Game Review: Sniper Elite V2 Demo

Because I am a very strange man, I enjoy prowling YouTube for footage of computer simulations. And by strange, I mean stupid. The other day, though, I took a break from the usual neutron stars and such and decided to look into ballistics simulations. Did I mention that I was strange? Well, that led me to investigate Sniper Elite V2.

It so happens that I quite enjoy sniping in shooters, which is an excellent way to get accused of camping once every three seconds. If any military was ever dumb enough to accept my silly ass, I think sniper would be just about the only position I’d be qualified for (you know, apart from living target practice). Not a lot of running around (because, in spite of a gym membership, I still have the running stamina of the corpse of a ninety-year-old anemic grandmother) or depth perception required (which is nice, because, as I’ve complained before, I don’t have any depth perception).

I watched part of a video on YouTube, and thought SEV2 (which acronym looks like something from a horrible vanity plate) looked like fun. And as it so happens, the demo was on Steam, so I downloaded it. So began the awesomeness.

You play as an extremely generic action-hero type with a sniper rifle and an infinite supply of pebbles. You start out in a bombed-out German town during World War II, on the trail of a V2 rocket engineer (which explained the game’s bizarre title; I thought it was Version 2 of something at first). Your goal is to find him and kill him, but there are German soldiers prowling the streets. You can take them on with your trusty Thompson gun (insert Warren Zevon joke here), but you only have about twelve bullets for it, so you’d better do what it says on the tin and snipe the bastards.

I must say, the sniping in the game is absolutely excellent. Unless you play on the girly-man difficulty (and really, then, why bother?), you have to account for bullet-drop caused by gravity. On the hardest setting, you also have to account for wind. Your accuracy is affected by whether you’ve just been running, whether you’re being shot in the face (always affects my accuracy, let me tell you; after all, there can be only one Simo Hyähä), and, impressively, whether or not you’re holding your breath. Holding your breath sends you into bullet-time, which is a tired combat mechanic, but it really does work here.

Then comes the best part. If you’re a good enough shot, you’ll usually be treated to a fantastic little animation of your bullet whizzing out of your barrel (and I can’t tell you how pleased I am that they got the bullet’s shockwave more or less right, instead of just going for the Matrix BS of just having random ripples behind it; I am a nerd) and flying at your enemy. Then, when it hits them, oftentimes you get a cool little X-ray or anatomy-class-skeleton view of what your terrifying projectile is doing to their innards. I thought I was the king of everything when I managed to pop both of a baddie’s eyeballs with one bullet; then my friend came over and played it and managed to obliterate one’s scrotum and make me simultaneously cringe and feel inadequate. It reminds me of that Mortal Kombat game that came out a few years ago, where you got a very gratuitous X-ray of the bones you were breaking, except here, it makes more sense and is a lot more effective. If you’re lucky (blind luck every time, in my case), you can even nail the grenades on the enemies’ belts and make them blow the hell up. It’s pretty glorious.

There’s a decent amount of strategy to the game, too. Oftentimes, the enemy soldiers will be patrolling in large groups, and if you shoot and miss or even stand up from cover for too long, you’re liable to get turned into Leberkäse in a hurry. This is where the infinite supply of pebbles (sometimes) comes in handy: you can toss one to get the enemies’ attention and mislead them. At least I think you can. After a while, it started to seem like the only way to distract the German soldiers was to ping them right in the eye. You can take quite a few hits, even on the hardest difficulty, but the game definitely rewards slow, sneaky, snipery tactics, which is good in a game with “sniper” in the title.

Another thing I thoroughly enjoyed were the enemy snipers. They’re hard to spot and even harder to shoot, but if you’re paying attention, you can usually catch the glint of sunlight off the lens of their scope. Then, you have to pop up, take careful aim quickly, adjusting for gravity and wind, and pop off a shot before the sniper can shoot you. It’s a lot like that amazing sniper duel in Saving Private Ryan, doubly so when I managed to bullseye the bastard right in the eyesocket.

All that said, though, I don’t think I’ll be buying the full version, at least not in the near future. The first reason is that, for some insane reason, the full version currently costs US$50 on Steam. That problem is compounded by another one: the demo’s too damn short. You only get to play one very short mission in the demo, and that mission contains maybe fifteen enemies total. And the problems just keep piling up: rather than letting you cleverly snipe everybody, once you’ve fired your first shot, the enemies will realistically start running around, looking for cover and searching for you. I applaud that level of realism, but that really makes the sniping part finnicky and annoying, since you spend so much time waiting for the baddies to settle down. I guess I shouldn’t really call that a problem so much as an annoyance, since it’s how a sniper would actually behave, but when I just want to pick the game up and pop a couple of Nazis in the brain, it really dampens the fun.

The enemy AI is dull at best. They’ll occasionally take cover cleverly or manage to sneak past you into the building you’re hiding in, at which point you’d best shoot them with your silenced pistol or your twelve-bullet Tommy gun, but for the most part, they’re just goofy. I took out one enemy while he was stuck running in place behind a lamppost. And on top of that, I got a bonus for hitting a moving target. Who wasn’t, you know, moving. Also, since I speak a little German, hearing the AI talk to each other was like playing the otherwise-excellent Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, where the enemies’ entire vocabulary seemed to consist of “Search the area!” and “Spread out!” In the case of Sniper Elite, the AI constantly holler “Man down!” and “Find him!” They also fluctuate between extremely perceptive and wildly inattentive. In one section, you have to kill a soldier who’s standing in a window you need to snipe from. I shot him in the collarbone with my slow-reloading silenced pistol. I missed with my next shot while he spun around confused, looking like he suspected that the wallpaper had done it. He was just noticing me squatting un-subtly in the doorway when I shot him in his face.

I also get the impression that the sniping mechanic is all the game designers really cared about. The plot (or the tiny particle of it that you see in the demo) is simplistic and the writing is weak. In the first mission, you’re tasked with killing a V2 rocket engineer who’s carrying a not-quite-microfilm McGuffin thing which you must retrieve to find his evil scientist buddies.

And in spite of everything I said above about how fun the combat is, parts of it are piss-poor. Whenever you’re not sniping, you go into a third-person perspective, and I hate almost all third-person shooters. If you get pinned down and need to, for instance, mow down the approaching enemies with your Thompson, aiming is pretty much impossible unless you go into ironsight mode, which makes you walk like you’re stuck in molasses. And as far as the sniper sections are concerned, they’re very formulaic and uninteresting. The enemies spawn in the same places every time and their reactions are predictable. And, even though it’s awfully fun to watch your spinning bullet punch through an enemy’s skull and ricochet off the inside of his helmet and come tumbling out his neck, after a while, the constant switch to the cinematic kill-cam just starts to get dull. And even though you can shoot out a baddy’s eyeballs, pop both his testicles, shatter his ribcage, pierce his heart, lacerate his kidneys, and perform very approximate brain surgery on him, it doesn’t really have much of an effect apart from the score you get for the shot, which doesn’t seem to affect anything, at least in the demo. For the most part (and I must say, I applaud this nod to realism), a hit in the gut will stop an enemy just about as fast as a hit in the chest, and as long as you manage to nail the thick fleshy bit in the middle, the foolish human isn’t going to be sprouting any more foolish humans, or whatever it is humans do.

So would I recommend that you buy this game? Well, no. Download the demo. It’s free. It’s easy. Play it for a few days and see if you enjoy the combat. Do like me and wait to see if the price ever comes down. Of course, like I complained earlier, the demo really doesn’t give you much of a taste of what the whole game will be like, but it’s a starting point at least. All in all, I’d say that Sniper Elite V2 is consigned to the purgatory known only as Well It Was a Cool Concept. I can see it being a lot more fun as a sort of target-shooting type game, a fast-paced heavy-replay-value simulator like the amusing Stair Dismount and Truck Dismount, if you’re enough of a geek to have played those. It would be fun if it was just you in one building sniping one street full of soldiers and one building full of snipers. Then you could properly revel in the glory of giving your foes hot ballistic vasectomies. I’d say toss out all the fiddling around with planting bombs and throwing stones and killing evil mad scientists and just let me shoot Nazis and watch their ventricles go pop.

Game Review: “Burnout: Paradise”

As I mentioned in my most recent Weekly Update, I finally broke down and bought an Xbox 360. Since the games and the console were both ridiculously expensive, I was only able to buy two games. One of them was Burnout: Paradise.

The game is visually stunning. Compared to some of my previous racing game experiences, playing Burnout is like having undiagnosed myopia for ten years and then suddenly getting glasses. Everything is pretty and bright and shiny. But that’s not the reason I bought Burnout. I am and have always been a fanatic for racing games with an awesome damage model, and in that regard, Burnout is the game I’ve been looking for since I first played Rush on the Nintendo 64 back in the late ’90s. If you run into an obstacle with sufficient force, the game cuts to slow-motion and places the cameral optimally while you watch your car crumple and twist (dynamically! That’s right, the impact determines the damage, and no impact is the same as any other. Like I said, I’ve been waiting for this for a long time) and eventually crunch to a halt in a shower of wheels and metal fragments. And since every street is lined with pylons and buildings and populated by slow-driving idiots, you’ll experience a lot of these beautiful, cinematic crashes. At times, it does wear a little thin, but that doesn’t happen as often as you might think.

The game has a few different kinds of event you can participate in. There’s the standard race — which (and Yahtzee, curmudgeonly bastard though he is, got it completely right in his review) is rendered almost intolerable by having to plan your own route using your minimap — and then there are other events like Marked Man (escape from the cars that are trying to kill you) and Stunt (do a bunch of random tricks to build up points), and my personal favorite, Road Rage, which demands that you do what I’m best at: make other people crash before they crash you.

All in all, Burnout is a very amusing game, and good when you just want to be viscerally entertained. However, it has problems. For one thing, although the crash physics is incredible, the actual driving physics is clunky and feels unrealistic. And speaking of crashes, you have the cinematic ones so often that your little physics-inaccurate fender-benders are yawnworthy and annoying by comparison. And, speaking of annoying (I promise I won’t stick another “and speaking of” on the end of this one), the music is largely rubbish, and there’s a yappy, snide prick of a DJ called Atomica (who you have to imagine walks around wearing a pop-collared pink polo shirt) who only occasionally says anything even mildly useful.

Aside from that, though, Burnout is fairly awesome. If you’re not a complete simulation freak (or if you’re like me, and can turn off that part of your brain when needed) and can tolerate some inaccuracy and clumsiness, it’s a fun game, and the cinematics alone might be worth it (may I be struck down if I ever say that again).

Pictures of Other Planets

While injecting my daily dose of Internet news, I learned something incredible: we now have what looks like direct photographic evidence of planets orbiting other stars! I found it pretty hard to believe, but there it is, in black and white (or rather, purple and white).

One of the planets was found orbiting the star Fomalhaut, around 25 light-years from Earth.

Photo courtesy of Discovermagazine.com’s Bad Astronomy Blog.

This is a true “Holy shit!” moment. So far, the only planets we’ve found by direct imaging have either been too large to be properly classified as planets, or they haven’t been orbiting actual stars. In short, this is monumental.

It gets better. Much better. The Keck/Gemini observatory gives us this image of the star HR 8799.

Your eyes do not decieve. What you are looking at is two (TWO!!!) planets orbiting HR 8799. Apparently, they saw a third one, too, but I’m too busy picking my jaw up off the floor to go hunting for images.

I am actually too shocked and giddy to write anything useful. Sometimes, the universe sees fit to remind me why I became a science nerd in the first place.

You can read more about both planetary systems here and get the juicy details about the one orbiting HR 8799 here.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go wipe the drool off my face. And pick my jaw up off the floor.

(NOTE: This seems to me like a pretty good reason to either maintain or replace Hubble. That, and the mystery object it found a couple of months ago)

Ethanol is Not the Answer!

I listen to a lot of NPR, so, needless to say, I’ve been deluged lately with debates about energy prices, energy crises, and possible solutions to both. I also keep hearing a lot about ethanol, and that drives me crazy.

A lot of people are worried because the corn being consumed to produce ethanol is putting a strain on the supply, and driving up the price of corn-based foods (which, in America, seems to be nearly everything). As a result, there are scientists and politicians talking about alternative sources of ethanol.

To me, this is like talking about finding alternate sources of crude oil: it’s a stupid and short-sighted thought. What we need is to phase out fossil fuels altogether, not dig up Alaska or Russia or China or wherever to find more of them; and, in the same vein, what we need is to stop thinking about ethanol altogether, not try to find better ways to produce it!

I’ve got two major problems with ethanol. First, since it’s based on corn, it is inevitably a carbon-based fuel. And since it’s carbon based, basic chemistry will tell you that any products of its combustion will contain carbon dioxide. Seeing as the human race may have already signed its own death warrant, even if we stop pumpin greenhouse gases into the atmosphere today, I think it’s missing the point somewhat to talk about another carbon-based combustion fuel.

Secondly, with the world and the world economy in the state that they’re in, is it really wise to put any more strain on the food supply? With the economy in the toilet and food prices already in the stratosphere, it seems idiotic to me to make it any harder for the poor — in this country and abroad — to afford food.

I also have a third problem with ethanol, and this is the one that irritates me the most: it’s a pretend solution. People who buy ethanol, and politicians who support ethanol, do so primarily to feel like they’re doing something about global warming. But they’re not really doing anything to make the energy economy more carbon-indepenent. To me, ethanol is a solution (a crappy one at best, and at worst, not a solution at all) chosen by rich white people who aren’t willing to take the drastic mesaures needed to keep Homo sapiens sapiens off the endangered species list.

Those are my thoughts.

The Future of Neural Networks

I found this video some time ago when I was searching YouTube for interesting demonstrations of neural networks. It is, by far, the best explanation of modern Neural-Net theory that I’ve ever encountered, and I thought that some of you out in cyberspace might enjoy it as well.

The video is presented by Geoffrey Hinton, a machine-learning pioneer. His treatment of what he calls “Restricted Boltzmann Machine” neural nets is incredibly nuanced and mathematically rigorous, a — and forgive the cliché here — must-see for machine-learning enthusiasts. An excellent presentation based on an excellent idea, and certainly the most brain-like (maybe even mind-like) system I’ve ever seen. Some of the particular Machines he explores can do some fairly amazing things, like natural character recognition and sorting documents by semantic content.  And he manages to throw in a joke or two, as well.

You can find the video here. Enjoy.

Feeling Aged at Twenty

For a while now, I’ve been noticing a disturbing innner trend: I feel old. Very old. On some occasions, I’ve unironically mumbled “damn kids.” No doubt, this is a product of the rapidly-accelerating advance of technology (Singularity, anyone?), but to me, it doesn’t bode well.

You see, I was an early member of the Internet generation, and when the much-touted “Web 2.0”, user-created internet arrived sometime this decade, it only made sense to me. I’ve always been one to try to keep up or at least keep informed of the latest technical innovations. Now, though, I’m finding that I don’t have the energy to run in the twenty or thirty different directions that my brain is pulling me. There’s too much to read, too much to write, too much to digest, too many Wikipedia queries to make. It’s all just too much, too fast.

To me, this is foreshadowing what is to come. Before long, it will be impossible for the standard human being (I like to call them MOSHes (Mostly Original Substrate Humans), after Kurzweil) to keep up, even if they’ve been — as future children will no doubt be — steeped in the nöosphere since birth. Not only is this trend going to push us towards mind augmentation and transhumanism sooner rather than later, but it hints at things to come. Maybe all this Singularity stuff is crap, a “rapture for nerds” as some of the characters in Charles Stross’s Accelerando sometimes call it, but we’re certainly steaming towards some kind of technosocial discontinuity, if a fairly hip (and wipe that grin off your face!) technophile like myself is already feeling dated and obsolete at twenty!

Yahoo and Google: Uh-Oh…

I’m sure there aren’t many nerds out there who haven’t heard about Microsoft’s many attempts to buy Google in a bid to break into the search-engine market. Fortunately, up until now, Yahoo has refused, but this time, they’ve only gone as far as saying the business equivalent of “no comment.”

I’ve lamented these kinds of unholy unions before (for example, when Google bought Youtube), and in my (somewhat limited) experience, they never turn out well. When one company buys another, it usually has something very sinister in mind, and I’ve learned that that goes doubly so for Microsoft.

Not that I give a damn about Yahoo. I’ve been a member of the “cult of Google” for some years now. But, still, if Microsoft and Yahoo get together, who knows what kind of market-gobbling, grotesquely-deformed progeny might result? What next, will Microsoft be working busily to make Yahoo Search harder and harder to use, all the while being secretive and difficult and overcharging for everything? Will they try to get their hands on Google, too?

I’m aware that this is rather paranoid, but I assure you, that I am not (literally or metaphorically) wearing a foil helmet as I type this. I believe that there is a legitimate concern to be had in the monopolization of such a large horizontal slice of the information-technology market by one juggernaut corporation. If they get their fingers in too many pies (that’s a very odd expression, if you think about it), it seems that Microsoft wouldn’t have too much trouble subduing or at least delaying the open-source revolution so many of us tech-nerds have been dreaming of for so long. And what’s more, in a monopolized market, there is the obvious fact that the monopolist can charge exorbitant prices for crappy products.

Those are my thoughts. Take from them what you will. (That was my melodrama; do with it what you like).