Posts Tagged ‘ passivity

Some Words Uncharted 2 Made Me Eat

Honestly, I was prepared to be underwhelmed by Uncharted 2. After my first couple hours with the game, I even had a little piece written up about why corridor shooters leave me so cold. My first night of Uncharted 2 didn’t leave me impressed. It was as charming as ever, and the writing was sharper, but I just wasn’t interested in the gameplay. Before I could finish my post, however, Uncharted 2 confounded the conclusions I drew from its first first act. Still, I like what I wrote. It’s true in more cases than it’s not, and it’s worth recording how our views evolve. So I post my first impressions below, unredacted:

Jumping to the Wrong Conclusion

I spent my weekend playing Uncharted 2, as part of my ongoing effort to work through my console backlog. I was in the mood for charming violence and, really, there’s nothing like Uncharted for providing an onslaught of both. One minute Drake is playing with hand-puppets in a Turkish prison, the next he’s snapping one guard’s neck an instant before shooting twice in the back of the head.

Still, this is not and never will be my kind of game. The possibility to space is too claustrophobic, the guidance too heavy-handed, for me to feel involved in the way that I want. It’s not that I expect every game to be as open as STALKER, but I can’t abide corridors that are so narrow that I might as well not be playing, and that’s often where Uncharted places me.

Security gates are less effective when the release button is right next to it. In fairness, you really have to stretch to reach it.

Trekking through a jungle path wide enough for two Drakes to stand side-by-side, I scale a wall using some obvious handholds. Then I cross a river balancing on a log, except Drake never really seems in danger of losing his balance. Now I come to a guard who has his back turned to me. Another guard stands a few yards away, looking in another direction, also with his back turned. I take the game’s obvious invitation to stealth-kill the two men. Then I come to clearing with two lines of obvious cover. One for me, one for the bad guys who will pop up as soon as I hit the invisible tripwire. Now I cycle between the cover points, waiting for the mercenaries to stick their heads out of cover so I can kill them. Eventually, they’re all dead. Then it’s onto another narrow passage, which will end with another set of carefully set-up, idiot-proofed stealth kills.

I could turn up the difficulty, but higher difficulty won’t redesign the levels and encounters so that I face meaningful choices, or tests of skill. I might be a little more vulnerable in firefights, my enemies a little less, but it won’t be any more interesting than it is on “Hard”. The exciting story and action set-pieces that unfold on the screen get a little less exciting as the game’s limitations become clearer. Drake isn’t really in danger of falling. The next handhold is right there, or his off-balance animation will trigger and he’ll stand, twisting and turning, on the edge of a precipice from which he will never take a plummet. The guard won’t turn around. Other guards won’t hear his muffled scream, or come investigate his disappearance. The enemies won’t keep up a sustained cover-fire, pinning you in place while they flank.

I’m reminded of an old MST3K, where a woman was being chased by some kind of crocodile. Except they weren’t even in the same shot. It was just pictures of her running, screaming across a field, with insert shots of a crocodile scuttling through a swamp. Then the woman reached the safety of her friends. One of the robots said, “Wow! That was… not close at all, actually.”

If you’re going to sustain tension, you’ve got to mean it. If Nathan Drake is living by his wits, nearly dying a half-dozen times a minute, then I should at least feel a faint echo of the same. Nolan North can grunt and gasp all he wants: I’m sitting with my feet up on the couch, drinking an Old-Fashioned while shots fly over Drake’s head. What Uncharted 2 needs to do is throw an elbow. Let me know that it’s time to stop screwing around and start playing.

"I don't know, I just feel like nothing I do matters. Like I'm just waiting for the next cutscene to start."

When I was Garrett the Thief, I had to take time to get a feel for the landscape before I could start wiping out a regiment of guards. Execution and timing mattered, and if I didn’t do my job right, it turned into a huge bloody mess. When the bullets started to fly in F.E.A.R., I had to think fast and approach each gunbattle with some tactical acumen, or the weight of numbers and grenades would take me down in short order. That’s gaming as I knew it. The tightly scripted corridor shooter is tee-ball by comparison: “Way to hit that ball! Yaaaay, Slugger! Here’s your participation ribbon.”

On Second Thought…

After I wrote that, I played more of the game. Now the interesting thing about this is that I still stand by a lot of what I wrote. Hell, even as someone who completely converted to the cause of Uncharted 2, I still think a lot of my criticisms are completely valid. But what I didn’t know is that from the next chapter, “Urban Warfare”, until the end of the game, Uncharted 2 was about to annihilate my expectations. I’ll get into the reasons why in my next post.

But for now? I’m still pondering what I wrote above. If I still chafe at how tightly Uncharted 2 occasionally holds your hand and constrains your actions, can that be squared with how completely I ended up buying into the experience? With how involved I became with the story and the action? Is a compromise possible between Uncharted 2′s exhilarating cinematic qualities and more open gameplay?

Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare: Play :: Pornography: Sex

One thought keeps recurring when I play Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare: “Why even bother?”

Followed by the corollary: “Is this really what people want?”

I finally finished the single-player campaign for the first time. This was an overdue playthrough, certainly, but I could never quite bring myself to buy the game after I tried the demo. My friend Lange gave it to me when I asked to borrow it, saying that Modern Warfare had left him utterly cold. Now I see why.

Imagine how cool this would be if you were actually playing.

Imagine how cool this would be if you were actually playing.

I started to get a bad feeling during the very first mission, as my team boarded a storm-tossed freighter. The scene was evocative, but as my SAS team swept across the deck, I did not feel like I was in control of my character. It felt like if I took my hands off the keyboard and mouse, “Soap” MacTavish would continue to move toward the hatchway below the bridge. The whole thing reminded me of those times when you’re playing split-screen multiplayer and you are looking at the wrong window, thinking you’re in control while watching someone else play.

I don’t remember previous Call of Duties having such a strong sensation of being on a conveyor belt. They were heavily scripted, yes, but I felt like I had some freedom in the space between the trigger points. Now I constantly feel like I’m tugged along against my will. The effect extends to the way the game looks. I always feel crowded and claustrophobic, because all the characters seem to suffer from tunnel vision. Trees, buildings, and other types of cover cut deeply into the level maps. Whether I’m in the Ukrainian countryside or a subterranean missile bunker, I am always fighting in alleys.

The scripting is likewise more in-your-face than almost any shooter I can remember. The game practically revels in your sheer lack of agency. This is what I noticed in the demo, and why I couldn’t quite bring myself to get excited about the thought of the entire game.

Modern Warfare, making sure you know your place from the start

Modern Warfare, making sure you know your place from the start

In the part of the game excerpted for the demo, you and your Marine squad start taking heavy machine gun fire from a tenement house. I took cover behind a car and heard the Lieutenant start yelling something about how we needed to get around these guys. I took one look at the constellation of muzzle flashes and the deafening roar of heavy weapons and thought, Are you out of your fucking mind?

I kept shooting machine gunners and riflemen from my cover position, trying to suppress them enough so I could move, but within a second or two of clearing a window, a new gunman would take over the position. This went on and on, and I had this vivid flashback of a game I had forgotten: Hogan’s Alley, a lightgun game for the NES. Almost twenty years later, Modern Warfare was feeding me the same game mechanic.

Feel free to keep shooting. Or dont. It doesnt matter.

Feel free to keep shooting. Or don't. It doesn't matter.

This sequence turned me into a lost sale, and it repeats throughout the game. At another point I was tasked with destroying some BMPs while fighting off waves of Russian ultranationalist soldiers. I noticed a few streaming out of a hangar and gunned them down with my SAW. Before I could turn away, however, a few more came out of the same hangar. Then a few more after them. Then more. Every two seconds, someone came out, marched into my crosshairs, and joined the growing pile of corpses outside the building. It was like a cross between a clown car and a batting cage, far more Hot Shots Part Deux than 24.

The nail in the coffin, however, is Modern Warfare’s passive-aggressive level design. Time again, I find my progress blocked because I am not going to the magic spot that Infinity Ward has decided is the correct place to fight, or I haven’t identified the correct route through an encounter. Whenever I am in danger of improvising, I can practically hear the game turning into a Woody Allen character. “Are you sure? You’re positive this is the best way to handle this? Because in my opinion, and I say this with all due respect, your plan may be the worst thing conceivable. I just want the record to show that I was not responsible for what you are about to do.”

But even if you try to be an obedient little drone, Modern Warfare won’t make clear what it actually wants. It will demur. “Oh, I don’t know where you should defend from. Anywhere seems like it could work. I don’t want to ruin anything for you. It’s your game, after all, not mine.”

The game has many sequences that behave this way, but I think the quintessential example has to be the last stand beneath the Pripyat Ferris wheel. You set your wounded comrade, Lt. MacMillan, on a ridge where he can command a wide field of fire. Then you get hit by wave upon wave of Russian troops while waiting for exfiltration.

I tried to defend my spotter / team leader, but kept dying while the rescue chopper was about 4 klicks out. Oh, for awhile it was a heroic gunbattle as I gave ground while leaving piles of Russian dead in my wake. I was furiously setting traps, detonating charges, and switching between my rifle and my shotgun. But nothing I did seemed to make a difference.

On my best run, I spent my last few minutes hiding behind a bumper car in the back corner. The Russians had a hard time getting to me, and had a tendency to run right past me into positions where I could easily gun them down. This made me think, “What if I tried holding out behind the bumper car platform?”

This shouldn’t work. It meant abandoning my teammate, but of course he is invulnerable. One gimpy Irishman with a sniper rifle turns out to be tougher to kill than Roland. When we finally get Call of Duty: Easter Rising, Connolly will probably get out of his chair and simply kick the Tommies’ asses.

The Russians should just be able to pin me down, lob a bunch of grenades at me, and maybe send some guys around the flank to kill me. I’d say they should be able to get me from behind as well, but it just so happens that a field of radiation fences off the space behind the bumper cars.

Bumper Car Masada

Bumper Car Masada

So I hid behind the track, running back and forth while dodging grenades and watching Russian troops charge up the ridge that I wasn’t defending. Sometimes they rushed at me, but were confounded by the railings at the edge of the bumper track.

Eventually, the chopper showed up, and I walked back across the ridge, grabbed my invincible cargo, and boarded.

There was nothing convincing about my response to this sequence. Everything I did was suggested by the exploitable level design and mechanics. My teammate couldn’t be killed, so I could leave him alone. The Russians couldn’t outflank me because the designers left an obvious corner in the gameworld, and they were also scripted to attack along a single axis. By moving to the artificial corner behind the bumper cars, I also placed myself perpendicular to their path of attack. The scripting was too rigid to allow them to face me head on, so I was able to mow them down as they rushed past.

My objection to this structure is that it fundamentally breaks the contract I sign when I load up a Call of Duty game. They are supposed to, and often have, made me feel like I am in an old-fashioned war movie. But with Modern Warfare, I feel more like I’m on the set of a war movie, and Infinity Ward is the director, yelling at me to use the blocking and hit my marks.

This just about sums up the experience

This just about sums up the experience

What I’ve seen in COD 4: Modern Warfare and World at War has made me seriously skeptical for the future of this franchise. Regardless of how these games perform commercially, they are feeling increasingly antique after games like Stalker or Far Cry 2. This isn’t to say that every game needs to be an open-worlder (far from it, as the Half-Life series continues to show), but there are more and more games that dazzle me with freedom and possibility. Modern Warfare tries to dazzle me with spectacle, but I can never quite bring myself to forget its shackles.