Just for fun.

So I noticed something today.

They sound pretty similar.

I am not kidding, they really do. That said, the soundtrack was the best part of the Battlefield 3 single player campaign, and Hans Zimmer did have a hand in composing for another EA published FPS released in 2011:

Coincidence? 😛

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Act of Valor and Crossing the Line

So I was going to write this review for Act of Valor yesterday, but then it completely slipped my mind due to reasons.

Let us begin O:

So Act of Valor is a movie about Navy SEALs tasked with rescuing a captured CIA agent, which leads them to discover a deadly terrorist plot. Naturally, they are the ones who are sent in to stop said plot from occurring on US soil.

It started off life as part of the US Navy’s recruitment initiative, but then grew into a feature length production.

If you were witness to the film’s advertising, you are probably aware of its one draw card. The film stars active duty SEALs using actual military hardware, firing live ammunition, and carrying out actual battlefield tactics.

In that regard, the film acts as a peek into the life of a SEAL. There is a standout moment near the beginning of the film in which the SEALs infiltrate a terrorist installation. It’s quite interesting stuff seeing how SEALs would carry out a stealthy infiltration. Moments like these aren’t really seen in other films. As an Ask Men article charitably put it, other films are pretenders.

It is a shame then that the action is let down by an overuse of shaky cam and quick cuts. It can be argued that shaky cam can create a cinéma vérité, documentary, or “you are there” feel to a film (see Saving Private Ryan for a successful example), however, an overuse of handheld camera work can annoy or confuse a viewer. Your mileage may vary on this, by the way. But an almost constantly shaking camera with quick cuts between subjects without care for considering the geography of the scene can leave the viewer confused as to who is doing the shooting and who is getting shot. A particular instance I can bring to mind is a car chase early in the film where the scene cuts from the inside of one car to a 1 second shot of the outside of another car to the inside of that car and someone being shot in the head. Having the camera focus on the backlit backs of characters’ heads also added to the confusion of the scene, something a few more seconds of film footage showing the outside of the second car would have reduced.

There were also a few tracking shots in which the camera was merrily bouncing around.

I state again that this was a shame because the film presents you with something you rarely get to see in a work of fiction; active duty SEALs using the tactics they would use in the field and firing live ammunition. It seems like a missed opportunity to more clearly portray how these highly trained men do their work.

Onto the story side of things. It honestly seems like the plot was a bit of an afterthought. It is a fairly standard hunt for the terrorists movie. There is no character development beyond the one SEAL who wants to spend more time with his family increasing the number of times he mentions his family as the film goes on. The villains aren’t dwelled upon long enough to understand their reasons for wanting to attack America. They just want to attack America due to some nebulous and all consuming hatred for the country. It feels like their characterisation was ripped from post 9/11 headlines, while the body of the articles were discarded.

One can be excused for not feeling attached to the SEALs. They sure are active duty SEALs, and with that comes an expected lack of acting talent. Line delivery during most of the movie is what one can expect from non-actors. The villains fair better with the line delivery, however, leading to an awkward situation where they seem more real and relatable than the good guys. The SEALs really come into their own during the film’s numerous action sequences, as can be expected.

The plot of the movie is strung together by scenes of exposition, and every transition into another portion of the world has a map overlay that makes it feel like the loading screens from the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare trilogy. Generally, the entire narrative structure of the movie feels like a generic military shooter. It pains me to compare the narrative of a film to a video game to highlight its shortcomings, but that really is the tone of the film. Adding further to the video game allusions are the numerous first person perspective shots where the audience gets to see what the SEAL sees. I do not recall any first person kills, but the resemblance was uncanny.

Oh, a positive to note, the film had quite wonderful sound design. Well, as far as the bullets whizzing past and the gun reports go. I did find myself getting sick of the repeated squelching sounds of the many, many headshots in the film. Seriously, there were a lot of headshots. One would think they stumbled into a zombie movie part way through.

I would say watch it just to see how SEALs actually operate. Do not, however, expect a good film, or even an okay film.

I wonder if the FPS allusions were deliberate on the part of the filmmakers. Act of Valor, while on the surface level being a tribute to the SEALs who have fallen in service to their country, is part of a Navy recruitment initiative. What better way to increase interest in the Navy amongst the new generation than by tapping into the video game zeitgeist? Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 earned a mind numbing $400 million in the US and UK in its first 24 hours alone, with Call of Duty: Black Ops (developed by the much derided Treyarch) making a cool $360 million in first day sales. That is big money and a large potential audience for a film of this kind.

There is big money in the macho, testosterone fuelled and highly fetishised portrayal of war, and it seems like that is all that big media will cater to. It is a safe investment and it makes people feel like they too can be a hero. We are a generation of armchair Operators. Soldiers on the digital front.

With that said, let us segue into the second part of this entry.

So last night I played Spec Ops: The Line, hence why this review wasn’t posted then. It got me thinking, here is a military shooter that uses all the game play elements seen in popular third person shooters (A cover system, two weapon limit, regenerating health, turret sections, an “A380” section for lack of a better term) and subverts them to drive a knife into the player’s conscience and twist. It is a game that hates you for wanting to enjoy war. It is a game that punishes you for wanting to be the hero. It is also a game that raises interesting questions about obsession, morality, and choice on the battlefield.

Spec Ops: The Line has one of the most interesting and horrifying stories I have seen in any game and it stands on the polar opposite of Act of Valor.

Spec Ops pushes the message that war is a hell of our own making and that the road to war, though paved with good intentions, is a road leading straight to hell. It reduces Delta Operators to fallible and corruptible. It brings into question whether men can truly even understand the truth of what they are witnessing, and foresee the consequences of their actions.

Act of Valor is a film that glamorises the Navy SEALs and military intervention. It is hero worship with the aim to pay tribute to servicemen with one hand, and draw in fresh blood with the other.

It is really encouraging seeing the ever demonised video game medium pushing an anti-violence, anti-hero worship message. I would like to explore more sides of war than the one that makes it look like a good idea enacted by just and honourable men.

“War has changed…”

When I was a kid watching cartoons I always got annoyed that the section of the wall that turned out to be the secret door was always a different colour.

If you are wondering what the preceding sentence had to do with a Fallout 3 quote, let me tell you it had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Really, what I would like to talk about this entry is a bit of a personal taste issue. I am talking about sound in Killzone 3.

Killzone 3 was a game that could in no way live up to the hype. One could say it pandered to the fans a little too much with the characteristic heavy killzone feel being watered down to make it feel like a slightly more weighty console Battlefield game. The attempts at making it colourful were well handled, I suppose, if an almost entirely out of character and inconsequential jungle stealth mission count for anything. Characters were omitted from the story without explanation (Natko, where did you go you annoying SOB?). But all in all it was a fun game. Except for the end. The end was one of the most disappointing ends in my recent video gaming history. It is really funny how much better Portal 2’s end felt while boiling down to the same thing. Both games were ended by the player pressing a single button, yet Portal 2’s ending felt immensely more satisfying. This is not what I want to talk about, however.

What I would like to talk about is sound. Particularly sound in multiplayer. The multiplayer portion of Killzone 3 was an interesting beast. It gave with one hand while taking away with the other. The ability to search for matches that suit your preference (Killzone 2: Pistol only? Sure, why not?) replaced by a somewhat shoddy matchmaking system that dumped you into a hopefully playable game (It did get better with time though). It, however, added Operations mode which was basically a mini campaign complete with cutscenes! Well done Guerilla Games, well done. But during beta, I noticed something that at first made me deeply uncomfortable, that then went on to give me immense joy.

This something special would later be dubbed “overly enthusiastic death sounds”. Yes, I felt joy at hearing people screaming and whimpering in agony as they bled out of their many bullet wounds. This, of course, is not because I am sadistic. No, it is because it gave the game a sense of authenticity that some may condescendingly call “Grim Dark”. By the way, Tvtropes was linked. Consider yourself warned. After all, it is war. I think it goes beyond saying that war is hellish. It was flavour like this that made me especially fond of the Killzone brand.

However, beta ended, and with it, so did the gloriously hideous and disconcerting death rattle. Or rather, with feedback from the community, GG patched it out with patch 1.12.

You can try your luck looking for the original screams here.

I’ve seen excuses that amount to “But soldiers are meant to be badass! No way they’d be screaming in pain and fear when they’re bleeding out!” Needless to say, I do not find that an appropriate excuse. I wonder, would, for example, Saving Private Ryan have been as effective if the scene where the medic bled out after being shot in the stomach didn’t have him crying hysterically after realising he was going to die. Steamboat Willie!!

It’s no secret that war shooters are big business. EA has recently stated that Battlefield 3 has reached 10 million sales. I find it disconcerting that consumers are happy to engage in bombastic military wank while being unable or unwilling to consider the darker or more depressing side of conflict. It’s all good to engage in war as long as the war experience plays out like a big budget action film and not like embedded war footage.

This really just makes me miss Six Days in Fallujah, a game that aimed to depict conflict in a more realistic, terrifying light by making the game play out like a survival horror game.
Unfortunately the game was cancelled due to it representing an actual conflict. And by cancelled, I mean the publisher that had originally had no problems with it decided to drop it as soon as it became controversial. Never mind that it was developed under the supervision of soldiers who fought in said conflict under their grace. Still, this is a particularly touchy subject since, well, real people died and this made their family understandably upset.

There is argument to be made that games are escapist fantasies, and for the most part they are. For example, Test Drive Unlimited 2 is basically a rich person simulator. What would you do on an island if you had lots of money and could afford a bunch of supercars? However, lumping all games into the escapist bucket is selling interactive media short. Games can be so much more than elaborate Skinnerian conditioning machines.

I urge those of you with a strong constitution to play Freedom Bridge. It is a very simplistic experience, and yet something so very soul crushing. Sure there are some in the comments that argue such a simplistic example of interactive media cannot be meaningfully classed as a game, but that is opening a whole other can of worms. It doesn’t change the fact that it is a piece of interactive media that sheds light on some of the horrors faced by people.

Some may argue that Killzone 3 being a work of fiction should not have to depict people dying in such a pathetic way. But if it is a creative work crafted by artists committed to a vision, what is there to say that they cannot make it as horrific as they want to? If it makes the end user uncomfortable, maybe it would make them think twice about the nigh on fetishistic portrayal of military paraphernalia and scenarios in their medium of choice.

In the end, I truly believe with patch 1.12, Killzone 3 lost something of itself. It watered down part of its character and compromised itself to make people consuming it feel more comfortable with their current schema of how military should be depicted in video games rather than challenging them to alter their perceptions.

As a little bonus have an educational (somewhat NSFW) video about War crimes in the Modern Warfare trilogy:

Enjoy!