Saturday, August 23, 2008

Finally completed GTA IV

After many gruelling hours and days, I've finally managed to complete Grand Theft Auto IV. And believe me, I tried my very best to do so. The final mission alone took me more than 2 hours, constantly replaying over and over after each failure. I think I may have replayed that particular mission almost 14-15 times. But despite several frustrating aspects of the game, I'm quite pleased by it overall. I've taken some time to digest the game experience, and there are some things I feel compelled to comment on.

Story-telling was one major aspect of the game, and it had been promoted as a cornerstone of the GTA IV experience from the very start. In this respect, I feel that the story has been very well-told, has excellent pace, and contains a level of depth that one would not have suspected. Arguments have been made previously that GTA IV is no Godfather, and I wouldn't argue otherwise. But as a piece of creative work, it is internally consistent, contains well-developed characters with believable stories and motives which are continually reinforced by their actions.

Some aspects of the dialogue could have been better crafted however. When characters are overly verbose, and share endless exposition without much prompting, it comes across as cheesy, and over-rehearsed. It was far more effective when the dialogue was kept simple, and it was more believable and natural.
Visually, the game is extremely captivating and immersive, and it really conveys the feel of a big city. You only need to drive along the Algonquin Bridge at sunset to understand what I mean; it really does take the breath away.

The main flaw is that for a game that espouses freedom in a sandbox environment, it was extremely restrictive. And this is due to two main reasons: 1) As the player, I do not have a sense of agency, and 2) the things that I am allowed to do are inconsequential and frivalous. There are so many things to exploe or do, and it makes the things that cannot be done even more obvious; And the thing that cannot be done is have an impact on the narrative.

My character can explore the city, take on additional missions (such as assasinations and street races), improve relations with friends, even go on dates. But aside from providing small benefits in game, these actions means nothing to the narrative, and more often than not, it is a annoying distraction.

And I know that the game's designers had a specific story they wanted to tell, which I happily accepted for most part. But there was an instance which nearly broke the game experience for me. Near the end of the game, my character was told to choose between killing the man who had betrayed him and his friends on numerous occasions, or to work for him with promises of money and power, which my character desperately needed. I sat there, with the controller in my hand, for a good 10-15 mins because I couldn't decide. Do I do the deal with the devil so that I may support my family financially, or do I take revenge and live a wretched life hiding from new enemies? Justice or life? The game offered me a tough choice, and I had a tough time making it. But the problem was that the end game after this moment was already set up in a very specific manner, and the choice I made had no impact on it at all. It was a false choice, and my personal moral dilemma accounted for nothing.There are a few other annoying things about in the game. The chase missions aren't fun, and can be quite frustrating. Reactions by in-game characters aren't consistent: My dates, for example, will comment on the clothes I wear and the car I drive, but won't react when I car-jack someone in front of them, or park a helicopter on their street to pick them up. Make me wonder if it were possible to pick up hookers in a helicopter now. The police is still annoying as hell, as all coppers are. And trying on clothes is a chore.

I still enjoyed the game immensely, but the lack of agency remains a flaw for me. The designers have tried to push the narrative boundaries of the videogame medium, and to tell a big story in a big city. For most part, I belive that they have suceeded. While maybe not as nuanced and subtle as The Godfather, GTA IV is a stepping stone in using the videogames medium as a showcase for story-telling. The challenge remains between showcasing a pre-defined narrative, and the amount of agency a player has to affect that narrative.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

I played Street Fighter IV!!

Imagine my surprise when I found out that there was a Street Fighter IV arcade in machine, just a stone's throw away from work? O.M.G.W.T.F.B.B.Q (in every sense of the word). Needless to say, it was imperative that I make a pilgrimage to the shrine of all fighting videogames, to sit up upon its steps, to drink in its wisdom and to learn the ways of the World Warrior.

Hyperbole aside, I really was extremely excited to get my hands on the game. I've always had a soft spot for Street Fighter, even though I was never any good at it. I've read each character's backstory, watched the anime and even the movie as well. So I dropped by Galactic Circus this evening after work, filled with anticipation.

And boy, did I get a pay off. First off, seeing the game in motion was an absolute treat; the graphics looked sharp, the art direction paid homage to the original game (which, as we all know, really was Street Fighter II), with a layer of crispness that heretofore was unmatched. The sound effects were a pleasure to listen to. Everything about it was great. And it played great too. The controls were responsive, and the moves weren't prohibitively hard to pull off; in fact, one would argue that the controls were a little more forgiving this time round.

I played about 5 games (which cost $2 each!) with a few other guys gathered there. They were a good friendly bunch, and we conversed a bit in-between matches. Everyone was quite gentlemanly about taking and giving turns, which was cool. Funny thing was that there was a guy there who read about the game through the same article as I did today. I guess I really shouldn't be that surprised; I'm not the only one to read Kotaku.

Now my hands are itching for more still, and I can't wait to get back there and try another game or two.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Field Commander: Rommel

I recently acquired a copy of Field Commander: Rommel, a solitaire WWII wargame, and I've been dying to get it on the table. In the game, the player controls the Axis, while the Allies make moves based on a pre-determined set of rules.

As luck would have it, my wife had to attend a company function tonight, which left me with plenty of time to explore this intriguging game. I just completed the Ghost Division campaign, which marked the events of the invasion of France. The game took about 2 hours, and I can safely state I am not the commander that Rommel was; I didn't even come close to the victory requirements.
The initial turns started slow, and my forces were not able to break through the Allies at Dinant. This caused a bottleneck, and a crucial delay that contributed to my failure. It took me a full two turns before I was able to subdue the Allied forces there. After the break through, I was able to bring my forces to bear on the Allies in Brussels and Cambrai, before proceeding onto Arras. This secured 2 victory objectives, but precious time had already been wasted. Additionally, I did not realise that there was one last victory checkpoint located at Cherbourg, which I had no hope of reaching at this point.
I was only able to barely hold onto Cambrai and Arras, whilst the Allies commenced their counterattack. I was completely hammered, and held on only by the skin of my teeth.

I really enjoyed the game, and I look forward to playing again (and hopefully winning too!). The moves made for the Allies posed quite a challenge, a lot more than I would have thought. But I'm quite sure that given enough tries, I'll be able to prevail eventually. There are two more campaigns in the game after I conquer this one.