Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Preview Power: Metroid: Other M

[Part of a series of smaller posts that I'll be doing about various upcoming games. I don't jump on board the hype train too often, but when I do I like to think that there's a pretty significant reason for why, and in this series I will attempt to explain my anticipation for each game.]

I absolutely love the Metroid series. It's easily one of my favourite franchises in gaming and I'm not afraid to admit that I prefer it to the more popular, more renowned franchises of Mario and Zelda. If you asked me why I loved the franchise, I'd respond with a reference to the exploration, a nod to the atmosphere, and a suggestion that isolation is one of the defining features of each game. I'd tell you about how Samus Aran inspires me: to play each game to the best of my ability; to get her through any and all situations she finds herself in, good or bad; and to ensure that no matter what, our perseverance will prevail. I'd also go on about how Metroid Prime is my favourite game ever and that nothing else, not even BioShock (think about that one for a second...) comes close to the love I have for that game. The Metroid franchise commands my respect but, more importantly, earns it from every single person who joins its loyal fanbase. It might not have the reputation that Mario does, or the sense of wonder that can be found in every Zelda title, but Metroid is a unique, wonderful take on science fiction that simply resonates with me.

It should be no surprise, then, that Metroid: Other M is high on my anticipated list. Here is a game that has a lot riding on it: like Metroid Prime before it, it's doing something new with the franchise, providing a different perspective that could be absolutely excellent, or a dismal failure; it's being made by Team Ninja, a development team that has a mixed reputation and who certainly don't have the respect that Retro Studios earned over the course of their fabulous Prime trilogy; and it appears to be emphasising things that usually take a more subdued focus in the series, such as narrative and action. The action focus is no surprise -- this is, after all, a game coming from the team behind Ninja Gaiden and Dead Or Alive -- but the narrative? That's something that, arguably, Team Ninja don't have much experience in and, as such, it's very easy to be skeptical.

Skepticism and hesitation surrounds the impending game and for good reason. Story in a Metroid game is usually discovered, the lore of the game's universe and exposition on everything ranging from the Space Pirates to the various species (enemies) you come across in your travels something to be found rather than told. Sometimes, story barely even exists, with just enough portrayed to set up a game and nothing more. In these instances, it's the atmosphere, discoveries -- ability upgrades; bosses -- and exploration that make up the plot of the game, leaving it all up for interpretation and in the hands of a player's imagination. Either way, both have defined the Metroid franchise since its inception and therefore a stronger focus on narrative, with cutscenes and conversations with other people, is cause for concern. Personally I don't have an issue with this and actually hold it as one of my reasons to be excited. While part of the fun of playing Metroid was finding out things at my discretion, finding out more about the Metroid universe and Samus Aran in particular is an enticing prospect, her history and experiences something I want to learn more about. It will be different to previous games, it will take some getting used to and, presumably, such a change will feel abrupt at first, but I'm willing to give Metroid: Other M a chance because I want to give Samus a chance: to tell her story and to make us understand why she is who she is, why she does what she does, and what the things in her past mean to both her and to us.

The action is also something I can embrace, so long as it isn't over done and doesn't come at the expense of the exploration and atmosphere the series is synonymous with. Boss battles are a core element of the franchise and so I'm willing to explore new combat options that may arise from the different perspective Other M will provide. Admittedly I can't actually get a grasp on just how the new game will play -- even after watching gameplay footage -- so it's hard to know where I will stand with it, but for now I am willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and approach it on its terms rather than any of my own.

All in all, as a self-confessed Metroid fanboy I can't not be excited about Metroid: Other M, but beyond that I am genuinely interested in it due to the changes it brings. The formula is nowhere near going stale, but that doesn't mean it can't be repackaged in a way that refreshes the franchise and, hopefully, brings in a new audience with it. The science has been perfected over the years. Now it's time for the fiction to get the same loving treatment. Here's hoping, anyway.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Silent But Deadly

Resident Evil 5 is a controversial entry in the long-running franchise, dividing its audience by iterating on the fabulous additions its predecessor Resident Evil 4 brought to the table whilst also taking the series in a direction that is a far cry from its original roots. Action and spectacle are the order of the day, leaving scares and a general feeling of eeriness by the wayside. Co-operative play was the game’s central focus, and while what that means is the subject for another post, the end result is a fun, impressive installment in the franchise that just isn’t scary, period -- not a criticism in its own right, but when considered alongside the franchise’s history, it is definitely something worth contemplating.

Contrast and compare this with Alan Wake -- a game which I’ll have more about soon -- and its emphasis on atmosphere and ambience to create an eerie, uneasy experience where you never know what to expect, what will happen and, more importantly, when. Alan Wake’s model is the more commonly seen amongst today’s supposedly scary games, the genre’s reliance on atmosphere in particular reaching varying degrees of success. This is the model that Resident Evil established itself on, and while that series used cheap “Boo!” scares to scare its players, it still paved the way for games like Alan Wake. Both Resident Evil 5 and Alan Wake are loud games, then, in that there’s always a haunting score or chilling sound effect to be heard, and disturbing, omnipresent darkness or growling, menacing enemies to fight. The moments of silence are quickly punctuated by the sounds of the unknown, and the vividly black darkness soon gives way to sudden bursts of light, usually at the same time as an enemy overwhelms you with its attacks. It’s visceral, it’s definitely immersive, but it’s a model that is arguably overdone and loses its impact over time. Something less frequent than loud, moody survival horror games are titles that use silence to create their tone, and cleverly placed aural and visual assets to achieve moments of uncertainty: moments of fear.

I’ve been playing an absolute legend in videogame history recently, its re-release on the Xbox Live Arcade allowing me to finally experience the game fully rather than in short, minimal bursts. Doom II is one of the grandfathers of the first-person shooting genre, its classic status deserved for a multitude of reasons ranging from its impeccable level design to the stupid fun that can be had with its double-barreled shotgun. One element of the game was an unexpected surprise, however, something that I couldn’t get a decent grasp of back when I played it at school or at friends’ houses; Doom II is bloody scary, so much so that I’d argue it is more creepy and daunting than any of the games we see released today. It was scary for the players who got to experience it back in its heyday, and it is scary now, in 2010, when technology’s incredible progress means that the game should have been surpassed years ago.

But it is not scary in the traditional sense, the horror that we normally associate with the Resident Evils and Silent Hills of the world. Instead of haunting sounds and disturbing imagery, Doom II is violent and distinctly alien, the endless onslaught of Cyberdemons and Imps keeping things fast, frantic and inherently fun. Yet, I would argue, the game is the complete opposite of the slow-burn scares of more recognized survival horror games: it might be fast, it might be furious, but it’s also silent and that simple fact makes it far more creepier, freakier and terrifying than any zombie, monster or creature found in a more common horror game.

Silence is something I think is overlooked in the videogame industry and it’s somewhat ironic that a game that was released years ago exemplifies why it should be used more often. When you play Doom II, you do it because you want to shoot some aliens using some pretty damn awesome weaponry, but as you do you enter a world where the mere sound of an Imp that you can’t see; the sudden roar of a Cacodemon as he edges ever closer to you; or the punctuating sound of a Zombieman’s gunfire, gets to you, putting you on the edge of your seat and instilling an overwhelming sense of fear inside you.

Another game achieves a similar result, but again for different reasons. Instead of the lingering atmosphere of the typical survival horror, or the imposing dread of Doom II, Limbo is scary because it is weird; frightening because it is strange; and irrevocably eerie because it is brutally sadistic. Taking full advantage of a minimal presentation and design, and creating its own unique atmosphere through its clever use of silence, Limbo uses things like the harsh reality of death and pensive misery to convey its horror. It’s a game that has more in common with someone’s fear of spiders than it does their fear of an unknown and violent, monstrous enemy; it uses real life objects we take for granted like electricity and elevators to send chills more disturbing than the sight of a beheaded alien down our spines, and it uses the monotonous sounds of baby birds chirping and water dripping to give life to an otherwise dead and gloomy environment. It’s more harrowing than it is horrific; more morbid than malevolent; and more gothic than gruesome, but it’s still just as peculiar and alarming as the best of them, and it achieves its terror through a use of silence that is more black than golden.

But really, that’s little surprise. Death should be the scariest prospect of them all and by reveling in it, Limbo, Doom II and other games like them communicate a sense of fear as effective -- if not more so -- than the omnipresent and overwhelming atmosphere that most horror games provide these days. Loud and proud or silent and sinister -- both have their place and both have amazing power when it comes to making a player hesitate. It’s just a shame the two see such a vast difference in popularity.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Columbian Shift

It has been four years since we last heard from Irrational Games, and while their name may have changed twice since then, their ability to capture an audience and design games that get people thinking certainly has not: BioShock Infinite was announced on Thursday and immediately afterwards gaming websites and places like Twitter went into overdrive, going crazy over the news. And for good reason, too: on name alone there’s reason to be excited, as the BioShock franchise has established itself as one to watch and one that explores some really intriguing, incredible themes, but beyond that it’s a new game from Irrational, creators of the original BioShock and many other great games -- whatever they’re working on next is something to keep an eye on. But with BioShock Infinite, there’s more to contemplate than the obvious pedigree of what has come before. Here are just some of the thoughts that went through my mind after the announcement.

First and foremost: the new city. At first glance, Columbia -- a city in the sky -- looks amazing, delivering a completely different vibe to the murky depths and neon-flavour of Rapture, and exhibiting a vibrant display of colour that is punctuated by the American flag, its colours and indeed, the stars and stripes. Clearly then, this new city has an American flavor that Rapture did not, and on that merit alone it’s interesting to ponder just what that might mean for this new game. Even its name is rife with implication. Beyond that, the notion that there’s a floating city in the sky, above the land of real world locations that were only ever briefly mentioned in the depths of Rapture, is an enticing prospect. As soon as I saw it my mind was doing two things: sitting there in awe at what I was seeing, and then racing in a multitude of directions about what it means for its design -- and thus, the design of the game’s levels -- and also for its gameplay. By not showing any actual game footage, it’s unclear just what we will be doing in this new game and while it’d be easy to assume that the mechanics and dynamics will be similar to those in Rapture, we don’t know for sure until we learn more. Even if they are similar, how will they fit in with this new floating metropolis? The trailer shows sections of the city moving about to new areas, meaning that buildings will be connecting and disconnecting at will, completely changing the layout and presumably our ability to traverse between them. There’s also a rail network of some sort that connects the city, so it’ll be interesting to see how that works as well.

It might be easy to look at Columbia and be skeptical about its originality -- a city in the sky is not a new concept, after all -- but the trailer certainly did a remarkable job of highlighting why Irrational chose to go in this direction, and it demonstrates that once again, their creative talent is full of imagination. The concept may not be original, much like an underwater city wasn’t way back in 2007, but their overall design, aesthetic presentation and perhaps most importantly, personality, certainly is -- an exciting prospect to be sure.

As a fan(boy?) of the BioShock franchise, however, I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t set in Rapture. Back when discussing the reception BioShock 2 received, I suggested that Rapture is BioShock, and that to set it anywhere else would be a disservice to both the city under the sea and the series as a whole. I still maintain that Rapture is BioShock, but in the same way that the Assassin’s Creed series is able to redefine itself with new locations and settings, I’m open to the idea that Columbia -- and any other potential future city -- can also be the definition of the franchise. I mean, why shouldn’t it? Based on what was shown in the trailer alone Columbia already looks more amazing and unique than most videogame locations or settings, and knowing the ability of Irrational to inject personality and poignant, if not subtle, themes into their game spaces means that it has every chance of sitting alongside Rapture as one of gaming’s greatest settings. But even so, I am a little disheartened to see Rapture cast aside, especially when I know that its potential as a game space and setting hasn’t been fully tapped yet (more on this soon). Here’s hoping Andrew Ryan’s decaying dream is just having a break.

Another reason I’m excited for BioShock Infinite is because I can’t wait to actually go and be in Columbia. It’s no secret that I’ve developed an interest and passion for videogame spaces over the past few years, and despite my imagination running wild with possibilities I simply can’t fathom just what to expect when this new game finally releases. A city in the sky featuring the BioShock name -- just what does that mean, exactly? -- and set around 1912? Yes. Please. Furthermore, a byproduct of my newfound interest is the realisation that games allow us to inhabit their spaces, as players and as tourists, and what that means for the medium and each individual game has been on my mind a lot lately. Somewhat ironically, I came to the realisation while watching TV show The Sopranos. Midway through the show’s second season, I noticed that literally nothing else was on my mind other than what was happening with its characters, and that my desire to continue on and see more was stronger than anything else. Pondering it some more, I realised videogames achieve similar results and I find that process to be fascinating. When my entertainment connects with me for whatever reason, I inhabit it mentally and don’t stop until I’ve explored and exhausted every possible train of thought. Ranging from discovery to reflection, this process completely takes over and can be incredibly draining. But it is also very rewarding, and as it continues to happen and I learn to take advantage of it, the benefits I will gain are going to really help me understand the entertainment that I consume.

BioShock Infinite should be no different, then, as I immerse myself into the new location and let Irrational’s ideas, design and culture overtake my thought process. I’m looking forward to inhabiting Columbia, but even if, for whatever reason, this new game doesn’t grab me like the original and Rapture did, I can still take something away from a unique setting such as this. That’s one of gaming’s best assets in my opinion, their ability to take us to wherever we may want to go and (more importantly) to places we didn’t know we wanted to see, exploring fascinating themes and content along the way. It may have been done before or it may just be getting discovered, but to allow us to be in these places (as opposed to just having them shown to us) is a trait that games should be proud of. Red Dead Redemption took us to the Wild West; Mass Effect took us all over the universe. Batman: Arkham Asylum allowed us to be Batman, placing us smack bang in the middle of Gotham City as a result; and Columbia? Well, the sky’s the limit, is it not?

Trust a BioShock game to reinvigorate my passion for writing.