Thursday, June 29, 2017

Mobile games are evil and the art of getting older

There was a time in my younger days where I would have no problem sitting down in front of a TV with a controller in hand, playing the latest game for hours on end until my eyes burned and my fingers became impossible to straighten or move beyond the demands of the controls.

It seems like only yesterday I played Tony Hawk's Pro Skater until 2 in the morning and finished feeling like my hands were on fire.

Good times!

But as years went by, technology seemed antsy to push the boundaries of video games. More often than not, it is improving graphical capabilities to make games look more real with each generation, though I contend the emphasis on appearance has taken away from developers creating amazing games the way they used to.

However, I recognize this might be some sort of nostalgia bias.

I still own my SNES, though lacking the necessary cables to connect and play it, still own my N64 and GameCube, though they admittedly sit in boxes stashed away for a future where I envision I'll want to play them again.

The latest console I have is the XBox 360, and even that's rapidly becoming ancient technology.

What is a gamer to do when they no longer feel the need to dump money on updating every scrap of hardware to keep up with the times?

Turn to the wide world of mobile gaming!

In this day and age, I am much more comfortable sitting and twiddling with my phone, tapping the screen to give orders to my squad in Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes than I am to get comfy and settle into a long narrative that typically comes with a console game.

To this day, I have not finished Final Fantasy XIII and fear I never will. Not just because it is a monumental undertaking, but it doesn't have the same appeal of the series entries I remember never playing growing up.

And it isn't as though I take any joy or pleasure in mobile games. It is as mindless as it gets. Literally tapping the screen to collect coins, points or some other currency to use towards characters, structures, levels, or skins.

Worse still, there's no skill. No learning curve. Nothing to feel you've spent time on and gotten better at.

It is a war of attrition, and more often than not, the victors are those who paid to get the best stuff in the game.


I am absorbed in Galaxy of Heroes. More so than I was in The Simpsons mobile game, or the Family Guy mobile game. Infinitely more than Bitcoin Billionaire, which featured little more than tapping the screen repeatedly to mine bitcoins.

You get the feeling that all of the running jokes throughout the past 20 years of their being simulators for even the most tedious, monotonous or basic of tasks are coming to pass in reality.

There's a frustration that comes with these games, too.

As opposed to being able to sink hours into a game, progress through a story, learn new abilities, develop strategies, improve and master the game, you're made to wait.

Mobile games limit the number of actions you can perform in a given time period, with the catch being that you can ignore the cooldown by spending actual money in the game.

In Galaxy of Heroes, crystals are the currency that make the universe go round. Crystals can be used to refresh battles, grant energy and sim tokens.

Once I discovered that I could simulate any scenario I had scored 3-stars on, I rarely, if ever, go through a full battle, carefully selecting my actions, attacks, buffs and debuffs. And when I can't sim through a battle instantly, I let the computer play for me, which more often than not results in 3-stars and allows me to sit back and farm gear to improve my characters for more difficult tasks ahead.

There was a time when I would spend money on these games.

As a huge fan of The Simpsons, I would buy donuts (the game's currency) to allow me to speed up character actions, construction of buildings, and anything else to make sure I had the most stuff in my recreation of Springfield.

I don't know how much I spent, but it might have been something like $40 in a month's time. Not a lot, but more than necessary when you consider that it betrays the very concept of gaming that I love so much.

How many hours did I spend playing and replaying levels of Super Mario World to the point where, if I so desired, I could play most of the main route from Yoshi's Island to Valley of Bowser with little trouble or life lost?

Once you master use of the cape, the game is a cinch if you put enough time into it.

That's the key difference. The more time you put into a game like Super Mario World, the more you learn and the more proficient you become at the game. As the game gets harder, you adapt and find new strategies or ways to work around the difficulty.

Many early levels can simply be flown over with proper use of the cape or a purple Yoshi, if you've endeavored to open Star Road.

As time goes on, the levels introduce blocks at the tops of levels. Or remove the shelled Koopas from the player's path to prevent such strategies, forcing you to play the game straight. Forcing you to improve platforming and movement through a level.

Perhaps it is a sign of age. The inability, or even unwillingness, to have the best TV, the fastest internet connection, the latest generation console.

I don't want to be forced to connect to the internet when more than likely I'm going to be playing a game solo.

After the amount of time I spent playing Halo 3 online in college, I know that online multiplayer would become a time sink. And I feel as though I've grown out of the desire to do that.

But apparently I've grown into being comfortable laying in bed, phone inches from my face, tapping away to the action limit for the hour or the day. Then waiting for it all to refresh to do it again. Never improving, having no story told, disengaging from almost everything.

Sort of a bleak development when you think about it.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Manhunt and How Some Stains Don't Wash Out

I very recently had an itch to play a game from my youth.

Youth is a relative term, I suppose, but the game is 13 years old, which means I was roughly 16 when it was released. I'm only a little bothered by the fact that I can say I first played A Link to the Past 25 years ago, but that's neither here nor there.

I'm old, is what I'm saying. But again, old is relative.

Getting sidetracked.... Although, as a tie in, A Link to the Past has aged very well, like many of its contemporaries from the SNES generation of games. When you're not worried about pushing graphical boundaries to blur the line between player and game world, you have things like tight controls and engaging story.

With that in mind: Manhunt - Originally released in 2003 for the Playstation 2, later released for XBox and PC in 2004. A controversial game if ever there was one, Manhunt put you in the jumpsuit of a death row convict named James Cash, who was executed by lethal injection, but not really because he wakes up and is thrust into a Saw-like situation where he has to follow the instructions of "The Director" in order to be reunited with his family, but which involves killing some folks along the way.

That's a general plot overview, there's plenty of details an intricacies to fill in the blanks, but they ultimately don't factor into this discussion.

Back to that itch I had to play the game. I had to jump on ebay to find it, expecting to find dozens of listings for upwards of $100 considering how old the game was and the trend of older games, good or bad, skyrocketing in value as a result of supposed scarcity. To my surprise, I found a copy that cost me a mere $11, which included shipping.

I was pleasantly surprised! The anticipation of the game's arrival was palpable. I was about to replay a game that I was enthralled with in my teens. Why? I don't know. It was a video game built around gruesome violence and murder without all the trimmings of vehicles and layered storytelling like Rockstar's other games.

They took the violence of the GTA series and scaled the world back to make it a more claustrophobic, atmospheric game that put the blood and guts front and center.

It was graphic to say the least, but like the plot, the content of the game is not really the point.

After an hour of stepping back into the twisted world of Manhunt, I remembered that, as much fun as I had with the over-the-top murder of the game, it is an ugly game. An ugly game with frustrating controls and a camera I wish I could manifest in some tangible form just to strangle and stab in the head with a piece of broken glass and....

What was I saying?

Right, Manhunt, while fun, is a frustrating endeavor. The camera, whether inverted or not, doesn't turn your character's view in the proper direction, seemingly locked into being contrary to what it should be doing.

In a game the requires you to be aware of your surroundings, take note of the enemy movements and build a strategy for eliminating threats without alerting anyone around, a functional camera is important.

But then, when you stop and look at your surroundings, you come to find a lack of variety in your environment. Dark, drab alleys, paths that are conducive to stealth and the goals of the game, but feel largely inauthentic....

The world of Manhunt is not interesting. And when you don't have a world to draw you in, the gameplay becomes the focus. Which, while satisfying to a point, is not the game's strong suit.

Let me explain. Attacks with weapons are called executions. Each weapon has its own execution, and each execution has three levels, Hasty being the least intense, Violent being a step up and Gruesome being the most intense, and thorough, rank of execution. The more intense the execution, the more points you score.

Incentive for playing the game like a sociopath!

The first enemy you encounter is setup to allow you to get a feel for the system. You pick up a plastic bag and sneak up behind him. The Hasty execution just has you put the bag over his head to suffocate him.

Awful, right?

The Violent execution has you put the bag over his head, punch in in the stomach, then knee him in the face until he is dead.

Just peachy...

The Gruesome execution features the bag over the head, repeated punches to the face and then a brutal snap of the neck.

..... The game wants me to do this multiple times? I'm sick just doing it this once!

And that's just the beginning. The executions vary by weapon, of course. Wielding a nightstick has you bludgeoning enemies in the head until they drop to their knees, and then their death. Or a swift blow to the back of the head, which knocks them to their knees, where Cash then uses the weapon to strangle the life out of the enemy. Or a blow to the head, turned into a headlock, ending with a sickening neck break.

Then there's a hammer, a bat, a crowbar, knife, hatchet, glass shard, barbed wire, wooden spike... And of course, firearms, which are significantly less violent in that they don't come with unique executions.

This is the type of game my teenage self was playing. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City may have been a violent game, full of mature content, but it was an open world where violence was just a part of the game.

And, not to downplay the violence, you were utilizing firearms more than anything else. Handguns, shotguns, rifles, tanks in some instances. You were, in a sense, removed from the death you were raining down on enemies and innocents alike.

Manhunt closes that gap in disturbing fashion. Violence isn't just a part of the game. It is the focus of the game.

No longer could you spray bullets at an anonymous NPC, whether bystander or foe. You were brought face to face with your enemies, taking a more direct role in their death, removing the distance between player and character.

Or more accurately, between player and victim.

You are not simply controlling death row inmate James Cash. You are taking the deliverance of horrific murder into your own hands.

I played for maybe an hour before the combination of frustration with the controls and camera, and the overwhelmingly harrowing experience were too much to stomach. I don't remember feeling that way over a decade ago when I first played it, though perhaps I was at the peak of desensitization at the time.

It made me wish I could fire up my SNES and replay those simple, 16-bit games that were vibrant and comforting, even if they dealt with death and darker themes.

Not to ignore the existence of Mortal Kombat or Primal Rage from days gone by, but you weren't a human being gutting another human being with a knife in those games. Sure, the former did feature separating blood, guts and bones, but in retrospect it was controversial for being violent at a time when games, by and large, weren't pushing the boundary.

Most importantly, I've never left a game of Mortal Kombat feeling sick. Maybe I've come to see those graphics and that violence as a little campy compared to current standards. The latest entries in the series have gone even further overboard, with fatalities taking on a whole new, dark, morbid graphical tone.

It is not comfortable seeing a fighter held by each leg and pulled apart wishbone style, complete with innards and bodily fluids exploding outward, but that is over-the-top. Realistic visuals in an unrealistic setting.

Manhunt dials up the realism on all fronts, though the graphics don't allow for intestines to fall out or other such atrocities. It is the action, not the visual, that is really what separates the two in my mind.

Perhaps it is a sign of maturity that I no longer crave the horrific acts of violence I once found so intriguing in years passed. After a week of wanting to play it, anticipating the arrival of the game at my doorstep, I can't bring myself to progress any further than the first couple of areas.

I find no appeal in it. I ended the playthrough with a sense of guilt and almost disgust with myself for wanting to replay it in the first place.

Even trying to think of games that would cleanse my palette didn't work. Naughty Bear? Well, maybe not... That's just simulated murder of stuffed animals. A little too similar.

Without exaggerating, I have found it difficult to pick up a controller to play much of anything since I played Manhunt. It was a wholly unsettling experience that, very clearly, stimulated some serious thought on the matter.