Prey

20170505183615_1-100721733-orig

Arkane Studios’ Prey reboot operates, like a great many first-person games do these days, in the visual and mechanical shorthand of Bioshock. An insular, seemingly idyllic, Art Deco society crumbling under an internal assault. A hero(ine) lead around by voices speaking in their ear. System Shock-derived gameplay centered on mind/body altering technology that can be crafted to a player’s style. Audio logs. Alternate histories. Tough to kill enemies. Ethical and philosophical quandaries (at least, an attempt at them). There’s some nifty zero-G sequences, a discordant electro-synth soundtrack and even some sidequest flavoring from Chris Avellone, but the frame is all over the production.

For its part, Prey offers up what it calls an “ecosystem” of alien creatures for your amnesiac researcher/test subject to fight or flight from. Wispy and covered in what looks like oil, the Typhon aren’t so much an ecosystem, though, as they are an invading force broken down into specialists. Some patrol, others stalk prey or infest an area, while some varieties focus on turning the environment or other people against you. So far, so usual. One in particular seems to exist to float around gracefully, ejaculating gold ether all over the place, and now we’re getting somewhere. Then, elemental variants of the former types crop up, and we’re back to familiar territory. The plot expects us to find these creatures mysterious and elegant–we’re told how amazing they are–yet their rote abilities, behavior, and appearances suggest otherwise.

Persona 5

persona5202

The PS2 cycle of Persona games, for all their angst and psychosexuality, tend to have a clear-cut morality to them. The authorities in those tales (schools, the police, adults in general) could be clueless, inept, even staffed with the odd turncoat, but the values they espoused still had legitimacy. Good was good, bad was bad, and the teen heroes had to defeat the bad as it intruded upon society. Persona 5, however, presents the world itself as having gone insane: administrators overlook student-diddling psychopaths to maintain prestige and the cops and prosecutors exist to shield elitist cabals jockeying for power. The ordinary people these arcane conspiracies gobble up don’t even merit a first thought. Apathy is the order of the day, served up by a media keen to avoid any uncomfortable questions. Dropped into the center of this madness is another quiet misfit, saddled with a juvie record for pissing off the wrong plutocrat. Despised and labelled a crook by the Tokyo prep school he’s shipped to, there’s a sense at the beginning his prospects are zero. Naturally, when he and some other teen outcasts gain the series-standard Persona abilities and access to human desires made manifest, they jump at the chance to lash out as self-styled “Phantom Thieves.”

This twist on formula pervades everything. Dungeons are constructed around infiltration, maneuvering around obstacles, and lying in wait to ambush a patrolling Shadow. Persona are no longer the friendly spoils of war, but the (willing?) subjects of your enemies. You have to batter and coerce them into seeing the error of their ways. Train up enough, and you get the option to talk them down with a silver tongue or fire a warning shot near their heads. The relationship sim aspect of the game remains primarily shonen-flavored visual novel, but spikier personalities have found room among the dorky children, troubled teachers and quirky enthusiasts. Wrack up good enough stats, and you’ll find yourself befriending an ex-yakuza who needs you to get around the cops. Interact often with the bullied dork running your fan page, and you get an alarming window into how the slightest (imaginary) amount of power can warp someone towards spite and cruelty. There’s a real sense you’re fighting, impossibly, from the brink.

Biohazard 7

resident-evil-7-2

Capcom’s third wind for Resident Evil amounts to a reset, going back to a familiar premise with new tech and ideas cribbed from rivals. Effectively jettisoning the reams of lore the series has built up–along with the over-the-shoulder gunplay which became a staple from Resident Evil 4 onward–Resident Evil 7: Biohazard drops us in a Southern Gothic mansion populated with creaky doors, themed keys, puzzle traps (occasionally lethal), and skulking, hard-to-kill monstrosities. There are few weapons, and even fewer clues for survival.

As a setup, it’s basically identical to Shinji Mikami’s original, genre-defining installment. Time and tech advances have allowed for a far greater degree of formal playfulness, which Capcom’s team uses it to its advantage. Besides the switch from fixed Dutch angles to the ever-present POV shot giving a more visceral thrill to every creeping encounter, there’s also the way Resident Evil 7 presents challenges which only appear to conform to gamer expectations. Interactive video tapes of previous victims appear to offer solutions for future puzzles (and also questions about how the camera is being held in the found footage), but have steps that could very well cause death. Apparent boss fight scenarios which require players to opt instead to run over their immortal enemy with a car, or avoid the fight entirely. Whether less complicated or more, answers are counter-intuitive to how decades of genre-building have conditioned its audience.

This lines up nicely with the fringe nature of its storyline. Ethan Winters (a stock name for a stock protagonist) is searching for his missing wife in the Bayou when he runs afoul the Baker family. Trapped and forced to use his wits, players must wind Ethan through the cannibal rednecks’ labyrinthine estate, fighting/running from them and their brood of mutant horrors while piecing together clues about the latest bioweapon.

Delightfully, Resident Evil 7‘s aesthetic is built around oily corruption. Human(oids) come with a constant sweaty sheen. The grounds are overgrown with weeds and the swamp encroaches, as if nature is reclaiming this place. Early on, Ethan is tied at a dinner table where oozing, rotten innards are served on a platter like fried chicken. Where Resident Evil‘s more stately mansion had a cleanliness bordering on preserved sterility, every surface in Resident Evil 7 breathes and breeds. This isn’t a viral outbreak in a lab, or even a zombie siege, this is an epidemic hiding away in a remote corner of rural America. Appropriately, the monsters–bloated, distended beings with engorged mouths, protruding teeth, and blackened skin–seem to birth from bulbous sacs which line the walls of the Baker house’s bowels. The casual revelation they are missing people, having been abducted, experimented on, and “turned” subservient to a hierarchy of masters, almost qualifies as a political statement. It evokes the kind of revulsion you feel when recognizing an ugliness that’s always been in front of you.

The Last Guardian

thelastguardian-2

Seven years in the making, The Last Guardian is remarkable in its restraint. Games with these kinds of lengthy development cycles tend to show up with a mishmash of mechanics and flashy gimmicks, along with a meandering plot. The Last Guardian, however, never strays from being about a boy and a (large, winged) dog escaping a dungeon. The boy, whom the player controls, is used solely for exploration, puzzle-solving, and directing Trico–the boy’s gryphon-like companion–to the next location. It doesn’t even utilize the entirety of the PS4’s controller (two of the shoulder buttons serve no function, except perhaps when mashing to escape capture). Several of director/lead designer Fumito Ueda’s fascinations also, unsurprisingly, are on display: a duet of characters working together to navigate spacious, often-hostile environments (mostly during the day); crumbling, eldritch architecture which resemble the impossible structures of NES-era platformers; elliptical plotting; horns as a mark of sinister influence (though not necessarily of character). Mostly, Ueda wants us to focus on his characters as physical, intimate beings in a fairy tale. There’s nothing in the game which doesn’t serve that purpose.

Functionally, Trico and the boy are the inverse of Ico and Yorda or Wander and Agro (from Ueda’s Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, respectively). The player is now the one who needs protection from the game’s many hazards, but is key to progression. Any combat, mostly against armored demon statues who try to abduct the boy, is performed by Trico, with you dropping into a support role: distracting enemies, pulling the odd spear out of the beast, or providing soothing pets. The Last Guardian forces players into a different mindset, based not around the infliction of violence, but on sympathy (sort of  an antithesis for Nintendo’s Pokemon franchise). The game starts with the boy waking in a cave, Trico chained up and injured nearby. It is made clear you will need him to escape, so helping him becomes a priority. Their movement through these spaces is also a back-and-forth, the boy squeezing into tiny openings or onto narrow ledges to lower a bridge or open a gate; Trico able to bound great chasms or scale a cliff. Ueda’s team is fond of pitting them against rickety walkways and collapsing towers. Imminent danger and the need to press on propel the duo, but also forges an enduring friendship.

This is boosted by the AI for Trico. It’s excellent, not because Trico is perfect and does everything correctly when asked, but because he’s allowed to not be. Trico will get confused and, like the player, even miss the obvious. Line of sight becomes crucial, as Trico often has to see the boy to understand commands (built around associating words with mimed actions), and occasionally needs encouragement (e.g. tossing barrels of food at him). The dungeon even bears out this theme of conditioning: an elaborate, partially automated mill built within a hollowed mesa, it is littered with signs of the kind of training used by unseen masters. Trico recoils in fear of stain-glass eyes, erected along escape routes. Blue, glassy sculptures which emit pulsing waves trigger rabid freakouts. There’s even a fighting pit, deep in the bowels of the place. It’s very mechanical and cruel, a stark contrast to the touching interactions between the player and their digital animal. Whatever arcane purpose the lair, and Trico, serve, is one built on layers of abuse which need dismantling. The boy offers an alternative, and rehabilitation, through mutualism and respect.

XCOM 2 (PS4)

xcom2

Slowdowns and some graphical glitches aside, XCOM 2‘s transition to eighth gen consoles is as smooth as Firaxis’ last couple goes at the franchise. The control scheme for squad movement, tactical setup, lobbing grenades, overwatch, et al. doesn’t stray from the Enemy Unknown/Within cycle. As with any halfway decent sequel (see: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided), the familiarity allows returning players an ease at picking up the handful of new ideas lobbed their way. XCOM 2‘s biggest is a script flip retread of the first game’s plot: the aliens and their plethora of scientific horrors are no longer invaders, but rulers. Erecting shiny cities and speaking of unity, their pseudo-benevolence barely masked by a media one shade removed from Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. Earth’s globalist counter-insurgency is now the threat to the status quo, scrounging supplies on the edge of the world and happy to bushwack the occupying forces.

While the variety of guerilla missions is lacking (Enemy Within‘s Covert Operations, allowing players to send a soldier undercover, are a conspicuous absence. A missed opportunity for both world-building and tension), there is a satisfying emphasis on mobility. Ops often begin with a concealed squad, sneaking around to ambush patrolling ETs. Knowing when and how to break from stealth becomes key to success. This new tactical wrinkle is at its most interesting for missions which have a countdown. The potential loss of an objective (or even their ride out) forces players to move further and more quickly, potentially losing that element of surprise by crossing into an enemy’s (or even civilian snitch’s) line of sight. Off time also requires globe-trotting, with XCOM using a hijacked alien ship to establish resistance cells across the world, occasionally fending off retaliation strikes and UFOs. The aliens, themselves, make moves towards a full-scale genocide, tracked along by an ever-increasing counter over the world map. Sabotaging facilities or achieving story goals temporarily buys time, but the counter never stops. We aren’t settled for a long war, but sprinting against annihilation. The coup for XCOM 2 is putting players in the mindset of scrambling fundamentalists.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

auhojpkiyz3gkodof8rf

More an episode than a full-blown sequel, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided plays roughly the same as Human Revolution. There’s more open-ended approaches to problems, and a welcome return of non-lethal options for bosses (or, rather, the game’s sole boss: a mechanized Russian strongman whose nonsensical motivation belies the fact he’s a pawn in a larger conspiracy), but the same sneaking/shooting/hacking/exploring mechanics are in place, jazzed up with eighth-gen polish. This time around, monotone skull-cracker Adam Jensen is in Prague hunting down terrorists, two years after Human Revolution‘s events led to the “augmented”–people who had, like Jensen, been given mechanical attributes that enhance their physical capabilities–being herded into ghettos and camps (an ill-advised racism metaphor in the tradition of X-Men comics). Mankind Divided‘s new wrinkle is Jensen’s double-agent status: while he’s taken on a new assignment as heavy for an Interpol task force, Jensen also works with a hacker collective, spying on his co-workers to expose series big bads the Illuminati. Everyone’s motives are suspect, and Jensen has to suss out ally from enemy. He does this while navigating the increasing strife in the Czech capital, where riot police demand identification and crackdowns are enforced with drones and ED-209 knockoffs.

This future-shocked Eastern Europe locale is well-realized, packed with bystanders and gangsters, cops and activist journos, occupying grubby spaces saturated with sterilized mass media. Eidos Montreal lay out the city with an eye for encouraging memorization, rewarding exploration and discovery of alternate pathways with XP, much like killing or incapacitating enemies (Bethesda should take note for their next Elder Scrolls or Fallout). As the game progresses, the police get more repressive, building towards full-on martial law, testing your knowledge of the various routes (or you could just plow through them, with the right augments and weapons). Mankind Divided gets so good at building around this increasingly hostile space, and Jensen’s movement through it, it becomes a shame when you’re whisked off to different locales–including a finale set entirely in a London skyscraper (this coincides with leaving about a dozen or so subplots dangling, including a quest line about new, secret augments installed in Jensen that is left with a sequel hook). Eidos Montreal would rather sell the idea of a globe-trotting adventure than track the consequences of shadow war hysterics on a single, stratified system.

No Man’s Sky

no-mans-sky

The paradox at the heart of Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky isn’t its transcendent space opera, but rather its ambition is simultaneously too vast yet entirely too narrow in focus. Proposing a vast universe of procedurally-generated planets–each with a neon-saturated ecology to discover–the game attempts all things for all people: exploration, space combat, chill out and observe the wildlife, survival simulation, or mine and trade resources with alien species, all are given room to wiggle in. It’s an ambitiously kitchen sink approach, which, along with the sci-fi aesthetic and electronica soundtrack, suggests Hello Games want No Man’s Sky to be this console cycle’s Deus Ex–a technical and thematic leap forward to inform entire genres of gameplay.

Where Deus Ex, or even the similarly lofty Shenmue, succeeded was giving equal weight to its different modes. Stealth and shooting, or even RPG-style machinations are equally valid approaches in Deus Ex, while Shenmue breezes through what would be abrupt transitions between quiet, slice of life sim/exploration and martial arts brawling, both treated as part of the landscape of its sleepy Japanese village. No Man’s Sky is too pushy with the survival aspects to enjoy the sightseeing it was sold on, with death-preventing meters needing recharge at absurdly quick rates. This insistence is similarly dogged by the clipped, sluggish movement (of the player’s traveler and their ship), which makes the combat a chore–all the more so in space, where attackers signal jam your warp drive, forcing you into dogfights where you can’t evade around them.

Unsurprisingly, the two aspects of the game which deserve praise are the ones marketed heavily. The quiet joy of setting down on a planet and observing a herd going about its business, and the implementation of physics to spaceship travel. Traversing the enormity of a single planet, let alone planet to planet in this universe, is factored in hours, with various methods to reduce that time down to minutes or (rarely) seconds. Even if variability leaves much to be desired, there is something incredibly satisfying in taking off to the upper atmosphere and using a planet’s rotation to get to its opposite side, then landing back down. All Hello had to do was build outward from this mechanic to create something wonderful.

“Don’t Worry About It”

030

For bringing Mega Man into three-dimensional gaming, Keiji Inafune’s Capcom team broke down the character’s essence. Set in a flooded far future, where treasure hunters loot the cavernous ruins of a precursor civilization to power the surface world, Mega Man Legends fixates heavily on equipping the Blue Bomber. Shops offer parts for your buster gun and items to help in a bind, but the meat of this endless reconfiguration comes from scrounging up busted devices and discarded schematics during dungeon raids. Hand them off to Mega Man’s adopted sister, Roll, and she’ll give you specialty weapons and equipment–rocket skates, springs to help you jump higher, and a drill that can bust down specific walls in seconds. Each addition prompts return trips to previous sites. Dig around enough, and you’ll uncover a honeycomb of these ancient halls, loaded down with deathtraps and prowling murder machines to test your walking, customized tank against.

Mega Man Volnutt is also as much a do-gooder as previous iterations. Crash landing on an island with his family, he immediately strives to make himself useful to the sleepy community, doing odd tasks or helping a pregnant woman get to the hospital. Beyond platforming superheroics, where he fights off a group of tenacious, if ineffectual, pirates, Volnutt is a jack of all trades. Give him a purpose and the right tool, then let him plow through.

Significantly, Volnutt is happy to compartmentalize these aspects of his life. While his exploration intersects with attempts to repair his family’s broken ship and a mandate to stop the pirates from inadvertently unleashing doom, a steady, dreadful realization of familiarity dawns on the boy. Arcane writing he’s able to read. Dormant tech he knows how to operate. The implications become all too clear by the time a genocidal final boss rolls around to confirm them. Yet, Volnutt never discusses this with anyone, even when it’s clear it troubles him. When prompted by Roll to open up, he simply responds “Don’t worry about it.”

The line is a brush off, but it also sums up the conflict of Legends. The smiley, perpetually sunny Kattelox Island (and, presumably, the world it inhabits) exists within the craggy walls of older civilizations which suffered calamity. Cautious and fearful, they’ve responded by taking on soft domesticity, rarely exploring and happy to watch game shows or read comics to forget (rather than acknowledge) the danger which lurks beneath their feet. Paradoxically, all their material comfort rests on gems which must be looted from these dangerous places. Volnutt, like other diggers, walks in both worlds, and learns the consequences of the two mingling too much. Given the happy-go-lucky milieu of the surface world Inafune and crew have constructed–where crippled girls can walk within moments of hospitals getting new equipment and even the pirate scourge are cheerful, loveable dorks as likely to fall in love with their enemy as they are to shoot at him–it’s natural a people pleaser like Mega Man would avoid distressing the populace. So, he keeps his work at work, in the dark underbelly, where monsters wait to rise again.

SCOURGE OF THE COMMONWEALTH

fallout4_dlc_automatron01_730

Last few weeks have been taken up by Fallout 4‘s “Automatron” expansion. A nearly seamless implant into the 50s-gone-wrong hijinks of nuked Boston, it provides more of everything both good and bad about the main game. The quest line proposes the Mechanist (a side character plucked from Fallout 3, here used as an everyman cover identity) descending on the Commonwealth with an army of robots to save its people, liberating raiders and traders alike from this mortal coil with laser-y mayhem. A few screws obviously loose, it’s up to the game’s resident Vault Dweller to take matters into his/her hands (with a new robo-buddy in tow). While you’re at it, the Mechanist radios speeches about how you’re really the menace and must be stopped. Conflict brews, two would-be saviors prepared to slug it out in the baroque ruins of the old world.

At least, that’s the idea. This being a Bethesda plot, it naturally fizzles out. The Mechanist’s insanity is downplayed with some tossed off exposition about misinterpreted commands. The feud isn’t allowed to follow through, like a superhero team-up comic without even an external threat to unite against (a new, themed raider gang is only a complication, not the main event).

What’s left is new toys to play with: a couple new weapons and tech, formidable enemies (many of which you can one-shot kill with a laser musket if properly prepared), and the ability to construct and modify your own robots. Some top-notch tinkering let down by a wimpy backbone.

Firewatch

firewatch

Campo Santo’s breezy hiking sim, Firewatch, is built on denying players any sense of catharsis. They step into the sneakers and shorts of Henry, a nigh-middle aged schlub who takes a job as park lookout to escape watching his wife’s mental health decline. There’s  obvious appeal: beautiful scenery, a disconnect from all the problems back home, a sultry-voiced boss, Delilah, whose radio chatter is especially friendly. However, there’s also the crippling isolation, unaided by an escalating series of events, involving a third party listening in on Henry and Delilah’s conversations to some unknown end.

Functionally, Firewatch is somewhere between mid-budget snoop ’em ups (Gone Home, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture) and the dynamic dramatization of Kentucky Route Zero. You spend your days maneuvering Henry through the wilderness, picking up tools and rooting around for clues, but the highlights are talking with Delilah. Timed dialogue prompts (including no response) allow for their relationship to ebb and flow, bantering or arguing as the player sees fit. Discussion turns to relationship woes and shared love of booze, with a recurring insinuation the job attracts people looking for an escape from some sort of emotional damage (reinforced by a series of letters between two, unseen rangers). Other people, whether troublemaking teens or the elusive figure dogging Henry, exist as phantoms on the periphery, Delilah is his only contact.

Through this, writer Sean Vanaman is able to twist their relationship. The serene, sun-blasted vistas (rendered by Jane Ng, from paintings by Olly Moss) are crushingly lonely; every sudden noise puncturing the calm inspires a panicked, first-person glance. Once Henry discovers someone’s listening in, and is attacked, all manner of diabolical thoughts flood in. Radioing Delilah becomes positive feedback for Henry’s paranoia, often in the form of speculation about the figure who eludes them, and what the implications are. His fears spread to her, the way a fire the pair are meant to keep an eye on begins to grow, as they get lost in a fantasy, largely of their own making. Down a proverbial rabbit hole they plunge, seeking answers, only to find they were asking the wrong questions. Instead of some vast conspiracy, or even an enemy to throttle, they’re left desperate and wanting for closure. What Campo Santo posit is the way escapism only makes reality–both the one run from and the one before you–seem more obscure, staring too closely at flickers while the forest burns.