B-Video-Games: A New Frontier on a Lost Planet (Rant)

This is a long piece I wrote about my experiences playing the 4-player co-op campaign of Lost Planet 2.  As I hope the article conveys, it is a profoundly baffling experience, but in the most life-affirming way imaginable.

Video games are quickly establishing themselves as a profitable and, more importantly, artistic new medium.  They’ve held this high position in my mind from as early as I was aware of the concepts but I think it’s finally dawning on our society as a whole that video games are an important and exciting new art form.  The absurd amount of money that games like Modern Warfare 2 and Halo: Reach made on their opening weekends is proof that video games are more than children’s toys and when something is worth that much money, it’s an extremely bad idea to dismiss it on any level.

Little did they know there were much more serious problems.

The controversy surrounding the inclusion (and ultimate removal) of the Taliban as playable characters in the new Medal of Honour game has come from the mainstream instead of the usual small groups, like the people who write letters to the BBC.  This shows that society is taking video games a lot more seriously but also that they are a source of new forms of expression, that ask us to think about new concepts in new ways.  The idea of playing as a Taliban insurgent asks us to address different questions to featuring them in a movie does and they’re questions that are only capable of being asked in the language of video games.  The brilliant new storytelling techniques pioneered in games like Portal and Bioshock are proving that this is a rich medium with utterly unique ways of actually conveying stories to your audience and combining this with the challenge of gameplay associated with earlier non-narrative games.  The industry is still in its infancy and needs time to refine these ideas and realise its potential.  I am certain the best is yet to come.

All of this grand talk of art, brilliance and originality has to be taken in context.  Whenever any medium expands to realise the potential of greatness, there are entries in it which are…not that.  Everyone is familiar with the idea of a B-movie or a movie that is “so bad it’s good”.  The terms are not equivalent but they share some conceptual similarities, namely that when you love a movie like this it is not in spite of its flaws but because of them; in some way they are to be celebrated.  And this is best done as a shared experience.  Sometimes it’s a matter of a small group of friends sitting up late in a house, but often this extends to entire communities.  In the Internet age, people are able to share and promote their love of these movies and whythey love them on a scale previously unimaginable.

Troll 2’s emotional zenith.

There is an excellent documentary called Best Worst Movie, which tracks the rise of just this type of community in the wake of the masterpiece Troll 2, a movie which has nothing to do with Troll 1 and does not actually feature any Trolls.  I suggest you seek out both of them out.  I believe the game industry has now been around long enough and has grown large enough that we’re beginning to get these types of experiences, but as I briefly argued above, the medium of video games offers a new twist or a unique perspective of this that only a video game can offer.  To appreciate a bad movie you need to know something about movies and likewise with games.  I wouldn’t recommend the subject of this article as a first experience to anyone; you need to be comfortable with the medium.

Troll 2 is a bad movie that is also badly made, but you can enjoy it because of that.  A badly made game is not usually something you can enjoy.  It will only frustrate and defeat you, so there is at least a distinction in that sense.  What we need is a bad game well made.  And that’s somewhat difficult to accomplish, because making a game takes a long-ass time and costs a shitload of money.  So these occurrences are guaranteed to be rare, but that just makes them all the more special.  I think I’ve experienced my first in Lost Planet 2.

If you can discern what’s happening in this image…you are still woefully unprepared for what awaits you.

Lost Planet 2 is a 2010 co-operative third-person shooter from Capcom (of Street Fighter and Resident Evil fame) about…well…it has something to do with Thermal Energy, which is something you can harvest and everybody wants the Thermal Energy because it keeps the planet, EDN III, from freezing, but you harvest it from the indigenous species themselves, who can be massive.  So the game has you play as several different groups of people who all want some T. Eng (that’s actually the abbreviation the game uses.  You’ll be unsurprised to hear that it took me full day of playing to realise that the thermal energy I kept hearing people talking about was the same thing as the bar labelled T. Eng in the corner of my screen).  That’s about as much as I can make of it.  Maybe I should have played the first game, but the chaos associated with this lack of understanding is far too enjoyable.

All throughout the game it feels like someone made a bad decision but then everyone had to run with it and write some very good code and build a really gorgeous game around some of these fundamentally bad decisions.  This really sums up what I think is the only sustainable structure for an enjoyably bad game.  Because the problems are at such a fundamental level, at first, you only feel the effects of them but soon you come to find yourself speculating as to exactly what poor choice was made and where and when.  Other times it’s a lot less subtle and you can’t believe someone actually allowed the game to ship like that.

Now, the only way this becomes enjoyable is when you can share these feelings and listen to how other people express their utter perplexity at these flaws, which is why I mentioned shared experiences before.  This is a game that is only enjoyable when you play it with friends, which is why it’s fortunate that it has one of the best 4-player co-op modes I’ve ever seen.  To actually complete the game you basically need to do it with human allies.  It’s the only example I can think of, apart from Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, where my compatriots felt intrinsic to the campaign mode.

Like a (Hugo) Boss.

Of course this also means you are necessarily surrounded by people who you can talk to and laugh with as you play.  They can confirm for you that they also “saw that shit”, or they can be the first to ask the most glaring and frequent question that pops up in this game: “What the fuck am I wearing?” Being able to share and enjoy these feelings is something everyone does any time they are in a group in any social context.  What makes Lost Planet 2 so valuable is that it presents a unique set of experiences for you to enjoy together on top of those that you would associate with any conventionally brilliant video game.  Intentional or not, the way the social and technical aspects of the game are intrinsically linked is critical to why it is so enjoyable and is necessary for the game to justify itself and enable you to forgive and ultimately celebrate all of its shortcomings.

Menus

The world map of E.D.N. III looks awfully familiar…

You know things aren’t going well right off the bat when you get into the menu screen.  It is definitely the poorest menu system I have ever seen, both in terms of how it is designed and in the way it looks.  But it’s OK because the four of you get to navigate it together and when one of you finally figures out where the fuck the option to actually start a multiplayer game is, it forms a bond unlike any other.  When we started the game I immediately dove into the menu system trying to find where things were with little luck while one of my partners was very confused as to how I’d gotten into the menu so fast.  A full five minutes later he finally figured out that the cinematic he was waiting on finishing was, in fact, the main menu.  This would have been embarrassing for him, particularly being the rookie of the group at that point, had our most seasoned player not then chipped in with “I’m so glad you said that because I thought I was the only one who’d made that mistake”.  Unsurprisingly, everyone burst out laughing.  This game has a menu system that delivers enjoyment like that and things only get better (or worse) from there.

There is a system for unlocking new (and useful) weapons which relies entirely on chance.  Instead of choosing to spend your hard-earned credits on a new gun that suits your specific playstyle you have to throw them into a slot machine which randomly spits out something.  Not only might you get a sniper rifle when you always play up close and personal, but you also run the risk of getting some utterly useless adornment to your onscreen name, but every spin of the wheel costs the same number of credits.  Even if you get one of the useful weapons, good luck equipping it.  There are two lists in the game, only accessible from a profile page and not in the mission set up screen.  One of them shows you everything you have unlocked and the other simply shows you everything.  The latter is essentially an endless list of question marks for locked items where sometimes something you got in the slot machine will appear.  There is no way to discern or remember its position.  The former is a very useful, succinct way of telling which items are actually available to you.  Now, guess which one you have to equip the items from.  I’ll give you a clue: it’s not the one that makes sense.  When we discovered this it resulted in something unprecedented within the group: the menus in this game are so bad that they prompt you to concoct origin stories for them.

Controls

The default controls are complete madness: you can’t run and change direction at the same time, nor can you move and zoom.  I’ve been playing video games for the better part of fifteen years and I’m pretty sure I had to look at the controller the first time we played this.  I haven’t had to look at a controller since I was nine; since the first time I held a SNES controller in my chubby, sweaty fingers.  There is a sensible control setup, but it’s the last one on the list (B-4), as if they were forced to include it by someone.  Although, listening to a bunch of seasoned players having to ask what button does what and crying with exasperation was fun.

Structure

The game also has a really weird structure.  I think it’s made up of a number of Episodes, which each have a number of Chapters, which each have a number of Missions, but none of us could ever keep track, and being lost is always a lot more fun when you’re lost with someone.  The save points are also pretty random: you need to complete a Chapter before you stop playing otherwise you’ll have to do it all over again.  It’s meant to encourage cooperative play by enabling you to play in easily identifiable segments, but they end really abruptly and ruin the flow of the game.  By compartmentalising the game like this they also manage to make its undoubtedly epic scale feel a lot more confined.  Often, you’ll find yourself against an invisible wall waiting for the next level to load, but while this happens you’re encouraged to one of the 8 or 9 taunts your character can perform.  They’re unlockable through the slot machine and are universally ridiculous.  You can have four dudes in colourful, intricate coats with unbelievably large and ornate headgear all doing the bullet dodge from The Matrix in perfect synchrony.  That sentence was made possible by Lost Planet 2.  At the end of each section you’re all graded on your performance with a rank S-D.  This little bit of competition is great fun and appropriately shaming the player with the lowest score is a blast.  Your character does a little animation as well, so everyone with an A can be pumping the air while the play on a D looks dejected.  Additionally, you can spell words with four letters.  Words like ASSS.

Characters

This is about as much “character” as anyone has.

The game doesn’t really have characters and as a consequence not much of a story.  We were unsure as to whether we were playing as the same group of four guys within each section, although we definitely changed after each boss fight.  A lot of the time we thought our characters had just been killed in a cinematic.  There’s one of the segments where I’m pretty sure the narrator gets killed by a random bit of debris, but I honestly couldn’t tell you.  What the game does have is character design: absurd, ridiculous, unfathomably complicated character design, which is indicative of a Japanese design team.  If you compare Japanese and Western character design, particularly in RPGs, the Japanese ones tend to be much more complex, intricate and, to my eye, much less distinctive.  By that measure, Lost Planet 2 is really fucking Japanese.  None of us were visually distinct from one another when we played.  I couldn’t tell from the character model who was player 1 and who was player 4 but it wasn’t because we all looked the same, it was because we all looked so different.  The designs are so insanely intricate that you can’t actually resolve any detail; they just become a mess of information and colour.  And since we were all in the same faction, we were all the same colours.  There are a lot of different factions in the game and as you progress through it and meet all of them they seem to be competing to see whose outfit is the most outrageous, with extra points awarded for impracticality.  There are marines with helmets twice the size of their head.  There are lady pirates showing more flesh than armour.  There are soldiers with pockets so ridiculous it looks like they’ve just gotten out of a swimming pool with water trapped in their trunks but none of them has had the sense to squeeze it out.  Every time you see someone new and more absurd everyone laughs.  It is a genuinely fantastic time.  Each player delving into just how poor a choice it is for that character to be wearing this is amazing.  Once again it’s a bad idea carried through and implemented well and that’s why it’s so entertaining.  However, there’s stuff on the other side of the spectrum, where the design is amazingly lazy.  There are transport helicopter in the game which are literally a hollow cuboid with propellers.  They were immediately and permanently referred to as “boxcopters” by everyone in the group.

Story

If you’ve read everything up until this point then you know as much about the story as I do.  It’s non-existent.  A lot of the time we didn’t even know what we were doing, never mind why we were doing it.  Trying to reference any specific point of the game in conversation is impossible because we never knew what the fuck was going on.  Having four friends permanently in that situation is something I can highly recommend; listening to people carefully try to rationalise what they’re doing only to have someone bring up the one random bit of information they remember from a cutscene and bring everything tumbling down is priceless.  And it’s not even as if the game deteriorates into this level of madness.  The game begins with a cinematic that seems unrelated to anything and then the four of you get to take control of your characters.  Remember, this is the first thing that you do in the game.  You’re inside a boxcopter flying over some tundra and then you land and there’s a beacon to activate.  But you will quickly notice that two members of your squad are talking about things that patently aren’t happening.  They’re fighting a monster while you’re standing around in a blizzard.  You start arguing over what is happening and questioning if your comrades are actually seeing what they are describing to you because you can see them and they’re standing right beside you.  That’s when you realise the other two guys in the blizzard, who are indistinguishable from everyone else, are computer-controlled non-player combatants and that your friends are way off in the distance fighting a monster.  The very first time you see a 4-man squad in this 4-player co-op game it only includes 2 of the 4 players.  But at least they were upfront about how confusing it was going to be.  There’s another amazing part where you spend an entire level chasing a train because there is an immensely powerful gun (called “The Railway Gun”) on board.  Then when you complete this episode the next episode begins on a train.  But it is not the same train!  I’m not comfortable saying how long it took me to realise that.

Gameplay

“I want you inside me.”

The conversation above is usually going on at the same time as you’re trying to use your T. Eng to activate a beacon at the bottom of a jungle mine while you’re fighting a giant robot with a rocket launcher piloted by a naked man with chains for dreadlocks.  And all four of you are doing this with separate beacons.  And maybe one of the mechs has a giant shotgun instead of a rocket launcher.  The game really is permanently as chaotic as that sounds and it is glorious because of it.  And that’s before you factor in the mechs that you can pilot.  You can just hop in or hop out of them in standard play, they’re not scripted sequences.  On top of that, some mechs can be joined together or driven by more than one person at a time.  You can also swap out the weapons attached to the mechs on-the-fly, which range from a shotgun to a chain gun to things that we haven’t actually figured out yet.  You can also use the mech weapons as handheld weapons, meaning you can use a shotgun that is bigger than you as a handheld weapon.  Even the mechs themselves are mental: one of them amounts to little more than a rail gun on legs.  There’s also an inherent joy in simply watching a friend pilot one of the things.  It really is beautiful madness.

Those are just the normal levels.  There are boss fights which include all of the above, except you’re fighting a glowing monster the size of a house.  There’s one boss fight where you have to shoot the hell out of this four-legged slug sort-of-thing, but to defeat it you have to stun it, climb inside its mouth and down its throat, and destroy its vital organs from the inside before it flushes you out.  If you don’t get the job done first time, you’re going to have to get back inside the thing.  All of the boss fights are as novel and crazy as this and the design of the creatures is actually really good.  You also need to work together to defeat them because they can kill you quickly if you get isolated and shooting them from multiple sides is usually necessary.  Plus, you have to work out how to kill them and doing this in tandem with friends is a really wonderful experience.  You need to move from a state of mutual confusion to one of collective clarity and that process is both completely unique and utterly fascinating.

Whether it’s discovering a new experience only available in a video game, the triumph of finally defeating that boss together, sitting together in shock at the latest absurd character design or laughing about how incredibly bad something is, every moment of Lost Planet 2 is enjoyable.  It definitely isn’t a good game, but it’s definitely some of the best time I’ve ever spent with my friends.  If you know three people who would enjoy this, it’s £15 on Amazon and it’s available for the Xbox 360, PC and Playstation 3.  Just buy it.

Originally Published October 2010.

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