Click to enlarge
Please resist the urge to empty a can of bug spray into your Mac.
AN APPLICATION OF BLUNT FORCE TRAUMA TO A DECEASED EQUINE
The first level of any game -- particularly a cinematic first person shooter -- is a prime example of how first impressions count. Like any first date or a job interview, a game has to really hit you hard with a clear reason to invest your time and energy into it. Halo started you off with a desperate rush to escape a ship under siege by an overwhelmingly superior foe. Medal of Honor: Allied Assault put you right in the middle of a gutsy, daring raid against a heavily fortified Nazi position worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster movie. XIII shot you in the back and left you as a dazzled amnesiac, with its 60's-style noir/graphic novel aesthetic.
This game? It dumps you in the middle of a Kyoto swamp. Quite literally, in fact. The wall and floor textures are slathered in this rather unpleasant mix of dull brown and bright green, as if someone thought it was a good idea to mix chocolate pudding with neon-green highlighter ink. And no, you don't get to face down dystopian futuristic cybernetic ninjas, nor do you have to battle unholy monstrosities spawned from the blasphemous melding of the technological and the occult. No, apart from a few automated turrets, you're faced with a collection of awkwardly animated robotic frogs, mosquitoes, and alligators. Against these metallic monstrosities, you are armed with a weapon firing shots so bouncy and unpredicatable that you're more liable to hit yourself more than the monsters.
Apologists for the game state that things get considerably better as the game continues on, and I'd be inclined to agree. Later levels in the first episode have you infiltrating facilities of the dystopian future megacorp Mishima (because any dystopian future set in Japan has to have a dystopian future megacorp). Such facilities include an interesting business reception area that certainly does look the part, and a "meat processing complex" (with the obviously uninteresting twist that's supposed to shock you). There the levels get a somewhat more heterogeneous color palette. The enemy variety picks up soon too, with more entertaining guards to fight versus the rather annoying robo-frogs.
These however, are mere blips of positivity in the light of the overwhelming greyness of a shooter that clearly aspired to be more than the sum of its parts. Soon I pick up the notorious "Superfly" Johnson, a former Mishima lackey who's grown a conscience...though the rather predictable circumstances surrounding his change of heart make me think less about forming an emotional connection with him, and more about the latest Cracked.com Top 10 list documenting the horrific things we humans can (or willingly) eat. Further preventing me from developing any sympathy for him, is the fact that his AI is monumentously bad, committing all of the sins we've come to expect from bad friendly NPC AI: getting in the way of your line of fire, getting killed from an enemy's line of fire, or simply getting stuck on scenery/level items. The hilarity hits even harder when we have another poorly programmed AI NPC companion join our party...as if having to babysit Superfly wasn't entertaining enough already. We're supposed to take these cardboard cutout stereotypes seriously. Yet all we need to do is listen to their laughable dialogue, and see their rage-inducing in-game behaviour, to see it all come across as a yet another tired attempt from the game to try as hard as it can, to be something that it clearly isn't.
And that, really, is what this game is all about. An attempt that shoots for hitting lofty goals, ending up falling woefully short of the mark. An attempt to take something that we'd all seen and done before, and dress it up within the majestic cloak of an event that would change all of our lives as gamers...a message that, that in and of itself, we have come to see with disheartening regularity in gaming. It's all something we've seen before; in some places, it's been done better, in others, it's been done worse.
Despite the bad AI and painfully linear level design, it's not a really bad game, by any stretch of the imagination. We've all played worse first-person shooters: Games saddled with bad AI, hamstrung by boring and uninteresting level design, or trapped within the confines of a setting and story judged more on marketability than on narrative and innovation. On that note, there are even points at which the narrative and presentation of this game begins to shine. However, at the end of the day, the greatest sin that this game eventually committed wasn't that it was bad: it simply just wasn't good enough. It was merely mediocre. Just "okay". Would the howls of outrage and anger that met this game be seen if it had been released today? In a modern gaming market seemingly characterized by routinely buggy and incomplete releases, or games that simply flopped due to gross mismanagement, one can be almost forgiven for thinking today that a game that's simply "okay" might in fact be "good enough".
In the end, perhaps this game isn't quite like the "Star Wars: Episode I" of gaming; perhaps it's more like "The Room" -- a game that's so poor, and so bombastically ridiculous that you can't help but feel a soft, warm spot for it growing in your heart. As we ponder this, let's slow down and gaze a little longer at this lovely little car crash of a game.