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September 1, 2014

ShootStravaganza!! Mercenary Kings

You might think it’s a little unfair of me to add a game like Mercenary Kings to this miniseries, by way of it being a shooter in the sole sense that “it has guns”.  But then again, I could counter that by saying there was never any exact definition as to what sort of shooter would appear in the ShootStravaganza.  Given that there’s a third-person shooter coming up, is it really so far-fetched to have a game that leans hard toward being an old-school 2D platformer?

No.  No it is not, good sir or madam.

Moving on to more pertinent matters -- this game has sprites, and that makes me happy.  I agree with the sentiment of a lot of gamers, and think that sprites are cool…and on top of that, something precious ended up being lost in the transition from 2D to 3D.  I’ve got one of the later Breath of Fire games on my PS3, and the animations there make me lament that that didn’t become the future of gaming.  Same goes for Street Fighter; I like (and still play) IV, but there’s just no beating the marvel of Alex tearing his shirt, Sean’s two-fisted dragon punch, and pretty much everything about Makoto and Elena.  A well-made sprite leads to a level of artistic expression that 3D can’t always match.  Or if not that, then it at least offers something friggin’ cool.

So the same applies to Mercenary Kings, as you’d expect.  I just wish there was more to it than that.


Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that Mercenary Kings is a bad game.  It’s not.  It’s pretty good, and I’ve had fun with it; it’s the game I’ve played the most of, even before I started this ShootStravaganza.  And on top of that, it’s likely going to be the game I play the most in the future.  I don’t have any problems saying that it’s better than Destiny or Killzone: Shadow Fall, because as far as I’m convinced, it is.  By a pretty wide margin.

But in light of Wolfenstein: The New Order?  I think it loses out to that one, however slightly.  That’s hard to believe, I know, but I think it’s a fair assessment.  (So if you’re looking for a straight ranking from me, it’s Destiny < Killzone < MK < Wolfenstein.)  I’ve been mulling it over for a while now, so I think I can at least try to explain myself -- blasphemous as my opinion may be.  So bear with me once we get to that point.

Until then?  Let’s talk about the good bits.


It’s hard to say for sure if there’s an actual story to MK, or if it’s just offering up some context -- but whatever the case, it’s there.  You play as one of two crack soldiers -- King or Empress, whose genders should be pretty obvious -- who are the only survivors of a mission gone awry.  Resurrected using biotechnology from the Mandragora Project, they (you) have to build a base in the jungle and lead the charge against the bad guys of CLAW. 

Much like the game itself, there’s something distinctly retro about the proceedings.  My first instinct was to call it The A-Team: The Game, but it’s probably better to consider it a take on any number of 80s action movies.  Take your pick from the litter; I know I have.  Still, what’s worth noting is that it manages to capture the spirit of those movies without getting too overwrought.  It’s got no delusions of grandeur; rather than trying to be “epic” or try to sell its characters as badass super-soldiers, it’s content with just letting you go about each mission naturally.  There’s some real charm and humor in there, too; King and Empress may not get much in the way of character, but the comrades gathered in your home base are as different from one another as their looks and accents.  

God, sprites are so awesome.


My guess is that the game will dish out more story beats (to some extent, anyway) the further I get into the game.  Thus far, it’s been done with mock-codec conversations, to the point where it outright rips the format from Metal Gear Solid.  It’s via those that you’ll get a chance to see the characters’ sparks, even when you don’t talk to them in your home base.  And of course, you’ll get those conversations by clearing the actual story missions…well, for a given definition of “story missions”.  But those are unlocked by playing other missions, and unlock others in their own right, so I’d think that they count.

Still, I think it’s safer to lean towards the context side of things when it comes to MK.  Considering the type of game it’s trying to be, I don’t think it has any intention of making a straight narrative.  Plenty of games have gotten by with less, so it’s hard to hate MK for doing the same.  I mean, how many Treasure games have gotten away with it?  How many Nintendo games?  Even now?  Beyond that, maybe it’s for the best -- because given the sorts of stories games CAN have, there are times when having NO story is preferable.


 So if MK can’t earn favor from its story (or some semblance of it) alone, then it has to try that much harder with its gameplay.  And I’m happy to say that the gameplay is plenty solid.  You outfit yourself at the home base, then choose missions from a hub menu and head out into a stage to complete certain objectives -- rescue hostages, find materials, beat a boss, kill a certain number of enemies, etc.  The trick, of course, is that you’ve only got a certain amount of time to complete each mission.  Finish with a minimal number of deaths, and you’ll earn your fair share of money.  Fail, and you lose everything.  And believe it or not, failing is a lot easier than you’d expect.  That timer isn’t screwing around.

As for the actual gameplay, you can think of it as a freeform Mega Man game.  That is, you’re not just moving left to right; once the mission starts, you’ll have a sizable stage to explore -- to the point where you’ll need to make use of your map at times.  There’ll be plenty of enemy gunmen in your way as well, along with the odd drill machine or snail-bot; thankfully, you’ll have your gun of choice to see you through to the end.  You don’t have to worry about running out of ammo, but you will have to reload; as it so happens, the active reload mechanic from the Gears of War games is in place, allowing you to power up your next shots by hitting a sweet spot on a meter.  Screw up, and you’ll effectively quadruple your reload time.

Thanks, Mercenary Kings!  Now you’ve saved me the trouble of ever having to care about Gears again!


Being strictly 2D, you don’t exactly have much in the way of movement.  That’s not to say you don’t have any defensive options, of course; for starters, because the game operates under old-school rules, you can run away from/duck under enemy bullets and attacks.  You can even deflect or outright reflect certain attacks by using your knife.  Hitting Circle lets you use a dodge roll to try and get out of danger.  And on top of all that, you’ve got items set to the D-pad; your gun and transceiver take up a couple of the slots, and depending on the situation the third will go to C4.  But there’s at least one slot open to you at all times -- meaning you can fill it with first aid, rations you find in a stage, or even a riot shield.  Basically, you have the means to protect yourself as needed -- in accordance with your skill and strategy, of course.

Offensively speaking, there’s an RPG-esque wrinkle to the combat.  Numbers pop out whenever you land your shots, and critical hits do figure in to the equation (and those critical are more likely if you land headshots, if my guess is right).  You could argue that MK is just putting the obvious on display, but it’s still a good signal of how much damage you’re doing.   It also led me to this continuous struggle to leap over enemy heads and shoot down at them to land solid hits…which worked probably about half the time, but only because I’ve got the execution skills of a slug.  Whatever the case, because MK is part-RPG, there are ways to compensate for a lack of skill.

And it almost turned me off from the game at large.


Before I tried it out, my brother told me that MK was pretty much a 2D version of Borderlands -- a facet that made me want to leave the game untouched until the end of days.  Unlike pretty much everyone else on the planet, I don’t give a crap about Borderlands; despite my best efforts, I just couldn’t get into it…and make no mistake, I tried my damnedest to get into it.  (The mere presence of Claptrap and the less-than-hilarious badgering of Handsome Jack didn’t help matters.  Like, at all.)

But MK is different enough to make the relationship not quite so obvious.  It may not have a billion guns for you to search for and obsess over, but in exchange you can build your own guns.  That’s where the money goes from missions; once you find enough raw materials in the stages and gather the funds, you can make a gun from any number of individual parts that suits your fancy. 

Custom shotguns, enhanced assault rifles, your choice of hand cannon -- it’s all there.  And unlike other games (*stares daggers at Destiny*), there’s a legitimate need to get stronger.  Remember, you’re on the clock each time you enter a stage.  If you’re in a mission where you have to beat a boss -- a boss that can and will run to a completely different location on the map -- you need to be able to do significant damage to it in one go.  Good luck managing that with the default pistol.


I’d think that the appeal of MK (and pretty much any game that gives you a choice of weapon, Borderlands included) ties in with the Rifleman’s Creed, even if it’s in a fantasy setting.  Your gun in shooters is something that you can call your own; in the absence of a definable character -- *stares daggers at Lucas Kellan* -- the gun has to be you in a way the game won’t allow.  That ownership, and that sense of “I made this, so marvel at it!” is important to people.  And I can understand why.

But even so, I can’t look past the other problems just because of some virtual ownership.

I’m concerned about the lasting appeal of MK.  I like the game, but as of this post I haven’t played it in what has to be weeks, at a bare minimum.  I’ll probably get back into it at some point, but right now I don’t feel the need.  In a lot of ways, I feel like I’ve gotten more than enough out of it; sure, I’ll need to upgrade my gun at some point, but I’m concerned that the game won’t evolve enough to demand it besides throwing enemies with more HP at me.  To be frank, I’ve already been to the same couple of areas multiple times for different missions, themselves having long since begun to feel like grinding for supplies.   Sure, the gameplay might be fun, and the customization adds a nice wrinkle, but what’s the point if it leads to one slog after another?

Huh.  Maybe MK needs a beefier story after all.  Just look at its contemporaries.


I’m not as far into Shovel Knight as I could be, but I’ve had fun with it.  Plenty of fun.  It’s not exactly bursting at the seams with a narrative, but based on what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard, there’s something there.  There’s a reason why people are going gaga over it, and why there are likely spoiler warnings out there for a game about some goof with a shovel -- and a game that’s probably been so well-received because it scratched the Mega Man itch that Capcom refuses to.  It feels like there’s something there for me to discover beyond just “more loot for better guns”.  And while I will probably play MK another day, I’m MORE eager to play Shovel Knight again -- independent of its lack of guns.

Well, in Shovel Knight’s case, that probably has something to do with the fact that the stages are just as much of an enemy -- maybe more so -- than the baddies along the way.  MK may be good looking, but its stages are comparatively static.  But setting that tangent aside, MK leaves a bad aftertaste in my mouth shortly after the good taste of a clean dodge roll.  It ties into a problem I’ve had for a while, even beyond the shooter-inspired trappings.  While it’s true that you’d never expect Borderlands to become a franchise big enough to spawn even one sequel effectively get pared down to a 2D platformer, it still doesn’t feel like quite the revolutionary spin you’d expect from an eighth-gen game -- whether it’s playing to classic tastes and styles or not.

So here’s the question that’s been on the back of my mind: have video games peaked?



The obvious answer to that is “no, of course not”.  As long as new technology keeps coming -- and it will -- and devs master the possibilities that tech affords -- and they will -- then we can expect new games to better than those of generations past.  But damned if no one these days seems like moving forward.  Some of the bigger devs had us believing that innovation would come from a new console cycle, but we’re almost a year into the eighth generation, and it seems more like everyone’s floundering. 

As of this post, there’s been a MASSIVE drought in releases.  We can only reliably count on entries in established franchises, and already those have started buckling under the strain.  We may get a new IP here and a reboot there, but those have been as pleasant as swallowing a full-grown rhino.  Meanwhile, the boldest step forward we seem to have gotten is to remaster games that in some cases have barely been out for a year.  Tomb Raider, The Last of Us, GTA5, Halo -- hell, even Dead or Alive 5 is coming.  And you KNOW something’s fucked when there are rumors of Beyond: Two Souls making the console leap.


There’s this scary implication that the only way to be good these days is to be what’s already been done -- and likewise, to go back to the past.  And okay, sometimes it’s all right to go to the past via games and such every now and then.  Sometimes we need to see how things used to be, or how far we’ve come, or how we can learn from old relics.  So I can get behind remastering something like Ducktales, because A) that’s long since been established as a classic, and B) it offers exposure to guys like me who don’t know a single thing about it.   And a game like Double Dragon Neon is OK too, because it’s different enough and distinct enough to be its own beast, despite the franchise or the genre.

But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the past is not sacrosanct.  So why are games at large acting like it is?

In the case of smaller indie games, I get it.  They don’t always (if ever) have the big budgets to make sprawling 3D worlds with every mechanic under the sun, so it’s only natural that they go with old-school 2D platformers…with a twist!  But that’s not a guarantor of quality or success -- certainly not a surefire way to move the gaming canon forward.  I’m not saying that indie devs are dumb or lazy for making the games they envision, but maybe people don’t always want to play a 2D platformer…with a twist!  Maybe they need something more -- a more substantial offering or take on a genre, franchise, or convention.  That’s why Zelda gets away with it; each game is sufficiently different to justify its presence.  Skyward Sword is not Majora’s Mask, even if they share common ancestors.


Again, I don’t want to heap hate on indie devs, because they’re doing God’s work in the absence of developers that will, or even can.  But here’s my issue: if I want to play a good Mega Man game, I don’t necessarily need some divine savior to swoop in and drop a new title into my lap.  I’ve got the Mega Man X Collection -- just like I have the Street Fighter Alpha Anthology and the Street Fighter Anniversary Collection.  And I’ve got Final Fantasy 9 locked and loaded on my PS3.  I don’t need someone to take me back to the good old days.  I can do that whenever I want.  And more often than not, I don’t.

And that leaves Mercenary Kings in this weird negative space between the past and present, even with its obvious lean towards the past.  What do I mean?  Well, I’ll be real here: I played through the Scott Pilgrim game from a couple of years back, and I enjoyed it.  It wasn’t easy, but it was fun.  It did its duty and made its exit.  I don’t know my exact play time, but I would bet that I cleared it in the time it’s taken for me to get as far as I have (for a given definition of “far”) in MK.  So while MK is a complete product, its depth, of sorts, may actually hurt it.  The games of old might have been beatable in an afternoon or so -- skill permitting -- but they made themselves substantial regardless.  Conversely, MK threatens to be what would happen if you took a Mega Man game and made it ten times longer, by any means necessary.  Does that sound like fun to you?

So again, I have to ask: why does it feel like games are going backwards

…HOVER.


There’s more that I can say on this subject -- and I will someday, trust me -- but for now, I think it would be for the best if I drew the line here.  I’ll still argue that MK is a good game, but with a weighty asterisk next to its name.  That should be pretty obvious by now, but in case I haven’t made that clear, consider this: I’ve probably spent more words whining about industry woes than I have talking about the game itself.  And the sad thing is that I kind of anticipated that before I even sat down to write about the game.  Even if it is fun, or good, or whatever, there’s just not that much to say about it.  There just isn’t.  No matter its length, it still feels insubstantial.  A fun diversion, but a diversion all the same. 

Then again, what does it say about the game industry today when I’d still take it over some of its “latest and greatest”?

This is making me sad and tired.  What’s next on the list?


…All right, let’s go ahead and get the obvious joke out of the way, then.


Said everyone who paid full price for this.

4 comments:

  1. Yeay! Mercenary Kings rules! Thanks for introducing me to Shovel Knight too, that looks fantastic as well :)

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  2. I was under the impression that I was WAY late to the party, and by this point everyone else on the planet had cleared Shovel Knight by now. Thanks for making me feel like I'm actually aware of current trends!


    But in all seriousness? Yeah, I can't help but recommend Shovel Knight. It's definitely got some juice to it, so I'd be surprised if you wound up disappointed.

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  3. Haha, I'm always behind the times with things like this :P

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  4. You can do a lot worse, buddy. Take it from someone whose brother used to regularly call him a "time hobo".


    Truly a term of endearment, without question.

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