Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Knocking Down Blocks

I recently picked up Red Faction: Guerrilla, which, like USA's spy show Burn Notice, is way more fun than it has any right to be - if its premise is any indication.

In Burn Notice, yogurt-loving Michael Westen is a "burned" spy who, cut off from his former government contacts, acts as a sort of Robin Hood around Miami, if Robin Hood were James Bond. Along with his quippy pals Sam and Fiona, Michael uses his espionage skills to help people in need while also pursuing the shadowy figures who outed him. Along the way, lots of stuff is blown up, many car chases are conducted, and a metric ton of yogurt is consumed. The show strikes a terrific balance between comedy and action, with a generous helping of corniness for good measure. The setup is patently ridiculous - Michael has probably leveled half of South Beach without anyone getting his license plate - but you don't care. It's not exactly meant to be intellectual fare, and it more than makes up for implausibility with charm. Bottom line: it's fun.

Guerrilla is much the same way so far. I'm maybe ten hours in, and I'm pretty surprised at how much I'm digging this game. The premise is equally silly - disgruntled miner on Mars foments a workers' revolution by smashing a bunch of crap with a sledgehammer - but again, it doesn't matter. The destruction engine is clearly the star here, since almost everything in the environment is destructable. Many missions involve you demolishing key buildings, blowing up X number of vehicles, and/or causing a set amount of damage within a time limit. There's even a "Wrecking Crew" mode, in which players compete to see how much destruction they can wreak in one minute. This game world is a giant sandcastle that is just begging for you to kick it over, again and again.

The usual sandbox problems are certainly present in Guerrilla, of course. The missions are repetitive; the collectables are abundant but largely useless; there are long stretches of boring traversal between objectives; vehicle controls are wonky; and the story is, shall we say, "loose." As a gamer who's usually more interested in story and character than free-for-all combat or aimless exploration, I generally don't like sandbox games in the first place. There are a lot of reasons why I shouldn't like Guerrilla.

But yeah. Still fun.

I've been trying to puzzle out exactly why I like this game even though I shouldn't, and I keep coming back to one thought: it channels my inner 5-year-old. The part of me that doesn't want to be bothered with story, or character development, or inventory management. The part that just wants to find a stack of blocks and knock 'em all down.

Maybe it's just a contrast thing. After playing through heavy hitters like Mass Effect 2, BioShock 2, and Alan Wake, all story-driven games that take themselves pretty seriously, maybe I just needed something light and stupid. But I suspect I'd have enjoyed Guerrilla regardless.

Two other games in the same vein spring to mind. Crackdown, which I also got for ten bucks more than a year after it released, has a similarly dopey premise: Supercop leaps across skyscrapers assassinating gang members while collecting skill orbs. It took me a while to get into this game, I think, because I didn't quite get it at first. There was no story to speak of, the art style was cartoony, and the vast number of collectables was daunting. Dead Rising, in which photojournalist Frank West fends off the endless horde of zombies in a mall with any and all nearby objects, has a more coherent, if equally goofy, narrative. Although I love zombie fiction, the frustrating save system, the awkward timing mechanic for story missions, and the necessity of multiple playthroughs in order to experience all the rescue missions put me off.

But I love both Crackdown and Dead Rising. Why? Because eventually I realized they were not trying to hide the fact that they were games.

They are not trying to be "interactive narrative entertainment experiences." They are not heavy on backstory or mythology. They do not make any pretenses of "realism." They do not expect you to get very invested in their characters or make difficult moral decisions. They just give you a bunch of toys and a playground and say, "Here, kid. Go to town." Go roundhouse kick a van across a city block. Go plow through a crowd of zombies with an umbrella.

And sometimes, that's all you want from a video game: to be what it is.

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