Deus Ex – Betrayal!

Turns out, murdering a fellow agent isn’t the thing to do if you want to earn favor with your boss. But surprisingly enough all I got was a scolding. […] In retaliation for the betrayal, they’ve remotely deactivated Paul’s augmentation and activated his kill switch. Your brother has twenty-four hours to live. If Paul has a kill switch, that means I do too. Step out of line, and the powers that be will snuff me out. This kind of puts a dampener on morale; nobody likes to work for a jerk!

This post is the fourth in my series which chronicles my journey through the original Deus Ex. Read part three here.

The pursuit of stolen Ambrosia continues. I’ve successfully traveled to the private section of LaGuardia airport in pursuit of Juan Lebedev, the man behind the theft of the Ambrosia vaccine. According to Joseph Manderley, my boss at UNATCO, “Lebedev poses a continuing threat to UNATCO. He is also a dangerous man, and if the operation should result in his termination rather than capture, there is no doubt that the agent responsible would be found acted appropriately and with the full force of the law.” Lebedev is loading the stolen vaccine onto a plane in preparation for transport elsewhere. My job is to find him and the vaccine, and prevent both of them from leaving the airport. 

Sneaking around the airport was tense, but not as difficult as I thought it might be. Due to my unfortunate resort to violence in the last mission, I was well stocked on tranquilizer darts here. There were a few security bots I had to sprint away from, but I was able to get the drop on most of the security guards. Outside of the the airplane hangar, my main objective, I had a little bit of trouble with the guard house. There were two ways in: a door, and a second-story window. Entering through the door put me in full view of two NSF troops. There was no way for me to incapacitate both before one of them triggered the alarm. Going in through the second-story window put me in a dorm room. There were some supplies, but I needed a lockpick to get out, and I didn’t have one. At this point I’m starting to wonder if lock picks really are so fragile, or if the game has made them disposable for the sake of balance. It’d be kind of overpowered if I only needed a single lock pick to open every locked door in the game, right? To get in the guard house, I wound up going back outside through the window, and tossing a few metal crates around. The noise attracted one of the guards from inside, which I batoned into submission. This left me free to give the remaining guard a dart-infused nap. Obstacles removed, I stood freely in front of my objective: Lebedev’s 747.

Betrayal! In this hangar I find a terrorist-operated 747, a barrel of stolen vaccine, Juan Lebedev himself, and my dear brother Paul waiting on the front steps to greet me. He’s a double-agent, affiliated with the NSF but working undercover at UNATCO. Shocking? Maybe to some people, but it was pretty clearly telegraphed by the game up until this point. What I didn’t expect it what Paul tells me about the virus. The Gray Death is a man-made virus, which means someone unleashed it intentionally. Since UNATCO is the only organization capable of creating and distributing the cure, every organization on earth is subject to their whims. Earth is controlled by bankers. Who’d have thought?

I go into the plane and prepare to meet Lebedev. Before doing so, a friend of mine suggested I plant a LAM, Lightweight Attack Munition in the hallway outside our meeting. It seems a bit odd to me to plant an explosive outside of a peaceful meeting between a government agent and a world terrorist, but who am I to judge?

Explosive planted, I walk in to interrogate Lebedev. He surrenders and says little else. My conversation with him ends, and the hallway outside his room explodes. A second later, I hear footsteps walk past me and into the bathroom. Following them inside, I notice that Anna Navarre is cloaked and registering as a hostile. Shooting her a few more times, she falls and then explodes. Cybernetically augmented agents do that, apparently. Wait, what? I planted the explosive in the hallway, and Anna detonated it. The explosive is triggered by any kind of motion, friend or foe, so that’s why it detonated. The blast wasn’t enough to kill her, but she registered it as an attack and responded by activating her built-in cloaking defense. At this point, she is hostile towards me since I planted the explosive. I had to shoot her a few more times to preserve my life and Lebedev’s. She then died, at which point her cybernetic implants went into overload and exploded so nobody could recover them.

So what would happen if I didn’t try to explode Anna preemptively? Deus Ex is great in that it gives nearly unparalleled player freedom, but it doesn’t necessarily make clear what the alternative options are. As it turns out, if Anna had come into the meeting between JC and Lebedev, she would have issued an ultimatum: Kill Lebedev or she will. Kill the prisoner, and you both go back to UNATCO. JC would be riddled with the guilt of murdering an unarmed man; a man who his bosses claim is a terrorist. In addition he’d be no closer to knowing why his brother betrayed an organization that’s the embodiment of international cooperation. Kill Anna, and you’ve betrayed the world government and will presumably suffer their full wrath.

Since killing an unarmed prisoner isn’t my cup of tea, I decided that to betraying my host organization was the moral thing to do. It was a good thing that Anna had been removed from the picture. After she, er, departs, Lebedev is in more of a talking mood. He states that JC and Paul are genetically-engineered humans; a pioneering experiment in the absolute control of mankind. UNATCO is a lie, that it’s just a puppet for the real threat: a secretive organization called Majestic-12. Why else would there be only one corporately-manufactured cure to a global plague? Shouldn’t the recipe for healing be transmitted to any company that’s capable of manufacturing it? The Gray Death is about controlling the population. The NSF was working on getting the vaccine to a man in Hong Kong named Tracer Tong. He’s working on reverse-engineering the cure so it can be mass-produced and distributed to the masses.

Treason committed and sinister plot uncovered, it’s time to go back and report to the boss. Manderley is not happy.

Turns out, murdering a fellow agent isn’t the thing to do if you want to earn favor with your boss. But surprisingly enough all I got was a scolding. Manderley was happy enough that they were able to take Lebedev into custody, but he’s very upset at Paul’s abandonment. In retaliation for the betrayal, they’ve remotely deactivated Paul’s augmentation and activated his kill switch. Your brother has twenty-four hours to live. If Paul has a kill switch, that means I do too. Step out of line, and the powers that be will snuff me out. This kind of puts a dampener on morale; nobody likes to work for a jerk! To make things worse, my next official assignment is to go to Hong Kong and execute Tracer Tong. UNATCO takes their anti-competition clauses quite seriously.

I walk over to the helipad and meet up with my pilot, Jock. He’s not taking me to Hong Kong, but rather back to Hell’s Kitchen. Paul returned to his apartment and is in need of my help. You know, since he’s being murdered by the people who made him. Upon capturing Lebedev’s jet, UNATCO now has the locations of many other NSF agents around the world. This puts Paul’s allies under the hammer, and they’re getting wiped out left and right. Paul went back to Hell’s Kitchen because there’s a communication center nearby he can use to broadcast a warning to his friends.

There’s a lot to this section, but I think the most important thing is that I (finally) learned how the game’s durability system works. Doors, panels, and certain other objects have ratings assigned to them. These ratings make it easy to see how difficult it will be to access them. Take a look at the screenshot below; there are two ways to gain access to it. In order to open it up, I need to either use two lock picks or deal more than 10 damage to the door. 

Thankfully, the damage stats for each weapon in your inventory is pretty easy to read. My upgraded pistol deals 16 damage per bullet, making it a very logical choice to get that cabinet open.

However, there’s a door right next to that cabinet that required some… more powerful… methods in order to get it open.

The room that I blasted my way into contained some incriminating data on UNATCO. Paul needed me to broadcast that to the world along with the warning to other members of the NSF. This required I work my way back on top of a building to get to the broadcast terminal. Since I was still friendly towards the UNATCO troops who occupied the building, this was not a problem. However, part of being a cybernetically-powered super soldier is the always-on monitoring software. It’s this feature which allowed my tech support Alex to record – and then delete – my interaction with Anna on the jet. This is the same feature that allowed Walton Simmons, evil robotic overlord, to witness me broadcast a signal to the NSF in real time. Since he, through some malevolent influence, commands all UNATCO forces, this was a problem for both me and my brother Paul. Now we’re both enemies of the state.

Paul was back at his apartment, sitting defenseless whilst surrounded by now-enemy troops. When I make it back to visit him, he tells me to run for the subway station and leave him there. Leaving and running is the most logical thing to do. I possess no heavy weapons, and even if I did I don’t have the training to use them effectively. There are at least a dozen human soldiers to contend with, as well as two or three tough Men In Black. The only problem running away is that if I do so I also condemn my brother to death. Leave, and he’s out of the story. Considering that it’s his influence that caused me to betrayed the only peacekeeping government on the planet, there’s no chance I was going to just let him sit there and die. 

Since my armament consisted of little more than a pistol and a mini crossbow, this was a tough fight. I had to resort to using my one LAM to take out the Men In Black, and that was barely effective enough. My pistol proficiency was good enough that I could stay crouched and land head shots consistently, but the ammo reserves dwindled very quickly. The lobby of the ‘Ton held a more challenging fight. A dozen or so UNATCO troops wait stationed at various locations, all of them holding different armaments. I had to save, reload, and reload again to find a path that worked effectively. In the end it took a combination of pistol shots, tranquilizer darts, and a well-placed gas grenade to ensure that my brother and I could leave the hotel alive. After the battle Paul pushed me towards my only route of escape: the subway. Unfortunately, Gunther was waiting to remind me that there is no escape from scary robot men. 

Deus Ex – Dealing Drugs, and the Dumpster That Should Not Be

Owing to my inability to tell the difference between the men’s room and the women’s room, I find myself in the men’s bathroom. There’s a junkie here named Lenny, and he’s in bad shape. He threatens to blow me up unless I can get him a fix. As luck would have it, I picked up some drugs in Hell’s Kitchen. Here is where I have a brief moment of internal crisis. Do I really want to be a low-level drug dealer?

This post is the third in my series which chronicles my journey through the original Deus Ex. Read part two here.

The working theory is that the terrorists took the stolen vaccine to the warehouse, then dropped down into some abandoned subway tunnels to transport the goods elsewhere. First step: get to the old subway tunnels. A chopper takes me away from UNATCO HQ and drops me off at battery park, outside Castle Clinton. There’s a shanty town nearby where I press sum bums for informatio. Though I have no memory of the encounter, in a previous mission I was told the Mole People’s secret password. A bum in the shanty town pressed me for the passphrase, which JC knew. He gives me a secret code to activate a hidden entrance behind a phone booth in the nearby subway station. After punching in the code the entire booth sinks into the floor, granting me access to a passage that leads to the old subway station.

Ah, good old decrepit subway stations. Dark, moody, and just not a whole lot to see. A couple of bums walk the platform, as well as a hooker and a junkie. There’s a door on one end of the station, but the hallway behind it is blocked by some heavy debris. One of the bums on the platform tells me that everyone living in the station has been suffering since the water got shut off. There’s a valve that, when opened, will restore the flow of water; but it’s located past the blocked hallway. I do have an explosive, a LAM, in my inventory, but I don’t want to use it just yet. It’s usually best to search through the area and make sure there aren’t any other pathways forward.

On the level above the platform I run into a group of stout and well-armed gang members. All of them instruct me to talk to their leader because “he manages the business”. So that’s what I did. Upon seeing my augmentation, he offers me a job: take out the drug dealer on the platform below in exchange for some high explosives. I decline the offer; I didn’t sign up to do anyone else’s dirty work. Upon reflecting on his method of payment, it’s pretty obvious that the only path forward is through the blocked hallway. After turning the water back on and clearing the path, a nearby bum tells me that there’s a secret passage in the women’s restroom. The NSF moved “a bunch of barrels” through there an hour before I arrived. The secret passage is opened via keypad under the sink. Owing to my inability to tell the difference between the men’s room and the women’s room, I find myself in the men’s bathroom. There’s a junkie here named Lenny, and he’s in bad shape. He threatens to blow me up unless I can get him a fix. As luck would have it, I picked up some drugs in Hell’s Kitchen. Here is where I have a brief moment of internal crisis. Do I really want to be a low-level drug dealer? Is that why I play video games? I already blew through the passage, so I don’t really need more explosives. But then again this is Deus Ex, and I’m certain that there will always be a need for explosives. I tell my conscience to shut up and trade the drugs for a LAM. It’s only as I’m writing this I realize I never did anything about the drug dealer on the platform. Oops. Maybe Lenny will live to take a hit another day. 

Downward towards the Mole People! The secret passage takes me to another closed-off section of the abandoned subway tracks. In these depths are more bums, barrel fires, and patrolling NSF troops. In one corner, a kid and his dog are standing by a barrel. Two NSF troops stand nearby, talking to themselves. From my best estimation, the enemy troops are far enough away not to notice me. I approach the boy and ask him if he’s seen the troops moving any barrels of Ambrosia. He begins telling me his answer when I hear a rapid beeping sound. Yeah, we blew up. As it turns out, those two NSF troops were in range! While I started talking to the boy, they tossed a grenade in my direction, blowing up all three of us. Jerks! I reload my game and decide to try again. This time, I sneak up to the corner and launch a tranquilizer dart at one soldier, switching to my pistol to take out the other. Satisfied that I had cleared the area, I again approach the boy to listen to what he has to say. We blow up. Again. Turns out there was a third NSF soldier that I hadn’t seen the first time. I reload my game again, then equip my pistol and go Liam Neeson on them. Finally, I can listen to the boy! He tells me that the terrorist leader lives down here. He’s got a hidden residence nearby, and the button that grants access to it is hidden; shaped like a brick. I never found it.

Instead I went what turned out to be the opposite direction and find a set of bathrooms. Again, one of them leads to a secret passageway. What is it with cyberpunk terrorists and hiding secret passages in bathrooms? Where do they go when they actually have to use the loo? In short, I wind up in sort of a large hallway protected by two security robots. There’s only one way forward, and it’s through them. I suppose it may be possible to shoot them down, but I haven’t the firepower for it. There’s a manhole cover nearby. Out of curiosity, I check it out and find it leads to a section of sewer. At the end of it, there’s a crate that conveniently contains an EMP grenade. It makes short work of the bots, allowing me to progress. Thank goodness our terrorists hide crates containing live ordinance at the bottom of a sewer!

As I approach the next section, Alex, my tech handler, comes in over the radio to tell me I’m approaching a helibase terminal. It’s connected to LaGuardia airport, and it’s where the NSF is ferrying all the drugs through. He even tells me that they’re close to identifying the person responsible for moving the shipment. Sounds ominous. This would be a story beat that occupies the forefront of my thoughts, but I get distracted by something completely trivial. Look at the screenshot below. Do you see it? If you can, then you know it is nothing other than The Dumpster That Should Not Be.

The Dumpster That Should Not Be

Okay, I realize that this probably wouldn’t bother most people, but it sticks out to me like – well, a dumpster that has no right of being there! Think about what a dumpster is and where you see them in real life. When you go to a strip mall, it’s a long series of shops and storefronts. All the customers go in through the front doors, do their business, and walk straight out again. All the ugly, smelly business goes out the back door to the dumpster. There’s usually a service road where the dump truck drives through in the wee hours of the morning and hauls all the nasty garbage away. In an office complex, it’s on the back end of the building, surrounded by an open expanse of parking lot. Even shopping malls have collection points that allow a garbage truck enough space to maneuver around them.

Why is there a dumpster here? Look again at the screenshot above. I’ve just come to an underground helibase through service passageways and tunnels. This would presumably be where garbage is taken away, but none of the passages I walked through are large enough for a dumpster or a dump truck to drive through. No lifts, no garage doors, no open passageways. Check out the screenshot below: the double doors might presumably be large enough to push a dumpster through, but why would people take their trash out of the office only to have to cart it back through again? It makes no sense! It’s little things like this that make me do a double-take in games. These missed details pull me out of the world just a little bit and make me wonder if the game’s level designer really thought things through. 

Deus Ex is certainly not the only game ever to make these mistakes. Doom, Half Life, and Far Cry have all done the same thing. Crates, vehicles, or other large objects are present in a space where there’s no logical way for them to have gotten there. It’s a sort of spatial anachronism that just eats away at my sense of immersion. Does it really matter? Not at all! But it does shed a bit of light on the evolution of game design as a whole. Years ago, before games had the ability to render believable spaces, they relied on artistic license to convey their setting. When technology started to catch up with artistic vision, there was a bit of an awkward period where it was hard to create semi-realistic environments just right. Details like this and the logistics of how that game world really functioned were overlooked. All it would have taken for some of these areas to make sense would be to place a large garage door on one wall. It doesn’t need to open or to lead anywhere, just serve as a suggestion that the game environment is bigger than what the player can see. Game developers got better at this with time, and it’s just interesting to see what some of the growing pains were. I don’t think it invalidates the experience at all; moments like this are the exception rather than the norm. Anyway, back to our regularly scheduled blog post:

Sneaking Into the Helibase

I’ve been crawling through service tunnels, trying to make my way up to LaGuardia airport to track down some stolen drugs. Right. There’s an atrium before me, surrounded by a series of offices that I need to sneak through. Enemy troops are very active here. At least five of them have patrol routes that take them through or overlooking the atrium. It’s going to be difficult to sneak past all of these guys.

Trying to be the nice anti-terrorist agent, I do my very best to neutralize the guards on patrol in a non-lethal manner. My results are mixed since some of these enemies are quite far away. If I can hit someone in the head with a tranquiler dart, they’re rendered unconscious immediately. Hit them anywhere but the noggin and they panic and try to alert everyone in sight. It’s a challenge to be an accurate shot with the darts, since their trajectory drops significantly over long distances. Trying to factor a the path of a projectile against a moving target makes incapacitating guards at long range a tricky proposition! What usually winds up happening is that I aim too low and land a dart in their upper torso. Victims know the toxin is moving in their body and they’ve got a few seconds to do something before losing consciousness. They panic and run to their allies. In this particular case, there’s an alarm in the base. All they have to do is press the giant red button and everyone comes swarming to that location.

After a few attempts to disarm the base the nice way, I decided the only way to progress was to play for keeps. It’s time to whip out the silenced pistol and take down these terrorists one by one. The downside to this is that fallen bodies alert other soldiers. Now I not only have to neutralize the enemy, I have to clean them up. In a cold and logical way, it makes sense that I would have to do this. How many times have we watched a spy movie and and seen the secret agent drag a body to a closet so they could safely continue clandestine operations? In video game form, it’s really no different. Discovery means failure. Neutralize the target, wipe the evidence, and move on to the next one. The only problem here is that by the time I cleared the area I felt less like a secret agent and more like a twisted serial killer.

Hmm. There were more enemy troops around than I first expected. But my cover is still intact, somehow! That’s a good thing right? With the area clear, I can proceed to the maintenance elevator and go up to the ground level of LaGuardia airport. As I survey the helicopter landing pad one more time, I can’t help but wonder how all of those giant shipping containers got there…

 

Deus Ex – Hell’s Kitchen

All of these paths forward are completely optional. If I’d wanted to, I could have skipped all these other distractions and just walked through an alley to approach the warehouse head on. Tactics dictated that doing that was a bad idea for me. Since I’ve been playing with a stealthy, mostly non-lethal approach, I have no practical means of neutralizing multiple enemies at long range. Plus, I just don’t want to go in with guns blazing. It’s that Deus Ex thing again: giving players a choice about how to play the game.

This post is the second in my series which chronicles my journey through the original Deus Ex. Read part one here.

Terrorists have intercepted a shipment of Ambrosia, the anti-plague vaccine. JC, that’s me, recovered a lone barrel of it in Castle Clinton, but the majority of it remains unaccounted for. Clues point inland, towards a warehouse in Hell’s Kitchen. The NSF’s armed forces have retreated there and set up a line of defenses. Such hasty movement shouldn’t be a problem since UNATCO employs multiple cybernetically-augmented superman. But part of their defense involves a powerful generator that produces an electromagnetic field. This effectively blocks UNATCO troops from entering. Your mission: Disable the generator so your brother Paul can swoop in and recover the vaccine.Hell’s Kitchen is kind of a barren place. What first strikes me about the environment is how much it does and doesn’t feel like a big-city neighborhood. On one hand, its depiction if a city block is pretty spot-on when compared to many other games released around the turn of the millennium. On the other hand, it’s really, really barren. Cities are a hard thing to recreate in video games. In the real world, there are thousands of tiny details and variations that give buildings and neighborhoods a human touch. Even in subdivisions filled with cookie-cutter houses, the personalities of the people who dwell in them set them apart from each other. Gaming technology of the late 90s just didn’t have the power to display all of that. As a result, buildings become large shapes comprised of overly-simplified geometry. Those large shapes are then covered with a small patch of a texture, tiled and repeated to cover the surface area. Since the human brain wants to find patters, big rectangles covered with repetitive designs stand out like a giant sign saying, “this isn’t real!” This is supposed to be the heart of New York city, after all.

From a gaming perspective this usually means that if there’s a detail present in a large open area, it’s there for a reason and worth investigating. Shortly after entering the level, I find a corner of the map where there are a few crates and a dumpster. On the building exterior above them is a ledge. Thinking this must lead somewhere, I stack the crates so I can jump onto the dumpster and then traverse the ledge to an open window. It’s connected to a small one-bedroom apartment. There’s a safe in the wall, so I use one of my valuable lock picks to get it open. Inside is a bio-electric cell and another lock pick. There’s another locked door in here, but I don’t have anything to open it with. The loot I got didn’t seem worth all the trouble, but at least I didn’t lose anything valuable. Before leaving, I scan the room for anything else of interest and my cursor briefly highlights an object on the wall. Out of curiosity I crouch down for a closer look. It’s an electrical outlet. I press the right mouse button to interact with it, and wind up shocking myself. Puzzled as to why the game would allow this, I shock myself a few more times before losing interest and move on. Maybe some practical use for this will reveal itself later on?

Feeling sufficiently energized, I head off to explore another corner of Hell’s Kitchen and walk right into a firefight between UNATCO and NSF troops. The bad guys were severely outnumbered here, so I crouched behind a barricade and let the battle play out. Once the bullets stopped flying I did what any decent soldier would do and looted the corpses that piled up in the street. Since I’m still not planning to play this game with the intention of shooting everything in sight, I didn’t recover much that was of use to me. Most of the troops were carrying machine guns and big bullets; not anything I’ve used so far. Talking to the sergeant in command of UNATCO troops, I learned that the bad guys had fled through a nearby door. It’s secured with an electronic lock, but nobody knows what the pass code is.

As barren as Hell’s Kitchen is, there’s still a lot to do. In addition to the firefight, I also saved a bum from getting beaten up by NSF thugs. I met a drunk outside of a hotel who warned me about a hostage situation inside. And last but not least, I beat up a pimp who was trying to further the exploitation of one of his call girls. All of these activities are completely optional, but all of them enrich the main path of progression. The bum offered a clue that could get me to the main warehouse via an entrance hidden by shipping containers. Clearing out the hostage situation in the hotel provided me with  a clue to the location of a window I could climb through to gain access to my objective. Knocking out the pimp led to more discussions about crime in the area and ended up giving me the pass code to the door that my UNATCO ally told me about earlier.

All of these paths forward are completely optional. If I’d wanted to, I could have skipped all these other distractions and just walked through an alley to approach the warehouse head on. Tactics dictated that doing that was a bad idea for me. Since I’ve been playing with a stealthy, mostly non-lethal approach, I have no practical means of neutralizing multiple enemies at long range. Plus, I just don’t want to go in with guns blazing. It’s that Deus Ex thing again: giving players a choice about how to play the game. I decided to go the quiet route, back to that warehouse entrance protected by a keypad. After sneaking past some guards, picking a few locks, and climbing a ladder or two, I found myself on the rooftops.

In the times I’ve played this game before, the rooftops have always been a cakewalk. Enemies didn’t seem to be able to see three feet in front of themselves, allowing me to wield a baton and knock them all out stealthily. That didn’t work this time. The improved AI in GMDX surprised me. While I was standing near a ledge using my binoculars to scout he rooftops ahead of me, I started taking damage. Where did that come from? I frantically panned around and couldn’t see anything! Finally I noticed there was a sniper on a rooftop below who had just hit me for the third time. In a panic I whip out my pistol and send some bullets back in his direction. The firefight attracts the attention of two other enemies, and I wind up lining up some long-range shots with my pistol. So much for the quiet entrance.

As I get closer to the warehouse, I drop down to ground-level and find a staircase that leads to a second-floor office. There’s a lone NSF soldier sitting at a computer. I introduce my baton to the back of his head and then hack into the workstation. Before I know it, I’d turned off the generator and an alarm starts blaring! It was my intention to see what the computer controlled and then do some more snooping around, but I inadvertently shut down the generator and triggered the end of the mission. Now NSF troops are rushing past me towards the roof, where I hear a lot of gunfire. The enemy troops are exchanging fire with an unseen assailant on the roof. One by one they crumple to the ground in front of me. Gunther Hermann, an ally of mine, had been dropped on the roof via helicopter and was securing my extraction with a lot of bullets.

Warehouse infiltrated? Check! Generator shut down? Check! Lots of enemy troops, gunned down in a hailstorm of bullets? Uh, check, I guess. While it wasn’t my intention to complete Deus Ex with a nonlethal run, I didn’t really want it to turn into a bloodbath either. The fact that you can still complete your mission even after things go wrong is one of he alluring things about this game. I’m certain that if I was a lot more careful, I could have completed this mission more discreetly. It’s a relief to play a game that’s comfortable with improvisation, rather than programming the player to fail unless they do things exactly as specified.

Speaking of failure: after returning to UNATCO HQ, you find out that Paul botched the retrieval mission in the warehouse. UNATCO still doesn’t have the drugs they were after, and Paul didn’t report back to HQ. The NSF is still moving the vaccine, conceivably through abandoned subway tunnels. It’s your job to clean up your brother’s mess and go find the drugs. I poke around at headquarters for a bit, healing from the bot in the med lab and then try to hack into an email account or two. It turns out that some of the top brass isn’t happy with Paul. The “Primary Unit” isn’t behaving as expected, and they are releasing him from service. Ominous tidings for my bionic brother…

Enter the Gungeon Makes Failing Fun!

Most of your enemies are bullets, and I mean that literally. Enemies are sentient bullets that move and fire guns. Which, in turn, send actual bullets in your direction. I couldn’t make this stuff up.

I don’t know if I have what it takes to beat Enter the Gungeon. It’s possible for skilled players to complete a run through the game’s six levels in under an hour. I am not a skilled player, at least not yet. A few moments ago, my sixtieth run at the game ended once again in failure. This time I was killed by the Bullet King, who I consider to be the easiest first-level boss. After reading the details on the game-over screen, I unconsciously tapped the button to immediately begin again. It’s a strange thing, because repeated failure doesn’t typically make games fun to play. And yet, after sixty attempts and twelve hours of play time I want to keep playing.

This is the end of attempt #60. I died after 6 minutes and 38 seconds, with 53 kills in this attempt.

Gungeon is a deceptively simple game. It’s easy to play, especially with a controller. Left stick to move, right stick to aim. Different buttons fire, reload, dodge, and use items. Your objective: fight through an enemy-filled fortress in pursuit of a powerful artifact. Every level of the fortress is filled to the brim with those who would do you harm. They all protect the treasure contained within: a gun that can kill the past. This relic can be used to make what was done, undone. Simply put, this gun gives the one who wields it the ability to erase their failures from the past. You control any of four characters, the Marine, the Convict, the Pilot, or the Hunter. Each of them has a past that must be erased; tragedies and failures that must be set right. Only the most haunting of pasts can possibly be motivation enough to face what lies inside the Gungeon.

I absolutely love the pixel art style of the game.

Most of your enemies are bullets, and I mean that literally. Enemies are sentient bullets that move and fire guns. Which, in turn, send actual bullets in your direction. I couldn’t make this stuff up. The simple controls allow you to devote your focus on the delicate and frenetic combat. Different classes of enemies have their own types of weapons and movement patterns. Some fire single, slow-moving projectiles. Others wind up and unleash a wall of bullets. My least favorite charge directly towards you and explode spectacularly. The hazards of the Gungeon prove that situational awareness is just as important as your reflexes. It’s a bad idea to be in corner when a Gun Nut unleashes a barrages of angry red projectiles in your direction.

Shooting at bullets is ridiculously fun thanks to the lighthearted tone of the game as well as the varied and frequently tongue-in-cheek weapon design. Every gun, and there are a lot, has different strengths and weaknesses. Many of them are utterly entertaining to use, even if they aren’t entirely effective. For instance, The Bullet is a bullet. It fires guns. That also fire bullets. It’s asinine in the most entertaining of ways. My favorite weapon so far has to be the Lower Case r. Instead of firing bullets, it fires out letters that spell out the word “bullet”. Score a hit on an enemy, and instead of an explosion you’ll see the word “BLAM!” in glowing orange text. The Wind Up Gun is a homage to Futurama. It’s a blue rifle that shoots green projectiles and plays “Pop Goes the Weasel” as you wind the crank to reload it. I’ve also come across weapons such as a camera, a garbage gun, an M1, a mer-shotgun (a shotgun with a mermaid tail that shoots deadly water), a dripping barrel that fires deadly fish, the Thompson Machine Gun, shotguns, and the Klobbe; a fantastically useless weapon.The glee of using some of these more than makes up for the untimely deaths I suffer when wielding them.

Look carefully. I’m not firing off bullets, I’m shooting off letters.

Knowing when not to shoot is just as important as accurately unloading a magazine of bullets, rockets, letters, or fish. Your primary defense against the enemy onslaught is the dodge roll. Timed correctly, it will vault you safely over nearly any glowing red orb of death. Used recklessly, it’s just as effective at placing you in harm’s way. Boss encounters are usually a battle against one large enemy that can literally fill a room with unfriendly fire. These encounters are slowly teaching me that it’s okay not to be firing at enemies all the time. Sometimes the best thing to do is stop pulling the trigger and focus on not getting hit.

This is what they call “bullet heck”.

Gungeon is a punishing roguelike experience. This means that each level is procedurally generated. While every floor of the Gungeon will contain similar elements, the level layout, enemy makeup, and item drops will be different every time. Roguelike also means that permadeath is the name of the game. Die on level three, and you start again on level one. Though I must note that you don’t start completely from scratch after every death. Through the course of the game, you encounter other characters in the fortress. Setting them free allows them to set up shop in the game’s central hub so you can interact with them before starting a run. They offer special items or other quests to complete in return for rewards. Defeating bosses will give you a glowing green currency that survives permadeath. This currency can then be used to unlock new weapons and equipment that will show up as drops in the Gungeon in future attempts.

This is not a game that’s meant to be rushed through. Nobody will sit down and breeze through to the final boss in an hour or two. Instead, Gungeon will sit installed on my hard drive for weeks and months. Over time I’ll chip away at it bit by bit, making one hard-earned step of progress at a time. I don’t know how long it will take for me to kill the past, but I know I’m going to have fun trying.

I’m dead. Doesn’t this look fun??

The Cast of Wolfenstein: The New Order

Each member of The Resistance has been burned by the evil in the world, and all of them want to do their part to end the menace of Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. Watching their stories unfold in cut scenes is just as riveting as the in-game gun play. You will get attached to these people before the story ends.

Wolfenstein: The New Order is one of my favorite games of all time. If I were to rank my favorite shooters, this would currently get my #2 spot. There’s a lot I love about this game; too much to fit into a single blog post. Therefore, consider this to be the first in a series. For the opener, I focus on the cast. 

Wolfenstein: The New Order is all about spectacle. The opening mission alone contains more shock and awe than the whole of many other shooters. You are William “BJ” Blaskowicz, American soldier on board an Allied bomber as the forces of good make their final assault against the cold Nazi regime. This is no ordinary bomber mission. In short succession you’ll be required to extinguish a fire in the fuel line, dump your cargo, and man the nose turret to take out enemy fighter planes. Then you jump off your plane onto the wing of another, only to crash land and participate in a beachhead assault on the Axis regime. By the time I was fighting in the trenches beneath a towering Nazi robot I thought it impossible to fit more over-the-top action sequences into a single mission. I was wrong. There’s quite a bit more in this opening mission, and heaps of it in the remainder of the game. It would be wrong of me to spoil it if you haven’t already experienced it for yourself. Except the Nazi moon base. I’ll spoil the moon base simply because you have to see it for yourself.

Spectacle is fine, but can be quite tiring if it isn’t grounded. A series of fantastic events will overload your perception of a game’s world. What’s the context for the things that are happening? How does it affect the people in this world? This is where the incredible cast of The New Order comes into play. Fergus is the foul-mouthed war veteran who has seen it all. Impossible assault on the enemy’s last stronghold? Just another day in the war.  On the other side of the coin stands Private Wyatt, the greenhorn who is new to the carnage of battle. Upon first meeting the young lad, you’ll be prompted to slap some sense into him. Yes, really. Later, BJ offers the young lad some practical advice about how to better deal with the horrors of war. Wyatt is obviously out of his comfort zone, but he’s doing the best he can for his country. By making the player focus on how the supporting characters are reacting to the events in the game, it takes pressure off of the player to be impressed by it all. We start to empathize with our squad mates instead of considering just how ridiculous it all is. It’s a great narrative trick that makes the main story beats resonate on an emotional level.

It is true that the characters I’ve just described fit the cookie cutter character stereotypes found in many war stories. What may be surprising is that none of them feel that way; they all feel completely genuine. Part of the reason for this is The New Order’s approach to storytelling. We’re not forced through a segment of exposition and backstory explaining why we should care about anyone. Instead, we’re shown how their personalities respond to the situations they’re in. Fergus knows there’s a job to do, but he still spares a moment to tell his squad mate to look after a wound. Wyatt refers to everyone as “sir” in an respectful tone of voice, even when he’s scared out of his wits. Even BJ will whisper some of his thoughts and motivations during quiet moments in the game. Amazingly, his soft-spoken demeanor doesn’t seem at odds with is proficiency for killing Nazis. By themselves, none of these elements would work. By all rights, none of them should work. But somehow, all the different elements work together to create one of the most memorable casts in gaming.

The New Order knows this, so the cast is thrust front and center throughout the game. The most prominent showcase is found in the Resistance headquarters. You’ll visit this location a few times over the course of the game. It’s used as a place of respite and safe haven from the hordes of evil foes. When BJ first arrives at Resistance HQ, he’s given a room to sleep in. Above the doorway is the nameplate for its former resident, their name now scratched out. A pillar in one of the upper room holds dozens of candles keeping silent vigil over portraits of the fallen. The entire space is an effective device to remind the player that BJ is in a world that’s much bigger than himself.

More than just a museum in which to passively read journal pages, the Resistance HQ offers some combat-light exploration missions that flesh out the personalities and backstories of your allies. Tekla is a young scientist obsessed with finding the equations to explain everything. J is a guitar virtuoso who would be world famous had history taken a different path. Set Roth is a Jewish scientist and a member of the secret Da’at Yichud society that provides hope for The Resistance. The New Order gets special notice for being the first game I’ve played with a portrayal of a mentally handicapped character: Max Haas. Max is a man who suffered a traumatic brain injury as a child, and possesses the mental capacity of a five year old. He was found on the streets and taken in by another member of the Resistance, Klaus Kreutz. Klaus is a former Nazi. He was turned from their cause when the Reich murdered his wife and son because of perceived impurity in the child. Klaus now looks after Max as if he were his own son.

Each member of The Resistance has been burned by the evil in the world, and all of them want to do their part to end the menace of Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. Watching their stories unfold in cut scenes is just as riveting as the in-game gun play. You will get attached to these people before the story ends. The last scene of the game is an emotional one, with one main character making a major sacrifice for the sake of the others. It’s sad, to be sure, but it feels right. It works because both the character and the player know there was no other choice to be made. Any time a video game can make players pause to reflect on the nature of sacrifice, it’s doing something right. Many games show characters beating impossible odds and saving the day without being touched by real danger. The New Order doubles down and digs deep into the trauma that comes with heroism. All of our heroes here are broken, but that’s what makes them so compelling. They stare into the face of evil and instead of giving into despair, they steel themselves for the fight against it. In a genre where so many characters demand your affection, the cast of The New Order earns it. I can’t wait to see what they’re up to in The New Colossus.

Far Cry: The Predator Simulator

The original Far Cry is essentially Predator: The Video Game. But instead of playing the part of a freaky outer-space alien hunting Army jocks, you’re a freaky Hawaiian shirt-clad jock hunting other mercenary jocks.

Welcome to First Impressions, where I relay my experiences of a game’s opening moments. 

The original Far Cry is essentially Predator: The Video Game. But instead of playing the part of a freaky outer-space alien hunting Army jocks, you’re a freaky Hawaiian shirt-clad jock hunting other mercenary jocks. After a brief tutorial, the game sets you free in a beautiful tropical vista. Saltwater shimmers in a nearby bay, reflecting the image of far-off beaches. A flock of birds flies in front of you from right to left, inviting your eyes to notice the scope of the environment in front of you. On the dock below, a mercenary absentmindedly holds a fishing pole while two others walk back and forth on the beach. This is the moment that defines Far Cry.  Freedom. Freedom to approach the situation how you want to. You could start shooting from your elevated vantage point, attempting to blow up the yellow container of fuel on the dock. You could sneak down closer to the structures, engaging enemies at close range. Or you could circle around to the left, avoiding confrontation altogether. A game that gives you options: this is Far Cry’s claim to fame.

Yes, it took me three shots to explode the barrel. Don’t judge me, that’s a long way for a pistol shot.

I opt to go loud. It takes me three shots to make the barrel go boom. The fishing merc got thrown off the dock by the explosion and is now bobbing in the water, face down. Another mercenary charges up the hill towards me, firing as he runs. Panicked, I return fire. It takes a surprising number of bullets to his torso before he slumps to the ground. Enemies in this game are tough! I walk down to the hut, hoping to find a needed medkit and maybe other items of value. There’s a a machete on the table, but I can’t imagine getting close enough to enemies to use it on large islands like this. On my way out of the hut I come face to face with an enemy I wasn’t expecting. He lights into me as I reflexively fire my pistol. Somehow I land a hit to his face that drops him instantly. Useful fact: headshots are extremely effective in Far Cry, if a bit difficult to pull off.

Doyle, an ally, is talking to me via the video-phone I picked up in the game’s tutorial. I’m not sure how the phone gets a signal our here on these remote tropical islands, but you can’t argue with a plot device! He directs me to another small shack on the top of a hill. Here I find some high-tech binoculars and spy on the next enemy encampment. Doyle informs me that all mercenaries are conveniently tagged with microchips by the bad guy’s administration. These trackers work in my favor. Once scanned by the binoculars, enemies show up as an arrow on the mini-map. Green means they have their guard down, yellow indicates they’re alert, and red means actively engaged and shooting bullets. The mini-map is useful even if you haven’t tagged any enemies from afar off. Loud sounds are registered as oscillating circles in their approximate location. The bars on either side of the map serve as a “detection meter”, indicating how easily enemies are able to spot you. There’s a lot of information packed into that corner of the screen, and it does a good job supplementing your visual observations without feeling like it makes the game too easy.

“Don’t worry, boss. You can count on me to lose sight of the guy in a bright red Hawaiian shirt!”

Using the binoculars, I spy on the next enemy encampment and tag five enemies. There’s a shallow bay between me and the camp, so my only option is to go for a swim. A guard tower looms overhead, and I’m worried that my presence on a beautiful beach is painfully obvious to a man with a large gun. Somehow, he doesn’t see a muscular dude in a red Hawaiian shirt swimming ashore. Walking a little farther inland I crouch down and line up a shot with my pistol. I pop off a few rounds that should have been direct hits, but the bullets don’t register. The guard doesn’t even react to the sound of gunfire. Huh. I guess I’m too far away. As I creep closer and start spraying bullets around, the whole camp knows I’m here. Since I’ve tagged enemies with the binoculars, I’m able to fade into the jungle and avoid them. Tiny red arrows become large red arrows as I maneuver to line up my shots. When necessary, I toss rocks to cause distraction and lead the enemy where I want him to go. I am Predator. All enemies are subject to my mercy. Except for the ones that I missed when scouting the camp and therefore don’t show up on my map. My screen fills with a red glow as gunfire erupts from behind me. I turn around to see a merc lighting me up. He shoots me. I absorb bullets. I die. Subsequent attempts to clear the camp go much better.

Maybe that guard has T-Rex vision. If I don’t move, I’m invisible…

It takes my brain a little while to settle into the slow-ish pace demanded by the game. It actively discourages running and gunning; this is Predator Simulator, after all! Mercenaries are good shots, and you are susceptible to damage. Prepare to die quickly if they see you before you see them. That’s quite a challenge with all the beautiful and dense jungle foliage covering every island. It’s happened more than once that I burst through vegetation into a clearing only to be greeted by an enemy and a stream of hot lead. This is where the smart-tagging binoculars come into play. Stop frequently to scout thoroughly and make sure you know the location of every enemy. Thankfully the goggles aren’t totally dependent upon line of sight and can tag enemies even through thick vegetation. They are absolutely essential to survival. When it is time to engage in a firefight, the game forces a methodical approach instead of haphazard running and gunning. Firing from the hip while moving will spray bullets over a wide area; it’s rarely effective, even at close range. Stopping to crouch and aim down the sights nearly guarantees a hit, but also makes you an easy target. For those long-range shots, go prone to make it count. As someone who is rarely able to do well in twitch shooters that reward reflexes, I appreciate Far Cry’s methodical approach to combat. It lets me be the hunter.

There’s a lot to take in while playing Far Cry’s opening level. It pulls no punches, showing you everything the game is about. It’s a big, dumb shooter that doesn’t pretend to be anything else. You and a bunch of guns against a whole archipelago of islands full of baddies and mutants. What more could you want?

Screenshot Gallery

RAGE

RAGE is the ultimate post-apocalyptic cowboy simulator. But instead of a Mysterious Cowboy Hero, you’re a nanotrite-infused superman who’s just woken up from a century-long cryogenic sleep. Instead of a trusty American Colt or other steed, you ride an off-road buggy with nitrous, dual machine-guns, and rocket launchers. And shootouts are very, very fun.

The future can make for some odd employment opportunities. An eccentric, Pickelhaube-wearing gentleman has just commissioned me to retrieve two bottles of his special “Blueshine” from an abandoned distillery. The journey inside was the easy part. The tricky part comes when I turn the machinery on to bottle the drink; the noise is a siren call to a horde of murderous mutants. The controls for the machinery are accessed via a catwalk that provides a great vantage point for the room’s only means of entry. I use the stairs to set up shop on the catwalk, equip my sniper rifle, and press the button to fill the first bottle. Inhuman shrieking commences almost immediately, and I wait for mutants to start streaming down the tunnels. Here they come! One barrels out of the tunnel to the left; it’s moving too quickly for me to hit it with the sniper rifle. By the time I switch to my assault rifle he’s already jumped onto catwalk’s railing and is intent on doing terrible things to my face. As I unload half a magazine into him and look down just long enough to notice more mutants coming in from the tunnels. My vision shakes and turns red. I got hit from behind. They used the stairs, too. Using a bandage to stay alive I switch to the shotgun and start blasting anything that moves. Eight shells are spent and I need to reload, but still more mutants barrel up the stairs. No time for reloading. It’s wingstick time. I press the button to unleash the three-bladed boomerangs of death at point-blank range. The last mutant to mount the catwalk has his head separated from his torso. Thankfully the machine shuts down and the onslaught stops. I have time to catch my breath before filling the next bottle. For the next wave I opt to deploy a sentry bot; a four-legged robot with a machine gun and a nasty swiping attack. After starting the machine a second time, my sentry bot heads down the stairs to meet the first wave of mutants. It can hold its own, but gets damaged quickly when foes get too close. I use my rifle to keep the mutants at bay from above. When there’s a slight lull in the action I deploy a second sentry bot on the catwalk with me. One mutant, two mutants, three; no problem! Another mutant pops over the railing and the bot leaps to take him out… and misses. I get off a few ineffective shotgun blasts as the mutant barrels straight towards me. Reload! I see my sentry bot shimmy slightly, like a cat ready to pounce. In that moment, I finally get off another shotgun blast which vaporizes the mutant. Just then, my sentry bot leaps towards the mutant that a moment ago was in my face. Momentum propels its powerful blow directly at me with full force, killing me instantly. Murdered. By my own robot. I stare at the monitor in bemused disbelief and press F9 to reload my game. It’s just another day in the wasteland.

That pod has been your home for the past 106 years.

RAGE is the ultimate post-apocalyptic cowboy simulator. If you think back to classic movies set in the American West, the protagonist was frequently a “mysterious stranger” that shows up in town to help the little folk. They’d usually fallen into despair from a pack of faceless bad guys who were around to do nothing other than be the “bad guys”. Mysterious Cowboy Hero steps in, devises some cunning plan to beat the bad guys, and comes out the victor in after few cool action sequences. By the end of the story he’d saved the day, won the girl, and rode off into the sunset. RAGE has a lot of similarities to those Western stories, keeping the core elements but changing the details to fit a more sci-fi apocalyptic vibe. For instance: instead of a Mysterious Cowboy Hero, you’re a nanotrite-infused superman who’s just woken up from a century-long cryogenic sleep. The little folk are a bossy bunch of leeches who have no problem letting you and your special abilities take care of everything. Instead of a trusty American Colt or other steed, you ride an off-road buggy with nitrous, dual machine-guns, and rocket launchers. And the shootouts are very, very fun.

The game begins with rendered cinematic sequence showing asteroid Apophis 99942 and its journey through the solar system, which results in a collision with and complete devastation of earth. Your character is part of the special people chosen to survive the apocalypse, buried safely underground in one of many survival pods called Arks. Resting in cryogenic stasis, you were supposed to awaken when the dust settled and then get to work rebuilding civilization. However, upon regaining consciousness you are alerted to your emergence being 106 years later than scheduled. Your Ark-mates are dead, and the only option available to you is to stumble forward into the brightness and face the wasteland. Ten steps later you almost die at the hands of mutants, twice, saved only by a kindly man with a rifle: Dan Hagar. He drives you back to the Hagar homestead in his buggy, and gives you a few starting weapons. Then the game begins in earnest.

RAGE plays like a first-person shooter with light role-playing elements added to it. There are two major game worlds, the North Wasteland and the Eastern Wasteland. Each wasteland is a large outdoor area with one central hub town and other locations which are explored in missions. Wellspring and Subway Town are the main hubs of activity, and from there you’ll get assignments to carry out missions elsewhere in the wasteland. Inevitably you’ll cross paths with other characters who will give you missions or other odd jobs to perform. Some of them follow the main story arc, such as it is, and some are non-essential side missions. It’s worth noting that each time a character gives you a potential mission, you seem to have the option to accept or reject that particular mission. It’s a false dichotomy, since rejecting the mission simply closes the interaction window. Talking to them again reopens the quest window with the same task you just supposedly rejected. It makes me wonder if there was a more complex quest system that got cut from the final release of the game. At any rate, completing missions will often give you a reward of money or resources or some other benefit. Accepted missions will show up in your missions list, and you can choose which one to pursue at any given moment. If you’re looking for a compelling story or some narrative thread that keeps you coming back for more, I’m sorry to say that there isn’t one. While you’re told five minutes into the game that there’s a struggle between “normal” folk and some authoritarian regime, it’s at least halfway through the game before this is explored in any depth.

At its best, the plot is filler that provides a loose context for the game. At its worst, there are a startling number of similarities to Half Life 2. Dystopian future? Check. Technologically superior authority imposing their will on the broken masses? Check. Robotic sentries that broadcast propaganda? Check. Mission where you break into a prison? Check. Long elevator ride up an impossibly tall tower? Check. At least in Half Life 2 you got to see the villain. In RAGE you’re told a few times that General Cross is the bad guy. He’s the one that rigged the ARKs so he could take power in the new world, leaving everyone else buried. But that’s all you know. You never see him in game or are given specific details about how the Authority came into being. Ultimately, it’s up to you to come to terms with the fact that you’re fighting the bad guy for no other reason than its what you’re supposed to do. RAGE would fall to shambles if the core gameplay itself wasn’t so fun, but I can’t deny the lack of a real story left me disappointed.

When the game begins, you’re at the mercy of the various townsfolk who inhabit the wasteland. More often than not, they’ll send you on what can start to feel like some annoying fetch-quests. Meet person at destination A, he tells you to go to destination B and meet someone. Meet person at destination B and he tells you to do something at Destination C. Do thing at Destination C and return to B, only to tell you to return to destination A. You return to destination A to learn that you have to talk to a different person at destination B. I was just there. But thankfully, the weird backtracking slows down once you’ve been introduced to the system. Once the game allows you to catch your breath and make a decision about what to do, the beauty of the system shines forth. In hub town of Wellspring, the mayor and the sheriff will give you story-based quests. Other inhabitants will request your assistance with side missions of various types. In addition, there’s a job board for other opportunities. Feel like driving your weaponized buggy? Join the sanctioned racing league and compete in different races to earn certificates, which can then be used to upgrade your vehicle. Deliver packages in the wasteland for the Stanley Express. Meet a bartender who offers you cash bounties to take out bandits. Gamble at a casino, play card games, try your luck at holo-chess, play five-finger filet, try memorizing guitar riffs, and on and on. For the most part you’re free to spend as much or as little time as you wish on non-story activities. These things have no real bearing on the story progression of the main game, but add a nice bit of depth and diversion to the wasteland.

The Scorchers DLC has some of the most beautiful vistas in the game.

And what a beautiful wasteland it is! In spite of a few warts, RAGE still owns a proud spot on my list of most beautiful games of all time. As far as I’m aware it was the second game to utilize something called megatextures. I’m not going to attempt to describe what they are here in this post, but here’s a good video about them if you’re interested: Reset Button: Megatextures. The end result is that megatextures allow every pixel of the game world to be unique and intentionally placed. As a result, RAGE’s wasteland looks and feels just like you expect it would. While it’s not quite realistic, it’s also not too far fetched. The overall art design favors a slightly exaggerated take on reality, which permeates every aspect of the game. Where it makes sense, locations are bleak and desolate. There are piles of junk, trash and other detritus where you’d expect them to be. No two rock formations look exactly alike. Unique graffiti dots the landscape. Scrappy shrubs and grass wave slightly in the breeze. Vast canyons and open areas prevent you from ever feeling like you’re stuck “in a level”. To me, the most impressive bit of level design goes to Dead City. The focus is a giant skyscraper of a hospital that’s gradually being taken over by some organic ooze. In order to get there you’ve got to navigate the ruined buildings surrounding it. Ruined apartment blocks, street corner shops, and even an inner-city highway form a natural maze are just some of the landmarks that must be traversed en route to the hospital. Even if the world design isn’t necessarily realistic, it makes sense. It rarely yields to immersion-breaking moments where you wonder, “Why can’t I go there?” Most of the unique locations get at least two missions devoted to them. In order to keep locations from feeling stale and overused, the developers utilized a trick most often found in racing games: the second time you visit a location, you’ll traverse through it backwards or via an alternate route. Generally I’d accuse developers who did this of trying to pad the game’s length, but the way the routes are laid out really feels ingenious. Odds are you won’t even notice what’s going on until the end of a mission, at which point you realize how clever the design was.

Click on this to see the full size; there are a lot of details on these characters!

The great design isn’t limited to the game environment. Characters in the game world are wonderfully detailed, both visually and in their animation. One character, Doctor Kvasir, has a shoulder-mounted robot head that tracks Kvarsir’s hand gestures as he speaks. Stanley of the Stanley Express delivery company, wears a bomber’s helmet and has stamps stuck to his face. One elderly woman wears glasses. But in keeping with the post-apocalyptic scavenging locale of the game, her glasses are clearly halves of two different pairs, joined by a wad of tape. There’s so much detail in the appearance and mannerisms of each individual that they actually feel like a character with a personality and life. They’re not just waiting around to give me my next mission. Unfortunately, not all the character designs are laudable. Most of the female NPCs are rather textbook examples of sexism and objectification in video games. Of the few female characters present, I only counted two that were actually clothed according to what you’d expect for a harsh apocalyptic future. The rest have quite a bit of skin exposed that’s disproportionate to any of the male characters. Sarah, start of The Scorchers DLC, even gestures to her overly-revealing outfit and asks, “Does this make me look fat?” This portrayal, to me, is a few notches below the tasteful standard for video games.

I’m having a difficult time thinking how this screenshot could be worse…

So how does it play? Well, it’s been said that one of the original inspirations for the game was “muscle cars in a desert setting”. That game idea later morphed into something like “muscle cars with rocket launches in a post-apocalyptic wasteland”. Combine id Software’s famed ability to make great shooters with their newfound ability to make games with vehicle combat and you get RAGE. The first-person combat is as good as it’s ever been. Driving is fluid, responsive, and surprisingly fun. In fact, the driving mechanics are so good that many people, including myself, still hope to see id make a dedicated racing game someday. One of the reasons why it just works in RAGE is that you’re not really forced to do a lot of racing if you don’t want to. Your buggy is a necessary mode of transport to get from one mission to the next, and I quite enjoyed starting at the gorgeous scenery along the way. A few times you’ll be required to participate in races to further the story mode, but none of them are overly difficult. I for one enjoyed the varied race modes and spent quite a few hours on them.

Though the developers clearly spent a lot of time making sure the vehicle combat felt just right, they spent even more time making sure the shooting felt just as good. One thing that makes the gunplay so engaging is the varied enemy types. id did a great job giving each opposing faction a different combat style, so how you fight will be determined by the types of enemies you face off against. Mutants are fast, agile, and tend to rush you. They can make use of the environment to climb on walls and ceilings, swinging down from above. Don’t bother sniping unless you have the advantage of distance. Mercenary and bandit groups are better armed, use cover, flank you, and try to flush you out of cover with grenades. Authority forces are well armored and pack firepower, you’ll need to hit them hard and fast. There are a few other special enemies that require quick thinking and plenty of firepower to take out. Thankfully, weapons feel fantastic and responsive. Everything from the lowly settler pistol to the Authority pulse cannon are a joy to use, thanks in large part to alternate ammo types. Want your pistol to pack a bit more punch? Buy some Fatboys! Fatboys are larger bullets that deal twice as much damage as a standard round. Go one step up and use Fat Mamas. They do four times as much damage as a standard pistol round, and they can travel through enemies. Upgrade shotgun shells to pop rockets, essentially mini-grenades. Use the crossbow with standard bolts or explosive-tipped darts. Equip machine guns with armor-piercing rounds, and so on. The alternate ammo types ensure that each weapon remains relevant through the course of the game. Assuming you have enough of each ammo type, you’re free to approach every combat situation exactly as you want to. One of the things that makes combat so satisfying is the way your enemies respond to being shot. Hit a bandit in the leg while he’s rushing you, and he’ll stumble and fall over. Wing a mercenary and he’ll stop shooting in order to reset his footing. Land a shot in someone’s face and they’ll drop their weapon as they grab their head with both hands. It’s satisfying video game violence in the most entertaining of ways.

In spite of its flaws, I find RAGE to be a uniquely fun experience among shooters. Its pseudo open-world feels more meaningful than Borderlands and the action is clearly a precursor to 2016’s excellent DOOM. RAGE took a lot of criticism when it was released, and I think most of it was frustration with the game’s technology rather than the game itself. As a result the game’s reputation is tainted, and I’d say that’s rather unfair. RAGE stands the test of time and can proudly stand among the best titles ever produced by id Software. It’s the perfect game for those people who want to be a cowboy, taking their rocket-launching steed right into the heart of a pile of mutants.

Why you’ll love it:

  • Action, action, action. The shooting is done as well as anything id Software has ever released.
  • Vehicle combat is fun without feeling overbearing.
  • Gorgeous art style and visuals still look good today.
  • It’s a great game for people who don’t like to feel rushed.

Why you might not love it:

  • It’s not a true open world. At its core, there is still a sequence of linear missions.
  • Some of the visuals up close are pretty ugly – but please don’t let that distract you.
  • The storytelling is only a shadow of what it could have been.
  • The ending. You push a blue button.

Where to Purchase:

Steam – RAGE + Scorchers DLC – $14.98 (If you decide to buy the game, the Scorchers DLC is essential)

Compatibility / Configuration Steps:

Nothing major is required, but I recommend some tweaks to help with texture loading to minimize pop-in. A guide to do just that can be found here: http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=122440311

Screenshot Gallery:

 

What I Learned From Peace

So I went an entire calendar month without playing a violent video game. Woo. If it sounds boring, that’s because it was! But I say that in reference to the experiment itself and not about the games I ended up playing. In fact, this turned out to be a great opportunity to rediscover some of the titles in my library.

This past September I decided that I needed to put aside the implements of virtual destruction and spend the month playing games that didn’t emphasize violence. Specifically, the goal was to go an entire calendar month avoiding games where “acting as an agent of violence is not the main focus”. If you’re asking why anyone would want to do that, my intentions are recorded in a blog post titled Giving Peace a Chance. While I met that challenge in every aspect, I can’t help but feel I missed some of the experiment’s potential.

So I went an entire calendar month without playing a violent video game. Woo. If it sounds boring, that’s because it was! But I say that in reference to the experiment itself and not about the games I ended up playing. In fact, this turned out to be a great opportunity to rediscover some of the titles in my library. Kerbal Space Program still manages to take command of my imagination as I launch crews of space frogs on missions of great peril. Inevitably, one mission leads to another as I’m led to rescue each crew from the dire straits I put them in. It’s a vicious cycle that’s uniquely rewarding. SimGolf strikes a wonderful balance between creative design elements and light business management. Your objective is to become the best golf superintendent ever by crafting challenging and fun golf courses for your temperamental patrons. And when your patrons get to complaining too much, it’s okay to build an absolutely diabolical course as retribution. Mean, yes; but not violent! OpenRCT2 breathes new life into an old classic and proves Chris Sawyer’s theme park management game is just as addicting now as it was fourteen years ago. Trials Evolution combines motorcycles and implausible obstacle courses into a punishing proving ground for your gaming reflexes. The Dig. Planet Coaster. Forza. Cities: Skylines. 80 Days. I could go on. There are too many games to list here. Many are simple to dive into and have flexible time investments. Play for fifteen minutes or two hours. Creative problem solving can be just as therapeutic as blowing up hordes of evil space aliens!

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Reckless driving =/= violent.

Though I rediscovered many great genres and games, I feel like I missed some of this experiment’s potential. Specifically, I missed an opportunity to make any kind of meaningful observation about violence in video games. There will always be a segment of gaming that thrives on virtual violence, but what about the other games? What about games that present gameplay alternatives to violence, or at the very least offer a non-lethal path through a violent setting? Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored are two notable franchises which give players a way to complete the game without committing a lethal action.

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They aren’t dead! They’re just unconscious. And potentially hurt.

Freedom in game design makes me want to explore whether or not it’s possible to play otherwise violent games as a pacifist. The game may not have been designed with pacifism in mind, but it’s not a question of intent. It’s a question of what you can get away with. For example; The day Call of Duty: Black Ops was released a gamer posted a video of themselves playing through an entire mission and only firing two bullets (language warning). Surely there have to be other games where I can do this! DOOM is all about creative ways to blow up demons, but is it possible to sprint through a level and make progress without firing a shot? Winning a round of an online shooter usually means shooting lots of people, but some also give points for playing a support role such as a medic. How feasible is it to be a team healer in Battlefield, focusing only on reviving fallen teammates? Just Cause 2 and 3 thrive as chaos; can the game handle people who don’t break the rules? Will the game let me take control of an occupied vehicle and drive it peacefully from one side of an island to the other? This video below indicates the chances of that happening are very slim:

 

When it all comes down to it, video games are just a collection of virtual systems designed to function a certain way. Simulated violence is integral to some of those systems. In others, it’s optional. Sometimes it’s a completely unintentional side effect. From time to time I wonder if gamers have been conditioned to go along with anything that’s entertaining, regardless of  moral values (or the lack of them). But the important part in all if this is that we as gamers do have a choice. Violent or not. Bloody or not. Play along with the system or try to break it. My non-violent September has led me to start planning another experiment of virtual pacifism to take place in 2017. I’ll incorporate some actual scientific methods into this next experiment and try to gauge if my behavior or attitudes change measurably depending on what kind of games I play. My wife has been volunteered to assist me as an impartial observer and record keeper for this grand trial. My only expectation is that this is going to be a fun experience. In the end, isn’t that what gaming is all about?

 

Hitman (2016)

Hitman is a surprisingly smart game of clandestine operations and deadly meetings that can turn into a full-blown chaos simulator if you let it. There are still guidelines and principles you must adhere to, but it’s more akin to being set loose in a sandbox than being told to walk down a hallway. This freedom means that instead of being forced to play the game someone else’s way, you can play it your way.

From a historical standpoint, stealth games and I don’t get along very well. Most of my stealthy gaming experiences wind up being an exercise in frustration for one of two reasons. Either they present some arbitrary gameplay ruleset that doesn’t logically make sense, or there are technical limitations which prevent the game from delivering the intended experience. Whatever the reason, I usually feel like I’m playing some boring, digitized version of hide-and-seek instead of acting like an undercover spy. Not wanting to subject myself to this kind of frustration, I’ve always avoided Hitman games, thinking it was a series rooted in arbitrary rules that just wouldn’t be any fun. I was very, very wrong.

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Hitman is a surprisingly smart game of clandestine operations and deadly meetings that can turn into a full-blown chaos simulator if you let it. “Stealth” as defined by Hitman means your number one priority is to blend into the environment. That is to say, hiding in plain sight with the aid of disguises instead of avoiding any and all human contact. Your objective is always to perform a hit, assassinate the target, but you have a bit of freedom in how you do so. Instead of drawing a straight line of strict objectives between you and your intended victim, Hitman gives you a slew of options and lets you decide how you want to approach the situation. There are still guidelines and principles you must adhere to, but it’s more akin to being set loose in a sandbox than being forced to walk down a specific hallway. This freedom means that instead of being coerced to play the game someone else’s way, you can play it your way.

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While freedom within a digital sandbox is nice, that freedom is meaningless unless the player is able to discern what is happening within it. Thankfully, Hitman features one of the classiest and useful interfaces I’ve ever seen in a game. Your standard on-screen display features only three constant indicators: a mini-map, a reminder of your current objective, and a slot to show which inventory item is equipped. If you equip a weapon that’s out of character for your current disguise, a warning icon pops up to warn you. Approach usable objects or items, and a notification will pop up nearby to show their availability. The information interface applies to other characters as well. Perform an action that’s inconsistent with your current disguise and the word “suspicious” will pop up. Nearby authority figures who come to investigate will be marked with an exclamation point overhead. If a suspicious party is outside your field of view, a white arrow pops up on your HUD. The larger the arrow, the closer those individuals are to confronting you. Pressing the left control key overlays the screen with “instinct”, which presents information about the people around you. Your target is outlined in blood red. Those that pose a threat to you are identified via circles floating overhead. Anyone who is actively searching for you is outlined in orange. It’s not something to keep active all the time, but it’s a quick way to assess the situation. Each bit of the information overlay is smartly designed and useful to the point that I honestly felt like I could act like I was undercover. Rarely was I frustrated because I didn’t know my cover was about to be blown. As nice as it is to be aware of what’s going on, there were times I felt that the wealth of information was too accessible. Why should I strain to pay close attention to the environment when the game puts a giant dot above of anyone who is a threat to me? It becomes too easy to pay attention to the indicators instead of the environment.

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For the most part, all the bits and pieces click together very well and create an experience of tense excitement. But be forewarned: This is not a game for the impatient. Each level is filled with a myriad of disguises and situations which, if executed properly, allow you to complete your objective and escape unnoticed. The flaw here is that you don’t know exactly what those disguises and methods are until you’ve played through multiple times. If the “assassination within a sandbox” concept isn’t entertaining to you the first time through, alternate routes to your objective won’t matter to you on subsequent playthroughs. Hitman definitely appeals to those who enjoy testing the limits of self-regulating systems. Here’s a game that encourages people to sit back and think, “I wonder if I could” because you can usually go back and do exactly what you imagined. And if you’re short on imagination, each scenario comes with a long list of challenges to help you find new ways to play it through.

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It didn’t take too long for me to start thinking of all sorts of morbid questions. Can I drown a man in a toilet? What really happens when you pull a fire alarm in a crowded building? Is it possible to murder everyone at the yacht party in the game’s tutorial? How long does it take to beat someone up with a fire extinguisher? Is it possible for an international assassin to pose as a stylist at a fashion show? Hitman encourages you to ask all of these questions and then discover the answers for yourself. In one such situation, my imagination was prompted by one of the game’s challenges: What would it be like to assassinate my target by dropping a life raft on him? The short version: It didn’t end well.

The long version: I started by liberating a uniform from a security guard stationed on the dock, and then took possession of a conveniently placed automatic rifle. Since I was dressed as a non-threatening security guard I boarded the boat via the main ramp, coolly walking past other guards. There were a few security chiefs I had to avoid since they would recognize that I wasn’t part of their ranks, but it was a crowded ship and I avoided their gaze. When I got to the ship’s upper deck, I was all alone except for one other security guard. Since he would think it mighty suspicious for a fellow guard to fool with a life raft, I introduced him to my fiber wire and then dragged his unconscious self to the unoccupied bridge. While there I found a conveniently located crowbar. Time to take a closer look at the life rafts! Switching to instinct mode I saw the red outline of my target rapidly coming my way on the deck below me. I whipped out the crowbar and went to town on the lifeboat support. Large white arrows lit up my screen as nearly everyone on the deck below notices me fooling with the life raft. Just as the life raft becomes dislodged, my target steps out of harm’s way. The life raft falls onto the deck below and explodes in a cloud of splinters. He and everyone else below looks up to where the life raft was to see me, with a crowbar in hand.

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Well, this is awkward.

Security guard after security guard starts rushing to the upper deck to investigate my actions. I’ve nowhere to go and my cover is in no better shape than the life raft that smashed into the deck below me. Good thing I picked up that assault rifle, because it’s time to go loud.

After a few dozen other targets got in the way, I meet my target. Kalvin, say hello to my gigantic gun:

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With my assassination complete and half the boat already filled with bullets, I ask another one of Hitman’s quintessential questions: “Why stop now?” My original objective was to eliminate the target “without any of the guests noticing”. Everybody on this boat knows, so therefore they all must die. Hitman is the game that finally lets me experience what it would be like to be a secret agent. It never promised that I’d be any good at it.

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I ran out of bullets, so I had to silence the last witness with a fire extinguisher.

The Hitman Intro Pack is available on Steam for $14.99

Giving Peace a Chance

[…] I’m going to try and avoid “video game violence” for a month. It’s not my goal to make any kind of a statement by avoiding any particular games. Rather my pledge is simply a response to an observation that most of my preferred games focus on destruction. I want to go a month focused on construction. I want to build some worlds instead of tearing them down.

In my previous article, I pledged to go the month of September avoiding games where “acting as an agent of violence is not the main focus.” As August rapidly draws to a close I now have to figure out what exactly I meant. Working off the assumptions most people make, avoiding violent video games should be a pretty straightforward affair. Especially after some informal polling revealed the common perception of what constitutes a violent video game: guns, explosions, blood, and guts. Four things I love in in a video game and I’ve got to go a month without them. But perhaps it’s more complicated than that. Before I can go a month without something, I have to define exactly what it is I’m supposed to avoid. My pledge is to avoid violence, not just shooters. To help in my quest I turn to the ever-present Google to help me define what, exactly, violence is:


Violence
vi·o·lence
ˈvī(ə)ləns
noun

  1. behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something


So as it turns out, virtual violence can involve quite a bit more than pulling the trigger of a virtual gun. There are scores of games that not only allow, but require and encourage the player to engage in willful acts of violence in order to progress through the game. The majority of games which I tend to play operate off some setup where the player is directly responsible for violent actions within a game. That is to say, the player exhibits control of an in-game entity to inflict some kind of action at a one to one ratio with the control scheme. First-person shooters are a good example of this, where specific control inputs from the player result in weapon discharges. Controls in fighting games result in various kicks, punches, or other methods of attack. The same principle applies to games where the player controls a vehicle, be it a combat simulation or an aggressive racing event. Defined as such, Burnout: Paradise qualifies as violent since the player is actively encouraged to use his vehicle to damage, disable, and destroy his opponents. But what about games where the player doesn’t directly carry out violent acts? Is a first-person shooter any more or less violent than strategy games which allow you to control scores of troops in large-scale battles? Is it still violence when clicks of a mouse order dozens or hundreds of digital soldiers to go and wipe out dozens or hundreds of enemy troops? If violence can be simply defined as willful intent to cause damage to something, then the vast majority of video games can be classified as violent.

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“Virtual men, go blow some stuff up!”

Perhaps player intent, and not just the intent of the game developers, can make the difference between certain games being violent or not. When I was a teenager I used to play a licensed NASCAR racing game. NASCAR done right is about as non-violent as you could get. Big blocky cars get on a track and make left-hand turns for hours. No violence there! My teenage brain grew bored of such things very quickly and soon demanded that I drive against the flow of traffic and try to wreck as many cars as possible before my own was battered beyond repair. Because I abused the intention of the game, I turned a non-violent racing game into a carnage simulator. Kerbal Space Program is a sandbox universe where you build giant rockets to explore. Sometimes, you just want to see what happens when you crash a rocket ship into a building! Instruments of science become vehicles of destruction. Even the bright and cheery Roller Coaster Tycoon, one of the more joyous games I’ve ever played, contains death and destruction. Roller coaster crashes, resulting either from poor design or malevolence, fill your screen with large explosions and numerous deaths.

And I’m going to try and avoid all that for a month. Not only am I going to shun games which encourage violence, I’m going to play non-violent games properly in order avoid causing violent events if at all possible. It’s not my goal to make any kind of a statement by avoiding any particular games. Rather my pledge is simply a response to an observation that most of my preferred games focus on destruction. I want to go a month focused on construction. I want to build some worlds instead of tearing them down. I want to discover a story, not shoot my way through it. After many years of training my brain to know that video games are all about blowing stuff up, I’m giving myself a reminder that gaming is also about creating and exploring wonders.

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Building a roller coaster with a jump in the tracks and naming it “Death Trap!” does not qualify as an act of non-violent creation.