Sunday, November 23, 2008

Unleashed: Satisfying The Modern Gamer

This article was originally published on Pop + Politics, here.

Boy or girl, gamer or no, there are few who could deny having (in private) attempted to shift objects about their home using The Force. Just to see if it’s real and you can channel it. There is something universally kick-ass and visceral about a Jedi’s ability to choke from afar, send objects hurling towards enemies or shock people with the power of a storm. The Force is one of those daydream-inducing super powers that is almost impossible to resist (ever been caught trying to use The Force? It’s difficult to explain away…).

Finally, the couch-Jedi in us all can awaken, via Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, the latest video game from LucasArts, released in September. While it’s certainly not the first simulation of the full Jedi suite—BioWare’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic bears mention, as does LucasArts’ own Jedi Knight series—the game succeeds in describing The Force with a sort of unprecedented scholarly focus. To give you an idea, LucasArts’ actual mantra for the game during development, which they chanted together at meetings, was “kicking someone’s ass with The Force” (watch a video of that here).

It’s not hard to see why a game like this shattered sales records upon its release last month - 1.5 million copies in five days. The concept alone is enough to perk almost anyone’s interest. What is significant about the game’s fiscal success, though, is how its underlying concept rendered the game almost invincible to reviews. Critics mostly frowned on the title (73% on, citing its lackluster control, technical jitters and poorly designed action sequences. It seems to have defied critique by channeling the power of the couch-Jedi: that person in us all who wants to telepathically get a beer from the fridge, or choke the boss from down the hall. These are simple, basic powers we should have been born with, now fully realized with next-gen graphics and technology. It’s sloppy in a few areas, but The Force Unleashed succeeds as a wakeup call. It highlights just how epically other superhero games have failed to unleash our most ingrained, necessary desires in a realistic and brutal playground. Because the Jedi can be unleashed, it’s all the more embarrassing that Wolverine, Batman or even Harry Potter haven’t been.

In The Force Unleashed, you play as Starkiller, Darth Vader’s secret apprentice. Vader discovers you as a young boy on the planet Kashyyyk, (spoilers..) kills your Jedi father and then lovingly adopts you and becomes a kind of Sith-grandpa. When this beginning cut-scene ends and you take control, you are a full grown bad-ass Sith alive right between Episode III and Episode IV (Princess Leia is about 16 years old for reference). Since you are Vader’s lapdog, he deploys you on a series of Jedi-assassination-missions. Through nine stages set in familiar Star Wars locales like Cloud City Bespin and the Death Star, you tear through droves of enemies—Stormtroopers and Rancors alike—and trounce them all with god-like ease. The story itself is surprisingly compelling – a rousing redemption story pushed along by great voice acting, nice cut-scene animations and some worthy side-characters like the droid Proxy and Starkiller’s pilot/girlfriend Juno. Like the films, the tension between the Dark and Light sides of the force drives the narrative, and presents Starkiller with difficult choices. One choice in particular will even allow the player to breach the “Star Wars canon,” rewriting the events before Episode IV, and is sure to keep fans of the series all a’flame on message boards for months.

The actual gameplay is quite obviously the showcase. It’s just immediately satisfying, even in the way the story sets up whom you are all allowed to hurt: everyone. Your identity as Vader’s apprentice must remain secret, even to The Emperor, so Rebel or Stormtrooper alike, they’re all dead. Between your nearly 30 Lightsaber combos and 10 Force Powers, the possibilities for violent Jedi playtime are satisfyingly varied. You can: shock people to death, throw your Lightsaber like a boomerang, throw enemies around like rag-dolls, smash open windows to suck debris and enemies into space, Force-push people absurdly far, discharge The Force in a single brutal shockwave, throw large hunks of wreckage at anything, generate a lightning shield around yourself, and of course, execute all manner of Lightsaber Kung Fu type combos. It could very well be the most violent Star Wars game ever made. My personal favorite? A combo titled “Arial Slam,” in which you slash your opponent several times, stomp the ground with The Force to delicately lift them upwards, then jump to meet them midair and throw them rather inconsiderately straight back down to the ground. You gradually gain powers over the course of the game, most of which you’ll actually need to incorporate into your repertoire to succeed, especially against some of the game’s more advanced bosses. All in all, it offers a pleasant and worthy challenge in terms of difficulty and reward.

Visually, the Star Wars universe is brought to life in vivid, exuberant detail thanks to skilled art direction. Two examples: on Raxus Prime you’ll be greeted with a huge junk yard lava pit with floating debris everywhere, and on Kashyyyk, you’ll venture down into the bowels of a Sarlacc (that pit-monster in Return of the Jedi that almost eats Han). All of this makes for impressive scenery, but the real workhorse of the game is the physics engine. It’s a new technology called Digital Molecular Matter (DMM), which is a fancy way of saying that objects shatter, dent, break and generally react as they would to real-world violence. When you throw a Stormtrooper headlong into a metal door, that door will dent according to how hard you threw him, and where you hit the door. All of this makes being a mean Jedi all the more real.

Of course, this honeymoon of Jedi bad’assery doesn’t last forever, as the game is definitely hampered with some problems. The issue most will notice immediately is the menu loading times. Every time you want to check your mission objectives, or refresh yourself on a certain button combo, you’ll be greeted by extraordinarily long load times. 90s-PlayStation-menu slow. Additionally, the frame rate can start chugging and sputtering, especially with lots of enemies on the screen at once. The game’s camera can also become something of an enemy, crowding behind you in hallways and making it tough to see opponents. Further hampering your ability to hurt enemies is the poor targeting system. When you’re facing an enemy or object, you’ll sort of auto-target them, but it’s imprecise and often misreads what you’re trying to do. You may find yourself spending way too long trying to precisely target a particular barrel, or enemy, and by the time you do you’ve been punished already. These foibles can sour the otherwise indulgent fun to be had.

In the end, though, the game is what it is: a chance to kick someone’s ass with The Force. It’s like LucasArts tried to make a video game with the mindset of an arena rock show. It itches a deep scratch that’s been in our imaginations for decades. However, the Jedi is not the only couch-hero. There are many: couch-Batman, couch-Superman, couch-Hulk, couch-Iron Man, couch-Wolverine, etc. Yes, there is an endless number superpowers we were lamentably not born with. So, why aren’t there great games representing these easy wins for game developers? In answer to that question—especially if you’re not a gamer—you might be saying, “Wait, there’s lots of great Batman video games, right?” You’re wrong. There isn’t. Superhero video games are, by and large, nauseating failures. Here are some examples. There is an argument to be made that the reason for this is that most superhero games—Harry Potter to Iron Man—are tied to big-budget films, and so the focus and the budget have been spent elsewhere. The Force Unleashed, though, suggests a simple solution: Unleash everything. Take a superhero, get a good development team together, and make them all say “kick someone’s ass with [enter superhero name],” and we might be on to something. To end this, I’ve included a few of examples of superheroes in dire need of unleashing. Enjoy.

Bad-ass takes-no-shit mutant with claws. Embarrassing this game does not exist.

Last attempt to Unleash:
X2: Wolverine’s Revenge (2003)

What it did:
X2: Wolverine’s Revenge turned an opportunity to unleash the gruff wolfman into a button-mashing yawn fest. The game never let you get good and mean, and reduced Wolverine’s most violent, satisfying combos into non-interactive animations.

What it should have done:
The player should be awarded the ability to impale-and-lift, then throw into a crowd. Slice-and-dice style kills. Dismemberment. When Wolverine gets out his claws, it needs to be loud and notable. He needs to be agile, flippy, incorporating twirling, circular crowd-control moves. He should yell a lot. The word “unleashed” keeps coming to mind.

Not a superhero, just a mean guy who works out a lot and has killer gadgets. Everyone’s favorite bad/good guy.

Last attempt to Unleash:
Batman Begins (2005)

What it did:
Made Batman look like a tool when he fights. A lumbering, kicky ogre. You could use smoke grenades and flash-bangs, and climb a lot, but it all felt rather drab. And the Batmobile allowed you to crash into things.

What it should have done:
Batman is a gadget-man. His utility belt needs to be an intricate, upgradeable, tricked out menu of joy. He needs to be able to swing from skyscrapers, cape all a’whip, throw Batman ninja stars, smoke bombs, the rebreather for underwater breathing, night vision, Bat-bolas which wrap up escapees: basically Splinter Cell, but Batman. And when he fights, if he didn’t look like a tool that would sweet.

He can beat the crap out of Balrogs, tear down Nazguls, and can come back from the dead. His powers are great, though their true depth and range is largely unknown.

Last attempt to Unleash:
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

What it did:
Though Gandalf is in fact a playable character in the game, and he appears to fight in a similar style to his filmic counterpart—sword and staff melee combos—he never really goes apeshit, and his magic abilities are reduced to a little ranged energy blast that looks like innocent fireworks.

What it should have done:
The root of the problem is that Gandalf was never properly unleashed in the films. From the books, we know that Gandalf is a master of fire. He can make things catch of fire like a bastard. Like he does with pine cones in The Hobbit. He also is a pyrotechnic expert. He can grow in size and strength during battle. He can magically lock doors. He can make himself all but invisible when he feels it’s necessary. There is a brutal game here, one that has not yet been made.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Exit Polls 2008 and Election Results 2008

We're covering the election at with a scary vigilance. Below is our complete list of exit polls and election results pages for the 2008 presidential election. Which is happening today by the way. If you want to keep up with the election tonight here is all you will need. If you haven't yet voted, check out our massive listing of where to vote. Also of note, a page on the Top 10 Political Gaffes.