Friday, April 27, 2012

Virtual Magazine Love

"It opens with a cliché so well-worn it is almost smooth: an everyman writer drives along a dimly-lit, winding mountain road. The young girl we presume to be his daughter dozes in the car beside him, her head gently butting against the black mirror. The headlights illuminate the outline of a figure, another young girl, walking alone in the vehicle’s path. The driver swerves into the unknown and is rendered unconscious. He awakens in the mangled car, the seat beside him empty, the windows engulfed by unfurling mist. Stumbling out into the fug, he can barely distinguish the lampposts and roofs. Somewhere, in the near distance, alarm bells and sirens caterwaul. And then… the sky turns black, the pavement is replaced by rusted grating and the walls are adorned with bloody bodies. Welcome to Silent Hill. Population: close to zero. Unless you count the monsters and ghosts…"

This is the introduction of an article about the spooktacular survival horror genre, written by my friend Ross Thompson for AU Magazine, an online publication that covers the entertainment scene in Northern Ireland. Last winter I contributed some words to a piece he wrote about war games, so when he asked me if I would mind sharing some of my thoughts again, this time regarding creepy, heart racing, oogey-boogey horror games, I was more than happy to oblige. You can find the rest of this fantastic article, including a few sentences carefully crafted by yours truly, here. <--Clicky clicky

Photo Credit: Mark Reihill

Friday, April 13, 2012

Screenshot Friday!

After spending so much time in Skyrim, and for the most part enjoying the experience, I have decided to give Oblivion another chance. I initially rejected it because I got caught in a combat bind, advancing to an area in which I had no business being in as a Level One. Instead of retreating and grinding like a good gamer, I just threw in the towel after only 2.75 hours. I know this number to be true because when I deleted my original save file to start anew, it said 'you quit after 2:46, you fool'. Xboxes. So full of judgment.

I am traipsing down the spell-sword path again, my character much like my one in Skyrim, with a fire burst on one hand and a wicked blade in the other. The game is amazingly beautiful for something that released six years ago, but the map system is terrible. I obviously feel this way because I am playing the games out of order. Working with the fluid motions of map navigation in Skyrim makes clunking through the map/quest/inventory system in Oblivion an abysmal chore. Plus, I am sort of confused about the bedridden level-up process and the skill tree. I am currently stuck on a Mage quest that requires me to be a particular level in Alteration, even though I didn't choose that particular skill in my initial setup and now I have no idea if I can do so in some mercenary way. I am sure I can somehow, but I will probably choose to wander around Cyrodiil instead, grinding around the Imperial City and picking up random fetch quests in order polish my skills before I search for some elusive heir to the throne. Something about Oblivion feels more confining than Skyrim, as though the world isn't quite as open to new residents such as me, with nothing better to do than stroll into random towns and mess about with the social dynamics.

I am feeling a tad more in control this time around, but haven't quite found my Oblivion groove. I can't quite commit to pure immersion, as confessedly, Oblivion is currently functioning as a sort of time filler until next Tuesday when The Witcher 2 releases on 360. I don't normally pine for PC games to be ported to the consoles, but in this case I am ridiculously excited. But as time fillers go, Oblivion will not get permanently left behind once something newer and shinier is released. I have every intention of seeing it to its end...soon(ish).

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Wrong Way: Do Not Enter

After two decades of video game interactions involving cartridges and discs, I wouldn’t necessarily say I am a professional at connecting games to consoles, but I think I am getting pretty good at understanding the basic mechanics. My normal routine involves inserting a disc into my 360, closing the tray and letting nature take its course. Sounds easy enough, and the formula usually results in success. A title screen displays with a button selection to continue, usually ‘start’, but occasionally ‘A’ (just to shake things up, I am sure) will do the trick. A few seconds later I am awash in tutorial, retraining my digits to perform intricate puppet master combinations that appear on screen fairly seamlessly via an avatar. This whole process prologues any video game ever. Until Silent Hill Downpour broke the mold.

When it comes to buggy video games, I am fairly tolerant and forgiving. If other factors, such as the story or graphics, are adequate to impressive, I can handle a screen freeze or a character locked in landscape quicksand without swearing too much at the furniture in my living room. I once jumped off a ledge in the original Assassin’s Creed and ended up nestled inside a pillar where a nearby Templar was lurking. We got into quite the scuffle, him stabby stabbing me while I attempted to counter, neither of us doing any damage to one another, as Altair was now a piece of the environment instead of a moveable character. I finally restarted the machine, realizing after a few minutes that mashing every button at once was doing nothing but annoying the controller in my hand. The best bug I have encountered was while playing Brotherhood. I jumped off my horse to join members of the thieves guild in taking down some guards and shot straight into the air like Superman. Ezio’s ascent lasted about twenty minutes and was really beautiful, as it rewarded me with a bird’s eye view of Rome changing from day to night, the firelight glittering throughout the city below while Ezio soared above the clouds. But these in-game bugs are mere annoyances and are normally overcome by a restart or reload. In all my years of playing disc to drive experiences, I have to encounter a situation where I could not play the game in some form. Until Silent Hill Downpour.

In Silent Hill Downpour, your puppet protagonist is a gentleman named Murphy. In the opening credits Murphy is in a prison, and an obnoxious guard is leading him towards the showers. When Murphy arrives at a locker room outside of the official showers, the guard hints that he left Murphy a ‘present’ on the bench and tells him to get moving. Inside the locker room Murphy is finally free of his semi-cut scene tether, leaving you free to explore the room. A pop-up tutorial tells you to hit ‘A’ to interact with objects and doors when prompted. Easy enough. My first prompt is to go through the door into the shower room. I lead Murphy to the door, hit A, and…nothing happens. Back up, try again. Nothing happens. After several minutes of rotating around the room attempting to interact with the objects that look less painted into the background, I give up and restart. After going through the same process as before, I find that I still can’t interact with the door, even though the game keeps insisting I hit A to move forward. When these situations occur, my first instinct is to turn to the internet for help, so I Googled ‘Silent Hill Downpour control problems’, and after some digging found a Gamefaqs forum thread that addressed this issue. Diagnosed Problem: I was running the game without installing it to the hard drive, and trying to run the save file from a USB stick. Proposed Solution: Save to the hard drive instead. Easily done, and wa-la, fixed. I was in. Annoyed, but in nonetheless.

After a few hours of tedious exploration and less than scary encounters with mush-faced humanoids on the outskirts of town, it was time for Murphy to ride a train into Silent Hill. I hadn't run into any more mega-bugs, but the auto-save system interrupted the flow every few minutes or so, causing the screen to mini-freeze or Murphy’s movement to hiccup, which I learned later is called ‘frame rate’ issues. And then finally, a train ride from hell that F-R-E-A-K-E-D me out. Scary monsters, flashing lights, a pre-recorded voice that crackles and slows down during the right moments, yes! Then…a scream, a loading screen, and a lockup. Reloaded, took another ride on the creep train, a scream, a loading screen, and a lockup. And again. And again. After four tries, and four rides on the now ho-hum ‘annoyed that cut scenes can't be skipped’ train ride, I gave up, reported the disc as bad, requested a new one and moved on to I Am Alive.

Fast forward to last night, where I popped in my brand new copy of Downpour, loaded it up, hopped on the train ride, and...a scream, a loading screen, and a lockup. Sigh.

I turned back to the internet for help, Googling ‘Silent Hill Downpour freeze problems’. Once again, I was led to a Gamefaqs forum thread where a whole bunch of folks were having the same problem after the train ride. Diagnosed Problem: Once again, the hard drive vs. USB is pinpointed as the issue. A helpful individual suggests a Proposed Solution: Go to your Hard Drive from the dashboard, copy all of the save files for Downpour onto the USB stick and then reload the game from the USB. Are you f**king kidding me? I follow this advice, and wa-la, fixed. I am now able to continue past the train ride and am currently exploring the ghostly remains of Silent Hill, which is really, really boring in most places, but just spine-tingling enough in others to keep me mildly interested…for now. But...I am disgruntled and wary, continually waiting for the next bug to come along instead of enjoying the ride. Playing a video game should be as simple as tossing a disc in a tray and thumbing a button. This is by far the most effort I have put into troubleshooting a game on a console ever, and I find my willingness to play another Silent Hill game after this warped by the fear that I will potentially have to stand on my head and wave a dowsing rod in front of my console to get it to work properly. Shame on you, Vatra Games. It’s been weeks since the game was released, and nary a patch in sight. This poor franchise deserves better.

After all this work, I am trying to muster the motivation to see the game through to the end, but I can’t even imagine doing so. It’s very boring. Alan Wake, you’ve happily ruined me for other horror/thriller titles forever and ever, amen.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Internet Love

Found this while searching for the perfect background image for my desktop at work. Glad I wasn't alone in my French Revolution wishes.

You can find the full res version here.