Thursday, September 13, 2012

Game Play: Onward, Captain Man-Pig.

It's been an odd week.  My focus is, as usual, all over the place, as I've been doing some dissertation writing, some editing, but also reading other things (Alan Liu's The Laws of Cool, Christoper A. Paul's Wordplay and the Discourse of Video Games), playing other things (The Binding of Isaac, mostly.  I've really got write something about that one of these days), and doing other things (started my RA-ship, which mostly so far is discussions of organization that edge ever closer to actual organization).  But that doesn't mean I'm neglecting my blog entirely, and so, a post.  It's the second installment of my Game Play series (the first is here), my first hour on Beyond Good and Evil.

For those unfamiliar, Beyond Good & Evil was a 2003 Ubisoft action adventure game, which was recently re-released on Steam, and more recently, put on sale for low, low prices during their summer sale.  Upon booting, the Ubisoft title appears with stars around it, transitioning to the title screen which, according to my notes, features rotating transparent blue spheres, over what appears to be a black hole, or at maybe a big constellation.  (Yes, pictures would make this easier.  Why don't you go get some?)  It starts with a newscast about an impeding asteroid/alien attack, then shifts to a girl and an alien meditating, until the impeding asteroids start.  There's a picture snap-like clip, and you're thrust into the role of Jade, desperate to protect the local children from the sudden alien invasion.

What follows is about an hour of exploration interspersed with fighting moments.  Jade attempts to raise the shield, and fails, as they lack the funds to turn it on, and so your first task in the game is to fend off a group of aliens intent on making snacks out of the orphans she seems to have taken under her wing.  It's pretty much a push-over fight, even if you have no idea how the controls work at this point (like me).  After, you explore the immediate area, learn how to use the camera to catalogue species and get currency, fix the hovercraft, and head off with your pig-man sidekick to perform a service for some nearby employer.  After an engine change, you get attacked again, in hovercraft this time, and I couldn't tell you what happens next, because at this point, the game froze on me.  Not cool, game.

I knew of BG&E by reputation, at least, but I was still impressed going in terms of its story.  Different factions are set up immediately: there's the visible threat of the invading aliens, but also the more insidious threat of corporations, charging currency for protection against the same aliens through their technological monopoly.  Opposed to both are the heroes, represented mainly in Jade (the rare female character who's attractive without being visibly exploited or designed as fetish object) but also in her band of orphans, the support staff fish-alien, the aforementioned pig-man, and more distant rhino-men.  So far, there seems to a very established visual style: the more threatening aliens are more animal like, appearing like giant crabs, whereas the "friendly" aliens are also animal based, but with more of an anthro-visual to them.  There's a positive side to technology as well, as one of Jade's sources of funding is a scientist who's commissioning her to take photos of all the different kinds of animal species on the planet.  It's a dynamic that you need to squint at to make it fit the story (really?  The scientist doesn't already have visual evidence of humans?), but it works as a "side goal/miniquest" sort of thing that also fits diegetically with the general profession and personality of the PC.  I also appreciate how the game immediately foregrounds issues of wealth.  In many RPG-type games, wealth is something that is pushed into the background--you have to generate buckets of currency in order to buy that next upgrade or item set, but it's not something that comes up via story.  In BG&E, it's one of the driving forces, as Jade needs money to start up the force field, gets it from snapping pictures, and uses it to replace the engine on the hovercraft.

I also appreciate the way the game kept blending tutorial components into the main game.  The starting alien sequence is clearly a how-to for learning the combat basics, and the camera sequence following that shows how to converse with NPCs and how to use the camera to hunt for subjects.  Shortly after, the game teaches you to use data discs for information in order to get the next mission, and how to use the team-action to start the hovercraft.  There's a brief study of how to pilot the craft, followed by the replacement of the missing part, which is a lesson in how to use the store system.  It's all story progression, but it's all teaching the player as well, in a rather non-obstrusive manner.

I could see the controls getting frustrating really quickly, though.  Like a lot of early 2000 3-D environments, the kinks in camera view and moving aren't quite worked out yet, and at the very least, a gamepad is necessary to avoid frustration.  Likewise, the combat controls were adequate, not great, and even the hovercraft felt a little frustrating to maneuver.  Of course, that last one is probably because of the lag that set in at the end, and eventually ended my play entirely.

Play more?:  Once more, at least.  It was a compelling game, though it was the presentation and story that'd keep me going at this point, rather than the adventuring part.  But if it froze up again at the same part, that'd probably be it for me.

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