Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Inventory Management, Vol VII: Battling for Supremacy

Dragon Ball FighterZ was developed by Arc System Works and published by Bandai Namco Entertainment in January.

I’ve had a rocky relationship with the super-popular anime series Dragon Ball over the course of my life. When it was airing on television in the 90s, I never caught enough of the story for any of the shouting and fighting and flying around to mean anything to me, so I largely ignored it. Later, having never really watched it, I nonetheless felt comfortable deriding the series as a brainless assembly of fight scenes broken up by long, tedious stretches of exposition. In my first year of university, however, a group of my new peers – horrified that I’d never given their favourite childhood TV series a fair shake – cemented the early days of our friendship by watching the show with me in our down time, making the shared enjoyment of this hyper-dramatized, aggressively-plotted story a ritualized, almost sacred event. Its quality meant very little in that context, since the social aspect of those viewings was far more important than the show itself, but still I enjoyed it far more than I ever thought I would. To this day I’ve never watched the entire series, but I treasure the memories of those early seasons, and still nurse a great fondness for the world of Dragon Ball.

Another activity that my dorm-mates and I would regularly engage in was the friendly competition of fighting games, from Mortal Kombat to Super Smash Bros. I was never much good at these types of games, not being a terribly competitive person by nature, but again, they were far more effective as a catalyst for fun socializing than anything else. Apart from the occasional indulgence (the Soulcalibur series being a decadent favourite) or the odd title picked up in a bargain bin (like my much-loved Xbox copy of Marvel vs. Capcom 2), I never went out of my way to buy fighting games for myself, much less practice them or follow their competitive scenes. So it must have been a subtle yet potent bout of nostalgia, powerful enough to overcome my general indifference to the genre, that prompted me to purchase this year’s Dragon Ball FighterZ for Playstation 4.

There have been plenty of Dragon Ball games over the years, but I was attracted to FighterZ (pronounced “fighters,” according to the developers) mostly for its stunning presentation. Its graphics and animations capture the striking imagery of the show while adding a layer of detail, fluidity, and flair that would be way too expensive to achieve on a TV budget. The trailers for the game were jaw-dropping, instantly evoking the most exciting moments from my memories of Dragon Ball, and I was more than willing to cross the aisle into fighting-game territory just to drink it all in. I was pleased to discover that there's quite a fun fighting game that comes with the pretty packaging, too – and what's more, it's a deliberately accessible one, designed for the enjoyment of casual and hardcore players alike. The control scheme, unlike many fighting games that use convoluted button combinations that you have to memorize, is blessedly simple (and is shared across all characters). This, combined with the eye-popping visuals, means that I could pick up the game and almost instantly feel like I was an ultra-powerful Saiyan dispatching my enemies with ease.

Until, of course, I dipped my toe into online play, and was soundly reminded why I don’t play these goddamn games in the first place. Ordinarily a strong progression system or an enticing narrative hook is enough to keep me invested in a game, even if its competitive edge might run contrary to my nature, but FighterZ doesn’t really offer either of those. Its focus is on the thrill of victory in heated competition, and while I can understand and respect the appeal of that approach, it’s not something I got to enjoy very often. Victory came quite seldom against my online adversaries, who were all undoubtedly more practiced and more dedicated than I. My enthusiasm for FighterZ fizzled out as quickly as it had flared up, when it became clear that there’s not much to the game beyond its beautiful visuals and its fast-paced combat, which I knew I was never going to have the time or patience to master. Good thing, then, that it’s still a hell of a lot of fun to play with my pals, because I don’t care when they beat me.

Monster Hunter: World was released by Capcom in January.

The Monster Hunter series has enjoyed phenomenal success in its native Japan, occasionally making its way overseas with ports that Western fans lap up with feverish enthusiasm. Having been designed almost exclusively for handheld systems like the Nintendo 3DS, the news of an international release on major consoles for the latest entry in the series was very exciting. Like many people watching from the sidelines, I saw this as my opportunity to finally give this franchise a shot, and maybe come to understand what all the fuss was about. I know I wasn’t alone in this sentiment because since its release in January, Monster Hunter: World has sold over 7.5 million copies globally – making it the highest-selling game that publisher Capcom has ever produced.

The question of whether World makes for a good first foray into the Monster Hunter series is one that I’ve had to face personally, as well as in the form of prodding from curious friends who have also wondered whether the investment is worth it. Like everything I’ve come to experience in World, my answer is contradictory: yes, it is, and no, it isn’t. I can recommend the game’s core appeal to nearly anyone: you explore lush environments while wielding comically oversized weapons, in pursuit of giant dinosaur-like monsters that you must hunt, kill, capture, and dismember in order to make badass-looking gear from their scales and feathers. This fundamental loop is clearly communicated – hunt monsters to craft better gear to hunt bigger monsters – and, as it turns out, is an incredibly satisfying and addictive experience. I am often more motivated by the hunt for cool-looking gear than by any other element of a game, so a game tailored specifically around this quest to look as rad as possible (and one in which you fight giant fantasy dinosaurs) is an absolute no-brainer for yours truly. But – and this is a big but – the complexity of the game’s systems and presentation are prohibitive even for experienced players, making the first hours of the game a confounding maze of layered menus and sparsely tutorialized features. The developers make a valiant effort at guiding you through these myriad elements – the vast majority of which don’t even become relevant until much later in the game – but their inexperience at catering to a Western audience is painfully evident. I’ve heard World described as a “game for game developers,” and while the success of the thing suggests otherwise, I’m inclined to agree that the average player would not have the fluency in game design language, or even just the simple human patience, to survive this overwhelming introduction. I’m so glad that I did, though, because the more I play World, learning more about its multifaceted, intricate systems each time I do, the more I fall in love with it.

I’ve heard complaints about the game’s treatment of violence towards its virtual animals and, though some have dismissed this criticism as the bleating of bleeding hearts, I think it’s an excellent point. The game gives you literally no option other than to be brutal in your approach to these hunts, making you slice, bash, chase, capture, and slay these creatures with your huge, savage weaponry as they simply try to defend themselves and their territory. The gorgeously detailed creature animations, which are very much a part of the game’s effective design, are just as heart-wrenching as they are useful: monsters don’t have health bars, so the best way to tell how much you’ve hurt your quarry is to watch how it moves as it desperately limps away from you. But in this brutality, I think the game vindicates itself: it positions you as just another predator in this unforgiving world, another dangerous creature that must learn how to fight its way up the food chain. The game constantly reminds you of the cruelty and capriciousness of nature, and through the ever-increasing difficulty of these hunts, takes pleasure in reminding you of your place in it. Your need may extend further than mere survival, but the way that need is expressed – however brutal – fits perfectly within the primeval “survival of the fittest” world the game portrays. I’m over 30 hours in and World is showing no signs of slowing down. It’s up to me to either keep up with it, or be left behind.

– 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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