Fall of the Rising Sun

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hen I was a child I loved virtually everything about Japanese culture. My first exposure to anime was in 1993 before the genre became a mainstream hit in the West. I remember being an impressionable 14 year old boy putting a VHS copy of "Riding Bean" into my VCR and becoming enthralled by sex, violence, and mature themes in what was essentially a cartoon. My love affair with anime and manga soon followed. I rented all the hits: Akira, Venus Wars, Guyver, Ranma 1/2, Project Ako, etc., and collected every issue of "Area 88" that was published in the United States. I'd also become a fan of JRPGs, especially the Final Fantasy series, with FF4 (II US) being the first RPG I ever completed from beginning to end. I even cried at the finale. In short, my exposure to Japanese culture was a life-altering event in many ways.

The Japanese had a pretty solid lock on the video game industry in the 80s and 90s, both in terms of hardware and publishing. Hell, it wasn't until the original Xbox that a viable Western console even existed, and over the past fifteen years or so, the market has expanded to the point where being known to dabble in video games doesn't carry the same stigma it used to. As the industry changed, and as gamers grew older, their tastes tended to change as well. What used to entertain and pass as high storytelling failed to be quite as satisfying as time went on, and the pimply-faced gamers of yesterday became the college graduates and working professionals of today. And yet the Japanese, the culture that started it all, has been the one part of the industry most resistant to change. I remember being dazzled by the graphics and effects of Final Fantasy VII, a title that's heralded as one of the industry's best to this day - but as time passed, and the ironically titled Final Fantasy games kept plodding forward, I noticed some trends that troubled me.

Many Japanese games are all about flash, style over substance, and oozing globs of melodrama. This trend extends far beyond the Final Fantasy series; just look at Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, Lost Odyssey and the Metal Gear Solid series among others. Usually the characters in these games are two-dimensional with motives that are indecipherable at best, and the titles themselves often seem to be more of an excuse for programmers and storyboard writers to show how good they are at producing cutscenes than compelling game play. I wrote about some of these issues in my review of Metal Gear Solid 4, but I didn't really start to ponder it as a whole until recently.

Obviously Japan is a radically different culture from the United States in many respects, and what flies for entertainment over here may very well fall flat on its face in Kyoto, but the fact remains: I used to love playing these games. So what happened? I grew up. I still play video games nearly every day, though in much smaller doses than before. I enjoy the deep storytelling and atmosphere of Bioshock, the brooding isolation and terror of Penumbra, the visceral battlefield experience of Dawn of War 2, and the mindless but compelling action of Halo. And these are just titles that I can think of off the top of my head that I've enjoyed over the past few years. Noticeably absent, however, is a single JRPG title, or more to the point, any title from Japan recently. Final Fantasy, the series I once adored, is now all about simplistic characters - or rather caricatures of characters, in increasingly complex and convoluted plots that are incredibly difficult to follow, abstract, and leave you wondering why you should care about the plight of any of the protagonists at all. If I was still 14, maybe I would find these games compelling. But alas, I am not. Perhaps I will return to the Japanese gaming industry when it grows up too.    

Pandemic 2 Review (PC)

Sometimes the people around me show a smattering of concern regarding the degree that I seem to hate my fellow man. While I'll be the first to admit that I can be less Buddhist than I'd like at times, my disdain for humanity is more of a cheap hobby rather than anything that could manifest into a scenario where I justify concerns by taking to a clock tower with a sniper rifle. That said, more often than not that disdain remains, so Pandemic II was game which cheered me up immensely.  The goal of Pandemic II is to create and evolve a biological contagion with the ultimate task being the utter elimination of the human race. Your first decision is what type of contagion you want to create, with your choices being a virus, bacteria, or parasite. This is important because some contagions evolve faster than others, and thus gain new abilities and symptoms at a faster rate which ties into the eventual goal of the extinction of mankind. To balance this, the faster your disease evolves, the easier it is to be detected by those pesky medical plebs.

I created a bacterial cocktail of death that I named "The Black Shakes," and set it loose on Cuba where it would soon overcome the masses and give them something to think about besides poor relations with the United States. Spreading your disease is obviously a priority, and as the game progresses in real time you gain evolution points that you can spread out among a host of symptoms and attributes. Some symptoms cause your disease to spread faster, such as vomiting, but make it easier to detect by the medical community. You can also boost your contagion's resistances to environmental factors, such as heat, cold, moisture, etc., which makes it easier to spread to certain regions of the globe. You can also increase its resistance to antibiotics and medical treatment, which becomes important later.

Evolution points can also be used to allow your virus to be transmitted in different ways, such as through the air, insects, rats, and water. All of these elements come together in a truly pleasing way that gives the player a lot of options for how to destroy civilization. It's a delicate balancing act between evolving symptoms and transmission methods that spread your disease effectively, and yet not going over the top until the very end in order to avoid early detection. Eventually though, despite your best efforts, some bastard in a laboratory somewhere will make a connection between your existence and the sudden increase in slow, boil-related agonizing deaths across the world, and mankind will band together in order to create a vaccine. You can slow this progress down by evolving a high resistance to drugs, and if you've spread far and wide enough, most of the hospitals and labs will close, causing further delays in its production and implementation.

Pandemic II is also a hard game. While it's pretty easy to wipe out major continents, the difficulty comes from small holdout island nations with relatively little travel such as Greenland. Obviously the more commercial airliners and ships are traveling from place to place, the faster your contagion will spread. And let me tell you, if a biological epidemic ever does break out, I'm packing my bags and moving to Madagascar, if I can even get in, because I'm convinced that Madagascar is fucking impenetrable. I'll admit I'm not the best hand at geography, but I'm pretty sure that Madagascar, while perhaps not as well traveled as Aruba, does in fact have an airport and that ships visit its port more than once a decade. For all I know the developers got it right and Madagascar really is a walled off dictatorial state with its inhabitants forbidden from having contact with the outside world in some Orwellian, North Korean act of social control, but it just feels like the developers are having a little giggle at my expense.

Nit-picking aside, Pandemic II is a fantastic strategy game with a novel concept that offers hours of "dicking around" time in front of your computer. It's not so difficult as to be a stumbling block for people who've never touched a strategy game before, but there's enough nuance and depth to challenge you and really make you think about what your game plan is. Madagascar still chafes me, but I suppose I can pretend that they represent the last holdout of humanity, and then I can swagger over there on an epic and selfless mission to repopulate the planet.

Pandemic II is a creation of Crazy Monkey Games and can be played for free at their site.


Playstation Home Review (PS3)

What an epic tale Sony makes for. Here's a company that was the undisputed king of consoles during the last generation that has been doing everything it can to sabotage its own success since the release of the PS3. Like Hamlet, Sony's strategy regarding its latest console seems to involve the death of everything associated with it, followed by flirtations with suicide. The latest player in this Shakespearean drama is none other than the greatly anticipated Home, touted as a virtual nexus of sorts for all of the PS3 denizens to gather, play games, watch streaming content, and design their own homes. Sort of a "Second Life" for the console crowd. Have two years of development and God knows how many millions of dollars invested been worth it?

Following a relatively brief initial download you have to go through a standard EUA and then you're prompted to create an avatar. The process is surprisingly limited in terms of options. There are several base models you can pick to represent your virtual self, but the options for fine-tuning those selections are relatively weak. You can manipulate a few specific parts of your anatomy such as your jaw, lips, etc., but in the age of the Sims and Second Life, to name a few, I honestly expected greater degrees of customization. I wasn't even able to create an avatar that looked remotely like myself, and I'm a decidedly average looking guy. Even worse are the options for hairstyles (bald, anime, goth, and punk are the only real options), and as far as facial hair goes you're out of luck unless you want a mustache that makes your avatar look like a 1900s villain who ties damsels to railroad tracks.

After you create your virtual self you're dumped into your own little studio apartment overlooking the ocean and a marina. To be fair, the graphics live up to a healthy standard. Everything looks like it should on a next-gen console, though the animations are a little stiff. For some reason in the dystopian world of Home the sun never sets, but unlike the British Empire this phenomenon is quite literal. Perhaps the world of Home is set in one of those small regions of the Earth where it's always daytime for six months, but it'd also probably be bitterly cold, and none of the avatars seem particularly well dressed for that kind of climate. After wandering around my tiny apartment for a bit the tutorial prompted me to visit the central meeting point for Home users, a nexus that connects the populace to a mall, a theater, and a bowling alley. Not one to want to disappoint the tutorial gods, I followed instructions dutifully, and was then prompted to download the nexus which took a good 10 minutes. What the hell? I just installed the damn program and all it provided me with was my own apartment? But whatever, we'll roll with it. After the lengthy download, I then had to load the actual nexus, which took another minute or two, but finally, I thought, now my patience will be rewarded.

After loading into the central meeting point I wandered around some more (detecting a theme here?), occasionally bumping into a crowd of equally perplexed Home citizens. This could be my fault, but I was unable to figure out how to get into the theater, but I recovered from that stinging defeat and managed to wander into the mall... after another download and loading session. After bumping into a few more avatars I went to the virtual clothing store and browsed a bit, eventually stumbling across an ugly cowboy hat that I could purchase for $0.49. And then it hit me... Home is entirely about micro-transactions. You can leave your tiny studio apartment and purchase a summer home for five bucks, and then pay $20 or so to furnish it. When browsing the furniture and nick-knacks store I noticed that a tiny model airplane decoration cost another fifty cents of real money. Who the hell pays for this shit? I'd be ashamed to show off my well-furnished house in Home that probably cost me tens of dollars to my friends - it'd be like having a neon sign nailed to my forehead that says, "I'm a consumer tool. Will you be my friend?"

Speaking of friends, during my jaunt at the mall I only noticed two people attempting to have a conversation, and it must have been using hunt-and-peck text entry through the controller, because the conversations looked more like text-messages fired back and forth through cell phones, "u r hot." There were a few dance troupes engaging in an informal breakout session, their virtual bodies tearing up the mall floor to the ambient, easy-listening-esque elevator music that flowed through the mall's invisible speakers. Off in a corner there were a few male avatars simulating oral sex with each other. This was truly worth the wait.

I can just picture the execs at Sony:

"Hey, I have a great idea - let's create a free virtual world for people, ala Second Life, only there'll be no user-created content and we'll soak the users with a Mississippi River of micro-transactions to do anything remotely fun."

"That sounds good - but we should have fun, free activities for users too. Throw in some arcade game ports and bowling."

"Ok, but only on the condition that we make the users stand in a virtual line before they can play."

"Done. Now how long will this take to develop?"

"Oh, about two years."

"Excellent. How much will it cost?"

"Millions and millions of dollars."

"Run with it."

This is what Sony has been working on? Not making a competent online service that can compete with Xbox Live? Not improving XMB functionality? Not working on across-the-board PS2 emulation? Every day it seems more and more that Sony is doing everything they can to lose this generation's console war, and I honestly hope that they don't lose it to the extent that they get out of the console business, because frankly the only reason the Xbox 360 exists and is in as solid shape as it is today is due to competition with Sony, and it'll be a sad, gloomy day when there's only one console left on the market - but I'll be damned if I help support Sony with an endless deluge of Home micro-transactions.

And then there's the inevitable comparison to Linden Labs' Second Life. For all the flack Second Life takes in gaming circles, the beauty of it is that you really can do whatever you want. Sure, this leads to a vocal minority of pervs and furries, etc., but that's what they are, a minority. Sometimes it's fun to just find an ocean area in SL, whip out a schooner or a yacht, and go sailing with real wind physics and day-night cycles. Sometimes it's fun to work on building additions to your house while chatting it up with some friends, and for the more entrepreneurial, you can make serious real life cash in SL by designing and selling items. I'm not being a SL evangelical here, but the point I'm making is that Home is just Second Life with none of the freedom while constantly being elbowed toward paying fifty cents for a cowboy hat.

Oh, and finally, some people may criticize the harshness of this review using the excuse "But it's only a beta!" To which I say "tish-tosh." It's an open beta, and the reason it's subject to my ridicule is that it was released purely so Sony wouldn't miss another release date and thus approach the three year mark of Home's development. Desperate to get Home out the door to the unwashed masses before the end of 2008, Sony opens Home up to critique.

Fallout 3 Review (360, PS3, PC)

Fallout 3 is a game that's been a long time in the making. The original designers of the series have since bowed out of license, with the task falling to Bethesda Studios, best known for their work on the Elder Scrolls series of RPGs, and this is apparent at the very beginning of the game. The world of Fallout is a post-apocalyptic future where mankind has fled to the safety of a series of underground vaults throughout the United States to protect themselves from nuclear war and the harsh and radiated life thereafter. The player begins the game as a denizen of one of these vaults, and makes the usual RPGish selections of facial geometry, statistics, et al. through a short sequence depicting the protagonist's development from birth to adulthood. Eventually the player is released from the confines of the vault and left to explore the wasteland of Washington D.C. on a quest to find his father. On a presentation level, the game soars. It's absolutely beautiful, but this is somewhat blunted by the fact that you'll be spending 95% of your time either in a brown, flat, deserted wasteland, or in a grungy subway tunnel. This is an inherent limitation of the genre, and not necessarily a total fault of the developer. After all, a wasteland is a wasteland, and the developers only had so much to work with. It isn't bad, per se, but expect to see a lot of muted grays and browns.

A comparison with Bethesda's last RPG, Oblivion, is inevitable, so let's get that out of the way right now. Fallout 3 is very, very Oblivion-like, with some of the same issues such as NPC pathing, but it's improved in several areas. The visuals are more detailed than Oblivion which is saying a lot as Oblivion was one of the most gorgeous games to ever grace a console or PC back in 2006, but the most dramatic improvement is in the voice acting. Oblivion was lacking in that respect, and it always sounded like Bethesda grabbed three random people, tossed them in a sound studio, and forced them to recite endless lines of dialogue in an attempt to populate an entire world with a variety of voices. In other words, it fell flat. Fallout 3, however, is populated with a rich cast of characters with voices that seldom sound similar and this goes a long way toward extending the credibility of the world.

Fallout 3 is a game with guns. Lots of guns. What it's not is a first person shooter. Though you can aim and fire a gun as if you were playing Call of Duty 4, the results are all tied to statistics and skills, which only create the illusion of active participation in combat. This isn't a bad thing, as long as you know what to expect. A more popular way of playing through combat is by using Fallout 3's VATS system. VATS allows you to pause the game and use "action points" to target specific parts of an enemy's body with varying chances of success depending on factors such as distance and appropriate skills. As you progress throughout the wasteland, complete quests, and fell mutants and raiders, you'll gain experience which allows you to level up. With each level comes a number of benefits: You can increase your skills, and select a perk which grants you various effects such as bonuses to damage, more dialogue options in specific contexts, and increases to primary attributes. It's a simple system that works very well in contrast to Oblivion's arcane leveling scheme that requires a lot of forethought if you want to min-max your character.

Is the game fun, though? In many ways, yes. But the fun tends to come from random side-quests and odds and ends that you stumble across through exploration rather than by following the main story arc. For example, during one of my wanderings I came across a small settlement with the unlikely name of "The Republic of Dave." This guy Dave has declared this tiny town (population 5, plus children) its own sovereign nation. Apparently it used to be the Kingdom of Tom, who was Dave's father, but Dave decided to change the system of government to be more progressive once he inherited the kingdom. In this settlement, the dialogue options are hilarious, and you can attempt to rig an upcoming election and toss Dave out on his ear. Or you can walk through the Republic with an automatic shotgun cutting down its inhabitants like wheat (on a side note, if you make your intentions to take over the Republic clear, the person you're talking to will run away screaming "Communist! Help! He's a communist!!" Classic).

This is but one example of the quality of writing and black humor that's sprinkled throughout this massive world, and this makes the design decisions regarding the main quest even more perplexing. After a few side-quests I decided to follow the main story arc for awhile, and before I knew it I'd come to the end, and the kicker is that once you finish the game and the credits roll, regardless of what final decision you make at the end of the game, you can't keep playing. This is an incredibly poor design decision given that over 90% of the areas and quests in the game have absolutely nothing to do with the main story arc and can be completely missed unless actively sought out. This means that if you want the complete experience you have to force yourself to ignore the main story until the very end. It would have made much more sense to simply allow you to continue playing after you complete the main story arc like in Oblivion.

Morality plays a role in Fallout 3, and you're usually able to choose a "good" or "evil" solution to most of the challenges you face. While in most cases this doesn't have a significant impact on the world, in others it can change the world dramatically, and sometimes even the landscape itself. There's definitely a joy in being able to gun down virtually anyone you come across, and admittedly I spent a good hour reloading the Republic of Dave and murdering its population in hilarious ways just for my own amusement. This brings me to the combat: It's pleasantly gory. Limbs rip off from their sockets and fly across the room from the impact of bullets and explosions, and bits of bone protrude from muscle tissue. While it's a very satisfying experience, it's certainly not for children.

In summary, Fallout 3 is an exceptional game with a variety of flaws that detract from but don't ruin the experience as a whole. There are a lot of things I'd have done differently, but it's a solid game that should be experienced regardless of what system you play it on. Party faithfuls of the original Fallout games will no doubt complain that Fallout 3 is more like "Oblivion with Guns" than a true successor, but Bethesda treats the series with respect, and does a good job overall of blending the atmosphere and systems of the original games with its own RPG engine. I played both the 360 and PC versions, and if you have a rig that can run the game, I highly recommend the PC version for its faster loading times and potential modding possibilities if Bethesda ever releases an editor, but failing that the game is nearly identical on consoles and still provides a fun experience.