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Analysis: You Bet Your Life - Luck In Action Games
Analysis: You Bet Your Life - Luck In Action Games
November 26, 2010 | By Jeffrey Matulef

November 26, 2010 | By Jeffrey Matulef
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What do Clint Hocking and Shinji Mikami have in common? They both left companies they've long been associated with recently, and have both made shooters, but that's not the answer I was looking for. The common thread I see is that they both make heavily randomized action games encouraging improvisation rather than repetition.

In Clint Hocking's Far Cry 2 the player's weapon can jam, cars break down, and the player character has a case of malaria which can act up at the most inopportune moments. Furthermore, the game has a buggy AI, so enemies have a sixth sense for pinpointing your location. While this hinders the game's stealth elements it allows for a sense of anarchic randomness you rarely get in shooters.

Comparing it to his previous game, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Hocking said at a GDC talk on Improvisational Success Through Design Failure:


"...The consequences for getting kicked out of the execution phase in Chaos Theory has a huge impact -- the game is so reliant on the player executing his careful plan, and the game is so slow-paced, that it makes more sense simply to reload a saved game. But in Far Cry 2, that disruption ends up being part of the game, and there is such a level of chaos to begin with that players did not end up feeling the need to reload every time something went wrong; rather, they would adapt to the new factors."

Conversely, Shinji Mikami's latest couple outings God Hand and Vanquish are far more linear affairs, yet they also contain a crucial random component.

In God Hand power ups are randomized so you can fight the same boss several times. Sometimes the player receives generous doses of health and power items, and other times receiving precious little aid. Occasionally enemies will even arbitrarily spawn into demonic minibosses when killed. Truth be told, I felt like most of the times I beat a boss it was because of fortuitous item drops.

This game of chance is adorned with a clear gambling motif prevalent all throughout the game. Between levels the player can play blackjack, video poker, try their hand at the slots, or bet on poison chihuahua races. Furthermore, players select their power moves by scrolling through a roulette wheel on a timer. Mikami knew what he was doing here and understands why gambling is so compelling.

Vanquish continues this trend, if not to the same degree. The player's health now recharges automatically over time rather than leaving players at the mercy of health drops that may or may not come. It does randomize weapon placement, which is critical during the heat of battle. Whether you get a rocket launcher or sniper rifle can alter a boss fight from a breeze to a near insurmountable chore.

Leveling up weapons is based on finding extra guns of the same type or green upgrade boxes dropped by enemies. Both of these are up to fate, and it can make a world of difference weather you get a more powerful machine gun or not.

I'd argue that Mikami's games succeed because their core combat mechanics are still skill based, so an unlucky player can do just fine based on their own mettle, whereas a fortuitous player will still fall victim to the game's onslaught of enemies if not properly trained. Viewed under this lens, these game are only unfair towards the opposition, never the player.

Far Cry 2, however, uses chance against you. Enemy's guns never jam, yet yours do (even if you're using a gun picked off a dead soldier). While there may be some thematic meaning behind this (the futility of war), looking at Far Cry 2 strictly as an action game, it's a more frustrating experience.

Curiously, Hocking isn't a fan of making games difficult. "We as designers need to reject the notion that games ought to be punishing or abusing, he continued. He'd rather have an easier game that uses chance against you, whereas Mikami would make a game very punishing only to throw you a bone every now and again.

While I admire Hocking's penchant towards haphazard mayhem I can't help but feel that he missed the mark a little, making the player feel hapless rather than underpowered. God Hand and Vanquish (especially on its hardest setting) can make you feel weak, but when you get a game over it's clear that it's your own fault.

God Hand does a stellar job keeping you in the game moment to moment as you pray for that urgent health replenishing banana to drop, and Vanquish allows a greater degree of strategy as you use your intimate knowledge of the game's various playing fields, weapons and enemy weak points to your advantage.

Throwing chance into the mix has always been an established part of RPGs, but action games are meant to reward dexterity. If your reflexes are up to par and you still lose due to something that wasn't your fault it defeats the desire to get better.

Though when a game can balance chance without sabotaging the player, the results can be truly exciting. God Hand in particular understands this delicate game of back and forth between skill and luck. It's only by withholding power-ups that when you do finally find one and gain that crucial edge in battle it makes one feel lucky, and sometimes all you need is a little luck.

[Jeffrey Matulef is a freelance writer whose work can be found at G4TV.com, Eurogamer, and Joystiq among other places. He's also a regular on the Big Red Potion podcast. You can contact him at jmatulef at gmail dot com.]


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