Thursday, March 31, 2005

This may come as a surprise to you, but I take online quizzes fairly regularly and I even consider how I would answer people's surveys, memes, and the like (though after that one time with Shanah I no longer actually fill them out). I rarely post them, but this one is just too good to pass up. How would I do in a zombie infestation scenario?

Armed and Dangerous
Congratulations! You scored 87%!
You made it out, alive and well supplied. You probably even kept most of your party alive too. You know what to look for, what to take, and when to just run. You even feel a strange inkling to go back. If you did, you'd probably do just fine.

According to the quiz, I did better than 95% of the people my age and gender. Mom and Dad would be proud.

On that note, I feel it's high time I posted about Republic Commando, because it's fantastic and I just finished the middle third of the game again so it's on my mind. It's been a while since I reviewed a game, so here's my digest of the highlights:

1). The animations are great. The way people move, the hand signals, they conspire to create a wonderful feeling of realism. Well, it's not realism exactly, it's a war movie. This is what Star Wars would look like if someone were to make it a war movie. And of course the hand-to-hand animations. Sure, sometimes your commandos just kick that droid over, or smash it perfunctorily with the butt of their weapon. And that has its own, "You're just a droid, out of my way" charm to it. But there's also watching your pod brother grapple with a big beefy Trandoshan wielding a pair of scimitars, disarm him with his bare hands, and stab one of his own scimitars through the lizard's head.

2). The squad is spot on. What really makes this game is the squad chatter - listening to how the squad responds to everything that happens. It really doesn't get boring, and that's because they're all interesting people. Every member of Delta Squad (including you) has his own personality, which fits perfectly into the ensemble mold we have come to expect. Thirty-Eight (you) really does feel like The Old Man, but as The Old Man would be if he was actually the same age as his squadmates (you're clones, after all) - his authority comes from his competence, his personal maturity, and his devotion to his squad, since he can't derive it from superior age or experience. Scorch and Sev are the comic relief and comic foil, wihle Fixer gets to play squad mom to these two as they needle each other and disparage each other. Yet there's absolutely no question that they love each other as brothers in arms, and that any of them would die for their squadmates in a heartbeat. But more importantly is the sense that none of them are going to let their squadmates die - that Delta Squad lives and dies as a unit.

3). Along those lines, what makes the squad chatter possible is the revive mechanic. You can see this on the website, but the basic idea is this: when any commando (even you) goes down, any other commando can run over, apply some Star Wars first aid, and get him back on his feet with half health. You can do this in the middle of a firefight, if you dare, or you can wait until the fighting is over and it's safe. Frequently (because you will be wondering) your squad can finish a firefight without you and then revive you afterwards, which is wonderful. This does two things. First, it drives home the no-man-left-behind ethos of the squad. Second, it enables the squad chatter, because the script writers know that you won't get to the third mission with Sev and Fixer dead back on Geonosis. This is a problem that all conventional tactical unit simulations have - the squad mates aren't really interesting people because they might die: you can't write a script which calls for a squadmate to say a line in mission 5 if that squadmate might have died in mission 4, and no studio on Earth has the funds to record enough voiceover to cover every contingency. Consequently squadmates in games are traditionally either uninteresting people or invulnerable. I think that Republic Commando gets around this problem beautifully.

4). The weapon dynamic is good - not fantastic, but close enough. There are basically three problems with the weapons in virtually every first-person shooter that I'm aware of. First is that they have crosshairs painted on the screen. Half the reason aiming is a skill is because it's actually quite difficult to determine where your weapon is truly pointed, and the crosshairs tradition does away with that entirely. Second, nobody is ever injured. Characters are either fully operational or dead, and there are no gradations of functionality in between. Third, all the weapons have to be "balanced." This generally means trading off between damage, rate of fire, accuracy over range, and ammunition count, and ultimately arises out of a belief that if the playing field is not leveled with chess-like precision, the game isn't fun. A fourth issue that many games have is that the character can carry a platoon's worth of weapons and ammunition.

Republic Commando doesn't deal with these issues perfectly, but it does a better job than most games. The aiming issue is handled in two ways. First, while you do have a crosshairs painted on the screen, it's usually some variation on a circle rather than a dot or actual crosshairs - in other words, it doesn't actually paint a dot on the screen which indicates where your fire will inerringly land. That point exists; the game just doesn't tell you where it is. If you want to find out where your weapon is pointing you must press the button which raises it to your eye, which means the reticle disappears and you must instead aim using the weapon's iron or glass sights. A few weapons don't have this option and are correspondingly less accurate. While a weapon is held in this position your peripheral vision is restricted, but it is possible to aim much more precisely. Second, while you can't be injured, your squadmates can, at least a little bit, and at least most entities in the game (including you) can be put down with a second's worth of fire or so, so you don't notice the health bit as much as in more traditional shooters. And finally, the weapons reflect what is in my opinion a more realistic "balancing" than usual. The rapid-fire weapons in this game are not made weak or inaccurate to compensate; in fact your blaster rifle is pretty much the best weapon in the game and you start off with it from the beginning. I really appreciate games that don't see "high-capacity magazine, high rate of fire, high lethality, good effective range" as unbalanced. Military tactics are not about being a good chess player. They're about dealing with unbalanced force mixes and asymmetrical situations.

There's this wonderful back-and-forth between the no-heroics seriousness of it all and the heroic over-the-top moments that characterizes all great war movies. It's not a contradiction - one of the reasons we love war movies is because they study how extraordinary strength of character is drawn out of ordinary people who aren't looking to be heroes. I think that's the inherent appeal of the war movie thing. It's taking one of the most stressful situations we know of and watching people rise to the occasion - and asking ourselves, in some sense, if we could do the same when the rubber met the road (I think the same applies to our endless fascination with love stories, since as Harry Turtledove pointed out love and combat are pretty much the most stressful situations we know of). That's a curious thing, if you think about it - most of us will never be in that sort of situation, so what does it matter if we could rise to the stress of combat or not? We might as well watch movies about raising chinchillas and wonder if we, too, could raise a chinchilla at need.

I think the difference must be that we have an intuition that the fortitude required in combat (or in love) is more general than the fortitude required in raising chinchillas - that it says something deeper about our character. Dad once told me to be sure to pass on the tradition of Sound Tactical Thinking to my kids, and I think he was only half joking for this reason: that the study of combat and the contemplation of what it requires of the human character is the contemplation not just of combat but of things that make a person mature.

No comments: