Sunday, December 17, 2017

Take Note: Why Star Wars has the Best Battles in Cinema

Take Note is series where we examine a single idea for others to consider.

Spoiler Warning: The following article contains minor spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The article below only talks about the space battles in the film. Characters and locations will be discussed loosely, and without names. If you're sensitive to that sort of thing, check back later. Everyone else, let's do this.

One of the opening scenes in the latest Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, is a big space battle. I know, you're shocked. A big space battle in a film called Star Wars. I'll give you all a minute to catch your breath and finish clutching your pearls. Good? Good. It was during this scene that it occurred to me why Star Wars battles are so memorable, and why they work so well, even when they are largely inconsequential to the overall plot. These  long movies, with several story lines to deal with, philosophies to expound on and secrets to reveal. Do they really have time to waste on all the pew pew and bang bang? More importantly, how do they get away with wasting time on them? In a film about space wizards fighting with laser swords, which is already pretty awesome, it's saying something that many of memorable moments come from rust buckets trying to gun each other down.

Stop me if you've heard this one: In a Star Wars movie there's an enemy fleet of baddies about to kill kittens or something. And there's another fleet of good guys trying to stop the bad guys or run away or save the universe. Both sides have launched their fighters and the big battle is about to really get going. And then this happens:

Do you remember this guy? Looks familiar right? Do you know his name? I sure don't. But this, right here, is why Star Wars battles actually work. This guy isn't one of the heroes. He's not even an important second tier guy like Hawkeye or a recurring jokes like the Cabbage Vendor. Nope, this lovable fellow exists only so that a handful of minutes from now a lucky tie fighter pilot can turn him into charcoal.

The obvious move here would be to say that Star Wars takes the time to show you the pilots, to humanize them. To remind us that behind the cockpit of those crafty X-Wings and speedy A-Wings are real people with real emotions. That in conflict, fighting for your ideals has a price. But in truth, you'd have gone to far. It's not that Star Wars takes the time to show you a human face, it's that Star Wars takes the time.

The space battles in Star Wars have stakes. They have moves and counter moves. They have tactics and gambits that either pay off or fail and they have a resolution. In essence, they are a story unto themselves, a stage play of battleships and aircraft dog fighting on the endless sea of space. The films take the time to show us this, to let us know who and where all the pieces are on the board before things really get under way.

The opening space battle in The Last Jedi is about a Rebel fleet trying to escape from an Imperial fleet. The Imperial fleet has a big battleship that can punch through the shields of the Rebel fleet's capital ship. That's it. That's all you need to know and it's set up in like thirty seconds in the film around story dialogue and other bits. The Rebels release all their ships to take out the big Imperial ship and then we get our quick cuts to each pilot's cockpit. More important than the score, we know the rules of the sport we're playing. The Rebels have a ship they want to protect, the Imperials have a ship they want to protect. The time limit is determined by when the Rebels can escape. Everyone releases their fighters onto the field and it's time to play ball.

So much of modern cinema forgets to do this, or dices it up so finely that it is unrecognizable. So many fantasy movies with battles full of orcs and mystical beasts and big explosions and it's all meaningless, not because we don't know what the stakes are, but because we don't know how the game is being played. All we see is two mobs smash into one another interspersed with clips of our heroes cutting through mobs of faceless enemies while exchanging witty one liners. It's all fluff. I'd be hard pressed to tell you the details of any big, army sized fight scene in a Marvel movie for instance, or Lord of the Rings, but I can recall just about every space battle in every Star Wars film to date. I can tell why they were fighting, what they were fighting over, who was in the battle and where they were.

I can tell you those things because the Star Wars films, all of them, the good and the bad, have taken the time to set their stage. In the Marvel movies, which are all great, often times our heroes are reduced to punching baddies until the plot timer goes off. Four or five of our team is left to thinning out the herd until one of them can reach the thing they're fighting over. And that's not to knock the Marvel movies. They've done a lot great work that puts the ten-thousand-cuts school of film editing in modern action movies to shame. But the reason why Star Wars is so enduring, why it is so memorable on top of the lightsabers and the Force, is because each of their battles are communicated to the audience effectively. Who, what, when, where, why? These are questions we're all familiar with, questions we all apply to our stories, but how many of us stop to ask them of our battles?

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Take Note: Terrain Elevation in Sniper Elite 4

Take Note is series where we examine a single idea or mechanic for designers to consider.

The Sniper Elite series by Rebellion is one of those titles that always seems to be on the cusp of a major breakthrough into the mainstream, but is never quite able to get there. I've been playing the series and its Nazi zombie flavored spin offs since Sniper Elite V2. The series falls into the stealth action mold alongside titles like Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell. The games follow the exploits of Karl Fairburne, a ken doll looking sniper working for OSS during World War II. With each release of the game, the developers over at Rebellion have improved their design, refining a fairly basic sniper title into an excellent third person stealth action game.  If the name of the series doesn't ring a bell, you've probably seen their best known mechanic, the bullet cam.

I recently picked up the latest in the series, Sniper Elite 4, and was blown away by the level design of the game's first mission. In Sniper Elite 4, each mission takes place on its own open map, where the player can freely explore around the area, complete objectives and find collectables in the form of letters and reports. The maps give the player the freedom to tackle the objectives in which ever order they like, and explore the map's nook and crannies at their own pace.

What at first appears to be a standard open world map slowly reveals itself to be a great example of level design. Each objective takes place in a desecrate combat zone that seamlessly blend together across the map. Each of these areas has multiple approaches from different directions. This allows the player to tackle them from what ever direction they choose and offer approaches for different play styles. A typical choice in the game may be to try and find a tower to snipe from, a hidden path to sneak around the encounter, or heading up the main road guns blazing. While stealth is a big component of the game, its forgiving enough to let players disengage from a fire fight, regroup and try again.

The thing that impressed me most with the game, from the very first mission, is the change in elevation across the map. The game goes beyond adding simple towers to snipe from, to having massive changes in elevation across the same level. In the map above, the beach at the bottom of the map is down a steep cliff face, as is a pocket of beach further up the map. In most games that would be an inaccessible area. In Sniper Elite 4, it's not only accessible, one of the objects are located there. More subtle changes in elevation litter the map. Creaks and gullies below the main road that allow you to sneak past enemies, or hills cresting above that you can snipe from. While we've seen this type of difference in elevation in games before, Sniper Elite 4 manages to make it feel natural. Each path, each approach, is tied together in a way that makes it feel organic that other games struggle to pull off.

In something like Far Cry, you may have a observation tower to snipe from, or a hill that crests over an encampment. Even in Metal Gear Solid 5, one of my favorite stealth action titles from recent years, the changes in elevation are often anemic. A building may have multiple stories, and the surrounding country side may have a hill or two, but they aren't enough to affect gameplay.  There's really only one combat area in Metal Gear Solid 5 with a drastic change in elevation, that being the terrace area in the Afghanistan map, but even that is a linear progression from low to high. The rest of the game features the box stand cliff to observe from, but few actual changes in elevation.

Sniper Elite 4 manages to tie its high, low and medium areas together in a way that gives the player options, allows for a variety of play styles and look natural in way most games do not.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Missed Opportunities: Watch Dogs 2 Should Be Hacker Batman

Watch Dogs 2 is an open world game in which you play a young activist hacker trying to expose the corrupt dealings of mega corporations that are selling people's private data to get even richer. It's not exactly new territory, but Watch Dogs tries to liven things up with a young cast who values having a good time just as much as making the world a better place. The game has this juvenile, Rage Against the Machine, down with the system vibe punctuated by neon greens and fluorescent purples. While not really my aesthetic of choice, I can at least admire how much the developers leaned in to it. They really went for it, going past the bounds of the expected, past even tacky until they broke all the through to a pulpy hacker tale wrapped in a cloak of hashtags, spray paint and memes.

A  photographic summary of this game's style.

Throughout the game the player steals cars, hacks cameras, pilots drones and causes all kinds of mayhem in the name of sticking it to the man and pulling the wool off of people's eyes. Overall, it paints a picture of  the fun, carefree revolutions of the young who don't have to worry about logistics or the impact of the consequences of their actions. While not exactly realistic, it works for the game. It takes an average young black man and turns him into what amounts to a superhero all thanks to a cell phone and a few hundred lines of code.

The biggest issue I've had with the game so far comes not from its campy attitude or instance on packing a pop culture reference into nearly every line of dialogue, but from the combat. The mechanics are typical open world fair. You have guns, a stun gun for those wishing to go non-lethal, and a bare bones cover system to help when you're in a tight spot. Additionally, thanks to your hacker skills, you have additional options like sabotaging power boxes or making gas pipes explode. This is largely what the industry has come to expect from this style of open world game, from Game Theft Auto to Mafia III and even Infamous, battles often devolve into combat arenas full of goons with bad A.I. to slow you down from reaching your objective.

In Grand Theft Auto or Mafia III, the thought of gunning your way through mobs of enemies fits in with the overall themes of those games. In Grand Theft Auto you're a criminal, either currently or previously, so the thought of killing people should come as no shock. In Mafia III, you play a mafia underling turned special forces veteran who's out for revenge, closer in sensibilities to the Punisher rather than Batman. In Watch Dogs 2 however, you're supposed to be a good guy, not really an anti-hero. Your idea of braking the law is more stealing a car or breaking an entering and less cold blooded murder.

Watch Dogs 2's combat leave you little options. Sure, the game gives you a stun gun, and a variety of tools to hack your way into and out of situations, but even a slight misstep will result in your death. See, the guards in Watch Dogs 2 don't really make sense. Mixed in with the average pistol armed rent a cops are guys with military rifles and automatic shotguns, not to mention the guys in head to toe ballistic armor. And this isn't in super secret installations either, regular street thugs and paid by the hour security guards walk around with fully automatic shotguns. Even crazier, when seeing a trespasser, their opening move is to fire at will. See a suspicious person? Don't bother asking them to leave, just mow them down with a military grade weapon for no reason.

This encourages a lethal play style, of which the game is all to ready to push you toward. While it starts you off with a non-lethal stun gun, ever other weapon in the game that you can either buy or pick up is a fully lethal gun of some variety. The blood thirsty guards add to this by opening fire with little in the way of warning. A slight misstep in the game's limited stealth mechanics means two or three guards will begin opening fire with their guns while a fourth calls for reinforcements. This game is ready at any moment's notice to drop a dozen heavily armed goons on your for simply being seen in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's more than bad A.I. and bad level design, it undermines a lot of what the game is going for.

When I first started the game I thought I would go non-lethal. Between the aforementioned stun gun and the game's melee attacks, I figured I'd have a good time sneaking through the shadows, hacking terminals and being this "for the masses" hacktivist the game wanted to make me. Unfortunately, within two missions I was facing fully armed swat teams that were best taken out by the tried and true method of finding the biggest gun in the place and slinging lead like I was auditioning to be the next Rambo.

It's an even bigger shame when the game so clearly demonstrates that it's capable of so much more. In one mission, I was tasked with infiltrating this warehouse along the docks, getting an access code and then stealing a truck full of electronics. The place was patrolled by over a dozen guards armed with pistols, shot guns and rifles, and stealth wasn't getting it done. Instead, I solved the problem by remotely hacking my way between cameras in order to get line of site on the truck. Having already acquired the access code to the gate, I used an upgrade ability to remote pilot the truck through the docks and out of the warehouse. While the guards were running around trying to figure out what was happening, my character was standing smoothly across the street, using a tablet to drive the stolen truck to a perfect stop inches from where he was standing. And that's where the missed opportunity comes in, that's where the game missed its chance to be more than your average third person, open world, mass murder simulator. What the game should have done was make you Batman.

The Rocksteady Arkham games have become well known for their combat. It's become a colloquialism to say it has "Batman" combat. The Assassin Creed style, protagonist surrounded by bad guys with an attack, dodge and counter to help you jump from enemy to enemy and chain up large combos. That's not the part of Batman that Watch Dogs 2 needed. Watch Dogs 2 need the other part of what made those games so enjoyable.

This part.

The Rocksteady Arkham games were at their best when forcing you to think like the bat. You have a room full of six guys. Two with electric batons, two with shields and one with an automatic rifle. The combat encounters were not just battles, but puzzles. Get the gun guy first, swooping down from a gargoyle to tie him up. Then get rid of those annoying baton guys with a swish of the cape. Flip over the shield guys and hit them from behind. Take out the last guy with a reflexively thrown batarang. Those games gave you a host of different abilities and then forced you into situations in which you needed to use them effectivly in order to come out unscathed. Watch Dogs 2 feels like they started to go down this road, with electric panels placed around the environments that can shock enemies,  and abilities focused on luring opponents, but then never does anything interesting with them.

Back in the PS2/XBOX days, it was common to have a game in which the only way to solve a problem through combat was in giving the hero a gun and letting them kill as many folks as possible. And make no mistake, I love my fair share of running and gunning video games, but in the modern era, gamers expect something more. They expect the thematic elements to resonate with one another. Watch Dogs 2 either doesn't get this, or willfully disregards it in the name of  presenting the player with a false choice of non-lethal or lethal, while pushing them into a world of blood thirsty murders.

I think the game would have been far more powerful, and the engagements far more enjoyable if instead of presenting the player with killing fields full of a few stealth elements, they approached the game more like one of the Batman games by giving the player gadgets and choices that allowed them to control the battlefield in ways that didn't feel like one off magic tricks or electrifying gimmicks. At the very least, a different approach to the guard's A.I. would have made a non-leathal, or at least less lethal path more viable. Look at Hitman, where when caught trespassing guards ask you to leave before moving into combat. Even when moving into combat, they always attempt an arrest before going into murder mode. Both of these would have done a great deal to helping the guards in Watch Dogs 2 feel more like people and less like brainwashed drones who need a blood fix.

The story would have also benefited. The carefree attitude and pop culture obsessed nature of the characters starts off  making them endearing. It makes them seem like real people, young people, up against impossible odds. But after a few instances of walking into an innocent movie studio and gunning down a few dozen people, or killing the hundrth security guard that was just doing their job, it no longer feels so carefree. Instead it feels rather blind to the people they claim they are trying to save. It ends up with this dude-bro culture of refusing to acknowledge consequences, much like Ubisoft's other big open world hit, Far Cry 3. The whole thing comes off as tone deaf, as blind to its own message when it could have been so much more.

The thought of young hackers, of people trying their best to make the world better through their skills and ingenuity, rather than their marksmanship or willingness to kill as many as it takes is a message modern video games could benefit by exploring. The creators of Watch Dogs 2 had a real opportunity to take a young, black protagonist and make him someone that refused to kill even when met with lethal force, much in the same way as Batman. Through gadgets and cleverness, the protagonist of Watch Dogs 2 could have come across as an upcoming, amateur vigilante that was trying to save people, to make the world a better place. Instead, he comes across as a childish sociopath who goes on murder sprees in-between stealing cars and making youtube videos with his friends.

In the end, I was left wishing Ubisoft had made the protagonist of Watch Dogs 2 something a little more Nightwing, and a little less Jason Todd.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Difficulty Vs Design: Revisitng X-COM 2

Almost exactly a year ago I played X-COM 2, Firaxis's follow up to the wonderful X-COM: Enemy Unknown reboot from a few years prior. I was rather disappointed with their sequel. While the X-COM games have always been difficult, even oppressive, I found X-COM 2 to be more frustrating than fun. At the time I chalked this up to a decision to add in mission timers and stress in my own life. I just wasn't in the right place mentally for slamming my head into a wall. A year later and on the eve of a major DLC release for the game, War of the Chosen, I decided to revisit the base game and give X-COM 2 another shot. An additional 12 hours of gameplay later (bringing me up to a modest total of 19) I have a similar, though better understanding of what I found so frustrating the first time around.

The X-COM reboot saw a pretty familiar Earth invaded by an alien menace like so many pulp stories and summer action films. A secret organization of government officials band together to push back the alien menace. The Commander leads the organization, developing new technologies, training recruits and fighting back against the alien tide. The second X-COM envisions a world in which humanity lost that war. The aliens have arrived, taken over and rule with an iron fist. X-COM is no longer a global organization of futuristic technologies, but a rag tag band of rebels fighting in isolated cells, using whatever scraps they can find along the way. The game opens with them rescuing the Commander from the first game, leading to what was for me the best moment in X-COM 2.

"Welcome back, Commander."

The voice actor who delivers that line is absolutely perfect. It's a great set up and an interesting way to build off the first game while still leaving players in that underdog, against all odds position. The Commander, using a massive airship as his base, flies from place to place, building contacts with the resistance, researching the alien's technology to use against them and probing the enemy's defenses for soft targets they can hit with lightning efficiency. So where does it all go wrong?

In my first playthrough of X-COM 2 I blamed the mission timer for much of the games unneeded difficulty. To add to the theme of outnumbered and outgunned rebels fighting back against a totalitarian regime, the game adds an arbitrary turn counter to many of the missions. You have eight or nine turns to complete your objective and get out. Fail to complete the objective in the allotted time and your entire squad becomes captured, even if they were in a defensible position they could otherwise have escaped from.

To add to this, in the meta layer of X-COM 2, they eschew the global panic of the first game for a more ominous and vague "Avatar Project". In the first game, failing missions or neglecting certain regions would increase a level of panic in the region. If the panic reached too high a level, that region would pull out of the global initiative and decide to fight for itself. Lose too many regions, and it's game over. It was a meta level threat that made sense thematically. Nations consumed by fear, losing confidence in a world government leaving them to die deciding to go home and bunker down, defending themselves first and foremost. Lose too many regions and the world couldn't hope to stand against such a sizable threat. The themes of all for one and one for all felt at home with the game's larger message, of diverse groups banding together against a common threat. In X-COM 2, all of this goes out the window in favor of the Avatar Project. A red bar at the top of the world map shows how far the project is progressing. At certain times facilities appear on the map, targets which if destroyed will delay the completion of this mysterious project. While a weaker threat narratively, it does force the Commander to go on the offensive, taking the fight against the enemy even when the odds are against them.

Unfortunately, the odds are the problem.

Saying the Random Number Generation (RNG) is bad in X-COM is nothing new. It's like saying Nintendo panders to kids or Dark Souls is hard. The problem is that the RNG in X-COM is not just bad, not just poorly balanced, but instead serves to highlight fundamental weaknesses in the design. Some of these were present in X-COM: Enemy Unknown, others are new to X-COM 2 but all serve to highlight how a fault in one critical piece can bring the entire machine down. RNG, essentially programmed dice rolls, control the accuracy of how your guns shoot in X-COM 2, it decides how much damage those shots do and it decides whether getting hit means a wounded soldier or a dead one. A great many games do this to a lesser or greater extent. The Achilles heal of X-COM 2 is that the entire game hinges on them.

In the tutorial players are taught one of the most vital tactics in the game, using an ability called Overwatch to lure in and ambush enemy units. Overwatch puts units in a guarded state, making them shoot enemies if they move within their line of sight. Add to this the knowledge that enemies always get a free move when revealed and it becomes clear that Overwatch is essential to surviving in the game. The situation unfolds as such, if you move your units and reveal enemies, those enemies get a free move to get into defensive positions. Then on their turn they are in a good position to attack you. If however, you have units in Overwatch, when the enemy's free move is triggered, your units will attack them. This basically, though not exactly, gives your units a free attack to counter their free move. It is the basic building block of the game's strategy and impacts almost every decision you'll make.

Except that those Overwatch attacks are also decided by RNG. On occasion after occasion while playing X-COM 2, I would have my troops in the perfect location, everyone behind cover and in Overwatch and trigger an enemy movement only for the entire squad to miss. Now some of this may be bad luck, but when you add on to it the turn timer ticking down, the punishing damage that every enemy does, the sheer weight of the operation coming down on you, it's heartbreaking. Aside from causing me to pound my fist on the desk in frustration or curse at my monitor, it really breaks the illusion the game is trying to create. Here I have an entire squad of trained, battle hardened soldiers fighting with assault rifles at ranges of 30 ft. or less and they can't hit a super mutant the size of Andre the Giant? It doesn't make any sense for one of them to miss much less all of them.

Time and time again through playing X-COM 2 I would have a soldier aiming at an enemy three or four squares away, a distance of maybe 20 ft. with an assault rifle and their chance to hit would be around 70%. That's insane. Give an untrained person a pistol and have them shoot at a target twenty feet away that's eight feet tall and two feet wide and try and tell me they'll miss more than 70% of the time. And these aren't untrained civilians. These are trained soldiers, sent into battle after battle, promoted for their efforts on the field.

So they miss? So what? Shoot again. After all, that's what you would do in the first game. You might take some damage or lose a soldier in the process, but that's all part of X-COM, that is in some way part of the fun. But in X-COM 2 there are prices for that failure. You aren't just losing a soldier, you're losing a turn on a timer, maybe one of only eight for the entire mission. Not only did all your soldiers miss and someone die, but they are going to have spend the entire next turn shooting at enemies that should already be dead, and they'll have one less gun to do it.

And this, finally, brings me to my point. When is a game merely difficult, and when does it cross over into a flawed or poorly executed design. X-COM has always been hard. That's part of it's charm. A hard pressed Commander fighting impossible odds with less than ideal tools to do it. Make a bad decision, send your troops to a position they can't defend and you pay the price for it. A soldier falls on the battlefield and another name is added to you memorial wall. You got into the next battle not with an experienced veteran, but a rookie prone to panic. Your actions and your choices have consequences, making those choices more interesting.

But in X-COM 2 you aren't punished for you decisions, you aren't punished for attacking when you should have defended or going left when you should have gone right. You are punished for dice rolls you can't even see. Put a squad in Overwatch, use the tactics the game teaches you and watch as they all miss. Watch as they fall on the battlefield while an arbitrary floating timer decides you're out of time, out of chances. Watch as the game decides everyone on the ground was captured, when they could have easily escaped.

Super Meat Boy and Dark Souls are two of the poster children for difficult but rewarding games. They are trotted out when anyone says a game is hard. Oh you think this is hard, you should try Dark Souls. Both of those titles are not without their faults and there's more than one unfair death to be found in the Souls series, but there are a few crucial differences. The first is control. In Super Meat Boy, a harrowing, nail biting platformer, you have some of the best control of your jump to be found in the entire genre. The cause of this is pretty simple. When you die in Super Meat Boy it's meant to be your fault, not the game's. You missed the jump, you screwed up the timing. In Dark Souls the enemies are punishing, capable of dealing great damage, but they have patterns and wind up animations to show you what's coming. You can learn and adapt. You can't learn a dice roll. You can't control the whims of fate. Sure, you can start relying heavily on grenades and the few other items in the game that are guaranteed hits, but this is far from the intended design. You can research new equipment and unlock better gear, but how many players will get that far, how many Commanders will trust them when it all comes down to a roll of the dice anyway?

Secondly, in both the titles listed above, any setbacks from these failures are temporary. Levels in Super Meat Boy are short and load times instant so that no matter how frustrating of a death you just suffered you're back in the level and jumping before you can even think to throw the controller. In Dark Souls, dying cost you souls, the currency used for improving the stats of your character, but even this is only a temporary set back. New souls can always be gathered. There's no permanent price of failure like there is X-COM 2, no Avatar Project always getting a step closer to completion.

Difficult games often get a pass. Criticism isn't justified, it's simply the complaining of someone who needs to get better at the game, who needs to stop whining and learn the strategies to beat it. In some ways I would agree with that, but in X-COM 2 it isn't the aliens I'm fighting, it's the dice. Chance is a fundamental part of the X-COM series. In war, nothing is guaranteed, nor should it be. What I contend is that the developers need to pay careful attention to how these things are balanced, and the effect they have on the larger game. Without the turn timers, the missed attacks and botched die rolls become far less of a set back. Without the Avatar Project, losing a squad to chance means building a new one, rather than suffering a permanent setback that could result in the loss of an entire several hours long campaign.

There is much to like about X-COM 2, in the story, in the presentation. In the weapons and gadgets they give, in the varied enemies they send you to fight against. It's a shame I won't see more of it because I'm not willing to gamble any more of my time on a game that feels more rigged than fun, on something that feels more cheating than challenging.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Batman: Arkham Knight and How You Only Get One Shot

The following article contains minor spoilers for Batman: Arkham Knight, mostly related to the early game and side missions.

Batman: Arkham Knight, the third game in Rocksteady's Arkham trilogy had a rough launch to say the least. While the game was generally reviewed positively by the press, consumers found the game at launch to be buggy and plagued with technical issues. This was most severe on the PC, where even high end machines struggled to run the game, leading to Warner Brothers to eventually pull the game from sale on PC until it could be fixed.

As a primarily PC gamer these days and a huge fan of Rocksteady's treatment of the dark crusader's franchise, I was devastated. I've been a big fan of the bat since I was a knee high tyke running around in my bat symbol underoos. Having been introduced to Batman through the amazing and still worth watching animated series from the 90's (which I've written about previously here and here) I spent most of my life suffering through lack luster adaptations of Bruce Wayne's story in both movies and video games. Thankfully Nolan came along with a darker, more grounded trilogy and helped launch a new interest among the popular culture.

Which is where Rocksteady came in. Working with publisher Warner Brothers, they released Arkham Asylum, a fresh yet traditional take on the Bat, weaving together decades of characters and story lines into something that felt familiar and new all at the same time. The genius came not only in how they handled the characters of Gotham, remixing characters and storylines as needed, but in the gameplay as well. They wisely eschewed the beat em up past of previous Batman games in favor of a stealthy, cerebral metroidvania that had players filling the role of Batman as he explored the infamous Arkham Asylum, solving puzzles, battling goons and catching the bad guys. The sequel, Arkham City, expanded the concept into a small, pseudo-open world that featured a sub-section of Gotham as a hub, linking areas together and allowing the player to brood on rooftops like their favorite hero does in all those movie posters. Both were great games and left players with a taste of an open world that wouldn't be fulfilled until the final third act of the trilogy.

Rocksteady had a proven track record, had made two great games in the franchise and had built up a trust and respect among fans. There was no reason to suspect the third game wouldn't be anything but amazing. Then the reviews hit, the game launched and word began to spread. Massive frame rate drops, technical hitches, bugs, crashes, etc. Everyone was left to wonder what the hell happened, meanwhile the narrative of a bad, buggy game took hold. Fans like myself who were so desperately waiting to get a hold of the game pushed it away, disappointed and heart broken at what happened. We moved on, to other games, to other franchises, wondering what the next great super hero game would be.

Except, thing is, Batman: Arkham Knight is a great game, fully worth its place as the end of the trilogy. I picked up the game during a Steam sale and have spent the better part of last weekend tearing through it. From the opening intro of a cop wandering into a diner only to get overwhelmed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, to soaring over the rooftops of Gotham, Arkham Knight puts the player right back in the boots of the Bat, beating up bad guys, catching crooks and rocketing through the streets in your bat mobile. The game isn't perfect of course. I wish the controls were a bit tighter and there's one too many "jump out of the bat mobile just so you can hit a switch" segments, but the overall game is a wonderful blend of open world mechanics and the polished, loving treatment of Batman we've come to expect from Rocksteady.

First, let me say the Joker in this is an absolute delight. I was initially skeptical of the narrative device of having the Joker accompany Batman through the game as a hallucination, but the pay off is certainly worth it. Mark Hamil's delivery and portrayal of a character he helped define for a generation is perfect, backed by strong writing and decades worth of chemistry with Kevin Conroy, the definitive voice of Batman. But it's more than just the voice acting or the dialogue. Rocksteady goes all the way with the gag. The Joker doesn't just appear in cut scenes, he lurks outside of buildings, waiting to get in a verbal jab or two at the Bat as he leaves. He's a constant stream of jokes, insults and verbal stabs, constantly trying to get under Batman's skin. Observant players will even notice him causally sitting on rooftops as they glide over the city. The inclusion of such a beloved, well known character, for so much of the game not only gives fans a chance to see more of him than they would in the passing role of a villain, it gives us a chance to delve deeper into the character's relation to Batman and the history the two have shared.

How can you not love this guy?

But it goes beyond that, beyond being able to finally drive the batmobile at high speed through the streets of Gotham in hot pursuit of the baddies. There are clever touches all throughout this game. The way the main story gives you an excuse to go do side missions, to not feel guilty about leaving someone in peril while you tick a few things off your checklist. The absolutely genius way it handles side missions, disguising them as tracking down the bad guys. Let's face it, the Azrael no hit challenges, racing against Firefly's fuel, tracking Penguin's vans, all of these would be simple markers in any other open world game. Here's a racing flag, time to do the race side missions. They always feel so tacked on, so video gamey in other games. Here they are worked intelligently and seamlessly into the world and the experience overall. From solving Riddler's challenges and freeing Catwoman to tracking down a serial killer, the game never stops letting you feel like Batman. As an added touch of pure brilliance, when you finish a chain of side missions, you get to take the bad guy to jail, where they stay locked up for the rest of the game. In most open world games you get an achievement, a little tick on a box that says completed. Here you actually get the sense of closure of hauling them off to the local PD station.
Oh, and the police station. The Gotham City Police Department is my favorite part of this game. The whole thing is amazing. All of the cops you can talk to with real names and personalities, the bowl of Halloween candy on the bad ass Sergent's desk, the evidence room where you can hear little snippets about villains you've defeated in previous games. All of it works together so damn well to make you feel like the Dark Knight. The way the cops treat you with a mix of reference and suspicion. The sheer bad ass action of walking a big shot criminal like Two Face or the Penguin past their own locked up goons. It's brilliant and it's also home to one of my most beloved moments in the game, that of the corrupt cop.

You see, in Arkham Knight, you will occasionally find goons in the open world that are highlighted in a bright green to signify they work for the Riddler. Isolate them and you can interrogate them to learn where Riddler's hidden his puzzles around the city. So how is one to react when casually strolling through the Gotham City police department and you see a cop outlined in bright green? The game also features elements of Batman losing his sanity, of battling against the Joker's crazy. You have to wonder if you're seeing things, if it's some kind of glitch. The cop's just hanging out, talking to his buddies. You can even go up and talk to him and he's just like everyone else. Hit the interrogate button however and Batman will slam him into the wall, accuse him of working for the Riddler, only for the guy to confess. It's a great moment, not only from a gameplay perspective of using past taught mechanics to let the player discover something on their own, but in making the player feel like Batman, like the world's greatest detective.

There's a ton of other things I could gush on about with this game. The camera framing is wonderful. The little touches of a rescued firefighter hooking a thumb toward the horizon, toward the ruins of Arkham City in the background as he talks about it. The lovely art and set design of the varied locations, from Penguin's hideouts to the Haunted House at the movie studio. The way Riddler writes notes around his traps showing how he built them and providing hints to the player. Bruce Wayne's voicemail at Wayne Tower. The variety in Gotham from the seedy, trash strewn under city to the glamour of Founder's Island. The paintings and billboards scattered around. The whole city feels alive and fresh, despite being abandoned and run down. It's a wonderfully constructed world with some truly amazing design decisions littered throughout, both in gameplay and presentation.

But how many will play it? How many will remember the messy stories of a botched launch, of technical failures and hard crashes. It reminds me of Assassin's Creed Unity. A game that looked gorgeous leading up to launch, that promised living, breathing crowds and fast paced action set during the French Revolution. But no one remembers that. Ask someone to tell you about Unity and the first thing that comes to mind is the horrifying screenshot of the eye ball man. And yet the game is also capable of true beauty, of wonder artistry.

No one loves the eye ball man.

 Look at how gorgeous this is. 
Hard to believe they came from the same game.
Is Arkham Knight going to suffer the same fate? In this era of constant game releases are people going to revisit the Dark Knight's final chapter? Or will they remember all the stories from the launch? Of even mega powerful machines struggling to run it? These days the game runs fine even on a medium powered gaming laptop. The bugs have all been patched, the technical issues resolved. But the crowds have moved on to newer games, to better releases.

In such a fast moving industry, it really does seem like you only get one shot. I'll spare you the beaten to death Miyamoto quote, but it's a lesson that could be learned by a few more publishers. To wait and let your title get the attention it deserves, the praise it so easily could earn, rather than being tarnished by the scarlet letter of a broken game.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Doom 2016 In Translation: Tension, Horror and the Evolution of the Doom Guy

Earlier this year, the long awaited sequel/reboot/revival of the classic Doom series arrived to a cautious and skeptical crowd. The original Doom released in 1993 during the grunge heavy days of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and cemented one of the biggest genres in video games, the First Person Shooter. You could forgive fans of their trepidation. Like most long lived franchises, the sequels and follow up projects to Doom had failed to capture the imagination in the same way. Doom 4 had languished in development, only to eventually be morphed, reborn into Doom 2016. In a pleasant turn of fate the fans ended up being wrong. Dead wrong. Doom 2016 was not only awesome, not only a stellar celebration of everything Doom had been and could be, it was also a damn fine video game.

It appears the making of the game, like most projects, was not without its own battles. Thanks to the great work of Danny O'Dwyer and his excellent noclip series, viewers are given an eye into the internal struggles the team went through in trying to decide the game's atmosphere, tone and gameplay style. One of things brought up frequently in the interview with Hugo Martin, the game's creative director (you can watch his extended interview here), is the inspiration that came from action movies and comic books. Ideas of tone and pacing that helped guide them in their vision of a new doom, something that was fast paced and bad ass in all the ways the original had been.

The shadows bathe the corridors. Lights, struggling to maintain power flicker and spark. A woman, dressed in a lab coat and business attire runs though the darkness. She reaches an intersection of once pristine metal corridors. To her left, light, salvation, to her right, only darkness. Two beady red eyes appear, attached to a hulking black shape in the shadows. The shape lets out an angry snort. The woman runs down the corridor, toward the light. Toward safety.

The thing that makes Doom 2016 so brilliant, so satisfying is not the action, not the push forward combat as defined by the creative team, but the tension. The tension that is formed by all of these things and feeds back into them. The art style, the animations, and especially the amazing soundtrack pump the player up, it gets their blood boiling until they need that release, until they are dying to punch something. We've all likely had that feeling before, when your blood pressure it up, when you're angrily pacing back and forth and you just want to hit something. Its a violent urge, an urge that must be controlled in a productive and safe society, but when you give in, when you let out that pent up rage it feels good, damn good. And that's exactly what the new Doom taps into.

There's a great scene in Breaking Bad where Walter White, as played by Bryan Cranston goes to the doctor. He's fighting cancer, his life is a mess. All the tension, all the rage that has been building up inside of him is finally threatening to boil over.  He goes to the bathroom, chest heaving, face contorted, fists clenching. Finally, in an explosive release of anger he goes absolutely ape shit, beating the hell out of a paper towel dispenser. It doesn't sound like much, but it's an excellent scene, one of the most memorable in the series. That's in large part to that tension, that anger slowly building up in the character that we the viewers also feel. The act of losing control, of pummeling this inanimate metal object not only acts as release for the character and the audience, it shows how close the character is to losing control, and how dangerous he will be when he finally does.

She can hear it behind her. The massive, fleshy footsteps of the beast. The heavy, snotty breath. The doors are just ahead. The lights gleaming around the edges show it is still alive, still has power. The doors can still save her, if only she can reach them before the beast does. The doors open automatically, welcoming her, offering her their salvation. She gets inside, she slams her hand on the control panel. The doors shut, they lock. She's safe. The woman leans against the wall, her own chest heaving, breath labored. All is quiet. Then SLAM, the beast crashes into the double doors like a fright train. They hold. She lets out a breath. Outside the door she can hear it, hear the beast's snarls. It snorts and walks away, the massive steps echoing in the silent corridor. 

I have to admit, in this internet confessional, I have never much cared for action movies. When I was a kid action movies were big explosive things. The eighties era was winding down to a close, flooding old action movies into syndication. The nineties were still living in the shadow of the previous decade, struggling to find a voice of their own. Action movies were loud, vulgar things. Big guns, big explosions. The good guys were gruff, unshaven, beat down by the world. The bad guys were rich and sophisticated, trying to make a buck off of people's misery.

I never cared. Big dumb action guy fights hordes of less interesting storm troopers. They were invincible, walking tanks of pure destruction in human form. There was no tension, no fear. Not on the side of the hero and certainly not on the side of the bad guys. Everyone was so sure of their purpose. The good guys march forward into the face of certain death to rescue the girl and save the world. The bad guys who would inevitably exclaim "it's just one guy!" only to run out into the open and be gunned down. Set piece after set piece, explosion after explosion, it was all just meaningless noise to me.

Modern action movies aren't much better. Sure they put more effort into the story, sure they take the time to beat the crap out of the hero, but for every step forward they take two steps back. The stories in modern action movies are barely comprehensible, filled with more plot holes than you can keep up with and arranged by a spine twisting number of conveniences and coincidences. The music is instantly forgettable, blending in with a half dozen water downed soundtracks. And the dialogue, worst off all, has drifted from the era of iconic one liners to snarky, comedic quips that often don't gel with either character or situation.

And the action itself. Oh boy. Old action movies would take a zoomed out approach, set the camera somewhere far off and watch the hero run and gun, dive and dash as explosions reigned supreme. In the modern era, people wanted something up close, more real, more intense. What we got was shaky cams, blurry footage and a mess of sound effects and stunt doubles until you can barely manage to figure out what in the hell is going on. much less be invested in it. Somewhere along the way action movies forgot what they were about, the action, and have been diluted into some all purpose big budget thing that fails to capture anyone.

Breath caught, she pushes away from the wall. She's standing in some sort of locker room. Wooden benches without backs sit in the middle in neat rows. Tall, metallic lockers line the walls. All are shut but none are locked, waiting to be opened. She looks down, she's bleeding. Stomach wound. Lots of blood, won't last long. She pushes on. Devoid of the adrenaline of the chase, her steps are slow, breathing ragged. At the far end of the room is another set of doors. There are no lights on this door. No salvation. Cold and unwelcome, she presses on. 

Originally the protagonist of Doom was known simply as "the Doom Guy", a phrase that arose as a way to refer to the wincing face at the bottom of the screen. Over time "Doom Guy" and "The Marine" were fused into "Doom Marine" a phrase used interchangeably with Doom Guy. Now, in Doom 2016, we have the Doom Slayer, a mythic, legendary version to carry the legacy forward.

I think the evolution of the names is important, as it hints at a larger evolution in tone of the series itself. The original marine didn't need to be special. He was just some guy. The Doom Guy. Like the action heroes of the late eighties, of buddy cops and Die Hards, we didn't need him to be special. Then we have the rise of the Doom Marine. Even though he was always a marine, it is now addressed in name. He's not just a guy, not just some random person, but a soldier. A marine. A warrior meant to protect and destroy.

But here, in the modern day, is that really enough? After 9-11, after two wars in the middle east, does that term still carry the mythic weight it once did? Chances are, if you aren't a veteran, you know one. Likely more than one. While everyone acknowledges their bravery, their sacrifice and dedication, can something that common still be legendary?

The scientist punches in the code. The access panel blinks red. Wrong one. She looks back across the locker room, at the dented double doors. She can hear them out there, scurrying, screaming, looking for a way in. With one hand holding her wound, she uses her other to press in another code. Still red. She tries a third time, finger jabbing the buttons, hand shaking. Green. The doors open.

Enter the Doom Slayer. No longer a guy. No longer a marine. The Doom Slayer is now something out of the mists of legend, out of the fables and stories passed down through the ages. Something more than our everyday selves. The Doom Slayer exists not to protect, not to live but to kill demons. That is his role and that is what he does. The Doom Slayer is a symbol of human triumph, of fighting back against the shadows and driving them into the darkness.

It is in this that I am reminded not of the Doom Guy of yore, but of Master Chief, from Halo. In the original Halo, the character of the Master Chief was himself a space marine of mythic proportions. A literal super soldier meant to turn the tide against the aliens, against the monsters that people feared and to win the war for humanity. The irony, and one of the brilliant things Bungie did, was the aliens thought Master Chief was the demon, not the other way around.

The tall, tough Elites of the alien forces would run down regular space marines, would slaughter them in mass. But against Master Chief they would dance, side step, push and retreat. They knew he was a worthy advisory, something to be be feared and respected. The diminutive grunts had a strong reaction, out right running away in fear at the first site of the Master Chief. They would wave their little arms in the air and run in circles, crying and screaming for help until the faceless demon cut them down.

It's here that Doom 2016 does so well, executes so smartly. The demons aren't the enemy here, the Doom Slayer is. He's the thing to be feared, to run from. He's the unstoppable, uncontrollable, wrecking ball of a weapon that consumes all in its path. The Doom Slayer has no fear for the demons, he is the fear. He alone is the death bringer, not them.

The room is cold. Cold enough for the scientist to see her own breath as the door shuts behind her. Ahead lies some sort of stasis pod, standing against the wall. Large pipes and wires run into it, keeping it cold. On the right is a control panel awaiting a hand print. The scientist walks forward, stumbles, drops to her knees. She can't go on. The wound is too bad, too deep. She struggles, she crawls forward. Almost there. She reaches out. Not close enough. She curses, grunts, claws her way forward. At last she reaches up, her bloody hand finding the control panel. She places her hand on its surface and waits. The panel chirps and blinks green. The scientist lets out a long sigh, her hand slipping from the panel leaving only a trail of her blood behind.

There's a dual tension to Doom. A horror in two parts. The first is the one we are used too. Giant, hulking demons, snorting with flared nostrils and pointed teeth. We fear them, because they are familiar, yet different. Twisted animal forms beyond the normal pale that mean us harm. While we fear them, they fear the Doom Slayer and by making us the Doom Slayer, the circle is complete. The tension and horror flow freely until they are indistinguishable.

We run through levels, down corridors and across hellscapes. The music ebbs and flows, haunting and metallic, cautious yet loud. Driving us forward, driving us onward. The demons are huge, imposing, hulking. They hurt us, they out number us and they are without end. The horror, the anger, it all melds. It runs together as we pick up ammo, as we fire our gun. The tension builds and builds until at last we get close enough, we close ranks and we punch them. We punch them as hard as we can and they explode. Into health, into ammo, into the things we need to push ahead, to continue the fight. The tension is released. We enter the next room, the next corridor, rise over the next vista and there they are. Dozens of them, hundreds. The tension rises again.

This is what makes Doom 2016 so amazing, so refreshing. And it's exactly the sort of thing modern action movies are missing. Not special effects, not big explosions or cheesy one liners. Not impressive action sequences or witty quips. Tension. Pacing. Release. These are the things that action movies need to return to if they hope to catch audiences in the same way Doom 2016 was able rekindle that love its audience held for it. Maybe the action movies of tomorrow can learn from the Doom of today, just as it learned from the movies before it.

And a kick ass soundtrack. That definitely helps.

The chamber opens. Inside lies not a hero, but a man. Dressed in an undershirt and boxers, he looks small, weak. He steps out of the chamber and looks down at the scientist on the floor. Bleeding. Dead. He knows why. He knows why they have awoken him, what his purpose is. In the locker room he finds what he's looking for. His armor. Cleaned, polished. Ready. Piece by piece, he puts it on. No need to rush, they'll be waiting. Armor on, he stands not as a man, but as a Marine. A soldier ready for battle. He steps toward the dented doors, shotgun in hand. He knows they are out there. He can hear them. With one hand he punches the doors control panel, with the other he pumps the shotgun. The doors open. In the shadows beyond, red eyes gleam back at him. Dozens of them. He's ready. He steps out into the hall, shotgun leveled. No longer a man, no longer a marine. He is the Doom Slayer.