Archive for April, 2013

Starcraft 2: Heart of The Swarm: Afraid of its own Gameplay

(No spoilers this time, honest!)

Now, I’m a pretty big Blizzard fanboy. Way back when, I used to consider my favorite developers to be the Three B’s: Bioware (for KOTOR and BG2), Bungie (for Marathon and Halo) and Blizzard (for… more or less everything they’ve released).

One of my favorite games back in High School was Diablo II. I played Starcraft like crazy too, although largely sticking to the custom maps with bizarre gameplay styles. Hell, I even created my own campaigns for Starcraft and Warcraft II! Not exactly pinnacles of plotting there, and that I was a gamer with a Mac kinda meant that they (and Bungie) were my only real source for non-console gaming, but there’s a reason why Blizzard is the powerhouse it has been more or less ever since Warcraft I burst onto the scene…

…19 years ago?

*shudder*

…in any case.

Of course, I was one of those that was eagerly awaiting Starcraft 2. Even though my RTS skillz were outright horrific, I still enjoyed the original, and really wanted to see how the story continued to play out, especially given how Starcraft: Brood Wars ended.

So, I picked up Starcraft 2 pretty much on release day and, aside from a little online play, mainly stuck to the single-player campaign.

And… yeah, it was kinda good. Some plot details anyone with half a brain saw coming a mile away. An ending that seemed to sap one of the main characters of the series of their dignity, but the strategy gameplay was quite well done, the missions varied and exciting, a strong cast of characters (especially Matt Horner, who really stood out for me as a needed counterbalance to Raynor’s pessimism), and a massive promise of what was to come in the first of two expansions, Heart of the Swarm, which came out in early March.

Well, of course I picked that up (part of one of the most amazingly awesome spring months for gaming I’ve seen…), and I eagerly played through it. And, like so much else that I’ve seen from Blizzard as of late, the results was…

…eh.

Now, some of the ‘eh’-ness I should have seen coming. The RPG-ness focus on making Kerrigan more powerful was going to shift things away from the RTS action, with some missions focused entirely on that (and it didn’t bother me much anyway). It was the middle-segment of a trilogy, so its rather underwhelming ending wasn’t too surprising (…although it seriously could have been better handled). That you need to buy and read a book in order to know what happened between the Wings of Liberty campaign and Heart of the Swarm is as bloody frustrating as it has been ever since Blizzard started doing that for WoW (expect a rant on THAT in the near future), but the big beats were referenced in the first few missions, so it wasn’t too much of a problem.

Also, it’s a Zerg campaign. I never played the Zerg that great in Starcraft 2, just something about the styles clashed whenever I needed to do something besides Select-All-Attack-Move. And, as the Zerg kinda default to being bad guys (as opposed to the “Assholier-Than-Thou” Protoss or the “Redneck Bastards” Terrans. Starcraft is a universe where everyone is a complete SOB, really), which has always left me a little uncomfortable when we end up committing war crimes on the enemies. It didn’t help that the efforts by HotS makes in getting the protagonist to not seem so horrifically evil just don’t get through properly. And it doesn’t help that all of the Zerg characters are completely unlikable, with the possible exception of Kerrigan, and the occasional bit of dark comedy that manages to work.

But, no, what ended up bugging me most? The gameplay.

…that’s right, bitches. I’m talking about gameplay in this video game blog, and not story. Bring it!

The Core Gameplay of Starcraft 2

So, Starcraft 2, for those of you who don’t know, is a Real-Time Strategy Game. In the case of standard Multiplayer matches, and standard non-campaign vs. AI matches as well, gameplay largely consists of the following:

  • Start with a single building that can make workers, and some workers already made
  • Gather resources with your workers and create new buildings that you can use to create combat units
  • Use the army you’ve built up to destroy the enemy’s army and bases

Granted, there’s more to all that at times. You have to defend, after all, and there are defense-specialty units, and different units fight in different ways, and there’s scouting, expansions, a long-term war over resources, different types of resources, small-scale-tactical movement, etc. Because this is an RTS, and for that matter a good game, there’s plenty of nuances and complications to explore and consider. The interplay between attack and defense becomes quite apparent, as an army is usually strongest when fighting from their base, and a routed attack can cost you the match, but you have to keep attacking expansions to keep the enemy honest, otherwise they will simply outspend you to victory.

But, again, at its core, Starcraft 2’s combat is about those three bullet points. And it’s a shame that the actual Campaign forgot about that.

Side-Quest-Itis and ‘Exciting’ Complications

Looking back at Heart of the Swarm’s campaign, I can think of only a handful of “Use a base to make an army and kill their dudes” missions. Now, a base, an army and killing dudes is frequently required in the campaign, but once you get past the first few missions that are still tutorial-y, all of the missions fall into the following categories:

  • No base, you just have to use the minions you’ve got and what additional ones you get through the level to beat it (the “RPG-Style” missions that I generally like, honestly)
  • Base, Army and Dudes, on both sides, but you have a restrictive time limit on the mission, where if you take too long you automatically lose.
  • Base, Army and Dudes, but there’s something or somethings super-critical that you have to focus on defending, otherwise you lose.
  • Base, Army and Dudes, on both sides, but periodically you’ll be prevented from attacking and have to go on the defensive

There’s a few here and there where the complications aren’t quite as restrictive, of course, which are honestly quite refreshing to encounter.

And this is only talking about the MAIN objective, because one of the things Blizzard did to spice things up in the missions was to add side-quests in almost every mission, whereby completing them would level-up Kerrigan, making her more powerful and giving her access to new abilities. Eventually, doing these would make her able to destroy whole armies, which means that these ‘optional’ missions quickly become anything but. If you don’t do them, you run the risk of falling behind on the leveling curve, which is not a nice place to be in the later stages of the game.

So, not only are you having to deal with the normal, Core Gameplay complications that come with just playing Starcraft normally, you also have to deal with the added mission requirements that normally would be there to shake things up, and THEN have to make sure to get the Side-quests done. On higher difficulty levels, it becomes downright obnoxious that you’re constantly having to keep moving ┬áto attack a specific position right now or defend a fragile thing, instead of doing what you came there to do: Build up an army and kill their dudes.

There’s another problem with this: These ‘exciting complications’ that get thrown your way stop being exciting rather quickly. You’re spending all of your time dealing with one twist after another after another for the gameplay that you can never really settle into things. One mission will require you to move your army around quickly on short notice, while another favors hardened defense (or at least as hard as Zerg defense can get). Other missions give you time to build up your army by preventing you from attacking for a while, while another will keep shouting at you to keep attacking, or you’ll immediately lose. It all just becomes routine, a matter of trying to figure out what this new twist is that’s dominating the normal gameplay this time.

There never becomes time to figure things out and experiment with what will and won’t work, unless you feel like endangering the mission. The pressure is kept up so continuously, that there’s really never any time to breathe. This is especially notable in the final mission, where you have two secondary objectives, protect a VIP from periodical attacks and eliminate non-critical bases to supply yourself with reinforcements.

Compare this to the Brood War Campaigns. While each one is smaller, 8-10 missions instead of 25 or so, they still had the occasional “gimmick” mission, where you needed to overcome some significant obstacle here or there. But regardless, for the final mission of the Zerg and Terran campaign, as well as the second to last mission of the Protoss campaign, it’s a straight-up “Use a base to make an army and kill their dudes” mission, with the lone gimmick being that the Terran campaign doesn’t even require you to kill all the enemy forces, just get certain units into the right place (which is behind the enemy lines, of course).

None of those missions have an Instant Lose gimmick holding you back. The only way you’ll lose those missions is if your entire base is destroyed, and possibly because you’ve run out of resources needed to keep on the offensive. The final mission of the entire Brood War campaign is quite simple in its brilliance: You’re surrounded by enemy forces and need to kill them all to win.

That’s why it’s the final mission: It’s the final exam after all the smaller tests that came before, the peak of the Real Time Combat you’ve been working with the whole time, and a shining example of what will be needed for you in multiplayer.

You’ve got a base. You need to expand, build up your forces and crush your enemies.

That’s it, and it made for a grander finale than throwing a few gimmicks at the screen to finish things off.

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Focusing on Bioshock Infinite

(Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite spoilers abound, of course)

So, it’s been a while since my last post, mainly because nothing’s really grabbed me firmly by the ears and forced me to fling my thoughts into the endless void. In this case? Bioshock Infinite hasn’t done that, exactly, but it instead left me with a massive question-mark in my mind.

It’s not that I don’t understand it. I mean, I don’t, not fully, but that’s partially because it’s not made to be fully understood by us mere mortals (at least, not without buying every bit of DLC!). It’s not that I didn’t like it, because I do. It’s certainly one of the most gripping games to come out this year, and there’s a reason I powered through it like I did, and why I fully intend on going through it again, because the nature of the story nearly requires such a treatment.

So, why the question mark?

For the sake of an analogy, lets take the movie Independence Day. The movie that kinda introduced Will Smith: Action Hero to the world, a blockbuster smash, a huge special effects showcase, one of the classic popcorn flicks and a plot that can be charitably described as “Kinda dumb”. Easily Roland Emmerich’s finest work, throughly enjoyable despite the flaws.

…now, let’s say that, in an alternate universe (of course), it was Orson Wells who directed Independence Day. Same actual movie, same acting, same script, same alien-ships-that-run-a-Mac-OS, every single moment in the film the same… but with Orson Wells behind the camera, instead of Roland Emmerich. Instead of being the one crowning moment of glory for a pedestrian director, it’s a blemish on the career of one of the defining artists of the medium, every flaw with the piece a great disappointment instead of a triumphant success.

That’s kinda the problem I have with Bioshock Infinite: Stripping out everything I know about the people behind the scenes, BI is a great game, fun combat, engaging story with great characters and a wonderful female protagonist (shut up, Elizabeth’s the protagonist, it’s her story, Booker just comes along for the ride and does the shooting), not to mention the amazing setting.

But… I was expecting more.

Far, Far Under the Sea

Now, Bioshock was hardly a flawless game. The final third of the game, after the masterpiece “A man chooses, a slave obeys!” scene is complete drek. The story falls apart, the villain is only a few steps above a Captain Planet bad guy, the final boss fight is devoid of the symbolism that the rest of the game was engrossed in, and it has one of the worst escort sequences in video game history. It’s not merely a poor ending, it’s an abysmal train-wreck that goes wrong in nearly every conceivable way.

But everything up to Andrew Ryan’s demise was amazing. The city of Rapture was gorgeous, fully developed and a masterclass of how to create an engaging world. Learning about how the amazing city fell to ruin was thrilling, if somber. The combat was a great combination of gun-play and a diverse set of not-magic powers, and most of all EVERYTHING felt tied into the narrative theme of Objectivism and the flaws inherent. It was positively dripping with atmosphere, and it felt like every area, every section of the city, every enemy boss was carefully designed to embody an aspect of this failed dream. Even the not-magic powers, aka Plasmids, which were a symbol of the ultimate reach of the Objectivist philosophy of “I should be allowed to be as strong and grand as I possible can be!”, and how it brought the city down around it.

In short? The story was about Objectivism, and every element of the story, the gameplay, the setting, the characters, EVERYTHING was tied into that.

A Tale of Two Games

Bioshock Infinite doesn’t have that feeling, though, largely because it doesn’t HAVE a central theme that binds everything together.

The setting of Columbia is another grand city, this time in the clouds, just as detailed and having just as much wonderful imagery and gorgeous design-work as Rapture. This time around, the city is the supposed pinnacle of America, the embodiment of American Exceptionalism. The Founding Fathers Franklin, Jefferson and Washington are all deified, the city has a firmly set and mostly ubiquitous religion (not exactly Christian, and although there are allegories of Mormonism to it, I’m in no hurry to open up THAT can of worms) where purity and freedom and cheerful people are everywhere…

…well, if you’re white (and not irish), at least. Because there’s plenty of wage-slavery, segregation, racism and classism on display here. It’s every aspect of the turn of the 1900’s compressed into a city, including all of the darker aspects on display, enhanced to the point where it’s given rise to a Communist-like rebellion against those ideals. With the Founders, led by the Prophet and leader of the city Father Comstalk, on one side, and the rebellious and hated Vox Populi, led by Daisy Fitzroy, on the other, it’s fertile ground for an honest, fair look at 1900’s America, both the good and the bad, and how those excesses and triumphs might reflect on our own future…

Of course, the actual plot doesn’t give two shits about that. It’s all about quantum mechanics, bitches!

It’s a little hard to describe (…as any plot based around Quantum Mechanics should be), but the basic nature of the story is a discussion of the shape of the universe, based on the power that your companion Elizabeth has to see tears between realities and open holes to summon things from elsewhere to come to your aid, and through the course of events you and Elizabeth will end up going through at least 5 different realities, and ends with a fantastic ending, answering most of the remaining question and throwing one twist right after another at you.

It’s actually a rather brilliant exploration on the matter, requiring very little knowledge about the subject, and truly being one of those games that encourages you to discuss it and its implications with others. I really just wish the rest of the game was also about that.

Coherent themes

As I said, damn near everything in Bioshock was about the expoloration of Objectivism. The gunplay, the enemies, the setting, Andrew Ryan’s booming voice, even the Little Sisters and the somewhat-hamfisted moral dilemma involved in dealing with them.

Bioshock Infinite doesn’t have that same treatment, though. Columbia, the Founders, the Vox Populi and all the people in the middle? That’s just setting in the end, no different than New York in a Spiderman movie. Columbia’s story ends about half-way through the game when, after several missions of the American-Exceptionalism-Story and the Quantum-Mechanics-Story clashing and stealing attention away from each other, the American-Exceptionalism-Story just curls up with a whimper and dies (along with two of the major players), leaving the two sides on the war over Columbia to be little more than differently colored enemies you need to kill, a fetid, rotting corpse of the tale that just about everyone had come to see in the first place.

And even then, it wasn’t like things were that consistent to begin with. So many of the fascinating questions about Columbia do end up getting explained, but more as a resigned shrug, without any actual connection to either major theme of the game. I mean, let me put it like this:

Me: What are these amazing powers, Vigors? Where did they come from, how do they work?

Bioshock Infinite: Oh, uh… Fink cribbed the notes about it from the alternate-universe Rapture and ADAM.

Me: Oh, okay. Wait, why is no one else using them but like two different special bad guys?

Bioshock Infinite: …because. They’re limited use for everyone but you and something something plot hole?

Me: Well, everyone gets a few. Oh! What about that Barbershop Quartet in the beginning, singing “God Only Knows” 44 years before the Beach Boys wrote it?

Bioshock Infinite: Some songwriter heard it through a rift. Man, wasn’t that scene cool?

Me: Well, yeah, but… what does it mean? (NOTE 10/08/2013: After rethinking this, the song DOES have a meaning, about the whole “Who would I be without you” aspect of quantum mechanics, so you get a pass on this one, Bioshock Infinite!)

Bioshock Infinite: Mean?

Me: Well… okay. But what about the Songbird? Surely that big guy, the focus of half the story, has to have a huge purpose behind its origin, fitting into one of the themes that-

Bioshock Infinite: It’s a really big Big Daddy. Fink cribbed those notes from AU-Rapture too.

Me: …huh.

Bioshock Infinite: Yeah, and you only see him like five times. Wasn’t he unique though?

That’s the problem with Bioshock Infinite. It has ideas, wonderful, grand ideas, but it doesn’t do much with them. There’s no real overarching theme throughout the game, almost like it either got bored of the Columbia plot and wanted to try out that other awesome idea they had kicking around the office. In the end, the city of Columbia is wasted. The plight of the Vox Populi, and the legitimacy of their revolution? Completely irrelevant in the end. The symbolism of Columbia as a sort of representation of how 1900’s America really was? Ignored outright. The religious themes only get by by having a huge role in the ending (and in the creation of Columbia), but even then are really just set aside until the end arrives. There’s so much they could have done here, and it’s disappointing to see Ken Levine and the rest of Irrational Games tossing most of it aside half-way through.

It does make sense, though, given the five years of development the game had. If it came out that they were aiming for a take-down of American Exceptionalism, and changed their plan a few years into development because the story just wasn’t wrapping up like they wanted it to, and so whole sequences were cut that would have slotted into the game early on? It would hardly surprise me. And it’s a shame, because that would have made for a wonderful, poignant piece with a timeless message on the errors of nostalgia.

And instead we got a very well made, above average game.

#firstworldproblems

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