Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Review - Metal Gear Solid 4

You’re eating a delicious sandwich. It’s full of flavourful filling, it’s satisfying, and the bread is toasted to an ideal crispness. But every time you take a couple of bites, the makers of the sandwich take it away from you. They then give you a lecture on how the sandwich was made, why the sandwich holds together, and how important the sandwich is. They talk and talk and eventually give back the sandwich. You take a few wonderful bites and then they take it away again. The proceeding lecture is all well and good but you thought that you’d bought a sandwich. You bought it so that you could eat a sandwich.

Metal Gear Solid 4 is that sandwich. Since its release, people have said that it is a great game. And I agree with the first part of that judgement: it is great. It just doesn’t seem to be a game. For every twenty minutes of good, solid gameplay, there’s forty-five minutes of cutscenes, dialogue, and exposition. The previous Metal Gear games tread a fine line between gameplay and story but they always managed to balance the two. Metal Gear Solid 4 doesn’t.

There are two key components to a good video game: gameplay and story. An intricate, well-thought-out, and well-written story alone does not make a game. Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic are examples of game with too much story and mediocre gameplay. Conversely good gameplay alone merely makes a fun game; not necessarily a great one. Assassin’s Creed, Super Mario Galaxy, and (for me at least) racing games prove this. The trick is to balance the two: good gameplay and a good story in a perfect equilibrium where the two cohere and the game isn’t too heavily weighted towards either one. Where the player keeps playing for two reasons: a desire to play the game and a desire to hear the story. Shadow of the Colossus, Call of Duty 4, Valve games, Braid, Psychonauts; all examples of fun and innovative gameplay combined with interesting, engaging stories well-suited to the videogame medium.

Metal Gear Solid 4 has a good story: it’s intricate, complex, intelligent, meaningful, and important. The dialogue is a bit bad (for example most of Snake’s lines seem to consist of him repeating names in a husky, questioning, surprised way: “Guns of the Patriots?... Big Boss?... Liquid?...etc.”) and the experience’s overall feel is interminably Japanese (ninjas, mechas, lingering slow-motion, heavily choreographed fight scenes and over-dramatisation) but the characters are developed and the plot is quite original. But fundamentally, MGS4 is a video game and not a movie or novel. I bought a game to play not to watch cutscenes after cutscene.

The game was overhyped. It’s got fun gameplay but the story is overwrought and bogs down everything. The game is not perfect and it’s certainly not the PS3’s killer app. It’s just OK.

As usual ‘Tycho’ at Penny Arcade delivered concentrated doses of truth in his inimitably poetic style. The loading/installing has bothered me. When the game isn’t forcing another cutscene down your throat, it’s loading or installing. Why do a mandatory install after every act if the game is broken up into chunks that need to be loaded anyway? Surely the PS3 has a better technical capacity than that?

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Review - Sometimes a Great Notion

Kurt Vonnegut’s 6th rule of writing fiction is “6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” This definitely seems to apply for Battlestar Galactica, the greatest show on television at the moment. Over the past four years the characters have been nuked, shot, tortured, imprisoned, irradiated, and been very confused. The show has been about realistically-drawn characters suffering through the trials of war and exile. Throughout the show’s three and a half seasons, there’s been one ray of hope for the last remnants of humanity: the dream of Earth. Last year that dream was taken away in the episode Revelations. Now more than ever, the writers are being sadistic.

Last night Galactica began its final run of episodes. Without a dream or a destination the characters are now depressed, angry, drinking, fighting, and killing themselves. Admiral Adama was reduced to a husk of his former self begging his XO to kill him; President Roslin gave up on her faith and her health. Most shockingly, Leoben stopped spewing religious prophecy about the one god and the course of destiny. For the first time in the series, Leoben seemed genuinely lost and that was more disorienting than anything.

Last night’s episode also seemed to present the final pieces of the puzzle. I think it’s now possible to make an educated guess as to what the frak has been going on (although I accept I am probably way off the mark: I thought Gaeta was the final Cylon!).

Two thousand years ago the 13th Tribe left Kobol. This was a group of Cylons who for some reason had been cast out from the rest of humanity. They found and set up home on Earth where they lived for some time. Fearing nuclear apocalypse, a Cylon scientist (possibly the fifth or possibly Tigh) discovered a way for Cylons to resurrect – to transfer their consciousnesses into new bodies after death. Five Cylons underwent the treatment and had bodies waiting for them in case of death. War happened as if often does and the five were left as the only Cylons in existence. They set off back for Kobol. Along the way (or possibly back on Kobol) more Cylons were created. They began to see the person who gave them the ability of resurrection as a god: the Cylon god. Unfortunately they also found that their new resurrected bodies were incapable of bearing offspring (maybe because of extreme irradiation caused by Earth’s nuclear death). Finding nothing on Kobol (but taking the time to plant a clue pointing the way to Earth), the Cylons set off to search for the Twelve Colonies.

Here’s where it gets foggy. For some reason the five Cylons hid their memories from themselves and set down to lives within human society (or kept themselves in stasis for some time before starting hidden lives within society). Tigh aged – I don’t know why. New Cylons were developed – possibly part of The Overarching Cylon Plan. The New Cylons attacked the colonies – I don’t know why.

That started off better than it ended. Suffice to say that after last night’s episode I’m sure that all the pieces are now on the board and the mystery of the show can be fully unravelled. My theory is that the final Cylon model revealed is or was the Cylon god. Personally I just want to see the characters I’ve grown to love suffer some more. Although maybe it would be nice to see Adama and Roslin happy for a change.

So say we all.

Monday, 12 January 2009

"Bullet points - the lazy blogger's best friend."

Undaimonia has been neglected of late. The numbers next to the months in the Archives bar show a steady decline in posts from the dizzying highs of early last year to an immediate drop in October/November, coincidentally enough, when the new semester of university began.

This final year of my degree in philosophy has been far more demanding than previous years and my writing (for both this blog and short stories for publication) has taken the toll. Instead of observations on modern life or heroic fantasy/science fiction stories, my mind has been focused on philosophical matters. My dissertation on meta-philosophy occupies a considerable portion of my thoughts and will continue to do so until it’s out of my hands: my self-appointed task is to describe how philosophy lost its way in the 20th Century (blame falls squarely on Bertrand Russell and subsequent trends in Anglo-American philosophy) and prescribe how philosophy might be improved/made relevant again. When I’m not churning out paragraphs of that paper, I’m considering (in no particular order) how music can be profound, how sentences are unified but lists of words aren’t, what musical works are, which dichotomy best describes the essential nature of the universe (at the moment, I’m thinking ‘the one and the many’: a sentiment expressed wonderfully in a section of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities), why possible-world logic is invalid due to philosophers’ general lack of imagination, and how disturbingly true this progression is (although in my case I seem to have gone Kierkegaard > Nietzsche > Sartre > Schopenhauer). On top of that I’ve been helping to organise Manchester Philosophy Society events including an upcoming discussion of free will between the esteemed philosophers Ted Honderich and Kevin Magill (full details will be up here feel free to come – 25th Feburary.) Ahhh, the joys of life as a philosopher.

Still I’ve carved out time now before a seminar on meta-ontology to jot down some thoughts about ‘recent’ news.

  • The Manchester congestion charge was voted down with almost 75% of people against it. It was apparent to me that during the last few months, the council almost certainly artificially engineered congestion as Ken Livingstone did in London. Traffic light timings were changed, buses were later, and there were more roadworks. Nonetheless I voted for the charge because I wanted to see improved public transportation and less cars on the road.
  • The Israel/Gaza conflict is a disgrace. How the US can sanction the Israeli attacks is beyond me. Israel has steadily been expanding into Palestinian territory for years. Obviously the whole conflict is God’s fault for promising the land to two religious groups but right now there needs to be an immediate ceasefire and laying down of arms.
  • This was not the work of UFOs.
  • A humanist slogan appearing on London buses has drawn complaints. Stephen Green of Christian Voice claims that “There is plenty of evidence for God, from people's personal experience, to the complexity, interdependence, beauty and design of the natural world.” There are counter-claims to all those arguments but I would love to see such a case go to trial - to legally settle once and for all God’s existence or non-existence. Still, not enough people realise that there are meaningful ways to live without religion or blind faith and if this campaign can raise awareness of that, then I’m all for it. The mysteries of existence are not the exclusive province of religion.
  • F. Paul Wilson claims to have invented the character of the Joker used in The Dark Knight. Reading the short story reveals that Wilson is delusional. His character bears marked differences to Heath Ledger’s portrayal: Wilson’s character has more of an emphasis on the clown aspect of the Joker (the gags, the tricks, the laugh) whereas Nolan’s Joker was more an anarchist sociopath representing the chaos to Batman’s order.

This has been a ridiculously self-indulgent post (Is all writing inherently self-indulgent? Discuss.). I will return to writing my meandering thoughts either when I get more free time or when I graduate.