Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Control freakish

Thanks to a free trial weekend on Steam, I had the chance to play Borderlands - the co-op shooter of choice among my friends. Ultimately, I had some fun, but chose not to purchase the game.

You see, there were a lot of things about Borderlands I wasn't keen on. It's not that I think it's a bad game; I just didn't personally get on with it that well. Very high among said things I wasn't keen on was the interface. And I'm not talking about something as simple and easily remedied as key mapping here, although C for crouch? Come on. L-Ctrl is crouch in an FPS, and that is The Way Things Should Be.

No, the problems I have with Borderlands' controls are much deeper. Why is the enter key interchangeable with left-click in some menus, but not others? Why do I stop sprinting when I turn with the keys, but not with mouselook? Why tell me to drive with WASD, when it's the mouse which controls driving direction?

Everything about Borderlands' control system screams that it was made for an Xbox controller. Now, it's a far cry from lazy ports which ask PC gamers to press triangle or right trigger, but I still felt the whole time that I should have been using a pad. Considering that it was developed by Gearbox - who first made their name in PC shooters - I find that a little bit of a shame. It's all small things, but they add up, and Borderlands ultimately played very non-intuitively for me.

ARMA 2 is another game I've struggled to get into, and again, the interface is a significant part of it. "Oh," I thought to myself as I failed to climb over a small wall after hitting all the usual suspect keys and checking the control map, "There must not be a climb key."

A short while later, one of the handy little gameplay tips tells me to press V to climb over obstacles. Now, that mapping doesn't make a tremendous amount of sense, but I can live with that. What annoyed me was the fact that I couldn't find that anywhere in the control map. After checking again, I found it - buried away somewhere in the mass of controls for this game and labelled as "step over." Well, that's certainly an intuitive name for a key which lets you climb fences.

The mouse sensitivity range seems to be much higher than in most games, and after pushing it way down to pan at the speed I like, the precision in small movements was lost. Perhaps it's meant to be more realistic that way, but it's still absolutely nothing like aiming with a real gun, and realism at the expense of basic playability is something I just can't get on board with. Even the relatively straightforward (and super-arcadey) Army of Two took me a bit of time to get to grips with, with some of the control quirks - the selection of sniper mode, for example - seeming needlessly inelegant.

In my old age, I don't like impediments coming between me and my game. My life sucks enough as it is without my supposed hobby, the thing I do to relax, pissing me off even more. More often than not I want to jump in and have some fun, and for me, having to memorise thirty-odd different commands is not fun. Maybe I'll get disowned from gaming by the hardcore crowd, but it's the way it is - every time a game tells me to press a new key, it means another little click of the fun ratcheting down. Of course some of this is necessary, but again it adds up, and in the case of some games it adds up to more than I can be bothered with.

This coming weekend, there's another free trial - this time of Ragnar Tørnquist's supernatural MMO The Secret World. I'll be giving that a try, but I've never been that into MMOs and one of the big problems I have with them is - surprise, surprise - the number of commands to keep track of at once. I'm a big fan of Ragnar's storytelling ability, but will The Secret World's interface get in the way of my enjoying it? I guess I'll find out within the week.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Trailer trash

I wanted to say something about all the Hitman hubbub, but I ultimately had even less to add to that than I did to the Diablo DRM debate. My major issue with the Hitman: Absolution trailer was not one of morality or chivalry, but that it's that it's not Hitman. Hitman is a game about not killing people. That's a very important bit. The part about not drawing attention to yourself, and not turning things into a bloodbath? Being all, like, subtle and stuff, or at least as subtle as one can be for a man with a bardcode on his head? That's what Hitman's about. And an explosive shootout with the cast of Sister Candie Takes The Divine Sacrament* is not subtle. I have subsequently been assured that the Absolution devs disliked the trailer just as much as everyone else, and have promised that the game will stay true to the core of Hitman's heritage.

Would fetish nuns with rocket launchers have caused half as much flap in a trailer for a new Wet or Bayonetta? Well, maybe. Probably. Bayonetta saw a fair amount of controversy surrounding its perceived sexism. But y'know, gender stereotyping aside, that's the sort of thing those games are about. And I salute them for it! That sort of hypersexualised, tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top, crazy-and-deranged-just-for-the-sake-of-it Thing certainly has its place. It's even had its place in Hitman over the years, at least in terms of aesthetic, if perhaps not action. I suppose, in that light, that the rocket launchers bother me more than the fetish nuns.

I've finally gotten round to Saints Row: The Third, and it's practically some kind of golden, penis-shaped temple to debauched lunacy. Yes, all the ladies have pneumatic boobies, and all the men have abs you could bounce rocks off, but that doesn't have to translate to sexist portrayals in terms of personality or societal role. For the most part, SR3 seems to do pretty well there. I'm about as pro gender quality as it's possible to be, but gender equality doesn't mean pretending that sex isn't fun, or that sexuality can't be addressed with a nod and a wink.

And then, there were Duke Nukem Forever's trailers. There's a line between fun, over the top cheese and actual sexism - a wide, blurry line, but some sort of line nonetheless - and DNF smeared rancid, blood-flecked semen all over that line. DNF's trailer made it seem like the game equivalent of the guy who's absolutely convinced that all women are gold-digging whores who need a strong man to keep them in line. That might be part of the same continuum as Bayonetta, but then so is puritanically censoring anything even remotely sexual, and it could be worse than tongue-in-cheek, knowing, over-sexuality.

Assassins attacking 47 in his hotel room, and him having to fight his way out? Sure, I can dig that. Said assassins being an all-female group dressed in latex nuns' habits? Okay then - so far so Tarantino, I guess. Blowing the shit out of the motel in huge explosions? Urgh... I suppose so. The really problematic bit is the fact that Square Enix have decided that this is what they want people's first impression of the new game to be.

Well, the pre-order going up six months ahead of release is also slightly daunting.

A trailer is many people's first window into a game. It's very much a first impression. A preview should get you excited, and displaying that a new installment will be completely different to the previous titles is very risky and rather questionable. The Absolution trailer tells us it will be centred around outlandish action and hyper-stylised sexuality, and that 47 will be an active agent in that this time; longtime fans understand that 47 is an outsider to this sort of thing, and that through his eyes things like fetish nuns with rocket launchers are distasteful. The OTT sexuality and violence of the previous Hitman games weren't presented as something to be celebrated. And of course there's the fact that a game about stealthy assassinations shouldn't need to be marketed on tits and explosions.

In light of the Hitman trailer, there's been a slight resurgence of talk concerning the Tomb Raider reboot's trailers. One of the big problems I've always had with the Tomb Raider series is the fact that Lara Croft is such a monumentally objectionable person. She's blessed with beauty, brains, brawn and fabulous wealth, yet how does she put her good fortune to use? By breaking into sites of historical importance and hoovering up anything valuable while killing the natives and endangered animals residing there. She's basically using her privilege to do whatever she likes, and screw anyone else it might affect. Granted, she finds herself in danger a lot, but she willingly put herself in that position in pursuit of stolen riches. Why, exactly, are we supposed to be sympathetic when she's in trouble? Why do you think 'killing Lara' was such a popular hobby among the PSX generation?

Some games tried to humanise her, or explain her motivations, but it always felt like an awkward retcon to me. Angel of Darkness tried to play up the nasty side of Lara, but it was more like a teenager's concept of 'badass' that true emotional darkness. Lara was always just a fundamentally unlikeable person. The reboot's trailer might not create a likeable protagonist - time will tell - but it's exploring why she is the way she is in a deep, potentially uncomfortable fashion (and I'm not talking about the gratuitous near-rape scene, nor the depressing fact that it's there to make male gamers want to protect Lara).

Most of us have to sympathise, psychologically, with someone who's been through a traumatic experience. But we don't have to like them. That creates an emotional and narrative tension. It's a simple trick, but it works. It was a key element of Analogue: A Hate Story; The Pale Bride went through unspeakable things, but as much as we might feel sorry for her, she's still pretty awful. James Bond went through unspeakable things in the Casino Royale remake, but they don't alter the fact he's an arsehole.

So it is with Lara in the new Tomb Raider trailer. She's beaten, subjected to appalling cicrumstances, and watches her friends get killed. Is that why she becomes the emotionless monster she is in later life? I may very well dislike the new Lara - time will tell - but I feel that there's a good chance I'll dislike her in an interesting way, and not just despise her for being a pantomime murderer. Then again, a lot of gamers have said good things about the old Lara, praising the fact she's a stone cold, unflappable badass. Ick.

Personally, what's gotten me most excited is perhaps the most minimalist preview around. EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Audiosurf Air! Fun fact: Audiosurf is my joint third-most played game on Steam, tied with Psychonauts at 35.6 hours (yeah, it took me that long to complete Psychonauts. Don't... don't ask. I'm ashamed). All that's been revealed of Audiosurf Air is the name and three screenshots, and as the website dryly notes, the graphics are not final and "other things are also not final." But it's enough - there will be a new Audiosurf, and it will not be about fetish nuns with rocket launchers. Score!

I've also been enjoying the videos Stainless put out during their successful Carmageddon Kickstarter campaign. Even compared to Double Fine's videos, the Carmageddon videos are amateurish as hell (one of them features one of the developers dancing around to Trololo for about four minutes, for fuck sake) but I for one actually like that. Nobby and Simista come off as people you could go down the pub with. They're the kind of people I trust with a game like Carmageddon, which was - in essence - a fun pisstake. An accomplished, boundary-rewriting pisstake, but even so.

I wanted to close with something on the previews from Nintendo's new spy-catching game for the 3DS, but... rather embarrassingly.... I can't for the life of me remember what it's called. And this is looking very long and meandering as it is, so I'd better sign off. Bai bai.

*Just be thankful that I couldn't think of a good transubstantiation joke.