Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog


The Conduit (Emulated/PC, 2009): Really? Kevin Sorbo? Seriously?
January 29, 2012, 2:36 am
Filed under: The Conduit (Emulated/PC, 2009, US)

Ever suffered from the videogame doldrums? I’ve got a bad case of it right now. The first stage of this illness begins when you dive into a videogame, but then you realize after a few hours of play that either it’s never going to meet your expectations, or it is truly poor (or even simply average), or that it has absolutely no atmosphere, or that it is glitchy, or confusing, or…pick your poison. But because of this stupid pact you have with yourself that you will finish every damn videogame you ever start (unless it is so broken that it cannot be completed), you cringe at having committed yourself to hours of joyless—or even worse, frustrating–play.

For me, the game was id Software’s “Rage.” Upon seeing the sparkling graphics stretching to the horizon, I was overjoyed. Then, like almost every critic I read, I started playing it and realized there really was nothing here. No connection to the cardboard characters or their fates, an endless list of tiresome fetch quests, a threadbare story, a world that looked wide open but wasn’t, and a faint whiff of “Borderlands” lurking about the place (sans coop, but with extra slide guitar in the incidental music). And I so wanted to love it all. Errrr. Probably the worst thing I could’ve done before booting up “Rage” was to crawl my way through the drama-heavy, atmosphere drenched, character driven game “Silent Hill: Shattered Memories” (posted on this blog), which expertly scratches that drippy-drama-storytelling itch and had an expertly paced, gasp-inducing ending that lingered for days afterwards. By the way, the ending to “Rage,” if you’ve not played it, is exactly as cursory as everyone says. It’s…pathetic, honestly.

Oh, but wait—there is a second stage to the videogame doldrums, when the condition becomes acute and life-threatening. In an attempt to break the ennui created by the first turd (that you realize will occupy the next 30 hours of your life since you are obligated to play it), you enter into contract with another video game on the side (like a mistress, or an addictive curative). But oh terrible fate! You discover that your alternate videogame, too, is uninspired, and you’ve opened up yet another can of worms you’ve got to swallow whole. (OK, I’m not being entirely fair here.) In this case, I started playing “The Conduit” (2009) on my PC using the Wii/Gamecube emulator “Dolphin.”  Actually my reasons for even writing about High Voltage’s “The Conduit” on this blog are specious; it certainly is not an overlooked title, it isn’t a gem in disguise, and it wasn’t developed and poorly translated to English in the Ukraine. (That was a joke.) I only am writing a (shorter than usual) post about it because I thought sharing a little information regarding how “The Conduit” performs in emulation may be of some interest to any emu users out there. Oh, that, and I took some screenshots and had to post them somewhere.

There were always a handful of (I mean, like 3) Wii games I was interested in. But having zero interest in owning a Wii, those titles always faded into the background. “The Conduit” was one of those titles, whose gameplay footage looked like a not-bad-last-gen-ish, uncomplicated, Halo ripoff with motion controls. Thankfully, the Dolphin emulator has allowed me to try a few of these titles without having to buy a Wii. Using the Wii motion controls with your PC to play is a breeze if you are not aware of this. Your best bet is to go to the Dolphin emulator website (Google it) and read their FAQs. Or you can read my rambling discussion of it here on my post about “Silent Hill: Shattered Memories,” which chronicles my time as a Dolphin virgin.

I’m going to abbreviate my discussion of the “The Conduit” proper, since many easily accessible reviews of it exist. But in essence, you play Mr. Ford, a special agent who tromps all over the most well-known (but wrecked) Washington D.C. landmarks (the wrecked Oval Office, the wrecked National Library, the wrecked Pentagon—as well as crawling underneath those wrecked landmarks through lots of unremarkable sewer tunnels). Why is everything wrecked? Well, of course, aliens (the Drudge, about 6 varieties) have invaded the city, disrupting the lives of both residents and elected officials. Transistor radios conveniently dropped everywhere allow you to listen in to the conspiracy-laced chatter of right-wing and left-wing commentators, as the nation goes to hell in a hand basket. The Drudge have entered our nation’s capital using a series of “conduits” (Wha? No!) through which they pass from their planet …or dimension…or whatever (since we actually never find out where or when these aliens originate). The game begins “in medias res” amidst a high-action sequence, and then it flashes back to 5 days prior. For the rest of the game, you work your way back up to those beginning moments, which are the end of the game, basically.

I like that tried-and-true framing structure. But the problem is the story being framed is beyond generic, with very little in the way of details, clarity, or character. I’ll keep it vague for anyone who might give this title a shot; “The Conduit” doesn’t have much of a narrative punch or backstory to begin with, so it’s a good idea to preserve what is present for anyone discovering this for the first time. But about a quarter of the way through, the “ally” in your headset giving you directions about where to go and what to do (a man called Adams who represents a high-powered, government-friendly conglomerate called The Trust) turns out not to be who you think he is (which doesn’t matter, since—as a disembodied voice– we never see him anyway). Suddenly, and without surprise, the enemy (whose name is Prometheus) is transformed into your ally, although your character is suspicious of his true intentions. Let’s crawl through another sewer, shall we?

As one of the first (and perhaps, at the time, only) shooters on the Wii, developer High Voltage’s idea for the game was twofold, it seems: First they wanted to bring a high-quality FPS for the hardcore shooter fan to the Wii—a market they thought really had not been tapped. And they were right. Second, in developing a proprietary engine, the Quantum3, they wanted to display a video image through the decidedly last-gen Wii that actually resembled an image from current-gen consoles, like the Xbox 360 and the PS3. This included effects like “bump-mapping, reflection and refraction, light and shadow maps and projections, specular and Fresnel effects, emissive and iridescent materials, advanced alpha blends, gloss and detail mapping, motion blur, interactive water with complex surface effects, and animated textures, among other things,” so says Wikipedia. What those “other things” are, I’m not sure. Maybe…chocolate? I didn’t see chocolate in that list anywhere.

For all intents and purposes, I think High Voltage succeeded in those goals, and the game looks pretty darn good considering its age and also its platform. (Also, keep in mind, if playing it through the Dolphin emulator, you can always crank up the resolution—the screenshots here are at 2x the native resolution of the game.)

But because the game is controlled with a Wiimote and Nunchuk motion controller combo, it more often than not feels like an arcade shooter…which is not quite on rails, but it sort of could be. For example, while I played the game—of course fighting the finicky motion controls the entire time, we’ll get to that—I found myself running down a gauntlet sewer with aliens popping in from behind oil drums or crates, to the left, to the right…pew, pew…it just felt like I was holding an air gun at the county fair taking potshots at cardboard cutouts. Maybe it was the motion controller that gave me this feeling (though throwing a grenade at the flick of a wrist never gets old). I’m not sure. But I did not feel the same kind of environmental immersion that many first-person shooters capture so well, and my first impulse is to attribute that lack of connection to the controls instead of, say, the artwork, sound, or even the bland narrative (which is serviceable, even though full of holes).

Though I wrestled with the controls due to my motion-control-virginity, one of the amazing aspects of this game (and every single freaking developer on the planet should bow down to High Voltage on this count) is the customizability of said controls. Here’s a list to get you slavering: Every button and trigger can be remapped; the walking speed of the character can be changed on a slider; the gesture controls can be reassigned; the cursor sensitivity can be changed; you can change how the game behaves when the cursor slides off screen; you can remove or change the location of on-screen HUD elements; you can even change the freaking bounding box size, which determines basically your field of view and motion. And there’s more I won’t mention. No console game (or, frankly PC game) I’ve ever come across allows for this incredible amount of mechanical tweaking. On one hand, this impresses me enormously. On the other hand, the need to build in this much tweakability may also be a testament to exactly how tricky it is to play an FPS with a motion controller (or at least a Wiimote) in the first place. In other words, all this customization might indicate the developer’s incredible sensitivity towards players’ unique needs and wants—or it might simply be evidence that effectively controlling the game is an overwhelming bitch that requires a lot of fiddling with. I’m not sure where I fall regarding this argument, but the game is stronger because these options are present.

Since my ultimate rationale for writing about this title on the crappy videogames blog is to discuss how the game performs in emulation, let’s move quickly onto that. Overall, as I mentioned, the game performs admirably in Dolphin, with the some of the usual emulator-related caveats. For example, there were some pretty serious slowdowns in large areas. If your PC is not up to snuff, I could see sections of the game becoming unplayable. However, since generally the draw distance in the game is kept to a minimum and the large areas are sprinkled lightly throughout (mainly for arena-type battles that end a chapter), these slowdowns do not make the bulk of the game unplayable.

In addition, there is some slow down when you activate the ASE (All-Seeing-Eye) to solve puzzles and open doors. The ASE is a device you have from the beginning of the game (the narrative mentions who developed it, or maybe it was alien technology, but it’s clearly inconsequential). It is a metal sphere that floats in your hand (you either carry it or a weapon, but not both) and, through its beam, reveals hidden messages, removes the invisible shielding from some enemies, and helps complete some of the game’s main missions (though some critics said the mechanic was underutilized.) The frame rate slowdown when activating the ASE probably has to do with the torch-like cone of light that the ASE emits. It seems Dolphin has some difficulty rendering things like flashlight beams (or, at least the same was true with “Silent Hill: Shattered Memories,” which uses a flashlight extensively). This slow down does not make it unplayable though, since the ASE is only used intermittently throughout the game. And again, if you can throw enough PC power at the problem, you might not experience a slow down at all. I’ve seen footage of the ASE in action on a core i7 processor (with a speed slightly over 4 GHz) on YouTube without a hitch. And if you have this, then can you buy me one too?

One last emulation-related thought: If you pick up “The Conduit” and enjoy it enough to try and slog your way through “The Conduit 2” (2011) using Dolphin, you’ll need to check yourself. Regardless of how much computing power you have, it appears that, at the time of this writing, no emu user can get “The Conduit 2” to run any faster than maybe 15 frames-per-second. I tried it myself, and while it seems to be running fine (no hitching, no hiccups, smooth frame rate), everything simply moves as if it were underwater—Matrix-like slow motion. I’ve heard you can actually play the entire game this way—very slowly. Also, as rendered by the DirectX plugin within the emulator, practically every surface in “The Conduit 2” has a strange reflective quality (that isn’t supposed to be there), which doesn’t break the game, but it makes it look funny. So it seems that actually buying a Wii is the only way to play “The Conduit 2” at this point in time since the emulator can’t seem to chew through it properly. Of course, the ages will change that. And honestly, though it was ho-hum, I enjoyed the first in the series enough that if Dolphin ran the sequel properly, I’d play it.

A non-emu-related weakness in the game reared its ugly head when Kevin Sorbo’s average voice acting erupted in my headphones. In “The Conduit,” Sorbo plays the part of Prometheus, a “rogue agent” who at first appears to be the enemy but then becomes the ally, as I mentioned. Though near the end of the game you get to “meet” Prometheus (I’ll stop there for spoiler reasons), really he’s just a voice in your headset—that’s it. I guess there are Sorbo fans out there, but I never found his television acting to be particularly compelling. I mean, I thought you could’ve dressed him up in his “Hercules” tights, dropped him onto the set of “Andromeda,” and no one would really have been able to tell the difference, right? All of Kevin Sorbo’s characters are just…well, Kevin Sorbo in a different costume, yes? And here in “The Conduit” it’s just Sorbo’s so-so voice all over the place, giving you directions and objectives, telling you this or that odd fact in a completely uninspired way. Eh. I think professional voice acing is imperative in games, no doubt. I’ve even played a handful of games that have damn near imploded due to poor voicing. On the other hand, however, I can’t really understand why developers would want to use such well-known, easily recognized voices, like Sorbo’s, in their games either. Star appeal? Well, for me, it simply yanks me out of immersion…in this case, as I was constantly reflecting on exactly how confusing the entire “Andromeda” series was and how average this dude’s acting was. As he blabbed in my ear, I’d just stop playing and wait for him to shut up. And when he finally would, I would get back to playing the game while trying to forget about him and his crappy TV shows. Why would developers want that effect to occur exactly? I don’t get it. Feel free to enlighten me.



Silent Hill – Shattered Memories (Emulated/PC, 2009, England): Slow, Satisfying Burn

Well, here it is 2012, and I played my first Wii game. (Would that classify as a confession or a boast?) Either way, if it’s any consolation, I didn’t actually play it on a Wii. Instead I used Dolphin, the Wii/Gamecube emulator on my PC. (EDIT: And I realize this game really is not an overlooked, “”bottom barrel” title and hence doesn’t belong here. But playing it in emulation made me want to write about it; I should probably have a separate section, or a separate blog entirely, just considering games in emulation…yeah, like that’s going to happen.)

My 16-year-old nephew is the typical COD addict—you know, he goes hog-wild in online matches for 4 months straight, prestiges repeatedly, then drops it like an atom bomb and plays Madden while waiting for the next installment. When I told him I was playing the (at one time) Wii exclusive “Silent Hill: Shattered Memories” on my PC, he snickered and said point blank: “I don’t know how that works, but enjoy the wonky controls and the lack of precision.” He’s a smartass, but he was dead right.

As a longstanding, unapologetic fan of every single SH game (all the way back to watching the trailer for the original in awe before it was ever released), I did not plan on playing the Wii version of “SH: Shattered Memories.” Not owning a Wii (and not interested in owning a Wii), I simply assumed this was one SH game I would not get to experience. But I smacked down the $30 on the Playstation 2 version of the game within seconds after it dropped, surprised that the Wii-exclusive had been ported to the PS2—and even more surprised, frankly, that anyone was even bothering to make anything for the PS2 in the year 2010.

When I stopped coughing (after inhaling all the dust that had accumulated on my fat PS2 console) to play “Shattered Memories,” I was horrified by the visuals of the game. The image was blurry, terribly pixelated—it was so bad I was sure that there was something wrong with my aging console. But no—I tried it on another person’s old console as well—and the image just sucked. This was disappointing, especially after having seen some gameplay footage on YouTube of the earlier-released Wii version that looked pretty terrific (for, technically, a last-gen game). I wondered what the hell was up?

I couldn’t find any real discussion of it on the internets (probably because by the time the Wii version was ported to the PS2 an entire year had gone by and no one was really paying attention to the game). I remembered someone saying somewhere that “Shattered Memories” was probably one of the greatest last games that will ever be made for the PS2. Visually, that comment couldn’t have been more wrong.

But then I think I figured out the issue, though I’ve not confirmed it. Why did the Wii version look so nice, yet the PS2 version look like…shit? Well, the game was actually not only ported to the PS2. It was simultaneously ported to the PSP (Playstation Portable), I’ve come to the conclusion (in other words, I’d bet a paycheck or two) that the developers “Climax” (or whoever was in charge of the porting) used the exact same version for both systems. So what you get on the PS2 is actually the “blown up” version which was made for the tiny PSP. In other words, on a big screen, you get pixellated visual junk. (Though I’ve not played it yet and have it on my shelf, I understand this is exactly what Climax did with the “Silent Hill: Origins” game as well [released just prior to “Shattered Memories”], which was originally only made for PSP but eventually ported (to ugly effect?) for the PS2. We’ll see about that later.)

It was this realization that guided my first foray into using Dolphin, the Wii emulator for PC. I wanted to play the best-looking version of this game I could. My previous experiences with the PCSX2 (PS2) emulator for PC has been relatively good (though, honestly, any emulator’s performance is based solely on how nitpicky a particular title is and how much processing power you can throw at it). But having enjoyed using PCSX2, I was willing to acquire a Wii version of “Shattered Memories” and give Dolphin a try, since the Wii version was head and shoulders above the other iterations in terms of graphics. Overall playing this Wii title worked fairly well on PC, but with some caveats if you plan on giving it a try. I’ll discuss this later.

How the hell can you play a Wii game on your PC, some of you may ask? You can get all of this info at the Dolphin website (Google: Dolphin Wii Emulator, and the free download will appear), but in a nutshell, really the best way to accomplish this is to use an actual motion controller (the Wiimote and the Nunchuk). You need to get a “Wireless Sensor Bar” that sits in front of the TV (uses batteries) for about $20 (you would use this same contraption if you were playing an actual Wii console, but because it’s wireless, it doesn’t actually connect to anything—it just sits in front of your TV and picks up the infrared from your Wiimote). Then, if you don’t already have one, buy the Wiimote and Nunchuk combo controller at about $30 (everything is cheaper if you go used). Lastly you need to be able to get the Wiimote, which uses Bluetooth, to be recognized by your PC. To do this, if your PC doesn’t have Bluetooth already built in, you just need to buy a “USB to Bluetooth” dongle at about $10 (actually ranging anywhere from a few dollars to $30, depending if you get the most current 3.0 USB model or an older 2.0 USB model–either will work). Basically, the dongle just gives your PC the ability to use any Bluetooth device. Plugging the dongle into an open USB port on your PC and booting up the Dolphin program, you can make your PC recognize the Wiimote. Pretty cool. Rip an iso of your Wii game (using something like imageburn), turn on your sensor bar, boot the iso in the Dolphin emulator, and you are playing the Wii without having the embarrassment of actually having to buy one. (Okay, that’s not nice, but you get my drift.) For something that doesn’t seem like it would ever work, it is amazingly simple. Of course, like any emulator, it does require some processing power (both CPU and videocard) to work well, though.

Boldly, “Shattered Memories” returns to the initial events that began the Silent Hill franchise: Bookish fiction writer Harry Mason, driving in a snowstorm in or near the town of Silent Hill, has an accident and wakes up to find his young daughter, Cheryl, missing. (In fact, there were rumors circulating years before the game’s release that an actual “remake” of the original Silent Hill was in the works, but ultimately “Shattered Memories” is not a remake, but is a kind of retelling of the story from a different perspective and a completely different gameplay focus.)

The entire story is actually a flashback; in present time, the player-character is sitting in the office of a gruff therapist, Dr. K, retelling the tale of that fateful night of the accident, the wrecked car, the abandoned creepy town of Silent Hill. As a framing device, the gameplay returns to the player sitting in Dr. K’s office from time to time (this occurs in first-person perspective, whereas the flashback/exploration sequences in town are in third person perspective), and the good doctor speaks directly to you, commenting on the events that have unfolded, venting his frustrations and opinions, and also giving you some psychological tests, which must be completed in order to continue the game.

These tests take various forms: answering a series of true or false survey questions, coloring in a picture, or sorting bizarre photographs. As the bright red “Psychology Warning” screen at the beginning of the game announces: “This game plays you as much as you play it.” Apparently, the way you complete these seemingly harmless psychological tests alter the way the story plays out when the focus returns to Harry searching for his daughter in Silent Hill. From what I’ve read, these changes involve which characters appear, at what location, wearing what garb, brandishing what demeanor, and which of the 5 finales you get to see.  A mechanic like this creates intriguing replay possibilities for those who care.

Or it might not. What I mean is this: I restarted the game about 10 times trying to initially identify the best Dolphin settings to make the game look good and run smoothly [I ended up being able to play the game at 2x its native resolution, which was nice], and so I kept tweaking settings and restarting. The first psychological test [a T/F survey] given to you by Dr. K appears at the very outset. The first time I took the test, I answered carefully and honestly. In this instance, my first encounter in Silent Hill was with the well-known, rough-hewn, leather-boot-and-sunglasses-wearing policewoman, Cybil, who was sitting in a diner. However, on subsequent restarts, when I simply answered all the questions false or true [or whatever just to quickly get into actual gameplay for testing purposes], my first encounter was with an older barmaid in a bar, and the diner across the street [where Cybil used to be sitting] was closed and dark. These differences are interesting, however ultimately the conversations with either woman led to the same conclusion—in other words the story arc did not change and my next objective and destination was unaltered. Take this for what you will.) Also in game you will have choices of whether to enter one door or another, and once you make a choice, the other door will be off limits to you. For example, in an abandoned high school, you can choose to enter an art studio or the planetarium, and each contains a different kind of puzzle you must complete in order to continue. Interestingly, these choices are not “announced” to you ahead of time—they just appear as a natural part of gameplay, and you turn left or right and choose a door on-the-fly and go with it, never really even knowing there was another venue available. However, if you return and try to open the alternate door later on, Harry just shrugs his shoulders and says, “Nah.”

But the bulk of the gameplay is not simply sitting in a therapist’s office taking Rorschach tests, of course. In flashback fashion, most of the game involves navigating Harry through the snowy, unpeopled town of Silent Hill (through mundane locations, like the city’s streets, a bar, a state park, a restaurant, the aforementioned high school, the famous Alchemilla hospital, the Toluca Mall (remember Toluca Lake and Toluca Prison, yes?)—apparently everything is abandoned because all the Silent Hill residents have barricaded themselves in their homes against the storm). Harry is trying desperately to locate his daughter.

Of course, we all know Silent Hill is not an idyllic little town, and things go awry often. Like all the SH games, there are two alternating realities—there is the “waking world” of the snowed-in, mostly uninhabited Silent Hill (which appears in both day time and night-time), and then there are the “Nightmare” sequences where suddenly everything changes into the ninth circle of hell. In earlier SH games, this alternate “ugly” universe relied on black, demonic, cancer-ridden environments thick with smoke and littered with things like torture devices and bloody chain link fencing that Pyramid Head considered his playground. “Shattered Memories” takes a slightly different (and some might say “lighter”) approach to this “Nightmare” world though. In this game, when the alternate universe appears, everything freezes over—a thick, dark ice covers everything and restricts your path.

(SPOILER-ISH: Actually, I’m not sure I’d consider this spoiler material, but as you progress through the game, it becomes increasingly clear that these nightmare sequences are not random or haphazard, and they are linked directly to the story. More specifically, each time the frozen nightmare world appears, it is right on the heels of Harry getting closer to the reality of where his daughter actually is and who he actually is, which creates surprising narrative impetus—and it all ends with the kind of twisty KAPOW that I’ve not experienced in a  game for a while. It stuck with me for a few days after the game was long over, which is always evidence of a great accomplishment in my eyes. SPOILER-ISH ENDS.) Oh, and there’s no Pyramid Head (whose original Japanese name, by the way, is simply “Red Triangle” or “Red Pyramid,” which I kind of like better).

Of course, when the nightmare world appears, this is when other kinds of weirdos show up and the “action” takes place. Notice, I said “action,” and not “combat.” That’s because there is no combat in this game. None. In this case, the weirdos take only one form—a sort of fully grown, yet half-formed, shrieking, flesh-colored person, without a face or any other distinguishing characteristics. To you, they might look like bizarre embryonic versions of people, or weird mummies, or something. Some of them have large holes in their bodies, like donuts. Others have misshapen, rectangular heads. These mutants show up in droves when everything freezes over and the nightmare world appears, and if they get too close to Harry, they latch onto him and he starts to take damage. This is when you take out your shotgun and—

Okay, I’m lying. What exactly is your plan of action when this happens? Well after you shake them off of you using the motion controller (a motion that never felt natural to me)…you run. Yup, you just run…a lot. You run away, you climb a fence as fast as you can, you scale a small ledge, then run some more. You blast through doors, you dodge under staircases, and you can even attempt to hide for brief moments. But, pretty much, you just run away. The point of these sequences is that you are looking for the proper path that will lead you out of the nightmare world and back into the more normal surroundings of Silent Hill. As you can imagine, this takes an incredible amount of trial and error. (An “exit waypoint” is added to your cell phone’s GPS at these moments to help you navigate these areas, but I never had the time to pause, take the phone out, and consult the map—the chase was much too hectic. Stopping running usually means death.) If the weirdoes latch onto Harry too often, he goes down, and it is game over. In other words, if you enjoy hacking and slashing or shooting freaks, this game is not for you. If you are a triathlete, though, game on.

In between these high speed sequences (and in all honesty, they can be pretty tense), the gameplay is much more leisurely. As you carouse the snowed-in, abandoned town in non-nightmare mode, you pick up small audio clips or journal entries which tell snippets of the bereft people’s lives in Silent Hill. Actually, these “collectibles” comprise a significant part of the game—almost to the point where much of the experience reminded me more of an old-timey point-and-click adventure than anything else. These collectibles are found in one of two ways. First, using the sound from your cell phone (hissing tones similar to those produced by the signature pocket radio in the earlier Silent Hill games) as a means of triangulation, you can locate and then trigger a collectible. Second, and more strange, sometimes you stumble across a vague shadow of a person, like a ghostly after image, and if you snap a picture of it with your cell phone camera, this will also trigger a collectible. When you properly locate one, an audio or text message becomes available on your cell phone for you to read or listen to. The whining “sonar” that aids you in finding these items is unnerving of course, and when you trigger one of these collectibles, the screen flashes white, blinding you temporarily, and a sharp sound rings suddenly through the headphones—all of it designed to make you uncomfy, and it works.

What are these collectibles exactly? The game explains it this way: “Echoes” of memories or personalities can become “attached” to objects, especially when strong emotions have been present in the past. For example, you bump up against a filthy couch in an abandoned hotel, and you “find” an audio clip of a girl crying in the background while a clearly older male voice tells her he is sorry that he hit her “because you look so much like my daughter,” and that she should “put the wig back on and let’s go upstairs.” Adult father-daughter sex roleplaying. Sheesh. Or you stumble across a sleeping bag whose corner is poking out of a snow bank, and you’ll get a journal entry about brothers who ventured out into the woods to spend the night—with hypothermic results. Whatever the (completely not explained) reason why you are able to detect these spiritual snippets, these story fragments (which are totally disconnected from the main story) serve one important purpose—they create atmosphere as thick as any Silent Hill fog you’ve ever seen. These people’s stories are never that unique—indeed, they might be considered quite ordinary—but they are never good. Every time I triggered one, I sort of dreaded listening to it or reading it. For example, you find an audio clip of a frantic girl calling her mom to confess she went into the woods to party, but now she thinks “these people are weird and I just want to come home.” Things don’t go well for her after someone slips a mickey into her drink. You listen to a voicemail from a violently irate customer to a photography shop screaming that the proprietors have accidentally taped over her wedding video, and that she will have revenge. In another collectible, you hear one-half of a phone conversation of a married man (who is toting his young daughter [begging for candy] through the mall) making arrangements to rendezvous with his mistress: “Yeah, wear that dress, but nothing underneath,” he says. “Who are you talking to?” asks his little girl. Yech. Fascinating to me, while at the same time these story fragments add considerable atmosphere to the game, they also display some rather remarkable writing talent. Usually within the space of 25 words, or 15 seconds, a whole little story is told, some harrowing (or maybe just gritty and depressing) tale of a Silent Hill resident. This kind of economy of language seriously impresses someone like me who suffers from chronic linguistic diarrhea. I mean look at the length of this post, for God sakes.

On the contrary, walking around in a leisurely fashion to locate and trigger these collectibles also detracts from the immediacy of the story. After all, Harry here is supposed to be frantically scouring this bizarre universe for his missing daughter, not popping casually into empty restaurants, bars, bowling alleys, and high schools to sniff around in the corners for ghostly diary entries accidentally left behind. I understand all of this is a videogame conceit, and I am more than willing to suspend my disbelief, but in this case while I liked the collectibles and the overall narrative effect, I also didn’t like the overall negative effect on the sense of urgency that should be driving the main story and our protagonist. At points, the game turns into a leisurely stroll through a snowy town, which doesn’t feel like Silent Hill territory.

But back to the cellphone for a moment: This is not the first game I’ve played where the character carries and utilizes a cellphone, but this is the first game I’ve played where a cellphone is such an integral part (indeed, a main interface) of the game. In “Shattered Memories,” you can take pictures with your smart phone (actually you are obligated to at some points), you can use the GPS map to reach your objective (it is the only way to access the in-game map), you save your game progress through the phone (again, the only way to save, unless you are using the “Save State” function in the Dolphin emulator, which will save your progress up to the second, wherever you are, in case the program crashes), you listen to and read all your collectibles (as mentioned)…and you can even make and receive calls (imagine that—some puzzle solutions require you to make phone calls). You can even change the ringtone on your cell. My only gripe about all this: Using the well-designed phone, while clever, does take you out of the game’s environment to some degree, but this gimmick does make the game stand out (in my mind). While you use the phone, the game’s action continues, by the way.

Let’s move onto some negatives and a short discussion of how the game behaves in emulation. Technically, I experienced two major issues using Dolphin with this title. There is graphical corruption in the cone of light emitted from Harry’s flashlight. This corruption took several forms depending on which settings I used in Dolphin. For example, if I used the Direct X-based graphics plugin (DX9 or DX11), the cone of light was cut off with what looked like the shape of Harry’s hand (gripping the flashlight) which was appearing in front of the flashlight (yes, bizarre, but that’s the kind of weird thing that can happen in emulation)—so the illumination was seriously reduced, and illuminating dark areas of the game is key to playing. Alternately, using the OpenGL-based graphics plugin, the cone of light was corrupted with dark vertical or horizontal lines appearing across it in varying widths. This, for me, was the lesser of two evils, and so this is how I chose to play the game. The other issue involved a strange slowdown in large areas. There are not many large areas within the game, but every once in a while there will be an open street corner or a warehouse-sized or mall-sized corridor or room. Unfortunately, in these areas Harry would suddenly begin walking in slow motion—really slow motion. The game was not stuttering or crashing, but it just began running extremely slowly. Sadly, this would also happen at times during the frantic “nightmare world” chase sequences, which irritated me. I did find that turning off the flashlight seemed to help speed things up in these selective areas, but that fix was not consistent and not always workable. Other than these issues, the game performed rather well.

Consider the next paragraph the humorless ranting of a motion-controller-novice (a title I don’t mind bearing), but for Christ’s sake using the Wiimote is a MAJOR PAIN IN THE ASS. I guess I’m spoiled, being used to sitting Indian-style on my couch, arms relaxed, holding a 360 or PS3 controller in my lap, basically pushing buttons and moving the thumbsticks with minimal effort and ease. No such ease here. I had to sit up straight, or else bits of my body (legs, feet) would block the line-of-sight needed between the Wiimote and sensor bar (which is placed in front of the TV); I guess I was supposed to be standing up to play—yeah, right; I had to learn to barely, even imperceptibly, move the Wiimote in my hand to get Harry to turn around or move in a particular direction—most of the time, the Wiimote cursor (an ugly, bright white circle floating across everything–I erased the circle in the screenshots here for artistic sake) was frequently off-screen entirely (you can’t move the controller too far up, down, left, or right), leaving the character stranded on screen, motionless (the sensitivity was simply out of control and could not be changed in this title). Of course, trying to reach the buttons on the controller with your thumb to complete certain functions would cause the Wiimote cursor to move accidentally (just because you are naturally moving your hand), and the character would spin about uncontrollably or begin walking in some wrong direction. Just awful. I fought the controls of this game the entire time. I mean THE ENTIRE TIME. Incredibly frustrating, but my nephew warned me. (Actually what occurred to me was this: People who own and use the Wii couldn’t possibly know how easy and comfy it is to use a regular gamepad, like the 360 or PS3 pad—if they did, they wouldn’t put up with this mess for a second.) Anyway, I simply couldn’t shake the feeling that the motion controls were just gimmicky, unnecessary junk, and that I would have just as much enjoyed playing the game with a standard gamepad (and I could have if I were willing to settle for the crappy PS2 image, but nah.) Myth has it that Dolphin (the emulator) allows you to actually use a standard keyboard and mouse, or even a PS3 six-axis gamepad, to play many Wii games. And it’s all true—you can configure just about any controller to work with Dolphin—pretty neato. However, I tried both keyboard/mouse and PS3 controller setups, and all of them were a bit wonky and not quite right—”Shattered Memories” seems to really WANT you to play it with the Wiimote, and so I begrudgingly complied. So now I own a Wiimote, Nunchuk, and Sensor Bar but not an actual Wii console. Story of my life.

Regardless of the irritating motion controls (which constantly and rudely yank you out of immersion in the game), the story itself, and Harry’s situation was absolutely compelling enough to make me doggedly forge ahead. This, like so many of the Silent Hill narratives, just begs for—and wins—your attention with ease. And, as I mentioned, the ending (any of the 5 alternate finales) is a complete knockout, a real twisting, surprising,  heartstring-puller. I am helpless to not pay attention to these people and their various bizarre plights. I think I’d buy real estate in Silent Hill just so I could observe and commiserate with these sad, sad people. And I have a small theory as to why the SH games in general are so compelling. It’s not so much the nightmare world that draws attention, but it is the “normal” people’s lives that are on the verge of weirdness, but not completely sinking into surreality, that grips me personally. For example, the very butch policewoman Cybil—she seems to be helpful at times, but then at other times she just seems like a dikey bitch in leather out to get you. Also in this game you encounter Michelle—a woman in her late 20s who you first meet in the abandoned high school, standing on stage and wearing a pink taffeta prom dress (a little odd for her age), and she sings you an entire song before she introduces herself. As weird as all this is, it is ultimately explained: She is at the school for the reunion, which was cancelled due to weather but she didn’t know, and she’s just waiting for her lawyer boyfriend to pick her up. Frankly, you come across seemingly strange characters in all the SH games who, once their stories are explained, really aren’t necessarily all that strange. But at first glance, watch out! In the case of this game, you also meet a nurse who has had a serious accident and is suffering from a profusely bleeding head wound, but she insists on just taking some pills and lying down on her couch—while also making some slight sexual advances towards you as you assist her. It’s all unsettling, but ultimately the characters hit just the right pitch of “bizarre, but normal enough, I guess.” As part of the surprisingly consistent Silent Hill universe, this is all rather perfect.

One final positive note: This game was apparently the last in the series to include the musical genius of the one-and-only original SH composer Akira Yamaoka. After delivering the music for “Shattered Memories,” he retired from his 16-year-long career at Konami. Needless to say, the music in the game is highly evocative of all the other Silent Hill games—it’s moody and downtrodden, a little triphop, quiet when appropriate, and ugly when necessary. I fear that future SH games simply won’t embody the same essential vibe simply because the music won’t be the same. (The upcoming “Silent Hill: Downpour” says it will utilize music “belonging to the industrial musical genre, but to a lesser extent in comparison to the previous games in the series, which all made more prominent use of such music” (Wikipedia). Hmmm, we’ll see what that means.

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PS: I’m putting this as a postscript because it is utterly irrelevant. In other words, stop reading now: Reflecting on how this game integrates the cellphone mechanic makes me want to crawl, shamefaced, into the blogger’s confessional. In real life (whatever that is), I don’t own a cellphone. I know, I know. That’s like saying I don’t own a pair of kidneys. It’s the kind of statement reserved as a bumper sticker slogan for luddites of the highest order. Hell, even my 73-year-old mother has forsaken her land-line in favor of a cellphone-only lifestyle. But yes, I don’t own a cellphone. Lucky for me, my job as a university professor doesn’t require that I have one. My cellphone-free recklessness is a natural extension of living on my own for years, far away from family, while working on my masters and doctoral degrees right before the wide advent of these mobile devices. I lived alone, a kind of graduate student hermit, in communities from which I was generally a disconnected, temporary resident whose time was spent with nose planted firmly in book. Who was I going to call anyway? Today, though I am a bit more connected, that same question still applies. In fact, the only reason I keep a landline is in case I lose a finger or two in some insane typing accident and need to call an ambulance. However, these are not the reasons I provide when bugged by students why they can’t text me their excuses for not turning in assignments. The “public” reason for my anti-cellphone stance seems much more practical (and it’s true as well): I live on the side of a mountain where no cellphone signal of any kind gets through. Friends visit, and I snicker when they try to check their messages and can’t. “You’re in the wild now!” I say in my best “Deliverance” drawl. My partner has a cellphone—a vestige before moving into our little chalet in the mountains—and it sits in the drawer most of the time. But my most honest excuse? I just don’t want the monthly bill.  But I’m sure one day when I run out of gas on the side of one of these completely abandoned, winding mountain roads with the real “Deliverance” folks slathering at me from beyond the tree line (or bizarre Silent Hill mutants chasing me through a frozen landscape), it will all come back to bite me in the ass. Literally.



Kreed – Battle for Savitar (PC, 2004, Russia): Second Take, Much Improved
January 9, 2012, 12:22 am
Filed under: Kreed – Battle for Savitar (PC, 2004, Russia), Russia)

2004’s “Kreed: Battle for Savitar” (the game directory abbreviates it as BFS) is the decidedly more successful followup to Burut Creative Team’s “Kreed” (2003). [Read my halting discussion of “Kreed” on this blog.] At the release of “Savitar,” the monster-sized eastern Euro publisher, Russobit-M, called the game “the Russian Unreal. It is our response to Doom 3 and Half-Life 2.” While some will undoubtedly dispute those claims (okay, just about everyone would dispute those claims), it’s nevertheless amazing what can happen over the span of a single year. Although the first game (which was localized and marketed in the west, amazingly) was a kind of loveable mess (emphasis on ‘mess’), the sequel/prequel “Savitar” actually requires next to no forgiveness and is improved over its predecessor in just about every way. The graphics are better, the physics are better, the AI is slightly better, the selection of weapons has increased, and most important, the story is greatly simplified and can be easily followed. Given this—and the fact that we’re taking about the quirky, nonsensical world of videogames—it makes perfect sense, then, that “Savitar” was never marketed in the west nor was it localized to English. Yup, that’s how things work in this crazy world.

The real icing on this upside-down cake, however, is that fact that I didn’t have to translate any of it! This onerous task was already quite professionally accomplished by hydra9. (The link to the English patch can be found at the bottom of this post.) This translation patch has been around for several years now, and it has successfully kept a pretty damn fun (or, at least competent) game out of complete obscurity for those westerners willing to give it a try. In fact, not only did hydra9 translate all in-game text (menus, journals found throughout the game, system messages), this superfan also conscripted some amateur voice actors to replace all the spoken dialogue in the game (for which there are no subtitle options). There aren’t many in-game voiceovers, and they are not professionally recorded, but you can safely say this game has been thoroughly Anglicized. And as a novice game translator myself, I am more grateful than any garbled phrase from Google Translator can express.

So, now I’ll attempt the impossible by trying to tie the narratives of these two games together chronologically, starting with the second game and working our way forward (or backwards, whatever). Here’s how things go: In the second half of the 23rd century, long after we’ve colonized a good deal of the galaxy, we stumble across the Tiglaary (also spelled Tiglaari in some instances), a technologically advanced insectoid race of hooligans that see humans as a virus to be eliminated as a species. (On bad days, I agree with them entirely.) In “Savitar,” as John Armstrong, you are a foot soldier in the Legion, a military-slash-religious organization whose main goal is stellar exploration. Your current duty involves patrolling the backwater research station on Jupiter, which is quiet—until the Tiglaary (either spelling) show up and start shooting the place up. You manage to escape the station (after several chapters of old-school, corridor-crawling shootouts) to return to earth headquarters, but your escape ship is intercepted by some human creeps who admire the Tiglaari (either spelling) and want to evolve to become more like them. The ultimate goal of these “frontier colonists gone rouge” is the expressed purpose of being able to withstand the environmental hazards of space without having to use spacesuits (like the hard-carpaced Tiglaary do). They consider the rest of us living on earth to be so last-gen.

You are imprisoned on a planet and are slated for some experimentation, but you quickly manage to escape, and more fighting ensues. You kill lots of these evolutionary colonist-terrorists (or, at least, three dozen), help a few other prisoners escape along the way, see some of the nasty experiments that have been conducted on some of the less-fortunate prisoners, and eventually gain your freedom by locating your ship and flying away. Headed home once again, right? Wrong. Mid-journey, you are ordered by your Legion commander to run over to Savitar Station and protect some researchers who are under Tiglaary (either spelling) attack. These researchers are on the verge of finishing some portal technology which will bring fleets of help to the frontlines within seconds—if they can get it up and running before they are all killed. The last chapter is an extended kind of position-defense game which is timed. Can the researchers finish in time? Oooooooh….

Since I’ve already discussed the predecessor game “Kreed,” whose narrative roughly continues the storyline (again, see that post here, somewhere), I’ll keep it brief. But basically, after fending off the attack in the last game (yes, yes, spoiler alert, sorry), at the outset of “Kreed,” a slowly expanding space anomaly has appeared on the edge of the universe. Thinking it might be connected to the Tiglaary invasion, one of the religious leaders of The Legion pilots a ship into the anomaly and disappears. Along with him, he took all his scientists, armies, and whatnot, leaving a good deal of human society (on earth and outer colonies) defenseless. Rumors begin to circulate that this influential leader may have located (beyond the anomaly) a place called The Kreed, an ancient and fabled land worshipped by certain religious sects deemed to be dangerous. Fear spreads that he has turned sides against humanity.

No longer wearing the shoes of John Armstrong, in “Kreed” you play Legion Special Agent Daniel Grok, who shuttles a craft to the edge of the anomaly in order to find out what the hell is going on. In “Kreed,” most of the game takes place inside the anomaly and on the other side of it in a bizarre, alien universe. The serpentine narrative is damn near incomprehensible, with multiple, conflicting earth organizations involved, a variety of differing foes that you fight in alien environments (as opposed to many of the more earthlike environs in “Savitar), and a conclusion that is utterly baffling. To me, “Kreed” is the poster child for the argument that shooters cannot have compelling, sensible narratives. Thank the gods we can call this a bygone era.

But back to the brighter topic of “Savitar.” If you plan on soldiering through either of these games, I suggest you play them backwards (“Savitar” first, and then “Kreed), making sure to seriously lower your expectations when you get to the first game in the series, which is rife with the kinds of bugs, inconsistencies, and confusion that you won’t find in “Savitar.”

Whichever one you play, and in whatever order, these are straight-on, sci-fi, shoot-em-ups from (almost) a decade ago (at the time of this writing), so you know what you are getting: Lots of hallway-based conflicts (chuck those grenades!), some big (and generally empty) indoor and outdoor environments (that look fine but aren’t particularly well-detailed), a wide variety of projectile and energy-based weapons (I think by the end of the game there are almost 10 different conventional and lazery-type guns in your arsenal, all of which you can access at any time with complete disregard for how unlikely that would be), about 4 different human and monster enemy types (with never more than about 5 on screen at a time) whose moves might include ducking behind a crate here or there (but probably not), and the requisite button-pushing and diary-picking-up tasks to flesh out the backstory. Oh, and no regenerating health here, folks; better get to scrounging up those (aerosol?) health injections if you plan on staying alive. (Every time you use a medkit, it sounds like you are shaking and squirting an aerosol can of Bactine, or a Bronchaid inhaler, or spray paint can [with the ball bearing rolling around on the inside bottom to mix it up], or something like that. Both games have this. I find it funny as hell.)

I don’t have any gripes about the game itself, save one. Unless part of my game was missing or something, at the start of the second to last chapter, there are suddenly two strange, alien, massive guns in your inventory that are never explained. (In the game, when you pick up a new weapon the first time, an information window opens explaining its function, which is nice). But somehow, these guns appeared out of nowhere, without explanation, and I only noticed them when scrolling through the weapons in the middle of a battle. Kind of strange. They were cool guns though. Oh, and while the large selection of weapons are thoughtful (I’d never complain about too many guns), the vast majority of them you will never fiddle with as they seem relatively ineffective—the zap gun is one in particular. Also, some of the guns (and the EMP grenades) are seriously overpowered—I think I played through half of this game only using the rocket launcher, which seems to kill even the biggest enemies with only two shots. But again, not complaining.

There was one major technical issue I want to mention in case anyone finds this post and is suffering with the same problem. I played “Savitar” on my so-so laptop (because it looked best there on a slightly smaller screen; the game’s top resolution is 1280×1024, and playing it on my preferred big screen TV was not particularly flattering). But when booting it up on my lappy, I found it was running at the wrong speed—specifically, it was running at almost 300 frames-per-second…way too fast to actually play. Everything in the game was on fast-forward—I couldn’t even walk in any direction, for I would speed across the room so fast, I lost all orientation. Aiming to shoot would have been impossible. I spent the better part of two days trying different fixes (running older games on newer systems can apparently cause this problem—”Deus Ex” is famous for running too fast to actually play on newer systems). I never found a reasonable explanation of what was happening, but the problem might be related to older games reading the CPU speed of your system to determine at what speed it should run, and the way speeds are reported on laptops differ from desktops, and they can provide the game with misinformation, basically telling them to run like the wind. Unfortunately, I had no joy with the fixes I tried, which included freeware programs (like CPUKiller) to put a stress-load on the CPU to tire it out so the game would run more slowly (sounded like a good idea, but it made no difference) and also a “Frame Limiter” program that will force any exe to run at a predetermined rate. Actually this last fix would work for about 30 seconds, but eventually the game would rev-up to crazy high speeds anyway.

So my accidental fix? “Savitar” is one of those games that will allow multiple instances of the same process running at the same time. In other words, you can start the game, leave it running, and then start the game again—and you’ll have two windows open with separate instances of the game running in both of them. Out of sheer luck (and I can’t explain why), I found that although the first window I would open ran at excessive speeds of 300 frames-per-second, the second window I opened would always run at the proper speed of 40 to 60 frames per second. Yay! So, I would just leave the fast-running window opened on the start menu (but minimized) and play the game at regular speed in the second window. However, this fix may only work if you force the game to run in a window. This can be accomplished easily. In the game directory there is a “config.ini” file. Open it (as a text file, use the Windows built-in program “Notepad”) and find the line that says “fullscreen.” By default, this will be set to “1” which means that fullscreen function is currently turned on. To force the game to run in a window, change the number to “0” (zero), and then save the text document. This will turn the fullscreen function off, and it will make the game boot in a window. Then you can try the fix I mentioned by opening two instances of the game. If you have the “running too fast” problem, you can see it in the start menu itself (without having to enter actual gameplay), because the start menu has the animated title “Kreed: Battle for Savitar” flashing on it—if that title is flashing at epileptic speeds, your game is running too fast. In the second instance of the game, that animated title should lazily weave backwards and forwards, and you’ll know you’ve got the right speed. (By the way, I also installed and booted this game on my regular desktop and never had the “running too fast” problem, so I believe it is something endemic to trying to play the game on a laptop? ) If anyone with more technical know-how than I can shed light on this, please feel free. (NOTE: Probably as a result of my endless grousing about the problem here, someone much smarter than I posted a fix to this on the 3D Shooter Legends website. Google it and on the 3DSL site, type in Savitar on the search bar. The link for the “multicore CPU fix” should still be there. YAY!)

Heck, since you’re at it, there are a few other convenience tweaks you can easily make to the “config.ini” file to enhance your gameplay: Find the line “logos” and change it from “1” to “0” (this turns off the intro logo movies and takes you right to the start menu instead when you boot the game); find the line “permanent selector,” and make sure it is set to “0” (if this is set to “1” you will have a large, unwieldy weapon inventory menu permanently plastered down the left-hand side of your screen (see the first screenshot of this post as an example)—if you like being able to see all your weapons all the time, then OK, but I found this menu obscured too much of my view in game…changing this to “0” turns it off, as is the case with all the other screenshots here).

Ultimately, “Savitar” does make it into the “gem” category, in my book—a game that slipped under my radar, and I’m glad I finally stopped to take notice. Though the character models are ugh, in many other ways it has aged (thus far) fairly well. I really enjoyed the simplicity of the game and its straightforwardness; some of that perspective might be coming from a gameplayer who is now regularly embroiled in the intricacies of leveling-up and multiple-mission-managing strategies of complex titles like “Fallout 3” or “Skyrim” (which, honestly, at times, simply feel like work). But I’ll never grouse about the simplicity of a corridor-crawler, and the generally unknown “Kreed: Battle for Savitar” scratches that itch superbly.

The English patch for this game is located at http://www.devisraad.com/savitar/