Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Last One, Volume Thirteen

In my previous post on Final Fantasy XIII, I stated that I liked it as far as I had played it, but that I needed more time with the game to pass final judgment. I've now finished the game, if not all the postgame content, so I feel qualified to finish reviewing it. To be brief: Final Fantasy XIII is a very, very good game, but not, I think, a great one. While not as incompetent or hackneyed as a Resident Evil 5, the game is not as smooth and polished as Uncharted 2which remains the best PS3 game I know. I had an enjoyable time with Final Fantasy XIII, but I'd hesitate to recommend it to anyone with a low tolerance for the Japanese Role-Playing Game.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Final Fantasy XIII is its mixture of very bad design choices with very good ones. The good choices predominate, but the game's flaws never do go away. The plot, for example, is generally well-paced, enjoyable, and avoids the genre's temptation towards verbosity. On the other hand, several interesting plot threads remain unresolved at the game's end and two or three interesting characters disappear far too early. It doesn't seem as if Square-Enix is inserting sequel hooks; it just seems as if they forgot to wrap everything up.

The battle system is a minor triumph for Square-Enix; it's fast-paced, pretty, and fun. It's a shame then that a number of major bosses, particularly those following especially dramatic set pieces, tend to take forever to kill. Once you get into a battle's "rhythm" – you've figured out how much each enemy attack does, when to heal, etc. – you've effectively won. When, five or even ten minutes later your rhythm has become a rut, the game doesn't seem terribly entertaining. Worse, there are a few moments when the game turns truly cheap, as with the penultimate boss, who has a maddening tendency to instant-kill your party leader, thereby sending you to the Game Over screen.

On the other hand, the Game Over screen does give you the option of reconfiguring your party and retrying the fight; dying doesn't necessitate redoing earlier fights or re-traversing completed areas. As a result, I spent far less time cursing in Final Fantasy XIII than I did in many of its predecessors.

When I wrote my last piece on Final Fantasy XIII, I was just about to reach the "open world" part of the game. I very much enjoyed the late-game freedom of exploration, but I wish there were just a little more to explore. Though there are many interesting things to see and do, I was disappointed to see how small the game world was. At one point I completed a sidequest and opened up a sealed optional area. I was very excited to see the new sights and was looking forward to a few challenging boss battles in the newly-unlocked ruined city. Five minutes later I realized that the ruins, ostensibly of a great metropolis, consisted of just a few thousand square feet of real estate. I was even more disappointed when I recollected Final Fantasy XII and its huge and endlessly interconnected world of Ivalice. Final Fantasy XII could overwhelm at times, but I'd rather have its surfeit of levels to explore and creatures to fight than its sequel's relative paucity of choices.

While I may miss some of the features of Final Fantasy XII, the follow-up does fix a number of that game's issues. While Final Fantasy XIII is very hard, it's less frustrating than the twelfth game, which so often withheld save points or killed players at the tail end of an hour-long battle. There's nothing as tedious as XII's one-hundred-floor Pharos dungeon; XIII's closest analogue is actually quite brief. Finally, the battle system in XIII is much more cinematic and interesting to watch than in the rather bland XII.

I may have plenty of criticisms and complaints regarding Final Fantasy XIII, but the fact is that I've spent more than fifty hours playing it. Though I beat Mega Man 10 and played a few multiplayer matches in Uncharted 2, most of my gaming time these past three weeks has belonged to the newest Final Fantasy. Role-playing games as good as this don't come around very often. If you like the genre or want to try it, Final Fantasy XIII would be a fine pick.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It's Not Easy Being Green

It is quite natural to assume that Green Zone suffers in comparison to The Hurt Locker. Yet it hardly came to mind while I viewed the film. Paul Greengrass' Iraq War thriller takes a far broader perspective than Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-winning drama does. Within the first few minutes, Matt Damon is standing up and asking the big questions of his commanders – Are there really any WMDs in Iraq? Who is making these claims? – and any sense of on-the-ground immediacy gives way to concerns of espionage and politics.

This is why a very different film haunted me as I watched Green Zone – the 2007 documentary, No End in Sight. If you wish to save yourself the trouble of reading this entire review, I'll cut to the chase: Go watch No End in Sight instead. Its pragmatic assessment of the invasion of Iraq is infinitely more damning, more revolting and more moving than Green Zone's historical fiction contrivances.

Early on in both films, the post-invasion looting that ravaged Iraq in 2003 is portrayed. In Green Zone, the audience witnesses Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller's (Matt Damon) confusion as he finds a potential WMD storage facility being stripped bare by Iraqi civilians. Then, a minute later, Miller resolves to enter the facility anyway, and completes his mission without considerable incident. The looting is a striking sight that is neither explained nor revisited later in the film.

Focusing the film's narrative on Miller is a perfectly valid choice, but that does not change the fact that what is happening in the background is often far more interesting. Obviously, Miller finds no weapons at this site – a trend that is beginning to bother him. This leads him to question the quality of the intelligence the Army has provided. Intrigue ensues, but with a fatal flaw: We already know that there are no WMDs and, nevertheless, we must watch Miller struggle to uncover this fact for the next hour or so. So, the questions that are far more relevant here, in 2010, go unasked.

No End in Sight starts where Miller's story ends – it knows that the WMDs were a fabrication and it knows that Iraq was a hopeless mess by the time President Bush declared "Mission Accomplished" in May 2003. So, when No End in Sight shows us the looting, it asks the questions we want it to ask: Why was it happening? How was it allowed to happen? Just how much damage did it do? The answers this documentary provides are far more affecting than anything in Green Zone: News footage shows the director of the Iraqi National Museum watching, in tears, as looters tear apart thousands of years of Arab history. He is helpless to stop them because the US military is too wrapped up in red tape to raise a finger.

So, director, Paul Greengrass does hit all of the bullet points for accurately portraying post-invasion Iraq, but these scenes are so divorced from both their causes and their effects that they are meaningless – merely there to up the intensity of Miller's adventure.

This adventure is hardly anything to get excited about, either. Even if one overlooks the fact that the audience knows the big answers already, the plot seems to swerve between being simplistic and being unnecessarily complicated. The antagonist is a dickish Bush Administration official named Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) who, predictably, ignores common sense in favor of small, superficial victories – installing some crony in power and killing an Iraqi ex-general. While Kinnear is talented enough to keep the character from seeming cartoonish, and the script suggests that the corruption goes higher, the audience is still led to believe that this one guy is largely responsible for the disaster that is post-invasion Iraq. It is a bit silly and, after the film adds a few obligatory layers of convolution, it does not become easier to swallow.

Like the directing, Brian Helgeland's script does make a number of nods to the true complexity of the situation. Yet they are constantly steamrolled over by Miller's left-wing Jack Bauer act. Reality seems to scroll by behind him as he breaks rule after rule in some misguided attempt to fix everything. There is one moment where a character seems to catch Miller in the naivety of his mission, but the the movie ends with a scene that leaves little doubt as to his status as Our Hero. It is frustrating because Helgeland clearly has some interesting things to say, perhaps courtesy of the source material, but he prefers to have it boil down to a Good Guy vs. Bad Guy scenario.

Even so, the film's climax manages to be quite confusing. By this point, Miller has been running around, flouting orders for so long that it becomes unclear how his actions will solve anything. Also, the director's frantic visual style has pushed everything over the edge into headache-inducing territory.

Normally, I would say that Paul Greengrass' style is used to great effect. His breakneck editing and jittery camerawork is often the very best in controlled chaos, only conveying the bare minimum of information necessary to pull the viewer through the action. The style's potential for truly thrilling action is on full display in the film's opening sequence – an extremely intense depiction of Iraqi officials evacuating a palace in the middle of the US's "Shock and Awe" campaign. When a character goes into a prolonged action sequence with vague intentions, however, the proceedings can border on incomprehensible. When Miller does just this at the climax of Green Zone, it becomes downright tedious.

It is sad that Green Zone's narrative fails the film because this movie is often quite good looking. I cannot claim to have ever visited Baghdad, but this film employs a very convincing mix of CGI and locations to create a facsimile of the Iraqi capital. Many of the surreal settings convey Saddam's sudden fall from power: His palaces are now ransacked and filled with bunking US soldiers, and many of his vain monuments are now partly destroyed. Cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd does a great job of bringing some beauty to the city, not merely sticking with the same drab palette of colors we usually see in Hollywood's Iraq. Even the climactic nighttime shootout looks more interesting than one would expect, with back streets lit by a nice smattering of colors.

I suppose it may sound like an insult when I claim that a documentary is more involving than this thriller but, on some level, it is a compliment. There is never any doubt that Green Zone is a well-made film, and it must be praised for largely refusing to dumb down its subject matter; Greengrass and company clearly went out of their way to create an authentic Baghdad, both visually and thematically. Yet this film always has one foot in the realm of the Hollywood action flick, blunting its impact with an abundance of action sequences and a bland, ineffectual script. Greengrass prides himself on creating immediacy and urgency but, oddly enough, Green Zone feels like too little, too late.

No End in Sight is currently available on DVD and Netflix Watch Instantly.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Deja Blue All Over Again

When Mega Man 9 appeared in 2008, most fans were pleasantly surprised by developer Inti Creates' decision to craft the new game in 8-bit NES style. Mega Man 9, Capcom promised, would not repeat the mistakes of its predecessor: Awkward "2.5D" platforming, an over-elaborate plot involving space robots, and awful forced scrolling levels. Mega Man 9 was a critical success, and I doubt it cost much at all to develop, so I was hardly surprised by the announcement of Mega Man 10, once again a faux-NES downloadable game.

I grew up on Mega Man games; I like to think I know the series' myriad trips pretty well and that I'm pretty good at running and gunning. Still, I don't have the patience that I had as a ten-year-old. So, I was very glad to see that the new game included an Easy Mode, where many instant death pits and spikes are covered, there are fewer enemies, and our hero has more health. Thus far, I've only completed the game's lower difficulty; my ventures into Normal Mode have made me sure that the new Mega Man game is just as difficult as past adventures.

While I found Easy sometimes painfully simple, it's still significantly harder than many of today's action games. Even on this most merciful of settings, there are dozens of pits and spikes to put an end to the Blue Bomber. There will be occasional screams and curses, but in my experience, almost all of my deaths were my fault. Only very rarely did I feel that the game was unfairly laid out. This is quite a relief, especially when I remember some of the cruelties Inti Creates has inflicted on Mega Man fans in the past (note the copious spikes).

I was initially disappointed to see that Mega Man 10 had dropped Mega Man's classic charge shot and slide moves, but Inti Creates has very generously given us a second playable character, Proto Man, whose moveset almost replicates my preferred Mega Man. As with most traditional entries of the series, Mega Man 10 features eight different "Robot Master" levels followed by a jaunt through final boss Dr. Wily's "castle" and a final multipart duel with the evil doctor.

As I haven't played all the Mega Man games, I can't necessarily offer an authoritative opinion on the quality of this game's Robot Master bosses, but I tended to like them. Sheep Man, for example, is wonderfully campy – a robotic sheep with lightning attacks who presides over a math-and-computer themed level. It may not make much sense, but it's exactly the sort of oddity one expects from an NES game. Another example: Strike Man specializes in sports, so of course there are spiked rocket soccer balls all throughout his level. Mega Man 10 is weird, but it's weird in the right way.

Mega Man 10 is a very short game – there's a Trophy unlocked for beating it in under an hour – but it's one that demands replaying. Right after I finished up Easy Mode with the default hero, I decided to try Proto Man. Later I might very well go through Normal Mode with both. In a few weeks, a third playable character (who can double-jump and shoot in eight directions) will appear as DLC. And even aside from that, Mega Man 10 features dozens of short challenges, everything from navigating tricky rooms without shooting to defeating bosses.

Capcom has even included online leaderboard support; it's very funny to see such a "modern" institution as the PSN leaderboard portrayed in 8-bit style with pixelated and hard-to-read type. Mega Man 10 almost never drops its "old school" facade; one can almost believe this game is twenty years old. When the game does drop its pretense, it's usually in service of the player – the NES didn't have shoulder buttons, for example, but Mega Man 10 lets you shuffle through your acquired weapons with L1 and R1.

I enjoy Mega Man 10, but I wonder what will come next for the series. I wouldn't mind a few more NES-style games, but I'd be more impressed if Inti Creates tried to create a good SNES- or PSX-looking Mega Man. With their four Mega Man Zero games and their two Mega Man ZX installments, the company has shown that it's very good at making more "modern" platformers. I should love to see a downloadable game with the graphics and mechanics of Mega Man X4 or Mega Man ZX Advent. Nostalgia and returns to the past are great, but I somehow think that this developer can do more with this franchise.

Whatever my reservations, I'm still very happy with my purchase of Mega Man 10. For $10 it's a fantastic deal, unless of course you simply must have shiny graphics. And while Mega Man 10 does cater to the nostalgic, the introduction of Easy Mode and the two different heroes help make Mega Man 10 accessible and enjoyable for those who might not have spent large portions of their childhood playing Mega Man games. Who knows, maybe I can convince Mr. Hollis-Lima to give it a shot?

I should really get back to playing the game... My ten-year-old self is ashamed of my use of Easy Mode. I should really try and mollify him.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Waggle 2.0: Still for Noobs Only

When Mr. Keeley and I discussed the Wii a few weeks back, I concluded that motion gaming's future looked more promising on the two other systems – Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Sony seems to agree since, last week, they announced Playstation Move. This is not an autonomous system; like Microsoft's camera-based Project Natal, it will serve as a relaunch of sorts for the company's existing system. Because of this, Move has a bit more work to do than the Wii did. It must rope in casual gamers while still appealing to discerning hardcore gamers. In other words, it has to be every bit as inviting as the Wii but offer some genuine depth.

The way Sony chose to unveil this new wand/camera control system to the public showed a clear focus on the former: Wooing the Wii crowd. One of the first games they unveiled is a naked attempt to emulate Wii Sports, but in HD – Sports Champions. Sony claims that the Move controller is far more precise than the Wiimote and that this will markedly enhance the experience. It will be impossible to assess the quality of the gameplay before it is released, but the game's subject matter clearly suggests that the Playstation Move is more an upgrade over the Wii than an attempt to reinvent motion gaming.

That fact only became harder to ignore as Sony trotted out a slew of party games and rail shooters at their press conference. The technology may have been upgraded but the creativity has not.

Naturally, if the motion-centric games are proving hopelessly shallow and derivative, an alternative lies with games that deign to incorporate motion as a secondary form of control. Cue LittleBigPlanet. The demo Sony provided illustrated how this constantly evolving game can grow to incorporate motion control. Users will be able to create levels that are played normally by one person but contain obstacles that require assistance from a second person with Move. It was not entirely organic, with one person controlling the onscreen character and another controlling a disembodied force, but it seemed like it had some potential.

The other entry in this category was SOCOM 4, the latest in Sony's line of military shooters. This game is fully playable with either the traditional DualShock 3 controller or Move. Options are always nice, but this raises a few concerns. First, will the motion control ever be a preferable alternative? It is not likely to prove as precise as the DualShock, especially in a third person shooter. Second, will players using one form of control play against those using the other in online matches? That would create a huge potential for imbalance, as both modes of control will surely have different strengths. Finally, will the added work necessary to implement all of this detract from the overall experience? I cannot imagine that either mode of control will be as tight as it could have been if only one had been included.

Sony clearly wanted to throw serious gamers a bone with SOCOM 4, but I doubt that they will bite, given all of these issues. Furthermore, similar issues will probably plague any other games that try to straddle the line. Sony needs games that are substantive, but still built from the ground up to utilize what the Move has to offer.

Oddly enough, the only game Sony presented that I felt even hinted at this ideal was about as simple as a game could get: EyePet.

Now, this hardly qualifies as a deep game, but I bring it up for the potential it shows. This game illustrates the unique capabilities of the Playstation Move like nothing else does: Nintendo has motion control and Microsoft has camera-based control, but Sony has both. That could result in some surprisingly dynamic and immersive experiences. The number of ways in which players can interact with their EyePet is impressive. There will obviously need to be much more to any games that wish to capitalize on this potential, but EyePet was the only Move game that felt like a glimpse at the future.

Or maybe it was just the pop music.

Even that one flash of excitement I felt was quickly tempered by a dose of reality: This crap is going to be expensive. Sony has promised that a starter pack, including a Move controller, a Playstation Eye camera and a Move-enabled game, will sell for less than $100. Not a bad deal, on the face of it, but when considering the social experience for which these games are clearly striving, one controller simply will not cut it. Some games may even require one person to use two Move controllers or one Move and something called a Sub-Controller (think Wii Nunchuk). So, while experiencing EyePet will only cost $100, experiencing all of the possibilities of Move will cost considerably more.

At the very least, the introduction of Playstation Move represents a renewed commitment to the Playstation 3 on Sony's part. No one wants a new generation of systems anytime soon, and this ensures that it is not coming. At the same time, Move will certainly open up real gaming to new people. It has a unique capacity to bring casual gamers to a system with a deep library, creating a viable path for their growth into serious gamers.

That path will likely lead them to outgrow Move, however. Sony seems to have a weak case for this acting as anything more than a hook for the uninitiated. If that is the extent of their plan, an aggressively priced Move may very well do its job. I would not count on gaining much attention from those who are already on the boat, though; they will see Move for what it is.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

No Rain, but Snow and Lightning

This is the first part of a two-part post on the recently-released Final Fantasy XIII – it's my impressions halfway through the game's story.

I wasn't sure that I would enjoy Final Fantasy XIII. This is a rather strange thing for me to admit, as I had played and beaten nine of the previous twelve games, as well as several Final Fantasy spinoffs. Though the Final Fantasy series has always been known for major changes between installments – each game features a new world, new characters, and a new battle system – some of the things I'd heard about the newest game left me wary. Most importantly, I'd heard that the new Final Fantasy was painfully linear and overly simple. There's some truth to these complaints, but I'm still enjoying Final Fantasy XIII as much as any role-playing game in recent memory.

When Final Fantasy XII appeared almost four years ago, critics and casual fans alike were struck by the game's remarkable nonlinearity, its proliferation of sidequests and hidden areas. One could easily beat Final Fantasy XII in under forty hours – this being a Japanese RPG, forty hours constitutes a shortish game – but there were dozens of hours worth of optional events and missions to complete. The first time Final Fantasy XII lets the player venture outside of a city, the protagonist is tasked with hunting down a few small monsters. Said beasts are easy to find and easier to kill, but if you wander too far from the entrance to the wilderness, you will find monsters so huge that you know you would stand no chance in combat with them. The game gently suggests that you come back later, say, after twenty hours of gameplay.

In Final Fantasy XIII, on the other hand, there are very few places one would ever want to revisit. It's not that the game offers ugly scenery or boring locations; it's just that most of the game's locations are so straightforward and simple that one inevitably does everything on the first trip. I've yet to beat the game, but I understand that exploration finally returns to Final Fantasy for the last few chapters. I do anticipate the Final Fantasy XII-style freeform gameplay, but at the moment, I am perfectly happy with the game's linear progression. While most role-playing games do provide a little more leeway for players, Final Fantasy XIII doesn't herd or push its players any more than games like Uncharted 2 or the perversely compelling Resident Evil 5. Like Uncharted, Final Fantasy XIII gives us enough good plot and good gameplay that we don't mind our lack of agency.

If I were reviewing for a major game site, I would have to provide a somewhat-detailed synopsis of Final Fantasy XIII's plot. I won't bore you with summary and scene-setting, but I will say that Final Fantasy XIII's story has been a nice surprise. The series' previous entry, for all its other virtues, had a fairly awful plot, a steampunk-Star Wars disaster. The game included Vader-like Judges, a Han-esque smuggler and pilot, an evil father, a kidnapped princess, and a less-intimidating Death Star. The parallels were so obvious and numerous that George Lucas should have sued Square-Enix. Final Fantasy XIII suffers from some ridiculous naming conventions – worlds called Pulse and Coccoon, a protagonist who calls herself "Lightning" – but the main the story is interesting. Not only that, it's actually managed to surprise me. Oh, and the Afro-bearing token black man is actually one of the more interesting characters! And looks as if he will survive the game!

Final Fantasy XIII is a very technically impressive game, but at times the accomplished graphics only serve to point out the game's aesthetic failings. I don't mind the character designs, though (as so many others before have stated) they tend to be a tad over-the-top. What really annoys me is the world design – everything is either sleek or ornate, but few of the buildings and structures have an identifiable function. Everything looks great, until you start to think about it. What is supposed to inspire a sense of wonder only elicits a sense of confusion.

The battle system of Final Fantasy XIII isn't nearly as strategic as some of its predecessors, yet its lack of subtlety doesn't really harm it – this is the most visceral of Final Fantasy combat systems. Though the AI controls two out of three characters in a player party, the player can control which "paradigms" the AI players will fill. Mid-battle paradigm switching is quick and necessary; you will die if you're too slow going to a healing paradigm or "debuffing" especially strong enemies. Though Final Fantasy XIII may not offer all that many options to a player, the game nonetheless demands far more attention of its players than most of its genre. As in the underrated and poorly-named Final Fantasy X-2, wandering attention will ruin you.

I wouldn't recommend Final Fantasy XIII unreservedly; it's not a perfect game, and some of its conventions can annoy. It's not a game one has to play ironically, but it does require some patience. If you like Japanese role-playing games, you will almost certainly have fun with the new Final Fantasy. It's a fine, fine game, if you like that sort of thing. I do, and I look forward to spending many more hours with the game. Perhaps portions of these impressions have sounded slightly cool on Final Fantasy XIII – but it's the best thing I have played for months.

Further thoughts will appear on the blog once I've beaten the game.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Lost Innocence from Greene and Reed

On the occasions I review classic movies, I generally try to make the film in question, however old it might be, appear relevant. Today's film, The Fallen Idol, has been in film buff news of late, though not for happy reasons. Until recently, this fine movie was available as a Criterion Collection DVD. Last month, StudioCanal sold the rights to this and over twenty other films to Lions Gate. Criterion is known for producing just about the best DVD and Blu-ray packages on the market. Lions Gate is known for the Saw series and action films.

Now that I've made my small protest, let's get on with the review.

I decided to watch The Fallen Idol because it was the first of three collaborations between British novelist Graham Greene and British director Carol Reed. The second Greene-Reed production, The Third Man, is a masterpiece and one of my all-time favorite films. The Fallen Idol isn't quite so perfect a film as its followup, but it deserves to be far better-known than it is.

The Third Man's noirish backdrop is post-war Vienna, bombed-out, rubble-strewn, and poorly-governed. The city is so central to the film that it's almost impossible to imagine it taking place anywhere else; one cannot have The Third Man without ruined Vienna. The story of The Fallen Idol, on the other hand, could take place just about anywhere – most of the action takes place in a few rooms of an unnamed country's London embassy. The trips outdoors, though beautifully shot, tend to be fleeting. We see glimpses of London throughout the film, but it hardly defines the movie. Perhaps the film's constrained setting shouldn't surprise; The Fallen Idol originated in a Greene short story called "The Basement Room."

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Fallen Idol is its reliance on a child actor. Bobby Henrey was only eight when he starred as Phillipe, the ambassador's son. Phillipe is completely believable, and it's hard to watch him suffer and grow disillusioned, even if the film ends on a happier note than its bleak source material. Phillippe is a child and the screenwriters thankfully neglected to make him wise or coherent beyond his years; if the dialogue ever sounds false, I didn't notice. If anything, Phillipe can be too convincing – when he pesters or whines, the audience cringes.

Phillipe's titular "idol" is the embassy's head butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson), evidently the only adult to pay any attention to the ambassador's son. Baines is a kind man with a truly shrewish wife (Sonia Dresdel) and a beautiful would-be mistress (Michele Morgan). On a weekend when most of the embassy staff is out and Phillipe's parents are in their own country, the young boy finds himself involved in a domestic intrigue that ends in tragedy, scandal, and a police investigation. Phillippe witnesses (but misinterprets) a death, lies to the police, and generally receives a horrible introduction to the adult world. When his parents return at the end of the film, we see a look of cautious hope on the boy's face, but we doubt that he shall recover quickly. The original story, on the other hand, assures that the protagonist never got over his awful experience. In The Third Man, Reed and Greene play innocence for laughs and the occasional sigh. Here, they play innocence for tears.

Much like The Third Man, The Fallen Idol features remarkable cinematography. Much of the film is shot from low angles, giving us a "child's-eye" view of the proceedings. Phillipe doesn't understand most of what's going on around him; the camerawork helps the audience enter into his incomprehension and fear. With the aid of clever lighting, the embassy's main room changes from homey and inviting to sinister and threatening. When Phillippe first clambers down a fire escape to meet with Baines, everything is clean, white, and vibrant. Later, as Phillipe flees the embassy at night, the same fire escape, shot from the same angle, looks like a stairway to hell. In one powerful scene near the end of the movie, Phillipe runs alone and desperate through dark and empty London streets. The cinematography calls to mind the sewer chase in Reed's next movie, but in that film the fleeing figure deserves his fate. In The Fallen Idol, no one deserves the awful things that happen to them.

For all its brilliance, The Fallen Idol has a few important shortcomings. Most importantly, the endearing protagonist has a bad habit of disappearing; Phillipe is offscreen for far too much of the movie while the adults (inadvertently) decide his fate. Phillipe is the movie's viewpoint character, and the movie grows awkward when it strays too far from him. When Phillipe does affect the events that go on about him, his influence seems somewhat inorganic. There's also a little bit of over-obvious symbolism – Phillipe has a pet snake – that seemed a tad contrived to me. Still, its few stumbles don't harm The Fallen Idol too much. Would that more films provided so little to quibble about.

The Fallen Idol is an extremely good film, possibly a great one. It's painfully honest, well-written, and well-acted, but I don't think it's quite so compelling as The Third Man. You should see it, but watch Reed and Greene's second film first. Expect a review of the third and final Greene-Reed collaboration, Our Man in Havana, sometime in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

At the Heart of the Storm, Video Games Find Their Soul

This week brings my double-length post on the groundbreaking Playstation 3 game, Heavy Rain. Mr. Keeley will return next week with two posts of his own.

Heavy Rain is not a perfect game. It is an important game.

In fact, it is probably one of the most important games ever made. Not everything this audacious effort attempts is successful, but one very significant part is: It proves that video games are bursting with a potential to convey emotion like no other medium can.

I have wondered if I would ever live to experience a game so profoundly affecting that it could bring me to tears. Heavy Rain comes shockingly close. The game's early chapters are such a potent representation of a life steeped in despair that even the most mundane tasks gain astonishing weight; playing Ethan Mars (Pascal Langdale) in the wake of his son's death is heart rending. He has divorced his wife and lives in a rundown house with his surviving son. Initially, tasks like making dinner for the child may not seem like a compelling prospect – indeed, he will drag a chair to the cabinets and reach in for a bag of chips if you do not – but, the result makes it worthwhile: Ethan stares across the dimly lit kitchen and watches as the child silently eats his frozen dinner. The magnitude of Ethan's loss is suddenly apparent; the life has gone from his existence.

Video game storytelling has improved considerably over the past few years, but few games have truly made story their priority. With Heavy Rain, it is not debatable – the story is everything. Every action the player takes has some sort of impact on the narrative, however big or small it may be. It could cause the death of a main character or it could simply irritate the person with whom you are speaking.

It is essentially a crime thriller – all main characters ultimately find themselves on the trail of the sadistic Origami Killer – but it is decidedly character-driven. Writer/director, David Cage rarely passes up an opportunity to illuminate a character's inner life: A prostitute rebuffs your questioning about her late son, "You may be able to buy my body... but you cannot buy my son," and a detective stops to coddle a baby girl, "Take care of your mommy for me." Even the Origami Killer himself has a tragic backstory. There are a few incidental characters that are far too shallow and one main character's motivations are foggy but, considering the sheer volume of writing necessary here, Cage does good work.

Ethan is not the only playable character, either. There is Scott Shelby (Sam Douglas), the weary but amiable private investigator, Norman Jayden (Leon Ockenden), a drug-addicted FBI agent who is freshly assigned to the case, and Madison Paige (Judi Beecher/Jaqui Ainsley), an insomniac journalist.

The characters are manipulated by a largely contextual control scheme. Walking is the only exception. It is always done by holding down R2 to begin walking and moving the left analog stick to change direction. The mechanic is unwieldy, so it certainly takes an adjustment on the player's part, and it occasionally leads the character to spin around in place, compromising the player's immersion. Nevertheless, the game does not allow the player to move the camera freely, so the design of the walking mechanic makes sense, even if it does not always work well.

Most of the game's controls, however, are a stroke of genius. Apart from the walking, everything is contextual, meaning that players must react to onscreen commands. Dialogue options spin around a characters head and physical actions appear on the object to which they relate. It may sound tedious (indeed, countless games have made similar schemes just that), but Heavy Rain's developers have elevated the "quick-time event" to an incredible means of immersion. If someone is about to slam a door in your face, you stop them by swiping the right stick upward; if you have to climb a muddy hill, you must contort you hand to hold down a series of buttons, just as the character struggles to maintain a foothold; if you are rocking a baby to sleep, you must slide the right stick back and forth, delicately.

Precisely because there are no predetermined controls, the fight scenes in this game are far more intense than those in other games. In a scuffle, the player must scramble to react just as he or she would in real life. In fact, the controls constantly put the player into the thick of a scene's emotions. In stressful situations, even dialogue choices become complicated. The words spinning around a character's head shake and can become illegible as the tension reaches a breaking point. Also, make no mistake: The game will proceed if the player fails to make a choice, and indecision is often dangerous.

No moment is more stressful than those when a life is in the player's hands. Options frantically flash on the screen, characters start to yell, the music swells and, the whole time, the player is desperately struggling to weigh the consequences – consequences that will follow the player through to the end of the game. Even worse, none of these moments have a "right" answer. Heavy Rain goes to great lengths to ensure that moral choices are never black and white; at no time are this game's weightiest choices anything less than excruciating.

Consequently, Heavy Rain is arguably the first game that has ever paid proper respect to human life. It is nearly impossible to think of another game that imbues the act of pulling a trigger with so much gravity; if Modern Warfare were this powerful, most players would be suffering from PTSD after one online match. This achievement in and of itself renders Heavy Rain a landmark. Its creators clearly saw an appalling lapse in the morals of most modern games – one that every gamer knows, but upon which few gamers dare to dwell. Within the game's story, this has considerable significance. Every main character in the game can die and, once dead, he or she will stay dead.

The branching storyline is undoubtedly a draw, but it does result in some issues late in the game. One or two scenes will seemingly reference events that never took place in your story, other scenes will appear to be stitched together, so as to accommodate your customized plotline, and certain subplots will go nowhere, presumably because they were meant for players who made different choices. Also, there are a few situations where the game forces the player to do something that should probably have been optional. Technical glitches arise in the later chapters, as well – musical cues misfire, textures pop in and lip synch occasionally flounders. It is all enough to make the game's ending its weakest part.

Depending on the choices you make, the denouement may do little to rectify things. It consists of a series of short, non-interactive scenes that wrap up each plotline. Some are hugely contrived, pointlessly breaching the game's tone. Other possibilities are considerably more satisfying, even if the experience still feels pieced together.

Still, Heavy Rain is largely a consistent experience. The atmosphere that this unnamed Pennsylvania city provides is a huge achievement. Rain is, predictably, constant, but it is also extremely evocative. (Mind you, it has real significance in the plot.) Whether it is the hiss of a downpour on a deserted street or the tapping of individual drops on a dirty windowpane, the sound design keeps the player immersed in this grim, lonely world. All of that is in addition to the great musical score.

Much of the intrigue of Heavy Rain's environments stems from the fact that most of these locations have never before been rendered in a video game. Yet that is hardly where their appeal ends; the game's visuals are invariably blessed with excellent lighting and art design. The Mars home in the first chapter (prior to any of the tragic events) is a beautiful work of modern architecture that uses open spaces to bathe the entire house in warm sunlight – maximizing the contrast in a game where every other scene is dimmed by thick clouds. Ethan's second home is far more grungy, but no less interesting to behold. It perfectly captures the deep grey of the light on a stormy afternoon and, while it certainly reflects Ethan's depression, it is still a believable home – a chalkboard in the kitchen lists his son's daily schedule in a child's handwriting.

Even less pivotal sets are striking; an alcove full of lockers in a train station is a cave of brushed steel and fluorescent light, and a mansion playing host to a party has more passed out cokeheads in it than pieces of furniture, but the abundance of candlelight and pillows gives it an authentically trendy vibe.

The player's experience in these locations is heightened even further by great camera work. The locked camera positions, both while the player is moving freely and when he or she is not, show that David Cage has an eye for composition. Even taking a seat on a whim leads to a series of shots that are wonderful – a long shot past pieces of furniture emphasizes the character's loneliness, or a close-up reveals the distant look on her face. It makes exploring the environments an unexpectedly personal experience.

Action-oriented scenes are equally well-done, using dramatic camera angles to heighten the impact, but never making it harder to play the game. Even effects like the Hitchcock zoom in surreal drug-withdrawal sequences and 24-like split screens during tense standoffs are used quite well. Many have criticized Heavy Rain for being more movie than game, but with someone like Cage at the helm, this is hardly a flaw.

In such a game, the performances are equally important. Heavy Rain bears mixed results in this area. The developers made a strange choice for this game: They cast French and English actors for a story set in Pennsylvania. Some of the actors' performances suffer due to this more than others. Leon Ockenden, as the FBI agent, is affected the most; his voice seems to flounder between ten different accents throughout the game, rendering his performance quite distracting. He has considerable trouble even pronouncing his own character's name and, furthermore, never manages to connect with the emotion of a given scene.

Pascal Langdale's Ethan also has a heavy accent but is, nevertheless, far more successful. His accent is at least consistent (Hey, Pennsylvania surely has a few immigrants, right?) and he gives a decent performance. Only in the early chapters, when he must repeatedly yell his son's name, does he become a bit comical, but this is the director's fault for not getting a larger number of takes. The other two leads, voiced by Sam Douglas and Judi Beecher, manage perfect American accents and turn in good performances. Madison proves a bit flighty during the course of the game, but Beecher provides a dry humor that brings the character down to Earth. Douglas' performance as Shelby is good, as well, sidestepping clichés and giving the dic an earnest, almost paternal, disposition.

The other half of the performances is the extensive motion capture work. It is largely excellent, especially considering that most of it is rendered on-the-fly by the PS3. Characters move quite naturally and allow Cage's great blocking to come through. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the fight scenes, which benefit greatly from having real humans' performances and not a set of canned animations.

Facial movements, on the other hand, still show the limitations of the technology. Most of it was captured straight from the actors' voice recording sections. As such, it is clear that a performance is constantly trying to come through on the characters' faces, but it is only occasionally successful; the technology often cannot convey the necessary nuance. Nevertheless, the character models are incredibly detailed and their faces are no exception. This game has far more close-up shots than most others, and suffers less for it than one might think.

This game has flaws, to be sure. Yet it is consistently successful enough to make its impact; there are moments of such raw emotion in Heavy Rain that they will stick in the player's memory for quite some time. This is not only due to their immediate power, but also because Heavy Rain opens up a wellspring of new potential for video games. (This, just months after we saw Uncharted 2 do the very same thing.)

It is natural to assume that "interactive drama" will quickly blossom into a new genre of video games, but I am far more excited to see how Heavy Rain's innovations impact the entire medium. This game overcomes countless challenges that other game developers have long been afraid to tackle – challenges that have been holding back the medium for far too long. In other words, every game that follows Heavy Rain will have little choice but to borrow from it and build upon it.