What a country!
Aliens vs Predator Extinction, Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds, and Shadowman 2: somethingorother

I played the 3 of these games, roughly, concurrently. Which made for a kind of interesting blur. The reason I rehash these impressions now, is that, due to glitch, I fell into the MMO pit and failed to experience new gameplay for the most part for at least a year and some change. Recently, rediscovering gaming, in terms of actual games, and playing a variety, instead of the occasional distraction from the grinding apparatus which scours calcium deposits from my irreplaceable structure, has rekindled opinions that have long lain dormant. I used to be so utterly disatisfied with the mechanics of failed game concepts, since then, I've grown to crave and appreciate even the simplest conventions of yesteryear. The robotron clones on Xbox live? Unutterably wonderful. Yet another first person shooter? God please pass me some more of that.

What's interesting about these incredibly lowered expectations is that, when I legitimately attempt to recall the way I felt about games which were mediocre for sundry other reasons, I feel this strange lensing effect; like I'm traveling through a wormhole filled with timepieces and trying desperately to grab a nut.

Now, Aliens and Predators are a winning combination in nearly every circumstance. Why it is that this license continues to be abused by people who can’t figure out the mechanics of a professional product, is beyond me. The track record for the AvP franchise is mixed. There were the Aliens games on various consoles, which were failures mainly because they didn’t contain predators. There was the AvP game for the SNES who’s main fault was being totally retarded. Then there was the AvP game for the Jaguar. A failure because it was on the Jaguar. At some point I believe there was a *good* Aliens vs Predator brawler, but it was in the arcades, and I’ve always resented those places for the heady toll they reaped from my allowance in days of yore. There is the glimmer of goodness that is the AvP series for PC. A series that is works only because it actually portrays the canonical abilities of aliens, predators, and humans without chickening out and artificially limiting the experience, either by forcing you to play a fucking marine all the time or making predators these crippled and deficient characters that are distinguished from a human only in their snappy style of dress. To divert the curse that appears to be on the franchise, the Lithtech engine (not the high-end version) was used to give it that special brand of suck. Like great art made from human shit, it succeeds but with the unfortunate addend of ‘in spite of’.

That’s AvP as of the release of avp:E. A tradition of crap unmatched. Even the Star Wars franchise occasionally produces an unfettered gem. The latest addition to the series is more of the same. Some things executed well. Some things executed only marginally. A lot of things totally fucked. Which makes the whole saga of development I just took you through seem kind of irrelevant and bombastic. If I knew how to stop myself I would.

The Saga of AvP Extinction starts with a simple statement and a simple reaction. Statement: “AvP2 will be an RTS for the X-box and PS2.” Reaction: “Why the fuck would you make an RTS for a console?” Of course, in our time, we've seen some impressive RTSes for consoles, which have all sucked unspeakably. For reasons I can't get into without triggering an aneurysm, they will continue to be made for console, and I will have to continue to cry in my beer over the fact that great development teams continually try to struggle with matching a medium like iron smelting to what is substantially a sewing machine made out of tightly coiled rope and childlike imagination.

I simply can’t stop swearing over AvP:E. What makes it more frustrating than any gaming experience I can recall is that it is a solid great game that has interesting play mechanics and an honest attempt to bring the 3 characters in the license to the screen in a compelling way. The aliens seethe with character, looking around and acting twitchy when not actively engaged in doing something cool. This excepts the combat animations which lack variety in appearance (I’m not completely certain if they lack variety in reality, or if the animations they have simply appear the same). The predators are probably the weakest species artistically, at least in my opinion, not because they are fundamentally bad in some way, but merely because they seem as twitchy if not moreso than aliens. Past a certain point, you have to let things like that go, and were the game on a pc, you can be assured I would do just that.

The coolness factor is very high in a number of areas. The aliens have the ability to drag bodies back to the nest for implantation—something which when underway in game is horrifying and fascinating to watch. It’s not really scary, though my media-saturated tastes are probably not the right perspective on that particular issue. I’m certain that were someone who is not so inundated with monster movie images seeing the game for the first time, they would be impressed by the calculating terror of it—it really does communicate the nature of the aliens as they were portrayed in the movies. The predator practice of removing heads from everybody they kill is nifty, though excessive and boring after a while. Also, most of the shapes for the 3d models are extremely well done—something which can be a sticking point on some AvP titles. The marines, usually the most boring side from my perspective, are even made somewhat interesting here with their sentry guns and the visual appeal of a dropship appearing to give them their reinforcements. In fact, if anything, I thought that there was an excess of character for the various sides. The aliens were so personable and intense that they seemed to be individuals. When I had a hive-full, I actually felt like I was looking at a group of individual badass xenomorphs, as opposed to an unified hive or horde. I’m sounding pretentious, so I’ll just finish with saying that the look and feel kicked ass.

Or it would, if it weren’t a fucking RTS on a console. I don’t know why someone would attempt this. I’ve seen it done on several occasions, and to my understanding, there are only 3 ways to do it. The first way is to be similar to Syndicate Wars, a solid game by Bullfrog that adjusted the way you controlled your squad to feel more like an action game or a platform title, that just happened to be really cerebral and incorporated a bit more puzzle-solving and character management than usual. Keep in mind that SW didn’t really succeed with this scheme. I still found it irritating to play—but that might relate somewhat to what I felt was an annoying implementation of 3rd person squad combat in the first place. It had its moments but it grew frustrating a lot of the time as well. The second is Pikmin, where your troops are focused around an avatar and controlled simply and directly—used more like tools, and act stupid, but have a repertoire of automated tasks they can perform without interference by you (AvP:E comes close to this model, but falls short by using the mouse-like interface that was developed for PC RTSes). The 3rd way would be to greatly automate the functioning and activity of your troops in general, giving them Dark Reign-like AI which allows them to make their own decisions. Your job would be to direct your bot-army to the areas and in the use of the tactics that you dictate. I believe this model was used fairly well in Warhammer: Dark Omen, and Shadow of the Horned Rat. In this case, they don’t have a powerful AI, but the units are fairly autonomous, and rely on you to execute broad and simple commands and direct spell effects from certain special units as the battle unfolds without your direct intervention. This kind of overview management system makes the RTS experience come through without expecting the player to operate a complex micromanagement console with a condensed and simplified interface (which coincidentally isn’t really designed to quickly navigate a menu system of any depth in the first place). I suppose it might be possible to make an RTS game experience that used a Final Fantasy kind of menu system to deal with the inherent failure of a simplified controller to allow easy access to a large variety of commands. The only successful way I’ve seen a large library of commands accessed through a console controller is in fighting games, and those are quite definitely not intended to reach the same audience as an RTS and aren’t necessarily a good trend in gameplay in any case. To stray for a moment; the control scheme of a fighting game succeeds largely in as much as the majority of its variety is used to give the player an overall psychosomatic impression of the fighter’s abilities and style. I don’t know if it is even possible to create a quasi-seamless experience like that for a RTS, though Pikmin, admittedly, comes close.

AvP starts with a grand concept which seems console friendly (that of focusing on troops rather than base building) but, unfortunately, implements an interface which reminds me rather strongly of Age of Empires. It attempts to do this through a controller that only has 8 buttons to work with (well, 10 or 12 depending on how generous you want to be—suffice to say they limit themselves to 8). I might be able to remember that left trigger+b sends my guys on an attack-move, If the left trigger weren’t used for about a dozen other tasks. The right trigger tries to simulate the ability to shift-queue a series of commands together, but because of the limitations of the controller, it really only does this for movement. The Directional pad is wasted on AI adjustments that could probably either have been done another way, or dispensed with altogether, since the AI doesn’t affect the most important aspect of controlling units sufficiently (that is, switching tasks depending on the environment—an alien dragging a body will not take time out to defend itself or flee when being shot, but will dumbly continue to drag—also, there is some extremely poor AI involved in selecting victims during the ‘gathering hosts’ subroutine). In any case, even though I am a Fighting-game vet and have patience for certain kinds of memorization challenges when it comes to dealing with an interface, I can’t get past the overall clumsy nature of a joystick-limited interface that is expecting me to operate 8 buttons like they’re a keyboard to perform functions that are usually handled in a vaguely context sensitive way. To summarize, an interface that is tool-oriented works fine on a computer, but not on a console. This issue done to death, I’ll nit-pick a little: the alien tails are all funky and messed up, and some of the models have virtually nothing to distinguish them from similar units, except their skins. Here I will say that the overall experience is homoerotic in a bad way.

There seems to be a growing need for some kind of game design fundamentals or game-theory specialist role among companies. With budgets growing and good ideas being wasted in the creation of extremely half-assed ideas, the market will start becoming softer. The shelves are already crowded, not necessarily with quality product, and it’s not getting better. AvP:E is a product of marketing decision (Note: I’m wildly theorizing here--Level of accuracy is somewhere in the ‘Jack Daniels’ region). An RTS on the Xbox might initially appear to be a good idea since it lacks obvious and direct competition. The license carries itself, in as much as it guarantees sales from those, like me, who are determined to purchase any AvP game that looks even vaguely entertaining. But, despite the pie-charts, whatever success this game has financially, it is a failure in concept. This RTS on the PC would be noticeably successful; something people would mention casually for a few months and remember in the future. It is not, strictly speaking, derivative of any recent games in an obvious and over-the-top way, though it is derivative in a broad sense of several similar attempts to break the Dune 2 gameplay scheme which were unit-centric—particularly the contributions that SSI made to the genre under the War Wind series (SSI may not be the originator of this broad design category, but their product is well worth a look-up in any case). The statements I made earlier are the crux of the problem: there are ways to make an RTS work on a console, and AvP:E does not embrace them.

I played Shadowman 2 for about 45 minutes. It was so damned dark I couldn’t be bothered to squint my way further and ended my play time. It had a couple interesting points to it. The weapon and combat system were fun, but what struck me the most was the fact that the game was very black. I don't mean dark. I'm not repeating myself, I mean dark skinned african american 'urban' in the hood black; that is to say, a prime time television version of some executives vague impression of black, as viewed through the distortion of a staff writer. When I received a nailgun as my first projectile weapon, I was struck immediately by how it wasn't a gun, it was a gatt--to be fired on its side, which, as Carlos Mencia has said, is stupid.

As the zombie guy wandered around and kicked ass, I wasn't thinking the same way I usually do when I play a game with a godlike theme. Instead of thinking 'hehe, you are so fucking lunch...' I was thinking 'bitch, don't you point that shit at me, I'll shove this crowbar so far up your fucking ass, I'll be able to use your eyesocket for breaking and entering', the difference being the abusiveness which is is too common in real life to be an acceptible escapist fantasy. For me, anyway. It was fun, but it was also very rough--as if the veneer on the game was an afterthought. They had this strong protagonist and put him in an environment that was slightly off. Not enough voodoo, I suppose. Incidentally, the last time I remember thinking this as I played a game was when I had a chance to play the Wu-tang clan's fighting game. Considering how GTA lost me when they changed the tongue-in-cheek over the top antihero and crime movie spoof, into a HBO miniseries quality 'real' look at how fucked urban life is, with this very (repeat very) uncomfortable similarity to Barbershop, it's not much of a surprise that I couldn't get into shadowman. GTA:SA had that incredibly depressing intro where you came home to a murdered family after getting out of jail, and, within an hour or so, murdered a crack dealer after seeing how he'd destroyed some old friend of yours with his filthy product. I found the sequence to be disturbing and the street justice to be tainted, rather than satisfying. Shadowman 2 has the same kind of features in the enemies. You're not a very righteous figure, which is normally fine, but your enemies are just brutal assholes who are incapable of differentiating between you and whatever other mindless mayhem they have planned. Plus, I think you ended up burning alive or something at the beginning, which is very Spawn. Unless I'm thinking of Spawn and getting confused.

So what I am saying, is that if you have a black kid and you're looking for a christmas present that won't fuck him up by subtly teaching him that the white aesthetic for bravery, strength, and heroism is the only aesthetic--get him Predator: Concrete Jungle.

Finally, I come to star wars battlegrounds.

Don't buy star wars battlegrounds.

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