Thursday, July 27, 2017

Inventory Management, Vol II: The Splattening

Splatoon 2 was released by Nintendo, for Nintendo Switch, on July 21.

"Inventory Management" is the period of rest and thoughtfulness that occurs during breaks in the action, in which we organize and clear out all the unnecessary clutter we've accumulated during our adventures. This column, like its sister column Critic's Notes & Frames, embraces this spirit of enjoyable tidying up by acting as a receptacle for all the reviews, thoughts, and musings about games and gaming culture that wouldn't fit anywhere else.
– Justin Cummings

Splatoon 2 – which, if we lived in a just and proper world, would be called “Spla2n” – is Nintendo’s second swing at one of its first new IPs in decades, building on the promising but undercooked foundation of squooshy, gooshy fun from the first Splatoon (2015) for WiiU. I tried the original when it came out, but never owned it; it was a game I appreciated more for philosophical and aesthetic reasons than as an actual experience. I loved that Nintendo had taken a chance on a new and unproven brand – something that the company’s risk-averse executives had avoided for years. I loved that they created a sort of development incubator for younger talent, and that the ingenuity and flair of those voices was allowed to come through in their first product. And I loved many of the things the game itself achieved, with its weird, unique, family-friendly shooter gameplay.

But I didn’t love it enough to buy it.

Something I’ve learned about Nintendo’s new console, the Switch, is just how integral its unique design is to the purchasing process. By many accounts, there aren’t a ton of differences between Splatoon and its new sequel – but Splatoon 2 is on the Switch, and for me that represented a world of difference. I’m much more likely to pick up and play a game (especially a multiplayer-focused brand like Splatoon) if it’s on a console I can bring with me anywhere I go, and have everything I need to play with friends and family at a moment’s notice. The game’s bright neon-tinted visuals look crisp and beautiful on the Switch’s screen, and a multitude of control options make its gameplay a blast. Splatoon is no longer a curiosity that I appreciate from the outside: it’s another strong first-party series that continues to bolster the Switch library and push the platform from “cool splurge purchase” to “must-own console.”

A squad of Splatoon 2's squidkids out for bloo.. er, ink
Splatoon 2’s primary mode of play, the one most players will spend their time on, are the multiplayer Turf War battle modes, where squads of player-controlled squid-children (“squidkids” or “inklings,” in the game’s lore) blast, splatter, and splash the arena’s surfaces (and each other) with brightly-coloured ink. The winning team is the one whose ink covers the most area when the timer runs out. The currency earned by playing these matches is used in the game’s hub world – the marine-themed Inkopolis Square – to purchase new guns, gear, and clothing for your squidkid. In fact, all the game’s multiplayer modes, from Turf War to the cooperative Salmon Run horde mode, feed back into this central gear-grinding loop. It’s bizarre – but refreshing – to see Nintendo embrace the kind of shoot-n’-loot design that has made titles like Destiny and Diablo so enduring and popular (and, I must add, buying fresh new hats and kicks for my squidgirl is something I find deeply satisfying). The single-player campaign – a feature the original Splatoon didn’t include – is a welcome addition too, offering challenging platforming levels that reinforce the shooting and swimming skills that become crucial in a multiplayer setting. Each level ends with a boss encounter that challenges these new techniques, and represent some truly weird and hilarious designs (like the first boss, which is like a giant malevolent toaster oven).

Many have complained that Splatoon 2’s fun – its funky aesthetic, its originality and moxie, and even the purity of its core gameplay mechanic – is severely compromised by the limitations placed on the multiplayer experience, and I’m not in a position to argue. I’ve had no trouble queueing up for matches on my own, and I’ve enjoyed the ability to bounce between single player and multiplayer at will. But the issues that many have identified, like the inability to change weapon loadouts while queueing, the inability to play certain modes online at will, and Nintendo’s absolutely abhorrent approach to online voice chat and party matching (which requires the use of a goddamn external mobile app), are certainly issues worth identifying. My hope is that Nintendo’s aggressive approach to updates, add-ons, and new features will provide some relief from these problems, especially given the booming success of the Switch and Splatoon 2. They have no choice, really, if they expect to compete with the multitude of multiplayer games out there.

I enjoy creating a balance between my gaming experiences, so that I can always refresh my palette on a whim. I always have two games going at once, but they’re carefully selected to juxtapose one another: while I gritted my teeth through Nioh, for example, I was also playing Pokémon. Balancing a soothing, low-stress experience against an intense, high-focus one helps me maintain a better overall gaming stamina. I don’t burn out on the hard stuff and I don’t get bored of the lighter stuff, because whenever I get frustrated or inattentive I can just swap over to the other one. This month, while I’m inkin’ it up in Splatoon 2, I’m also revisiting a different kind of shooter, one that I’ve come to appreciate as a high water mark in the genre: Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Anya and B.J. in a scene from Wolfenstein: The New Order.

General interest in the game has spiked recently thanks to the release of an incredible, sprawling trailer advertising its upcoming sequel, called Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. This prompted many players, who had skipped out on The New Order when it came out in 2014, to go back and revisit the game ahead of the sequel’s release. This renewed level of interest has provided a platform for many writers, critics, podcasters, and commentators to voice their enthusiasm for this generally under-appreciated FPS – and it was hearing all these voices crying out in praise that finally spurred me to revisit The New Order as well. I’m thrilled that I did, because the game’s many triumphs have only become clearer with time, as other single-player shooters continue to perpetuate a cycle of tired gameplay and slack narrative (the exceptions, like id Software’s DOOM, are few and far between). The New Order’s take on the beefcake one-man-army protagonist is unique and nuanced, and actor Brian Bloom makes him a sort of warrior poet, whose gruff American twang hides a well of philosophical depth; the internal musings B.J. gives on his missions to eliminate the victorious Nazi empire are just as entertaining as his cathartic, hoo-rah “fuckin’ Nazi scum!” hero antics. Thoughtfulness courses through every part of The New Order’s design, whether it’s the hidden pieces of narrative found on newspaper clippings scattered throughout the game (expressing the world that has evolved under a victorious Reich from both the German propaganda perspective and from everyone else’s), or the way B.J.’s health status remains on the HUD even as he’s injured in cutscenes (using the in-game UI to communicate just how close he gets to the brink of death). It’s the rare title that elevates its genre through attention to detail and an emphasis on narrative engagement. I know and have specific feelings about each separate character in The New Order’s story, and they’re performed with such fidelity by the cast that I’m eager to seek out more opportunities to converse with them and learn their histories, and how this horrible alternate future has affected them. A shooter is never more compelling, after all, then when you care about the people being shot at.

Prey, developed by Arkane Studios, was released on May 5.
Despite my best efforts to find the perfect gaming balance, as I always do, I’m struggling with some of the games on my plate – namely Arkane Studios' Prey and Red Hook Studio’s Darkest Dungeon. Prey is another first-person shooter, but less in the classic run-n’-gun sense and more in the exploratory, environment-heavy Bioshock vein. Taking place in a dystopian space station where a retrofuture aesthetic hides corruption and evil – not to mention goopy, flesh-hungry monsters – it’s beautifully realized, but has left me almost totally cold. Its emphasis on crafting components and upgrades from items you find in the world might be compelling to some, but I find it tedious and unsatisfying. I end up combing every single room for every single interactable item in the hopes that it’ll be useful to me, and over my 5-odd-hour experience with the game, it never has been – at least, not to the degree that would have made that obsessive time and focus worth it. I was more interested in specializing my playthrough on stealth and hacking, rather than combat, but the game throws many early combat encounters at you that caused me frequent deaths and restarts (not helped by melee combat that feels floaty and imprecise, and early-game ranged weapons that are pitifully weak). Perhaps if I play long enough I’ll be able to upgrade my stealth skills to a point where I can avoid these encounters, but reaching that point is an extremely unpleasant prospect. This frustrating gameplay is coupled with a narrative that already feels trite and derivative of nearly every other sci-fi property I can think of, and together these elements make the charms that so many have identified in Prey feel lost on me.

A bit of dread, from Red Hook Studio’s Darkest Dungeon.
Darkest Dungeon is a whole other beast. It’s a 2D sidescrolling RPG whose challenge comes as much from the existential dread and horror it inflicts as the crushing difficulty of its turn-based combat. Try as I might to maintain my precious gaming balance, the cuteness of a Pokémon or the simple fun of a Mario Kart is simply no match for the horrible, soul-grinding intensity of this much-lauded indie darling. Set in a medieval hamlet that strongly and purposefully evokes a Lovecraftian horror atmosphere, the game tasks you with assembling teams of heroes and venturing into dungeons to find riches and eliminate the eldritch horrors you find there. But beyond the simple roleplaying tactics of the game, which are cursory and familiar, Darkest Dungeon introduces a new layer of challenge in what it calls the Stress system: your heroes are frightened by these horrid tombs and labyrinths, and the terrors that lurk within, and each moment you spend down there – each trap you spring, each shambling foe you face, each attack that’s made against you – increases their level of stress. If this meter reaches too high a threshold, your heroes’ minds might break, causing crippling afflictions that have negative impacts on their ability to perform in battle. These afflictions can be soothed back in town (by drinking them away; by indulging in the pleasures of the flesh; or by violent religious penance), but the game becomes a careful balancing act of your heroes, their afflictions, their stress levels, and the difficulty of the dungeons you delve. Every decision invites risk, and every action has a dire cost. In essence, there’s no real way to “win” – no matter how well you do or how far you progress, you’re leaving trails of broken and dead people in your wake, who bemoan the sorry state of the world even when they’re with you. Your most trusted character will betray you at the most inopportune moment when their will is unexpectedly shattered, and you’re left to scramble and try to recover. Darkest Dungeon constantly pushes you onto your heels, and dares you to try and fight back, even when it’s clear there’s no point. Well, no thanks. I know how to deal with bullies, Darkest Dungeon, and that’s to ignore them.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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