Monday, March 5, 2012

Steam Box? Also: The fine art of focused storytelling vs. the problem with sandboxes; or, Metro 2033 vs. Dead Island

 First off, this story has me interested: apparently there's more than a little reason to believe that Valve is looking at a dedicated PC design with console features. At first I was thinking, "whatever, I've got my PC at home already," but I concede a few ideas sprung up which make the concept more tantalizing. Notably:

More games that normally only see life on consoles could come to a dedicated "Steam Box," as the design intent behind a console (dedicated architecture) would hopefully lure some of these console-only designers over to offering up ports on a Steam Box. And no I am not a PC elitist who likes to bitch about "console babies." There are plenty of console-only games out there I'd love to be able to play without buying a Wii or PS3. Unfortunately it probably won't help with the 1st party releases designed to sell systems (Gears of War, Halo...the two I care about in this case) but maybe games that normally never see life on the PC would get a chance this way. Maybe. (And also probably a flood of console shovelware too, I am sure...)

It would open up my Steam account to a console that is optimized for sitting on my comfy sofa couch in front of my 55 inch screen TV. Admittedly, I can hook my PC up to my big screen TV right now and play games, but I've found that this experience is not at satisfying as simply playing with the Xbox on the big screen (and don't even try to get any real work done this way!) So for the sake of design and convenience, why not.

It might have a chance of dethroning Microsoft and Sony from their console pillars. I'd like to see that just for the hell of it.

In Mother Russia, Pip Boy Wear You!

Okay! So anyway, as of today I am at last 92% finished (according the the little meter) in Dead Island. By the time this sees print I should be done with it and probably experiencing the agony of poor design that is allegedly found in the Ryder White DLC. We'll see. I also finished Metro 2033 this weekend, even with a baby sitting on my knee staring intensely at the screen while I blew up dark one amoebas (and crying ceaselessly if I tried to put him down; I have no idea why this kid was so fascinated at watching Metro 2033, a game I felt rather nervous about playing with him even being in the same room. Hmmmm definitely my child, though)

Dead Island and Metro 2033 are both amazing games. Both have some weaknesses, but their strengths overcome those, for the most part. Moreover, I look forward to the sequels, because unless suits and marketing start meddling in these games the sequels should only get better. But it was interesting to realize that Metro 2033 was ultimately a more satisfying experience, albeit frustrating at times, if only because it was semi-linear (providing linear levels, but with a modest range of options in how to complete each level) and as a result Metro 2033 was able to focus heavily on mood, atmosphere and integrated story telling. When I got to the end of Metro 2033 I felt like I had experienced a meaningful and coherent story arc.

Although I won't be done with Dead Island until tonight, I have to say that the game's efforts at atmosphere and immersion, while excellent, nonetheless began to wear on me toward the end. The game did mix it up....just when I was starting to think that the second act in the city would never, ever end, suddenly I'm in the Jungle, and then I'm in a research facility, and next thing I know I'm exploring ancient Maori cults on the island. Despite this, and perhaps because of the finsl prison level, I still felt like the game's sole purpose was to exhaust the hell out of me while keeping me in a perpetual state of mild confusion. I think it's because while the game's efforts at creating a sort of sandbox zombie apocalypse environment for me to explore are impressive to experience, I absorbed almost all of that ambience and got my fill of it in the first 12-15 hours of the game, before I'd even penetrated the second act. So by the time I reached the fourth act, I had lost any connection to the "setting immersion" element it had early on, and was no firmly wrapped up in the "gameplay element" which honestly gets a bit redundant. See zombies. Kick them down, hack them up, move to next group, click on quest goal, repeat.

Also, Dead Island could have benefited from not having constant, unending respawns MMO-style...

It doesn't help that Dead Island's ability to tell a story is a shoddy mess. The vast plethora of side quests are, while appropriately narrated, almost entirely disconnected from the player character and consist almost exclusively of fetch quests, occasional escort quests, and periodic "clean up" quests, all thematically at odds with the ragtag gang of four that the story is supposedly about. Of the four possible player characters, only the asian gal really strikes me as a "do-gooder," the other three are hard-as-nails amoral survivors with personal agendas that never really get directly addressed throughout the storyline. Worse yet, whenever the game does have a major cutscene or story event, apparently Dead Island was designed under the expectation that at all times you would have all four characters represented, so these storylines are jarring when you see all four protagonists engaging in discourse about a situation or taking action, then the cutscene ends and its back to just you in a solo run or maybe one or two other co-opers.

Despite the lack of coherence in the storyline, and despite the fact that every damned side quest in the game is an annoying and irrelevant sidetrek that only the most lawful good of paladins would bother with ordinarily, Dead Island does have a story, and its a rather interesting one when taken as a whole; the problem is that the developers of this game clearly are not used to the optimal way to stitch together a coherent plotline in a sandbox environment. I'm no authority on the GTA series of games, but it does seem to me that Rockstar has this sort of approach down to a science. Just play Red Dead Redemption for an example of how to do this very well. In fact, for a full-on zombie experience with coherent storytelling get the Undead Nightmare DLC for some wild west zombie action, too...

So in the end, Metro 2033 was much shorter than Dead Island, but was rewarded with a more focused and coherent storyline and an experience that never got old because it used its set pieces and interesting bits to great effect. Dead Island in turns has felt like someone did not edit a film, and instead released several dozens' of hours of raw footage through which I have been methodically watching, at once fascinated, bored, energized and irritated with occasional brilliant moments shining through.

Carmen Sandiego, Where Are You?!?!?!?


  1. You know, I did finish the campaign and while it was a fun ending, it also demonstrated some of the key problems with Dead Island's game play. SPOILER ALERT: when mutated zombie Ryder comes at you over and over, and you're dying again and again, it becomes quickly clear that the best way to win is not to survive (although I'm sure some obscure achievement rewards survival, only the OCD need apply), but instead to suicidally give in to your doom in a pyrrhic victory. In my case, I realized victory was trivial if I rolled grenades at him, and to hell with it if they blew me only death penalty was a few bucks for resurrection. Anyway, this, along with many other gameplay bits, is what prevented the otherwise incredibly atmospheric Dead Island from becoming a truly great experience and kept it firmly in the realm of "just another game."

    Also, I started the Ryder White DLC and got through about a quarter of it when I realized that the DLC felt just like the same old boring pre-programmed cooridor crawls that comprise all of the F.E.A.R. games and make the entire experience both predictable and not in the least bit exciting. They really should have played to the game's strengths, instead of offering the most banal and by-the-numbers cooridor shooter DLC imaginable. It really does contrast with the core game experience, and not favorably.

  2. I'd actually like to see a Zombie Apocalypse game in a Europa pre-gunpowder era. I don't know why, but most zombie games fail to really gain my attention. The genre gets pretty tiring for my tastes. Then again, i do think zombies should move a whole lot faster >_>

  3. That would be cool.....I would love to see period zombie games (and films), like during the Roman Republic, or the American Revolution...the Civil War....a proper Caribbean zombie movie (inspired by On Stranger Tides, the book by Tim Powers). That was one of the cool things about Max Brook's Zombie Survival Guid, when he had the section that looked at possible zombie events/attacks throughout history (and iirc the first one was close to fifty thousand years ago or something crazy like that!)

  4. Oh! Also, in all fairness, Dead Island has some of the fastest zombies out's a game breakdown of fast/slow for reference:

    Fast Zombies: L4D series, Dead Island

    Slow Zombies: Resident Evil series, Land of the Dead: Fiddler's Green (I don't remember any fast ones in that awful game), Dead Rising series (they have occasional "lurchers" though; the real threat in that game is by numbers and also the living crazies), The Island of Doctor Ned (for Borderlands; they have some medium speed zombies in that one tho)

    Not Actually Zombies: Deadly Premonition (but they are slooow except for the axe dude)

    And I can't think of any other zombie games that aren't top-down isometric shooters which tend to have a mixed bag but...well...they're top-down arcade-style games, so its hard to get into them if you didn't develop some weird love for that style of game in childhood, I guess.