Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Overall Game of the Year

Ok, confession time: I really don't think I've played enough video games across the course of 2009 to make my own definitive declaration regarding the very best gaming experience(s) that this past year had to offer. Thomas McDonald of GAMES magazine and the National Catholic Register (readers of this blog may recognize him from his recent Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 review discussed here on this blog within the past 2 weeks), however, has separated the wheat from the chaff, as it were, and has what some will consider a surprising choice for "Electronic Game of the Year": Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Full text of the review, with some parts bolded for emphasis by yours truly:

"Batman: Arkham Asylum was a true last-minute upset. The idea that a licensed superhero game might not only be outstanding, but qualify as the best game of the year, just wasn’t feasible. Sure, there have been a few good superhero titles: Marvel Ultimate Alliance, The Spider-Man and Hulk series, and…actually, that’s about it. None ever transcended their license to become a great games on their own. But, as we explored Arkham Asylum more deeply, all the gameplay elements began to evolve, and the locations and story line opened up. We started making shocking comparisons—not to other superhero games, but to certified masterpieces like Bioshock (arguably the finest game of the last decade).

Yes, Arkham Asylum is that good. The combination of three disparate elements—stealth action, plain old brawling, and even a bit of detective work—takes some time to gel, but once it does, the game becomes almost impossible to put down. The upgrade system and gradual introduction of new abilities are remarkably satisfying, and 240 “Riddler puzzles” (including riddles that involve careful examination of the environment) add a tremendous depth and flexibility to the gameplay. The production is topnotch, with performances by the stellar voice cast of Batman: The Animated Series (including Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the definitive Joker) and a terrific story and script by comic book writer and TV producer Paul Dini. The film is saturated with Batman lore and fan-service, and loaded to the gills with villains from the Dark Knight’s rogues’ gallery. It is, simply (and without any undue hyperbole), the best superhero game, ever. —Thomas L. McDonald

Haven't played the game, so I can't comment, but I know Mr. McDonald isn't the first to compare this game to Bioshock, nor the only one to name it Game of the Year for 2009.

Overall it's been a pretty good year for action game fans, with Resident Evil 5, God of War, Batman, Deadly Creatures, Uncharted 2, Assassin's Creed 2, and Bayonetta receiving accolades from both critics and fans alike. Modern Warfare 2 and Beatles Rock Band are also bound to get the GOTY nod from quite a few people, as well. I've been playing too much of 2008 (and even 2007's) games to weigh in on this subject, but I'm still curious to hear what others are thinking, if only to know what to buy from the Toys R' Us bargain bin a few months from now. Give me the scoop, readers: What's the best videogame of 2009?

DS Game of the Year?

My brother picked up a fairly obscure Western DS RPG yesterday after seeing its high metacritic average (metacritic.com is a website that compiles reviews for a given video game and averages them into a composite score; for you movie buffs out there, think Rottentomatoes.com, but for video games):

IGN is calling it the "sleeper hit of the year." My brother bought it and was, for better or for worse, up until the wee hours of the morning playing it. He enthusiastically described the game mechanics in a way that was clearly meant to entice me to purchase a copy of my own - I may as yet do so, especially after reading IGN's review.

Has anyone else played this game?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

I'm a Survivor!

Just finished RE5 with my brother this morning. Not sure if I'm up for a full-fledged review, but as a gamer fairly new to the Resident Evil franchise, I will say I was very pleased with the entire package - the game isn't perfect, but there's nothing really glaringly WRONG with the game, either. It's violent, it's gory, but not in the way the Modern Warfare 2 is; there is no moral relativism-masquerading-as-narrative "depth" here. In fact, without spoiling anything, I dare say the story's themes fit quite well into a well-formed Catholic worldview. I was genuinely surprised by the characterization, too; it's as much of an action game as a horror game, meaning there's equal parts Indiana Jones as there is...well, "Resident Evil" (the movie, of course ;P). Actually, it's better than quite a few movie storylines in the recent past...including the most recent Indiana Jones movie.

It's not a game for the youngsters, and I'm not sure if the game holds up if you go it solo. Without spoiling the more important narrative details, though, I will say this: Resident Evil is a very impressive game. It's visually and aurally outstanding; the narrative is more compelling than most movies from the past year (seriously!), and Capcom managed to synthesize the best elements of a "scare-your-pants-off" atmosphere with action-oriented gameplay (it's not so much a Halo-esque "shooter" as a Devil May Cry "action game") that thrives on cooperation between players rather than competition. It's a little on the short side, and there's nothing truly "innovative" about the actual gameplay itself beyond the cooperative aspect, but it does everything you'd expect - and some things you wouldn't expect - more than adequately. Easily the biggest and best "surprise hit" for 2009.

Readers, please feel free to comment, especially RE: the story in the combox below. I would love to talk about the narrative, characters, etc. in greater depth than this intentionally spoiler-free blog post indicates. Just be careful with spoilers!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Cooperation and Competition in Video Games

First off, a belated Merry Christmas to all readers of this blog. God bless each and every one of you!

Here's what my dad and I bought my younger brothers for Christmas:

I was under the impression that this game was just a "wii-make" of the Nintendo DS game of the same name from three years ago. Turns out I was wrong, and good thing, too: it's as if the game was designed with the Kirchoff clan in mind. It's more cooperative than competitive, which seems to be a rarity for video games these days outside of the shooter genre.

My brother Tim has introduced me to another cooperative game, Resident Evil 5. My aversion to blood, gore, and the like isn't preventing me from enjoying it, either. In fact, I feel like I'm playing some Indiana Jones spin-off more often than not - except for the blood and guts, of course. It may be worth re-examining the last blog post in light of this game, as well.

All that for later, though. The important thing: cooperative multiplayer gaming is AWESOME. Period. And as much as "playing a sport" could probably do this just as well, you can't play basketball outside when there's snow on the ground.

I'll (hopefully) post more detailed impressions of both of these games later (or, alternatively, another poster will!). For now, though, less typing, and more, you know, actual game-playing. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Monday, December 14, 2009

On Video Game Violence

Christmas break – a full month of it, no less – has arrived for this anxious seminarian! That means, among other things, actually attending to the duties of blogmaster for once – an obligation I’m actually quite happy to have, actually, as it will doubtlessly keep me busy amidst the tedium that haunts Christmas vacation. As I wrote on my facebook status this morning: “It’s amazing how the luxury of free time can make one feel so despondent.” Human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, which means that we have to, you know, do stuff now and then. In the words of the late and Great John Paul II:

"Work is a good thing for man – a good thing for his humanity – because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being’."
Without turning this post into yet another episode of “Theology Amateur Hour,” let me just say that despite my numerous blog-vanishings, infrequent postings, and general ineptitude in maintaining this blog, I’m VERY thankful for the readership I have here, diminutive and infrequent as it may be. Blogging gives me a chance to do something, however menial, for the greater glory of God, and if any solitary reader gleans something worthwhile from what happens here, well, awesome!

*AHEM* Without further ado, then…

“Video game violence” has been something of a recurring theme here on CathVG throughout the duration of its existence, but it seems to me that the past few months in particular have brought the issue into a greater focus. This is evident both from my own individual postings and comments from this blog’s readership. My “review” of Soul Calibur IV, for example, defended the game’s violence as a sort of “icon” in which we one can see the “glory” of fighting – yes, even using lethal means, if necessary – for what the Psalmist calls “the cause of truth, goodness and right.”

Commenter j35u5fr34k expressed his reservation about anyone, let alone seminarians and priests, playing violent video games:

“You and these priests need to read what the Pope teaches about violence in video games. I also struggle with whether or not I should play video games that depict violence against humans. The Pope is outspoken against games that exhault violence.”

A fair point. Sadly, his and other commentators wishing to probe this issue further received no response from me, and thus any opportunity for intellectual and spiritual edification – the “fulfillment,” or at least a part of said fulfillment, that JPII talks about in the quote above – was ignored. No longer!

For me, the portrayal of “violence” in any given media context is justified based on, well, the context; the same applies for treatment of sexuality. I despise the brutality of movies like Watchmen; I likewise cringe at the gratuitous violence in games like Grand Theft Auto. At the same time, I’ve always been very sympathetic to those who claim that Halo and the like are basically this generation’s Cops and Robbers; a harmless role-playing/imaginative exercise. Everyone knows who the good guys and the bad guys are; the moral lines are drawn, and there’s no over-the-top brutality involved in anything that occurs in either situation.
Some games, however, not only blur the line between right and wrong, but seem to glorify in making the player feel as if they ARE engaging in actual acts of brutality. For an example of this peculiar game mechanic (I know of no better euphemism for this phenomenon), see the latest review of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 from none other than the National Catholic Register, a Catholic periodical worth reading if there ever was one. It mentions the problem with the now-infamous “Airport level” in the game, which, as the article describes, involves the player
“…A group of men enter an airport where civilians are peacefully waiting for their flights. The image on the screen is the perspective of your character, gun in hand.Calmly, slowly, methodically, the men walk through two entire levels of the airport mowing down civilians. They scream, run and drag their wounded bodies through smears of their own blood until someone, perhaps you, puts a bullet in their heads. Scores of unarmed people are mowed down. At the very end, your character is shot in the head, left staring lifelessly at the ceiling as blood pools around him.”

The article then asks the question: “Is the cold-blooded massacre of innocent civilians really an experience on the emotional spectrum that we need not only witness, but simulate?” I would answer in the negative, as I hope ANYBODY would. The question is, what makes this game so morally objectionable in contrast to the other parts of the game? How is MW2 worse than Halo or another shooter? Is it because of the violence itself? The intensity of the depiction of the violence in question? Is it the act or object of the violence, in which the player is involved in such a powerful way?

I still need to sort out my thoughts on the matter a bit more, but my rudimentary knowledge of Catholic moral theology makes me think it’s a combination of the three. As per the catechism:

“1750 The morality of human acts depends on:
- the object chosen;
- the end in view or the intention;
- the circumstances of the action.”
See: http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s1c1a4.htm

Of course, there’s a such thing as an intrinsically evil act, too. Murder, needless to say, is such an action; is the virtual murder of civilians, then, tantamount to actual murder? It would seem so…moreover, does this carry into any act of murder in games? Is having a fragfest in Halo with friends also morally wrong (and, by extension, playing games like cops and robbers), too?
One of these things is not like the other. Trying to make a player feel accomplished for brutally killing civilians is certainly morally distinguishable from shooting a bald space marine who is also trying to kill you (lethal self-defense is also defended by Catholic doctrine). Yet, irrespective of how its depicted, it seems that there’s something wrong with killing people in any circumstance, regardless of how brutally its depicted. Is it really murder if it’s “just a game”? Where is the line drawn here?

Ok, enough of my ruminations. Readers, the ball is in your court. Fire away!