Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Let's do that thing where we rank Halo campaigns

Yesterday, Halo 5: Guardians was released. Yesterday, I finished Halo 5: Guardians. My new job hasn't started yet, in case you're wondering.

While I'm not even close to being finished with the game yet, given how much I'm enjoying its multiplayer modes, the simple truth is that I've been a Halo fan since long before I was playing console games online. Given that I've now played every campaign from beginning to end, I figured I'd put that expertise to use my doing that thing we always do whenever the latest entry in a long-running franchise is put on the market.

7. Halo 3: ODST

I'd call it unfair to hold this release up to the standards of mainline entries had Microsoft not charged $60 for it, an admission on their part that they believe ODST to be just as worthwhile a purchase as anything else on this list. Some seem to agree; I know people who were clamoring for this to be included in Master Chief Collection, disappointed when it initially wasn't and uplifted when it was later thrown in as DLC. I can see why, too, because this was Bungie's boldest experiment with the series, a sandbox game that dials back the space opera in favor of a more intimate, character-driven campaign exploring the aftermath of a major event earlier in Halo canon. (That the main characters were all voiced by Firefly cast members didn't hurt nerd cred.)

And yet this remains the only Halo game that I've never replayed (with the exception of Halo 5, which just came out yesterday, so give me a bit). In retrospect, I'm indifferent to ODST's open-world focus for the same reason I never took the bait with Destiny adding RPG elements and social play to the series' tight combat. The slower pace only gets in the way of what Halo does well, and still ODST has the distinction of being the shortest game of the franchise to date. It's a noble effort, but I'm not so enamored with these new characters that I'm happy chugging through a relatively inconsequential plot to get to know them better. This is the most forgettable title of the Halo series.

6. Halo 5: Guardians

My full review is on its way, but while I only just completed Halo 5 yesterday, I'm confident that no level of meditation on my part will push this latest release to a higher spot on this list. It's not just that Halo 5 disappoints in and of itself; it actually undoes much of the goodwill built upon in 343 Industries' previous game. In retrospect, the quasi-romance between Master Chief and Cortana in Halo 4, which was far more effective than it had any business being and established a level of narrative maturity that Bungie never showcased, now just feels like hollow setup for a bunch of schlocky, D-grade character twists that are only surprising in that they're irrational even by Halo standards. And the game has the nerve to end on a jarring cliffhanger, when the series should have learned the first time it did that.

Still, aside from some major lapses in judgment in the final two missions (the nadir being a battle against three overpowered bosses at once), Halo 5 can still claim to being generally fun to play. In fact, it's the first game in the series to natively run at 60fps, making this, to my mind, the best-playing first-person shooter on a controller to date. Seriously, I've become a PC fanatic since the last Halo game was released, and I'm still finding this thing silky smooth on thumbsticks. Unfortunately, while the polish is here, fresh ideas aren't; with Halo 5 somewhat lacking in new toys and new baddies to use them on, all we get is the same solid gunplay as always, in service of Halo's most disappointing story yet.

5. Halo 3

Typically in trilogies, the first entry establishes the basics, the sequel ups the ante, and the final chapter just sort of scratches its head and curses the previous entry for leaving the franchise with nowhere else to go. It's telling that after Bungie made us sit on such an infuriating cliffhanger for three years, the resolution itself was criminally uneventful. How is this situation resolved? Uh, through space magic, I guess. The gang gets together to essentially push a button that wipes out the Flood, ends the war and, sure, I guess strands Chief and Cortana in space just so things don't get too convenient.

I understand Bungie's desire to dial things back a bit after Halo 2 drew criticisms for collapsing under its own world-building weight, but Halo 3's nine-mission campaign essentially brought nothing new to the table while underlining some of the series' long-running issues and Bungie's refusal to address them. I'd often said that my ideal Halo game would be one in which the Flood never show up, and while that did eventually happen, that plot thread still dangles at the start of Halo 3, and the need to resolve it results in an endgame stage that very nearly rivals The Library for tedium. I'm glad that this wasn't the last we saw of Halo, partly because I just like the franchise, but also because this would have been a meager note to end on.

4. Halo: Combat Evolved

There is absolutely no getting around the fact that Halo, for all of the ways in which it revolutionized console FPSs, hasn't aged well. It's such a shame given how much the first half of the campaign is still exemplary of all of the things that Halo does well: the AI, the vehicles, and the massive outdoor battlefields. Had Bungie kept that momentum going, the game's status as a classic wouldn't constantly be second-guessed as it is today. But then the Flood shows up and everything goes to hell.

It's not just the Library, either. While that level is the series' most maligned moment, the entire latter half of Halo, with its repeated interiors and huge stretches recycled from earlier in the campaign, feels like the product of Bungie being pressured to get the game finished in time for the original Xbox's launch. And maybe that was a good thing, because who can say that whether the Xbox brand would still be around today had Master Chief been representing from day one? Regardless, we're left with a shooter that, despite all of its advances for the genre, feels frustratingly imperfect.

3. Halo 2

While Halo 2's influence in online console gaming is irrefutable, its campaign tends to be the least popular of the series, and I can see why. It's overlong, the ending is a crash course in how not to write a cliffhanger, and it delves too deep into its own self-serious mythology, with around half of the campaign told from the Covenant's perspective. But it ranks among my favorites simply for correcting the big issue with the first Halo in that it's consistent. Even when the Flood shows up early on, its appearances are staggered in such a manner that it never becomes tiresome to the same degree that it drowned out the entire second half of Combat Evolved.

So while none of Halo 2's best moments quite feel as liberating as, say, taking to the beach of the Silent Cartographer in a Warthog for the first time, it moves swiftly and to many places, holding my attention more firmly than its predecessor despite being considerably longer. And I actually like the Arbiter; he's a far more fleshed-out character than Master Chief, and his timed invisibility trick lends his missions an additional layer of strategy, particularly on higher difficulties when you need every advantage you can get. That's another thing - if you're the sort who likes to play these games on Legendary, Halo 2 offers the toughest (and thus most satisfying) challenge of the entire franchise. It's a terrific and very replayable game, and if that puts me in the minority, well, more for me.

2. Halo: Reach

This was the Halo game that I always wanted, one in which we never fight the Flood and never set foot in a single piece of monotonous Forerunner architecture. It sounds weirdly non-progressive to say that Reach is great for removing more than it adds, but this was the game in which Bungie finally addressed longtime series issues and gave us the best, most consistent Halo experience of their decade-long run with the license. When we play Halo campaigns, we want sprawling battles against intelligent Covenant AI, and that's exactly what Reach gave us, no strings attached.

And while I certainly wouldn't call Reach's storytelling a masterstroke by any stretch of the imagination, it earns points for its straightforwardness while still feeling like a vital component of the Halo equation (compared to ODST, a story that didn't need to be told). Since the original game began with a single human ship fleeing after the invasion and destruction of Reach, we already know how this prequel will end - not happily - but Bungie still wrings some surprises out of the manner in which Noble Six's story is concluded, and the level of participation that players have in closing this chapter. This was Bungie's last Halo game, and in my mind, they went out on the highest note realistically possible.

1. Halo 4

But embarrassingly enough, whereas it took Bungie a full decade to truly grasp the strengths of their own franchise, 343 Industries got it right on their first try. In jump-starting a new trilogy, they've wisely kept the aggravating Flood out of the equation, opting for a new enemy faction in the Prometheans, who are utterly fearsome but also organized enough that their presence doesn't turn Halo into a mindless shootfest. Halo 4 stands as a terrific example of how to breathe new life into a series without robbing it of what made it popular to begin with. It has no real lulls. It's outstanding.

Most impressively, though, it's the first Halo game that makes Master Chief and Cortana out to be more than simply a player avatar and an exposition machine, respectfully. In fact, I'm convinced that the only reason Halo 4's emotional payoff doesn't quite stick the landing is that we're already so used to these two characters being so one-note; for them to suddenly experience conflicts and express feelings is almost hard to grasp. But that's Bungie's fault, not 343's. Despite the many wrongs committed by the next entry's plot, Halo 4 stands as an excellent standalone experience and the series' finest hour.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

SOMA is totally a metaphor for euthanasia

Note: This article contains spoilers for SOMA. If you haven't finished the game yet, it'll still be here when you do. And if it's not still here, you'll have no evidence that I promised otherwise.

So you've finished SOMA, then, have you? I know this because you would have heeded my warning if you hadn't. So how about that ending? Real gut punch, right? I really do think this'll rank as one of my favorite games of this generation, even if it's got a couple of pacing and narrative issues that I couldn't ignore in my review. Because despite my qualms, this is the sort of thing science fiction was invented for -- to explore important human themes in situations we have not (yet) been confronted with. And while SOMA leaves you with a lot to think about (which is why I love it), I want to talk about one thing that I briefly touched upon in my write-up, which is what I perceive to be the developers' stance on euthanasia, i.e. mercy killing.

Let's briefly recap the plot. In the early 22nd century, Earth's surface is destroyed by a comet, and the only survivors are the inhabitants of PATHOS-II, a research facility at the bottom of the ocean. Resigning to the futility of the situation, the scientists devise a plan to "preserve" the human race: by creating digital copies of the remaining citizens, compiling them onto a device called the Ark, and then launching it into space, allowing humanity to continue its existence in some form regardless of what happens to the survivors' physical bodies. The protagonist himself, Simon, was the first subject of such a brain scan, and nearly a century after his death, he's been reinstated in a mechanical body for initially unknown reasons.

This is an oppressively bleak game, in large part due to the hopelessness of this situation, and how well the developers sell it. It's bad enough that most of humanity has been wiped out, but the remaining members are stuck at the bottom of the ocean, completely removed from sunlight and under constant danger of being crushed under the tremendous pressure. To make matters worse, a rogue AI called "WAU" is using a biomechanical substance called structure gel to transform anyone it can find into half-human, half-machine abominations. Humanity is, in its physical form, completely screwed. The Ark really is the only thing we're clinging to.

Near the end of the game, we meet a human named Sarah, who is untainted by structure gel but nevertheless in very poor health. She's in possession of the Ark, and she hands it over with one request: that we pull her life support, putting her out of her misery.

So, yeah, that scene obviously, unambiguously deals with euthanasia. But let's look at the broader picture here, and why I believe SOMA is also making a more nuanced statement. What makes this decision so complicated is that throughout the course of our entire journey, which spans the complete length of the PATHOS-II facility, Sarah is the only living, breathing human that we encounter. Which means, yes, she is literally the last human on Earth. She's already dying, and she wouldn't be able to reproduce and perpetuate the human life cycle by herself anyway, so we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the species is doomed. But to kill her is to make the human species extinct with our own, bare hands. It's a heavy, burdening moment.

Let's fast-forward to the ending. The Ark has been launched, and in a post-credits scene, Simon awakens in the simulation, portrayed as a lush, calming forested area. He reunites with Catherine, his companion, and expresses his relief that the plan came together and that the fate of humanity has been secured for potentially thousands of years. If you watched the scene out of context, you'd think it was a happy ending.

But it comes after the real conclusion, in which Simon successfully launches the Ark and watches in disbelief as it takes off without him. Catherine explains, as she had already done earlier in the game, that a human consciousness cannot be transferred from one location to another; it can only be copied. So while a new version of Simon is safely aboard the Ark, the one we've been controlling is stuck, left to wither away and die, alone at the bottom of the ocean.

Now, if you cater to the belief that machines can have souls and that a digital copy of a human can be human itself, this ending can be interpreted as, uh, not a complete loss, since we completed our mission and some form of Simon is indeed safe, sound and headed far away from this planet. To me, though, this ending punishes both Simon and the player for succumbing to a false sense of hope in a world where all hope is lost. Our failure to accept the fall of humanity leads to the hollowest of victories.

I mentioned in my review how vital SOMA's setting is to the effectiveness of its themes, and this is exactly what I'm talking about. We walk through unappetizing grey corridors. We hear the creak of metal as PATHOS-II bends under the pressure of the ocean. We see human corpses being reanimated into biomechanical monstrosities. We see the collapse of civilization. We watch the last human on Earth dying right in front of us. At a certain point, you have to ask yourself: What's the use? Why preserve this? We've lost the battle. It's over. If turning humans into machines is an acceptable compromise, then the ending should be a happy one. But I'm betting that for most people, it isn't.

SOMA is, at the end of the day, a game that asks us what we'd do if we were in the position to play Kevorkian with the entire human race. I think it's got a powerful message about prolonging the inevitable. Especially if you read the Ark as some sort of spiritual afterlife and, oh god, that's a completely different blog entry right there.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Not a review: The point when I stopped playing Until Dawn

Had I actually been tasked with reviewing Until Dawn, I most certainly would have found the wherewithal to complete it. But I have not been tasked with reviewing Until Dawn. It is in my house because GameFly sent it to my house. I'm going to send it back as soon as I'm done writing this. I haven't beaten it and I never will. I value broad critical perspectives, but this time I'm taking a shortcut. I hate Until Dawn, and I'm fairly certain that if I continue playing it, I'll hate it even more.

It is relevant to this discussion that I also hate Heavy Rain, adventure titles in general and virtually any game that treats interactivity as an obligation. The only exception is when the driving narrative happens to be really good; Telltale can get away with it because the first season of The Walking Dead is the only piece of entertainment to make me cry, and that's significant no matter how you look at it. The characters in Telltale games are also capable of opening drawers without chaperoning; they don't, in contrast to Until Dawn's cast, reach for said drawers and await further instructions whilst we hold a trigger and yank the analog stick about. Again: treating interactivity as an obligation. Can we not just assume that these people know how to open drawers?

Maybe not, because Until Dawn is a tribute to the slasher film, specifically the kind in which a group of insufferable teenagers travels to a cabin in a remote location on the one-year anniversary of a tragedy that resulted in the deaths of their friends and blah, blah, blah. I'd think the purpose of applying the David Cage formula to familiar cinema tropes would be to have a more personal stake in them, but I immediately wanted all of these smug, shallow, unfunny jerks dead. Maybe that's the point of a slasher movie, but then the David Cage formula dictates that we need to spend a couple of hours faffing about with no run button before we get to the juicy stuff.

By the way, this game is really high on itself for suggesting (repeatedly, through both an animated intro and abundant in-game dialog) that the choices you make will shape the narrative. Have you heard of the butterfly effect? It's the idea that something as insignificant as-- oh, you do know what the butterfly effect is, because of course you do? Sorry. The game really doesn't think you understand the concept, which is why it defines "butterfly effect" on no less than three separate occasions and uses butterflies as an indicator of whenever you've made a choice that will affect the narrative. One character even says, "Boom! Butterfly effect." The game replays this line later during a recap. I hate Until Dawn.

I made it as far as my first major encounter with whoever the villain in Until Dawn is. He'd set up a Jigsaw-like scenario in which two of my "friends" were strung up in front of a massive buzzsaw and I was forced to select which person I wanted to save. Since I know how horror villains think, I chose to sacrifice the character I wanted to save, knowing that the contraption would go against what I told it to do. That's precisely what happened, and it was a brief spark of triumph for being one step ahead of the game.

Then it hit me.

Oh god. Please don't tell me that the same character gets sliced up in that scene regardless of which way you turn the lever. I've known games that did that! The original Infamous had a dreadful sequence in which Cole had to make the classic "superhero choice" -- pick between saving a bunch of civilians or the woman he loves -- and it rearranged the circumstances behind the scenes so Cole's girlfriend would always die. That was another game that put a big emphasis on choices and consequences. Bunch of hot air that was, but at least we got a solid action-sandbox title out of it. If Until Dawn were to pull the same shenanigans, when choices and consequences are the only trick up its sleeve, that'd be a total deal-breaker. But they wouldn't do that, would they?

They did. No matter which "choice" you make during the buzzsaw sequence, the same character always gets cut in half. Which means I'm calling BS on this whole enterprise right now. Until Dawn, you're barely a game, you have no immediate thrills and your one claim to fame turns out to be a charade. A game that actually fulfills the promise of actions having consequences would be high on my list, but despite its big song and dance, Until Dawn is just like all of the others. You and David Cage should hook up.