Sunday, January 24, 2010

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

While playing Assassin's Creed 2 the other day, I knocked a box of books out of a scholar's hands as I pushed past him, only to be berated by a very familiar voice. An hour or so later, after finding one of the hidden glyphs and unlocking one of Subject 16's data entries, I immediately recognised the voice providing the voiceover.

Cam Clarke (sometimes credited as James Flinders) has to be one of the most prolific voice actors in videogames. IMDB credits him with 196 voice acting roles in cartoons and games, and I'm fairly sure the list isn't complete, either.

If you're somewhere around my age, you would probably first heard his voice in various animated series - he played Max Sterling in Robotech I, Lancer in Robotech III, Leonardo in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Die Fledermaus in The Tick, and many, many others, and you've probably heard him enough to allow you to recognise his voice quite easily.

On the games side, He's been in just about every Bioware RPG ever released, along with providing voices for most MMOs on the market. He voiced Liquid Snake in Metal Gear Solid, Hercules in God of War II, Thor in Marvel Ultimate Alliance, but a lot of the time he voices relatively unimportant background characters and NPCs.

The problem is that he has such a distinctive voice, and one that I've heard so many times, that I actually find he breaks the ambience of whatever game he's in a little bit. I actually get pulled out of whatever setting the game is supposed to be in and think "oh, it's Cam Clarke again". It sounds harsh, because I have certainly enjoyed previous things he's done, but I'd actually rather developers of newer games didn't use him.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Boon and the Bane of Metacritic

I think Metacritic is a fantastic tool (well, Metacritic for games at least, I don't use it for books, movies, music or TV, as I'm less interested in critical opinion of those things, I prefer personal recommendation). Previously, I used to skim over four or five games sites in an attempt to get a broader view of the reception of a game, as different reviewers' tastes can vary. Now, thanks to Metacritic, I pretty much just read Eurogamer, and for an overview of any particular game's score I can have a look on Metacritic, and possibly read a few more reviews if I feel the need.

The problem with Metacritic is that some people take it way too seriously. I'm not sure if the system wars (I hesitate to use the term console wars, because they probably go all the way back to Spectrum vs Amstrad) were always this belligerent, and it's just so much more noticeable due to the internet granting every deranged lunatic a pulpit from which to declare how fiercely invested he is in his gaming platform of choice, but it seems that for many, the enjoyment of gaming is entirely secondary to the quest to prove that any other system, and all the games for it, are rubbish. PS3 owners are required to belittle Gears of War, Xbox owners to dismiss Killzone 2, and PC diehards have to deride anything that is console exclusive.

Metacritic, by reducing the critical reception of every game to a percentile value, allows for the explicit comparison of these games. It's not perfect as it can struggle to equate different sites' reviewing methods (a 6/10 from Eurogamer is probably a better score than a 7.8 from IGN), and it does allow completely different games to be compared on the same scale (For example, are you aware that the Xbox version of Peggle is a much better game than Assassin's Creed?), but the system is about as objective as it could be, and it has become the de facto standard for measuring games.

This causes an issue, especially in the context of the console war, because a bad (or even not stellar) review can damage a games' metascore, especially those with metascores in the 90s, where every less than perfect score drags the metascore lower. I recall the huge uproar when Eurogamer gave Gears of War 8/10, and I recall the comments thread had more than 1200 posts when they dared to give Metal Gear Solid 4 a similarly "low" score. I have seen some ridiculous comments on review threads, such as people saying "well, the game has a metascore of 78 at the moment, so your score of 6/10 is clearly wrong", as if they believe that the metascore should determine reviews, rather than the reviews determining the metascore.

I suppose that vocal idiots are a problem endemic to the internet (warning, link contains bad language), and we shouldn't let this detract from the highly useful information that Metacritic aggregates.

Some useless facts: Grand Theft Auto IV has the highest metascore of any current generation game at 98. At 97, Super Mario Galaxy for the Wii has the highest metascore of a game exclusive to a single console, followed by Uncharted 2 on the PS3 with 96. The highest rated Xbox 360 exclusive is Gears of War with 94.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Go To Hell

Warning: Very minor spoilers

I downloaded the Dante's Inferno demo that was released on Christmas Eve, but I only had the chance to play it a few days ago. I mentioned Dante's Inferno in my stylish hard action roundup a few weeks back, noting that it could be interpreted as a fairly cynical attempt to cash in God of War 3's PS3 exclusivity. Well, my overriding impression from the demo is how blatant a clone of God of War the game is, and I can't help but think this is a bit of a mistake on the part of developers Visceral Games.

The demo opens with a tutorial battle against some basic human foes, while Dante is still on one of the Crusades. The light/heavy attack combinations, and the right stick evasion in particular, feel exactly like God of War (you could argue that all games of this sort will have a somewhat similar control scheme, but I think it is telling that I was immediately reminded of God of War, rather than the last game of this genre I had played, which would be Ninja Gaiden 2). After completing this battle Dante is stabbed in the back, and as he is dying Death arrives to claim him, saying how his actions have damned him and his family. Dante refuses to accept this, and ends up fighting and killing Death with his own scythe, which then becomes Dante's standard weapon. It's exactly the sort of thing you'd expect to see Kratos doing, but the problem is that Dante's Inferno's fallen crusader doesn't radiate the sort of violence that God of War's ghost of Sparta does. Maybe it's unfair to accuse the game of a lack of character based on a short demo, but even the opening scene of God of War was enough to establish that Kratos was a very bad man, and Dante's Inferno doesn't do that. God of War comparisons are again unavoidable when Dante arrives back at his villa to find his wife murdered (although it looks far more like the scene from the movie Gladiator). From then on, all Hell breaks loose (literally) as Dante attempts to follow his wife into Hell to free her.

The game certainly looks good, the graphics looking much sharper than what I remember of God of War 1 and 2 (which is to be expected given the hardware the games are running on), and it apparently all moves along at a constant 60 frames per second. It has some suitably epic moments, such as when the front wall of Dante's chapel falls away to reveal Hell burning beneath him. The demo only takes Dante as far as the gates of Hell, with the only boss battle being the early one against Death, and I have no doubt there is more shock and awe to come (I recall reading previews stating how gruesome the ends that some of the bosses meet are). The teaser images for the full game at the end of the demo show several scenes of Hell, all mangled bodies and twisted flesh and rivers of blood. It appears to be unrelentingly unpleasant stuff (which, I suppose, you would expect given the nature of the game). Perhaps there will be more variety across the nine levels of Hell in the final game, but I feel that this is an area where Christian mythology lacks the breadth of the Greek mythology that God of War draws upon. Visceral Games are probably determined to be more hardcore than God of War, and they probably feel that all the unpleasant imagery is achieving this, but I'm not so sure of it as a design decision. Another example of this would be all the gratuitous nipple shots of Beatrice, Dante's wife, which aren't really necessary, but it really seems like the developers thought "well, God of War had breasts in it, we'd better have some in our game, too".

I haven't even touched on the matter of the source material; I haven't read the Divine Comedy, so I can't provide examples of how the game is not true to it, but I highly doubt that Dante, accompanied by the ghost of the poet Vergil, hacks his way through the nine levels of Hell, eviscerating everything that he crosses paths with. It seems like EA and Visceral are stretching the license a bit too far, essentially just using it for name recognition.

As of writing, there are no early reviews for the game on Metacritic, so my only idea of the critical opinion of the game comes from a few previews, which were pretty positive, but previews always are. My impression from the demo is not that it will be bad game, in fact I think it will be quite a polished action game with some impressive set pieces and brutal action, but I do feel that it would probably have been better if the developers had tried to make their own game, rather than shoehorning their version of God of War into a license that is only tangentially suitable for it.

Dante's Inferno is out on 12 February 2010. I may well end up playing it, but I won't be rushing out to buy a copy at launch.