. Sure, I enjoyed it – as evidenced by the giant belch I expel shortly afterward, as I do after anything I truly enjoy – but I couldn’t in good conscience tell you about its different parts. It all just sort of runs together. So it’s a pretty big deal when – after only playing a shooter once – I can remember its every twist and turn with near-perfect clarity.
Half-Life 2 is the ultimate roller coaster ride. Each of its locales exudes an unsettling “strange-yet-familiar” vibe that I image would accompany an actual alien occupation of earth. Yet, more than that, when Half-Life 2 switches areas, the game changes. Rarely – with the exception of a few unfortunate vehicle sequences – does it ever force you to do the same thing twice. Other shooters are content to call their samey shooting galleries by other names and hope you won’t notice, but Half-Life 2 never settles into a predictable rhythm, and it’s headcrabs-and-shoulders above the rest because of that.
Also, if you didn’t scream while playing through Ravenholm, you’re lying.
Gotta say, it’s a bit ironic that a blood-soaked week of virtual warfare – during which, more than twelve million casualties met their abrupt, though most assuredly excruciating ends – is the perfect template for videogame immortality. But hey, when happenstance writes my jokes for me, who am I to complain? And so it is with Valve’s Team Fortress 2.
As you’re probably already aware, last week saw Valve launch its latest update for the now two year-old Team Fortress 2. Which, in videogame years, roughly equates to dead. And a half. At the very least, you’d expect the public eye – easily distracted as it is -- to have wandered elsewhere by now, leaving Valve’s wacky shooter to the vultures and tumbleweeds of the world. But it hasn’t. War, as with each of TF2’s other updates, grabbed all kinds of attention – even as newer games like Modern Warfare 2 watched jealously from the outside.
So, why hasn’t interest in Team Fortress 2 faded over the years? Well, I can’t uncover the entire recipe for Valve’s incredibly intricate immortality potion, but I can outline one of its major ingredients: presentation. When Valve gives TF2 a tune-up, it does so with style. While other developers are content to toss their DLC out into the cold, harsh world with little more than a press release to keep it warm, Valve rolls out the proverbial red carpet with comics, videos, week-long Advent Calendar-style reveals, and – most recently – in-game competitions.
You’ve probably seen the headlines. They’re pretty hard to miss. After all, when two of mainstream media’s favorite buzzwords – “violent videogames” and “terrorism” – cross streams, things get messy. If you’ve somehow managed to position yourself smack in the eye of the media storm, however, here’s the story: Last week, someone leaked a scene from Modern Warfare 2 in which you, the player, take up arms and gun down some people. As a terrorist. And those people? Innocent civilians who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And I’m perfectly ok with that. Why? We’ll get to that in a bit.
What I do take issue with, though, is Infinity Ward’s treatment of the whole fiasco. Moments after every videogame blog on the planet’s normal programming was interrupted to bring you this special report, Infinity Ward issued a statement. “Players have the option of skipping over the scene,” it read. “At the beginning of the game, there are two ‘checkpoints’ where the player is advised that some people may find an upcoming segment disturbing. These checkpoints can’t be disabled.”
Which is PR-speak for: “We’re afraid that the mainstream media’s going to tear us to shreds for this one, but we’ve handily built in this failsafe. You’ll never take us alive! Mwahahahaha! *Rockets into the sky using a concealed jetpack*.”
See, while stirring terrorists, innocent slaughter, and videogames into the same stew may initially leave a bad taste in people’s mouths, I think Infinity Ward’s taking a big step in the right direction. It’s a shame, then, that they’re so quickly scrambling to cover their tracks.
Batman’s a bit of an odd case, even as far as videogame characters are concerned. I mean, aside from the tight-fitting latex suit and bat fixation (or should I say Bat-bat fixation), he doesn’t kill anyone. Ever. Oh, sure, occasionally he’ll twist people’s arms for info by breaking their legs, but when it’s all said and done, Batman’s enemies come away relatively unscathed.
Of course, when distilled into videogame form, this strict moral code results in a number of strange, oftentimes chuckle-worthy discontinuities. “So let me get this straight: I hit him with a barrage of pointy metal projectiles, stuck him with a grappling hook and reeled him in Scorpion-style, and then proceeded to jump up and down on his chest like it was a trampoline? And his heart rate sits at… something above zero?!” Doesn’t make much sense, does it? And here I was, all ready to talk about suspension of disbelief and how games still have a long way to go before they create truly believable experiences when I realized something:
At least Batman – a purported “good guy” – doesn’t wantonly murder thousands of people like, you know, every videogame character ever. The rest is after the break!
It’s been nearly four years since the Xbox 360 helped consoles get their graphical groove back, which – of course – kicked off the current console generation. Time flies, doesn’t it? The Xbox 360, then -- if we’re going by Tech Standard Time (TST) -- should now be on its last legs. A dinosaur on its death bed, facing extinction by the meteoric approach of a new “next-gen” Microsoft console. But it’s not. In fact, if Microsoft and Sony have things their way, the current console generation will keep on chugging along for another five years.
Not long ago, for us PC gamers and our beefy, ever-evolving rigs, this would have been a moot point – or even a nice bit of superiority to hold over console gamers’ heads. “Our graphics are prettier than yours! Neener-neener-neener!” But times have changed. PC exclusives are few and far-between, and many are only one mediocre first week of sales away from being ported to consoles (*cough*Crysis*cough*). The large majority of games are unable to take full advantage of PC hardware, because consoles and their aging innards are holding everyone else back. Sorry state of affairs, ain’t it?
Videogames have taken us everywhere. Space, the Wild West, the Oregon Trail, the future, heaven, hell, purgatory (Ever played Big Rigs? Yeah), World War II, the apocalypse, the post-apocalypse, and World War II again. You name it, and gamers have probably been there, done that, and gone to Hot Topic to pick up the T-shirt. So, what’s left? Where are we to boldly go without even a walkthrough to guide us? Well, if you’re I’m asking me, I’d say we should forget the rest of our well-trod universe and try picking our own brains. Yep, it’s time for a bit of good old-fashioned psychology.
At this point, I imagine many of you are remembering simpler times, when tales of Rorschach inkblot tests, salivating dogs, and men who loved their mothers lulled you to sleep in your public educational institution of choice. And a few of you might be thinking of Psychonauts – to which I say “good!” We’ll get to that in a little while.
Anyway, games obviously aren’t the domain of stuffy old guys with fancy degrees and fancier couches. However, that doesn’t mean some of the more universal psychological themes can’t find their way into videogames. Case in point: Batman: Arkham Asylum.
While Arkham may be known foremost as the only Gotham prison less effective than a wet paper bag, it is – in actuality – more of a correctional institution than anything else. The game, then, portrays Arkham’s staff members as hard-working ladies and gents who are trying their darndest to crack classic nutcases like the Joker, the Riddler, Scarecrow, and Killer Croc. The player, as Batman, stumbles upon evidence of these correctional interactions in the form of taped interviews focusing on different villains.
Unless you spend of all of your time in the basement of the rock you’d have to be living under – never emerging, except for the occasional food/water run – you’ve probably heard something about the recent Shadow Complex controversy. For those who aren’t in the know, though, the story goes like this: Shadow Complex, a Metroid-like game for the rough, tough, gray-loving modern gamer, recently released on Xbox Live Arcade to rave reviews. Trouble, however, soon reared its ugly head when famous – and sometimes infamous -- author Orson Scott Card parked his own float in the Shadow Complex promotional parade, licensing the videogame property from developer Chair Entertainment and writing a series of books that take place in the game’s universe.
So, where’s the problem? Why are gamers tossing their virtual copies of Shadow Complex into their equally virtual Xbox fireplaces? Well, let’s just say that Card didn’t settle down and clam up after he wrote “Ender’s Game.” In fact, these days, when he’s not penning best-selling sci-fi literature, Card puts his silver tongue to use in vocal opposition of gay rights. For example, he's written the following: “The first and greatest threat from court decisions in California and Massachusetts, giving legal recognition to ‘gay marriage,’ is that it marks the end of democracy in America” and "Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down."
However, as tempting as it might be to crank a patriotic orchestral soundtrack, stand behind a large, billowing USA flag, and rant about tolerance and love (both platonic and, well, you know) of your fellow man, that’s not what I’m here to do.
Oh the life I’ve lived. I’ve skipped across the tops of skyscrapers with the ease of a child playing hopscotch. I’ve busted out of prisons that were said to be inescapable, that were patrolled by minigun-toting mechs, among other things. I’ve completed the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs. I’ve slain Balrogs (of bothvarieties). I’ve covered wars, ya know.
The moment I remember best, though? I was sitting in a small apartment, on a couch made more of dust than fluff. Minutes earlier, I’d gunned down some 20 mafia goons, but that didn’t matter. She leaned on my shoulder, half-asleep, and we watched an old black-and-white rendition of “To Kill a Mockingbird” on a teensy television. For more than an hour.
And that’s when I thought, “This game is incredible.”
That game was The Darkness, an Xbox 360 shooter from Starbreeze studios. Sure – as I implied earlier – the game certainly had me behind the barrel of a gun (or a giant hell-borne tentacle-snake) more often than not, but even among countless epic shootouts and swelling operatic scores, that mundane moment with main character Jackie Estacado (you) and his girlfriend dozing on a couch stands out the most. It was simple. It was quaint. But most of all, it was entirely believable.
Ever have one of those moments where you said something completely inappropriate – like, say, any number of four letter words – while strolling through a locale where things like that just don’t fly – like, say, your kindergartener’s bring-your-parent-to-class day or a nun convention? You know how it is; seas of chit-chat part, as though diving out of the way of the approaching eighteen-wheeler that is the crushing realization that you just screwed up big-time.
Electronic Arts recently found itself caught in the sizzling headlights of a similar situation. In promoting upcoming hack ‘n’ slash ‘n’ totally ignore the source material Dante’s Inferno, EA thought it might be fun for gamers to take pictures of themselves performing “acts of lust” with its already swamped staff of Comic Con booth babes. The winner of this competition would then get a night on the town with said babes, and some other odds and ends. Yeah. Predictably, the entire gaming community immediately ceased to jabber about other topics, crossed its collective arms, and sent a damning glare in EA’s direction. “Oh, haha, we didn’t mean it like that,” EA essentially said in reply, backpedaling. But obviously, that didn’t undo the damage that’d already been done.
Clearly, EA – in this situation – had its audience pegged incorrectly. Despite our apparent love of some of life’s baser aspects (shooting, explosions, and John Madden, for instance), gamers don’t take too kindly to blatant misogyny. Big whoop, though, right? In many gamers’ eyes, this is just another dark mark on a record already stained by countless instances of greed and sloth. Throwing in lust just rounds out the roster, right? It’s EA, after all. And as we all know from previous experiences, stereotypes and generalizations are always right.