A New Era…

Last night I had cause to look something up on this blog – a quip I’d made at some stage – and happened to notice that it was nearly three months since I’d posted an entry here. That caught me a little by surprise, really; and now it’s time to make amends, and time to get back to writing. And I’ll open with a grandiose statement:

It’s a new era at The Moobaarn.

Indeed, it’s a new Moobaarn.

In the three months since my last post on this blog, I’ve moved house, bought my first new TV in over 15 years, and – gasp! – acquired a brand spanking new PS3. Luckily, those last two events were linked, thanks to Sony’s latest promotion; I’ve not assisted SCE’s ledger by actually purchasing one of their now-profitable bits of gaming hardware. And the out-of-box experience is great; it’s a lovely chunk of kit, and was set up with no real drama.

Turning the PS3 on yielded another story. It strikes me that the XMB at the core of the PS3’s interface is every bit as cumbersome as the original blade interface of the 360, and completely at odds with the ten-foot interface paradigms of the Wii and the NXE. I reckon the interface – like the DualShock controller, something I’ve never really got on with – was designed by engineers, for engineers; the organisation and design is very clean and regular (symmetrical, in the case of the DualShock), but it fails to compensate for the volume of information… it just doesn’t feel fit-for-purpose, lumbering under the load of the options forced upon it by the opportunities afforded by the hardware.

Anyway, enough bitching.

Having a big HD telly for the first time led me to crack out some of the more graphically impressive 360 titles; Bayonetta‘s arse looks spectacular, Prince of Persia a cel-shaded work of art, and Space Giraffe even crazier than I remember. I tried getting my eye back into the twin-stick-shooter genre with little success (Mutant Storm Reloaded and Geometry Wars Evolved^2 both rebuffing my advances), and there was even some Halo 3 multiplayer during a zombie-themed Double-XP weekend that netted a few new achievements. Yes, the acquisition of a HD TV certainly performed wonders for my flagging gaming mojo.

Prior to delivery of my new TV, though, I was stuck in my new Moobaarn with most of my possessions trapped away in a barely stable structure of boxes. Sure, my old TV had been setup, but the 360 and Wii were buried underneath scores of books and old videotapes that had (perhaps mistakenly) also made the move. Desperate to make some impact on The List, I dug out my original Xbox and started flicking through the pending titles there; Panzer Dragoon Orta got a bit of a bash, but surprisingly I spent a fair wodge of time playing TimeSplitters 2. Now, I’ve ranted at length at this game on various internet fora, especially targeting those that recommended that game to me; as the second console FPS I ever played, it was a woefully abysmal experience compared to Halo. In fact, the in-game stats indicated that I’d spent a scant six hours playing TS2, completing it on the easiest difficulty setting, before running away to play something that felt right. I really didn’t like it at all.

Those same in-game stats, however, indicated that I’d only “completed” 10% of the game on offer… and that just doesn’t sit well with my OCD. So I started churning through some of the Arcade and Challenge modes, determined to attain Gold Trophies in all events… and, lo and behold, I found myself actually enjoying the game! What a pleasant surprise. Anyway, the percentage had crept up to about 34% by the time the new telly arrived and the old Xbox was consigned to a disused part of the entertainment unit; I will return to play more TimeSplitters 2, though, you mark my words.

My sole PS3 purchase so far has been the original Uncharted, and… well, colour me unimpressed. Woolly controls, glaringly shiny teeth, and paint-by-numbers action has done little to warm me; it really does feel like a prettied-up Tomb Raider clone with an awful lack of precision. In its defence, I’m only about half-way through the game, but my favourite bits thus far have been the oft-maligned jetski sections. Sure, Uncharted 2 may have been the critic’s choice for 2009, but on the strength of its predecessor I’m not sure I’ll bother.

But the good thing about this experience is that I think I’m starting to crystallise what appeals to me as a gamer. Without wanting to sound patronising in any way, Uncharted conjures up the same feeling, the same approach and mood, as Gears of War did for me; not in the gameplay (though there’s certainly some similarities there too), but in the way it’s presented: linear progression with well-defined set-pieces. And, just as GoW irked me massively (co-op hijinks with friends notwithstanding), I think Uncharted is going to pan out the same way.

Ummmmm, what else have I been doing in the last couple of months? Well, I’ve knocked two Wii games – The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and Super Paper Mario – off the list, the latter being a paniccy weekend completion of one of my aforementioned In Case Of Emergency games when I realised that I wasn’t getting my skills together to complete Wii Play. Yes, the best part of five grand dropped on a nice new HD telly, and I’ve spent most of my time playing Wii games. And that continues even now, with the local release of Super Mario Galaxy 2 last Thursday… a couple of days solid play has allowed me to gather 118 Power Stars, enough to access one of the finest levels of gaming I’ve ever encountered… but more on that later.

Next week? Crackdown 2… and I cannot fucking wait. Which makes me reflect on the fantastic world we live in; only a fortnight ago, I wandered into my preferred vendor of gaming goodness and slapped down pre-orders on Super Mario Galaxy 2, Crackdown 2, and Halo: Reach, and two of those are released within a week of each other. How awesome is that?

5 thoughts on “A New Era…”

  1. Interesting thoughts regarding the original Uncharted, some of which I would expect to be shared among the general community these days now that its sequel has raised the bar (as far as the franchise is concerned, at least). Personally I really liked the game and while yes, it is essentially an amalgamation of both Gears Of War and Tomb Raider, plus perhaps a few other games, it was still a crucial part of ensuring that — after playing Uncharted 2 as well — the franchise is now amongst (no pun intended) my favourite ever.

    The main reason for that? The characters. Say what you will about the gameplay, graphics, music — whatever; for me that franchise is all about the characters. But if you were to ask me why, I’m not sure I could tell you. They seem like some of the most fully-realised characters this medium has seen, but they’re also arch-typical; they aren’t stereotypical though, thankfully, and each have their place within the story and as their own identity as well (something further advanced in the sequel), leaving me quite confused and certainly conflicted when it comes to understanding exactly what I think.

    And then I think of the voice-acting, which is absolutely some of the best I’ve ever heard in this medium. Perhaps that makes them appear stronger than they actually are, or perhaps that just puts the icing on the cake when it comes to full immersion (in the story) and believability (when it comes to them specifically). Or perhaps it’s none of that and I’m just babbling in my confused state of mind? I’ll let you decide that one. ;)

    Welcome back, though.

  2. Hi Steven, thanks for the kind regards :)

    The two elements you’ve highlighted above – the characters and the voice-acting – have previously been used in defense of the game by other people who’ve been subjected to my whinging. And whilst I’ll concede that I’ve not given the game long enough to gel with the characters (as I previously noted, I’m only about halfway through), I’ve found the voice acting to be occasionally exceptional, but better-than-average across the board.

    The main problem with the voice acting, though, is Nolan North‘s ubiquity. Now, I fully accept that I’ve arrived at Uncharted in an atypical fashion, but every time Nathan Drake speaks, I’m hearing The Prince from Prince of Persia, or that Jason chap from Shadow Complex. Those aural triggers drag me away from the unique character being portrayed, tainting them with other characters’ traits.

    Still, I’m keen to see how the story – and the characters – unfolds. There’s just the small matter of Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Crackdown 2 to deal with first ;)

  3. See I don’t understand the frustrations people have voiced with the ubiquitous presence of Nolan’s voice work in the industry, particularly in recent times. This is for a few reasons, but I’ll only mention two here.

    The first is the fact that he has been providing voices for various videogames for many years now, and people never had a problem with it until he appeared in a few games that were released in relative quick succession — not his own fault — and all required him to use his actual, proper and real voice — again not his fault. While I can understand that hearing him in so many games because they’ve been played one after the other can be immersion-breaking, it’s completely out of his control as to when games get released, and indeed the type of voice he is hired to convey for any particular role. What I don’t think people realise is that he is totally capable of multiple voices — and I don’t think people have ever claimed that he doesn’t have the talent, just that they’re personally sick of hearing it — but the powers that be, so to speak, choose to instead use his common voice because it fits well with that particular archetype that we’ve seen used a lot recently. I guess it just bugs me that he is copping the criticism, and insults, directly for essentially just doing his job, when ultimately it’s not something he can be held accountable for. But that’s the way things are with most topics that involve this medium, so it’s not an exclusive reaction to his ubiquity.

    The other thing I don’t understand is how people are able to suspend their disbelief and watch movies or TV shows featuring the same actor or actress and not even give it a second thought — in fact, arguably, they celebrate the idea — yet it’s not allowed to occur in games? Are videogames, each and every single one, supposed to find unique voice actors to voice their characters just to ensure there’s no repetition for any gamer out there, much to the chagrin of the actors themselves who need to find work? Do character actors need to exist for every single game? And what if some of those character actors manage to find success — much like, say, some of The Wire‘s actors have — do they then need to decline videogame roles just to appease the incredibly small but massively vocal community of enthusiast gamers who would otherwise whinge?

    Yeah okay I’m stopping there before I rant any further and go into unnecessary territory. This isn’t a direct response to you but rather speaking out a loud thinking about a topic that has bugged me in the past. Perhaps it’s part of the blog post I was going to write about the issue last year finally coming out, perhaps not.

    What I will say though is that Drake is his best role, this I’m sure you’re already well aware of, and after watching some “making of” styled videos that came out around the same time as Uncharted 2 did, I now think I know why. The actors for all of the characters in that franchise, not just Nolan himself, all seem to really love the roles that they play and, as a direct result, I think the overall performances are better off for it. If only all games gave this kind of thing the same kind of attention Naughty Dog seem to. The industry would be better off overall, and, dare I say it, there wouldn’t be such a noticeable ubiquity when it comes to Nolan’s voice work, since, hopefully, developers would enlist him to use other voices that aren’t his own, or indirectly, Nathan Drake’s. And besides, how come no one has issues with people like Jennifer Hale or Keith David?

    Or, better yet, Charles Martinet?

  4. Your acknowledgment aside, I must point out that I didn’t use the word “ubiquitous” in a negative manner. It does, however, highlight a problem inherent with voice acting: association. And this is where I think your comparison to visual media actors falls down; in the space available to film and television actors, they have the ability to impart performance through physical expression, both extravagant and nuanced.

    For example, I’ve just watched three films in the last week featuring Dustin Hoffman (as part of the current Adelaide Cinémathèque season). Same actor, three very dissimilar roles, each differentiated by different physical projections and vocal mannerisms: accents, inflections. In each case, it was easy to suspend disbelief and accept Hoffman as the character in context.

    But, in the three games I mentioned earlier (Prince of Persia, Shadow Complex, and Uncharted), Nolan North is (as you noted) playing each of the characters “straight” – there’s no inflections, no differentiation between the delivery of each of the characters. And even the character models are so similar that I could even imagine Nathan Drake romping through Shadow Complex. But having played (and loved) Prince of Persia first, that’s who I associate the voice with; it’s The Prince scotching a terrorist threat, it’s The Prince running through ruins and slaughtering pirates. Of course, if I’d played Uncharted first (rather than last), I’m sure I’d be looking at it in a completely different way ;)

    Now, in no way am I saying that the voice acting is poor as a result – each of the characters is competently done (even if The Prince is a little petulant, and Jason Flemming was surrounded by a whole heap of phoned-in acting). And it’s certainly not North’s problem that he was asked to deliver the lines straight… it’s most definitely my problem for playing those games in close proximity, for making those associations between voice and character. So there is an element of bias there, a coloured perception of what’s being presented; but that’s the thing about opinions, really, and I’d never profess to offer any independent and objective analysis… just reaction. It’s not a criticism of North, just a recognition that these three things remind me of the others.

    As for the other names you explicitly mentioned… a quick glance at Jennifer Hale‘s work reveals only a handful of games I’ve heard her in; but it’s hard to compare her grunts and gasps in Metroid Prime and P.N.03 to the (contrived, but fun) Jennifer Mui in Mercenaries 2, or the excellent Ophelia in Brütal Legend, or her work in No More Heroes 2… each character felt distinct, had unique delivery (unlike the three North productions previously mentioned). My exposure to Keith David, however, is limited solely to the Halo series (and a whole ruck of anime).

    And Martinet’s voice effectively is Mario, so throwing his name into the mix seems a little specious ;)

  5. On that last point, the same thing applies to North and Drake, but of course with Charles the time frame has been much longer, and delivered over countless games.

    But yeah, as I said I wasn’t really responding to you anymore but rather everyone’s problems with it, the general complaints really getting to me because of the insults towards Nolan, the emphasis on blame on him and so on. You make great points though, some of which I hinted towards myself: there is no variation in the three different roles (I’ve played Shadow Complex through and have tried but am yet to properly play Prince of Persia) and as a result it can be immersion breaking. It was hard for me personally to go from Uncharted 2 straight into Assassin’s Creed II last year as he features prominently in both, so I definitely understand the concerns, it’s just the notion of blaming it on him that gets to me. Out of his control when games get released and definitely out of his control as to when players play the various games out there, yet he still cops the criticism because it’s his voice.

    Such is the way it is I suppose — hopefully enough people have had a break from hearing him that when he returns in whatever game he does next (Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, maybe?) they forget their concerns and just get on with enjoying the game proper.

    But anyway, do keep on with the series because, like it on a gameplay level or not, it is his best role and I’d be interested to see if you agree with me when you do see (hear?) more.

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