Project Natal

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s a link to Microsoft’s Project Natal promo video. Basically, aside from not allowing you to roam around by walking, this is pretty much the “holy grail” of VR — body-based motion sensor, with facial and voice recognition as well.

Penny Arcades Take
Penny Arcade's Take

Already some “journalists” are suggesting this will beat Nintendo’s Wii at its own game. Well, d’uh. If all this stuff were delivered and worked as shown, it would crush the Wii like a bug. The point is, it’s just a “concept video” — much like John Sculley’s infamous Knowledge Navigator. Beating Nintendo at its own game would involve making sensible compromises to deliver an actual viable product, not dreaming up pie-in-the-sky fantasies and then hopelessly failing to deliver.

It’s a great idea. (It’s an obvious idea too — it’s the idea most VR people come up with when trying to dream up the ideal control system, before laughing and switching to more practical ideas.) I’d line up to buy one. Heck if they can do reasonably decent motion capture for one person with a fairly clean background with good lighting working I’d buy one. Remember, Sony released EyeTV something like five years ago — it was pretty entertaining for five minutes and then we all forgot about it.

One thing that really irks hardcore gamers — and this is why the Wii has essentially failed as a hardcore gaming platform — is imprecise controls. A martial arts game that has a 30% error rate is going to drive you completely nuts. (Again, as Tycho at Penny Arcade puts it — the first time it fails to recognise Brenna’s voice is the last time she’ll use it. Trivial Pursuit has ended in fistfights over the interpretation of answers — how do you think people will like it when the outcome hinges on vaguely reliable voice or motion recognition?)

The thing is, Microsoft (like Google and Apple, and maybe even Sony) is the kind of company that has so many smart people working for it in various nooks and crannies that it seems just possible they could pull it off (or near enough). It does kind of tie in with some of the other imaging work they’ve shown off (cough — more unreleased products), but a lot of the stuff in the video is just stupidly hard. Hard as in “mathematician hard”.

Still, I’d love to be proven wrong.

GTA IV Revisited, MGS IV Avoided

Metal Gear Solid IV is starting to get the kind of hype (see if you can guess the reviewer’s conclusions from the title of the review) that Grand Theft Auto IV just got, and will probably give the PS3 a huge shot in the arm. Although I will probably end up buying a PS3, it won’t be for some time, since I just bought an XBox 360. (And I’m still annoyed about backwards compatibility with PS2, or lack thereof.)

When I picked the XBox 360 over the PS3, I considered several factors:

First, I wanted a current generation console now in order to play GTA IV.

Second, I considered the expenditure to be significant, and planned to buy either the PS3 or XBox 360 and ignore the other platform for at least a year.

Third, I was well aware of the game pipelines for both platforms, including the not-quite-released Haze, the soon-to-be-released MGS IV, and at least one PS3 exclusive Final Fantasy title.

Fourth, I was also aware of the existing games for the two platforms, including Ratchet & Clank on the PS3 (the first Ratchet & Clank is one of my all-time favorite games and for a long time the new Ratchet & Clank has been the only current generation game I’ve found even slightly tempting) and a bunch of PC/XBox 360 titles that weren’t ported to the PS3, such as Bioshock and Mass Effect. (It didn’t hurt that every “me too” title on the PS3 appears to be inferior to its XBox 360 equivalent, e.g. Resistance: Fall Of Man vs. Gears of War. Or Halo vs. … Haze?)

In the end, PC/XBox 360 won over Sony lock-in. While I will one day get a PS3 and enjoy the latest Ratchet & Clank, the best games are generally targeted at computers still, and I venture that this has led and will lead to the XBox 360 having a better games library than the PS3.

As you may recall, I was withholding judgement on whether I think GTA IV deserves “10/10”.

First, let me say that it’s the first GTA game I’ve completely “unlocked”. (I’m about 50% “complete”, but I can go anywhere, have all the weapons, and am about five missions from completing the main arc.) Second let me say that I stand by my annoyance with the controls — almost every failed mission comes down to getting stuck on terrain or not being able to see incoming adversaries owing to the new “cover” interface. Third, everything Yahtzee complained about in his review of GTAIV is absolutely true. “Man Dates” in particular are the worst thing ever. (Woman dates are pretty bad too for that matter.)

So, I’ve played a lot of GTA IV, mainly in the wee hours after feeding babies and not being able to get back to sleep. The driving controls (once I got over the urge to use X to accelerate) are wonderful, and the person-to-person combat is generally great, although the “cover” stuff is still kind of annoying (and gets me killed once in a while). Once I realized how autosave worked (and stopped going back to my Safe House so much) I became much less annoyed at the save interface.

The game is a huge improvement over its predecessors in several ways:

  • First, the missions feel more organic to the world — it’s hard to pin down. For one thing, the really dumb missions (such as taxi, ambulance, and firetruck runs) are gone, while the cop missions are actually fun. For another, you seem to be able to pick your approach to a lot of them — whether it’s circling a target to pick a line of attack (or climbing an adjacent building to use your sniper rifle) or deliberately paralleling someone you’re supposed to be chasing to use easier streets. I’ve looked at walk-throughs to see how they recommend you do missions I’ve already completed and often found I did the mission in a way that isn’t mentioned (and not by using a “sploit”).
  • Second, the faux sat nav eliminates the constant navigation problems I had with every earlier game. I wish you could set multiple waypoints (e.g. I generally want to visit a gun store on my way to most missions, or a good place to steal cars on my way to a date).
  • Third, getting away from the cops is much more interesting (doing sensible things like zig-zagging through side-streets actually works, you can outrun a three star wanted rating on foot, cops don’t materialize around you the way they did in earlier games, and so on).
  • Fourth, you can shoot forwards from moving vehicles. (It’s quite difficult, as it should be, but a lot less annoying than the drive-bys in earlier games.
  • Fifth, as in San Andreas, gun combat is a lot of fun — the cover UI is flaky but generally more useful than not. (It gets me killed less often than it keeps me alive.) Before San Andreas, if a mission involved significant gunplay, it generally meant completing it was completely a matter of luck. With San Andreas and IV, I look forward to gunplay, and generally expect to win and turn a profit (i.e. collect more ammo than I use).

The thing that really stands out about GTA IV is the writing and acting. Even though the storyline is basically static (you can do quests in different order by visiting NPCs in different order, and you can sometimes make a binary choice that appears to have little impact) it’s so well written that I find myself watching cut scenes carefully and going back to them if I miss something. (You can skip cut scenes without even watching them once and still complete your missions, and many of the most entertaining dialog occurs in-game as you drive around, somewhat reminiscent of Interstate ’76. Aside: would someone please do a great ripoff of Interstate ’76 for the 360?)

As with GTA: San Andreas the acting is very good (simply unparalleled by other video games). E.g. Michelle, the first woman you date, always seems to be forcing her enthusiasm in the (tastefully discrete) bedroom scenes — I concluded she was an undercover cop or something, since the acting everywhere else in the game was so good I couldn’t believe it wasn’t deliberate.

I was right.

This marks the first time for me in a video game — that I can recall — where assuming the acting was goodturned out to be correct. Of course, knowing she was some kind of undercover cop made absolutely no difference, because your decisions have no effect on the plot.

Let me pause for a moment to consider GTA IV as a morality play. Much has been made of the series’s amorality. You invariably play a guy who steals cars, kills people for money, and kills random innocent bystanders in order to perform relatively trivial missions (in earlier games, this included delivering taxi passengers to their destinations and, even more ironically, picking up patients in an ambulance). While this trend continues in GTA IV, it is a remarkably moralistic game.

Niko Bellic — unlike almost everyone he works with — doesn’t do illegal drugs (he does drink himself stupid, and the drunkenness implementation is hilariously good) and constantly counsels his friends to perhaps cut down while in turn listening to them bemoan the costs (physical, personal, financial, and spiritual) of their habits both to him and one another. In one mission you help a gay “friend” by killing a gay bashing “hater” who has been stalking him and tries to beat him up on his jogging run in Middle Park.

Perhaps the worst piece of writing I’ve encountered is this:

Spoiler Alert

At one point in the game you’re working for a successful gangster and his long-time associate and mentor who recently got out of prison. Although very close friends, the former has tried to become legit while the older man remains an old school gangster, determined to regain his former crime empire. (Incidentally, this plot appears to be lifted directly from one of The Wire’s story arcs.) At the younger man’s behest, you start helping out the older man, but eventually and inevitably the two come into conflict. It has been established through cut scenes that Niko likes the older man, but he also reflects (accurately) that the younger man has never done him wrong. Eventually, after the older man has you kill the staff of a strip joint that (he neglects to tell you) happens to be run by the younger man, you’re forced to pick a side and kill the other. The younger man offers you a lot of money while the older basically asks it as a favor.

I killed the older man — not for the money, but because he had just screwed me (and betrayed his protege). But the game treated it as if I had been motivated by the money. (I looked for walkthroughs to find out what would have happenedt had I picked the other option — turns out I’d have gotten the younger man’s very nice penthouse apartment.) I found this very annoying… which is a sign of just how well-written everything else is. It’s also an example of the game’s moralistic subtext.

OK, so 10/10?

I realize that giving games a numerical rating is in a sense stupid, after all the New Yorker doesn’t give scores out of ten in its movie reviews (the New Yorker has lately begun reviewing popular music, which I guess means it should be discussing computer games by 2030 or so), but while I love the New Yorker’s reviews for their wit and insight, I’m often left wondering whether the critic enjoyed the film or might recommend it to a friend. (Yahtzee complains about numerical ratings, but often spews vitriol at games he pretty clearly enjoyed for the most part. His criticisms are on point, but was the game actually fun? And how much fun was it?) Numerical ratings are, in the end, a useful way of making the overall impression left on a reviewer by a game or movie unambiguous.

Thus, if you consider 10/10 to mean “any reviewer would recommend this game to a friend” then GTA IV deserves 10/10. If you consider 10/10 to mean “flawless”, GTA IV does not deserve it — it clearly has flaws and I’ve pointed a few out. If you consider 10/10 in the light of other games, such as Bioshock or Mass Effect which have received reviews in the 9.0 to 9.6 range, GTA IV unquestionably deserves a 10. In other words, GTA IV deserves a 10 the way Nadia Comaneci did in 1976 — if you’ve given high 9s out for a certain level of work, then something clearly superior deserves a 10.

Of course, the result of 10s becoming common in gymnastics was a revision of the scoring system to (no doubt temporarily) ameliorate grade inflation. If we recalibrate game scores so that an essentially decent game such as Bioshock gets 8/10, and a well-made game with stupid flaws that should have been fixed in QA such as Mass Effect gets 7/10, GTA IV would still easily rate at least 9.5/10. The problem isn’t that GTA IV has gotten too high a score so much as a bunch of mediocre or merely decent games have been getting 9/10 or more.

Bioshock is very pretty, and the artistic style and Ayn Rand references impress and amuse, respectively, but it’s an FPS with zany weapons game. It’s also a “shooter where shooting is remarkably ineffective” game. (I’m playing it on easy, and I it seems like I need to empty a clip into even the early mobs just to get them to notice me. And given that it’s a game where you scrabble for ammunition, this is not a recipe for fun.) This is not a worthy successor to System Shock or Thief or Ultima Underground or Fallout — and supposedly it’s something of a spiritual descendant of the first and has a clear aesthetic similarity to the last (By the way, in a Universe where Bioshock deserves 9.5/10, those four games deserve 11/10.)

Meanwhile, what of the other IV, Metal Gear Solid?

I loved the original Metal Gear Solid despite its glaring flaw — incredibly long-winded expository dialog that laid out a typical Japanese RPG back story… i.e. everyone was related to each other and had been betrayed, and powerful forces with unlimited budgets and no business plan were at work. (It’s possible that these back stories lose something in translation, but I’ve seen Japanese movies and comics with unquestionably solid plots, so I just think Japanese RPGs are badly written.) But, at the time, it was an incredibly innovative stealth shooter, and its understated features, such as that first moment when you use cigarette smoke to detect a security system, gave it an imaginative flair unmatched by games of its time.

Since the original MGS, as far as I can tell, all the progress that’s been made comprises saddling the gameplay with more of the latter. (The fawning review I linked above does say very positive things about the latest installment’s interface. If what they say is true, I will no doubt be very impressed when I finally succumb.)

Perhaps I am simply rationalizing my decision, but the MGS IV trailer thoughtfully provided at the end of the review I linked makes me completely uninterested in playing the game. It’s everything I hate about the original MGS and nothing I love about it wrapped into a long, boring, grey-brown video. (For a start, it looks like a cut scene featuring zero gameplay. And everything in the cut scene is stupid, badly written, and badly acted.)

At minimum, I’ll wait for Yahtzee’s review before I even consider trying to rationalize buying a PS3 to supplement my XBox 360…

Update: Yahtzee has posted his review of MGS4 and appears to have exactly the kinds of issues with itI would have expected him to, along with expressing considerable annoyance at his gameplay. Meanwhile, I’ve “finished” GTAIV (64.5% completed according to the in-game stats — WTF? I’ve completed all the plot quests and a ton of side quests. I guess I have to kill all the pigeons…).

Grand Theft Auto IV

It’s hard to read in the middle of the night between feedings of newborn twins, but playing video games works. It keeps me up (which is a good thing, since if I fall asleep by the time the screaming wakes me I have two very angry daughters) so I use various tricks to stay away during the “graveyard shift”.

When it comes to video game consoles, since the Sega Megadrive (a.k.a. “Genesis”) came out, I’ve been keeping more-or-less up-to-date, although I avoid the insane early rush to pay extra for buggy consoles with mediocre launch titles (which generally receive gushing reviews because the reviewers are bamboozled by the graphics). We’ve had a Wii since about six months after it came out, and I just succumbed and bought an X-Box 360, despite my hatred of Microsoft, because the only games on the PS3 that I would find compelling are the new Ratchet & Clank and the upcoming Metal Gear Solid (and I don’t really need to be reminded how annoying MGS games are).

In a vain attempt to stave off the next generation, I bought a copy of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and played it for a while. I’ve never finished the main storyline in any of the GTA3 games (I’ve played them all) despite having logged more than enough hours in each to finish in theory. In fact, I’ve never even unlocked all the content. Usually, I tend to advance plot in RPGish games and ignore sidelines that are obviously off-arc (relentlessly goal-oriented, that’s me), but the GTA games aren’t quite RPGish enough (well, San Andreas kind of is) and the so-called sandbox (tooling around cities at high speed, doing insane stunts, and killing random people) is pretty seductive while the missions tend to be repetitive and often annoyingly hard. (And if you can’t do them, they’re even more repetitive.)

It’s particularly interesting to play GTAIV immediately after playing San Andreas, and here’s why: ignoring the multiplayer aspects of GTAIV (which don’t sound terribly compelling to me, but I’ve yet to try them), GTAIV is in every respect a smaller, less ambitious, and more restrictive game than San Andreas. The controls (at least on the XBox 360) are gratuitously and annoyingly different from those on the PS2 (despite the XBox controller being an obvious attempt to clone the PS2 controller without being sued), but there is a “classic” mode which is more similar (I found it even more confusing), and I found them more likely to hose you in tight spots. (I think almost every time I’ve died and most of the times I’ve failed a mission it could be ascribed to poor controls.) The one new piece of core game play is the ability to explicitly take and use cover, which is a Good Thing, but not so brilliantly implemented. (And in San Andreas you could use cover by crouching behind it, which while not as “cute” worked better.) Perhaps a GTAIV follow-up will refine the cover controls to make them less likely to glue you to a pillar in front of shotgun-wielding enemies.

Aside: both games have a very ambitious, well-written, and well-acted storyline. If anything, I think that San Andreas’s storyline is more coherent and has less heavy-handed silliness (or maybe not, while GTAIV has Brucie — the juicer stolen car dealer, and Manny — the ex-gang-member-turned-wannabe-celebrity, San Andreas has a succession of ridiculous girlfriends).

Yes, in GTAIV you can play pool, go bowling, visit a strip club — but this is either lame, tedious, or simply canned content. The equivalent “mini-games” in San Andreas involved taking over neighborhoods, burgling apartments, the “usual” taxi, fire, police, and ambulance driving challenges — i.e. they leveraged the core gameplay (driving around a city at ridiculous speeds and killing people) to make the world deeper and more interesting rather than being gratuitous and pointless add-ons. While GTAIV ditches San Andreas’s (mildly annoying) character development system), it extends and deepens its even more annoying relationship system to cover your “guy” friends.

Addendum: one thing I should mention is that GTAIV has a new and significantly improved system for handling being “wanted”. Now, when you’re wanted, a search area is shown on your radar/map along with indications of where the police are (I think they omit the ones on foot). The more wanted you are, the larger the search radius. Each time you’re seen, the search area recenters on you. So getting away from the police involves a judicious combination of speed and stealth, making it a much better sub-game.

And I should mention: San Andreas feels a lot bigger than the Liberty City of GTAIV. For a start, San Andreas featured some very well-designed countryside (which felt much bigger than it actually was).

There’s much to love about GTAIV. It is incredibly beautiful to look at, and it’s nice to get out of “period” and back to the current day, because it affords much more opportunity for social commentary (and there’s a lot of it in the game) and also because we are in (in my opinion) something of a golden age of car design right now, and it’s nice to see doubles of cars like the Honda S2000, the Nissan Rogue, the Chrysler 300, Hummer H2*, and so on, filling the streets (along with a variety of classic finned cars from the 50s and muscle cars from the 70s of course). In my opinion, the cars in GTAIV are the most beautiful (and not just because of the graphic resolution) we’ve ever seen.

* Yes, the Hummer is a sin against nature, but it does look kickass. In the game it’s called the patriot and often comes with a huge billowing flag painted on it. I’ve not driven one much in game but it would be pretty funny if it were the only vehicle in the game that runs out of gas.

The city feels more “alive” than San Andreas. Food and newspaper vendors appear during business hours, and disappear or close shop at night, pedestrians exhibit wider varieties of behavior, including chatting on cell phones and holding conversations.

Social Commentary, in the form of constant, unrelenting, sarcastic, and — methinks too — cynical wit is embedded throughout the game, whether it’s on your car radio, the TV in your apartment, the faux web you surf in internet cafes (you receive spam in your email, of course), the comments the clerks in fast food outlets make about the food they serve, or the conversations you overhear on the street. Pretty much anything from terrorism as an excuse for political repression to those annoying ads for scooters on late night TV to political smear tactics to Fox (“Weasel”) News gets a thorough head-kicking. And of course they make fun of the media while imitating it. It’s all a bit Sophomoric but there’s so much of it, it’s so dense, and it’s aimed in so many directions that some of it will make almost anyone laugh out loud at some point.

The underlying morality of GTAIV is pretty interesting too. As with Bully, it seems the designers want to at least allow (if not encourage) the player down a kind of path of redemption. (I haven’t finished the game, and may never, but this is how it seems so far.) The fact that the player will almost unavoidably kill hundreds of people*, mainly innocent bystanders, in the course of attaining redemption is, as in the Matrix movies, silently ignored. Who knows, maybe there’s some kind of special ending for anyone who manages to avoid all innocent deaths while completing the main story?

* The game does keep track of your victims, albeit without categorizing them as, say, road kills versus deliberate shots. I’ve found myself killing pedestrians just trying to get to a date’s house on time, so the low value of virtual human life is pretty astonishing.

One obvious difference between GTAIV and its predecessors is that it has a new story to tell, that of a central European military veteran with a dubious past joining his cousin, a ne’er-do-well taxi operator, in Liberty City and trying to make his way in America by doing anything that pays well and makes good use of his talents (he’s very good at killing people — although, annoyingly, much better at it in cut scenes than when you’re in control — and pretty good at breaking into cars).

As Zero Punctuation has pointed out in his excellent review of GTAIV (no, I haven’t mentioned the man-dates, but thanks to Zero Punctuation, I don’t need to), numerical ratings for games (or books, or movies) are kind of nutty, but if you’re forced to give one, implying GTAIV is perfect is just ridiculous. As I’ve mentioned above, in terms of gameplay it’s in some ways a step down from GTA San Andreas, and it’s really quite disingenuous (golly, I use that term a lot lately: I use it to mean “feigned ignorance” and not mere dishonesty or insincerity — I think there’s a lot of it around) for reviewers who obviously played the latter not to even so much as mention this glaring fact. In terms of graphics it represents a radical improvement, but one that is no more than is to be expected for the new generation of game platforms. And since GTAIV is at heart a single-player game, even if the multi-player component is amazing this can’t drag it from a solid 8.5 to a ridiculous 10.0.

So now that I’ve finally succumbed, I need to try out Bioshock and Mass Effect.

The Travellers

I loved this comic way back when. Sadly it’s dated rather badly (too many references to movies we’ve happily forgotten, such as “Life Force”). I’m glad to see that it’s still around.

RIP Gary Gygax

Gary Gygax was, without doubt, one of the most influential game designers in history. He invented the role-playing game (with rules), as opposed to the role-playing game without rules, which has existed since before recorded history (heck, you can see kittens and puppies playing their version of “cowboys and indians”).

As with many absolutely groundbreaking pioneers Gygax’s work was so overwhelmingly influential that its many flaws have been treated, more-or-less, as fundamental pillars, so that the latest RPGs (paper or computer) usually contain many or even most of them, including “classes”, “alignments”, “levels”, “to hit tables”, “saving throws”, and so on. When viewed in large, his ideas are brilliant, but when viewed close up, every detail is terrible, whether it’s the historical research, the basic assumptions, the rules mechanics, or the quality of the writing.

Even so, not only has D&D spawned an entire class of imitative game designs, it has spawned comics, books, tv series, movies, computer games, scientific research, therapy, and training. More than an entire generation of geeks have grown up with D&D influencing their thinking and vocabulary. John Stewart makes D&D references on the Daily Show (as did Dave Foley in News Radio). The most successful computer game in the world right now is, unabashedly, a D&D derivative. Most of the key people at Microsoft, Apple, and Google have probably played D&D.

As a young gamer, I viewed TSR — Gygax’s game company — in much the same light as many of us today view Microsoft — a huge, unrelenting, capitalist monstrosity, destroying quality and diversity in its rapacious hunt for market share and profit. It was quite a revelation to me to discover, years later, that TSR was, more-or-less, a complete and utter boondoggle. So it’s particularly depressing to consider that such a hopelessly mismanaged enterprise managed to wreak so much havoc in the gaming industry. Just how badly must SPI have been managed to have fared so poorly against such hopeless competition?

Anyway, I was sad to read Gygax’s obituary on (in fact I read his Wikipedia entry first, and it had already been updated). I don’t think he can be blamed for not being terribly good at the technical aspects of game design (historical research, logic, usability, writing) since his main contribution was really the idea of a formal role-playing game. It’s just a shame that his admirers have been so uncritical in their acceptance of his mistakes. (Indeed, just recently there’s been quite a bit of controversy over the efforts of the designers of D&D 4th Edition to fix just a few of the problems in D&D.)

Oh well, another 1000xp.