revisiting Brutal Legend

I was home sick today, and so I decided to spend some of my convalescence by downloading the Steam version of Brutal Legend, a game that I still own (and never finished) on the 360.

Brutal Legend - The Wall

This is what I wrote about Brutal Legend back when I was first playing it in October 2009:

I don’t quite know how to express how bummed out I am about Brutal Legend. The art direction is stupendous, and the world itself is just fantastic. I love driving around and exploring the world and seeing all the incredible stuff there is to see, and my compulsive need to seek out hidden collectibles is very well satisfied. The dialogue and cut-scenes are fantastic, and even though the side missions are incredibly repetitive, they almost never last more than a few minutes, and the rewards generally result in neat stuff in Ozzy’s Garage.

But goddamn, the stage battles completely suck all my enthusiasm out of the game. It eventually got to the point where I had completed every side mission and found every hidden thing I could possibly find, just because I wanted to play the game as much as possible without having to go through the stage battles. And, of course, the story can’t progress unless you do those stage battles, and therein lay the tragedy.

I don’t necessarily hate real time strategy games, I’m just not very good at them, and Brutal Legend’s brief tutorials don’t really help me in terms of figuring out what the hell is going on, and the game does such a terrible job of providing adequate feedback, especially when I’m on the ground trying to kill people because my army refuses to move. Once you start getting wounded, and the screen starts turning red and the heartbeat starts pounding louder, you’re almost always dead, and I’ve yet to figure out why. Even when I try to fly away, I die. And even though I’ve eventually won every stage battle I’ve participated in, I really don’t understand why, and the whole thing just feels shoddy and poorly implemented.

I have all the respect in the world for Tim Schafer; I’ll play anything the man works on. But I’m starting to feel that there’s more to a game than art direction and funny dialogue; ultimately, a game either succeeds or fails based on how much fun it is to play, and Brutal Legend is not very much fun at all.

This is Tim Schafer speaking about the game with Rock Paper Shotgun today:

“When Brutal Legend was done, a lot of people wanted the wrapper to it – the heavy metal world – to be [the only unique thing about it],” he said. “They basically wanted the heavy metal funny version of God of War. A very simple hack and slash game. That’s a real tough call for me. It’s hard to say, ‘There’s this other thing that’s not the thing you’re trying to do. The thing you care about and that you love. There’s this other version of it that’s totally different and it would be more successful. Why don’t you make that version?’”

“Maybe it would have been more successful. It would have been more accessible and simpler and easier for people to grasp. But it wasn’t the thing that got me up in the morning and made me want to make the game.”

I am sad to report that my opinions of the game have not changed one bit.  The world is still wondrous, the art direction is still mesmerizing, the characters are still memorable and marvelously performed and animated, the dialogue is still witty and smart, and the story is still engaging… but the gameplay is still shitty.   I understand where Tim is coming from in that RPS quote – making a simplistic hack-n-slash game is probably not as inspiring as coming up with this RTS-esque system – but if you’re going to commit to a complicated system over the more obvious route, then you’ve got to make sure that your audience can follow along with you.  I’m sure some people understood how the game worked, but I never could.  And after my time with it tonight, I’m not sure I’ll ever get there.

It’s also worth bringing up that this PC port is not without some noticeable problems.  Lots of weird graphical glitches and bugs pop up all the time – the mouse cursor will appear in the middle of the screen at random even though I’m playing with a controller, some of the upgrade options in Ozzy’s Garage are totally glitched out, and the audio has a tendency to come and go during the pre-rendered cut-scenes.  (As I type this, I see that Steam just downloaded a 50MB patch; maybe that will help smooth out these rough edges.)

Despite my pessimism, I really would like to see a sequel – this world is too amazing to be lost to time.  I just hope that if they get the chance to make one, that they’ll be able to take as much time as is necessary to make sure the game part works.  Double Fine’s games have never come up short in the story department, or the art department, or any of the other technical/creative departments – they’ve only ever shown their weaknesses during the parts where you actually have to play them.  As I said above, I have nothing but the utmost respect for Tim and his company, and I’ve played pretty much everything they’ve put out, and will continue to do so – I’m certainly waiting with bated breath for the Kickstarter Adventure (whose progress I’ve been trying to not follow, actually).  I wish nothing but success for Double Fine.  I just can’t help but feel that success will only truly arrive once their games are as much fun to play as they are to experience.

>Darksiders / Bayonetta

>Finished Darksiders this weekend, and after that I played as much Bayonetta as I could, before it started driving me completely insane – this was right at the beginning of Chapter 5. And then I gave Brutal Legend one more chance, and crammed in a bit more Mass Effect (1).

But first things first. Darksiders is, for lack of a better word, solid. (Which is ironic, considering the constant screen tearing.) It’s got a simple but effective combat system, some interesting and challenging puzzles, a wide variety of environments to explore, and a story that was just engaging enough to keep me motivated through the end, with one of the best set-ups for a sequel I’ve ever seen.

That said, it’s so derivative that it borders on litigious – as you’ve no doubt heard by now if you’ve been paying any attention to its reviews, it’s basically the dark Zelda game that Nintendo will never make, with the Portal gun thrown in, for some reason. So it feels somewhat uninspired – it has a great story set-up, but it doesn’t really do anything special with it. I said before that there are a wide variety of environments, but they’re not really particularly interesting; there’s a lot of dead space to cover in between combat arenas and puzzles, which gets tedious. (You do eventually get a horse, but it can only be ridden in certain areas, and you don’t get it until you’re already at least halfway through the game.)

Still, it’s certainly worth a rental; if it’s derivative, at least it’s stealing from the right places.

Bayonetta, on the other hand, is pure, distilled lunacy. Picture Devil May Cry as a perpetually horny, unintentionally racist teenage boy that’s taken 3 tabs of LSD followed by 20 cans of Red Bull and you begin to approach Bayonetta’s plane of existence. Unfortunately, I don’t do drugs anymore, and I’m not very good at games like Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden, so after getting my ass handed to me repeatedly at the beginning of Chapter 5, I came to the realization that no amount of curiosity as to what could possibly happen next was going to outweigh the frustration of not being able to kill whatever the hell was trying to kill me. I’m not entirely sure how what I’d already seen could possibly be topped, even though I’ve been assured that each chapter gets even more insane. Oh well; my loss.

I had lent Brutal Legend to a friend of mine, but his 360 died shortly thereafter and so I got it back. I’d been meaning to give it another shot; I felt terrible that I couldn’t get into it, as if it were somehow my fault, and being that the game is so short I figured I might as well try to get through it. But you know what? It’s not my fault. I hate the Stage Battles. I hated them when I was first learning how to play them, and I hate them now, long after I’d forgotten what the hell I was supposed to be doing. Everything else about that game is fantastic – even the side missions, as repetitive as they are, are fun enough. But GODDAMN I hate the Stage Battles. They are totally unintuitive; the controls are absolute garbage; I get no feedback as to how I’m doing or why I won or lost. I’m so bummed.

And so, then, I’m trying to finish my third playthrough of Mass Effect before ME2 shows up next week. I don’t know that I’ll ever get up to Level 50, as I’m still 80,000 XP short, but that’s not really the point; I just want to make sure that I can start my first playthrough of ME2 with the right story elements in place.

>Modern Warfare 2

>*SPOILERS AHEAD*

For years now, there’s been a growing discussion about the importance of Story, specifically as it applies to videogames. The people having that discussion also may bring up the concept of Art, as in: “Are videogames art?” As the game industry grows larger and fights for legitimacy in the public eye, this question becomes important, even if it’s not necessarily relevant.

A lot of great game franchises have been ruined by Story. The Tony Hawk franchise is a perfect example; the first few games really just focused on capturing the experience of skateboarding, and to that end they succeeded mightily. Eventually, though, as the game kept churning out sequels with marginal technical improvements and the need to innovate became stronger, the game developed a story mode. And that’s really where the franchise fell apart, for me. I didn’t care about being a little skate punk, I didn’t need to stick it to the man, etc.; all I wanted to was skate, and do the things that I couldn’t do in real life. I suppose I could’ve hung in if the story was at least told well, but it was bland and unoriginal. What was I supposed to expect? The developers had been making a skateboarding game, but now they were supposed to tell me a story? How do those particular disciplines mesh?

Then there’s games like Brutal Legend, which is so focused on its story and the design of the world you play in that the actual gameplay feels like an afterthought. Sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn’t. On the opposite side of that spectrum, a game like Borderlands has almost no story to speak of, but the gameplay is so well-designed and focused that it almost doesn’t even matter that there’s no story-driven motivation.

And then there are franchises like Metal Gear, where the story is so central to the experience that there’s almost no actual game to play; a 10 minute action sequence will be followed by a 40-minute cut scene, and then you’ll walk down a hallway and another 30-minute cut scene will ensue. I’m not going to get into MGS’s story quality, because that’s an entirely different 10,000-word blogpost, and in any event I’ve already written about it.

But story quality is important, and that’s my real bone to pick with Modern Warfare 2.

The Call of Duty franchise’s defining characteristic has been its scripted events. You’ll play as an American soldier, and then after a big “event” you’ll switch perspectives and then play as a British soldier, or a Russian soldier, etc. Call of Duty 4, which moved the franchise out of the trenches of WW2 and into modern day, kept this perspective-switching intact but also took it in intriguing and shocking new directions; the very beginning of the game features your character suddenly being executed, and the end of the game features your character dying in a nuclear holocaust. This whole idea of watching yourself die, totally powerless to save yourself, was unnerving and visceral and powerful.

The stakes for MW2, then, were set very high. How could the game’s developers manage to top the jaw-dropping moments of the first game? The answer to this question was, unfortunately, “if some is good, more is better.”

The “airport level”, as it’s been called, is genuinely controversial, and rightly so. You play an American soldier, undercover, who somehow has managed to be inserted into a Russian terrorist cell right next to “the most dangerous man in the world.” The scene begins in darkness; you hear the sound of guns being loaded. The lights fade up; you see that you are in an elevator. The most dangerous man in the world says a few words, and then the doors open, and you see that you’re in an airport, and you and your fellow terrorist are slowly walking through the airport, killing everyone you see. The creepiest thing about this sequence isn’t the killing of civilians, or the obvious parallel to 9/11 and the lingering paranoia about airport security; it’s the fact that you’re all walking so slowly, making sure you’re all taking the time to kill as many people as possible. You don’t even have to pull the trigger during this sequence; the rest of your gang members will do all the killing for you. The lingering sense of dread is almost overwhelming; it’s disturbing and uncomfortable.

So this is all shocking, and this occurs only about 1-2 hours into the game. But this isn’t where the level ends. After you get out of the airport, you’re back to shooting police and soldiers trying to stop you, and then the level ends with the Most Dangerous Man In The World suddenly revealing at the very last possible moment that he knows you were an American the whole time, and shooting you in the head.

Let’s set aside for the moment that your identity as an American sets off a chain reaction that plunges the U.S. and Russia into a global conflict that eventually sees you, among other things, staging an assault to reclaim the White House in the wake of an aborted nuclear missile attack on Washington D.C., and let us instead examine the other ways in which your player character is suddenly killed at the last possible moment in an unforeseen twist. Your character is also in a helicopter that gets shot down and when you wake up you are trapped in the wreckage, with no bullets; an enemy helicopter approaches, and the screen goes white.

Then, for no apparent reason, your perspective shifts and suddenly you’re an astronaut doing a space walk by the International Space Station, watching a nuclear missle’s arc cross the horizon. This is shocking enough – that’s probably why they put it in the commercial – but suddenly the missile is detonated and the electro-magnetic pulse generated by the missile’s explosion sends you flying out into space.

And then, the scene flashes back to you being trapped under the helicopter wreckage – it turns out that the EMP happened directly overhead, and so everything electronic in the area suddenly conks out, and the helicopter that was about to kill you crashes, and so you escape. Hooray! Except that it turns out later that, after you’ve raided the Most Dangerous Man in The World’s safehouse and retrieved valuable “intel”, you’re shot in the head by the main U.S. General in charge of the war effort, who then also sets you on fire.

And THEN, you’re in the desert, for some reason – I’m not even sure who the “you” is, at this point, since “you” have already died several times – and you’re chasing this same U.S. General, who manages to get into a helicopter from a moving speedboat, and then you manage to shoot the helicopter down, and it explodes, and then your speedboat falls over a cliff, and somehow you survive, and as it turns out the U.S. General also survived, and then he stabs you in the chest with a knife, and then eventually you regain the strength to pull the knife out of your chest and throw it (the knife) directly into the General’s eyeball. And then the credits roll, while people walk around in a museum, presumably showcasing certain famous scenes of the war, which are really quite violent for a kid-friendly museum.

This is all to say that the story is so over the top that it becomes melodramatic and nonsensical and just plain weird. And the thing that really makes it ridiculous is that, at least in my experience, you die a lot during the campaign. The game is hard; it only takes a few bullets to put you down, and there are a lot of enemies who fire a lot of bullets. The game has a relatively generous checkpoint system, as well as recharging health, but therein lies the breaking of the suspension of disbelief – I’ve already been shot a hundred thousand times in the course of this level; why shouldn’t I recover from being shot in the head at close range? Again?

The game part of the game is, of course, expertly well done. It’s graphically impressive, the weapons feel incredibly powerful, the atmosphere is charged and violent and unsettling. The rag-doll animation following a kill shot is especially unsettling; people just drop. And then of course there’s the multiplayer suite, which I dabbled in briefly last night and which better people than me can pontificate on. It’s all very well done, and it’s certainly worth a purchase, which is maybe a ridiculous thing to say given that anyone reading this probably already owns it.

But the story… wow. Here’s a suggestion for the sequel, which was inevitable even before it was set up by the game’s surprisingly clunky cliffhanger of an ending: maybe don’t kill the player character as much. It’s already been done far more than is necessary, and it ceases to mean anything since it’s not like your character even says anything, or is even clearly identifiable. There were a number of times during the campaign where someone would shout something to someone, and it took me a while to realize that they were shouting at me.

On an unrelated note, a hypothetical question: who kills more people, Nathan Drake in Uncharted 2, or your player character(s) in Modern Warfare 2? I could probably actually look this up and get real numbers, but off the top of my head it seems like the numbers would probably be pretty close.

>What I Played This Weekend: ALCS edition

>It always seems like whenever there are a ton of great games coming out all at once, I’m usually really busy doing lots of other things, and yet I feel compelled to own them all anyway. In any event – the little gaming time I had this past weekend was divided up pretty evenly between trying my hardest to enjoy Brutal Legend, and being very pleasantly surprised by Borderlands, with a little bit of Uncharted 2 online co-op, and a tiny taste of Demon’s Souls for the hell of it.

I don’t quite know how to express how bummed out I am about Brutal Legend. The art direction is stupendous, and the world itself is just fantastic. I love driving around and exploring the world and seeing all the incredible stuff there is to see, and my compulsive need to seek out hidden collectibles is very well satisfied. The dialogue and cutscenes are fantastic, and even though the sidemissions are incredibly repetitive, they almost never last more than a few minutes, and the rewards generally result in neat stuff in Ozzy’s Garage.

But goddamn, the stage battles completely suck all my enthusiasm out of the game. It eventually got to the point where I had completed every side mission and found every hidden thing I could possibly find, just because I wanted to play the game as much as possible without having to go through the stage battles. And, of course, the story can’t progress unless you do those stage battles, and therein lay the tragedy.

I don’t necessarily hate real time strategy games, I’m just not very good at them, and Brutal Legend’s brief tutorials don’t really help me in terms of figuring out what the hell is going on, and the game does such a terrible job of providing adequate feedback, especially when I’m on the ground trying to kill people because my army refuses to move. Once you start getting wounded, and the screen starts turning red and the heartbeat starts pounding louder, you’re almost always dead, and I’ve yet to figure out why. Even when I try to fly away, I die. And even though I’ve eventually won every stage battle I’ve participated in, I really don’t understand why, and the whole thing just feels shoddy and poorly implemented.

I have all the respect in the world for Tim Schafer; I’ll play anything the man works on. But I’m starting to feel that there’s more to a game than art direction and funny dialogue; ultimately, a game either succeeds or fails based on how much fun it is to play, and Brutal Legend is not very much fun at all.

Meanwhile, Borderlands is fun as hell. It starts a little slow, but once you finish the first round of missions and get a vehicle, it really starts to open up. I dinged up to level 15 pretty quickly, and have been itching to get back to it ever since. Haven’t tried online co-op yet, though, since none of my real-life friends have been able to find a copy in stores.

Speaking of online co-op, I did a few levels with Gred in Uncharted 2, and while they’re pretty much taken wholesale from the game, they’re still a lot of fun. It really shows just how improved the combat is; the mechanics are rock-solid and it’s arguably even more fun when you’re shouting out positions and scrambling for cover and ammo and trying to heal each other.

Finally, more out of morbid curiousity than anything else, I tried Demon’s Souls for 20 minutes yesterday. I can see why the game gets good reviews; the game is hard but it’s fair, and I eventually died because I was being impatient, not because the game cheated. And then, of course, I saw where I respawned from, and saw how far I’d have to go to reclaim my lost souls, and I said “fuck this.” I don’t have the time or the masochistic tendencies to really put it through its paces.

Tonight: Forza 3.

And coming soon, we’re going to be doing a big GAMES OF THE DECADE feature, featuring a special guest or two. Stay tuned.

>Quick Thoughts on Brutal Legend / Uncharted 2

>I won’t write about Brutal Legend just yet. It’s clearly a labor of love by Tim Schafer and his DoubleFine team, and it wouldn’t be fair to talk about it before I’ve finished it. The reason why I haven’t finished it, though, is that the RTS-lite stage battles make me miserable, and every time I fire the game up I do everything I can to avoid having to do them. As a result, I’ve explored about as much of the world as I can, and I’ve found a whole bunch of the secret collectible stuff, and so now the game exists in two distinct halves for me; there’s the half where the world is awesome and the artistic vision really shines through and everything is hilarious and fun, and then there’s the half where I take the game out of the tray and wait for my rental copy of Borderlands to arrive.
Wait, didn’t I say I wasn’t going to write about Brutal Legend just yet? Shit.

I will write about Uncharted 2, though, and I’ll do my best to speak coherently about it; it’s been a few days since I finished it, and hopefully I’ve flushed most of the excess hyperbole out of my system.

Because I’m not as great a writer as I like to think I am, I’m not entirely sure I made the point I wanted to make when I got all pissy about Adam Sessler calling U2 the best game he’d ever played. (After all, something’s got to be the best game you’ve ever played, and now that I’ve played it, U2 is as good a choice as any.) The point really should’ve been that there are better, more responsible ways for a critic to speak about something s/he is reviewing; otherwise, you’re basically writing pull quotes for the box art, and it makes me suspicious.

And the truth of the matter is that U2 is fucking fantastic. For all that it might lack in innovation, it is exceedingly ambitious; Naughty Dog strove to make the best action adventure game ever made, and to that end, they succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation. They have set the bar immeasurably high. U2 is at the very least the finest PS3 game of this generation and will probably keep that distinction for the rest of the PS3’s lifespan, and if something even better somehow comes along, we will all be the better for it.

It is perfectly, relentlessly paced; exploration glides into action and back again, within the most beautifully constructed locales ever seen in digital form. Perhaps you’ve heard of the train sequence; it’s easy to talk about and it occurs early enough in the game that you can talk about it without really giving anything away. Other games have featured action set-pieces on moving trains – one of the Splinter Cell sequels immediately comes to mind – but here, the train isn’t just moving along a straight line, in the dark, past the same few lightposts over and over again. You’re in the jungle, in broad daylight, and the train’s course is constantly undulating back and forth, which means you have to compensate and anticipate the train’s movements when you’re trading gunfire and tossing grenades; not only are you fighting enemies but you’re also trying to move to the front car, which means you’re also climbing all over the train and dodging signposts and traffic signals; oh and there’s also a helicopter shooting rockets at you. It’s all you can do to remind yourself to blink and exhale.

I haven’t tried the multiplayer or the co-op yet, but even so – the single-player campaign is a staggering achievement in interactive entertainment, and is absolutely deserving of all the accolades it has received.

>Talking About Talking: The Fake SFTC Podcast

>We’ve been wanting to get a STFC podcast going for a while, now, and we’ve been so busy with other things that we haven’t been able to figure out the logistics of making it happen. (Speaking of which, if anybody reading this can recommend a reliable method of recording Skype calls, please leave a comment below.)

In the absence of having a podcast, then, what follows is a fake transcript of what a STFC podcast might sound like, as we’ve been having a rather interesting email conversation about Uncharted and Brutal Legend over the last few days and we don’t feel like keeping it to ourselves:

Gred: Goddamn, the Uncharted 2 reviews have me salivating!!! They even motivated me to start clearing my plate for its release. I went back and played a bunch of Batman. I think I’m nearing the final act (just left Croc’s lair, now on my way to have it out with Poison Ivy in the Botanical Garden). Once that’s wrapped up, I’ll go back and push through Uncharted 1. And if there’s still time left over before U2 comes out, I’ll finish HL2 Episode 2. I hope you won’t be too quick to swear off Uncharted 2 multiplayer! I know you’re not an online shooter guy, but if it’s as fun as the initial buzz suggests, then there should be plenty of fun to be had even by the sucky…

Fuck. I just remembered that Uncharted 2 and Brutal Legend come out on the same day. I’ll buy both, but how am I supposed to choose one to play first???

Jervo: 1. You are indeed near the end of Batman. But I would make preparing for U2 your highest priority.

2. I tried the U2 multiplayer demo last night for a few minutes; it’s definitely U2 multiplayer. As combat is my least favorite part of Uncharted in general, I’m not entirely sure how much time I’m ultimately going to spend with it (especially since my bluetooth headset doesn’t always work), but it’s solid and clearly no joke. If you’re so inclined, I’d say you should download it when you get home, and maybe we can try it out together before getting DiRTy.

3. I’ve preordered both U2 and BL, and having played the BL demo already, I think my choice is clear; I’m playing U2 first. I liked the BL demo, although I’d already seen most (if not all) of it already – it’s more or less what they showed at E3. And I must admit that I’m not as excited about BL as I feel I ought to be. The more I hear about it and how it changes from a GoW action game to more of an Overlord-type RTS, I get a little… I don’t know… nervous. U2, on the other hand, is right in my sweet spot; that’s the sort of game I want to be playing right this second.

Gred: I’m super excited about BL. I totally trust Double Fine. Psychonauts certainly wasn’t perfect, and parts of it were tedious, but it was all wrapped in such a terrifically imagined world with such outstanding writing that I was able to forgive a lot. I don’t expect BL to be the be-all end-all in terms of its gameplay, plus I’m beginning to wish Jack Black had never become involved, though that has admittedly provided a good visibility boost which should help sales. But until Double Fine fails me I will buy their games on day one, RTS elements and all. So that’s why the strategy stuff doesn’t make me nervous as far as my own enjoyment of the game. But it does worry me from a potential sales standpoint… A game based on an original IP that doesn’t lend itself to easy categorization could find itself in limbo at retail. Not that Double Fine should kowtow to the mainstream 100%, but Lord knows they could use a hit.

That said, I probably will play U2 first. Seems like U2 lends itself more to burning through the single player campaign in a fevered rush, whereas I could see myself taking my sweet time with BL.

Jervo: I’m an old-school Jack Black fan; I am generally embarrassed whenever he appears in anything these days (except for Tropic Thunder) but I loved Tenacious D before it was cool to do so, and everything I’ve seen of BL confirms that it was a perfect casting choice. (I was going to say something snarky here about how voice acting’s impact on gameplay is less than negligible, but that’s not necessarily true; it’s only true when it’s obvious that 90% of the development budget went towards the voice acting. Frankly, one of the things that made the first Uncharted so endearing was the quality of the voice acting, and all the reviews indicate that U2 is even better in that regard.) I’m sure BL will be enjoyable, and I’ve already ordered it, so I feel like I’ve done my part in terms of supporting DoubleFine. It’s just that, well, U2 is going to be jaw-dropping.

Gred: Dunno if you saw that Action Button reviewed the first Uncharted: http://www.actionbutton.net/?p=607. I haven’t read it yet, but I assume it’s a great read!

Jervo: I told you about this the other day. They call it a “murder simulator.”

Gred: Oh. Right.

Yeah, so I read it. Definitely not one of their better pieces. I thought they’d take it somewhere more interesting, but they kind of briefly made their point, and then the review fizzled out.

Jervo: Well, considering that our main problem with the game is that you can’t kill the bad guys easily enough, I think it’s a pretty insightful point to make. The game does such a fantastic job in terms of story and presentation and motivation and yet it can’t be ignored that you’re killing hundreds of human beings – and I was never actually sure why I was killing them, except that they were in my way. It’s a similar observation to that of going to Rapture in Bioshock and eating potato chips out of the garbage that are at least several years old and getting healthier as a result.

Gred: The Bioshock potato chip thing makes very little sense, particularly because of how dissonant some of the contrivances in Bioshock are with their bend-over backwards attempts to get you to buy into the plausibility of Rapture, as the ActionButton guys brilliantly observe and explain in their review.

All the Uncharted killing, though, makes at least some sense to the extent that all of these guys are trying to kill you. I agree that the combat gets tiresome and that the game would have been more interesting with fewer, more considered confrontations. But movie-like games remain games nonetheless. They require a different sort of suspension of disbelief than movies do. Drake is not Indiana Jones. Drake leaps up crumbling fortress walls hundreds of feet up as a matter of course, whereas if Indy did that repeatedly (rather than, say, as a unique set-piece moment) we might not so readily accept it in the context of a movie. It’s not apples to apples.

But if we do want to compare apples to apples, I don’t really see how Uncharted is all that different from most large-scale shooters. How is exterminating all of these guys is different from annihilating untold numbers of Covenant, German soldiers, Locusts, etc.? Sure, those are framed as larger-scale “save the world” scenarios, but at the end of the day it’s still “Kill them or they’ll kill you.” Drake’s own adventure admittedly starts as a mere treasure hunt, which is hardly the noblest of causes nor one that would justify a triple-digit body count. But as far as I’ve gotten in the game, they’ve worked in enough alternative motivations (search for and rescue Elena, avenge Sully) that the killing just doesn’t bug me from a moral standpoint (though it gets pretty damned tiresome from a pacing/fun perspective). Plus, the enemies in Uncharted are presumably mercenaries, i.e. men who have entered the private army business for money. These guys (including Drake!) are all vying for a big fat prize, and they are all willingly playing a high stakes game. In that regard, it wouldn’t be a tragedy from a story perspective if Drake was killed during his quest. He’s a mercenary of sorts himself. From a gameplay perspective, of course, his death sucks.

The Uncharted body count doesn’t keep me up at night. Far less morally challenging or ambiguous than, say, the countless games which turn World War II into a shooting gallery. (Sure, I play them. But there is something about it that’s unsettling.)

Jervo: Indy’s personal body count in Raiders, by my perhaps faulty recollection, is actually rather low. He punches a lot of dudes, and knocks out a few guys to change clothes, but he really just shoots that one dude with the sword – and according to film legend that was an ad-lib by Harrison Ford because he was violently ill and didn’t want to do the fight scene choreography. The guy he fights by the plane ends up getting his own head chopped into sushi; shit, even God ends up killing more dudes than Indiana Jones.

I’ll admit that the combat in Uncharted is necessary as it breaks up the action and creates a different sort of tension. It’s a game, after all, and you kill dudes in games. And it was clearly something that the design team thought about and tried to implement as well as they possibly could – the cover system works well, the death animations are convincing, and the whole thing would’ve been perfect if the enemies hadn’t been so bulletproof. As long as we’re talking about Uncharted influences, Tomb Raider’s combat (at least in the more recent, better iterations) is not nearly as much fun or as well implemented – of course, there’s not nearly as much of it, either, so it kinda evens out.

But I submit that Uncharted is different from other large-scale shooters because Nathan Drake is not a soldier, and he’s not saving the world. He’s not killing aliens or Nazis or zombies. More to the point, I don’t want Uncharted to be Modern Warfare with platforming and puzzles. My favorite parts of Uncharted – as they are in Tomb Raider and other games of that sort – are the exploring and the puzzle solving, when you’re not rushing against a clock or dodging bullets, and you’re free to examine the environment at your own pace. That’s the part where you actually feel like a treasure hunter, because it’s actually you and your brain that’s solving the puzzles; that’s the part that could actually happen in real life. You don’t have to suspend any disbelief (other than the idea that every archeological find can only be found by moving blocks onto weighted floors).

Gred: See, that’s where I think their point is interesting. Would/could Uncharted have been a sales hit without all that shooting? Shooters sell. Is there a “realistic” style exploration-based adventure game that sold out there? I can’t think of one. So they are totally right to call bullshit on all of the gamers who cry foul and say “Not all games have killing!” Right. Just the ones that sell. And 85% of the games I buy. But I still find the term “murder simulator” to be a bit silly.

Jervo: Would Uncharted have been a sales hit without the shooting? No, probably not. Does that suck? Yeah, it kinda does. Can we be grateful, then, that the combat mechanics in Uncharted are at least well-designed and constructed, except for the bulletproof enemies? Absolutely, and that’s probably got as much to do with why the game did so well as anything else. Hell, that’s why they built a whole multiplayer mode around it.

BUT.

There’s still way too much killing in Uncharted than is necessary for the game to still be successful and enjoyable, and that’s a stone-cold fact. And the fact that the enemies are bulletproof merely exacerbates how tedious it becomes, this killing of people over and over and over again. We can assume AB purposefully uses the term “murder simulator” to recall good ol’ Jack Thompson’s railing against GTA, and in that context they’re probably right – I’ve probably killed more virtual people in Uncharted than I did in GTA4. (Not counting driving accidents, of course.)

Gred: Sucks that it wouldn’t have sold without shooting: Herry hoo. [Translation: Very true.]

Too much killing: Herry hoo. (Though I still see the high body count as a difference of degree and not kind from most other games.)

I love that running people over in GTA games doesn’t count! Even if you try to play the earlier games as a “nice” criminal who avoids killing the “innocent” (Niko can’t really be played as nice), you can’t avoid running people over or the game will just be hell. So it’s a “necessary” evil, the necessity being that it would otherwise take forever to drive anywhere!

And then, suddenly, we were both hit by a truck.

>Brutal Legend Update!

>EA is publishing Brutal Legend; will be released Fall 2009.

I’ve given EA a lot of shit over the years, but they turned it around in 2008; they worked with a lot of great developers and put out a ton of new, interesting and unique IP. (Of course, they’re getting killed financially as a result, because consumers are stupid.) And EA is well aware that they’re taking a bit of a risk here; Tim Schafer’s games, as we all know, have been critically lauded and have incredibly devoted fans, but almost none of them have ever been breakout hits.

Still – this is great news for Schafer fans, and now I can start setting up the template for the 2009 GOTYs.