Halo: Anniversary, Space Marine, Thoughts on Games.

Ok, I have some things to discuss. Been a hard couple of months. Not interested in talking about any o that. 0 interest. So here we go: Games.

Space Marine

For Space Marine, I’d actually like to submit a conversation I had with a good friend of mine (Jerrod) about Space Marine. I think it very nicely sums up my feelings on the game, and presents an alternative point of view as well. So here’s quick conversation between my buddy Jerrod and I, summarizing my views on the game.

Sean: So, let’s talk about THQ and Relic’s Space Marine. Right up front, let’s just say this: it’s a really well put together package. All the report card stuff is there: It gets solid marks for its looks including a strong visual aesthetic that’s been well-executed. It has solid animations that convey the power of the characters and definitely don’t look motion captured, so that’s a huge plus for me. From the replayability standpoint, you’ve got options in the campaign via difficulty modes and collectibles, and the new classic: tiered unlock in multiplayer. The controls and interactions are tight, manageable, and familiar.

That said, I feel like it’s a shining example of how a game can be well and lovingly made and still not very good.

As far as the narrative goes, it has this two-pronged mindset where it’s really heavy handed with the WH40k lore – they don’t explain what “Xenos” are, they don’t bother explaining the Empire, the Imperial Guard, who or what the Space Marines are or that their proper name for whatever reason is the Adeptus Astartes. They don’t explain that the Imperium of Man is an oligarchy of sorts or that Orks just basically want to fight dudes. They assume you know all the necessary bits and pieces to assemble the context for the narrative.

And then, outside those bits and pieces, there’s practically no narrative. The big twist is visible by the close of the first act – there’s an Inquisitor on the planet. If you have none of the context above, that means nothing. If you have all the context above, then you already know he’s a dick and a bad guy. So when it turns out he’s possessed by Chaos, it’s not a surprise. Or, alternatively, you have no idea who the freaky dudes in armor with the self-mutilation fetish are or what’s happening now. A minute ago, you were fighting space orks.

It’s very schizophrenic with regard to its narrative. It’s equal parts heavy-handed, self-referential name-dropping and vaguely outlined characters with no sense of purpose beyond “run forward through hallway.”

Speak of the devil – level design, or lack thereof.

Jerrod: It is an ass-kick fantasy for those nerds who know what a Mecha-gothic cathedral with legs looks like. It is unapologetic in this regard, and the level design is “hallway, arena, hallway, drop off” but the game controls and feels exactly like a Space Marine sim should.

Sean: One easy way to look at it is this: your only shot at really digging it is if you’re into WH40k already, and if you are, you’ll either just love the endless name-dropping and references, or you’ll be disappointed that their execution amounted to little more than that.

Is it satisfying to take down a charge of Ork Boyz with two to three well-placed shooting-melee combos? Yes. Can you do it 30 times and not get bored? That depends on how badly the aforementioned Mecha-gothic cathedral with legs appeals to you. For me, the shallow nature of it was enough to start noticing its other flaws. I mean, “Press B Not To Die” moments notwithstanding

Jerrod: The combat may have been shallow, but it worked. I can’t say I was ever really bored fighting something. One thing is that I played it start to finish on hard. It does make a difference there.

Jerrod: The level design is exactly as I described it though.

Sean: And there’s a lot of wasted space.

Jerrod: Yeah.

Sean: A lot of wasted space.

Jerrod: Lauren noticed that while I was playing. She says, “so basically, you run down a hallway, pick up a skull, listen to a robot lady talk, kill some dudes, repeat.” Suddenly I took note of it.

It’s fair to say that Jerrod falls into the group for whom the ass-kick fantasy is relevant. So, if we want to compare it in kind of simple terms: do you buy Star Wars games just because they’re Star Wars games? I do. I picked up Force Unleashed I and II because they were Star Wars games, and neither is half as well put together as Space Marine. If you’re the kind of dude who will just enjoy hanging out, reveling in a well-made fantasy in one of your favorite universes, Space Marine will satisfy a long-overdue itch, and it will do it with aplomb. It’s tight; it’s focused; it’s brutal; and it’s chock full to the gills of typical Games Workshop fanfare that Relic packed so aggressively into their Dawn of War series. For me, I like my guns and swords games – big fan of Darksiders, and it’s possible that if you liked that game, you’ll appreciate both the art and style of Space Marine – but it lacks even Darksiders’ complexity and puzzling mechanics. To be blunt, it’s execution and production quality fail to make it robust enough besides its fan-atomical (yeah. That happened) appeal to be little more than a button masher with the occasional Quicktime event and rail shooter sequence thrown in to save face while tearing faces off.

Rent It.

Minecraft

Late to the party on this – I’ve been aware of Minecraft for a long time, but I never gave it any kind of real focus. Recently, I decided to open a server up and play it with some friends to see what there was to see. My general reaction:

Not especially a lot.

Now, let me codify this in more detail. Minecraft is incredibly content rich. There are x number of blocks, and you can make y number of things with those blocks. The question is why. This is a problem I have with a ton of sandbox games. It’s the problem I also have with MMOs, which I think exist in a similar space as far as the equation I’m about to propsoe. Minecraft, as a game, can be thought of as a pair of functions where the sum of their results is a value of quantitative fun. Most games can be distilled to this in some way or another, but follow me on this. In Minecraft, ostensibly, the goal is survival. That’s pretty vague and that vagueness is necessary for a sandbox game. You’re trying to survive in Minecraft for as long as possible because shit comes out at night to kill you. And out of the darkness, for that matter. And sometimes comes out during the day. Things want you dead, is the core notion. Your job is not die. To that end, you must acquire z amount of x number of different blocks to make y number of tools that help you not die.

Repeat ad nauseam. Minecraft isn’t a “sandbox game.” It’s just a sandbox. There is no win condition. There is no ending. There is no way to say “this is the goal of the game.” It allows you to create your own short and long term goals. Minecraft mods enhance this by drastically expanding the number of blocks you can get and the number of objects you can make with them and then further expanding the number of systems you can create with those objects that you’ve made. It’s all very clever – don’t get me wrong. It’s really quite brilliant to do this. But the whole thing lacks a point to the proceedings.

And here we have where it begins to resemble an MMO. In an MMO, you kill monsters to level up to get better gear to level up some more, to kill some more different monsters, to level up some more until you’re done. On the surface, now you’ve reached the cap and beaten the game. There are other things to do, but why would you do anything? They’ll release more content for you to master in the next four weeks or so, but once that’s done, again, what is the point? These are essentially Skinner boxes laid bare. We’re doing something for a reward with literally no end in sight – just keep pushing the button and goodies will come out. Minecraft is different in that you can eventually go do something else with all the goodies you’ve made. You can be creative and create vast works of incredible detail and fidelity within that 3D world, and you can do that with your friends. So there’s an element of fun to that as well. But that’s self-appointed purpose. I have plenty of that in my life, in fact, that’s all I have. I come to video games for structure. I’m not saying everybody is me, and thus by extension Minecraft is somehow bad. It’s not. But it’s the thing I do to help me fall asleep. The utter lack of mechanics structure, the lack of goal, has me wanting to be done with it almost as soon as I boot it up. I like things with endings, for better or worse, and this is a game that just doesn’t have that. Again, I don’t think this make Minecraft bad. I think it makes it not for me.

L.A. Noire

Gosh, am I super late to the party on this one. At any time, you can easily write L.A. Noire off as a rip-off of L.A. Confidential, but I see it more as an interactive homage than a straight imitation. The main character, Cole Phelps, is 8 parts Guy Pearce from that other movie and 2 parts Robocop. He’s not bumbling and confused, he’s a crack shot, and he’s about as straight laced as you can possibly get. That said, he is rather naively endearing. I like Cole. I want him to succeed as I’m going through the game, and interestingly, there’s only about 5 minutes of game here. This goes back to Jaime Griesmer’s 30 Seconds of Fun ideology, but, essentially, there’s four  things you can do in L.A. Noire – a modern update on the point and click adventure where you wander around a crime scene, waiting for an eruption of deduction to issue from your controller in the form of a buzz; chase suspects on foot or on car: it doesn’t matter, because both Cole and the cars he drives feel about like 1948 Buicks; brawl with some guys who don’t have guns or blow away dudes who do have guns; and shake down suspects and witnesses in carefully contrived conversation sequences.

The first three are pretty standard stuff. In fact, they feel like GTA missions where you’re not supposed to just run over random pedestrians. I found myself trying to obey the law – as I understood it, anyway – as concerns traffic regulations, even. I stopped at red lights. I went through green lights. I didn’t hit other people’s cars as often as possible, and I tried not to commandeer them unless necessary. That said, apparently left hand turns have the right of way in California, either currently or in 1948, because people cannot FIND a shit to give that I’m going straight with my siren on across Sunset boulevard.

But that last point, the shaking down suspects or witness in the carefully contrived conversation sequences? That’s where L.A. Noire shines and fails horridly, as most games do with their strongest features these days. See, the point-and-click sections feel like a smart update of the old Tim Schaeffer adventure games where you have to figure out how shit works and keep trying to manipulate objects until you’ve done the required number of arcane gestures and prostrated yourself at the altar of absurd logic long enough. I happen to like that stuff, so it works for me. What they didn’t quite manage was to capture how good talking to people felt in the old SCUMM games. When you rolled about in Full Throttle or The Dig or any of the others and talked to other characters, you knew exactly what Ben or Boston Low (that was his name. I’m not kidding.) was going to say because it said so on the screen. Sometimes they mixed it up, but there was never any ambiguity in how you were going to address them. In L.A. Noire, there’s nothing but ambiguity, largely because of how the “Doubt”/”Lie” system works. Most of the time, when you accuse a person with “Lie,” Cole very gently and calmly informs them that they’re misleading him. It’s the opposite reaction when you choose “Doubt.” When you choose doubt, most of the time, Cole flies off the handle and acts with such rage it’s like, no matter what words they used, they just said something deeply unsavory about Cole’s parents’ marital status at the time of his birth and the current nature of his mother’s nocturnal activities.

I mean, the dude loses it, but he loses it all the time. He’s constantly berating his partners, his witnesses, everybody but his bosses. He’s smug and stuck-up and more than a little flawed, and the longer I play as Cole, the less I like him. The less I trust him. The more I just want to punch him in the face. And it’s largely because I’ve watched him endlessly berate people when I’m only trying to suggest “no, that doesn’t sound quite right to me.”

The other thing is that the conversations are 1-way. That never happened in those old SCUMM games. What I mean by this is that you can reach a point where you’ve pressed a button that offends so deeply, there’s no recovery from that moment. You just have to live with the consequences of the discussion. You can never return to a talking point or cross-examine inconsistent responses. Compare this to the SCUMM conversation trees, where there was near endless forgiveness. Or even the conversation trees in Dragon Age (1) or Knights of the Old Republic. These are more designed to not punish you for mistakes, instead allowing you to glean information as you go.

I think a lot of subtlety has been lost in this art, particularly with Bioware abandoning it over time. They seem to be standardizing the Mass Effect Wheel of Discourse across all their games, and I think it’s a real shame. Yes, it allows you to have full voice-over in this dialogue sections, but that increased amount of voice over makes it necessary to shift interactions to more binary affairs, or if not binary, then ternary. Look it up. That subtlety that exists between “Truth,” “Lie,” and “Lie But I can’t Prove it” is utterly lost on L.A. Noire. Perhaps that’s because it’s utterly lost on Cole Phelps, and the gameplay construct exists as an extension of a narrative device? With their emphasis on narrative (which works, by the way. The writing is really solid, overall) , this seems like a logical conclusion to draw, but it also feels a little bit like a copout. I kind of want my Cole Phelps to see subtlety and shades of gray.

Halo Annivesrary

This dropped a week ago yesterday, and I picked it up for my dad. He had just bought an Xbox 360 from the internets at some ludicrously cheap price but sans cables or storage devices, so we had a fun little adventure of me digging up old parts and figuring out how to get him a functioning box. We were successful! But it bordered on tiresome. Then we chucked in Halo Anniversary and I let my dad run through it a bit. I mean, we were playing co-op on normal, but I wasn’t going to make him sit there while I devoured the world. I’ve played that campaign about a billion times, so I know every enemy spawn and instinctively know what enemies are going to do, so, for my dad, having me there is like having Ares, God of War, standing just over your shoulder, ready to decimate the universe at a moment’s notice. Ultimately, there are other, far better Halo players in the world, but not in my dad’s circle of friends, family, and acquaintances. Anyway! I have to say, this feels like an HD remake done right. Everything is very, very pretty, and the updates are all roughly in keeping with what we expect from a Halo game – it still has that Halo aesthetic.

That said, did these dudes cut some corners! And they’re not obvious corners. You have to know a thing or two about Halo to notice them. For example, they yanked the standard human infantry guy model out of Halo Reach and plunked it down for use as the Marines in Anniversary. They may have edited some textures here and there, but overall, it’s basically the exact same model. For most people, that’s no big deal. I acknowledge that, and that’s fine. However! The regulars in Reach were UNSC Army. Not Marines. Bungie didn’t change their entire design and overall feeling on a whim. It was a conscious effort to differentiate them from previous allies. In fact, when Marines do show up in Halo Reach, they look different than the standard GIs. I know why they ripped the models – they had a lot of art to update. More accurately, they asked Certain Affinity to update a rather lot of art, so character models beyond the Chief fell down the list somewhat.

Furthermore, there’s a shot in the life pod between levels 1 and 2 where you see a Navy pilot operating the pod. She is utilizing the pilot model from Halo 3. THAT was the one that got my goat – because it’s so obviously so much lower resolution than any of the other models you see in the game.

What Anniversary does, in many ways, is make Halo show its age. And that’s interesting! Because its intention is to bring the graphics into the modern age. Their absolute adherence to not changing the gameplay is deeply admirable and the correct choice, because I think there’s a lot to appreciate about what has been learned and what has changed in 10 years. While there are a lot of mechanics about the original Halo that remain solid and modern (partly because Halo created the current trend), including the tight-as-hell shooting mechanics, there are other pieces where nostalgia drips away and we can see what’s been learned. The level design is abysmal. Not universally, but the abyss is in strong representation. Halo, as a level, is still a cool level – open, sprawling outdoor environments, branching pathways, neat objectives (including, I’m now realizing, the first ever “Firefight” sequences) that really make you feel like a super soldier trapped on an ancient space station fighting off a horde of crazed, murderous aliens. Silent Cartographer is still way cool, in my opinion, and Assault on the Control Room still holds up, but those truths exist as a facet of their excellent play, not their excellent layouts. Particularly with AotCR, you’re just running through the same 8 hallways for something like 80% of that level. Now, the actual Assault, at the end? Climbing that pyramid and murderizing hundreds of aliens? There’s a reason Bungie used that same set piece to end Halo 3 – it’s awesome. But most of the other levels are just identical corridor after identical corridor, seemingly branching into combat encounter arenas by accident, and it’s easy as hell to get lost. Again, I have this stuff committed to memory at a level so primal you could deprive me of most of the forward quarter of my brain, and, so long as  I retained motor control, my guess is I’d still be able to slam through it.

The cheevos on hand are actually pretty cool, though practically unattainable for someone like my dad. Most of the achievements are relics from the Halo community that was burgeoning even back in 2001. Grabbing a Banshee on Assault on the Control Room was a trick that you could learn to pull off even back then (in a time before the YouTube). Snaking your way through Truth and Reconciliation without resorting to using the Sniper Rifle? That was a challenge we issued each other all the time when my buds and I would gather to commune with the war spirits and honor the ancient ways. That all feels pretty intentional, and, again, since the entire point of this thing is nostalgia, playing off achievements created by the community over the past ten years is the right thing to do. It feels like honoring them, in a way. Also, the price point is right on target. You get a Halo Reach map pack ($10) and an HD remake ($30) for $40. That’s precise. I think they maybe could have afforded to knock it down another $10, but that’s neither here nor there. That feels like expansion pack (oh, those days – those bygone day) pricing, and for this venture it feels appropriate.