Sunday, January 30, 2005

Tom Clancy's Symbiote Cell

Here's an amusing scenario for you: One of the books to recently enter the New York Time's bestsellers list is one bearing the illustrious name of Tom Clancy. Now, that in itself isn't all that exciting, considering that the author has practically established a fully furnished and astutely decorated apartment in that particular part of the New York Times. What is of interest, however, is that the book in question is Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell.

That name should ring a bell and set off several piercing alarms in the minds of gamers, since it's the title of Ubisoft's utterly superb series of stealth games. Let's go back to the very first Splinter Cell, deep in its development cycle. Ubisoft is rightly proud of the progress achieved, but the company feels that this game of espionage and sleek gadgets requires an added boost in order to make a name for itself and rack up the sales. They already own the rights to Tom Clancy's it doesn't take much thought to conclude that placing the distinguished author's title on the box will bode well commercially. Heck, the game's heavily inspired by him, so it won't even seem as inappropriate as Tom Clancy's Pro Knitting or Tom Clancy's Rayman.

Of course, one could argue that just by being an awesome game (which later received the vastly superior sequel, Pandora Tomorrow) helped it fly off the shelves, it is an undeniable fact that the Tom Clancy name, at the very least, made more people glance in its direction. Unlike Rainbow Six, the game wasn't based off an actual Clancy book and the author's actual involvement with development really wasn't that substantial. The bottom line? Ubisoft slaps the popular Tom Clancy name on their product in order to make loads of money.

Fast-forward to the present time and we see that Splinter Cell is a phenomenon, with total sales almost reaching ten million copies sold across all platforms. We also view Tom Clancy sitting in a plush swivel-chair, his eyes switching back and forth between a blank laptop screen and an empty packet of Raisinets (they were delicious). In a dramatic twist, Tom Clancy draws inspiration from...Tom Clancy! He recognizes the immense popularity of Splinter Cell, and decides to use that to the advantage of his latest name-building book. Now, this new novel wasn't actually written by him (the author is one David Michaels) but nevertheless, it's a Tom Clancy book that cashes in on another Tom Clancy property. The bottom line? Tom Clancy slaps the popular Ubisoft game on his product in order to make loads of money.

This hilarious situation has now officially reached the point where Tom Clancy is responsible for Splinter Cell's success...and Splinter Cell is responsible for Tom Clancy's success. That's damn funny, as well as a perfect example of a powerful symbiote relationship within the industry. Now go and impress your friends with this fascinating knowledge!

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Blade Trinity Sucks (and other HILARIOUS puns)

I actually paid money to see Blade: Trinity. This is a heinous act that is much like having someone pulverize your fingers with a hammer, one by one, and then giving them cash in return (which, of course, has to be fished out of a wallet with your mouth). It's one of those movies that not only managed to be a lousy sequel, it actually insulted me with its idiotic plot, paper-thin characters and pathetic attempt at crafting an action film. There are so many problems with this vampire film, most of all in its brainless writing (a plague that permeates most films), but to mention them all would require an entire, dedicated website and not just a mere blog entry. So, here we go:

- First off, the direction was going for frenetic action and instead gave us a jarring mess that would embarass most music videos and is in serious need of some Ritalin. The opening credits establish this early on by obliterating any sense of continuity with annoying flashes of text. Action scenes are later ruined by annoying flashes of light.

- The storyline is impressive considering that it was clearly created by a bunch of lonely amoeba. So, Dracula's in this temple, a temple which nobody has ever bothered to investigate and has simply been festering away in some desert for thousands of years, waiting to be entered by a band of low-life vampires. The informative text at the bottom of the screen tells us it's located in Syria...but then it's later mentioned that the temple is in Iraq. Okay then.

- Dracula is totally miscast. He looks like a bouncer at a nightclub, not the lord of darkness.

- Hannibal King (Ryan Reynolds) is probably the most entertaining part of the film - quite sad considering that instead of giving him a unique character, the writers (aforementioned amoeba) put in special effort to write Van Wilder INTO a Blade film.

- "Hey Blade! Look at this impossibly minute and featureless piece of armor we picked up! By running it through our SUPER DUPER COMPUTER, we can completely reconstruct Dracula's armor. See, that's what it looked like EXACTLY. Also, we can tell that he reads Tom Clancy novels, enjoys long walks on the beach and that he's lactose intolerant...and a Virgo!"

- Okay, so the cops show up at Blade's HQ and are keen to arrest him. Naturally, the place is rigged with explosives should the long and highly flammable arm of the law ever show up. The cops run in and the place EXPLODES, erupting in flames and flying debris. The cop in charge grabs his radio:
This guy is a moron. The reply he receives will no doubt be a deleted scene on the DVD.
"Uh, we fucking blew up! We're like dead and stuff, sir."

- Kris Kristofferson can't act his way out of a paper bag in this one (not that any of the other actors are much better), spouting his lines out as if reading them from a cue card whilst experiencing the heaviest of hangovers. The only reason he gets an early and forgettable death is to answer the audience's question: "So, when does he die already?"

- Okay, so Dracula is coming after the Nightstalkers. AHA! He'll never get through their unbelievably tight and ingeniously devised security system. There are security cameras everywhere and their respective screens are being monitored closely by....the blind woman! Ingenious!

And finally...

- They screwed up a Jessica Biel shower scene. Wasted opportunity.

That's all for now, folks. Fang you very much!

(That was painful.)

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Survival Instincts

Well, I've returned from my hiking trip to the Drakensberg mountains, with nothing but aching muscles, fond memories and an infinitely disturbing photographic image of a man licking a cat. Naturally, this is one of many images and stories I shall inflict upon your unshielded and wholly unprepared psyches within the next few days, so you'd best be prepared. I was most definitely ready for this grueling trek into the wilds, a journey which would see me forsake the wonders of the 21st century (such as televisions, computers and dry shoes) for rain-swept scenery and viciously steep vistas - and it's all thanks to videogames.

I'm referring to Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, a game which not only entertained me beyond measure but also imparted crucial skills necessary for survival in archaic and unforgiving terrain. Marking a triumphant end to Hideo Kojima's trilogy of stealthy spies, ludicrous codenames and very large robots, I have no qualms in claiming that Snake Eater is a masterpiece and the best game in the series, something which is both surprising and unsurprising. It's a shock because the original game, which has recently been remade in the form of Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes is easily one of the greatest games of all time. Back in 1998, it was hugely innovative and provided a slightly different approach to the stealth genre which had been shoved into hardcore fruition with Thief: The Dark Project the same year. The game's radar system meant that instead of lurking in shadows, you had to utilize the environment and a keen sense of timing in order to avoid your foes. It also featured interesting characters (brought to life with expert voice acting), a fantastic storyline and hugely creative and memorable boss encounters.

And then we get to Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and the "unsurprising" part of my description. The great thing about this game was how it pulled out the rug of just about every gamer in existence. Everybody was ready to accompany Solid Snake on his next great adventure, only to be greeted by the whiny and floppy-haired pinnacle of androgeny, Raiden. Now, he wasn't really that bad when he was wearing clothes (Uncomfortable gaming moment #13: Controlling a character who's naked). He had a cool cartwheel move. No, the real problem came in terms of the story. You see, the problem with pulling the rug out from under your audience is that they may crack their skulls on the impact with the ground, something which apparently happened to the writers. Whilst the first game got a little preachy with its anti-nuke message, the second game went completely overboard with philosophical ramblings towards the end and eventually seemed to be attacking the very cohesivity of your brain with inane banter. It was as if the game's plot was a carefully arranged castle of cards, each plot twist carefully resting on the one below...and then somebody came and dropped a fucking hedgehog on top of it. I mean, that's not even a card.

It's not all bad though, since the gameplay was still excellent, pushing the original game's mechanics into new territory with very impressive graphics and clever AI. Most people seem to forget that aspect of the title, even when they're complaining about the cop-out of an ending. Yeah, the game must have been absolutely horrible if you played all the way until the end, huh? To sum up, it was a great game that lost the plot (very literally) and didn't quite live up to the lofty expectations generated by the seminal original.

So, Snake Eater. Taking place in 1964 (and thus well before the events of the first two games), the game throws out most of the series' traditions and throws Solid Snake into a critter-infested jungle. It should come as no surprise that in a game called Snake Eater, you will, in fact, eat snakes. And bats. And squirrels. And crocodiles. And parrots (well, only one, but still). You can capture animals alive or dead, all for the purpose of keeping Snake's belly filled and his stamina high. Should it start dropping, his wounds will heal at a slower pace, his aim will get wonky and his stomach growling will alert nearby guards. It's a nicely implemented system and never needs so much maintenance as to become annoying. There's also a cure system in place, which requires you to dig out bullets with a knife, sew up deep cuts and apply splints to broken bones. Indeed, all the activities which came in extremely handy on my trip to the mountains.

Of course, the meat of the game is the stealth, and you're unlikely to find a finer example of it than what's served up here. First of all, the Soliton radar system is gone. No more pattern avoidance and no more keeping tabs on which way a guard is looking. It makes the game so much better, but you have to watch out: It might make you scream at the TV at first. If you play MGS3 like you played the first two games, you will become an angry guard magnet and be shot repeatedly. You'll become enormously frustrated and invent new lewd words as you smash your PS2 controller on your forehead. The trick with the game is to use your motion sensor, binoculars and directional microphone to slowly and patiently suss out guard patrols as you lie in wait for them and their easily slit throats. The game's camouflage system allows you to don clothing that's most similar to the environment and you'd do well to constantly change it and stay hidden. It gives you a huge advantage, since it allows you to see the enemies whilst remaining invisible from their sight. If you become accustomed to this deeper and slower style of play, you'll realize just how amazingly crafted this title is.

The game also brings the cinematic goodies to the next level. The main characters are extremely well developed and the more straightforward plot (though it still hits you over the head with some big surprises in the end) is always engrossing. Perfect voice acting, a superb musical score and Hideo Kojima's energetic direction makes for some amazing cutscenes, especially towards the game's ludicrously mezmerizing climax. Combining elements from the Indiana Jones films, Ico, James Bond and then effortlessly blending cutscenes and gameplay, MGS3's ending sequence is the stuff of legend. It's unbelievable and is in itself worth the price of admission.

Oh, and let's not forget the boss battles. Wow. Just wow. Konami hits a supremely creative note here with this team of eccentric villains, most evident in a boss battle with a devious sniper in an enormous jungle that will utterly destroy your nerves and probably captivate you for over an hour of pure tension. To say more would ruin it, so I'll just leave you with this crucial advice: Watch your back. Seriously.

Also: Go get the game. Right now. Or I'll be forced to show you that picture with the cat and the licking thereof.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

The Obligatory Introduction


Well, I suppose I should start this spectacular and inherently mesmerizing blog by telling you a bit about myself. I can safely say that I lead two lives here in South Africa (bring on the inevitable zebra jokes), though neither of them are quite as exciting as the spy connotation one would normally attach to such a phrase. The first life involves me functioning as a student at the University of the Witwatersrand, with my majors being Computer Science and Mathematics. I'm in my final year, and I hope to clutch that magical scroll that has "degree" written on it by the end of 2005. Since I'm not exactly the most dedicated of students, that scroll may have to come from the lifeless hands of another student.

Just kidding. (OR AM I??!)

The second life I lead is far more interesting and far less constructive. I review videogames and write loads of articles for the nigh-penultimate source for videogame news and information, Digital Entertainment News, though everybody just calls it Dignews. So, what's it like playing videogames for a living?

Actually, I hate that question. Whenever someone spews forth that disgusting combination of words in my general direction, it is either accompanied by an unnatural amount of smirking, a patronizing tone of voice or a pair of eyes rolling back. For some reason, people have this idea that playing games is something geeky kids do when they're not picking their noses or having their lunch money taken at school, something that's the exact opposite of work. When I play games in my exceedingly rare free time, then yes, it's just for fun and it's not contributing to society in any tangible manner. However! When I'm playing a game in order to review it - that is to say, in order to inform other people of its qualities and problems - I'm doing work.

"Yeah yeah. Getting free games and then being forced to play them. Life must be so hard for you."

I'm not complaining. Sure, I might start gibbering madly and screaming at the curtains whenever I have to play through something like Enter the Matrix (which, in case you didn't know, is a glossy pile of garbage), but you'll never find me complaining about any aspect of my job (and you'd better not be thinking "He should put that word in quotation marks.") I love writing and I love videogames, so putting the two together is like an orgy of fun for me. I still consider it work though, and my logic behind such a decision isn't that hard to follow.

As senior editor, my responsibilities are not only to get my own reviews, previews and features done, but also to ensure that everybody else's work is top-notch. I spend time every day doing stuff for Dignews, time I could easily spend on my personal pile of games or more ambitious projects such as obtaining female companionship. Did I mention I don't get paid? I could argue that I'm rewarded with free games, gratitude and the social prestige (or perhaps not the last one), but there's not much in the way of that material that simultaneously talks, makes the world go round and corrupts politicians. Thus, what I do is - and I hate sounding so trite - a labor of love.

That's why I get annoyed when people cast a dim and flickering light on this career. It's actually quite insulting when someone takes something you've put real effort in - without the need for reward - and then drags it into a dark part of society and places it into a "yeah, but what's your REAL job" category. It's like your mother spending her Sunday afternoon baking you delicious cookies, only for you to respond by chucking them onto the floor and stomping them to bits. And then you kick her in the head before setting her apron on fire. You bastard.

Phew. The moral of the story is: Reviewing videogames is a real job. Millions of people are looking to me for advice on which game should be getting fifty of their dollars (adjust for whatever currency you use - chances are it's a decent amount), and I'm going to do my best to make certain they don't go and buy something like Chaos Legion.

That's partly the purpose of my blog - another outlet for me to try and get you to experience some of the games you might have missed in the past or some of the games you don't want to miss right now. They could be obscure japanese cooking sims or hyped-up-the-wazoo first-person shooters, but I can say with a good deal of certainty that they'll be good. Starting next week, I'll give you some of my recommendations and you're welcome to agree or disagree (even though that would be inconsiderate and futile). If you'd like to make your own suggestion, particularly in how you can't believe what a jerk I am for not mentioning Game X, please do so. I'll most likely tell you which games to avoid like a kiss-chase in a leper colony from time to time, so keep checking back in the coming weeks.

Well, that's enough narcissistic blathering. I'm off to a hiking trip with my friends and shall duly return on Tuesday. With all my limbs attached, even.