Archive for the 'Shooter' Category

Killer 7: Mechanics

Bizarre trappings are one thing. You can make a game with surrealist visuals, a reality-warping plot, and a player character with severe identity issues and an unclear agenda, and still make it a conventional first-person shooter. Killer 7 commendably complements its weird tone with weird mechanics.

The movement system occupies a point between the FPS and the rail shooter. There’s a button that makes you move forward, and another button that turns you around 180 degrees. (Kind of like Defender, come to think of it.) That’s pretty much it for movement. Sometimes, in the course of moving forward, you come to a junction and have a choice of direction to go in, but whenever there are enemies around, your movement options are pretty much advance or retreat. This may sound dumbed down, but somehow it feels more like it’s streamlined. The designers don’t want you to waste time on distractions like exploring every inch of a room looking for extra goodies or secret passages, so they don’t even provide the temptation.

(This isn’t to say that a more FPS-style gameplay is never workable. Once, I managed to take down a group of baddies that I knew to be lurking around a corner by repeatedly edging forward until only one was visible and sniping it. Still, the geometry that you spend your time running through is mostly just decorative.)

When you find enemies — you usually hear them laughing before you see them — you press and hold another button (specifically, the right shoulder button) to enter shooting mode. The view switches to first-person, a circular sighting aid is superimposed on the screen, and you can turn continuously with the left analog stick, but you can’t move until you drop out of this mode. In short, it’s like a static scene in a rail shooter, except that it’s not static — it happens wherever you happened to be when you drew your weapon, and you have the option of breaking off and backing up if you think it’s a good idea. The enemies, too, act like they’re in a rail shooter, shuffling toward you slowly, giving you a time limit to gun them down before they explode.

Most enemies start off invisible. “In fact, they don’t even exist”, says Iwazaru, the player’s possibly-also-imaginary advisor. You need to tap the left shoulder button while in shooting mode to scan the area and make them appear fully, and this quickly becomes a matter of habit, just part of the routine of drawing your weapon. I suppose the design purpose here is just to keep things from being too simple, to occupy the player’s motor nerves a little more fully. Now, it isn’t completely necessary to do a scan, because the enemies are never completely invisible. On my monitor, I can make out off-color outlines of guys even before scanning. But while they’re camouflaged, you can’t see the yellow glow that highlights their vulnerable point, located arbitrarily on an arm or leg, or sometimes on the throat. Hitting this spot is not only an instant kill for most creatures, it’s also the way to get the most blood out of them.

For the Killer 7 have an unending thirst for blood. There are two types, thin blood and thick blood, with different uses: thick blood can be spent on hints or processed into serum that you use to upgrade the characters’ stats (such as attack speed and power, and steadiness of aim), thin blood is used for healing and special abilities (such as charging a shot to do more damage). I frankly didn’t understand this whole system until I realized that “thick blood” is just another name for XP and “thin blood” is just another name for mana. The pursuit of blood is usually the only motivation for analog aiming: you can lock onto a target with the press of a button, but just hitting the center of mass until it dies will get you no blood at all. Even if you can’t hit the vulnerable spot, there’s bonus blood to be had from shooting off limbs or even heads. (Headlessness does not stop an enemy from charging.)

There are eight characters you can control, or one character with eight personalities that also have their own bodies. One of them, Harman Smith, is the leader, and only comes out in special circumstances. Another, Garcian Smith, has the specific job of “cleaner”: he’s the one who recovers dead personas so you can bring them back to life. You can bring out Garcian whenever you’re in one of the safe rooms where you can save your game and process blood into serum, but you don’t really want to expose him to danger if you don’t have to, because there’s no one to clean him up if he dies. The other six, all of whom are also named Smith, you can switch between at will, with a brief screen-warping effect that suggests a broken television. (Televisions and security cameras figure big in this game’s imagery.) They all have subtly different weapons and special abilities, and sometimes you need a specific one to bypass an obstacle: a padlock for the one who can pick them, a cracked wall for the guy with the grenades, a mystical barrier for the one who commands a ghost capable of dispelling them. All such barriers are obvious, and clearly marked on the in-game maps with an icon showing the face of the necessary character.

The really notable thing about all this is that the more experimental aspects of the gameplay are enabled by the weirdness of the story and setting. We’ve had games with instant kills through headshots for some time, but no rational justification for instant kills through elbowshots. But an irrational world needs no rational justification.

Killer 7

Killer 7 is a new acquisition for me. I had become interested in it after seeing others praise it — particularly Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, of Zero Punctuation fame, who’s repeatedly mentioned it as one of his favorite games, right up there with Silent Hill 2. And now that I’ve dipped a toe into it, I think I see why. This is a shooter designed for the jaded gamer, the sort who’s tired of games that are still basically trying to be better versions of Doom.

First of all, it’s stylish. It’s basically cel-shaded, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game with cel-shading that defines objects through negative space like this game does (in the cutscenes, at least): you’ll have a sort of striated gradient background, and then shadows of doorways and windows placed on top of that. Games like Braid and Okami are described as looking like paintings, which basically means visible brush strokes. That’s not the case here, but it still looks quite a lot like a painting — specifically, a cheap modernist painting that you might see in a dentist’s waiting room. Although there, it would probably leave out the zombie-like human bombs strolling in your direction and laughing like hyenas.

Secondly, it’s bizarre. It is, in tvtropes lingo, a Weird Japanese Thing. This is a game where you don’t get a lot of explanation, and what explanation you do get comes from a guy in a red gimp suit, suspended from the ceiling. This is a game where any place you’ve died is marked with a chalk outline and a bloodstained paper bag that twitches occasionally. This is a game where it’s purposefully unclear whether you’re playing a team or an individual: the members of Killer 7 are all distinct, but they’re referred to as “personas”, and sometimes seem to physically replace each other. There’s an undercurrent of insanity here.

The feel reminds me strongly of some of the weirder games by Cactus, particularly Mondo Agency. You’re fighting monsters, that much is clear, but everything else is made uncomfortably off-kilter. The very first thing you have to to in the game, before the tutorial where you learn the controls, is kill someone without knowing why. You’re just given a silhouette, a laser sight, and the text “Target 00: Angel”. You shoot, because it’s the only thing you can do, and the game skips ahead to “Assignment 33”. I have an uneasy feeling that I’m going to find out what that was about later in the game, and it won’t be pleasant.

TCoR:EfBB: Final Thoughts and Apologies

All in all, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay is a pretty satisfying diversion. It’s mostly quite linear, but it uses that to force the player through a good variety of play styles, from crawling around in ducts to piloting unwieldy riot mechs. It’s like the Half-Life games that way, but shorter and with a slightly more talkative hero.

I think I owe the game an apology or two. I said some thoughtlessly mean things about it in my first post that it doesn’t really deserve. Like about the profanity. There’s swearing throughout the game, but most of it’s much more natural-sounding than the bits I complained about at the beginning, unless I just got used to it or something. It probably helps that most of it is screamed at you by people who are trying to kill you. Also, that crack I made about spending most of the acting budget on paying Vin Diesel? As Ellison pointed out in the comments, Mr. Diesel in fact founded the production company responsible for the game. This certainly changes his imagined relationship to the game, but I’m not sure it really casts him in a better light — “Let’s form a studio to make games about ME!” They’re even purportedly also producing a game about one of his D&D characters.

The idea that Vin Diesel plays D&D at all is a bit of a shock. I mean, his best-known roles are pretty firmly on the opposite side of the Geek/Jock divide. Perhaps I’ve underestimated the man. I regarded him as just another Hollywood action star, but a quick look at Wikipedia reveals things about him that I didn’t know (or perhaps used to know but forgot; I don’t exactly keep track of celebrity gossip). For example, did you know that he’s black? No, really! Or, well, it’s not quite that simple. He’s racially weirdified by the standards of present-day America, and apparently had difficulties getting roles before he became a star, because he was considered not white enough for roles that weren’t specifically black, and not black enough for ones that were. He even made a semi-autobiographical film about this experience, which impressed Steven Spielberg with its poignance. Poignance? In a Vin Diesel flick? I had no idea it was in his range. As Riddick, he delivers all his lines in an affectless growl, but I suppose that’s what’s appropriate to the character. He’s the extreme tough guy, completely imperturbable, as unmoved by pain as he is by the death of others.

And that’s really what puts him on the Jock side of the aforementioned divide. Indifference is not a geek trait; the defining trait of a geek is excessive interest. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to use these terms in discussing Escape from Butcher Bay, either. The whole thing is pitched at a middle-school mentality, the sort that finds transgressive fascination in antiheroes, excessive profanity, and an “M for Mature” rating. Prison is a metaphor for school, and Riddick goes through a symbolic puberty: eyeshine is an unexpected and confusing physical change, and the one burst of Furion fury he experiences in the game is the closest someone so unemotive can get to a mood swing. Well, like I’ve said, Riddick is styled as a Campbellian mythic hero, and the whole point of myth according to Campbell is to point back at ordinary experience, to provide us with ways of understanding our own lives. So, what kind of school experience does this story resonate with? A violent one, obviously. One where you feel oppressed, and so you lash out, and you don’t care much about the little guys you hurt in the process. You’re disruptive. You’re constantly in trouble. You keep your cool, because any display of emotion makes you vulnerable. This is the world-view of the schoolyard bully. And to that audience, the game provides the reassuring promise that you can escape from violence by being better at it than everyone else.

But in that light, what are we to make of the ending? Riddick ultimately doesn’t escape Butcher Bay by punching everyone until they let him go, but by a ruse, in which he cooperates with Johns, the bounty hunter who brought him there in the first place. Johns is actually instrumental in recapturing Riddick throughout the game, but grows disgruntled by the extra work and lack of payment, and at some point is threatened with being imprisoned himself, on a pretext I’ve already forgotten, but probably more because it’s the easiest way to get out of honoring Riddick’s bounty. I suppose Riddick had earned Johns’ respect as an adversary or something, but at the very end, he straps Riddick into his restraints again and just takes him off to some other prison. Again, I think of the way Riddick kept surrendering at the end of each chapter, after facing much worse things than Johns. Perhaps he has some undisclosed personal reason to do this? Heck, maybe they’re in cahoots, doing some kind of bounty-oriented swindle like Clint Eastwood in the beginning of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Except I think he’s the same bounty hunter as in Pitch Black, and I don’t think it this speculation jibes with their relationship there.

TCoR:EfBB: The Failure Cycle

The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay has an overall pattern of failing and starting over. I don’t mean at the level of gameplay — sure, yes, the player repeatedly dies and restarts from the last checkpoint, but that’s hardly uncommon in games. I’m talking about the story. Each chapter has Riddick coming within a whisker of freedom, only to be caught at the last moment and thrown into an even deeper pit, resetting his quests and inventory and forcing him to come up with a new plan. It’s never very convincing when this happens. Why is Riddick suddenly surrendering to the guards when he’s already come through worse just to get that far? But we accept it in the same way as we accept the difference between combat deaths and cutscene deaths in a JRPG. Which is to say, we don’t really have a choice.

The first iteration of the cycle is the tutorial level, a sequence in which the security of the prison is oddly lax, and Riddick manages to make a break for some sewer tunnels to freedom before he’s even been shown to his cell. This turns out to be just an Owl Creek Bridge scenario, a dream he’s having on the way to the real prison, but it’s extremely similar to the real place once he gets there. Chosen One prophetic dreaming, or has he just been there before?

The last iteration — at least, I assume it’s the last — comes when the authorities finally get fed up with Riddick inciting riots and letting loose alien monsters and the like and ship him off to Butcher Bay, where he supposedly won’t be able to cause trouble. This surprised me, because I had assumed that we had been in Butcher Bay from the very start. 1[UPDATE] On review, it turns out that I’m wrong about this. There’s a very clear sign indicating that your are entering Butcher Bay Correctional Facility when you first arrive at the beginning of the game. I’m not sure why I thought otherwise. Perhaps I misheard some dialogue about sending Riddick back to Butcher Bay when he’s recaptured for the last time. The game isn’t very good at communicating details like that to the player. (To give another example: at one point, an inmate asked me to retrieve an item that had fallen into the hands of the PPPs. Who are the PPPs? All I was told was that there were a couple of them hanging out in exercise yard A. In exercise yard A, there were two prisoners and two guards. The designers probably didn’t even consider that it would be unclear which of these pairs was wanted.)

Once you’re in Butcher’s Bay, though, it’s very clear that it’s a different place. The whole style changes. Instead of dirty concrete and corroded metal, it’s all gleaming and sterile, with a greater emphasis on automation and robots. That’s because it’s not a very human sort of prison. It lacks human touches like the hate, vindictiveness and power games seen in the earlier sections, because these are all things requiring social interaction. The whole idea behind this place is that the prisoners are kept in cryosleep most of the time. There are periodic legally-mandated two-minute “exercise” sessions, time spent awake but alone in a doorless room. At all other times, prisoners are stored in little coffin-like boxes, stacked in pyramids in a sort of warehouse. It’s incarceration taken to its logical extreme, with dreamlike exaggeration.

Dreamlike? I don’t think we’ve taken another detour to Owl Creek Bridge (although it does seem once again oddly easy to escape into the works). Rather, I think this place plays the role of the dream-realm to a shaman. It’s Riddick’s otherworld, a place only accessible to him, where he sees the logic behind the world laid bare. This is the place in his Heroic Journey where he’s supposed to gain treasures and learn the lessons that he brings back to teach mankind on returning to the normal world. I’ll probably come back to this once I’ve actually finished the game. For the moment, I just want to ask: what does he gain from this experience?

Not a lot, as far as I can tell. He’s already got his magical powers by this point, his eyeshine and his berserker rage. And look at what happens afterwards. This whole game is a prequel to the movie Pitch Black. At the beginning of that, he’s being transported back to prison. So he executes his miraculous escape, but it’s back to status quo soon after. To the extent that this game is capable of ending in triumph, it’s because it ends before the grand cycle comes around to failure again. The game could have ended in the previous chapter, with Riddick boarding the last shuttle off the planet (and before we find out why it doesn’t take off), and it would be exactly as valid a victory.

It reminds me of something: back when the Lord of the Rings movies were coming out, along with their tie-in games, I had an idea for a game starring Gollum. Like Riddick, he’s an antihero who can see in the dark, and thus a natural fit for a stealth game — I imagined it involving a lot of leaping onto orcs’ backs and strangling them, especially in the early “Escape from Mordor” levels. And in the end? Well, he’d finally achieve his ultimate goal of getting his precious back. I imagined a final shot of him gleefully capering with his prize on a ledge over the fires of Mount Doom. Freeze frame, roll credits. Happy ending.

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1. [UPDATE] On review, it turns out that I’m wrong about this. There’s a very clear sign indicating that your are entering Butcher Bay Correctional Facility when you first arrive at the beginning of the game. I’m not sure why I thought otherwise. Perhaps I misheard some dialogue about sending Riddick back to Butcher Bay when he’s recaptured for the last time.

TCoR:EfBB: Through Riddick’s Eyes

The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay was released in 2004, which seems to be something of a turning-point year for graphics in games: this is the first game I’ve played in my chronological run-down that doesn’t look old-fashioned. At least, not to my eyes, which are probably kind of old-fashioned themselves. We’re almost up to the point in time where I more or less lost track of what was happening in “core” gaming, due to the release of new gaming consoles that I wasn’t about to buy immediately, not when there were so many brilliant indie PC and Flash games to download. In comparison to those, at least, Riddick looks positively futuristic, all highly-detailed textures with differing sheens and convincing dirt and bloodstains. There’s something about the surfaces that really reminds me of technology demos for graphics cards — probably the conspicuous bump-mapping. I guess it’s a good thing that nearly all the characters are either shaven-headed prisoners or helmeted guards, because it really minimizes the number of plastic-looking bump-mapped hairdos you see.

The game is basically a first-person shooter with stealth elements. Or at least, the opportunity for stealth. My own experience is that stealth generally works here like it does in Dungeons & Dragons: it usually ends in a big fight with all the guards, because that’s so much easier to pull off successfully. There’s an explicit “stealth mode”, which mainly seems to mean crouching, but also fisheyes the lens. When you’re in stealth mode and concealed by shadow, the view also tints blue to let you know, highly reminiscent of the stealth view in the Penumbra games. (Penumbra came later, but don’t call it unoriginal. It put its own twists on the mechanic.)

Despite being primarily a first-person game, there are moments when it switches to third-person view, the better to show off Vin Diesel’s manly frame as he climbs up a stack of crates or twists a valve handle. But even when you’re in first-person mode, this is one of those few games where you can look down and see your body (or at least your legs), just like in Mirror’s Edge. The system also shares in Mirror’s Edge‘s problems (or design decisions) with disorientating the player. Fight sequences are turbulent. If it’s a hand-to-hand fight — which it very often is, given how hard it is for prisoners to get their hands on firearms — your viewpoint gets thrown around a lot, even when you’re hitting the other guy rather than getting hit yourself. (Sometimes I’ll be unsure about who actually hit whom.) If it’s a gunfight, the guards’ guns are powerful enough to knock you back, and they all have built-in flashlights that can blind you to your surroundings, particularly when the surroundings are dark.

But then, darkness isn’t supposed to be a problem for Riddick, is it? Night vision — “eyeshine”, as the game terms it — is one of his core characteristics. It’s the reason he was so crucial to everyone’s survival in Pitch Black. It’s why he wears those goggles all the time: without them, daylight is like looking into the sun. Well, you don’t start the game with eyeshine, but you acquire it partway through, right after a harrowing sequence of darkness-based scenarios — first a failing flashlight battery, then a limited supply of flares, twisted troglodytes attacking you all the while — that serves both to make you grateful to not have to deal with darkness any more and to use up the designers’ ideas for darkness-based scenarios while they’re still an option. Once you have eyeshine, you can toggle it on and off at the touch of a button, which presumably flips the goggles on and off. When active, it gives the entire screen a nice pinkish irridescence and warping, one of the better nonhuman-vision effects I’ve seen. And yes, if you activate it in normal lighting, it washes out the screen with impenetrable white.

Eyeshine resolves one of the basic dilemmas of stealth games. In the Thief series, and games on a similar model, darkness is safety. Thus, you want to make as much darkness as you can. But this makes it impossible to see where you are or what you’re doing, so there’s a tension there: you want the environment to be dark enough that the guards can’t see you, but not so dark that you can’t see them. But with Riddick, that tension completely goes away. Darkness has no downside. Accordingly, the game limits your access to it. There are areas open to the sky, where you can’t shut off the sun. More often, there are overhead light fixtures, out of reach. The only way I’ve found to put them out is to shoot them out, and the sound of a gunshot alerts the guards, ruining any chance you had for a stealth kill. But if they’re already shooting at you, plunging your immediate area into darkness definitely makes it harder for them. The only problem, then, is those flashlights on their guns, which blind you even more effectively when the goggles are off.

The most strange-feeling part of the various views is being temporarily ejected from them. As I mentioned, actions such as climbing switch you to a third-person camera. Since this isn’t seen through Riddick’s eyes, it doesn’t get the stealth or eyeshine effects. At the very least, you’re suddenly switching from blue or pink back to the game’s usual FPS browns and greys. Worse, maybe you’ve shot out all the lights, and suddenly you can’t see anything at all.

The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay

I’m on record as declaring a fondness for games adapted from movies, but I really haven’t posted about many. I just haven’t been buying the things since my self-imposed rules forced me to limit my game purchases. The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay is sort of a special case. I had to have it because, on its release, it was popularly acclaimed as the first tie-in game that was better than the movie it was based on.

It’s debatable whether this description is accurate. Goldeneye 007, for example, predates it by about seven years, and was certainly more influential as a game than as a movie. (Heck, the game even started its own dance craze.) Some of the Star Wars prequel trilogy tie-in games were better-received by fans than the movies they were based on. But nothing before Riddick provided such a stark contrast between the overwhelmingly positive reception of the game and the poor reviews of its source.

When I picked up the game, I personally had seen neither The Chronicles of Riddick nor its predecessor, Pitch Black. I had seen the trailer, however, and had been struck by the visual style, and how much it looked like a 1980s sci-fi magazine. Pretty much any frame could have been put on the cover of Analog, no questions asked. This seemed promising for the game. Visuals are the easiest thing for a game to get right.

By now, I’ve seen both movies, and I have to agree with pretty much everyone else who’s seen both movies: Riddick is a much more interesting character in Pitch Black, where he isn’t the hero. Pitch Black didn’t really have a hero. It’s more of an ensemble piece, and Riddick’s role in that ensemble is to make everyone else uneasy. We’re told that he’s a criminal, a psychopath, a merciless killer… and then the story finds ways to make the other characters dependent on his mercy. The resulting drama was the main point of interest in an otherwise indifferent sci-fi monster movie. But all the studio seemed to take away from it was “People sure do like this Riddick character, don’t they?”, and so they made a sequel about Riddick’s Heroic Journey, in which he turns out to be The Chosen One and Last Of His Race and similar malarkey. The most interesting parts are when the Joseph Campbell stuff is juxtaposed with the character’s dismal origins, hero as convicted criminal. (Kind of like when Paul Newman did the same thing back in 1967, but more brutal and macho.)

And so, sensibly enough, that’s what the game focuses on. Riddick’s backstory always included an escape from a maximum-security prison, and now we get to make that happen.

The prison environment isn’t as strongly-styled as that trailer, but it’s convincingly prison-like, even though you wander around it with a strange amount of freedom. There’s the whole inmate pecking-order thing going on, with one tough guy ruling over the rest and receiving special favors from the corrupt and violent guards. (He is, of course, killed by Riddick in short order.) The first weapons you get access to are shivs, and, in a nice touch, every shiv is unique: one is made from scrap metal, one from a sharpened screwdriver, etc. The hidden collectibles that unlock bonus content at the main menu take the form of cigarette packs.

And everyone swears a lot. The voice actors, for the most part, don’t really sound like they understand why they’re swearing, but they agreeably say “fuck” when it’s in the script. It reminds me of a story about Mark Twain. Apparently his wife once tried to make him embarrassed about swearing by writing down everything he said and then repeating his scandalous words to him in a cold and disapproving tone. His reply: “You’ve got the words right, but you sure don’t have the music.” I suppose it’s because most of the voice-acting budget was blown on Vin Diesel. I never thought I’d say the words “Vin Diesel is the most talented actor in this”, but such is games.

Deus Ex: Escape from New York

I just spent pretty much an entire day playing Deus Ex (or, more accurately, an entire night, because it’s a very dimly-lit game, full of shadows suitable for skulking, and thus best played without ambient sunlight). It seems to me that this is a game best played in long sessions like this. It’s easy to get bogged down in tactics otherwise. If you play for only a half an hour, the focus of your session can wind up being something as trivial as making your way to the end of a tunnel, rather than the plot-level activities that such micro-goals make up. This, I think, is why I’ve only made significant progress on the weekends.

And significant progress it is, this time: I’ve finally reached the point in the story where I leave both New York and UNATCO behind, which seems like a good place to stop for the moment. I have a few comments on the way the shift in plot was handled. There will be spoilers, but in a way, it’s hard to spoil the story here, because everything of importance is so heavily foreshadowed.

First of all, turning against UNATCO is not only inevitable, but happens at a very specific point. I was not only surprised at this, I was surprised that I was surprised: I’ve been given plenty of warning, in game and out, about what was going to happen. But when the moment comes, it comes quite suddenly. Before the decisive mission, there’s a sense that you’re juggling loyalties. The player character’s boss, one Joseph Manderley, as much as told me that I’d have to start putting more effort into getting the real powers behind UNATCO to trust me, just before it all became moot.

Understand that this is only notable because the game continues to give the player more influence over the course of events than most games provide. Secondary characters live or die as a result of your actions. The entire New York segment of the game leads up to a confrontation at a hotel in which UNATCO troops, your former colleagues, come for you and your brother Paul, another rogue agent. You can take a stand alongside him, saving his life in the process, or slip out the back while he sacrifices himself to buy you time. Quite a few later conversations have to have versions for both branches, and there’s an entire sub-quest about finding his cadaver in MJ12’s secret medical research laboratories. If you escape, and evade capture, you get an optional boss fight with Anna Navarre, your cyborg mentor who earlier complained about your being too soft if you used nonlethal force against the NSF. It’s possible to ditch this fight even after it starts; again, later scenes accommodate her being alive or dead.

Defeat or escape from Navarre and you wind up in the one encounter that I believe to be completely unwinnable. You can make a pretty good go of it, though. It’s like the last few seconds of the first episode of Doom, where you suddenly find yourself surrounded by baddies and have no way to shoot them all: the episode simply ends when you die. According to legend, some exceptional Doom player actually did manage to win that fight, only to find himself stuck in a small room with no doors and no way to trigger the end. Similarly, on emerging from the subway tunnels in Deus Ex, even if I power up my defensive augmentations and don thermoptic camouflage and try to make a break for freedom, it seems like I’m stuck in a smallish area surrounded by invisible walls. At any rate, the next scripted plot event involves the player character escaping from a holding cell, so you have to get captured somehow. The interesting thing is how much choice you get about when and where. From the moment the troops come for you and Paul at the hotel, being defeated in combat results in capture instead of death. One way to skip the fight with Navarre is to simply get captured before you reach it. Lasting farther into the sequence gives you more experience points, and to a certain extent more story, but this is one case where player actions have consequences that aren’t terribly lasting. You’re going to wake up in that cell no matter what.

I assumed at first that the cell was simply one of the cells I had seen earlier in UNATCO HQ, where certain NFS officers wound up. It seemed a reasonable assumption, given that I had been captured by UNATCO troops and that Navarre, a UNATCO agent, stops by to taunt you if she’s still alive at that point. But no, it’s actually deep in a secret MJ12 compound, complete with more guards in MJ12 uniforms and scientists working on weird biological experiments. (Some cages contain strange bird-like creatures that bear an uncanny resemblance to current concepts of the velociraptor. I just can’t escape the dinosaurs these days, can I?) And there’s a glorious moment, after painstakingly wending your way through the ducts and hallways, when you finally reach the facility’s sole exit, and discover that the entire thing is the previously-inaccessible “Restricted” area in the lower reaches of UNATCO HQ. A connection between MJ12 and UNATCO is pretty much a given by that point, but providing a literal “connection” in the sense of hallway makes it all that much more satisfying somehow. It turns the whole conspiracy from allegations about individuals to something so fundamental it’s built into the very architecture, a fact on the ground (or under the ground, as the case may be). Perhaps this is why the Masons are such a popular subject for conspiracy theories.

The game has been pretty good about reusing environments in different ways, but I think UNATCO HQ is the first area that you initially become familiar with while it’s safe, and only later becomes full of enemies. The enemies are, of course, the people who you earlier befriended — all the more reason to stick to nonlethal force, says I. Except not all of them are enemies: most of the NPCs with names, found in their usual offices, are on your side, at least if you play it like I did. One guy helps you escape but is otherwise loyal to UNATCO (expressing dismay that it’s been corrupted but hope that it can be redeemed), another expresses an intention of joining you in Hong Kong as soon as he gets the chance. Another gives you a choice, asking whether he should come with you or stay behind as your agent, feeding you information about UNATCO’s doings. In other words, conspiring with you. Creating a new conspiracy.

Let’s hope it turns out better than the last one. Presumably this is an ad-hoc conspiracy, to be dropped once its aims are met, much as Cincinnatus voluntarily relinquished the dictatorship of Rome. There’s a brief mention of Cincinnatus in the game, a passage in a book on the Society of Cincinnati, an order founded shortly after the American Revolution. It makes the dubious claim that the Society exists primarily to seize dictatorial control over the United States in the event that it becomes necessary. I can’t vouch for the book’s reliability even within the context of the game — it could well be just another conspiracy theory thrown out in the name of inclusiveness. But if the authors want us to read that passage, it’s probably because they want us to think about its implications for the player’s actions. But we’ll see.

Deus Ex: MJ-12

Deus Ex is impressively thorough about name-checking popular conspiracy theories and secret societies. Area 51, Majestic 12, the Knights Templar, the previously noted Trilateral Commission, and so forth. One bit-part NPC even asked me if I knew the widow’s son. (Do the freemasons even count as a secret society any more? I’ve seen them advertise on television, for crying out loud.) There haven’t been any references to the Kennedy assassination yet, but I’ll be surprised if the game ends without mentioning it at least once.

I assume that not all of these references will be concretized in the actual story. Many NPCs just have their own little paranoid suppositions, usually based on mistrust of privilege. Which is to say, they’re broadly correct, but they have no real basis for the details. Theories of this sort can contradict each other wildly. Nonetheless, some of them are already coming true. deusex-mj12MJ-12 is definitely operating secret laboratories in the sewers, studying the plague. They even have guards with a little “XII” logo on their helmets.

The MJ12 guards are the first enemies I’ve encountered other than the NSF. I suppose I could have used this as an excuse to become more violent: just because I have a rule against murdering the NSF doesn’t mean the same applies to these guys and their clandestine medical experiments on unwilling subjects. But then, the people performing those experiments aren’t the ones shooting at me. The guards are just freelance security personnel who don’t know a thing about what they’re defending; the only scientist present at the site is in fact the guy I went in there to rescue, and as much a prisoner as the experimental subjects.

This is something the game keeps doing: pulling the good-guys-vs-bad-guys rug out from under the player. For example, at another point, a friendly NPC tells me that I’ll need a key currently in the possession of an NSF officer encamped nearby, and that the only way I’ll get it is if I kill said officer. But when I confront him, he immediately surrenders. He’s not even a soldier, it turns out. He’s the company’s accountant.

At any rate, MJ-12 is associated with UFOs, so their interest in the “grey plague”, and in particular their interest in seeing it “fully bond with a human host”, has obvious implications about the plague’s origins. I suppose this is why, immediately after granting me this much understanding of what was going on, the game started throwing Templar references at me. Just to make sure I knew that I didn’t really understand anything yet.

Deus Ex: Still Going

I seem to have gotten stuck in that vicious cycle of slow progress, where low frequency of accomplishment reduces my motivation to play, which makes me play less, which reduces the frequency of accomplishment. I’ve tried to break out of this somewhat this weekend, but it’s clear that I’m only a fraction of the way through the story. I’m still in war-torn New York City when it’s clear that there are chapters to come set in Paris and Hong Kong.

It’s my own fault, of course. I keep going back to old saves to do things differently, to maximize my gain and minimize my loss. I could probably breeze through these chapters more quickly if I simply stopped caring about the cost. But if I did, I’d still miss half the story. When I go back, a large part of what I do is find special encounters that I missed. There are whole areas full of talkative NPCs that you can just pass by if you’re not diligent. Sometimes you’re told about them in advance, but even then, it’s a coin-toss whether you find them before or after your primary mission objective. (If there’s one complaint I can level at this game, it’s that supposedly-hidden secret entrances are usually not significantly harder to find than the main entrances to the public places where you get hints about them.)

When the NPCs are functioning as plot-dispensers instead of hint-dispensers, they give a certain amount of additional context to the situation. I compared the beginning of the game to Final Fantasy IV before, in that it made it clear that the player character is working on the side of evil, but frankly, the enemies aren’t winning any popularity contests on the streets. Some people agree with the NSF’s 1National Secessionist Forces, formerly the Northwest Secessionist Forces. Despite knowing this, I briefly wonder every time they’re mentioned why the National Science Foundation is so angry with us. Did UNATCO not properly cite the relevant papers on nanomachine enhancement technology or something? goals but hate the NSF anyway: apparently when an organization declares war on the United States government, it attracts the sort of recruit who just wants an excuse to shoot at people. The story seems to want you to lose your sympathy with them as you go along, perhaps to give the player better and better outs for using violence as the difficulty increases. Me, I’m still sticking to nonlethal force, if only because it seems like a shame to stop now. I keep finding ammo caches and being disappointed that they’re not lockpicks.

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1. National Secessionist Forces, formerly the Northwest Secessionist Forces. Despite knowing this, I briefly wonder every time they’re mentioned why the National Science Foundation is so angry with us. Did UNATCO not properly cite the relevant papers on nanomachine enhancement technology or something?

Deus Ex: Locked Doors

I’ve said before that the thing a game is really about is the thing you spend your time doing. Doom is a game about shooting at monsters, The Ancient Art of War is a game about maintaining supply lines, and Riven, despite its best intentions, is largely a game about looking for animal shapes. Deus Ex — the way I’m playing it, at least — is a game about gaining access to things.

You can go about this in various ways. Often there’s more than one route to your immediate destination, with different obstacles, which use different character skills. For example, one route might have guards patrolling it, a test of your various weapon use skills, and, indirectly, your medicine skill, which affects how many hit points you can squeeze out of a health pack. Another route might have a locked door.

Sometimes you can find a key for a locked door. Sometimes there’s a keypad you can enter a combination into. Sometimes there isn’t. Mechanical locks can be picked, provided you have a lockpick, but these are single-use videogame lockpicks. I suppose this makes more sense in a dystopian cyberpunk environment than in most other milieus — after all, if the presumably-corrupt corporation that manufactures those lockpicks can make them self-destruct on use, they certainly have the financial motivation to make them that way. Similarly, electronic locks can be overcome with a disposable “multitool”, which, however, also has other uses (such as disabling security cameras). Doors and keypads all report strength ratings when selected. Supposedly the strength affects how many picks or tools you need to defeat them, but I haven’t yet seen a door that needs more than one, presumably because I’ve been sinking most of my skill points into Lockpicking and Electronics, which make the use of these tools more efficient. I do this because the supply of lockpicks and multitools is limited, and I’m afraid of running out when I really need one. I have yet to find a reliable source of either item; mostly I find them at random places throughout the levels, raising the question of who left them there and why they didn’t jealously hoard them like I do. Any mission that I finish with more lockpicks than I started is a good mission. When I chance upon a combination to a door that I already spent a multitool on, it’s time to reload an old save.

There’s one other way to open doors: explosives. This is also an effective way to deal with certain other obstacles, such as the aforementioned armed guards, but I haven’t been indulging much in explosions of any sort, because they tend to attract attention. Not all doors are vulnerable to explosives, just as not all doors can be picked or hacked: there’s a strength rating for how much physical damage they can withstand just like the one for resistance to being picked, and either rating can be “infinite”. I’m guessing that I’ll eventually start encountering doors that are infinitely strong in all respects, and can only be got past legitimately (with a key) or indirectly (through an air duct). There were doors like that in the tutorial, which was themed as a UNATCO training mission, and if UNATCO has access to infinite door technology, you can bet they’ll use it to guard their innermost secrets.

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