Wednesday 2 July 2014

Reviews: KEYS for Source Singleplayer 2013

Minor spoilers are not indicated. If you want the full experience, play it first.

Reviewing something like Keys, a short, singleplayer art mod built in the Source engine, is extremely difficult. By definition art mods circumvent every convention of standard critique; stuck on a wall thanks to a bad bit of clipping? Its creator can say it's representative of mankind's struggle, or some other utter bollocks. In a subgenre of little meaningful interaction with a few puzzles here and there, does Keys fall into the trap of meaningless glamour and pretensions to depth, or genuinely hit some high notes?

Immediately there's a sense that Keys isn't trying to be anything more than it is. Some sequences almost have the feeling of a visual exercise of the game's engine, while others are beautiful for their own sake. It isn't part of the artist's ego or a flimsy 'edgy' idea; Keys presents its ideas and areas, and leaves you with them to figure out and play with. As a subjective piece, it may not have hit me where it did others, but I was thankful for the author's willingness to let me work through at my own pace.

On the technical side, the mod loads the first level on boot, skipping any menu time. This has the negative effect of needing a few moments to adjust the graphical settings, yanking you out of any initial immersion. Unfortunately, this is probably the opposite of the author's intention, but Source by default loads mods in a 4:3 aspect ratio. There are a couple of excessively dark areas, and one or two shonky level transitions that don't seem to function as smoothly as they could.

At one point - perhaps due to a little rushing - an ambient sound did not end on transition to next area and proved so distracting I had to use the console to stop it. The lack of a conventional menu also made the ending ambiguous at best - a 'thanks for playing' would have been appreciated. While I can understand the author's desire to not have a menu, sometimes you have to stick with convention.

Keys touches on meta elements, but never reaches the
heights of The Stanley Parable
In terms of level design, Keys is robust and functional. The idea of exposing how the engine works and maps are constituted as building blocks is touched on, in a Samuel Beckett-esque purposeful removal of immersion, but I found the meaningfulness lacking. It doesn't really go anywhere - conventions aren't subverted, and while there's some imagery in having to descend out of these areas, they feel like part of a much more haunting and grim mod altogether when juxtaposed with Keys' more complex and interesting set pieces.

Those ethereal sequences in turn are open to interpretation, and provide a solid foundation for interaction. They are strung together by a few common themes, and the storytelling finale puts a fair amount of the prior mod into an understandable perspective. The puzzle sequences are understandably simple, but sufficiently involving and unfrustrating, thanks in part to the brilliant soundtrack.

The soundtrack really is a strong point, and one of the stand-out features; haunting guitar melodies underpin your actions, and I have to give credit to the composer. It helps pace the mod, and sets the mood beautifully.

To be fair to the author, minimal gameplay is the name of the non-game here, and Keys is the first mod I've heard called an 'interactive art gallery' without it being a criticism. The line that art mods walk between game and interactive gallery is an interesting one, and the lack of a win/lose condition can raise interesting questions about whether they're really games at all. The question and presentation of art within a medium frequently interrogated for artistic merit haunts the game, and actual gameplay elements allow it to cast aside the complaints that the gorgeous-but-weak Dear Esther's recieved of being little more than a stroll with some narration.

Ultimately what Keys doesn't do is overreach - it's a piece of achieved ambition, and making a mod is no small feat. The creator is a long-time member of the same mapping community as myself, but chooses not to strive for the climactic heights of 99 Bolts, or City 17, mods that have reached for the stars and plummeted back to Earth with scorched wings. It is a short, simple, and extremely creative sequence that's worth a download if it's your cup of tea.

Arma, if you're reading this, well done mate.

Tuesday 1 July 2014

Review: Courage for Source Singleplayer 2013

Minor spoilers are not indicated. If you want the full experience, play it first.

Every so often you come across a mod that really chimes with you, and Courage comes very close to doing so. Described by its creator 'turboluigi' (this is why I love the mod community) as "L4D2 meets Dear Esther", it dabbles with the former's gameplay while taking just a few pages from the latter's surrealism.

What results is a technically competent and incredibly dark piece that creates a much more resounding sense of finality than any conventional death sequence I've played in some time. Naturally, only a short singleplayer mod could pull off this kind of thing, and I gave the whole thing two run-throughs in around ten minutes or so.

Built in the Source engine, there are no major tweaks to note - the guns go bang and the bad men fall down. The conventional linearity of most Half-Life 2 mods is replaced with a single open area, which within moments is swamped with zombies. Your running gun battle allows you to grab ammunition and health, while the generously proportioned map gives you plenty of breathing space without suffering from the problems of having the shambling necrotics become a shooting gallery.

The real hook of the mod lies in 'courage', a virtual reality system that opens up to the player after eliminating the resident zombie population. Half-Life mods suffer greatly from a weapon and physics set that's ten years old, and without the resources to code in new guns increasingly clever ideas are a necessity. Once activated, courage shunts you to an alternate reality in a thoroughly jarring tonal shift that left me on the right side of bemused without being inappropriate.

Thematically, Courage absolutely nails it. The humour is subtle and the tone well-balanced. There's a sharp irony to the real world's advertisements for courage, and the facile world of the simulation is set against a grim and invasive reality. Without spoiling it, I thoroughly recommend playing the mod twice to understand the mechanics involved; the twist has frightening implications that really make you think about the implications of your actions. I'm probably going to do a writeup of that in the coming days.

On a more critical slant, I personally found some of the music in the courage sequences to border on the overly sentimental, and I think the contrast between the real and simulated worlds is sufficiently jarring without a crooning vocalist. SPOILERS I found the 'good' ending a little weak as well, and again overly optimistic for my personal taste. Like Danny Boyle's film Sunshine, this might have been one instance where the happy ending could have been replaced by an endless, one-man holdout against an onslaught. Equally, it provides firm closure and an acceptable reward for persevering, so each to their own. SPOILERS OVER.

Overall, it's very much a short-and-sweet piece that for its download size is well worth the entry fee of zero pounds/dollars/euros/whatever. While it borders the line between dull, routine, silly and manipulative, Courage very much does so in all the right ways. Thoroughly recommended.

Friday 23 May 2014

British Politics and Gojira

TY, huffpost
Over the next 48 hours, I'm expecting the inevitable surge of political posts and blogs from my friends. Why? Because the United Kingdom Independence Party has done exceptionally well (relatively speaking) in the European Parliament and local elections, despite having dropped some interesting news bombshells over the past few weeks. On that last one, feel free to check the crime statistics; White British tends to commit a hell of a lot of them.

So rather than wax lyrical about something that the media's going to pound into your face for the next month or so, let's talk about motherfucking Godzilla - specifically, the critical reception. Spoilers are inevitable, but I will try to mark them out.

Did you know the Sun did a double page
spread of the tsunami with GODZILLA on it
I'm a huge fan of summer blockbusters; they're big, stupid and visually beautiful, and Godzilla was no exception. Kaiju films are something I know plenty about, but the bug never really bit me until Pacific Rim came out. Everything from the soundtrack to the visuals clicked into a big, stupid, visually beautiful 2 hour beat-down featuring one of my favourite British actors, Idris Elba. I could wax lyrical about it.

Instead let's talk Metacritic, and the lowly 62 score Godzilla has at time of me publishing this blog. Noah has a higher score at 68 for crying out loud. It's not all bad; a user score of 7.5 is nearer the mark but in a film as brutally faithful to the source material as Godzilla 2014, something's amiss here.

It’s always fun to watch scaly, skyscraper-size behemoths lay waste to civilization, but a bit more human drama wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Tom Huddleston from Time Out New York is clearly demented in his review, stating "It’s always fun to watch scaly, skyscraper-size behemoths lay waste to civilization, but a bit more human drama wouldn’t have gone amiss." Tom Huddleston seems to have missed the giant lizard memo. I admit the human factor suffers from World War Z syndrome, in that the expansion to silver screen has cast aside the individualism, but I'll throw Huddleston a bone here. The real fault is that the human drama is a bit shit. The main actor, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, is out of his element and the superb first thirty minutes highlight the problems; you can hand that to Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe. The latter does an excellent fly-catching impression with his mouth, but dammit if he can't nail those one liners. There's certainly enough drama, and while it meanders through good and bad the collective result is 'it'll do'.

The classic Gojira. Less hench.
Only the very weakest or strongest material goes for the throat

On the other end of the spectrum, there's the similarly recently-escaped-from-Bedlam Richard Corliss who drops a real hum-zinger, stating that "Edwards’ Godzilla dawdles toward its Doomsday climax; the movie could win a prize for Least Stuff Happening in the First Two-Thirds of an Action Film." Fuck me Corliss, I'll admit Alien was a tension-filled nightmare fest but it took its sweet time getting there, and so do many films of top-notch calibre. Equally, I can see what Corliss is on about. The human drama and the Kaiju drama don't mesh neatly, if at all. There's a nigh-obsessive gunwank occurring throughout the film with the American military masochistically getting slaughtered and rendered totally impotent. That's fine, but it's not a plot device except in the weakest of films (i.e. Battle Los Angeles).

What about the users? Well, the repeated rant is that Godzilla doesn't get to the point.

So what the fresh hell is going on? My guess is a two-pronged problem. There's a thing in DJing that's considered to be the fine art of keeping a crowd tense for that one amazing tune by constantly dropping in key bits of the song. Pendulum's Blood Sugar introduction, Psy's Gangnam Style's op, op-op - you know the kind of thing. You tease the crowd so when they get their inevitable payoff, it's all the more cathartic. You see the same thing in horror; build tension, build tension, false alarm, build tension, scary thing, rinse and repeat. Only the very weakest or strongest material goes for the throat.

Giant mechs, always a hard act to follow.
The problem is that Godzilla 2014 is ballsy because of this. Major spoilers COD4 style, It kills Bryan Cranston within 15 minutes. It does insane tension builds and then says 'fuck you, it's a seagull', and it hints and hints at an epic fight 3 times before it actually occurs. I admit, it's not the best fight, but dropping in the classic fire breathing thing? Sublime, awesome, and totally unexpected. It takes real skill for that to work, and to be frank, it misses the mark. Major spoilers over. 

This is what makes Godzilla both subtle and borderline arrogant; it takes an approach to tension and development that is incredibly slow boil that fails to appease (and in a way, pander) to audience expectations of immediate wish fulfilment. Yes, Godzilla takes an hour to appear but when he does, it's all the more powerful. Pacific Rim could pull off starting big because it could always go bigger - plasma cannons, swords, heavy ordnance, more robots - but in Godzilla we're all waiting for one thing; the Mutos and Godzilla to duke it out. Whether the time taken for that to occur is worth it is down to you as an individual - I'll admit the first 30 minutes of the film were by far and away the strongest, but it was a good ride nonetheless. If it were up to me, I'd have gone the much creepier route and made the Muto way, way more powerful and concentrated on the human thing to the extreme, making it encompass the classic force-of-nature Gojira material - then an insane fight to finish. But hey, there's always Godzilla 2, right?

Friday 28 March 2014

Oculus Rift; A Wrathful Ramble

Right, it's 8:30am and I've been up since 10am yesterday. I've got an essay in by 1pm today that I haven't proofed, smoothed out the critical references or even finished but hey, blog time!

So, the Oculus Rift. Being an amateur dev I have a few things to say about the Facebook acquisition. For those who don't know, the Oculus Rift was/is set to dominate the VR market, showing everyone the folly of 3D and bringing us wonderful on-your-face virtual reality with modern technology. That's the ability to move your head and have that motion tracked in-game, with the additional tech benefits of high frame rates, low latency and high resolution. Check out this demo of the old version one model running with Team Fortress 2.

Then about a week ago, Facebook decided to buy the Rift and the internet threw a collective shit-fit. Putting aside the massive ethical issues - the Kickstarters who funded the original project seeing their investment moving in a direction they didn't pay out for, Facebook's highly questionable background in development, and the big questions revolving around advertising - it placed a pretty large downer on the bubbling enthusiasm that had been merrily chugging along since day one of the Rift's announcement.

Simply put, I find the idea of Facebook buying the Rift beyond belief. There's a Guardian article that raises some ok points, but it's the comment section where things really shine. Arguments are thrown back and forth, positives and negatives, PCGamer did a thing on it along with every two-bit game journalism site I'm sure. The positives and negatives seem to boil down to 'Facebook has loads of money' and 'Facebook is shit'. I'm inclined to the latter. As QuestionableTea puts it on the Guardian,

I feel like a lot of people aren't too annoyed that they sold out, its just that they sold out to facebook. A sell out to AMD/Valve/NVidia or even Google would probably be welcomed.

Right on the money, QuestionableTea. AMD and Nvidia are the biggest GPU manufacturers on the planet. They know hardware and they know it well, and have the raw capital and software skills to back it up. Nobody could have integrated the Rift's hardware better, or helped with software iteration (though considering my current drivers on my rig, debateable). Good old fashioned manufacturing manpower.

Valve? They've been working on some alright hardware for the past year. Both the controller and console/PC thing look like they need work, but it's Valve. They're software kings and don't you forget it. I maintain that the biggest reason for Half-Life 2 taking so long to come out was that they spent most of that time creating the world's first proper bumpmap shaders - in-house.

Hell, 'even' Google? They've dominated the search algorithm scene since 1998 and have pushed into hardware, software, cloudware, they're made operating systems for crying out loud. Google is where good tech goes to get better. Like the Apple of ten years ago, what Google lacks in innovation it makes up with sheer damn willpower and a thriving skillset.

What does Facebook have? Well, they bought WhatsApp and Instagram right? Two massive content sharing and communication platforms just like Faceb- oh. Ohhhh. Well, they're rich anyway right? Right guys? Oh who am I kidding they may as well have hired Peter Molyneux