Cooking with Sara and Greg, Ep. 2

Secrets and revelations abound in “Dal”, the second episode of Cooking with Sara and Greg. Why is Greg crying? Where did his brother go? And who is behind the shadowy holiday candy cartel?

Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Dicks

“Dog Days says: fuck you, this is what you want, look at what you want, asshole.”
-ironcupshrug for

She asked for it, her skirt was too short.
She wanted it, she doth protested way too much for it to be otherwise.
She rented it and played it, knowing full well what it was about.
She must have been psychic and known what I was going to do and totally wanted it, otherwise she would have avoided that dark alley and not spent six hours playing my ass.

There is no justification for rape, or a terrible game.

The problem isn’t that people dislike this game because it blew their mindframe and totally revealed their inner shadow and its taste in idiotic casual violence, it’s because it was such a pretentious piece of shit about it; a piece of shit that not only failed to create a meaning that goes beyond pointing to itself as a meaning generator, (who’s holding the camera? Oh, no one? It doesn’t matter because I’m supposed to recognize the disconnect in reasoning? And realize that I’M PLAYING A VIDEOGAME AND THE CAMERA IS ME/THE VIDEOGAME? Uh…oh I see what we’re doing here :/) but also failed to pass the basic test of a good game: being fun.

This game is Gears of War after a lobotomy.
This game is Gears of War on an iPhone, except it plays just the same as regular Gears of War, which means I’m saying just about everything you think I’m saying about Gears of War.
This game is a thinly veiled generic-brand remake of Gears of War, except made five years after the fact and for somewhere around the same amount of money.
This game is Gears of War for people who like being raped, as opposed to (if you’ll excuse my stereotyping of fratboys and other sundry totems of sexist machismo) rapists.

This game is also the fictionalized version of whoever is playing it, a highly produced fantasy version of sitting around and taking lazy pot-shots at endless waves of enemies. There is no fantastical way to power-play in this game, as doing anything besides getting behind cover, sitting still and taking pot-shots leads to you, the player, getting roundly spanked for your audacity.

You thought you could run and gun? Scoff.
You thought a real man jumped and shot? Guffaw.
You figured that since this was a videogame, we would have found some way to inject dynamic action into a shoot-out? We are artists. Don’t make us laugh. No, in the real world, real men hunker down nice and still, and they fire their gun until the other guy dies.

And, as real men, we sit on our couches and mindlessly aim that sloppy reticle with the right stick and fire shot after shot until nameless man #37245 dies, again, allowing us to nudge our Avatar’s reticle over to the next peon for another 10 seconds of rote trigger-clicking until he, too, finally dies. We then maybe uncross our one leg and cross it under our other one as we guide the Avatar about 10 game-feet to the next spot of cover, and the next 30-60 seconds of rote shooting.

I think we definitely agree that this game is ultimately a commentary on its audience, but the idea that it’s what I “wanted” is absurd. I wanted a fun game, not a $60/8 hour experience that insults me for harboring expectations of having fun. And while I can certainly appreciate this game as a dadaist provocation (you came thinking you’d get a show, but really it’s Pere Ubu making really dumb shit jokes), I can’t help but roll my eyes. Wow, consarn it, they got me! Just like all those other games I keep seeming to review! Now how about something that isn’t a piece of shit, intentional or otherwise?

from the netflix dustbin

Exam (2009)
dir. Stuart Hazeldine
wri. Stuart Hazeldine

A deeply stupid movie about deeply stupid people. The basic premise is eight people have made it to the final stage in a very grueling hiring process for a very powerful corporation. The final test they must take, the proctor tells them, consists of one question for which there is only one answer. They will be given eight minutes to answer it. They are not allowed to contact him or the room’s security guard, leave the room, or spoil their paper. If they do, they will fail the test and disqualified from getting the job. Do they have any questions?

The characters flip over their test sheets and realize that it’s blank! Yipes! How are we supposed to answer the question when we can’t even see it on our official test paper?! Better work together to figure this one out, guys! From there the movie-proper starts, in which we are treated to endless volleys of stagy dialog and mind-numbing scenery chewing. After the first fifteen minutes, the whole premise of “let’s solve the mystery!” is put on the back-burner in favor of letting the characters get involved in petty and idiotic conflicts so that they run-out the clock. They get angry, they yell, they manipulate and they threaten one another while the scrolls of the ages slowly unfold, and time passes unto more time until someone looks at the clock and is like “oh man, 40 minutes left…”, at which they all pause poignantly for the briefest of moments before going back to the melodrama.

I think that the basic, foundational problem was that the real conflict is so difficult to make interesting in a way that is filmically interesting, and all the writer could think of doing with his 8 characters was create a big stupid drama out of who each of the characters were, and what their ~mysterious background~ might bring to the table. One’s a psychologist! One’s a gambler! One is black! One has a deep voice! One is a jerk! One has no personality! One can’t stop crying! He then put them on a sliding scale of evil<------->good, and wherever they wound up defined their entire character and how they would behave when in a room with seven other people. That’s it. That’s the meat he tried to grow on the skeleton of a puzzler.

And don’t tire yourself out by jumping to conclusions about the possible value of this meat. None of this morality serves any purpose in terms of making a point, as this is not a particularly moralistic tale. It wasn’t the good guy who won: it was the person who stood in the back of the room the whole movie, and avoided getting involved with everyone, good and bad. One might as well look in a mirror while this is playing, because as a 100% passive viewer of the unfolding yellfest, now you too are the hero. The ragers rage and the white knights ride to save the day, and all of this conflict endures as you sit there, being clubbed over the head with ham-fists that want nothing more than to rile you up and keep you engaged while the timer counted down to the inevitable and mind-blowing reveal.

What’s the reveal? Well, what’s the question? I’ll give you a hint: read the last sentence in the first paragraph out loud, pause, and then say “oh” as you roll your eyes.

Cooking With Sara and Greg

Cooking With Sara and Greg: Stir-Fry from Greg Petrovic on Vimeo.

I made a cooking show with my dear friend Chris and my brother, who is also a Chris, and Sara. I recommend going to the Vimeo page so that it won’t be a tiny 37 minute thumbnail.

You can also download a higher quality, 600mb version here for as long as my bandwidth holds out.


I just remembered that I had a story accepted to my alma mater’s literary magazine and that it’d be a good idea to tell you all about it, because maybe then you could read it. It’s about smokin’ that dank, southern California, God, flesh and some other stuff. If you are so inclined as to purchase the magazine, you can do so here.

Otherwise, you can read the story here.

failure’s eternal return

Uncharted 2: Amongst Thieves (2009)
Naughty Dog
Genre: Thrill Ride Simulator

To prepare for Uncharted 2: The Return of Drake’s Revenge, I skimmed some reviews to get into the right mindset, one that is ready to love. The critical consensus is that Uncharted 2 isn’t the best game in the world, but it certainly is one hell of a ride. It’s got these characters and they’re saying funny things and there’s a love triangle and there’s climbing and shooting and all sorts of set pieces and Nathan Drake is soooooo funny and and and this thing is the best, most skin-blistering ride you’ve ever ridden. I looked up from my computer and out the window to the hills across the way, visualizing my destiny of having fun with this game, of marching into gaming Valhalla like a sweaty, grinning champion.

And after playing straight through to the very end, I can say this: it has some sweet graphics. The textures are colorful, the animations have the stylistic excess of actual hand-drawn animation, and the temples and ruins are rendered with such verve that the final in-game renders are actually better than the concept paintings. Videogame graphics usually don’t phase me because of how elevated my consciousness is, but these were really, really great. There were times where I felt like I was genuinely climbing around in highly stylized, videogame versions of enormous serial-adventure/Indiana Jones temples. So that was neat.

Unfortunately, the actual mechanics of gameplay and the overall narrative progression are so fundamentally problematic that I almost feel petty for bringing them up. Most glaringly is that as an entertainment, Uncharted 2 takes it cues from those slop bucket PG-13 action-adventure movies that get released in the Fall, the ones that are filled with long expository dialogue and short on frictive and clear action/adventure. Why is this game Next, or Jumper, or Anaconda, or the Max Payne movie, or Tomb Raider? Hey, why does this game take more cues from Tomb Raider: The Movie instead of Tomb Raider: The Game? Why does this ride involve an unending number of cutscenes in which I’m forced to just let the game make me do moronic things? I can do bad all by myself.

Lazy problems abound. Drake moves around like a nimble monkey, literally, but he is always wearing these jeans that I see the cool dudes wear when they’re doing something after-hours in San Francisco. They wear these jeans after-hours because before-hours they are working some job that necessitates before-hours slacks but pays for after-hours jeans. Drake is an all-hours kind of guy that is unlikely to waste his time doing something slick like being a guy-in-the-office-by-day and cat-burglar/treasure-hunter-by-night, so why is he wearing these pristine jeans that have clearly never been broken in? Why isn’t he wearing something that allows more flexibility, like spandex, or least stretch-jeans?

Then there’s the whole problem of how half of the game consists of little “what do I do now?” climbing puzzles. I mean, it’s already enough of a problem that my eye candy thrill ride turns climbing into the equivalent of walking really slowly up walls with my hands, but then to make me take a break from seeing thrilling set pieces to try to figure out where the hell I’m supposed to go next in a world where I can ostensibly climb everything is a huge, game-breaking problem, one that is tied to the larger problem of having the game consist entirely of nothing but set pieces that exist only to look cool and which take place in a void of chained together set pieces. How am I supposed to figure out where I’m supposed to be going if all of this action takes place in a void, a contextless place that lacks any cues as to where here and there are, let alone whether there actually is a There that I’m supposed to travel to. I know that there’s a There because videogame convention dictates that there must be one, but what how am I supposed to go and find it? Jump on everything until Drake grabs the climbable object that the developers wanted me to grab in the first place? Naughty Dog tries to alleviate this by implementing a Help button, and–

well first of all, ugh, and second of all I wouldn’t need a Help button if the game wasn’t so focused on breaking itself in the first place. I think the underlying problem here is that Naughty Dog’s linear game design instincts are clashing with the game’s obsession with displaying immersive, naturalistic and eye-popping environments, leading to a situation where they’ve basically designed another Crash Bandicoot that’s about running straight-forward, but have included the kinds of obstacles that make sense in games that have things like world maps and destination markers, and are otherwise gracious enough to simply tell you which way you’re supposed to be going without implying that you are stupid for not automagically knowing.

The other half of the game consists of serviceable, if limp, third-person shooting. The guns work, the guys die, but every part of it is doughy and soft. What usually happens in a given firefight is you find a place that has reliable and easy to defend cover, and then spend the rest of the time taking potshots at all the guys who keep running out of the spawn point to get you. There are times where Naughty Dog realizes that this is happening and spawns people behind you, but all that means is you need to relocate to somewhere that has better cover. There isn’t any of the immediate run-and-gun excitement of, say, Far Cry 2 because the pace of killing guys is sloooooowww, with headshots often taking two or three hits, depending if the enemy is wearing one of those kevlar ballcaps or not. There isn’t the tactical tension of, say, Far Cry 2 because the levels and AI weren’t designed to be interacted with as much as they were to be experienced. Note the subtle irony in which Far Cry 2 – an open-world game whose major hallmark is having an immersive and minimally restricted environment – has better level design and pacing than Uncharted 2’s highly linear and ostensibly diagrammed stages.

Slight modifications to this formula include a cover system that fails in the way most cover systems fail (cover suction —> perpetually being sucked into the wrong cover, usually cover that isn’t cover so much as a wall that faces the exact people you are trying to hide from), stealth segments (which inevitably end with you getting into a firefight, making me wonder what the point of having “sneaking” is supposed to be in the first place), and melee combat.

The melee has the most interesting in terms of implementation, as it lies somewhere between beat ’em up and quick-time-event. Once you start punching a guy, the game swivels the camera around to a side view and encourages you to keep mashing the punch button. At some point, your enemy will take the beginning motions of a counter and a little Triangle Button icon will pop up, signifying that pressing the Triangle Button right now will counter the guy’s counter. As a whole it’s an incredibly simple and shallow system, but I found it pleasantly mindless. Its main benefits are that it acts as a break from the endless shooting, and it lets you watch some more of the game’s manly animations. The drawback is that people will keep shooting you while you’re doing this, so basically anytime you aren’t using melee as a last-ditch maneuver to beat up a guy who saw you sneaking before he can hollar out about seeing your creepin’ ass; anytime you use it for something besides that, like just regularly beating people up, you are committing suicide. You are pointing to your kisser between punches and daring the AI to shoot you right there, which it does with aplomb. Why does this game include an action which is not only useless, but only serves to get the player killed when he tries to do it? Why does this golden retriever of a game want to make me look stupid?

The other other half of the game consists of cutscenes that seem to always be happening. I’ll spend ten minutes climbing around like a monkey and there’ll be a cutscene where Drake says something flirty. Five minutes petting cattle and there’s a cutscene of Drake talking to an old man. Shoot some people and a cutscene where Drake gets his bacon saved by an NPC. Why not take out all these garbage cutscenes and just have these things happen in real-time? Because the game would then be eight consecutive hours of poorly implemented shooting instead of ten with snack breaks.

A scene from True Blood, God’s gift to both geniuses and us regular common folk, came to mind as I humped around the game’s last leg in Shangri-La. Lafayette and Tara are looking at the bounty of leftover pot-luck goods at a dead character’s wake, and Tara says,

Tara: What the hell we gonna–

actually, it starts with Lafayette being like,

Lafayette: What the fuck is it with white people and jello? I don’t understand.
Tara: What the hell we gonna do with all this?
Lafayette: Toss it. Sookie don’t need no bad juju cooking.
Tara: Bad juju?
Lafayette: Way to a man’s heart is through his stomach: that shit true as gold. You put some love in your food and folk can taste it. Smell this. //he then lifts up a pan of cornbread// You can smell the fear and nastiness comin’ off that cornbread.
Tara: //takes a bite// Tastes just fine to me.
Lafayette: See bitch, you gonna wish you ain’t did that. Watch.

I can’t say I feel poisoned, per se, but it did take like seven episodes before Tara got caught up in all sorts of crazy shit. I wouldn’t go so far as to accuse Naughty Dog of intentionally making a game filled with evil spirits and market-paralyzed ideas, where the only moments of passion come from ladling the visual gravy over the player’s precious eyes, but I would say that this game will subtract about ten hours from your lifespan that could’ve been spent petting a cute dog, playing Team Fortress 2 or wearing your favorite t-shirt. Uncharted 2 isn’t a videogame as much as it is a reason to reevaluate why you play or make games in the first place.

For further discussion on this topic, play REDDER.

The First Twelve Hours of Assassin’s Creed 2:The Leavening

The First Half of Assassin’s Creed 2 (2010)
Ubisoft Montreal
Genre: Interactive Movie/Climbing Tech Demo

Pretty soon every big action game will have a tutorial that lasts the whole game. You’ll be on the last boss and a helpful fairy, a codec beep, or your AI controlled partner will start bleating your name, demanding your attention. To make it stop, you’ll press the Select button (which by then will be called the Help button) and the action will pause, some character illustrations will pop-up and the Helper illustration will say something like, “Link! You’ve got to bop Gannon off of his horse first!” or “Snake! Revolver Ocelot is only skilled at fighting with his revolver…! You should use a weapon that is not a gun. Maybe close quarters combat doesn’t use guns?” or “Kane! He’s wearing a full-body kevlar suit, but he’s standing on a pyramid of explosive barrels! Aim at the barrels with your right control stick and use the right trigger to fire!”

Two years after this has become standard practice, one revolutionary game will drop the character portraits and render the helper’s dialogue in-engine. People will be amazed when this happens.

A year after that, there will be a game that sells ten million copies because instead of having to pause the game to let it tell you what to do, your helper will simply dispense his advice in real-time, giving you specific and detailed instructions on what button to press next as you fight. You might not even have to press a button for it to happen. There is a slim chance that it might even offer an auto-pilot option.

And in this future time line, there will be some budding young video games historian who will trace the roots of the entire trend to Assassin’s Creed 2, and that person will basically be right. This game is the tutorial zeitgeist. This game is the one where its developers threw caution to the wind, turned it up to eleven, pushed the pedal to the metal and headed straight for the cliff, screaming “we will never stop loving you” even as the car explodes on impact and confetti shoots everywhere.

At first Assassin Creed 2′s tutorial bonanza seemed like the game just thought I was stupid and was being pedantic about the whole thing. “Oh yes,” it would have said, were it sentient. “A player. Playing a video game. Indeed. Tell me, have you ever held a controller? Don’t answer that. I already know you’re doing it wrong. You do it like this. Don’t tell me you’re already holding it. No, you do it like this. Like this. No, like on the infographic. I don’t see you doing it.”

Which is to say that it took the game 3 hours to finish reminding me what the basic controls were and deigning it possible to start getting into what was new. Some of these first few hours were simply redundant, like the fake rooftop race with The Fox that was meant to serve as a tutorial on how to manage running across rooftops. In a game that is almost entirely about climbing up buildings and running across their roofs, putting the player through this tutorial two hours into the game is… well, it’s puzzling.

I couldn’t begin to imagine why it happened, since it is neither fun nor informative, and is so far past when it would’ve been reasonable to test my skills that I found it completely impossible to stop wondering about, my brain threatening to overload as it cycled faster and faster through the cognitive loop of,“They can’t possibly expect this to be helpful or fun. Then why are they making me do it? Maybe they think it’s helpful or fun. They can’t possibly expect this to be helpful or fun.” Suffice to say that I paused the game for a few minutes and looked out the window blankly, letting the game’s design paradox wear itself out while I watched a tree shake in the wind.

Some of the other tutorials come suspiciously late, like the one at 3 hours in that reminds you that you don’t have to pummel people to death; all you need to do is the counter attack. The counter attack, for those who’ve had the good fortune to forget, is a game-breaking move from the first game that reduces all combat to a single, simple button-press. No muss, no fuss, just hit it and your opponent dies, and the game breaks.

One suspects — that is to say, I suspect – that creative director Patrice Desilets waited three hours to refresh the player’s memory because he didn’t want people to immediately remember that the game was broken, and then to doubly realize that it was still broken.

About an hour later we’re made aware that Ubisoft R&D has developed an ingenious solution to the whole game’s-broken thing, which comes in two parts.

Part 1
Some enemies can counter your counter, and then they punch you.

Part 2
You can foil these anti-counter counterers by using a brand new counter, hot off the assembly-counter. It’s called the grab-counter. You perform it by doing the exact same thing for a regular counter, except you press the grab button instead of the attack button. These enemies, these people who can counter a counter, they don’t see it coming. They’ll never see it coming. You could play this game for a million years and they would never, ever understand what was happening to them, that their skill at countering counters did not carry over into countering grab-counters, that they were born to die stupidly in a universe too cruel to give them even a rudimentary sense of reason.

At this point, I imagined Ubisoft Montreal smirking at the pained look on my face and saying, “you just don’t get it.” And you know, they were right. I didn’t get it. The more I played, the more I saw these half-compromises and quasi-improvements on the first game, things that only served to point out how hollow and empty the core design was.

  • Things like the inane minor quests having been relegated to being optional, with the outcome of their completion being money, money which allows you to invest in a system that generates more money, which can then be used to either buy stuff or further invest into the money machine. The stuff you can buy is extraneous and borderline useless. Weapons change combat statistics that have already proven moot in the face of having two (two!) perfectly suitable instant-kill counter attacks. Armor gives you more health bubbles, but you wouldn’t need those if you didn’t insist on not using counters or jumping off of tall buildings all the time.
  • The ostensible reason for these upgrades, for any upgrade in any game, is to either create the illusion of escalating power and difficulty, or to open up the mechanics to increasing complexity. There is no increasing difficulty in this game and there is no depth. Once you learn how to time your button press correctly and not fall off of buildings every ten seconds, you’ve mastered it. You win. You might as well run it back to Gamestop and try to return it.
  • The original sin of 3D action-platformers, collectibles, now have the twin curse of being both more numerous and quasi-important. Instead of just collecting flags, there are now feathers, codex pages, secret puzzles, crests, statues, weapons, armors and paintings. All of this stuff has some direct value to the game, either in boosting the money machine’s income or is tied to some aspect of the plot or characters. There’s a kind of inverse proportion that the game has attributed to tasks, where the more menial and tedious it is, the more of an asshole you are if you don’t do it. The feathers, for example, are to give to your character’s mom so that she’ll stop spending all day sitting in bed and crying. Do I want to explore the game’s cities in search of 100 feathers? Hell no. What, don’t I want my mom to stop feeling miserable?

And then comes the game’s halfway point, where it pulls Tyler out of the VR simulation of Renaissance Italy and has one of the characters say, “show me your moves!” You then have Tyler show his moves by doing the exact same thing you’ve been doing for the last 12 hours: climbing stuff. The game gives you some crates and rafters to climb around in, except this time you’re using Tyler’s real body instead of the magical VR body, and then it struck me: this game has a plot.

I’d been playing it all wrong! I’d been living a lie! Like so many filmic epiphanies had by celluloid amnesiacs, my mind reeled back through time to the moment after I pressed start and began a new game.

A recap of the first game, where it is revealed that the Templars are definitely up to no good.

Our suspiciously handsome everyman, Tyler or Craig or something, escapes the Templars’ ultra-futuristic office building with the aid of an undercover Assassin.

Craig is standing in the Assassin’s secret hide-out, a New York-esque exposed-brick studio apartment that has an adjoining futuristic warehouse, and is being told that he needs to be trained to become an Assassin— now. A laconic Englishman who sits at a computer says, “that is, if you don’t bollocks it up like last time.” Craig is about to say something like, “hey buddy, I’m an American,” when a spunky young female tech whiz with a pixie-haircut says, “Don’t mind Nigel, he’s just British.”

“But how are you going to train me in three days, before the Templars find us?”
“I’m not, you are.”

“Do you remember the Animus, from the last game?”
“Yeah, but I thought only the Templars—-”
“The Templars can suck a nubber. They might be the only ones that have an Animus, but I’m the only one that has a Manimus.”
“But how will the Manimus teach me how to be a—-”
“Muscle memory, Mikey. If you use the Manimus to go back into the history that has been encoded in your DNA, and if you stab people and climb things in that history, your muscles will learn. They will learn, Mikey, because it was in you all along…”

“But what if I don’t want to be an Assassin?”
“Then the Templars will still kill you. And they won’t just kill you in the Manimus’ historical DNA VR simulation, they’ll also do it in real life.”
“Then I have no choice…!”

As the waves of memory passed, I was left with a singular understanding: if the entire game felt like a tutorial to me, it’s because it was one.

I was playing another man’s tutorial.

Regardless of how well I did in the first game, neither George nor his muscles were paying attention, and now he’s landed the both of us in remedial assassin training. This is like the complete opposite of what happens in video games: instead of me leading around some guy like a jerk, I have some guy leading me around like a jerk. And what’s worse is that this guy is going to inevitably gain something tangible from playing his Manimus video game while all I’ll have gotten is 20+ hours of being led around by the implied potential of maybe-fun.

In other words, I’m some guy playing a video game that’s about some guy who is more attractive than I am and who gets to play an infinitely cooler video game that, in the end, will give him real-life skills that he can use in his own real-life.

In other words, Ubisoft Montreal thinks its players are idiots who deserve to play a game that’s about someone whose life is just like theirs, except better and more fulfilling.

I don’t know if this an artistic coup for the medium or Ubisoft Montreal thumbing its nose at its market. On the one hand, it exists as such a complete role reversal between player and player-character that I feel bad condemning the thing outright. The basic feat of turning the player into a puppet for someone who doesn’t even exist is both clever and something that could become incredibly potent if used in the right way.

On the other hand, the game is a terrible, terrible thing to play, something that is bent on crushing its player’s soul, filling the husk with rocks, and then dumping it into the ocean. It’s such a complete and fully-formed middle finger to anyone who’s ever even dreamed of wanting to have fun being someone that they aren’t and doing things that they can’t, that I have to wonder if this is the studio seeing how willing its audience is to have their private fantasies turn around and mock them.

As of this writing, the game has sold 10 million copies and seen almost unanimously positive reviews. It was followed by two sub-sequels, with a full sequel scheduled for 2012.

Red Faction: Guerrilla (short)

Red Faction: Guerrilla (2009)
Played on PC
Genre: Demolitions Tech Demo
(short and sloppy version)

The long version of this is (here)

From Steam:

Set 50 years after the climactic events of the original Red Faction, Red Faction: Guerrilla allows players to take the role of an insurgent fighter with the newly re-established Red Faction movement as they battle for liberation from the oppressive Earth Defense Force. Red Faction: Guerrilla re-defines the limits of destruction-based game-play with a huge open-world, fast-paced guerrilla-style combat, and true physics-based destruction.

  • Open World Guerrilla Warfare — You decide who, when, where and how to battle. Utilize guerrilla tactics, improvised weaponry, and modified vehicles to lead insurgent attacks on EDF targets. Launch attacks based on your own gameplay style, take on missions in any order you choose, or engage in destructive activities to weaken the EDF’s grip on Mars.

  • Strategic Destruction — Use destruction to your tactical advantage, setting ambushes or chain reaction explosions to attack enemy strongholds and permanently modify the game environment. Leverage fully-dynamic physics-based destruction to improvise on the fly: blow holes in a wall or floor to set an ambush or escape, take out a staircase to
    stop your pursuers, or drive vehicles through blown out walls.

  • Evolving & Emergent Gameplay — Carve your path through an ever changing landscape as you improvise your combat tactics – mixing gameplay styles, vehicles, weapons and explosives to defeat the EDF.

  • Epic Sci-Fi Setting — Explore the huge, unforgiving Martian landscape, from the desolate
    mining outpost of Parker to the gleaming EDF capital city of Eos; then tear through the fully destructible open-world environments swarming with EDF forces, Red Faction resistance fighters, and the downtrodden settlers caught in the cross-fire.”

This game’s chief problem is that it intentionally confuses blowing on a penis for a proper blowjob, and then accuses you of being a pervert for wanting the real deal. It’s a good game and it has some good ideas, but it has some serious issues with delivering on its basic promises.

Maybe part of this is because I decided to believe the marketing copy for once. What I’d envisioned was a third-person action version of Jagged Alliance 2, in which your goal was to liberate the planet by capturing and cutting supply lines, taking strongholds, training militia, directing resources and winning the people’s hearts. What I got was a third-persion action game where the sole dynamic element was the destruction physics. This isn’t necessarily a problem, since the destroying stuff in this game is awesome each and every time you do it, but the levels are still layed out like that large scale action-strategy game that was implied in the promo copy. What this means for the player is that the only truly interesting thing in the game is marred by level design that is unaware of what it’s supposed to be showcasing.

At its best, you will find yourself playing the craziest 80’s action movie ever. Vehicles driving through walls, explosions blowing up ceilings, cover rapidly disappearing as it gets shredded by enemy heavies, buildings collapsing while you’re still inside, punching holes through walls with a sledgehammer and then leaping out, falling three stories, and then running for cover as the whole thing blows apart in a series of explosions and physics.

The times that all of this game’s potentials come together to create things like this account for maybe 5% percent of total play, and that’s being generous. Most of it is spent driving around or being stuck in firefights that are not in or around buildings. This is a problem because 1) Mars is a large, barren and featureless planet and 2) shooting people is not actually fun. In a dubiously triumphant piece of games development history, Volition has managed to take the basic GTA driving-around-shooting-people-cops-meter mechanics and made them completely not fun.

The driving is not fun because 1) Mars is a large, barren and featureless planet. What in GTA had been an exercise in trying not to get into too much trouble becomes a long country drive to the general store. You’ll pass some people in ugly vehicles and you’ll drive by some EDF, but getting into trouble would involve intentionally running into a passing EDF cruiser and then not driving away.

If you actually did do this, you would then find yourself doing the other unfun thing in the game: shooting people. The thing with shooting people is that they do not die when it would make sense for them to. I’ve shot dudes ten times in the head with an assault rifle and they didn’t die. I’ve shot guys in the face with rockets, attached bombs to their heads, hit them with wads of matter-consuming nanobots from the nanorifle. I know this is videogameland, that these weapons have some leeway in how they affect reality, but this is outrageous! All I want to do in this game is blow up buildings and I’m forced to tangle with an endless stream of these walking meatwalls, which end up sucking away all of my ammo until all I’m left with is my sledgehammer and the sprint key.

What is bizarre is that these two major failures in fun would have been legitimate elements if the game had been what its marketers proposed it would be. It wouldn’t matter that I was driving around endlessly if in the background was a constantly shifting balance of power between two sides, and if it was possible for me to come across units that were on actual missions that would either help or hinder my cause. Even more awesome would be stacking this on top of concurrent missions which pulled me in different directions or got in the way of each other, thus forcing me to always be evaluating things in terms of my side’s long term goals, and how my immediate actions will affect them. It wouldn’t even matter that the EDF were explosion-blocking bastards, because at the very least their numbers would be limited to their force strength in a given area. They wouldn’t be getting in the way of anything except that which they’re supposed to get in the way of, which is your total ultimate victoly for Mars. And the explosions wouldn’t even matter anymore. If the game had been worth playing on its own merits, then the whole destruction physics would be downgraded to what they should be, which is an engine feature that is simply part of modeling a larger, more dynamic world.

And yet, hypothetically superior alternate reality gameplay aside, I still played this. I played the shit out of it. I played the thing when I realized that very little of what the ad copy implied was going to happen, and I kept playing even when I realized that it wasn’t a very good game. In truth, it is a lazy game. It knows that in 2009, even 2010, that real-time physics applied to destroying shit is so awesome that it doesn’t even need to deliver real gameplay. It doesn’t even have to touch real gameplay for it to be entertaining. Not yet, at least. Not until someone gives it a reason to.

Red Faction: Guerrilla (long)

Red Faction: Guerrilla (2009)
Played on PC
Genre: Demolitions Tech Demo
(long and sloppy version)

The short version of this is (here)

Hi, I’m Greg Petrovic and I’m here to complain about videogames that I have played. Up on the chopping block today is Red Faction: Guerrilla, 2009’s multi-million-dollar-grossing summer blockbuster that is about a man who goes so insane with rage and the only thing he can do about it is destroy things with a sledgehammer.

Let me qualify that: he also uses explosives. The game is marketed as an open-world shoot-and-drive where you, the player, are in charge of leading a revolution against a junta that is oppressing the proletariat of Mars. There are military targets to be taken out, invasions to be repelled, and assaults to be led, and– aw hell, I’ll just copy the blurb from Steam:

Set 50 years after the climactic events of the original Red Faction, Red Faction: Guerrilla allows players to take the role of an insurgent fighter with the newly re-established Red Faction movement as they battle for liberation from the oppressive Earth Defense Force. Red Faction: Guerrilla re-defines the limits of destruction-based game-play with a huge open-world, fast-paced guerrilla-style combat, and true physics-based destruction.

  • Open World Guerrilla Warfare — You decide who, when, where and how to battle. Utilize guerrilla tactics, improvised weaponry, and modified vehicles to lead insurgent attacks on EDF targets. Launch attacks based on your own gameplay style, take on missions in any order you choose, or engage in destructive activities to weaken the EDF’s grip on Mars.

  • Strategic Destruction — Use destruction to your tactical advantage, setting ambushes or chain reaction explosions to attack enemy strongholds and permanently modify the game environment. Leverage fully-dynamic physics-based destruction to improvise on the fly: blow holes in a wall or floor to set an ambush or escape, take out a staircase to
    stop your pursuers, or drive vehicles through blown out walls.

  • Evolving & Emergent Gameplay — Carve your path through an ever changing landscape as you improvise your combat tactics – mixing gameplay styles, vehicles, weapons and explosives to defeat the EDF.

  • Epic Sci-Fi Setting — Explore the huge, unforgiving Martian landscape, from the desolate
    mining outpost of Parker to the gleaming EDF capital city of Eos; then tear through the fully destructible open-world environments swarming with EDF forces, Red Faction resistance fighters, and the downtrodden settlers caught in the cross-fire.”

Are your tinglers tingling? Fingers phalanging? Ladies: how erect are your penises right now? Fellas: the same goes double.

The first thing you should know is that what you probably just imagined about playing this game is completely untrue. This is nothing like a sandbox action/adventure that will theoretically let you blow up the planet. There’s no reason to think of different ways to assault bases, or different gameplay “styles” (did they mean brute force vs stealth?), as once the enemy notices you, it and its respawning cohorts will always beeline to your exact location. There is no true non-linear way of attempting missions, since the game does not have a truly dynamic enemy force that is bound by things like supply lines, intel or a limited number of troops. What they probably meant was “choose which mission you want to do first, since none of them will ever have an effect another.” The only progress this game involves is the prospect of watching more cutscenes and purchasing bigger guns – which only do what your current guns do, just more of it — and there is no freedom. There is no freedom in this game, player, and that’s because there isn’t any on Mars. This is a world where your freedoms are in danger, player. This is Mars, and it’s run by the meanest military sumbitches you ever did see. Nicaragua? Ecuador? You haven’t seen a junta until you’ve see some EDF guys shoot Mars settlers, execution-style. You wanna hear about some powerful, evil bad-shit? You ever dip your ballsack in a jar of vinegar? You ever look a rotting corpse in its rotting eye sockets and whisper in its curled ear, “fuck you, boay”? Gather that skirt, sonny. Let me tell you a little story.

The game starts with a cutscene where Frank gets off of a space rocket and meets his brother, who already lives on Mars and has agreed to give Frank a lift to the tutorial.

Along the way, Mr. Brothers explains what’s going on:
Mr. Brothers missed their mom’s birthday on Earth;
Frank says he doesn’t blame him, it’s a pretty long trip home from Mars;
Frank asks who these bozos in Fallout 1 power armor are;
his brother says they’re the EDF, they’re real bad dudes;
Frank’s like, oh, how bad are they?;
his brother is like, well check this shit out, and then drives by a bunch of people on their knees and some EDF guy yelling at them to get on their knees, and then that man shoots someone;
Frank is like woahhh maybe I shouldn’t have come here to practice my skilled trade, which is the subtle art of blowing things up;
his brother then says, yeah things are getting pretty crazy, oh hey here we are at the tutorial.

After the tutorial (which teaches you that cogs and sprockets count as money on Mars, and that the only way to make some scratch on that barren planet is to destroy stuff until cogs and sprockets pop out) is another cutscene where Frank’s brother gets shot by those EDF bastards, which causes Frank to go insane with rage, declare he has no reason to live besides killing all those EDF bastards, and then the cutscene ends… and then continues when you/Frank are then contacted by the Red Faction, some sort of Martian jack-of-all-trades union that feels like it needs to shroud itself in Marxist/social realist trappings to make the point that guys in power armor shooting the proletariat is NOT COOL MAN—- so, they contact the two of you (you/Frank) to tell you about a couple boggles and toggles you need to raise and lower to get the EDF out of your sector, and the little sub-missions you can complete to affect these boggles/toggles.

These two things are the EDF Influence bar and the Popularity Meter, and they are the only gauges of success in Frank’s new life as a Martian revolutionary, as they dictate when you are ready to finally get the EDF out of your sector and how much everyone else loves you for doing so. The general rule of thumb is if you destroy specific EDF buildings or complete story missions, the EDF Influence bar decreases. When it reaches the bottom, you are finally ready my boy, ready to do the sector’s final mission, the penultimate EDF ejector to end all ejections, ready to put on your red shoes and strap yourself in for the ride of a lifetime wherein you, Frank Mason… get the EDF out of your sector.

The Popularity Meter is a yellow bar that reminds you of how popular Frank is. On Mars, you become a popular guy by completing side missions, killing a bunch of EDF in rapid succession, or doing a lot of property damage in rapid succession. Conversely, you become less popular when you die (-4 points, because real men never die), or are within a certain distance of an NPC getting killed (-1 point per death). You don’t even have to kill the guy, he could’ve just be standing next to you before getting donked by a truck and knocked off a cliff. I suppose the assumption is that real men don’t let the little guy get donked.

Aside from just filling up a yellow bar, your popularity is reflected in how the NPC’s react to you. If you aren’t very popular, they’ll say things like, “WHY are you CARJACKING me?” and “Red Faction is JUST A BUNCH OF THUGS.” If you are very popular, they’ll say, “Frank, take my car!” and “I’ll cover you!” When you are very popular, you don’t even have to carjack people anymore. If they see you running down the road, they’ll automatically stop their car and get out. They’ll even pull out a gun and start shooting if you’re in any trouble.

So all in all, the meter functions as a pretty good game-mechanic solution to the insane NPC genocide that happens in most of these GTA-esques. It’s about time we got some sort of quasi-moral compass going on here, is what I say. Enough is enough. Stop the polygon on polygon violence. ‘We’re all brothers,’ is what I imagine Frank saying to the denizens of Mars, ‘in more that just this struggle. Have you ever wondered why you never need to eat or drink?’ he continues. ‘Why it always seems like you just woke up, and you can’t remember how you got in the car, or even where you’re going? Did you ever want to know why you can hold a gun or a steering wheel, but can never take off a ring?’ Then he pulls back the skin on this hand to reveal a wireframe mesh that roughly looks like a G.I. Joe hand stuck in the gun-grip posture, fused fingers and all. ‘There are secrets governing this world, my friend. Secrets beyond any which you may have imagined.’

To which the obvious rejoinder is, “Frank! Take my car!”

A game about the futility of being a person in a game would be pretty good, is what I am trying to say.

Unfortunately if Red Faction: Guerrilla is about that, it’s only accidentally so. The Popularity Meter’s fostering of a nascent morality and kinship inevitably falls apart the more you play the game, where you will run into situations in which civilians who have come to your aid are duking it out with an endless and overwhelming stream of EDF and you are forced to make a decision: do I do what’s right and fight for these people’s lives until the bitter end, committing myself to a guaranteed -4 popularity when I eventually die, or do I hop in the nearest vehicle and drive the fuck away and hope I can beyond the game’s AI draw distance before anyone dies and I get dinged for -1 per casualty?

In terms of what it gets you, the choice to get in the nearest car and run is so simple, so obvious, that it calls into question whose opinion is governing the popularity meter. It certainly isn’t the people, because they’d notice their favorite savior always cutting out when things got a bit too hairy. It isn’t God/the game designers, because what kind of sadistic monster would repeatedly force people into situations where the only thing that made sense was to abandon those who loved you? And while I’m sure that Volition is guilty of something in this game, I know that it isn’t of hating the player.

The only reasonable conclusion is that it’s Frank’s own interpretation of himself and how much of a totally strong and emotionally tough dude he is being about everything. In what other world would it be worse to get shot to death while saving your people than to just drive away until you couldn’t hear their screams anymore? In this indirect way, Volition has taken The Next Step in Videogame Art by making the player character a deeply flawed protagonist whose rationalization works to undermine the game’s own mechanics. Frank is, quite simply, breaking the fourth wall of gameplay and taking on a life of his own.

But woah there, young man! Don’t you go trotting off to the game store just yet! I haven’t even told you what you do in this game. Sure, you know you need to kill and/or not kill other people, and also destroy property, but have you ever paused to think about how you are going to be doing these things? Did you? My friend? I’ll take a break and let you take a moment to collect your thoughts. Please enjoy the screenshots.

I couldn’t actually find the screenshot key in either the game’s key configuration or online.

Which is why these are all pictures that were provided by THQ’s marketing department, which reputable videogame sites then stamped their own watermark on.

A lot of recent cross-platform console/PC releases seem to be missing the screenshot key.

Maybe it’s because they know that most pictures of the game just won’t stack up to these painstakingly framed action shots. (Note: I had no idea there was a cover system in the game until I saw this picture. I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse.)

An enormous part of Red Faction is spent driving around a featureless landscape in silly looking vehicles.

One looks like it is made out of K’nex.

Another is a monster truck with machine guns attached to the front.

Still another is a Chinese delivery truck that has a rocket launcher attached to the roof. (not pictured)

About 5% of the game actually manages to be like this.

Although I must say, it’s pretty cool when it does. Even if it never looks this post-processed.

Alright, are you ready? Did you figure it out? How to create social change on Mars?
That’s right, with guns. You got it. You are so smart.

Or maybe it’s more like Volition’s solution to its own problem of ”how are we going to get people to play a game the showcases our new terrain-deformation technology?” was to create a Saints’ Row clone in which the only thing that isn’t deformable is the terrain, and the game’s basic job is to get in the way of you actually destroying stuff. Start swinging your sledgehammer at a building and eventually an EDF is going to drive by and get angry. If you take it to the EDF, then more EDF come. If your popularity meter is up, civilians will start showing up and then you need to start worrying about how much longer you can go before they get slaughtered and your popularity drops.

It’s a clusterfuck that’s only compounded by how fucking unfun it is to even shoot at your enemies. They’re wearing power armor, for God’s sake! It takes 10 headshots with the assault rifle to take one down. Guys who get hit in the face with rockets do not die. I’ve attached a bomb to a guy’s head and detonated it, and he still didn’t die. The nano-rifle, which according to the game shoots blobs of nanobots that disassemble things atomically, takes two shots to kill a guy. Atomically! Two! Do the EDF have too many atoms? Are their atomic bonds stronger than other peoples’? Why is it that the sledgehammer takes one hit, but the nano-rifle takes two? Is Frank stronger than nano-technology? Is Frank’s raw power more explosive than an actual explosion?

Actually, Volition did just about everything right with the enemies besides making them intensely/illogically hard to kill. They have decent AI, they work in teams and they can sprint just as fast as Frank can, which makes them just like Frank, which makes them good opponents. They are pretty challenging little dudes that become an insanely aggravating problem when you mix in their incredibly huge number of hit points with the fact that they spawn infinitely, and ultimately only exist to get in the way of the one fun thing about this game: destroying things.

In numerical order, this is what is fun about the game:

  1. (Tie) Swinging my sledgehammer at people/things & Seeing the destruction physics happen.
  2. Making up reasons for why the broken mechanics make sense.
  3. Pretending the designers actually thought about how everything in this game
    fits together, both as a game and a reflection of the human experience.
  4. The Stockholm Syndrome that set in after I decided that even though the
    game would probably never get any better, it at least seemed
    like there’d be 30 hours of buildings to destroy.
  5. Wondering if the game was ever going to get any better.
  6. My surprise when I realized that it was not actually 30 hours long
    and that I’d just beaten it by completing the only hard mission in the entire game.
  7. (Tie) Driving around barren Mars in Playmobil cars that have Saints Row’s
    landboat physics & Trying to kill guys in power armor who do not die
    after I attach explosives to their head.

But seriously, action gamer of 2010, does any of this really matter? What are you in the market for? A good game or one that lets you create insane amounts of mayhem? Because there are plenty of the former, but only a few of the latter are able to match the visceral scale of Red Faction Guerilla. There was a side-mission where a building I was assaulting had taken so much damage that it started collapsing while I was in it. I had to jump out of a hole in the second floor just as it came apart, with the structure crushing everyone else who was inside and debris flying everywhere, and enormous explosions going off as the surrounding gas tanks got hit and combusted. It was some serious 80’s action movie shit and will stand out in the highlight reel of awesome videogame things I’ve witnessed for a long time. But was it worth the 15-20 hours I spent playing the game?

Well, I’ll put it this way: the most epic videogame thing I’ve ever witnessed was when my brother power-played that little boat interstitial segment on the first level of Crysis. It’s all very simple: he was playing on super difficult and had just taken out the initial guard post, the one at the bottom of the hill. After the end of the fight he was close to dead and busy scavenging ammo when the first of the bay’s two patrol boats pulled up along the coast and opened fire. Without thinking, he switched on the suit’s super speed, sprinted across the dock and super jumped from the dock onto a patrol boat, shooting the driver in mid-air and then the gunner when he landed. He then drove the out across the bay until he encountered the second boat. While still moving, he super jumped onto the other boat, switched over to the super strength and punched both dudes in the face, to death.

Now that is some ballsy-ass gaming, and it could never, ever happen in Red Faction. First you would have to kill all the jerks that were at the building, then you’d have to plant the charges, then you’d have to kill the back-up jerks that arrived, then you’d have to detonate the charges (which are never powerful enough to take a building down in on ego, no matter how carefully you analyze the building’s structural integrity), then more jerks show up along with allied jerks and, while you are now slightly freed up to get on with the rest of the demolitions, you still need to deal with the EDF before Shit Gets Real for both you and your popularity. On and on and on, and you know what? All you wanted to do was see and do some cool shit, not micromanage a bunch of bullshit while dealing with the action equivalent of the game’s own fudgy driving.

Crysis will turn you into a man if you play it right. God Hand, Devil May Cry 3 and Battle Kid will make you feel like the baddest motherfucker on the planet if you play them right. I don’t think there is a right way to play Red Faction, let alone one that will make you feel like you’ve really accomplished something. Beating Red Faction: Guerrilla was like being told I was the best employee in the office and told I could take anything I wanted from the supplies closet. Within reason. Not the sharpies. Or a box of pens. Maybe a few labels.

further adaptation

I don’t know if certain parts of my brain have disintegrated or what, but the degree to which the ____ Watch series didn’t make much actual sense didn’t bother me a whole lot. Timur Bekmambetov, the director, also did the terrible-but-weirdly-still-entertaining Wanted adaptation. He’s sort of like a more functional Uwe Boll, in that his adaptations are always bastardized versions of the source material, characters’ emotional decisions don’t make much sense and make me feel like There’s Something I Just Don’t Get About Foreigners, there are moronic extended moments that feel like they fell out of Tommy Wiseau’s nose and into some action bonanza, and it’s all very much a bonanza of action/masculine-depressive-psychosis. But inspite of all that, Bekmambetov still has the basic shot-getting and footage-editing instincts to construct a fairly engaging light show of crazy shit and morose bumfucks walking around Moscow, bumfucking each other with a seemingly endless supply of unspecified but amazing magical powers. The movie isn’t actually as jam packed with eyeball glazing graphics and conceptual leaps as I’ve made it sound, but it employs a lot more of them than most movies can even imagine having. By comparison, it’s probably 100% more imaginative than anything in Harry Potter is.