Monthly Archives: December 2011

Of Virtual Violence, Killing Floor and Steam Holiday Sales

Two years ago, I purchased Killing Floor during one of Steam’s infamous Holiday sales. If you’re not familiar with this sale; it’s a time where Steam has a new selection of games on sale each day (for a period of around ten days total). The sale, of which there is one going on right now actually, is a good opportunity to spend next to nothing on all sorts of video games and still manage to do incredible damage to your credit-card (and backlog), so be warned. Back in 2009, at the time of that particular sale, I was living on campus – it was nowhere near a University, but the random assortment of plastic shacks on the edge of Amsterdam was indeed housing students – and that meant a campus internet connection, for which tech support came in the form of some guy from Ireland. Needless to say, online gaming was a no-go, which is less than desirable if you’re actually into that sort of thing. Nothing worked, except for World of Warcraft, though that doesn’t necessarily say much. After all, Blizzard made damn sure WoW works even if you’re dialing in using a campfire and smoke signals. At some point though, even WoW gets boring, and it was then that I vowed to make my escape from that wretched place of internet purgatory. And so I went, off in search of greener pastures and 21st century comforts, leaving my friends behind to fend for themselves.

Overwhelmed by my new found virtual freedom, it took me a while to get around to actually playing Killing Floor. It wasn’t until their recent and so called ‘Twisted Christmas Event’ that I thought to try their game again. The project started out in life as a fan made modification for Unreal Tournament 2004. And it didn’t take long before the guys responsible were hired by a professional developer (Tripwire Interactive) where they made a stand-alone, retail version of their game. These simple beginnings are still evident when you start the game, there’s little (nothing) in the way of a story and after you pick a server from the list, the only objective is for you and your teammates to survive against multiple waves of  ‘specimens’ (all Christmas themed for the duration of the event). Developed in an ill fated military experiment, these specimens provide a perfect excuse to just kill some stuff for a blissfully simple thirty minutes. This is where Killing Floor works best, ‘killing stuff’ has a pretty god damned good feel to it. It’s not necessarily like Battlefield 3, where hours were poured into a sound design that actually accounts for the super sonic crack that accompanies firing a weapon, or the arcing trajectory of a bullet that comes with gravity, but the weapons in Killing Floor do feel just right. The sounds are simple, yet they pack a good punch. All the inner workings of the weapons are also nice and exaggerated, which makes for a most pleasing kind of firearm pornography when ‘zed time’ is activated. Zed time is a global slowing down of time (like in the 2001 classic Max Payne) that activates at random moments for all participating players. Once it does, you can take your time to line up a shot, see that big rack slide back, follow the shell casing as it ejects and watch some monster’s head explode with a nice wet ‘thwack’, showering gore over you and the other players.

I know what you’re thinking, this guy must be insane, right? Wrong. Apart from the cathartic workings of aestheticized depictions of violence, there’s a perfectly good reason why games have developed like this. Any interaction a player can have with a video game is limited by the input devices through which the player is connected to said game. In most cases, these are mouse, keyboard and controller. You can imagine how, considering the entire spectrum of humanity’s capacity for motion and minute manipulation, you’re going to come up a little short when all you’ve got to work with is a limited number of buttons. That’s why the first person shooter is, by far, the most popular genre in video games. The act of running around and shooting things is simple enough to be translated to current control schemes, yet the games that result from this, retain the kinetic energy most humans would look for in a video game. As an added bonus, this ‘virtual murder’ is perfectly suited to function as a set of rules that govern the game. It’s both harmless and allows players to compete in the virtual arena. Though in the case of Killing Floor, players work together against a common enemy instead of each other. It’s similar to Valve’s Left 4 Dead, however, rather than being funneled through a narrow corridor, the players are free to move around fairly large maps. They’re more in control of the ‘battlefield’. I definitely wouldn’t say the game is easy, but combined with the game’s slower pace, I’d say Killing Floor provides a very soothing alternative to L4D‘s screaming hordes.

If you’re interested in trying the game, it’s best to see if it comes up as a ‘daily deal’ on the Steam Sale that’s going on right now. Remember the warning though.

TT3D: Closer to the Edge

If you’ve been reading this site for any length of time, it should be clear that I love film and video games. But I’m afraid I haven’t been entirely honest. You see, there’s something else. I have this thing for motorcycles as well. I know, it’s bad, but I simply can’t help myself. It certainly doesn’t help that motorcycles seem to have gone entirely out of style. Half of our generation has migrated to scooters, while the rest will regard you with scorn when you harbor a love so dear for anything with a carbon footprint larger than a hairdryer’s. At a small social gathering, you’ll gasp with indignation when I tell you that ‘Yes, I have ridden my bike at nearly 300 kilometers an hour’. To make matters worse, I will probably get a little too riled up when I defend what I consider my free spirit, like a doomed Kowalski, in the infamous Vanishing Point. And even though I’ll feel bad about it later, I won’t hesitate to put on a bit of a show and scream past my appalled mother-in-law. Grinning like a maniac, while the smoke pours from the exhaust of my 16 year old Yamaha YZF750R. Yes, I am a terrible person. And yet, there is a place for those of us who still cling to that twentieth century dream of slick tires, petrol and the open road. It’s called ‘the Isle of Man’.

The Isle of Man is a small island located in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland. And every year, it’s host to the International Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, a completely insane motorcycle race on closed off, but public roads. Which means that, unlike in MotoGP races, there is no run-off area. It’s a very narrow circuit with nothing but hedges, walls, buildings, lamp posts and all sorts of thing that are usually not found near any respectable sort of track. It’s very dangerous, especially when you consider the increase in average speed over the last century. The first race, in 1907, was won by Charlie Collier, with an average speed of 38 miles per hour. The current average speed record stands at 131 miles per hour, set by John McGuinness (on a Honda CBR1000RR). Not surprisingly, the race has claimed over two hundred lives since its inception. The participants are definitely very brave, or ‘the lights are on, but no one is home’ as Guy Martin explains at the start of TT3D: Closer to the Edge, the 2011 documentary which chronicles this phenomenon.

Much like the brilliant film on Ayrton Senna last year, this documentary takes a seemingly insignificant subject, like motor sports, and turns it into something more. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to focus your efforts on a charismatic rebel like Guy Martin, but the film’s director, Richard de Aragues, certainly seems to know his way around the already riveting subject matter. The film expertly catches the atmosphere that’s so tangible at events for motorcycle enthusiasts and lovers of speed around the world. If you close your eyes for a bit, you can almost smell stale beer and sausages. It’s also beautifully shot. In addition to serene island scenery, there’s no shortage of slow motion footage that illustrates just how much the bikes and their riders have to endure. The images are stunning to look at and your jaw will often drop at the incredibly ill advised feats of courage that are on display here. Who knows, by the end you might even understand why these men and women are so determined to risk their lives and why it’s so special that the Isle of Man TT still exists today. Even if you’re not into machines that go fast, this is worth seeing.

Uncharted 3 or where do we go from here?

Uncharted 3 Time to Waste

Uncharted is probably the most important Sony franchise and as such, the game’s third entry (Drake’s Deception) was a highly anticipated release this fall.  Even more so, since Uncharted 2 (Among Thieves) is regarded as a contender for best game of this generation. The first game (Drake’s Fortune) introduced gamers to Nathan Drake, a perfect blend of Indiana Jones and Firefly‘s Malcom Reynolds. Nathan, expertly voiced by Nolan North, proved to be an insanely likable wise-cracking anti hero and an instant hit with the twenty-something target audience. It also didn’t hurt that Naughty Dog was able to rejuvenate the Tomb Raider formula and made a solid game to go along with their charming new lead.

Even though I thoroughly enjoyed the first game, it’s not as universally praised as Uncharted 2. The developers went trough all the feedback they received on the first game and found there was one thirty second section that everyone loved. It involved Drake hanging off a ledge, shooting a canister, which resulted in the spectacular slow motion sailing past of an assailant and his jeep. That’s when Naughty Dog said, ‘we’re making this our next game’. Of course, that didn’t mean ten hours worth of flying jeeps. No, Naughty Dog realized Uncharted had a strong cinematic side and decided to focus on that in the next game. In doing so, ND created a level of movie-like spectacle that no other developer has managed to match. The following video, from UC3, illustrates that nicely.

It’s been a month since Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 3 release and now that the hype has faded and the smoke has cleared, I think it’s time to look a little closer at the interesting dilemma this game poses. You may think you want nothing more than the kind of non-stop cinematic set-piece action that’s on offer here, but video games aren’t films and moving games so far along the spectrum of what can be considered ‘interactive’ means imposing a lot of restrictions on the player. Part of the game still is very much a game, but you get the sense that these third person combat levels are here solely as an excuse. Otherwise it would be especially evident that you’re essentially ‘playing’ a film (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in this case). Apart from the fact that ND couldn’t even be bothered to get the aiming working properly (they patched this problem only last week), these shooting sections are decent, but it’s clear that the semi-interactive cut scenes take precedence over the parts that are actually playable.

At times, Uncharted 3 feels similar to Heavy Rain‘s experiment with interactive cut scenes. Thanks to a large variety of quick-time-events, players in HR could influence the game’s story to some degree. The main difference between the two games is that a less than desirable performance (or a certain choice) in HR, simply caused the story to branch off in another direction. Uncharted 3, on the other hand, has only one perfect sequence of events the player is to complete. Get it wrong, and you’re dead. Since it’s impossible to always know in what direction you’re supposed to escape a collapsing building, you’ll often have to try again after Drake inexplicably falls to the ground, dead (you should have taken a right turn, apparently). As a player, this makes you feel a little redundant. Another game that launched in November, Skyrim, can be located on the opposite side of this ‘interactivity’ spectrum. It’s a role-playing sand-box game that allows the player a large amount of freedom. I guess you can consider this video gaming’s ‘promised’ genre, since it might one day fulfill all our expectations of what a video game should do. But I have to admit, I haven’t been able to trudge through much of Skyrim, and apart from its moody winter atmosphere, it’s boring me to tears. Who knows, maybe I’m part of the problem.

As for Uncharted 3, I have to give credit where credit’s due though. Most developers would have just relegated the more complicated events to cut scenes and called it a day. Instead, Naughty Dog went to great lengths to make the player feel involved in all of Uncharted‘s spectacular set pieces and while it doesn’t always exactly pan out the way it’s meant to, at least it gets us talking. If ND hadn’t bothered with this type of gameplay, I would have just discussed the game’s combat sections instead of the future of the medium. I wonder what they’ll be doing on the next generation of consoles, for which it is now high time.