Friday, January 28, 2011

Before Steroids Got Such a Bad Rap

In the 80s we had a surfeit of action films starring brutish, muscleheads that carried big guns and spouted one-liners. Think Rambo, Commando, any Dolph or Jean-Claude movie. These movies are still remembered and exert a fair amount of influence on the summer blockbusters of today.

In the 90s, following the success of Doom, video gamers had a bounty of games letting them relive all the 'good parts' (ie the violence) of those testosterone flicks through the running, bouncing wonder of the first person shooter or FPS, though at that time, the term 'corridor shooter' was typical. As the environments opened up, 'corridor shooter' dropped from common usage.

These days the genre is extremely popular. As of this writing my Xbox 360 dashboard is dominated by announcements and advertisements for gobs of these things. At times it seems like there's nothing else getting released. Already past, but still showing ads for downloadable add-ons, Halo: Reach, Call of Duty: Black Ops and Borderlands. Just released Homefront. Coming soon: Bulletstorm, Crysis 2, and Brink. I know floaty-arm games are popular, but jumpin' Jeebus!

I like me some floaty-arm game, don't get me wrong. I'm just not devoted to them. As time has ground on and the genre has evolved, simply running and gunning like we did in the old days through Doom, Quake, Powerslave and Duke Nukem has been replaced by 'realistic' missions, level designs grounded in reality, and (game-)logical methods of accounting for player protection and health. The original Serious Sam games for PC and Xbox (before the Xbox 360) don't actually hail from the TRUE old days but they were designed to get back to the basic spirit in a genre that was (and is) getting bogged down in being too serious (ha) and reality-based to be fun all the time. Serious Sam HD games are just high definition remakes. The same retro-styled games but re-tooled for the giant flatscreens we all play on now.

For the most part, I liked being reminded of how it was. Weird enemies (and Sam's are weirder than most) throwing themselves at you. No complicated AI. Nothing about enemy grunts attempting to use cover or roll away from grenades. These alien scum just stand and shoot, moving only to get the clear shot or throwing themselves at you if they aren't armed with ranged weapons. They pop up out of thin air, frequently just as you've grabbed a box of ammo or a health up. This leads frequently to being startled and panic-firing whatever happens to be armed at the moment. Awesome. Constantly on edge. You have a lot of ammo lying around but there were times when the game threw so many enemies that I found myself rationing... just so I'd have some on hand for situations that really required specific guns. It isn't logical for health packs, armor, ammo and guns to be lying around either, but that's how it worked in the time before Master Chief-style regenerating shields or Battlefield Bad Company's (retarded) adrenalin shot.

Rant tangent: Honestly. The Bad Company health mechanic is the dumbest thing I've ever seen. You LITERALLY walk around with a permanent health pack, available at a button press. On the one hand, that would seem to make the game too easy, and I think early on it does. But as I understand it, later you'll be pushing that thing into your chest constantly. Bad Company might be finely tuned for balance, I don't know, but it just FEELS to me that having a method like that is just an excuse to not have to tune the enemies and stages very much. In Serious Sam there was something of a balance between just enough enemies to pose a challenge before you had another health-up available. If you picked a higher difficulty then there was a seesaw effect of more/harder enemies versus fewer/smaller health-ups. If someone has a health-up always on tap, it seems like a lot of this balance is lost... never mind that continually jamming a fucking great needle in your chest for instant life extension is hardly more realistic than enemy lairs having first aid kits strewn about the place.

But Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter was pretty damn fun. It was simple, over-the-top, and cheesy in just the right way. Sam spouts one-liners right from the Arnie playbook, though the voice actor has a really guttural voice, like he's speaking from a broken-glass shredded throat. The aliens are really strange, but the game plays them straight, complete with datafiles that matter-of-factly give background on scorpion-centaurs with chainguns, or headless humanoids running around with Wile E. Coyote bombs. One of the few concessions Serious Sam gives to the new gaming mentality is the ability to instantly save at any second. In the old days you had to reach checkpoints, or in some brutal cases the end of an entire level before you were given the opportunity to save. In SSHD it is almost too easy. I found once or twice, in an almost convulsive fit at some surprise, that I'd saved at a really bad place, and had to struggle to extricate myself from that frozen moment right in front of an enemy missile or flailing above a spike pit. I'd like to say insta-save is total bullshit and real men don't need 'em. But I was pretty grateful for it most of the time. There really were some serious frustrations in the old days when I had to restart an entire level, and play through it over and over again. That shit works fine on some arcade games like fighters or STGs, but on an FPS it can be beyond monotonous. These games are not thirty minute affairs from start to finish. Each level can be pretty long. And frankly, as an older dude and a parent I just don't have time to spend perfecting every room and hallway.

So the concession to today's pussy gamer was actually welcome. However, a little over halfway through the game I started to remember just why FPS games have moved away from this old model in other aspects too. I don't mind games being a bit repetitive. Almost all games and game genres suffer from this. But the basic style of the environment in Serious Sam, like Doom and Quake before it, never really changes. It is always Egypt, Egypt, Egypt. And while that might seem like a pretty unusual environment for an FPS, too much of a good thing gets old. And I happen to have played through Powerslave on the Saturn which is ALSO an Egypt-themed FPS, though it had a lot more variety to it.

Then there is enormous repetition in the enemies. By the time you've played a couple of hours, you've seen about all the enemies you are going to. From that point on it is just different combinations of the same grunts thrown at you over and over. Even if the game had no more enemies than it does (twenty I think), if it had spread them out a bit more over the course of the whole game it'd have been more appealing. I kept waiting for some new badass around every corner, or at the beginning of each new level... and he never showed up.

And bosses are kind of a fixture for video games in general. Most puzzle games don't have them. Rhythm games don't have them. Racing games used to not have them, but a lot of racers have narratives now, so a boss driver isn't all that uncommon these days. Sports games based on real leagues don't have them... and uh, neither does Serious Sam.

Here is a game that absolutely REVELS in bizarre creature design, and the designers took no opportunity really to go all-out and just wow the player with some big motherfucker of an alien/weapon hybrid? What the hell? As I got to the end of each level, at first I was thinking 'okay here we go' expecting to be tested, and have to find some new inventive way to use my weapons or my dodging skills. Nope. Usually just a big room with a horde of grunts and then a quick cutscene of Sam running up to grab the item-of-the-level. Bosses are NOT a new video game convention. And there ARE games where it'd be stupid to include them. But this just feels like a huge missed opportunity. The irony is that there are two bosses and both of them are really huge and epic. Did they just run out of development money? No, thinking back on it... A LOT of those old FPS games didn't have bosses. But hell, I just played the new Wolfenstein game and it managed a few boss fights from occult-obssessed Nazis. Surely invading aliens with a penchant for grafting weapons onto corpses could've managed to do at least as well.

The enemies teleporting in, especially as I touched an item in a room kinda wore thin after a while too. It made the game tense, but when they'd teleport behind you, especially in a room you'd already 'cleared', that went from tense to annoying. The game frequently generated enemies up in high places that had a clear shot at me, but that would take precious minutes to search out and destroy. And when you're getting shot (or stabbed, or punched) the game, like many old corridor shooters, gives you no indication which direction it's coming from. These sorts of things; popup enemies or difficult-to-trace damage make the game more challenging, but they also feel sort of cheap. Like they are substitutes for more substantially thought-out challenges. In the old days, these difficult mechanics existed because the genre was nascent. There wasn't money, knowledge, or time to NOT have these things. Now that FPS have developed out of these old tropes it is odd to experience them again. I know Serious Sam, whose original version is still relatively new, is determinedly looking back at games like Quake. It's gibs instead of ragdoll physics for Sam. I just can't believe I'm actually finding myself appreciative of the mollycoddling and over-complexifying (I'm trademarking that word by the way) in modern FPS games.

We played and loved those old games because that's all there was. None of us knew any better. I still enjoyed most of Serious Sam HD: TFE. I particularly dug giving my kid endless shit about playing it on easy, but frankly he just didn't want to die as much as he saw was happening with me. As it turns out, the step down from Normal to Easy is a huge one. Easy is wwaaayyyy fucking easy. I think my son died three times in the entire game. And he has very little FPS experience, let alone with this older, balls-to-barbed-wire style represented here.

I'd still recommend Sam. It is pretty enough to not put newer gamers off on the graphics... because, well they're new... and it certainly makes a different play experience from the Call of Duty episode of the trimester. Looking at Bulletstorm or the new Duke Nukem (finally!) it isn't like tongue-in-cheek or bizarre FPS games are dead, but these games will probably not bend you over your cell cot like Serious Sam does.

Please note this post contains a lot of hyperbole and simplification. It isn't my intent to provide a thorough and accurate history of FPS games. I KNOW there have been exceptions and exemptions to almost every generalisation I made up there. Tough shit. I'm just framing my emotions upon playing Serious Sam.

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