Monday, December 21, 2009

The Saboteur Review

While I wasn't particularly impressed with The Saboteur, I had a lot of fun both playing and reviewing it. Here's what I thought -- originally published on Hooked Gamers.

Friendly Fire

Prancing along the rooftops of Nazi-occupied Paris, I spotted a German general flanked by two bodyguards loitering on the street below. Given that killing Nazi generals grants me extra contraband, I set my Scoped Steiner in line with the general's head and fired a shot. Before the general hit the ground, I ran to another set of rooftops and hid among the jagged peaks. As the two bodyguards came to attention, a Sturmwagen drove by and deposited three more vigilant and glowing Nazis directly in the middle of traffic.

The Nazis stood perfectly still in an "alert" state with their weapons pointed in all directions, ready for any sign of the assassin. They were completely immersed in their hunt, so much so that when a German transport truck came barreling down the street towards them, they didn't flinch. Not wanting to harm any soldiers, the truck driver swerved to avoid two of the Nazis… and ran over the third, instantly killing him.

In their constant vigilance, the remaining two soldiers continued to stay perfectly still, not noticing or caring that their comrade had just been murdered. The truck driver maintained a similar attitude - his delivery was just too important to stop and check on the Nazi he had just crushed.

Pandemic Studios' swansong, The Saboteur, is a massive open-world game full of such conflicting moments. It attempts to maintain an immersive experience by integrating elements of plot, gameplay and artistic design, which it accomplishes most of the time, but a few poor design decisions and bad implementations often break any sense of immersion.

French-Irish

In The Saboteur, you play Sean Devlin, an Irish mechanic turned professional racecar driver turned French resistance fighter in 1940s Paris. He's a heavy-drinking, chain-smoking, womanizing asshole with vengeance in mind.

Before Germany invaded France, Sean's impending victory in his first official race was sabotaged by Doppelsieg's top driver, Kurt Dierker, who went on to claim victory. That sabotage, along with Sean's recklessness, sparked a series of tragic events that resulted in Sean hiding out in Paris while biding his time before killing Dierker.

The plot can be somewhat hokey. Ridiculous plot devices - the main antagonist is a champion racecar driver who moonlights as a professional torturer for the Nazis - derail all attempts at poignancy, like Sean's mentor, Vittore, imploring him to stop seeking vengeance. Even so, the one-dimensional yet diverse cast of characters and the resulting secrets, reluctant partnerships and betrayals, manage to keep the narrative slightly interesting. The banter between Sean's two love-interests is very amusing, and even ancillary characters existing only to provide extra missions are unique, if not well developed. While other French resistance fighters are focused on general sabotage, Margot calls upon Devlin to stop the Nazi war on culture and Dr. Kwong brings a new age of psychological warfare tactics.

While The Saboteur provides a small number of repeating mission types, the game's plot also ensures that missions similar in structure don't feel overly repetitive.

How to Take Down a Nazi

The open-world action adventure contains five self-explanatory and recurring mission structures: Tailing an enemy, rescuing allies, chauffeuring allies, sniping targets, and the most general of mission types, blow stuff up.

Pandemic Studios keeps each mission interesting by varying the underlying motivations and corresponding characters. The first chauffeur mission requires Sean to drive his best friend's sister, Veronique, around the city, while unbeknownst to him, she picks up and deposits a bomb to assassinate a high-value German target. Another chauffeur mission, assigned by Dr. Kwong, requires Sean to drive a brainwashed Nazi around the city, as the soldier willingly delivers a bomb to his commander. The first mission carries an air of tension, given the relationship between Sean and Veronique, whereas the second is quite humorous: when Sean attempts a conversation with the brainwashed German, he receives a prerecorded and repeating script.

The Saboteur also occasionally breaks from its defining mission structures to provide more story-driven experiences. Sean's chase of Kurt Dierker through an exploding zeppelin and a rescue mission conducted on a moving train are two particularly memorable moments in the game. Unfortunately, there are few comparable moments throughout the game.

Walk Softly but Carry a Big Gun

To accomplish all of these missions, Sean has the option of running in with heavy weapons, creating massive amounts of death and destruction, or stealthy infiltration, going unnoticed by any Nazis. In the first case, Sean has a large arsenal of pistols, machine guns, shotguns, rifles and explosives at his disposal, though very few of the weapons are actually worth carrying. After finding a decent machinegun and sniper rifle early on, there's no real reason for Sean to use anything else, at least until he meets the Nazi Terror Squad.

In choosing to be stealthy, Sean has the ability to sneak behind enemies and perform quick stealth kills, and disguise himself in Nazi uniforms that grant him free and unhindered access to Nazi bases. Once inside a Nazi uniform and base, Sean can complete the necessary mission without disruption as long as he stays outside of dynamic areas of suspicion.

The stealth method is almost always much easier than the guns-blazing method thanks to the absurdly stupid enemy AI. As long as Sean remains outside the areas of suspicion, he can continuously plant explosives on objects of interest unhindered. An entire base may be engulfed in flames with explosions continuously going off, but Nazi soldiers will completely ignore it all as long as Sean doesn't jump out of his disguise.

Uber-Nazis

While this stealth formula is maintained throughout most of the game, it is broken by the aforementioned Nazi Terror Squad. These superhuman behemoths carry futuristic weapons - their shotguns fire as quickly as machine guns and their machine guns fire as quickly gatling guns - and they're immune to stealth kills. In some cases, half a dozen headshots are necessary to taking one down.

What results is the removal of any semblance of believability that the game tries to build through its characters and well-designed world. The Saboteur, like any good open-world game, is heavily built on providing players with choice. But the Terror Squad completely removes choice, contradicting everything else that Pandemic Studios created in the game.

Sound the Alarm

If a Nazi does notice Sean performing illicit activities, the Nazi can sound a general alarm and, as is typical at the end of most missions, Sean must flee the area before further German forces arrive and the alarm level increases. To escape alarms, Sean has a number of options including leaving the alarm area, which is particularly difficult at higher alarm levels, and running into a designated hiding spot, such as brothels and hatches on roofs.

In a nice addition to open-world games, Sean also has the option to fight back during high-level alarms. At designated "fight back" areas, Nazis will retreat and unsound the alarm once Sean and his allies have killed a certain number of pursuers in what amounts to all out warfare on the streets.

Economic Woes

Outside of the provided missions, Sean has the option of destroying Nazi targets - guard towers, search lights, AA guns and propaganda speakers - that litter Paris and the outlying countryside. While very repetitive, doing so is necessary in order to gain contraband, currency of Nazi-occupied Paris.

Sean can spend contraband to purchase explosives, weapons and ammunition from dealers. He can also use contraband at garages to purchase vehicle upgrades and body repairs.

However, The Saboteur's economic system is fairly light, considering it boils down to a formula of complete task then receive rewards. As opposed to a fully fleshed out trading system, Sean can't sell back or return items he doesn't have a use for.

The Saboteur also includes an interesting perk system that mimics the achievements all videogames incorporate. Performing specific actions a certain number of times unlocks weapons, vehicles and new abilities for Sean that are very useful. The game's best sniper rifle, racecar and stealth kills are all obtainable exclusively through the perk system.

Black and White

As alluded to, the majority of the game is set in Paris, which Pandemic Studios rendered beautifully - adding landmarks such as The Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, the Tour Eiffel and Notre Dame - and managed to capture a lived-in old world feel. But Sean must also travel to the French countryside and shore, which can take a good deal of time. Like any road trip, however, the drives also act as a respite from tense circumstances.

Tying all the environments together is The Saboteur's highly touted color-scheme. At the beginning of the game, Sean meets a French freedom fighter named Luc. In an attempt to recruit Sean, Luc enters into an inspirational diatribe, "We will push back the darkness, free the city from fear, house by house and street by street."

While Luc is speaking figuratively, Pandemic Studios considered that statement more literally. Areas under heavy Nazi occupation appear in black and white, with small accents of color, reminiscent of Schindler's List. After Sean completes certain high-profile missions, Nazi influence decreases and the game reveals a full color palette for the area in an inspirational moment.

Seeing an area in color, after spending hours in its black and white counterpart, is like seeing it for the first time. The effect is quite stunning. In addition, viewing the seams, particularly those places where a dark chaotic sky meets its fully colored neighbor, acts as a reminder - there's still more work to be done.

Innovative vs. Fun

With perhaps the exception of its artistic design, The Saboteur doesn't do anything new. It takes all of its design elements from innovative games, like those in the Grand Theft Auto and Assassin's Creed series, but implements them in a much less flattering manner. However, that's not to say the game isn't fun.

The game possesses eye-rolling situations, overpowered enemies, terribly dumb AI and other look-at-the-camera moments, but these breaks of immersion add to an enjoyable experience instead of detracting from it. Watching that German transport truck run over the Nazi soldier was so unexpected and so contradictory to the situation, I burst out in laughter. It only made me want to play more.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Rogue Warrior: Making Other Games Shine

Rogue Warrior is easily my worst game of 2009, which is probably why I had so much fun writing this review. Originally published on Bitmob.

Rogue Warrior

Warning: This article is rated R – Restricted for language and explicit badass-ness. Readers under 17 require an accompanying parent or adult guardian.

Upon starting the single-player campaign in Rogue Warrior, three difficulty options greeted me: “If you’re a pussy, select this one,” “Bring it on, motherfuckers,” and “Think you’re fucking special, huh?” I chuckled at each of the statements. My girlfriend, who was sitting next to me, summed up her feelings with one word: lame. But she thinks every game that isn’t Team Fortress 2 is lame, so I decided to roll with the situation.

So what if the difficulty levels are kind of cheesy? The game hasn’t even started yet. Let’s see where this goes.

The opening credits began with a Dick Marcinko monologue voiced by the unmistakable and gravelly Mickey Rourke. “A spec warrior, one who gives a fuck. That’s me.”

My own inner monologue continued: Sounds pretty badass.

“Whether I’m prowling and growling, or going full fucking Faulkner with lots of sound and fury, you count on this: I get the job done.”

A reference to The Sound and the Fury, huh? So, he’s badass and clever.

“I’m running a skeleton crew. Minimum footprint, maximum impact. S.O.P. for assholes like me.”

Well, maybe not so clever. And I get it, you’re badass. You don’t have to call yourself an asshole.

“I trained these men up through the SEAL program. They’ve saved my ugly ass more than once.”

Further self-deprecation isn’t going to increase your badass rating.

“They’re dirtbags and hard motherfuckers.”

Wow, I get it. You’re badass, they’re badass. Well done.

Marcinko paused as one of his men lifted his middle finger to the camera.

Seriously?! So calling your fellow SEALs dirtbags and motherfuckers wasn’t already enough to establish your collective badass-ness. Now one of these hard motherfuckers has to stick his middle finger up at… me?

Fuck you

Lessons from a Violent Stealthy Shooter

I realized the ineptitude of Rogue Warrior’s script early on and at no point during my play-through was I convinced to reconsider my decision.

However, a game’s script typically has no bearing on its gameplay. I pressed on, hoping for more… but the game quickly and fully dashed my hopes for a decent experience.

First of all, there is a large number of weapons in the game. Unfortunately, they all feel exactly the same, with two exceptions: the shotgun – essentially a one hit kill weapon – and the sniper rifle – definitively a one hit kill weapon. The silenced pistol is just as effective at taking down an enemy as an AK-47, whereas the sniper rifle is so effective, it will instantly kill an enemy with only one bullet to the foot.

The absurdly predictable enemies further exaggerate some of the parallels between weapons. In ongoing auditions for a new Whac-A-Mole game, communist soldiers will hide behind cover, count to ten, pop their heads out to look around, return to cover for one second, pop back out and fire for five seconds, and then repeat the process. Over and over again.

I would definitely hand over the Whac-A-Mole roles to these communists if it weren’t for their tendency to always reveal a knee or an elbow while hiding behind cover. Shooting oneself in the head is an equally effective tactic when facing a sniper rifle-wielding Marcinko. The Locust Horde retains its mole-king status.

To be fair, communist soldiers only play the hide and peek game when they’re aware of Marcinko. When they’re not aware, Marcinko can run up behind an enemy, place a necklace of unpinned grenades on his shoulders, and run away with the enemy never realizing – even though Marcinko just performed the same action on five other nearby communists.

Marcinko doesn’t actually like to use grenades though. Instead, he’ll use his knife to stab enemies in the side of the neck, the back of the neck, the forehead, the back of the head, the back of the kneecap, the kidney, etc. There are over twenty kill moves that all accomplish the same thing.

Stab to the kidney

The Rogue Warrior developers even incorporated a cover system. Communists in the game are either hiding or completely unaware of Marcinko. Why is a cover system necessary? It’s not. Unlike well-developed cover systems in other games, Marcinko’s cover system is a downgrade from basic strafing and crouching.

To emphasize the poor gameplay, Rogue Warrior blankets its mechanics – from the weapons to the AI to the cover system – in a very dated aesthetic. With the exception of a Russian palace, every apartment building, factory, dock, and dam looks exactly the same. Each concrete wall and metal pole blends into the bland surroundings, resulting in a stale and rusted industrial environment.

Even when there is a drastic change in the aesthetics – as in the aforementioned Russian palace – it’s hard to appreciate the scenery due to the lack of detail. The sparseness of each environment conveys an extreme sterility, as if each location had been uninhabited for centuries prior to Marcinko’s arrival. Unfortunately, the game is set in the real world, in the 1980s.

Increasing the Badass Factor

Surprisingly, the gameplay and the graphics are both far from being Rogue Warrior’s worst aspect. That honor goes to the expletives Marcinko spews every few seconds. Colorful examples include:

“Drop dead motherfucker, you fucking amateurs.”

“I’ve got bullets for every one of those motherfuckers.”

“Fucking… fucking retard, dead piece of shit.”

“Better dead than red, assholes.” (My personal favorite and probably the only sentence Marcinko utters without adding a superfluous “fuck.”)

If I didn’t know that Rogue Warrior was based on Dick Marcinko’s equally explicit autobiography, I would’ve thought the game originated from a developer bet: How many times can Mickey Rourke say “fuck?”

How to Read

That’s not to say I’m against explicit language in videogames. I believe it has its place in the medium, along with sex, violence, and any other controversial subject matter. Duke Nukem’s creative trash talk still brings a smile to my face. “I’m gonna rip your head off and shit down your neck,” demonstrates a wonderfully poetic rhythm. Marcinko’s expletives demonstrate nothing more than elementary and overcompensating attempts at creating attitude. “Get dead, fuck bag,” is just not on the same level.

The Real Victim

I can’t help but feel like Rogue Warrior has victimized me, as if a thief broke into my house and stole my gaming PC – my only valuable possession, other than the refrigerator.

However, I’m not Rogue Warrior’s only victim. I’m not even its greatest victim – that would have to be the underpaid and overworked programmer or artist or level designer at Rebellion Developments.

This lowly developer entered the videogame industry not for the money, not for the fame, but simply for the love of videogames. This developer has an incredible amount of talent and some amazing ideas. Unfortunately, for whatever reason – be it the poor job market or social pressures – this developer had to work on Rogue Warrior. Superiors who demanded subpar work infected this developer to the point of eroding his or her integrity and self-worth. To you traumatized developer, I’m truly sorry.

Terrible, Terrible, Terrible

Between the shallow gameplay, dated graphics, extensive expletives, and traumatized development team, I believe I can describe this game in one simple statement: Rogue Warrior is terrible.

That’s right Rogue Warrior, you are a terrible game. I don’t think I’ve ever said that about a videogame before. I’ve certainly played many games over the years that I didn’t enjoy. But I’ve always appreciated some aspect of every game, even if it was just the shiny graphics or the poorly executed attempt at innovation.

I never thought I could justifiably use a single word to describe a game. After all, describing a game with only one adjective is no better than assigning a game one of those arbitrary numeric values that Metacritic perpetuates. However, with you, Rogue Warrior, “terrible” fits.

Almost all videogames at least try to be more than they are. Rogue Warrior, you never even thought about trying. I can find nothing redeeming about you. In fact, I really want to despise you for wasting my time and money, but I can’t. After all, what is good, without bad? How can we appreciate the groundbreaking titles without the fodder to compare them?

Boo

I suppose I did find something redeeming about you. Well done, Rogue Warrior… I guess. Can I still call you terrible? At the very least, I can agree with my girlfriend and call you lame.

Afterword

Two questions regarding Rogue Warrior’s development process continue to nag me. I can’t get them out of my head because I can’t find a rational answer for either of them.

First, why didn’t Marcinko provide his own voice for the videogame?

He was a Navy SEAL during Vietnam, he created the first dedicated counter-terrorism team, and he ultimately served time in federal prison for supposedly defrauding the government. He’s the closest thing to a real-life Rambo!

He even hosts his own talk show – America on Watch – so he should know how to speak into a microphone.

And it’s not like he needed a strong acting pedigree. In-game Marcinko’s range of emotions spanned from angry-and-cursing to slightly-angry-and-cursing. I’m sure real-life Marcinko has had experience with both ends of the spectrum.

“But,” you might interject, “if Mickey Rourke is readily available, why not use him?”

“Well,” I would counter, “maybe some of that Mickey Rourke money could have gone towards creating some decent gameplay.” It’s just something to think about.

Run Away

Second – and the more obvious question – why did Bethesda Softworks publish this game?

This is a game developer known for crafting some of the most visually stunning, atmospheric, story-driven, and generally innovative experiences. Morrowind, Oblivion, and Fallout 3 all number among my favorite role-playing games, and The Shivering Isles is one of the most imaginative places that I’ve ever visited.

Even though Bethesda’s forte is role-playing, the company must have at least an inkling of what goes into a good shooter, considering its parent – ZeniMax Media – recently purchased id Software.

This all makes Rogue Warrior all the more perplexing. Everyone at Bethesda must have known Rogue Warrior was terrible. Why not delay the release? Valve does it all the time and they still come out on top, despite the constant outcry from fans. Was money a factor? I can’t see how it would be considering Fallout 3’s success and ZeniMax’s aforementioned acquisition.

I just can’t fathom how such a principled developer could have played a part in, much less published, such a terrible gaming experience. I suppose I’ll have to limit myself to games that Bethesda Softworks has both published and developed, and ignore those it has only published.