54 – Bloodlines, Pt 2

Combat is mentioned, and rightly so, as one of the weakest parts of Bloodlines. It obviously wasn’t the team’s priority–which, I must say, was the right decision. From what I’ve read, the game was given a release date while the game was still super unfinished, and the team had to scramble to get it as done as they could–that it’s as playable as it is today is largely due to ten years of patching. It was absolutely the right call to put more concentration onto the atmosphere, the environment, the storyline, the quest structure than it was to focus on the action, which generally hovers around “good enough”.

I’m playing a brawler assassin–I’m more interested in sneaking up on people and biting them on the neck until they are dead as my method of fighting than I am in being a gunsmith or anything. The sneaking up is satisfying; the actual brawling consists of clicking the mouse button to throw a punch, twiddling the movement keys because the game says that’ll do different punches, and hoping for the best. Maybe throwing up your buff spell or something. I’ve got a few options for my character as far as spells go–you start off equipped with a magic bullet which, if you hang out for a second, replenishes your MP more than it costs to cast, and further spells I’m saving up for include the ability to make surrounding enemies vomit blood, explode, attack each other, etc. Partially due to the less-detailed graphics, partially due to me playing a fucking vampire, partially due to the game making a point of treating the separation of “innocents that you should not kill lest you actually turn into a monster” and “people who are trying to kill you and so you’re able to slake your predatory urges in the name of self-defense” as a theme, it comes across as, oddly enough, less horrifying.

While I am admittedly not feeling any real-world guilt for anything I’ve done in the game–it is, after all, Only A Videogame and killing a videogame character is not at all like killing someone in real life (sorry Keogh!)–there is a bit of weight to more than a few situations you find yourself in. One of the major concepts–it’s right there in the title–is the Masquerade, the agreement among supernaturals that it would be Very Bad if humans were to know the truth about what’s going on around them and therefore the need to keep predations secret. There are more than a few instances where an innocent human has Seen Too Much and you have to choose between killing them before they can convince the authorities that there’s something going on in that abandoned hospital–slaughtering them for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time–or letting them live but threatening the integrity of the Masquerade. In all cases, I have decided to uphold the Masquerade–that’s the kinda character I’m playing–and it’s nice that in certain circumstances, there’s an alternative, nonlethal solution, like telling a bum, in an extremely scary and monstrous voice, that he had better forget what he’s seen.

But when it does come down to fighting–there is a deal of fighting in this game–it’s all bop-bop-bop and hope for the best (and if I do replay, I’m going to play a gunsmith character because why not). RPGs have always had, at their core, the problem of making combat meaningful, and they more than other genres manage to make encounters have a kind of dual role. If we think about a game as simple as Dragon Warrior, the enemies serve as both obstacles and resources. That game paces its exploration by tying groups of monsters to areas of the world map, and at any point in the game there are going to be areas which the monsters are extremely easy, where they’re a fair fight, and where you’re hopelessly outclassed by them. You’d be able to walk almost anywhere in the game from the get-go if it weren’t for the enemies being too strong for you when you wander too far. This is mitigated by the fact that combat has a direct hand in making your character stronger–fighting monsters gives you both XP and gold, the former increasing your stats and giving you abilities each time you get enough, the latter allowing you to buy better equipment. You stay in an area, fighting and getting equipment until the monsters become too easy, you wander into a new area where the monsters had previously been too strong for you and you set up camp there. The germ is grinding, and while in a game with a poor battle system it becomes a slog, in a well-designed game, it’s part of the fun.

Well, Bloodlines kind of does away with leveling–in a way it cuts out the middleman. It has a fairly standard skill point system, where you can purchase levels in skills for a number of them. Most games which have this kind of a system give you skill points at level up–when you’ve got 3,000 XP, you get to level 5 and you’re given 3 skill points to do what you want. Bloodlines gives you the skill points directly for finishing quests or otherwise doing significant things. (It does still call them XP–which led to a moment at the beginning when I was given 2 XP for a quest and was almost insulted—Might and Magic gives you tens of thousands of XP every few minutes, and even Wizardry 7 was dumping hundreds and hundreds of XP on me for simple encounters–until I realized that 2 XP is actually a really good haul in this game.)

Because of its focus on storyline, you don’t get any direct reward for fighting enemies–similar to Mass Effect 2, when you complete a quest your progress is evaluated and you’re given XP based on your performance, with some quests giving a higher reward if you did a no-kill run. It’s actually kind of nice to see a game which actively discourages grinding–because there’s no advantage to fighting aimlessly, you don’t have to spend your time on that–but at the same time, there’s no advantage to fighting and yet there are a large number of situations where fighting is required. Enemies don’t even have a pacing function–while I’m not sure if any level scaling is done, I’ve never been in a situation my character couldn’t handle with a couple of reload. And so the takeaway ends up, almost, being that there’s no point in fighting. (That’s kind of my issue with Zelda, particularly with entries like Skyward Sword which were focused on inaccurate, irritating, carpal-tunnel inducing waggle–enemies drop rupees which you very quickly max out on, and hearts which you usually don’t need, and otherwise form a bunch of tedious busywork.)

So it’s weird–the game wants to take the focus off of generic combat, of having rooms full of mooks you’ve got to punch your way through, but it doesn’t quite make the leap that it could probably make a really good game with fewer, more deliberate encounters. Given its budgeting problems and its release date, I can’t necessarily fault it. I can fault all of the games that have come out in the past ten years which haven’t quite managed to figure out this lesson yet. Dishonored is one of the few that’s run with having two very different games possible–one which involves combat with a lot of enemies, and one which requires avoiding all encounters except about a half dozen major characters; and of course there’s Shadow of the Colossus, which was wonderful but whose shine dulls a tiny bit each year.

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I’ve had murder on my mind since, oh, let’s just call it March, let’s trace everything to Bioshock Infinite, that’s a fine narrative. Dishonored was kind of a first step: I distinctly remember a moment in which I got to see the spine of a guard whose head I’d chopped off, and that wasn’t something I particularly wanted to see, but DIshonored had some merit to it. Bioshock Infinite was Extruded Videogame Product, and while I can’t say “murder simulator” with a straight face, the story seemed like a half-assed act of self-aggrandizement designed to give a lame veneer–to pretend that the game was something classier than an opportunity to control a dude who gets to slaughter people by the hundredfold.

Look–Killing is Harmless is overwritten–its endless summaries and half-baked analysis seem more like a term paper written the night before, it’s padded using tricks that every sophomore knows, and one of its main theses–that one can be held as morally culpable for a videogame action as one can be for a real-life action–isn’t one I agree with at all–but it’s certainly one of the few pieces of game criticism to come out of that particular scene that’s remotely worth a damn: Whatever your opinion of Spec Ops The Line, Keogh’s question–why are you playing a game whose basic actions can be boiled down to “repeatedly murdering dudes”?–was posed prominently enough that it’s worth attempting to answer, and the realization that we might not necessarily be able to do so satisfactorily is significant, yeah.

I’ve been playing RPGs of one form or another for most of my life: Combat has always existed, for me, more as a series of numbers hitting up against other numbers rather than anything more visceral. It can’t be insignificant that I was such a Dragon Warrior guy–still am. Thanks to Akira Toriyama, Dragon Warrior has always had wonderful monster designs–many of which, especially the Slime, are iconic of the series–and so I almost get the sense that a game where you fight primarily humans, especially in a fantasy scenario, is evidence of laziness on the part of the developers. (The so-frequent zombie, really, is usually a way of avoiding the moral questions surrounding killing humans–zombies are soulless monsters and therefore “safe” to kill–without having to do pesky things such as using your imagination to come up with creatures.)

Monsters, not wild animals–there’s something as equally odious about killing a pack of wolves defending their territory as there is killing a guard who simply took the job because it had good insurance and would let him retire early with a good pension. Games have been experimenting with making enemies feel like people for years, as simple things like a wider variety of voice clips became possible; in the effort of games to embrace realism, you don’t necessarily want a bunch of enemies which feel like ducks in a shooting gallery.

I’m not sure I’m leading up to anything more profound than, I’m just bored of games which make an effort to bring the experience of combat into further realism. Anvil of Dawn is hitting this: The enemies are all gruesome and cool-looking monsters–a good motivator to move on to the next dungeon is to see what they’re gonna come up with next, which is something that’s entirely lost in the likes of Skyrim. The combat is extremely simple: You shuffle up to enemies, bop them on the head, shuffle back, let them miss you, then go back and bop them on the head again until they die. It’s not as quick as the fights in the earlier Lands of Lore, and its descendant Legend of Grimrock all but perfects the bop-and-shuffle–but I think it’s satisfying enough. The timing is different for each of the enemies, and there’s some basic strategy to learn, some of that certain-weapons-or-spells-damage-certain-enemies-better thing, but not that much more than that. You don’t even have to aim.

I guess it puts combat in a secondary role, and I like that. It works as a pacing device, as a way of creating an atmosphere of danger and dread, and as a way of worldbuilding, in a way: This isn’t generic Tolkien orcs and shit; Tempest is a fairly alien world, and its enemies are likewise alien. But the game is not about the experience of combat: It’s about the experience of navigating mazes. The mazes contain monsters, just as they contain treasures and they contain puzzles. And I love mazes.

I like abstraction, I guess. I want to look at cool stuff. One of the main reasons AAA has completely left me cold is it isn’t giving me cool stuff to look at, it isn’t giving me cool stuff to fight, but it’s asking me to pretend to be soldiers and murderers and, again, it’s not that I feel guilty about it, but I think it’s time to start being more careful about who I pretend to be. Maybe it’s as simple as I think it’s just nicer to pretend to be a hero sometimes.