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September 22, 2014

ShootStravaganza!! THE FINALE!

So, let’s talk about shooters one last time.  Because I thought about giving Destiny another shot, but decided against it; I made a cat robot in the beta, but now I want to make a female avatar.

If the game industry won’t put women in, then the duty falls to us.  #ForJusticeOrSomething

Anyway, no more Destiny for me -- or at least no more posts on it.  That’s a shame, because I feel kind of bad about dumping all over the beta.  I was under the impression that my biases got the best of me, and I ended up skipping out on huge amounts of meaningful content -- either that, or the full game would offer it instead.  But it would seem as if that isn’t the case. 

Reviews came later (as expected from a pseudo-MMO), but the impression I’m getting is that it falls shorter of the hype than even Watch Dogs, with one review after another unafraid to lambast the failings.  Even my brother’s pretty much walked away from it disappointed, and he was excited to try it.  Based on his testimony, the only thing that’s worth anyone’s time is the PvP -- that is, Destiny is at its best when it’s just being Halo.

But that’s not enough anymore.  That’s not what we were promised -- or if not that, then it’s not what we wanted.  We have Halo, several times over.  And Xbone owners are going to have even more Halo very soon.  Destiny could have secured its place not by banking solely on shooter mechanics (and to a lesser extent, the promise of loot), and instead been a bang-up space adventure where the very cosmos would act as our playground. 

It didn’t.  From what I can gather, it isn’t now.  It’s true that eventually Bungie, Activision, and the rest will add in more content, but that’s an incredible disservice.  You don’t get to think about extra content before the core game even launches; certainly not when the core game is flawed and hollow.  Time will tell how Destiny is received and remembered, but at this stage I’m not exactly feeling confident.  My brother tells me that the game’s Metacritic user score was around 3.4 at one point, and while that’s hardly the definitive measure of quality, it has to stand for something. 

In any case, let’s stop talking about Destiny.  Let’s talk about Gears of War -- as in, all of them. (Except Judgment.)  Furthermore, let’s see this miniseries through to its conclusion, starting with a reasonable summation.


Okay, I’ll be fair.  There are some good shooters out there.  There are shooters that can do and have done some interesting stuff -- something more than just offering up the basest level of enjoyment.  BioShock Infinite is one fine example.  And thanks to this miniseries, I can say the same about Wolfenstein: The New Order.  From what I’ve heard, Metro: Last Light is another solid entry. Spec Ops: The Line has earned plenty of fame for doing its best to subvert conventions.  That’s cool.  I respect that.

But just because there are a couple of standouts doesn’t mean I can give my support to an entire genre.  Think about it: of the six games I’ve talked about for the ShootStravaganza, there’s only one I’d strongly recommend.  And one of those games -- the other one I praised with some heavy caveats -- barely counts as a shooter…because if it does, then so does Cave StoryThat is not a good average.  And it leads me to believe that I’d get the same result, again, and again, and again, even if I tried to dive into other shooters.  It’s just a broken model.  Not even the efforts of the best among them can repair the damage.

At some point, I started trying to compare shooters to fighting games, because when you pare it down to the basics they’re very similar.  Both of them (along with plenty of other games) are about one thing: expressing dominance.  You use the mechanics given to you to defeat your opponents, be they human or CPU.  It’s just that one’s more likely to have you chuck fireballs, while the other has you lobbing grenades.

But there’s a key difference.  The road that fighters take to get to the end goal -- expression of dominance -- is variable.  It varies from franchise to franchise, and even from game to game (Third Strike is nowhere near the same game as Ultra Street Fighter 4).  It’s true that there are basic fundamentals that carry over from one game to the next, but even a slight variation in mechanics makes for completely different approaches and outcomes.  And those are compounded by plenty of other variables.

Example: BlazBlue and Persona 4 Arena may both be the products of Arc System Works, but you can’t expect to perfectly play one just because you can perfectly play the other.  BB’s core is the Drive system, i.e. a special ability possessed by each character; if you’re looking to win a match, you’ll have to find ways to not only stay aggressive, but use your character’s Drive to its maximum potential -- working it into combos and setups to gain the upper hand. 

P4A may have characters with unique toolsets, but their weapons -- their Personas -- have even greater value than BB, precisely because there’s no guarantee you’ll have them.  Personas are used in combos, to create setups, to zone, to approach, and much more, but they’re more vulnerable than the player characters.  If they take too many hits, they become unusable for a while -- and even then, taking just one hit is enough to screw up a game plan at a crucial moment. 

There are a terrifying number of factors to consider in a single match, let alone in a fighting game in general.  Character selection, stage size, strategies inherent to the game, strategies inherent to the chosen character, offensive options, defensive options, mobility, team composition (if applicable), number of opponents (if applicalble), meter management (if applicable)…hell, whether it’s in 2D, 3D, or some holy union of the two.  Fighters across the board come up with their answers to the question of “How do you make a good fighting game?”  And they consistently provide something new.  Something exciting.

Now, compare all that to shooters.  What’s their answer?  How do legions of developers make a stand on “how to make a good shooter”?  Well, there’s one overriding idea that comes to mind.

Translation: it’s not exactly a pretty picture.

I will be fair, though.  I can rattle off all those fighting game factors because I know them intimately.  In another world, I’m sure Bizarro-Voltech is doing the opposite -- naming all the nuances that make shooters the greatest genre gaming has ever known.  And indeed, those things do exist.  Some friends of mine were able to point out a difference between Bungie shooters and others -- namely, that aiming at the center requires a slight tilt downward. 

There are some obvious on-the-surface differences between something like Team Fortress 2 and, say, Counter-Strike.  That’s appreciable, without a doubt.  Again, not all shooters are awful.  Some of them -- the best of them, naturally -- really are doing God’s work in this day and age.

But again, those feel more like the exceptions.  All roads lead to “shoot that guy”.  But the bigger problem -- and take this with a grain of salt -- is that shooting isn’t that compelling of a mechanic.  It’s functional, no question, but it’s just so dull.  There’s no flair to it.  You point at an enemy, pull the trigger, and make them drop dead. 

Oh, sure, there’s skill involved in placing your shots, and which weapon you use adds a wrinkle to the process, but it can’t compare to the thrills plenty of other games have offered.  In a medium primed and ready to deliver HD spectacle, how am I supposed to derive pleasure from something as banal as picking off someone from the other side of a map?  Or after poking my head up from a chest-high wall?  And even if there are class-based powers that mix things up (Borderlands, Destiny, and Mass Effect come to mind), are they really the game-changers you’d expect?  Are they really anything worth getting excited about, especially since they’ve long since started becoming rote?

So the question that comes to my mind is a simple one.  If a shooter, which emphasizes thrilling combat at the common expense of everything else, fails to deliver thrilling combat by design, then what does it have left to fall back on?  The answer that comes to mind is “damn near nothing”.

Enter: Gears of War.

I would have preferred to keep the ShootStravaganza focused on eighth-gen games, but I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the Gears franchise at least a little bit -- because it’s unlikely that I’ll ever get a chance as good as this. 

I’ve taken some potshots at the franchise before (who hasn’t?), but I’ve never gone too far in depth about how I feel about that.  Granted that’s partially because I finished all three of the main games a while before I even thought of Cross-Up, but I’ve never had a burning passion to do anything like a Let’s Discuss post on it.  There are two reasons for that.  The first, of course, is that I don’t have any of the games anymore; they pretty much became tribute for other games, seeing as how my brother and I finished our co-op adventures (and neither of us felt like touching the multiplayer suite ever again).  The second reason is that I don’t like talking about games unless I feel like they’re fresh enough in my mind to talk about -- and while I’ve broken that rule at least once before, I’d prefer not to.

So here’s my issue: I don’t think I can remember anything substantial about Gears.

Normally that would be a death blow for all parties, but in this case?  It’s perfect.  For starters, it’s an emblem of the exact thing I’m talking about.  On top of that, if there’s any franchise that deserves to be a whipping boy -- yes, maybe even more so than the CoD behemoth -- it’s Gears.  I’m hard-pressed to think of another franchise that, from its outset, was used to prove the emergence of the next generation of games.  (Well, at least on the Xbox 360/Microsoft side of things.)  It got the first attack, and -- if you’ll let me be a little presumptuous -- likely set the stage for a lot of problems the industry still hasn’t overcome.

So…cripes, where do you even start with a game you can hardly remember?

Well, I guess there’s the basic setup.  (For the record?  I’m going to try and say as much as I can WITHOUT using the wiki or any online resources.)  The story follows Marcus Fenix, a soldier and member of the COGs.  While the rest of his organization -- and the planet Sera, at large -- is embroiled in a war with the Locusts -- crusty-skinned, vaguely-insectoid bipeds in DIRE need of some lotion -- he’s locked away in a jail cell for committing war crimes.  That is, until his buddy Dom comes to bail him out under orders from the higher-ups; the COGs need soldiers wherever they can get them.  And so begins a trilogy spanning [INSERT MEASURE OF TIME HERE] and across [INSERT MEASURE OF DISTANCE HERE].

I guess the point of note about the Gears canon is that the COGs are technically the bad guys here.  The humans practically invaded Sera and pushed the Locusts underground, and beyond that they come very close to wrecking the planet with their dependence and overuse of “immulsion” (read: space oil).  The idea that you’re playing as space conquistadors is an interesting idea…but it’s pretty much background noise. 

The only thing that really matters is the war between the Locusts.  At most, there are only glimpses as to what life on Sera used to be like -- so even if the COGs were supposedly fascists, they don’t communicate it as well as they could.  Maybe if we didn’t have to start with Sera wrecked, or if there were pockets of human resistance besides the guys in hulking armor, then it could have gone somewhere substantial. 

But, alas.  We had to suffer Marcus instead.

I’m not so arrogant as to say that Marcus was the progenitor of all the meathead space marines, but he is one of the more notable examples.  Certainly a recent one.  If there was anyone we could blame for the glut of brotastic leads, I’d say it’s him.  Even then, he’s far from the only one in his franchise alone.  Marcus’ only three modes of expression (and perhaps thought) are rage, angst, and snark -- maybe weary cynicism, if you’re feeling generous. 

Baird is pretty much the same character, only with the snark and cynicism dialed up by a factor of five.  I guess he’s supposed to be “the funny one”, but I was under the impression that funny guys were supposed to be funny.  I have a hard time believing that “the Cole Train” even knows where he is half the time, because he’s too drunk on testosterone to register coherent thought.  Dom is the only member of Delta Squad that even tries to have an emotional range, and is pretty much the best character because of it. 

And then he dies in Gears 3.  And that was the exact point when I mentally checked out of the franchise.  Not that I was all that invested in the first place, but that clinched it.

See, here’s the thing about me and Gears: there are actually several things that I remember clearly about it.  The first of those things would be Dom’s death (which left me angrily spouting “BRING BACK DOM” for the rest of the playthrough).  But there are others.  The Carmine brothers’ deaths, Kim’s death, Tai’s death, Maria’s death, Ice-T’s townsfolk dying en masse…you get the idea.  Indeed, those things stick out because they’re designed to be poignant moments -- punches to the players that emphasize the great cost of the battle.

It’s just too bad it doesn’t even come close to working.

Killing off a character is something that should be done very carefully.  Take away one life, and it CAN be powerful; take away half a dozen (at least), and it cheapens the effect dramatically.  On top of that, I suspect Gears GROSSLY overestimated our attachment to these characters; Kim and Tai barely had a personality between the two of them, the Carmines were interchangeable, and Dom’s wife Maria had a mile-high death flag hitched to her skull.  On top of that, Dom was the only member of the core four who showed anything resembling human emotion and thought -- so if Marcus can’t be bothered to show concern for Tai’s death, then why should we?  Are these moments poignant because of our investment to these people and their tale?  Or is it just because “death is sad”?

So basically, the only card Gears has in its deck is “kill off a character”.  Riveting stuff, to be sure.

It’s easy to write off the franchise’s penchant for urban decay -- and that’s exactly what I’m going to do now.  There’s so much chaos and ruin with no weight attached that the lovingly-rendered, million-dollar visuals of any given Gears game ends up blurring into one another.  It’s a missed opportunity that turns years of work into just a bunch of just-barely-connected arenas. 

It’s a disservice that makes the world feel irredeemably small.  Sure, I could tell you that there’s a desert level, and a train level, and a cave level (several of them, actually), but I couldn’t tell you what impact they had on me or what they contributed to the overall package.  Even the average Mario level has more cohesion.

In fact, let’s go ahead and bring Mario games into the fold.  See, the reason why that franchise can “get away with” one release after another is that the levels (and games, by extension) regularly bring something new to the table.  If they were just about stomping out Goombas or Koopas, the franchise would have withered ages ago.  But they’re not.  They’re about traversing environments of variant shape and size -- levels with no shortage of moving parts, traps, and paraphernalia.  They’re an active part of the experience. 

They’re characters in their own right -- allies and enemies at the same time, depending on the moment and what they can offer you (power-ups or, for example, spikes).  In contrast, the arenas in Gears -- and plenty of shooters, by extension -- are static.  Once you figure out where to shoot from and where not to stand, you’ve pretty much cracked it.  It does put focus on perfecting your skill at aiming, but it devalues areas that should practically come alive.  The potential for thrills is capped. 

And really, you could say that about shooters in general -- Gears or otherwise.

Once you crack the game’s code -- once you find a way to consistently and effectively kill enemies, whether it’s your own method or one recommended by the game -- it’s pretty much over.  You’ve reached the limit.  And sure, that’s enough for some people.  Maybe they want to stay right there at that level, because it satisfies them.  But for others?  They’re justified in shying away.  There aren’t enough paths to make each venture into the genre worth it. 

The assumption with shooters, I bet, is that being able to score a headshot or blow up a bunch of opponents at once is supposed to be a thrill unrivaled -- alpha bursts, or something like it.  It’s all about exerting dominance.  For a lot of people, exerting that dominance feels good; by marrying it to a shooter, the player is funneled immediately to that conclusion.  Base mechanics lead to base parameters, which lead to base outcomes.    Read: to gun is fun.

But that’s not enough.  Not anymore.

It’s probably true that the Gears franchise offered up some momentary thrills thanks to its mechanics.  Remember, it was the franchise that popularized things like active reloading, sticking to cover, and gruesome takedown animations.  And from firefight to firefight, there was probably some glee felt by me after clearing an arena of Locusts. 

But here’s the thing: even if I did indulge, I can’t remember any of those moments of glee.  I don’t remember the elation I felt back then, precisely because they were victories had within the moment.  I didn’t play through Gears because I wanted to feel that hype; I played through those three games because I did a co-op run with my brother.  Not for thrills.  Certainly not because I had any attachment to those people or their struggle.

Shooters just strike me as antithetical.  That sounds like a fat load of hypocrisy, considering my praise and enjoyment of fighters -- but there’s a difference.  I play Street Fighter 4 because I get to engage with its characters; I get to feel T. Hawk and Dee Jay, and try and solve the puzzle of “how to defeat this online player”.  I can turn on BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma or Persona 4 Arena and see that even if they’re part of a genre not known for their stories, there are genuine attempts to do more than just make the plot an excuse for some evil warlord to host a tournament. 

I like Tekken because even if I don’t know all of its nuances -- or any of them -- I can still feel like there’s something there.  I can look forward to Smash Bros. 4 because even if the game is inherently simple, it’s filled with countless possibilities.  Every match is different.  Every match is exciting.  Every match is wrought with danger, immediate and potential, from any number of factors.  Every match has puzzles to be solved, outcomes that can’t be predicted, and all of it is built on the tools provided by my characters -- from decisions made long before a match even starts.  Every match is fun. 

So I’ll ask again: if a shooter, which emphasizes thrilling combat at the common expense of everything else, fails to deliver thrilling combat by design, then what does it have left to fall back on? 

...Oh, I know.  More guns!  It's brilliant! 

You know, I never thought I’d say this, but I miss The Last of Us.

I know I’ve said some harsh things about it, and I still can’t really bring myself to like it, but it had the right idea.  Well, in a sense.  I consider it a botched product, but given what’s come out before and after its release -- and what’s destined to come our way yet again -- I don’t have any problems looking back on it fondly.  It hamstrung itself, but on a conceptual level it tried to be something more than just run-and-gun action.  It tried to have a good story.  It tried to make its world matter.  It tried to step away from the rollercoaster mindset.  It tried to make the combat tense.  It tried to introduce concepts like stealth and resource management. 

If The Last of Us managed to get some of its elements together, then it could have been the turning point of the industry.  Gears of War helped set the generation -- shooter or otherwise -- on a path toward our current, borderline-mediocre present.  Its “bigger, better, more badass” trappings belonged to (or maybe, should have stayed confined to) Gears and Gears alone.  But it didn’t.  So if Gears set us down one path, I’d like to think that TLoU tried to refute that -- tried to set us down a different path, while the seventh generation lied on its death bed.  Thus far, that hasn’t come to pass.

I started this ShootStravaganza with Destiny, so let’s end it with Destiny.  I would think that Bungie, Activision, and their cohorts/supporters believe that Destiny represents some bold new plateau, a way to not only prove that “next-gen is here”, but that gaming at large is about to be taken to the next level.  And yeah, maybe that game will come someday -- maybe even from Bungie, or Activision of all companies.  But today is not that day, and Destiny is not that game.  Guns or otherwise, I would have gladly accepted a grand adventure through space; Mass Effect has shown us what happens when you go beyond just firing at distant foes.

But if Gears represented a dark turn, and TLoU a potential turn for the better, then Destiny is pretty much what happens when fate jumps in its convertible and drives in reverse at top speed -- right back to where Gears sent us off, in the best-case scenario.  I’ll concede that shooters can be thrilling, but the problem is that at this stage, they have to do more.  They have to be more.  They’re whipping boys for a reason -- because when a genre that reduces everything to its basest can’t even get the basest right, then it’s a signal that something has gone seriously wrong.

We're on the wrong path -- and no amount of bullets will change that.


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