Thursday, December 10, 2009

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl - Retrospective

A lot of games in recent years have tried to wear the Realism Kilt of Manliness, but it almost invariably fails to make the game compelling. When you trade shooting Nazis with other Nazis using a gun made of Nazis with a stamina bar that depletes after running for ten seconds, you better have some good game-play lined up to compensate or the game simply stops being fun.

Shadow of Chernobyl manages to be fun even when it's balls-to-the-wall Ninja Gaiden hard, which I love and admire in a game as long as they provide me with a quicksave button. Well, I'm not masochistic - I wouldn't play the user-made hacked Mario levels if they promised attractive single women. But playing this game on the Master difficulty really is the only way to go, because if you're going for realism anyway you might as well go all the way, not unlike your mum.

Shadow of Chernobyl is a first person shooter set in an alternate world's future in which a second disaster occurs at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The second disaster contaminated the surrounding area with radiation and caused weird and otherworldly changes in local fauna, flora, the laws of physics, and your quickload button. Strange anomalies emerged, and these gave birth to wondrous artefacts with impossible attributes. The anomalies and artefacts lure in scientists that study them, prospectors searching for them for personal profit, traders, criminals, army men, Robin Atkin Downes, blaggidy-bloggedy-bloo.

Thus the stage is set, in that suspend-the-disbelief-that-radiation-magics-shiny-objects-into-existence-instead-of-killing-people-horribly kind of way, and the game gets off to a flying start by promising a different and compelling game world.

Then it immediately crashes into a wall made of manticores and failure by introducing a protagonist with amnesia. What, did you have a shittiness quota to meet and you couldn't find some aliens?

Fine, that's a little harsh. After all, a lot of games that have pulled the amnesia lever in the past have been good. Arx Fatalis, The Witcher, and Planescape Fucking Torment are all prime examples, although the latter masterpiece of wholesome Black Isle goodness had the decency to use it back when it hadn't yet become an overused plot device for the creatively impaired.

Okay, I admit, I liked the mysterious message on your PDA that simply said "Kill the Strelok", and you're left wondering who or what Strelok is and why Strelok must be Killed. For all you know you were an evil asshole in your previous life, and Strelok's tendency towards puppy adoption enraged you to the point of unconsciousness, but what the hell - we'll run with it. It gives you a nice goal to reach for as you begin to explore your surroundings.

Even if it is almost as cliché as a protagonist with memory loss.

But, once a refreshingly short and to-the-point intro sequence finished playing and I was given control of my character, I was struck by just how much how none of that mattered when in front of me I had a prime example of what Fallout 3 almost achieved, but couldn't quite.

Above all else, Shadow of Chernobyl is one of those games that offers more immersion than tying an anchor to your leg and jumping into the ocean. From the old AM radio on the desk in the underground bunker, to the rickety walls of the small town wherein people sit around the camp-fire telling stories and strumming on the guitar (apparently trying to forget their troubles by make-believing they're in every other dystopian movie or game ever made), everything comes together to provide just the right atmosphere.

"Here is our world," it seems to say, "drink your fill, and then go murder some people and steal their loot." And I did, and it was good.

Then I had a slight mishap with some army men and had to reload my game, and once the game finished loading and I respawned right beside an enemy who did not know I was there in a situation wherein I'd really have loved to keep it that way, my character loudly and unpreventably cocked his fucking weapon.

Yes, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series is renowned for its loading issues. The quickload button might as well have been called the "local reality-altering device" for all the scripts it cocks up in this game. You never know if everything will load okay, or if previously docile NPCs will jump up and start shooting in the general direction of Taiwan.

It doesn't help immersion any, either, when you heroically save someone's life from three bandits, respond to a distress call with your new acquaintance, meet up with some more stalkers, set up an ambush in a scrapyard for another group of bandits, take up defensive positions, and then sit there in contemplative silence for two minutes reminiscing on Anthony Hopkins' memorable performance as Hannibal Lecter while wondering if or when anything is going to happen, ever, only to discover that the bandit NPCs are still standing around their spawn shouting what I can only assume are Russian profanities at invisible plankton monsters from Omicron Persei 8.

Nor does it help immersion when I'm creeping around the walls of an industrial complex looking for an alternate way in because trying the main route warns me that the psionic emissions are turning men into lesbian caterpillars or some shit, only to find out that the developers apparently didn't plan for people exploring their open-ended world because I rounded a corner, got mauled by lethal radiation warnings out of the clear sky, and immediately fell into the void. Looking up at the jarred layout of the level above me, I remembered Daggerfall, which made me feel really old.

Despite all its flaws, though, the game does live up to its promise of a unique and interesting locale. Mostly. Provisionally. I get the feeling we're supposed to find certain artefacts rare and wondrous, but if I'm barely past the 20 percent mark in terms of the single-player storyline, and one of my artefacts states that it's so rare that few people in the zone have ever even seen it, it waters down the excitement a little -- especially when I have two of the bloody things and I don't even care.

The anomalies that birth the artefacts are also pretty boring, and they function more like semi-visible traps that hurt or kill you instead of scrambling your brains or turning you into a Yahtzee scoresheet or whatever. Which is fine, but they definitely could have done with a little more creativity than just having fire or lightning anomalies disguised with slightly fancier names like Fruit Punch.

Also, the initially alluring concept of having to make do with inferior and worn weapons prone to malfunction stops being topical right around the time you find your seventh scoped assault rifle made of spiked babies and Chuck Norris' facial hair.

Still, it's mostly forgiveable, because the atmosphere stays constant throughout the game (that is, relentless shades of brown and grit), and when there is a sense of danger it's usually emanating from the environment, or the weird shit the zone mutates and spits at you. I don't want to give too much away because a few parts of the game - admittedly emphasising the "not many" meaning of the word "few" - are just as effective at instilling a sense of dread by promise of impending jesuschristwhatthefuckisthatisms as are the first couple of Marine missions in Aliens vs Predator 2 where you don't encounter a single alien for the whole mission and you're left crawling through dimly lit and suspiciously empty hallways in order to turn on the power like in that Jurassic Park scene. You know that shit's going to hit the fan, you just don't know when or how hard, and as a horror technique it's incredibly effective.

The gameplay, like I said, is a pretty standard pseudo-realistic shooter. Weapons are inaccurate and can occasionally jam, forcing you to reload early; armour does what armour does best by preventing your appendix from coming out of your leg without providing much in terms of godlike survivability; and scavenging new and better gear and ammunition is always cause for enthusiasm, especially in the early stages of the game where a pistol with a silencer is a bloody treasure. And since it's probably hard to discern from the previous: These are the reasons this game is fun.

There's just something extremely satisfying about taking down a group of well-armed bandits with a worn-out shotgun made of Scandinavian crisp bread and string, and you feel genuinely awesome for pulling it off. On top of that, whatever weapons the bandits might have been carrying are now yours for the taking. Even more of a challenge is the zone itself -- mutated weird shit, radiation, and anomalies that might as well be called Evan's Spiked Tentacles of Forced Intrusion for the service they provide. 

"But Aylear, you enthralling man-voice gifted person," I would have heard you ask if this was a video review and I was ripping off Zero Punctuation which I'm bloody well not, "what do you do in Ess Tee Aa Ell Kay Ee Are Shadow of Chernobyl?"

Besides following the story objectives, you can spend time exploring, or performing missions for NPCs in various factions. You can be very selective about what kind of missions you want to undertake, which is a big plus because the missions are almost invariably a humongous waste of time. The only thing you get by doing the randomly generated missions given to you by the local trader is at best a modest cash reward and some regular artefact, quickly made moot because you can sell everything in this game, enemies some times carry weapons and artefacts worth more money than the mission rewards, and they keep moving back en masse into areas you've previously cleared out with disturbing frequency, poignantly ignoring the mound of dead bodies roasting on the fire from your previous visit.

The best missions to undertake are usually the ones given by random NPCs, because some of them can provide more interesting loot, like a scope or an upgraded unique weapon. Some times these things are cleverly hidden next to your main objective. Beyond that, consider the randomly generated missions optional. They're passable and the dialogue is pretty good, so there's some meat on those bones. It's too bad the payoff is so underwhelming.

The special missions that advance the story are much more varied and interesting, and they bring you to those charming Chernobyl locales that Skeletor would find creepy. What's great is that you can do these at any time. There's no time limit to doing the story-related stuff, and this being a shooter you don't level up any skills. The entire upgrade philosophy consist of scavenging and looting enemies, usually for a) upgrades to previous weapons, like scopes or silencers, b) newer and better weapons in better condition, and c) occasionally some really pimping stuff found surprisingly early in the game if you're only clever enough to find them, and I can't believe I just said pimping with a straight face.

As the game progressed, I started to feel some strange kind of kinship and understanding with the zone -- or at least that's how I would put it if I wasn't not gay. But I found that as long as I avoided the clearly marked deadly radiation borders that pass for no-fly zones or walls in this game, it was an interesting place to be. I was always looking forward to finding out what the next type of anomaly would be like, and although you do have to kind of sort of fight the zone by finding good protective gear in order to traverse the more openly hostile regions, you also kind of sort of get to know it and understand it, and it provides an environment in which you - the not entirely amoral but certainly in-the-grey-area protagonist - can thrive. Every freelancer in the Zone are out for themselves, and that goes over well in a first person scavenger shooter in which you're always looking for the next hidden stash full of goodies.

Which skilfully brings me to my next point: Fuck you, GSC Game World! I love your game despite all its flaws, but the one inexcusable waste of an obnoxious feature is the one feature which basically makes it so that we're not rewarded for exploring your open world! I love exploring every hole and high-rise, and this game gives the impression of being exactly the right type of game in which to do this, but even though there are hidden stashes everywhere, you never give me any fucking STASH! They're all empty by default, even when you can clearly see a backpack resting against the wall in that hard-to-reach spot you just spent five minutes working your way to. Instead, you have to kill or come across previously dead people in order to search their bodies, and if you're lucky, they've written down the exact position of one of these stashes in their diary, magically filled up the previously empty stash while deadified so that it now contains items when you go searching for it, and then gives you its precise position on your map.

Even something as rewarding as exploring an area of your own volition and finding awesome loot that only the most inquisitive stalker could ever hope to locate is reduced to the equivalent of being led around by an overexcited dog running straight for the spot marked "dig here". There's no way to turn it off, either, for those of us that just want to go looking for the secret stuff. I could even excuse this stupid feature if the fucking spot wasn't invariably marked by a big X on the minimap, something that even the Master difficulty level doesn't get rid of.

There are some items you can find by being a rigorous explorer, but they're usually of the lesser potent variety and are much more rare, and the empty stashes that magically fill up when you pick up a PDA with its exact location marked for your convenience is exactly the kind of thing this kind of game should never have to endure. This all means that the main incentive to go exploring is to find artefacts, which I think we've already established are not nearly as rare or valuable as the game would have you believe.

Finally, as if the bugs weren't sufficient, the immersion does slip up on its own on a few occasions, typically around the time you start noticing that people are reciting the same lines in the same voice and going through the motions in a scripted-routine kind of way. It's a lot better than most games, but just once I'd like to buy a game that comes with an extra DVD just labelled "immersion", and all the douchecanoes who'd rather shoot up rooms worth of enemies every nanosecond than walk through a dismal, atmospheric camp looking at a sunrise offering hope to the hopeless, whilst a lone figure sits by a camp-fire playing a tune on his guitar that you haven't heard before, can opt out of installing the added content, and instead break the DVD in half and take the sharp edge to their reproductive organs.

All of these qualms do weigh the game down and keep it from becoming a true masterpiece, but they don't ruin your enjoyment of the title. It is a shame that the developers couldn't get rid of the more annoying glitches and so have the game be nearly flawless in its execution, because this game will reach down from its perch on high, grab you firmly by the testicles and lift you up through the mists of reality until you finally gaze into the divine face of immersion godhood... and then impale you on a spike that says "You're playing a videogame." In general, though, the glitches aren't that big-of-a-deal, and the game's unique brand of Branston Pickle sheer-damn-awesomeness makes up for it. Every time I got annoyed at some bugged scripted event, I opened up my inventory, examined a pistol I just lifted from some bandit, unloaded the clip from the gun adding the ammunition to my ammo boxes while the weight of the unloaded ammunition and the weight of the now-empty gun remained equal to the weight of the two combined, and remembered just how far we've come since Mario headstomped his first goomba.

For the most part, the grievances are just sort of more pitfalls to be aware of. You'll just have to remember not to do certain things like save your game right next to enemies you may need to hide from, or NPCs that are in the middle of a scripted sequence. It's not perfect, but neither was Daggerfall, and I'd still bake either of those games into a pie to consume their exceptional and unique flavour. Even if there might be a few raisins in there. And if you happen to like raisins, then you're probably the GSC Game World developer that thought adding zombies would be a really keen idea.

Incidentally, I'm not ripping off Zero Punctuation. Mumorpuger, Branston pickle, I hate quick-time events, those stealth minigames that every action game has to have now by law, Columbo is perfect, and I'm not gay.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Want more good music? Calling All Dawns is out now

Christopher Tin. Composer of 'Baba Yetu' from Civilization IV. Composed music for X-Men 2. Interned with Hans Zimmer. A good friend, a great guy. Once visited Norway, in fact. Most probably drove through my home town on his way north to Kirkenes, you know, that picturesque Nordic-looking town up near the Russian border? Lives in Santa Monica, not Norway, and speaks English, not Norwegian. Occasionally makes music, I guess. Of Chinese - not Viking - descent. What was I saying?

Oh yes, Christopher Tin.

Well, to be honest, he hasn't really done anything of interest lately - like visit Norway - but he did make the best album I've heard in years. I'm sorry, but only those who wept with joy while listening to the new composition of Baba Yetu and all that entails qualify for humanity. Everyone else has to move to an island and go back to the dark ages, burning art and killing science while the rest of us keep working on advancing human civilization so that we can one day fire the whole bloody lot of you into the sun.

Which brings me neatly to Baba Yetu, masterfully executed link, the piece that got the world to take note of Christopher Tin to begin with. Rather, it brings me to both Baba Yetus. Yes, there were two versions of this track -- the Civilization IV version, and Christopher Tin's original version. The audio guys at Firaxis, the company that made Civilization IV, changed the original percussion of the track for the game. And so, the track that most people know and love is not, in fact, how it was intended to go. I'll let Chris himself tell you a little about this conundrum, and what he had to do for the version appearing on Calling All Dawns:


'The last time we wrote you mentioned that [...] the audio guys over at Firaxis decided to remove your percussion and replace it with their own. I must confess I'm curious [about] why the decision to replace your percussion was necessary or even desirable.

I'll also admit, however, that - alas - I do like both versions of the track, and I probably have a particular fondness for the Civ 4 version, if only because I heard and fell in love with that version first. Which is, from a composer's point of view (a point of view I can relate to and understand), unfortunate since that's not how you intended the track to go, but, well, there it is. It's still a wonderful track either way, and I'm happy to have both versions on my playlist.'


'Yeah, it's unfortunate that most people heard the Firaxis version first; and now that I'm creating yet a THIRD version, I have to figure out how to add something new, yet appeal to those who already fell in love with the first two versions. Nuts. :)'

With two previous versions of Baba Yetu to consider, each with their devotees, Christopher Tin did the sensible thing: he cheated. For the new version, he combined percussion elements from both previous incarnations while also adding something new, bypassing all those laws of propriety that say the track shouldn't be able to appeal to both camps, and then he goes one further and ACTUALLY IMPROVES THE FUCKING THING. I don't know what kind of person can listen to fucking Baba Yetu and think to himself, 'You know what this needs? More epic.'

I have to move on, else this whole review will just end up being about Baba Yetu, not that there's anything wrong with that.

Christopher Tin's début album is a compilation of music inspired by twelve different languages and styles from all over the world. It's an ambitious project, to say the least: Latin, Chinese, Persian, Swahili, Gaelic -- the distinct styles represented here are varied, but never detract from the whole, which I am sure was Christopher's intent. As such, the variations in style and form are mostly found in language and chord progressions, while the style of percussion remains mostly unchanged throughout, really only differing in the use of certain instruments archetypal to the regions represented. This forms a kind of base and works out really well. And it has Baba Yetu.

If I have to criticise the album, I would say that some of the individual tracks are too short. The album is very much meant to be listened to in one sitting, so the music transitions wonderfully from one piece to another with recurring themes prevalent throughout, but as a result of this, some tracks - many of the best ones, of course - are kept short, possibly to flow with the album as a whole.

One example of this is Hayom Kadosh, a track somewhat similar in style to Baba Yetu (and in some parts highly reminiscent of its sister track Coronation from Civilization IV), which is 1:45 minutes in length, and it transitions immediately into the next track of the album, Hamsafar, dictating the style of the latter to the point where the two tracks are almost indistinguishable. Why? I would love to hear Christopher's reasoning for this, as I'm sure it has something to do with symbolism, or human transcendence or something. Corn, maybe.

Immediately following Hamsafar is a 2:01 minute track with its own distinct style and pacing. 2:01. That's all the love it gets. And the slowest hymn of the album gets 6:48? Maybe my personal taste is dictating which tracks I feel should get the most love, here, Chris, but damn it, it's a little disquieting. Oh wait, you gave Rassemblons-Nous the whole 4:27 minutes in which to shine. Okay! All is right with the world.

My second complaint is that the album has only one instance of Baba Yetu.

Finally, to those unfamiliar with world music, this is representative of world music in the same way that, say, Will Wright is a developer of video games. You can give Will Wright all the tools and ideas in the world, but he'll still use them to create a piece of interactive media that has you building something. If you want first person shooters, you'll have to go see Valve or Infinity Ward.

Christopher's Calling All Dawns takes language, form, and music styles from all over the world and inserts them into what can be uncharitably called the album's template, and charitably called a work of beauty. Christopher keeping to his fundamental principles and own personal style while composing music in twelve different languages and localized music styles is what makes the smooth transitions on the album possible. It also means that if you like one track, you'll probably like most of them.

The album could have done with another copy of Baba Yetu, though. Like maybe make it the 13th track.

Closing thoughts. It's usually a good sign when the one major complaint is that some tracks are too short, and Baba Yetu aside, this is an album filled with beautiful music inspired by different ages and regions on Earth. As I've said in the past, music that's written so technically well while also being truly memorable is what makes Christopher Tin stand out.

Buy this album. Go to Christopher Tin's website and buy it. It's only $15.99 for the CD, and $9.99 for either the 320kbps Mp3 or lossless AIFF format downloads. You can even buy individual tracks for $0.99 apiece if you're a weirdo. I know what you're going to say: 'Aylear, you sesquipedalian apex of human enlightenment, why would I buy an album if I don't know for sure if I'd like it?' Well, you're in luck, because Christopher has omnipotently anticipated your feeble excuse to avoid having to learn anything new for a change and has kindly provided excerpts from the whole album on his site.

So, buy it. Support the talented independent artist. It's an incentive for Christopher to make more music in the future of the sort that would make the manchild of Jesus Christ and Chuck Norris weep tears of joy. It's not just that the music is good -- it is a shining beacon of excellence in the endless sea of mediocrity, and this status should be rewarded. It's what I always aim for when I compose music, but never reach. Maybe that's the result of that "education" thing I keep hearing about.

Did I mention it has Baba Yetu?

- Steinar "Really Did Weep During Baba Yetu, Twice" Kristoffersen