Cracking down
SupCom wins the war on war

Finally kicked that nasty WoW habit. I think I'm free now to regress to a simpler pastoral state where I graze on the painful metaphors until I finally choke on one.

The banner week for game releases didn't shake me out of WoW. In a sense, WoW is like riding a bull, or holding a wolf by the ears, or carving tablets out of soapstone. You try to do it for as long as you can, the medium fighting you ever step of the way, until, ultimately, you get thrown off, and give up. But it helps that there's something out there to do besides mine Adamantite, and that thing is the xbox 360.

I don't know if I've spoken of the simple joys I've rediscovered in gaming with my xbox 360, through the live service, and the ability to quickly and easily play a variety of 'time waster' arcade games on the live service. I also don't know if I've mentioned that being able to demo nearly every game I've purchased has not only been fun, but introduced me to products I might otherwise never have tried. Furthermore, I do not *know*, if games like Gears of War and Chromehounds have provided me with hours of fun until I decided to go tell other people how great they were. Maybe I should do that someday. But until then, let us be content in knowing that best demo I've ever played on 360 (and one of the better games I've ever bought), is easily Crackdown.

It's not quite Gears of War. Gears has a special, almost intimate experience for the player who experiences it with a friend, as I did. For me, the times spent cowering in the firelight while I tell my friend not to step in the darkness will always go hand-in-hand with the sound of a million evil bats tearing him into chopmeat while I laugh. You can't buy experiences like that, except for 50$ at Best Buy, apparently. Hookers might also be fun, it's hard to say.

But no matter how much not like Gears of War Crackdown may be, it is part of a new era in gameplay which, I feel, must take root and develop more fully. We have always esteemed a sense of completion in art and entertainment, and as such, we esteemed even more highly, a timely completion. While I loathed the era of 90 minute movies (check the early 90s for this trend), even I am taxed to my limit to sit through The Game in a single .. weekend--or, indeed, Dostoyevski's masterpiece: Brotherhood of the Wolf, which, I think, takes about 72 hours to complete, on fast forward. A movie can only be so wonderful before it starts to gouge scoop like shapes out of the front of your head. In general, the best art is episodic, or blessedly short, or at least arranged to be taken at your own pace.

Gaming has approached the problem of concision with a schizophrenia which we, as gamers, have come to see as a characteristic. On the one hand, the game developer craves the feeling of turning players into slaves--addicts with no choice but to play and play until their genitalia detaches like the extended range fuel tanks on a MANTA (note: Yes, I'm well aware that *actually* the MANTAs had extended range communication pods, but I seem to remember fuel as well--even though there weren't fuel pods per se--honestly, I don't know why I bother bringing this sort of thing up if you're going to always pick at it. No more wire hangers). At the same time, the Game developer is desperate, sometimes, to show players all the content they make. In some ways, the developer finds players to be devious and full of trickery--they purchase your games, but they refuse to play all the way through, making a mockery of your development time and developement resources. These are important things you spent important developer meetings discussing with your developer mouths and writing on your developer whiteboards! They are not to be ignored, foul vermin that you are.

This attitude in hand, devs try a variety of approaches: difficulty levels which range from mentally handicapped to sub-average, rather than easy to difficult. It is now the fashion to include additional levels of the game as 'hidden' content. Only 'unlockable' through complicated and mysterious efforts, such as completing the current set of levels, or getting enough points. Some games, like Return to Castle Wolfenstein, focus all gameplay in such an episodic way, that you come across a variety of content by virtue of wishing to repeat the same experience. Of course, World of Warcraft's method is to stab you in the eyes.

As a gamer, ultimately, what you'd like is an arc of some kind, a narrative that, like a sports season, carries you through a series of otherwise unconnected events, with a sense of purpose and destiny. Whether it's threadbare or the sum of the experience is up for debate, and certainly, there are times that I don't want to virus bomb 64 islands while my Carrier Command soundtrack tape plays on continuous loop in my walkman. So, what we'd like is infinite replayability, with a finite set of contexts, that we can be done with in a reasonable timeframe, but, at the same time, isn't so short that we feel cheated. In terms of Ven Diagrams, this is an irritating exercise, and many developers, no doubt, would rather choke on spume.

Spume choking is certainly better than other more severe forms of choking, possibly involving duct bile, straight from the duct, but developers are rising to the challenge of swallowing these requirements without gagging, as only a professional can. Crackdown is an example of such a product.

In terms of its basics, its been described as Grand Theft Auto but with super powers. This is inaccurate. It is GTA, minus all the obnoxious faults of that series, plus super powers, minus memorable characters (except the voice over guy), plus memorable missions, plus transformers, plus some of what made DOOM so popular, plus ham sandwiches, minus hidden sex minigames. It's more of a mario sunshine where you collect dead gang bosses instead of 'shines'. Roughly the same concept, really.

Crackdown's longevity in terms of unique boss encounters (arguably the only form of story in the game--continuous boss encounters) isn't overwhelming. But the basic premise of gameplay, that is, Grand Theft Auto without the flaws, is desperately wonderful. So, by the time I'm done with the 30 or so situations involving me curbstomping a criminal with a unique skin in the blissful gameplay of this xbox offering, I'm satisfied, and pretty much done. I go back occasionally for a little Vehicular manslaughter (still need to see the last level of transforming supercar), I'm basically done with the experience. I don't *have* to keep playing for weeks on end wondering if they'll run out of Haitians for me to shoot. This is all fine by me.

SupCom is in the same vein. The campaigns are short. More of an elaborate tutorial exercise than anything else. It prepares you to spend years of your life playing the RTS ad infinitum against a variety of opponents until you're quite certain there's nothing left inside that husk which you once considered human.

SupCom isn't quite as rosy as Crackdown, though.

Which is nuts, because Chris Taylor is basically Jesus, and Total Annihilation was basically the perfect RTS, once Core contingency was released. I feel that the poor guy basically succumbed to the ultimate lure of the brilliant designer; listening to fucking morons.

The original TA managed to balance the unique appeal of each unit with its anonymity. SupCom has become so obsessed with zooming the view and using icons to represent nearly microscopic units, that its lost the sense of individuality. The attempted replacement was experimental superunits--large than an entire screen, and only full viewable when zoomed out to some degree. But this has forced gameplay along the narrow channels that these units tend to cause. They took a page out of Warcraft III, to their detriment, and it's ultimately a sour note. Also, despite cries of 'fuck rock, paper, scissor', they altered the traits of weapon platforms in the game so that land-focused vehicles never fire at aircraft, and interceptor aircraft cannot attack anything on the land. They did, at least, retract their former poor direction in TA: Kingdoms, of forcing players into confrontations around resources. Now resources can be completely self-contained, again.

There was considerable effort put into making radar and radar countermeasures seem worthwhile--units are intelligent enough to fire outside their line of sight at blips, and blips are integrated into the normal mapview, but this hardly matters, because you'll be spending the majority of your time finding the blip that really sucks, and sending half your resources against it, and then waiting patiently while its escorts kill whatever didn't die during the attack run, and your factories rebuild fodder for the next juggernaut's onslaught.

There's huge potential in a new gameplay element; the base shield. The previous games had nothing like it. Now a base can guard itself from artillery, airstrike, or nearly anything else, with impenetrable energy shield. Impenetrable until they give out, at least. Unlike everything else in TA/SupCom, the shields are not a fluid process. They do not suffer damage discretely and regenerate constantly. They lose their integrity in chunks, and when it's gone, they go offline for a period of time, and then pop back on, fully recharged.

The potential for the shield gameplay mechanism is to force a very interesting kind of structure on combat--one where you must find a way to penetrate a shield at close quarters, somehow, to defeat it, and then bring in some kind of firepower. But because of the nature of the shields, even several clustered together can be defeated quickly with brute force, and their generators destroyed in the interim between recharges. The shield is really only good for forcing the enemy to substantially up the ante on their wave attacks, or else achieve a kind of 'head start' for the defense.

The original TA was great because a base could survive 'between the craters' so to speak. The idea was to spread out and get redundant so that, when the enemy came, they would get bored looking for you on a major push, and you'd have a secondary manufacturing center somewhere to take them out. The game was living its own premise--endless war. The two armies were working with technology which allowed them to wage war with virtually nothing, so there could never be a decisive victory. Victory meant figuring out all the places the enemy could be, and striking them simultaneously. There was an element of coordination, and an art to delaying the escalation of the conflict (since escalation always lead to nuke v anti nuke, and the longest range artillery--for which there was no real defense other than terrain).

In SupCom, I have yet to see terrain play a substantial role, mostly because of the way the maps are made. But beyond that, the changes to the way artillery and missiles work, particularly the way the game is played with opening up the range between players has made it far easier to ferret out the enemy, and much more appealing to simply put together decisive unit groups, and get in each other's face continually--the starcraft model. The naval game was always like this, which is why I loved the fact that I could completely ignore it. Now the naval game has become a key ingredient, since fighters can no longer perform economical fly-by attacks against heavy anti-air. Instead, the only way to deal with anti air is with cycling between gunship suicide runs and some kind of land-based back up. Usually siege units, or at sea, one of everything.

To me, one of everything is not combined arms. Combined arms is a military euphemism which means 'we better combine these infantry with something or they'll be utterly fucked'. Ideally, people go to war with tanks. True, a tank can't storm a building, and a helicopter can't guard a patch of ground for hours and hours. But that's because of technical limitations. These games take place in the future. In the future, it seems reasonable that versatility would have been researched to greater effect. Why am I making these horrendous tubs to trundle through the water and get torpedoed, when there's these giant spaceship-like cruiser things the enemy can put out in the field? Hell, if I *stapled* 3 of the lifter craft to a destroyer, I'd have a great airship.

TA ran that fine line fairly well. There was no *real* reason you would want to go with, say, Kbots vs vehicles. There were tradeoffs. Vehicles could be faster sometimes. Sometimes they were tougher too, or mounted a slightly tougher version of the kbot armament. But sometimes Kbots tracked faster, or could negotiate terrain faster, and that gave you a particular kind of edge you wanted to use in the situation. These were not hard and fast categorical imperatives, but subtle differences that suggested different approaches. This is what your brain is *for*. Deciding between two seemingly equal options. SupCom panders to the inbred RTS crowd that wants clear cut defined roles for every last piece of equipment on the board.

Those of us who played classic WWII era war games *know* what real tactical strategy involves. You do crazy crap like using antiaircraft guns to take out tanks, because they are light and coincidentally have some of the best armor penetration available in your arsenal. You use artillery as tank-destroyers, because that's what you could get around a flank in time, and a tank is as soft from above as it is from the rear. Or maybe they're open topped. Half tracks with mortars can be used in close assault on buildings! Of 4 generations of Sunderkampfenwagens, *which* is the ideal choice to drive down the road at top speed and get shot to shit by the infantry in the trees? Do we know? There's no way to be sure!

TA was not a clear cut experience. You couldn't be sure that any system would operate as advertised. But each system *did* operate according to clearly demonstrable rules.

I don't mind unintended consequences, as long as I can intend for them next time. This is the principle that needs to guide game development. Rather than foist content on the user, suggest the possibility of other content frequently. Opportunity is its own lure. You don't have to drag us along with a fishhook. If we don't see it *this* playthrough, we can do it next time.

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