Ready

The best scene in 2016’s Triple 9 follows a drug raid executed by a team of seasoned professionals. Director John Hillcoat shows the precision with which Casey Affleck and Anthony Mackie sweep each room, announce each action, and move as a single unit, to convey the kind of skill and rehearsed confidence that only comes from years of rigorous, process-focussed training.

Forethought and restraint are not qualities that one would imagine would lead to an exciting video game, but they are the crucial elements that set Sierra’s SWAT 4 apart from many other, more banal, shooters.

SWAT 4 is a game of on-the-fly tactical planning interspersed with bursts of smoke and gunfire. The heart of the game is in breaching doorways, in drawing conclusions with limited information, weighing risks and rewards, and eventually leaving all that behind and stepping into the unknown. Every choke point, every corner, every shadow can be lethal, and must be approached with caution. No plan survives contact with the enemy, but with a good plan and good luck you and your teammates may survive long enough to reach the next danger. If you’re really good the hostages may survive too.

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The game stacks the odds against you from the start. Wounding shots are rare, and your enemies are trigger-happy. You can’t fire on sight, because killing a surrendering man in cold blood is frowned upon by society. A civilian dying ends the mission. Whether you were the shooter or not, you are at fault. You’re not above the law, you are the law, and the weight of the lives of everyone trapped in the dingy alleys and basements that make up the levels rests on your shoulders. You’re not there to win a match, you’re there to get everyone home alive. Your tools include the usual arsenal of pistols, machine guns, and rifles by necessity, but non-lethal tasers, bean bag shells, or pepper-spray paint balls are often your best choice.

Coordination and constant communication are essential to completing a mission and VOIP is an absolute necessity when playing multiplayer (the only way to play SWAT 4).  Missions can be played solo, but covering your friend’s back while they sweep under doorways for signs of hostiles is much more visceral. Practice develops shorthands and routines, a shared language and stories of missions that went right or horrendously wrong. SWAT 4 is a cooperative RTS in a FPS’s guise.

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Despite a creaking engine, OS compatibility issues, and terrible net code, SWAT 4 is still played and loved in corners of the internet today. The original requirement for Gamespy to find public servers has been replaced by a fan-made server browser, dedicated fans still host servers open for anyone to drop into, and publish enough fan-made maps to fill any player’s appetite.

Although still satisfied with this rare gem, SWAT 4’s dedicated following has cried out for a sequel in forums and blog posts for years. Ready Or Not, announced this week by developers Void Interactive, is not the first project to hear this cry, but it perhaps shows the most promise. Void seem to have drunk the SWAT 4 Kool-Aid, and grok what did and didn’t make the original special. Their development blog hypes features like incremental leaning and cautious door opening that sound mundane to the uninitiated, but mean the difference between life and a chaotic, bloody death in practice. Their mandatory gallery of static renderings is full of the tools familiar to any SWAT 4 veteran: sting-ball grenades, door jams, multi-tool lock picks. Most of all, their trailer shows doors being bashed in. They know SWAT.

Void Interactive are pandering to a very specific audience, but they know the lingo well. High-res, pre-rendered trailers are a dime a dozen these days, but as a SWAT 4 evangelist longing for an official sequel that I know will never come, I am very, very ready for this spiritual successor.

Artistry in Cities: Skylines

I am not good at Cities: Skylines. Oh, I can build a town that brings new citizens flocking in droves. I can balance the budget and alleviate traffic jams and periodically drop a stadium in an empty lot to bring prestige and fame to my quaint ‘burb. But I’ve come to realize that by focussing on these tasks I’ve been playing the game wrong, or perhaps even the wrong game.

440px-fosbury_flop_englishThe Olympic high-jump competition was, for centuries, a mixture of various styles of getting a human body over a suspended bar, until athlete Dick Fosbury introduced the Fosbury flop in 1968, a method of jumping that arcs the body backwards in flight to gain precious extra inches. That extra height quickly made the flop the only way to excel in high jumping, and pretty much the only method used in competition today.

Video games see similar revolutionary discoveries, shared and discussed in forums and on Youtube. Speedrun videos let runners optimize routes in various games (see Mirror’s Edge) until the difference between a world record run and an abysmal failure comes down to a matter of frames. Getting a winning time in Mario without taking advantage of certain peculiarities of the game is impossible. Games are more than races though, and have become complex enough to allow real talent to grow and be recognized by other players.

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Dishonoured was at first glance a slow, plot-based stealth game that rewarded patience and role-playing Corvo as a reluctant but honour-bound killer. After watching experienced players fly through ‘high-chaos’ runs of the game’s missions, it’s hard not to agree that the game is best enjoyed in a mana-fuelled, blood-soaked, rage. The proper, most fun way to play Dishonoured, the one that the developers clearly had in mind when placing assets and coding enemy behaviours, is as a high-velocity psychopath, taking full advantage of the game’s many mechanics and subtleties.

Cities: Skylines, released in 2015, hides a similar potential for sheer artistry beneath its city management exterior. Youtubers have created a world-building sub-culture, sharing videos of intricate architecture, beautiful landscaping, and set design to create convincingly detailed worlds. The goal is not to win the game as defined by Colossal Order, but to use it as both brush and canvas for their creativity. Watching a dedicated Cities:Skylines player paint an island and its inhabitants into existence, the mix of jealousy and admiration one feels must be similar to that felt by a bronze medallist watching Dick Fosbury win gold. It’s as though we’re not even playing the same game. They have discovered a depth to Cities: Skylines that you weren’t aware was even possible. While you focus on budgets and population density, they’re playing the game to its fullest. Their dedication and inventiveness deserves applause, for best appreciating what what Colossal Order made possible, even if it took years to do so.

Dwarf Fortress

When I first played Dwarf Fortress, I bounced off it like a timid bunny rabbit, crossing a busy highway just a little too slowly.

It was late 2005, or 2006, back before the game had a z-axis and you just dug eastward into a flat cliff. I was in university, and procrastinating. This was before the game had vampires, or farms, or a military, or graphics. First you found a river, then a lava stream. I didn’t make it to either. The maze of keyboard shortcuts you need to memorize to make any headway sent me packing after about 10 minutes. This hasn’t improved in the decade since.

Still, for months I’d read stories of how amazing this game was, once you buckled down and learned to speak its language, stories of grand adventures and elephant raids. Its promise haunted me. So, I broke down, unpacked the latest zip, and gave it another shot.

Bounce.

It wasn’t until about 2 or 3 cycles of this that I finally grokked Dwarf Fortress. First you have to overcome the interface. Then you have to learn its intricate network of industries. Then you have to learn the dozens of ways that dwarves can die. Then you have to relearn all of the above when a new version drops and upends everything you’ve learned before. Eventually you learn to enjoy the learning. I’ve since played Dwarf Fortress for hundreds of hours, without exaggeration, and I’m still learning. The game scratches the city-management itch like make other games, but the magic is discovering the intricacies of how all the little systems interact, all the nooks and crannies.

Since those early days, the game has grown. It gained a third axis, and always new systems. It became a game of legend, and spawned imitators who have risen and fallen in its wake. Gnomoria, A Game Of Dwarves, Clockwork Empires and countless others sought to bottle and sell the strange melange of freedom and punishment, of role play and micro management, of Sim City and NetHack. Each has fallen short in their own unique way, while Dwarf Fortress continues on in disaffected nonchalance.

Its hard to judge Dwarf Fortress harshly for any failings. It’s not finished, and creator Tarn Adams makes no promise about it being done, or welcoming, any time soon. This is his project, and he’s beholden to no one to make it in any way other than that which suits him. This uncompromising ethic is Dwarf Fortress’ curse and its blessing, the secret to its charms. Adams’ vision is of Dwarf Fortress as a narrative generation machine, capable of  simulating worlds and adventures as detailed as they are epic. Given what it accomplishes already I have no doubt he will achieve this.

As it stands, Dwarf Fortress is best considered a collection of systems that tests the player’s ability to survive. Shepard your dwarves through their first winter? Great. The first goblin attack? Wonderful. The unnamed horrors that lurk below your engraved-marble floors? Splendid. Lovely. You’ll never win of course, as there’s no ‘win’ state, but don’t you feel special for surviving for so long? Until you didn’t. But you will always know why you lost, and the lessons you learn will serve you well in the next game. And the game after that. And so on.

You’ll build castles, cathedrals, forges, intricate traps and vast military machines to crush your foes. Your dwarves will grow and die, wage war, and carve their story into the of the mountain you call home, and it will be your home because you laid out every room and hallway by hand. Your fortress will start small and end grand, in bloody ruins and smoking rubble, and you will serve as witness to its history.

The game still doesn’t have graphics. Or a sensible UI. A tutorial. A story campaign. An ending. Balanced AI. Those are just window dressing anyways, what matters is the simulation, the stories it tells you. But it does have fans, dedicated fans who have patched in some of the above, out of love for the game and its creator. Their wikis and mods and plugins and forums are built by people who shared the same struggles, who overcame them together, and who want to pass their wisdom and enthusiasm for the game on to you.

Recommending someone play Dwarf Fortress is like recommending someone try heroine. It’s irresponsible. Best case scenario, they bounce off as well. Worst case scenario, they persist, and spend hundreds of hours playing a delightful game that they could otherwise spend outside. It only rewards as much as you are willing to give it, and that kind of investment isn’t for everyone. I’m grateful, ashamed and proud that it is for me.

In Your Face

You are Lara Croft. Archeology student turned reluctant heroine, your adventures have carried you across the globe and deep into its crust, into an ancient tomb, thousands of years old. Dodging traps and enemies, risking life and limb, you finally stumble into its most sacred chamber, a shrine constructed by a forgotten people, built to house a tome of profound wisdom, whose dusty pages may hold a Rosetta Stone-like key to better understanding the mysteries of humankind’s origins. Time seems to stand still as you approach a glowing marble dias, this far from the outside world the only sound is the dry crackle of a flickering candle. Hesitantly, your fingers tremble as you reach to open the cover of this priceless artifact, this wondrous discovery that has laid buried for aeons.

NEW SKILL MASTERED: FAST HEALER!

Um… yay?

User interfaces in games must walk a fine and thankless line, balancing giving the player enough information that they’re not confused and lost in a new world, and staying out of sight enough to not distract the player from more pertinent in-world information, like where they’re driving, and who’s shooting at them.

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Not Pretty

Games began as text-based affairs, and adopted 2D and 3D graphics and on-screen graphical elements over time. Now they’re predominately solely graphics-based, the best-known and best-selling descending from a lineage that began with Wolfenstein, Doom, and to a lesser but much more profound degree, System Shock (but more on that masterpiece later). Gamers are accustomed to on-screen crosshairs, health meters, and ammo counters lurking in the corners of their vision. As processing power has increased, gameplay has grown more complex, and world markers, crouch indicators, XP tallies, notifications and more have been thrown into the mix.

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Pretty

The problem is that graphics have grown better and better over time as well, to the point where flashy, non-diagetic displays can ugly up a beautiful scene, get between the player and the world they’re exploring, and generally pull them out of the immediate experience. These improvements also mean that there are much better ways to convey information though, like texture or animation changes to indicate the degrading health of the player’s avatar, in-world ammunition displays or maps, or a reliance on physical iron sights for aiming. The ability to completely disable UI elements is becoming a standard option in games, as in Witcher 3 or Far Cry 4. This not only lets the player better appreciate the beauty that the games are capable of rendering, it also forces them to pay more attention to their surroundings, and adds extra challenge, like removing training wheels from a bike.

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Pretty

As reliable and well-worn as on-screen prompts have become, better graphics in games demands more thoughtful and subtle use of UI to feed the player everything they need to know, including a rethinking of just how much UI is needed in the first place. A picture already tells a thousand words, there’s no need to break into the game’s narrative just to add a half-dozen more.

Far Cry 4

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There’s a moment in Far Cry 4 where the player must progress through a Kryatic ritual of self enlightenment. You burn incense, spin a prayer wheel, and make an offering of flower petals at a small, dignified shrine. This being an Ubisoft game though, each canned animation of your character carrying out these tasks is accompanied by a karma meter filling slowly at the top of your screen. No joke, the last step takes you from 75% karma to a full 100% karma, and the mission can then proceed to the fun bit, holding off a military invasion with machine guns and molotov cocktails.

It amuses me greatly to picture a design team standing around a white board discussing whether lighting a candle in solemn reflection should earn the player 25 karma points or 30. What colour bar best represents the player’s progression towards inner peace?

Far Cry 4 is immensely fun. Its sprawling steppes are full of encampments to assault, animals to hunt, and towers to climb. This far into the Far Cry series Ubisoft knows what they are doing when it comes to first person combat, vehicles, and hiding collectibles across all of creation. They know that camp assaults were the best part of their previous game, and so they’ve made them easy repayable in 4. They know how to make guns feel meaty and satisfying, and how to make encounters with wild animals terrifying and tense. They just don’t know how to handle more subtle concepts well.

Far Cry 2, the first of this mold, took place in the humid jungles and arid deserts of Africa. Far Cry 3 travelled to the south pacific, to allow for a brighter colour palate and more water-based exploration. Far Cry 4 backpacks to a faux Tibetan landscape, because the wing suit is amazing and combat is more fun when there’s a vertical component, with enemies spread up and down a mountainside.

With each migration, a fresh coat of location-specific veneer is applied over the basic game mechanics. Far Cry 2 had malaria pills to prevent the player from growing listless and bored, and conflict diamonds as currency. Far Cry 3’s skill system was tracked through the main character’s culturally-relevant tattoos. Far Cry 4 groups player skills into 2 libraries represented by a tiger and an elephant, and tracks XP in the form of karma points, earned by murdering hundreds and hundreds of people. With each iteration, the pretence grows thinner and thinner.

Make no mistake, Far Cry 4’s combat is glorious and boisterous, its world is detailed and beautiful, and Ubisoft have spared no expense in making Kryat a theme park of excitement and heroism. They are experts at open-world first-person shooting. It’s when they sometimes try to apply these talents to more esoteric concepts like religious observance that they fall flat on their face. Like a ’72 station wagon, a thin veneer is always quick to crack. Gamers know what XP and skill points are, there’s no need to play game-mechanic dress-up with every new franchise instalment.

Of Polygons and Clay

Nearly every NPC in Hitman has a name. Given the population density of some of its levels, this is astounding. Every patrolling guard, strolling pedestrian, and lounging socialite has been christened by a level designer, and placed within the game’s clockwork diorama. When setting up a Contract, one of the game’s extra-value modes, the player can tag NPCs as targets, and in doing so discovers a whole layer to Hitman’s simulation that’s not immediately obvious. While not a new feature to many RPGs, this is rare and welcome attention to detail for an action game.

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Hitman isn’t about committing murder, but about planning murder, and a majority of the game takes place in the calm before the storm, as Agent 47 stalks his prey and plans his moves. The world around 47 needs to be one in which the player can loiter, an activity that quickly exposes the seams in most game worlds. Cut-and-pasted character models with cut-and-pasted animation loops quickly fall into the uncanny valley, and with graphic cards rendering people’s appearance with ever finer resolution, their  behaviour needs verisimiltude to match

Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs tried a similar trick in 2014. The pedestrians who wandered the sidewalks of the day-after-tomorrow open-world Chicago were randomly assigned names and foibles that could be gleaned by hacking their smart phones. Unfortunately these characters never persisted for more than a few moments. The player might bump into Sarah with a gambling addiction on a street corner, but driving a block away would cause the game to dump her from its memory. Sarah ceased to exist. Drive by  the same corner later and a newly-rolled character would be occupying Sarah’s spot. In a game world the size of Chicago, it didn’t make sense to maintain a stable cast of characters beyond those required by the story, and the mobs of pedestrians quickly became bits of scenery, SpeedTrees for an urban environment.

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Hitman’s slower pace requires a different tact, one that stands up to closer scrutiny. Its more constrained locales allow the game designers to craft and maintain a persistent and lively population. Mrs Uschi Neubrandt soaks up the sun on Sapienza’s sandy shore. If the player fails a mission, a visit to the same beach on the next try finds Neubrandt in her favourite spot. A maid berates Rocco for being late to his first day of work, and breaking into his apartment confirms Rocco’s name and position of employ.

Like a shem inscribed upon a golem, bestowing names upon NPCs breathes life into their texture-mapped polygonal husks. Argelia Degrandi sneaks a smoke in the middle of her shift, the overflowing ashtray propped on a nearby windowsill hinting at the stresses of housekeeping for a mafioso. But why is Louisa Doria crouched alone at night outside of a floral shop? What message is so important to model Jessika Truesdale, that she would sneak away in the middle of a fashion show to check her phone?

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Over repeated play-throughs, as the game’s various modes encourage frequent use of the same environments, the player grows to recognize these characters, furthering the illusion that they are unique, sentient people, and deepens the impact of playing as Hitman’s Agent 47. Acquiring a disguise to proceed through a mission doesn’t require you to solve a puzzle to unlock a power-up, it requires you to choke Claudio into unconsciousness, and stuff his body into a dumpster. This may motivate the player to change their plan, adding additional challenge for the sake of sparing an innocent bystander, or attacking Claudio may be considered a necessary sacrifice. The player feels a greater weight to their decisions, and more fully immerses themselves in the persona of a sociopathic gun-for-hire.

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Technology has advanced to the point that it can render photo-realistic worlds, but these require the work of storytellers and artists to populate, a costly process. Having reached a plateau in terms of how far prettier graphics can draw the player into a game, designers are experimenting with new tricks to convincingly sell their simulations, and something as seemingly simple as giving NPCs names can have a tremendous pay-off.

Stepping Off The Roller Coaster

A rock hangs in mid-air over a side street in Prague. On my first few strolls around the city I didn’t even notice its Damoclean mass, as it has been raised a good 15 feet or so above the pavement, fixed in place with a roughshod network of guy wires and pitons. Now that I am aware of it’s looming presence, it feels odd to walk through its shadow, knowing that the wear and tear of time that has eroded the city around me must also be acting upon its moorings. I look to see if anyone alters their path to avoid its footprint, but everyone else is either far more trusting, or fatalistic, than I. This perched boulder is just another part of city for them, and faded into the background of their daily lives.

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Deus Ex’s Prague is Half Life’s City 17, if the roller-coaster plot that scooped you up in its opening scenes was taken offline for repairs. It lets you wander around a bit, take a breather and appreciate its offerings, while repairmen are summoned to tinker with its engine. Neauveau-Euro-Futurist architecture and advertisements have been slowly inserted into the existing old-world neighbourhoods, grown accustomed to each other, and weathered very recent civil war. Dust and grime have seeped into its crevices, a patina it wears on its sleeves.

It’s autumn in Europe, and passersby have their collars turned up against a chill wind that blows dead leaves from the occasional tended tree into the gutters. High-end electric cars share the roads with more economical bicycles, homeless people sleep on park benches beside business men out for a afternoon cigarette. I take corners at random, follow sidewalks and alleyways, and poke my nose into any boutique shops that take my fancy. Because this is Deus Ex, my sightseeing inevitably involves some light burglary, but only briefly. I stack garbage bins in back alleys, crawl through vents, and help myself to remnant ammunition and software packages from a below-ground drug den. I leave the bricks of cocaine untouched, as I’m not interested in sparking any unnecessary conflict at the moment.

Far from the sprawling but sparsely-populated hundred-mile landscapes of Just Cause, Far Cry, Skyrim, and countless others, Deus Ex’s open world is a much more constrained, but densely packed packed experience. Warren Spector, director of the first Deus Ex, has long dreamed of a ‘One City Block’ rpg, a game so densely and convincingly packed with AI, detail, systems and physics that a gripping adventure could take place within its confines, and be richer for that limitation. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a compelling step in that direction, and a promising shift in focus from the current trend in games towards cavernous-but-barren worlds.

Eidos: Montreal have created a rich slice of an alternate world, and built a game and story to fill its streets. In time I’m sure the seams will start to show, as painted-on doors repeatedly deny me entrance, and side missions find me careening back and forth across the cobblestones with such frequency that the charming small details fade from my attention. I know that conspiracy and adventure lie behind every closed door and grating, that soon I will be exchanging gun fire with militant gangs and saving the world in the name of truth and justice, but for the time being I’m content to enjoy Prague as a trench-coat clad cyber-augmented tourist, a mirror-shaded out-of-towner enjoying the local colour.

Smelling The Ashen Roses

If you hold the ‘X’ button on your controller while playing Arkane Studio’s Dishonored, (or ‘F’ on a keyboard, if you’re a purist), Corvo the magical assassin will sheathe his sword and drop his spell-casting hand from view. In-fiction, this is supposed to draw less attention to Corvo, as he presumably tucks his arsenal away neatly inside a breast pocket and whistles an innocent tune. In reality, this feature was surely included by the developers to make it easy for players to remove any distractions from the screen, admire the obvious labour that went in to crafting the world of Dunwall, and let them take beautiful, beautiful screenshots.

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As much as video games are about story and challenge and mechanics and player growth, with today’s graphics engines they have also become artistic showrooms. Particularly in first-person games, vast amounts of effort are spent by teams of artists to create fully realized worlds, a process that blends architecture, digital painting and sculpture, character design and animation, and countless other professions.

Recent forays into the use of procedurally-generated content have had mixed results at best, and although the promise of infinite worlds built by algorithms instead of a team of artists is tempting for developers, the joy of seeing the fingerprints of intelligent design in a game, in appreciating the gestalt of a product shaped by humans with a directed vision, is hard to beat for the player.

Though the alleys, rooms, and rooftops they create often serve as static arenas for rote combat, and though it can be easy to rush through them in a blur of steel and blood, it’s worth pausing occasionally to enjoy the scattered dioramas of deliberately placed assets. Admire the richly painted textures, the stray light beams and cobwebs and bushes and dust motes and goblets that were placed with deliberate care, before you pull out your poisoned-tipped crossbow, behead a startled guard, and get blood all over the clean marble floors. Do you know how much mopping it takes to get blood off of marble?

Tomb Raider (2013)

A friend and I position ourselves on opposite ends of a debate over the purpose of video games. One of us argues that the point of video games is to test one’s abilities within an artificial construct, to be challenged and improve, to outplay, outwit, and outfight a worthy opponent. The other argues that video games should tell stories that engage the player, evoke the pathos and catharsis of a greek tragedy, and allow them to experience a world from behind the eyes of an avatar entirely alien to their normal life. The regularly cited Exhibit A for games as narrative is Crystal Dynamic’s Tomb Raider (2013), a game that leads the player through a grand adventure in a way no other medium could.

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Launched in the mid 90’s, over the course of nearly 2 decades and a dozen sequels the Tomb Raider series had become tired and creatively exhausted. The on-going plot was bogged down in B-movie tropes, mystical McGuffins and paper-thin villains. As an established and nigh-invincible heroine, Lara Croft’s character had nowhere left to advance, and was the series was stagnating in its own lore. A reboot was due, and Crystal Dynamics hired Rhianna Pratchett and Susanne O’Connor to tackle the particular problem of writing the story for their game.

Plots in video games are tricky things, and must accommodate unpredictable main characters with free will, allow for sections of gameplay and exploring, and try to maintain the classic introduction-rising action-conflict-climax-conclusion story beats across dozens of hours of play. Tomb Raider’s plot succeeded because it was simple and focussed, worked in tandem with the game play, and let the player inhabit a character that melded well with their own experience, making their journey personal and affecting.

The 2013 reboot explored a younger, rookie version of Lara, one free to experience an adventure with fresh eyes, without the burden of a lifetime of grand adventures behind her. The Lara that washed ashore on Yamatai island was vulnerable, fallible, and new to the world of raiding tombs, a far better cipher for the player to control and grow attached to than the jaded Lara. The story still contained tombs, mystical artifacts, and b-movie villains galore, but because Lara had swapped her bravado for far more understandable incredulity and fear, she better  mirrored the player’s own reaction to the events, and their progression through the pacific rim theme-park.

For all the background noise about haunted islands and ancient queens, Tomb Raider’s plot was straightforward, and Lara’s motivations were simple and believable. Lara washed ashore on an island full of things that wanted to kill her. She wanted to stay alive and escape the island, and she wanted her friends to stay alive and escape the island too. Lara has a single, sensible goal throughout the entire story: her own survival. There was no pretence of saving the world or avenging fallen comrades, and this narrow focus helped to reinforce in the player why they were continuing to face and overcome the challenges they were presented.

Interspersed between bombastic set pieces, Tomb Raider’s combat mirrored Lara’s progression as an adventurer, her growth from a bewildered victim to a hero. Starting off wounded and confused, washed ashore into a world entirely new to her, Lara was only armed with weak bows and hand tools, and much of the combat relied on stealth and cautious attacks from the shadows. As she began to understand her situation and gain a footing on the island Lara gained new and more powerful weapons, and battles became more visceral and varied, leading to a scene wherein Lara first acquired a grenade launcher, and revelled in the advantage this finally gave her over her tormentors. The changes in gameplay kept the experience fresh and lively throughout a 12-20 hour campaign, and kept pace with Lara’s evolution.

2015’s Rise Of The Tomb Raider returned Lara to her action hero roots, and the story to convoluted, double-crossing, moustache twirling blandness. Characters were introduced, betrayed, abducted, sacrificed and killed before the player had a chance to grow attached to them. Plot points changed Lara’s motivations completely within the span of single cutscenes, and left the player questioning her actions. The combat was meatier, but without any compelling goal to fight for, it quickly became a repetitive slog. Lara was back to killing unfortunate enemies in cold blood, for the sake of some artifact that may or may not exist. Lara could have turned around and gone home at any point, removing herself from danger, but chose to risk life and limb for questionable purposes. The plot pushed Lara forward, but kept the player at arm’s length. Video games exist on a spectrum between art and sport, and more than just finding a balance between the two, must find a way for each to support the other. Like a debate, it can’t work if only one side is present, and it’s most fun when both sides pay attention to the other.

Jagged Alliance 2

So proud of the Witcher series is the country of Poland that Prime Minister Donald Tusk famously presented a copy of The Witcher 2 to visiting US President Barack Obama in 2011, in honour of its release. In Poland, The Witcher is a cultural touchstone, and the video game series it spawned redefined what gamers should expect from narrative, gameplay, and world-building in a video game. If there were any justice in the world, Canada would similarly laud Jagged Alliance 2, a tactical, systems-based open-world strategy game developed by Ottawa-based Sir-Tech in 1999. Unfortunately, the world is a cruel and dark place, and JA2 has yet to receive so much as a commemorative stamp, roadside visitor museum, or 3-part tax-payer funded documentary miniseries starring Gordon Pinsent. I’m looking at you, CRTC.

 

Jagged Alliance 2 was one of the last great sprite-based games, released at a time when 3D was starting to hit its stride, and games like Half-Life and System Shock had begun rubbing elbows on store shelves with old-guard 2D games like Planescape: Torment, Baldur’s Gate, and any of a dozen iterations of the Command & Conquer series. While 3D games were busy nailing down concepts like strafing, mouse look and auto-aim, 2D games were taking advantage of established and well-understood paradigms to focus on grander gameplay concepts.

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After a brief cinematic hastily sketches out a thin plot, Sir-Tech quite literally dropped the player into their world, rappelling a player-sculpted avatar onto the sun-parched soil of Arulco, a country in civil turmoil. Although ostensibly hired to restore freedom and democracy and honour, the player was truly a for-profit fixer in charge of a hit-squad with one target: Deidranna. The player could grapple with patrolling squadrons and train resistance fighters ’til the cows came home (to be punched repeatedly for cheap XP), the game only ended, the credits only rolled when Deidranna’s heart stopped beating. It was the job of the player to make that happen, in any manner they saw fit, and therein lay the grizzled but beautiful soul of Jagged Alliance 2.

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The game wants the player to form a squadron of likeable rascals, to wage a campaign of hit-and-run ambushes across the deserts and forests of Arulco, to meet and join forces with its citizens and explore all its hand-crafted locales. It wants the player to surge, to stumble, to be beaten down and rise in triumph, and experience every minor side quest into which the developers clearly poured hours of toil.

But what if the player doesn’t do what they’re told? What if the player wants to forego the vast majority of the game’s content, ignore practicality and hire a single mercenary, to laboriously sneak him under the cover of darkness past outposts and patrols, into the heart of Deidranna’s compound, to kill her unceremoniously with surgical precision? The game’s systems can and do handle this. Deidranna dies, end scene, roll credits, no lectures or complaints.

Sir-Tech respects the player enough to adhere to their own established rules, no matter how the player tests them. There are no invisible walls that funnel the player down an accepted path, no scripts that have to be triggered in a proper order to advance the plot, no one-way scenery gates that ensure the player experiences the game’s set pieces and speeches. There’s a target hiding somewhere within a country at war, and it’s up to the player to reach it, using only their wits.

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There are admittedly scripted events to be found in JA2, some that just play short cutscenes, and others that actually impact the player (Surrendering in battle teleports the cowardly mercenary to a prison facility). New characters are introduced, weapon shops made available, and enemy reactions triggered, but all of these are only little surprises for the player to introduce new challenges, and none hamstring their actions.

 

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The source code behind Jagged Alliance 2 was released to the internet years ago, and it’s fitting that the instruction set that makes up its intricate systems be laid so bare, like a pocket watch’s mechanical cogs and gears laid out across a workbench for repair. Briefly skimming through some of the files reveals the simple algorithms that govern how bullets ricochet, how corpse decompose over time, or how soldiers react to strange noises. Understanding the rules doesn’t diminish the fun of testing one’s mettle within them though, it only deepens one’s respect for they variety of battles and mouse-gripping stories they can generate. There may be no atheists in foxholes, but at least when your team is pinned down  by .45mm ACP rounds in a corrugated metal shack and your covering sniper has passed out from lack of sleep, you know empirically the game’s enemy are playing fair.

Though the years since its release have seen many attempts at remakes and reboots, none have quite recaptured its magic. Fan-made mods have chaperoned the game onto new operating systems, polished away any rough edges, and added features like cooperative multiplayer and a refined AI. The sprite graphics are as not-beautiful as they ever were, but they let the player read the battlefield quickly and easily, even when shrunk down on higher-resolution monitors. The game has been lovingly preserved for posterity, and deservedly so. People who know strategy games know Jagged Alliance 2, and recognize it importance, even if our politicians think trivial things like the economy or human rights are more deserving of attention.