Sunday, September 15, 2013

Saints Row IV: A Collection Of Thoughts About Storytelling & Open World Gaming

As usual: Spoilers! Spoilers everywhere!

Discussing the quality of Saints Row 4 seems a bit of a moot point by now. It's got a Metacritic rating between 77 and 86, depending on your console. It's a fan service heavy love letter to the fans who helped a Grand Theft Auto also ran evolve into a satirical, over-the-top orgy of comedy and violence. As Volition's fourth entry in the series, they've streamlined the experience in such a way that it makes the pace of other recent open world games like Sleeping Dogs and even GTA IV look plodding and slow by comparison.

What really makes Saints Row stand out is it's populist streak and it's inclusiveness. It's more than just the character creation or the fact that the game never penalizes you for how you choose to present yourself, male, female or otherwise. (If I want to cruise around virtual Steelport naked wearing only a horse head mask, and believe me I do, so be it.) They also aren't afraid to offend the homophobes by tying achievements into doing everything you can with a character. Including having The Butt Sex off-screen. With Dudes!

Given that the plot of the game involves the Saints being imprisoned on an alien spacecraft, there are numerous sci-fi references, including several to the still controversial Mass Effect 3. At one point, still early in the game, you are given a choice between going through one of two doors (red and blue, 'natch) each with their own arbitrary and ridiculous list of consequences that have no bearing on anything we've experienced up until that point. Faced with this choice, all your character can do is just sigh dejectedly and choose. It doesn't come off as mean spirited but as a bit of pointed satire... however, if you're like me and you spent months waiting for game journalists to talk about narrative logic, story mechanics and subtext only to hear them drone on about more meta concerns like "artistic integrity" and "fan entitlement" in-between wildly condescending to, or even outright insulting, their audience then hot damn does this feel like a bit of validation.

(And, seriously, the next schmuck who whinges about "it's the journey, not the destination" is getting a Ralph Waldo Emerson book thrown at their head so they can read that quote in context and finally realize why it does not apply to art.)

Even the romances, if you can call them that, are used for parody. There's no conversational courtship, gift giving or friend/rival bars to manage, it's just a button press. And you can press that button as many times as you like. So if you're one of the many dudes on my Twitter timeline who are madly in lust with Kinzie, you are, at any point, a button press away from a punch in the face and some wild (off-screen) sex. It doesn't effect your game in any other way and, if you listen to the audio logs, you'll notice that all of the characters other than The Boss have unofficially paired off with each other. Yet somehow, even as parody, there's something satisfying about the instant gratification.

Ultimately, the romances in BioWare games are pretty tame affairs that result in an equally tame sex scene. Once you succeed, you may get some additional in game dialogue and a mention in the epilogue but otherwise that's it. You don't have to manage it and you never have to worry about breaking up unless you initiate it yourself. (Just like real life!) As much as BioWare fans invest in these romances, they're actually very, very surface level. So having Volition point out the very real silliness of them works as another little love tap to the series and their fans.

I do have my quibbles with the game but none of them are too serious. I experienced some (unintentional) glitches and several system lockup's when transitioning from the spaceship that serves as your hub to the simulation where you spend most of your time. (Which might be the game or a sign my 360 is about to poop in it's hard plastic casing.) Once you unlock superpowers, driving becomes not only pointless, but an annoyance when the game forces you back into a vehicle for story or loyalty missions. The addition of superpowered running and gliding also cuts the overall game length by probably 2/3rds since you can cross the city in a handful of leaps and bounds. The side missions, while fun, still feel like busy work yet upgrading your superpowers are tied to it. Also, while the definitely slapped a coat of paint on Steelport there's literally no variation between The Third and Saints Row 4. It's entirely cosmetic.

What interests me more are the storytelling improvements and how Volition treats the formula of open world gaming and storytelling, in good ways and bad, and how developers can improve the formula going forward. Especially with a new Grand Theft Auto dropping in only a few days for everyone to chew on.

Saints Row was a pretty standard crime story. Not necessarily poorly told but not memorable either. Saints Row 2 wisely doubled down on the comedy yet still had some effective dramatic moments as well. Saints Row: The Third, despite all the pointless excess typified by the in-game porn stars (apparently at then publisher THQ's behest), still told an effective, if silly, story. The big drawback has always been that the other Saints were always plot devices or caricatures as opposed to actual characters. Nowhere was this more clear than the case of Shaundi.

In Saints Row 2 she was a lovable, easy going stoner chick who mostly just got damselled. In Saints Row: The Third, she underwent a complete 180 into a hyper capable, well-dressed, no-nonsense businesswoman. Who, again, mostly just got damselled. Saints Row 4 attempted to reconcile her odd personality transplant by splitting her into two different people. Because Saints Row ain't exactly subtle.

The push and pull between O.G. Shaundi and the real thing was the best written and best handled subquest line in the game. Shaundi's shame at her past indiscretions and lifestyle and how it lead her to overcompensate into what O.G. Shaundi, acting as the de facto voice of a lot of Saints Row fans, considered a humorless stuffed shirt was great fun to watch. It's also important that they didn't choose favorites. O.G. Shaundi, while unorthodox, was still effective while Shaundi was to-the-point but equally so. And the whole thing culminated in what initially seems like another damsel moment where you have to choose between them before they take control and save themselves. It not only works to reconcile the both sides of her but as a clear statement that the writers are thinking a bit differently about how they approach their characters. (And a special shout out should go to her voice actress who nailed present day Shaundi as well as O.G. Shaundi's hoarser, smoked out tones.)

Unfortunately, this doesn't extend as much to the other Saints, but they present different problems. Pierce, as comic relief, doesn't particularly need a more clearly drawn character. More pathos would just make him harder to laugh at. You can't do much with Johnny Gat either without running into the Wolverine Conundrum: how do you explain how a badass character becomes a badass without making them less of a badass? Cleverly, his mission involves being dropped into a Streets Of Rage style brawler from back when no one gave a damn about believable characters or motivations. Bottom line: Johnny Gat was always a badass. The End. You could have argued that his "death" in The Third was due to a death wish brought on after Aisha's death but since they've retconned that... nevermind, I guess.

While people who played the first two games are well acquainted with Gat, some more examples of Gat actually being badass would have been nice. There's a lot of deference shown to the guy without a whole lot good reasons for it. Especially since the mission I had to replay the most was one where Gat was in a chopper and kept getting shot down. Which isn't very badass.

Not being very emotionally connected to the other Saints meant their missions were a little more by the numbers. The only real oversight was the one character who, after Shaundi, could have benefited the most from some actual characterization: Kinzie. We know that Kinzie is a riff off of Lisbeth Salander from the Dragon Tattoo novels (in personality, at least) and that she's ex-FBI... aaand that's about it.

The extent of what I got from Kinzie's missions are: she's doesn't want to be "normal." Well, okay. Putting aside that it reused the 50's setting from the beginning of the game and a character from The Third with no direct connection to Kinzie and who they had to really stretch to make fit, it didn't really tell us anything new or interesting. Since she's the character you interact with the most over the course of the game, it felt like a lost opportunity.

This leads to something that's less a criticism of Saints Row 4 than open world gaming as a whole. We're rapidly reaching the point where the typical cycle of "go here, talk to this person and get a mission" is becoming stale. Many of the missions in Saints Row 4, for example, are gained by choosing them from a text menu. And that's fine. It's tried, true and easy to program. Nonetheless, with the number of games offering open world experiences increasing, the way developers approach interacting with the world is still largely the same.

We're given these huge worlds to travel through however we like, but the minute we undertake a quest it becomes an entirely on rails experience. Obtaining quests is also completely simplistic. Good writing can cushion the blow a bit but we're still able to see the strings being pulled. So what you end up with are games that constantly remind you that, when it comes to advancing the story, your freedom is a sham. And if you want to make it a question of immersion in the game: am I The Boss of the Saints because I'm the best? Or am I just the best at being told what to do?

Obviously most development teams don't have the time to implement a more progressive approach to quest gathering in open world games. Even Skyrim, which is arguably the best example of presenting a non-linear open world with dynamic subquests, is hamstrung by the fact that Bethesda has a reputation for games that are nearly broken on release which have to be patched over the course of months to be playable.

Part of the problem can be solved through things as simple as dialogue or misdirection. Having the character only grudgingly following orders or just changing mission objectives on the fly because your character decides he has a better course of action, just off the top of my head, would lead to a sense that you are still in control. Much moreso than just blindly following whoever is chatting at you in your ear. However much of a pain it would be to script entirely optional semi-hidden subquests or encounters that aren't listed on your mini-map with big gold stars, it would pay dividends in creating a world you actually feel a part of. In certain ways, I almost prefer the L.A. Noire style of open world where there are no distractions from the main plot. It had a story to tell and it told it.

Going into the next generation of gaming and seeing big publishers rely as heavily as they do on "open world experiences" some actual thought is going to have to go into how they present them. Assassin's Creed is going to eventually run out of notable time periods and locations to plunder for their yearly installments and even GTA is essentially presenting the same basic urban framework only bigger and more complex. Fatigue is going to set in, if it hasn't already. With the additional horsepower of the PS4 and Xbox One, hopefully we will some additional innovation to go along with it.

In the meantime, we still have games like Saints Row 4 which mine from a rich vein of potential parody in an industry that often, with the hundreds of people involved and potentially millions of dollars at stake, takes itself far too seriously. The series seems primed for a next gen reboot, unless they find some way to top taking over an interstellar alien race. (Time travel for an AssCreed riff?)

Parody and satire are a reaction to something rather than a facilitator, so while I don't expect the gang at Volition to redefine the genre, they've certainly proven themselves capable of evolving. We, as gamers, just need to keep the pressure on developers to keep evolving along with us rather than rehashing the same tired gaming mechanics.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Review: The Last Of Us

As usual, my reviews are pretty spoiler-heavy, but I've cordoned them off after the end of the review for people who don't want to be... y'know, spoiled.

It's very heartening to me that the three video games that have provoked the most discussion in the last year are story-heavy games that center around a relationship between two people. This generation of gaming is rapidly coming to a close and we've gone from a situation where having a good story is a pleasant surprise or a bonus to an actual selling point. Telltale's The Walking Dead went for huge dramatic crescendos, Bioshock: Infinite went for more of a headfuck, and now we have Naughty Dog, already proven in cinematic game experiences, trying their hand at the post-apocalyptic action/stealth/survival horror genres.

The Last Of Us and The Walking Dead do share a lot of the same DNA, to the point that I was worried that Naughty Dog's offering would suffer from over-familiarity. "Older man with a violent past tries to escort an innocent young girl to safety during a pandemic/zombie apocalypse" is a pretty well-worn genre at this point. We know how it ends: "I can teach you no more, son." "Nooooo! You're like the Dad I lost/never had or whatever!" "You'll be okay, kiddo. I'm gonna die now." "Nooooo!" *fade out*

The Walking Dead played these genre conventions to the hilt but was saved by giving us a sense of choice in how we survived the world and a young charge we actually felt invested in saving. The Last Of Us, it turns out, follows the same basic story beats but ends up in a different place by the end. Telltale's episodic series is, by comparison, a celebration of the human spirit in comparison to Naughty Dog's bleak, hopeless, uncompromising world.

It's a world that is being slowly reclaimed by nature. Buildings, unused and unmaintained for two decades, have decayed, fallen apart, sprouted grass, and attracted wildlife. It's a kind of sad, frightening beauty that even extends to the areas taken over by the plants that spawn the cordyceps spores, which look almost like human beings turned inside out: petals that resemble skin and stigma, anthers, and filament that almost resemble human organs. It's a world that's devolved, slowly erasing or reclaiming every inch of human advancement. Whatever the world is now, it's not ours. Human beings have, naturally, devolved right along with it.

What were originally conceived as quarantine zones have becoming permanent city-states ruled over by fascist thugs. We see their handiwork right away, murdering anyone for any infraction they feel warrants it. It's a brutal utilitarianism that has no time for due process or empathy. In the wilds, you're constantly on the run from nearly feral hunters who have zero qualms about killing and possibly eating any unlucky travelers who wind up in their crosshairs. We occasionally hear bits of conversation that hints that these people are just trying to survive in a world that's actively trying to kill them, but the fact that they immediately default to remorseless killers whenever you're spotted makes them ideal cannon fodder as we shoot, stab and strangle our way through waves of them later on. There's a bit of every reviewers favorite new vocabulary term "ludonarrative dissonance" in that they never try to negotiate or surrender but that's still, to me, within acceptable levels.

Our protagonist, Joel, has no moral high ground to stand on himself. After the events of the heartbreaking intro sequence, he's been whatever he needed to be to survive: a murderer, thief and smuggler. He's a survivor but his loss and his subsequent experiences have turned him into a cold, selfish, stubborn, and largely unlikable man. He's very much the "grizzled hero" archetype but without anything resembling a heart of gold underneath it. I got the impression that if it weren't for his partner (and presumably his lover) Tess, he wouldn't be doing much of anything at all. She's the driving force of their smuggling operation while Joel seems to mostly just go through whatever motions are called for. Though the motions usually seem to involve killing someone.

The game proper kicks off when, after confronting a double crossing colleague, they get roped into escorting a young girl, Ellie, to the militant freedom fighter faction, The Fireflies, where they hope to use Ellie's seeming immunity to the cordyceps to come up with a vaccine. Joel, unwilling to invest in a quixotic cross country trip for some pipe dream, is ultimately forced into it. The notion of hope has apparently become so alien to the man that even the risk of believing in something is enough scare him off. Throughout the game, I never so much liked Joel as understood him.

Ellie, on the other hand, is immediately likeable. The "perky teenager" thing could have easily rubbed me the wrong way but as the only real bright spot in a cruel and fucked up world, she became a pressure valve. The foul mouth, bad jokes and general know-it-all teenager-ness of the character is usually the only thing to look forward to. You're playing as Joel but Ellie is clearly our point of view character. The first time she tried to help me take down an infected runner, I cheered. I had been busy trying to find cover to desperately flip through my weapons to find one that had more than a bullet or two and out of the corner of my eye I see her leap on the thing's back and start stabbing it with her pen knife. The little brat just saved my life and I loved her for it.

While the game is thankfully designed to not be an escort mission where you need to hold Ellie's hand the entire time, it was the thing that kept continuously breaking my immersion. Ellie is effectively invincible and invisible so there were many, many occasions where I'd be creeping around and trying to find an angle on an enemy and Ellie (or another partner) would literally walk right in front on them to huddle next to me. In a world designed to be so engrossing and intense, something like that makes it impossible to suspend disbelief. Frankly, I would have preferred if Joel just kept continually insisting that Ellie hang back in combat situations and she rejoins you when you've cleared the area out. Neither is a perfect option but to have my immersion interrupted repeatedly like that was the biggest obstacle in maintaining the experience Naughty Dog tried so hard to create.

Other reviews and comments I've read have complained here and there about the scavenging you have to do, but I loved it. Not only did it give me a chance to explore and admire the amazing art design of the game, it provided an opportunity to interact with it as well. What you see usually isn't just some background on your way to another combat scenario. Houses aren't just empty, they're abandoned. You can still see family photos on dressers and toys littering the floor in some child's room. They're interrupted lives rather than just some empty space that exists in the game. Finding some scissors or bandages or bullets was just a bonus for me.

The violence in the game is particularly noteworthy in that it fits the world perfectly. When Joel strangles someone, he actually strangles them. No Schwarzenegger-esque instant neck snaps. If you linger at enemies you've head shot, sometimes it looks like you can see the entrance and exit wounds. Other enemies, depending on the gun you use, will have their heads explode when you hit them. As in little tiny chunks of skull debris around their body. This game is definitely not pulling any punches. Occasionally Ellie will make a surprised exclamation when you brutally murder someone and I'd be lying if I didn't say that I didn't occasionally share the sentiment.

My only other major criticism of the game stems from the combat. Frankly, I was fine with the infected taking multiple headshots to kill, but when it came to the human enemies, things got very frustrating very fast. There are a couple of weapons that offer armor piercing upgrades but ammo is so scarce that you can't be guaranteed to have any when you need it. While I like the scarcity of the ammo as far as giving things a survival horror feel, the way that the ammo is parceled out made sure that there were long sequences where we are never given any hunting rifle or shotgun ammo, etc... so if you didn't save any from the section where it was more plentiful, you're just out of luck.

This lead to multiple situations like this: I'm in a firefight. I'm behind cover. I poke my head up and headshot a guy wearing a helmet. The guy falls down and pops back up again sans helmet. I pop up again and headshot him again. He falls down again. Assuming he's dead, I try to move to the next bit of cover only to get knocked on my ass by the same guy who is still shooting at me. I understand that this is a game where you're not supposed to feel like a superhero and many gamers would likely breeze through the combat if a headshot meant an instant kill but nothing breaks the spell of the game faster than an enemy surviving multiple headshots. It's one of two imperfect options but, like with Ellie's invisibility, I would have preferred the option that didn't take me out of the game.

That said, the scarcity of ammo and the strength of the enemies, especially the infected Clickers, make for some wild sequences. Shivs become mandatory in not only stealth killing them but saving you from their insta-kill attacks. Runners are easier to deal with but are big trouble in packs and Bloaters need to be shot in specific areas to be killed efficiently. On Hard difficulty, I rarely had more than ten bullets for any gun at any given time and every missed shot was enough to make me wince. Even scavenging as much as I could there would be lengthy sequences in which I was missing a specific ingredient for a much needed shiv or med kit. Every combat situation seemed to dissolve into panic by the end of it. Only a couple of times was I able to successfully navigate a sequence without being spotted and it felt goddamn triumphant when it happened.

The game is broken up into seasons which take place during specific locations including my hometown of Pittsburgh (it looks pretty much like I left it, to be honest). Each section has it's own unique vibe to it, which keeps things from getting stale, and the games take care to break up the style of play, so you may find yourself on horseback or hunting deer to change things up. Much like the Uncharted games, though, when you see oddly placed cover, prepare to start shooting.

After a blockbuster sequence during winter, we move onto the real finale which feels oddly like anti-climax. And I'm fine with that. Actually, I was oddly tense and keyed up for the final section the game because I kept expecting the writers to go for the obvious and easy ending but they never did. After an occasionally frustrating fight against some armored enemies, everything gets wrapped up in an intriguing ambiguity. You don't have to worry about the game leaving an important questions unanswered but it does leave you with a final scene that allows you to draw your own conclusions.

As a game, Naughty Dog is still perfecting it's cinematic experience. They're still not quite there in terms of making everything perfectly seamless from a gameplay perspective but it is a very well told story, even if it hews very close to what we'd expect up until the end. It's certainly a step up from Uncharted 3, which fell a little bit too in love with it's own characters. As a capper for this generation of gaming, it's a fantastic send-off. It's uncompromisingly bleak and gorgeous to look at. If you're open to the experience, it will take an emotional toll on you. Here's to a new generation of games that hopefully follow suit.


SPOILER WARNING! Here's where I start talking specifics about what I thought of the story, so back out now if you haven't played yet!

Joel is a dick. He's the character you control through most of the game but, as I mentioned in the review, I never liked him. Understood him, but never liked him. The loss of his daughter, calcified by twenty years of murder and robbery, had made him into a hollow shell. It isn't until Utah that he feels comfortable enough with Ellie to joke with her (having the shared experience of killing people who want to eat them is a pretty good bonding experience, it turns out) but by then she's lost in a melancholy of her own.

What makes Joel's decision at the end, and our complicity in it, work is that we know that Ellie is more mature than just about every character in the game, so when the Fireflies decide to operate on her without her consent, they've essentially compromised themselves into being the villains. As much as Joel's decision is driven by selfishness, he's not wrong to do it.

The irony is that if Marlene had taken the time to talk to Ellie instead of treating her like a non-human, something she felt she likely had to do in order to make what she felt was the "right" decision, there's a good chance Ellie would have agreed to the surgery anyway.

Ellie's melancholy at the beginning of the Utah sequence, I thought, was originally just her coming to grips with the events in David's camp. Until she has that conversation with Joel about what he thinks the Fireflies need to do in order to get vaccine. Joel, re-energized and hopeful, dismisses it as just doing some tests and taking blood samples... but Ellie isn't convinced. I think she was preparing for the fact that she was going to have to sacrifice herself to save the world. And was trying to be okay with it.

Marlene isn't evil, she's just lost herself. She got the means and the ends all mixed up. She knew that there was no guarantee the surgery would provide a vaccine. She was willing to kill a child she was tasked to care for on the off chance it provided something useful. Ultimately, she was just using Ellie to her own ends. Joel is precisely the opposite. As much as he wants to save this child the way he couldn't save his own, he's also doing it for her benefit. That's what makes Joel's actions ultimately heroic to me.

I get the argument that he is essentially damning the world but I don't agree with that either. There's no supporting evidence for this, but I think Ellie isn't just a genetic aberration, she's the next stage in human evolution. There's no way of knowing how many kids born post-cordyceps have developed an immunity until they get bit. But the chances of surviving an attack with just a bite are slim let alone other people letting you stay alive long enough to prove you won't turn. And considering you have as much chance being killed by hunters or dying from starvation or disease, there's no telling how many kids being born are just like her. But that's all supposition.

Ellie is "The Last Of Us" because she represents everything that's still good about humanity. She's the only character who doesn't act from a place of selfishness. Joel is Joel. Tess is out for herself and only sees the light when it's too late. Marlene cares only for her mission. Bill is a solipsist. Sam puts everyone at risk by not telling anyone of his infection. Henry blames Joel and then kills himself because he can't take responsibility for himself. Ellie is the only character who remains true, even after her run in with David who is arguably the worst humanity has to offer.

Joel represents all the bad decisions, selfishness and shitty, violent impulses that were ingrained in Humanity Mark 1. Protecting Ellie from those who wanted to harm her, even if she was prepared to sacrifice herself had anyone bothered to ask, and then lying to her afterwards are proof of it. Joel is not a redeemable character but neither is he truly villainous, just sadly human.

The question at the last scene is, to me, can Ellie believe the lie? She says "okay" but there's nothing in her face that particularly sells it one way or the other. And if she can, what does that say about her? Has she had enough of being the Golden Child and wants to get on with what passes as a normal life? If so, is that okay given what she's capable of? (Personally, I don't think the lie is sustainable.) The fact that they switch Ellie to your control in the lead up is a nice touch too, making it more like Joel is lying directly to you. Not only do I like that they left it pretty ambiguous, I like that they had the balls to not go with the dramatic-strings-and-weepy-send-off ending. It's ultimately a very personal story.

Like I said in the review proper, I really liked the game despite some flaws. I just hope more people follow Naughty Dog's lead and make more story-driven games that don't revolve around easy, smug horseshit like Far Cry 3's whole "you're a terrible person for enjoying all this carnage we lovingly provided for you." This game is a great example of meaningful violence. I'm definitely interested in whatever Naughty Dog does next.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Anything Is Better Than Nothing: #Hashtag Culture & The XBox One

This afternoon, Microsoft essentially threw a Molotov on a grease fire when they announced that they were backing away from the DRM, used games and online check-in features for the Xbox One that have caused so much consternation amongst gamers. After being flanked and decimated by Sony during their E3 press conference, and after a near terminal case of Foot In Mouth Syndrome in the wake of it, we knew Microsoft was on the defensive. However, adhering to the well-worn rule that corporations on the level of Microsoft never admit that they're wrong, many people just expected them to slide quietly into a second place showing in this generation's already carnage-fueled Console War.

However, in comes today's announcement which amounts to a full strategic retreat. It's not worded as such, naturally, (it's been pleasantly PR'd into almost sounding like it was their own idea) but just about all of the issues that stuck in people's craw were addressed: No daily online checks which will brick your system if you don't have a stable connection. You can resell or trade your games to whomever you like at the cost of announced features like family sharing and disc-free gaming. DRM will be up to the publishers and, after seeing the fit people have thrown in the last few months, there's a good chance they'll only institute it slowly and quietly. Also, to match Sony, the system will not be region locked. Unless you're like me and you mistrust the notion of cloud computing and/or hate the notion of an always on Kinect watching you like the quietly judge-y eye of Sauron, there's no reason the Xbox One shouldn't regain a place at the top of your Christmas list.

This has naturally provoked the usual responses: gamers cheering victory at having won a rare battle for game ownership and at the same time decried as a loss to publishers and developers by guys like Cliff Bleszinski. It's also been the subject of a lot of empty cynicism, typified by this tweet from John "TotalBiscuit" Bain (proof that not all bowler hat wearing British video game personalities are created equal) in which he turns his nose up at the idea that the hashtag culture and Facebook posts had any bearing on changing Microsoft's position because... dead revolutionaries in Turkey?

First of all, that is some wild, wild false equivalency there. To somehow equate actual dead human beings with a consumer rights issue in regards to a video game console reeks of an almost Autistic disconnection to reality. Mothers are mourning their dead children right now. You're arguing about video games. These two things don't belong anywhere near each other. For any reason.

To be fair, Bain clarified his position in subsequent tweets, almost to the point of completely neutering his original statement (unless you happen to be one of the ten people in the world who truly believes that their tweets were solely responsible for Microsoft's change of heart) but I bring it up more as an example of a particular worldview. Bain is far from alone in his assessment. There's a lot of people supping on sour grapes tonight.

To listen to the few developers and publishers willing to speak on the subject publicly, you get the impression that they aren't so much angry as exasperated. Like kindergarten teachers wrestling with a particularly unruly child. To hear them tell it, we just don't understand what they're trying to do with the Xbox One. We don't understand how badly developers are being hurt by used game sales. And if we did, we'd be completely on board with Microsoft's new all-in-one entertainment box of pure joy.

This speaks, in bold and italics, how little they think of their audience. And yet I still can't see them as mustache-twirling villains. I believe that they believe what's coming out of their mouths. Having worked for a Giant Unnamed Corporation for six years now, I see how these decisions happen. The people in charge are so removed from the way normal people operate that they're completely unable to relate. They think they're being magnanimous but they don't actually know anyone who is being directly affected by their policies. It's not evil (not normally), it's just out and out ignorance. So, yes, people like Cliff Bleszinski have yet to find a burden they aren't willing to unload on gamers to line their pockets, but they've convinced themselves, though ego and love of money, that we don't really understand what we want.

The Xbox One is not a carefully crafted compromise between what gamers want and what publishers and developers need. It shifts the playing field so far away from the rank and file user that a backlash had to happen. Microsoft would have us believe that they're essentially giving us Steam in a box with some bonus accoutremounts like "cloud computing," an always-on Kinect and TV integration. They also continue to completely miss what makes Steam appealing.

Valve's genius lies in the fact that they aren't a publicly traded company at the constant mercy of perpetually paranoid and frightened millionaire investors. They also have an unconventional management structure that companies like Microsoft, Sony, EA, Activision, et al, would never have the bravery to implement. They want the money Valve makes and the goodwill it's gotten them without the sacrifices and risks they've taken to get there.

Microsoft wants the cheap and dirty answer to Steam. (Sometimes called "EA Origin.") Some game journalists, most of whom should know better, have talked pie in the sky fantasies about the Microsoft equivalent of Steam Sales and whatnot, also completely ignoring exactly how unique Valve's position is. Want proof? Look at Microsoft's attempt to steal Sony's shine with the Playstation Plus and their virtual library. Microsoft's offer? Halo 3 and Assassin's Creed 2. Games you've already played and sold years ago. Games that are multiple iterations removed from that by now. Games you can pick up for the low, low price of $3 or $6 used on Amazon, respectively. Games that have been cross referenced and double checked on spreadsheets for their minimum effect on the bottom line. Meanwhile, Sony is offering interesting indie titles like The Cave and Thomas Was Alone as well as smaller games like Sleeping Dogs and Spec Ops: The Line.

So, yes, Microsoft is clueless. They're looking at numbers and missing the big picture. Sony is only marginally better, having had their own descent into hubris with the PS3 announcement. Even now, their position is to just maintain the status quo, allowing them to pull ahead by virtue of doing absolutely nothing. Certainly GameStop is no hero, having sketchy policies that undercut their consumers as well. (Personally, I go to Mom and Pop used record stores for my game trading.) And while Microsoft soils their chinos? Valve is already floating the possibility of digital used game trading which will put them another generation ahead of their console brethren and win them a whole new round of plaudits.

These corporations exist to make money and will only give back as little as they can to maximize profits. That's business. Not good, not evil, just business. Yet corporate types and their apologists are only part of the problem. Some people are evidently immediately suspicious of what they see as an angry mob which steamrolls over any nuanced position.

While there's certainly no shortage of pointless, free floating anger on the Internet, it's often given far too much weight by virtue of the fact that people are drawn to negativity. A lot of these angry social media commenters are professionally angry. Acknowledging them validates them. Most people have a hard time keeping in mind that when it comes to dealing with trolls, you are actually the least important part of the equation. Their anger and whatever wires got crossed in their heads are the real issue. You're just a convenient target. There's a certain amount of ego you have to let go of if you're ever going to survive the Internet.

Which brings us to the courageous souls rolling their eyes at the idea that this angry mob of people who don't want to give up their consumer rights have somehow deluded themselves into thinking their voices matter, even if all they could do is change a Facebook photo and tweet at some monolithic corporation. Because, y'know, people are dying fighting for freedom in Muslim countries and that.

Firstly, if you're doing something, you're not doing nothing. That just seems like common sense. I'm a hack blogger no one cares about, I like talking to people about subjects likes this, but most people have lives and jobs and kids. This is of interest to people insomuch as they like games, but they're limited in the amount of time they can spend. There are no trenches here. There are no battles to be fought. You commiserate amongst friends, you refuse to pre-order, you tweet your displeasure at Microsoft. That's more or less the extent of what you can do. Because, at the end of the day, you're arguing about a luxury item.

If you really hold people gathering together around a common cause to be such a useless endeavor, what were you expecting to happen? An actual movement? Occupy Microsoft Headquarters? You'd just mock them for that too, for taking things too seriously. The reality is that every little bit helps. It fosters an atmosphere for discussion and gets the information out. Just because they don't wear the slogan on a t-shirt or tattoo it on their skin doesn't mean they aren't helping.

I consider my cynicism towards giant, multinational corporations to be an informed cynicism based on experience. In a sense, I admire Microsoft for being so ballsy with their wanton greed. Usually there are systems in place to hinder creativity, foster a sense of homogeneity, and avoid risk. People, on the other hand, are endlessly surprising. This isn't some kind of soppy, wet Liberal hugfest either. Microsoft's decision, I'm sure you'll find, was motivated by not wanting to lose money. They're worried about losing money because people were taking to social media and talking about how much they don't want what Microsoft is selling. Which translated into slower pre-order numbers. Which, compounded with the messaging problems they've been having, translated into A Problem. Twitter wasn't the only factor, but it was a factor.

One of my biggest problems with this industry is about how the gaming press, developers and publishers treat the people who make their livelihood possible. There's a disdain in a lot of people I find very disturbing. As if somehow we random dudes wield a power equal to the multi-million dollar corporations who provide us with our entertainment. Where all people remember is the troll who told them to "fuck off and die" and not the ten people who praised them. As if that's everyone else's fault and not the fault of the troll and the failing of the person's own ego.

We don't have any real power. That's what makes Microsoft's reversal all the more delicious. No one with any sense is claiming full credit for it, but nor are we just buzzing flies, fit only to be swatted away by those with a bigger soapbox to stand on. We won a very minor victory in a not-particularly-important fight. If someone wants to make a comprehensive chart about how much money the industry is losing to used games sales vs. how much they're losing to bloated budgets for bland sequels with diminishing returns, I'm down... but, if you don't mind, I think I'll take my victories where I can find them.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Review: Dead Island: Riptide - ¡Viva la sangre!

Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer(s): Techland
Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360

Dead Island is an easy series to criticize. A resolutely B level zombie game from relatively little known European developer, Techland, it only made it's way into the average gamer's radar thanks to a head turning zombie-attack-in-reverse cinematic trailer going viral. Up until that point, the only other console offering from Techland had been the middling Western shooter, Call Of Juarez. The trailer for Dead Island was a huge stroke of luck for a game that likely would have come and gone without making much of a ripple. It also raised expectations to an absurd level given the developers previous output.

Reviewers slapped it for it's graphics, it's clunky interface, a plethora of bugs, uninteresting characters, laughable dialogue and a nearly non-existent story. I even heard people complaining that the game wasn't like the trailer which boggled my mind because... how would that even work? (Does anyone think that the live action trailer for Call Of Duty: Ghosts means you're going to be able to play as an aborigine warrior? It was just a cinematic trailer, guys.) The game was carried mostly by it's melee-focused action/RPG combat. Guns and ammo were very hard to find and almost useless to anyone who wasn't playing the gun specialist character, Purna. Hitting zombies in the face with electric sledgehammers and poison katanas was a surprising amount of fun, even if the charm started to wear off by the last fourth of the game. This was enough, however, to carry the game onto being a modest hit.

I wasn't at all surprised when they announced Dead Island: Riptide last year. Careful to frame it as more of an expansion than a sequel, with a slightly lowered price point to match, it seems meant to serve as a place holder until a proper sequel can be released down the line. It features the same cast of character, with one new character who specializes in fist fighting, on a new island fighting the same zombie threat.

Most of the criticisms of the game are, in fact, pretty accurate and not much has changed for Riptide. The story is still very silly and the plot is advanced mostly through your characters being very, very dumb. There's still plenty of bugs to be found including glitchy weather effects that stop and start at random, very hinky frame rate drops when things get crowded, weird collision detection moments and a mini-map that has regressed into near uselessness whenever you're out in the forest or boating.

Techland hasn't completely ignored our pleas, though. We now have a proper reticule. Importing your character allows for a raise in your level cap to even further buff up your character. There are also additional leveling you can do in each of the weapon types, hand-to-hand, blunt, sharp, and firearms, that will increase the more you use them, meaning finding that sledgehammer when you wanted a machete doesn't mean it has to be completely useless. Co-op play scales so that your level 66 Xian can play with someone else's level 10 John with no ill effects. Something you can't even do in a snazzier, higher profile co-op game like Borderlands 2. Guns and ammo are more plentiful and once you level them up a bit you can explode heads with your shotgun like a champ no matter which character you play. They've also added Dead Zones which are separate areas ruled by a much-tougher-than-normal mini-boss. These mini-bosses all have roughly the same abilities, though, so it would have been nice if Techland put a little more effort into giving these mini-bosses some extra flavor.

As is becoming the trend, the game also introduces a number of different holdout sequences with options like electrified fences, minigun placements and environmental hazards to slow down the horde. They game also introduces mines as a grenade type for some additional defense. Unfortunately, after the first couple, it starts to feel like a chore. It doesn't help that there are never enough zombies at one time for you to feel like you're in danger. Even on single player I never lost an NPC. Siege sequences like this need stronger direction so that it feels like you're barely keeping everything together as you rescue NPC's, erect new barriers or lay down some covering fire with a minigun. Without that, they feel kind of tepid and overlong.

That said, if you liked the first game, Riptide is an ever-so-slightly more streamlined expansion of the original. The quality I like the most about it is precisely the thing that keeps it's Metacritic rating in the mid-60's. While recent games like Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon trade on silly 80's nostalgia, complete with ironic homophobia and sexual encounters of questionable consent, the Dead Island games are what Blood Dragon tries so hard to be: the modern video game equivalent of a grindhouse movie.

As someone who grew up on weird cult movies, the one trait that they all share is the earnestness with which they were made. It's the difference between Evil Dead and House Of 1000 Corpses. Dead Island wants very badly to be a tense, gripping action/horror game. It isn't. From Sam B's omnipresent one hit wonder "Who Do You Voodoo, Bitch?" to the frighteningly cross- and dead-eyed woman in the makeshift hospital who drones her sad life story every time you pass her by, it lures you into it's absurdity so often that it's impossible to take it seriously.

However, just when you think the whole thing is a joke, you take a trip through some pitch black sewer or sparsely-lighted building that surprises you with some real tension. You can hear the zombies moaning and your flashlight is almost dead, so you hurl a flare ahead of you to see a small squad of zombies standing there, staring at nothing and just waiting until you get close enough for them to lurch at you. Then it's back to the comedy as you pop it's head like a grape with a shotgun blast and kick it's still teetering corpse to the ground as it's arms weave around where it's head used to be, as if asking itself "wait, it was just here a second ago..."

I'm not sure if the debt Dead Island and Riptide owe to Italian horror movies by guys like Umberto Lenzi or Ruggero Deodato (or even Lucio Fulci if we're feeling generous) are deliberate but the parallels are certainly there. Other franchises base their zombie games firmly in the early George Romero model as far as clarity of tone and the simplicity of the concept. In Italian horror, the result is the thing. Whatever it takes to shock or appall, that's what they'll do. Slow zombies? Fast zombies? Big, hulking monsters in straightjackets? Sure, throw 'em all in. Left 4 Dead has the same approach but the setting and the atmosphere is vintage Romero.

Dead Island, on the other hand, is total Eurosleaze. The severed torso special edition that the gaming commentariat got so incensed over a few months ago is straight out of something like Cannibal Ferox or one of Sergio Martino's Giallo films. They can't go nearly as far as a Fulci movie without getting slapped with an AO rating but the basic components are all there: boobs, blood, bad acting, sub par design and copious gore wrapped around a little nothing of a story. And that final scene? Straight out of something like Nightmare City.

If you've been on the fence about the Dead Island series, that's all you really need to know going in. It's purely cheap thrills and low brow fun. If you can revel in the B movie cheese of it, you'll have a blast... especially with a team of four friends and a couple of beers. Riptide, in particular, cuts the fat that weighed down the first game so that it never wears out it's welcome. If Techland continues to release Dead _____ games of roughly this length at this slightly reduced price point, I think they could really be on to something.

If that sounds like damning with faint praise, it's genuinely not. The slightly sleazy Euro edge to the series is what makes it stand out in a crowded field of zombie games. I hope Techland delves further into that end of the pool for it's inevitable next gen sequel. I can be moved to tears by something like Telltale's The Walking Dead and still appreciate smashing a zombie's head into paste with a giant sledgehammer in Dead Island. The game is critic-proof, really, because it does exactly what it says on the tin. So long as Techland keeps the series fresh, they can have a perennial hit on their hands. It may never win awards but it can certainly be satisfying.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Crossed: Badlands - #1-25

I am an unwavering Garth Ennis fanboy. Which is not as easy a task as I might like. The Irish born writer is notoriously unimpressed with social media and the internet, so unless you're following comics news sites pretty closely, his books can come and go without much fanfare. This leads to a lot of criminally underrated comics.

In the last couple of years, he's finished up his very uneven superhero piss take The Boys and he's done the opening arcs for a couple of other titles: suburban housewife/vigilante Jennifer Blood and a reboot of The Shadow, which were excellent but quickly dissolved into mediocrity after his departure. The former demonstrated his proficiency for mixing the violent, profane and funny while the latter indulged his meticulous knowledge of military history through the lens of a pulp hero. His empathy for soldiers and unromantic attitude towards warfare are also the basis of his rock solid Battlefields series and the fantastic Fury MAX ongoing for Marvel.

However, of his recent work, none was more wild than Crossed. Ostensibly a book about rage virus-style "zombies" taking over the world, it was legitimately shocking while occasionally indulging in some of the darkest, most pitch black humor I've ever read. However, at it's heart, it was a character piece about a small group of survivors coming to terms with the new reality and the harsh, demanding rules that came with it. When any weakness can lead to a hideous death or a hellish un-life, where do you draw the line? It was truly rough stuff, sort of a comics version of A Serbian Film if the movie had any interest in the interior lives of it's characters.

For Crossed: Badlands, they took a slightly different approach. It's a bi-weekly book with Garth again contributing the opening arc but subsequent work done by regular Avatar writers like Jamie Delano, David Lapham, David Hine, and Si Spurrier... and much like Jennifer Blood and The Shadow, the stories in his absence range from inconsistent to utterly tedious.

I have two main problems with Badlands as a series of minis. The primary problem is that they all seem to follow the same pattern: look at us humans... boy, aren't we similar to the monsters when you really get down to it? Which isn't nearly as interesting as a survival story involving people you might actually kinda like. This was at it's nadir for David Hine's arc about a writer's retreat lorded over by a debauched megalomaniac that was so rote and by-the-book that you could predict every beat of the story. Jamie Delano, on the other hand, was the most successful at this, throwing together a series of modern American archetypal characters, but he ultimately lost the fight in making those characters interesting precisely because of their archetype status. The disconnection I felt made the ultimate goal of the story feel muddled.

In the Ennis-penned Crossed, he embraced the absurd (a soldier with a bandaged face who claimed to be Prince Harry) but only to lighten what is otherwise a bunch of relatively grounded characters. His first two leads were quiet pragmatists who bounced off of characters who were either cold and capable or otherwise normal people trying to reassert their normal lives onto a world that doesn't work that way anymore. They were relatable people you could, for the most part, see existing in the real world.

This leads to the second main problem of Badlands: I don't care about anything that's happening to these characters. They are so cartoonish (David Lapham's Yellowbelly from the third arc) or so over-the-top in their hideousness (everyone in Hine's run) that they repel your interest. Badlands essentially opens the Crossed universe to any genre the writer's like so there's certainly room for Crossed as absurdist black comedy (Lapham) or star-crossed romance (Spurrier) but the whiplash in tone you get going from writer to writer makes it hard to invest. I'd be more forgiving if these were all separate mini-series but connecting them all to the same title leads me to expect a consistency of tone that's not there.

It's not all bad, though. While I found his arc involving a Russian criminal falling in love with his parole officer a bit too melodramatic, Si Spurrier's Annual about a mad Scottish soldier trying to trace the beginnings of the Crossed epidemic was a lot of fun and the webcomic where the character originated, Wish You Were Here, are also really good. (Think The Walking Dead in the Crossed universe with a more interesting lead character.) If someone other than Ennis is going to have their hand on the till, Spurrier is the one I like the most.

David Lapham is a tremendous writer but none of the characterization and inventiveness I loved so much in his Eisner winning crime series Stray Bullets has made it's way to Crossed. His Yellowbelly arc was too cartoonish to carry the weight of all the black comedy. His Psychopath mini and it's Badlands follow up were both better in theory than execution and his Family Values mini-series just kind of laid there on the page, inoffensive (by Crossed standards), predictable and kind of boring. At this point, it feels like he's just pulling a paycheck.

Jamie Delano's arc was probably the best of the bunch in terms of overall concept but it didn't quite fulfill it's potential and the less said of Hine's arc the better. This brings us to current day and the return of Garth Ennis to the title. His first arc, about a pragmatic young man who learns that it's much tougher to make hard decisions when you actually have skin in the game, was the best the series had been since his original mini. Given the spotty quality when he's not around, I expected a return to form. So it's surprising how little I was bowled over by it.

The story involves four soldiers, an Irishman, a Scotsman, a Welshman, and an Englishman, on a mission to wipe the Crossed from Great Britain and start over. Fair enough. It seems to be everything Ennis excels at: military characters, bawdy humor, and ultraviolence. So why am I not more on board with this?

The soldiers, outside of the Irishman, are a bit too broadly drawn. They're defined by their stereotypes and I've yet to see anything approaching a real personality from them. These are not the "normal people" from his first two stories. Over the course of the issue, the soldiers rescue a priest and a group of children who are painting their faces and cursing to try and pass for being Crossed. Ennis has really hammered home his disgust at superstition as a refuge for the stupid/ignorant over the course of the series, an idea that returns here as the priest is mocked repeatedly for a fool. Most annoyingly, the book makes no pretense that it's being written for trade with a final scene that ends on a reaction shot that's clearly meant to continue on the next page.

The whole issue just feels overly familiar. It has all the standard Garth Ennis characters and tropes but they don't feel like they're being rearranged in some kind of interesting way. You have the introspective narrator, the macho soldiers, the naive priest, innocent children, and a quixotic mission. You have the bad jokes, the blood, and the monsters sticking things in other things that should not have things stuck in them. It just reads as Ennis on autopilot.

That said, this is the first issue of four, so there's enough time left to draw things out and hopefully take the story into uncharted territory. Ennis on autopilot isn't a terrible thing, he's entertaining even when he's repeating himself, but as the creator of this world and the one who made the most lasting impact with his stories, the stakes are a bit higher. Clearly there's no way the soldiers can succeed in their mission, so our interest will have to be in why these hard men fail. Which is an idea I'm interested in.

In an interview I read, Ennis has mentioned that he wants to introduce recurring characters and while I don't think anyone should be "safe," I think this is a stellar idea. This is a book in dire need of a direction and a mandate. Lapham and Spurrier already have recurring characters, though Lapham's seems to have had a logical end point and Spurrier's is still in the webcomic. Finding some kind of consistent through-line is very important in maintaining interest. For awhile there, the only reason I haven't stopped buying Badlands was because I was too lazy to hit "unsubscribe" on the Midtown website, so there's nowhere else for them to go but up. I'm still interested in the idea and the world, they just need to populate it with people I actually want to read about.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Gears Of War: Judgment - Campaign Review

This post contains spoilers!

Gears Of War is a series I'm constantly on the fence about. As much as I love the series for it's cover-based gameplay, giant setpieces, and huge suite of modes and options giving the player great value for their money, it's not a series without some deep flaws. The characters are all cartoons, right down to their thick-necked, impossibly proportioned character models and ridiculous "ooh rah" mentality. Unless you're willing to read the novelizations and comic books, there's not a whole lot of interesting stuff going on from a story perspective. It's a bunch of war movie cliches and melodramatic nonsense that telegraphs every character moment and plot twist by signal flare.

The first Gears game is, to my mind, the only one that had the right tone: it was a romp. There were serious moments, or moments we were meant to take seriously, but it was all in service of blowing shit up. It seems that, once the first game set the world on fire, the writers never quite found their footing. They had to make the narrative more and more grandiose to match the level of attention heaped upon the game and it's never really been to the series' benefit. It certainly made for some excellent setpieces but the stubborn refusal of characters to act human rubbed against ham-handed moments so incongruous to what came before that my reaction was to sputter with laughter, not get choked up.

As a sidenote: there's plenty of people who like to act as though the narrative of the Gears games are bulletproof. Why question something so resolutely stupid? Well, for the same reason I was one of the guys criticizing the storytelling issues in Mass Effect 3: if the writers want us to take their story seriously, we have to oblige them and judge it as such. If this were Bulletstorm or Vanquish, I'd let a lot of things pass because they never wanted to be anything more than a ridiculous shooter. While Gears may have started as a ridiculous shooter, it discovered ambitions along the way they could never pull off. If you just want to shoot stuff, you can pretty much stop wasting your time with this article now. It's still really good at that.

This was all supposed to change with Gears Of War: Judgement. Developers People Can Fly, those responsible for the aforementioned Bulletstorm, are solid developers picking up a very tried-and-true series. There's no pressure to reinvent it, merely give it a twist while Epic proper works on the first next-gen Gears game. It's role as a placeholder actually works in it's favor because it means they can take more chances than Gears Of War 4 can. They picked game journalist and respected author Tom Bissell to write the game, lending a little credibility to the series and hopefully moving it beyond the Random Quip Generator it had been up to that point. Based on the hushed tones other game journalists spoke of Bissell in, I figured good things were in store.

Sadly, the campaign is only a marginal success... mostly due to the unimpeachable gory action the series is known for.

The first thing I noticed when they previewed the game was the slightly tweaked character models. While still exaggerated, they seemed a little less beefy and more realistic. As a prequel, this could either be because the characters are younger or because of a commitment to a slightly less bro-ified attitude towards the series going forward. Choosing Baird and Cole as the leads was a smart choice as they were the characters who had the most personality in the original trilogy. A game where we see Baird become the increasingly bitter and sarcastic man he is in the first Gears is very much a game I'd like to play. Turns out, I'm still waiting.

People Can Fly know their way around arcade-y score-based action games and Judgement sort of smashes together the vanilla story mode and the arcade mode from the previous games into one. The idea is to collect stars through your performance. Each area has three stars to collect depending on how well your team does. Die or go DBNO (Down But Not Out) and you lose stars. Kill your enemies in various creative ways to earn Ribbons which increase your stars. Collect enough stars and you unlock bonuses including an extra couple of campaign chapters called Aftermath which are a side story to Gears 3 and the only part of the campaign that has no Declassified modifiers. It's also the best chunk of the story in the game, partly for that exact reason.

Every significant firefight in the game has an option to be "Declassified," which imposes any of a number of different battle conditions on you from limited arsenals to increased difficulty to visual impairment which will allow you to earn stars faster at increased risk. It'd be an excellent system if it didn't hamstring narrative momentum and pull you out of the game.

By interrupting you every ten or fifteen minutes by asking you to click on a big COG logo to see what the Declassified factors are for the next fight, Judgement is constantly reminding you that it's a game. I'm a little shocked that Declassified wasn't offered as an optional mode or unlocked after beating the game. The single player wouldn't have been particularly compelling anyway but at least you'd have been able to focus on the story and the flow of action unhindered. Every Declassified logo was an opportunity for me to stop for a bathroom break or a bite to eat or a "Oh, hey, I should go back and continue my Persona 3 game... I'll come back to this later."

The fragmented nature of the narrative gives added scrutiny to the story that it doesn't particularly need. In addition to much quieter, more sober iterations of Baird and Cole (not once are the words "Cole Train" uttered over the course of the campaign), your other squadmates are by-the-book cadet Sofia Hendricks and scarred, grizzled Russian-analogue Garron Paduk, who sort of becomes the game's Baird despite the presence of the actual Baird.

Paduk is far and away the best character in the game. He has a history, a point of view, motivation, a disrespect for authority, and a sharp tongue. And then there's poor Sofia. If you were thinking that a respected writer might mean a well-drawn female character in a video game... not so much. At the military tribunal, Sofia is the only one to try and pass the blame to her squadmates. Later on, it's revealed that she was schtupping an ancillary character they've been searching for, a married man and father. And at the end of the Aftermath chapter it's revealed that she moved on to sleeping with Garron and was brutally murdered off screen to attempt to add a bit of dramatic weight to the story. The Feminazis Coming To Destroy Gaming will not be amused.

The game is ostensibly about Baird's Kilo Squad trying to stop a rampaging Locust leader named Karn by dropping a missile on his head. However, Karn is a just a walking boss fight waiting to start. The real antagonist of the story is Loomis, a moustachioed avatar of myopic military arrogance. After disobeying orders and dropping a Lightmass missile on Karn's head, Loomis has Kilo Squad arrested for treason. The game itself happens in flashback. (I was hoping there'd be some element of Baird and crew as unreliable narrators but that's a bit too ambitious, I suppose.) When you Declassify a section, there's normally a bit of text about how Kilo is alleging something that runs counter to Loomis or the COG brass' intel, illustrating pretty clearly how badly the Locust were underestimated. It's an additional shade to the series I actually quite liked given how black and white the conflict has been portrayed.

By insisting on court martialing Kilo Squad in the middle of a city that's at war, with Locust literally breaking down their doors, there's no interpretation of Loomis' actions that doesn't fit the definition of cartoon villain. Regardless of Kilo's testimony, it's clear he intends to kill them for their disobedience. Between the Declassified text and putting soldiers in harm's way needlessly out of ego and single-mindedness, they spend the entire game building and building up to a reckoning for Loomis and... it all ends with Baird essentially shaking his hand and going their separate ways. No harm done.

Yeah, really, that's it. It's a moment every bit as stupid as the finale of Gears Of War 3 where they tease the idea that there's something more to the Locusts before... well, committing genocide. There's no case to be made that Loomis is just a hard man making hard choices. He's willfully doing wrong because he cannot admit that the Locust are any smarter than "animals" and because he can't see beyond hardline military doctrine. There's a moment in Aftermath where Kilo Squad comes across a statue dedicated to Loomis and I would have been fine with that as a "the real heroes never get recognition" moment if it was clear that he got the ignominious death his actions warranted.

There are action genre rules, the same as in horror. If a character is a dick in the first act, usually an officer or bureaucrat, he gets his just desserts in the third. Hopefully in a fun, ironic way that will make us cheer. Because that's what we're here for. Maybe he dies due to his own arrogance. Maybe he dies despite Kilo's best efforts to intercede, thus making them seem more heroic. Maybe he survives despite all odds and Kilo helplessly watches him leave to continue to lose the war for them, but you don't have your hero characters absolve the villain without the villain changing their ways. If you're going to buck action genre conventions, you need to make your intentions very clear as to why or else it seems as though you're wildly out of sync with the genre you're working in. Because what we got was a very unfulfilling, sour ending.

If only this were the game's only story-related problems.

The game is woefully in need or memorable setpiece fights. The only one that stands out to me is a Normandy-like beach invasion followed later by a defense of the same area, which only stands out due to how tired of a concept it still is and how it will be nakedly reproduced for multiplayer. Judgement seems to have fallen in love with wave-based hold out sequences too. There's several dotted over the course of the game which only make the absence of a proper Horde mode more curious. It also becomes a crutch they lean on by the end of the game. By keeping you penned up in one area, they don't have to generate new areas or sequences. The combat mechanics are as solid as ever but nothing stands out after you're done as being memorable as far as settings or enemy types.

Loomis isn't the only character in the game who has no arc. Character development on the whole just doesn't happen. The opportunity to see Baird and Cole start as rookies and move towards the characters we know from the main series was tantalizing yet is absent in the game itself. Baird has a couple of quips but it otherwise bland as can be. We're left to understand that any serious adjustments to his character were made between the end of Judgement and the first Gears, which is an utterly wasted opportunity.

The handling of Cole is even worse. He has none of the boisterous personality he's known for and doesn't show any by the end of the game. At one point Loomis tells him that he's been "uncharacteristically quiet" and I had to chuckle. Where's this loud Cole he's talking about? The only lines of Cole's I remember are him off-handedly reminding us of how rich he was as a thrashball star. Using his inside voice, no less. There's a case to be made that Cole needed to be a bit more grounded in reality but, at the same time, it wastes Lester Speight as a voice actor. Dude does not do "demure" well. There's a middle ground to hit with the character that the game has no interest in.

These are all things that could have been handled in a few lines of dialogue or a short cutscene. I'm not asking for the game to be based around it's characters, merely that it give us something, anything, to chew on while we play. The Gears series has always struggled in this respect. While Judgement represents an attempt to grow the series up, it's still a long way from meeting it's potential. It still has the smooth, gratifying gameplay we expect from the series but there's only so long you can coast on that. Mechanics get repetitive over time and familiarity will eventually cause people to move onto the next thing. However, if your characters and your world are compelling, that will go a long way towards extending the life of your franchise. Given how sober and ponderous and mishandled Judgement's story turned out to be, it's a lesson Epic is still learning.

Gears Of War is not a series that needs to be taken seriously. It just needs to be a well-written action game. Well-written action, contrary to being "dumb" as people assume, actually means being clever rather than high-minded. There's no Terrence Malick film hiding somewhere in the Gears Of War universe. There are series that can get away with Big Thoughts but Gears isn't one of them. All we need is solid action and to not have our intelligence insulted. They've long since mastered the former, now we just need them to start on the latter.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

iOS Review: DDR Dance Wars

Dance Dance Revolution: Dance Wars
Developer: Bemani
Publisher: Konami
Price: Free (with microtransactions)

Rhythm game institution Dance Dance Revolution has seen better days. The genre has seen a huge contraction due to an over-crowded market. Those of us who played it when it hit American shores have gotten older and more fearful of having our future political ambitions derailed by photos showing up on Facebook, so we're not as likely to pull out the dance mats as we once were. On the upside, just about anyone has time for a quick two minutes of tapping our smartphones to cheesy dance music while pretending to work.

There's already a proper mobile Dance Dance Revolution game, DDR S+, already available which offers the classic DDR experience, so seeing a more social media based, competitive, freemium game show up in this market was a little surprising. Making an impression in a crowded field is no easy task even with name recognition, especially if that name is well past it's prime. So... does DDR Dance Wars [dance metaphor] or does it simply [dance metaphor]?

The first thing I was struck by when I started the game up was just how chintzy and low budget it looked. While DDR S+ feels like an actual app, Dance Wars seems like a glorified browser game. There's plenty of free-to-play games with a solid presentation so having Bemani fumble on even that was not a hopeful sign.

It took me a little while to find my footing in the game because I wasn't sure what I was supposed to be clicking on. Some of the buttons just look like generic headers or graphics. I found myself futzing my way through the screens until I figured out what was where. Not nearly enough thought went into a clear, easy-to-use layout.

Once you figure that out, the game opens up a bit. You have a your standard Free Play mode where you can practice what is initially a very small batch of songs. Mission mode allows you to unlock more tracks by completing various songs under various conditions as well as stickers, the currency of Battle mode. At the end of a song, either in Free Play or the Mission mode, you have the option of setting it as your Battle Track. The idea is to set your highest score as a Battle Track which others will play against in Battle mode.

Battle mode is not a direct competition but simply pits your high score against the score of whichever opponent you choose. You're competing for stickers which, in turn, unlock even more songs. Each song is divided up into five stickers and if you can collect and hold each sticker for the song, you unlock it. You're given up to eight different opponents to choose from which actually results in a bit of strategic thinking. Is the guy with "Max 300" on Expert some kind of savant or is he bluffing with a D rating to keep the scrubs away? On the other hand, is the low level player with the generic batch of numbers and "Kind Lady" on Basic just some random dude who played the game once and quit or did he AA or AAA the song to lure in the suckers?

Either way, the game attempts to keep you on your toes by speeding up the song a couple of times during the course of the battle but since these always happen at exactly the same point of a song, you can pretty easily train yourself. The people who set up a "war cry" to accompany the sped up sections, which is just a random line of text to taunt your opponent, actually succeed more because you eye is automatically drawn to reading the text which can then throw off your timing. You can also buy traps to put on your tracks for an additional level of difficulty to whomever challenges you.

If you're looking to stack the odds in your favor, there's always buffs available in the Store for the cost of either the Respect Points you gain from completing Battles or Missions or DDR Points which cost actual money. You can also use your Respect Points on any of four different power ups which can be leveled up for increased effects.

Your biggest boon in Battle mode is your Crew, friends who also play the game. The game allows you ten initially but the size of your crew can be increased through items bought in the store. In order to join a crew, however, you need to sign up for Japan's mobile gaming social network site GREE. Sign up can apparently only be done via the game, so you can't start an account from your desktop and log in later which is a pain. If you don't have any friends of your own on GREE, the game will auto-populate a number of people you can randomly invite. These crewmembers will go with you into Battle and buff you. There's a cooldown period afterwards but having a couple crewmembers along for the ride and a score boosting power up means even inexperienced players can essentially buy a victory.

Even in the mildly diverting Battle mode, the general sense of a game that's been tossed off in a fortnight follows you everywhere. The game will not notify you if you've leveled up. You need to go back to your profile screen to check. There seems to be some sync issues occasionally where I'll fail out of a mission because of a long string of Great and Good ratings but if I immediately replay the song in Free Mode on the same difficulty, I'll be scoring Perfect or Marvelous.

This is a free-to-play game, though, so your biggest obstacle to play is managing your Stamina meter. It defaults at 500, which essentially means you can play five Battles or Missions before exhausting it. There is a power up that reduces the amount of stamina each match costs as well as an item in the store that can permanently raise your stamina and consumables items for a one time boost, so the amount you play will be decided on how invested you're willing to be in a very mediocre game.

Old school DDR fans will appreciate the returning characters or the songs which have become old favorites. New players will likely be put off by how low budget and cheap the game feels, even at the low, low price of free. The game will be supported by community events that will allow you to unlock accessories for your characters, bonus items or even new tracks. They already have a cross-promotion with another Konami beat-matching game, the vastly superior jukebeat, which will unlock three remixed game tracks for Contra, Lethal Enforcers and Frogger. Being optional tracks, though, they're only available for Free Play mode.

Nothing in DDR Dance Wars is overly offensive but when there are so many classier rhythm games for iOS, including it's sister game, DDR S+, the game really doesn't make a case for itself. While there's a bit of fun to be had and the freemium model is not used in a particularly odious manner, you can easily forget the game in on your phone. Ultimately, it's a solid idea with a poor presentation.