They just don't make them like they used to

I happen to live in Southern California, and most of my neighbors come directly from Mexico. I am first generation American, from a Nicaraguan family. The cultural tastes are very different between the two. Even around my friends  I often find myself the only person with mildly tropical musical tastes. Around my particular neighborhood, the Ranchero music seems to be on non stop, and its indicative of a more rural/farmland/country style musically. I simply can't stand it, but only because I have never developed a taste for country music. It's just not what people listen to where I'm from. 
The music I grew up with was more orchestral, a latin big band of sorts. Its called Salsa, and I can't help but have an appreciation for it because I pretty much grew up listening to it everyday. It's lyrically playful and musically complex and if you have an ear that can sort out all the different instruments working together it's hard not to marvel at it. Despite being the first American born citizen in my family, I still notice the roots dug deep into my ears from time to time. I wonder if it's called Salsa because it is a mix of many instruments and styles intended to get people on the dance floor, and keep them there. 
After being bombarded by country music on either side of my house, there are days like today where I just have to remind myself of what I recall fondly as Latin music. I may be posting more songs on here in the future if the mood strikes me, and it probably will. Here's another one for the road.

Defeat at the Game of Thrones (PC)

With the finale of season 2 now behind us, I figured I could post something related to Game of Thrones while it was topical. However while I was attempting to review the newly released Game of Thrones video game that just came out for the PC, PS3, and Xbox 360, I simply could not bring myself to finish it properly. What follows is a meager attempt at describing my brief, and frustrating experience with the game.

The first thing I noticed about the game was the use of licensed music, and while the game loads up you can hear the opening theme of the show playing in the background. This is a great change of pace, as anyone who commonly plays licensed games knows that music is what never makes it into the game. Although the score is nice and reminiscent of the show, the same can't be said for everything else.

This is one ugly game. The opening cut scene features one of the two protagonists, named Mors, hunting down a deserter from the Black Watch. After cornering his prey, Mors kills his target for abandoning his oath and running away from his post along the wall. Mors has a hound companion as well, but it feels entirely tacked on to make the game look more like Dragon Age or Fable. The dog is utterly uninspired. Unless there is a plot twist later on about how the beast turns into the new king of Westeros, it didn't need to be featured in the game at all. Worse yet, the dog is one of the most hideous character models I've ever seen in a game! We're talking Duke Nukem forever bad. The line that runs across the center of the dogs character model, where the skin is flipped on both sides, is so thick and dominant that it destroys any sense of realism. The jerky animations are rough and unavoidable. Just seeing the dog in this opening scene made me cringe, and set an unintentionally sad tone. 

The game strives for the similar grittiness of the show, with Castle Black being full on muddy and bleak, and while I can appreciate the authenticity of the representation, it left my eyes painfully lost. Everything was so dark and dirty that no matter where I went everything looked the same. Regardless of the building I went in, the interiors all felt the exact same. Static NPCs don't help things either, with lines of dialogue being repeated to themselves ad nauseum. The few NPCs that were assigned to my group looked pretty much identical, save for their weapon of choice. And although they had very contrasting personalities, they just flat out looked like the same person. Despite this, the design of the costumes and armor are great and seem like they would fit right in with the show. However, the faces are lip synced so roughly that they seem a bit muppety, if you will, and it causes this game to fall so hard into the uncanny valley that it reminds me of a Wile E Coyote cartoon, its that comical.

I honestly try and not let graphics carry to much weight in my opinion, as I understand that smaller developers don't have the resources to create spectacular graphics. And I prefer stylized and bright colors over gritty realism. Jet Set Radio looks 100 times better than Modern Warfare 3 in my opinion. But if you are striving for realism, and your game designers don't have the ability to make it look good, then you should go for a more stylized look instead. Would the feel of Game of Thrones really been tarnished had they gone for an animated style instead? It might have looked just as awesome in a different way.
There was some enjoyable dialog, which brings me to the writing. The conversations didn't bring anything new to the table, gameplay wise, but talking to people in an RPG isn't a broke system so it's fine. So far, what little I've experienced was well scripted and the story seemed interesting. From what I understand it involves new characters and a few new locations to tell a story that takes place in the Game of Thrones setting we all know and love. This turned off a lot of people, because they wanted to play as the characters from the show, but I personally had no problem with this. Having the characters from the show be playable in an RPG means plenty of room to get them wrong, and that isn't such an issue with brand new characters that we can more easily project ourselves into.

Sadly I couldn't get to most of the story, as my patience with this game was being crushed by pretty much every other angle. The greatest source of frustration, and the real reason I quit playing this game, was the camera. Specifically the camera control. Holding right click enables the player to grab the camera and turn it to face the character in that direction. However even the slightest twitch of your wrist send the camera spiraling into the stratosphere. I had to turn the mouse sensitivity all the way down and it was still unruly. To make matters worse, the camera is located in this strange position that makes the characters cloak take up most of the center of the screen. "Why don't you just zoom out?" you may be asking, well that's not an option. During combat the camera focuses on whoever you are targeting, but after that target dies it seems to choose your next target randomly, creating some unintended chaos. Perhaps its the version of the game that I had, but the camera is what did my head in.

Another huge factor in making me pull my hair out was how damn precise you have to be with your mouse clicks. I have to imagine this isn't as much of an issue on the console versions of this game (I hope), but where they want you to click is incredibly small and demands precision. If an enemy drops loot, you can't click on the sparkling pouch that's on the floor, but instead you have to click on the item icon that floats above it. During combat, when using your mouse to select different targets, you can't click on circle that appears around the enemies feet, but in some weird unspecified space somewhere between their torso and knees. It's so incredibly frustrating that the few fights I was able to get in quickly eroded into automated disasters, where I gave up trying to choose my targets, and instead hoped the game would prioritize them for me because I stopped caring.

The same goes for navigating the menu system. You can't use traditional clicking to equip items or sort through character stats. The game forces you to figure out a new system of awkward double clicking to equip items and hovering over the last few letters in a skill to make the description pop up. All these things begin to add up quickly, and even an hour after character creation I was grinding my teeth into dust.
The character creation was a bit confusing, and I found the lack of a tutorial regarding skill point spending a bit disheartening. You are given a certain number of points to invest into different weapons and armors, but since you haven't played the game yet, tailoring a character to a play style you aren't quite sure you will like or understand, seems a bit unfair. There was a unique feature that I did appreciate, and it was having to choose your characters Strengths and Weaknesses. You are allowed to pick from a list of positive perks, but you must also have an equal number of negative perks to balance them out. However, it's hard to tell what will be useful to you thirty hours into the game. If you haven't been able to play the game, how will you know which perks are helpful and which are useless?

This goes for any game really, but if you are forced to invest points (that can't be reallocated later) then you should be informed of what the points will have an impact on. Without being taught this information in a clever and subtle way then its all for naught. The brilliant show Extra Credits put it best, the best tutorials don't feel like tutorials at all, and instead play like just another level of the game, despite teaching you how to do things and what they mean. This game seems to lack a character growth tutorial completely. 

The last thing I'm going to discuss about why the Game of Thrones video game defeated me, was the combat. It's essentially Knights of the Old republic without any of the fun. It is an active turn based flow of combat, with all the equations running behind the scenes. Pretty standard fair for recent console RPGs, also similar to Dragon Age, but handled far too plainly. You essentially only have a small handful of attacks that are all tragically unimpressive. Granted I haven't played very far, but from some of the gameplay footage I've seen from later stages of the game, it still seems painfully familiar. Without an array of spectacular moves, the combat looks boring and you just wind up looking at your cooldown meters waiting for your skills to reset, before recycling the same sequence of attacks over and over again. This is where the realism returns to hold the game back some more. The attacks are rarely things that couldn't actually be done in real life, but that makes them mundane and forgettable.

Game of Thrones could have been a good RPG, but as it stands now I feel that it falls just short of decent. I may try and go back to see if I can get through some more of this game in the future. Especially if they release a patch addressing the camera and mouse controls. If not, then this may be the last I say about Game of Thrones, as a video game anyway. To all you fans out there you're probably better off reading the books than playing this game.

Hopefully next summer, winter will finally come. ... Wait, what?

D-Day in video games

Today is the 68th anniversary of D day. On June 6th 1944, Operation Neptune saw the Allied invasion on the beaches of Normandy, and although the term "D-Day" has been used in military operations before, this is the best remembered instance. It has frequently been immortalized in various heartbreaking memorials, thorough documentaries, and cinematic blockbusters. In recent years, WWII has become a persistent setting in popular media, with video games naturally taking advantage of just how many real historical scenarios can be virtually recreated for players to experience.

World War II, as a setting, has been a staple in video games for many years now. There are over 50 first or third person shooter video games in the last twenty years. Easily over 100 titles if you count real time strategy and simulation games. From Medal of Honor in 1999, to Call of Duty: World at War in 2008, I have been taking part of digital recreations of World War II for most of my life.

The opening levels to most of these games usually take place on D day. They tend to follow the same intro scene from Saving Private Ryan. You're on a boat slowly wading towards the beach as machine guns open fire on you, killing the soldiers standing around you. You swim your way to shore and gather with a few survivors, working together to break thru Nazi defenses and take out the gun turrets to secure the beach for the remainder of the allied troops, but not before the whole place is littered with dead bodies.

I've played through this scenario numerous times across various different games, as I imagine numerous gamers have. For awhile it felt like I was storming the beaches anew every couple years on a newer console with better graphics and tighter controls. Eventually, however, the severity of what was going on seemed less like a recreation of a historical event, and more like another round of an annual paintball match. Despite the increasing graphical recreation and visual accuracy of the event, it seemed to lose some gravity with each playthrough. 

The more WWII games that are made, and each new generation of consoles is bound to have a handful, it feels like the severity of what happened on that day is lost in translation. This is perhaps due to over saturation or exposure. But is there a method of combating this desensitization? In my life, thus far, I have probably killed more than a million digital Nazi's. This is an estimation I can make about myself with a great degree of certainty, and I feel that most avid gamers could probably say the same. Is there a way of portraying events like D day, with a greater sense of dignity and respect?

I'm not saying that a game like Call of Duty World at War utterly fails to do this, because they did a decent job, but the game doesn't exactly succeed either. As a game, its great. Fun FPS gameplay, the set pieces are engaging, and most importantly the controls are tight. As a way of telling the struggles of WWII though, I didn't come away with anything. The most memorable part of the game was when you had to fend off zombies!

Often times I've racked my brain about how historical reenactments should be handled in games and its not an easy task. Perhaps including short documentary style vignettes telling about the scenario you just played through, or a biography segment about the actual person you played as, might go a long way towards making a connection between gamers and the war they are taking part in. Or including unlockable war footage and photographs, complete in their brutality and tragedy. I've often wished for a sort of epilogue after a games final level, where the player gets to walk around the National World War II Memorial or the Cemetery at Colleville. And while the credits of the game scroll on the side, they are free to inspect the names on gravestones, or of the Freedom Wall.

Most gamers don't want to be lectured or force fed pedagogically during their entertainment, and I understand that. But I wonder if they should have a choice, at least when it comes to taking part in a real war which cost real people their very real lives.