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Game Review: Still Life

Does it ever feel like media is actively trying to keep new participants from getting involved?  Whether games, books or movies, half the time if you didn’t pick up the series when it first started you have to do research just to figure out where to start.  What’s wrong with numbering sequels appropriately.  Sure, it’s not the catchiest title, but at least I know the order.  Unless there’s a number at the end (or nowadays, a colon) I don’t assume it’s a continuation.  Unfortunately, this issue now means when I played Still Life, I’ve actually started in the middle of a trilogy.

Despite the obvious marks in the title, it isn't the 3rd of anything

Despite the obvious marks in the title, it isn’t the 3rd of anything

Still Life, despite the name giving no hint whatsoever, is a spin-off/sequel to Post Mortem.  In it, you switch between the role of two characters.  The first (& main) is Victoria McPherson, a FBI agent working to hunt down a serial killer in modern-day Chicago.  The second character you play as is her grandfather, Gustav McPherson, who was the protagonist of Post Mortem.  Through reading his journal, Victoria realizes that her case is identical to the one her grandfather worked as a private investigator in Prague in the 1920’s, investigating the brutal murder of prostitutes in a Jack the Ripper-esque fashion.  The story bounces between the two, following Gustav’s hardships in Prague & Victoria’s efforts to find the copycat killer before he kills again.

Art plays a large role in the game

Art plays a large role in the game

Still Life is an old-school adventure mystery game.  You run your mouse over the screen looking for objects to interact with.  Some items can be examined or picked up for later use.  You’ll find yourself visiting various locations to sift for clues, speaking to witnesses and solving puzzles to reach the next step in your investigation.  Often the route to the next stage is blocked by a puzzle of some sort you’ll have to solve to progress.  And as you switch between characters, you learn that Gustav has a sort of passive psychic ability, allowing him to get glimpses of the crime that occurred.

Narrative: Despite my giving it grief for being a sequel without my knowing, Still Life is actually more of a spin-off.  I didn’t even know it was a sequel until I pulled up the Wikipedia page after I’d finished the game.  The only real connection to Post Mortem that I saw was that it has Gustav.  As far as I read the plots themselves aren’t related, so I can’t really take points off for that.  Overall, the story was decent.  Like any good mystery, the killer isn’t obvious right away, and there are few red herrings thrown in.  Although I found the plot progression to be a bit stilted at times, I was curious enough to keep going.  I found the use of switching between the two characters an interesting way to link the two sets of murders together, & liked that the devs stuck to switching between chapters to make sure each character had decent progression.  The two main PCs are likeable enough, although some people may be put off by Victoria’s sense of humor.  However, having worked with officers and other emergency responders, I can tell you it’s a pretty accurate representation of the attitude these people have to develop just to protect their own psyches.  That being said, I did find two faults with the narrative.  For one, the game ends on a cliffhanger, & we don’t find out the identity of the killer.  Because there’s another game to wrap the series up, which I’ll assume reveals the mystery, I can’t get too upset, but it was still disappointing.  At least tell me who the killer is, even if I couldn’t charge him.  Also, the progression felt a bit too linear, even for an adventure game.  It felt like the game was holding my hand through the experience.  Maybe I’m just used to adventure games being a bit less direct, & it’s not like it’d make sense for a FBI agent to get sidetracked doing favors for someone to earn the next clue.  So overall, I felt the story a bit slow-paced & linear, but interesting enough to keep me going.  Score: 3

War-torn Europe is not without its charms

War-torn Europe is not without its charms

Mechanics: As someone who’s played many adventure games, overall I felt the mechanics a bit simplified.  Of course the point-&-click aspects are the same, but everything felt straightforward.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it means you’re rarely lost or unsure what you’re looking for.  But it’s fairly obvious what items can be used, & there’s only a few things you can actually interact with.  Also, I found it strange that you have no control of the conversations you have with people.  In most games, you’re given a variety of topics you can choose to ask people about, with various responses that may or may not be relevant.  But in Still Life, you just keep clicking the mouse to progress the dialogue with little control of what’s said.  And while I suppose that’s more realistic, it just struck me as odd.  I also have mixed feelings about the game’s puzzles, which are the heart of any adventure game.  One the one hand, I liked that most of the puzzles made sense & had obvious solutions assuming you paid attention.  It’s said of adventure games the main aspect is searching for various definition of keys to open various definitions of doors, & it’s no less true in Still Life.  The solutions make sense.  When I had to overload a circuit panel, I instantly thought of the taser I’d just picked up.  And there is a nice variety to the puzzles.  However, some of the puzzles are painfully obtuse or frustrating.  Three words: sliding block puzzles.  I wish there were more forensic puzzles.  What’s the point of having one character be a FBI agent if I don’t get to examine the clues I find.  You only get to use the forensic station twice, and that’s just dusting for fingerprints.  I think they missed a big opportunity in not having a more investigative approach.  Why can’t I help with an autopsy or something?  And why not more crime scenes?  The game cheats a bit by letting us be involved in the crime scene in the very beginning, photographing evidence, using black lights & luminol to find hidden messages… A major missed opportunity.  Score: 3

Going out on a limb here, but I don't think most S&M clubs look like this

Going out on a limb here, but I don’t think most S&M clubs look like this

Aesthetics:  As a game from two console cycles ago, the graphics aren’t the best.  The pre-rendered backgrounds are quite nice.  I particularly liked the architecture, even if I’m sure some of the modern buildings are unrealistic.  Who has three huge stain glass windows on the front of their house?  I doubt even Chicago’s DA has that in real life.  The cutscenes are pretty good, although they do have a grainy quality to them.  The in-game models are also a bit blocky.  And I noticed several of the NPCs mouths opened disturbingly wide when they talk.  It reminded me of The Grudge, like they were going to try to eat my character’s face.  The music’s okay.  It really excels in the scenes where it’s creating tension or unease.  There are a few section where nothing was going on, but the music made me think, “Let’s get out of here now.”  The voiceacting is hit or miss.  At best it’s passable, at worst it’s gratingly stereotypical.  So overall, I’d say presentation is average.  Score: 3

Replay Value: Low.  I don’t see any particular reason to play it more than once.  Even if there’s a section you like, you can replay cutscenes after you’ve unlocked them.  Score: 2

Breakdown

UntitledOverall Score: 3

Final Word: While a bit dated & not the most memorable game, Still Life could serve as a good introduction to adventure games to those who’ve never tried them or found other entries into the genre a bit hard to get a handle on.  While not the best example, it’s serviceable, & typically comes bundled with the rest of the trilogy for a reasonable price on Steam.

– GamerDame

Title: Still Life
Console: PC & XBox
Rating: M
Developer: Microids
Publisher: The Adventure Company
Release Date: April 15, 2005

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Filed under Adventure, PC, Reviews

Next XBox Rumors Creates Surge of Backlash

Typically I don’t do posts about rumors because I don’t trust them.  I prefer substantiated facts, like actual company officials making statements.  But an article published by Edge Online has a lot of gamers in an uproar, myself included, so I wanted to take the time to address it.

In their article on the features of the upcoming Next-Gen XBox, Edge is reporting that:

  1. All games, even single-player only games, will require an internet connection to play
  2. All games will be on 50GB Blue-ray discs
  3. New consoles will be equipped with Kinect
  4. All games will require a one-time valid activation code to play

Obviously, rumors 1 & 4 are what’s causing the storm of backlash you’ll be seeing in the upcoming days.

According to Edge’s unnamed sources, who has “first-hand experience of Microsoft’s next generation console,” the new console will require gamers to be connected to their servers to play any game, even for single-player.  We’ve already seen this becoming a growing trend with publishers in this cycle.  Every time I try to start a game I get a little pop-up about connecting to the company’s servers.  However, this is only the publisher’s servers & is only a requirement for online play.  Meaning if I don’t want to play multiplayer, my single-player experience is not interfered with by not connecting.  But according the Edge, you’ll have to be connected to even use the console.  It won’t matter if you’re only playing single-player.  If you’re not connected, you can’t play.  Period.

I shouldn’t really have to explain the problem with this idea.  Despite the growth of technology in both affordability & access, there are still a lot of gamers who don’t have access to broadband.  Hell, even I only got access within the last few years, & I live 30 minutes outside of a major city.  People in very rural areas simply don’t have access.  So to say that they can’t game because of where they live seems almost bordering on discrimination.

But even if you do have access, you may be like myself & still think it’s completely asinine to require people to be online all the time to play anything.  I mean, the idea worked so well for Diablo 3, didn’t it?  The servers never went down, blocking people out from the game.  Single-player games never lagged.  And hundreds of fans weren’t royally ticked off, resulting in normally loyal gamers to resort of piracy just to play the game they’d been waiting for.  Sarcasm aside, there are real issues with the longevity of games under this system.  No publisher can or will maintain a given server indefinitely.  And if shutting a server down now takes down both single & multiplayer, you’re going to have a lot of games that become useless.  No longer will you be able to pop in an old favorite.

But by far the biggest upset is about the activation codes which would essentially eliminate the second-hand game market.  No specifics have been discussed, but it’s assumed the system is similar to the one Sony patented a while back.  Based on my limited tech understanding, the system (called digital rights management or DRM) works by requiring a code to be input when you first play any game, similar to the online codes we see now.  However, instead of unlocking access to some features, this code creates a permission tag which gets connected to your player ID, essentially unlocking the entire game for your console only.  Based on what I read, the Sony patent allows for temporary use on other consoles.   The exact wording is, “A temporary use is permitted to the reproduction device, which does not have the legitimate right of usage, on the condition that the number of temporary uses is within a predetermined maximum allowable number (e.g., five times).”  This basically means you could play your game on a friend’s system for some predetermined amount, either a number of times or a time limit.

I don’t think I really need to explain why so many people, myself included, aren’t thrilled about this possibility.  This basically gives publishers a monopoly on the game market.  No more evil used games.  Only people who buy their games brand-spanking new get to play them.

So do I actually believe the rumors?  Not really.  As I said before, I don’t trust anything where the person doesn’t say who they got the information from.  Now I know that in journalism you want to have the latest news, & to do so you must have sources on the inside, & said sources are only your sources if they remain anonymous.  But I still don’t trust it.  I could say I have sources telling me things, but that doesn’t make them true.

It would probably be most accurate to say I hope these rumors aren’t true & that Microsoft isn’t stupid enough to really be considering these things.  First of all, the whole always-being-online thing won’t work.  It’s simply impractical to require publishers to maintain servers for every single game they publish.  I have no idea what the cost of maintaining a server is, but I’m pretty sure it’s not cheap.  If anything, this will just hike the price of games up even more than they’ll probably already jump for the next cycle.  There’s also the issue with this making games obsolete after a server’s been taken down.  Unless Microsoft is going to require servers to remain open forever, once a server’s taken down there’s no reason for anyone to buy the game since you can’t play it.  This cuts into the publishers’ precious bottom line.  And finally, I don’t really see Microsoft doing this unless it becomes the industry standard.  Because if Microsoft requires this but, say, Sony doesn’t, not only are you going to have publisher’s preferring the alternate because it’s cheaper to publish on, but it gives the consumer the option to buy the game on a different system, again threatening Microsoft’s profits.  In business you try to lure clients to you, not drive them away.

The activation codes are also a bit shaky when you think about it logically.  First of all, from my reading, Sony hasn’t announced that DRM will be on the Playstation 4.  They’ve merely patented the technology.  Also, there has been no word on Microsoft developing such a system.  While it may be that they were just keeping it a secret, the consoles always seem quick to announce when they’ve come up with a feature similar to their competition.  Also, it seems like it would be some sort of violation of consumer rights for a company to dictate what I do with a product once I’ve purchased it.  A fact publishers seem to forget is that they no longer own the product once I’ve paid them for it short of copyright infringement or making a profit off it.  And I think we all agree making $5 back on a $60 game is not a profit by any stretch of the term.

There’s no point getting upset about this just yet.  Not until Microsoft announces anything officially.  However, I will say that if these functions are real, I predict the downfall of the XBox… & possibly even console gaming if they continue down this trend.  Publishers need to stop trying to screw over their consumers & focus on ways to keep them being loyal instead.  Incentives v. punishment.

So will I buy the latest XBox if it has these features?  Highly unlikely.  Given that very few of the games I play on it are exclusive, I’d rather get them through Steam or otherwise on my PC if it means avoiding all of the other crap.  Microsoft (& Sony) need to remember that they’re not the only game in town.  Just because I prefer to go through them because I like the console as it is now doesn’t guarantee my continued support.  And I think I can safely say the same is true for all gamers.

– GamerDame

If you want to read the articles yourself, you can find them at http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/121938-Rumor-Next-Xbox-Will-Require-Constant-Internet-Connection.  There’s a link at the bottom of the article to the Edge Online piece as well.

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