Archive for Video Games

Breaking news: ‘GTA IV’ not perfect

No doubt about it: “Grand Theft Auto IV” is a really fun game. Over the past week, we’ve spent nearly every waking hour (except the ones when we’re chained to our desks) guiding Niko Bellic around Liberty City, from the slums of Firefly Island to the uber-posh urban lofts of Algonquin. And thanks to the game’s sprawling ripe-for-exploration cityscape and fun multiplayer modes, there’s a good chance we’ll be playing it for a long time to come.

But that won’t keep us from nitpicking. The game has its share of flaws, and your friendly neighborhood Couch Potatoes—having trained their whole lives to find the cloud in every silver lining—feel it’s necessary to mention a couple of them in the interest of being “fair and balanced.”

Game Design: One of the most frustrating aspects of “GTA IV” emerges the first time you fail a mission. The game’s early missions are easy enough that it doesn’t happen for a while. But once it does, prepare to be annoyed.

Here’s an example: In the mission “Hostile Negotiation,” Niko’s cousin Roman is kidnapped by Russian mobsters. You get a frantic call from Roman’s girlfriend, at which point you have to drive across town to the warehouse where Roman’s being held. (Alternately, you can take a cab and sit through the ride or endure the load time if you skip it.) Of course it’s a trap—they’re expecting you—so once you get inside the warehouse there are dozens of armed thugs waiting to kill you. As Niko, you have to slowly and methodically work your way up to the fourth floor, staying in cover and picking off enemy after enemy until you finally reach the room where Roman’s being held. After a brief cut scene, you have to take out a guy who’s holding Roman at gunpoint while using him as a human shield. So you aim and fire and—voila!—Roman is saved. But guess what? The mission isn’t over. You have to take Roman back home.

So you follow Roman back downstairs and, hey, there’s a truck right outside in the yard behind the warehouse. Sweet! You hop in the truck and start driving. And then … BOOM!

It turns out there are mines or something combustible hidden in the overgrown yard behind the warehouse. The truck explodes, killing you and rendering the mission a failure. You have to start over at the beginning—on the other side of town—and work your way through the whole thing again … just so you can perform the seemingly simple task of driving Roman home.

This scenario happened to both Stephen and me. And I’ve had at least two or three other similar mission “failures” that were equally frustrating.

I’m sorry, but there are only two possible explanations here: Either (1) the explosion was a fluke that Rockstar didn’t anticipate, or (2) Rockstar planned that little booby trap. In the former case, that’s bad game design—the mission should’ve been successful as soon as Roman’s captor was shot. In the latter, that’s just evil.

Thankfully, we’re not alone on this.

But we also have to acknowledge this: “GTA IV” is also not alone. Off the top of my head I can think of countless games that made we want to shatter the TV screen with my controller for the very same reason. Most recently, it was the interminable three-stage final boss battle in “Dark Sector,” which required no small amount of sheer dumb luck to defeat. I had to fight him no fewer than eight times before I won by doing the exact same thing I’d been doing since my first try.

So it’s not just “GTA IV.” That’s how video games work. And that’s … kind of sad, actually.

Many hardcore gamers will argue that this kind of gameplay is simply “challenging” and that it gives the player a great sense of accomplishment when they finally succeed. I not-so-humbly disagree. That’s not a sense of accomplishment you’re feeling. It’s a sense of relief.

Maybe it’s just me, but when I complete a game, I don’t want my last thoughts about it to be, “Thank god I never have to do that again.”

Main Character: In my review of “GTA IV,” I said Niko Bellic “may be the most finely nuanced character the game industry has ever produced.” In ensuing conversations, Stephen disagreed, and I have to admit he made some pretty solid points. He argued that Niko only has two modes (detatched, aloof smart-##### and cold-blooded killer) and noted that “the motives the developers give Niko are as shallow as [any other video game protagonist]. ‘He’s got a past and he wants revenge. Oh, and money.’”

True. True.

But I still think Niko is a big step up from the Marcus Fenixes of the gaming world—those one-dimensional, testosterone-fueled cartoon characters who owe more to Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Predator” than to Ray Liotta in “Goodfellas.” Hell, when you think about most game characters, it’s tough to even remember their names, let alone the details of their personal lives. What can you tell me about “Soap” MacTavish? Or Logan Keller? I mean, just because there’s a picture of a baby in Gordon Freeman‘s locker, does that make him more human?

By those admittedly pitiful standards, Niko Bellic is a richly drawn character.

But if you compare him to, say, Humbert Humbert or Hannibal Lecter, he’s barely a sketch.

Again, that’s not necessarily “GTA’s” fault. It points to a weakness in the industry.

Part of the problem is that game developers often intentionally create the most generic character possible. Theoretically, that way anyone who happens to play the game can project their own personalities onto an everyman avatar instead of being force-fed one they may not like or relate to.

OK, great. But does it have to be that way? Probably not. Hollywood gives us countless protagonists with strong personalities, and even when we can’t necessarily see ourselves hanging out and having a beer with the character, we can almost always relate to their fundamental humanity—assuming there’s a decent actor in the role.

So, as Stephen asked, why can’t game characters’ personalities be as customizable as their faces or wardrobes? Sure, it would require a whole new technology, probably. And, yeah, it would change the game and probably make the story different for each and every player. But that’s a good thing, right?

Video games have come a long way in the last 10 years—and one look at the top-down 2-D graphics of the original 1998 “Grand Theft Auto” is all the proof you need—but there’s still a long way to go. If Rockstar isn’t prepared to put its $500 million toward taking the next giant leap, let’s hope another game developer is.

In the meantime, “GTA IV” will suffice. Quite nicely, in fact.

Give me liberty; give me ‘Manhunt 2′

I drove my first tank at age 7, using it to blow up my sister. By age 9, I’d killed hundreds upon hundreds of aliens. The following year, I slayed my first dragon. And soon, I was a veteran of countless fist fights.

Of course, none of this happened in reality. It happened on my parents’ TV screen. I was born at just the right time to be among the vanguard of the world’s first generation to grow up with video games.

From the time my father brought home a PONG console when I was six years old, I started playing video games almost every day. I still do. By a conservative estimate, I’ve probably logged somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 hours playing games.

And yet, despite the fact that roughly 75 percent of all video games contain violent content, I have never hit, stabbed, shot, run over, ignited or otherwise maimed another human being.

To hear some people tell it, that would seem improbable if not impossible.

Take the British, Irish, Swiss and Italian governments, for instance. This week, all four countries banned the release of the upcoming Rockstar video game “Manhunt 2,” claiming that it encourages violence and murder.

Thank goodness I live in America, where I’m allowed to make my own decisions about what sort of entertainment I bring into my home. Well, sort of.

As it turns out, there are loads of people even here in the “land of the free” who are conspiring to keep “Manhunt 2” out of my hands.

First, there are the retailers. Because the ESRB justifiably applied an “adults only” rating to “Manhunt 2,” stores such as Best Buy, Target and (of course) Wal-Mart won’t carry the game.

Next there’s Sony and Nintendo, the makers of the PlayStation 2 and Wii consoles for which the game was developed, who have established policies against “adults only”-rated content being released for their systems. Can you imagine if Sony sold you a DVD player but would only let you watch certain movies on it?

And don’t forget about the government. To my knowledge, no U.S. politicians have yet weighed in on the issue. But they will. They always do. Remember the last time Rockstar got in trouble?  It’s only a matter of time.

Finally, there’s Rockstar itself. In response to the uproar, the company has cancelled the game’s planned July 10 release. Perhaps temporarily, but for now there’s serious reason to doubt that “Manhunt 2” will ever hit the market here or anywhere else.

And that’s a shame. No matter how sadistic or gruesome they might be, video games are the creative expression of artists working with a non-traditional medium. They deserve to be seen and played — not banished to a developer’s hard drive by some self-righteous arbiter of decency who thinks you aren’t intelligent, competent or responsible enough to do what’s in your own best interest.

If “Manhunt 2” never sees the light of day, score one for the power-hungry politicians, greedy trial lawyers and meddling busybodies who want to absolve you of personal responsibility for your own behavior. You can already smoke cigarettes for decades and then sue a tobacco company when you get sick, and you can already eat burgers and fries for every meal and then sue McDonald’s when you get fat. Hell, you can even get drunk and crash your car into a tow truck while talking on your cell phone and not wearing a seat belt … and then sue the tow truck company!

Soon, it appears, you’ll be able to go on a murderous rampage and get off scot-free. “It wasn’t my fault — the video game made me do it.”

Garbage.

Depends On What The Definition Of ‘Mature’ Is

This whole Grand Theft Auto flap really pisses me off. If you haven’t paid attention, here’s a couple of paragraphs from USA Today:

The video game industry on Wednesday changed to adults-only the rating of “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” a best-selling title in which explicit sexual content can be unlocked with an Internet download. The best-selling video game, which centers on gang violence, was being pulled from some shelves and slapped with a more restrictive “Adults Only” rating Wednesday after an investigation concluded that explicit sexual content could be unlocked on the game.

An investigation concluded this? Gee, that must’ve been some investigation by the ESRB, who apparently don’t even know how to use their own ratings system. All they had to do was look at the back of the game’s box:

Say, what’s that down in the corner there? Let’s take a closer look.

Well, I’ll be darned. It’s an ESRB rating! And it details all the potentially objectionable content included in the game, such as “blood and gore,” “use of drugs,” “intense violence,” “strong language” and … what’s that other one say? Oh, yeah, “STRONG SEXUAL CONTENT”!

Damn, I should be a professional investigator.

Now, I could go on an extended rant about the fine line between a “Mature” rating and an “Adults Only” rating, but I won’t. You can check the ESRB descriptions yourself: “titles rated M (Mature) have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older” and “titles rated AO (Adults Only) have content that should only be played by persons 18 years and older.”

I could dwell on the fact that these sorts of “news” stories lead the general public to overwhelmingly view video games as uniformly depraved, despite the fact that according to the Entertainment Software Association, 83 percent of all games sold in 2004 were rated E for “Everyone” or T for “Teen” (which is basically the video game equivalent of the movie world’s G and PG), but I won’t.

I could blast morally outraged parent groups for having a double standard (what about the sex mini-game in the M-rated “God of War,” or the explicit nudity and sex in the M-rated “Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude”?). Surely they’re not just picking on this game because the sex appears to be interracial, right?

Of course, I could also blast the politicians for being the opportunistic scum they are. Does Hillary Clinton getting her panties in a wad over this issue remind anyone else of Tipper Gore and her PMRC putting the smackdown on the equally innocuous 2 Live Crew back in the day?

But what really pisses me off about the whole thing is alluded to in Senator Clinton’s ridiculous statement (link above):

So many parents already feel like they are fighting a battle against violence and sexually explicit material with their hands tied behind their backs. We need companies to be responsible and we need rating systems that work.

Hands tied behind their backs?! I’d be interested to see how these parents managed to get their wallets out of their pockets and sign the $49.99 credit card slip to buy their kids a copy of “Grand Theft Auto” with their hands tied behind their backs the whole time. Maybe pulling off that Houdini-like feat helps explain why these no-doubt conscientious souls were too distracted to simply read the friggin’ content warning on the box.

Yes, Hillary, we need “ratings systems that work.” Perhaps in the future, games with “blood and gore” or “intense violence” or “strong sexual content” can be shipped in a box that has horns and a siren and a little mechanical arm that hits parents over the head with a mallet when they’re not paying attention.

Maybe what we need instead are parents who take a little personal responsibility for what they bring into their homes and expose their children to. If you ask me, saying that Rockstar Games “enabled pornographic material to get into the hands of children” is no different from saying McDonald’s force fed me hamburgers and now I’m a big fat-ass.

Bottom line: Anyone who is titillated by the puerile, polygonal simulation of sex in “Grand Theft Auto” shouldn’t have been playing the game in first place!