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.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

On CliffyB, Micro-Transactions, and EA vs. Valve

You've probably already read this. Just about anyone who follows gaming news sites has read and developed an opinion about ex-Epic design director and video game gadfly Cliff Bleszinski's Tumblr post about micro-transactions. Some sites, like Kotaku, printed the article without comment, which reads like a public co-sign. Other places, like Destructoid, wrote a polite but assertive counter-argument. Comment threads have grown bloated with rage. Fingers have been waggled at people on both sides of the argument. It's a thing.

Regardless of whether or not I agree with Bleszinski (I don't), I do respect the man's candor. Developers and publishers are notoriously squirrely about doing anything openly. The fact that Cliff is willing to let us look behind the curtain at what a AAA game developer really thinks is undoubtedly a good thing. He has a top down perspective of the industry most of us never get to hear about. However, as informative as it can be, it also illustrates how disconnected he and his peers are from your average rank and file gamer.

It's very eye-opening how little sympathy he seems to have for his audience, shrugging off valid complaints as the simple mechanics of doing business and laying blame on the shoulders of the people buying his games for the state of the industry, ignoring that we're only working with the tool they are giving us. At any rate, given that he's stepped down from his position at Epic in his prime, he's also rich enough to not give a fuck what anyone thinks of him.

One of the major points of his argument, about the encroachment of micro-transactions in AAA titles, is not something that's going away. For better or for worse. Nonetheless, where Cliff (and many of his colleagues, I'm sure) see this as some kind of inevitability, guys like me see the kind of myopic, single-minded, fear-based corporate thinking that's hobbling the industry. It's greed, rationalized.

There's nothing fundamentally wrong with micro-transactions in games, just in how they're being implemented. Micro-transactions are a tool. Multiplayer is a tool. Basic common sense dictates that you use your tools efficiently depending on the project you're tackling. If you try to install a window using only a hammer, you'll likely end up with a lot of blood and swearing. And no window. Cliff has a history of missing the point on this issue, like insisting that games like Shadows Of The Damned would have been improved by multiplayer despite Grasshopper Manufacture not having a large enough team, funding or any kind of logical in to justify it.

For years now we've been in a vicious circle, watching publishers chase after Activision's omnipresent Call Of Duty franchise in hopes of mimicking their success. EA threw more money than I'd care to count, including a PR blitz that seemed to last for months, at Battlefield 3 in hopes of unseating the champ and still fell short. Yet they keep trying the same tricks over and over again on every franchise under their umbrella expecting a different result. You don't need me to tell you what that's the definition of.

So when Cliff gets exasperated at the terribly low opinion people have about EA, I get exasperated right back because I cannot understand how any intelligent person doesn't get it. This isn't a question of people picking on poor, poor multi-billion dollar corporations like EA over something as ridiculous as marketing... this is people catching on to a company that insists on making the exact same mistakes over and over and over again. No one is blaming EA for wanting to make money, they're blaming EA for being bad at it in the long term. They're blaming EA for introducing cynicism into something they love. For reminding us that the industry is owned and managed largely by giant corporations who look at us as walking billfolds rather than people with brains and the ability to walk away from something we don't like. Respect must be earned and maintained.

The argument against EA is multifacited. EA wants uniformity. They want the same rules to apply to everything, because to approach each property or franchise differently would require thought and long-term planning. Simply sayings "add micro-transactions and multiplayer" is something a bunch of shareholders who know nothing about games can understand. It may mitigate risk but it also results in burning their bridges as they're building them. It gets much harder to build a head of steam when everyone is waiting for the day where someone makes a big tentpole, franchise game that can't be beaten without micro-transactions. Because, based on their history, that is the exact kind of thing EA would do.

The Call Of Duty bubble is going to burst. Every year there are contenders and every year they're knocked out but people will eventually tire of the feedback loop. And right now, the video game industry doesn't have anything else to pick up the slack other than the seemingly evergreen sports franchises. Millions and millions of dollars have been thrown at MMO's that have under-performed and been shuttered. The handheld market has given way to smartphones and tablets that Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo don't own. We have a new generation of consoles coming and rumors of Microsoft releasing an online-only, EA-partnered system swirling that will likely hand the console crown back to Sony. A good PR team can dazzle but it only takes one well-informed friend to kill the buzz.

And when the dust settles, Valve will still be there. Not because they are inherently good and righteous people but because, as others have mentioned, they're smart and they're privately-owned. They make bucketloads of money because they treat their audience like people who will leave if they feel they aren't getting a fair deal. Other people have broken down the differences between EA's approach to DLC and Valve's, but it boils down to respect. Valve's Team Fortress 2 micro-transactions do not hinder the game, they personalize it.

While EA is confused at why they're being voted the worst company in America, Valve seems to understand the power of not underestimating your audience. (I quoted Valve head Gabe Newell in a Tumblr post not too long ago that illustrates the kind of thinking EA has yet to grok.) Being a Capitalist doesn't mean you have license to treat your audience as disposable and there's no rule that you can't be richer than God and also well-liked. So long as Valve remains a private company, you can expect their hot streak to continue.

People use the term "vocal minority" like it's derogative. They tend to forget the operative word there, which is "vocal." Your average casual gamer who buys only Madden and Halo and Call Of Duty may not have an opinion about Day One DLC or micro-transactions but you can be sure he has a friend who does. If that friend tells him not to buy the next Xbox because you have to be online at all times to use it, he'll listen. These aren't numbers you can plug into a spreadsheet. It's a human factor and it's an area corporations like EA have a damnably hard time understanding. Get enough people crowing about something and others will listen.

So, while I respect Bleszinski for providing gamers with an insight into how high level suits in this industry think and I admire him for the foresight to take a step back to see how the chips fall before making his next move, his insistence on blaming his audience for his own short-sightedness means that, even after the future of the industry has been written, there will people waiting in the wings to bring that bad old cynicism back. And the whole thing will start all over again.