Saturday, July 31, 2010

I'm gonna punch the entire goddamned world

I'm a half-reformed comic book nerd. I grew up on comics: some of my earlier memories are reading my dad's issues of Superman or Green Lantern. Naturally, since my dad liked DC, I quickly became a Marvel Zombie. I spent my early adolesence subscribing* to Classic X-Men and, especially, Classic Spider-Man. Absolutely formative for me, these four-color epics, these soap operas and superhero fantasies.

I've gotten back into comics a couple times over the years, coming out of hibernation for this or that--Doom Patrol under Grant Morrison, the unutterably brilliant Goon series by Eric Powell, but the comic book industry is unrefixably broken, and I refuse to support its business model. So I'm irredeemably out of date and behind the times. I guess there's probably some pointless year-long crossover event going on right now? That will have no consequences whatsoever? Despite being presented for a full year as really, really important? Anyways, I found a ten-buck copy of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 for my DS the other week and I've been playing the hell out of it. It ties in with the Civil War storyline, if that means you can't live without it.

The punchline of the review is simple: for 10 bucks, I played the hell out of it, but it's not all that good. 15 would, I think, have felt like a ripoff.

The graphics are...okay. Brown environments with the occasional nice flourish. Small characters with somewhat muted colors, but they're all adequate. The special attacks look pretty good. Lot of hero/playable characters, not enough good bad guys.**

The game's second-biggest problems come with performance: four hero characters on-screen at all times mean that two on-screen enemies at any given time are about all you get.*** And when you run into a room and those enemies spawn? Slowdown. And in the middle of a battle, if you want to switch heroes to use some special move? Major problems handling this operation. Takes forever for the DS to register your input, both on the switch itself and then on the special you're trying to use. This seems particularly bad when that special is graphics-intensive, like a heal or a buff move.**** Some boss battles are all but unplayable, b/c the AI essentially shuts off, leaving your characters just standing around; this can't be fixed easily, b/c the machine simply won't let you hop quickly from character to character to get them into place.

Worst, there's a sub-boss in the first major story mission that, once beat, locks up the game. This happened 3 of the 5 times I beat the thing. I think I had two other hard locks while playing. Plus, there's only 2 save slots, and you can't switch them.

All in all, I'd forgive anybody who found the technical issues and drab visuals a dealbreaker. Also the map is spectacularly useless. But, I'm on record as stipulating that most men are completely helpless before the desire to: move right; beat up fools; move right again. And this game, partly b/c of its technical limitations, offers many, many opportunities to move right and absolutely stomp enemies. Boss battles often quickly devolve into your four characters surrounding the boss and stomping his mouth onto the curb; there are likely men who would charge that this game is too easy, but fuck it. Sometimes I like winning.

This game is marketed as a sort of actiony game with light RPG elements: character upgrades, tiny bits of statistical information, etc. However, this game is nothing but a straight brawler. No depth to speak of, and as a brawler the straight melee combat is quite sub-par, but again: beatdowns for fools abound, and there's something in there that was compelling enough for me to kill my DS' battery at least twice last week.

Indifferent writing is hampered by the RPG-lite format and by the best thing about the game, which is that you can pretty much swop out team members at any point. You've got four slots to fill (at all times) and you don't have to be at a save spot to change cats out. This helps fight boredom pretty well, but it cripples the writing, b/c whoever you happen to be controlling is the one who's talking during the story sequences. Blend in the odd appalling typo and these moments become something to be skipped past with alacrity.

Anyway, as a very easy brawler with some moderately appealing and familiar characters, this was worth my week-long 10-yua relationship.

*I shit you not. Back in the dawn of time, you could write a check to a company and they would use the U.S. Postal Service to send you comic boks. You'd get home from the sixth grade, all spun out on the Challenger blowing up and wondering if your soccer coach was hitting on you as he'd drink beer while driving to the game and there'd be comic books in your mailbox!

**A reasonable and fair trade, I grant: spent your make-it-look-nice budget on the characters your player will spend the most time with. I get it. But still, endless faceless...dudes...whatever. And again, I'm super out of touch, so it's probably not an indication of roster weakness that there's a character I've literally never heard of.

Funnily enough, that character is a favorite of mine game-wise, as the only character with party-healing capacity. So, uh, thanks...Sentry.

***Hell, even the super-powered Viewtiful Joe: Double Trouble only ever had 2 enemies on the screen at one time. Come to think of it, that game, though flawed, was substantially harder than this but much better.

****Luckily, there's only like one each heal or buff.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

GET ME A FIRING SOLUTION: Star Trek: Tactical Assault and 3.5 years of my life

Your humble Fat Contradiction was not always as you see him today, with a SPOCK LIVES button on his bike bag, a transporter sound emanating from his cell phone, calling for increased scans on that intriguing nebula.

In late 2006, for instance, he was depressively working at a couple bars. Getting up in the afternoon and trudging from one filthy, cluttered room (with a mattress) to another (with a couch and ancient laptop). He'd turn on the tv, where of an afternoon perhaps SciFi would play a minithon of Voyager or Spike a couple episodes of TNG. And he'd dive into whatever the 'nets could provide in the way of depression-mitigation, distraction or diversion.

I liked Star Trek. I mean, I always liked Star Trek--around grade 1 I clearly remember using one of my dad's reference books to sketch a phaser, a tricorder and a communicator on cardboard, then cutting them out and stashing them about my person before school one day. I had tucked the communicator into the cuff of my sweater and couldn't find it for quite a while. Finally I recovered it at second recess and was able to call for an immediate beamout.

But no. I'm still stuck here.

Anyway, I always liked Star Trek, but in the fall of 06 it started to mean a little more to me, I think. It had always been something I'd shared with my dad, and in the wake of his suicide, the good things I'd shared with him became more important to me. This is why I actually like Voyager now--after 7 of 9 joined the cast, anyway--because it reminds me that my dad and I could have had some great conversations about the show, how it succeeded, how it failed, how it was interesting and how it was missing the mark.

But in the fall of 06, this transition was in process and Trek was mostly just something mediocre and half-good to put on in the background while I surfed internet filth and tried to get past my hangover enough to go get the afternoon's first coffee, begin the trudge through evening until my next shift of spilling beer. It was then that my co-workers at one bar gave me a birthday gift card to the mall's game store.

I resolved to buy something that I would never spend my own money on. Years later, I have no clear idea what else might have been in the running. All I know is that I ended up with Star Trek: Tactical Assault for my DS. And that I love it.

I played it for a while, then put it away, then played it for a while. (This repeated off and on until last night, when I fired up the never-beated last Klingon mission and beat it without hesitation or difficulty.) At some point, I either convinced Canada to buy himself a copy or I bought him one. Whether or not I have anything good to say about the two campaigns, I can say that our oft-mentioned couch-based battles for space supremacy were some of my favorite vid-game moments of all time. His natural superiority at games in general ran up against my enhanced understanding of the game's systems--I'd read the manual, and knew how to do things like overcharge the phaser banks--and tiny glowing screens filled with disruptor fire as the living room filled with howls of outrage and many, many, many swears.

The pleasures of the game are simple, and satisfy urges of mine stretching back to my brother-in-law's pirated copy of Wing Commander: you get yourself a ship, and you go forth to blow the everloving shit out of other ships. As in Tie Fighter, occasionally you're required to protect some stupid ship that will never ever defend itself even half-assed adequately, and you'll have to play that mission like five times before finally managing to blow up all the enemies before your dumb escort blows up.

You get two campaigns, 31 missions in all, first a Federation (think Kirk and Spock) run, then a Klingon series that's much more Worf-like noble warrior action than cackling-villain strafing runs or whatever. The stories are pretty good: they set up the set pieces well and you feel okay about the cats you're spending time with. You unlock a ton of Federation, Klingon and Romulan (!) ships, and can even skirmish around with Gorn (big lizard guys, and my favorites) and Orion (green slave-girl guys and apparently pirates--I had to look them up) ships.

All the ships handle pretty much the same, which will turn off a lot of people. The games I mentioned earlier are 3D games to the core, dogfighting games, where reflex and speed are important; this is essentially a 2D game, very naval in its pacing. You learn to manage your weapon recharge times, swooping in to annihilate your victim's shields, passing up opportunities in order to ensure that your next barrage is precisely placed, warily circling your foe out of range of her fusillades, keeping your strongest shield facing properly positioned. When it's good--and it's often very good indeed--it's a slow but tense balancing act, requiring constant attention to time, space and resource availability. That's where the ship-differences really come in: ship speeds vary fairly considerably, and the weapons have a decent range of different damage levels, effective ranges, position, etc. A well-designed attack run in a Romulan ship will be quite different indeed than one for a Federation vessel. Learning how to manage all this is probably more engaging and useful in the skirmish modes than in the story campaigns.

The occasionally maligned upgrade system works well. It's maligned because you allocate points to crew members, rather than to the ships themselves. Admittedly, this is conceptually a little bit dicey: why would upgrading a captain make my reserve-power batteries stronger, exactly? However, it works far better than upgrading your first ship, then trying to explain why your next ship also has those custom upgrades you chose. It's a suitable and sensible solution to merging game systems with a logic that's more than game-internal.

The most common criticism from the less thoughtless game critics out there had this game feeling inadequately, well, Star Trek-like. And it's true. After the first mission, there aren't any...diplomatic solutions. You're not a Picardian space ambassador. Rather, you're a step or two more violent than Kirk--going after aggressors with measured responses that are quite carefully calibrated to be massive, sudden and decisive. Both campaigns are pretty careful to position your captain, however, as someone who fights for honor and peace: both feature moments where you have to force a former ally to stand down when they attempt to escalate and provoke. Again, I think the criticisms are poorly founded. The characterizations aren't the most Trek thing you've ever read, but they're not out of line and--for fuck's sake--the game is called TACTICAL ASSAULT. If they'd called it SPACE DIPLOMACY AND SCIENTIFIC EXPLORATION, I'd yield to the complaints; as it is, I think they reflect a category error.

This is a game that can be found all over the place for 15 wing-wangs. It's one of my favorite DS games. It's one of my favorite Star Trek artifacts. It's one thing I like very much.

(Images stolen from the exceedingly wonderful resource here: Trek Core. I beat both campaigns without ever knowing there were cheat codes available. Damnit.)