Thursday, July 29, 2010

Top 50 Games - 8. Grand Theft Auto IV

Niko Bellic has been spent the last ten years searching for someone. A scarred veteran of the war in the Balkans, he's been doing ugly jobs for ugly people: first in the merchant navy, then on a ship that smuggles people into Italy. He's been receiving e-mails from his cousin Roman in America, detailing the good life (threesomes, mansions, fast cars) he's enjoying in swank Liberty City. Spurred on by Roman's positivity, his dark past in Europe, and the promise of finding "that special someone," Niko stows away on the U.S.S. Platypus, heading for Liberty City and the new beginning it offers. Of course, the grass isn't always greener on the other side, and the cousins Bellic soon find themselves deep in the city's criminal underworld.
This isn't a movie. This isn't a novel. This is a video game. It's the first current generation entry in a franchise that was humbly named after its core mechanic: stealing cars. Be proud, game industry; we've come a long way.
Hype can be a destructive force for sure, but just as often it can be wonderful. My first GTA was San Andreas, the sprawling, ludicrous gangster epic discussed in an earlier post. It was certainly entertaining and breathtaking in its scope, but it wasn't perfect. Although it's commendable that the game could even run on a PS2, the graphics were nothing special and its sound was muffled and thin. Animations were jerky, textures were muddy, and the controls were finicky and imprecise. A next-gen Grand Theft Auto, its roman numeral representing the biggest evolutionary leap in the series since the revolutionary GTA III, would alleviate all of those concerns. Judging from its press coverage, Grand Theft Auto IV looked to be the most realistic game ever made. In the months leading up to the game's release I was carnivorous, wolfing down every interview, preview, and trailer. Needless to say, when IGN finally put up its review, I was jittery. Hilary Goldstein did not beat around the bush: he boldly proclaimed Grand Theft Auto IV to be the greatest video game since 1998's Ocarina of Time; in other words the best of the last ten years. "No way," I thought. "Could it be? Oh shit, I think so." I scrolled down the page a bit, and there it was: a perfect ten out of ten (a precious rarity from IGN). I was pumped. So psyched was I that I waited in line at the mall for the midnight launch while some douchebags got in a fight over one of them supposedly staring at the other's girlfriend (I haven't picked up a new game at midnight since). I got home, fell asleep, went to school the next day, came back home again and popped the disc into my Xbox 360. And would you believe it? I wasn't disappointed.
Although I never heard any whining pre-release, Grand Theft Auto IV's stylistic direction, the 'gritty realism' approach, has since become mildly controversial among fans. Vice City and San Andreas established the PS2-era GTA game as a silly, over-the-top feast of carnage whose ultra-violence was relatively harmless due to its unrealistic, almost comical representation. San Andreas offered dildos, flowers, chainsaws, golf clubs, and more as weapons. Gamers were used to constantly having ridiculous cheats activated, such as flying cars, wearing a gimp suit, or making all of the pedestrians Elvis impersonators. Missions were nearly as whacky as the optional content: one particularly epic task in San Andreas was to swim to a cargo ship, climb aboard, and eventually sneak your way to the captain's cabin where you engage a Da Nang boss in a katana duel. Grand Theft Auto IV abandoned all of this, and I can see why some wouldn't be happy about that. Weapons were limited to the usual suspects: AKs, knives, shotguns, sniper rifles, etc. Cheat codes this time around were really just for cheating instead of having fun. Most missions are meat-and-potatoes, requiring Niko to drive to a location, chase some mobster jerk on foot or in a vehicle, and take him out. Likewise, the scale of the environment was pared down, offering players the four boroughs of Liberty City (and the northern New Jersey clone Alderney, but who counts that?) rather than the three cities, suburbs, and countryside of San Andreas. I can understand how GTA IV's "realism" is a bone of contention, but I personally think the choice was the right one. It allowed a GTA game to become so much more for me than it ever could have been under the old creed of "more is more, believability be damned."
Walking Niko around the starting neighborhood of Hove Beach, taking petty jobs for Roman's cab company and the Russian mafia while fending off Albanian loan sharks, I felt like I was inhabiting a real place, in the shoes of a real person. Part of it was being sucked in by the game's attention to detail and part of it was willingly trying to make things as realistic as possible. For large portions of my first playthrough I turned off game-y features like auto-targeting, a colored reticule, a weapon indicator, and even briefly the GPS/health meter. I was a somewhat safe driver, I committed as few crimes as possible, I took my girlfriend out on takes and got drunk with Roman. There are some particularly striking moments in which you must make difficult, morally gray choices. When these haunting scenarios arose, I always picked the option that I felt best agreed with Niko's character (the last one had me driving around in circles for nearly half an hour trying to decide). I wanted to become Niko Bellic while playing and for a while there I did. In this sense, I find GTA IV to be one of the most effective role-playing games ever made; most people wouldn't call it an RPG, but it's hard to deny the game's immersive power.
Said immersive power probably couldn't have been achieved were it not for an upgrade in technology and mechanics. Rockstar's proprietary engine RAGE (Rockstar Advanced Game Engine), coupled with NaturalMotion's Euphoria physics and animation, makes for a much better-looking and more believable world. The graphics today are not terribly impressive, but again the game's immense size should be taken into account; the textures might not be the sharpest ever applied to geometry, but this realization of Liberty City is nonetheless extremely impressive. IV is easily the most violent and disturbing entry in the controversial series. Due to the new animation tech and bump in representational quality, the action is much more effectively realistic than it's ever been before. Blast a goon at the top of a staircase and he'll tumble convincingly down. Score a headshot on a guy who's seated in a vehicle and he'll pull said head back violently before slamming it down on the horn. I recall a mission in which I chased two Hell's Angels through a subway before emerging and taking them out with some machine pistol spray. The last enemy was tossed off his seat by a bullet or two before I sort of accidentally ran over his head with the front wheel of my motorcycle and felt a bump through the controller's rumble feature, leaving tracks of blood behind me for a few blocks. It was thrilling, I'm not going to lie, but it was also horrifying. Grand Theft Auto IV's forceful brutality haunts you and Niko every step of the way; it can be supremely satisfying, but rarely am I not terrified of my own actions. If I had to cite one reason why the new animation engine is worthwhile, however, I would pick my favorite Liberty City pastime: intentionally getting hit by taxis, just to see how Niko's body will handle the impact. The controls were also mercifully improved, making combat a visceral thrill rather than a clunky chore. Same goes for vehicle control, which feels significantly more physical than in previous outings. Following suit, audio no longer sounds like it's dressed in a burlap sack; GTA IV is a real workout for surround sound systems.
The fancy new presentation serves to make Liberty City an even more interesting place to live in. Modeled extensively after the Big Apple, this redesigned Liberty City is brimming with authentic personality. It nails the look and feel of New York City better than most movies I've seen that use it as a backdrop. From the zoomed in view, strolling down the street and taking in the lively atmosphere, to zoomed out, piloting a helicopter over the sleepless nighttime cityscape, the sights and sounds never cease to amaze. The whole "living, breathing world" thing is so overplayed it's seemed to have lost all meaning, but if there is any left, it's in GTA IV.
Two elements that nearly define the Grand Theft Auto series are its irreverent sense of humor and the radio. Vice City and San Andreas were period pieces of the late 20th century: the former took place in the coke-fueled Miami of the mid 80's, while San Andreas occupied the state of California circa 1992. Grand Theft Auto IV represents New York City in 2008, and does just as much as those two prequels to skewer its contemporary American pop culture. Precise satire is available in more forms than ever: Niko can watch Republican Space Rangers on the boob tube, browse conspiracy theory websites, listen to radio jingles, read billboards, and watch civilians spew idiocy back and forth on their mobile devices. One time as I was walking Niko down the block I heard some stupid girl say "Maybe I can accessorize it!" Four seconds later, a goateed man picked up his cell phone and asked "Did you read my blog yet?" (ironic, I know). I'm still not sure why, but at that moment I started cracking up. It's just so dead-on a portrayal of modern society that I couldn't help but burst out with sad, painful laughter. I really have to commend Dan Houser for his work here; it's an omnivorous, deadly collage of American idiocy. Whenever I would stop playing and go outside or watch real TV, it was the same goddamn thing, except unequipped of any "just kidding" means for defense.
The radio isn't just for giggles; it also boasts some great songs. A wide variety of genres are represented, from Bob Marley brah-ska to desperately hip Brooklyn indie rock. The fact that you can change stations whenever you want, that the music isn't bound with the current scenario, makes for some wonderful dynamics and amusing juxtapositions. Yeah, you could play hardcore punk during an intense motorcycle chase, but you could also play "Bump n' Grind." The choice is yours. Many cherished hours of my GTA IV experience consist of nothing but going for an evening drive to the tune of "Goodbye Horses" or Godley and Creme's "Cry."
I praised Dan Houser for his comic wit, but there I was talking about the details that enrich the world: the advertisements and pedestrian chatter. He wrote pretty much the whole script (and it is monstrous), and so his sardonic sense of humor is present in the dialogue of the main cast. But there's more to his writing than satire; the characters in GTA IV, while mockeries to an extent, are also fascinatingly nuanced and written with surprising care (of course it helps that the voice acting is some of the best in any video game). Every criminal that Niko ends up working for or worth is despicable and pathetic, from Ray Bocino, the Cosa Nostra rat who gets made fun of behind his back to Dwayne, the outdated sad sack of a crack kingpin. Niko becomes friends with some of his contacts, and can choose to call them up to hang out. Doing so more often than not results in a long car ride during which your partner in crime will wax therapeutic about how life is the same old shit whether you're in prison or on the outside, with a woman or on your own. Grand Theft Auto may glorify the violence itself, but it does little to flatter those who commit it.
Niko Bellic is easily one of, if not the, most sophisticated and "real" personalities in all of gaming. One fateful night in the Balkans, he and his squad of 12 childhood friends were set up. All but three died in what Niko believes to have been an inside job. He knows that it wasn't him, and so that leaves only two candidates, one of whom is living in Liberty City. Maybe halfway through the game, Niko finds out that said city-dweller is his old friend, now a harmlessly flaming homosexual. After doing jobs for a mysterious G-man (the only boss Niko has who actually seems cool), it is agreed that the final suspect will be brought into Liberty City for Niko to confront. When it happens, it's harrowing. The long sought after villain, one Darko Brevic, gets thrown unceremoniously out of a truck, and looks like nothing more than a disheveled junkie bum. Niko lists off the names of people Darko had killed, asking why he did it and for how much. "A thousand," Darko replies apathetically. "I needed the money." It's clear that Darko used the cash to fund his drug addiction. "You killed my friends for a thousand dollars?" Niko's voice quavers. "You ruined me, you fuck!" The player is then left with the choice of killing Darko or walking away. I don't remember what I did the first time, but either way, I know I didn't feel good about it. This is where Grand Theft Auto games are so misunderstood. They're not just cop-killing simulators and juvenile sandboxes; they're deep, dark portrayals of modern American crime, grounded in an ever-so-slightly exaggerated pop culture world. IV focuses more intently than any of its brothers, deftly exploring the psyche of the morally ambiguous but wholly human Niko Bellic.
I've put more hours into GTA IV than any other video game. It has its detractors, but guess what? It's also among the top 5 highest-scoring games ever, second only to Ocarina of Time in terms of ubiquitous critical praise. Objectively and personally, I'm on their side. To call Niko Bellic's urban adventure anything less than a monolithic masterpiece would be doing the stubbly Serb a disservice. And you wouldn't want to do that, would you? Two words: molotov cocktail.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Top 50 Games - 9. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is the weirdest game ever made. It is also the most surreal game ever made. Note that these two are not the same thing: by weird I mean unusual, by surreal I mean dreamlike. Operating at his most fearlessly extreme, Hideo Kojima was able to craft a game so perplexing, unexpected, and postmodern that most gamers still don't know whether to praise or revile it. Seeing as how it's managed to claw its way into my personal top ten, it should be obvious that I fall into the former camp. Love him or hate him, Kojima is a genius, and his almost frustratingly unique vision is on display more vividly in Metal Gear Solid 2 than in any other work he's produced.
The story begins with grizzled espionage veteran Solid Snake tracking down a new version of Metal Gear (bipedal nuke-equipped monstrosities) on an oil tanker floating inconspicuously down the Hudson River. Ocelot shows up and, needless to say, all hell breaks loose. Snake is last seen gasping for breath as he gets pulled into the icy depths surrounding the destroyed tanker. The screen fades to black. And now the real MGS2 begins. You see, Hideo Kojima pulled possibly the funniest and ballsiest video game prank of all time. Eager fans controlled Snake for a bittersweet few hours before being introduced to Raiden, a whiny, skinny, effeminate wimp who soon becomes the main protagonist of Metal Gear Solid 2. Nobody knew about him prior to playing: no press, no internet carnivores, nobody but the tight-lipped team at Konami. While some are still resentful of the deceptive switch-up, every time I think about it I can't help but chuckle. It's hard to believe that they got away with it, especially considering the massive hype that built up around the game, and it would be even harder to imagine being such a scam being successful today.
One summer day in 2003, my friend from camp brought over his PS2 and the second Metal Gear Solid. We played for about five hours straight before getting a "disc read error," making our way from said Tanker chapter to the cutscene in which Solidus Snake is formally introduced. And those five hours were heavenly. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is clearly not my favorite game of all time, but those first five hours were the most intensely blissful and perfect of my entire gaming life. I bought my own PS2 and a copy of the game in November 2004, playing the game to completion and thoroughly enjoying it, but I've never had an experience like that first session since. Something about the fidelity, interactivity, cinematography, and attention to detail struck me in the tender regions and absorbed me whole. The next generation of console gaming that the PS2 and MGS2 spearheaded couldn't possibly live up to my first impressions of it.
I suppose my first order of business should be to touch on Metal Gear Solid 2's most immediately stunning aspect: its graphics. Snake is first seen walking along the George Washington Bridge in the pouring rain. To reach the oil tanker where Metal Gear Ray is held, he runs and leaps off the side, tossing off his raincoat and activating his stealth camouflage at the same, then quickly rappels his way down onto the deck. After talking with Otacon for a bit, you finally assume control of Snake. When I first started moving him around, it felt incredibly strange. The weather effects, the animations, the movie-like polish... I felt like I shouldn't have been playing, like I still should have been watching. For the first time ever, a game's visuals seemed too good to be real. I made my way through the tanker level and the rest of the game without ever ceasing to appreciate the technical and artistic wizardry. There are countless flourishes of realism that go a long way to enhancing the experience. When Snake comes inside from the heavy rain, he is surrounding by fog and leaves wet footprints that guards can pick up on. The characters' animations are of just as high quality as the rest of the visual package, from Snake's somersault and Raiden's cartwheel to Vamp's acrobatics and Ocelot's pistol twirling. It was all very spectacular back in the day and I still think MGS2 is a good looking game.
When it comes to audio, this game is likewise no slouch. Voiceovers are of professional quality, effects are satisfying (I still remember the sound of Raiden slipping on bird droppings), and Harry Gregson-Williams' rousing score never fails to get me in the mood for some tactical espionage action.
Metal Gear Solid 2's A/V aspects were certainly striking in its day, but once there's a controller in your hand (and you're not watching a cutscene), the game gets even more pleasurable. As with most elements of a Hideo Kojima game, some love the controls for their involved sophistication and some dislike them for their convoluted nature. Again, I fall into the former camp. Metal Gear Solid 2's controls are complicated sure, maybe even a bit confusing for newcomers, but they're not unwieldy or frustrating. By taking advantage of every little aspect of the DualShock 2, a vast breadth of possibilities are available to the player. Holding R1 pulls the camera into a first-person viewpoint. Holding square raises whichever weapon is equipped, at which point you can aim with the left analogue stick or fire by depressing and then releasing that same square button. This may sound complex enough, but there's more. Lightly sliding your finger off the square button will let Snake or Raiden put down the weapon without firing, L2 and R2 are for leaning left and right respectively, holding them in tandem lets you stand on your tiptoes, etc. Mastering the controller and all of its intricacies feels like learning an instrument, but without all of the frustration, time, and "Greensleeves."
MGS2's gameplay presents players with opportunities to indulge in every scenario that its controls seem to promise. The cleanup Plant that Raiden explores is rather open-ended, with all sorts of goodies to find and ways to fuck with the guards. Want to hold up a sentry from behind, circle slowly around to his front, go into first-person mode, aim for his jewels, watch him plead for mercy and give you his dog tag,  tranquilize him, drag him into a locker, close the door, and then roundhouse kick it till said door comes off its hinges, causing the guard to slump listlessly onto the floor? In Metal Gear Solid 2, you can. In Metal Gear Solid 2, you can shoot watermelons. In Metal Gear Solid 2, you can deal with bugs, C4, and fire with the same coolant spray. In Metal Gear Solid 2, you can use the right analogue stick to swing a katana in whichever direction you please (take that, Wii MotionPlus!). Physics-based goofing was introduced here before Half-Life 2's gravity gun made it hip; the Plant is about as thrillingly interactive as any video game environment yet crafted. Piercing steam pipes and fire hydrants, swimming around the flooded hallways of Shell 2, disguising yourself as the enemy... There's a lot to do in MGS2's stealth action sandbox, and such ridiculous depth makes for endless entertainment.
We can all agree that Metal Gear Solid 2's graphics and gameplay are solid (No pun intended? Ah screw it, pun intended), but its story is another story altogether (Last pun, I promise). Most consider it a nonsensical mess of deception, Y2K paranoia, postmodern irony, and half-baked philosophy. It is a mess, I won't deny that, but where other critics and gamers hate MGS2's story (if not the entire game) for its byzantine eccentricity, I love it. I don't think it would be a good idea to go into much detail here, but I will say that on my first couple of playthroughs, Metal Gear Solid 2's plot was compelling, intelligent, and surprising, filled with twists and turns; a real rollercoaster ride. Today it's just hilarious. Not enraging, not disgusting, just funny. Really, really funny (the late-game lines in which Snake tells Raiden to believe in something and pass it on to future generations are particularly gut-busting). And I guess that's all I'm gonna say about the story; no need to engage in techno-babble if there exists the option not to.
Easily one of the most important and under-appreciated elements of the Metal Gear Solid series is its oddball humor and general weirdness. Hidden throughout the game are various Easter eggs, many of them self-referential, such as the discovery of a Vulcan Raven action figure that shoots beads out of its little gatling gun. Some are just silly and immature, like walking under the urine stream of a relaxed sentry and feeling your DualShock vibrate as the golden shower rains down on Raiden's head. Even bosses aren't immune to the game's sense of humor: a villain named Fatman rides around on roller skates with a glass of wine in his hand. Details like these thankfully alleviate some of the tension present in the game's dark plot, and serve to imbue it with a wonderfully precise charm.
The marketing ploy, humor, and story come together in Sons of Liberty to transform it from a spy thriller into the weirdest game I've ever played. Like I said, though, weird and surreal are not the same thing. Katamari Damacy is weird. The Persistence of Memory is surreal. Metal Gear Solid 2 feels as dreamlike to me as anything the school of surrealism has produced. Part of it is the feeling of falling down the rabbit hole that the story provides, part of it is subtle, like the sound of the seagulls crying in a Hudson River sunset. The obvious place in which the game's dream juice can be soaked up is in an unforgettable late-game scenario aboard Metal Gear Arsenal. After being tortured, Raiden is released from his restraints by an unexpected ally. He is now free to move around, but there's a catch: he's stark naked and weaponless (he can't even throw a punch, as his hands are being used to cover up his nether regions). Soon he starts getting Codec calls from his commander Colonel Campbell (sorry for the alliteration), but they're a bit odd. The Colonel tells Raiden he's been playing the game too long and that he should turn his console off. Another message recounts a story of Campbell driving home one day and then passing out after witnessing a bright light; "What do you think happened to me?" he asks. This scene is one of the most hilarious and horrifying in all of gaming, stuffed to the brim with classic lines: "I need scissors! 61!" "I'm pregnant... Your baby," "Fission Mailed." It's fucking brilliant. There's another moment though, that is much more subdued and simple, barely even a "moment" for anybody but me. C4 explosives have destroyed large sections of the cleanup Plant's Shell 2, preventing Raiden from entering certain areas. During an escort mission, Raiden finally moves through some of the buildings in Shell 2, but they're all deserted, as the guards have already boarded Arsenal. By the time Raiden and the girl he is protecting get to the sewage facility and climb down a ladder as the sun sets, everything just feels unreal. I can't quite put my finger on what makes it special, but at this exact point in the game, I felt like I was dreaming. Silent Hill 2 and Snake Eater come close, but aside from them Metal Gear Solid 2 is all alone in its dreamlike brilliance.
I adore Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty  for the same reasons many hate it, and more. It's a technical marvel, a liberating sandbox, a perplexing science fiction spy tale, an awe-inspiring prank, and a masterpiece of surrealism. It's the work of a genius doing his thing without inhibitions; not the kind of game fans wanted, but the kind we need more of.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Top 50 Games - 10. Rock Band

Rock Band is not a masterpiece of narrative and character and literate ambition. It does not singularly challenge the ill-informed notion that games can never be art. It doesn't even present an intriguing new virtual realm for players to immerse themselves in. Rock Band is a music game. It's about grabbing a couple of friends and pantomiming real songs on fake plastic instruments while looking as silly as possible. It's the best music/rhythm game ever made and easily some of the most goddamn fun I've ever had playing a video game.
First, a brief history of the genre. In the late 90's there was a wacky Japanese arcade game called GuitarFreaks. Tethered to the cabinet were two odd guitar-shaped controllers used to play along to the J-Pop soundtrack by hitting the right scrolling colored note gem at the right time. There was also another Konami arcade game called DrumMania. The two cabinets could be linked together to simulate a full band experience. Harmonix, a company devoted not quite to video games but rather to new, digital ways of interacting with music, obviously took inspiration from the Bemani series. After developing the electronica-centric music rhythm games FreQuency and Amplitude, Harmonix took the template from GuitarFreaks and, with a much cooler soundtrack full of classic rock tracks, created a smash hit in Guitar Hero. The original and its sequel became some of the most recognized entertainment products in popular culture. Suddenly, the niche genre that was once the music game became blockbuster material, and the big publishers wanted in on the action. MTV Games acquired Harmonix while Activision bought Red Octane, makers of the plastic guitars and for some reason the guys that actually owned the rights to the Guitar Hero series. Tony Hawk developer Neversoft would continue to work on Guitar Hero until they and Activision milked the cash cow completely fucking dry in 2009. Harmonix had to make something to compete against the franchise they once created, the Guitar Hero name being much more deeply ingrained in the public consciousness than the developer's. The fruit of their labor was Rock Band, the definitive work of the best music game developer of all time.
In the game, your band is made up of a guitarist, a bassist, a drummer, and a singer (Harmonix also previously developed Karaoke Revolution). The guitar, bass, and vocal aspects were nothing new, (although their synergy was) but the implementation of the drums was something special. With four colored pads and a kick pedal, Rock Band's plastic kit was able to simulate real drumming way more closely than the five-buttoned Stratocaster replica could ever simulate playing a guitar. In my prior experience with Guitar Hero and its sequel, I found playing the guitar parts to be fun, but also a bit awkward and unsatisfactory. I was quickly drawn in to Rock Band's drums, as they were both new and more visceral. Teaming up with my friends and pounding the skins, I soon graduated from medium to expert difficulty, and was having a blast. I was almost convinced to start playing real drums, but although I never did, thanks to hours upon hours of Rock Band, my feel for rhythm has permanently improved.
I said that Rock Band doesn't present a fascinating new world to explore, and of course that's true, but it doesn't prevent the game from becoming a wonderful escapist fantasy. Before you begin rocking out, you and you buddies take turns making their own avatars using a robust and charming character creation system (unlike Guitar Hero's horrifying caricatures). You can pick out haircuts, beards, skin tones, clothes, and accessories. With cash earned from gigs you can return to the menu and spend it on even more ludicrous outfits and instruments. The band then gives themselves a name and a logo, and sets off onto the road in their lowly tour van. The whole rock star daydream presentation is very pleasant and addictive, making each song that you play an event rather than just the next track on a linear setlist.
Speaking of songs, the make-it-or-break-it of most music games is unsurprisingly the music. In this regard, Rock Band (and especially its polished sequel, which I count as just being Rock Band 2.0 and therefore included at #10) does not disappoint. Master tracks from Blue Oyster Cult, Boston, Bowie, The Clash, Nirvana, Radiohead, The Rolling Stones, The Strokes, The Who, and more make for good listening and playing. Singing along with the intensely soulful vocal in "Gimme Shelter," banging out the absolutely epic Keith Moon drum solo in "Won't Get Fooled Again"... They may not bring a tear to my eye or a shiver to my spine, but Rock Band memories like these I nonetheless treasure as much as any others.
Rock Band 3 promises to actually teach people how to play instruments, and it looks exciting (although it also looks horrifically expensive), but I have trouble imagining how things could get any better than the music game highs of 2007-2008. Gooood times.

Top 50 Games - 11. Silent Hill 2

Before I begin, know that there are major spoilers ahead. So yeah, you've been warned.
You might as well consider this the start of the top 10. Why? Well, here's a reason: I think about Silent Hill 2 almost every day. Admittedly, it has not crept into my thoughts constantly since it originally came out; I played it for the first time early this year, nearly nine since its 2001 release. This fact protects my opinion from any claims of wearing rose-tinted glasses, etc. and serves to make my adoration for the game all the more surprising and pure. Silent Hill 2 is an early PS2 survival-horror game that has shitty gameplay, grainy graphics, amateurish voice acting, and mixed review scores. Nevertheless, it's astoundingly brilliant; one of the most thematically rich and deeply impressive video game experiences ever crafted.
The story begins with everyman James Sunderland receiving a cryptic letter from his late wife asking him to return to Silent Hill, their "special place." Foolish horror protagonist that he is, James drives to the peaceful little resort town, now blanketed in fog, to search for the source of the mysterious message. It's a pretty creepy set-up that presents the player with enough motivation to move James through the rather lifeless environment for hours on end.
I guess I'll get Silent Hill 2's major problem out of the way sooner rather than later: it is not a good "game." After getting over the initial shock of whacking a pale, squirming humanoid wrapped in cellophane to "death" with a 2x4, it soon becomes apparent that the combat is clunky and boring. The puzzles, which provide the game's only challenge, are more often than not either thoughtless fetch quests or obtuse riddles. They certainly have some quirky charm, though; hints are many times provided through rhymed poems, and one solution involved pulling a key out of a drain with a strand of hair. It would be a shame, however, to think that SH2's failures in the gameplay department make it less than worthwhile, or that it would make more sense to be made for another medium instead, such as film or literature. Silent Hill 2 should be a video game, because video games generate a special kind of empathy between audience and protagonist, and because they allow for much greater investment in that character's occupation of and interaction within a fictional space.
Player-character James is average looking, unwise, and poorly acted. He's also one of the best video game heroes ever, because (without the brooding "antihero" pathos of someone like Kratos) he's severely fucked up. The late-game epiphany that you should have already figured out (and that I knew of before playing) reveals that James killed his wife, Mary. He's tucked the horrible truth into the darkest untouched corners of his subconscious, convincing himself that she perished three years ago to a terminal illness. It takes a trip through the worst place on Earth for him to come to this unsettling realization. He's a lovable sad sack of a murderer, making him the perfect persona to enter into as you make your way through the blood-and-rust tainted industrial nightmare world that Silent Hill becomes.
This squalid, depressing town is one of the most fascinating locales in all of gamedom. The first major location is the Blue Creek apartment complex. I thought this place was creepy when I was walking cautiously through its eerily dark hallways and dilapidated rooms, but now I scoff, "That was scary? How was that scary?" You see, I've been spoiled by SH2's later environs, particularly Toluca Prison and The Labyrinth. To get to the latter, James must willingly drop down a ridiculous series of holes in the floor, leading one to question just how deep underground (or rather, into the recesses of his own mind) he has gone. The Labyrinth is, as its name implies, a confusing maze of dimly-lit wooden hallways, with ladders that lead down to murky flesh-colored rock caverns and dirty knee-level water. It is the single creepiest fictional place I've ever seen, much less explored, and because of it, I've been almost completely desensitized to all other attempts at horror, in video games and beyond. Needless to say, atmosphere is one of Silent Hill 2's strong points.
To augment the game's atmospheric and emotional power, Akira Yamaoka composed a fitting soundtrack, with clanging industrial ambiance and haunting piano melodies. Sound is obviously key to the success of any work of horror, and Silent Hill 2's unnerving audio gets the job done with aplomb.
The final ingredient in the game's cauldron of scares is of course Pyramid Head, the super-masculine rape-happy helmeted executioner who stalks James every step of the way and represents his secret desire for punishment. Pyramid Head might just get my vote for best video game villain ever: he is the embodiment of terror.
All of these elements combine to make for an effectively frightening product, but don't express how profound an experience Silent Hill 2 is, how I fear it and love it in equal measure, how it is actually as incredible an artistic achievement as anything else this medium has produced, and most importantly how it says something meaningful about humanity that doesn't come across as corny and trite. Although he has done a terrible thing, James has a shot at redemption. There are multiple endings, and a careful player could make sure to get the best one through their actions, the one that sees James leave Silent Hill and cure the festering illness in his soul.
There are others who have come to Silent Hill, willingly or not, but unlike James (and excepting Laura, the innocent little girl), they are all doomed to their own personal hells. One of these poor souls in particular, 19-year old Angela Orosco, leaves a painfully lasting impression. The player gradually learns that she was physically and sexually abused by her father, which led her to stab him to death and run away from home. There are even strange creatures resembling human-door (yes, door) hybrids called Abstract Daddies which represent him. The last time you see Angela, she's standing on the steps of a burning staircase with James at its foot. As the flames grow, James mentions that "It's hot as hell in here." Angela continues walking up and then turns around as a wall of fire cuts her off from the lower section of stairs that James stands awkwardly on. "You see it too?" she says. "For me, it's always like this." She turns again and walks upwards into the darkness. And it is crushing. Her last words to James have quickly become my favorite video game quote. They are suffused with an unbearable sadness, and I think about them often. There is a whole other world of people who have to live helplessly in personal hells like Angela's; for their own sins or those that others have committed upon them, they walk the Earth with the awful weight that is a broken soul. In the characters of James and Angela, Konami's Team Silent have expressed darkly universal themes yet to be surpassed in the world of video games.
I didn't even talk about Maria, or the room with the butterflies, or the videotape, or the moaning ghost in Toluca Prison, or how Mary's letter slowly disappears as the game goes on. But I suppose you really do need to just play this masterpiece yourself to appreciate all of its evil genius. I was deeply, personally affected by Silent Hill 2, and I don't know what else a video game has to do to be held in high regard.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Top 50 Games - 12. Kingdom Hearts II

Wow. Kingdom Hearts II is my second favorite RPG ever. I'm sure that reflects really badly on my tastes, but you know what? I'm not ashamed of my love for this game and if you think I should be, well, haters gonna hate. Yes, I know the types of people who would put a Kingdom Hearts game so close to their top ten: the weeaboos, the cosplayers, the girls with the Naruto headbands and Full Metal Alchemist pillowcases. I understand that my opinion would associate me with these unwanted convention-lurkers, but I'm willing to live with that. The first Kingdom Hearts was a lively Square-developed romp through nostalgic Disney worlds. It was a jack of all trades- master of none, synthesising solid RPG, hack-n-slash, and platformer elements into a surprisingly cohesive whole. I liked it a lot, as one can glean from its placement on my list. But Kingdom Hearts II did something more for me. It wasn't the appeal of returning to my 90's childhood through classic Disney locations and characters or seeing Cloud and Sephiroth again, this time with a shiny new PS2 makeover. No, it's the original content in KHII that really gets to me. The first 6 hours in Twilight Town and just beyond are so surreal, so compelling, so mysterious and magical and heart-wrenching that the rest of the game couldn't possibly live up to its prologue (although the last 6 hours came pretty damn close), but that's okay because we humans are equipped with a wonderful little novelty called long-term memory. Don't get me wrong, the main portions of Kingdom Hearts II are highly enjoyable hack-n-slashing affairs. The graphics are some of the best ever seen on the Playstation 2, with silky animations, vibrant special effects, and heartwarming character designs. The game controls better than the original Kingdom Hearts (full analogue camera manipulation!), but some changes to the formula were a bit controversial. Deeper RPG systems were stripped down and streamlined in favor of God of War-style flowing combos and QTEs. Normally I would be opposed to this, and in some cases, the original Kingdom Hearts had better ideas; for example, elemental magic has no use whatsoever in KHII, where it was positively vital to defeating some enemies in the original. Nevertheless, combat is too mindlessly fun in the sequel, without the frustration present in the first game, for me to deeply care. Barreling through literally a thousand enemy troops with your keyblade is an almost comically awesome thrill only a newfound focus on action could provide for. The gameplay and graphics make for a joyous rollercoaster ride, but the music transforms Kingdom Hearts II into a supremely emotional experience. Seriously, this has to be in the highest pantheon of heavenly video game soundtracks, its rapturous aural compositions serving to heighten the already affecting story of Roxas, Sora, and their friends. Something I always appreciate about a Square-developed RPG is its contemplative existentialism (subtlety present or absent) and Kingdom Hearts II is truly as metaphysically engaged as video games come. I'm sure none of this has changed your mind, but I'm glad to be able to have gotten some of these feelings out from my innards and into the open sea of irrelevent information that is the Internet.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Top 50 Games - 13. Baldur's Gate / Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn

Baldur's Gate was the one that got me into gaming. Yes, if there is the one for me, Baldur's Gate is it. When I was maybe seven years old I watched my dad play through the AD&D-based BioWare RPG on his Mac (before this past decade's savvy marketing blitz saw the Apple brand become truly popular on the East Coast). I had learned Magic: The Gathering maybe half a year earlier, and was fascinated with swords & sorcery, especially the kind that came in game form. While the isometric Infinity Engine isn't much to look at now, back then it came close to blowing my mind. I remember the opening hours clear as day, even though it's been years since I last played Baldur's Gate. There was the conversation with the innkeeper who called you an arse (further into the game my dad had to explain what a prostitute is), an item hidden in the haystack, the mentally volatile Chaotic Evil character you met on the road who could join your party for a while, your starting quarter-staff... This is easily one of the most powerfully nostalgic games I've committed to memory. My dad and I made our player-character a Good ranger named Vinsor. To this day, Vinsor is the name I use for a game series in my head that may one day become reality. I remember the random roadside ambushes, the ale-soaked taverns where plenty of interesting conversation was had, warrior Minsc's pet mouse Boo, moving through the black "fog of war," and so much more. One of the coolest memories I have of Baldur's Gate is the epic final confrontation with Sarevok: it was a difficult battle (or at least looked like it; my dad was still playing) forcing you to fight against Sarevok's magic-spamming advisors before taking on the main target himself. The floor was decorated with a booby-trapped version of the skull on the game's front cover that forced you to consider your movements if you hadn't already disarmed the traps. Every moment of that glorious battle is permanently impressed into my brain, and I'm glad for it. I know I've spoken exclusively of the original Baldur's Gate so far: it is, like I said, the game that got me into gaming, but Shadows of Amn is tied with it simply because it's a better game. BG2 reunited me with my old teammates, presented a much more aesthetically interesting world, and was so goddamn deep I don't think I even scratched the surface in my playtime. Unlike the original, I played Baldur's Gate II on my own, and the experience was revelatory. The deeply tactical spacebar-centric combat, party options, customization, sidequests, NPCs... It was overwhelming and all of the highest quality. I know nostalgia may greatly inform my opinion, but with or without it I might go so far as to say that Baldur's Gate is the best Western RPG series ever created. Who says Macs aren't good for gaming? *nervous laugh*

Top 50 Games - 14. BioShock

System Shock 2 was a masterpiece of intelligent, forward-thing genre combinations. BioShock, its 2007 spiritual successor, is not quite as innovative, but it is many times more powerful and memorable. Taking the story-driven FPS template from Half-Life and System Shock and running with it, BioShock is a certifiable artistic powerhouse, the kind of game that is talked about years after its release. By now I'm sure you've heard of Rapture, the game's setting, but either way, I'll briefly describe it for what may be the hundred-thousandth time. Rapture is a glittering Art Deco Atlantis, the work of one man's singular vision and uninhibited creativity. That man is Andrew Ryan, an ex-Soviet mad genius whose faith in Randian objectivism appears stronger than the Pope's faith in God. A plane crash over the Atlantic circa 1960 leads player-character Jack to discover a bathysphere leading into the failed utopia. This intro sequence, narrated by a lo-fi voiceover from Ryan himself ("Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his own brow?"), is easily one of the greatest in all of gaming. The direction, the exposition, the sounds and sights and ability to move and look around. It's a breathtaking display of new-generation techno-wizardry and designer artistry. Once you dock (rather violently) and enter into this beaten and bloodied underwater dystopia, the real adventure begins. The game's cannon fodder, encountered as early on as said bathysphere docking, are splicers: once-sane citizens who have taken to excessive genetic modification in order to survive the civil war between Ryan and his rival Frank Fontaine. The player is able to genetically modify himself as well, with what are called plasmids. These plasmids can give you powers beyond the realm of belief, from telekinesis to shooting a swarm of bees out of your hand. You can use plasmids and conventional weapons in conjunction to deal with the splicers, and doing so is at once chaotic, sad, and fun. Much has been made of the game's Big Daddies and Little Sisters: hulking monstrosities that emit whale moans from deep-sea diving suits and pale young girls that drag around large syringes, respectively. Together they patrol the dilapidated halls of Rapture searching for Adam, the city's precious sea-slug derived resource for genetic modification. Their relationship is fascinating, with the Big Daddy passionately protecting his Little Sister at all costs, engaging the player in awesomely destructive and frightening "boss" battles when he attempts to intervene. The words printed and breaths expelled about these two characters are not for nothing; they are iconic creations, now-legendary symbols for well-executed artistic ambition in video games. While I don't think the save/harvest moral mechanic for the Little Sisters deserves as much recognition as it's gotten, the first time you're presented with the choice, it's pretty harrowing. Rapture is a detailed environment full of things to play with, from hacking cameras and turrets to experimenting with plasmids. The levels are very well designed, with Fort Frolic, the residence of batshit insane 'artiste' Sander Cohen, becoming one of my all-time favorites. It's so creepy, so full of clever exposition, disturbing circumstances, and great acting that I couldn't get it out of my head for days. Audio diaries are scattered around Rapture's unique districts, and where they might be a storytelling crutch for a lesser developer, in BioShock they're absolutely haunting and superbly voiced personal accounts of Rapture's fall. Of course, we all know the greatest storytelling moment BioShock has to offer. When the player reaches this point and is struck in the head by the epiphany, he may very well never look at video games the same way again. A relatively high-brow game about unoriginal but interesting topics like objectivism, idealism, failure, and genetics becomes a deeply philosophical commentary on the nature of the video game. For all of these reasons and more, BioShock is and will remain one of this industry's few true masterpieces.

Top 50 Games - 15. Final Fantasy XII

Final Fantasy XII. Man did I pump some hours into this one. Mind you, I'm not the type of player who spends literal years exclusively tethered to one game, but for me 200 hours is a lot. I don't think I regret a single minute spent on my journey through Ivalice. A vast sea of picky and excitable whiners, the RPG community at large did not rapturously receive FFXII upon its Halloween 2006 arrival. You see, Square (now Square-Enix) knows that if no fundamental changes take place between each entry in their flagship series, the JRPG as a whole will stagnate and fall to the wayside. Many fans believe that Final Fantasy VI perfected the Japanese role-playing game; that no further changes are necessary when it's possible to return to VI's flawless model. It's true that sticking with a proven formula is less risky, but we should all acknowledge that by those means, no progress will be made; we would never be able to surpass FFVI. Final Fantasy XII, following the almost ignored MMO Final Fantasy XI, which followed the beloved PS2 debut FFX, took inspiration from both, as well as from the classic Playstation strategy RPG Final Fantasy Tactics. FFXII, as mentioned, takes place in Ivalice, the same world that Tactics occupied. Ivalice is a sprawling, majestic patchwork of tiny kingdoms, looming empires, desolate ruins, wide plains, lush jungles, arid deserts, bright beaches, dark caves, and snow-capped mountains. The events contained in FFXII take place only on certain extents of Ivalice's bigger continents, but the world map is still satisfyingly large. This world has a distinctively Mediterranean cultural and aesthetic vibe, though it's hard to explain due to the amount of variety. The starting city of Rabanastre is a haven of civilization surrounded by deserts and dry grasslands. The Ozmone Plain resembles an African Savannah, with Antelope-headed hunters engaging native game. Balfonheim Port is what it sounds like; a rich seaside docking and trading city full of pirates and merchants. Archades resembles a successful European city, full of artful architecture and advanced technology, with flying taxis and skyscrapers. There are bazaars and temples and more, with the art direction pulling in the most romantic elements of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East to create a stunningly cohesive virtual realm. I said that this game is partly inspired by Final Fantasy XI; where XI is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, XII is a massive role-playing game with some adopted MMO ideas. For the first and now last time in the series, battles in FFXII take place in the same 3D environment as the rest of the game and are transitioned into seamlessly. When a character in your party gets "aggro" from an enemy (meaning the enemy sees and wants to engage the party member) and the player does not hold the R2 button to disengage and run away, then the party draws its weapons and circles around the target. ATB meters are back and differences in the speed attribute can affect the rhythm of battle. The player takes control of one party member at a time, making him the leader and enabling his action menu to be opened and operated by the player, along with his movement. The rest of your allies are controlled with the gambit system, an effective and strategic AI coordinator that lets you input simple logic commands in a prioritized list, i.e. "Ally is poisoned -- use antidote." It's a very workable mechanic that gets more strategic and involved as the game goes on. The triangle menu can be opened and gambits can be changed at any time, leading to some very cool on-the-fly tactical management. Enemies can be seen and fought on the field and spamming of the X button is minimized, alleviating many of the franchise's past annoyances (of course people still complained about the new system). Other mechanical additions include the License Board, a menu-accessed contraption in which you can spend acquired License Points on new Licenses, which allow the party member in question to use a new ability, equip a new armament, etc. Through the gambit and License systems, the player can choose to place the party in tight, specific roles such as White Mage, or they can opt to make every character pretty much the same; all in all, the combat and customization mechanics are very flexible and satisfying. The story in Final Fantasy XII is neither the best nor worst in the series. Its main themes include power, corruption, destiny, and home, and these are approached with grace and thoughtfulness, for the most part. XII's is easily the most political tale in the series, which might be a turn-off to some looking for Final Fantasy's character-centric melodrama. I think the style works well for this game; it never gets too dry or talkative (in fact, I think there may be less dialogue here than in any other Final Fantasy since the NES days). This isn't to say, though, that there aren't noteworthy characters; on the contrary, some of the most well-realized and adult personalities in the series contribute to FFXII's plot. Basch is a weary and disheveled knight, aware of the treachery present in the world, but still uncynical. Ashe is a fugitive princess beset by tragedy, almost cold and mean, and really the story's main character if there is one. Balthier is a romantic and arrogant sky pirate, an adventurous outlaw who claims to be the "leading man." Fran is the party's only non-human, a rabbit-like ranger whose dry and calm sarcasm lends the events a touch of relaxed wit to counterbalance the drama. Even Vaan, the typical Japanese-developed effeminate young man, isn't quite a dud. And Penelo is okay, but nobody really pays attention to her. The characters benefit from Akihiko Yoshida's mercifully un-Tokyo designs, a great script, and even better voice acting. The world of Ivalice is a beautiful place to explore, with many striking details such as the seasonal change of the Giza Plains from a dry grassland to a rainy marsh, or the overwhelmingly convoluted network of sandy underground caves and tunnels that is the Zertinan Caverns. Like I said, a lot of my time has been spent here tracking down rare beasts, dueling mysterious Eastern warriors, discovering hidden treasures, recruiting the aid of powerful fallen angels called Espers, and tricking the system into quickly maxing out my party's stats. And I absolutely loved every moment I spent watching my party perform on autopilot; haters be damned.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Top 50 Games - 16. Halo 2

I know that my entries have been getting longer as I move closer to the top of my list, but I don't think I have a whole lot to say about Halo 2. This is not because there's nothing left to be said about it. It's not like Ocarina of Time, where thousands of raving fans have exhausted their weak little lungs hurling superlatives at the game. No, I think my job here is to briefly but somewhat effectively defend a game that I feel does not get the positive attention it deserves. I think a lot of people regard Halo 2 the way I regard Halo 3 (that is, not particularly well). I'm not exactly sure what I can say to change anyone's mind (probably nothing), but I will claim wholeheartedly that Halo 2 took the solid FPS w/ vehicles design of its predecessor and polished it up till it shone like --insert simile here--. Halo has always been the arcadey, pick-up-and-play type of shooter, and Halo 2 embraced that. You could jump higher, you could dual wield like in a John Woo movie, you could hijack vehicles, you didn't need to worry about health packs. I remember that I loved the vehicles in Combat Evolved and wished they were more prominent; Halo 2 made my wish come true. There was less backtracking and overall better level design, the graphics for the time were pretty neat, the music was even better and to this day is one of the best video game soundtracks out there, and although many complained about it, I thought the story and alternate hero were more nuanced and interesting. Where the original Halo felt like a true justification for the Xbox and non-Goldeneye console FPS, Halo 2 (at least at the time) just felt perfect to me; it had the glow of a true masterwork. Now... the multiplayer. I won't get too deep into this, but Halo 2, despite not seeming very innovative, truly set the standard for online console gaming and allowed Xbox Live to become what it is today. The multiplayer mode, whether you're playing CTF or Slayer, online or split-screen, is the heart of the Halo experience and I truly cherish the hours that I've spent mercilessly fragging and being fragged by my friends. And just as a final fuck you to the haters: I was satisfied by the campaign's cliffhanger ending. So put that in your pipe and smoke it or something.

Top 50 Games - 17. Fallout 3

The RPG is facing difficult times. Once a niche genre adapted from the tabletop to the computer screen, the 90's saw Square turn the Japanese role-playing game into blockbuster material, offering stories and visuals that got as close to Hollywood as games had ever been. But now the JRPG is stagnating and nobody knows exactly what to do. The western RPG evolved from D&D-based dungeon crawlers to Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, garnering much success in the modern era, although if ME2 is any indication, today's WRPG is starting to lose some traditionally indicative features. Bethesda had been developing its first-person Elder Scrolls series for years, truly breaking into the mainstream with Oblivion. The fourth entry brought complex role-playing to life in the new console generation, satisfying the desire for both immersive realism and statistical abstraction. Following the game's success, Bethesda picked up the Fallout franchise, a post-apocalyptic isometric Interplay WRPG that hadn't received a sequel in years. Taking many liberties, Bethesda fused the black humor and art direction of Fallout with the gameplay model and first-person perspective of The Elder Scrolls. The result was Fallout 3, a huge affair that is nonetheless meaner and leaner than Oblivion. The fat had been cut out and replaced with succulent, satisfying RPG meat. As I mentioned in my piece on Oblivion, Bethesda knows how to take an unoriginal setting and make players feel like they're interacting in a real place. The Elder Scrolls is typical Tolkeinesque high fantasy, but Fallout is much more interesting: an idyllic 50's-style America nuked to hell by Red China. It's a fascinating landscape to explore, and explore it you can, with every dull brown horizon able to be reached on foot. Fallout 3 has a lot to offer players, but in my mind the most enjoyable and effective moments come from wandering around the Wasteland and coming across new places of interest, be they quest-critical or merely atmosphere-enhancing. While the wide empty spaces may seem all but lifeless, there is so much to discover out in this virtual world that the 100-hour mark seems like nothing. In my lonely travels I've found a crashed UFO (in which there is an awesome Alien Blaster), a verdant oasis (as its name, Oasis, implies) high up on a mountain, a place where you can die of radiation poisoning in 0.1 seconds, and much much more. Apart from aimless wandering there are tons of worthwhile quests to undertake, all of which are interesting and rewarding in one way or another, and many of which present difficult choices to the player. Gameplay mechanics include the spectacularly entertaining V.A.T.S., which pauses the game to lock onto an enemy and let the player pick out body parts to shoot at. I used the V.A.T.S. method as much as possible, eschewing typical FPS run-and-gunning for the more involved, deliberate, and sadistic pseudo-turn-based style. One of the most inaccessible parts of Oblivion was the menu, and this complaint has been addressed wonderfully in Fallout 3. Pressing B on an Xbox 360 controller brings up the Pip-Boy 3000, an arm-attached computer that lets you access your inventory, stats, map, etc. very easily, and in a highly charming manner. Fallout 3's Wasteland is filled with so much great content, I still haven't seen all of it. I've never been to Paradise Falls, I've never completed the Nuka-Cola challenge, I've never been to the White House ruins, and I've never figured out what the hell is down there that can get me to die of radiation poisoning in less than one second. And I'm glad I haven't found this stuff out, because it only serves to augment the enticing mystery and wonder of Fallout 3, the uncanny ability it has to get you thinking about what we've seen and haven't seen long after you put the controller down. If the apocalypse is this much fun, then I say bring it on, China (just kidding).

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Top 50 Games - 18. Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence

Just to get this out of the way quickly: I was wondering whether to pick Snake Eater or Subsistence, since I originally played the former, but I ultimately opted for Subsistence since its much-improved camera greatly enhances the original game, not to mention its bevy of extra content. Now, about Metal Gear Solid 3. What we have here is considered by quite a few folks to be Kojima's greatest creation; the perfect synthesis of newfangled cinematic ambition and good-old-fashioned game design, the one Metal Gear entry that truly fulfills the promise of the original concept. A few fans were also slightly disappointed upon the game's 2004 release, myself somehow among them. While MGS3 is certainly not my favorite Metal Gear, I love it much more now than I did back when I first played it. It is one of those rare games that seems to get better the more I play it and think about it. Chronologically a prequel to every other game in the series, MGS3 takes place during the hottest era of the Cold War, in 1964. It also abandons the cold grays and blues of past Metal Gear bases with the wild and verdant Russian jungle. The setting is refreshing and Kojima takes advantage of it: codac conversations with your support team's medic reference movies like Godzilla, and the forest environment is rife with immersive detail, much of it able to be interacted with by Snake (who in this installment is actually a young Big Boss). Snake can climb trees and hang from branches while shooting a sidearm, trip enemy booby traps that are hidden in the vegetation, and hunt wild animals to replenish his stamina. The camouflage and stamina systems add a nice survival element to the gameplay, and the environs (coupled with the lack of a radar) make stealth tactics even more nuanced and necessary. The vintage 60's gadgetry is great, too, from sonar to the fake death pill. With its complex control scheme, improved AI, unpredictable environment, and amusing technologies, MGS3 is the most enjoyable tactical espionage action sandbox in the series. Nearly every location in the game can play host to ridiculously cool scenarios due to the game's stunning sophistication. Press and hold square near a guard to get him in a chokehold. From here you can knock him unconscious by tapping square repeatedly, throw him to the ground violently by pressing square and moving the left analogue stick, or cut his throat by pressing down hard on the same button. You can throw grenades into the mouths of alligators, shoot a beehive down onto the head of an unsuspecting sentry, and poison enemies with rotten meat. Snake likes some food more than others and lets you know, there's a built-in system for manually curing his wounds (in here you can burn leeches off with your cigar), if you let the game over screen run too long, the words SNAKE IS DEAD will become TIME PARADOX. The level of authored and emergent detail on display here is lightyears beyond what other developers even attempt to offer. It truly boggles the mind, and it is present at every point in the game. Nowhere, though, is the craftsmanship and creativity of Kojima and his team more apparent than in Metal Gear Solid 3's now-legendary boss fights. You know how I mentioned poisoning enemies with rotten food? Every boss has a stamina bar like yours, and one them, The Fear, needs to scour around for sustenance mid-battle to restore it. That's right: throw some decomposing rabbit on the ground, and he'll scarf it up, only to realize that his voracity doomed him to a humiliating death. Many people make a big deal about the game's final boss (aptly named The Boss), and for good reason. The fight is beautiful, taking place in a field of white lilies, and it calls on every skill you've learned to take down the woman who taught them to you. As good as that climactic duel is, the best boss fight in the game, and my favorite of all time, is Snake's encounter with a very old sniper called The End. The battle plays out in three large jungle areas full of interesting terrain and tactical points of interest. The End is well-camouflaged and often perched high on some grassy cliff, making it difficult to see him. He sees you, though, and although he is only using tranquilizer rounds (which lower your stamina and drain light from the screen), you feel hunted in a way you've likely never felt before. To best him you need to make use of every gadget and tactic available to you. You can use the directional microphone to zero in on his heavy breathing and the map to determine his last known position. You can sneak up on him, he can sneak up on you, you can kill his beloved parrot (his painfully enraged reaction is terrifying), he can regain life energy from beams of sunlight, and you can let him die of old age by turning your system's clock forward seven days. It is the perfect video game battle, sprawling and epic, deeply immersive, and suffused with memorable details, be they humorous or horrifying. As for the story, I'll call it the least stupid in the series (don't get me wrong, I love these tales) and not go into more detail than that. A humorous and surreal covert affair that's packed full of creative details, ingenious flourishes, and memorable moments, Metal Gear Solid 3 is easily one of the most treasured games in my collection.

Top 50 Games - 19. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Is Ocarina of Time the greatest game ever made? Well, according to me it's not, seeing as how I awarded Super Mario Bros. that title quite a few posts ago (it was #48). Is Ocarina of Time in the top 5, at least? Absolutely. Okay, but why isn't it in my own personal top 5? This one is pretty easy to explain (although some may not consider my excuse good enough): I never owned a Nintendo 64. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was not my first Zelda game, and by the time I played it, the years had cruelly stolen a little bit of its original luster. This masterpiece, easily one of Nintendo's greatest accomplishments, is still pretty damn high on my list though; there are only 18 games that I love more. While the graphics may no longer present the most stunning virtual landscape ever created, and the control has since been polished, there are quite a few areas of this game that remain nearly untouched. The brilliance of its innovative features, the divine quality of its music, and the genius of its overall design have barely been surpassed since its release in 1998 (in my humble opinion, the greatest year for video games ever). Ocarina of Time was born during a strange but fertile time: faced with the challenge of bringing Hyrule into the third dimension, the peerless talents at Nintendo invented by necessity aspects of 3D gaming that we have all taken for granted. One of 3D's most troublesome new problems was the camera; Super Mario 64 did its best to tame the ugly beast, but OoT's solution was much more elegant. The only way to adjust the view was to press the Z-trigger and re-center it behind Link. Pressing the Z-trigger near an enemy or character would letterbox the screen and focus Link's movements and actions around the targeted object. Z-targeting, as it would be called for years afterward, was an ingenious blessing. It helped make interaction in a 3D world much more enjoyable, and was the foundation for a combat system that still holds up to this day (which is not something that many games of the early 3D era can claim). Also new to 3D gaming was an open world ready to be explored without restrictive load screens or self-contained levels. Gamers were equipped with all the tools necessary to conquer this faraway world, using trusty steed Epona to gallop across the expansive Hyrule Field, series staples such as arrows, boomerangs, and bombs to fell Ganon's minions, and new additions like the Iron Boots and Bombchus to explore more of the fascinating kingdom. There was a day-night cycle (skeletal Stalfos enemies were much more common at night), a variety of entertaining minigames like fishing in Lake Hylia, and more details that served to keep gamers enraptured for long stretches of time. One of the game's most impressive features is its mind-bending time travel mechanic. Focused on the two most important items, the titular Ocarina of Time and the classic Master Sword, at the Temple of Time Link is able to choose between two realities: one in which he is a child, and one that finds him a fully grown young adult. This duality creates many new puzzles, some of which are more devious and clever than any in the series. Magic beans can be purchased and planted in certain areas by a young Link; when revisiting the area as an adult, plants will have grown, allowing you to reach previously inaccessible areas. Certain items can only be used by each version of Link as well, further complicating an already sophisticated game. Some consider the dungeons to be at the heart of the Zelda experience, and while I wouldn't agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment, I will say that Ocarina of Time boasts many of them, not a single one of which is poorly designed (even the Water Temple). They are more often than not dark, musty, murky, and thoroughly tricky puzzle-boxes loaded with dangerous enemies, thoughtful challenges, and awesome boss fights. They can get pretty creative too, with one taking place inside the belly of a giant fish. Maybe the best applications of the gameplay mechanics can be found in the dungeons, but OoT's soul can easily be discovered in any of the game's rapturous melodies. Koji Kondo is without a doubt the greatest composer in the industry, and his work on display here is positively brimming with emotion and warmth. Many a gamer who has spent time in Hyrule knows that he will never ever get Saria's Song and Zelda's Lullaby out of his head. I consider the latter to be one of the greatest melodies ever written, bar none, and it, along with the title screen music, is enough to reduce any vulnerable video game lifer to goo. The most important, most timeless, most affecting 3D game ever released, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time deserves all the praise that can be thrown at it.

Top 50 Games - 20. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

I dislike Activision. I dislike Xbox Live. I dislike Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. I dislike war. But I like Call of Duty 4. A lot. Why is that? Before this blockbuster entry in the part arcadey, part realistic FPS series, WWII was the setting for the shell-shocked player's exploits. After Call of Duty 2, which in my opinion perfected that vein of shooter, Infinity Ward set its iron-sights on the very near future. Sure, the story is pretty stupid, what with Islamic fundamentalists and Russian neo-Stalinists banding together to destroy the US of A, but it provided context for a visceral first-person experience that was more intense, unsettling, and surprising than World War II could ever be (in a video game, I mean). When you're in the thick of it, with AK fire spraying every concrete wall, grenades landing right at the tips of your toes, and helicopters spiraling out of control after being downed by an RPG, it's hard to imagine any gamer wanting things to get even more realistic. While COD4 of course takes many liberties with reality, the immersive experience seems about as true to the blinding, deafening, dumbing chaos of war as I'd ever want video games to get. Yes, Call of Duty squeezes a great deal of fun out of something as evil and atrocious as war, but (although its developers hardly weaved any subtlety or ambiguity into their creation), one could claim that it asks questions about entertainment, reality versus fantasy, or the hypocritical wiring of the human brain. Of course, when you're (fictionally) defending your position with a barrage of MG fire, carrying a pilot out of her crashed bird while being flanked by the enemy in large numbers, or chasing the son of a Russian madman through a dilapidated warzone, you don't really have time to think about those kinds of things. The bullets left in your clip, the locations of your squadmates, the fierce tactics of your enemies: that's what's on your mind. Doubly so in the competitive multiplayer mode, where, without the scripted predictability of single-player, your enemy can be anywhere, and even worse: he's not AI, but rather a human. Intensity and excitement are wholly embraced by COD4's audiovisual and tactile synthesis, and are most pronounced during the most spontaneous moments of multiplayer and most scripted and dramatic of the campaign. Such moments include the player-character being killed by a nuclear blast, but not before witnessing its horrid destructive power, and (in the game's best level), sneaking through an irradiated wasteland in a ghillie suit before attempting to assassinate previously mentioned Russian madman with a .50 cal while adjusting for the Coriolis effect. A powerful showcase for next-generation technology and developer craftsmanship, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is an intoxicating jolt that I'm happy to receive solely through artificial means.

Top 50 Games - 21. Final Fantasy X

Yes, Tidus is annoying and that fake laughing scene with him and Yuna is a bit painful. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's talk about Final Fantasy X. The first game in the long-running JRPG series to arrive on the Playstation 2, FFX set a new graphical standard upon arrival. It was also the first Final Fantasy with fully voiced main characters. Final Fantasy has many times proven to be about the characters as much as anything else, and the added (though, as mentioned, occasionally subtracted) believability that voice acting and graphical fidelity provided really brought the cast to life in a way that hadn't been done before. The best example I can think of is Wakka, whose vocal charms would have gone unappreciated if we weren't able to hear his distinctive tropical accent. Final Fantasy X may actually be one of the most character-focused games in the series, as they contribute heavily not only to the story, but also to the fundamentals of gameplay. FFX's battle system abandoned ATB (active time battle) for a straightforward turn-based style. In ATB's place however, were new innovations. A list in the upper-right corner of the screen clued players in to the order of turns between their party members and the enemies. The second innovation, and one that Square should be ashamed of for not including sooner, is the ability to switch party members in and out of the battle's three-person lineup at any time, without forfeiting the turn. This may seem convenient, and it is, but it also adds a new layer of strategy to the deliberately paced fights. For the first time in ages, the party in a Final Fantasy game is comprised of distinguished individuals, each one of them wholly necessary for participation in combat. While the "level up" system, the Sphere Grid, can be "broken" by moving a character into another's field, for the most part each party member possesses unique abilities that come into play quite often. Tidus has speed, Yuna has white magic, Auron has brute force, Kimahri learns enemy abilities, Wakka has a ranged attack, Lulu has black magic, and Rikku can steal. While the random battles can be painful, the bosses are epic, slow-paced, cinematic affairs that test the strategic skills of the player. Outside of battle is a beautiful world full of small tropical islands, long dirt roads, and wide open plains. Unfortunately, this world called Spira was the most linear of the series until FFXIII came along. It's easy to ignore however, because you're constantly wrapped up in a story that is paced calmly but always moving forward. This story is one of the most well-crafted and emotional in a series known for epic tales that are just that, and riding along with it to its dramatic conclusion is a sweeping, magical experience matched in power by only a few other video games.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Top 50 Games - 22. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

I don't much care for running over pedestrians and blowing up police helicopters in San Andreas. I'm much more content to hop on a bicycle, improve my cycling skill by pedaling around for a while, and then precede to bunny hop over some taxis. Or maybe I'd like to play an early 90's arcade game in which you control a bumblebee. Or activate the flying cars cheat, spawn a garbage truck, and cruise around the smoggy orange skies of Los Santos (LA) while listening to some Hank Williams. Or ride a jetpack. Or play pool. Or eat so much pizza that I hurl it back up in a charmingly low-res green mist. Or take pictures. Or go skydiving. There's more, but I think you get the idea. What used to be a game that almost exclusively concerned itself with highly criminal activity like murdering prostitutes became so much more. San Andreas, to employ the comically abused term, is a big ol' sandbox. It engages the same part of the brain that is tickled when a child plays with his toys, but instead of imagining it yourself, Rockstar does it for you. San Andreas, with its three cities and connecting countryside, could be accused of "quantity not quality" if it weren't so damn fun nearly all the time. Sure, the story missions can be frustrating as all hell, but (although they are varied and contain some great acting and writing) who plays the story missions? No, the "point" of San Andreas is to fuck around and enjoy all the wonderful chaos that ensues from your lazy thumb-tapping inputs. In the PS2 era, no other game could claim the level of variety, immensity, and insanity that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas possessed. It had a killer soundtrack, an interesting setting, awesome cheat codes, a hilarious and huge script, an enormous play area, and you could even turn protagonist CJ into a fat slob like yourself. Good stuff.