Archive for May, 2022

Daikatana: To Greece!

At the end of Episode 1, you finally get your hands on the game’s titular weapon, the Daikatana (Japanese for “big sword”), which is suspended in a force field apparently generated by a bunch of brains in vats. The Mishima regime has it locked away because they fear its power — the very power they used to achieve world domination. It’s not just a big sword. It’s also a time machine. When you get it, Mishima-san himself shows up with his own time-displaced Daikatana to pull a reverse Samurai Jack, expelling Hiro and his droogs from the future that is Mishima and into the legendary past.

And by “legendary” I mean Greek. It’s a very videogamey, cobbled-together-without-reference sort of ancient Greece, too, the sort you’d see in Tomb Raider or Serious Sam. By leaving behind the sci-fi environments of Episode 1 (and Quake and Doom before it), we’re into the realm of not just the fanciful but the unrealistic and inconsistent. Not that I care much! The sudden environmental shift from dystopian gloom to bright sunlight and wide-open spaces and Heroic Fantasy music has been quite enjoyable.

It’s also done a lot to clarify the intent of Episode 1. It wasn’t just a continuation of the style of Doom and Quake, but an exaggeration of it, even a parody. Where Quake II had the Strogg chopping human bodies up to make cyborgs, Daikatana has similar machines processing corpses into hamburgers. Where Doom gave us a chainsaw and a double-barreled shotgun, Daikatana gives us a chainsaw-fist-glove that takes a moment to rev up and a sort of shotgun-revolver capable of firing six shells in rapid succession. These things are jokes. And the only thing that kept me from understanding this was the complaints from gamers who desperately wanted to take it all seriously.

And because those jokes only make sense in the context of an exaggeratedly brutal future, Episode 2 replaces everything. Some things are merely reskinned: instead of medical machines, for example, there are healing fountains that do the same thing. But also, you face completely different monsters, replacing the various robots, mutants, and security guards with sword-wielding skeletons, giant spiders, griffins, and the occasional shuriken-throwing ninja because Mishima still wants you dead. And you face them with a new assortment of thematic weapons, like discuses that act like the frisbees from Tron and a lightning-blasting trident. But at first, the only weapon you have is the Daikatana itself. And for all that you’ve been told about its incredible power, it’s really hard to get used to. I’ll go into more detail about it in another post, but it suddenly requires you to fight in a completely different way, getting close up and dodging back in something like the Underworld Shuffle instead of the FPS-standard constant backpedaling.

Anyway, the main surprise is that at at this point I am just unreservedly enjoying the game. Switching up the mood and gameplay helps it enormously — It may not be the underappreciated masterpiece Romero has claimed, but it’s a better sequel to Doom and Quake than Unreal II was to Unreal.

Daikatana: Mikiko

Towards the end of Episode 1, you finally rescue Mikiko, a sexy rebel woman who sought to use the power of the Daikatana against the Mishimas, from the deepest cell under their fortress. She joins you as a sidekick, completing the trio seen posing on the CD case like an excessively earnest 80s pop band. These last two missions of the episode are also when the sidekicks suddenly come down with a case of the stupids and spend a lot of their time running in place, held back by slight irregularities in the ground, or repeatedly jumping up and down at the foot of a staircase. “Ah yes”, I think, “This is what I was promised. I should not have doubted that this game would deliver.” Although it’s strange that this is so variable. Maybe these levels are harder for the AI to navigate because they have more moving parts? Or maybe the makers of patch 1.3 just never got around to them?

Mikiko’s design looks a bit strange to me. I suppose that’s mainly because she’s a Japanese woman who, in contrast to the vast majority of Japanese women in videogames, isn’t drawn anime-style. But there’s the thing: Anime and manga often looks to white westerners like depictions of white westerners. That’s because it isn’t really a photorealistic depiction of anyone. It’s stylized in a way that says “This is someone like you”. Whereas Mikiko is clearly foreign, exotic. Once again, this is the outsider’s view, Japanophile rather than Japanese, and not even the sort of Japanophile who watches anime. But what makes it feel really strange is that it doesn’t give this treatment to the player character, Hiro Miyamoto, who’s just as Japanese as she is and even more enthusiastic about it. Hiro has a face that, to me, reads as not just white but space marine. He even has a space marine voice, a little growly and gravely and with an American accent. Mikiko speaks with a Japanese accent. I think all the characters other than Hiro and Superfly do.

Daikatana: Superfly

Another couple of levels in. I’ve hit the episode’s major plot revelation: that the world-dominating Mishima Corporation is using their prisons as a source of meat for their fast-food restaurants, in a process you get to witness over the course of multiple rooms of conveyor belts and automated butchering machines. 1There is a real Mishima Foods, Inc. They manufacture various Asian sauces and soup mixes sold in grocery stores. I wonder if they reacted to this? And as juvenile-gross as it is — or attempts to be, anyway, as there’s only so much you can do in this engine — I have to admit that it’s more integration of plot and gameplay than I was expecting. Heck, it’s more plot than Doom or Quake ever had.

Probably in part because the in-game models don’t make it sufficiently clear what the machines are doing, the game provides some running commentary from the player’s sidekick, a large black man named Superfly Johnson. (He also sometimes spontaneously says things like “Suck it down!”, which is a little embarrassing.) I rescued him from the prison’s torture rooms a couple of levels ago and he’s been tagging along ever since — the game doesn’t let you leave him behind. Mr. Johnson helps you out in fights, and, while he doesn’t always act in the ways I wish, sometimes getting in the way of my shots or whatever, it’s well within the range of behavior you’d expect from a human teammate. I was expecting a lot worse. Back in the day, the NPC behavior was often cited as the worst, jankiest part of the game. He’s supposed to be always getting stuck on level geometry and firing rockets at my back and so forth. What happened?

What happened is that I installed the latest patch. And to be clear, Patch 1.3 is an unofficial patch, created by fans of the game rather than by its creators or publisher. I installed it mainly because I wanted to play in widescreen, but “updated and greatly improved AI paths and nodes” is part of the package. And that raises a question: Should I be playing the best version of this game? If I’m playing it mainly to see what everyone found so disappointing, shouldn’t I be experiencing it at its worst?

I don’t think so. Any flaw that can be fixed in a fan patch is a superficial flaw, not worth commenting on. I’d be more concerned if it made major changes to content — but even there, I willingly installed a patch that added some encounters to Temple of Elemental Evil. And anyway, I think for now I’ll trust the game’s fans to tell me what is and isn’t true to the spirit of the thing. They approve of this patch — they made it. I should trust it too.

1 There is a real Mishima Foods, Inc. They manufacture various Asian sauces and soup mixes sold in grocery stores. I wonder if they reacted to this?

Daikatana: Skills

A couple more levels in now. So far, it’s still basically just a glorified Quake WAD punctuated by occasional amateurish in-engine cutscenes. But I just acquired my first NPC sidekick, so we’ll see how that goes.

I’ll say this: It’s behind its time, design-wise. It was released in 2000, two years after both Unreal and Half-Life. Did it learn anything from either of them? Not really, or at least not at the level of interaction. I keep trying to use alt-fire, or reload my weapon, and am frustrated in the attempt. I’m pretty sure I didn’t care for the idea of manually reloading when games first started experimenting with it, but it’s come to fill a psychological need: the urge, during moments of downtime, to do something to prepare for the next encounter, however small.

But it has added one thing that wasn’t in Quake: a leveling and skill point system. Not a very large one, mind you. Just five skills: Power (how hard you hit), Attack (how fast you hit), Speed (how fast you move), Acro (how high you jump), and Vitality (max health). So it’s all very closely tied to the FPS gameplay. My first inclination was to sink as many points as I could into Acro, the better to access secrets and shortcuts, but frankly, even after maxing it out, it doesn’t seem to have a very large effect. Once you’ve upgraded Acro at all, any jump you make plays the Six Million Dollar Man bionic jump sound effect, but I’m not jumping anywhere near as high as Steve Austin. I’m hoping that the upgrade cap will get raised at some point.

The weirdest thing about upgrading skills is that, as far as I can tell, you can’t do it with the default controls. You have to go into the options menu and bind keys to “upgrade power”, “upgrade attack”, etc.


While we’re on the topic of unappreciated first-person shooters, let’s pull out the least appreciated of them all. Daikatana is the Edsel of games, and very likely the king of the hype-to-reception ratio — the only other serious contenders are Duke Nukem Forever and E. T.. I’ve heard claims that it it isn’t as bad as its reputation, and that makes sense to me: its famous “John Romero’s About To Make You His Bitch” ad campaign was unreasonably antagonistic toward the players, so it’s reasonable to suppose that the players might react in kind. Nonetheless, its reputation is exactly why I purchased it. I had to see it for myself.

Back when I first bought it, though, I never got past the first level. I think I might have been playing on too high a difficulty setting — I’m playing on normal difficulty now, and it doesn’t seem nearly as hard as I remember. My understanding is that by bowing out so early, I missed the game at its worst, which comes when you have NPCs getting stuck on corners and the like. Level 1 is actually fairly pleasant, as shooters go. The environments are essentially Quake-ish, constructed out of large polygons and sharp corners, but it gets some very good visual design out of that. Playing at 1080p probably helps. I had to install two patches to make that happen — the first being necessary to get it to run under Windows 10 at all.

Before you even get to level 1, though, you have to sit through the intro cutscene, which is overlong and dumps a whole lot of exposition on you, most of which I’ve already forgotten. The intro is also notable for showing an obsession with Japan that’s paradoxically both all-encompassing and utterly shallow. Where Doom came on like a 13-year-old who doodles heavy metal logos in his notebook during class, Daikatana is the same kid after he decides samurai swords are the coolest thing ever. It strikes me that this outsider’s view of Japan is a strange thing to hang a game on, considering the large market presence of games made by actual Japanese people. But it’s hardly the worst depiction of Japanese stuff I’ve seen in a FPS. It would have to sink pretty low to match Shadow Warrior.

And the thing is, once you’re out of the intro and into the gameplay, none of that matters much. There’s nothing very japanophile about wandering through a series of gullies and caves, shooting robot frogs and monster dragonflies with a plasma gun.

Unreal II: Summing Up

Playing all the way through Unreal II: The Awakening has done nothing to change my first impression: that it’s a pretty decent FPS in a military sci-fi setting that has very little to do with Unreal as I know it.

It’s got Skaarj, but despite a dramatic introduction, they turn out to not factor big in the missions or story; when you suddenly have to deal with a Skaarj invasion force occupying your home base in the penultimate mission, it comes as a surprise, in a “Huh? Those guys are still around?” way. The main enemies in most missions are just human mercenaries, and the alien menace that comes to overshadow any mere human opposition towards the end is the Drakk, a race of hovering non-humanoid robots that live in a Gigeresque Borg palace, all black and ribbed and imposing. For my money, the Drakk world is the most satisfying alien environment in the game, more so even than the skin world.

But freed from expectations, it is, as I say, a pretty good single-player shooter, at least as I judge things. It’s got a good variety of weapons optimized for specific situations — albeit mostly it’s the standard assortment; the Shock Rifle, which I described as Unreal‘s signature weapon, never shows up, but we do at least get a chaotic-ricochets weapon and some other novel stuff. And the tactics, while pretty basic, are just complicated enough to be satisfying. Cover is a big factor — not in a Gears of War “press this button to take cover” way, but in that battlefields tend to be littered with rocks and pillars and things, and most weapons need to be reloaded periodically to render you temporarily helpless so you’ll need to take advantage of them. Temporarily incapacitating foes and taking advantage of the fact that they’re not shooting you is a big factor — usually this means knocking them down with a weapon that exerts strong force, such as a shotgun or rocket launcher, but the game’s quirkiest weapon, the spider gun, does it by covering them with spiders, making them run around screaming “Aaah! Get it off!”

The final mission, on a spaceship that’s plunging into a sun, does one of my favorite FPS tricks: playing with gravity. And not just the amount of gravity, letting you make huge slow leaps, but the direction, slowly rotating a hallway as you walk down it, leaving you walking on the wall and struggling to reach the handle of the door out. Now, according on a couple of web searches I just did, the unmodified Unreal Engine does not in fact have the ability to change the direction of the gravity vector. So the game is most likely just rotating the level geometry in that bit. But in the moment, when done in combination with the the floaty sensation that comes from weakening gravity’s strength, it really feels like it’s gravity that’s rotating, not the hallway.

I’m left not quite sure what the Awakening in the title refers to. The story concerns a macguffin that’s been split into seven pieces hidden on different planets, with various armed forces vying to reunite them and control their power. That power turns out to be the power to unlock the genetic potential in a particular alien race, turning them into huge nigh-unstoppable monsters that make you instantly regret your actions. So, that could be the Awakening: the awakening of the dormant monster genes. But that whole deal takes up a very small portion of the game, at the very end, and before that point, I really thought the “Awakening” referred to the Drakk, who also came out of a millennia-long hibernation to suddenly become the game’s major threat.

Finally, let’s talk about Dalton’s confrontation with the treacherous commander who sent him after the artifact pieces in the first place, pretending the orders came from Colonial Authority top brass but really intending to use the artifact for his own rise to power. Now, the obvious way to end his narrative arc, and the most poetically just, would be to see him meet his end at the hands of the monsters he created. Instead, Dalton shoots him dead in a cutscene after a bit of noninteractive dialogue. I assume that the writer felt it important that Dalton is involved in every major story beat, or at least the climactic ones. Just Dalton, though — not the player. That’s strange. It smacks of Hollywood thinking, really: we’re expected to experience agency over the player character’s actions because we identify with the player character, not because we’re performing those actions. The other peculiar thing about it is that, unlike all the other big confrontations in the game, it isn’t a fight: the guy isn’t even armed, and Dalton just murders him. And yet, judging by the camera work and the music, we’re clearly supposed to regard it as a big glory moment, where the audience throws up their hands and cheers for frontier justice. Maybe this is why it’s noninteractive. Maybe players were hesitating to shoot anyone who wasn’t shooting back. Maybe they wouldn’t hesitate in another game, one based on the just-shoot-everything principle, but this game trains you not to kill peaceful NPCs through its numerous defense missions and interstitial dialogue sequences.

Unreal II: Soldierliness

The anticipated fourth defense mission was exactly as expected: a combination of all the defense missions seen previously. You command marines and place turrets and force fields to repel attackers on a rooftop before they reach and murder Dr. Meyer, a scientist doing important stuff in the radio room so you can escape. This is preceded by getting Meyer to the radio room from the lab where he was held captive, and that involves crawling around on some perilous ledges to reach the rooftop where the defense sequence takes place. This part is basically an escort mission, except I’m not sure Meyer is ever in any real danger. Mostly he hangs back until you’ve cleared an area of enemies.

The main thing that’s striking about this whole sequence, both the escort part and the defense part, is how abrasive Meyer is. That’s definitely deliberate. He’s arrogant, impatient, and above all ungrateful that you’ve showed up to rescue him, and his periodic interjections become more and more outright insulting as the story goes on. (To be charitable, he’s under a lot of stress.) The player character, Dalton, expresses a desire to kill him, but of course can’t do so without losing the mission. The punch line comes at the conclusion of the mission when, in another reminiscent-of-Half Life moment, a remote commander actually orders Dalton to kill all surviving scientists at the site to keep their knowledge out of enemy hands, and Dalton refuses to do it, proving himself the better man.

Which, of course. He has to be a better man than Meyer in this sort of story. Meyer is a civilian.

That’s really the core of the ethos here, the glorification of — not really even the military, exactly, because commanders can be unethical and insubordination is shown as sympathetic, but of the soldier, the people making unappreciated personal sacrifices, forming a found family with their brothers-in-arms, and shouldering the moral burdens of warfare together. The only reward Dalton ever wanted was to be reinstated in the marines. And while this attitude is hardly uncommon in FPS games, it is (once again) a far cry from the first Unreal‘s air of alien mysticism.

Unreal II: Defense

I’ve just hit two more defense missions in a row and already I’m starting to get tired of them. I want to go exploring! I want the dopamine hit that comes from finding a new resource cache, not the sense of dread from having to carefully husband the resources you already have.

At least they’re changing up the mechanics every time. The first defense mission, the one I described before with the aliens attacking at night while you wait for a dropship to get you out of there, had space marines and some stationary devices, like turrets and force field generators, but you didn’t have control over any of them. You did your best to keep both the marines and the devices from being destroyed, because they were defending you while you defended them, but that was the extent of your interaction. The second defense mission, keeping mercenaries away while your ship undergoes repair, puts the stationary devices in your hands: it starts with a lot of tutorial dialogue explaining how to deploy force fields and so forth. The third, keeping enemies away from a captured base while one of your engineers extracts data from their computers, lets you order around a small group of marines using the game’s usual dialogue system, assigning them positions like “Defend the control room” or “Patrol the front wall”. Just on the basis of combinatorics, I’m guessing there’s going to be one more mission where you have both devices and marines at your disposal.

Come to think of it, I bet it was possible to pick up the force field generators and turrets and redeploy them elsewhere in the first defense mission. It hadn’t been explained to the player yet how to do it, but that doesn’t mean the functionality was disabled. I find that happening a lot in the mission briefings. I’ll pick up a new weapon from a fallen enemy in the course of a mission, and then between missions the tech guy back on the ship will say “I’ve been making some improvements to that weapon you found, now it has an alt-fire mode that does yadda yadda”, but I already know about that functionality, because I experimented with the alt-fire button when I first picked it up. Basically what I’m saying is that the devs didn’t bother making the mechanics fit the story completely and also the tech guy is a liar who takes credit for things he didn’t do.

Unreal II: Aliens

Despite what I said before, it turns out that the story in Unreal II: The Awakening isn’t simply Humans vs Alien Monsters. The third through fifth missions feature human antagonists. And, although I’ll be very surprised if there are any sympathetic Skaarj, we’ve seen a few aliens on the Terran Colonial Authority side from the very beginning, purportedly as part of an officer exchange program. One, named Ne’ban, even pilots the player’s ship. He’s basically a comic sidekick, mangling his English, being confused about human customs, and generally being childlike in comparison to the humans: short, awkward, with a higher-pitched voice. Characters like this have existed for a long time, but an earlier generation would have made him Chinese or something. I’m not sure whether an alien version is a positive development or not. It strikes me as related to the question of whether the Ferengi are anti-semitic, except less specific.

Also, although the living planet in mission 3 isn’t exactly friendly, it can hardly be called a bad guy. At least, it’s not the aggressor in the situation — that would be the morally questionable human corporation trying to excavate a mysterious macguffin from under its surface. The player doesn’t want them to have it, but the planet doesn’t care about factions — as far as it’s concerned, you’re all part of the same infestation. Hopefully it can just heal over and live in peace now that the artifact is gone, although that kind of depends on whether the corporation was solely interested in the artifact or had other ways to profit from killing a planet. It’s worth noting that the corporation has a Japanese name. Even when the bad guys aren’t aliens, the authors want you to regard them as foreign.

Unreal II: Influences

Sometimes Unreal II: The Awakening feels like Quake and sometimes it feels more like Half-Life, but it never really feels like Unreal.

Admittedly, that’s a pretty mild criticism. Also, to be fair, it does have some things tying it to Unreal. It’s still got Skaarj. It still has a weapon that ricochets chaotically, even if it fires energy blasts rather than discs. And, after a fairly mundane beginning setting a bad first impression, the environments may be getting weirder and more alien as it goes — the third mission takes place on a planet covered with a single organism that gives it the appearance of magnified skin, complete with hairs. We’ll see how it goes from there. There’s probably more Unrealisms to come.

But at this point, I’m thinking that I’m enjoying it the most when it’s more Half-Life-y. When there’s an emphasis on set-pieces, environmental obstacles, huge machinery, and sub-goals with more variety than just getting from point A to point B. There’s one set-piece that I thought was particularly effective, and it plays a lot like those defense sequences from Half-Life 2 (which was still in development when this was released, so maybe the influence goes the other way?): waiting for extraction for five minutes straight in the dark of night while fending off waves of baddies, with the help of three ultra-macho space marine NPCs. I’ve seen space marines in games criticized as cribbing their design heavily from the movie Aliens while entirely missing the point of them there: that all their tough-guy swagger was useless when the xenomorphs came. Nonetheless, this scene, with its sense of tension enhanced by poor visibility, was an excellent portrayal of “Aliens but the space marines win”.

The more I think about this, the more I start to wonder if Half-Life was the main design paradigm for the whole game, like if the project lead was a big Half-Life fan and thought that obviously the best way to improve on Unreal was not to build on its own strengths but to make it more like Half-Life. Such things happen in the games industry. Or, if not the whole game, then at least the second mission is really extremely Half-Life-inspired: it takes place in a weapons research facility where an experiment went wrong, you spend a certain amount of time crawling through air ducts, and the main enemies are small leaping arthropods. That’s enough similarity to elevate it from imitation to homage. If I try, I can convince myself that mission 1 is similarly based on Quake or Doom, in architectural style if nothing else. But how this pattern extends to the hair-covered hills of mission 3, I have no idea.

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