For some weeks now I have longed to return to this space, but the drive and inspiration to write something meaningful has lagged. David Warren's columns of a few weeks ago (I haven't in fact read any since then) were less...overtly wrong than usual, which was dissapointing. It would be one thing if the man gave up his hateful ways, but no, it was just less-than-interesting material. Anyhow, on to things interesting
Thanks to my cousin, I now have a Geforce 7800 GS humming (literally – it's got a nice fan) in my AGP slot, in place of my old Radeon 9600. I'll bet there are more than enough bottlenecks in my system to hold back this wondrous new bit of silicon, but there is a noticeable boost. Going from one DX9 card to another means that visual quality isn't vastly improved, but I can now play HL2: Episode 1 with HDR on (woot)...Prey runs quite smoothly, and I should get FEAR again to see how my system now fares with soft shadows and dynamic lighting. Anyhow, that's awesome. On loan from Star, I have an mx-518. Again, the boost is felt, but essentially incremental. I'm not sure if buying the card and another high-sensitivity mouse would/will be the best use of my money, but damned if I haven't been living a little bit more of the dream with this stuff.
It really is so easy to lose perspective when wrapped up in details. I step back from my high-end computer fantasies to think “what right do I have to desire such luxury, when so many go without?”. It won't, and it can't erase my desire for such things...but it certainly helps me realize that they are not urgent, that I can wait to get my hands on some killer hardware. In the meantime, I have to figure out how I can help people. Musicians have benefit concerts...could a charity LAN party work? Somehow I can't see the neighbours pledging me donations per frag (what an AWESOME idea, though!). That, or I could just take a year off after High School, and go volunteer for some worthy cause in distant lands. Some kids from my school gave up their March Breaks to spend time with Habitat for Humanity...there's a good cause. I should just sign up, just do it. Hey, it worked for the Viennese Ball!
“He could spell his own name 'W-O-L'”
It has been a good long while since the actual events (well, just over a week, actually), but I attended OWL (Our Whole Lives) this March Break – the first weekend of, to be specific. Nothing makes you realize how wholly inadequate school sex ed is until you've been to a proper set of workshops. I don't care about excuses: kids, especially high school students deserve more than just an explanation of the plumbing. I know I have said this before...but it bears repeating, and it shall until such a goal is attained. Now, it is the nature of most classes to scratch the surface of a topic, and make up for it in discussion – it's more important to understand how to approach a subject than it is to know everything about it, half of which you'd have to look up again anyhow. Sex ed scratches the surface, and offers none of the discussions, none of the insight that something like OWL does.
The solution until the school board gets it's act together is to send your kids to OWL. It's run by the Unitarian church, which has to be the LEAST offensive institution on the planet...at least to the more liberal-minded. I mean this as high praise: It's the only Church I can feel comfortable inside. Anyhow, anyone of any faith can probably get along with the faith, so let's move along to the content. OWL gets you thinking, it makes light where it can, and it encourages discussion. I like this style, because it gets people comfortable. In years past I've been a bit of a closed person when it comes to discussions on sex, but thanks to a few choice people, and OWL, I feel like I can open up more, take discussions “all the way” (har, har). I like this method. The 'teachers' at high-school-age OWL serve as catalysts to discussion, but most of the input is from the attendants, and that's fantastic. We deserve the right to make up our own minds about Sex!
Then there are the games we played, two of which I may have inspired in some of our off time. By “games”, of course, I mean the murderous kicking around of a soccer ball we did, and subsequent couch-cushion pillowfight (equally murderous). Way hardcore! The last game we played was the best of all, though: Wink. It's a game so viscious, it must be played with a pile of pillows in the center of the room to prevent injuries. I'd explain the rules, but it's getting late and I'm not sure I'd do it all that well.
I wanted to review Prey here, but for reasons you will discover, it basically requires that I spoil large and integral parts of the game. I will provide a summary of a few paragraphs first, and then I shall proceed into full disclosure on the game's moving plot, and frustrating failures. Please take my advice, and play the game...reading about some of the plot might inspire you to play the game, but it would then be spoiled for you. If you like shooters, and you like games with stories...just go play it. Try to pay something like $20, $25 (Canadian) if you can find it for that, 'cause it's a little on the short side. According to my save files, it took me somewhere between 7 and 8 hours to beat the game (sheesh, they should have called it Prey: episode 1!)
Ok, so the game is the story of Tommy, a Cherokee who is abducted by aliens. The alien ship juices his Grandfather. Painfully, and his girlfriend is alive, but still held prisoner. Goal? Save the girl, and kick alien...ass? As necessary. The plot is actually waaay cooler than that, but I'll save this for the spoilers section. The game has enough unique features to mix things up, and more than enough in the way of ass to be kicked. Rock on. There are maybe 2 hours, 3 hours of gameplay that are just....ehhhhh. The rest is fantastic, but could be improved in a great many ways. All in all, I heartily reccomend it (although Half-Life 2/ Ep1 and FEAR are better games all in all)
SPOILERS BEGIN (SCROLL DOWN ONCE YOU HAVE BEATEN THE GAME, OR SCROLL PAST TO READ THE END OF THIS POST)
Prey starts and ends very strongly. At the beginning, Tommy is facing a mirror and is berating himself. This is HIS story, not yours, and the game makes sure you know this. All of Tommy's dialogue is rather like Alyx's from HL2 Ep 1. Not in content (not at all!), but in the way it is close enough to the player's line of thought that it re-enforces the action in the game, rather than detracting from it. Personally, I prefer a silent protagonist like Gordon Freeman, because I want games to embrace a certain kind of role-playing, where the player can decide who the character is. For a story like Prey's, though, it HAS to be Tommy's story...there is no other way. The danger in this is that giving an FPS protagonist a voice can do as much to alienate the player as to draw them in. At first, Prey does exactly that, but as you get used to Tommy, he becomes a skin to you. You might never be him, as you are Gordon Freeman (who is admittedly an empty vessel), but you embody him, which is exactly what the game requires for its purposes.
Anyhow, the game's intro sets the stage rather well: Tommy's angst is bared, his problems accepting his heritage, and his relationships with his Grandfather, and with Jen are all brought to the player's attention within ten minutes of starting the game. Your first combat is a bar fight against two drunken patrons (the only bar patrons at 1:00 AM) who are making untoward advances on your girlfriend. “You could have killed them!”, Jen shouts, after you pummel the pair unconscious with your monkey wrench “Maybe I should!”, Tommy shouts back. It's not exactly new, but it's good to know where your character is coming from. In a later sequence, you learn that “the army taught [Tommy] how to kill”, which would explain why he is proficient at shooting stuff. In that sequence, you are taught to project your spirit, which can walk throught forcefields, and over icky-looking tendrils of spirit energy found in some levels. Not being Cherokee, or Native North American at all, I can't say if the game/gameplay is respectful or silly, but it appears to be well handled. But back to the bar. You get abducted. To 'Don't Fear the Reaper'. Cooooooooooool. Cue funky intro sequence, as you awake cuffed and bound to a board along with Jen, your Grandfather, and other hapless human food...I mean, beings. You are set free, but as I mentionned before, Grandfather gets the tropicana treatment.
Then...the game lags for a few hours. Not frame lags, or load lags, no. Just a few hours of gameplay which doesn't go much of anywhere. You traverse a level, and then hop a random portal to...elsewhere. Somehow, you're following Jen, but it doesn't come across well, not in the slightest. What would prevent the aliens from opening portals to, say, the other side of the big ol' sphere you're in, hmmm?. A “you are here” indicator, such as you get to see twice later on in the game would have been far better used if it had appeared in more places, and in earlier levels.
Spealing of levels, the game feels too obviosly linear in places. Most games are guilty of this, but it's all the worse for immersion if the game takes place in a location supposedly designed to be purposeful. The wall-walks and grav-switches are the game's saving grace here: the wall-walks slow your movement, and make you really feel like only your feet are stuck to this thing, while the rest of your body swings a little more freely. Grav-switches are used in some cool puzzles, and the first time Tommy throws up after too many successive flips is rather amusing. Some of the best level opportunities go untapped: I would have enjoyed wandering through an abducted main street of some little town, or exploring the crashed airplane seen only from the outside in-game. Even the school bus would have been something. As it is, there are different kinds of bio-mech level within the sphere, but just a few more types of locale would have made so much difference.
Plot-wise, the game is both at its strongest and its weakest. The first time you find Jenny, she is abducted after maybe 5 minutes of play. The second time is brilliant: you must fight the beast to which she has become fused...and then you have to kill her. At HER request. Ouch! The game does the cue so brilliantly: your weapons are away in the “plot moment” mode, and once she asks you to kill her, you again draw your weapon, re-enforcing the course of action you must take. This is as good as game stories get, because you DON'T save the damsel...but you CAN have revenge!
Where the game falls flat is how it does the final enemies. “The Keeper” only becomes an enemy when you are told to kill it, rather than becoming the object of your hatred through action. This would not have been hard to accomplish: show the Keeper holding Jen hostage, show it supervising human dissections, etc. Also, the reveal of more keepers would have been actually surprising if The One Keeper had been your enemy from the get-go. As it is, you've already figured out that there are bigger enemies out there. Finally, the Keeper's speech about how you are unique because of your spirit, and the stuff about having seeded the Earth with life millions of years ago...creepy, but it comes out of fucking nowhere! If it had been hinted at, displayed, and generally foreshadowed, the reveal would have been a payoff scene in truth. As it is, it's payoff all right....but for what? Nothing you have done up until this point has led you to the conclusion that such information might be coming your way. It's REALLY incongruous.
The voice of Mother taunting you is fantastic...for the final four hours of the game. It's far too sparse for the preceeding hours, and the game suffers for it. Also, it gives away mother's power to have the voice taunt you. They should have made the voice seem separate, have it offer you help as if it were an ally. Then, at the end, you would realize the truth, and totally freak out. As it is in the game, it's just another poorly foreshadowed moment.
I could go on and on, but I'll cut to the top- 5 list of improvements:
5 – The sphere needs more biological diversity in it's soldiers and minions. Make it look like this thing gets around in the galaxy! Also, some proper AI would be good.
4 – Get rid of weapon overlap (rifle, red leech gun, autocannon primary).
3 – GO SOMEWHERE WITH THE GHOST KIDS STORYLINE!
2 – The first few hours should be open-ended exploration of the sphere, where you run through chunks of planets this place has raided and consumed. THEN you catch Jen's trail and race up the spire
1 – Fix the storytelling problems with the Keeper and Mother.
I'm not sure this post has the usual polish, but something needed to go up. I'm hoping I'll be able to start updating again regularly. We shall see!