Thursday, February 25, 2010

My Top Five Most Memorable Video Game Showdowns

Making a game that is entertaining in general is one thing, but creating really memorable confrontations between the player and their foes is quite another. There seem to be a handful of ways that game developers can rely on that will both depict the villain as powerful and difficult to overcome and allow the player to do it without too much frustration. It's critical that both of these aspects are maintained, the first because you have to feel like you're doing something important and hard, and the second because you don't want the flow of the game interrupted.

One of the most common scenarios is the standard FPS approach, in which the player might have less innate power than their foe, but can sure as hell shoot bigger guns at them -- see Doom 3 or Return to Castle Wolfenstein. When that doesn't work, perhaps because the enemy is invulnerable to normal attacks, you can let the player in on a secret weakness that they can then exploit (see any number of platformer games; check out Portal for a really unique FPS example). This last one seems more common to me, probably occurring more often for the sake of adding variety to a game. There are a few other possibilities for how we gamers can defeat the big bad bosses, but they usually fall into one (or both) of those general categories.

However, that's not what I'm interested in right now. The confrontations I'm looking to record here are the ones that really stick with you for reasons other than their difficulty or originality. I'm looking for those showdowns that you'll remember forever not only because of the showdown itself, but also for the build-up to it and the characters involved. My examples will be biased in favor of PC games since that's what I play most; they'll also likely not include anything from more strategy-based genres, because I want to focus more on the you-against-the-world/mano-a-mano sorts of battles. So, these are listed basically in the order that they occurred to me.

JC Denton vs. Walton Simons, Deus Ex

The world economy is falling apart around you. A man-made disease is killing off millions needlessly. You're stuck in the bowels of a defunct deep-sea base, fighting off irritating little poison-spitting lizard-birds, the result of some mad scientist's genetic experiments ("Green greasy greasels!"), and all the while some slimy-voiced douche-bag pipes his narcissistic plans for world domination straight into your brain. Where in god's name is the fucking mute button on this InfoLink!? Well, you're in luck, because said power-hungry creepo Walton Simons is coming to stop you escaping from the base, and his smug ass is definitely not armed well enough to handle JC Denton. At last, you get to reap your sweet revenge for all his angsty, meaningless rantings about you foiling his plans thus far. Generally, I find a good slice or two with the Dragon's Tooth sword most satisfying.

Why is it memorable? Because Walton Simons is an affront to all that is good and noble in humanity, and you, a genetically-modified, nano-augmented superman, have the power to splash his guts all over the goddamn underwater cavern (or Area 51, depending on your choices), thus putting an end to the military head of one of the most dastardly plots ever devised to take over the world. I kid you not, the first time I killed him, I got up out of my chair, pointed viciously and shouted at my computer screen: "Eat shit and die, you smug. fucking. bastard."

Death Egg Zone, Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Every now and then I bust out the old Sega Genesis and play through the favorites again, and Sonic 2 is always one of them. Some will tell you the original Sonic title is harder and therefore better, but my eight year-old self was probably better suited to the less frustrating sequel. It was still quite challenging, and didn't feature any of the save-game nonsense of the third one (says the lifelong PC gamer). This meant that getting to Death Egg Zone was a real feat of patience and persistence, and all the more exciting because of it. I still get that tension in my gut when I run down that long hallway in outer space and start the face-off with the robot Sonic. Denying the player any rings at all for this level was a great move in that it means you can't make a single mistake. Add to that a near-perfect soundtrack, and you're in for an epic battle that'll give you a lovely feeling of a job well done.

I particularly appreciate Sonic standing there all hands-on-his-hips glaring at a giant doomsday robot. Surely one of the eternal badasses of video gaming.

The Chaos Sanctuary, Diablo II

It's a long haul to Hell, that's for sure, and after chasing Big D across damn near the entire known world, all you want is his blood. But you can't have it. At least, not right away. He's still got minions a-plenty, and some of the most irritating kinds in the game. Heavy hitting physical/fire damage combos, mana-sucking casters that run away from you and cast again, and oh yeah -- anybody like wielding melee weapons? Try it. I dare you.

Once you make it past the Iron Maiden-casting Oblivion Knights (or perhaps if; I've heard of people quitting the game because of those guys), you still have to deal with Diablo's super uniques -- the Grand Vizier of Chaos, Lord De Seis, and the Infector of Souls, plus their minions. Each is tuned slightly differently so as to offer challenges to various character types (the Infector generally proves hardest for me because he's so obnoxiously fast). Then, at last, when the countless hordes lie dead about the Sanctuary, the ground shakes and Diablo at last shows himself, uttering possibly the most badass taunt ever thrown at PC gamers: Not even death can save you from me. After which, he proceeds to roast you alive with the dreaded Lightning Hose -- the near-instantly lethal attack that has provoked an indignant "AWW, SHIT!!" from me more times than I can possibly count. Regarding town portals: cast early, cast often.

All in all, this battle with the Lord of Terror is one of the most memorable not only because of the skill, patience, and versatility required to get through it, but also because of the sheer build-up to this moment. A deliciously dark fantasy world complemented by great cutscenes and tense, addictive gameplay makes this showdown a satisfying (semi-)conclusion to one of the most popular RPGs of all time.

Batman vs. every last incarcerated criminal in Gotham City, Batman: Arkham Asylum

I have been waiting for a good Batman game since I was three years old, when I saw Tim Burton's film with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson for the first time. And at last, we have a great Batman game. I can't recall the last title I've played (if there is one) in which I had so much fun kicking the tar out of so many enemies all at once.

It's on my Showdown list for a couple reasons. For one, the game does a fantastic job in making you feel utterly alone in the looniest loony bin on Earth, and that you are really, truly the only thing standing between Gotham and total chaos. And secondly, because every single encounter with the Joker's thugs was so thrillingly, perfectly Batman, whether I swept through the shadows and hung them upside-down from gargoyles or just strolled right up and smashed all their faces into the pavement. No other game has made me feel so incredibly powerful, so (literally) able to take on dozens of foes at once and emerge the absolute, undisputed victor. Sometimes I sit up on a ledge someplace, look down at the oblivious goons wandering around below, and just enjoy the perfect satisfaction in knowing that every one of them will soon be beaten, broken, and unconscious, all because I am the goddamn BATMAN.

Beyond repeatedly exhibiting the Caped Crusader's superior physical prowess, though, you can effectively plan out exactly how you want to engage your enemies -- just like Batman would. Many of the combat sequences in Arkham reminded me of the finale of The Dark Knight in that they force you to flawlessly manage multiple enemies and situations at once. While the entire game is phenomenal, Arkham Asylum's combat is so finely, so impressively crafted that it turns me into a giggling mess every single time I snap some creep's arm out of its socket. At long last, I am the goddamn BATMAN.

Sabotage at Soulforge, Thief II: The Metal Age

This one struck me as a strange addition to a list of memorable confrontations -- I mean, unless you're playing Normal difficulty (who does that, anyway?), deliberately fighting anybody in this game is usually a pretty convenient recipe for suicide. However, this level is such a great climax to a such a great game that I had to make the case.

So Karras, a thoroughly loony religious fanatic with a serious speech impediment, has decided all organic life in the City must die. You, as the master thief Garrett, are the only one sneaky enough to successfully navigate his massive, high-security cathedral/fortress, Soulforge, and turn his own maniacal plan against him. He's got cameras, alarms and cartoon-bomb tossing robots a-plenty, and he knows you're in there, too, so he's put them all on high alert. And, like Walton Simons, he has an ego that seems to insist that he pester you constantly over his loudspeakers all throughout the cathedral. If I ever exhibit an unfair bias against persons with speech impediments, I blame Thief II.

Aside from being a very difficult, very long mission, full of not only Karras's robots, but also plenty of tile and metal floors to be certain you make as much noise as possible, I chose this one because of all the weirdly ironic story elements that lead you up to this point. Garrett is the perfect anti-hero, yet here he is again saving the City from a maniac alongside an old enemy from the previous game. Though I despise Karras with every ounce of my nerdy being, he's a fantastically written character -- bizarre, exasperating and amusing all at once. His squeaking wail during the final cutscene is absolutely priceless, especially since it was you who forced it from him.

Well, there you have it. I have to give an honorable mention, though, to the sequence in No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s Way that has you battling ninjas in a trailer park near Akron, Ohio while a tornado rips the place apart. Eventually you end up battling the ninja leader inside a trailer that's been picked up by the twister. Not something gamers are generally subjected to, and it was side-splittingly funny to boot.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Zombie Apocalypse Video Games -- A Brainless Genre Thus Far

Now that people have cooled down a bit since the release of Left 4 Dead 2, I've decided to bring out this bone to pick, which started bothering me when I first played the original Left 4 Dead. Keep in mind that, though I'll criticize some titles more heavily than others, my opinion here isn't directed solely at any particular game; this post is rather about a void that all zombie (and even most horror) games to date have failed to fill.

So, when you talk about the impending zombie apocalypse with friends, family, the person next to you on the plane, etc., what are some of the general topics you tend to discuss? For me, it's mostly about finding three things: food, defensible shelter, and adequate weapons. Granted, there are other concerns as well -- namely, not getting et by the walking dead. But since most depictions of the "Infection" or "Zombocalypse" or whatever the hell you want to call it involve slow, brainless, shambling corpses, it's generally assumed that actually encountering them will only be dangerous if they get you cornered or if there's loads of 'em (especially if both occur simultaneously). The focus, therefore, is on either escaping densely populated areas or, failing that, finding someplace to hole up and survive until... well, whenever. Hence the long, detailed discussions concerning points of entry, escape routes, visibility of the nearby terrain, and so on. Having a plan, as they say, is paramount.

And now we come to my point: can anyone name a game that matches these very necessary considerations in its focus? In every zombie title I've seen so far, it's all about the same damn thing as every other lame-ass shooter ever made: pumping every vaguely humanoid shape in sight full of lead, with progressively more damaging weapons. Since they've been so popular in the last few years, let's take a closer look at Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising -- especially since they were originally advertised as survival horror games.

Well, I guess if you're talking solely about the "not getting et" part of the zombie apocalypse, you're welcome to call them survival horror. But last I checked, survival is mostly not about the threat of getting et. It's more about eating something yourself, and finding sufficiently clean drinking water, and not succumbing to hypothermia or heat exhaustion. And not getting an infection your immune system can't handle. And not getting killed by other fauna on this planet far more numerous than humans (poisonous insects, arachnids, snakes, etc.). Even excepting the last couple as dependent on geographical location, I still can't think of any game that bases success on the acquisition of basic human requirements. Now, I'm certainly not suggesting some kind of 3D first-person Oregon Trail, but I'd love to play a zombie game that factors those things into the gameplay instead of just handing you a gun and shouting "SHOOT 'EM IN THE HEAD!!" Which brings up another of my problems with zombie titles to date: specifically, the players' acquisition of and inexplicable proficiency with weapons, and in some cases the combat in general.

Where in god's name do all those frickin' guns come from? In Left 4 Dead, it's as if the U.S. Army rounded up all their firearms everywhere and dumped them out of a helicopter all over the country. Shit, there's fewer guns and less ammo in Doom 3, and that takes place at a high-tech, high-security corporate-military installation in the future! A similar statement could be made regarding Valve's other best-selling title. Or what about the mall in Dead Rising, which has apparently managed to congregate every last bladed-weapon store in the country within a four or five square-block area? How convenient for the player to be stuck in a building just spilling over with objects specifically crafted to dismember and kill other human beings. Being an LotR nerd, I'd like malls a lot better if they were all so armed to the teeth.

So, I get into Left 4 Dead, and the heaters are just lying strewn about the room in front of me. And, now that I've seen them and picked some up, I am by default an expert marksman with every last variety I encounter. I'm not ashamed to say that my personal knowledge of how to use firearms basically includes two concepts: "point," and "shoot" (generally the latter is achieved by the pulling of a trigger). If this shit ever went down for real, and I got stuck in a room with a bunch of zombies and an unloaded weapon, I'd be a dead man. End of story. (Give me a good hefty sword any day.) Point is: zero realism. I want a game in which, assuming the player character is your average person, the situations in three of the four screenshots here result in a quick, gruesome death 100% of the time.

Further still -- since when are the walking dead so incredibly easy to kill? One solid whack with a baseball bat in either of the titles I've mentioned and they are down for the count. Whatever happened to "removing the head or destroying the brain"? I'm certainly not good enough with an Xbox controller to be getting head shots every single time one of the Infected bites the dust. Hell, I'm not even that good with a mouse, and I'm a lifelong PC gamer. And I'm not even asking that a game be quite so strict with its undead cause-of-death conditions. For example, take a hint from the Thief games -- if the players KO a zombie but fail to dismember/behead it, it could get back up a few seconds later. That way, there's still incentive for precise attacks (since decapitated zombie = permanently dead zombie), but it wouldn't interrupt the flow of intense encounters with tedious targeting difficulties. Anyway, the point is that if Shaun of the Dead is taking the rules of the genre more seriously than you are, I'd say you need to sort some shit out before releasing that game.

The reason none of this sits well with me is that it simply doesn't compare in entertainment value to the way people talk about the zombie apocalypse in everyday conversation. What makes it even harder to bear is that these kinds of survival dynamics wouldn't be hard to implement at all. Here are a few ideas.

Make the player actively search for food and water. As the time since a player's last drink or meal increases, decrease things like strength, movement speed, weapon accuracy/damage, and so on. Death should ensue if these needs aren't met within a reasonable amount of time. If you want to get really serious about it, make them test the substances in question to make sure it's edible/drinkable, or suffer the consequences of food poisoning and such. And, if you want to make things exceptionally difficult, do away with "health packs" and other such instant-recovery items -- make the player tend a wound and wait until they heal over time.

Create a realistic, dynamic environment, with the scope of Grand Theft Auto IV and the physics of Half-Life 2, in which players must seek out suitable shelter. Considering the level of interaction we can now have with in-game environments, it wouldn't be hard at all to let players enter a given structure, assess the situation, and then slightly modify it to their needs, like barricading entrances, or putting up curtains to hide interior movements. This is probably one of the most talked-about aspects of the zombie apocalypse, and is absolutely necessary to any true zombie horror game. And unless you happen to wander onto a military base, there should be absolutely none of this ready-made impregnable Fortress of Solitude bullshit (i.e., no "safe rooms").

Limit the quantity of firearms and other items specifically crafted for killing and maiming. I repeat: The player is not a space marine. Nor are they a cyborg, a super-spy, or a ninja. They are a normal person with a normal life, meaning they probably don't own anything that can be described as nothing else but a weapon. On the contrary, this game's weapons should literally be items that can be found in the average household: baseball bats, pots, pans, kitchen knives, table legs, and maybe, maybe a hunting rifle or shotgun with a handful of ammo if you're really, really lucky. This is not a first-person shooter. It's a first-person survivor. For interest's sake, you could randomize the starting location in a given city so players don't get bored wielding the same old garden-variety shovel every game.

Concerning encounters with the undead, implement a detection system that measures the player's "footprint," determining how likely the player is to be attacked, and by how many enemies at a time. Various factors would go into this: visibility, noise, noticeable changes to the environment, etc. Plenty of games have already done this in other contexts -- the Thief series and Hitman: Blood Money being just a couple of examples. Any game that reacts logically to the player increases not only the realism, but also the tension of making decisions. Do you really need to carry that shotgun, or would a quieter and only slightly less effective cricket bat do just as well? Are you sure you want to turn on all the lights in your hiding place on the off-chance a single zombie gets in, taking the risk of attracting a whole horde of them instead? In video games, more detail almost always increases the suspension of disbelief.

Given some of the incredibly dynamic game environments and physics we've seen lately, I can't believe this sort of a game would be particularly difficult to produce. It wouldn't even need to be particularly demanding of your hardware -- the Source engine and Half-Life 2's graphics still look pretty damn good almost six years later, and that's what the Left 4 Dead games run on. Until this true zombie survival game appears, however, I'm done with the pretenders that are currently out there. Guess I'll just have to keep playing Thief and perfecting my ideal fortifications in the meantime.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Classic PC Game Reviews, Vol. II -- Deus Ex

The abundance of conspiracy theories in our culture is often attributed to some kind of latent desire in human beings for a more interesting, more colorful world. Our existence isn't already complex enough for some, it seems, so we're treated to a host of disturbing tales and urban myths about flying saucers, government cover-ups and surveillance, or hostile takeovers of our infrastructure, etc. While they're almost always far-fetched for one reason or another, I'll give them one thing -- they're certainly creative, and frequently fascinating. But what if they were all true? Such is the premise of Deus Ex, a 2000 Eidos release developed by Ion Storm.

The year is 2052, and as usual in the fictional mid-21st century, shit ain't too good. Governments are more or less entirely corrupt, and a virus with a 100% fatality rate (minus a few special individuals) decimates the less fortunate strata of society. There's a widespread suspicion that the government has a vaccine, but is failing to distribute it. The Internet is centralized at Area 51, meaning that every bit of electronically-transmitted information passes through a single location on Earth. You simply can't swing a stick in Deus Ex without hitting somebody who's got their own convoluted agenda for a new world order. Scary stuff indeed, but nothing new to sci-fi nerds so far. Read on.

In the midst of all this global hullabaloo comes the advent of human nano-augmentation. Exhibit A? The player character, JC Denton (technically, though, you're Exhibit B, following your brother Paul). You are a state-of-the-art computer/biochemistry project, your physiology augmented by nanites that alter the molecular functionality of your body, from the efficiency of your eyeballs to how high you can jump and how fast you can run. In other words, you're a BAMF who answers only to UNATCO (United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition), the organization that ostensibly funded your creation. You are also immune to the mysterious virus, for reasons I'll not divulge here.

Discussing even minuscule plot points would almost certainly spoil the entire game for you, but be sure that pretty much every commonly-uttered conspiracy theory in popular culture is somehow woven into the story of Deus Ex. Area 51, the Illuminati, pandemic government surveillance, and even the sci-fi staple Greys all make an appearance -- and that's not even half of what's going down in this eternal night full of backstabbing, money-grubbing, and shameless power-grabbing of planet-wide proportions (what, couldn't you tell from the screenshot?). Suffice it to say that Deus Ex features a level of complexity and detail in its story that I have not seen in any other game.

But what about the actual gameplay? Deus Ex is essentially a first-person shooter, but significant RPG elements abide as the most memorable aspects of the experience. Though the story is linear in that it will always lead you to the same locations in the same order, it is completely open-ended when it comes to how exactly you want to go about solving the problems you face. I vaguely recall from an interview with one of the developers (possibly Warren Spector?) that one of the specific goals during development was to provide the player with at least a handful of ways to approach every event in the game. Add to this the dynamic of upgrading various skill categories and installing augmentations that give you specific abilities (such as health regeneration or complete invisibility; see pic), and you have a game that is virtually endless in the different ways you can play.

Beyond all these great qualities, though, there's something that video games in general really lack -- moral and philosophical complexity. Deus Ex is at no turn in the road afraid to ask, and force you to answer, extremely difficult questions about topics such as distribution of power in political structures, the effects of extremely advanced technology on human society, and my personal favorite: a moral dilemma involving the game's title, which comes from the Latin phrase deus ex machina, literally translated as "god from the machine." Even better, the game features three unique conclusions based on who you decide to ally yourself with in the end -- and rest assured, this is possibly the hardest decision you'll ever face in the virtual world. Each choice is extremely ethically problematic, and yet each seems to hold a glimmer of hope for the ultimate fate of humanity. And once you've decided, you'll play the game all over again so you can make a different choice. It is unavoidable. It is your destiny. (Nerd-cred to whomever places that quote.)

Those who have even just started into this labyrinthine game will understand when I say there isn't any way to summarize it effectively. Concerning overall atmostphere, think of it perhaps as a skillful, engrossing, and incredibly detailed amalgam of Blade Runner, The Matrix, The Terminator, and The X-Files, with no shortage of ideas and innovations of its own. Other great aspects worth mentioning are the killer techno-punk soundtrack and the staggering amount of research the developers must have done to present their story so realistically -- you can learn almost as much about the sciences in question from the game than you can from their respective Wikipedia articles. If you enjoy story-driven gaming that hurls itself into theoretical science and philosophical dilemmas, you cannot afford to miss the greatest conspiracy-shooter of all time.

5 stars of 5.