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Game Anatomy: Jump Kits

homepage-titanfall-franchise-hero.jpg.adapt.crop191x100.1200w

Copyright Respawn Entertainment and EA

Movement in first person shooters, outside of a handful of gimmicks, is largely what it has been since the first Call of Duty in the early 2000s.  It’s relatively slow, focusing on staying away from fire and linear.  It differs from the 90s era FPS games by being a bit slower and focusing on cover, as well as higher precision from weaponry.  While high level play may or may not reflect this, I wouldn’t know I don’t participate, Call of Duty was designed in mind with quick, rapid precise shots instead of rocket spam.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, mind, but it does create a very specific type of shooter, and it’s one of the reasons Call of Duty, as a series, was so much more linear as an experience than its predecessors like Quake or Doom, and one of the reasons why the most recent id Software games have been considered so successful.  However, what’s interesting is that the people that created this type of FPS movement were also the people to innovate upon it, and that’s where we get the Titanfall Jump Kits, devices that bring platforming to that really precise and deliberate sort of shooting, marrying them in ways that make for a very engaging and original type of gameplay.

Titanfall 2’s campaign is one of the best military first person shooters I’ve had the experience playing.  It’s not Doom 2016 or the New Order Wolfenstein games, but it’s a lot better than every other FPS that’s come out, period, since probably Modern Warfare 2.  A lot of that can be attributed to the Titans themselves.  The game feels very Battletech in its approach, but a lot more fun than any Battletech game I’ve ever played.  The Titans move really well, each loadout feels different and gives a different approach to gameplay, it’s very cool.  However, after a while, I found I was having a lot more fun just playing as Jack instead of being in the giant robot, and while normally this might be seen as a failure of the campaign, it actually winds up saving it.  The Titans are great, but the multiplayer, of  which the campaign unfortunately serves as something of an extended tutorial for, is designed for on foot combat with the Titan combat being a reward for success.  As such, the campaign requires that the player will need to get used to fighting on foot, so basing that “on foot” around using the Jump Kit was perfect.

The Jump Kit is simple.  It allows the player to double jump, run horizontally across vertical surfaces and jump off of walls, and yes, there is Strider-style triangle jumping.  The verticality here allows the player to explore more complex means of combat, and the game’s level design does a good job of facilitating it.  At first, they throw a handful of soldiers at the player with limited cover, then, to wean them off of relying heavily on cover, those enemy soldiers break the first rule of cover based shooters.  They flank the player and go around the cover, so the player has to keep moving.  After getting used to jumping over their heads and getting around them, the game starts to throw walls and enemies with more movement options themselves at the player.  Then they start adding in enemies with portal shield walls that move with them and then it goes on from there.  The game uses the obvious story element to work with this, the player is a rookie, and as the player gets better, it’s reflected in the story.  Very Mega Man X in design.  It’s a shame the story just sort of ends right when Jack, the main character gets to play with all of the toys, but that’s a different article.

What makes the Jump Kit shine, though, is that the movement allows for the player to find their own strategies for dealing with different packs of enemies, and gives the player a whole lot of power and agency without requiring too much work from the developers.  There are a lot of great things to say about Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and it remains one of the best military FPS games of all time, but it’s design is very set piece based.  There’s a script the player is going to follow, and it’s an awesome script, but there’s a reason why the term “corridor shooter” went from being a more positive term for the still-being-named FPS genre than “Doom clone” to a derisive term for Call of Duty and the various rip offs.  There are a few options, but they’re mostly expected.  With the Jump Kit, there are tons of different ways to play out a fight, and none of them require a script from the designer.

It’s almost like an action game done in first person mode.  It doesn’t have the depth of, say, Baynetta or Neir: Automata, but that’s the same idea.  Throw enemies at the player, and have the player use their own kit and skill to deal with them as they see fit.  It makes for a different approach than a super shooter, like Halo, Doom or Wolfenstein or a military shooter like Call of Duty.  It’s fun and while it’s not exactly unique, it’s something that stands on its own.  Now, if only the campaign was more than 5 hours long.

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Game Anatomy: Breath of the Wild Horses

It has been way too long since I had a chance to do one of these.  Part of it is that I’ve only been playing Final Fantasy games and World of Warcraft for the past couple of months, so I need to break away from RPGs.  I also need to play more Final Fantasy IX, because I really want to finish that.  I’m really liking it.  Anyway, enough blogging.

I have a stable full of horses in Breath of the Wild, but there’s one in particular that stands out to me.  Her name is Paladin, and she’s a white horse, and if the quest text is to believed, she’s a descendant of Princess Zelda’s horse.  I had to hunt her down, only knowing of her existence because a random stable hand told me a story about beautiful white horses, and I found her among a pack of other horses.  She was a gorgeous, tall horse with a blonde mane and she nearly threw me off when I came to find her.  When I found her, I immediately rode her back to the stable, and from then on, she was at my side.  When I fought the Dark Beast Ganon, it was her that rode with me.  When I traveled to the coldest parts of Hyrule, or rode up to the top of a mountain to fight a dragon of wisdom, she took me as far as she could go.  I love that horse.  She has great stats, some of the best of any horse that I have, but that’s not what made her special.  I found her, I tamed her, and she became my companion throughout the latter part of the game.

White-horse

Copyright Nintendo and Zelda Dungeon (https://www.zeldadungeon.net/wiki/White_Horse)

I have another horse who is almost as important.  His name is Warlock, and he’s the giant horse, descended, possibly, from Gannodorf’s black stallion, and the last of his kind.  He did throw me, several times, and one of those times, I wound up getting killed by a lynel because I couldn’t tame him.  He isn’t as graceful as Paladin, but when I absolutely need to mow down every single bokoblin that comes after me, I mount up Warlock and I take them down.

Paladin, though, was my main horse.  The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is possibly the most peopled Zelda game in the series.  It has more towns, more characters and stories than any other game in the series, but it’s fundamentally a lonely game.  Sure, Link can get a house (that might have just been his old house…) and hang out with all sorts of colorful characters, but Link spends the majority of his adventure alone.  No one goes with him and he comes from a completely different era and time.  The closest thing Link has to a friend or traveling companion throughout his journey are the spells granted to him by the spirits of his dead friends, and his memories of Zelda.  Link stands apart from everyone else on his journey in every sense of the word, physically, emotionally and in time as well.

In a lot of ways, it’s a melancholy sort of game because of this.  Link journeys through a vast kingdom, much of which lies in ruins because of his personal failure, and he comes from a world that almost no one remembers and he is forever disconnected from, and he does this alone.  This is where Paladin comes in.  When I found Paladin, I felt like I had a connection.  She can’t talk, Hell, I’m actually assuming Paladin is a “her” based solely on the fact Zelda’s horse was female, and she can’t really fight or do anything more than cart me around, but I have a connection to her more than any other horse in any other game I’ve ever played.  Shadowmere, Epona, Roach, none of them hold a candle to Paladin and this is due to a couple of reasons.

First, she’s my one companion.  This can be true of any horse in the game, I’m just using Paladin because Paladin was special to me.  The horse is the one thing you can take with you.  Purah isn’t going to leave her lab, and Impa and her family aren’t leaving Kakariko Village.  Your horse, though, is going to go with you no matter what.  Once the horse is tamed, they follow you anywhere, until you leave them at a stable or they die.  See, that’s the thing, the horses can die.  Any horse can die, even unique horses like the Giant Horse, and while Malanya can wish them back, the Horse God is way out in the boonies and it’s not cheap to bring them back.  As such, that means your horse, your loyal friend, needs to be protected.  I can ride Paladin into battle, or out of it, but an errant couple of guardian lasers can kill the poor girl easily.  Epona, in other games, can’t die, Roach doesn’t die and Shadowmere can reform in 10 in game days in Skyrim and is immortal in Oblivion.  Paladin can die.  Paladin is as mortal as I am, and that gives me a connection to her in a way that no other horse ever has.  She’s not a fantasy themed car or motorcycle, she’s a living being, and I have to protect her.

Even more, the horse isn’t simply given to the player.  It’s possible, if somewhat tedious, to play the whole game without a horse.  In order to have such a companion, the player has to seek one out, tame the horse, and then build a bond with the horse.  Sure, there’s the common Pokemon way of bonding with the horse, and that’s by riding it everywhere, but the real way to build trust with a horse is to feed them apples and carrots, ride with them all over the place and always, always give them pets whenever possible.  However, it’s the finding part that’s important.

To get a horse companion, the player has to sneak up, jump on and ride the horse like a bucking bronco tapping the run button over and over, and hoping that there’s enough stamina left over.  To do that, though, finding a horse is important too.  That makes the horse the player’s horse.  Even without an “official” quest to find a horse, like I had with Paladin, finding a horse is a quest all in of itself.  It’s the perfect kind of quest for a game like this, where the world is the player’s to explore in.  Very few things fit as well into the type of game that Breath of the Wild is more than the horses.

Game Anatomy: Leviathan Axe

So, before we go on, I am going to say that I’m going to try to avoid spoilers, but I can’t promise anything.  I’m not done with the game, but I’m about halfway through the game, so I do know some things.  Also, a student spoiled part of the ending for me, because that’s how things go when you deal with teenagers.  However, considering what I am discussing, there is one major spoiler for the midpoint of the game.  I don’t know if it ruins something, but it might make the scene this blog posts spoils a little less impactful.

So, as a warning, there are pretty big spoilers in this blog post.  Please read with caution.

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Copyright Sony Entertainment

Once again, there will be some major midpoint spoilers in this post.  Please be cautious.

God of War is not a game I would have expected to be good.  I loved the first two games so much I actually played one of the PSP games.  It was awful.  I also beat it in, like, two weeks due to sheer determination.  The third game was way too much, just sort of an awful, bloody slog through some of the worst writing.  When the Dad of War stuff came out, I didn’t care, I thought they were just trying to go after Naughty Dog and do another Last of Us.  Nope.  God of War turned out to be something great, and it felt like a God of War game in ways I never imagined.  One of the best things about this is Kratos’s new Leviathan Axe, a winter weapon of frozen death that shakes up not just the gameplay, but the story, too, in many great ways.

Obviously, the Leviathan Axe is not the Blades of Chaos (or Athena or Exile).  It’s personal, more brutal and brings Kratos closer to the action.  In the old God of War games, the Blades of Chaos had huge range, able to strike enemies from a distance, which really made the combat in God of War really engaging, especially considering how the game used camera scaling to pit Kratos against things that were sometimes literally the size of a mountain.  However, the new God of War is up close and personal, and that isn’t something the Blades of Chaos were known for.  By introducing the players to the Leviathan Axe right at the beginning, it shows the players that this is going to be a completely different God of War, more interested in being like Dark Souls than being like the older games.

The game is much closer, more personal, than it’s ever been.  The camera no longer scales, even when Kratos is fighting something an order of magnitude larger than him.  This means the game requires a melee weapon that is up close and personal, because that’s what the game is trying to convey.  This is a very personal game, because it’s about not just Kratos and his relationship with his son Atraeus, but it’s about Kratos exploring, perhaps for the first time in his long, long life, just who he is exactly.  It’s a very up close and personal examination of who he is as a man, and as a god.  Giving Kratos a weapon that plays into the new camera, and tying it all into the more personal journey is absolutely necessary.

While the Leviathan Axe is a closer, more brutal and personal weapon, it also does a lot to transform the gameplay.  The Blades of Chaos are very combo heavy, with lots of complex moves requiring specific button presses, mix ups and memorization, and that’s something that worked for the original games in the series, which are closer to spectacle brawlers like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta.  With the way combat and exploration are set up, requiring more precise usage of shields and avoidance, an aggressive weapon doesn’t work.  The Leviathan Axe is slower, each strike being more deliberate and pointed than simply mashing tons of enemies into powder by hammering on the attack button with the Blades.  It’s not Dark Souls, it’s still God of War, but it definitely is more Dark Souls adjacent than the series has ever been.

With the slower, more deliberately paced combat, we’re able to set  up a nice dichotomy between the Kratos of old and the Kratos we have now.  It does a good job of showing who Kratos can be, because it’s a weapon focused on precision, not overt violence.  Kratos is a more tempered man now, and the combat reflects this.  This continues on, until, and these are the spoilers, Kratos gets the Blades of Chaos again.

This should completely upend the game, especially since the Blades have all of the same abilities that they had originally and they play exactly the same, but instead, it doesn’t.  This is where the Leviathan Axe comes into play.  See, like I said, the combat in this game is much more complex and deliberate than before, and if they were to just give the player the Blades right at the start, it wouldn’t feel right.  Kratos would run in and get slaughtered, and he wouldn’t feel like a big bad ass at all.  Instead, with the new, more personal system, Kratos has to build his way up and get used to the flow and feel of fighting before they throw in the hyper aggressive Blades.

However, Sony Santa Monica takes it a step further by keeping the Leviathan Axe just as important to the game as it was at the beginning.  Not only do they use the fire and ice motifs to tell more about the story and the competing balances in Kratos’s life, which feeds into the gameplay since Kratos finally has a way to kill Hel-draugr, but they also make sure it’s still a really good weapon for combat.  The Blades are great for sweeping a room, but they swing and have a huge arc.  When needing to get up close and personal, the Leviathan Axe is the better choice.  It’s more defensive, and it’s easier to use a shield with.  Also, it’s a lot easier not to go full on berserker mode using the Axe.

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.

Fixing Mass Effect 3

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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.

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.