Posts Tagged ‘ FPS

Bioshock 2 Closing Thoughts

Over at Gamers With Jobs, I just posted a piece breaking down the story that unfolds in the last half of Bioshock 2. It’s called “We Are Utopia” and you should look it over. It does contain plentiful spoilers, if you care about that sort of thing, but personally I enjoy reading analysis more than I care about preserving the secrecy of the plot.

The only thing I had to leave out is how great the gameplay is during the finale of Bioshock 2. From the midway point onward, Subject Delta has an incredible array of tools to use against his enemies, and the level design and enemy design creates a lot of different ways for encounters to go. In Fontaine Futuristics, with my health and ammo levels rapidly running down, I had to face off a Big Sister and save two Little Sisters with a scant amount of resources to use.

So I turned a couple of the rogue Alpha-series protectors against a Big Daddy, killing the Daddy, and then rescued the Little Sister. This brought the deadly Big Sister out of hiding, and I spent a minute frantically laying traps. Once I was ready, I hovered close to the remaining Big Daddy and waited for the Big Sister. Sure enough, in the course of our brawl she angered the Big Daddy, and they started going after each other. As the Daddy was ground down, another Alpha happened on the scene, and I fed him into the fray. The Big Daddy went down, and the Big Sister charged at the Alpha. While they were slugging it out, I scooped up the Little Sister and saved her. Only now did I turn and face the Big Sister, who was badly weakened by her battles.

It was a great sequence, because it was all about using a combination of my powers and enemy behavior to arrange a really intricate series of encounters. It was so different from the running battles and slugging matches that marked much of the rest of the game. The end of the game was full of similar creative destruction.

The strength of the gameplay let me power through to the finale, but it was still the characters of Bioshock 2 who won me over. When the credits finally rolled, all I could do was marvel at how gracefully Bioshock 2 told its story, and made it matter. That’s its major achievement, and that’s what I’m writing about over at GWJ.

Apex Predator

Bioshock is an exhausting universe. By the end of the first game, I was actually disturbed the brutal ways I killed splicers. Their constant wailing and sobbing and ranting had driven me out of my mind before I was halfway through the game. I came to love listening to them scream as they burned alive, these mewling psychopaths with their self-pitying, incoherent monologues. Revulsion had hardened into hatred and and then turned into sadism, which only served to deepen my revulsion.

Then there is the decay that surrounds you: the mouldering books, the shattered edifices, and the fetid bilge that has overrun every floor. Every splicer is a disfigured parody of a human. The general oiliness of the game engine and lighting effects, combined with the lurid art deco colors, creates a cloying sense of over-ripeness.

Eventually, it all just wears me down. I start trying to avoid encounters because the splicers have gotten inside my head and I just want things to be quiet for a bit. Besides which, Bioshock never lets me feel like I’m particularly strong or well-equipped. The controls have a slipperiness to them that makes it hard to use cover effectively, and most weapons are too inaccurate to be much good at long ranges. So Bioshock, and especially its sequel, is a game of close-range slugging matches that leave me depleted of ammunition, health, and energy. This is completely antithetical to my preferred style of play in an FPS. In general, I’m a tactician. I like to control the engagement from start to finish, and be able to stand the enemy off at a distance. If there’s going to be close quarters battle, it’s going to be on my terms: room-to-room fighting, done with grenades and shotguns.

Bioshock games make me feel more like a walking dreadnought, going broadside for broadside with psychopaths who don’t have the brains to take shelter. The strain and unpredictability of those engagements means I avoid them more than I should.

In Siren Alley, avoidance graduated to full-on paralysis. I was too low on ammunition and money to fight effectively. Every battle left me teetering on the brink of death. I was rapidly approaching a point where progress would be impossible.

The problem is that I was still thinking defensively, and as out of touch with the creative cruelty that powered me through Bioshock. I’d been clinging to my machine gun because it was comforting. But now, as I took stock of my options and surroundings, I realized that I was finally ready to turn the tables.

I had two great advantages. The first was the speargun, which is the only weapon in the game that never really runs out of ammo. Spears can always be recovered and they’re a perfect sniper’s weapon. The second advantage was the Enrage plasmid, which caused splicers to start attacking everything in sight. Including Big Daddies and the musclebound brute splicers.

This is where I finally started to get into Bioshock 2. The game’s systems started interacting in interesting ways. Using an ammunition saving weapon, I was able to stalk through Siren Alley and start racking up splicer kills, which allowed me to acquire more ammo and cash from my victims. The research camera, which lets you film hostiles in action so that you can learn more about them and unlock upgrades and bonuses, went into action alongside the enrage plasmid.

I started arranging little gladiator duels and filmed the results. Then, as the victorious splicer stood over his fallen enemies, I would reward him with a spear through the neck. In the meantime, the camera was making the splicers ever easier to for me to take down.

Since I needed to get hold of the Little Sisters and their Adam, I always made sure to enrage splicers in the vicinity of Big Daddies, and watched as the Big Daddies annihilated them. After the Big Daddy had been weakened by enough combat, I would open fire with my heaviest weapons and bring him down.

Brute splicers were a huge problem for me, since they’re as powerful as a Big Daddy and just about as tough. With them, I’d get the camera rolling, shadowbox them a little bit, and then put a Big Daddy between me and them. When the Brute charged, and he always would, the Big Daddy would go berserk, and an epic brawl would commence. They would just go on on each other with fists, drills, auto-turrets, rockets, rubble… Oh, the joy of watching my two most hated enemies devastating each other!

Over the course of about an hour or so of hunting, filming, and Adam-harvesting, I completely changed Bioshock 2. By the time I finished Siren Alley, I was a superhero, even capable of getting splicers to fight alongside me when I wanted them to. I tagged Father Wales, a viciously strong spider splicer, with the hypnotize plasmid and got him to demolish his own followers in his makeshift church. Then, when he ran out of followers to kill, I executed him.

Was the game broken, its balance destroyed by my employment of all these tools? Not at all. If the first half of the game was about struggling to get my bearings and survive, the second half of the game was about revenge and salvation. After Siren Alley, I was on a mission to save a little girl, and I was going to kill everything that got between me and that child. There was to be no more hiding.

Clear Sky – Things Fall Apart

Clear Sky takes place several months before the events of STALKER. This can be rather disorienting and is even poignant at times. Because the Zone as we find it in Clear Sky is not the ruin that you find in STALKER, and the future is a cloud that hangs over the entire game.

The sight that greeted me after a long night of killing

In the Cordon you meet a visionary stalker leader, Father Valerian, who has launched an uprising against the Army and the bandits. Sidorovich dismisses him and his followers as men who are playing at Robin Hood and His Merry Men. You find them set up on a farm north of the railroad embankment, and Valerian speaks of his plans for the future. More stalkers show up every day to join his forces. He has already forced the army out of the Cordon and collected some insurance against their retaking it. Everyone you meet is inspired by Valerian’s rallying cry: the Zone for the stalkers. Soon, he promises, they will begin expanding their control and make the Zone a safe place for honest stalkers.

But we know that when we come to the Cordon in STALKER, the army has a chokehold on the territory and Father Valerian’s fortress-farm is a decaying ruin overrun by wild animals. There will be no traces and no memories of Valerian’s rebellion.

Later, when you come to the Agroprom Research Institute, you find that the Duty faction has made the rambling Soviet structure into a powerful and efficient fortress. The motor pool is full of armored personnel carriers, and a Hind attack helicopter is fueled and ready on the helipad. On the other side of the Zone, in the Dark Valley, the rival Freedom faction has occupied an old maintenance center. Both are running massive, paramilitary operations out of secured strongholds. In STALKER, both these strongholds have become terrifying hell-holes. Agroprom is stripped bare and overrun with mutants when it isn’t being occupied by passing bandit gangs or Special Forces detachments. The Dark Valley is completely hostile, Freedom’s old base fallen into ruin and occupied by a bandit army. The rest of the territory is awash in mutants.

The best laid plans of mice and men...

The Zone in Clear Sky is hardly an Eden, but it is nonetheless headed for a Fall. Everywhere you look you see tomorrow’s ruins. The Clear Sky faction is working feverishly to head off some impending catastrophe. The Duty faction is slowly but surely being ground down by deadly mutant attacks, and Freedom has been ravaged by the work of a traitor in their midst. Valerian is treading close to hubris. Rumors abound of an elite stalker faction that has suddenly vanished. Clear Sky is deliciously full of portent.

Yet its thematic success works against the setting. In the original game, the Zone is a lonely and forbidding land. There are small pockets of relative safety. The rest of the world would prefer to shoot you or eat you. From the time you leave the Stalker village in Cordon until you reach the Duty outpost on the northern end of the garbage dump, you are in mortal danger with every step.

Clear Sky, by contrast, seems crowded, small, and noisy. Everywhere you go, there is a base full of friendly stalkers. Sometimes a base and a couple outposts. You can’t go ten feet without stumbling over a friendly patrol. The dissonance overwhelms the game. In the Dark Valley, you are given a dangerous mission to go kill a pseudodog that has been terrorizing the Freedom base. You go out the back entrance to the base, you walk about one hundred fifty yards, and you’re attacked by the pseudodog. If you turn around, you can still see the guards at the entrance, just standing there chatting while you’re flinging hand grenades and blasting away at spectral wolverines.

When you come down to it, the Zone was never really that big. STALKER seemed expansive because it made you feel small and alone. If safety is a kilometer away and there’s a dozen mortal threats between you and it, that kilometer will seem like the distance between here and the moon. But when GSC packed the Zone full of friendly NPCs in Clear Sky, they called attention to fact that you are playing on a relatively small stage.

To some extent it was inevitable that a second trip to the Zone would begin to feel a bit confined, especially as GSC re-purposed assets from the first game for use in this one. To explore the themes they wanted to in this game, and there are several interesting ones, they had to provide more opportunities to meet other characters and spend time soaking up the different vibes of friendly encampments. There simply are not that many places in this world where you could plausibly have those encounters, and I very much doubt GSC had the resources to create a lot of new, convincing spaces to explore. The Zone is their studio backlot, and sometimes it shows.

On the other hand, there is a lot of tedium in these early encounters. The entire Freedom section should have been scrapped. It brings the game to a screeching halt while the Freedom faction sends you on missions that are the STALKER equivalent of “Run into the gas station and get me some cigarettes.” The encounter with the pseudodog is startling, but everything else is just marking time. The early scenes in Garbage are likewise a waste. It’s not until you reach Agroprom that things start picking up.

Clear Sky has an absolute mess of an opening. The introduction is mishandled and, with the exception of the fighting in the Swamps, it never approaches STALKER for excitement and atmosphere. It seems like Clear Sky doesn’t really care whether or not you keep playing.

But it has a card up its sleeve: Lake Yantar, and a totally unexpected and utterly brilliant zombie apocalypse.

Clear Sky – The Cordon

STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl fell apart in its last act when it started throwing up roadblocks that required thorough foreknowledge to pass. If three guys sporting Gauss rifles just teleport right in front of you when you enter a room, they are going to kill you unless you already know where and when they will show up. I got through the end of the game by saving and reloading with every step.

When I arrived at the Cordon in Clear Sky, I realized that the same problems persist in the prequel. You emerge from a tunnel that connects back to the Swamps, and you receive a warning that you just came out near the army guardpost. I knew the location well from the first game, and figured it would be no problem to sneak past.

After going thirty meters down the ridge toward the outpost, a siren keened and then someone on a loudspeaker snapped, “Stalker detected!” I wondered how the hell they had seen me (motion sensors on the perimeter?) and ducked down behind a large tree. That helped, but not as much as I hoped it would: a heavy machine gun opened up in front of me and started blowing through the tree trunk. My mercenary crumpled to the ground, torn to pieces.

On the next run I hid in the tunnel until the alarm stopped. Then I headed back downhill. I reached the tree, and the machine gun got me again. The next time I tried to sprint my way to safety. Killed in the gulch at the foot of the hill. And the next three attempts saw me get killed before I even got that far.

I tried bouncing from cover to cover. Didn’t work. Hiding amidst some boulders sheltered me from the machine gun, but the moment I tried moving again it blew me to hell. It always knew exactly where I was. It tracked perfectly, as if I were tagged by a laser. If it didn’t get me, soldiers did. So I tried to stay in cover and deal with the soldiers first.

That failed miserably: heavily armed and armored, they soaked up rounds from my Kalashnikov until it ran dry, at which point I had nothing but small-caliber weapons at my disposal. Even if I was making progress at mowing them down as they approached, one or three of them would hurl grenades at me from fifty meters away, all of them arcing perfectly until they landed at my feet. If I left cover, the machine gun got me. If I stayed, the grenades exploded and killed me. Little known fact about the Ukrainian army: all their soldiers have their right arms replaced with mortars.

After twenty or thirty attempts, I alt-tabbed and went to Youtube and looked up some walkthroughs. Turns out that there’s a bunch of hits for “clear sky cordon machine gun”. Half the internet thinks this is bullshit. I watched a video walkthrough (which helpfully told me to stop whining and go do it) that showed the character race down the hill, through the gulch, under a tree branch, and clear through to safety. Spamming the medkit hotkey the whole way. I tried to match the guy in the video about twelve more times. Never made it.

At least two hours had passed since I first encountered the machine gun. So I went to plan B: go back through the swamps to the other entry point to the Cordon, this time farther north. However, this breaks the game’s scripting. I came into the Cordon on the other side of the railroad embankment, and when I tried to move through a checkpoint stationed by friendly stalkers, they attacked me. So I ended up having to use a maintenance tunnel farther west, where I massacred a half-dozen neutrals. Then I could finally walk to the bunker where my contact waited. He gave me a mission to go through the railroad embankment and said he would put out the word to let me through. Which they did, forgiving my bad manners twenty minutes earlier when I killed a squad of their friends.

It’s crap like this that dooms STALKER to cult status. When journeying within the Zone, observing its ecosystem and battling through random encounters and side-quests, it’s one of the finest games I have ever played. But when GSC attempt to funnel the player into scripted encounters, the results are usually disastrous.

Homecoming in Clear Sky

I had a few restless days earlier this month. I had just put Pirates! back on the shelf for awhile, and was having a great time with EU3, but really wanted to play something else. I just didn’t know what, and none the games near the top of my Pile of Shame really did it for me. Aside from a vague desire for some violence, I really had no ideas.

Then my eyes fell on S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky, still wrapped in its plastic and mixed reputation, and I realized that I wanted was not really a game, but a place. I wanted to go back to the Zone, and I didn’t care whether or not Clear Sky lived up to STALKER. I needed to be in that world again.

Perhaps it is because I’m suffering a bit from claustrophobia and urban fatigue, but I needed STALKER’s open fields, mist-shrouded marshland, and roiling sky. I actually felt relieved, like I had just come home, when I got control of my character in the opening scene and went over to the bedroom window. Just looking outside at the sunrise through the cold morning air, splintered into shafts of light by a bare tree, was enough to remind me of all the reasons that this is the best shooter series since Half-Life.

The opening sequence of Clear Sky may well be clunky and bordering on tedium, but I was at home the moment I was turned loose in the swamps outside the Clear Sky base.  I couldn’t have been happier picking my away through prairie grass and shallow pools, trying to avoid pissing off the local fauna.

At one point I was trying to cut across the map and went off the trails, and as I came a narrow clearing hemmed in by a marsh to the right and a field of tall grass to the left, I thought I heard something in the brush. I froze stock-still and listened. Just listened. To the breeze rustling through the weeds and the cackle of some crows. To very distant gunfire from the ongoing battle. But nothing immediate. So I started moving again, and as I reached the narrowest point of the clearing, I heard rustling and snuffling in the bushes to my left.

Instantly I was down in a crouch on the edge of the pool, long-barreled shotgun leveled and ready. I strained my ears and definitely heard an animal coming closer through the brush. I started tracking the sound from left to right and just as it passed in front of me, I heard a hound’s bark and it came charging out of the weeds. I’d misjudged his location by a few degrees, and swept the gun back to the left and triggered both barrels. Both blasts of buckshot peppered him, but not enough to bring him down. He came hurtling toward me while I broke open the stock, pulled out the empty shells, and slapped in fresh ones. I got the new rounds chambered and closed the gun just as he started to leap. Boo-boom! The second round dropped him at point blank range. He died at my feet.

My heart was pounding.

And that was a random, relatively weak monster encounter. A normal day at the stalker’s office. But I couldn’t afford to get cute and just slug it out with the damned thing, or try and run, because he absolutely could have killed me. Maybe not right away, but if he’d mauled me out there the marshes, I’d have bled out before I could make it back to safety.

Another unbelievable, quintessentially STALKER sequence came when I ran into a squad of Clear Sky attackers heading to take a pumping station away from the bandits. We managed to get close without being spotted, but the moment our point man placed a foot on the duckboards, the bandits opened fire from the platform. We started shooting it out from across the pond. One of my shots missed wide of the mark and a gas tank exploded, blasting the guy I’d been shooting at into oblivion. That was the opening: I charged across the boards, shotgunned the first bandit to get in my way, then picked off another over by the pumps. We were clear.

But not finished. My squad kept pushing north through the swamps, clearing a herd of boars and then coming to a desolate, ruined village. As we approached, we ran into a squad of bandits that had been heading toward the pump station. Again, gunfire erupted everywhere.

At this stage of the game, my weapons were a hodgepodge. I had an AK-74 with no ammo.  I had an MP-5 with half a clip, a sawed-off shotgun, the hunting shotgun, and a Fora 9mm pistol. All of which meant that in a huge firefight, with numbers definitely going against us, I was not really in good shape. I tried to pick off bandits with my pistol, but the engagement range was too long and every time I leaned out of cover, a torrent of pistol and shotgun fire came my way.  I spotted a pair of hostiles trying to flank us on the right side, using a house foundation for cover, so I pulled my MP-5 and cut them both down with two bursts, emptying the weapon. Then I started taking potshots with the shotgun, hoping that the buckshot would at least start whittling their strength down.

After about five minutes of combat, I suddenly realized I could heard the wind and the birds again. The riot of gunfire, shotgun blasts, ricochets, and yelling had slowed to a sullen dialogue.

With a sinking feeling, already certain of what I would find, I turned to my left and saw that two of my squadmates dead in their cover. I sprinted farther towards our flank, drawing a fusillade of shots from the bandits holding the main road, and reached the other end of our firing line. Everyone was dead. I was alone with the bandits.

Reason and adrenaline collided head-on. The smart play would be to fall back into the swamp toward the pumping station we’d liberated a half hour earlier. The odds were terrible and there was really no upshot to continuing the fight. But as the shots continued to sail past, and the bandits continued trying to work their way around the flanks, I was too keyed-up to call it a day. I grabbed some ammo from my dead squaddies, and moved back to the right.  Luckily, the bandits didn’t spot me until I was on their flank and I was able to take them one at a time.

Even with that minor advantage, it was still slow, bloody work. It took me several more minutes to clear the town. It also used up all my bandages, all but one of my first-aid kits, and 95% of my ammunition. By the time I drove the last gunman down in a hail of bullets over by an empty pig pen, I was down to three clips of pistol ammo and a salvo from each of my shotguns. I started stripping the dead to replenish my supplies, and realized how futile this battle had been. Nobody had much ammo, and I didn’t manage to find any medical supplies.

Not that I got a chance to collect more than a few handfuls of 9mm and buckshot rounds, because I spotted another squad of bandits coming in from the north. I took off on the road east before they spotted me, since they were already across my line of retreat to the pumping station.

I had completely screwed myself. The village was back in enemy hands. I was also trapped in the middle of nowhere between two bandit bases, with nothing but a long expanse of hostile countryside between me and a Clear Sky position. Overhead, the perfect autumn day had given way to a heavy sky that seemed to press down until it touched the tops of the prairie grass.

I checked my map, sketched a route, and reloaded my weapons. Then, turning away from the broken trail, I headed back into the marshes.

One Move Behind – Narrative & Stairway Thoughts

I have hit saturation point with 2 v 2 Age of Mythology comp-stomps, I realized last night. My girlfriend and I had a date for some LAN gaming, but the thought of more AoM made me a little ill. What we need to do, I realize, is just bite the bullet and get another copy so that we can go play online. But for some reason, paying $20 for a game we already own just rubs us the wrong way.

While we were negotiating what else we could play (a conversation that requires UN mediation), I noticed Skype was blinking at me. Troy was about to record Three Moves Ahead and it was looking like it was going to be just him and Julian Murdoch unless I could join. The topic was narrative and story in strategy games, and we were recording in three minutes. I ran over to the bar, poured a drink, and got back to the computer just as the call began.

Given the lack of prep time, I was surprised at how well the podcast went. It’s one of my favorites. It turns out I had lots of things to say on this subject, as did Troy and Julian. Nevertheless, within ten minutes of wrapping up the podcast I had thought of a couple things I should have said.

First, I made the argument that the nature of a strategy game doesn’t gel with the nature of story, which is all about the author manipulating events. Strategy games are more systemic than shooters, because their mechanics are inseparable from competition between players. Julian, in what I consider an almost criminal abuse of semantic agility, made the case that all games are systems and this is no more a problem for strategy games as it is for shooters. Shooter fans are as focused on multiplayer as strategy players.

Seeing both sides of an argument tripped me up here, but on reflection I still think Julian was underplaying a key difference. The strategy game usually has no existence outside its multiplayer mechanics. Build a base, destroy the enemy base. Capture and hold some key locations. It’s the same in both multiplayer and single-player. That’s just not true in shooters.

The most popular FPS game modes (capture the flag, king of the hill, control point, assault-defend) have no single-player analogue. The single-player shooter is about a one-man army versus an actual army. All the systems that govern multiplayer depend on teams and magic-circle constructs: my team and I are going to defend this flagpole because that is the point of the game, and you are going to try and take it. We will all use different weapons that complement one another, and whoever fights best and coordinates best will win.

However, I do have an example of an FPS game that is a competitive system and tries to adapt that system to a single-player campaign: Section 8. Section 8 brings all the multiplayer mechanics into the campaign, and result is exactly the kind of brainless, repetitive missions you find in RTS campaigns. So there is a case in point for you.

Second, I wanted to mention World in Conflict as a great example for a story with great production values and some good characters that is hamstrung by the player’s lack of identity and its lousy mission structure. In World in Conflict and the Soviet Assault campaign, you play as the American Lt. Parker and the Soviet Lt. Romanov. Parker is ostensibly your narrator, Alec Baldwin, but he is mute in all the cutscenes involving other characters. He just nods while the NPCs argue with one another, at which point you have to ask why they bothered making your guy a character at all. At least he has an avatar, however, whereas Lt. Romanov is invisible. This gets awkward as the other characters make decisions that your guy would want to discuss, presumably. It’s especially bad in the Soviet campaign, where your character plays no role whatsoever in a growing schism among the Soviet leadership.

Worse, however, is the way the missions are crafted. No matter how dramatic the situation, each mission boils down to a list of menial errands. You start off capturing a hill  at the edge of a town, and are then sent to capture the bridge. You capture the bridge, but naturally the enemy destroys it before you can cross. Your commander then tells you that you have to march all the way around to the other side of the map and capture another hill. You go do that. Then he orders you to march around the map again (at this point you have traveled in a full circle) and take a road leading into the town. Then you have to go take the town. Then you have to hold it.

That is every mission in this game. Over and over again.  Just a lot of pointless marching around to different victory locations with the vague assurance that this is all very important.

Third, I wanted to mention the exact mission that made me stop playing the Company of Heroes campaign: the V-2 mission. Every WW2 game has some bullshit mission where you have to go infiltrate a Nazi base, usually to stop them launching V-1 or V-2 rockets. It’s always a Top Secret mission, which means that it’s obnoxiously difficult and you’re hamstrung from using most of your equipment.

I had played this exact mission, and variants of it, in a wide variety of shooters and strategy games. Running across it again in Company of Heroes, which was already straining itself trying to be Saving Private Band of Brothers: The RTS, was a bridge too far.

Oh, and I could have been more articulate about Myth, but it’s difficult to explain why that game works so well without getting into a serious discussion about its elements. Hopefully we’ll have a Myth retrospective on TMA, and really do the game justice.