Thursday, 6 January 2011

Major Lee Handsome's Gaming Week, Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 is for Bad Humans

With General E Cute celebrating the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell by attending the fruitiest fortnight-long bacchanal in Scotland, and all the various lower ranks embroiled in such games as Tony Hawk's Pro Assassin: Brotherhood that I do not own, Major Lee Handsome here has been all alone in Camp Huggington, and my videogaming has been suitably single-player as a result.
I don't actually know if Don't Ask, Don't Tell got repealed, I wasn't following the story that closely. So apologies to any homosexual Americans actively serving in their nation's armed forces who get their political news from this blog: I may have given you false hope.
The rest is true, though. I more-or-less lost interest in single player games in around 2004, when I stopped playing San Andreas. Between then and 2010 I played, as far as I can remember, two single player games 'properly': Shadow of the Colossus, the only videogame I bought for over five years, and Bioshock, which my erstwhile flatmate owned. Although I'm pretty sure both these games have come up repeatedly on this blog before, in case I've not made myself clear, I found one of them to be alright, and one to be catastrophically poor. Bioshock. When I started buying games again at the tail-end of 2009 (is tail-end a cliche? Do they say not to do it in style guides?) I had exactly zero desire to play any single-player games ever again. However, a charming migrant student called Santamaria bought me Mass Effect as a late Christmas present. Possessing a keen sense of astronomical appropriateness, Santamaria gave me the game at around about midnight on December 31st 2009, both giving me a nice metaphorical book-end and saving me from having to look anything up on wikipedia, like I probably should have for San Andreas' release date. Since then I've been unstoppable, buying three completely single-player-only computer games, two of which aren't even sequels to Mass Effect. Although I haven't really played one of them yet.
That is a brief history of single-player videogaming.

I didn't play much Fallout: New Vegas this week, on account of how I've played so much of it recently that I am conducting my real life conversations by standing directly in front of the person I'm talking to with a completely blank expression, and handing them a card detailing the three things they are allowed to say to me at this juncture of the conversation. I also make sure the things they can say to me make them sound really dumb!
I was on that little XBox website looking at my profile, in the vain hope that someone I liked would show up in the online list playing a game I wanted to play (this never happened) when I clicked my gamerscore icon. This showed me that I had played all the games I owned within the last few months, even shit like Modern Warfare 2, except for Rainbow Six: Vegas 2, which I had not played for a really really long time. The reason for this is because it is not a very good game, but I did not realise this at the time, and instead put the game in my XBox and played it for several days. I apparently only had around 200 of the achievement points for this game, and I'd definitely completed it at least once, so what the fuck? I had to explore that if nothing else. I've got no great love for achievement points, but this did seem to indicate I'd only really extracted a fifth of the available fun from this game. Turns out that half the achievements on offer are for playing it multiplayer, or 'adversarial' as the game calls it. In fairness, there are also two co-op multiplayer modes, but the word contributes to the almost creepy feel to the game which I'll get on to in a moment. That explains the bulk of why my score is so low: this game is terrible multiplayer. It is just not built for it at all to the extent that in some ways it's barely even a first-person shooter, at least compared to all the ones that are good. It's definitely the only fps I've played that is significantly better offline (or co-op) than online. It's just not set up for it at all, which is weird considering all the achievements and the 'persistent' character that you play in all multiplayer games as well as solo. By persistent, I mean you can dress yourself and slowly unlock guns and new kneepads and shit. Being able to dress yourself improves any game considerably (except GTA IV; don't give me the option to dress myself and then only provide 3 types of blue jeans as my options) and it even has an effect in this game, letting you pick a balance (or no balance at all) between protection and mobility as you choose what bits of armour to wear. But it's all for nothing, on account of how the game plays like complete shit online. All the problems with it can be encapsulated or at least symbolised by simply throwing a grenade. Everything about the experience is horrible. The grenade looks horrible and you look stupid throwing it. It flies really slowly in this bizarre physics-ignoring arc, and doesn't roll around or move, at least in any normal way, when it hits the floor. Where you aim it only has some resemblance to where it goes, on account of how the grossly unnatural throwing animation involves moving you quite a lot sideways and vertically. This being a cover-shooter, the amount of times this leads you (me) to bouncing grenades off doorframes, corners and windowframes (that you specifically aimed to avoid) right down to your own feet and killing yourself is truly obscene. And, even if you did manage to somehow compensate for this, your highly trained "rainbow operative" can only throw the grenade maybe six metres, and only if you really make him try. It also takes about five seconds for him to do this (doubled if you need to switch your grenade type using the awful equipment menus). Needless to say, the grenade often fails to kill people it lands directly next to, for reasons that are not at all clear. Except for the fact it kind of fits with the theme. Gears of War isn't quite so bad, but basically the key problem with cover shooters is that they're obviously completely based around cover, and that it's always suicidal to use it in multiplayer. The mechanics are clumsy, it's slow to get in to it and out of it, slow to fire out of it, and invariably some elbow or foot is poking out of the cover that the computer will apparently ignore but a human will not. There's no point using it, so you're left with a weird half-game that's played in a way it wasn't designed to be.
I said before that in some ways Rainbow is almost not a shooter. At it's best (which invariably means in the single-player), it's almost a puzzle game. You have rooms full of baddies that you need to 'solve' with your choices of equipment, entry point, method of entry, what you do with your squadmates (or co-op pal), and so on. Often you'll die a couple of times trying to clear a room, only to notice that you can go upstairs and rappel down the side of the building and shoot the guys through the window whilst your chums go in through the door. It's all broken up in to these little rooms or sections, and you respawn at the start of each section if you didn't solve it/died. The actual shooting part of it is fairly unimportant and most shootouts are essentially won or lost before they start. You have to occasionally move from bits of cover to other ones, but shooting when exposed is more or less suicide, so you don't really move. You aim and pull the trigger the same as ever, but that's about it.
This isn't a bad thing. It is genuinely fun to to plan out your little strategy, to spend a minute or two sorting your equipment, your RoE, deciding to be silenced or loud, positioning your squadmates and yourself, in preparation for a shootout that lasts maybe three seconds. It's the planning and problem-solving that's the fun bit; the brief action scene is just catharsis and a little bit of satisfaction of how efficient you were. Less excellent plans that don't involve you dying take longer, are messier and scrappier, maybe your squadmate will die. It's more like a little grading on how well you planned, like after you spent hours finally completing Metal Gear Solid, only for it to present you with a disapproving scorecard and deem you to have only achieved "Facile Horse" rank. The reasons it's different and interesting single-player are why it's terrible online. Spending a full minute using the slow and clumsy 'radial menus' to put on a silencer, turn off your laser sight, switch your grenade from frag to flashbang and decide if you want your gun to shoot one or three bullets at a time is only fine if the people on the other side of the door are patient computer baddies without the ability to open doors themselves.
The other big problem with this game is that it's creepy amoral murder-porn. It's GTA and Call of Duty and so on that make all the controversy for being violent and making children shitheads, but I never got that vibe from them. There was always something happening. I need to kill this guy to save my brother, we're ruthless killers but we're at least presented in a fairly even-handed way and at the end we're all killed for our sins anyway. Sure sometimes in GTA you kill a guy just to steal his car. Well, lots of times. But, you still did it because you wanted to go drive around in a nice car, and it's all so exaggerated (GTA) or bromantic (Call of Duty, Gears of War) that you're never really focusing or caring about the fact you're shooting dudes. It's just a thing you have to do to finish the story and save the world/your bro/whatever.

In the world of these 'dumb' and violent shooters, Rainbow Six has a bit of a reputation as the intellectual choice, something for the discerning player, and I've never seen any criticism levelled at it. I've completed both Rainbow Six: Vegas games twice each, and I have no clue what the bad guys were fighting for. Genuinely no idea. They're referred to as terrorists and they plant bombs and whatever, but what for? It's not important. You're not killing them to achieve something. In this game, the killing is the goal. You just need to kill the people, it doesn't matter who they are or why you need to do it. The game promotes a cold, efficient approach, right from using terms no actual human would use like 'adversarial'. You can switch your gun to fire only one or three bullets at a time instead of being automatic, because you shouldn't waste bullets. You should be really good at killing. Throw a flashbang so they don't see or hear what's happening, kill them then. If you shoot someone in the head, they die right away. With a silenced pistol, you can shoot everyone in the head with one bullet, never missing, killing them before they knew they were in a fight and being the best killer ever. The whole game is just completely devoid of humanity. "I had to shoot, he was going for his gun," your character says after killing a prisoner. "Shit, that bitch owed me money," a baddie says, after you kill the man he was stood next to. It's odd, the game is set in Vegas, very different territory to other shooting games I've played. All during the day, very naturalistic. The sound is excellent. You storm a convention centre, loud punky skater music plays with the tinny sound of an overworked PA system. A fight in a garden and you can hear a baby crying inside one of the houses. Walking through a hotel you have a point-blank fight-to-the-death in a bedroom to the relaxing classical choral music left on by the recently-alive occupant sprawled on the floor.
It's all perfectly pitched to provide huge amounts of humanity to the story in the way that Burger King defence level on Modern Warfare 2 tried and failed magnificently to do. But it is completely ignored. There's never even a reference to the fact that you're having your battles in places where people live, where people were seemingly until five minutes ago, food left unfinished, tvs left on. The game completely ignores it. Feels like the sound guy and and level artist were making a completely different game. Because this game is dead inside. The closest it comes to an emotional scene or even an actual conversation is when you fail to save some hostages.
Squadmate: Damn!
You: There was nothing you could do. It was my call.
Squadmate: We're a team.
You: And I'm team leader.

And I'm team leader. That is the grand total of your characterisation. You aren't CJ, or even Snake. You are a faceless nothing who exists purely to kill people the best. There's no torture here. Screaming, all that, too emotive. Just kill them when they don't know you're even there, be the best most efficient killer of humans there ever was. You can even (and this unlocks another achievement that I will never get) take a picture of yourself and map it to your guy's face, so you can actually be him as you go around killing all the people so well, so efficiently and emotionless. What the fuck?

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Wasteland Lover 4: Mushroom Samba

Waiting around isn't Felix's game, but Novac isn't a town of delights or distractions, especially at night. Nobody is around and everything is closed, so we break in to people's properties and steal whatever's worthwhile as we wait for day time. Eventually, when breaking in to a motel room, we find a real awake person, the gay ex-Khan ex-NCR Manny Vargas, in cosy roll-neck jumper. With Felix's top-tier homosexuality, he discovers that the guy who shot him in the head went to the next town down the same road. It's barely dawn even after these staggering revelations, and there's no reason to stick around in this dead town anyway, so Kluge hits the road.

Goodbye, Novac. Felix Kluge, October 2281

A couple of hundred metres down the road I get my first reminder that I am some little wuss on level 5 with no armour at all. I run in to three Jackals, only one of whom even has a gun, and they tear the absolute shit out of me. I die twice, pathetically, and eventually am forced to make them all chase me around this rocky area until I can beat the two with knives to death one at a time. The one with the SMG brutalises my unguarded torso at depressingly effective ranges, but by taking one of every drug I have and running from rock to rock, I eventually manage to get close enough to hit him in the arm with a tire iron over and over again until he drops the gun. After that it's all Kluge, baby.

Maybe thirty metres beyond the ambush point, there's a 'gas station' with an armed and friendly caravan of traders and guards. Thanks a lot, dickheads. They all get up to leave when Felix rolls in, and they're heading the way I'm going, so Felix tags along. The road goes along the side of a big dry lake for a little while, then hits a T-junction, with the city I want to go to on one side, and a trading post just a couple of metres the other way. The radical pathfinding of this caravan means that instead of following the road to the junction and then going left genuinely about twenty metres, they cut across the dry lake. This place is completely full of fire ants, radiation-enlarged ants that are bigger than a person and breathe fire for no reason. There are so many of them, I really should have taken a picture. It's a big firey mess. Thanks a lot, dickheads.
Both caravan guards and one of the traders are burnt to death, as is one of the pack brahmin, the other one having run off or something, I never see it again. The sole surviving trader, limping he's so near death, eventually makes it to the 188 Trading Post, glad he took that shortcut to save time, and I arrive with him, glad I managed to get 23 portions of fire ant meat (for making fricassees), not to mention all the equipment of the slain guards, without getting a scratch on me.

South-eastern view from the 188 Trading Post. Felix Kluge and Veronica Santangelo, October 2281.

The 188 Trading Post is one of my favourite locations in the game, despite being tiny and not really containing anything. Basically in Fallout games you get places that were already there before the war, and places that weren't. Of the places that were there before, you have the above-ground stuff, chiefly towns, and then the bunkers and vaults and shit that were all sealed and whatever. For me, and I guess I'm influenced heavily by Fallout 1 and 2, they've got these mostly all wrong. The towns and buildings, they're all too good. They look like they were squatted for 20 years, not like there was an apocalypse 100 years ago and no civilisation since.

I mean, is this couch really ruined? If this was a videogame of Death of a Salesman then yeah maybe this couch is ruined. But this is a place where watching a homeless man die whilst trying to kill a mutated scorpion is good enough entertainment to make you live in the sewer near to the arena where this takes place.
On the other hand, the pre-war stuff, the BoS bunker, the Vaults, they're all too dilapidated and grimy. In the first two, these sorts of places are fucking pristine, because why wouldn't they be? No one's been in to fuck about or whatever. The electricity still works because it's had no reason to break, there is no one popping in to smear shit on the wall and drop Nuka-Cola bottles everywhere. Not really sure why this is the case in New Vegas. Reminds me of the trailer for the abysmal Fallout 3, in which the voice-over declared, more or less: "Vault 101, where no one ever enters, and no one ever leaves. Your father just left, so now you're going out to find him," and then it cut to you approaching the first town, and the guy on the gate waving, "Hi, you must be from that Vault!"
Having everyone know about all the old shit is fine, but then it makes no sense when you go there and find some magical plasma rifle. And that couch is fucking fine.

Anyway, my point was supposed to be that the places that were built after the war tend to be nicer and more interesting, all the way from Junktown in F1 to places like the 188 here. I guess there's less opportunities for them to make no sense. Of course, there are still plenty of opportunities for them to make no sense, see Kansas City in Fallout Tactics, a town built around an unexploded nuclear bomb, or Megaton in the abysmal Fallout 3, a town built around an unexploded nuclear bomb (really Bethesda?). But there's also more scope to play around with them too.

Anyway, Felix fucking Kluge has been sat around the 188 for ages while I talk shit. He got talking to Veronica Santangelo (in the grubby robes in the picture above. She never looks at the camera), a sassy techno-lesbian who wants to follow Kluge around so that she can see more of the world, because it's not safe enough to go alone. Little does she know, all fights from hereon out will involve Felix running off and hiding while Veronica has to kill them all for him. With her in tow, we fuck off to Boulder City. I guess if I was a settlement with maybe 6 buildings in, I'd make sure that City was in my name with a capital letter too. Eagle eyed viewers may have noticed I'm wearing some overalls in that poor picture of the 188 above. I was sick of carrying those 26lbs of NCR rookie costume around, and this 1lb NCR engineer garb is clearly way better. Plus Kluge is a pansy and could never pass for a soldier.

Some little stand-off has been going on in town. The Khans, who were there when I got shot in the head, and I think buried my body, got in to a sticky situation, and have taken a couple of NCR suckers hostage, but then been surrounded by all the other NCR. Probably because he heard about me installing a new sheriff in Primm, the NCR guy in command of the situation instantly lets me get involved in whatever capacity I see fit. Cannot abide that shit, and I repay his trust excellently. Using the stealthboy I stole off Joe Cobb all the way back in chapter 2, Kluge moves like an invisible Agbonlahor (before he put on all that muscle mass), planting dynamite on every NCR sucker in sight, including this wacky commander. With them all exploded, and their possessions duly robbed, Felix can have a nice uninterrupted chat with the Khans. Turns out they were played too, or whatever, and that the guy who shot me in the head is called Benny, and disliked by more or less everyone. He runs a casino in Vegas called The Tops, which is finally a lead of some worth. The Khans can walk off freely, and I can stroll off to Vegas. Veronica didn't seem to care about what Felix just did, which I guess bodes well for their relationship.

For all I said about the pre-war stuff, sometimes it can look pretty great. The huge destroyed flyover looming over you here almost feels like the great Man vs Architecture game that was Shadow of the Colossus.

Felix arrives in Freeside, a fucking shithole surrounding The Strip, which is where I need to be. I need 2000 caps to get in to The Strip, and Felix, despite going up 2 full levels for his beautiful action in Boulder City, is still incredibly feeble and can't really do anything except hide and cook food. Start a bunch of quests I'm too unskilled to finish, eventually finding one about my level: standing still outside a shop.

I almost like this 'quest,' because it is I guess the anti-quest. No questing involved. You just stand still for five minutes. Makes you feel a little bit embarrassed by the lame terms such as 'quests' which sit on top of videogames and shit themselves whenever people suggest videogames aren't just for children.
But the downside to this is that it's fucking boring. The guy guiding me through it is a completely flat tool, and is voiced by the same VA who does nearly all the black people in this game (and even, weirdly, quite a few of the white people). And at the end, in an event I don't remember from the last time I did this quest, I have to help him clean up a corpse from infront of the shop. He walks up to it and doesn't seem to be doing shit, so I grab the corpse and start dragging it down an alley. Then he accuses me of stealing the gun and armour he gave me to help guard the shop, and kills me effortlessly. So I have to reload and sit still again for ages, and this time he just cleans up the corpse by himself instantly. I try and pass the time by taking a photo where Veronica isn't just looking straight at the door, but it never happens.

After this, though, and a little (lots of) well-executed burglary, Felix Kluge has enough caps to be permitted entrance to The Strip, for his big showdown with Chandler! See you next time, everyone.

I didn't write about the sewers. I went into the sewers this time through, having avoided them the first two. I just stumbled across them and thought it might be interesting. It was pretty gross. I was in a sewer, killing giant rats, with a fucking dagger. That is one of the very things I never ever want to do in videogames, and the big reason why I can never bring myself to play Dragon Age or Baldur's Gate or Oblivion or any of those games. Get it the fuck out of Fallout. There were also a bunch of ghouls in there for no reason, and even a bunch of Fiends, who very nearly killed Veronica, and past them, a room filled with even more ghouls. After way too much sewers, I finally break in to a bit of the sewers, right on the far side of the map, that is fine. Just a bunch of guys sat around smoking and hitting on Veronica. As you walk past them, they say things like, "don't go farther in to the sewers, it's full of monsters."
Fuck the sewers.