Archive for September, 2010

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.

Gish attempted, failed

My first thought on reaching 2004 was to make a try at completing Gish, which I’ve left in world 3 since last December. Alas, the intermittent crashing seems to be even worse than I remembered, sometimes leaving my entire system unresponsive and forcing me to switch it off. I don’t think I’ll be continuing until I have a solution here. Every once in a while, it freezes for several seconds with a speckling of white pixels, then comes back with a notification that OpenGL had to reset the hardware. Perhaps it’s ultimately an OpenGL problem? Most of the other games I’ve been playing lately use DirectX.

WarioWare: Completeness

As per this blog’s charter, WarioWare, Inc. was deemed off the Stack as soon as I completed story mode, which happened before the last post. But there were a couple of days left of PAX after that, and of course the journey home, all of which involved waiting on line to one degree or another, and you know something? WarioWare is positively ideal for waiting on line. Particularly in Grid mode, where there’s so little at stake. So I’ve made some pretty good progress towards really completing the game.

So, here’s a brief description of the game’s optional goals. First of all, every microgame in Grid mode has a threshold, a number of iterations that you have to complete without running out of lives in order to get its spot on the grid marked with a red flower. Supposedly something happens when you get all the flowers. I’m still fairly distant from this goal, and it’s not clear to me that I’ll ever achieve it, unless I find myself in another situation involving lots of waiting in line. At the moment, I don’t even have all of the microgames available in the Grid — remember, they only show up there after you’ve randomly encountered them in Game mode, so there’s the whole last-pixel syndrome to contend with. Add to that the fact that Grid mode is the title’s tedious side, and this is a goal for the very patient.

Secondly, certain levels in Game mode unlock extra content when you pass indicated thresholds. It should be noted that these goals are impossible to reach the first time around. When you reach the threshold necessary to proceed with the story, you immediately get an epilogue to the current level and then get thrown back to the level menu. So in order to complete more microgames than it takes to continue the story, you have to come back to the level after completing it — which reinforces the idea that these are optional challenges, and not part of winning the game.

The content you unlock in this way consists mostly of additional games — mostly versions of the microgames that have been expanded into full minigames, which means they play continuously instead of being interrupted every few seconds. One of the unlockables is a full version of Doctor Mario, a game I recall mind-melding with in its coin-op incarnation back in my school days, an experience much like the play-by-brainstem necessary in WarioWare when it gets fast. It seems a little ironic to see it in this context, an inversion of the usual sort of unlockable mini-game, which is something less sophisticated than the main game.

It’s notable, however, that I’m definitely not playing the game in order to gain access to the unlockable content. This is clear because I delilberately threw access away. I actually bought this game used — something I don’t normally do, but this was at a rummage sale for charity, and it looked to be in near-mint condition, with its box and instruction manual and everything. The instruction manual contains a sheet of stickers, and specific spots marked in the manual for you to stick them, which tells you what audience they were targeting. The copy I got was pristine, with all of its stickers still on the sheet, which is a pretty good indication that the person who bought it wasn’t part of that target audience. Months later, when I actually got around to playing it, this helped me to forget that it was used, and I was briefly confused by how different my experience was from that described in the pristine manual: everything seemed to be already unlocked! Once I figured out what was up, I went into the options menu and reset the whole thing, erasing the previous owner’s progress.

This is because, to me, the point of unlocking stuff is simply to unlock it, not to have it unlocked. It’s not like I’m going to spend any significant amount of time playing the unlockable minigames. Their purpose is only to acknowledge by their presence what I have done, like an Achievement or Trophy on the newer consoles. These optional goals are, after all, the only way to win in a game that’s otherwise based on the sort of old-school arcade-game design where things just keep getting harder until you lose.

(Remember, this game is from 2003, so this sort of structure is retro. The game even acknowledges it by throwing in an entire level where the microgames are all simplified versions of Nintendo classics (such as Doctor Mario), some of which were otherwise never released outside Japan. The mere fact that it gives you lives is basically retro by now.)

WarioWare: Wario

WarioWare, Inc. is divided into a series of levels, each with its own set of microgames and its own host character who supposedly authored that section and also needs your help to get through the situation depicted in the level’s intro and epilogue. There’s some serious confusion of levels going on there; it’s as if Deus Ex started off with a cutscene of Warren Spector begging for the player’s help at defeating the secret organization pursuing him. No, that’s not quite right. That suggests a connection between the frame and the content. It’s more like Deus Ex starting with Waren Spector playing baseball at a company picnic, and every time you complete a mission, you get a cutscene of him hitting a home run.

The first and last levels are hosted by Wario himself. Because I’m primarily a PC gamer, this is the first significant exposure I’ve had to the character. I know of him, certainly. I was aware that he was a sort of evil twin to Mario, but I didn’t really know the details. Having seen him in action, I’d describe him not so much evil as somewhere between rotten and naughty, misbehaving like a little kid. He’s explicitly described as “sneaky” and “greedy”, and makes no bones about it, apparently considering those good qualities, because they’re his qualities and everything about him is by definition awesome. Which is also why most of the microgames on his own levels are about him. So I’d add “conceited” to the list, as well as “denigrating others”: he cheerfully tosses barbs at the player along the lines of “Huh? You beat that level? You?!?”

Come to think of it, he’s a lot like Strong Bad.

Also like Strong Bad, he comes off as childish partly because of his eagerness for characteristics that seem manly to him, like riding a motorcycle and punching at punching bags. Mario also has a sort of weird mix of adult and childlike traits, but they harmonize a lot better there, and seem to hit something of a sweet spot for acceptability by an American audience (unlike some Nintendo characters). Wario comes off like a grotesque caricature of this, exaggerated like a Mad Magazine parody. “No need to satirize us”, Nintendo seems to be saying, “We’ll satirize ourselves!” Since this is Wario’s game, it’s his world now, and it’s much more urban than the Mushroom Kingdom, more random and full of pointless conflict. The most innocent-looking of the hosts is pursued by police cars for speeding, and evades them by dropping banana peels in their path, making them skid and crash. They’re not bad guys, they’re just doing their job.

So, given this grotesque, childish, selfish, greedy, sneaky, antihero of a character, what role does he play in the game’s story? Why, that of game publisher, of course! His scheme is to get all these people, his supposed “friends”, to develop games for him, and then abscond with all of the profits himself. I can’t help but see this as reflecting the designers’ personal experience, and I’m a little surprised that Nintendo executives thought it acceptable — perhaps they didn’t understand what it was saying? Or perhaps from their perspective it looked more like a dig at little independent game companies trying to cash in on fields pioneered by others. Who knows.

WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgame$!

WarioWare, Inc. is a collection of “microgames”. In fact, it’s the collection of microgames. I’ve seen things like this before, mostly in Flash on the web, which seems like a more natural environment for this kind of simple, disposable stuff than a solid-state cartridge sold in a box. But apparently WarioWare is the pioneer that these other games are imitating, and that makes it interesting to me. The idea of a pared-down minigame with distinct mechanics embedded in a larger work (usually as a bonus round of some kind) is something that’s been around for pretty much as long as there have been larger works to embed them in, but the creators of WarioWare were bold enough to ask if a viable game could be made entirely out of such pieces. (It seems like questions of the form “Can a viable game be made entirely out of [game element]?” are almost always answerable in the affirmative. See also the entire “Hidden Object” genre.)

So, what are microgames? Essentially, the atoms of interactivity that games are built from, isolated from context and limited in duration to a few seconds at most. A few seconds doesn’t sound like much, but it feels more comfortable than I was anticipating: the transitions are never sudden or unexpected, there’s always a bit of padding between microgames (an animation that tells you if you succeeded or lost), and when you come right down to it, all that any microgame asks of you is that you perform one essential action, one verb as it were, and few seconds is plenty of time to do that (or fail to do it). Some of the games in WarioWare are as simple as pressing a button at the right time — a fairly large proportion of them, in fact, although it’s dressed up in all sorts of ways, from sports to space battle to nose-picking. Others are more complicated, and involve aiming, dodging, or steering in various ways. Some are things that could have been sold as full games by themselves in an earlier era. Heck, some were.

In the main game mode, you’re thrown into a series of randomly-selected microgames, usually with a single word of instruction, like “Dodge!” or “Decide!” or “Potato!”, and have to try to figure out from that and what’s on the screen exactly what you have to do. To help you out, the controls are limited to the D-pad and a single button. If that isn’t enough, you can get fuller instructions for any microgame you’ve encountered by switching over to “grid” mode, which also lets you play single microgame types without the random switching. This is fundamentally less appealing to me. If you know what you’re getting, you lose the “think fast” factor, the rapid switching of gears that’s more fundamental to the game as a whole than the specific microgame contents. As you progress through a level, the pace picks up, becomes frenzied in a sort of Riddler mind-control way, the music speeding up until it doesn’t sound like music any more. It’s a twitch game, really, where you learn to react instantly to the stimulus of specific microgame screens.

Freedom Force: Ending

ff-gearThe ending of Freedom Forcetakes place in the Timemaster’s realm, an Ethereal-Void-type place. I’ve described this sort of environment as “Ditkoesque” before, but the styling here is still more Kirby than Ditko. The action takes place on a series of platforms in the shape of enormous rotating clock-gears, each replicating a small section of an environment either encountered earlier or, in one case, merely hinted at. Each gear contains a portal to the next, but it only opens up when you’ve defeated all the enemies there. It’s all a grand recapitulation of the game as a whole, with reprises of all the bosses, like the final dungeon in a Zelda game. It’s not quite the same as the first encounters, though, because all you really have to do to defeat the bosses this time around is knock them off the gear, which can be done with knockback moves, or, more easily, with explosions. Mind you, the same explosions can knock your own guys off if you’re not careful, but that just means you have to learn your limits.

There’s a very nice feel of finality to this whole sequence. You know that it all ends here, or… it all ends. No need to worry about Prestige or experience points: you’re as advanced as you’re ever going to be, and you just have to hope that it’s advanced enough. The whole mission consists of twelve gears (including the larger one where the final boss fight takes place) spread out over four levels. The four heroes you pick at the beginning of the first of those four levels are the last heroes you’ll ever use, so the decision feels fairly momentous.

Ultimately, I think any team could finish the game, but certain powers definitely make it quicker and easier. The team I chose consisted of Minuteman, Bullet, El Diablo, and Eve, which turned out not to be an ideal combination, but it all worked out okay. I’ve described Minuteman and El Diablo before. Bullet is the team’s speedster, and an asset to any mission, partly for his mere ability to get places first and hit enemies two or three times before they can hit back, partly because he can gain the power to “Energize” other characters, making them regain energy more quickly than normal. He also by this point had a good charging knockback move for shoving enemies off gears. Eve is a mystically-aware primitive woman, heavily involved in the Pan arc, skilled at archery. I mainly included her because she had finally learned the Acid Arrow move, which seemed worth trying out, but in the end, she was more useful for a debuff that temporarily blinds opponents, making it much more difficult for them to hit with ranged attacks. El Diablo’s role in the party was creator of explosions and chief recipient of Bullet’s energizing. Minuteman just sort of ran around hitting minions — he was by far the least useful of the four, especially in the final boss fight, where he basically couldn’t get close enough to make an attack. I’d definitely swap him out for someone else if I had to play the whole thing through again, but since he was the very first of the heroes, it seemed fitting that he be on hand at the very end as well.

And that’s that. Just in time, too: I shortly depart for Seattle, to attend my second PAX this year (and in my entire life). Fortunately, the next game I have on my docket is one for the Gameboy Advance, suitable for play during transport, or while waiting on line, if the lines are anywhere near as insanely long as they were at PAX East. As usual, I’ll also be bringing first-generation Pokémon in a vain hope that someone reading this blog will be there and interested in doing trades.

Freedom Force: Bad Guys

Nearing the end of Freedom Force, I have a pretty clear idea now about the breadth and scope of it. It’s a bit unusual. Most superhero games, whether based on comics, based on movies based on comics, or just featuring original characters loosely inspired by comics, focus on a single hero (or at most a small group of related heroes), and on the situations and enemies natural to that hero. Superhero comics cover a range of scales from the mundane to the cosmic, but specific heroes tend to fall on a specific spot on that spectrum, some defending a single city against lawlessness, others safeguarding the entire planet against alien invasion, yet others dealing in the realm of gods and mythical figures. And so a game about a specific hero will tend to focus on what’s appropriate to that character, but, in so doing, lose a big part of the character of the comics. I’m talking about the weird juxtapositions resulting from crossovers and team books. 1The Scott Adams “Questprobe” adventures are a notable exception, being even more chock-full of weird juxtapositions and non-sequiturs than the comics themselves. Spider-Man has been to other planets. The mighty Thor takes time off from Asgard politics to pick on street gangs, sometimes as part of a team that also includes Captain America. The weirdest thing about comic book universe continuities isn’t just that they simultaneously contain cyborgs and sorcerers, gods and ghosts and gunslingers and space aliens and talking gorillas. It’s that they all know each other.

Freedom Force is a simulated shared continuity. It tries to vary the scale and scope as much as it can within the constraints of its mechanics (ie, no space battles), but it’s necessarily an abbreviated form, with only one or two major villains per niche. At the most ordinary level, you’ve got Pinstripe, a mobster mutated by Energy X but otherwise simply functioning as a mobster. An escaped lunatic calling himself Deja Vu is the closest thing to a silver-age Batman villain, giggling and talking in rhyme and making the team solve riddles. Turning things up a notch, we have an army of city-crushing giant robots courtesy of Mister Mechanical, a snubbed and resentful architect who really has it in for the buildings rather than their inhabitants. Behind them all stands the space-opera villain, Lord Dominion, conqueror of a thousand worlds, whose main motivation here is amusement: he could easily crush the Earth, but he’d rather watch the earthlings do the job for him. But even Lord Dominion is a pawn for the Time Master, whose goal is the destruction of time itself. And somehow the god Pan is involved too, to bring in the mythical element — I expect that will make more sense after I’ve cleared a couple more levels, but there have already been mutterings that interplanar travel and time travel are really the same thing. This isn’t a complete list of the villains in the game, but it’s pretty close.

The one sort of bad guy that the game is really missing is the individual bad guy, the one who doesn’t need henchmen to be a menace, like Bizarro or the Green Goblin. Everyone here has an army of some sort. Pinstripe has his goons, Deja Vu his evil duplicates, Pan his confusingly-named “Bacchites” (perhaps the god was recast during development?). Anyway, it’s true that some superheroes habitually fight large numbers of anonymous grunts — Batman and Captain America come to mind — but it’s not nearly as universal as you’d think from this game. But that’s not even a problem with this game in particular. Aside from one-on-one fighting games, most genres of game that reasonably accommodate superheroes have a basic structure that involves fighting a bunch of lesser enemies before you get to fight the boss, and sometimes it’s a real stretch to provide that. (I think of the various Spider-Man games in particular. Most Spider-Man villains do their villaining as solitary individuals.) At least Freedom Force gets to make up its villains from scratch, rather than shoehorn established characters into an inappropriate format.

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1. The Scott Adams “Questprobe” adventures are a notable exception, being even more chock-full of weird juxtapositions and non-sequiturs than the comics themselves.

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