everal developers may be aiming to add meaning and context to the violence the dominates gaming’s most popular titles, but fans of senseless virtual slaughter needn’t worry: This year’s E3 offers plenty of opportunities for savage, imaginary brutality. In fact, Monday’s press conferences pounded the concept of violence into our eyes, ears, and minds with relentless persistence.
Why were this year’s E3 press briefings — Microsoft, Sony, Electronic Arts, and Ubisoft — so laser-focused on visual savagery? Is the idea of gaming as a virtual charnel house the best way these developers and publishers know to cover their failure to come up with more nuanced approaches to game design? Or do the bloody shootings, stabbings, and dismemberments speak instead to publishers’ lack of confidence in gamers’ willingness to support a game that doesn’t pander to their most vicious instincts?
Some of the most ambitious titles due in the coming year attempt to offer a more nuanced take on the role of gunplay and death: BioShock Infinite appears to integrate moral tests into its game world, offering players the chance to prevent the execution of innocents at potential cost to the player. Tomb Raider charts the desperation and fear that drives Lara Croft to take up arms. The Last of Us frames combat as an unwanted last resort of post-apocalyptic survival. Dishonored allows players to wade in blood yet challenges them to find non-violent alternatives to each objective. In each case, the context in which these games presents violence ties directly to the elements that make them so intriguing. Perhaps progressive game design entails questioning the medium’s underlying ethics?
Then again, maybe not. For one thing, three of those four games entered the public eye with demos that betrayed their creators’ opening statements of intent. Tomb Raider may attempt to give meaning to Lara’s transformation, but the slice we saw at Microsoft’s event painted a picture of her as a warmongering killer who stalked foes before stabbing them in the face with the shaft of an arrow. The Last of Us brought gamers to their feet, cheering, when the world-weary protagonist and his charge invaded a dilapidated mansion and killed its inhabitants, ending with a point-blank shotgun blast that seemingly vaporized a vagrant’s face. And Dishonored’s private showings detail how the game can be played as a pacifist… followed quickly by an amoral murder spree that slaughters villains and innocents alike in horrible ways.
Plenty of this year’s most exciting games seem perfectly happy to enable to slaughter of hundreds of little computer people. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance goes beyond merely rewarding head-shots and encourages players to cut their enemies apart. Not just slice them, or fillet them, or even dice. We’re talking puree. Assassin’s Creed III offers no apologies for mowing down legions of Redcoats (and, we’re led to think, American revolutionaries as well). Still, the most gruesome of the games seem to lack real innovation to support their killings; as a rule, the more savage the violence, the less creative the underlying content. But game demos are meant to be exciting, and what’s more exciting than killing? So perhaps it’s all just a coincidence. Let’s consider.
I first played Darksiders II at a THQ event at which it followed up the gloomy Russian-developed shooter Metro: Last Light and Company of Heroes II, a detailed strategy game which attempts to recreate the harrowing brutality of World War II’s eastern European front. By comparison, Darksiders II introduced itself with blaring heavy metal music and a garish neon-tinged aesthetic. Needless to say, it felt utterly and completely out of place.
Even divorced of those surroundings, though, the game itself strikes me as something as a work out of time. The original Darksiders earned countless plaudits for being “Zelda, but for grown-ups.” In 2012, though, the sequel comes off more as a relic of a few years ago. It’s not just the Joe Madureira art design that dominates the game, which lends Darksiders II a distinct ’90s vibe. Nor is it the tough guy dialogue and seeming obsession with heavy metal and death. The real problem is that it plays like a heavily dated mash-up between Prince of Persia, Zelda, and God of War, with control mechanics and camera limitations that appear to have been ripped directly from 2006.
Compared to Assassin’s Creed III, which may well have perfected the art of environmental navigation with seamless, intuitive mechanics, Darksiders II still lurks in a realm where interactive hotspots glow to announce their presence and the only way through the world is by following the single designated path. It certainly isn’t without appealing features — Diablo fans will love the negligible different item drops that confer moderately varied stats upon the player and change protagonist Death’s appearance — but the character’s stiff movement and the predictable combat system make for a disappointingly dated game.
God of War: Ascension
Bob Mackey has made his uneasiness with Ascension‘s brutality — or at least the appearance of such as seen in Sony’s initial showings of the game — perfectly clear. While I don’t necessarily disagree with his take, my bigger concern with the game comes from its unconvincing multiplayer design. Teaming up to commit grievous ocular damage to a giant cyclops could be totally fun, but I’m wary of the experience it connects to.
The idea behind Ascension, in a nutshell, seems to be to fling players into a team-based PvP arena in which the combat plays out through something akin to God of War’s standard melee combat. This could offer a welcome change of pace from standard multiplayer combat games; God of War elevates itself by avoiding standard hack-and-slash action, and the series’ emphasis on timing and fluid attacks seems a perfect means by which to transform arena combat into something more hands-on and engrossing than MMO PvP without resorting to the standard fallback of first-person shooting.
Based on its pre-E3 demo, though, I’m not convinced Ascension entirely lives up to its potential — at least, not yet. The pulled-back perspective loses a little of God of War’s usual impact, and teaming up to manipulate interactive environmental objects while being harassed by another team looks more intrusive than intriguing.
Most of all, though, in balancing the series’ trademark melee brawling to something multiple characters have access to, the entire concept seems to fall apart. The single-player demo at Sony’s press briefing didn’t suffer from these problems; it looked every bit as fluid and fast as its predecessors (albeit without offering any evidence of new ideas). God of War ultimately works because the player has access to skills and powers that enemies lack; by democratizing those abilities and paring down quick-time actions, Ascension undermines the series’ fundamental sense of empowerment without offering a sufficient trade-off. Ascension fails to make the same visual impact as its single-player predecessors, while the action appears less fluid and more concerned with grindy repetition. Hopefully there’s more to the game than what we’ve seen, or Sony Santa Monica manages to refine the game before it launches.
What most strikes me most about NetherRealms’ Injustice: Gods Among Us was how strongly it emphasizes the difference between Marvel and D.C. Comics. I don’t really follow comics these days, but I grew up firmly in the Marvel camp. Injustice reminds me why. While Marvel’s current editorial initiative, The Age of Heroes, revolves around the belief that readers have grown tired of grim-and-gritty comic books and wouldn’t mind a little aspirational heroism in their four-color funny books.
Injustice, on the other hand, takes the world’s most iconic symbols of fantasy heroism — Superman! Batman! Wonder Woman! — and sets them upon one another to beat the crap out of their friends. Yes, that’s what fighting games do; and yes, this game presumably features the good guys’ evil Injustice League counterparts rather than the heroes themselves. But in a world where the lighthearted, good-humored Avengers enjoyed the most successful opening weekend ever, Injustice seems a little out of step with the current superhero zeitgeist.
Likewise, its mechanics tread a perilous line between inventive and pointless. Combat happens across three different areas per arena, and by performing certain actions players can knock their opponent into the background, through a rooftop, across the city, and back again. Furthermore, certain elements within each section of an arena can serve as weapons if you trigger the appropriate hotspot. All of these features make perfect sense coming from the creators of Mortal Kombat: They are 100% MK in style. But removed from that context, they suddenly become almost suffocating in their limitations.. Why does the fighting have to happen in a strict 2D plane? Why do those interactive elements only come into play when you hit a special button or stand in just the right spot? Games like Crackdown and Prototype have already made use of these over-the-top mechanics, but without the restrictions of a fighting game. I can see Injustice’s appeal, but its darkness and genre limitations leave a touch of disappointment.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist
Splinter Cell has come a long way in the past decade. Where the original tested players’ patience with exacting stealth play mechanics, its most recent entry — Splinter Cell Conviction — was heavily inspired by the likes of 24 and Taken. Sam Fisher abandoned his methodical ways in favor of a more direct stealth approach that used hiding for the express purpose of taking down bad guys quickly and with great brutality. The next chapter of the series, Blacklist, builds off Conviction — but it’s even nastier about conflict.
The game’s E3 demo featured Sam fighting his way through the Middle East, killing terrorists and performing the unauthorized execution of an unarmed opponent in direct violation of his orders. Remember the original Splinter Cell, a game about using shadows and silence to creep through enemy strongholds and avoid engaging enemies as much as possible? That series no longer exists. This new Splinter Cell, like Conviction, focuses much more on speedy, efficient takedowns and cringe-inducing kills.
Sam Fisher‘s Jack Bauer schtick may well be the most dated thing I’ve seen at E3 so far. The 24-style torture-porn-for-the-sake-of-national-security meme has long since fallen out of vogue, and honestly its sudden reemergence in Splinter Cell was downright disconcerting. Does the general gaming audience still buy into the idea of safety-through-fascism? Interestingly, the team behind Blacklist hails from Canada, which raises another possibility: That America’s dalliance in torture during the war on terror has become entrenched within our international reputation, even if most of the country no longer has the stomach for it.
I’ve been deeply impressed with Tomb Raider‘s demos over the past year or so — the upcoming franchise reboot has the potential to reinvent both the series and its heroine Lara Croft. So to say its most recent public showing at Microsoft’s E3 press conference seemed out of step with its developers’ promises would be an understatement at best. The preview we posted earlier this week drew upon a hands-off behind-closed-doors demonstration; but as with last year’s Tomb Raider demonstrations what has been revealed to the public comes off as vaguely horrific without the context of its behind-closed-doors sequences. Lara’s action sequences come off as a mix of Uncharted and God of War, with fast-paced combat action interspersed between environmental cues. That’s definitely not what’s had me excited for the game, and I sincerely hope sequences like this appear rarely in the final game.
I mention Halo 4 strictly because of the pleasant contrast it offered to the demos above. Yes, Halo involves combat and shooting, but the demo Microsoft showed off this week offered a glimpse at something beyond the wall of noise, bullets, and brutality that defined nearly every other shooter. Likewise Assassin’s Creed III with its stealthy animal-stalking and NPC interactions. What both Halo 4 and ACIII offered — something that seemed disappointingly absent elsewhere — was an understanding that for action and combat to have meaning and impact, you need down time as well. Dynamism, the peaks and troughs of mood, balance out pure action and increase tension. And despite what many publishers seem to think can still come across within a short on-stage demo — and even make the demo more enjoyable. Halo 4 shakes up the Halo series a bit, but doesn’t look to reinvent gaming. But it stands out as one of the few titles that dares to differ from E3 2012′s wall of destructive violence, and as such has earned itself a little extra interest.
All 1UP Editor-in-Chief Jeremy Parish is saying is, “Give peace a chance.” Also, “Get off my lawn, you damn kids.”