Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Couple of Conquerings

Race Driver: Grid

Last week I finished Race Driver: Grid (alternately known as just GRID). After the drying-up of new racing games from Japanese developer Genki, I decided I needed to try a new route (heh) to get my racing fix. I did some investigating, reading reviews and playing demos before finally settling on GRID, Codemasters mixed-discipline racer.

Codemasters has a lot of racing games under their belt, including the extensive TOCA Race Driver series of which GRID is supposed to be the most recent chapter. I've looked in on TOCA at different times actually buying one for the PS2 at one point, but it just didn't catch my fancy. It emphasized sports and touring cars which are my favorite forms of formal real-life racing, but the narrative in the game just didn't click with me. I really like racing games making things personal. It is one of the reasons I think Genki's driving games have it all over stuff like Gran Turismo or Forza. But TOCA puts you in the shoes of a specific character with specific motivations and that, perversely compared to other types of games, actually served to de-immerse me. But my understanding before buying GRID (and demonstrated in a demo) was that it personalised your experience (gave a loose narrative or leveling up experience) without slapping it into a drama.

Obviously the particulars of this game must've clicked for me because I've just played it through. It was actually one of the most immersive video games I've ever played racing or otherwise. Codemasters absolutely hit on the formula for making it about YOU with a fun ladder to climb through the ranks, but without forcing in some melodramatic story points. The drama is on the track where it really counts, but pretty exciting during down time too, when you are managing your sponsors, or seeing that you've been challenged by the everpresent villains of the piece, Ravenwest Motorsports. A big part of this is the mechanism whereby the in-game speech addresses you by your real name... a feature officially labeled 'creepy' by my kids, but that really made everything in the game much more personal and affecting.

And then there is the driving itself. There aren't tons of cars. There aren't a lot of tracks. But each car is so lovingly detailed. Each track is so realistically presented. The sounds and bumps when you are jostling in the pack, particularly if you have an over the hood or in-car camera view (look at that shit, the pic I posted at the top of this entry). And the radio communication from your crew chief and your on-track teammate, though repetitive and sometimes inaccurate, is pretty well done. It is unbelievable how intense the driving got at times. Codemasters also made a couple of decisions about the opponent AI that I have to applaud. It had some drawbacks which I'll detail below, but this is one of the few times outside of Genki racers where I felt almost like there were people in those other cars, complete with mistakes made and tempers lost. Most racing games the opponent drivers just hew to the racing line as if there was no one else on the track. They will robotically race the same way every time. In GRID, opposing drivers sometimes push hard to get ahead of you and then neglect to check up enough in the next corner and skid wide, sometimes crashing outright. If you're in the back of a twelve car pack it might seem you'll never get past everyone, but the opponent drivers fuck each other over so frequently, that you'll almost always have a shot. Compare to typical driving games where cars form packs and because they don't spin out, AND because damage isn't taken into account really, the way you usually have to get through the pack is by unrealistically crashing and grinding your way through them.

Not only do you not need to do that so much in GRID, but given that this game DOES model damage, you really can't. Or at least you really have to be judicious about it. I also give props to Codemasters for not (seeming) to rely on rubberband AI. This is the annoying tendency built into racing games for computer opponents to suddenly exhibit supernatural abilities when they fall behind. You can see it in some other types of games too, most notably fighters where a computer-controlled opponent plays twice as fast and pulls out inhuman combos when you've beaten them in the first round of the possible three. In GRID when you get ahead you can stay ahead by the same interval if you keep driving consistently.

All that being said, the game has some annoyances, and they are tied to some of the same things that make the game great. GRID has the appearance of a simulation-style racer as opposed to a so-called arcade racer, but it IS actually skewed to the quicker arcade-style model. There is no tuning. So when you pick a car, if you don't like how it handles, tough shit. You can't change it. All you can do is get by until further in the game and more cars are unlocked.

This rarely presented a problem for me, but there were a few categories of races that made me wish for tuning. On the one hand, it's nice that the cars do all handle with noticeable differences. On the other, a driver wants to emphasise one thing or another in a car, making changes for certain tracks or variables like weather conditions. With GRID if the car you are driving is too slippery to be really effective on a twisty track... you gotta suck it up. In most sim-style games you could use the suspension settings to dial this out of the car. The compensation in GRID is that each individual race can have its difficulty turned up or down. So while I felt a bit guilty about it, after struggling with open wheel cars and club car races (Tuscan TVRs drive like little lead ingots on skis), later in the game I notched the difficulty down one pip. I just don't have the time or wherewithal to learn the nuances on the classes of cars that handle so radcially different to all the others. Turning down the difficulty turns down the speed and aggressiveness of the opponent drivers so that if you don't drive quite so accurately you don't suffer as much for it.

The flip-side of the driver AI: GRID models and reflects damage. It isn't comprehensive enough to drive the game into full-on realistic simulation territory, but it is significant. Through all the years I've played driving games damage modeling has just not been a real factor. Most games just haven't done it. It requires intense processing power, particularly if you want multiple makes and models of automobiles in one race, AND you need the car manufacturers to agree to it if the game is based on street cars. Most car makers are not all that keen for a game to show their car flipping around with the doors and tires flying off. TOCA games did show some damage but it didn't affect performance much. In this generation of video game consoles we now have the power to model damage extensively and realistically... even to the point of wreck debris littering the track laps after the original accident. I've always thought prior to this that I wanted damage modeling. It would just add that much more realism and drama. Playing this game shows me it isn't an all-good addition.

Codemasters knew bashing around trying to race without getting your vehicle disabled was going to be tough, particularly on scads of gamers weaned on Gran Turismo, where you can literally ride on an opponents doors all the way around a tough corner. So even though AI drivers can screw up in GRID, the developer still included a now-famous time-rewind function that lets you to roll back up to ten seconds of driving to allow yourself to re-drive to avoid a bad slip or game-ending accident. The lower you set the aforementioned difficulty setting the more of these rewinds a player gets. As I've said in previous posts there's no way a racing game can simulate a lot of the tactile aspects that really help a driver in real life and this game also shows the limitations on duplicating the visual aspects. Because gamers don't have four screens set 360 degrees around their seat, you've got a button for looking back, and the right stick lets you turn your virtual head to look out the side windows. But compared to the glancing, quick-snap method one uses in real-life to acquire and process all the information; mirrors, rear window, side windows, guages, road feel, etc... the different views in-game are highly disorienting and I found myself basically NOT using them. Since the AI players presumably DO have all of the computer's awareness of what is going on around them, essentially they get the benefits of 'using' all the views correctly, the rewind function is a really cool way to offset this advantage.

So with a rewind function, AI drivers that screw up, adjustable difficulty per race, and pretty good fixed tuning on all cars I gotta say GRID ironed out pretty much every potential frustration while still presenting a fun, challenging game. The only real unaddressed gripe I have with the game (and one a GRID sequel could easily fix) is that the computer opponents seemed 'dim' in how they treated some car types, particularly the prototype cars. In muscle car or touring car categories there is, in real life, a certain amount of jostling and bashing for position, particularly in the first turn of any given race. The cars are built similar to street cars, have sheet metal skins, and don't go uproariously fast. But prototype cars are purpose built race cars usually with a lot of carbon fiber and aluminum. They are fast and tremendously expensive. Yet in GRID, the AI drivers were bashing me around the same as in touring car races. Needless to say the results of a mild shunt at 190 miles per hour in a lightweight prototype are hugely different to one at 60 miles per hour in a fat Dodge Challenger. In the open wheel races the opponents seemed aware that you can't just smash the huge fenderless tires into each other, but in prototypes this sort of care was sorely lacking. And minor though it is, it grated because I really REALLY like real-life prototype racing a la the various Le Mans series LMP categories.

I would highly HIGHLY recommend this game to racing enthusiasts. It does so many things right, I find racing even after completing the campaign to be almost as fun as when I started. My son feels the damage makes the game too difficult... yet he is compelled to try because it just FEELS like the closest thing to being in a race yet. Great stuff. A word of warning though: I'm not really much of an online competitive player so I can't comment on how the online versus racing is... but I've read that it is pretty rough. All versus gaming online suffers from so-called 'griefers' the people who deliberately try to wreck other players' experience. GRID with its damage and its ability to easily wreck out of a race seems a prime target for this sort of abuse. There is a code that allows one to turn damage off, but I don't know how prevalent the use of it is. I didn't get access to the code until I finished career mode, so GRID doesn't give you THAT easy out during the single player campaign.


In a completely opposite direction we have Illbleed for the Sega Dreamcast which I finished nearly the same time as GRID.

Illbleed is one of those titles that on paper doesn't read like it would be a very good game, particularly to modern gamer sensibilities, but the weirdness was so compelling that it just forced me on and on to get through it. 'Kusoge', literally 'shit game' in Japanese is a term used to describe a game that is low-quality or has serious deficiencies and yet is considered fondly or seriously by some segment of the gaming community. That might be for character/licensing reasons, uber-difficulty, nostalgia, or a bizarre sense of humor. Illbleed isn't literally a kusoge in MY book, but it is just the sort of game that could be to some gamers and mostly for its strange, borderline disturbing, plot and visuals coupled with weird mechanics. It is certainly NOT unplayable or beyond-belief difficult.

In simplest terms it is a third-person survival horror action game. Unlike early Resident Evil episodes, the camera is only fixed during combat. Most of the time it follows around behind your avatar. This means that the game can't really use a forced viewpoint or unseen areas to provide shock scares. You can move your view to wherever you wish, so nothing is going to jump out at you like RE's famous window-breaking dogs. But Illbleed does manage creeping menace pretty well, at least at first. After a while, when you've got a good handle on healing item stock and how mortal your character actually is, much of the suspense and anxiety goes away, but the narrative gets wacky and unpredictable to make up for it.

The story is that you are navigating your way through the various areas in a deadly horror-themed amusement park. There is a cash reward (in game terms, duh) for doing so, but the money is secondary to rescuing your friends who went in ahead of you. Originally, your character Eriko had zero interest in going to the park because your Dad used to run a haunted house attraction himself and you've been there and done that. This of course, makes you the ideal person to go rescue your friends when this amusement park appears to have gone all lethal. Eriko is basically skeptical and has nerves of steel.

The game that follows on is, by turns, funny, creepy, and puzzling. Like a dream or a bad drug trip filtered through Rob Zombie's garish take on B-movies. The tale in each area is a take on a horror or fantasy movie plot cliche, but each level plays out in a unique and hallucinatory way. By the time I was done with the game I'd seen faces pushing out of blood puddles, pieces of pork and chicken chasing me around on a giant grill, a tree that eats people, and a parody of Woody from Toy Story battling a huge demonic version of Sonic the Hedgehog. The pic above is a spider boss with a head for its abdomen. All of this is interspersed with overly-copious amounts of bloodletting and an awesome soundtrack.

If you're like me all that stuff would only drive you on to seek out and play the game. Hell, that's exactly what it did in my case. But there are complications. I bought this game during the actual shelf life of the Dreamcast. I started playing it soon after, but the play mechanics were off-putting. Illbleed isn't actually about running, jumping, and shooting the ghoulies. It requires a methodical, exploratory approach. Eriko has all kinds of vital signs that need to be monitored. The game tracks her heartbeat, blood loss, health, etc. And keeping all of this stuff within safe levels is quite an exercise. The game also gives you a pair of night-vision goggles called a 'horror monitor'. You use this device to set off traps and scares ahead of time so that Eriko won't be shocked or injured when she actually gets to the triggering point.

When I originally started playing the game, this all seemed a huge load on the player and not really what I was after in a horror-themed game. But recently when I felt like playing something 'different' I gave it another go. The Dreamcast is capable of some pretty astounding visuals (think Ikaruga), but a lot of the console's titles have sort of glossy early PS2 graphics... which is appropriate considering the DC just precedes the PS2 chronologically. Illbleed is hardly cutting edge visually. In fact, it's pretty ghetto. But most of the time, that only adds to the games charm. Same thing with the mostly crap voice acting. Climax/Crazy Games is obviously not a big budget game maker, but in Illbleed's case a lot of the cheesiness seems very much deliberate. Only Eriko really looks and sounds 'normal' with a polished character model and mostly okay vocals, an anchor amongst all the confusion and strangeness. I think the choices made in the game just reflect a very Japanese take on the appeal of low-grade horror films... and LSD trips.

Once the player wraps their head around the not-at-all-obvious way exploring is done with the horror monitor, and the way one has to monitor Eriko's life signs like a crack trauma team, there are still some really odd choices the designers made in other ways. Sometimes these choices just fit right in, like playing jump rope with a murderous doll. Other times the mechanics seem needlessly old-fashioned and can be pretty frustrating. Mostly this comes from combat. The controls are a variant on the old Resident Evil scheme and they come with similar movement and collision detection problems. They are functional and the game usually gives you a way to get out of combat encounters (a rescue helicopter!!!!), but this game isn't so old that a more workable fighting system couldn't have been implemented. There are a number of places where it seems Eriko just can't connect with an attacking enemy, but of course they have no problem ripping the shit out of her.

The save points are also really infrequent. This doesn't normally bother me because I kinda feel today's gamers with insta-save all over the place are being enabled right past a video game's challenges. But in Illbleed, even accustomed to Eriko's precarious life functions in the first few levels (you get the hang of managing them), the deliberate pace of the game meant huge stretches of time between save points when I really needed to quit out and get onto the business of the rest of my life. A few times I had to leave the DC on to do something else, which sucks because the game penalises you monetarily, the longer you take getting through a level... and the clock ticks even if the game is paused.

Anyway. Through all the quirkiness, this time I persevered and was rewarded with a game experience I won't soon forget. There are multiple secrets I missed, and I didn't get the best ending, but I felt pretty triumphant just getting through such a bizarre, often confusing video game. I had to consult an online walkthrough twice to figure out what the game actually wanted from me. Now that I understand so much more about how the vital signs and horror monitor work... not to mention being much more practised at fighting... I could see myself having at this again to do better. I wouldn't say the learning curve is super steep, it is just that the game, and what it expects from the player, are so different to everything else out there. And the manual is pretty much no help at all.

Illbleed is like a lot of the movies I watch when it comes to defining its target owner. Not something I can just recommend to anyone, but with the right audience the positives would outweigh the frustrations. If you have fair patience and really liked Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses, then this is probably the game for you.

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