Unpolished Gems: Star Wars: Rebellion

With my personal gaming, I’ve been on a pretty serious 4X kick lately. Started with Civ IV, then I rediscovered Master of Orion II. Yesterday, however, I hooked up a really old favourite, that I played the shit out of with my friends in high school- Star Wars: Rebellion.

Its such a simple premise- run the Rebel Alliance or the Empire and do battle in the Star Wars universe, vying for supremacy over the Galactic Empire. It’s a little shocking that more SW games didn’t do that- except for the one RTS and I guess you can count the Battlefront series?

The game is immense in scope to match that premise, though. Both the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance have over 30 recruitable characters and about 20 different starships each, drawing from both the orig trig and the expanded universe (and even adding a few new ships to the EU). There are potentially over 200 different star systems to colonize, woo with diplomacy or conquer with force (depending on the size of the game).

Events can play out in a rough outline similar to the trilogy (there are special events for Luke going to Dagobah to train, learning of his heritage and telling Leia she’s his sister, and having a final showdown with Vader and the Emperor. Similarly, if Han is captured he’s sent to Jabba Palace and Luke drops everything to go rescue him- including abandoning his Dagobah training!) but they all have different triggers and you can encounter these events in any order. More importantly is what happens when you off the rails- it’s entirely possible to win the galaxy through diplomacy, or blow up the Death Star with infiltrators, or start a new Jedi Order(!) by searching for force sensitives among your allies.

The game is not without it’s flaws, however. The resource system is shockingly complex for having to manage a single resource- you have to mine, then refine “resource points”, but every planet has only a limited number of buildings they can have, so you have to decide early if you’re going to have a mining planet or a productive one, and that is a harder choice than it sounds when there are three different kinds of production to choose from. The game is also pretty heavily unbalanced in favor of the Rebels, since they have a mobile headquarters, better starfighters, troop types that are more specialized to different roles, and quickly catch up in terms capital ships. About the only thing the Empire has in it’s favour is having to jump through far fewer hoops in order to start training new Sith warriors and having to build fewer kinds of mission specialists.

Speaking of which, the “Empire” starts out as anything but- only a handful of systems are under Imperial control at the beginning of the game, and the Imperial fleet is less than impressive. It would have been nice if they made the different sides more extreme in their differences, highlighting the Rebels’ reliance on guerrilla warfare and the Empire’s military and control dominance.

Still, if you like Star Wars, especially as it was before the prequels fucked everything up, Rebellion is pretty good. It’s not quite there in terms of the mechanics and GUI, there is not much animation, and the non-union Spanish equivalent of Anthony Daniels somehow makes C3PO even more annoying. But pretty good nonetheless.

Silent Hill: Downpour

So here we are, the “second episode” of Unpolished Gems. Like my last rant about Alpha Protocol, I will occasionally be putting up reviews of games that are often reviled but I think are great in spite of their flaws. A little like Movie Defense Force for the Gamestop bargain bin. Today’s entry, as the title suggests, is Silent Hill Downpour.

The Silent Hill series doesn’t need any real help from me. The original Silent Hill set a high water mark for the genre that wouldn’t be beat until the debut of it’s own sequel in the following generation. Silent Hill 2 is widely regarded as one of if not the greatest survival horror game ever made, and for damn good reason. But that also began a slow decline- Silent Hill 3 and 4 were both good without ever being excellent, and after 4 the series was passed to a series of Western developers.

The series reached it’s nadir with the release of Silent Hill 0rigins (developed by Climax Studios) and Silent Hill Homecoming (developed by Double Helix), two games that completely missed the point of the series. Like a poor musician attempting the replicate the style of a master, both 0rigins and Homecoming attempted to hit all the “notes” of the Silent Hill series with any understanding of what made the first two games truly great. However, this slavish devotion to the superficial aspects of the series led to the games to have a fairly “scrambled” feel- as if the developers were ticking items off a list rather than crafting a cohesive game, leading to a salad of elements that were Silent Hill-like but didn’t feel like Silent Hill.

Then came Silent Hill Downpour.

By the time Vatra got ahold of the Silent Hill license, the Silent Hill star had certainly fallen. Having begun live in the hand of Konami, one of the oldest and most prestigious Japanese game companies, Silent Hill had ended up in the hands of a fledgling Czech developer whose only other game was an especially mediocre sequel in a virtually unknown series (Rush’n Attack: Ex-Patriot, if you’re curious). Homecoming and 0rigins were critically abhorred, and sales had sunk to catastrophic levels (in Japan, 0rigins sold less than 50k units, compared to the original’s 250k+. The original Silent Hill sold 1.6 million copies worldwide compared to Homecoming’s 150k*). The series was dying, but still had enough fans that Vatra could push out some uninspired shovelware and still get a hundred thousand or so in sales from fans.

Instead, Vatra decided to blow everyone away.

Downpour is the story of Murphy Pendelton, a convicted criminal who we meet as he’s being escorted through the prison in which he’s incarcerated. The gameplay kicks off with a combat tutorial, which we receive by beating a naked, unarmed man to death in the prison showers.

The game’s opening was so shocking that, despite being a series veteran and a longtime fan of many, many, great survival horror games, I had to take a break to play Lego Batman. For a week.

Thereafter, Murphy is transferred to another prison, at which his bus happens to suffer an accident on the outskirts of Silent Hill. Murphy takes this opportunity to escape, little knowing that there is no escape from Silent Hill. Every step seems to take him deeper and deeper into the fog-enshrouded town, pursued all the while by Anne, a corrections officer who was also on board the bus and seems to have some kind of grudge against Murphy. After a long exploration of the town, Murphy eventually finds his way to a boat on which he hopes to escape, only to be ambushed by Anne and fall unconscious. Both our protagonist and Anne then find themselves in Silent Hill’s own Overlook Penitentiary, where they are forced to confront (and possibly come to terms with) their shared past.

Now, don’t get me wrong- Downpour is an “unpolished gem”, and is far from perfect. The second area in the game is a pointless slog through a series of caves that culminates in a laugh-out-loud ridiculous encounter with a giant demonic head. Several of the “otherworld” segments contain unwelcome sequences where Murphy is forced to slide down chutes and dodge spikes. A particular peeve of mine is that the various documents you recover through the game are listed as “Mysteries” in your menu, while the game’s sidequests are called “Sidequests”. Wouldn’t it have been more in keeping with the series’ theme to call the notes “Notes” and the sidequests “Mysteries”?

But for all that the game gets wrong there is a lot that the game gets right. The game’s opener is indicative of the game’s strengths and flaws- it is shocking and violent, forcing you to undertake a violent act against an unarmed, naked man, creating a sense of guilt that the player is meant to carry with them throughout the game to mirror Murphy’s own psychological burden. However, the game shoots itself in the foot early- that dude you kill mentions that he is a cloistered prisoner at the beginning of the scene, and given that he’s a fat white man with an effeminate manner, most players are going to think “pedophile” right off. This acts to absolve the player’s actions before they even happen, because the prevalent Western opinion is that child molesters have it coming.

The monsters in the game get something of a bad wrap. Enemies in Silent Hill games are supposed to represent elements of the character’s psyche, but because the “sexy” nurses of Silent Hill 2 became popular, both the protagonists of Homecoming and 0rigins have “repressed sexuality issues” completely unrelated to anything in their respective storylines in order to shoehorn in nurses. Downpour manages to steer itself away from that, and the monsters actually represent things in Murphy’s psyche- Minions are the bullying prison guards, Screamers represent the wife who abandoned him, Juggernauts are his highly dangerous and barely contained fellow prisoners (Weeping Bats come from the pointless, unrelated cave segment mentioned above- like I said, it’s not perfect).

The Bogeyman in particular deserves special mention. It’s easy to write him off as a Pyramid Head ripoff, but two-thirds of the way through the game, it’s made clear that Bogeyman represents Murphy’s own potential for violence. Pyramid Head’s raison d’etre is to punish James, the protagonist of Silent Hill 2, for his crimes that even the player is unaware of. But the Bogeyman isn’t external- it’s a part of Murphy, and you even transform into him at the end of the game’s climax in order to resist or give in to the urge to do violence.

The game’s sidequests serve the purpose of inviting you to explore the town while offering some truly chilling moments. From following a trail of ribbons while searching for a lost autistic child to the “oh, fuck” moment when you open a bank’s vault, the alarm goes off, and in the distance you hear the roaring of monsters… the sidequests themselves are hit or miss, but the ones that hit are great.

The game continually goes back to themes of guilt, pursuit and the cycle of violence. Phantom patrol cars that spawn enemies patrol the external maps, the player is forced to hide in the city’s steam tunnels in order to travel around town, the otherworld segments involve racing to escape an inexorable, pursuing black hole. In a stroke of genius, the only times that the player is forced to attack enemies is when Murphy is actually inside a prison, representing the cycle of violence brought on by long-term incarceration. All other encounters can be run away from.

Silent Hill Downpour isn’t excellent, but it’s still a great game and is far better then even some of the Japanese Silent Hill games. If you take away the Japanophile bias and the nostalgia goggles, I think most people would think Downpour places higher in the series than both Silent Hill 3 and 4. As it is, Downpour has a metacritic score of 66- only just higher than Homecoming, and below even 0rigins- and frankly, that is a travesty.

*Sales figures are hard. The figure provided for Homecoming is North America only, but the trend should be obvious- I doubt there are 1.45 million Silent Hill fans hiding in Europe.

Alpha Protocol

As I’ve mentioned before one of the perks of doing this is that I get recommended a wide variety of games, anime, and whatever else else that fans of Harem Collector tell me are good. Well, for today let me tell you about one of my favourite games- Alpha Protocol, which is available on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.

Alpha Protocol is a spy thriller RPG set in the modern day. You play as Mike Thorton, a recent recruit by the titular shadowy government agency to be it’s newest agent. Alpha Protocol, the organization that is, is completely secret in the US intelligence community- they operate without a budget, with no oversight, and thus, without being a political liability to the US. They get what they need by trading secrets on the black market, and are a completely deniable asset for doing really shady stuff like high-profile assassinations, sabotaging America’s economic rivals, that sort of thing.

As Mike, you undergo training and orientation, and then get sent to Saudi Arabia under orders to find and then assassinate Shiekh Al-Shaheed, the leader of a terrorist organization known as Al-Samad who is suspected of masterminding a missile attack on an American jetliner a few weeks earlier. When you find Al-Shaheed, however, he claims that he was given the high-tech guided missile used by it’s American manufacturer for the express purpose of carrying out terror attacks.

Al-Shaheed’s words prove true when, shortly after contacting his Alpha Protocol handler, Mike barely escapes a trio of guided missiles sent to destroy his position. Immediately after, Mike is labelled as a rogue agent by Alpha Protocol, and sets out on his own to investigate what’s going on and clear his name.

Now, AP isn’t a great game, strictly speaking. It has more than it’s fair share of technical problems and design flaws, and will never be counted as influential. But it’s a fun game with awesome ideas and a lot of potential that got shafted by timing.

So, what went wrong? Well, allegedly the AI is terrible… but hey, I don’t play FPSes so I wouldn’t know. The games freezes on occasion- not often, but you’re going to experience it at least once a playthrough- but hey, at least this only happens shortly after the game autosaves. The game’s design is flawed, and suffers from a similar problem to Deus Ex: Human Revolution- namely that, a stealth character is only viable until you have to fight a boss. Being a gadgeteer has similar problems, and ultimately plays mostly like a mix between the combat and stealth classes anyway, only using gadgets to make up in the shortfall in skill points.

However, what the game gets right is amazing.

First of all, the game actually responds to your choices in a way that even Bioware games don’t do as well. You’re occasionally asked whether or not you want to execute an enemy or let them go in exchange for extorting help from them, and your choices in this regard come up constantly. Your choice of specialty comes up a lot- for example, after being told that there are a lot of elite guards in the next mission, a stealth operative will be told “Not that it will be a problem for you”, and a gadgeteer character does all their own hacking rather than relying on their handlers to do it for them. The game will even know and respond when you’re trying to do a pacifist playthrough, or manage to ghost your way through missions without being spotted.

Hell, it’s entirely possible to go through the game and kill literally every other significant character other than Mike. Or, win the respect of your enemies, the admiration of your allies, and finish the game on good terms with everyone (despite having blown up the enemy base and whatnot). A little like Dragon Age, there are only four or so actual endings, but about 2-3 options for little ending blurbs for every other character in the game, so it’s going to take a lot of playing to see every possibility.

Your allies and enemies are pretty interesting and flexible as well. Through the game, you will meet up and potentially recruit the aid of a sexy photojournalist, the leader of a Taipei triad, a Russian industrialist, a trigger-happy German mercenary, an extremely well-funded private intelligence organization, the president of Taiwan, and an aging security expert who was once a rogue agent from Alpha Protocol himself. All these people can be allies or enemies, depending on your actions, and all are deeper and more interesting than what I’ve listed here (except maybe the German, she was never the best characterized and I got the impression that they game’s producers decided somewhat last minute that they wanted a fourth love interest in the game and so implemented her).

As an example of what I mean, take the previously mentioned Shiekh Al-Shaheed and his organization, Al-Samad. At first they seem to be pretty basic expies of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, but it becomes clear over time that Al-Samad is a mainly secular, politically-motivated organization that is being manipulated by an American weapons firm. Al-Shaheed is an asshole, but he wants to escape the grip of said weapons firm and is willing to help you. So after first meeting him, you have the choice of executing him outright or hearing out what he has to say. Your options then become a) kill him anyway, b) use him for information and then kill him, c) part ways and never speak to him again, or d) become mutually-respectful allies, in which case he’ll help you out on the final chapter of the game. I haven’t played many modern military shooter or spy stealth games, but to go so deeply into a Middle Eastern terrorist organization’s motives and the personality of it’s leader was something new and fresh to me when this game came out in 2009.

The real star of the show is the social system, however. Every time Mike gets to respond, he can pick between three or four “styles” of response. These were referred to in development as the “three JB’s”- you can pick from a James Bond-esque suave option, a Jason Bourne-style professional and to-the-point option, or a Jack Bauer-type angry, threatening and no-bullshit option. Unlike, say, Mass Effect, the game outright says that Mike Thorton is an expert manipulator and can switch from style to style freely depending on what he wants the other person to see. And there are advantages to either one- for example, that ex-Alpha Protocol aging security expert I mentioned before? He’s too genre-savvy to fight you directly… unless you piss him off enough that he wants to settle things personally. Or, alternately, you can earn his respect to the point where in the endgame, you can appeal to his sense of honour ask him if keeping his word to a bunch of shady industrialists is really worthwhile. Doing so with a high enough relationship means that that NPC will help you out in the final battle. Every relationship is tracked separately, and while some NPCs are more useful than others, you never know until you’ve played through the game.

And of course, there the fourth option- you can also choose a background that gives you additional conversation options. You can choose to be a Recruit, which starts you off with a little less skill points, in exchange for “inexperienced” conversation options that either involve fresh ideas, or at least lets you impress your allies by saying “I know I’m new at this, but… *extremely good logical deduction here*”. Once you’ve played through the game once, you also get the option of being a Veteran, which not only gives you bonus skill points, but also gives you a conversation option that reflects a grizzled old campaigner, with the experience necessary to stay one step ahead of his enemies.

The game even gets Social Justice Points ™. One of the more interesting characters, who is also one of my favourite NPCs and an extremely effective villain, just kind of happens to be gay. You won’t know unless another NPC tells you, or you deduce from his love of classical statuary (dude has a lot of marble statues of naked athletes in his home), but he remains a cold, calculating, and ruthlessly terrifying man… who happens to <3 the cock in his spare time.

Now, the reason why you’ve probably never heard of this game, is because it got delayed. Alpha Protocol was originally previewed way back in 2008, and had it come out in a timely fashion, it would have compared favourably to other shooter RPGs like Mass Effect and Bioshock. But the game got stuck in development hell and didn’t see a firm release date until 2009, which still wouldn’t have been that bad, AP would have to competed against Fallout 3 in the shooter RPG category but that wasn’t necessarily terrible. But instead, it was delayed further to June 2010, which was it’s death knell. You see, five months before, in January, Mass Effect 2 was released and it was pretty effectively a game-changer. Alpha Protocol stills played like an early Xbox 360 game, and simply couldn’t compete.

Anyway, I’ve fanboyed long enough. If you’re interested in anything I said and can overlook some flaws in a game with truly unique storytelling and a few really innovative mechanics, try and look up  Alpha Protocol.