My name's Nick and I'm a recently graduated, semi-employed bum (writer), living in New York City. My eventual dream goal is to work as a narrative designer, but in the meantime I'll have to settle on playing through ( read: jerking off on my copies of) Silent Hill 2 and Deus Ex for the eleventh time.
The most creative games of all time have stolen their elements from something else. Iím starting this weekly column featuring games that innovated in ways that havenít been duplicated, and need to be. Each week Iíll cover another game that contains some element people need to steal. If you have suggestions for future columns, let me know. On with the showÖ
IO Interactive made me realize there is no God.
I understand thatís a lot of weight to give a developerís actions, but itís true. Only in a godless, ugly world could Kane and Lynch get a sequel while Freedom Fighters remains one of the most criminally underappreciated gems of last generation.
Freedom Fighters was a third-person action shooter was released in 2003 to critical acclaim but disappointing sales. The story was set in an alternate history where the Cold War never ended, merely escalated until the start of the game, where Russia invades New York. Main character Chris Stone escapes to the sewers during the invasion, and soon finds himself helping other fugitive New Yorkers to overthrow the Russian regime. As you work with a ragtag group of freedom fighters (get it?) and rise through the ranks, the movement grows, until soon youíre going guns-blazing to kick the Russians out for good.
Bottom line, this game was (hell, still is) awesome, and remains not only a great third-person shooter, but also one of the best games centered around commanding a squad that Iíve ever played.
You see, as you perform heroic deeds, you gain influence. The more influence means the more people who are willing to fight by your side. Early in the game you can only command two soldiers, but by the end you will control over a dozen.
This leads to the first thing that should be stolen:
1: Squad Controls
To this day, I have never encountered a game with simpler and more efficient squad controls than Freedom Fighters. In most action games, commanding your squad is unwieldy at best and disastrous at worst, with clumsy, overcomplicated command menus and dumb-as-a-brick AI hampering the game.
In Freedom Fighters, you can command your soldiers with few button presses than using a healthpack.
How? Simple. Square is follow, Triangle is attack, and Circle is defend. Tap a command once for one member to do it, hold it down to make everyone participate.
On paper it may sound confusing, but in practice, itís sublime.
Hereís the scenario: A helicopter fueling station sits in the middle of a dockyard, surrounded by a dozen soldiers. It needs to go. Instead of coming through the front gates, you and 3 teammates sneak your way in through some shipping crates. The crates surround the fueling station, providing ample cover.
You tell one of your men to defend the upper right corner of the dockyard. The other two naturally follow you around crates and cranes, jumping, climbing, and sneaking as you do. You drop into another corner, and tell your number 2 man to defend. Then you circle around to the other lower left portion of the dock, and tell the last man to defend. You get yourself into position at the fourth corner, hold down the Attack command, and voila: Each of your men rushes to the center from a different side, so that there is literally no cover for the enemies. In seconds the whole platoon is eliminated, giving you ample opportunity to place your explosives and get the hell out of dodge.
This system is both incredibly intuitive and effectiveóso why has no game stolen it? Part of me believes itís because this requires naturally good AI: without smart teammates, the game falls apart. In Freedom Fighters, if you sneak, your soldiers sneak. They know to take cover, help out your fellow soldiers, circle around the enemy, and to retreat when they are out of ammo. Theyíre smart enough to take care of themselves yet not so intelligent that your presence isnít necessary. In a word: perfection.
2. Mission Structure
Freedom Fighters structures levels and missions in a way games rarely do, and more should.
Here is a basic idea of the structure: The game has 8 chapters, with a few levels in each. At the beginning of the chapter, you stare at a map of several locations in New York City (each of which is a level in themselves), and can pick what youíd like to do first.
For instance, one level might be destroying a power station to cripple Russian communications, or freeing prisoners from an execution camp before they are put to death. Complete each of level objectives, and you move onto the next Act.
But thatís not the important bit. Each level has side-objectives that you donít have to complete, but can drastically change the way you play the game. For instance, you may come across a helicopter-landing pad in a level, and if you blow it up, there will be no helicopters harassing you when you tackle the next mission. Or you might find an enemy reinforcement camp that is sending troops out to the other areas. Destroy it, and the number of soldiers in the next level will drastically decrease.
This type of structure is unbelievably gratifying. It letís you play tactically, changing the battlefield conditions as you see fit. It also strikes a good balance between giving players the freedom to tackle levels as they wish, while still keeping a tight, concise game flow.This type of structure is relatively easy to implement, and adds considerable replay value to the game (important to Freedom Fighters due to itís short length). To this day, I have not played a game that copied this ingenious design.
So there you go game industry. You want something to steal? Take those ideas and put them in another blockbuster.
Youíve seen it all before. Multiple endings. Branching paths. Or (god forbid) a good vs. evil morality system.
Choice in games is all the rage these days, and AAA titles are lining up to either shoehorn morally ridiculous decisions (do I save the orphanage, or burn it to the ground?) or branching paths that donít really go in any different directions.
Spec Ops: The Line is different, though not in the way youíd expect. In truth, many of the gameís choices donít have long-term repercussions (though a few do), yet Spec Ops manages to have the most engaging set of decisions Iíve seen in a long time. Why? Two reasons. For starters, there is no good or evil. Hell, there isn't even a lesser of two evils. Each choice, and each possible consequence, are equally terrible. Your decision merely reflects the type of person you are, or (more likely) the type of monster you will turn out to be. But the other (and FAR more important) part to this equation is the way it the game frames your options. In fact, I havenít seen player choice handled like this since the original Deus Ex.
To this day, the original Deus Ex is still (in my opinion) the best game to ever deal with narrative and gameplay choice. Part of it has to do with the fact that even small decisions youíve made at the beginning still have repercussions as you reach the end of your 40 hour journey, but the other is simpler.
For the most part, Deus Ex does not tell you the options you have.
It might sound strange, but nearly every game ever CLEARLY outlines the available options. You can kill this guy, interrogate him, knock him out, etc. You may not know the consequences of your actions, but you always know the options. Deus Ex doesnít even given you those, and part of the reason I still love playing through it is that each time I find a different way to get past a situation than the one before it. How many people realized in a second playthrough that Anna Navarre could be killed off hours before the ďplannedĒ final encounter with her? Or found a completely different way to infiltrate a building? Or stumbled on a completely new chain of events thanks to earlier actions? In fact, this was one of the main issues I had with Human Revolution, as I thought the game pointed out the various approaches you had too often.
Most modern games have forgotten that one of the best things about having the power of choice is DISCOVERING the choices you have, something that Spec Ops brings back and uses to a haunting effect. The most interesting and powerful moment in the game occurred when I made a terrible decision without even realizing I couldíve done things differently.
Here ye, here ye: SPOILER WARNING!!!
Towards the end of the game, you and Adams are stranded in (what used to be) a deserted boatyard. Lugo is about a mile away with a broken arm, hiding from soldiers that are trying to kill him. Youíre worn out, and the cool heads of the beginning of the game have eroded into hoarse barks and pained shrieks as you and Adams fight across the area, trying to save your only other friend in this god-forsaken city.
Youíre getting close, but so are the soldiers. Over the radio, Lugo says he sees a refugee camp, and that heíll go hide there to buy a little more time. You gun down another swarm of soldiers, and nearing the camp, hear Lugo screaming over the radio for someoneósome groupóto leave him alone, and keep away.
You start running.
By the time you get inside, itís too late. Lugo is in the middle of the camp, hung from the telephone wires, a crowd of refugees cheering and throwing rocks at his corpse.
You shoot the rope and his body falls. Adams starts screaming and waving his machine gun at the crowd, who shout back and begin to encircle you.
You check his breathing, but itís no use. Lugo is dead. Killed by the very people you came to save, the very people who now hate you for the atrocities youíve committed throughout the game.
The mob approaches. The shouts are deafening. The game gives me control.
I start shooting.
A mother and her child go down first. The rest of the crowd scatters, screaming, running from you and your crazed partner Adams, both of you firing wildly, leaving a mass of bodies in your wake.
After a minute, silence. The refugees are gone, each and every family slumped onto the ground and bleeding out. I take a look at the carnage before me, and it hits meÖ
Iím a monster.
How many games have tried to give your actions justification, only to fail? Plenty. What makes this moment work? Well, apart from the fantastic writing that helped set this moment up, it was the simple fact that I wasnít FORCED to shoot them. The game simply gave me control, it did not tell me to do anything. Not until Iíd finished the game and began looking at message boards did I find out that you donít have to kill the civilians.
I had several actions I couldíve taken, but because the game didnít reveal them to me, I simply did what seemed ďrightĒ, no matter how twisted it mightíve been. Thatís how far gone I was. I didnít even consider not shooting them. Not for a second.
On a pure visceral level, few games have ever given me pause over my own instinct.
Thatís part of the power of masking choicesóyou allow the player to react as he truly would, and in that moment, I truly wouldíve shot them down. I guarantee at the end of the year, when Iím tallying up the best games I played, that moment is going to stick with me long past the rest of this yearís AAA releases. And Iím sure I wonít be the only one.
Choices are an important, effective tool, but developers should not underestimate the value of hiding a playerís options. To the developer, it creates a more compelling game destined to be played through again and again. To the player, well, the player just might find out more about themselves than they ever wished to know.