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"God of War III": Story Review

WARNING: This review is only concerned with the story of a game. Even though the story is an important part of a game, by no means is it the defining component. A game with a horrible story may very well be one of the best games ever produced. It's just that my reviews are not about that.

SPOILER WARNING: The following text may contain spoilers for the people who have not finished the game in question yet. Reviewing the story sometimes makes such things inevitable.  


 

Idea:

God of War III goes back to the original plot element of Pandora's Box and questions the connection the whole series has with the original myth. Exactly how did Kratos kill Ares? What exactly was in the box? It's the classic story of the son rebelling against his father and eventually destroying him. As a symbol of change and progress fueled by hope, Kratos' journey seems like it would provide a good metaphor. However it's the inconsistencies that undermine this miasma of loosely related and not terribly original ideas. Apart from the impressively destructive consequences of the deaths of gods, there is nothing terribly interesting here. Putting ideas into Pandora's box is an interesting concept. So technically there is food here for the talented writer. However Asmussen fails to capitalize on these smaller ideas, and without a powerful central idea God of War III simply feels like it's missing something. 
 
Rating: 1 out of 2 
 
 

Setting:

God of War III takes place in ancient times, mostly in the area we know today as Hellas. This is a classic greek mythological tale in its more modern and brutal form. Instead of idealizing gods, it highlights them as petty, immortal beings of great power who see humans only as pawns in the cosmic game of chess which eventually proves to be quite shallow.  
 
Greek myth features one of the more humanized pantheons among the polytheistic religions of the world. It is one of the oldest soap operas in existence. At the time the people rooted for their favorite characters in the form of worship and followed their adventures intently. These stories provided the society with larger than life situations they can relate to. The setting of God of War may seem different but in truth it's the modern, revised version of the original setting for our own darker and cynical society. 
 
Its Achilles' Heel then is its blurry nature in terms of period. Simply put, the setting is pretty inconsistent with the original stories we have read from Homeros and Hesiodos. Is this taking place after all the myths we know, or is it a re-imagining of the whole myth? The setting relies on our knowledge of Greek myth but then casts Herakles as a petty, brainless brute. Hard to follow what the intent was. 
 
There are also a lot of inconsistencies between God of War III and former titles in the series. Several Gods look and function in a completely different way.  And now we learn that gods can have ghosts? Where was Ares' ghost all this time?
 
Rating: 1 out of 2


Characters:  

For a classic video game protagonist who murders anything that moves, Kratos was established as a pretty interesting character in God of War. There was a reason to his madness. This is a guy who carries the ashes of his family on his skin. He has the right the go insane... Yet Kratos had a purpose. He was in the service of Olympian Gods in order to redeem himself and the gods in turn were merely using him. Remember how the first frame of this story displayed Kratos right before he committed suicide.  
 
Barlog's story was more about what Kratos is doing than what Kratos is feeling. There was the sense of betrayal and the explanation to the reason why Kratos is capable of the things he does, both good and evil.  
 
Asmussen's Kratos feels insane. This Kratos is angry. He always was angry but this time it's different. Kratos' anger was rooted in a tragedy. This time he feels like a teenager who's just angry for the sake of being angry. He is the kind of guy who would burn a village just because he's cold. It is very hard to relate to a character like this. Back when we have first met, Kratos was a husband and a father who had accidentally killed his wife and kid, because of his own obsessions and disregard for sensitive advice. Normally the protagonist should evolve. Kratos here makes less sense than he ever did, even though he's still the iconic video game anti-hero he always was it is safe to say that he has devolved.
 
The antagonists and side characters do not fare better. Zeus does have sensible advice for Kratos but his method of delivering that advice is so stupid that it actually makes Kratos even more angry. One might argue that Zeus wants Kratos to kill him.  
 
The rest of the gods behave like homicidal maniacs or psychopaths with a disassociative identity disorder. Herakles especially behaves in a very uncharacteristic way. Greek myth describes him as more than a strong guy. He might be strong but most of his stories are about his intellect complementing his might. Just read the story about him and Atlas. Here he appears and attacks Kratos for an absurd reason. Of course there is a true reason behind this deformation of characters. Their sole purpose of existence is to get killed by Kratos.  
 
See, the story is structured as one long action scene. But more on that later... 
 
Rating: 1 out of 2 
 
 
Plot Structure: 
God of War III literally starts where God of War II ends. Kratos is climbing the top of the mountain and is about to face Zeus. That is his goal and the final destination of our story. Which is what God of War III is all about. Really.  
 
Here is the basic structure: Kratos climbs, Kratos slips and falls (into the Underworld... They really need to install a revolving door for him), Kratos climbs again. On the way he kills whoever is stupid enough to stand in his way.   
 
It is one man's journey to kill some other man. And that he does... He kills the father of all Gods and all the other Gods. Isn't it curious then that he needed Pandora's Box in the first game to kill Ares? Again the most important problem in this story is consistency. Conflicts raised in previous chapters get resolved in ways we could never have guessed. However the twist in this case is not a good one.  
 
Things do start in a promising way though. The moment Poseidon dies the seas swallow most of the earth. So we learn that each God represents their domain and when they die something happens to the world. Then we ask, why didn't anything like this happen when Ares died? Did Kratos instantly inherit his title? Like a walking cataclysm, Kratos kills each and every single god unleashing a natural disaster on the global scale with each kill. Despite the inconsistency, it's really a great hook. The audience wonders what will happen to the world after Kratos is done killing all the gods. This adds an additional mystery to the story. Obviously it's going towards some clever resolution. Or so we think... The parallels between Pandora and and Kratos' own daughter strengthens our hope.
 
In the end the world is almost destroyed, Kratos kills Zeus (more than once) and it turns out that the illogical behavior of the gods were caused by the fact that they are infected by the evils placed inside Pandora's Box along with Athena's own power: Hope.  
 
This resolution is problematic in many levels.  
 
For one, this is the first time the audience understands that abstract ideas can be placed in a box in this setting. We knew that Gods represented ideas but the thing in the box is literally an idea, not the personification of it. The audience had no way of knowing this. The mystery is resolved by a previously unknown and alien factor.  
 
More problematic is that the whole thing invalidates all of the character conflicts between the end of God of War I and God of War III by saying that all the important characters basically went insane when Pandora's Box was opened. So why were we following this story again? 
 
Rating: 0 out of 2 
 
 

Craftsmanship:  

 
Inconsistent design choices aside God of War III is artistically quite good. The writing will not give you anything to remember but there is also nothing to cringe at. That being said, Kratos' always angry voice starts to get annoying.  
 
God of War III cleverly retains the catchy theme melody and adds a new epic soundtrack. The music helps a lot in dressing this average story in a more epic armor, but is ultimately unable to save it from mediocrity. 
 
Part of the reason why the writing is not spectacular is that it doesn't have any opportunity to be so. In the few, less action heavy, emotional scenes Kratos gets, the writers fail to add more gravity to the situation by writing some exceptional dialog.  
 
When all is said and done the craftsmanship in God of War III does its job but nothing more. 
 
Rating: 1 out of 2 
 
 
 
OVERALL: 4 out of 10
(0-3= BAD, 4-6= AVERAGE, 7-10= GOOD)

Already Reviewed: "Infamous", "Batman: Arkham Asylum", "Wet", "Planescape: Torment", "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2", "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves", "Brütal Legend", "Heavy Rain",  "Alan Wake" , "God of War 3"

NEXT REVIEW:  Final Fantasy X
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"Alan Wake": Story Review

WARNING: This review is only concerned with the story of a game. Even though the story is an important part of a game, by no means is it the defining component. A game with a horrible story may very well be one of the best games ever produced. It's just that my reviews are not about that.


SPOILER WARNING: The following text may contain spoilers for the people who have not finished the game in question yet. Reviewing the story sometimes makes such things inevitable.  

 

  

Idea:

I hate movies about making movies or novels about writing novels. Strictly speaking  Alan Wake  is a story which falls into this category. On the surface, this is a run-off-the mill Stephen King imitation. When viewed under a more precise lens however, we find that its subtext is quite clever compared to other survival horror games. Too bad that neither the subtext nor the story constructed on top of it is particularly original.

Far more effective is the structural idea of telling the story as if it's a TV mini series. The TV series gimmick was tried before, most notably in  WildArms 3rd  and recently in the Eden Studios re-imagining of  Alone in the Dark.  But unlike those projects  Alan Wake  uses the TV series structure properly and allows this main idea to shape everything about the story.  

Combined with the "commercialism of publishers versus the torment of the author" subtext, this builds a solid foundation for a great story. A prime example of using already existing ideas and improving them.   


Rating: 1 out of 2

 

Setting:

Alan Wake  takes place almost exclusively in the fictional american town of Bright Falls. Like all horror story towns, Bright Falls is big enough to contain several diverse locations but small enough to be isolated and unknown. It's the kind of town you'd see in a Stephen King novel. But we gamers are no strangers to small towns with a terrible secret are we?

Yet Bright Falls is different from Racoon City or Silent Hill. Silent Hill, for instance, is an empty, decaying town. We realize that something horrible has happened there. We wonder what happened to all the people in it. Similarly Racoon City is overrun with zombies. Something horrible has happened to the town to turn it into a microcosmos of zombie apocalypse. In both cases the setting is like a different dimension separated safely from our own reality. They are not real towns.

There is a very important difference between the theatrical release and the director's cut version of James Cameron's Aliens.  The director's cut features additional footage of the colony prior to the xenomorph attack. These scenes were cut from the theatrical release for pacing purposes. However their absence lessens the impact of the destruction caused by the aliens. If Silent Hill is the theatrical release of  Aliens,  then Bright Falls is the director's cut. Over and over again...

Bright Falls is a living and breathing town with real people in it. Its history is detailed but not force fed to the audience. Instead the realistically modeled locations take over. By day, things are perfectly normal. Bright Falls is probably no different than the city you're living in. It just happens to have some dark presence imprisoned in it.  

Like Clive Barker says, real horror lives just beneath the surface of normal and daily life.  Alan Wake 's setting is a plausible town you can relate to. It could be your own town. Therefore it's a perfect setting for a horror story.

 
Rating: 2 out of 2

 

  

Characters:

First things first: Alan Wake is an awful name for a protagonist. Yes, we get it. We know our hero is an insomniac writer and this is great. We're not controlling a space marine or a cyborg assassin. This is very nice and potentially very interesting. But "Alan Wake"? Isn't this a bit too obvious to be clever? But then again this comes from the same guys who created a cop called Max Payne. Clearly subtlety is not their forte.  

An ordinary person facing extra ordinary odds... At least this is what we expect. What we actually get is an entirely different story. See, I know a lot of writers and they are basically what you might call "nerds". Most of them cannot hold their own in a bar fight for instance. Apparently Alan Wake the writer comes from the same university of protagonists as Gordon Freeman the physicist. Just like Freeman can easily defeat an entire special forces team and wipe out an interdimensional alien invasion force using a crowbar, once combat starts, Alan Wake almost turns into Preston the Tetragrammaton Priest from  Equilibrium . He can easily duck and weave through incoming attacks, dodge bullets to a certain degree and is incredibly good with a variety of firearms even in the dark while shooting at incredibly fast moving shadow creatures. Needless to say that the suspension of disbelief quickly goes out of the window.  

But that's the not the main problem. Alan Wake is not fully committed to his own personality. It's clear that he has issues. And it's nice that the protagonist has issues for a change. Alan has anger management problems in a quite realistic way (unlike, say Kratos) He's arrogant and can quite often be a jerk... but not that much. Alan also cares for his wife and friends obviously, for his main motivation is saving his wife. Then again we're not really sure why Alan loves his wife or if he does love his wife in the first place. The relationship between these characters is never developed.  

Perhaps the intention was to create a protagonist similar to Hank Moody in  Californication who in turn was modeled after  Bukowski.  But the end result here is a guy with a hint of dissociative personality disorder.  Then again maybe his problem is precisely this. We'll never know.

None of the other important characters are any more interesting either. Most of them have questionable motivations and unexplained personality traits. Perhaps we should chalk it up to Sam Lake's poor writing skills as minors characters who don't get a lot of screen time seem to be constructed much better than the important ones. These minor characters often contribute to the general feel of the setting and strengthen the immersion. Lake just seems to be trying too hard with the central characters.

The faceless antagonist, on the other hand, is in safe waters. (no pun intended) We neither see nor interact with the Dark Presence. It's more of a situation or a natural disaster than an antagonist in the classic sense. This causes the mantle of antagonist to pass to weaker characters like Nightingale or Hartman and Wake's conflict with these characters is annoying rather than intriguing or horrifying.  

 

 
Rating: 1 out of 2

 

 

Plot Structure:

On the surface  Alan Wake  has a very simple plot. A city dwelling guy comes to a small town full of secrets and confronts a horror which somehow uses his own mind to torment him. People don't trust him and he can't make them believe in the horrors he witnessed until it's very late. What's special about  Alan Wake  is how this story is used as a metaphor to describe the problems plaguing the modern entertainment media.

See, Alan Wake is an artist. He is a writer of thrillers. Most reviews I have seen get this part wrong, calling him a writer of horror stories. But in fact he doesn't write horror. And this is a very important detail for the plot.

As a writer, Wake is essentially trapped between a dream and a nightmare. On one hand he's working with his childhood friend Barry, who functions as both his agent and assistant. He also works with his wife Alice designs his book covers. On the other hand he's caught in a downward spiral of self loathing. The reason? Well there seems to be no reason in the surface story. But the subtext paints a different picture. 
 
As an artist Alan Wake wants to write thrillers. For a the readers of a good author the stories are reality itself. In a way every artist re-shapes reality according to their own vision, which is what literally happens in Alan Wake. In designing the covers for Alan's books Alice serves more or less as the Alan's muse and vision. We can understand from the role Alice takes in Alan's writing process, that she is the driving force behind Alan's genius. Alice is essentially all that is good in Alan's life which is prone to slide into darkness. The darkness itself comes in the form of an editor and a publisher. 
 
The dark presence is Alan's publisher who turns his reality, his stories into something else, something Alan never wants to write. His life turns from a thrilling adventure into a chain of illogical and horrifying events. This is what the publisher wants for its own needs, not for Alan's. The publisher needs to expand and get out of the small lake it's trapped in. It needs to infect the whole world with its darkness so that it can sustain its own existence which is its only purpose. To that end it kidnaps and holds Alan's muse as hostage, possibly long before Alan comes to Bright Falls. (Remember that at the start of the story Alan has a writer's block.) Like all artists Alan faces a dilemma.  
 
Will he surrender to the dark presence of the commercialism and sell out; write something he does not want in order to take care of the ones he loves? Or will he resist and survive as a niche artist who eventually disappears from the memories of his audience? The latter seems to have happened to all who resist the dark presence. It is implied that both the Anderson brothers and Thomas Zane are exceptional artists, yet no one knows their names.  
 
In the end Alan sacrifices himself, but does he save the girl? Was this the correct choice? Alice is free and the darkness is defeated but now he's writing inside a cauldron of obscurity, known to no one.  Perhaps now Alan is like Zane... a twisted versions of a mentor in the Campbell monomyth. 
 
All this is simplified and presented with a terrific pacing thanks to the mini series structure. Each of the six chapters of Alan Wake has its own Freytag pyramid with its own distinct exposition, rising action, turning point, falling action and resolution. This not only divides the story into bite sized pieces which could easily be digested but it also forms its own giant structure providing a steady rhythm of breathers and thrills. Poe would have been proud. Well perhaps proud is a strong work. Let's say he would not have hated Alan Wake that much. 
  
Even though the surface story is rather weak and some conflicts (Agent Nightingale and Dr. Hartman) are resolved in a non satisfying and sloppy way Alan Wake shows how an overall good structure can make up for the weakness of its individual parts.

Rating: 2 out of 2 
 
 

Craftsmanship:

 
Despite its cool presentation and nice ideas Alan Wake struggles in the craftsmanship department. The story is not only narrated by Wake himself but we also find manuscripts pages from his unreleased novel. It's always a dangerous idea to have a writer as a protagonist. The TV series Castle navigates around this problem by simply not featuring that much of Castle's work or making sure the bits they do feature on the show are written very well. It's also a light hearted show which does not deal with deeper issues a lot.  
 
Alan Wake
on the other hand is a very intense story. It is clear that Sam Lake is a competent writer. The problem here is that his writing skills are not even near to what we are led to expect from Alan Wake, the best selling author of thrillers. The dialog and the general craftsmanship is not bad by any means. But it's also not exceptional and in fact most of the times it's sub-par. This hurts the story and makes it harder for the audience to believe that Alan Wake is a great writer.  
 
On the other hand, the audio direction is excellent. Both licensed and original music pieces are obviously selected carefully. Likewise the visual direction shows signs of excellence considering how they have managed to be not afraid of shadows and darkness and still not cripple the game play by dark environments.  
 
Rating: 1 out of 2 
 
 
OVERALL: 7 out of 10
(0-3= BAD, 4-6= AVERAGE, 7-10= GOOD)

Already Reviewed: "Infamous", "Batman: Arkham Asylum", "Wet", "Planescape: Torment", "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2", "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves", "Brütal Legend", "Heavy Rain",  "Alan Wake"  

NEXT REVIEW:    God of War 3
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"Heavy Rain": Story Review

  WARNING: This review is only concerned with the story of a game. Even though the story is an important part of a game, by no means is it the defining component. A game with a horrible story may very well be one of the best games ever produced. It's just that my reviews are not about that.

SPOILER WARNING: The following text may contain spoilers for the people who have not finished the game in question yet. Reviewing the story sometimes makes such things inevitable.  
    

Idea:

 Heavy Rain, generally, is an interactive movie in the most classic sense. That is to say that it asks the audience to make several hypertext style choices to decide where the story should go. But its big idea as a murder mystery is that in the end the protagonist turns out to be the culprit... And this is not a good idea.  
 
Mystery stories in general have certain rules. Some of these rules are unwritten, some of them are written by people like Willard Huntington Wright. Let me quote his rule number 4 from the famous Van Dine rules:  "The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It's false pretenses."  
  
There is a reason for this rule. Doing otherwise makes the story unfair for the audience, for the audience experiences the mystery through the eyes of the protagonist. The audience ideally has to possess the same knowledge the investigator does. When the investigator is the culprit, one huge piece of information is missing, rendering the mystery pointless. 
 
Every now and then authors try to circumvent this rule and almost all of those experiments end in tears. So does the rule change when the story is interactive; when the audience can influence how the characters act. In theory this is an interesting proposition. Does it work in Heavy Rain? Ultimately no. But I think the naive courage alone deserves praise. 
 
Rating: 1 out of 2 
 
 

Setting:

 The entire story takes place in a generic and possibly American city, in the near future. It is a functional setting but the main problem with it is the fact that it lacks character.  The city in the famous Fincher movie Seven, for instance, is also generic but has a distinct noir quality to it. It's almost as if the city itself is a character in Seven. This cannot be said for the city in Heavy Rain. One thinks the artists were mostly concerned with making the environment geometrically beautiful but they did not really consider the city from a storytelling point of view. It's a problem of cohesion. Taken individually each location looks great. But there is no cohesive layer which combines everything.  
 
And then there is the cyberpunk component. I get the practical importance of the glasses in terms of game play. I also get the Caruso pun. Yes. But in a story which is supposed to be rooted in reality all the time, the designer drug triptocaine and the ARI interface are quite out of place. The implied comparison between virtual reality and drugs is compelling, sure... But they do make Jayden and all these elements sound like they are coming from an entirely different story, an entirely different setting. 
 
The setting is not overtly or offensively bad. It's just incoherent and under used, contributing nothing to the story. Even though Cage's attempt to include the rain as a central element to the story is admirable, he fails to capitalize on that too. 
 
Rating: 1 out of 2 
 
 

Characters:

 This is a character based story. We seem have 4 protagonists but what we actually do is controlling 4 different characters. From them Ethan Mars emerges as the de facto protagonist of the story. Although he's a featureless and -dare I say- whiny character, it is admirable that David Cage actually manages to make Mars invoke genuine emotions in the audience. Part of that is because Mars is a very familiar character to us. He is a guy who had a bright future, a wonderful wife, two kids and a beautiful house when everything in his life falls apart, not because of an alien invasion, but because of an event which can happen to any father at any moment. This makes the character in sync with the audience. Perhaps the audience does not know how they should feel if the things happening to Mars were ever to happen to them. But they can imagine, for any parent's biggest fear is losing their children. Mars' unstable behavior and illogical decisions can be explained this way.  
 
A far more likable character is the villain, Scott Shelby, although him being revealed as a villain is the twist the story is depending on. Shelby, as the good natured, retired, old cop who became a detective really steals the show with his selfless pursuit of the origami killer and his willingness to help people on the way. It's a great thing that the character we love most turns out to be the villain in the end. However, for other reasons we'll get into later, this does not work. 
 
The other two major characters Madison Paige and Norman Jayden do not fare as well though.  
 
As an insomniac reporter who's apparently obsessed with serial killers, Paige is potentially the most interesting character in this story. Sadly we find that she is woefully underused and thus has little impact on the story in general. Jayden appears the be the official investigator here but he's arguably the most generic character of the bunch. Jayden's investigations and inevitable conflict with the local police department usually stays at the periphery of the story. He's neither the fearless crusader of justice nor the eccentric genius this type of story requires. And his demeanor is, "weird", to put it mildly. 
 
The characters work. But do not expect to feel like you wish to see any of these characters in another story after Heavy Rain.  
 
Rating: 1 out of 2 
 
 

Plot Structure:

 Interesting is the word that comes to mind. On one hand Heavy Rain, utilizes interactivity as a true weapon and even tries some new stuff in interactive storytelling. Cage's rubber band idea is not bad at all in protecting the structure of the narrative. No matter what you choose the story travels to its inevitable ending. Your choices are about the journey towards that end. So while the theme and even most of the events stay the same, your choices arguably determine which perspective you'll use while you're experiencing the general theme.  
 
This is really admirable. With an equally strong story this could have been an unforgettable experience. Sadly when you peel off the interactive layer the remaining story is a mess, to say the least. 
 
The cause seems to be a genuine lack of knowledge about the genre. David Cage simply writes as a fan of mystery stories who doesn't really get how great mystery writers actually make their stories work. Instead of making research into serial killers, perhaps it would have been a better investment to make research into mystery literature. 
 
There are entire hooks and story paths which do not lead anywhere. They not only bother the audience in the end but also actively produce plot holes. In one interview David Cage says the origami in Mars' hand is a McGuffin, something which looks like it has significance in the story but actually does not. This reveals how he has absolutely no idea of what he's talking about. 
 
First of all, the origami is not really a McGuffin. A McGuffin is a plot device which by itself may not have any significance but provides motivation for the characters. A good example would be the Maltese Falcon. Everyone tries to possess it but we do not even see what it actually is, for the story is about the relationship between the characters. It is also possible to say R2D2 or more accurately the plans of the death star is a McGuffin which initiates the whole story about Luke becoming a Jedi. The origami is not a McGuffin. 
 
Assuming that he meant Red Herring, which is more in line with what the Origami piece is, it must be a horrible red herring. A Red Herring is something which looks like a significant clue in a mystery story but is actually irrelevant. It's a false clue. But it is essential that the audience understands how the red herring was irrelevant after all. It either has to be something so simple that it can be written off as a coincidence (like the fingerprints of a person found in the crime scene which is open to public) or it has to be explained exactly how the red herring appeared at the place it is. 
 
There is absolutely no way you can explain that origami appearing in Ethan's hand after he blacks out. Sure, maybe he got it from a guy who also happened to make origami, but this is quite far fetched and so improbable that expecting the audience to swallow this is kind of stupid. Ethan's blackouts are a real red herring. The origami is just a nasty, nasty plot hole. 
 
But these are all small problems. The bigger problem is the revelation at the end. See, mystery stories are almost like sporting events between the protagonist and the reader. Together with the protagonist we try to pick up clues and to work out who the murderer actually is. In an ideal mystery story the audience should have all the same clues as the investigator but the investigator should still be able to solve the mystery because he's way more smarter than the audience. In the end there should be an "Ah-ha!" moment. Everything should click together and the audience should go "Of course!! It all makes sense." You should feel like the solution has been staring at you all the time. 
 
In Heavy Rain, the solution comes from the left field. When the murderer is revealed you do not go "Ah-ha!!" you just go "Huh?!?". Because up until the point the mystery is revealed there is next to no clues to suggest Shelby is the origami killer. We then get a flashback scene which contains almost every single clue in one tight spot, rendering the whole story irrelevant. It is as if the author wants to justify why Shelby really is the murderer. It's cool that he does that but it is really horrible writing doing this after the murderer is revealed. We are expected to link Shelby's work in uncovering and obtaining clues about the murderer to him being the murderer himself, when in fact his plan is far too convoluted to make sense. This is slightly similar to Hobbes turning out to be the traitor in Wing Commander 3.  
 
This is a bad mystery story which misses a lot of opportunities provided by the great setup. Still the interactive structure saves it a bit, managing to get the audience involved in the story more than they would be involved if this was a book or a movie. 
 
Rating: 1 out of 2 
 
 

Craftsmanship:

 Sadly, this is where it all really falls apart. Heavy Rain, features some of the worst writing for an original English script. Cage may be fluent in English but writing an actual story is entirely different matter. Perhaps he's a really good writer in French, but this script leaves a lot to be desired.  
 
Many things will sound weird to native speakers. I mean, they sound weird to me even if I am NOT a native speaker of the English language. The dialog actually stands between the audience and the characters. The fact that most characters are voiced by French people also doesn't make much sense to me. Even though they are quite good as foreigners speaking English, the accent quickly distracts you. I am baffled by this choice. How hard could it be to get British or American actors to do the voice work?  
 
Visuals are functional but nothing stands out. Camera work is quite standard in terms of video games and way behind the likes of Uncharted 2 in which the camera really enhances the whole scene. The music itself is technically good but you won't remember any melodies. 
 
This is not a disaster in the magnitude of some Japanese RPGs and if you can ignore some cringe worthy moments the writing is functional I guess. But so is the writing on a street sign. I believe we do need something more in a mature story like this. 
 
Rating: 0 out of 2 
 
 
OVERALL: 4 out of 10
(0-3= BAD, 4-6= AVERAGE, 7-10= GOOD)

Already Reviewed: "Infamous", "Batman: Arkham Asylum", "Wet", "Planescape: Torment", "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2", "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves", "Brütal Legend", "Heavy Rain" 

NEXT REVIEW: "Alan Wake"  
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"Brütal Legend": Story Review

WARNING: This review is only concerned with the story of a game. Even though the story is an important part of a game, by no means is it the defining component. A game with a horrible story may very well be one of the best games ever produced. It's just that my reviews are not about that.

SPOILER WARNING: The following text may contain spoilers for the people who have not finished the game in question yet. Reviewing the story sometimes makes such things inevitable.  
  
 

Idea:

As it is with many other Tim Schafer games the idea here is pure gold. What if each and every single heavy metal album cover was actually a historical photograph? What if all the lyrics in those albums were actually talking about reality? What if all those things did happen and exist?  
 
Schafer, here, creates a unique fantasy realm out of a musical genre which, in time, developed its own common language and myth, embedded into the psyche of the generation experiencing it. We all know about the gods of metal, how the painkiller saves humanity, how humanity broke the chains forged by demons etc. These were rather poor metaphors used by heavy metal artists so many times even they have eventually forgotten what they mean. Schafer takes these metaphors and constructs a solid world on them; a unique and modern fantasy world which is neither Tolkien nor Howard.  
 
Rating: 2 out of 2 
 
 

Setting:

Obviously the star of the show here is the setting, which is great in theory. The heavy metal age has a rich history with its own heroes, myths and gods. Icons of heavy metal have tangible power, with guitars calling down lightning bolts, tabs invoking magical spells when played, pistons and blades coming out of the very scenery. Each and every region of the world corresponds to a sub genre of the music.  
 
What's more, the society of the land is expertly matched with the fans of different sub genres of heavy metal. The history is a mixture of known album lyrics and actual, historical developments in the music scene. As such the setting provides opportunities for both great fantastic stories and great satire.  
 
It's all great, in theory.  
 
The practice has its problems, and the possible culprit is probably the technology. Simply put, there is a distinct lack of population. On one side, the fauna, the unique creatures hunting each other and all the ruins and remnants of cities give the impression of a rich world. On the other side there is the simple fact that this wonderful world is unpopulated save for you and a handful of people. Early on when Lars tells Eddie that young people are enslaved and forced to work in mines, you expect that is where the population is being held. Not so... Even the post apocalyptic world of Fallout used cities as hubs. The myths you'll encounter speak of great civilizations but there are simply no cities, no villages  and no functional settlements here. It is as if everyone in this world is living next to a camp fire eternally. 
 
The same holds true for the battles you will fight in. We expect massive armies clashing but what we end up with is just small skirmishes. Even before the invasion of Lord Doviculus it all feels like a bit too post apocalyptic.  
 
Eddie wants to save humanity. But where is this humanity? How are they exactly suffering? Or is it just for the sake of a few people? 
 
Rating: 1 out of 2 
 
 

Characters:

 
Tim Schafer consistently creates memorable characters for his video games. Brütal Legend, is not an exception. However, here you'll see that the characters are suffering from the lack of a coherent plot structure. 

 
Eddie Riggs is the protagonist serving as an outsider traveling to a strange world. It's one of the oldest tricks in the book of fantasy fiction storytelling and it works here too. Through the eyes of the outsider we learn about this strange world he's in. Eddie becomes our proxy and therefore there is a stronger sense of identification with him. Jack Black's unusually subtle voice acting helps a lot. We like Eddie because probably we are like him. We miss the old times when music was much better and people really knew how to have fun. Together with him we travel to this land where the very nature of things are exactly like we used to love.  
 
In theory Eddie is supposed to stay out of the spotlight helping Lars the artist, to fight against Doviculus the man. Eddie is a selfless knight all roadies are.  There is also a love triangle between Eddie, Lita and Ophelia even though as a setup it's a lot less clever than the one in Uncharted 2.  
 
The ingredients are all here but the problem is the actual meal. Simply put, the characters are empty. They behave irrationally and often jump insane conclusions. Relationships fluctuate wildly and without proper reason. It's almost as if things are playing out as a flowchart instead of a proper story. Lita, for instance has an unreasonable amount of mistrust towards Ophelia, but then again from her actions we can easily deduce that Ophelia is insane, so who are we to argue? 
 
Suffering less from this problem is Lord Doviculus, by pure luck of not appearing a lot. Visually his looks may be ridiculous but when he acts it almost makes the audience root for the evil. But when the villain acts more logical than the rest of the cast, you have problems.  
 
Consequently none of the characters prove to be as memorable as Schafer's best. Even Eddie fails to reach the heights Ben did in Full Throttle.  The supreme dialog writing saves the characters a bit and ironically moves side characters such as Mangus to the spotlight of our hearts but still fails to illuminate the whole cast. 
 
Rating: 1 out of 2 
 
 

Plot Structure:

Here is where things fall apart. The plot structure has so many huge problems that it corrupts other elements of the story. This is quite unexpected for things start fairly well. 
 
A heavy metal concert is suddenly cancelled due to the unscheduled appearance of an ancient metal god, who immolates the posers and sends Eddie the true metalhead back to the age of metal, where he's instantly attacked  by evil druids. We're then introduced to the lead lady in the story who proceeds to explain why Eddie is the chosen warrior who will save them all. (them all being a few people...) This is all great. But after the first major event about saving people from the mines, things very quickly stop making sense. 
 
Which is a shame, for the events are all set up to reflect heavy metal history. If you were a kid who listened to heavy metal during the 80's it is hard not to shed a tear when Lars explains how the young people are forced to live underground smashing rocks with their heads and how they cannot work outside because the society rejects them. When Lars asks what you can do with a bunch of kids who know nothing but bang their heads all day, you know the answer. "You start a revolution, Lars" says Eddie. There are great moments like this in Brütal Legend, however most of them are buried under the mess that's the plot. 
 
The main problem is pacing. What's supposed to be an epic tale of revolution and personal discovery turns into bad sunday morning cartoon with a horrible story. After the first few events, things simply happen too fast for too few reasons. Consequently events lose their emotional weight. When Lars dies it's supposed to be a very sad moment. Yet we do not feel much because we didn't even come to like or respect him. We simply don't spend much time with him. We don't know how he thinks or why he's important or why people chose him as their leader. We don't even know who these people are... Similarly Ophelia's reasons for leaving Eddie are really very very thin. What is supposed to be a dramatic moments makes us feel as if the characters are morons.  
 
Many potentially great characters get so few screen time you often forget that they exist. It feels like the main story was supposed to be padded by interesting side quests but except for one, those have very little to do with any story at all.  There is simply no sense of volume to the story.  
 
The structural problems are too many to count. In the end, Brütal Legend, invokes a feeling of incompleteness. The length of the story, the pacing, the events and the character relationships are balanced so poorly that you feel like the story had to be at least 1/3 longer. And when you feel a story has to be longer, Edgar Allen Poe stirs in his grave.  
 
Rating: 0 out of 2 
 
 

Craftsmanship:

Supreme writing is the major thing that saves the horrible plot structure in Brütal Legend. As usual Tim Schafer delivers great dialog which makes both the story and the characters stronger. There are far too many quote worthy lines to list here. Schafer's aptitude as a game designer may be a topic of discussion but as a wordsmith he's almost peerless in this industry.  
 
Also worth noting is the great original soundtrack composed by Peter McConnell. His moody, oddly subdued tracks along with licensed music are contributing a great deal to the atmosphere making the audience wish they were in the metal age.  
 
Despite the obvious constraints of technology, the visual artists also succeed in both capturing the visual style of heavy metal and integrating semi comical characters with that background.  
 
Overall a great achievement. 
 
Rating 2 out of 2  

 
OVERALL: 6 out of 10
(0-3= BAD, 4-6= AVERAGE, 7-10= GOOD)

Already Reviewed: "Infamous", "Batman: Arkham Asylum", "Wet", "Planescape: Torment", "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves", "Brütal Legend"
NEXT REVIEW: "Heavy Rain"  
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"Uncharted 2: Among Thieves": Story Review

WARNING: This review is only concerned with the story of a game. Even though the story is an important part of a game, by no means is it the defining component. A game with a horrible story may very well be one of the best games ever produced. It's just that my reviews are not about that.

SPOILER WARNING: The following text may contain spoilers for the people who have not finished the game in question yet. Reviewing the story sometimes makes such things inevitable.  
 

Idea:

  As it was with the original Uncharted, "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves" is all about bringing the old pulp adventure genre to the 21st century. This time it's all about the lost ships of Marco Polo. The idea in the original game was pretty good. It would be easy to say that as far as the central idea is concerned 
"Uncharted 2: Among Thieves" brings nothing new to the table. But that would be quite wrong. Pulp adventures are episodic in nature and although  "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves"  wisely sticks to the formula, it uses the story as a tool to explore its protagonist's personality. A strong protagonist is always the strength of these stories but analyzing the personality of that protagonist in depth, using the story as a giant metaphor and still managing to stay in the realm of the classic pulp adventure requires both courage and skill. Apparently writer Amy Hennig possesses both.
  
Rating: 2 out of 2 

Setting:

 The story takes place in a stylized version of our modern world. It more or less resembles the world of the 2000s but all the locations are exchanged for their more stereotypical or romantic versions of themselves. One of the best examples of this is the Istanbul Palace Museum sequence early in the game. As a resident of Istanbul I can safely assure you that Istanbul does not look like that at all. There are no high cliffs facing the Bosphorus, museum guards do not dress like that and in fact there is no place called Istanbul Palace Museum at all for there are several palaces in Istanbul. I've been inside a Turkish prison and let me tell you that it looks nothing like you see in "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves". Is this inaccuracy something bad? Not at all.
 In the past, most pulp adventure stories were written by people who have never been to the places they write about. Sergio Bonelli had probably never seen half of the countries Mister No sees in his adventures. The Turkish author Kemal Tahir had written over 250 unauthorized Mike Hammer novels. Most of them were much better than the original ones. But he never saw New York in his entire life. All he had as reference were the original Mike Hammer novels and a touristic map of New York. "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves" modifies its locations to fit the story. The inaccuracies help putting it inside the genre it's aiming for. This is not a travelouge... This is just a location hopping, romantic adventure. 
That being said, we do not see a lot of scenes at those locations. There are no iconic wide shots of the cities Drake visits. We do not see the Parthenon in Greece, no Blue Mosque or obligatory trips through the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. One of the reasons to have "location hopping" in these stories is to make the audience feel like they're traveling to exotic places, to make them feel like they are visiting Nepal, Turkey or Greece. This quality is not present in "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves". This is a missed opportunity.  
 
The setting balances the natural and the supernatural quite well. The story never ventures in the land of absurd fantasy. Everything feels plausible. At the same time it keeps things fresh by introducing simple fantastic mysteries.  
 
If only we could see more of this world... 
 
Rating: 1 out of 2 
 

Characters: 

The greatest strength of "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves" lies in its characters; specifically its protagonist: Nathan Drake. He's a cross between Lucas' Indiana Jones and Bonelli's Mister No. Drake is everything a pulp action hero should be. Nothing more, nothing less. He's handsome but doesn't have a baby face. He's smart but not a genius. In fact when you get right down to it Drake is a nerd. He is what your average hardcore video game player would be if he was interested in ancient treasures instead of the latest games. Maybe this is why we like him. Regardless of how outlandish his adventures are, Drake is one of us.  Despite his immense upper body strength and superhuman agility he solves most of of his problems using his wits rather than his muscles; which is what we all at least feel like we would do.  
 
The characters in "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves" is its main strength because the story itself is deceptive. It's not about Marco Polo or Shambhala or the Cintemani Stone at all. It's all about Nathan Drake and his pursuit for serenity. 
Drake is a troubled character. Perhaps more so than any other character you have seen in video games, probably because he's more real. He's not simply a noble knight, a space marine fiercely devoted to duty or and evil overlord driven by his lust for blood. His mind is in turmoil. He doesn't think much before acting and suffers the consequences, possibly later thinking if he has chosen the correct option. 
 
Supporting the darker side of Drake's soul is Chloe Frazer, a dark haired, sexy worman. Chloe is a thief. She's driven by her ambitions. She's selfish and independent. She doesn't conform to the widely accepted notion of morality in the society; instead she has her own code of honor. For all intents and purposes he's pretty much like the devil. And that is exactly how she acts. A temptress, whispering into Drake's ear and urging him to be reckless and selfish.  Chloe is possibly the most realistic "evil" character in the history of gaming. She's not evil in the romantic sense but she embodies the lack of biblical virtues. If this was a religious text she would be Lilith, Adam's first wife. In fact in the hotel scene where there is sexual tension between Chloe and Drake we can clearly see that Chloe is on top, both literally and figuratively. Chloe is always in control of her own destiny and possibly those around her. She's independent and strong enough to impose her own will on people. These are usually male traits. 
 
Chloe cares nothing for usual traits. When Drake and Chloe meet again Chloe removes the Tibetan War dagger from Drake's pants right after Drake says "Maybe I am excited to see you". When Chloe is all business Drake confronts him with this veiled sexual remark. But instead of backing off and acknowledging Drake's superiority, Chloe goes ahead and castrates Drake by removing the dagger; again literally and figuratively. It may be interesting to note that the word for dagger in Azerbaijani is the same word for penis in Turkish. 
 
If Chloe is Lilith then Elena is a modern Eve. Pure and fair, Elena emerges as the D&D paladin and the moral compass of this story, always encouraging our hero to do selfless acts of good and to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Elena showed signs of independence in the previous story too, for her actions were motivated by her need to make a better TV show. This is no different than Drake's selfish pursuit for wealth. But in "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves", writer Amy Hennig completely rewrites the character's motivations without straying too far away from her original self. This new Elena is driven by her virtues. She is a defender of justice and a protector of innocents. This time Elena does have a higher purpose. Exactly what caused this change is a mystery. Frankly it doesn't seem too plausible for her to develop a sense of selflessness so quickly. Then again we do not know what happened between Uncharted 1 and 2.  
 
These two women are competing for Drake's love and possibly his soul. Chloe pulls him towards darkness while Elena pulls him towards light. And essentially, this story is about Drake's decision. In the end he chooses the light, albeit it could be a temporary choice, for Drake himself is obviously in love with both of these women, these ideas. 
 
Does he make the right choice? Flynn may be what Drake would turn into if he was the kind of person to choose Chloe in the end. And Chloe would not like that. That precisely is another thing which makes Chloe one of the most realistic women ever to be in a video game. After all isn't that what most women do? Falling in love with a man but changing him once they possess him and in the end not liking what he has turned into. Driven by his selfishness Flynn disregards and disrespects anything on his path, to a point which leads to his incompetence.  
 
Drake's mentor and possibly older reflection is Victor Sullivan, who makes a relatively brief appearance. Surely Drake would end up like him; an old, penniless treasure hunter neck deep in debt if he pursues the higher path. But is that really more desirable? Isn't Chloe right in every single thing she says?
 
Drake's true dark reflection though, is Lazarevic. Even though he's a war criminal, looks like the polar opposite of Drake and is frankly a lame villain compared to the other characters in the story, his true purpose is to serve as a dark mirror to Drake's soul. Lazarevic, much like the majority of pulp villains points out that he and Drake are not that different. We wait for the hero to say "No... I am nothing like you." But we know why he cannot do that.  
 
For we know Lazarevic is right. After all both Drake and Lazarevic are criminals. Both of them are looking for the Cintemani stone for their own criminal purposes. And even though Lazarevic is a war criminal, can we really claim that Drake killed less people to reach the Cintemani stone? I recall a very funny Penny Arcade strip about that. 
 
"Uncharted 2: Among Thieves" is mostly about its characters. You'd make a great mistake thinking the characters are simple and regular. They are all there for a reason. And just when you think you've got the hang of things, the story throws a few curve balls, such as a nazi mentor or Tenzin the family man who cannot be understood by Drake but who in turn proves to be a most trusted ally.  
 
Unlike many video game stories, Amy Hennig uses her characters to drive the story. And once you assign metaphors to the characters the story pretty much writes itself.  
 
Rating: 2 out of 2 
 

Plot Structure:

 The story starts with the perfect example of the technique called in medias res. This is literally a cliffhanger. Drake is in the worst position we have ever seen him. "Crap" indeed. This, not only starts the game with a bang, but also serves as the first mystery, first hook... How did we get here? 
 
The first part of the story, therefore, is a long flashback. Everything starts with a simple MacGuffin and a mystery. Soon we learn about the true goal of our adventure: The mysterious Cintemani Stone. This is all very nice but we are still wondering how Drake found himself between life and death hanging from a train wreck. Here, Amy Hennig shows her expertise in storytelling. The story never drags its feet and sure enough brings us to the train wreck at a break neck pace.  
 
And then we stop. The mountain village sequence is quite radical. This fast paced and objective driven story suddenly leaves the audience alone in the middle of a village full of people who don't understand or speak Drake's language. Drake wanders around aimlessly, watching them doing their daily work. It's a peaceful village and the peaceful people of this village bring Drake back from a frozen hell. The whole sequence coincides with a point in story where our hero loses his faith in everything and practically gives up. He doesn't know what to do, and this feeling is strengthened by the fact that now he has no idea where he is and who these people are.  
 
Then he's asked to believe. He's given a higher purpose. His new trial is his relationship with Tenzin. Our broken hero is practically forged again, asked to trust someone he cannot even understand instead of all the people whose language he can speak but who in turn all betrayed him. 
 
The next scene achieves an effect akin to the one in the special edition of James Cameron's movie "Aliens". Because of the seemingly pointless wandering scene the impact of Lazarevic's attack on the village is much more intense. 
 
Drake's quest to find Shambhala also doubles as an inner journey to find peace for his troubled soul. Therefore I don't think the location of Shambhala was chosen randomly. It's more like a trial and an objective in heaven Drake has to reach after going through hell. This spiritual journey is constructed perfectly with the clearly defined initial state at Greece, rising action as Drake and his friends race with Lazarevic to find the Cintemani Stone, a turning point at the mountains, the falling action in and around Shambhala and the denouement afterwards.  
 
My only complaint in this expertly constructed story is that some possible story hooks are not explored. Although I have to admit that exploring the darker side of Drake's soul more than this would remove the story from the realm of pulp. An emo Drake is the last thing anyone wants.  
 
The plot structure works with the game perfectly. This is a prime example of how game play can go hand to hand with plot structure.  
 
Rating: 2 out of 2 
 

Craftsmanship:

 In the Giant Bomb review Brad Shoemaker says that he thinks game play is the most improved aspect of "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves". He may be right. Then again perhaps it's the writing which improved most. 
 
Almost every single line of dialog is written with care.   
 
In the previous game a lot of one liners lacked the intended punch and a lot of jokes fell flat. Hennig's writing is not only improved but also became self aware. Drake now has a few signature lines and the general craftsmanship of the script is visibly better. But when a joke fails, the characters do not pretend like it was funny. Instead they acknowledge it was lame. This strengthens the notion that these characters are real.  
 
Accompanying the great writing is the equally great sound track composed by Greg Edmonson who adds great new themes to the library of Uncharted melodies, though he still preserves his excellent theme for Drake himself.  
 
Like many of the great things about this game, the unique visual style is subtle too. But although the realistic comic book look is perfect for this type of story, the true star of the show is one of the main storytelling devices of the visual medium: The camera. "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves"s camera work is without a doubt the finest in the medium so far. It helps the storytelling but still manages to frame the action as well, proving the two can co-exist. 
 
Rating: 2 out of 2  
OVERALL:  9 out of 10

(0-3= BAD, 4-6= AVERAGE, 7-10= GOOD)

Already Reviewed: "Infamous", "Batman: Arkham Asylum", "Wet", "Planescape: Torment", "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves"
NEXT REVIEW: "Brütal Legend"
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"Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2": Story Review

WARNING: This review is only concerned with the story of a game. Even though the story is an important part of a game, by no means is it the defining component. A game with a horrible story may very well be one of the best games ever produced. It's just that my reviews are not about that.

SPOILER WARNING: The following text may contain spoilers for the people who have not finished the game in question yet. Reviewing the story sometimes makes such things inevitable. 
      
 

Idea:

 
Back in the era of cold war, World War III was a very popular idea. I still remember all the statistics claiming that the two super powers had enough nuclear weapons to destroy the entire world several times over. Even the most sensible person was afraid, thinking that the fate of the entire planet depended on a simple red button and the finger which would accidentally press it. So we also had theories about a third world war fought with conventional weapons.  
 
While the cold war is long gone, it is still a potent idea. It could be said that the first Modern Warfare game was suffering from a distinct lack of a world war. Instead of open warfare it focused more on secret operations and rightly so. For the second game in the series the guys at Infinity Ward see it fit to start an all out war between Russia and the US. Although I find it an old and tired idea in this age the whole thing is tied to terrorism to make it relevant today. The fact that a huge war may start because of a simple misunderstanding and a conspiracy and there could be people who would profit from this is a strong idea. Yet we already had several games exploring this and "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" adds nothing significant.
 
Rating: 1 out of 2 
 
 

Setting:

 
The setting of the original Modern Warfare game was balanced on the edge of a knife. It was realistic just enough to be fun. We knew that the events taking place in the story were quite improbable but they still remained mostly in the realm of the plausible. Infinity ward resigns to the idea of "bigger and louder" for the sequel and turns the story from a Tom Clancy novel to a Michael Bay movie. 
 
Physics defying stunts were also part of the previous chapter in this story, but what drives this contemporary near future setting over the edge is how key characters in it behave irrationally giving shape to it. Everything in this world is on overdrive, every picture is painted with huge gestures. Partly responsible for this is the abysmal characters and the nearly non-existent plot structure but when everything happens in such an overstated fashion events lose their impact. Things like this make sense in a setting like Warhammer 40000, but Modern Warfare wasn't a story which needed this. At this level of illogic it does not serve the story anymore.
 
Rating: 0 out of 2 
 
 

Characters

 
As it is with the first part of the story and indeed with all games in the "Call of Duty" series, "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" juggles several protagonists or rather several points of view and playable characters complicating the story by the folly of using first person point of view and mute people.  
There is a confusion about who the protagonist in this story is. In the first game Soap emerged as the de facto hero by the process of elimination. In"Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" the main protagonist seems to be Roach based solely on his screen-time and his direct relationship with Soap. Although it can also be argued that Soap is the overall protagonist of the whole series since when all is said and done he still has the last word. The other character we spend most time with is James Ramirez, a featureless, uninteresting rank and file soldier whose story arc despite being epic ends up as entirely pointless. Things are blurry... 
 
The reason for the blurriness is the cardboard cut nature of all the characters. All these people are essentially nobodies; disembodied hands holding guns. The military nature of the story seems to take care of all the problems of motivation but it actually fails to do so especially considering most of the main characters go rogue at one point in the story of "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2". The first game could be seen as a prelude to a more complex story but by the time we come to Modern Warfare 2, the audience wants to know more about the protagonist. Who is Soap? Why did he join SAS? What drives him? What motivates him to do all these incredible feats of courage and heroism? What's his issue? Does he have a family? A kid? A wife? If no, why not? This is a guy who manages to cheat death several times, still managing to kill the antagonist. And yet except for him being probably Scottish we do not know anything about him. The question is, why should the audience care? The same holds true for all the characters on the protagonist side. Only Price shows tiny clues of having a genuine personality but those sparks are so tiny they are nearly invisible.  

The antagonists do not fare better. In a good story the motivations of the antagonist is always thought provoking. "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" takes the motivation of "General Hummel" in "The Rock" and gets it entirely wrong. Sheperd, the main protagonist revealed by a plot twist is little more than a madman. Hummel never intended to launch the missiles. He just wanted the government to pay for and recognize the deeds of all the forgotten soldiers. For similar reasons what Sheperd does is starting World War III. This is so absurd and over the top, that it can only be attributed to his mental instability. And "yes it does not make much sense but he's insane" is not really good storytelling.  
 
As for Makarov, I can't decide if shooting an airport full of his own people or starting World War III instantly because of a terrorist act is more insane... which brings us to our next point of interest... 
 
Characters: 0 out of 2 
 
 

Plot Structure:

 
...or the lack of it.  
 
"Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" is essentially a bunch of grandiose action set pieces held together by a very thin string of plot. You often get the feeling that they first designed the scenes and wrote the plot between the scenes to make sense of the progression. Which was probably the case here... It feels like a McG movie which takes itself seriously. And no one likes such a thing... 
 
In the previous title the greatest strength of the story was that the developers felt comfortable cutting to the point of view of several different characters. This eliminated the idle walking sections of traditional shooters and kept the pacing up. We see the same structure here. The problem then is the sheer size of the events. In "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" events are so big that they require a reasonable period of build up. However the game doesn't have time for that. It's a shooter and it wants to do what it was designed for. As a result, instead of a proper story building up the major events in a logical fashion we get a few words quickly explaining what is happening and why, and then saying go go go go and dumping you into the action.  
 
Often things progress too quickly and with too few reasons. It's more of a spectacle than a proper story. As a result, the audience quickly stops caring about the story completely. The lack of interesting characters doesn't help. 
 
How come the terrorists in the original story now rule Russia? When and how exactly did that happen? Is an overseas occupation of the US the best way to conduct warfare? Where is the preliminary air assault? Exactly how is this occupation a surprise to the US government? What in the world are the CIA and the NSA doing?  
 
A few terrorists shoot people in an airport... (again never mind the problem about them getting into that airport with large automatic weapons they could not have possibly concealed) One dead guy happens to be a CIA agent. So Russia declares war... Does this really make any sense? Why would CIA do something like that? Why would Russia risk war? And if the Russian government is simply insane, why do they need the airport thing in the first place? They could have simply said "You know what we should do? We should invade the US!!" 
 
There are two main loosely connected story arcs. Roach and Soap's storyline seem to be the main one. Ramirez is the victim of an entirely pointless plot development. He has absolutely no effect on what happens. Soap doesn't fare much better. In the end you will find yourself saying... "Huh.. and?" But you won't get any answers.  
 
Ironically the airport scene criticized by many people as being there only for the sake of causing controversy turns out to be the best piece of interactive storytelling in this whole mess. You may not shoot anyone as a good guy but in the end you will get shot yourself. That would be a very dramatic and ironic moment in which you will feel helpless and betrayed. Then again you may choose to shoot every innocent in sight too. In the end you will get shot anyway, and the war would have started because of an asshole who's dead anyway, so what's the point? You could start shooting people and then have mercy and stop... etc. It's a small but powerful character moment modifying the story in a small way. Sadly it doesn't have any impact on the general storyline. Which needs any impact desperately.  
 
 Rating: 0 out of 2 
 
 

Crafstmanship:

 
"Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" is competently written but you won't find anything memorable other than the excellent soundtrack by Lorn Balfe and Hans Zimmer. There is a theme you could hum to yourself but frankly Zimmer had written better stuff in the past.
 
Jesse Stern seems like he wants to write better stuff but probably the plot which urgently wants to get from one action scene to the other gets in the way. Still there is no subtext, no interesting moments or quote worthy one liners. The writing just works in a way that you won't hate it. By comparison Gears of War had an empty storyline and flat characters too but the writing made you want to care about those characters. "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" lacks that kind of authorship. But then again it never sinks to the depths of Japanese action adventures either. At least that's a relief. 
 
Rating: 1 out of 2  
 
 

OVERALL:  2 out of 10
(0-3= BAD, 4-6= AVERAGE, 7-10= GOOD)

Already Reviewed: "Infamous", "Batman: Arkham Asylum", "Wet", "Planescape: Torment"
NEXT REVIEW: "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves"
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"Planescape: Torment": Story Review

WARNING: This review is only concerned with the story of a game. Even though the story is an important part of a game, by no means is it the defining component. A game with a horrible story may very well be one of the best games ever produced. It's just that my reviews are not about that.

SPOILER WARNING: The following text may contain spoilers for the people who have not finished the game in question yet. Reviewing the story sometimes makes such things inevitable. 

 
 

Idea:


 
The hero is not trying to save the world, the city, the princess or any such thing. He is not trying to kill the evil overlord. He is not even trying to save himself. In fact it's the opposite. When you get right down to it, our hero, who really isn't a hero at all, is trying to die. Dying, being a rare feat he's unable to accomplish. And this is the potent general idea behind " Planescape: Torment". Everything is upside down. From the first moment to the last, the main goal here is challenging and destroying expectations. A hero who's trying to die. A city which is everywhere yet nowhere. A brothel of intellectual pleasures. And a whole lot of abstract ideas given physical form. It's the physical manifestation of one man's inner struggle and while such a topic is a bit outside the general tastes of the usual video game audience, " Planescape: Torment" uses this basic idea and carefully turns it into an RPG without ever losing sight of the goal. Even without the Planescape license, it's still a great idea, powerful enough to stand on its own in any medium.

Rating: 2 out of 2



Setting:



During the second half of the 90's, Dungeons & Dragons, the original RPG, was losing steam. Thanks partly to White Wolf Inc. the market was flooded with the so called "mature RPGs" designed for tweens rather than teens. These games down played the role of action and focused on character interactions. Consequently, TSR, the company behind Dungeons & Dragons, tried to release their own "mature RPG for tweens" in form of Planescape. It was supposed to be a D&D campaign setting for the "grown-ups". Saying that they overshot their goal would be the understatement of that decade.

The problem was the over-maturity. By taking the silly and simple concepts of D&D and treating them as meaningful metaphors of a cosmology which actually is trying to say something and/or forces the player to ask fundamental questions such as "what is the meaning of life, what exists and what doesn't" they have basically required that the players should be part time philosophers. As a role playing setting it is barely functional. As a setting for fantasy fiction it's one of the best.

" Planescape: Torment", uses this setting as settings are intended to be used. Writer Chris Avellone obviously has something to say and instead of using a setting as simply a cool backdrop, he leverages the full potential of Planescape to tell his story more impressively.

The story mostly take place in Sigil. A surreal city which is in the middle of an infinite multiverse. You immediately ask yourself: "How can something be in the middle of infinity?" You're right to ask this questions and many more. " Planescape: Torment", carefully replicates the alien visual style of Sigil as it is mostly envisioned by Tony Di Terlizzi. And as a setting Sigil is a fantasy fiction writer's wet dream. It's a piece of solid ground between possibilities, a place where you can get physically attacked by a concept, a gateway and an inn between solid and the abstract. This is a land where if you can convince someone into believing that he does not exist, he actually ceases to exist.

In " Planescape: Torment" particularly, you will feel that the setting itself is a character, judging the protagonist's actions. This is more justified in this story than any other, especially considering the fact that the city is ruled by an omnipresent being called Lady of Pain a name more than fit for someone who rules a place which serves as purgatory for our protagonist.

Rating: 2 out of 2



Characters:



Research shows that more than 90% of stories on any medium today are in fact of the dramatic type. (or shakespearean stories. depending on the terminology you prefer) It is no secret that such a story is built on characters and the conflicts between those. Therefore any story arguably is as good as its characters. Exactly this is probably the area " Planescape: Torment" excels in.

That being said, it has to be mentioned that there is a distinct lack of a real antagonist. Of course this is closely connected to the fact that the protagonist, Nameless One, is actually the antagonist of himself. He is practically fighting against his own crimes and sins. By uncovering the secret to his own identity, he also uncovers the physical and emotional destruction he caused in the past, shattering not only lives but also entire civilizations in his selfish pursuit of power. It is a cycle which he cannot break. Regardless of how many times he dies, he's resurrected for an unknown reason, each time with a different personality, yet each time he wreaks even more havoc. The player can play him as an evil man or a golden hearted angel, but that is largely irrelevant. What's done is done, and now it's the consequences coming back to haunt him even beyond death.

Arguably even more interesting than the main character are the supporting cast of the story. You have a guy who comes from a land made of abstract chaos given by the structured thoughts of its inhabitants. He's an outcast... Why? Because he questions. And his questioning literally breaks the walls of the city, threatening the very existence of his people. There is a succubus who has fallen from the grace of Hell because she has forsaken the pleasures of flesh for more intellectual pursuits. There is a mage who is obsessed with fire so much that he turns into fire, a warrior whose dedication to a cause is so strong that he doesn't realize he's already dead, a cheerful skull who is very friendly but then turns out to be the very personification of betrayal, a half demon, half human girl with an actual tail for men to chase and a walking TV set from a dimension made entirely of order... yet he's a rebel. Each of these characters not only has intriguing connections to Nameless One but they are also each so interesting that it would have been possible to base an entire game on just one of them.

Even those characters who are actually not your party members are interesting. Besides major characters like Mebbeth the old woman and Trias the Deva you'll meet a guy who's a letter in the divine alphabet, an ultimate warrior who gets bullied by thieves, a girl with a mechanical heart who's searching for the key to her own heart, an street who's giving birth to an alley and many many more...

In short it's all brilliant from start to finish.

Rating: 2 out of 2



Plot Structure:



" Planescape: Torment" starts with a classic video game mystery. We have the amnesiac protagonist who's not really sure of what's going on. Amnesia is very popular in video games for a similar reason the "Mute Protagonist" is. It gives you a blank slate the player can fill. " Planescape: Torment" does something else entirely. Instead of trying to identify the player with the protagonist it actually uses amnesia as a plot device. It is elemental in the general structure and also provides the first motivation for our hero: Figuring out what the hell is going on.

The reason this is not a hero quest becomes apparent when we discover who Nameless One is. This is not a hero quest, this was a hero quest, a quest which ended as a tragedy. The villain has won, the hero has lost, " Planescape: Torment" is the aftermath.

It is safe to say that " Planescape: Torment" is probably the only video game which lets you play as a villain in a way which is not ridiculous or comical. Sure there is stuff like "Overlord", "Dungeon Keeper" or "Evil Genius" but these are all over the top in terms of story. " Planescape: Torment" on the other hand is quite serious about what really happens to a godlike villain in a fantasy setting.

That's not to say " Planescape: Torment" is devoid of any humour. But even its humour is subtle, clever and quite different than the usually slapstick style of other similar productions. There is a distinct lack of swords for instance and at one point you can enter a classic D&D dungeon complete with a boss in the middle. By itself this may not sound funny but that's the way " Planescape: Torment" critics the genre by presenting a classic dungeon as a stupid experiment conducted by creatures bound by nothing but laws and rules.

The real triumph of " Planescape: Torment" though, is the fact that it uses the video game mechanics as a storytelling device. Nameless One cannot die. That means each time you "fail" instead of getting a "game over" screen or loading a save file or starting over and accepting these things as necessary evils of the medium " Planescape: Torment" turns it all into an organic component of the story. You don't fail, you just start over. Every time you fail you just start with another tragic cycle. It doesn't matter if you're playing the game for the first or tenth time. You may not know anything about the story but don't worry. Nameless One forgets everything too. It's all part of the vicious cycle he is stuck in.

Much like most video game stories " Planescape: Torment" eventually confronts the audience with more than a few plot twists too. These twists too are expertly executed, in that they are all foreshadowed and plausible, which is no simple feat considering that the story takes place in a setting which makes practically everything possible.

From the first motivation of finding Nameless One's lost journals the last confrontation with what is essentially himself, this story about discovering one's nature and then finding out what can change that nature is up there with the best fantasy fiction and quite possibly without equal in its own medium.

Rating: 2 out of 2



Craftsmanship:



" Planescape: Torment" uses a modified version of the famous Infinity Engine which powered games like Baldur's Gate 2 and Icewind Dale. The interface obviously wasn't designed for storytelling purposes. Still Chris Avellone and his team does their best with it. Visually it's a feast as far as the technology allows. Tony Di Terlizzi's vision for Planescape is captured perfectly. Each and every location is crafted with care. The fact that the engine is not up to the standards of the story means you'll have to read a lot of text. Normally that's not a positive in a mostly visual medium. But the text that's present is written with so much care that it's impossible to badmouth " Planescape: Torment" for that deficiency.

Simply put the craftsmanship here is top notch. It's almost as if every single texture and every single word is placed in its position with care. Combined with the amazing soundtrack which somehow does manage to have a theme for every single character and still manages to be weird but consistent in this extremely out of this world setting, " Planescape: Torment" is turned into an experience you won't easily be able to forget.

Rating: 2 out of 2
 
OVERALL:  10 out of 10
(0-3= BAD, 4-6= AVERAGE, 7-10= GOOD)

Already Reviewed: "Infamous", "Batman: Arkham Asylum", "Wet"
NEXT WEEK: "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2"
17 Comments

"Wet": Story Review

   
WARNING: This review is only concerned with the story of a game. Even though the story is an important part of a game, by no means is it the defining component. A game with a horrible story may very well be one of the best games ever produced. It's just that my reviews are not about that.

SPOILER WARNING: The following text may contain spoilers for the people who have not finished the game in question yet. Reviewing the story sometimes makes such things inevitable. 

 
 

Idea:

 
"Wet" is all about mixing crazy Hong Kong movie action with 70's exploitation cinema. While this presents the developers a lot of opportunities for storytelling and stylistic purposes, there isn't really anything terribly original here. The writers obviously did not delve deep into the films of the era they are trying so hard to mimic. So in theory the idea is good. If only it was in better hands...

Rating: 1 out of 2


Setting:



An otherwise pretty contemporary setting gets partly interesting for being free of the usual constraints of the laws of physics. This is your usual video game universe where people never suffer any injuries if they consciously jump from great heights, slow motion saves you from bullets and chainsaws are actually better melee weapons than swords.

There is no constant location here. True to form, this is a location hopping adventure. Rubi literally travels around the world. You will visit, Texas, Hong Kong and London. The problem is that none of these places have a distinctive look to themselves. The world in "Wet" usually consists of hallways and warehouses. The setting is neither interesting nor pretty to look at and it doesn't help the story at all.

Rating: 0 out of 2


Characters:



Like my review of characters in "Batman: Arkham Asylum", this is a tough one too. In theory things are great. "Wet" has a lot of interesting, larger than life characters like "Batman: Arkham Asylum" does. And they all have a pretty detailed background written for them. Especially on the visual side of things, it's clear that a lot of care went into creating these characters. Rubi's outfit is carefully constructed to be both utilitarian and sexy at the same time, but the sexiness is subtly male instead of pure female. For all intents and purposes we can say Rubi is a man in the body of a woman. Many of the character designs are so interesting that my research partner Dr. Gülin Terek Ünal, was especially interested in them and took her time to examine every single aspect of their clothing and accessories. Pelham, Tarantula, Ze Kollektor and even Dr. Afro are all interesting characters living in a 70s comic book version of our modern world.

The problem though is that there are simply an awful lot of them compared to the relatively short run-time of the story itself. So many of them have literally a few seconds of screen time. Some of them, like The Torturer, die right after they are introduced. It's a funny detail that the life of some mobs in this game last more than quite a lot of supposedly major characters.

Side characters in a story are there to challenge the protagonist in different ways to invoke different character traits in her, so that we can get to know her and she can evolve. But the number of characters in this story make it very hard for any side character to be involved in the proceedings in a meaningful way. Consequently Rubi's interactions with them are very limited. Combine that with horribly uninteresting dialog and at the end of the day you will realize that the wonderful visual style of the characters is gone down the drain and you don't care about any of the characters at all.

Sure, Pelham is evil, but you don't hate him enough because you don't exactly get his motivation for doing that thing he did. Was it a threat directed towards William Ackers, was it payback or was he trying to frame Rubi? Why should I be surprised or impressed upon witnessing Zhi's betrayal when he isn't even established as a likable character I know or care about. Why should I be sad when the terribly generic Ming dies? You could have replaced him with a simple computer screen giving info. (minus the accent).

In fact the characters are so forgettable that I am struggling to remember their names even though the names are printed on screen with giant letters.

Rating: 0 out of 2


Plot Structure:



This is a fairly generic revenge story with no interesting plot development at all. Rubi is a "fixer" who does not really need any reason but money to do whatever she does. She is double crossed and fooled. She then gets angry and kills everyone on her path. And that's pretty much about it. In spirit of fairness though, this isn't any less than what was expected from the movies "Wet"s trying to mimic. Plot, here, is just an excuse for steering the characters to the next action set piece, and a very weak one at that.

On the plus side you have some nice plot twists thrown into the mix. The main mystery here is the reason why Ackers wants to save his son and then kills him. The fact that Ackers isn't Ackers makes some sense. But it also proves how dumb Rubi actually is for not checking out who she's working for exactly.

In general the plot follows a pattern. Rubi does some job. Things go wrong. Rubi needs info. Rubi finds info. Rubi does the next job. Redo from start. Insert combat between these sentences and you have the plot structure of "Wet". It never pauses to develop character relations or conflicts. It has no tolerance for scenes in which you can breathe. Consequently this action roller-coaster turns into an action free fall. Action saturation makes you care less for the plot.

Some obvious opportunities for developing the plot are missed. There is obvious potential for a love affair between Trevor and Rubi for instance. Imagine the impact Trevor's death would have if he and Rubi were romantically involved a few years ago. Imagine Rubi's anger. Imagine how the final relationship between William Ackers and Rubi would be. And this is only one of the many missed opportunities here.

The plot here is simply not personal enough for us to care. It almost feels like there were previous episodes of Rubi's adventures and we have missed them. This would have been okay in this genre but "Wet" doesn't feel like a good Rubi story.

Rating: 1 out of 2


Craftsmanship:



Again in theory "Wet"s central idea is a great opportunity for the developers run wild with their craftsmanship. In practice it feels rushed and centered too much around the meta aspect of things. They went you to feel like you're in a movie theatre. There is a grainy filter, visible flickering of the projector, commercial breaks and a great licensed sound track. The occasional red filter is done well too.

The problem with these ideas is that they are not always utilized correctly. Commercial breaks are not between acts and come off as random. Transitions are awkward. Red filtered scenes feel interesting for the first few times but afterwards you get tired of them. There are no other filters and even though it sounds like a nice idea to use the filter in a car chase scene, "Wet" uses it in the wrong car chase scene. You get to see a red haze in a spectacular scene which makes you want to see it in all its explosive glory.

"Wet", also fails in writing department. This kind of story requires a lot of impressive one liners, punchlines and long dramatic speeches following the action. "Wet" fails in all of these areas and fails to use other attributes of the movies it's trying to mimic. The dialog is simply forgettable.

Rating: 0 out of 2


 OVERALL:  2 out of 10
(0-3= BAD, 4-6= AVERAGE, 7-10= GOOD)

Already Reviewed: "Infamous", "Batman: Arkham Asylum"
NEXT WEEK: Retro Review "Planescape: Torment"
2 Comments

"Batman: Arkham Asylum": Story Review

WARNING: This review is only concerned with the story of a game. Even though the story is an important part of a game, by no means is it the defining component. A game with a horrible story may very well be one of the best games ever produced. It's just that my reviews are not about that.

SPOILER WARNING: The following text may contain spoilers for the people who have not finished the game in question yet. Reviewing the story sometimes makes such things inevitable.




Idea:



Instead of breaking out of Arkham Asylum, this time, Joker wants to enter it and Batman has to prevent whatever Joker wants to achieve by doing so. This demonstrates how you don't need grand ideas for a good story. Sometimes something as simple as reversing the usual formula can serve you well. In this case it instantly creates a mystery and gets the audience interested. Why is Joker trying to get into Arkham Asylum? What's his endgame? The center idea also justifies the limited setting of Arkham Asylum itself. It's not like Batman cannot leave the asylum. He certainly can. But because of the events which come to pass, it doesn't make sense for Batman to leave the asylum before the main conflict is resolved. Therefore he stays and confronts many villains from his past. The appearance of these villains are perfectly justified too, because this is where he put these villains in the first place. A very simple and effective idea worthy of all sorts of applause.

Rating: 2 out of 2



Setting:



Almost the entire story takes place inside the boundries of Arkham Asylum. This may sound a little claustrophobic but thankfully this version of Arkham Asylum is more than a simple building. It occupies a huge area made of several separate locations including but not limited to a gothic manor, ancient underground passages, catacombs, a botanical garden and different wards. The size of the facility may seem stupid for the uninformed but it's suitably overstated for the city of Gotham. After all this is a super-asylum which doubles as a prison for the insane super human villains we can see Batman fighting against. Some of them, like Killer Croc are barely human. The setting not only contains the story focused on a single location, but it also provides variety due to the presence of several different villains.

Of course, on a grander scale the setting itself resides in an original interpretation of the DC Universe, resting comfortably somewhere between the stark realism of Nolan movies and the colorful insanity of the comic books. This is a dark Batman for sure. There is no Robin or no yellow Batman logo here. Things are much more plausible than the comic book adventures of the silver ages. Yet there is ultra high technology in every day use. There are fast acting toxic mutagens. There is poison Ivy. And people are referring to each other using their nicknames in private conversation. So we can safely say things are much closer to comic books than the Nolan movies. It's a mature version of the DC universe we're seeing here, balanced perfectly on the slippery edge between too real and too silly.

Rating: 2 out of 2



Characters:



This is a tough one. On one hand you have the legacy of DC Universe, especially the Batman part of it, with its quirky and insanely original characters. One of the best decisions made by DC at the start of things was not giving Batman any super powers. Throughout all these years this decision prevented escalation. Most villains in Batman stories are just ordinary humans. They are neither planet eating intergalactic organisms nor Norse gods from another dimension. They are just criminals with above average intelligence. This opens the doors to potentially interesting stories although, I have to admit, we rarely see such stories in comic books. We can still say the characters in Batman comic books are of the interesting variant. A good writer can always turn them into gold.

On the other hand we have the cardboard cut, empty characters of Batman: Arkham Asylum. This is quite a wasted opportunity given the interesting interpretation of the setting and the cool idea. Sadly the characters in this story, hero or villain, don't really have any plausible motivations for their actions. Batman: Arkham Asylum is almost romantic in its way of dealing with characters. Joker is doing bad things because he is well ...a bad person. Batman is trying to stop him because he's the hero. He's supposed to be doing what he does simply because he is who he is.

Part of the reason for this antiquated system of characterisation is probably the game's presumption of its audience's high degree of familiarity with the subject matter. Those who have no idea who all these insane people are, are directed to an in-game encyclopedia not much different from the one you can find in the Dynasty Warriors series, although it's certainly more stylistic. The voice recordings in this encyclopedia are superbly produced and written really well. The problem is the fact that your main source of insight about the characters in the story is these optional, collectible voice recordings. There is no character development to be found anywhere and very few of the character traits you learn from this encyclopedia are to be found inside the main story.

Batman, with his superb deductive abilities, makes horrible mistakes of judgement, relies more on his shiny gadgets than his intelligence and has trouble connecting obvious dots. Bane, a character known both for his great strength and his superior intelligence behaves like a common thug in his brief boss fight appearance.

More disconcerting is the lack of real motivation in Joker. Even though it can be argued that the plot vaguely resembles Nolan's second Batman movie The Dark Knight, this Joker is just a half mad evil guy who, at the end of the day, proves to be not that clever after all. Keith Ledger's depiction of the same character was terrifying not because Joker is a chaotic character without any purpose, but because in that story Joker actually had a point. There was hint of method behind the madness lurking beneath that smiling mask of paint. It's not the insane who make us uneasy. It's the barely sane who reject the rules of the society and say the things we know to be true deep in our souls, but reject them because we're afraid of the implications. Compared to that, this Joker is a simple clown with a huge budget.

The few touching moments are there thanks to Scarecrow, but there is nothing here we don't know about Bruce Bane.

Rating: 0 out of 2



Plot Structure:



What starts as an intriguing mystery and a horrible crisis quickly turns into something very simple. Joker makes a pact with a person inside the Asylum, when that person doesn't deliver on her promise, he goes inside to pick up his package of mass destruction. Batman follows him. He throws baddies and some simple traps in Batman's way. Batman kicks his ass. End of story.

There really is nothing to see here. Of course it works as a simple hero versus villain story but no one gains anything from this encounter. The story follows an almost episodic formula setting up the next installation in a quite irrelevant way and keeping the whole plot of this installation inside itself as an isolated event.

There are hundreds of plot holes and screwed up motivations here. Was this really the best way for Joker to obtain what he's seeking? Couldn't he simply kidnap the doctor at her home? How did Harley Quinn escape in the first place? If she could escape and take the warden of the Asylum hostage, couldn't she also simply take the doctor hostage? After all it should be simpler. How did all the minions of Joker get into the asylum? Are they all insane? They looked very sane to me... Isn't this a mental institution? Why are they incarcerated here?

We're expected to ignore all these questions and more. In the end we're left with an typical silver age comic book story. Even Riddler's presence as the guy who's providing the "secrets hunt" doesn't really make much sense. The story is a more like forced pathway for you to confront a gallery of bad guys without rhyme or reason.

Rating: 0 out of 2


Craftsmanship:



Contrary to popular belief, the word "flawless", may have different meanings. Usually when it's about a work of art, it means that work of art is technically all it should be but not more. Nothing special or original. For the most part Batman: Arkham Asylum stays flawless. Visually, it's a feast. Batman has all the moves and all the gadgets you'd expect from him, yet he does nothing you don't expect. The dialog is well written and spoken, although you won't find any lines you'd want to quote when you're talking to your friends about this game. The music is effective, well used and produced but you won't find a Batman melody you'd want to hum to yourself, like the one done by Danny Elfman in Tim Burton's Batman movies.

What elevates this experience above flawless is the scenes involving Scarecrow. This interesting villain, with his hallucination inducing fear chemical, represents a great storytelling opportunity and the developers of Batman: Arkham Asylum capitalise on that. The first hallucination is hardly a surprise, especially for people who have prior knowledge of Batman lore. The event is almost telegraphed. However, the second one improves things quite a bit by its liberal use of dutch camera angles and slowly transforming reality. It proves to be a great way to retell Batman's origin story in an exceptionally interesting way.

It's the third hallucination though, which brings Batman: Arkham Asylum into the realm of unforgettable. Utilising the unique properties of the medium, here, writer Paul Dini makes the story jump out of the screen to invade your safe haven of sanity behind the game pad. The dosage of Scarecrow's hallucinogen is so great that this time, it's not only Batman who starts to lose his sanity. You join him. You, the player, who has since the beginning of the game identified himself with Batman, questions if he's losing his sanity too. The story becomes aware of its own existence in a video game and the fourth wall comes crashing down. Sure it's a disturbing experience, but that's exactly how it's supposed to be. Bertholt Brecht would have been proud.

Not only is it a great way of making the audience feel what the protagonist is experiencing, but in this case it's also a subtle critic of video game story telling in general. Hitting RETRY this time, you get to see Batman rising from his own grave as he did so many times before, when he died throughout the duration of this video game. Only he literally rises from his grave now, making this hallucinated unreality more real than the video game reality we're used to. Simply brilliant.

Rating: 2 out of 2
 


OVERALL: 6 out of 10
(0-3= BAD, 4-6= AVERAGE, 7-10= GOOD)

Already Reviewed: "Infamous"
NEXT WEEK: "Wet"
16 Comments

"Infamous": Story Review

WARNING: This review is only concerned with the story of the game. Even though the story is an important part of a game, by no means is it the defining component. A game with a horrible story may very well be one of the best games ever produced. It's just that my reviews are not about that.

SPOILER WARNING: The following text may contain spoilers for the people who have not finished the game in question yet. Reviewing the story sometimes makes such things inevitable. 



Idea:  

 The main idea behind  inFamous is the classic super hero origin story. An ordinary man somehow obtains super powers and his life changes forever. Along with him the world changes too. Now he must come in terms with all these changes. It's not a terribly original idea of course. We have seen this, countless times, in many different comic books. But the main idea here seems to center on testing uncle Ben's famous words. "With great power comes great responsibility." Does power corrupt? What will our "hero" do with his new abilities? Allowing moral choices to steer the story into different directions, it can be possible to explore this simple premise in a unique was possible only in an interactive medium. Not a particularly original but a quite functional idea for this kind of story.

Rating: 1 out of 2



Setting:

At the beginning of the story  inFamous takes place in our contemporary world. The residents of the fictional and generic metropolis called Empire City soon experience an apocalyptic event in form of a huge electrical explosion. In the aftermath, things are really torn apart in Empire City. On top of that an epidemic causes the state to quarantine the whole area. Now, this might now be a sane course of action, but it serves to build our setting as the story and medium demands. The great thing about  inFamous is the fact that game play elements make sense in the context of the story. The player is not allowed to move out of Empire City because the city is physically sealed off by the army. (in fact, early in the story, Cole tries to leave the city with his friend Zeke. Only to find it is impossible.) Cole's inability to swim or drive vehicles is explained by the electrical nature of his powers. Combined with the fact that Empire City is built on a set of islands and some other story elements, the player soon understands that it is not only impossible for Cole to leave Empire City, but it also doesn't make much sense to do so. 

Empire City itself is depicted as a huge, dirty city. You won't find any bright colors here. This contributes to the pessimistic atmosphere of the situation. The streets are ran by gangs and the police is horribly underhanded. So we can say that the setting almost serves as a character, a damsel in distress for Cole. It is begging to be saved and there is no one else who can help. It will be grateful if you help it. You will see that in the faces of its inhabitants. But it will also hate you if you abuse it. This is a choice the player has to make. Regardless, unlike most games, the city is not just a backdrop. As we come to understand later in the story, it is the secret objective of our quest.

Not all is good about the setting though. Soon we come to understand that the world of Infamous is not like our world after all. All sorts of secret organisations are making larger than life plans building crazy scientific devices and horrible weapons of mass destruction. Sadly it is too hard to avoid these elements in super hero stories. Your super hero, by definition, will soon be much stronger than his opposition if things stay mundane. For Superman, who is faster than a speeding bullet and stronger than a locomotive, terrorists in the middle east are just a minor annoyance. You need the super villains. Infamous introduces the super villains instantly. Even the nameless, cannon fodder characters in  inFamous are somehow super powered. Cole almost never fights against normal people. And the  abnormals keep on coming, which makes you wonder just how many gang members are there in the Empire City.

Rating: 1 out of 2



Characters:

Most of the time the characters in Infamous are clearly defined by their moral choices. You have your classic bad guys and good guys. Even if the final twist changes things a bit, this is the case throughout the story. 

The protagonist is called Cole  MacGrath. We're led to believe he's an ordinary bike messenger, who finds himself in an out of the ordinary situation. You would not understand that from the characterisation though. Cole sounds more like a veteran soldier than an ordinary, everyman hero. The problem here is not only the bad-ass hero voice itself but also his behavior and lines. Cole simply doesn't have the charm of a Nathan Drake. As a result he loses the everyman hero advantage. If the protagonist acts like a normal guy it is much easier for the audience to identify themselves with the hero. This is how Spider-man became such a beloved comic book character. He was much more approachable than an alien from another world or a rich guy who builds gadgets and fights crime at night. Peter Parker is a simple guy studying at the university just like you and me. He just happens to have the powers of a spider. Cole's behavior and voice, however, make you wonder why Cole is working as a bike messenger and not a  merc for hire. 

On the other hand Cole is one of the more approachable characters in the story since his monologues, especially at the beginning of the story, flesh him out as a human being. He is bewildered by the events, doesn't want to be called a terrorist and often weighs the possible consequences of his actions even though that is part of the game play mechanic. Still you can't help but feeling a certain distance between him and the player. We do learn that he is far from being an ordinary human and his interactions with Zeke suggest that these two were not really your every day upstanding citizens. The problem is that he is supposed to be a normal guy with whom we can identify ourselves.

Things are not better for the support characters on the protagonist side. Zeke, who is supposed to fill in the shoes of a sidekick is an annoyance at best and acts more like the incompetent lackey of a villain than a sidekick of a hero. His obsession with power later turns him into a major annoyance but I can't say I was surprised by that turn of events. The whole thing would have a much stronger impact if Zeke was a likable guy who got corrupted by the lure of power. But in this story he starts off half corrupt anyway. Trish, the love interest is probably the most normal human being in the story, even though she acts like a  scizopath sometimes. At the beginning she is a concerned girl friend who is afraid Cole might hurt himself despite his new super powers. But right after the Voice of Survival tells everyone that Cole is a terrorist, she is incredibly quick to trust a DJ he doesn't even know, over her boyfriend. That really doesn't make much sense even if her sister had died in an explosion allegedly caused by Cole. We don't even see a discussion between Cole and Trish regarding this topic until much later in the story. 

The problem here is that the protagonist and the support characters are not really interesting or likable people. By contrast,  Kessler is a much more interesting person as an antagonist. Of course the final twist complicated this a bit but still  Kessler stays apart from all the other characters by having tangible motivations. He never deviates from his plan and he arguably succeeds in the end. Sadly the antagonist has even worse support characters at his side. Both Alden and Sasha are cardboard cut, silver age comic book characters. 

Wild-card characters like  Moya and John also have little impact. John dies almost as soon as he appears in person, while  Moya's methods compared to his motivations seem to be too complicated.

Rating: 0 out of 2



Plot Structure: 

Infamous literally starts with a bang. The commendable little thing many people neglect is the starting screen, during which you can catch a glimpse of Empire City in its  pre-explosion state. This peaceful little scene contrasts with the apocalyptic event caused by the player himself by pressing the START button. Like Cole, who carries the explosive device into the heart of city and causes all the horrible events unknowingly, the player causes the explosion by pressing START, forming an early link with the otherwise unlikable protagonist. 

After the initial exposition the story seems to center on a MacGuffin called the Ray Sphere. For a long while the duty of explanation falls on  Moya's shoulders. This saves the writers from constructing legit motivations for each of Cole's actions. The bulk for the story depends on  Moya giving missions to Cole. Cole has one main motivation: Getting out of Empire City. By promising that,  Moya manipulates Cole into doing her bidding. Furthermore, the sub islands of the city conveniently serve as the chapters of the story each divided into smaller chapters in form of generators Cole has to power up. Each generator grants Cole another power but again it is never explained how exactly that happens. These underground chapters usually serve as tutorials to the new power Cole has just gained but they could have been better designed from a story perspective, forcing Cole to discover the power himself rather than showing a video of the power and presenting an obstacle course for him to try out his new abilities.

Not much about the Ray Sphere is explained. John's illogically placed "dead drops" speak about its creation but we don't exactly know how and on what basis it grants super powers to people. Cole seems to have electrical powers while others seem to have entirely different abilities. Fights against two of the super baddies, Sasha and Alden, also double as the ending for the first two chapters. 

inFamous throws us at least two big plot twists before we can see the ending cinematic. Both of them are problematic for different reasons. The twist about  Moya doesn't come as a huge surprise and seems fitting but it also invalidates most of her actions. Characters choose the path of least resistance towards their objectives.  Moya's methods seem incredibly convoluted and her failure quite illogically surprises her. He either has to be incredibly naive or incredibly stupid To expect cooperation from Cole after all the things she has done, and both options are not logical for a supposedly highly intelligent and scheming character like  Moya. 

I have both positive and negative feelings about the final twist about  Kessler's identity and true goal. Most of you probably won't see it coming unless you are actively looking for a twist and it will probably make you question who the hero and the villain really are. And added bonus is that the story in general doesn't really depend on the twist itself. This is merely a reveal of the main mystery, not a huge game changing twist like Metal Gear Solid 2's "it all was in virtual reality". 

That being said, even though the twist does actually answer many questions and solves the main mystery, it is technically a very bad and unfair solution. The writers basically trust in what you'd assume you know about the setting of  inFamous without telling you some key elements of the setting. 

One of the biggest sins in creating a setting and a mystery is not giving the reader the rules of the mystery. In a classic mystery story, which uses the English Cozy setting, the writer makes it clear that the murderer is one of the guests in the isolated environment. The fact that the environment is isolated is key here. We know the manor was locked for the night, the train was moving, the ship was in the middle of the ocean etc. So the murderer is clearly one of the characters we have seen. The culprit never turns out to be someone from the outside world or someone who can pass through walls. Both cases would be unfair. The reader has to have equal opportunity in solving the mystery and ideally should say "Ah-ha! Of course!" after the protagonist has revealed the truth. If someone is able to pass through walls, this is a change in the rules of the story. There is no way the reader could have known that. 

Similarly  inFamous plays the time travel card to solve its main mystery even though we had no idea that time travel was possible in this world. Of course this invalidates many of the previous clues we had about the motivation of the villain. We do understand the villain's reasons for doing all the things he did, but this is hardly fulfilling. A huge chunk of information comes at the end of the story. You simply can't throw your protagonist out of a helicopter, go to the commercials, and return saying "Oh by the way... People can fly in this story." 

Furthermore, despite its popularity with comic book and fantasy fiction writers, time travel is one of the most problematic storytelling devices in the world. Its presence alone disturbs the chain of causality in a story and raises a lot of questions. Is  Kessler from a parallel dimension? Is this a  CTC model? (closed time-like circuit) If yes what's the use of time travel to past? If no what's the point of time travel? How does an ordinary bike messenger become entangled with secret organisations and develop super powers without the aid of of the ray sphere? Is this the most efficient way of fighting whatever evil thing  Kessler was fighting against?

Interestingly the ending, along with the title of the story, suggests the better way of telling this story would be choosing the evil path. (better according to Burke's theory of storytelling.) The choices the player makes conveniently makes little change in the main storyline. The changes we experience are in side missions, most of which are irrelevant. 

There are a couple of potentially very interesting hooks and themes. Terrorism, the nature of truth, good and evil, fate, the relationship between Trish and Cole, media and how it manipulates reality, the nature of trust are a few of those. Sadly none of these themes are explored in depth

The goal here is to construct a classic silver age comic book story. In that the writers succeed. It all could have been much more though.

Rating: 1 out of 2



Craftsmanship: 

Most of the dialog here makes sense even if some stuff is out of character or unnecessary. The star of the show is again Empire City. Its depiction makes you believe there are actual people living here. People whose lives depend on you. This is more than a huge level for a video game. This is a living, breathing city. The change between 2D comic book cut-scenes and realistic video game graphics may at first have a jarring effect. Even though these two visual styles are incompatible they are both beautiful in their own right. 

A story like  inFamous needs a good sound track. Although the music here is technically not bad, it's far from being memorable. There are no strong themes for characters or the story itself. There is no Cole melody we can hum. This is a major problem for a super hero game. 

On the other hand story to  gameplay transitions and chapter ends are done expertly. Even though the pacing is somewhat problematic the craftsmanship is good enough to make you want to reach the end of the story.

Rating: 1 out of 2



OVERALL: 4 out of 10
(0-3= BAD, 4-6= AVERAGE, 7-10= GOOD)


NEXT WEEK: Batman:  Arkham Asylum    
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