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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.

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Action Games: Thoughts

Yesterday, they announced the Fifth Edition of Dungeons and Dragons.  If there ever was a time for me to comment on it, now would be it.  So, I’m not going to.  Not for a while, at least.  Maybe I’ll talk about some ideas for a Fantasy Heartbreaker I’d like to see, but in the meantime, I think I’m going to stick to talking about video games and comic books.  At least until I can form a better thought on the subject.

In the meantime, I recently bought the new Castlevania, subtitled Lords of Shadow, to play when I finished Skyward Sword on Sunday.  That was…kind of a mistake, playing Castlevania after beating Zelda, because despite being released only a year before Skyward Sword, Lords of Shadow feels like it’s a century behind in terms of level design, combat and even just plain running around.

Honestly, it feels out of date compared to God of War 3

The game isn’t really bad or anything, but after playing some kick ass action games (and action RPGs) this year, I can’t help but look at this as nothing but a low rent version of God of War, and as a big Castlevania fan, I’m rather disappointed.  However, it has done a good job of highlighting some issues with the post-Batman (post-Assassin’s Creed?) era of action games and what they need to do to develop.

The big thing I noticed about Castlevania is the movement.  It wasn’t the only problem, but it was right there at the start.  Well, that and the crappy fixed camera.  Gabriel, our Belmont this time around, moves quickly and takes to the air like Dante in Devil May Cry, but he doesn’t move with the fluidity and rhythm of Batman or the precision and grace of Ezio.  He doesn’t even have the agility or strength of Skyward Sword’s Link and that wasn’t even an action game.  Gabriel doesn’t move naturally, or at least, how natural in relation to modern video game characters.  Sure, he can run and jump and swing a whip around, but he can’t climb (can’t climb well), leap off of walls, or even turn his momentum into an attack (or maybe I just haven’t unlocked that).  Even his attacks are limited to a handful of stock animations and there isn’t much variety to mix and match.

Fortunately, it seems like Lords of Shadow isn’t exactly the wave of the future for 3D action games, but it does show we’re not quite out of the “God of War but…” woods yet.  It’s a shame we’re still dealing with this, because there are a lot of directions the genre can go, since it really, really needs to advance, and just aping on Assassin’s Creed and Batman isn’t going to be the solution, they are, however, going to help guide the future.

Action game protagonists need to be quick and agile and have a large range of movement.  Not every game needs to be some kind of open world sandbox, but simple things like easy counters and being able to run up a wall are going to expand the repertoire of the average action game hero.  Characters also need to move like they have weight behind them.  It was nice for Dante to give us some nice, weightless jumps, but Altair showed players that we can have a hero with speed and grace and feel like they have some actual mass to them.  Adding that bit of weight to the character will make their attacks feel more damaging and their movements more natural, even if they’re leaping 20 feet vertically from a standing position (Mario can attest to that).

That wasn't a fat joke, I swear

It’s also important to move beyond the Simon-says minigames, and the requisite “light and heavy attacks” set up too.  Cool things can be done by looking at fighting games like Soul Calibur, or even Guilty Gear.  Doing this would mean we can finally play someone who isn’t some kind of chain-wielding Ghost Rider wannabe.  Personally, I’ve found that I’ve done more cool sword stuff playing as Mitsurugi than I ever did playing as Dante or Ryu Hyabusa, and that’s a shame.  I’m not saying that I need to turn the analog stick in a quarter circle to throw out a badass special move (although it did work pretty well for Alucard in Symphony of the Night), but I do think being able to switch what kind of attacks I’ve got based on how I’m facing my opponent would be very cool.  Positioning is already a factor in video game combat, changing up what kind of attacks and how my style works based on positioning will be very cool, and encourage all sorts of new character designs.

On the whole, I think we might be moving in the right direction, as long as we can jettison some of the worst parts of the Devil May Cry/God of War era.  They were certainly excellent games, but some of their innovations have begun to run it’s course.  I’m growing really tired of Simon Sez.

B-Games

I used to think that video games that were “so bad they’re good” were impossible.  If a game sucked, it sucked.  Sure, maybe the story could be ridiculous or silly or stupid and the game could still be enjoyable (actually, ridiculous, silly and stupid stories are what the industry standard is), but I didn’t think I’d ever give high marks to a game that was clearly derivative, repetitive and in some ways, poorly designed, but that was before I played Darksiders.

I rented it over the weekend, and I’ve gotten a chance to get through the first temple, and I’ve got to say, I’m pretty impressed so far.  And I know I shouldn’t be.  By all accounts, this game sucks.  It takes some of the best parts of Devil May Cry, the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and God of War, strips them down to the bone and throws them together in a blender.  It comes out as a poorly thought out mess, but somehow, that just makes it all the more endearing.

I mean, what other game allows the player to pick up a car and beat a demon to death with it?  Dante certainly never did, nor did Kratos or Link.  But War smashes people’s faces in with anything he can.  Sure, it may be a stripped down clone of Devil May Cry and Ocarina of Time with some elements of God of War thrown in, but by God it’s fun.

The only problem with the game is that War is probably the least compelling protagonist in video games.  Link has more personality than him, and Link doesn’t talk.  War simply exists.  He doesn’t emote, he doesn’t seem to have any goals or interests and he just wanders from place to place because some weird lookin’ dudes tell him to.  Link at least has hobbies (fishing) and generally has a motivation to go out and save the world.  War does it because it’s his job I guess?  I don’t know.  He also looks like a cross between a high level WoW character with bad armor and Cable.  Sadly, most of Joe Maduriea’s other artwork in the game is great, but War’s design makes me think he fell asleep while he was drawing.

In other news, my buddy Chase sent me this:The trailer and website for Clash of the Titans. It looks like it can go either way, but the trailer is worth watching.  Everyone should check it out.