Friday, September 23, 2011

The New is not the enemy of The Old

I have to hand it to them, Starbreeze has balls.

I don’t mean they are brave because they producing a game in an over-saturated, spent genre, in a crowded marketplace, oh no.

I mean that they have had the gall to stand before the Internet and present a re-imagining of an Old Classic that was anything but said Old Classic in higher resolution.

Let’s find a name for this. Does “The Fallout 3 syndrome” sound good?

Look, I’m not particularly found of Starbreeze’s output; I think they were nice, engaging, smart games that were a cut above the usual FPS fare, but they didn’t shatter my world.

Now, the original Syndicate - that shattered my world. It introduced me to a new, squad-based take on the real-time strategy I knew and loved from Dune II; it introduced me to the dark, gritty concept of a futuristic, corporation-driven world; and it showed me that it was fun to be evil.

Yeah, in my innocence, I coiled in revulsion at the though of capturing innocent people and modifying them into cybernetic hitmen and women, and pumping their adrenaline levels until they were burned-out husks, ready to be replaced. This game made me feel self-conscious.

Until it didn’t, because it was just so satisfying to wreak havoc and slowly take over the world. Megalomania was setting in, and out went conscience.

Well, not completely; correct me if I’m wrong - maybe it was some other game - but I believe it was my Amiga version of Syndicate that came with a polite note in the box explaining that the dev team put a lot of effort into the game and it would be ok for me to make a backup copy but they would be very grateful if I did not undermine their efforts by distributing it.

I have strayed from the path a bit in the Playstation Era (it was just too convenient and everybody I knew was doing it), but overall, that message left an impression on me, and at that time stopped my pirating habits.

Ah, but I digress. Starbreeze, then. They are mauling one of my formative gaming experiences. I should be livid. Am I? Not really. It really does not matter, Internet.

Worst case scenario, the game is pure shit, and the Syndicate franchise falls back into obscurity. We’re back where we started, really. The original games are still there, and possibly will  eventually be released in GoG for ease of access. So, you know, you have been robbed of nothing.

(and no, you have not been robbed of “potential” for a proper remake. You are not entitled to own people’s future creative efforts just on the grounds that they might be made. get over it, Internet)
Now, let’s consider that Starbreeze, despite having lost key members on recent times, still is a developer with a track record for good games - but especially, for shooters that are focused on setting and ambiance rather than multi-player and kill-streaks; shooters focused on world-building and storytelling; shooters with some degree of experimental mechanics.

I’d say that this is a pretty decent pedigree for a game in the Syndicate universe and theme. Yeah, it would be nicer is it wasn’t in such a drawn-out genre, but lets be realistic here - that’s Starbreeze’s shtick. They probably wouldn’t be very good at real-time squad-based strategy. I’m willing to bet that said game, made by Starbreeze, would be a worse game than this will ever be.

So, am I sold on the new Syndicate? No, I’m not. But I am hopeful. I will at least wait to see some proper footage of a decent length mission before I pass on judgement.

Also, GoG, what’s taking you so long?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

What games did for me: Spider's Bane

Games are awesome. I think I must point that out, emphatically, after my last post painted such a sour picture of my relationship with games.

Much has been made of “gamification” in the last year or so, and anyone even remotely interested in smugly arguing about how important video games are could do worse than reading Jane McGonigal’s “Reality is Broken”. But today is not the day I’m going to ramble on about that topic - but a ramble is coming, count on that! 

No, today I’m going to write about something much less grandiose, but still life-changing. Well, life-changing for me, at any rate. A little change. But significant! For me. 

Since being a kid, I was deathly afraid of spiders. I’m not sure if I would qualify as an arachnophobic, but sure enough, the teeniest spider would render me unable to move, petrified in abject fear. The mere hint of a spider web in my room would keep me awake at night, dreams of thousands of the little critters swarming over me in my sleep - crawling inside my mouth and ears - waiting to ambush as soon as sleep took over. 

Yeah, I was fucked up, and I have, to this day, no clue why. 

And then, Baldur’s Gate came along. I was fifteen or sixteen at the time, and still coming to terms with this CRPG thing - this was so different from the Japanese games I loved, with their spiky-haired heroes and menu-based battle systems. 

But this game, it had something special about it. There was something raw, an earthiness to it, the way the tiny computer people moved around their tiny computer world that was so much like watching a medieval diorama come to life... I was enthralled. 

And so, soon after gathering a full party and having my first skirmishes and victory against kobolds in iron mines, I found myself wandering through the Cloakwood (or was it the “Woods of Sharp Teeth”? I always forget.). And then spiders appeared. 

Mind you, these were not simple spiders, they were giant spiders! And as if it was not enough, they came with a sword spider, a lumbering beast of metallic colour whose every step was a cross between a gnashing of teeth and the scraping of swords - a beast plucked out from my worst nightmares. 

I was paralyzed. I could not even remember to press the space bar to pause the action. No, I just sat there, hearth pounding, as my directionless heroes were hopelessly exploded by the severe poking of the dreaded beasts’ legs. Yes, I had seen spiders in video games before, but they had always been quite cartoony. These were monsters to me, they were, at that time, jarringly real. 

I loaded my save, and then pondered for a long time if I should venture into the forest again. I was still trembling, but yet, the comforting thing about video games was there to help me: the fact that they rarely surprise you a second time. I knew were the spiders had attacked me; I knew how to approach and what to expect. This time, I would be ready. And so, my curiosity and compulsion to explore got the best of me and into the Cloakwood I went again. 

Turns out, the first time around I had deftly avoided a web trap. No such luck this time, and the spidery monsters made shot work of my webbed party. I was still terrified, but now annoyance was catching up to fear. 

The third time, I approached from another side, and loaded my characters up with their best ranged ammo. Two spiders went down before they even touched us, and with everyone gaining up on the sword spider, it soon went down. 

I don’t think I got so excited after any other victory in that game. It was, strangely, like a big weight had been lifted of my shoulders. I knew there were bound to be more spiders around, and that scared me somewhat, - I still edged onwards with ridiculous cation - but now it seemed manageable. 

But this was not the most meaningful event that would happen in that area. No, that was the cave. 

This cave that was covered with spider webs, and filled with spiders, tiny and giant, green and sword-like. It was more or less circular in area, if I recall correctly, and in the center, the spider-mother - not a huge spider, but a fat, bloated woman, her body taken over as breeding ground. This woman was the manifestation and victim of my worst nightmares. 

The battle was tense, and my memory of it is blurry; I don’t recall if I could beat it right as I got there, or if I needed a couple of tries, but beat it I did, and put the bloated victim out of her misery. 

It was cathartic! And the prize? A beautiful two-handed sword, my fetish at the time (all those japanese RPGs, you know?), magically enhanced for the specific purpose of killing spiders. Never up until my WoW years have I looked upon a virtual item with such glee. 

I don’t know what happened to my brain that day, but sure enough, after my afternoon of spider-killing, I was not so scared. While it would make for a great story to say that I was “cured” of my fear, the reality is far tamer. It was a first step, and the next time I saw a spider, I was able - very slowly and reluctantly- , to muster the courage to grab a shoe and squash it. 

It was a start.