Archive for August, 2014

BloodRayne: Double-Teamed

Act 3 of BloodRayne has about half as many levels as act 2, but nonetheless I wound up playing through all of Act 2 in a single day, and splitting up Act 3. The reason is that Act 2, for all its length, kept on moving forward, whereas in Act 3, I got stuck in the final confrontation. Understand that this is one of those games that only saves between levels, and losing a fight means restarting the level from the beginning. But even so, there’s a sense of progress if you can keep on doing more damage before dying on each iteration. In the last level, I was lacking even that, so I took a break. Let me go into a little detail.

The end boss is actually two bosses who aren’t friends: they try to fight each other when they’re not attacking you, but aren’t capable of inflicting significant damage on each other. One the one side, there’s the demon Beliar, a sort of slow-moving headless and inhuman skeleton made of sharp bits, who periodically returns to his spawn point in the center of the room and grows larger. If he gets big enough, he wins, in a FMV cutscene that I never saw during gameplay, because I generally died long before it was a possibility. On the other side, there’s Gruppenführer Jurgen Wulf, the man to blame for Beliar taking physical form, and who now, predictably, regrets it. As the player knows from earlier cutscenes, Wulf has super-speed and a sort of Street-Fighter-ish fire punch he can do if you stand still for it. There’s plenty of loose guns around due to the slaughter that preceded the fight, but neither enemy is a good target for gunfire — Wulf because he’s hard to hit, Beliar because guns just don’t seem to do much to hurt him.

The key with Wulf was obvious: bullet-time karate. But that’s not a realistic option with a guy made of knives. I had a hard enough time making so much as a credible dent in Beliar that I wound up hitting up the Internet for hints, thinking there must be some trick I was missing. Apparently he has one vulnerable spot, which you can aim at in sniper mode, but even now I’m not quite sure where that is — it’s his “heart”, but exactly where that is was kind of muddied by his peculiar anatomy and the fact that he never stays still long enough to get a good look. (Alas, you can’t be in sniper mode and bullet time simultaneously.) These may be problems peculiar to the PC version, though, because I didn’t see anyone else with similar complaints.

I did, however, see a certain amount of disagreement on a key question: what order should you kill the two enemies in? On the one hand, Beliar is the one responsible for the time limit. If you take him out, you have all the time you need to finish off Wulf. On the other hand, Wulf is relatively quick to kill, and once he’s not running around and distracting Beliar any more, Beliar becomes a lot easier to control. One forum post recommended letting Beliar grow a few times and then dashing into a tunnel: if he’s following only you, he’ll get stuck on the tunnel entrance and be easy to shoot. This only works for a little while, but apparently that can be enough to kill him if you can find his heart. I ultimately wound up taking Wulf out first, then killing Beliar mainly with explosives to the general chest area, letting splash damage do what my aim could not. But this was only after trying it both ways, multiple times. Experiments were helped by one pleasant surprise: after you kill either one, you get to save the game! This is the only place in the entire game where you can save mid-level.

Each kill was also accompanied by a short FMV cutscene, with some variation depending on ordering. All the FMV in the game was shown in a different resolution than the game itself, which was a bit of a problem: my current hardware takes several seconds to adjust to a change in graphics mode, so I always missed the beginning of the clip. (And they’re short clips, so that was a high proportion of the whole.) Fortunately, all the video exists on disc in the form of perfectly ordinary mpegs that I could view afterward to see what I had missed.

And that’s it! I’m done with BloodRayne, and actually have been for several days now. It has sequels, but I don’t have any of them, and even if I wind up acquiring them through a bundle or something, they won’t have the same status for me without physical media. After finishing the game came a little ritual I haven’t had an opportunity to engage in for a couple of years now: reshelving the CD-ROM, moving it from the area reserved for the Stack to the place for completed games. I suppose this means I have to decide what the new Oath is. I’ll be updating that page shortly.

BloodRayne: Increasing Firepower

Act 3 of BloodRayne turns things even more Wolfensteinish by moving the action to a German castle. In something of a subversion, it’s not a Nazi fortress, but a Vampire fortress being attacked by Nazis, who want the final piece of that demon-awakening artifact they’ve been hunting. As with the Daemites in act 2, this means you have two sets of enemies that fight each other. In some cases, you don’t have to lift a finger to kill the people on your hit list: it suffices to stand back and watch them get torn apart by the monsters they unwisely antagonized.

It’s not like they came entirely unprepared, though. The Nazi vampire-castle-storming force is much better armed than the Argentina bunker defense contingent, with more guys with more powerful guns. Some of them even have jetpacks. Finally, I’ve reached the point where there’s so much fire directed at me that hand-to-hand combat isn’t cutting it any more, and firing guns back seems like a necessity of gameplay rather than just an additional part of the underlying power fantasy. Appropriately, the game chooses the beginning of Act 3 to introduce the sniper-zoom-in vision, one of the four supernatural-vampire-perception modes that you can switch between at will. (That isn’t what the game calls it. The official name of sniper-zoom-in vision is something much more highfalutin.) The other three modes are normal vision, a mode that makes everything glow blue and highlights your current goal point, and (starting in Act 2) bullet time. Yes, this game gives you infinite bullet time; the only reason to ever not be in bullet time is because you want to actually get places at a faster speed than excruciatingly slow. To my mind, the chief virtue of bullet time mode is that it lets me actually follow Rayne’s high-speed acrobatic combat maneuvers, which are otherwise a bit incomprehensible. I guess this is part of what made me prefer hand-to-hand throughout Act 2. I really haven’t found sniper vision as useful, though, even as I use guns more.

The pinnacle of the increasing firepower, though, is the Nazi mechs. They’re small as mechs go, and look kind of like Metal Gear would if it had been built during the 1940s. You get to take control of one at one point, although the game does much less with this than, say, Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay did. You don’t even get to stomp around on puny humans, which is to my mind the chief appeal of mechs. Instead, it basically just sends you to fight a number of other identical mechs in an enclosed space, after which you have to get out and continue on foot because the mech’s weight would collapse the stairs if you didn’t. It’s a little weird, narratively. Throughout the rest of the story, Rayne’s big combat advantage is her vampire powers. Even when she fights other vampires in the castle, they’re mainly just less powerful than her, and on the few occasions when she meets one that isn’t, it’s a puzzle-boss that she has to defeat with cleverness rather than force. But that mech fight? She doesn’t have any vampire advantages when she’s piloting a mech, and she certainly doesn’t have any training (dialogue suggests that she’s never even seen one before), but she manages to take on three other equally-powerful mechs at once and win anyway. Now, there’s a certain mythic tradition, seen also in superhero comics, wherein heroes who are strongly associated with a particular weapon or ability have to defeat one enemy without using it, thereby establishing that the real source of their continuing victories is their intrinsic worth as a hero, not their gear or their superpowers. And you could argue that the mech fight is an example of this, showing how Rayne keeps on kicking ass on a level playing field. It just strikes me as a little strange that the leveling is accomplished by giving her access to a walking tank with an infinite rocket launcher.

BloodRayne: Act 2

Act 2 of BloodRayne officially takes place in Argentina, but you wouldn’t know it by looking. The whole thing is set indoors, in a massive beige-and-grey bunker built into a mountain, and in the mines and caverns underneath it. As I said in my last post, it becomes like Wolfenstein, and not just cosmetically. The most recent Wolfenstein game at the time of BloodRayne‘s release was the 2001 Return to Castle Wolfenstein, which I remember being notable for three things: large areas created by cut-and-pasting entire rooms (chiefly barracks), wall-mounted alarm boxes that the Nazi troopers would use to call for reinforcements if you let them, and the addition of supernatural elements to the setting, including an excavation to recover a powerful ancient artifact that they ultimately can’t control. BloodRayne apes all three.

“Nazis try to obtain powerful artifact that they ultimately can’t control” is something of a cliché by now, probably mainly due to the influence of Raiders of the Lost Ark, although there the artifact was divine rather than eldritch. It definitely wasn’t part of the original Apple II Castle Wolfenstein, though, which was released the very same year as Raiders. Interestingly, though, BloodRayne reminds me a bit of that game due to the initial enemies. In Castle Wolfenstein, there were two sorts: common soldiers and SS officers, the chief difference being that the SS wore bulletproof vests, and were thus immune to your normal attack. If you wanted to kill an SS officer (rather than just avoid him), you had to use a grenade. BloodRayne similarly divides its enemies into the ordinary soldiers and the officers of the Gegengeist Gruppe, a special anti-occult division. GGG officers have special training in how to fight vampires, and can ward off your attempts at biting them, unless you attack from behind.

Rayne’s mission is one of assassination. You get a hit list at the beginning, and cross one name off it after each boss fight. The first few bosses are just vanilla GGG officers with particularly large numbers of bodyguards, but after a certain point they start going a little more Metal Gear. The first really difficult boss fight happens in a chapel, where the pulpit is actually an armored machine gun turret that can zip down the aisle on a rail, its occupant cackling, forcing Rayne to run back and forth. Another of the bosses is a fellow half-vampire, the only female enemy we’ve seen since Louisiana, wearing the incongruous combination of a surgeon’s mask and a shirt unbuttoned to her navel. This is the “prove your worth as a hero by defeating something that’s just like you only moreso” fight: she’s got most of Rayne’s moves, but larger breasts.

If you ignore the Louisiana section, the content generally follows the same paradigm as the original Tomb Raider: it starts off fairly realistic for a videogame, and becomes gradually freakier as you get deeper into it. The biggest turn comes with the reveal of the Daemites: fleshy skull-like levitating heads with spinal tails. I’d almost say that it’s the return of the sex monsters, that the Daemites are basically giant sperm, except that it took me hours to even think of that connection, mainly because they don’t move like sperm at all. But at least they behave like a proper Alien-style rape monster, killing Nazis by forcing themselves down their mouths — not to reproduce, but to take control of their bodies by popping their heads off from underneath, like that one scene in Eraserhead. Although they’re at first presented in such a way as to make them seem like the products of Nazi mad science, it ultimately turns out that the mad scientists had simply captured them for study, from the caves below, where more twisted things await and the decor becomes gross and organic.

Daemites, like spider monsters, cannot be bitten, which makes the Daemite-heavy sections harder. They also don’t drop guns, which I suppose would be a downside for players who use guns a lot. I personally find that in this game I prefer hand-to-hand combat, except in situations where guns are clearly advantageous, such as when there’s a sniper on a ledge above you — and even then, Rayne can probably leap to that ledge and take out the sniper with a bite in about the same time it would take to shoot him.

BloodRayne: Sex and Violence

Although the main focus of BloodRayne is on a sexy vampire fighting Nazis, the story opens in the misty swamps of Louisiana, where you instead fight Zombies. The game calls them “mutates”, but it’s not fooling anyone, especially when the whole reason they’re there ultimately turns out to be a “voodoo ritual”. The zombies are suitably gross-looking, textured with glistening decay, although some of them have distorted arms and spiky hands that, to my expert eye, look less like mutations and more like animation glitches of the sort that tend to happen during game development. Perhaps that was the inspiration.

The zombie disease, we learn, is spread by spider-monsters, which are birthed by “bio-masses”, which are essentially just veiny, undulating, tentacled wombs with vaginas in front. Rooted in place and utterly passive, their only way of fighting back as Rayne slices them apart with her bat’leth is by disgorging more spider-monsters. The end boss of Louisiana is a gargantuan combination of the spider-monsters and the bio-wombs, called “the Queen of the Underworld”.

Combining sex with things deadly and grotesque is of course a staple of horror movies, from Cat People to Friday the Thirteenth to Alien, because it’s an easy way to make people ill at ease. But there’s something weirder than normal “sex = death” horror going on here. First of all, Rayne, personification of the “sex = death” equation, is the hero. Secondly, throughout the first act, the men that Rayne uses her eroticized bite attack on are gross and diseased. It would make horror-movie symbolic sense for a gross, diseased man to attack and kill people in a sexualized manner, but it’s the reverse here: the sexualized attack by the young woman is what kills them. It’s as if she prevents them from raping her by raping them first. Thirdly, although the most powerful beings on both sides of the fight are female, the female enemies are dehumanized, reduced to their reproductive functions. Because they’re not human, Rayne can’t use her sex attack on them.

I can see some symbolic sense in some of this. Rayne isn’t simply sex, she’s sex for pleasure, selfish hedonism without regard for the other party, as represented by the fact that she gains health from coupling while her partner loses it. Which is still a weird choice for a hero figure, but let it pass. Her enemies in the first act are potential negative consequences of this unbridled lifestyle: disease and unwanted pregnancy. From this point of view, it makes sense that the pregnancy-monsters can’t be attacked sexually, but what then are we to make of Rayne’s freedom in attacking the disease-monsters? Most likely I’m trying to make more sense of it than it supports, and the design thought only went as far as “let’s throw in some sexual imagery to make it edgier”.

The weirdest part is that, once the Louisiana mission is over, it just kind of throws all this away and dumps you into the middle of Castle Wolfenstein. But that’s a matter for the next post.

BloodRayne: Getting Started for Real

Giving up on RadeonPro, I try out another program with framerate-limiting capability, MSI Afterburner. Finding the option in its UI for limiting the framerate was something of a challenge. These programs aren’t really built with this use in mind; mainly they’re about making things go faster, not slower. To the extent that they support framerate limits, the intent is to make things go at a steady rate and to prevent “tearing”. Ironically, capping the framerate seems to have introduced a certain amount of tearing in BloodRayne. But it fixed the sound issues, so it’s an overall improvement.

So! Now I get to actually play the game, instead of just listening to the opening cutscene and exiting repeatedly. And that means it’s time to describe the premise.

BloodRayne‘s premise seems like something you’d get out of a random videogame premise generator, or possibly Mad Libs: someone started with the template “You’re a [adjective] [badass hero type] who fights [villain]”, and it got filled in with “sexy”, “vampire”, and “Nazis”. Actually, the player character, Rayne, is only half vampire, which gives the story permission to pick and choose what her powers and weaknesses are, and make them different from any Nazi vampires she winds up fighting. The first level wastes no time in letting us know through expository dialogue that she’s unaffected by holy stuff, but water hurts her, providing for some “the floor is lava” challenges in a flooded town. She can jump something like twenty feet high and run on telephone wires, all while wearing a tight leather outfit and high heels. She has some kind of arm-mounted blade weapons that look like Klingons would use them, and she can scavenge guns, but her most effective attack against humans is simply the bite, which is an instant kill and replenishes her health.

When Rayne bites a man (and it always seems to be a man), she leaps onto him, wraps her legs around his torso, and rocks back and forth a little while she makes slurping noises and little moans of pleasure. This is a basic attack, activated by one button-press. You grow very familiar with this animation very quickly.

Speaking of absurd sexualization, this game also features some of the most blatant examples I’ve ever seen of “jiggle physics”. Or, well, I’m not sure there’s any physics involved. It could just be hand-animated: since you view Rayne from behind during gameplay, like in Tomb Raider, you only get a good look at boobs during cutscenes. But when you do get a look at them, the designers want to make sure you get a really good look. Rayne’s mentor, Mynce — another half-vampire wearing a different style of fetish gear — has a habit of making sudden bounce-inducing gestures during conversation. Even the BloodRayne logo, which Rayne wears around her neck, is a stylized picture of boobs.

And it isn’t even particularly titillating. The game is, metaphorically speaking, standing there saying “Eh? Eh? Boobs, right?” and waggling its eyebrows. Maybe I’m just too old for this stuff. Maybe everyone over the age of twelve is. I’ll have more to say about weird sexual dynamics in my next post, where I’ll describe the game’s first act.