Monday, April 26, 2010

Metro 2033

S.T.A.L.K.E.R : Shadow of Chernobyl won rave reviews for its unique setting, intense gameplay, vivid, open game-world and exotic storyline. It was the darling of the press and gathered a number of fervent, devoted fans. It was held up as proof that the PC still was a viable platform for computer gaming.

I did not like S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

It failed me on so many points; each problem, taken by itself was not a deal-breaker but in combination it ruined the overall experience. The "wide open" game world was inexplicably bound by uncrossable barriers and tied together with load-points. The "artificial life" AI felt more unreal than the most tightly and unwavering scripting found in most games and plagued by over-enthusiastic spawn points. The setting was novel but the story was poorly paced and even more-poorly delivered. The gun-play was hampered by inaccurate and underpowered weapons and was completely unforgiving. Ambitious and unique, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. failed in the one area that was most important; it was not a fun game.

I mention all this because, at first glance, everything I just said about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. would seem to hold true with Metro 2033. Not only are the settings similar (post-apocalyptic Russia) but the gameplay shares many similar concepts. In fact, the two games even share similar developers (Oles' Shyskovtsov and Oleksandr Maksymchuk of 4A Games worked on the X-Ray engine used in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. before taking off on their own). It was only the allure of the setting that prompted me to purchase the title, despite all my misgivings.

Well that I did, for the detailed, moody environments transcend any faults in the actual gameplay. Many titles play on gamers' emotions with cheap jump-from-the-shadow scares; few games achieve the melancholy hopelessness that pervades Metro 2033. Mankind, it is easy to believe, is on its last legs as it struggles against the hostile environment (and even more hostile inhabitants) of the post-apocalyptic Moscow subway system. I certainly felt vulnerable as I crept through the dank, claustrophobic tunnels, even if I was armed with a remarkable assortment of high-powered weaponry. Armed to the teeth and still shitting my pants; achieving that sort of atmosphere takes skill.

Although the game ably convinces you that you are exploring the darkest corners of the Underground, you never truly leave the beaten path; the game is steadfastly linear. This is both its great strength and weakness; Metro 2033 assures you of a well-paced and strongly woven story but at a cost to the player's freedom and the game's replayability. But even as you are cunningly led by the nose with little ability to turn aside, the well-designed levels convince you that a wider world exists just beyond those insurmountable barriers.

Beyond the exploration, there is the combat. Like its predecessor S.T.A.L.K.E.R., it is a mix of stealthy combat and high-paced gun-play. The AI is not overwhelmingly clever - the nastiest monsters are most dangerous only because of their tendency to spring out at you from dark corners just outside your field of vision- but the incoming fire is deadly and rarely do enemies come at you in only ones or twos. And while most foes go down with a burst of machine gun fire, ammo is scarce and -as it doubles as the game's currency- the more you shoot, the less likely you are to afford the good guns later on. Stealth is an adjunct to the combat, mostly used to sneak into perfect firing positions. It is possible to sneak by many encounters (where's the fun in that?) but its effect is lessened by the eagle-eyed enemy; once you make your presence known, there's no hiding from them again.

Technically, the game is an impressive piece of work even using DirectX 9 graphics (it supports up to DirectX 11 graphic embellishments; alas, although my hardware is willing, my OS is weak). The levels are well-detailed with high-res textures, numerous objects and excellent lighting effects. The sound is equally impressive, with a low-key soundtrack. The stilted voice-work may put some people off, but I felt it added to the game's charm. The engine was well optimized and the game ran very smoothly even at its busiest.

Metro 2033 is not a perfect game; it suffers from many of the same problems as S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: linear levels, sometimes unforgiving combat, and a problematic storyline. But unlike its predecessor, it succeeds stupendously when it comes to the game's atmosphere, and on this alone it surpasses its ancestor. The gameplay is passable, but it is the setting that you will remember for years to come.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Regenesis by C.J. Cherryh

The first time I picked up a book by Anne McCaffrey, Dragonflight, I gave up on it before I finished the first chapter. I thought it was dry, slow and boring. It wasn't until years later that I gave it another try and realized there was an interesting story buried beyond those first hard-to-digest pages. I am glad for this experience, however, because when I first picked up a novel by C. J. Cherryj (Heavy Time), I had the same initial impression. But the lesson I learned from Ms. McCaffrey taught me to persevere and now it's a rare story written by C.J. Cherryh that I haven't read.

I enjoy Ms. Cherryh's stories -especially her Company Wars novels- because she considers the question so many science-fiction authors forget to ask: presuming all the high-technologies that are common to the genre, how will this effect the societies and psychologies of the Men of Tommorow. Too often the assumption is that the attitudes and beliefs of the heroes of the future will be identical to those we hold today. Ms. Cherryh suggests differently, that the new environments and science of the future will have a profound impact on who we will become.

Regenesis is a continuation of this thesis started twenty years ago with her Cyteen trilogy: given the technology to clone not only a person's body but reprogram the duplicate with the personality of the original, how will this affect the society that uses this technique? How, for that matter, will it affect the individual so duplicated? Interwoven into this question is a tale of political intrigue and mystery as Ari Emory, personal replicate of the former Councilor of Science, strives not only to assure her own place in the world but also struggles to unravel the mystery of who killed her predecessor - and prevent the same from happening to her.

Although Ms. Cherryh's prose is solid and approachable, the story revolves almost entirely around the thoughts and emotions of its characters; the tale is almost entirely cerebral. Descriptive text is terse and functional and serves mainly as an adjunct to setting the mental state of the characters. Although great events unfold as the story progresses, the action is almost an aside, covered in quick broad sweeps. The focus remains almost entirely on the character's internal development. But Regenesis is not about epic battles amongst the stars. These wars may rock worlds but C.J. Cherryh's target is more subtle: the glue that holds those worlds together. Reading any of her novels is an opportunity to look at our own world in a new light.

My only disappointment is that Regenesis closes, intentionally, open-ended, a comment on history's non-stop progression. It's just that after twenty years, I was hoping for a bit more closure.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

MS Wireless Desktop 1000

After hooking up a spare desktop computer to my 42" HDTV, I quickly came to the conclusion that I needed a wireless mouse and keyboard to perfect the experience. I have no problem being tethered by wires to a desktop PC when I'm sitting right in front of it, but from the couch six or more feet away wireless is required.

A quick trip to the store and I had a Microsoft Office Desktop 1000 in my hot little hands. The Office Desktop had two things going for it right from the start; it included both a mouse and a keyboard in the package and, even combined, cost less than most other wireless keyboards on the shelf. Microsoft has also earned a reputation for producing some decent peripherals, which was an added bonus.

The box included the keyboard, the mouse, a USB receiver, a CD for the software installation and the usual slim-and-next-to-useless manual and warranty registration cards. Installation was simple; pop in the CD, install the software, plug in the USB receiver and that's it. If I didn't want to use the enhanced functions of the multimedia keys, I could have forwent the software installation.

The keyboard is a solid and not-overly large device. The keys depress nicely and spring back smoothly; typing is easy and comfortable. In addition to the usual 104 keys common to most Windows keyboards, it has a row of multimedia keys above the function keys which can be configured to launch various applications. By default, the first five launch your email client, web-browser, chat-client and media player (these can all be tweaked to launch whatever application you want). The next five have to be manually configured (the first time you press the key you will be prompted with a "hey, what do you want me to do?" dialog box). After that there are the usual start/stop, forward, rewind and stop multimedia keys which most media players honor, and a trio of volume control keys. The latter did not work straight out of the box for me; I had to manually copy a DLL file into my Windows\System32 directory before the buttons functioned as directed. Apparently this was a result of a previous wireless device installation on my computer.

The keyboard also has three additional keys; one key launches the calculator (this cannot be reconfigured), a second toggles an Exposé-like task switcher (ditto) and the final is the Function-Lock key. Unwisely, Microsoft bound each function key to a secondary function (F2, for instance, doubles as an "un-do" key) but this feature is not supported in most applications and, worse, conflicts if programs expect that key to perform its usual function. Fortunately, a quick press of the F-Lock key turns off this uselessness.

The mouse, on the other hand, is lackluster; it's large and not particularly comfortable. It only has three buttons (the usual two and the scroll-wheel doubles as a third), lacking the thumb buttons common to most new mice. The wheel scrolls very roughly and does not tilt.

The wireless receiver is very large; it's bigger than the mouse, in fact. It has three diodes reflecting the Capslock, Numlock and F-Lock status the (venerable Scroll-lock is left without any diode). But for all its size, the receiver is not particularly robust, which leads us to the main failing of these devices: range. Microsoft boasts a six-foot range, and the keyboard and mouse achieve this... barely. Beyond that, you won't receive any signal. Even at four to five feet away from the receiver, you will notice both the keyboard and mouse are twitchy; the mouse cursor won't track smoothly, and you'll have to pound on the keys twice for every letter you want to type. The devices also require general line-of-sight to the receiver to work, so you can't hide the receiver pod out of sight.

 In the end, I was disappointed with this hardware. The keyboard was well designed and offered a number of useful features (although the default configuration was poor) but the extremely limited range, uncomfortable mouse and bulky receiver more than offset the positives. Perhaps used on a office desktop these disadvantages might not be apparent but in a situation where a wireless keyboard is actually necessary it is hard to recommend.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Battlefield - Bad Company 2

On the face of it, Bad Company 2 isn't a game I should have enjoyed. It combines the non-stop action of Modern Warfare 2 with the multi-player Juggernaut that is the Battlefield franchise. Despite admittedly impressive sales, neither series has managed to win me over. And how does Bad Company 2 fare? Surprisingly enough, I liked it.

Forget the multi-player aspect; my interest is entirely in the single-player campaign. It is hard not to compare this game to Modern Warfare 2; it's a nearly perfect clone of that game. A band of special ops fighting off the Russians in battlefields across the globe? Check. On-foot and mounted combat? Check. Special mission modes involving tank combat and UAVs dropping ordinance on hostiles? Check. A contrived plot involving betrayal and electromagnetic pulse weapon? Check. 

But there's one big difference between the two: Bad Company 2 is fun.  Modern Warfare 2's false gravitas, ridiculous storyline and terrible pacing ruined the overall experience. Bad Company 2 is a more relaxed game. The combat is every bit as intense but -largely due to the lack of infinite respawns- the pacing is significantly improved. It was a pleasure not to be constantly pressed to move, to run, to do something; the game was quite willing to wait a few moments while I caught my breath or took in the ambiance. And while its story in Bad Company 2 is every bit as ridiculous at least it doesn't take itself quite as seriously (and it has no qualms about taking potshots at its rival; as one hero quips while fleeing from enemies on an ATV, "snowmobiles are for wimps"). Dice deserves credit for remembering that games are supposed to be fun.

Bad Company 2 isn't perfect, of course, but its problems are minor. Too often the gameplay is interrupted by cutscenes, some separated from a previous cutscene by only a minute of gameplay.  The developers also have an obvious love affair with particle effects; they are used to such an extent that battles devolve into random firing into thick clouds of dust. I suppose it could be argued that this is a more realistic depiction of combat - the oft-mentioned fog of war- but as far as the gameplay it's frustrating not to be able to see anything. Most disappointingly, the developers only open up the gameworld once, making most of the game a long, linear corridor shooter. But these are just minor gripes; in the end, I enjoyed by the game and compared to that everything else is a secondary concern. Bad Company 2 was a welcome addition to my game collection and I expect I will replay it frequently in years to come.