TOMB RAIDER REBOOTED

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ulysses

If you are a studio given the enormous responsibility of stewarding one of modern gaming’s most beloved franchises, obsession in the service of creating the world that character inhabits is essential. Thus seems to be the case with Crystal Dynamics, and Tomb Raider. How does this re-envisioning stack up?

Yamatai

Tomb Raider’s gaming universe was always inspired by the pulp adventures of yore. She was an unabashed action hero, taking on modern fantasy, human villains and ancient tombs with the aplomb of a veteran, signature dual handguns blazing. Accruing just as much cachet for being empowering to women as she did for her skimpy shorts and bodacious figure, Lara was never subtle.

This review will neither focus upon, nor compare this Croft adventure to her older work. In order to respect the dignity of the reboot Crystal Dynamics offers, I will focus on the main game-play elements and story that have truly made this amazing.

OVERVIEW

Lara as a Millenial? Yup. The game opens with Lara on a scientific research ship with a small cadre of crew, assistants, and her boss, a whiny 40-something archeology professor. The erstwhile crew is is search of Yamatai, a legendary island in Japan’s Dragon Sea, called by some the “Bermuda triangle of the Pacific”. Legends abound about Yamatai, and the mysterious Queen Himiko, who demanded tribute from local lords on other islands and even China itself over a 400 year period roughly contemporary to the Roman Empire. Guided by Roth, an old friend of her fathers who virtually helped raise her, she asserts that Yamatai is within their grasp, and convinces the crew to set course for her projected coordinates.

radio

OMG u guise no signl LOL

Lara begins the reboot with some solid base competencies. She’s been adventuring around the world with Roth and this crew for several years now, and is a natural athlete and gymnast, as well as getting her degree from a prestigious university. I loved the fact that Lara is 19 or 20 maybe. She’s not uber-confident, and not wise about just how bad “adventure” can get, despite growing up on her father’s (and Roth’s) stories. It’ll take everything she’s got when the ship hits the rocks.

Like a great action movie, rushing water and squealing metal herald the end of Lara’s innocence. She barely escapes the wreckage of the shattered ship alive, sustaining bruises and a wound to her side from a jagged piece of metal. She’s taken prisoner by cultists after washing ashore, and must escape a grim tableau of skulls, blood and a bizarre candle-lit alter.

Lara Croft

Oh. Ok. The skulls are a nice touch, I guess…

These sequences serve as a tutorial, although never intrusively. It’s something that separated this game from a similar “island jungle adventure“ in Far Cry 3, which spoon-fed you EVERYthing up front, as if those playing the game were new to this whole “gaming” thing. Lara’s tutorials never took me out of character.

When she gets a quiet moment, she begins to realize just how screwed she is…. no weapons, no fire, no support, no communications, no shelter. She is terrified, alone, cold, and soaking wet. Welcome to adventure, kiddo: at least you have good boots.

MECHNICS AND GAMEPLAY

Much of the game-play is defined by leaping about acrobatically, the next game in a lineage going all the way back to Prince of Persia. As in many 3rd person action games, Lara’s experience is enhanced with upgradable badassery. Playing the game on Hard Mode, as I did, I needed every single upgrade Lara finds laying around.

It’s possible to win the game with nothing but XP derived from slaughtering the local fauna and splitting cultist skulls with arrows (and that never got old!). However, optional tombs and collectibles, are scattered around for completionists. The setups were both logical and reminiscent of other physics puzzle games… one of the tombs had a see-saw-and-weights apparatus lifted almost whole-cloth from Half-Life-2, for example. Still, although not necessary, these side trips into the bowels of the island were VERY useful, both from a sweet XP standpoint, and also in punching you in the face with the fact that Lara might be a noob, but she is both smart *and* strong.

sunqueen

Don’t forget to buy a miniature, souvenir, Sun Queen statue at the Cultist’s Yamatai gift shop!

Lara has what I’m coming to call Adventure Vision, the ability to push a button and see all activatable structures and textures in an area. This game mechanic has been standard for awhile now, in varying degrees of retarded. In Lara’s case, she could stand still and, in her mind’s eye, see where it was possible to interact with the environment. Note, this did not show you where to go, nor did it stay activated while moving, nor did it show you how or where to use your tools (rope arrows, for example). I rarely used it, preferring the challenge of finding out the true paths myself. But for a newer player, or someone who is frustrated, it’s a nice nudge in the right direction.

And speaking of adventuring, Lara’s movements were astonishingly fluid, almost “next gen” as the grognards say. It’s been inspiring to watch the progression of this art form; from Prince of Persia through God of War, the Nathan Drake series and now this. The body model must have spent weeks in a gym with a mo-cap harness getting these acrobatics just right, from parkour to rock climbing, from hauling on a rope to impaling the eye of a bad guy Legolas-style.

Inventory management was consolified, but in this case, it was a good thing. Could they have given her the ability to combine things herself, immersed in the crafting aspect? Sure, but we get a sense of her “leveling up” just as well by keeping the RPG elements as lean as Lara’s shapely-yet-realistic figure. Even as an avid PC gamer who likes complexity, I was happy upgrading every now and then, and to the game’s credit, usually when I had need of it most.

203160_screenshots_2013-11-24_00003

A whaling ship? Up here?! What is this, DISHONORED?

Lara’s equipment was absolutely it’s own character in the game. The guns were grimy, strapped-together scavenged kludges, repaired to a barely-working state by the local cultists, and later upgraded with parts that Lara finds in storage boxes or steals from a fresh corpse. They go boom, and are as accurate as you need them to be. Guns be guns — solid work, there. In certain sections of the game, there are what amounts to quick time events, where the shotgun gets it’s due. Lara plummets into rivers periodically, and those are often choked with debris. A well-timed blast from the blunderbuss demolishes these deadly obstructions, usually less than a second before Lara would become fish food. The shotty can also blast open pathways on land as well, allowing access to XP, bits of story, logs, diaries and artifacts.

And now we come to the finest bit of kit any adventurer can own. Bullwhip? Naw. Climbing Pick? Maybe. I’m speaking here of Lara’s bow. Maybe it’s the Hunger Games, maybe it’s just the culmination of the cultural zeitgeist of the last 15 years (Hawkeye, Arrow, Brave, Legolas, etc) but that bow holds a special place in my heart. Dynamite Arrows straight outta Dukes of Hazzard. Rope arrows, like in the old 90’s Thief games, which create impromptu zip-lines and can be used to harpoon enemies and drag them to their deaths over cliff sides (VERY satisfying). Except for dire situations, you won’t WANT to use anything BUT your bow. Silent, deadly, efficient, and the game designers thoughtfully put ammo everywhere.

GRAPHICS, SOUND AND MUSIC

The beautiful island setting evokes LOST, the original Far Cry, or a number of different 80’s action films. The lighting effects increased the immersion by a huge factor. Tomb Raider gave us “rainbow/prism refraction” and an Abrhamsian Lens Flare during the final sequence of the game. But it also gave us beautiful clouds, streaming light through them, flickering, warm firelight, and moody gray overcast gloom.

203160_screenshots_2013-11-15_00015203160_screenshots_2013-11-15_00023

The character design was superb. Lara herself is almost unbelievably pretty. The characters of the crew had distinct looks and styles, and the water was animated nearly as well as Bioshock… which is saying something, because very few games attain that level of awesome.

sopretty

Prettiest… Lara… EVAR.

failurecomplete

..aaaand… THIS guy. >_<

One of the best graphical flairs was the effect of adventuring on Lara herself. She gets dunked from time to time, which washes off the dirt and blood. But you watch her get more and more degraded, which really added to the “yo, this shit is REAL” sensation as you played. The injuries she sustains accrue on her character model with bandages and bruises and torn clothing. Lara runs to the point of exhaustion over a 5 or 6 day period in the game, and simply has no other clothes to change into. (dead Cultists togs? Eeewww!) For lack of a better phrase, our heroine gets the ever-loving shit beat out of her, by both nature and her adversaries. Repeatedly. And it shows.

baptism2

Shit just got REAL, yo.

The sound design was as lush as the graphics. Howling chasm winds, smashed and cracking timbers, rumbling rock-slides, rushing rivers, staccato gunshots, explosions with thunder and screams mixed into them (appropriate to the story, actually), and even the authoritative THUNK of an arrow, all kept me in 7.1 Surround Sound bliss. The voice acting was beyond superb. I never had a moment where any one of the characters was less than fully believable, and Lara herself should get an Oscar. The music swelled grandly, in that generic-action-movie sense. If there was one place the sound fell down was here. Aside from some nice Japanese Koto Drums, and a decent main theme, it suited the need, but … meh.

IN SUMATION

What drives people to explore? What makes them want to leave a perfectly good house with food and heat and friends to throw themselves against the unknown, possibly to die there? For those exceptional few, the ones who have both ADD and the ability to run, jump and slay, the call of adventure is too strong. And in Lara’s case, her motivations (as they are revealed at the end) are both simple and powerful.

TombRaided

You never forget your first tomb. And she hates tombs.

We play games like this to get out of ourselves for awhile, and nothing portrays the notion like this, which was one of the most powerful gaming commercials I have ever seen. Of all the vidya game action heroes out there, only a few are driven by the need to know, the need to go over that next mountain, the need to see what’s out there. Most of the time, they are out for vengeance, or trying to escape, or trying to save someone. In this game, Lara Croft– along with Nathan Drake, Indiana Jones and others in the genre– embodies that in a way that resonates with us on a very human, very visceral level. Lara’s got a goal: survive, secure her friends, wait for rescue. But she never looses sight of the greater one: What the bloody freaking Hell is up with Yamatai and the Sun Queen? There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that something supernatural is happening, and Lara never forgets how important that is, even with cultists kidnapping her friends and murdering them. Co-equivalent to survival is exploration. The push to go further, see more. Learn more. We’ve lost that, in our Wal-Mart culture. And if this game can give that back some people, even a little bit, even for a short time, it’s worth experiencing. Play Tomb Raider. We are all Lara Croft.

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THE WALKING DEAD Telltale Games 2012

THE WALKING DEAD: THE GAME

2012 Telltale Games

OVERVIEW

How far would you go to protect someone you loved? What kind of moral choices could you make about who lives and dies if you were forced to do so? How good are you at overcoming all the trappings of modern society in order to survive, while still keeping your soul, your basic morals, your ability to remain human? The Walking Dead: The Game strives to reveal the answers in a beautifully realized point-and-click adventure by indie developer Telltale Games.

This games features the little-known "Clever Zombie".

This game features the little-known “Clever Zombie”.

THE SETUP

The games opens with your character, Lee Everett, handcuffed in the back of a police car. You are introduced to simple and effective interface commands, allowing you to look around and make smalltalk with the old sherrif who is driving you to prison for what you discover is a murder you committed.

It’s not long before the zombie outbreak happens, though, and break out it does… suddenly, violently, overwhelmingly. The police cruiser is run off the road by one newly-infected walker, and tumbles into a ravine. This allows an injured Lee to kick his way to freedom, crawl from the wreckage, kill his first zombie, and begin the long journey to understanding and dealing with the nightmare all around him.

Early on, he meets Clementine, a 8-year-old little girl hiding a tree-house, awaiting the return of her parents from Savannah where the spread of the outbreak is implied. Lee, who never had children of his own, adopts Clem and fulfills the role of protector and teacher. This “protect Clem” dynamic infuses the game with most of it’s pathos and several grinding emotional challenges.

"It'll be dark soon, and they mostly come at night... mostly."

“It’ll be dark soon, and they mostly come at night… mostly.”

THE MECHANICS and GAMEPLAY

Telltale Games is made up of many programmers and designers from the old LucaAarts adventure game studio, a pedigree that most old-school gamers recognize as one of the best in the industry. If your game can claim designers from id software, LucasArts, Firaxis, Looking Glass or half a dozen other studios from the 90’s, it’s a pretty good bet that game is going to rock your socks off. The Walking Dead is no exception.

Another fine game by LucasArts veterans that features dead people.

Another fine game by LucasArts veterans that features dead people.

There was an ease of use to old-school adventure titles like Grim Fandango, and a focus on story and plot not seen in many other games outside of Bioware (Mass Effect) or Remedy (Alan Wake) these days. Telltale strips those older systems down to their essence, and uses context-specific inventory, phrase-guided conversations (like Mass Effect of Dragon Age), and simple puzzle arenas to convey a gripping story of survivors as they try to make their way to Savannah, where one character has a boat. The choices you make in these conversations carry over from chapter to chapter, and affect characters in surprising ways. The major crux points of each episode are reviewed at the end, showing you a percentage average of how many other players made similar decisions. It’s intriguing to see how you stack up.

There is quite a bit of latitude within these choices, though. The group changes over the course of the game, presenting you with a rogue’s gallery of basically decent people. The Angry Guy, the Kid, the Techie, the Marksman, The Doctor, all familiar zombie apocalypse tropes. These characters come and go, dieing nobly, stupidly or randomly… but almost always becoming walker chow. Lee’s decisions for good or ill end up affecting the party as a whole, and Clementine in particular. For example, you can choose to try to “protect” Clem with words, lieing to her, telling her everything will be alright, that you’ll always be there to help her, and that her parents are still alive. This will keep her calm, but when the truths are eventually revealed, she will feel betrayed, and less likely to believe or help you in the end. Or you can give her the harsh truths, as gently as you can, and then tell her you will help her to be strong and survive, and take care of herself. These methods make the game more like a choose-your-own-adventure book than a game, per se, but what they accomplish within this nearly poetic restriction gives us a story with all the punch and drama of a multimillion dollar TV show.

Lee must live with himself when he chooses to NOT tell the group that he switched the communal coffee pot to Decaf.

Lee must live with himself when he chooses to NOT tell the group that he switched the communal coffee pot to Decaf.

There are a lot of in-game cutscenes in The Walking Dead, sometimes lasting up to 5 minutes. As you play, you get used to the flow of these scenes and the pre-rendered decisions within them. The exceptions occur when the game forces you do to something really difficult. You, yourself, the player. You want to try to save that guy’s life by cutting his leg off with an axe? You’ll need to click on it, 3 or 4 times, each time listening to the screams of agony from the victim, blood splattering everywhere, and each blow landing with a sickening squishy crunch. Choose to kill an infected member of the party? Then YOU click the mouse and pull the trigger. YOU bear that euthanasia on your conscience. It’s a small thing, but the impact this simple interaction has during the most engaging and heartbreaking scenes hits you like a falling anvil, right in the feels.

AUGHgawd!  My FEEELS!

AUGHgawd! My FEEELS!

It must not be left unsaid that there are a few drawbacks to these design choices. During the game, the pacing alternated between conversations with the group and swatting the Walkers in quick-time events that ramped up some pretty brutal tension. While the conversations were interesting and always revealed enough info to move forward (sometimes overdoing it a bit), I never felt like anything was beyond the capability of a casual gamer. One might say that this is also the pace of the comics and the TV show of the same name. That the point of both of those is the human connections made within the group, and how different personalities reacted to and dealt with the stress of seeing the world die all around them. The game does all that and more… But I gotta say, a bit more challenge would have been welcome, either puzzle-wise or in fighting off the zombies themselves. Inventory management might have been improved a bit also, since no one ever seemed inclined to wear a backpack or carry a machete, unless the plot called for it.

GRAPHICS, SOUND AND MUSIC

Telltale decided to go with cel-shaded graphics for The Walking Dead, and it was the right choice. It mirrors the original art from the Kirkman comics, paying homage to the world he created AND the tv show without forcing the narrative or crossing too many plot-lines. All the details look as if they were sketched with an art-school pencil (not “inked” like anime cel-shading), and the facial features were overdrawn enough to really differentiate the various characters you meet, sometimes going into moderate caricature. Again, this just works. Facial animation was also solid, with what looked like a lot of custom work…. an important factor when your game relies on attitudes, emotions and loyalties as much as Walking Dead does. Blood and gore effects were never completely over the top, but done in a delightful and almost lovingly sloppy fashion, also adhering to the same comic styling. The camera work, while serviceable through most of the game, really began to shine in the cutscenes of later episodes, switching positions to allow for the best angle to see puzzle elements. At some points, it was downright striking to see the viewpoint moving artistically, going for overhead shots and close-ups exactly when it felt like it should…. not something you usually expect from talking-heads in an adventure game or RPG.

This Kirkman original went for $1.2 million at Sotheby's last year.

This Kirkman original went for $1.2 million at Sotheby’s last year.

The sounds design was decent but sparse in some areas. Guns sound like movie guns. Zombie heads go “splorch” and machinery (especially a locomotive you find in episode four) hisses and clangs with satisfying verisimilitude. The music was unobtrusive, and except for a few highlights during credit sequences or when a train hobo played his blues guitar, unmemorable. In this respect, I feel like perhaps Telltale wanted to do this part better, but instead put that funding into voice acting, animations and art design.

The voice acting itself was absurdly awesome. It’s easy to direct actors to scream. It’s much harder to direct them to scream in character. And conveying grief, loss, love and fear are all hallmarks of topnotch vocal talent. If these actors can’t get jobs at Pixar or Cartoon Network after this, there ain’t no justice in the world. Of special note is Lee himself. He speaks with authority, like the History Professor he used to be, or mumbles possible solutions to himself (and the player) while working a puzzle. The affection he feels for Clementine comes through in the warmth that comes through when talking her through very tough situations that NO 8-year-old should have to deal with.

As usual for a zombie game, there was a LONG list of vocal talent for the zombies themselves, and a nod should go to the vocal directors who gave these particular ghouls a unique sound… more grindy and breathy than growly, setting this pack apart from Left4Dead or the oeuvre of George Romero in the zombieshpere.

Dude, this mosh pit looks intense... O_o

Dude, this mosh pit looks intense… O_o

IN SUMMATION

I would recommend The Walking Dead to anyone who likes the AMC show or the comics. It’s not twitch-based or logically difficult, and the story is WELL worth the price of admission. It is literally the only game I’ve ever played where I shed a tear of two over the course of play. If you don’t go into it expecting a bang-up action game, but instead make some considered moral choices, the resulting plotlines are better than most TV shows.

Modern zombie fiction tells us different things about ourselves, and the decisions we feel we’re capable of making in a crisis. Stories like World War Z or Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy show us how we manage to survive it and LIVE… both as a cohesive culture and in retaining our humanity in the face of nearly overwhelming odds. Stories in games like Left4Dead or The Walking Dead show us how we survive it and DIE… and how we are remembered (or dismembered). When all that remains is how we treat each other, when survival means being able to trust your group, when a little girl’s life may depend on crushing her heart by telling her a hard and bitter truth… How long can you go? How long can you squeeze the last bit of your soul for something good and decent when the entire remainder of the human race is trying to eat you?

In the end, all these zombie tropes are a metaphor for good people forced to choose between equally bad decisions. For in the end, the title isn’t about the zombies at all…. it’s about us, the remaining few, the survivors, the real Dead men Walking.

WalkingDead101 2013-01-23 22-09-19-60

Part 2.8 — The Blood of Idiots

I keep running into blog posts like this one that keep saying things I would say, but say them better. Since I have not been able to visit the local newly-opened Gun Range, due to not having any money for another week, all the other (and better) topics are being written about by those who have far more experience and flair. Instead, I have decided to reference this link and create my own response to the gun issue shennanigans of the last week or so.

I’ve observed quite a bit of angry yelling by the ignorant, the violent and the misguided… on the news, but much more-so on the internet. The level of debate on various youtube videos has rarely risen above grade school. The same with blogs, news sites, and even http://www.whitehouse.gov itself. They use bots to flood the discussion threads with thumbs-downs on Obama’s videos, attempting to keep them from showing up in people’s feeds. They advocate armed rebellion, issue death threats and threaten to summarily secede from the union if “them gummit bastards lay one finger on mah gun!”.

The Face of Reason ca. 2013

The Face of Reason ca. 2013

Once I got past my initial outrage at these idiot children, I remembered that the internet has indeed seen such a flood of ignorance before: 1996, the year AOL went to a flat $20/month fee. Prior to that, USENET (a collection of text forums established on shared college mainframes) was the primary exchange medium for those who wished to be a part of the growing Internet. Flame wars, spamming, the written debates of hundreds of thousands of educated, intelligent college students… all of this was written in primitive code and displayed on green, lo-res VAX terminals for over 15 years. An entire generation forming the kernel of what was to bloom with the widespread use of the World Wide Web. Most of the current internet culture owes it’s kinetic and frenetic growth and history to USENET.

The Face of Reason, ca. 1993

The Face of Reason, ca. 1993

And then… AOL. When USENET access was granted to America Online, they were still a limited service like GEnie or CompuServe, charging by the minute for precious access. Veterans of the net, (as in this amusing video from 1993) who had been a part of this online community, were used to civil discussion, mediated by intelligent men and women who had a personal or moral stake in making sure their forums kept high standards. But when AOL went with a flat-fee scheme, all hell broke loose on USENET. Suddenly, Joe and Jane Schmoe had a PC and a modem, and little in the way of written debate skills or accountability behind the anonymity provided by AOL and other’s, soon after. The mob of angry children overwhelmed peaceful and thoughtful discussions about hot-button issues like abortion and gun control and with misspelled vitriol, hate speech, misinformed conspiracy theories and outright incomprehensible idiocy.

Sound familiar?

Your average Gun Control poaster on Youtube.

Your average Gun Control poaster on Youtube.

The gun lobby, the NRA, survivalists of all stripes and other groups have decided that this whole gun debate is best served through yelling simplistic stupid things over and over, loudly, and using as inflammatory speech as possible. These embittered, lonely, and most importantly *uncultured* buffoons are dragging the country down, forcing a debate at the level of a schoolyard bully threatening to beat up students who don’t play the game his way. Liberals and others either overreact with “Ban all guns!” or cower, silently afraid that the loud, noisy redneck might somehow hurt them, or their feelings. Over the internet. With text. *facepalm* This isn’t informed dissent guys, this is a lynch mob. They go after the president for real and imagined insults, advocate armed insurrection (against whom, exactly?) and frame firearms as the only right worthy defending that vehemently, despite repeated abuses of the First (speech and assembly) and Fourth (illegal search, seizure and detainment), which are arguably a lot more important to the smooth functioning of our democracy than the ability to violently overthrow the government

When the rebellions go to far, when the facts are not listened to. When drunken brawling is the result of pubic dissatisfaction instead of reasoned debate you get chaos. You get a vocal, bullying, dangerous group of zealots who fetishize their weapons and their right to use them (strangely becoming silent when asked about the commensurate responsibilities attendant to that right) and eschew logical debate. “My way or the highway! America is becoming a New World Order fascist dictatorship lead by that socialist, fascist, Muslim Barrak Obama! Kill ’em all, and PLEASE try to take my guns so I can KILL as many of you fuckers as I can! YEAH! LIBERTY!”

And we as a country go absolutely nowhere, really fast.

Tommy Jefferson’s statement about Liberty and Forestry (that the gun nuts specifically love quoting) referenced the Shays Rebellion, and how it resolved. TeeJay was writing from France in the 1780’s, and the rest of that letter’s content had an important component to it…. that the small battles waged by those in the service of liberty were often uninformed, often bitter and often served in the end to make the government stronger, more democratic, and more tyrant-proof. It established that America should never have a “ruling class” (and there WAS one back in the 1780’s) because the attention brought to issues by the misinformed made enough noise for everyone to listen to the facts as the charges were brought forward by the ignorant, and thus resolved… and likely kept that ruling class from getting too comfortable with their power. 

We need common sense answers to gun violence, and a push to change the gun fetish culture instead of the laws or the Right as written in the Bill. Our rights to assemble and make things really inconvenient for everyone until demands for social changes are met are a tried and true way of accomplishing this…. such demonstrations give a public platform to these ideas, much like shays rebellion did in the 1780’s. And along with that, I should have the right to organize a counter-rally, to publicly show my opposition to your ideals, hopefully with a better-informed opinion.

But this isn’t happening. I suspect it’s because it doesn’t serve those in power. Right now, the balance of the folks abusing the power for their own ends are mostly Republican, and also their subset of politicized NRA leaders. They seem to get crazier and crazier every 2 years, and also less and less educated or interested in good governance, which includes vigorous public debate via our rights to assemble or civilly disobey an unjust law.

No sir, I don't like it one bit!"

No sir, I don’t like it one bit!”

Our modern revolutions in America must stand as an example to the world, as Shays Rebellion did, but without the guns. On TV, on the internet, in person, there must be a venting of idiocy, followed by an acceptance of facts, and then a common resolution to proceed with something better. This is one of the few things we still do really well…. every 4 years we change people in power without a shot fired. Without rounding up dissidents of the opposing party. Without guerrillas or labor camps or forced voting or trading-in one horrible regime for another. WE wield that power, and it should never be abridged for any reason, and this is what true Conservatives and even Libertarians should be rallying around with such vigor. I could respect it, even if I disagreed with how they wanted it done. Civil disobedience is part of the culture too… and its actually a functional part of the system as well… but that disobedience must remain peaceful and non-violent. It must achieve something greater than the initial conflict or the irresponsible people in power (who wish to *keep* that power indefinitely) have already won. If it actually comes down to the Next Civil War the way the gun fringe seems to want, well, we’ve failed to live up to our promise, to the measured and intelligent words of Tom Jefferson’s letter from France. And in the end, we’ve destroyed something beautiful and enduring at the hands of AOL’ers on USENET.

Part 2.5 — Imaginary Hitler

I had a recent Facebook discussion thread which was defined by commentary about 2nd Amendments rights as they applied to keeping citizens free. A friend of mine (whom I actually agree with on certain other things, personally and politically) posted one of those lovely picture-and-word memes that seem to have taken over the whole internet these days. It got me thinking about something I touched on in the last post, which is the title of this one… the Future Imaginary Hitler, and how an armed Jewish citizenry might have been able to defend themselves against the Nazis, at least in part. He pointed out that the Jews were a repressed minority, but that had they been armed, things would have been different. That if a Future Hitler happened here, Good Free Armed Citizens could reasonably expect to stop it. What follows in this auxilliary blog post is my reply to him in the “comments” under the meme. Upon reading it over, I felt defined my notions pretty well, so I present my reply in it’s entirety, with a few additions, clarifications and side notes:

~~~~~~~~~

Jews were indeed repressed… but that was old news even then. Jews had been repressed across most of Europe for centuries. The Nazis weren’t the first corrupt government to massively kill off whole populations of Jews (that honor belongs to the medieval Catholic Church), they were just the most “successful”. In fact, throughout most of A.D. history in Europe, Jews were denied just about everything, up to and including weapon ownership in many countries. About the only other group more unduly distrusted was Gypsies. I’ve been reading a lot lately about this topic, and have pretty much concluded that the this whole tyranny thing is completely separate from personal safety. There is no tyranny here which cannot be responded to within the system itself. We’ve got a long way to fall, and I mean a LONG way, before Hitler or Mao or Palpatine can take over.

But you know who causes me great concern? That James Yeager guy who went on basically a terrorist rant on youtube [Ed. whom I referenced in the last post]. How else can moderates see this guy except as a violent extremist perpetuating a dangerous delusion? Our ownership of guns, specifically for the purpose of ensuring personal freedom against a tyrannical government, matters not one whit these days… hasn’t meant much since the end of WWII, which began with america being a relatively small world military power, and ended with us being the first SUPERpower. As soon as the government had planes large enough to bomb cities, virtually impenetrable tanks powerful enough to blow up buildings and nuclear weapons big and small, (and lets not even get into modern drones or surveillance), *and then they forbade us to have them too*, the Second Amendment was rendered just about obsolete. This is why I made that reply on an earlier post about “What do I need to feel safe from the military?” Damn straight I would theoretically want mustard gas and explosive vans! Fuck guns! Because that extreme is the only level of firepower that would make any difference whatsoever in that scenario. For me, from what I know of history, and culture, and public policy, a proposed future Hitler and a military coup of the sort that would overthrow the government is like that scene in Blazing Saddles where the black sheriff points a gun at his own head and says “Nobody move, or the n****r gets it!”.

If you want to talk about CRIME, which is a separate issue, then of course there is room for some debate, since many of the studies done have proven inconclusive. Crimes involving guns have dropped across the board since the early 90’s, and study after study struggles to find a link between that and concealed carry laws due to the length of time between their inception and the social results in this country. Most of the studies that say otherwise have been conducted by conservative think tanks that include funding from groups that also fund the current NRA. I have stated my views on that as well. Mandatory licensing, training, safety, insurance. Gun crime supposedly went up in countries which banned certain guns, but gun DEATHS went way way down. For example, in Australia (link at the end of this reply). I have not advocated banning anything, as any assault rifle legalities would likely grandfather in what is currently owned.

No one needs more than a standard 9mil or a .38 for personal defense or pump action shotgun or a 30-06 for hunting. People just don’t get into gunfights, they don’t look forward to them or train for them, they don’t want anything to DO with guns… As you yourself have stated, it works as a deterrent in the right hands, but for reasons stated in my blog, [Ed. referencing the previous post here on the Pressure Gauge] I’d actually feel a lot safer being UNarmed during a robbery.

I hope you can understand my position on this. It is one of many things I’ve struggled to define and moderate in my own head. For what it’s worth, you have had an important part in helping me define those positions. I reserve the right to change them given new non-partisan evidence, but the pattern of information that emerged when I started reading doesn’t seem to infer anything new. Oh and here’s that link, one of many similar articles that would be ponderous to post here:
http://thinkprogress.org/health/2012/12/18/1353811/australia-gun-control-suicides/?mobile=nc

Part 2 – The Gun Dichotomies

Our culture has developed a set of expectations about guns that work at cross purposes to the realities. Like everything else in our society, the power and connectivity of our culture and the very loose availability of powerful weapons to unskilled, untrained individuals has pressed many of these into the extreme corners of reason without us really taking the time to realize what that means. Perhaps if we examine these dichotomies a little closer we can use it to come up with better ways of having our 2nd amendment rights without the deplorable levels of gun violence.

 

Liberty and Freedom

Many Conservatives and some Libertarians have a concept of this country’s history defined as a Lone Frontiersman looking out over His Land, with his Dog and his Gun, from the porch of His Manor that He Built without any Government imposing Restrictions on His Liberty. Many feel that some form of this ideal is the best way to be, and often lump it all together with other things like an economy based on the gold standard and as little national government as possible… even though (while attractive) this would prove harmful to the populous citizenry of an international superpower. Indeed, many of the problems we face politically in this country stem from early progressive conflicts with Deep South plantation society, which was about as old-school as political thought gets in this country. They prized Liberty as recognized by the Romans and Greeks, a society that included only landed white men as citizens who were pretty much given carte-blanche to act or live however they wanted.

 

Freedom, though is a different thing, and applies to all people, communities, a whole a state, or even a nation. The most freedom for everyone to pursue whatever they want, but not the liberty to ANYthing they want. Freedom says everything has a social consequence. Freedom says you maximize the good and reduce the bad to levels acceptable to the whole group, sometimes giving up considerable Liberty to do so. Time and again throughout history, Freedom has produced more equality and fairness than Liberty. And the battle for reasonable gun control falls along these lines.

 

Call of Duty and Hydrostatic Shock

I will be the first to admit that I am a big video game enthusiast and always have been. One of the most popular of those games is a series called Call of Duty, in which you play as a soldier (from WWII to America-invaded scenarios) in the first person. You hold a variety of modern weapons and the game does a pretty good job of replicating the feel of firing them, from sound effects to range and accuracy to ammo limits. The game’s popularity is an outgrowth of a powerful fantasy, that of the projection of personal power. Many humans, (a large balance of young males included) are hardwired to enjoy it at a deep biological level.

 

Like it or not, it is FUN to shoot a weapon, whether it’s a bow or a P90. There is a fascination with the kickback, the draw strength, the projectile impacting something with enough force to have a measurable and marked effect. And this goes all the way back; cavemen with rocks and atl-atls probably felt this… likely evolved to feel like this, as it made them better hunters. Guns (and really good bows) are precision-machined. They feel heavy and solid and good to hold. They make satisfying and sexy clicks and clacks as they operate, not to mention the thwaaang of a bowstring or POP of a bullet.

 

This becomes a huge problem where actual guns are concerned. Too often this heady feeling of firing a gun are all mashed together with the practical USE of a gun, and the horrible physical damage a hollow point bullet actually does. That line is pretty easy to describe, too: the ending of a human life.

 

There is a power trip in the knowledge that every time the trigger is pulled, you could be pointing it at someone. That every time the weapon is pointed at someone, you summarily and profoundly remove control from them. That the feeling of that power can be massively addictive. And we humans don’t do so well, as a group, with our addictions. When is it enough? Pulling a gun on a mugger or armed robber? An unarmed guy in your house trying to take you stuff? A drunk guy who verbally threatens you? Those damn asshole kids playing their music too loud?

 

Ownership Versus Stewardship

Lots of people want to own a gun, and it is my opinion that dangerously few of them truly understand the social and moral contract they are signing when they do. They want the sexy, powerful guns around them, a real and deadly response to statistically unlikely circumstances that I feel are often blown out of proportion in their minds. They feel that the simplest and most permanent solution is usually the best, and have (over a bellcurve, of course) increasingly little faith in anyone other than themselves, despite an entire society built up around protecting it’s citizens.

 

They want ownership of the power, not stewardship of it. This form of control is dictatorial, absolute and unforgiving. They wish to use the gun as a simple, easy, powerful deterrent, and many times without the social or personal training to understand the eventual effects on a society full of people who think the same way, regardless of their personal motives. This mindset embraces the absolutes… “Back off, or I’ll KILL YOU.” Deterrents only work against those who respect those absolutes. Those who do not, well… they will simply one-up the deterrent. Instead of a criminal coming into a convenience store, pointing a gun and saying “Gimme the money!” he’ll simply stride in, shoot everyone immediately without warning, THEN take the money. Better safe than sorry, after all. Or better yet, just lob a flash-bang into the place first. It’s a zero sum game in the end, a never-ending arms race between sacred folks with guns and ever-more-violent criminals.

 

But Stewardship is thoughtful, humble, informed and willing to do what is best with the power regardless of personal agenda. It’s the moral difference between a Police Officer and an Officer of the Peace, a Thug and a Soldier, a Murderer and a Warrior. And to their credit, I believe this is what drives a good many people who wish to get concealed carry licenses. But is is simply not far enough. If they wish to undertake the responsibility and enjoy the right of carrying a weapon on them, and assume the authority of killing a person for threatening them or others, then the controls placed upon the power and it’s use should be commensurate. Perhaps idealistically, it logically follows that Stewardship calls for Open Carry. Everyone sees it. Everyone knows the training and control you’ve submitted to, and the massive risk you assume. If you play that game, and want the power of life and death at hand, then you are also the biggest target in the room, and by that nature, you draw fire away from those who aren’t armed.

 

Jones Versus Straczinski

The concluding dichotomy here is this: Extraordinary Power requires Extraordinary Control. But the conversations and statements I’m hearing from the Far Right/Libertarian/Rabid NRA types is that ANY control beyond what we have is bad, and draw all the wrong conclusions from statistics that say “current controls don’t work, so we shouldn’t enact any more of them”… instead of saying, “we need MORE EFFECTIVE ones”. That only criminals will have guns (and every bad guy will use one? What if everyone else could carry non-lethal weapons on them, which seem to work fine for cops trying to deter most criminals, even if they ARE armed). That PEOPLE kill people, not the guns (and it wasn’t ME who got her pregnant, my penis did!). All of these stupid arguments are designed to rile up the reactionary and the uneducated so the NRA and other groups like them can keep guns in business and get funding from those reactionary people. The jowly, growly talk personalities howl their incessant 2nd Amendment tantrum, so loud that they drown out the suggestions that might lead to a better policy on enacting laws that get closer to that Extraordinary Control with respect to the 2nd amendment.

 

Alex Jones (whom I wrote about in Part 1) is at the far end of the spectrum, as is this guy. At the other end you have folks like Michael Moore, who’s done entire documentaries about gun violence, the most evocative being 2002’s Bowling for Columbine (I’ve linked to the whole movie, here). But then you get people who are actually making reasonable headway towards thoughtful solutions. To the Left of Center, like myself, sits one of my favorite TV and comics writers J. Michael Straczinski, who, in this article, lays out what normal people consider to be reasonable assurances, including better training, better lock boxes to prevent suicides and theft and criminal penalties for irresponsibility. Further, we have this extremely well-thought article about the necessity and practicality of gun owner insurance. The judgement of the uneducated, unskilled and untrained should always be subject to the agreed minimum standards imposed by the society at large for everyone’s safety, and most of these suggestions get us a lot farther down the road than “BLAARRGH! IMAGINARY HITLER!” or “BLAAARGH! BAN ALL GUNS!”.

 

But you know what? I love me some Call of Duty, and I’m a pretty good shot with a gun at a range. And as I’ve said to friends and on Facebook, deer are tasty. But on the other side of the line, I would never take a human life unless I absolutely HAD to. And I most certainly would NOT be OK after that. We need to deal with the issues on either side of this dichotomy. Define your terms, America. Guns as a Game (including hunting or target practice) are one thing, gun violence is quite another. Liberty is one thing, Freedom is quite another. Delusional, reactionary bullshit is one thing, reasoned discourse that respects the terrible power of modern guns is another. We must have better systems in place or there will be more shootings, more murder-suicides, and much more extreme social consequences for us as a country.

 

CONTINUED IN PART 3 — POINT BLANK, your Friendly Neighborhood Gun Range

Alex Jones, Gun Control and the 2nd Amendment

I will be posting several articles about Gun Control over the next few days, in as much an attempt to solidify my personal position, as to affect social change. I have split this into multiple parts in which I will examine arguments that include (but might not be limited to) the nature of the opposing arguments along with the people making them, gun control and stewardship, and the muddled dichotomies that plague our national zeitgeist about gun violence.

Part 1: The Club and the Scaffold

Like many others, I watched the  spectacle  of Alex Jones on CNN the other night. I felt anger, revulsion, shame, and outright hatred of the half-formed stupidities spewing forth from this angry fat white guy from Texas. It took me awhile to get hold of myself. But watching it again, I am able to discern a few things that I’ve not seen other blogs point out before.

Not surprisingly, watching more of Alex Jones is more of the same. He growls his way through interviews and debates like an angry bulldog (with not nearly the same canine finesse), and seems to have convinced himself that certain conspiracies concerning the government are true. A little digging on his background show that he’s a loudmouthed ex-jock who has little to no credentials or expertise on sociology, governance, law or rational debate. Most of his talking points seem to come from the murkiest depths of the conservative/conspiracy blogoshpere, and maybe also Fox News. Pretty much all the hallmarks of a redneck Texas Republican, the kind that those of us left-of-center tend to view with annoyance at best, homicidal rage at worst.

And of course, this kind of angry white male makes a perfect talk-radio host.

But rage doesn’t serve me here, nor does it serve the country to obsess over or indulge this guy. Instead, I started picking apart the message, looking at the themes. Exploring his headspace, so to speak. And I found a couple surprising things.

Firstly, under the layer of smug righteousness familiar to any 14-year-old on 4Chan, he’s angry about some of the same things I am: parts of our government either out of control or stagnating, insanely rich criminals dragging our country to ruin, the DHS and other TLA’s working to limit or destroy personal freedoms. I gotta agree with the things he’s pointed out… they suck and are causing an erosion of our formerly free society.

But he uses his facts and statistics like a club, beating you over the head with it as he Gish-gallops away into the sunset on national TV. Facts are a weapon to men like him, used to establish narrow opinions and downright binary interpretations of the world. Jones would use facts and statistics to beat this into your skull, so that you too may experience his fear.

Secondly, working from some of the same freedom-eroding categories, he draws *immensely* different conclusions than I would, even at my most cynical. He seems drawn to them, looks forward to the next thing that can feed his outrage so he can continue to enrage everyone else, growled with the assumed authority of a Revivalist minister.

And I made a realization of sorts…. Conservatives have a very different reaction to fear than I do. As a developing pattern in public discourse, I see it over and over. They identify something scary and then fixate upon it. They stare it down, let it dominate their consciousness until it assumes far more epic proportions than it should, and work to fight that illusion. Every problem is a nail and they’re the hammer. Reductionism and disproportional reactionary responses feel GOOD and RIGHT to them… and simplistic solutions never, ever turn out to be the best answer. They pick at their fear like a scab, only to be surprised and angry when it starts bleeding again, eventually permanently scarring them.

Progressive people want answers and solutions and spend a lot of time understanding the problems based on facts and science, seasoned with their personal experiences. If something scares them, they strive to understand the underlying reasons for the problem, and the fear it causes. If fear is the mind-killer, Progressives are the Spice Melange. I’m not saying Progressives aren’t reactionary, because they can be. But they don’t obsess about it. They resolve to work the problem, to out-think it, to try different tactics till one works, and build a common consensus of the facts. In other words, they use the same material that could make a club to instead build a scaffold of ideas upon which a real structure of law and society might be built.

All of this was self-evident in Jones’ “debate” with Morgan. The ridiculous idiocy, the ignorance, the simplistic interpretations of single out-of-context facts, the refusals to even engage in a back-and-forth discussion of points with the man who had invited him there, whom Jones had started a petition to have deported!

Men like Jones — scared men, reactionary men, men of just enough wit or education to be dangerous in voicing their beliefs, and inflexible enough to codify them at that level — have all but taken over the power structure in this country. Everything they’ve done has masqueraded as Righteousness…. opinions of the poor and the sick, opinions about social programs, religion, business, you name it. Over the last 30 years, they have twisted a citizen’s responsibilities into something misshapen to fit into their carnival-mirror mentality, their warped view of the world, their insistence on freedoms without commensurate responsibilities, their OVER-SIZED FEAR.

And I feel like it’s driving and controlling the ENTIRE debate on gun control.

Enough. We need better answers than fear can provide. We need a scaffold, not a club.

——

 

THIS WILL BE CONTINUED IN PART 2, “THE GUN DICHOTOMIES”

ALAN WAKE Remedy Entertainment 2010

Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. — Chuang Tzu

The first game I have the honor of reviewing in my Steam Library is Alan Wake, from Remedy, the same studio which produced (more than a decade ago) one of my all-time favorite games Max Payne. Set in a fictional mountain town somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, Alan Wake follows the dark adventures of a Stephen King-like writer of the game’s title. As the plot unfolds, nothing is as it seems and even the player starts to question the levels of story, creation, and self-reference until the final reveal at the end which ties everything together. I usually have great expectations of Remedy’s games, and the delay in AW’s release was troubling. Like similar delays from Bioware and Bethesda, it was obvious the wait was worth it.

THE SETUP
The story opens with Alan and his wife Alice arriving in the little mountain town of Bright Falls. The town was once a thriving mining operation, and for nearly a century it provided the community it’s heart and main economic engine. Sometime in the 70’s there was a volcanic disturbance beneath Cauldron Lake where the little town was situated, and this brought down not only local geological features but also collapsed many of the tunnels due to shoddy construction and poor engineering. The mine closed, and the town never fully recovered, except for it’s small fishing, forestry and tourism industries of the sort that beget an annual public bacchanal dubbed “Deerfest”.

Alan has written several bestselling crime novels, but has suffered from writers block for the last two years. Both his wife and his agent/best friend Barry (who becomes the hilarious comic relief later in the game) think a vacation in a cabin, surrounded by Natural Majesty will get his creative juices flowing again.

It’s not long before the shit hits the fan, following a visit to a local diner where a mysterious old lady, shrouded in the back hallway shadows, gives Alan the key to the cabin they’ve rented. The sun sets on the cabin as an evil presence grabs Alice and drags her into the depths of Cauldron Lake.

The game play opens with Wake climbing out the wreckage of his car, attempting to unravel the mystery of his wife’s disappearance  and the week or so of memory he seems to have lost. He grabs a flashlight, and begins to head to a nearby gas station on foot.

THE MECHANICS
This kicks off one of the more interesting 3rd person action games I’ve played. It should be noted, I don’t have all that much experience with them, outside of Resident Evil 4, Max Payne and the Grand Theft Auto series. So falling into the over-the-shoulder view common in this generation of console games after years of playing Left4Dead and Fallout from first-person took a little getting used to.

As a not-so-brief aside, others of my old-school gamer ilk swear by Mouse and Keyboard for simply EVERYthing, but I have come to understand that different controllers produce a different “feel” to different games. Each controller type allows a more fluid experience depending on the game, just as smoking a cigarette, pipe or hookah affects tobacco enjoyment. Flight sims, Space combat games and Mech games should have a joystick and keyboard. First Person shooters, MMORPGs, RTS (and their cousins the hybrid DOTA clones) and Mogul games require a mouse and keyboard for precision and speed. But 3rd person action games, sports games, racing games and random indie or puzzler games work best with a two-stick controller. It’s not a law, just my fussy preference. 🙂

The major gameplay mechanics of Alan Wake are, much like the plot itself, designed to introduce tension and anxiety. Much of the game takes place in the dark, battling the poor possessed residents and tourists around the mountain town (referred to by Wake as The Taken), using a flashlight and various guns left laying around. These are not the usual sort of high-tech, overkill weapons of most shooters, since the surrounding area doesn’t really require a Space Marine. Your guns go from a simple .38 to a bolt-action 30.06 and pump-action shotgun… you know, like hunters would carry. I enjoyed this little nod to verisimilitude  as virtually none of the enemies in the game are immune to regular old Wal-Mart bullets.

What they AREN’T immune to is LIGHT. Any sufficiently bright source of light will drive the Dark Presence out of a Taken and render them vulnerable to bullets or shells. This means a supply of road flares, batteries and even a flare gun (oh the sweet, sweet flare gun!) are essential in fighting off hordes of horror-film bad guys armed with axes, hooks, thrown knives and even chainsaws. Over time, you fall into a rhythm of dodging, shooting, and pinning the Taken in place with the beam of your torch for 5 seconds until the Darkness burns away and you can waste them with a well-placed shot. You have no melee attack of your own, so you’ll find yourself dodging attacks at the last second, mounting an active defense which might feel familiar to those who have played Left4Dead or Serious Sam. Particularly brave or skilled players might adopt tactics that make the most of their lighting options: let the Taken get close then drop a flashbang grenade (grabbed from wrecked police cars) to disintegrate multiple enemies, or run and lead them through a narrower area, and shoot the lead enemy with a flaregun to enjoy spectacular lighting effects and a satisfying screech as they dissolve into ash and shadow.

The game plays with these metrics a few times, by switching up the enemies, from hordes of minions to a trainyard and a huge possessed logging dozer. Your tactics will change from “nimble flashlight gun-kata” to “Goddamn MATADOR!” in a hurry. During most of the game, the Taken will bark beautifully twisted creepy things the original human might have said… innocuous things like “This is a GREAT job for a night person!” assume a much more disturbing connotation when you have to slaughter a warehouse full of guys wielding axes and wrenches… likely the unfortunate employees.

The game does offer some driving sequences here and there, mostly work trucks, SUV’s and 70’s muscle cars (hey, the folks around Bright Falls are stylish!). The drive times were never tedious, and the same Focus mechanic used to disable the Taken with the flashlight can be used by turning on the vehicles brights, which inexplicable drain over time. The controls of the vehicles are a little jerky, and you have to be careful of running into an indestructible wooden slat fence (!?) every now and then, but otherwise ruthlessly running down the Taken in your Chevy is VERY satisfying after having to dodge them continually for most of the game.

Remedy has taken a page from Valve’s handbook on Boss Fights, allowing the player to clearly see their goal from vistas throughout the level. When you arrive, you have a pretty good idea of the arena you’ll be confronting the Darkness in. These also have a nice variety, from the aforementioned train-yard to a collapsed mining tunnel to probably the most memorable of the game, involving a huge rock band stage complete with fireworks.

Some people complain about checkpoint systems as a symptom of ever-creeping Console-itis in our Pure PC Gaming world. Often, games abuse this system in order to artificially increase the difficulty of the game, or to assign meaningless achievements for that artificial difficulty. This is one of the first checkpoint experiences I’ve had where the system was nearly flawless. You got a break, a chance to re-arm, and a full health bar nearly every time you reached a parking lot, stood under a street lamp, or started up a generator to ignite a work light. On certain points of the game, these points have integrated into the game’s tension… you HAVE to run for it, because the Taken will just keep spawning until you do. After awhile, you start getting nervous when you find piles of ammo and flares awaiting you under those lights. Because when the game hits Alan hard, you WILL need ALL of them.

Some detractors of Alan Wake have stated that it’s linearity is a major fault, that it was supposed to be a sandbox game, and that the mountains and park and mines were all ripe to be explored and running the protagonist through it on a rail decreased their ultimate enjoyment of the game. I disagree. Horror is all about pacing, tension, mood and high stakes for the protagonist. Inducing a looming sense of dread. Half-Life knew this. Resident Evil 4 knew this. The plot, while definitely featuring some of the Greatest Hits from modern horror authors, also instills a sense of confusion, of disconnection from place and time. Is Alan awake or dreaming? In the darkness or the light? Is he trapped between creation and madness? These are all themes well-portrayed throughout the game, and I never felt like I was being led so much as the plot putting a boot on my ass and compelling me to keep moving forward, that the path laid out before me seemed to be the ONLY way I could POSSIBLY consider going. It worked for me.

GRAPHICS, SOUND, AND MUSIC
Much of the game is spent wandering around a nicely rendered pine Forrest and the little lodges, campgrounds, lumberyards and trails that make this environment feel lived in. Back in 2004, I played Burnout 3 (another all time fave) and particularly loved it’s opening “Silver Lake” level. Don’t tell anybody, but… well… at the time, I secretly wished I could nestle my hot rod in next to the herd of RV’s and go hiking, or shoot cans off a rail, or tell ghost stories. Alan Wake finally let me do all of that and more. 🙂

One of the best things about preferring the PC as a gaming platform is that the tech is always improving. A game released a few years ago like the original Crysis was designed to run, to quote Yahtzee at Zero Punctuation, on “a PC made from magical obsidian from SPACE”. Now, you can just about play it on your new iPad.

Alan Wake takes advantage of the increasing standards of graphic excellence by allowing you to experience the game in far more detail and with many more lighting effects and a much greater draw distance than might be possible on the Xbox360 or PS3. The effect is a more immersive world. Character animation is serviceable, and the lip-synching is better than most. Clothes look realistic, although it falls into that movie trap where the characters wear the same clothes for a week, even with ample cut-scene time to change and/or take a shower. The world never felt cluttered, although the physics applied at strange times to seemingly random objects. That gas can fell over, but those bottles on the shelf remained stationary. I could bump a gate open, but not kick through a rotting wooden fence (except for set times where the action button TOLD me to).

The sound design in the game is world-class and works some true audio magic on occasion. The guns sound solid and real and the howling chorus of pain that comes from the Taken as you blast away their inherent darkness with your flashlight is really satisfying. I was a little worried the producers might go with the somewhat old-school Blair-Witch sound library, but there were plenty of new tricks here. The incidental background orchestrations were solid if not entirely memorable. Licensed tracks play between each “episode” of the game, and usually reflect the events that just occurred, sometimes ironically or metaphorically. It gives the game a cool “you’re actually watching a modern horror TV show” vibe. The real treat was getting to listen to new tracks from Poets of the Fall, the band created to write songs for Max Payne. Here, they pose as 70’s Classic rock band The Old Gods, the remaining two members of which occupy a rest home near the town, and become quite useful to the plot around mid-game. The tracks are scattered throughout the game in cut-scenes and over the radio… but baby, when they play, it’s EPIC. They alone are a solid reason for picking up the Alan Wake soundtrack.

IN SUMMATION
Alan Wake is one of the best games I’ve played in the last few years. The polish and care that went into the backgrounds, the voice acting and core gameplay mechanics show that Remedy is still one of the best game studios in production right now. A great amount of attention to all the little details that make for great world-building are here: TV shows, a late-night radio program, lots of in-game artwork and posters, and most impressively readable signage that gives optional but insightful background on natural features, historical locations and even a life-sized Alan Wake cardboard cutout standee. From the big set pieces to the little Max Payne references  from the awesome lighting effects to the creeping claustrophobia of the darkening Northwest forests, I think I can safely say that Alan Wake is a great addition to anyone’s STEAM library.

ADDENDUM
Remedy is nothing if not obsessive about their worlds, so since the release of this game there have been two downloadable content packages and this:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=boyGPvfA5B4
…which is a compilation of webisodes that serves as a direct prequel to the game. It’s highly reminiscent of Twin Peaks (much like the game itself)  and won’t make a great deal of sense unless you play the game, but the production values and acting are superb. Enjoy!