Form & Violence in Splinter Cell: Conviction

Franchise reboots are all the rage lately. Apparently Spider-Man is getting one in a couple years after three outings with team Raimi and Macguire. I was originally going to take this paragraph in the direction that “games don’t actually receive the reboot treatment all that often,” and then I wrote the following paragraph and cut all that because, well, you’ll see.

The game industry, up to this point at least, appears to have a keen eye for focusing on what gameplay systems form the foundation for a franchise and dialing those in for the supposed reboots. Far Cry 2 took little more than the notion of being a mercenary amidst beautiful vistas from its forerunner. Red Faction: Guerilla took the free-form destruction from its franchise namesake and ran with it. Resident Evil 4 took the mood, universe and applied to a wholly new game. Team Fortress 2 took the defined roles in a fast-paced multiplayer game. Bionic Commando took, uh, the bionic arm and, well, put it in a game wholly unsuited for it, but it’s the thought that counts. There’s Fallout 3, every subsequent Sonic game in the past five-six years, Grand Theft Auto 4, and so on.

Splinter Cell: Conviction is one such reboot. Ubisoft took Sam Fisher from the sulky, quiet super-spy in Splinter Cell (and its sequels: Pandora Tomorrow, Chaos Theory, and Double Agent) into a Jack Bauer-esque action star. Fisher is now a fleet footed, agile force to be reckoned with as he bounds into a room and instantly executes up to four enemy marks in the span of five seconds with pistols, submachine, and assault rifles. He can dash around the level, jump and slide over obstacles, take cover behind anything with planar surface, and generally move like no “over-the-hill” man should. Not content with solely bolstering his abilities with gymnastic prowess, though, Fisher is also a brutal, violent force who learns what he wants to learn by bashing your criminal head into toilets, mirrors, doors, and electrical equipment until you speak your peace.

And the brutality fits, because Splinter Cell: Conviction took one thing from its predecessors: form.

Prior Splinter Cell games were always known for the flexibility and variety of ways that players could architect their sneaky, violent little activities. Sam Fisher could jump up walls and take down enemies from a barely-elevated position, he could kill someone and hide their body in closets, he could throw an object to distract a guard into exactly the right spot before snapping their neck and tossing their body into the darkness, and one of any other actions. Fisher’s arsenal of moves, gadgets, and tricks grew with every new game in the franchise. He was a swiss army knife of violence, capable of killing a single enemy in a multitude of ways, all of which allowed players to live out the ultimate spy power fantasy.

Despite the depth of the system, Splinter Cell was never able to quite do one thing: make it easy and fluid to be a spy. The series has always been about trial-and-error, frustration, and those moments in gameplay where a player was so close to pulling off an incredible series of actions but slipped up due to some systemic imprecision or a single screw-up. The franchise was and is the greatest, most thorough stealth game design to ever grace the industry, but it was never for the impatient nor was the easily-frustrated. It was a brutal, hardcore, unforgiving game that rewarded only those players willing to sit down, learn the ins and outs of the game systems, and tolerate the tough love the game dished out like it was nothing.

And let’s face it: we, as hardcore gamers, eat that shit up.

As the reboot, Splinter Cell: Conviction changes all of that. Within minutes, the game introduces players to the mark-and-execution system. Hit the right bumper on a target using the third-person camera reticle, mark a few targets, then hit the Y button. The player is then treated to a stylish, slick presentation of Sam Fisher dispatching all of the marked enemies with brutal efficiency and breathless effort. In a similarly changed fashion, interrogations are no longer about grabbing an enemy and slowly choking him to reveal information as Sam Fisher holds a man while he confesses what he knows; no, that would simply not do for Conviction. Sam Fisher now relies on the environment to do his dirty work; urinals are used to brace the impact of heads, doors are used to reinforce Fisher’s menace, and stove tops are used to Gardocki someone’s face with a spiral burn pattern. The relentless violence is cringe-inducing as Sam Fisher conducts these scenes in a cold, detached manner.

It fits, though. The current cultural scene is filled with a new breed of spies. The Ethan Hunt that hung from a ceiling and worried about a drop of sweat triggering an alarm has been replaced by an Ethan Hunt that runs down a bridge from a fighter jet shooting missiles at him. Jason Bourne kills people with dozens upon dozens of stabs with a single pen in a trilogy of movies with a camera that shakes almost by pure force of habit. The new James Bond is cold, unfeeling, and humorless. Jack Bauer practically has a decade of experience in stopping nuclear bombs, using hack saws as interrogational equipment, and throwing suicide bombers in hyperbaric chambers as their payload explodes. Spies aren’t spies anymore, they’re action heroes. The Sam Fisher of yore would probably seem out of place which, really, is a shame.

He’s not the Sam Fisher we’re used to, but that’s okay. Everything about Conviction is about form and fluidity, and it executes these qualities effortlessly and routinely. The incredibly powerful, rewarding mark-and-execute system requires a valid melee kill in order to activate it. These melee kills force players, at times, to rely on something other than a silenced pistol shot from across the room and, instead, enact actions which give glimpses of the Sam Fisher we all grew of age with: the one who shimmies around on pipes and the outside of buildings to pill enemies out of windows. Stealth isn’t dead in Conviction, it’s simply less appealing and not as immediately obviously valid.

The brief co-op campaign reveals the genius of the Conviction encounter structure. Levels in both single-player and co-op are essentially divided into discrete encounters that players move through one-by-one until the level end. There are often a number of different ways to approach encounters in single-player, but in single-player there is, more generally, two valid approaches. Seemingly naturally in my experiences so far, players diverge onto their separate paths leading into each encounter. Marks from both players fill up the screen as each scouts out the area from their positions. The communication comes through the microphone: “Ready?” “No, wait–” but the other player assumed the answer was yes, and the two players go into a dual-execution phase, each taking care of whatever marks are in range. And that probably clears out most of the room, but not all of it. The three enemies remaining, all lethal, probably have about fifteen seconds remaining in their lives, at the most. The two players scramble into new positions as Conviction ghosts their characters on the screen (serving as the “your last known position” indicator) wherever they were last sighted. Communication runs rampant as the pair scramble to improvise in a game where two-three shots generally equates to death. A set of new marks are laid out by the player in a secure position; execution is gone, but the players still have their weapons. One of the players sets off a remote EMP, the other tosses a flash point, the pair roll in to the nearest enemies in range and melee kill two of the three, the other player deals a quick headshot to the remaining enemy just as he comes to. Room secure.

Splinter Cell: Conviction is about those ten-fifteen seconds after a plan goes awry. The mark-and-execute is powerful, but what it really does is impose upon players a harsh limitation: we have this many enemies in the encounter, you have these two-four marks as gimmes, but as soon as they’re dead you’re on your own. As I played through the single-player and co-op campaigns, I came to relish the intensity of these short windows of imminent death following a botched plan because that’s where the fluidity of Conviction‘s game systems really excelled. The compelling player-narrative of the game is not the smooth executed plan, but the response to a poorly-executed one. And that intensity is the mark that the current scope of spy and action movies have left on the venerable Splinter Cell franchise as it gets a reboot in its fifth iteration which, unlike so many of my plans, actually worked out pretty well.

Bayonetta

Bayonetta is a game where the left-shoulder button, on the Xbox 360 controller, has Bayonetta striking a pose and saying:


“Do you want to touch me?

Bayonetta comes from Platinum Games, a studio formed from remnants of Clover Studio. Bayonetta is preceded by Platinum Games’ first release, MadWorld for the Wii, out in early 2009 (a day before my birthday, even). Having never played any of Clover’s games, MadWorld was my only real experience with either Clover or Platinum Games’ works and, as such, my expectations for Bayonetta going in were rock bottom. MadWorld was a vile, repetitive, and thoroughly unenjoyable game for any play session lasting beyond five-to-ten minutes. In my mind, Bayonetta‘s sole hope was the direction of Hideki Kamiya, whose fingerprints are all over numerous major Capcom titles since the late nineties. Heralded as a spiritual successor to Capcom’s Devil May Cry series, Bayonetta received an abundance of pre-release attention and a fair amount of hype as the next great Japanese action game. As an additional strike towards Bayonetta, Devil May Cry was a series I found consistently uninteresting and unenjoyable and, especially true of Devil May Cry 3 and 4 (games which Kamiya did not play a role) which failed to live up to any aspect of the far superior 3D ‘reboot’ of Team Ninja’s Ninja Gaiden series.

This is my long-winded and historically informative way of saying that, going into Bayonetta, I knew with false, presumptuous certainty that the game would not live up to my favorite action game of this console generation, Ninja Gaiden 2. This would not stop me from buying Bayonetta without so much as a single clue as to how the game played. I’m a very optimistic consumer muppet.

Bayonetta is one of the few games in the last few years that I instantly knew was brilliant. It’s a game uniformly centered on a single mechanical concept and Platinum Games designed it to support that concept in every aspect of the game. Bayonetta is a game about flow. Gameplay segments are divided into verses which are filled with snappy J-Pop soundtrack, and a protagonist whose last line before the player receives control for the first time: “As long as there’s music, I’ll keep on dancing.” Every verse is an encounter (either combat, natural disaster evasion, or on-rails vehicle segment), and the time spent traveling from verse-to-verse is minimal. From this point on, if there’s not a cut scene playing, the player is constantly involved in some task. At the end of chapters, players take part in a shooting gallery for additional items/currency. Players remain active even during loading screens, where a slick combo list responds to player input to show what combos the player can execute from any given button press onward.

Combat is paced appropriately for the energetic J-Pop background tracks which accompanies it. The emphasis is placed on combos and the stringing of combos together. Bayonetta has an expansive move list across all modes of combat for all experience levels. Button mashing works well enough, but it’s very likely that players will quickly move beyond it due solely to a simple and reliable set of core input styles. The game is quick to instruct players as to the fact that one attack button defines one type/power/speed of move (punches/hand guns or other equipped weapon), another defines another type/power/speed (kicks/leg guns), and another is always the use of guns.

No matter what combination of hands and leg attacks, the player always feels like the buttons he/she presses will yield some sort of combo. Likewise, a slight delay between any two button presses will always allow for a slightly different combo than one where those two buttons are pressed sequentially. The difference between a new player and an experienced player is familiarity with combos and the timing and what combos chain well into others for maximum verse rank/score.

Combat effectiveness in Bayonetta is more about movement and dodging than the memorization of combos. A well-timed dodge will activate “witch time,” which is a state of action in which the world and its entities slow down but the player moves and acts at standard speed. Dodging is mapped to the right-trigger button and is not the very strictly timed-out trade-off as counter maneuvers in games like Ninja Gaiden or Assassin’s Creed; numerous dodges can be strung together with ease and the timing for an effective dodge is forgiving. Whether a dodge is successful or not is more about whether or not Witch Time is activated; merely avoiding damage is, often, the sole result of a poorly-timed dodge.

Getting damaged is the result of making no attempt to react to an enemy’s attacks or, for certain enemies (namely fire enemies), attacking with close-quarters attacks outside of Witch Time. Bayonetta is not one to annoyingly punish players during active combat. A side effect of this is that, often, there is very rarely a time in the game where dodging does not help the player. The worst the game does is to momentarily take control away from the player after four unsuccessful dodge attempts.

Beyond the basic modes of combat, namely the punches, kicks, and guns attached to all primary four limbs, Bayonetta also allows for a host of play style customization via arm/leg weaponry and three optional accessories. For my first play-through of the game, I largely stuck to the aforementioned standard weapons and used my alternate equipment slot to hold a sword (which behaved strikingly and pleasingly similar to Ninja Gaiden’s Dragon Sword). When I started my Hard play-through, however, I wanted to mix things up a bit. I used a whip for my arm/hand slot and my standard pistols for my leg slots in my first equipment slot and a sword and fire/ice claw boots (which can, alternatively, be used as fire/ice claw gloves). While the specialized techniques I purchased all had unique, but similar feeling attacks across all of these forms of weaponry, the feel and flow of combat was dramatically altered. It’s truly remarkable how much work Platinum Games put into each of these weapons and their effects on standard combat and further demonstrates their commitment towards allowing players to flow through the game in a style which personally suits them. During my normal play-through and now just a brief bit into my hard play-through, I have yet to come across a combat encounter which truly demanded that I use a specific weapon type.

Bayonetta’s boss enemies are a somewhat refreshing inclusion in the genre in that, in almost every case, defeating a boss does not rely on contrived executions of actions that are overly reliant on pattern recognition. It’s very apparent what players have to do in order to efficiently tackle a boss, but in most cases the process of attacking and damaging a boss was done using standard combos and attacks. There are exceptions to this where Bayonetta has access to a more powerful arsenal of attacks which constantly employ the Wicked Weave (powerful, hair-based attacks) or run a gauntlet up to an enemy’s weak point, but these are the exception. Where the game goes wrong is in the Japanese design habit of tasking players with defeating all of these boss enemies again later in the game. Never has there been a game in existence where the re-use of boss enemies from earlier in the game strung together as a late-game challenge felt like anything other than a cheap means of extending gameplay. This technique is used, in theory, to allow the player to feel like he/she has gotten to the point of a skill where taking on these once-feared foes is now trivial, but these psychological benefits do not outweigh the tackiness necessary to actually design such late-game encounters. Nor does a player’s presence at the end of the game necessarily imply that the player ever either enjoyed the boss battle the first time around or, in the worst case, revisit frustration in a particularly nasty boss battle (which Bayonetta does almost entirely avoid in its boss encounters).

One gripe I continually revisit when playing these third-person Japanese-designed action games is the evolution of encounters as players make their way through the game. With Ninja Gaiden, Devil May Cry, and, although to a far lesser extent than either of those titles, Bayonetta I always feel like the early game encounters are generally more fun than those in the mid-to-late game. If a game’s combat system is enjoyable, needlessly complicating encounters with overly gimmicky/pattern-based enemies amidst unnecessarily “clever” level designs is showing a lack of faith in one’s own game design. If an encounter is fun for, say, thirty seconds, why throw as unnecessary complications into the mix? Fighting ninjas in Ninja Gaiden 1 and 2 was always more enjoyable than fighting crazy demons much like fighting the Covenant in the Halo games was always more enjoyable than fighting the Flood. Bayonetta doesn’t succumb to any major late-game missteps in the same way as these game but, rather, for a lengthy portion of gameplay around the 70% completion mark, tosses a series of boss battles and vehicle segments at the player for the sake of pacing and “variety.” These segments were, surprisingly, never “bad,” but they were unnecessary deviations from gameplay that I by no means wanted a respite from in this game; however, on the plus side, these segments never violated the pacing and gameplay flow.

Where Bayonetta truly breaks down is when it severs its excellent gameplay flow and pacing with unnecessary, poorly-placed, and surprisingly lengthy cut scenes. The story is at best entertaining and sometimes cute, but more often it is incredibly repetitive and slow with the information it provides players. There were numerous times where the cinematic director wants to remind players that Bayonetta is a cool, sexy, and incredibly talented protagonist who can execute insanely well-timed combat maneuvers with ease. In order to achieve this goal, the player watched scenes which extends upwards of one to two minutes straight where Bayonetta does nothing but kill enemies in cool/sexy ways. While this worked stylistically in the introductory cut scene, it quickly becomes grating as its quantity exceeds one cut scene. These could be forgiven, though, if the game didn’t pair such scenes with plot scenes which continually touched on the same three or four plot points over and over again. The insanity and quirkiness of the Bayonetta plot is endearing and well-fitting the universe and tone of the game, but the gameplay does not only disallow such gruelingly lengthy cut scenes but also discourages breaks in game flow in general.

Much has been made of the hyper-sexualized image and form of Bayonetta. Platinum Games is unabashed in their glorification of the female forms they have constructed. As far as I’m concerned, the prominence of the primarily-naked and suggestive Bayonetta imagery throughout the game does nothing if not support everything Platinum Games has constructed. Bayonetta is clearly a game designed by a male development team, but at no point do I feel that it was chauvinistic or demeaning. If anything, Bayonetta is a game which feels like it was developed by a team who is comfortable with the sexuality present in the game and in using that as a driving for for their protagonist rather than a marketing team. Platinum Games understands that their leading lady is as fictional and fantastical as the universe she exists within. For more along these lines, read: “Her Sex is a Weapon”, “Bayonetta”, and “If You Run Out of Ammo You Can Have Mine”.

I’m planning now to revisit Bayonetta a playthrough or two down the line when I have a more full grasp of the game’s various modes of combat and the items which the game didn’t seem to fully intend me to possess on my initial play-through. For now, Bayonetta is a one-of-a-kind action game with a superb execution of its paramount design tenet of fluidity.

Trend-’naughts

I feel compelled to follow the trend of making “of the Decade” lists. So here are the trends in games over the decade. I had a hard time determining my own criteria for what I considered to be an important trend. I decided on the following: an important trend is a recurring adherence to and iteration on a mechanic, setting, and/or execution of design over the course of the decade in games which appeal to the critical body (reviewers and pure critics) and myself or gamers I consider to share similar gaming interests. I’m also going to limit myself to a two paragraph maximum per trend (other than the first one) because, if I did not, the discussion of each trend would span several disparate walls of text. These are in no particular order.

Social Play

No particular order, but it seems almost negligent to suggest that any trend in this list trumps the emergence and popularity of social gaming. And I’m not referring to anything that Zynga or Playfish are doing with Facebook games right now because their long-term relevance seems somewhat dubious. It would be absurd to not mention their existence given their popularity the time of writing. No, social gaming is embodied in games like LittleBigPlanet, Rock Band: Beatles, Halo, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, World of Warcraft, and so many others. So essential is social play to the modern gamer that there have been a slew of games such as Left 4 Dead and Army of Two which put a focus on playing with a partner or friends (at the expense of the solo experience). And, more than any other major technological or game design advent of the decade, no one deserves more credit for this trend than Microsoft for Xbox Live. They’re not the first to have the idea of a major social gaming platform, but their execution, especially at the time, was unmatched.

It’s fascinating to watch the evolution of long-running series as they adapt to the changing gaming climate (and the cultural/economical relevance of Generation Y). Started in 1996, Resident Evil has had seven major entries into long-running franchise over the years. When the series trademark gameplay started wearing a bit thin around the days of Code Veronica (2000) and Zero (2002), Capcom retaliated with the critical and commercial hit Resident Evil 4 (2005). Capcom’s next major release, however, despite there being no need to deviate from the core design of Resident Evil 4, was the cooperative-focused Resident Evil 5.

Given the absolute cultural domination of broadband internet and services like Facebook and Twitter, which promote an enthusiastic mindset of the sharing of daily minutiae, the elevation of games as an active, social bonding experience between people is hardly a surprise. World of Warcraft is the logical next step from playing Dungeons and Dragons or simply growing up on games like Final Fantasy. Why play alone when your best friend is also on Xbox Live playing the same game?

Enjoyable Realism

For a form of entertainment whose consumers commonly cite the benefit of the medium being a supreme “escape from reality,” the biggest games of the decade are fundamentally grounded in reality. The Sims, one of gaming’s biggest mainstream phenomenons, is a game where players manage the day-to-day operations and routines of humans called Sims. Games like Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport popularized the simulation racer with absolute commercial and critical success. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare took its trademark gameplay to the modern day and put players into implausible but topical scenarios in our shared concept of the world we live in. Grand Theft Auto 4 brought gave us a New York City sandbox to drive, kill, and steal in. Sure, they’re power fantasies, but they’re incredibly successful power fantasies that don’t reach to the depths of science fiction or high fantasy for their subject matter.

This is the one trend that I don’t have a thorough understanding of and any explanation I make is reaching into unfamiliar sociological depths. If I had to guess, I’d say the Internet and modern communication has had such a profound impact on the modern gamer and game developers to the point where real life is ceaselessly interesting. The days of sole pen pals from other countries are gone; every day, any day, anyone with an Internet connection can look up factual information on other countries and cultures and talk to people from them. Why go to space when games like Far Cry 2 can portray the beautiful, harrowing reality of Africa? That’s not to undercut the role of fantasy and science fiction, as the success of Halo and Harry Potter are huge, but the tight-knit integration of these titles with our own concepts of reality still holds true.

Emergent Story-Telling

Something that most of Nintendo’s games and every sports game in history realized ages ago is that the story the player tells is always more enjoyable and interesting than the one that a designer or writer tells. This is something that Maxis realized and embraced with The Sims (and even moreso in its two sequels). Designing zany behaviors and allowing (and encouraging) players to experiment with zany situations for their Sims will yield the most amazing play experiences. And looking at some of the major successes in gaming over the last decade which are actually major AAA games in genres that typically rely heavily on static storylines, it looks like designers are starting to try and adopt an emergent narrative design.

Games like such as Left 4 Dead, Far Cry 2, and Portal all provide story layered on top of player-driven gameplay experiences. Left 4 Dead focuses on the interplay of very defined, well-written characters in a semi-random gameplay environment to flesh out the story of its game world as players engage with the game systems. Far Cry 2 provides a narrative impetus and little else as it lets its players loose into its world to achieve a given goal while the gameplay systems provide for a consistently dynamic and unpredictable experience. And Portal, while not actually having any emergent story-telling mechanics, has an entertaining antagonist provide the atmosphere for gameplay in a short game progression which ends up feeling far more free and dynamic than it actually is. None of these games are overly heavy-handed in the way they tell their story: once they give the player control of a character, they let the player define the experience. This is one strategy that Nintendo seems to have known all along.

Musical Play

We late-teens and twenty-somethings like music. A lot of us like video games too. Almost no one realized this quite like the partnership of Red Octane and Harmonix when they released Guitar Hero in 2005. Harmonix aced the utilization of plastic instruments as a medium into the cultural collective’s dream of being a rock star like no one before. It was popular and it worked well. When Neversoft took over the reigns with the forgettable Guitar Hero 3, though, Harmonix took their thought train to the next level: we like music and music is a shared experience. Harmonix realized that video games, like nothing else in the world — not even alcohol — has the power to bring four adult males together into a single room to pound on plastic instruments and sing “Don’t Step Believin’” at the top of their lungs. Alcohol is still nice, though.

I said almost earlier because, to me, no one realized the sublime combination of music and video games like Tetsuya Mizuguchi and the crew at Q Entertainment with 2001-2002′s Rez. A game which took some traditional ideas of what games were (reflex-dependent and progressive) and put that experience inside a digital soundscape unlike any other. The game provided a static musical track as a base line and every gameplay interaction layered ever-fitting audio cues on top of that to create what is still, in my mind, the ultimate music game.

Reward

Nothing keeps a game sticky like the Skinnerian model of reward smoothly integrated into game design. Let’s just set aside our thoughts about ethics for a moment.

I mentioned earlier that Microsoft was ahead of the game, so to speak, with the design of Xbox Live for the Xbox 360. One such way was the addition of persistent per-game achievements for every user. The advent of Xbox Live achievements introduced operant conditioning into the mainstream gamer’s expectation set for current generation games. And, as to be expected from such a form of reward, achievements took on a life of their own with every platform catering to seeming to cater to the commonly understood “core” gamer (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Steam) adopting some form of the mechanic. “Achievement whoring” is a commonly used and understood term in the lexicon of a current generation gamer and is likely to continue being so in the future. Even World of Warcraft, already the video gaming analog to a slot machine (putting aside virtual slot machines for sake of the comparison), added achievements to its arguably ethical list of ways to keep people playing.

Justifying the Means

[This post contains spoilers as to the entirety of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's plot. I loved Modern Warfare 2 and will write about the brilliant core gameplay, mechanics, and level design in a later piece, but this is not that piece.]

“Two men took down an entire base. I ask much more from you now.” General Shepard says as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 loads the upcoming mission. Shepard goes on to tell the player about the danger of a Russian named Makarov who has “no rules. [And] No Boundaries.” Shepard says “You don’t want to know what it’s cost already to put you next to him,” insinuating the lengths which this special fictional task force has gone to in order to get the player in deep cover alongside a Russian terrorist. Shepard then says “It will cost you a piece of yourself,” and “It will cost nothing compared to everything you’ll save.”

The screen fades to black and the game pops up a “Disturbing Content Notice” window detailing that “disturbing or offensive” content is forthcoming. You hit “Continue.” Modern Warfare 2 asks “Are you sure?” You hit yes. The sounds of an elevator descending or ascending are heard alongside the unzipping of backpacks and the loading of magazines into weaponry. The details of the new mission slowly appear on the screen. The name of the mission: “No Russian.” Makarov’s face comes into view, alongside three other people dressed in body armor wielding large machine guns and M4 assault rifles. Makarov says “Remember – no Russian.” The five of you walk into what is revealed to be a bustling airport terminal as the objective is displayed on screen: “Follow Makarov’s lead.” Civilian men and women are standing idly in lines while security guards watch on; the audio scene is that of typical airport noises, conversations, and general foot steps all around. And then you have access to your weapon and Makarov and his henchmen open fire on the crowd. Dozens of people are mowed down, you hear screaming in the background, see some people fleeing the area.

Checkpoint reached.

You walk slowly, forced into a slow speed by the game, making you wonder if the name of the mission, “No Russian,” is some sort of bad pun. You set off a metal detector as you progress while your “teammates” continue to fire on any civilians or security guards in sight. Someone is crawling on the ground in pain in front of you and one of Makarov’s men shoots him down. Someone is stumbling and breaks into a run near you, he too is gunned down. And the mission continues like this, with the very detailed gore and civilians crawling on the ground (trailing blood), for about three or four more minutes. Dozens upon dozens of dead civilian bodies later, the typical Call of Duty gameplay kicks in against the very well-armed and bullet-resistant Russian equivalent of a SWAT team comes in with riot shields.

This is a mission that is given to players under the conceit of “the ends justify the means,” a popular theme amongst antiheroes like Jack Bauer and Vic Mackey throughout the decade. The problem with this is that Infinity-Ward tasks players with having faith that both the ends, the means, and the entire premise of the game will all come into focus at some point. “No Russian” is the fourth mission in Modern Warfare 2; preceded by a training mission, a generic trek through a village in Afghanistan in a jeep with a minigun, and a trip into a heavily guarded Russian base to get an ACS module (which is…?). By the time players get to the airport scene, they know all of nothing about Modern Warfare 2′s overarching plot other than that it involves Russians and a secret task force that may or may not be part of the CIA. Yet, the game tasks them with this mission under that ever-tenuous veil of the greater good. The mission is intended to be shocking, confusing, dark, and controversial. And this mission exists in the same video game that has an entire mission which is essentially a recreation of Michael Bay’s The Rock.

As I went through the mission, without killing a single civilian until I got the point where I would die if I didn’t fight against the SWAT-like “enemies,” I thought only of one thing: why do I have to do this? Why can’t I make the rational choice to kill Makarov then and there? Maybe the greater good will suffer, but I want to make that simple, very obvious choice. Games as an interactive medium can’t get (and shouldn’t) away by providing purely shocking or horrifying content even if it’s handled expertly; there has to be a ludic reason for a mission. I applaud Infinity-Ward for keeping “No Russian” an interactive mission where I have the kind of agency the game has accustomed me to, but by not making every target on the screen someone that the fiction supports me wanting to shoot, it opens up door that it needs to have keys to.

Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t have the kind of interactions necessary for the interactions I naturally desire in “No Russian.” At no point did I want to shoot a civilian in this mission. And I actively wanted to stop the ones who were shooting them. “No Russian” is not like Grand Theft Auto IV, also a very graphically realistic game, where I’m goofing around and accidentally run into a civilian and laugh while the impressive physics send the civilian flying. In GTA4 when I kill a civilian, it’s purely an accident or just random messing around with game systems, but it’s never something the game has its fiction enforce and reinforce. There is never a mission in Grand Theft Auto 4 where I’m tasked with killing a completely innocent civilian and I cannot progress unless I do so. And, if anything, I should be more okay with that game asking me to kill a civilian as my character has a very defined personality and role in that world. Infinity-Ward asks me to act as the character I’m playing (though they do try to dissuade that feeling by having Private Allen, the character you play in “No Russian,” talk in a preceding cut scene). For “No Russian” to work, I have to buy into the premise fully. I have to know that what I’m doing is vile but necessary. I have to have Vic Mackey‘s conviction that what I’m doing is the right thing to do, as hard as it is.

Being only the fourth mission in Modern Warfare 2, though, “No Russian” does not have the luxury of my trust or belief in its world. The mission comes out of nowhere with only the setup I gave at the beginning of this piece as reason to kill innocent civilians. I don’t even see a single shred of logic in what the game did offer me for reasoning. How does killing hundreds of people in cold blood somehow prevent a later atrocity? I don’t believe that doing any of this brings me closer to Makarov’s trust, but I do believe it makes me just as awful a human being as the game is telling me my enemy is.

Maybe that’s the point. I got it wrong: the ends don’t justify the means but, rather, I must become as evil as the worst men in the world in order to save the innocent. It’s a flawed concept, but I can almost see what the mission is constructing if that’s the case. I’m supposed to be revolted, I’m supposed to hate the game for giving me this task, I’m supposed to have no way out, and I’m supposed to feel that my only purpose is to have faith that the task I’m given will work out in the end. Okay. I can almost see that. It’s a flawed idea, a flawed execution, and a contrived situation which takes the fears of the modern world and preys on them… But, okay. I’ll try and buy into this. And so I do. I finish the mission. And when I get to the end of the mission and get into a van with Makarov and his men, one of Makarov’s men says “That will send a message!” Makarov says “No, this will send a message” and he shoots my character. And I’m dead.

So now I feel dirty for everything I have done and for attempting to reason my way out of the terrible position the game illogically and undeservedly put me in… And it ends with the game twirling its metaphorical mustache by pulling a plot twist lower than even 24 would ever go by having my American character get framed for the killing of all of these Russian civilians and igniting World War III. To make matters worse, the game never ends up actually justifying the actions of my character at the Russian airport. The airport terminal massacre sets the game’s overarching events in motion but no more. The game simply raises the stakes from mission to mission until I am to the logical extreme of battling in a war-torn Washington DC, popping green flares (The Rock, again) from above the West Wing. And, what’s worse, Makarov is never heard from again other than two lines of dialogue at the other end of radio chatter in a mission in the game’s final act.

The issue being raised by journalists and gamers is whether or not this kind of content has a place in games given the incredibly varied audience of a game like Modern Warfare 2. And, definitely, more games should attempt to portray controversial and mature content in interesting, relevant ways. To boil the issue down to as clear a point as possible: the problem with “No Russian” is that Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t earn the fictional right to present the content that it does. Whether this specific mission is well-executed or not, and I don’t think it is, if the reason for its existence is not contextually supported then its presence is gratuitous and its intent lost.

In “No Russian,” Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 compromised the integrity of its gameplay, its narrative, and my implicit trust solely for the sake of a macguffin.

Forza Motorsport 3

I started Forza Motorsport 3, the sequel to one of my favorite racers of all time (only behind the original Gran Turismo), with one of my favorite cars in existence: the Audi R8 v10. It was a gorgeous car and I got to drive it on a gorgeous track. Forza 3 won me over at “Go!”

The car above is not that car, but one I later acquired and put some LightBox Interactive make-up on. The reason the car above is not that car is because Forza 3 is like a drug-dealer. The first hit was free. After that introductory race, the game took my beloved from me and gave me a list of cars I could choose from. Let’s see here. A Nissan Versa, a Ford Fiesta, a… Oh my god. What is going on. These are all. They’re all… Hatchbacks. Cue Darth Vadar.

My first poor choice was the Versa.

While I was fighting up the ranks of Forza 3 with my hatchback, I noticed the extensive amount of assists that the game offered players. It basically allows players to choose a spot on the spectrum from bowling with bumpers to bowling without bumpers or a bowling ball. The analogy broke apart a bit there. The game allows for the traditional driving assists: traction control, anti-lock brakes, stability management, and driving line (full driving line or braking line only). Those are vanilla assists. Forza 3 takes things a bit further, though, and has options where the game will auto-brake for the player, making the turning and accelerating the only thing that players have to do. This is on top of Easy/Medium/Hard difficulty settings. And the brilliance of the whole scheme is that Forza 3 offers incentives for turning off assists and increasing the difficulty in the form of monetary compensation. Every race has a baseline cash award and the assist incentives work off of that. Turning from Medium to Hard, for example, offers 10% more money than the event baseline. Turning off the driving line maybe 5-15% more. Turning off all assists up to 20-25% more. It’s a fantastic way to allow players to get a base experience and earn money, but still provide gameplay-relevant reasons for players to try and make the game more difficult (and, hopefully, more interesting).

As I was driving up the ranks with my Versa I was rising in driving level. Eventually, the game awarded me with a car to tide me over until I had enough money to make my first major purchase. The Forza 3 benefactors decided I deserved a Vauxhall VX220. It was in this car that I started to feel like a real driver. I took this yellow mini-beast through the second of my World Series events:

The thing that Forza 3 does that its predecessor didn’t is to provide meaty rewards for every new driver level. And the rewards are meaty. As players level up their car level, they receive part discounts on upgrades by that car’s manufacturer. That’s neat and all, but as players level up, uh, themselves, they get entire new cars. The reward cars start out somewhat modestly, but as players go through the game, the gift cars get substantially more worthwhile. That Vauxhall VX220 was one such gift car and it was my go-to machine for an entire class event series. That VX220 treated me so well that midway through the event series I gave myself a little automobile treat; I had to choose between buying an Audi R8 of my very own and blowing all of my earning up to that point (which would prevent me from upgrading the new car) and something slightly more “modest” that I could upgrade a bit. I decided on the BMW Z4 in a sexy black color after hearing Brenda talk about her car so lovingly. The Z4′s a beauty, ain’t she? Like what a panther would be if wasn’t a car. Or if it was a Maximal.

Time goes on, though, and even the Z4 can’t fulfill my needs forever. Eventually I had to move up in the world. So I got my Audi R8 (pictured at the beginning of this article) and I drove the crap out of it. I love that car so much that after a series of upgrades, I ripped out the engine, bought a new one, and upgraded that one to R3 racing status so I could use the R8 in another series event. Having seen a Ford GT lying around Austin one day a few weeks ago, though, I decided that I should get one of those. The money was flowing in virtual Trent’s pocket. Of course I can get a Ford GT. I can even upgrade it. And probably get a nice smelling Christmas tree to hang from the rear-view mirror. Did I mention that Forza 3 is a gorgeous game yet? No? Well, it is. It also does not use its powers for good. This is my Ford GT moments before I flipped it:

Forza 3 is nice enough to include a rewind feature which lets players rewind time to a point where less awful and painful looking Ford GTs exist. It’s a fantastic feature that allows me to actually play the twelve-plus minute races that fill the upper-tier event series without cursing endlessly. The rewind feature fits into what seems to be the hallmark feature of Forza 3: letting people play the game they want to play. Turn 10 Studios (the developer) seems to understand that even people who love racing games may, generally, never “finish” a racing game due to the rapidly increasing difficulty/time investment. As such, while the time investment for a race may not change, the ease of finishing a long race is mitigated as much as possible. So much, in fact, that the only penalty for rewinding during a race is that the lap in which you use one of your infinite rewinds on simply does not “count” for leaderboard times. It’s a strangely non-punishing feature that I’d, frankly, expect to be in the same list of options as the assists (but is not).

It is, however, through the use of these features that I am able to continue to play and greatly enjoy Forza 3 beyond the period where I’d normally give up in similar racers. I’m even to the point in Forza 3 where leveling up gives me a free batmobile (Lamborghini Reventon):

I am Batman. Vroom vroom.

Sometimes I Play Video Games

I’ve been playing so many games over the course of the last few weeks that I really haven’t felt like (nor had any particularly strong inspirations for) writing. This makes me feel like a bad person. So, instead of some targeted design or critical piece, I’m just going to write about some of my favorite moments from the games I’m currently playing. Well. Four of them anyway. I play a lot of games at once.

Borderlands
Going through Borderlands with my friend Mike and the ever-fantastic Simon Ferrari was a very hectic experience. It was clear to all of us that this scenario is the way to best enjoy the game, but at some point the gameplay was incredibly trying and hollow. The three of us were running around just doing dirt-simple and quick quests that took us from very poorly-organized waypoint to waypoint.

And then we met this fella:

Skagzilla is simply a ginormous version of the Skag enemies that overpopulate the entire first third of Borderlands. This guy was enormous, had an abundance of health (too much, in fact, as this segment did get long in the tooth), and required the constant attention of all three of us. The crazed communication over our Xbox Live headsets, however, was both crazy and hilarious as we scramble to find ways to hurt Skagzilla while we avoided his incredibly painful attacks. I kept switching between three different guns of wildly different uses just to feel like I was trying new strategies to kill this guy faster. Skagzilla’s health was depleting so slowly, in fact, that I started getting a bit bored. I turned my attention to observing the actions of my co-op buddies; Simon and Mike were frantically running and jumping around this arena while frantically trying to coordinate via headset. I ended up just chilling in the corner of the arena for about two minutes, taking pictures of the screen with my iPhone and enjoying their interactions. I’m a fantastic co-op buddy.

Half-Minute Hero
After trading in my PSP and some other games to get my long-desired PSP Go, I have found a wealth of games on PSN to play. One of which is XSEED’s Half-Minute Hero, a game which I excitedly read about a couple of weeks ago and was incredibly interested to see its concept in action.

The game is really based on thirty-seconds of gameplay for a given level and there is a timer constantly displayed on the screen reminding players of this fact. If it hits 0.00, then it’s game over. I was running through one of the earlier levels in the game that required me to repair a bridge before I could get to that level’s boss and in constant fear of this timer hitting zero. I tried to balance the frantic pace of leveling up, earning money, getting an item I wanted, and then securing a hammer for one of the level’s characters so this guy could repair the bridge and I could complete the level. I kept running out of time, though. On my fourth try and with only four seconds left on my timer as I dashed into a village with almost no health in order to compose myself and strategize the hell out of this level, I noticed a statue in the village that I hadn’t interacted with up to that point. Turns out, this statue allows me to punt the timer back to the thirty second mark (for a fee). I did that, took some time to level my character up and earn some money so I could get all of the items in that level, and then killed the level boss.

The game’s summary for that level encapsulated the entire experience perfectly:

The path closed off by the evil lord… Trent gave the carpenter his hammer and the bridge was reconstructed. The evil lord was then soundly defeated! He actually fixed a bridge with one hammer. He’s much more amazing than the evil lord.

Forza Motorsport 3
Pretty much everything.

Specifically, I was playing my first multiplayer race with the aforementioned Mike a few guys from Shacknews on my most-hated of race tracks: Laguna Seca. I started out the race in the first grid position and was quickly overtaken by all but one of the other four racers in the race. The fifth-place racer decided to try and overtake me just as I was preparing to drive into a turn, so I was maneuvering to the outside lane in order to aim myself for an easy inside lane transition into the corner, and I, accidentally, side-swiped the fifth-place racer just as he was overtaking me. I was completely amazed. I turned on my rear-view viewing mode and watched as he did a series of spins into the sand; I laughed maniacally over the headset as he cursed at me.

And just as I switched out of my rear-view mode, I realized I was driving straight into a wall. It damaged my engine and I had no chance to beat anyone the rest of the race.

Torchlight
Racing games and hack-and-slash games are two game genres I get unconditionally absorbed by. Torchlight is game made by parts of the same team that worked on the ill-fated Mythos — one of the only MMOs that I ever really liked, even in its early alpha/beta stages. Torchlight is a very intentionally-designed clone of Diablo. Unlike games like Dungeon Siege and Titan Quest, which share a very similar basic structure of hack-and-slash gameplay based on item collection, Torchlight manages to capture just the right balance of combat, dungeon crawling, story (the lack thereof), and item collection. It absolutely nails it.

My favorite moment of Torchlight, though, was when I realized I could give my pet cat spells. He was already an incredibly useful cat that could take a bunch of vendor trash items back into town and sell them all while I stayed and explored dungeons. When I gave him the ability to summon skeletons and cast ice shards, though, he became a valuable ally who I fought side-by-side with. He’s the Blood to my Vic, except instead of finding women he summons legions of undead to join our dungeon-crawling team.

Video games are rad.

Bad Screen Shots of Good Games

I usually relish taking screen shots of games as I play them, but since most of my gaming has been on consoles for the last couple of years, my screen shot taking has died down a lot compared to my primarily PC gaming days during college. When I got my beloved iPhone over the summer, though, and wanted to show Twitter a pixel or two, I got in the habit of taking awful screen shots with the iPhone’s camera. I put some of these in a gallery that I hope to update often. They may involve mild spoilers. Some of the highlights:

Couple therapy through equal-opportunity dismemberment in Dead Space:

Someone was artificially trying to get a head in life:

Half-Minute Hero is amazing:

It’s a trap! (Wolfenstein):

Eek (Demon’s Souls):

hahaha (50 Cent: Blood in the Sand):

Handling micro-transactions the classy way in Need for Speed: Shift:

what (Final Fantasy Dissidia):

A proper update will be forthcoming. Probably about Half-Minute Hero.