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I don't actually know if Don't Ask, Don't Tell got repealed, I wasn't following the story that closely.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?

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