Sometimes it's nice to cut away all these gameplay vs. narrative arguments and just find a game that does both, and does them both right. Star Wars: Republic Commando is a terrific little piece of software. It is a first person shooter set in the Star Wars universe franchise. You play as “38,” also known as “Boss,” the leader of a four-man squad of clone trooper Commandos known as “Delta Squad.” The game takes place in the same time frame as the second and third Star Wars films, starting on the Battle of Geonosis – that big ending battle from the second film. After that, you are deployed to a decrepit Republic freighter that has been assaulted by mercenaries and Separatist droids. Finally, you do covert ops on the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk, culminating in a climactic final battle with the Separatist forces.
This ends up punctuating the tension of the game into three arcs, first Geonosis, then the freighter, then Kahyyyk. However, this works beautifully. Consider a longer game with only one thread of tension running through it. Many games may take in excess of ten hours to beat. The tension decreases dramatically because your experience is so punctuated – you’re not playing fifteen hours in one sitting (I hope you aren’t at least). Republic Commando avoids this problem by breaking the game down into three “Acts,” each with a discrete rising action and brief denouement before the next.
This game offers a really fresh take on the Star Wars franchise. The movies are very Jedi-centric, and because of that they have a certain tone. By this I mean the element of danger is less omnipresent. Not so in Republic Commando. You’re a soldier – albeit a highly trained one – and even droids can kill you if you aren’t careful. This tone – gritty and more personal – combines with the tension provided by the “Act” setup to form a much more compact, forceful Star Wars experience.
In Republic Commando, your squad is your lifeline. You can direct them in combat with presses of the “F” key and the F1 through F4 keys. Let’s say you’re in a firefight with some droids in a large courtyard. There is a piece of destroyed masonry crossing the center. Hovering near it is a translucent white target (more on this in a second). You orient yourself towards it and press “F.” The Boss says something like, “Take cover, Commando.” The appropriate squad member will dash to cover and begin firing from that position. The F1 through F4 keys handle functions such as regrouping and holding ground, offering you another degree of control over your squad mates. The translucent target comes from your “Heads-Up Display” in your clone trooper helmet, your health, ammunition, and vital environment information are relayed to you as electrical displays in the corners of your character’s visor – cleverly avoiding the problem of simply having this information displayed on the screen for no apparent reason.
What makes a good character? I run through a useful exercise whenever I encounter this question. Describe the character without using any concrete physical terms – like appearance, race, or clothing. For the purposes of this exercise, let’s look at two Star Wars characters.
Han Solo: Rogue with a heart of gold. His sense of morality develops throughout the movies as he grows closer to Leia – even though its clear from the get go that he doesn’t consider himself just another criminal. Sarcastic and witty. Atheistic in the sense that he doesn’t believe all the “mumbo-jumbo” about the Force. Practical, pretty cool under pressure. Usually just gets frustrating during fights. Has a funny repartee with Chewbacca.
Queen Amidala (Padme): Luke and Leia’s mom. Queen of Naboo….uh….
See what good characterization does, and how easy it is to check for it? Here’s the kicker: all the members of Delta Squad wear identical armor, save for coloration differences and some equipment differences. You will never see a squad member’s face. But by the end of Act 1, you’ll know these guys better than your girlfriend.
07 “Sev”: The hunter. Brutally efficient. Favors the sniper rifle. Very dark sense of humor, for example: “A well-built sniper rifle is a beautiful thing. Ours has two zoom modes, "Up close and personal" and "Hello, you're dead” (IMDB). Gets frustrated when injured in combat. Strong sense of loyalty to the squadron. He likes killing, no bones about it.
62 “Scorch”: Demolitions expert and explosives aficionado. Unflappable commitment to humor. Unlike Sev, favors witty comebacks to dark observational jokes. Seems to view being a soldier as more of a job than anything else. Enjoys something of a repartee with Sev (Scorch: Was it red-red-green or red-green-red? / Sev: And he's supposed to be the demolitions expert? (IMDB)). Strong sense of irony, does not relish combat in the same sense that Sev does. Jokes freely with figures of authority.
40 “Fixer”: Skilled mechanic and hacker. By the books, all business. Hardly ever cracks jokes and never uses nicknames to refer to squad mates. Loyal to his squad but seemingly neutral on all matters of opinion. Does he like fighting? Does he agree with the war? Who knows. In this regard, he has less humanity than Sev, who you’ll grow to like once you get used to his sense of humor. This doesn’t make “Fixer” more sinister, but only more detached and aloof.
For a long section of the second Act, you are separated from the squad. You’re completely on your own and the sense of vulnerability really kicks in. By the time you regroup, you’ll have never been happier. This is what makes Republic Commando great. It actually makes you attached to a squad of three fictional soldiers without faces! So what are we left with? A taut, well designed shooter with an emphasis on fighting as a team, a well structured sense of tension and plot, a gritty soundtrack and aesthetic, and a group of characters that you actually care about, who you hope to god will make it through this war alive. Republic Commando is a videogame’s videogame. Pick it up if you ever have the chance, you won’t be disappointed.
Inspired by Edge’s Time Extend article on the The Mark of Kri, I thought I would do my own writeup, which arrived at many of the same conclusions as the Time Extend. Nevertheless, I decided to post it since The Mark of Kri has six levels in it. Each will take you around an hour to complete, maybe a little longer. It’s mostly about a bad guy and a good guy in the most American cinematic sense of the terms. It doesn’t sound very remarkable - in fact, it's a lopsided sort of game after all is said and done. But it is pretty remarkable. Here's why:
The Mark of Kri looks like Don Bluth and a bunch of Disney animators made a video game based on Polynesian and Pacific mythology. That’s not very far from the truth. Most of the people on Sony Computer Entertainment America’s San Diego Studio were classically trained 2D animators who had worked for places like Nickelodeon, Disney, and Dreamworks. The character designs were animated by hand, as opposed to motion-capture. It took 18 months of animation. It’s a rolling, thundering ballad that -when you're least expecting it - will kick you in the teeth.
How do you talk about The Mark of Kri? Let’s start here: “If Ico had been an architect’s blueprint of a platformer, Kri was more an animator’s impression of a third-person action game” (EDGE 2009). The Mark of Kri doesn’t operate like any other action game. There are no grab bags of powerups to collect, other than extra health scattered around the level and bundles of arrows tucked away* – no long ticking chains of combo numbers and points flashing on the screen during combat indicating 99 HITS! with a flash and a guitar riff. In combat, you use the right analog stick to send out an abstract “focusing” beam of light, representing Rau “targeting” enemies. These enemies are then coded to a different face button on the controller, either Square, Triangle, or Circle. The less foes you target, the more frightening your combos and finishers.
The Mark of Kri is violent. If it was a Disney movie – which it sure as hell looks like – people would be appalled by the violence. Rau Utu is a barrel-chested, tattooed beast, silent at all times, save for grunts of pain and bellowing war cries. His “stealth mode,” walking without a weapon equipped, is low, predatory, rolling. The first time you sneak up on a guard and catch him unawares, Rau will grab him by the throat, press him against a wall, and quietly run him through. In combat, enemies will shrink with fear whenever you kill one of their comrades, disgusted by the savagery. The shock of it is not gratuitous - even when paired with animation which people would normally consider “family friendly” – it just contributes to the overall flair of the game. His bird, Kuzo, is just as much a player character as Rau, he can be directed to fly to – and perch on – objects in the various levels of the game. The player can then switch his view to that of the bird, getting a literal “bird’s eye view” of the dangers ahead. Rau, the implacable bull, and Kuzo, the silent device for planning your next course of action – add up to form one unstoppable being.
The Mark of Kri is a myth in every sense of the word. You are a Herculean force, and enemies only exist to be overcome. Once spotted, you cannot reenter stealth by evasion, you can only leap into the fray - it's an interesting, and I'd say realistic touch. How many games have you played where guards just GIVE UP chasing you after twenty seconds?** Even in the levels where the enemies do not appear to be frightening cultist-soldiers (two of them to be precise), your foes are dispatched which just as little mercy as any other. They are an obstacle in your path. Kri has no puzzles or unnecessary backtracking, just pure forward motion.
The Mark of Kri doesn’t get into stride until the third and fourth levels, particularly the fourth. The fourth has you fighting your way through a mountaintop monastery / fortress filled with vicious pseudo-samurai. You drop patrolling guards with well placed arrows, you stalk through the mute snowdrifts, and you throttle soldiers quietly and quickly in the shadowed parapets. The Mark of Kri’s visuals and violence come together in near perfect harmony in this level (called Vaitaku).
Unfortunately, this feeling doesn’t last. You acquire a spear at the end of the level. Visually it’s a joy to wield in combat, but it can target more foes, which the next level heaps on you at an alarming speed, starting to abandon the previous emphasis on stealth and those pregnant moments before explosive combat. By the sixth and last level, you’ll have acquired an axe, which can target up to nine foes at a time. All pretense of stealth is gone and the shortcomings of the combat system - which really only shines through careful application (read: less is more) - are exposed.
The Mark of Kri is a unique game, in the same vein as Shadow of the Colossus.*** It strives to maintain its tone throughout the game, and while mechanically it is not on the level of Sony’s later third person action blockbuster God of War, it isn’t trying to be. The bottom line is that it is an uneven experience that peaks in the middle and fizzles by the end. But that peak is worth the trek. “Gather round, all of you who would listen: I have a tale to tell,” begins the narrator in the opening of The Mark of Kri, and what a tale it is – one that players would do well to experience.
*I lied – there are some hidden “Tikis” to collect in each level, but since I can’t recall what they do, they can’t have been that important.
Mass Effect was a fantastic game from Bioware, burdened by its representation of sexuality and gender on the part of supporting characters. Expanding on this Escapist article by Ray Huling, http://tinyurl.com/ygueqt6, this post will take a look at where Mass Effect stumbled in its otherwise locktight step.
A special premiered on the SciFi channel a few months before the release of Mass Effect titled “Sci vs Fi: Mass Effect” In it, Drew Karpyshyn, the lead writer for Mass Effect, said the following:
“I think we're entering an age when people are more open-minded... People are saying traditional sexual roles don't necessarily have to be the way to go. And Mass Effect lets you maybe explore things a little differently, because, let's be honest, alien chicks are hot.”
Notice how the last sentence obliterates the preceding. I’m reminded of a press release for the Marvel comic series “Marvel Divas” in which a Marvel rep said the purpose was mostly to have “hot fun.” It’s understandable that Karpyshyn, and the rest of the Bioware team, want to sell their game. A TV special is a great way to do that, and we all remember the old moniker: “sex sells.” But perhaps this was only hyperbole meant to draw in potential buyers? Not entirely.
There are a few major races in Mass Effect. Four, including humans, are represented in your squad. Several of the game’s races didn’t actually have female models or characters, I’m chalking this up not to any sort of maliciousness on Bioware’s part but to time constraints on the team when it came to producing models, animations, and dialogue for each species. As such, they will not be considered in this article.
Before getting to the alien races, let’s briefly consider the two human members of the squad, Ashley and Kaiden. Both are loyal soldiers, and both are heterosexual. This is fairly innocuous. Ashley is a religious individual who would probably repress lesbian urges were they ever to manifest. Kaiden is just…Kaiden, the biotic of the squad. Questions only arise when we compare the two against other members of the squad.
The Asari are a long lived, mono-gendered species that prefer to mate with members of other species to produce offspring. They achieve this by forming a “mental and spiritual”connection with their partner (in other words, mind-sex). Consider the capacities the Asari appear in. First, are the “Consorts,” a group of Asari and human women on the Citadel. A clear answer is never given on exactly what the Consorts do, even when asked. They seem to function as social workers, psychiatrists, and sex workers all at once. But to what end? What is the context of this activity? Secondly, we see Asari working as strippers in a Citadel bar.* Thirdly, we have Liara’s mother, the sinister Matriarch Benezia, an Asari in league with Saren. And finally, Liara, the awkward, bookish, emotionally vulnerable party member available as a sexual partner for Shepards of either gender. Huling writes in his article that, “The easiest romance to develop in Mass Effect is with a blue-skinned, bisexual, hot alien chick who prefers to date outside her race.”** The major appearances of the Asari are then:
- In three cases, as sexually available individuals, possibly even promiscuous.
- In one case, an asexual antagonist.
The Quarians are a humanoid race known for the creation of the Geth, the sentient robotic species that formed the bulk of enemy NPCs in the original Mass Effect. Forced from their homeworld by the Geth, the Quarians roam the galaxy in massive ships, and, lacking a proper immune system, can only venture outside of them in airtight suits. Tali’Zorah nar Rayya, or Tali for short, is a female Quarian who joins the squad after being rescued from assassins by Shepard and the team. Tali is a talented engineer on a pilgrimage to find something of use to bring back to the Quarian fleet. Her consummately cool-under-pressure dialogue is provided by Liz Stroka. I spotted a forum post a few months after Mass Effect’s release that proceeded something along these lines: “There are three female squad members in the game, Ashley, Liara, and Tali. You can have sex with Ashley or Liara but not Tali.” Tali is the “other” female squad member, distinct from the others because she is not sexually available.
You can essentially see where I’m going with this. Women in Mass Effect are either sexual available, or devoid of sexuality. There is no sexuality existing independently from Commander Shepard, in terms of female characters.*** In addition, the two human squad members – which Shepard can form a relationship with - prescribe to normative sexual roles, while the two alien female characters are bisexual in one case and asexual in the other.
This can be interpreted in more than one way. If we take Mass Effect for what it is, a video game intended for the mass market, and a power fantasy – which most games are, not in a masculine sense, but in the sense that we are playing to exert control over a game world – then sexuality existing independently – and outside control of – the player character is something aberrant. However, if this was truly the case, would there not be an option for a homosexual encounter for a male Shepard? Is this because lesbianism has been thoroughly sexualized by mass media, and thus, easier to accept, than homosexuality? I think the overall quality of Mass Effect’s writing illustrates that its writers and designers are striving for both marketability and respectability in their titles, and this kind of representation is ultimately detrimental to their overall vision.
Kazua recently posted an article on using the benefits of using a female Shepard in Mass Effect. He wrote that, “There are no subtle lines that seem more appropriately directed toward males than females,” and pointed out how appropriately direct Jennifer Hale’s vocal performance was. I would offer that a simple factor helped this: the male and female Shepard have the same dialogue. There was no “feminine” dialogue written for Hale’s performance, nor were there any machismo-fueled lines in Meer’s male performance. It is particularly jarring, in one sense, to play the game as a female Shepard while witnessing the typecasting I’ve gone over in this article. I have not played Dragon Age: Origins, and I’m curious to see how Bioware has gone forward, or backpedaled, since Mass Effect.
*Aside: This is actually quite funny when you think about it. Due to the Asari’s advanced lifespan, some of the strippers were probably in their 100s, 200s, and above.
**Why are bisexuals always more receptive to sexual advances than both heterosexual and homosexual persons in media? I’d like to know if there’s any literature on this.
***Urdnot Wrex and the Krogan represent masculinity run rampant. With four testicles and their penchant for destruction – and nothing else – the Krogan might as well be the last 20,000 years of male human history condensed. Wrex himself is difficult to control and fiercely independent – to the point that you might have to kill him. Did Bioware unconsciously write in a diametric opposite to their sexually receptive females in the form of Wrex?
In mid August I went to see District 9, as I'm sure many Destructoid readers also did. I enjoyed it immensely and was left with questions. What were the "prawns" fleeing from? Had there been a war? Had their planet been invaded? But then, two weeks later, I see an ad for a game, called Section 8. You might've seen images from the game.
My immediate thought, when I saw this armored figure, was that it was a prawn, and that this was a video game that had been developed alongside the film.
"Aha," I thought, "The similar name is intended to evoke the movie itself, while being different enough to refer to a section of the "prawns" military. This must be a tie in game about whatever it was that drove them to flee their homeworld. Terrific idea."
A day or two later I found out it was not, in fact, an awesome video game based on the District 9 franchise and expanding upon it in a unique way, but instead an unrelated title about separatist human forces in a sci-fi future featuring an emphasis on online multiplayer battles.
Every few years, I come back to Rayman 2: The Great Escape for a play-through, at least a partial one. Why do I keep returning? I try to replay many of my old games every few years to purge myself of nostalgia, to see what stands the test of time and what doesn’t. Many games might have one particular element which ages well, as the rest of it corrodes against the promises of new titles. This is expected and understandable, but from this we can generally draw two further distinctions:
1) The game has deteriorated not because it was poorly designed at the time, but because it has been outdone by more recent titles.
2) The game has deteriorated because it was poorly designed at the time of release. Rayman 2: The Great Escape has weathered, like every game, but it remains sharp enough to stand the test of time.
In Rayman 2, the titular hero, Rayman, finds himself captured by the Robo-Pirates, a band of, well…robotic pirates bent on enslaving his planet’s population. You must escape and go on a journey to defeat the pirates and their leader, Admiral Razorbeard, to save your world.
What Rayman 2 comes down to, and what makes it survive ten years later, is fundamentally these things: cohesion and polish.
Rayman controls like a heavier Mario from Super Mario 64. Less an acrobat, more an endurance fighter. There is much more heft to his jump and stride. He is less slippery than Mario, more rooted. Verticality is less of an issue here (but it’s still a true platformer). Every time you jam the B button to send an energy globe at an enemy (the primary method of attack), you feel the feedback. Have I ever mentioned how much I love control inputs that have you hold down a button and then release it? Lock onto an enemy, hold down B. Rayman charges an orb into a basketball sized ball of light, release, and WHAM, you feel, see, and hear the globe hitting as a pirate gets tossed to the floor. In fact, I only wish there was a louder smash on impact, with more controller rumble for a fully charged globe.
The action in this game feels tightly choreographed. This is not an item collection game. Your purpose is always moving forward, always towards a goal. Levels feature brilliant set pieces and extended action sequences to keep things varied, but these rarely feel gimmicky, perhaps because they seem so fine tuned. The game keeps throwing different play styles at you, reinventing itself as soon as something has been used up. You'll be chased by pirate ships along rickety cliffside platforms while dodging cannon fire, water skiing through a dark marsh - pulled by a speedy aquatic snake, and racing along tortuous forest pathways on runaway missile with legs. Rayman 2 is constantly itinerating, with a new take on some form of play (be it movement or combat) in every level, or at least every other.
The dialog is sparse, mostly a few interactions here and there, but it has that understated Ubisoft humor of yesteryear. Much of it physical humor, such as a character’s reactions. The dialog is accompanied by the nonsense-language verbiage you usually see in 64-era Rare titles, but it seems to have been written with some syntax in mind, meaning it isn’t just a series of guffaws, and ends up working well with the game's humor.
Every level feels so organic I'd be hard pressed to find one that doesn't fit. Some have puzzles which I don't care for as much, but they are all impeccably ordered. Rayman 2 presents a world which has existed long before the player ever set foot in it, breathes and moves while you spend your time there, and feels alive enough that it is one of those settings which just seems to exist long after you've shut down the console. Most of the planet is a warm, temperate to muggy climate, so you don't have any requisite "ice levels," "desert levels," etc. They are all interrelated, so you don’t have that weird break in linearity where you snap between wildly differing level aesthetics.
The music is good. A couple are so good that I downloaded them. From the haunting thrum of the swamps, to the bubbling drums of the lava temple, every track fits snugly with its level.
So what do we have? A player-character that is a joy to control, tightly scripted action, an expansive and well-realized world, and a fun tale tying it all together. No one of these things makes Rayman 2: The Great Escape a great game. It's all of them combined. This game has an overwhelming sense of vision, of all these parts working together as a whole, cleanly and effectively. A huge amount of care went into this game. It’s just so damned together without being pretentious about it that it ends up being a wonder. Rayman 2 is the sort of video game that a group of people can make once, under specific conditions and will probably never be able to reproduce exactly. It's like sea glass, singular, a little mysterious, utterly polished (pun intended) and never to be reproduced without seeming artificial. As it should be.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some robo-pirates to defeat.
We’ve got a bullet to bite here folks, and it’s not a pretty one. It’s the big elephant in the room, and it’s only going to hurt us if we don’t look at it.
We’ve been seeing a great deal of “Nothing Is Sacred” posts on RPGs, demonizing this aspect or this mechanic, to the point that it seems like RPGs in general are in deep doo-doo. I think this is part of a bigger problem.
At the end of the day, there are basically three (3) genres of videogames.
1) Action: Anything requiring twitch reflexes.
2) Strategy: Anything not based on reflexes, but instead on your decisions dictating the proceedings on the screen.
3) Like strategy, but a problem that tests the thinking abilities of the player. They can be mathematical or logistical.
Every game can be classified as one of these things. Once we start doing this, and stop using stupid names like “stylish action shooter,” and, “tactical hack n’ slash top-down rhythm fighter,” we’ll all be able to stop arguing about what genre and game or game isn’t and start arguing about what matters: whether or not the game is actually good.
Take “RPGs”. An RPG is a role-playing game, one where you determine the actions of your character based on their specific characterization which you have created, operating within a discrete, rule oriented world. So pretty much everything we call an RPG is not an RPG, it is a strategy game. Real RPGs would be table-top games, like Dungeons and Dragons, Exalted, and Vampire: The Masquerade.
And there’s the rub, over two decades of “RPGs” and look at how much evolution has actually occurred within them (protip: not much). Lately, we’ve gotten these things called “action-RPGs” which are action games with menus cluttering up the place. And while we’re on the subject, saying it’s the stats that make “RPGs” is a moot point, all games have stats, “RPGs” just let you see them more clearly.
Does it come down to the format? The ability to actually program a game to actually function like a real RPG would take a huge amount of time and a rethinking of our current (mis)understanding of genres. People probably wouldn’t even call it an RPG, because they’ve been so inundated with the labeling.
There’s the elephant people. I’m not suggesting you should stop liking whatever games you like, but game players as a whole need to step it up and stop letting themselves be dazzled by this terminology. Final Fantasy XIII is coming out next year, and SquareEnix intends to pull a fast one on everyone with their “RPG.” Don’t let them fool you.