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Game Anatomy: FreeFlow Combat

ArkhamCity

Copyright WB Games and Rocksteady

One of the things a lot of western developers have had difficulty finding is a way to make a good brawler.  At least in the 3D era.  Rockstar made the Warriors in 2005, and there was that awful Final FIght game, Streetwise that was a reboot of the series, a sequel to 3, might be in Street Fighter/Final Fight continuity and inexplicably features Cammy, but nothing really worked.  There was the possibility that they could just copy Devil May Cry, but that has a very Japanese design, and a lot of what makes that game work tends to be eschewed by a lot of Western developers for various reasons, both good and bad.  What finally worked was a small game called Batman: Arkham Asylum, which introduced the FreeFlow combat system, a combat system that was based more on Dance Dance Revolution than a fighting or action game.  It’s legacy, lately, has been a bit tarnished, but it was successful in making the Asylum games work as well as they did.

I wasn’t being entirely silly when I called Arkham Asylum a “small game.”  It was a bit of a gamble because at the time, superhero games were seen as shitty tie ins for their bigger movies.  This is actually still kind of a problem, mostly because super heroes are extremely powerful, and doing something other than putting them in a fighting game and mostly ignoring how powerful they actually are for anything other than “Superman is like Zangief” is kind of the only way it works.  Rocksteady, though, wanted to make a game where the player felt like Batman, all that power and ability, and they did so by focusing on fighting large groups of people, and making combat easy (but not unchallenging).  One of the best descriptions of the game I’ve ever seen is that no matter how bad a player is, the bad guys have already lost because they brought a knife to a Batman fight.  Being Batman means that the player needs to feel like they can drop into a room of armed goons and take out all of them, while simultaneously feeling like they’re the most badass martial artist in the world, and that was the goal of the FreeFlow combat system.

In order to do this, the goal was simplicity.  One of the coolest things about Devil May Cry is that everything Dante can do in this video, so can the player.  However, it requires precise button inputs, usage of combos and a deep understanding of an extremely deep combat system, one more akin to a fighting game than an action game.  This works for the sort of game that Devil May Cry is, but it’s not Batman, so simplicity needs to win out.  So, Batman has four commands: strike, cape, dodge and parry, each one connected to each of the face buttons, each one given a special prompt in order to work, cluing the player in on what they’re supposed to be doing, as well as giving a large wind up in animations, and other visual cues (such as body armor, weapon type, etc.) in order to make the player aware of what’s going on and what they need to do.  More importantly, the prompt indicating that Batman needs to do something specific will disappear once the game registers the player’s input, informing the player they no longer need to parry or dodge, even if Batman is in the middle of another animation of combat.

It’s not Dark Souls, but it’s not trying to be.  Dark Souls isn’t what I’d call a horror game, but it is a game where the player is punching upwards, trying to kill dragons or gods.  Batman is a game about punching downwards.  Batman IS a Dark Souls boss, and the player needs the tools to be one, but that doesn’t mean the game sacrifices depth.  Certainly, it’s not as deep as Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, but it has it’s own combo system, and manages to have more depth than its contemporaries like God of War.  What works is that Batman has a lot of tools beyond the four basic inputs, and what those can do aren’t binary.  Strike and Parry can only do so much, but Cape stuns enemies, leaving them open for a Beatdown combo, but also keeps them from being able to attack for a moment, while Dodge allows the player to not just get away from an opponent, but can be used to remove obstacles and get them so they’re lost in a sea of their own allies.  Then, of course, there are the gadgets, with add in their own abilities, such as the grapple gun’s Scorpion style “Get over Here” ability, the Batarangs that can cause damage at a distance and stun stronger enemies, and so on.  Each of these abilities are easy to use, again, tied in with a single button, or a combination of a trigger button and a face button.

This level of simplicity means that each individual mook or goon is no threat to Batman, and can only be in great numbers.  However, since the game requires great numbers to be a challenge to Batman, it means the game is going to throw great numbers at Batman.  This means the game can’t be unfair about it, so that means Batman has to be able to react quickly to various attacks.  As such, Batman can’t move during animations, but he can Parry or Dodge out of one, jump past enemies to Strike enemies far away, and can set up friendly fire.  That’s not to say that enemies will open fire on Batman if they have a gun and their buddy is in the way, but bigger or metahuman enemies can be tricked into knocking down swaths of regular goons, and the taser gun can be used to spin certain armed enemies around to hit their opponents.  It’s kind of funny, actually, to do stuff like that.

What this combination does is it makes Batman seem powerful, competent and intelligent.  By focusing on simplicity, Batman can wipe the floor with tons of enemies in a variety of ways.  It does sacrifice the depth of combat that Japanese brawlers have, but it’s not going for that.  Instead, here, Batman gets to feel like Batman, like a super hero.  What’s interesting to note, is that it’s something that translates really well to other similar games, where the player takes on the shoes of a similarly overpowered character.  That’s overpowered in that they are more powerful than the people they fight, not that Batman is OP and needs to be nerfed.  I’m a big fan of Batgod, myself, actually.  Because Batman is supposed to be able to take out a group of big, strong dudes, he needs a system where the regular goon, or even four or five, can’t be a threat, and that’s what the FreeFlow system does.  I’m at at almost 1200 words here, so I might need a part two to go into how the dance game inspiration makes it work, but that’s basically what it comes down to.  Simplicity, large groups of enemies, and allowing Batman to cancel makes him feel powerful.

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Fixing Mass Effect 3

mass-effect-3-the-real-female-shepard

Image copyright EA, Bioware and Bleeding Cool

Mass Effect 3 was a disaster, perhaps one of the worst disasters in the current history of the medium.  Not only did it have one of the worst, most nonsensical endings of all time, across any medium, it also just wasn’t a very good game in general and probably made it so any follow up would be terrible.  There was no escaping for Mass Effect Andromeda, it had no chance to become anything but what it did, and it’s thanks to Mass Effect 3.  Outside of Tuchanka and Rannoch, there really isn’t anything good about the game.  It starts with a terrible mission, the game doesn’t pick up until Tuchanka and most of the game are just ways to funnel the player into its terrible multiplayer game (yes, it’s terrible).  Still, I can’t help but think it could have been salvageable.  Obviously, the game has tons of great ideas, but the question isn’t if it had potential, the question is if it could have worked in the first place.  I think it could, and for the past five years, I’ve been working a few things they could have done.  This might not be my definitive list, but it’s time I got this written down.  So, here are the ways that Mass Effect 3 could have been fixed.

I won’t be talking about story, though.  That needs to be fixed, obviously, but the fixes to those are obvious.  Make the ending not suck (Reapers lose, Citadel space is hurt, but can rebuild, no fucking ending choice) and generally find a way to make the Illusive Man not a stooge of the Reapers, but some bastard who’s trying to profit on the good guys winning.  Actually, just do that.  Make him a bastard who’s trying to sweep in after Shepard so he can rule over Citadel space after the Reapers are gone.

Oh, and this one is a freebie.  Previous choices have to matter.  Anderson stays as ambassador.  Rachni are dead.  Human council.  The Collector Base is destroyed.  It doesn’t really matter what got picked, just stick with those.  If it means you don’t get to do the shitty Rachni mission with Grunt, whatever.  Hell, just make it a slightly different mission with Grunt.  Christ.

The first issue is that of the cast.  It’s probably the worst of the trilogy, and you can probably include Andromeda in there, too.  Andromeda had Vetra.  It’s basically the Mass Effect 1 cast, but with Wrex gone with James to replace him, and EDI to replace whoever died on Virmire.  James is great, but the Virmire Survivor is much less cool now that Mass Effect 2 made them into a dick and EDI is just the worst as a party member.  She’s still great as EDI, though.  It also brings back Liara.  I don’t like her, but she’s popular and she’s not cool like Miranda or Samara, but whatever, she’s a pure biotic and the cast is pretty short on those unless Shepard is one, and even then, the story doesn’t care if she is or not.  Virmire Survivor is a necessity, since they have a bunch of plots to resolve at this point and a new character to fill in for the big guy is great, so James can stay.  EDI needs to go.  Her sex bot gynoid body is weird and kinda creepy, and she’s just useless as a character.  She only exists so she and Joker can bone, so, whatever, add that to the end.  It doesn’t fill any other plot requirement.

The best thing to do would be to add a few characters from 2 into the mix.  That game has the best cast of pretty much any BioWare game, except maybe Baldur’s Gate 2 (high praise from me, I don’t like that game), and that’s thanks to some really interesting characters.  Oh, but they can all die and you won’t get them?  Yeah, Tali and Garrus can die too.  So can Wrex, Miranda Mordin, Jack and Thane, and they all have major plot points in this game.  Miranda Lawson is the obvious choice, because she has so many plot points that aren’t tied up that there’s a whole subplot devoted to her in the game already, as well as a major role in one of the last story missions.  A story mission that is almost good.  Miranda is also a really cool character in that she fills a role of being your second in command, which no other character does right.  Miranda as Shepard’s XO works really well, and it’s portrayed through the gameplay with her unique set up.  Especially if they found a way to tweak them to make them a little bit better.  The second choice is Jack.  She’s more unique as a pure biotic character than Liara, plus she leans a bit towards Vanguard, so it’s not overkill to have both.  I’d round out the party, giving the game nine companions, with Kasumi.  I don’t care if she was DLC in 2, she’s unique and should be given a chance to expand her character and gameplay in this game.  Also, much like Miranda, she fills a unique niche in story that no one else does.  Mordin does too, but he’s got to die, so we can’t have him in the party.  He should have been a temporary party member on Tuchanka, though.

Second, we need to remove Kai Leng.  He’s lame.  I mean, seriously, look at this Nightwing ripoff mother fucker:

Kai_Leng_amongst_two_Cerberus_Phantoms

Copyright BioWare and Electronic Arts

Fuck him.  He doesn’t get to exist in the Mass Effect universe.  Retcon the damn novels out of existence while we’re at it.  Seriously, he uses a sword.  That’s so lame.

Third, smaller missions should be more like Grissom Academy.  That’s probably the one good mission that isn’t a part of the Tuchanka and Rannoch clusters.  It’s a story based mission that has a time limit, consequences and some serious gameplay challenges.  Sure, there are a few other missions that are single maps like Grissom Academy, like the one with Miranda’s dad (surprise, he works for Cerberus.  Jesus) and the Citadel mission, but most of them are literally just multiplayer maps, and the goal is to literally do a game of the multiplayer, only offline and not with some shitty rando griefing your game.  I may have had bad experiences with Mass Effect multiplayer.

Still, even the single map missions that aren’t just horde mode advertisements for the multiplayer are mostly pretty bad.  The stories are pretty shit, especially the one involving Miranda and her dad and the one where you go to the Illusive Man’s house.  Part of this does involve terrible writing and screwing over your choices in game (oh, wait, you thought blowing up the Collector Base would mean something?  Nope, TIM still has it, somehow).  What each of those missions needed were consequences to go along with their story.  If you don’t get to Jack in time, she can die.  So can her kids.  Hell, if you don’t do the mission itself fast enough, she gets mind wiped and turned into one of those awful ninja Cerberus bad guys (they also use swords, they are so lame), and all of the kids die, or are turned into Cerberus troops.  I forget which.  It’s great, and while it was clearly a set up to recruit Jack (despite the fact you can’t recruit her), it should serve as a template for the smaller missions.

Fourth, most of the Priority Missions, specifically Palaven, Earth and probably TIM’s house, should be set up as mission clusters like Tuchanka and Rannoch.  Yes, the great writing and pay offs from both of those games are sort of what made Tuchanka and Rannoch work, but what also really worked was that the player, as Shepard, had to make a plan of attack, like they were fighting a war.  You know, like they were doing in the game.  Hell, making Palaven a losing battle would be a great way to introduce the threat of the Reaper invasion full force.  Making it so rescuing one city means sacrificing another would be a great way to set up the consequences throughout, as well as showing that your actions would have consequences during later Priority Missions.  It would also make Priority Earth not terrible.

Palaven is probably where I realized that the game was going to suck.  It’s mostly a point defense mission, and while that’s not bad for a mission or two, that’s all it is.  You show up, pick up the President (Primarch, whatever) and fly off with him and Garrus.  Nothing with Garrus’s dad or sister is dealt with (except in a FUCKING EMAIL), we don’t get to see any of the Turian homeworld since it all takes place actually on the moon of Palaven and it just feels helpless.  Yeah, it’s fine that Shepard fails, sort of, but it’s just a pick up mission.  It’s boring and it doesn’t give Shepard a chance to be heroic.  Have her drop in at a city and cover an escape, but that means another city burns.  She saves people, she gets some glory, but she can’t save everyone.  It’s great mission structure.  Plus, it doesn’t even have to be long like Tuchanka and Rannoch.  Those are about five or six missions, but this could be done in four, with the last one being sort of a short boss fight.  Also, it would be nice to have decent boss fights, but this is BioWare.  That might be a ship too far.

Fifth and finally, do something with some of the side characters.  Most of them, both former PCs and NPCs might get a scene, then do nothing.  The person who gets it the worst is either Jacob or Bailey, hard to say which.  An extended cameo sucks, but ruining their character is worse.  I’m not sure what to do with each one, but giving Jacob, Samara and Bailey something to do would be nice.  Hell, put Jacob on the Citadel and have him run multiplayer or something.  I don’t know.  Just have him do something.

Level Thoughts part 2: The Negative Aspects

Last time, I went into detail about how some of the ways level in RPGs can be used in a positive manner, and how they can be used to enhance the experience of playing an RPG, and I used tabletop RPGs as one example.  This time, I’ll be exploring the negative aspects of how they can be used in RPGs.  As I said in the last entry, I’m not going to try and approach anything in bad faith, although I do have my own biases and that can come into play, so keep that in mind while reading.

the_witcher_3_blood_and_wine_expansion_art_1

The genesis of this discussion.  Copyright CD Projeket Red

In the Witcher III, Geralt, a veteran monster slayer travels around a big, possibly overlarge, world where he takes jobs to kill monsters.  It’s a lot of fun, but one thing that really gets in the way is how it uses a level system in order to divide up where the player can travel.  Ostensibly, the level system is there to make sure Geralt doesn’t get access to too powerful loot too early, and that early, low level monsters remain a challenge until they can be outclassed.  I can understand this, since a lot of RPGs use this element to great success, but the reason it’s an issue in Witcher III when it’s not in, say, Final Fantasy VII, is because all level equates to, as far as monsters are concerned, are numbers.  How much damage, how much HP, how much damage it ignores, etc.  A level 5 gryphon has the same abilities will have the same abilities as level 10 one.  In fact, a gryphon is similar in abilities to several other monsters, differing from, say a wyvern, by one or two abilities.

Level means little to Geralt beyond numbers, but because how big these differences in numbers between levels can be, it means that Geralt can’t just wander around, pick up a random monster contract and hope to complete it if the contract is several levels higher than Geralt.  It’s not a guarantee, I’ve personally killed monsters outside of my level range, but mostly by spending several minutes dodging and getting in a couple of hits when I can.  It’s not impossible, but it’s tedious and it makes the combat less engaging than it already is.  Even a single screw up would get me killed, and it wasn’t enjoyable.  Most of the time, if I ran into a higher level monster, I’d just run, maybe come back later.  Of course, by the time I got high enough level to fight them, I’d tear them apart, since I was either way over leveled or the mechanics were so simple and their numbers were so low, they no longer mattered.

Open world games aren’t the only RPGs to show the issues with levels, but they seem to have the biggest problems with the level system.  There have been tons of attempts at trying to find a solution to this problem, most notably by making the game level with the PC.  Obviously, this makes leveling seem superflous, and while some Elder Scrolls games have tried to make higher level monsters more complex than lower level ones, leveling just seemed pointless, or detrimental in the case of Oblivion or Final Fantasy VIII (although VIII’s issue with leveling was different and more complex than I’ll get into here).  The best open world games seemed to have removed it entirely.  Consider Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which doesn’t use a level system, or at least a very simple one, but allows Link to wander the entire world without issue.  It’s possible to even engage Calamity Ganon at the beginning of the game, even if not awakening the Divine Beasts makes the fight much harder, and that difficulty isn’t just “extra damage.”  Yes, as Link becomes more powerful, more powerful monsters begin to appear, but they also become more complex, and thanks to an engaging, if easy to work, combat system, it’s possible to take on a lynel naked with three hearts without it being too tedious.  Part of this is because of really well done balance of HP and damage, but also it’s got a combat system that works as well.

Tabletop RPGs, too, sometimes work well without levels, although many claim they don’t need it and it pretty much destroys the game’s balance or work.  Games where combat is the main focus of the rules, even in games where they claim combat isn’t the main focus, tend to need levels in order to determine what works and what doesn’t for the game.  On the other hand, consider Fate, which doesn’t utilize levels or high numbers.  There is advancement, yes, but specific and individual advancement of different abilities.  While Fate does have combat, and it can be very good and complex combat, Fate is primarily focused on characters and who they are.  It’s a very robust RPG with complex mechanics and cool utilization of character and roleplay in order to facilitate play and it doesn’t need levels to be engaging.  If it had levels, it would get in the way of how to play the game, since it’s primary mechanics are “aspects,” which are elements of the characters, both positive and negative.  They can be elements of personality, beliefs, weaknesses, specialized training, special equipment, dependents, allies, enemies and many other things, but the important thing is that you have all of them from the beginning.  At no point does the player “level up” and gain more aspects.  It would hurt the game, because everyone is supposed to be able to engage with the game at the same level.  Even in places where you can “level up” are still given out to whole parties, not individual players, so when characters bring up their skills or gain new stunts, it’s with the whole group.

The big issue is that levels work when they’re to make sure novice players aren’t thrown against more complex characters, but they don’t work when they’re just there to use big numbers.  That’s what makes the game boring.

Level Thoughts part 1: The positives of levels in RPGs

I’ve been playing RPGs for a really, really long time.  Seriously, I got into D&D 21 years ago, and while my first time playing a video game RPG was technically in 1991 with Final Fantasy IV, I really got into them with Shining Force II and Phantasy Star IV in the mid-90s when I was in elementary school.  I’m a bit on the old side, I guess, at least compared to some gamers, or maybe I’ve been around a while, so I’ve played a lot of games, but I love RPGs.  That’s not to say RPGs are great, and I’ll admit, I’ve played a few RPGs because that’s the sort of fantasy I want to see, and that’s the only way to experience it, even if that RPG is kind of shit.  Seriously, I love the idea of Wild Arms, but if someone wrote a really damn good fantasy western, and not a shitty horror one that tries to white wash the Confederacy like Deadlands, I’d probably never even look at Wild Arms again (actually, I still don’t really look at Wild Arms that much to begin with).  While I love RPGs, they have a lot of issues, and lately, I’ve been thinking of what really works for RPGs, and whether or not some of their more traditional elements should be excised, or at least examined.

tiamat

Pictured: the dream?

The first thing I really want to look at is levels, and not just because I want to change Jobs on Final Fantasy XIV and don’t want to level them to 60 before finishing Heavensward content.  It’s a thought I’ve been having for a really long time, and while a lot of it is sort of related to Massive Multiplayer RPGs and the use of a level cap, which artificially and detrimentally lengthens a game more and more over time, there’s also the question of whether or not level systems work for every single RPG.  Now, before we get into the meat of the discussion, it’s important to note that I tend to not consider any mechanic inherently bad, except maybe save deleting, so I’m not trying to come at this discussion in bad faith.  Also, I’m not sure any real conclusion will come from this, so this might just peter out in the end, which, should make sense, as there is still a lot that needs to figure out vis a vis game design.

So, first, I understand where levels come from.  I’ve played table top RPGs for a really long time, and levels do a really good job of organizing things in a way to make the game playable.  Because of the somewhat “naturalistic” feel some gamers think table top RPGs have, a lot of games either try to do away with, or obscure, use of level systems, with very mixed success.  Games that are more like Dungeons and Dragons, or at least be more combat focused mechanically (regardless of what the rulebook actually says about the system), tend to work better utilizing some sort of level or rank based system in order to give a baseline for the players and the GMs in order to make sure that everyone knows what’s to be expected.  Some people who play a table top RPG may balk at D&D assigning levels to a certain monster because it detracts from a “living world” or some other argument I don’t believe and will probably not engage in good faith, so I’m dropping the discussion here, but I’ve found that it’s good to get a good handle on what is supposed to be a challenge for each tier of play and level of power.  After all, a party with access to Fireball is a very different party from one that has access to Meteor Swarm.  Especially since table top RPGs have a high level of abstraction and most elements of combat and gameplay are resolved through die rolls and elements of chance.  A big problem in table top design right now is to try and figure out more “skill-based” and less “chance-based” resolution, but since so much of that kind of game is abstracted, it’s a very hard problem to even approach, let alone solve.

Video games, however, are not abstract.  What happens on the screen has a 1:1 relationship with what the player is doing.  Even in games with highly choreographed combat and contextual information, like the Batman: Arkham games, there’s still that 1:1 element.  What kind of parry Batman does might change based on his positioning, who he’s fighting and from what direction the enemy is coming, but every time I press Triangle, I know I’m going to parry the nearest attack, and every time I hit Square, I know I’m going to strike at a person in the direction I am pressing the thumb stick (I’ve played every Arkham game on a Playstation).  As such, a lot of the advantages that level systems give are somewhat unneeded.  That’s not to say there aren’t some advantages to a level system, however.  Such as determining character growth, or to ensure difficulty has a gentle slope.  For example, as the player begins to unlock more powerful abilities in INfamous, the game begins to throw more powerful, or more numerous, enemy types at the player.  Diablo games, too, hold off on giving complex or difficult monsters until the players begin to unlock the full suite of their abilities.  The Skeleton King in Diablo III is deliberately a lot less complex than Azmodan or Diablo, since the player has access to fewer abilities when they were expected to fight the Skeleton King (it’s also one of the many reasons why the traditional Diablo approach to difficulty didn’t work for Diablo III, but different article).  So, in a lot of ways, with a good slope and the right gameplay, a level system is a good way for the developer to determine what sort of conflicts the player should engage with, and this works outside of an RPG as well, which is why the system has been adapted so well outside of RPGs.

As there is, there are a lot of positives to utilizing level in RPGs, but it really depends on the contextual arrangement of the game.  However, what happens when the game doesn’t have a lot of context, like in an open world?  Next time, we’ll look at how it can be applied negatively, and how it can have a negative impact on the game, and the mechanical expression of the story.

Game Anatomy: Handsome Jack

Jack_intro

Copyright 2K Games and Gearbox Studios

I’m going to admit, even for the limited definitions I put out for Game Anatomy, Handsome Jack does stretch them, a lot.  Unlike a lot of things I’ve covered in these articles, Handsome Jack is an NPC, and I’m not talking about him as a boss fight at the end of the game.  I mean Handsome Jack, the character, and how he basically makes Borderlands 2 the game that it is, and without him, it is a much lesser game.

First of all, let’s start with the obvious: Handsome Jack is one of the most evil bastards in video games.  A murderous, sociopathic, selfish psychopath, Jack has almost nothing redeemable about him.  Worse, he goes on to declare himself the true hero of the game, and that everyone should bow down and follow him, while doing nothing but murdering people for pretty much no reason.  See, Borderlands 2 takes place on Pandora, a world with tons of bandits, lawlessness and people whose brains have been completely destroyed and mutilated by the world itself.  It’s a really, really awful place, but it’s not without its good people.  There is a civilization here.  Jack, however, wants to kill everyone on the planet and sell it off to rich people across the galaxy (also claim an ancient alien superweapon to continue doing this).  He’s not just a murderous psychopath, he’s the head of a interstellar corporation with a private army and a space station capable of firing on people from orbit.  Not only does he want to kill a bunch of people, calling them all bandits, he can do it and he does.  It’s gentrification literally weaponized.

What makes Jack work, first, is that he acts as a foil to the Vault Hunter.  It doesn’t matter which one, all of them, none of them, whatever, it’s to the player he serves as a foil.  Throughout the whole game, the player goes about murdering pretty much everyone that they meet, taking their stuff and using it to kill more people.  The justification is that those people are bandits or psychos, that they need to be put down for the good of society, and the Vault Hunter, and by definition, the player, sees almost no people aligned with them for the first several hours of the game.  Of course, once the player gets to Sanctuary and links up with Roland, this changes a bit, but it doesn’t change that the player and Jack are, on a superficial level, doing the same thing.  Jack even points this out on multiple occasions, implying that the player should be on Jack’s side, should be helping him, instead of fighting against him.  This of course is ignoring the fact the player signed up with Jack at the beginning, and he tried to kill them, to take responsibility for their actions.

Borderlands 2 is a game where the primary game loop is to kill bad guys, steal their weapons and use those weapons to kill more bad guys.  It’s got some engaging gameplay, if it’s a little simple, and said bad guys have too many hit points, but it’s very similar to a loot of other loot shooters in that regard.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of nuance, either.  The player is going to come in with the assumption that the people they’re shooting are bad, and that the player is playing a good person, just doing what they need to to survive and help out the world.  While this is literally true within the context of the game, Handsome Jack gives it the nuance.  By comparing the player to what Handsome Jack does, we can see that not only are we not just murdering everyone we see (mostly), but we’re not just doing it for selfish reasons.  Except maybe Salvador.

In addition to him acting as a foil, another thing that makes him work, is that he’s an asshole.  He’s pretty much one of the worst villains in video games.  His job is the exact same as Freeza from Dragon Ball Z, in that he kills entire populations of planets and sells them to rich people, but he’s also a man who’s had busloads of refugees murdered (refugees from a town he destroyed), personally had his daughter locked up, personally murdered several innocent people and he buys a living horse made out of diamonds.  Not a statue.  He then calls the player to tell them, then names it Butt Stallion, after the Vault Hunter.  Just to gloat.  Part of the reason Jack works so well as a foil is because he makes it very personal, pretty much for no reason.

Jack spends most of the game calling the player with a combination of gloating and taunts, often kicking them when they’re down, or blaming them for things he did.  He is hilariously petty and vindictive, at one point eating chips while calling just to prove the Vault Hunter is beneath them.   By doing this, it injects all of the flavor and context the game needs to make the core gameplay loop work, because otherwise, he’s right, you really are a psychopath.  See, one of the problems of a lot of games like Borderlands, and that can be FPS games or loot shooters, is that the player kills a truck ton of people, often for no reason.  The original Borderlands didn’t have Jack, and very early on, it’s hard to tell who the player is supposed to kill and why, and while it does give some context, it’s not the same.

By making it personal, and by acting as a direct foil, we’re able to see the Vault Hunter, who in other games would be a murder hobo, as a hero.  Yes, a lot of people are going to die, and not all of them are people whose brains have been irreparably damaged, and that is sort of weird how many people players kill in a video game, but Jack gives the player something real to fight against.  Give them something legitimate as an enemy, and turns the tables on the assumptions of the game, by making your goal not that different from the villains.  Even the means are the same, but at no point are any of the Vault Hunters murdering innocents.  In fact, because of the damage Jack causes, the Vault Hunter gets to go out of their way to help innocents.  Plus, we get to see how many settlements of “bandits” Jack has wiped out, and see that his destruction has only made Pandora worse, and that’s saying something.

Game Anatomy: The Plan

DmC_box_art

Copyright Capcom and Ninja Theory

It’s honestly surprising that I’ve never really talked much about this game, although it came out during my hiatus on this blog, so that’s probably why.  DMC: Devil May Cry is a strange beast of a game, and it’s really hard to discuss thanks to all of the baggage the game has accumulated over the past 7 years (or that the last main series game came out almost a decade ago), but ultimately, it’s not really all that bad.  I’m a bit of a strange fan, considering I hated it until the fourth game came out, which totally revised my entire view on the series (except for 2, 2 sucks), but I am a fan of the flashy, stylish, anime as Hell series, and when I got a chance to pick up the game on Playstation Plus, I really enjoyed it.  It’s sort of a better version of the first game, and that’s really good.

Yeah, it has really terrible art direction, bad character designs and the story is terrible even from the perspective of the series, but the action is really good, the platforming is really cool and the level design is the best in the series.  That last one doesn’t sound like much of a barrier, because Devil May Cry level design is terrible, but seriously, it’s really, really good here.  In fact, the levels do a great job of servicing the combat, which is admittedly a downgrade from 3 and 4, because it’s much more than a funnel to take Dante from one fight to the next.  The levels are complex and interesting, breaking into platforming and combat sections in a way that feels natural, and sometimes, if rarely, blending them in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or stupid.  It’s great, and it also allows for encounters that really utilize the weapon switching of the combat.  One level stands above the rest though, and that’s Mission 16: the Plan.

For very stupid plot reasons, Dante and Virgil are raiding the building of the main bad guy, and killing all of his elite troops.  What’s cool, but not what makes the level so good, is that it’s set up in a way so that Dante and Virgil each have their own thing going on, and while the player is Dante, it’s possible to see Virgil’s progress mirroring the player’s own.  It’s not exactly in real time, but it does feel like it’s in real time, the few times you can see Virgil doing his thing.  Also, it solidifies the relationship between the brothers in a way the game hasn’t managed to at this point, which will make their eventual falling out that much stronger at the end of the game.  However, what’s really cool is that the level is set up like a heist movie, with Kat, the kind of boring witch love interest, narrating the entire level.

See, in the cutscene before the level, the player isn’t shown what the plan is, and instead, the level is narrated all the way through by Kat, with commentary by Virgil and Dante, for what the brothers are supposed to do.  Much like the execution scenes at the end of Ocean’s Eleven, Kat explains to Dante and Virgil what they’re supposed to do while they’re doing it, complete with the drawings of her plans being superimposed over the gameplay while its being explained to the player.  What’s really cool about this, other than it being one of the few examples of this in the medium, it also does a good job of explaining to the player where to go and what to do.  Sure, the levels aren’t particularly complex or anything, but it does throw a lot of very, very difficult enemies at you, but it does also have a few places where the player can screw up and wind up having to face a horde of very difficult monsters all at once.

That happened to me.  Kat was specific about not doing something.  I could have avoided it and I wound up dodging into a hole and falling right onto the floor where I shouldn’t have been.  What’s great is is that not only did I get a little scene were Dante chastises himself for being an idiot, it was also something specifically called out to me not to do, I did it, and I got something different happening.  It’s rare that we actually get a chance to see something that interesting in a video game, but to make it in where failure can be well incorporated into the game itself.  It’s very cool.

However, what also really works is the storytelling.  Like I mentioned before, the plot in his game is really bad.  It’s like a bad combination of the worst of White Wolf stuff, and when smug American comic book creators remake manga in order to prove that Japanese comics are stupid and Western comics are inherently superior.  Yes, that’s a thing, and DMC: Devil May Cry is the video game equivalent of that.  It’s disdainful of the source material and goes out of its way to actually insult the previous games, and no, I’m not talking about the infamous mop scene.  It’s a game that takes itself incredibly seriously, so certain it’s the future of the series and so much better than it’s anime bullshit predecessor, but it’s also a game that features abortion via sniper rifle and fighting an demonic Bill O’Reily (which is legitimately the best fight in the series and will be its own Game Anatomy).  However, one of the things that works really well is the relationship between Dante and Virgil, which we never actually get to see in the main series.  The way it becomes strained and fractured, mostly by Virgil’s growing fanaticism, and the brothers slowly switching their views on life and their destiny is really great, plus it’s done very organically, without Virgil suddenly becoming an asshole at the end.  The Mission does a really good job of highlighting all of it, and does a good job of both showing how much the Sons of Sparda care about each other, but also how much their relationship is falling apart.  This level does take place after Virgil shot a pregnant demon in her womb with a sniper rifle.  Jesus, that’s a sentence I’ve written.

By allowing the player to watch Virgil do what he does, and give us a few scenes where Vigil and Dante interact, plus their narration commentary while Kat is detailing the plan (as they’re doing it, I remind) does a lot for characterization without taking control away from the player.  A lot can be said about what you can do with cutscenes, but by just allowing it to work while the player is actually playing the game, that’s pretty cool.

What the Hell Happened: Uncharted

This is a new thing I’m going to try.  I know I try to focus on the positive here at Cluttered Mind, ever since I decided to change up the format a few years ago.  However, there are a few franchises out there that have just managed to fall apart over the past few years, and I want to try looking at them from the perspective of where a series went wrong, and maybe how it could be improved in the future.  This time, we’re going to start with the Uncharted series by Naughty Dog.

Uncharted_Drake's_Fortune

Copyright Naughty Dog and Sony

Uncharted first appeared on the Playstation 3 in 2007, which was something of a banner year for new IPs, since it saw the genesis of Mass Effect, Bioshock and Assassin’s Creed.  It was also the beginning of the Seventh Generation of Video Game consoles, and was a time when that generation was actually beginning to hit its stride.  American games had developed a niche, thanks in no small part to Gears of War and Call of Duty 2 (and, ironically, Resident Evil 4 before them), and we were beginning to see the dominance of Western developed games throughout the entire console cycle.  Uncharted was an interesting game.  Developed by Naughty Dog after years of working on the Jak and Daxter games, Uncharted was a new kind of 3D action platformer.  Taking cues from Tomb Raider, as well as their own platformers, the aforementioned Jak and Crash Bandicoot before that, Uncharted was a cinematic shooter/platformer hybrid that tried to capture the pulp movie feel of the Indiana Jones games.

It was something cool, something that really hadn’t been done in video games quite as well as it had been done here.  It had rough edges, but it was a lot of fun and looked gorgeous.  Most importantly, it felt like playing a movie.  That’s not a complaint.  For years, Western developers had promised interactive movies, and with Uncharted, they got it right, seamlessly moving from dialogue cutscene to action heavy set pieces that were actually played by the player.  See, this is what a lot of games do wrong.  All of the cool stuff that Nathan Drake does in the game, mostly, is actually performed by the player, and utilizing really clever level design, they were able to hide that the set pieces are sort of scripted.  There’s an optimal route, and today, ten years after the game had come out, it’s pretty obvious what the developers wanted the player to do, but at the time, it felt like, for once, getting to play a cutscene instead of watching.

The first Uncharted wasn’t polished and had a lot of stupid and cheap bullshit tacked on to it, even on Normal difficulty.  The second game managed to polish it up and fix a few of the issues.  It felt more like what the developers wanted to make, at least from my perspective, and it felt more like playing an action movie.  Going from cutscenes to gameplay felt more seamless, combat was more intense and a bit more open and it was a lot less cheap (although they did add those shotgun wielding guys in riot armor).  It was cool, but it was basically where the series came to an end.  Or, maybe should have come to an end.

A big issue is that the second Uncharted game basically has the same plot.  Drake gets caught up trying to steal some artifact, gets betrayed by a friend, the artifact winds up being a lot different than the legends say, Elena shows up, Drake fights some wannabe world conquerer.  Seriously, it’s in all four games.  I guess the bad guy in 4 doesn’t want to conquer the world, but he’s basically a rich douchebag version of Lex Luthor, so he’s still a megalomaniacal asshole, so it’s kind of the same thing.  Drake goes through the same character arc (hey, maybe talk to your wife, don’t be a selfish dick, friends are important) and that would be fine, if the games weren’t always so focused on the stories and the characters.

Worse, the gameplay sort of stagnates after the second game.  Some things get polished a bit, mostly melee combat, but it’s the same over the shoulder shooter with some platforming and some puzzle solving.  Every single game uses the same mechanics.  It’s something of a microcosm for nearly every Western developer during the Seventh Console Generation.  So many games managed to find this awesome way to make third person shooters work, and it got crammed into everything when they found it could work with everything.  By the end of the generation, it felt like nearly every game was just a third person shooter with a handful RPG elements stapled to it for a good skinner box (especially in multiplayer) and while that wasn’t true, it did make gaming feel really  boring by the time the generation ended.

This is the big problem with Uncharted.  It just kept going and it never did a single new thing.  It’s itteriative and boring, and it’s a shame, because the ideas are all there, but they’ve never managed to do anything with it.  Maybe now that they’ve retired Nate, they can follow along with someone else for the time being.