Thursday, December 7, 2017

Inventory Management, Vol V: Pure Refinement

Klansmen get chummy with a Nazi grunt in the alternate United States of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus.

If you'd like to hear a podcast version of this piece, you can listen to it at this link. Let us know if you want to hear more like this!

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a direct sequel to Wolfenstein: The New Order, picking up directly where that game left off in the alternate 1960s where William “B.J.” Blazkowicz (Brian Bloom) and his band of underground resistance friends fight back against the victorious Nazi Reich, which, as of New Colossus, has successfully colonized the United States. The idea of the “Land of the Free” not being quite so free isn’t new – Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is probably the most famous example of this alt-history idea – but boy, oh boy, does it ever feel like a loaded concept in 2017. And that doesn’t escape the notice of developer MachineGames and publisher Bethesda Softworks, who used this public sentiment to their advantage with marketing material that asked people to “Make America Nazi-Free Again.” There’s never been a better time for a game like New Colossus to come out, because its outlandish conceit has never felt closer to reality.

New Colossus brings B.J. back from the brink, but the pall of death hangs continuously over the whole experience. B.J. deals with the loss of one of his closest friends. He grapples with his own mortality, reflecting on the borrowed time he’s using up, and mourning the life – and the fatherhood – he knows he won’t get to enjoy. By the end of The New Order, he’d won the battle, but the war was far from over, and that reality really starts to sink in when the Nazis he left unkilled come back for their vengeance against him. Scars, visible and invisible, mark the game’s themes; even if B.J. and his loved ones make it out in the end, what kind of world will their children inherit? What kind of world are they even fighting for?

This is where New Colossus’s outlandish speculative premise starts to bump up uncomfortably against reality. Bethesda marketing honcho Pete Hines has said in the past that they never really intended for New Colossus to be a commentary on the real world, but his reasoning was that they couldn’t have possibly known the way things were going to go this year in the U.S. Once the ugly truth of America’s deep-set prejudice had begun to bubble up, it was an all-but-inevitable choice for Bethesda to lean into it. We’re planting our flag, they seemed to say. We’re gonna be on the right side of history with this thing. Are you?

And the way they invited you to participate in this moral stance was, of course, to purchase and play their game, in which the righteous murder of hundreds of Nazi soldiers and their monstrous, genetically-enhanced creations is the primary mode of expression. The beautiful thing about this series has been the way that MachineGames marries this brutality with mature, thoughtful, three-dimensional storytelling; it asks the hardest questions and gives thought-provoking answers before you even have a chance to raise your hand. It’s 1961, and Nazis have invaded America. What good has turning the other cheek done? It’s 2017, and Nazis have lived here all along. What good has come from listening to them in the public forum of ideas? What responses do we have? What options are left to us now? The answer that the New Colossus gives might not be a nuanced one, but it’s sure as hell a clear, convicted, and satisfying one. And the story it uses to deliver this commentary is among the most nuanced in the medium.

Star Wars Battlefront II was published by EA on November 17.

Speaking of the public forum of ideas, gaming culture has embarrassed itself recently over the monetization systems in EA’s Star Wars Battlefront II, which – while poorly implemented and more problematic than usual – were received with a level of entitled outrage that was heavily disproportionate to the problem itself. The media coverage over this issue left a gaping hole where normal discussion about the game itself might live, and that’s too bad, because I found Battlefront II to be a fun, engaging experience, both online and off.

Its predecessor, Star Wars Battlefront, felt a bit more like a proof of concept than a complete game. Battlefront II delivers the value one might expect for one’s money (microtransactions notwithstanding), adding a full-length single-player campaign, additional multiplayer modes, and a progression system by which new heroes and ships can be unlocked for use. For all the faults with the way its in-game purchasing systems were implemented, it can’t be called an incomplete title. Though the air was let out of the balloon in the midst of all the controversy, Battlefront II still functions quite well as a hype engine for the upcoming Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, scratching that Star Wars itch in a very satisfying way with its brilliant visual presentation, its immaculate sound design, and its passionate devotion to the aesthetic and tone of its universe.

I was mostly interested in the game for its single-player story, which I’m disappointed to say isn’t much more than a framework upon which the developers hang a series of extremely Star Wars-y setpieces. There isn’t such a thing as a non-canonical officially licensed Star Wars property anymore, so it’s interesting that the story of Imperial black-ops agent Iden Versio (Janina Gavankar) is considered an official part of the Star Wars canon by Disney, even if it’s a flimsy and half-cooked story at best. The prospect of a story told from the Empire’s perspective – the perspective of an elite commando squad of ruthless assassins, no less – was a dark and compelling twist on the regular formula that’s rarely explored (Star Wars properties never hesitate to let you fill the shoes of a Sith, but the boots-on-the-ground perspective is less common, perhaps even going back as far as 1994’s TIE Fighter for the PC). But Battlefront II fails to deliver on the potential of that premise, just as Rogue One did on the Rebel side of the story. The motivations and inner conflict of Iden’s Inferno Squad are beautifully set up, and then never pay off. It’s too bad that developers DICE, Criterion Games, and Motive Studios weren’t able to mine the interesting narrative bits that were glinting under the surface of all the laser blasts and explosions. I suspect that the looming giant of Disney had something to do with what did and didn’t have a place in this story, and I suspect that’s why there’s more “hey here’s Han Solo – but with a beard!” and less of the challenging, compelling storytelling I was hoping for.

On the “laser blasts and explosions” side of things, though, Battlefront II delivers in spades. As a purely audiovisual experience it’s unmatched in its clarity and immediacy; it puts you right there in the Star Wars universe, shooting a blaster, swinging a lightsaber, and dodging incoming missiles. The gameplay that supports the light and magic is great fun, too, with tons of options for character, weapon, ship, and game mode customization. The first-person gun combat doesn’t quite reach the peak of something like Destiny 2, but for the Star Wars fan – and even for those who don’t care much what they’re shooting at – it makes for meaty and satisfying play, which further reinforces the confusion that all the backlash has made me feel. Can everyone stop arguing and just come play this cool game with me, please? We don’t have to buy any loot boxes, I promise.

Super Mario Odyssey was released by Nintendo in October.

But as the year draws to a close, the gears of the “best of 2017” machine have started to grind and chunk their way back into regular rotation, and neither Wolfenstein nor Battlefront, strong as they might be, has the muscle to compete with the Big N. This has been an absolute banner year for Nintendo, as their new console, the Switch, is busy breaking records (it sold more units globally in its first 8 months on the market than its predecessor, the WiiU, sold in its entire 5-year lifespan) and their new games are busy inspiring a new generation of gamers, the way their now-ancient classics once did. They have responded to criticism (and poor financial performance) of both their hardware and their software with typical grace, by cloistering themselves away for a time, working in dutiful silence, and then coming back to present us with platforms and games that are so seismic, they entirely redefine how games are played. Super Mario Odyssey is only the second masterpiece they’ve released in 2017. There’s still time left for a third.

As a game, Odyssey feels most like a “greatest hits” of Mario’s 30-odd year career. Its structure is an amalgam of the challenge-based hunt for shiny trophies from recent titles like the Galaxy series, and the more open-ended exploration of Mario’s first foray into the 3D realm, 1996’s Super Mario 64. Mario’s set of moves – his leaps, hops, bounces, and slams – draw from every facet of mobility we’ve seen him use across the years. Its worlds draw from the usual palette of environmental colours (forest level, water level, lava level, desert level), but provide unique and charming twists on each classic flavour. Like Super Mario Maker, Odyssey feels like a celebration of everything Mario – and it functions as a powerful reminder of why these games are still so popular.

Put simply, Odyssey is a pure joy to play. Its gameplay, in which you hunt across these colourful Kingdoms in search of hidden “Power Moons”, is carefully designed to produce maximum happiness at all times. There’s fun to be had in every corner of the game, from the hunt for Moons, to the collection of coins and costumes, to the central “capture” mechanic whereby Mario can toss his hat at an enemy and then inhabit their body, using their abilities to defeat enemies, collect stuff, and reach otherwise inaccessible areas. Like Breath of the Wild, it’s a game that thrives on surprise, constantly finding ways to make you smile or gasp in delight at a hidden treat or a new thing you didn’t know was possible. Controlling Mario feels more fluid and instantly accessible than it ever has, and simply hopping and bopping your way through the game is terrific fun. The game hits you up with dopamine roughly every twenty seconds, by throwing you a Moon, revealing a new ability, or expanding on itself in unexpected ways. The goddamn thing is like an engine that runs on happiness.

My main concern as I played through the game was that there wouldn’t be enough of it, since I was quickly blasting through its storyline and having so much fun doing it. I shouldn’t have worried: Nintendo made sure that Odyssey was one of those games that begins when you beat it, offering a satisfying (if relatively easy) storyline for casual or very young gamers to plow through, and an enormous wealth of extra (and teeth-clenchingly difficult) content for more experienced people like me. In Mario 64, there were 120 Power Stars to collect. In Odyssey, there are well over 800 Moons. I’ll be coming back to it for months, and I couldn’t be more delighted at the prospect. The only real question is whether Odyssey or Breath of the Wild is more worthy of a “best of” title… but that’s a question that December Justin is going to have to grapple with. For now, November Justin is too busy playing stuff.

– 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.

No comments:

Post a Comment