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November 13, 2013

Of Batman and “Predator Games”

(Alternate post title: Bored with Power 2: Electric Boogaloo)

I would just like to say one thing upfront: it is almost hilarious that this post covers the same topic I talked at length about almost a year ago on the dot.  I say “almost”, of course, because the fact that I feel like I HAVE to dredge up this topic again means that by and large I don’t feel like the games industry has learned a single damn thing.  Ergo, it’s less “almost hilarious” and more “completely depressing”.

So.  Not too long ago I did a little post on Batman: Arkham Origins (which I posted on a Monday because I didn’t want the stigma of a Family Guy post taking the top slot and corrupting my blog for too long).  I went in with a bit of cautious “optimism” thanks to the reviews and consensus being less than positive, but I figured it was at least worth a shot to see if the game could win me over.  It didn’t.  I couldn’t bring myself to play past the first hour or so, and with my brother saying that it just goes downhill from there I decided early that even if there WAS a good story in there, it wasn’t worth it.
                                                                            
As always, I want to stress that if you like the game, then that’s great.  I envy you.  But I couldn’t even begin to enjoy it, and I feel like I can’t rest until I explain why.

Short answer?  It’s the gameplay.  Long answer?  Well...hold on to your butts.


I think it’s a safe bet to say that the plot of any given Batman game is “Batman heads to a crime-infested place to sort it out via fisticuffs”, so let’s talk about what you actually do in the game.  As far as I can tell, you explore an open world as the caped crusader with a mix of gliding and zip line shenanigans, allowing a character who technically can’t fly to effectively fly.  (Because he’s Batman, as others would say.)  That part of the game is actually fairly enjoyable, though it does lead to a lot of trigger button-mashing to try and find what you can grapple onto.  Even so, it’s nice to have a largely-enjoyable mechanic like that, and even if a lot of assets have been reused I still like the way Gotham looks and feels.  Though much like Man of Steel, the soundtrack -- for the most part -- has no idea how to calm the hell down.

Where the game loses me is where it should shine the most: the combat.  I’m almost certain I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: part of the reason I like RPGs as much as I do is because they can have such unique and exciting combat systems.  I’ve always believed that if you’re running away from fights, you’re not getting the most out of the game.  Grandia III’s story might have fallen apart before the halfway point, but its battle system -- at least before leaving the first disc -- was amazing.  Even beyond RPGs, games have defined themselves with their combat -- the interaction of the player and the game -- for decades.  I’m not going to say that a game with bad combat is automatically bad, but it sure doesn’t help its case.


And for me, Arkham Origins’ combat is deal-breaking.  If you haven’t seen the games in action before, here’s how it works: huge mobs of goons try to rush at Batman, and it’s up to you to fend them off.    The Bat’s strikes are mapped to the square button, so hammer that and you’ll hammer foes accordingly.  It’s worth noting that there’s no dedicated targeting/lock-on button; while that’s a death knell for some action games (DmC sez hai), there’s a soft lock-on made possible by pointing the stick in a direction while attacking.  It works, but it seems like the mechanic sends my Batman flying every which way on occasion. 

In any case, the Bat’s got more tricks up his cowl.  Double-tap X, and you’ll evade in the direction you choose, and you can even flip over enemies.  Hit the circle button and you’ll flap your cape, stunning enemies and opening them up for attack.   L2 lets you use whatever Bat-tool you’ve got equipped, meaning you can work some Batarangs into your sick combos.  The other buttons do stuff too, I guess.  But the crux of the combat system lies on the triangle button -- and with it, the counter system.  Watch enemies closely, and when you see blue lines appear above their head, that’s your cue to hit triangle.  Pull it off, and Batman will intercept their attack and make them pay for it as painfully as possible.  It’s a system designed to capture the dark knight’s abilities and nature, and in that sense it works; on top of that, it’s a system that’s supposed to make fighting multiple enemies a breeze, not a hassle.  It’s built-in crowd control, in a sense. 

It’s just not very good.


I don’t know if it’s a complaint one could leverage at the other Arkham games since this is supposed to be a copy-paste job (only worse, from what I could gather), but the problems here are problems of their own, regardless of the lineage.  I’ll admit that Batman is well-animated, and at times the sound design is on-point, but if the intent was to make the player into Batman, they overshot it.  This game has one of the most unfulfilling combat systems I’ve ever encountered; there’s no challenge, no tension, no reason to improve, nothing.  It may sound a bit harsh to judge a game’s system based on its first hour of play, but if I’m not intrigued by the start, why should I be intrigued by anything that follows?  Besides that, there’s an upgrade tree that demands the player put in points to build a better bat -- but why would I do that when Batman is already broken?

The only button you need for the majority of your fights is the triangle button.  Maybe any fight, but I can’t bring myself to care enough to investigate.  But what I do know is that if you steer yourself to the center of a bunch of thugs (or even if you don’t), all you have to do is wait for the prompt to pop up and hit triangle.  No damage to you, damage done to your enemies.  That’s it.  They’ll just keep running at you and running at you, doing what goons do and tossing out Goonese proverbs (“You’re dead!” or “Gonna mess you up!”)     


You barely even have to be conscious to stop them.  Hell, a part of me suspects that you don’t even have to use proper timing to stop them; there’s no penalty for hitting the counter button early except leaving Batman in a ready stance, and enemy attack patterns are lax enough to let you not have to worry about incoming attacks.  In fact, I get the feeling that you can mash the counter button to make yourself effectively invincible.   It’s not something that I tested -- although I made myself unbeatable just by “playing the game” and hitting triangle -- but it’s not something I want to prove.

Remarkably, it gets worse.  As far as I can tell, there are two main “builds” for a player’s Batman; they can either boost their combat skill, or improve the gadgets they can use.  Seeing as how the game starts with you taking down Killer Croc by yourself, I decided to take the road less traveled and put points into my tech.  It wasn’t long before I had my Batman equipped with Triple Batarangs -- three per toss, each one with the ability to lock onto a separate target.  As you can imagine, that made me even MORE broken; suddenly, I didn’t even need to bother with punches or counters.  All I had to do was evade into a corner or an empty space (sometimes not even then) and mash L2, watching with horror as Batman cleared out an entire squadron of goons without even having to aim.  They couldn’t even get within a yard of me before getting stunned, knocked back, or knocked out.  I would have busted a gut laughing if it wasn’t the stupidest damn thing I’d seen in a while.  And I've seen some things


In defense of the game, it is possible that there’s more to the combat.  The presence of armored guys and knife guys has to stand for something…but on the other hand, I wouldn’t put too much stock in them.  Guys like that only appear once in a while, and make up just one unit out of a dozen-strong clump of goons.  I’d bet that beating the knife guys could be as easy as spamming Batarangs until they don’t have a drop of blood left in their bodies; meanwhile, the armored tough guys can be taken out with a specific combo established early on -- that is, you stun them, and then you wail on them with the square button.  The majority of your time in this game, I’d wager, is spent beating on goons who have no business going up against Batman, because Batman is Batman, and compared to them might as well be Superman.  It really says a lot about the game when the biggest threat to your success is you, simply because you made the mistake of trying to get in one more punch on the baddie ahead of you instead of dropping everything to counter the guy behind you.

The stealth doesn’t do much to support the game either.  It’s true that it works, but it just invites the problem of Batman being so absurdly powerful that there are no stakes.  If for any reason you should land in a tight spot, all you have to do is grapple to a high point and hide until things cool down.  Batman has an entire dimension to use as he sees fit; the vertical element gives him an almost irrevocable advantage, letting him pick off foes however he wants.  It’s true that guns can still tear through the dark knight, but if that happens -- if you get caught in close quarters -- all you have to do is throw down a smoke bomb and use the confusion to either run away or knock a goon out.  Pardon my naiveté, but I thought that stealth mechanics were suppose to emphasize you wanting to avoid combat at all costs,  because if you get into a fight you’re almost guaranteed to lose.  When did “stealth” start to mean “instant kills” and “reset buttons”?

At least they didn’t give Batman a fully-functional flamethrower...that I know of.


I’d like to think that the boss fights are a lot better, but I don’t have much hope there, either.  The only reason Killer Croc hit me at all is because I couldn’t get the camera to cooperate, and I got so distracted I didn’t dodge in time -- not to mention that “boss fight” in this game likely means one big guy and even more goons to counter into oblivion.  The Electrocutioner fight is essentially a QTE, wherein Batman beats an electrified and supposedly ultra-skilled fighter with one attack.  The Deathstroke fight -- which may or may not be the only one in the game, despite how much hype he’s gotten -- comes off as an extended QTE, with the in-game combat peppered with pre-baked combat that makes you wish the actual game was that cool.  On the plus side, you walk away with one of his tools.  Weapon get, indeed.

So no, I don’t like Arkham Origins.  It has nothing to do with me and my admitted distaste for Batman, because I know that A) he’s a character that can and has been done well before, and I’ve seen it for myself, and B) he’s not my favorite superhero, but the concept is full of intrigue and potential even to someone who prefers squeaky-clean Boy Scouts.  No, I think that the problem is that this game is about the pitfall that comes with the character -- the fetishization of Batman, rather than the exploration of Batman.  There must be tens of thousands of characters out there whose skill set includes the ability to punch people really hard, or get their jollies in dangling thugs from high places to get the info they want.  Those are all complements to a character, not the defining factors.  But the way Origins plays, you’d think that Batman is an invincible, whirling engine of destruction -- because the devs are trying to give the people what they think they want.  “Be Batman,” they whisper seductively into your ear.  “Be unbeatable.  Be a badass.  Be powerful.”  And then they try to slip their tongues across your face.


Like I said, games define themselves via their systems -- their combat more often than not, but there are alternatives.  That’s not a bad thing.  It’s only a bad thing when the design of combat, and the power that runs alongside it, goes off the rails.  If there is no challenge to a game, no agency to its combat or any edge to its other defining particulars, then what makes it worth playing?  Is making the player feel like a badass THAT important to devs these days?  Have we reached a point where a game that should make memory manipulation its main system has to add kung fu fighting and dragon punches?   Or where a game ensures that its players will have the chance to act like the biggest jackass in the universe?   The answer to that is yes -- because if certain commercials and YouTube ads are to be believed, war is so totally awesome.

I’m beginning to think that a distinction needs to be made -- which is why I’m introducing the phrase “predator game”.  Predator games are games that turn the player into a verifiable killing machine, by design and by suggestion.  You are the hunter, given all the power needed to turn you into a creature of instinct -- unthinking, unfeeling.  Everyone else is the hunted.  The prey.  The herbivores, with nothing to oppose you but their soft and succulent underbellies.  In a predator game, killing is just something you do, and the moment you become aware of the instincts the game is infusing into you, you just might realize that you’ve been played.  For some, the hunt may no longer have the same thrill.  For others, they don’t care -- and they grow fat off the hamstrung prey offered to them.


I would say that predator games aren’t automatically the worst thing ever -- that is, they’re not an instant failure state.  But they are something worth noting.  Developed and enjoyed sparingly, they’re harmless; done in excess, they do more harm than good.   I would have thought that video games were about more than just one-hit-kills, lavishly-rendered executions, and a chance to showcase the physics of either spurting guts or lifeless bodies.  But alas, in a predator game that’s not the case.  Killing is the sole way the game tries to define itself, and it’s worse off for it.  Hardly memorable in the long run.  Maybe not even enjoyable in the short run.

When did this trend start?  And is it a trend in the first place, or am I just reaching?  It’s hard to say conclusively, but my guess is that Assassin’s Creed and its popularity had a hand in it.  Being a killer is admittedly an interesting idea with lots of potential, and once upon a time Ubisoft capitalized on it by giving us an experience that, while not exactly perfect, put ideas into the heads of others (gamers and devs alike).  I don’t know or care about the AC series enough to comment about each of its games and how it’s transformed over the years, but if nothing else it has problems.  Like Origins, it’s got the whole “stand in the center of a crowd and counter everyone to death” mechanic going on, and the entire franchise revolves around stabbing the hell out of people so they never, ever get back up.  Stealth, subterfuge, and stabbing are what the series is built on…well, except when it isn’t.  Remember this trailer?


Triple-A games tend to influence other triple-A games (remember the whole “Tomb Raider is just like Uncharted now” claims, which might not actually be that far off).  And I’d bet that triple-A games tend to influence games period.  Games, and the mindset to follow; that sense of power is as enticing as it is corruptive, and without the creative spark -- the reason needed to stand up and say “hey, maybe we don’t need to bank so hard on ultra-violence and positive reinforcement” -- we’re going to get more of these predator games.  

If you’ll let me be a little bold, I’m going to preemptively call out Ryse: Son of Rome for this, because any game that is (or was) very nearly a string of QTE murders deserves to be watched scornfully before release.  The inevitable Assassin’s Creed 5 is going to feature next-gen murder, no doubt, so it’ll be interesting to see if Ubisoft can do anything new with a franchise that’s seen six installments in a single console generation besides adding more weapons to the player character’s coat.  Call of Duty and Battlefield are going to keep up their pissing contest for a while yet -- so may God help us all.


I want to take a minute to say that just because a game has weak combat or lopsided odds doesn’t automatically make it a predator game.  If that were true, then a lot of good games would qualify.  It’s important to remember, I think, that predator games rely almost exclusively on their “combat” to win gamer hearts, while others offer something more -- via story, via additional gameplay elements, and the like.  It’s true that Zelda games don’t exactly have the most challenging fights (the game’s pretty much won the moment Link gets his boomerang in Wind Waker), but that’s offset by the gameplay being a mix of combat, exploration, and puzzle-solving.  

On top of that, Link may have all the tools he needs to succeed, but it’s power gained within reason and in accordance with his world and the story at large.  You gain power at a steady rate; some tools work well in combat, but others are too unwieldy or limited in application; even beyond that, using sword skills and the wisdom needed to score a hit makes for a simple but effective combat system.  It’s not a matter of glorifying each kill, but an event for you to progress past on your way to the next bit of the game.  As it should be.


The alternate option is to go down the Platinum Games route.  It’s very true that action games like Bayonetta, Metal Gear Rising, Devil May Cry, and others put you in control of extremely powerful characters -- BUT that’s offset by them regularly fighting against even more powerful enemies on their way to victory.  Being a predator in games like those is damn near impossible; if anything, you’re the one who’s the prey, and just surviving is infinitely more important to you than seeing some slick animations.  The only way to win -- to even get to the next area -- is to develop whatever skills you can, and let those become your power.  Learn to dodge in Bayonetta.  Learn to parry in Rising.  Learn how to use your style of choice in DMC3.  Those games are almost completely defined by their combat, yes, but in exchange they give you some of the best combat systems games can offer…that is, if you can survive the tutorial level alone.  Again, as it should be.

But that all operates under the assumption that combat is essential to a game.  It isn’t.  Combat is how games and gamers can express themselves by way of their interaction -- BUT that’s not the only way it can be done.  Or, if it absolutely, positively HAS to be done, it needs to be offered in a way that’s unique but exciting.  Refined, but rewarding.  Telling of the thought process, but more than capable of showing the player a good time.  It’s more than possible to make a game like that, and I’d wager that even now, in this current industry climate, it’s more than possible to deviate from the norm.  And I’m more than happy to offer one possibility.

Here’s the underlying question: what if the strongest character in the universe was also its weakest?


This is a concept I’ve been thinking about over the past few weeks.  Like I’ve said before, I come up with characters based on what sort of powers I can give them -- weapon skills, control over the elements, enhanced physical parameters, ESP, what have you.  But lately, I’ve been thinking what it would be like to have a character with a different sort of power.  A character who’s Weak, but Skilled personified…for better or worse.  And the answer that I came up with was to have a character that is weak -- and is made weaker by the fact that he makes his enemies stronger

So let’s say there’s a guy named Sheeper.  A really flimsy looking guy who looks like he could keel over at any moment, but in spite of that has an ego the size of Mount Everest.  And let’s say that in terms of raw fighting ability, the most he has going for him -- besides being able to run faster than a shrieking ninny -- is the crowbar he keeps tucked in his belt.  BUT he also has a hidden power, something that makes him an MVP for the bad guys: he subconsciously releases energy waves that make certain people around him better.  Bigger, faster, stronger, smarter, it depends on the person -- but the end result is that Sheeper can make anyone or anything into a superhuman version of itself...especially if he consciously decides to use his power via physical contact.  Essentially, he’s a monster maker.   Among other things.


So in general, the story behind the game is that Sheeper -- being the selfish twit that he is -- decides one day to say “screw you” to the baddies he’s been working for (and helping to enable world domination by building their evil army) so he can go fulfill his dream of being a world-famous…well, he hasn’t thought that far ahead, but he knows that fame, fortune, and foxy femmes await him at the end of his road.  The baddies -- and a hefty assortment of bounty hunters -- want him back, so he’s got to fight to earn his freedom.  

Sheeper isn’t any stronger than the average man, but he is wily.  He’s a master of evasion.  He knows how to hit people right where it hurts with his crowbar, and while he doesn’t have the power or durability needed to last long or dish out the damage, he makes his hits count.  He’s not afraid to play dirty, either; he’ll resort to cheap tricks, hit-and-run tactics, or make use of his environment.  Where things get really interesting, from a gameplay perspective, is Sheeper’s boost mechanic.  Enemies will naturally get stronger as a fight progresses, albeit at a steady pace; think of it as like the Mario Galaxy games, where a boss a hit away from death will get a lot faster and more aggressive.  But Sheeper -- i.e. the player -- can boost them even further with his power, making them even stronger, even faster, or outright turning them into a new type of enemy.  Forced evolution, as it were -- the sort of thing that’s guaranteed to make sure Sheeper has a bad time. 


All right, so why would making an enemy stronger be a good thing?  Simple: you might be making enemies stronger, but you’re also making them dumber.  More complacent.  More likely to think that they’re invincible because they’re so powerful, and thus more likely to make a mistake.  And when they leave themselves open -- if they leave themselves open, that is -- then Sheeper can land critical hits that’ll get the job done even faster.  Beyond that, there would be some sort of point system awarded by onlookers; if Sheeper takes down a slightly-empowered mob, he’ll get a few claps from a small audience.  But if he beats massive enemies (even if he created them himself), he’ll get standing ovations from the entire town.  A

nd that, in turn, could unlock new paths in the story and in the world at large; maybe a captain who sees Sheeper win a fight will give him a free ride on his cruise ship, or maybe the collateral damage caused by Sheeper’s super-empowering antics will make a rival pop up.  Regardless, the combat would have players make a tough choice; do you play it safe and take down enemies that aren’t as big a threat in a low-risk, low-reward situation?  Or do you turn even the average goon into final boss material precisely because you know you can take them out more easily -- reaping the benefits of a high-risk, high-reward situation? 


It’s true that there would be some problems in making the game work as intended (making it accessible for beginners, adjusting Sheeper’s balance with enemies via upgrade trees, giving enemies powerful forms and adapting AI), but I think it’s a concept that could work…or if nothing else, could make for an interesting story.  What’s important is that the possibilities are there.  There are more routes to go down than just making the player God and the average enemy a speed bump.  There are so many meaningful things you can do with a game and its creative space, allowing for expression through its mechanics.  So much more can be done than just putting in a Can’t-Touch-This Button.

Will devs understand this someday?  Yeah, I think they will.  Not all of them, but more than enough.  There are examples now that I could name that either get combat right, reinterpret it, or toss it out altogether -- and the industry is stronger for it.  That variation is something to be proud of.  Something to be treasured.  And in spite of my whining, so are a lot of less-than-perfect action games.  Sometimes -- not all the time, but sometimes -- it’s okay to make the player feel like a badass.  Plenty of games do that by default.  But if I want to feel like a badass, I want it to be for the right reasons.


You want me to kill people, video games?  Fine.  I’ll kill people.  But in exchange, I want you to do it right.  I’m bored with power, and I’m bored with being a predator.  Show me something new -- because if you don’t, you’ll find out the hard way that not even a predator is invincible.  

2 comments:

  1. You probably addressed the biggest reason why I despise the obsession with gunplay in games in recent years. Ignoring the brown-haired stereotypical Sheploos and Joels that plague the market, offing enemies and NPCs constantly with little challenge or variance disturbs me. From my admittedly generalized perspective, several games with "predatory" elements only have violence for the sake of violence. I can't think of Call of Duty as anything other than an online contest over who has a bigger shoe size. Sure, it's what players and the developers want to show me and brag about, but I doubt the gameplay itself is more challenging than badass.


    At least when I see someone play God of War, the player can get his/her ass kicked many, many times before making progress and having enough energy to face the next horde. Even DmC (or at least the demo I played), didn't make Donte as badass as he always thinks he is. He's not that grand [or consistent] a killing machine, especially in the beginning. Neither is Kratos.


    If there's anything about Assassin's Creed, at least I feel like I have to be careful where I tread. A successful killing when you cause as little disturbance along the way as possible feels more rewarding than going in with knives flying. Does it still make it "predatory"? Yeah. It does. But nowhere near as much as how you described Origins.


    I dunno. Maybe we've just grown to be wusses when we game. Maybe it's because we're appealing to non-gamers now too, so difficulty has to be nerfed. But that's why some games offer three to five levels of difficulty. Heck, other games automatically amp up the difficulty on a second run. Even then, normal mode can still be a mindless cakewalk. If the Shin Megami Tensei games taught me anything, it's that I really have not experienced much gameplay challenge on normal mode as I once believed. Most of all, it's perfectly okay to cry, rage quit, and run to mommy when the same cheap enemy kicks your ass until your dignity is crushed. Sure it's for a niche audience, but even a younger gamer like me can see that modern games seem a bit too hand-holdy and generous.


    Anywho.


    By the way, I would love to see a game with Sheeper. Though I'm not sure which genre will work well for him. A fighter? Action-Adventure? Platformer? RPG? Add in some puzzle solving? Dunno.

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  2. You know, I've actually been wondering about multiple difficulty levels in games. I've heard people sing praises about The Last of Us for having (what I hope must be) a much more difficult and satisfying adventure on higher levels, which in some ways is pretty good. Something there for people who want a challenge. But my question is, if a game only starts to be challenging AFTER you crank up the difficulty, then doesn't that mean the game on Normal mode is too easy?

    Once again, Metal Gear Rising is a game that I think got it right. It's a tough game from the outset, but it's also a pretty fair one. You either have or unlock all the tools you need by game's end, and the game teaches you how and when to apply them so that the difficulty is on a manageable curve. There were times where I got my face kicked in, but it never felt frustrating. It never felt like I had to go "No, this is too much. I can't go on." And the game was stronger for it, because it trusts the player's ability to learn and adapt in a context that's meaningful to the story AND to the player.

    ...Jeez. The way things are looking, Rising's gonna be my game of the year. Imagine that. But anyway...

    "You probably addressed the biggest reason why I despise the obsession with gunplay in games in recent years."



    That's something else I've been thinking about. I'd like to think that idealizing guns and warfare are tings that have some SERIOUSLY deep roots, but it smacks of a lack of imagination and effort to just scream "THIS GAME HAS GUNS!" and leave it at that. (So I guess that makes the upcoming The Order: 1886 another target for pre-release cynicism, considering that one of its first screenshots features a gun-toting soldier hiding behind chest-high cover in a colorless world.) There are so many, many weapons and skills that can be created and fine-tuned for use in a game, and the fact that devs keep going back to guns -- or bows, or some kind of knife, or a copy of Kratos' chain blades -- feels like a flat-out refusal to explore the possibilities. I can think of a few right now...but I suppose that's a topic for another day.


    RE: Sheeper, though, I'd like to think the best fit for his game/gameplay would be some kind of action game, a la Devil May Cry (the good ones, of course). There'd probably have to be some kind of unique targeting system so Sheeper could hit certain body parts, so I suppose the challenge would be working in the VATS system from Fallout 3. Or one of the challenges, at least..

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