Sunday, November 28, 2010

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

I feel about Modern Warfare, as a video game, much as I do about The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. I think both are technically well-made, but I have little personal affection for either. I probably enjoyed playing Modern Warfare more so than I did watching Lord of the Rings, but I think parts of me also despised the game much more so than those movies, toward which I would describe myself as more lukewarm. In all fairness, I am not a particular fan of first-person shooters, so Modern Warfare may have started at a disadvantage for me, but truly I must say that playing it was one of the most soul-numbing experiences I ever had in gaming.

The game was sold to me as the modern exemplar of its genre. If you were to play only one FPS in your life, in other words, it should be this one. I might actually be inclined to agree with that, although I have admittedly not played that many examples myself. But Modern Warfare does include just about everything one should expect from an FPS, and most of it done better (if only slightly so) than in any other game I've played.

There is fun to be had here, as well as some of the most exhilarating moments I've had in gaming. Truly, what make the game are the explosive set pieces and scripted sequences that leave the player feeling as though they are acting out a Hollywood blockbuster. There were occasionally stunning images, such as the sight of a helicopter spinning out and going down in real time (no cut to cinematic, pre-rendered or otherwise), while my character sat watching from another helicopter alongside. Even more impressive were the interactive moments that, although obviously scripted, gave the player just enough of an illusion of agency to feel like the hero of the script, as in the game's most adrenaline-fueled scene, when the slow motion kicks in, and you know you've got just one clip in your sidearm to make count, or else.

My favorite mission in the game, essentially a series of scripted encounters, had me playing as part of a two-man sniping team. The operation takes place indoors and outdoors, moves from the foliage to an urban environment, and encompasses just about every gameplay type--stealthy infiltration, long-range sniping, escort mission, and hectic standoff while awaiting rescue. Had that been the only mission in the game (actually, it was spread across two campaign levels), it might still have been the most perfect FPS I would ever have played, despite also being the shortest.

But then there were the other five hours of the roughly six-hour campaign. Most of the game, unfortunately, is just tedious room-clearing, practically indistinguishable from the basic gameplay found in Haze or Perfect Dark Zero, which are regarded as among the worst FPS titles of this generation. You just march forward, unload a clip into any enemy combatant that pops up probably out of nowhere, reload often, retreat to regenerate health, and probably die many unforeseen deaths before it's all over. The formula repeats several times, until there are seemingly thousands of nameless dead left behind on both sides, and there is almost no discernible narrative to let you know where you are, who you're fighting or why. It's unsettlingly impersonal, one of the most emotionally and spiritually deadening experiences not just in gaming, but in my life in general.

The game is assuredly better than Haze or Perfect Dark Zero, yet in some ways it made me feel worse. It may be the game's attitude in the face of its own realism. The game's action is, for sure, very over-the-top, but the overall aesthetic is still starker by far than the cartoony Perfect Dark Zero or even a rugged sci-fi shooter such as Gears of War. Even in the aforementioned favorite mission of mine, there was something eerie about the way, every time I sniped a guy in the head, my AI partner would compliment me with a mesmerized "Beautiful." In Haze, these sorts of war-intoxicated hollow men were the bad guys. Even Army of Two, with its mercenary protagonists, was less unnerving, because it actually came across as satirical at times, whereas Modern Warfare seems sincerely gung ho in its militarism.

The very worst (and most impersonal) mission in the game, "Death From Above," has the player staring down the sights from an AC-130 gunship that is providing cover fire for friendlies on the ground. Everything is black-and-white, and your job is to fire upon the many tiny, noiseless enemy silhouettes below until they just stop moving. Your mostly dispassionate pilot will periodically mutter a "Nice shooting" to let you know that you hit your targets. Although Modern Warfare was released three years ago, the stage bears a remarkable resemblance to the infamous WikiLeaks "Collateral Murder" video that came out earlier this year. Even the pilot audio is almost identical. It all suggests that, compared to Haze or Army of Two, Modern Warfare's representation of war is probably the more realistic. It's also uglier. What's furthermore baffling is that, come end credits, developer Infinity Ward chose to roll more of this type of footage, before closing with an irreverent rap anthem that samples, among other things, the developer's own pre-release hype for its game.

So did I ultimately have fun with Modern Warfare? I guess. I'm really not sure, however, because by the end I had kind of stopped feeling.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

No Such Thing

Stopping by the workplace commons to refill my water, I spotted the off-duty older security guard sitting by himself and staring out the second-floor window. Alerted by the gurgling of the water cooler, he turned to stare at me. I smiled and nodded in acknowledgment, as is my usual response, and prepared to make my exit back to work.

He had other ideas, however, and stopped me to ask whether the office would be open on the day after Thanksgiving. Employees are of course given that day off, but in past years, when the workload has allowed, management has encouraged people to come in and earn overtime. There had been no official word yet for this year, and it was highly unlikely that I, as unconcerned low man on the totem pole, would be informed before security, for whom, if operations are running that day, coming in is maybe not so voluntary.

I told him that I hadn't heard anything, but that, in any case, it hardly mattered to me, because I would not be coming in either way.

"Lucky rascal," he said. "Going home, or staying local?"

For me, home was local, but he didn't need all the details. I answered, "I'll be here. I just won't be here."

"But you're still single, right?"

This seemed to me rather a non-sequitur, but I indulged him and answered in the affirmative.

"Lucky rascal," he said again.

He was being playful of course, and now looked away as if to indicate that he had had his fun and I was free to go. But something compelled me to carry on a little longer.

"Are you married?" I asked him.

"Thirty years," he said.


"No such thing!" he answered triumphantly, as though he had been the one all along steering us to this punchline.

But I was heading in a different direction: "You know, I think maybe you're the lucky one."

He straightened up and smiled more sincerely then. "You've got time," he reassured me, and we both left that as the final word.

And I went back to work and he went back to staring out the window of the empty break room.

No, of course I didn't mean it. I would not trade my life for his for anything. But it seemed like the right thing to say at the time.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Drawing the Line

You've probably heard by now that, in honor of the 25th anniversary of Super Mario Bros., Nintendo will be releasing a Wii port of the 16-bit Super Mario All-Stars next month. And, I ask, people are supposed to be happy about this? I've been a sucker at times, but I will not be giving Nintendo thirty dollars for this. No, sir.

Let's take things back a bit to 1993, when Nintendo released Super Mario All-Stars for the Super NES. The compilation was one of the sweetest packages in gaming, bringing together three of the NES's most celebrated platformers on one cartridge and giving them new life through completely revamped graphics and audio and the ability to save your progress. It also threw in one additional full game, The Lost Levels--actually the original Japan-only Super Mario Bros. 2--which many Western gamers had for years been curious about. It is perhaps not widely known that, a year later, Nintendo even added a retouched Super Mario World to an updated version, Super Mario All-Stars + Super Mario World, which was distributed as a console pack-in. Like I said, pretty sweet, eh?

Now fast-forward some ten years to the Game Boy Advance era, AKA "the dark times." With the GBA proving more than powerful enough to handle ports of SNES games, Nintendo set to granting many players' wishes by portable-izing some of their 16-bit favorites. Near the top of the request list had to be Super Mario All-Stars and its collection of evergreen titles. Maybe Nintendo would even be extra cool and give us the + Super Mario World edition. Well, we got it all right . . . as three separate $20-30 cartridges.

Somehow, as the games got older, what was once one of the greatest deals of the 16-bit era was now, ten years later, being sold to us again, no longer a collection nor a bargain. Why? Seemingly for no other reason than because Nintendo had figured out how to squeeze its fans for their every last drop of passion and especially money. The Super Mario Advance series, so nonsensically ordered, didn't even look good on the shelf as separate titles. We got Super Mario Advance (Super Mario Bros. 2), Super Mario World: Super Mario Advance 2, and Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3 (Super Mario Advance 3 was Yoshi's Island).

Where were Super Mario Bros. and The Lost Levels? Well, the 8-bit versions had already been ported and enhanced for the Game Boy Color as Super Mario Bros. Deluxe in 1999. Even Nintendo wouldn't have tried to sell us those games yet again so soon, right? Not at all! In 2004, as part of the "Classic NES Series," Nintendo gave us a straight port of Super Mario Bros. for the GBA for $20. This was, of course, the same mercenary line that included the 8-bit Metroid, which had already been featured as an extra in both Metroid Prime (later removed from the Wii version) and Metroid: Zero Mission. Other games in the $20 "budget" series included Excitebike, Donkey Kong, and Ice Climber, all of which were available both as extras in the GameCube Animal Crossing and as much cheaper cards for the e-Reader.

Speaking of Animal Crossing for the GameCube, did you know that it included complete emulations of both Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda? I wouldn't blame you if you didn't, because to this day Nintendo has never given players any means to unlock them. You can find any number of lesser NES games quite easily within Animal Crossing, but Nintendo quietly backed away from even acknowledging the existence of these most prized items, even though hackers have confirmed that the games are right there on the disc. Why were they coded into the game if Nintendo had no intention of letting us find them? Well, probably the Animal Crossing developers started with a cool idea, which then went out the window as soon as Nintendo realized that fools would pay $20 for what might otherwise have been offered for free. That is surely why no subsequent Animal Crossing game has included emulated classics, which were practically the only thing I liked about the GameCube game. After all, how can Nintendo afford to be giving away free games, when people are willing to pay money yet again for Excitebike on the Virtual Console?

I'll concede that the Virtual Console is a cool idea with a lot of untapped potential, but sometimes that potential seems deliberately untapped. And that brings us to now, when, instead of bringing Super Mario All-Stars to Virtual Console for 800 points (the standard rate for SNES titles), Nintendo is charging us $30 for a retail disc that is, by all accounts, nothing more than the original ROM with only maybe updated copyright dates and legal screens. There's no Super Mario World, none of the GBA or e-Reader extras, no four-player Mario Bros. remake, and certainly nothing brand new to this edition. It's just 17-year-old versions of 20-25-year-old games, the originals of which have long been available on Virtual Console, among myriad other formats.


*sigh* You wonder why Nintendo isn't cool anymore? It's not because they make baby games now. It's because they pull stuff like this.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

His Sour Grape

Well, there hasn't been any recent news on the Contador front, but that doesn't mean I've forgotten.

Alberto Contador, three-time Tour de France winner, revealed in September that a urine sample he had given during his victorious 2010 race contained minute traces of clenbuterol, a banned performance-enhancing drug. The Spaniard attempted to explain it away as due to food contamination, also pointing out that the amount detected was so miniscule that it could not possibly have aided his results. The World Anti-Doping Agency has rejected this defense, however, saying that it has heard it all before. Contador’s case is further damaged by the revelation that a brand new test found him also positive for plasticizers—almost certainly residue from plastic IV bags, which could have been used for blood transfusions to boost endurance.

Contador has been provisionally suspended by the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), although no hearing has been set yet, and his 2010 title presently remains on the record. An official ruling could be a long way off, judging by the doping case of Floyd Landis, who was only finally stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title more than a year after the race had concluded.

While Contador must remain innocent until proven guilty, some would say the damage to cycling’s reputation has already been done. Even if his test results cannot be definitively linked to doping, the mere fact that such evidence has been found casts further suspicion on a sport hammered by drug use over the last decade at least. Far from being surprised by allegations that their champions may be dopers, many people now expect that any Tour de France winner must be on something, the stinging disgrace of Floyd Landis perhaps justifying their cynicism.

Personally, I never followed cycling with any passion, and I really couldn't care less about Contador or Landis, except insofar as their cases add further fuel to the hunt for the alpha, the only truly newsworthy person or topic in the world of cycling. I'm talking, of course, about Lance Armstrong, the big dog himself.

The ever-popular Armstrong, self-described as the most-tested athlete in the world, won the Tour de France a record seven consecutive times, never once having been found guilty of doping. But the allegations persisted throughout his period of dominance, and he has been indirectly linked to drug use through guilty associates and teammates, including Landis, who has, in the aftermath of his own admission of misconduct, named Armstrong as a fellow doper. Armstrong remains the focus of an intensifying investigation into cycling that is now being assisted by Jeff Novitzky, who played a key role in the BALCO case that implicated Barry Bonds and Marion Jones, among others.

I’m reluctant to judge the man until an official verdict comes out, but as with Alberto Contador, I must admit that Armstrong’s case practically begins in doubt, and any evidence as has already been gathered tips the odds severely against his being innocent.

What concerns me is the larger repercussions, beyond cycling or even sports in general, that might accompany the ruination of Lance Armstrong. I fear the outcome of this investigation because I know that, even as his sport has been tainted in the eyes of many, Armstrong himself remains a hero to even more people, on account of the things he has done outside of cycling. Just prior to the start of his seven-year reign at the Tour de France, having himself beaten the odds to triumph over testicular cancer, he founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation, whose LIVESTRONG movement has supported and inspired millions of cancer sufferers. Already thus recognized as one of the most philanthropic professional athletes in the world, Armstrong also co-founded the Athletes for Hope organization to get other athletes involved with charitable causes. He’s also one of the more active celebrity Twitter users, and his more than 2.5 million followers are proof of his public sway.

What would it mean, in the larger scheme, for Lance Armstrong to be toppled by a doping scandal? What would it mean for the Lance Armstrong Foundation, for LIVESTRONG, for all those who have been inspired by all that he has done? These are the questions that worry me.

I value truth perhaps beyond any other virtue, and I cannot abide cheating. I await justice in the trials of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who continue to tarnish baseball with their flimsy assertions of no wrongdoing. But Armstrong, as a public figure—a hero even for many—means so much more than those men, and it’s very hard for me to reconcile the possibility of his guilt with all the genuine good that he’s done. Personally, if I were to weigh the good against the bad, then I suppose I’d say that raising millions for cancer care and research should outweigh use of a banned substance in the Tour de France, which is, after all, just a sport. But is that to say that his good deeds excuse his (alleged) misconduct, and we’re just supposed to look the other way? That the ends justify the means, in other words (because his cycling career was what made all else possible)? Or, more cynically, that he should be allowed, through good works, to buy the adoration of the public and seven ill-gotten Tour de France titles? That’s a difficult philosophical question that I am woefully unqualified to tackle. But it’s also the issue that the public will have to face, if the reckoning promised by Novitzky comes to pass.

Bonds and Clemens too were heroes of a sort once, as were Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Now we know that their era was a shameful period in baseball’s once proud history, their dubious achievements leaving question marks all over the record book of America’s pastime. And the damage extends into today, with active stars such as Alex Rodriguez admitting to having used anabolic steroids in the past, sowing cynicism and doubt as to how much of his career is real versus enhanced. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know for sure, and that constant uncertainty is enough for many, myself included, to dull the pleasure of professional sports.

Men such as these, through their lies, stole from us the innocence to believe in and be inspired by professional athletes. From my perspective, they stole Major League Baseball itself from us, and it is now impossible for me to take the sport seriously. But again, that’s just sports. Lance Armstrong is bigger. I was never a fan of cycling, nor have I ever had cancer, so I’ve never had much reason to follow Armstrong’s name in the news, but even I can appreciate the things he has done for people affected by cancer. I would see the value of it every time I saw a random jogger sporting a yellow LIVESTRONG wristband to raise awareness and support for cancer research, as well as the resolve to live life to its fullest. The idea inspired other charities to produce their own variously colored gel bracelets, and these too would catch my eye as I spotted them everywhere on people who, even if only in a small way, were trying to inspire others as they themselves had been inspired to noble causes. But if Armstrong too was a cheater, then was his message a lie, all this hope that he gave people false? Take Lance Armstrong away from all the good men and women who believe in him, and it could amount to taking hope itself away from them.

Perhaps no sane person should confuse the man with his foundation, for which he may be merely a figurehead and not an active contributor. But I just don’t know. The foundation originated with him, it still bears his name, and Armstrong remains the face to draw people in. However little he may be involved with the day-to-day goings-on (and I honestly have no idea to what extent he is or isn’t), I imagine that, in the public perception, he is the foundation, and there is no separating it from him.

So am I a fool because part of me wants to keep LIVESTRONG going, even if it is rooted in a lie? Is a false hope better than none at all? Before, I would have said no. I would have argued that people are only really living free when they are allowed to make choices informed by the complete truth, blissful ignorance being but an illusion. But I don’t think I ever had to consider the question seriously before now, and suddenly I find myself without answers.

The truth is all well and good, but it can also be devastating. What good came of learning of Tiger Wood’s extracurricular transgressions—cheating of an altogether different sort? Or, moving from sports to the entertainment industry, what about Mel Gibson? Yes, we got the truth, and now that we are able to see these false idols for what they are, we realize what fools we were to have ever followed them in the first place. A valuable lesson learned, no? Yet, as one celebrity role model after another lets us down, soon enough we will stop believing in heroes altogether. Having been stung by these unworthy men for having believed in them more than what they are, we now exchange betrayed hopes for cynicism, believing in nothing and assuming the worst in people. I think that’s a shame. What’s more, I think that within that cynicism lies the true damage inflicted upon society by their exposed lies.

Perhaps we just had unrealistic expectations. Should we really be so disappointed to learn that our beloved celebrities—the figures most prominent in the public eye—are only men after all, as fallible as the rest of us, only their mistakes may well be greater in magnitude, as are the rest of their lives? I suppose we wish for our heroes to be wholly heroic and to never let us down. And yet I don’t see why that is so wrong. Perhaps people believe in Lance Armstrong because they need to, but why is there seemingly no scenario where honesty and inspiration intersect? Don’t people need truth and hope both equally? Don’t people deserve a hero who can deliver both? Personally, I still wish for that.

Of course, no one has caught Armstrong yet. Given all the tests he had to pass, maybe he really was clean through all those victories. I can only continue hoping that he was.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Where do we go from here?

As far as I'm concerned, the biggest story in gaming right now is Keiji Inafune's shocking resignation from Capcom, where he had spent the last 23 years, and for whom he had still been doing press and promotion within the past month.

Best known for his involvement with the Mega Man series, he eventually rose to become head of R&D and global head of production at Capcom. To many, however, more than being the head of development at Capcom, Keiji Inafune was Capcom. A Capcom without Keiji is almost as unthinkable as a Nintendo without Shigeru Miyamoto. We've still yet to get the full picture, and for now we can only speculate as to what it all means, how it came to this, and where Capcom and Keiji each go from here.

Looking back, it's not as if there weren't signs. A famously candid interviewee, he has many times made clear his dissatisfaction with the gutless direction of the Japanese games industry, even criticizing Capcom specifically. Of course, he was hardly the only one, and I just thought it was his way of lighting a fire under his subordinates.

As a mere consumer, I mostly just shrugged any time I heard talk of the Japanese games industry collapsing. But this is Keiji Inafune himself, securely the number one man at one of Japan's most distinguished publishers, leaving behind the company and property that have been his career, and I think this drastic move is undeniable proof now that things are not well in the Land of the Rising Sun.

It seems he was truly and deeply unhappy with his job. Although he was the number one man on the development side, he still felt constricted by the way Capcom ran the business end of things. But Keiji says he's not done with games, and apparently he's looking forward to becoming more involved again with the creative process.

It's hard for me to imagine what he might do without Mega Man, which I think he needed more than it needed him. I don't know how involved he was with any other titles that bore his name, but I've mostly thought of him as an executive producer of late. I am reminded of Hironobu Sakaguchi, father of Final Fantasy, who gambled as big as anyone, only to lose almost everything. Far from shaking things up, he now persists in obsolescence and irrelevance. Or perhaps we can look to Yuji Naka's career, post-Sega and Sonic.

I'm as lost and clueless as anyone, but I felt compelled to say a few words, because I honestly think this is the end of Keiji Inafune as a meaningful contributor to the games industry. Is it the end of Japanese games as well? Well, also within the past week, we've seen Shinji Mikami's studio get bought by an American company, and there's also the very reliable rumor that SOCOM developer Slant Six Games is developing some kind of squad-based Resident Evil. So these people are all now working with and for one another anyway, and I'm guessing that, in time, the distinction of "Japanese game" versus "Western game" will simply disappear. Frankly, I'm already kind of over it.