Monday, December 3, 2007

BMP Grand Prix: Gwen and the Great Escape

And now the one you've been waiting for. At least, I have. I don't know if it's just me but I find if I have a box of treats, say some chocolates or a gift basket or something, I like to save what I think s going to be the best, the tastiest, the most delicious, for the very last. One last burst of excellence as the experience finishes, in so many words. And that's why I've kept Gwen in reserve for now. I don't have high hopes for the gameplay, I expect all kinds of funky Mesmer crap, to put it bluntly. But I have a special place in my heart for Gwen and what she means to the Guild Wars story. A chance to play as her, a chance to experience some of the adventures, the hardships, that turned her from the sweet young girl with the magic flute of healing who'd frolic after me in Pre-Searing into the bitter, suspicious young woman I encountered in the Eye of the North is one I've been relishing.

I'll save you the trouble right now, though, it's a big let down. Probably nothing could live up to my expectations but they were rudely dashed upon the cold, hard concrete of reality like a porcelain plate dropped from the heavens.

But, if you're not put off by that and what's sure to be my unrelenting negativity then we can continue.

Okay, well, to start off with something positive, the illustrations in Gwen's book are like something out of an illustrated children's story. Nice touch that.

There's no weapon for this mission so, to start it, you need to make sure there's nothing in your hands.

The storyline here is that you'll be reliving Gwen escaping from the Charr to find the Ebon Vanguard.

As for Gwen's bar, well, thankfully, it's not some Keystone madness (No, for that, you need to go to Saul.) or a metabuild full of Echoes and Arcane Mimicries.

Unthankfully, you start off with a mere four skills.

Flee. Stance. 30recharge. For 10 seconds, you move 33% faster.

Throw Rock. Skill. 3/4cast. Throw a rock at your target. If it strikes a foe, that foe is knocked down and becomes crippled for 10 seconds.

Hide. Form. 1cast. While you are hidden, enemies cannot see or target you for up to 60 seconds.

Feign Death. Form. 1/4cast, 300recharge. Play dead, causing all enemies to cease attacking you. This skill ends when you move.

And, to top it off, you only have 300 health and 20 energy. I'm not liking this already as I smell yet another stealth mission afoot. Looking at those skills the plan seem obvious. You'll use Flee to run around as fast as your little unprotected legs can carry you while you use Hide to duck away from enemy patrols. Throw Rock will be used to plunk anyone giving serious chase, allowing you to skate away freely. And, if all else fails, you feign the aggro off and wait until your foes wander away.

I am so not liking this at all. Interestingly, Throw Rock is grayed out to start, as is Hide. Maybe you have to find the rocks to throw? And places to hide in? You have to supply the ammunition to use those skills, it seems. Interesting idea, actually, I always wanted to see more skills like that - you could do a lot of neat things with skills that require you to pick up and use up bundles.

Gwen, herself, looks great, though. In that she looks completely awful. Like she's been dragged through a war zone on her face for the past three years and then beaten with the "street urchin" stick for several more. She's dressed in a tattered, torn white dress and her face is dusty, dirty, her hair tangled and caked with mud. That, right there, is superior art direction at play. The bonus missions have all been well designed but they've taken this one step beyond. That, I'm liking.

You start off in a cell, appropriately enough. I'm back to the not liking it state, though, since it means I have to sit around and wait fr the dialog to get finished. There's some Ascalonian noble delivering important plot points and probably telling me how to beat the mission but I'm more concerned with trying to find the best lighting angle for a screenshot of little orphan Gweny. Then, a big Charr boss comes by and tells us it is a good day to die. For him, that is, because we're going to be the one's dying and he's getting a cut of the gate receipts. I hope he chokes on the ball of wadded up leaves and filth encrusted sticks that the Charr, no doubt, use as currency.

I hates the Charr. I am looking forward to killing them en masse by the end of this mission. But, as it is, Big bad boss Charr leads Gossipy McExpositionfairy (Is that...Damn. Too many letters.) off to an Arena to face a Siege Devourer. I notice he's only lv1. The results are predictable.

After they clean his entrails off the Arena floor - no doubt with their prickly cat-like tongues - it's my turn on the bloody stage.

Heading in I scope the place out, immediately noticing a bunch of rock items littered about the floor. There are two red objects in my view, one's the Devourer of Doom, the other is a Cracked Pillar. Ye gods, could this be any more blatant?

I pick up a rock, and, yep, my Throw Rock skill turns active. Hitting Flee, I run in and heave it at the pillar and....nothing happens. Well, wait, I took off a sliver of its health bar.

Unfortunately, the Siege Devourer takes off quite a bit more of mine. Fortunately, not all of it. He hits for something like 140 damage and I've got 300 health. And, not being entirely stupid, I was already running for safety while our respective projectiles were in the air. Just to be on the safe side, though, I feign off. I immediately pitch over face first in the dirt. And I stay that way until I regenerate.

Anyhow, here's how the rest of my "battle" with the dread Siege Devourer works. I'd noticed playing through the campaign that Siege Devourer shots obeyed obstruction rules. That is to say, if there's something relatively solid, like a wall or the edge of a cliff between the Devourer and it's target, the shot will hit that and not its intended target. Unlike some AoE spells, you don't get hit by the splash, either. So I duck behind a large pillar, wait until the Siege shot fires, rush out, grab a rock, chuck it at the damaged pillar, and duck right back. It takes four or five hits but, eventually, a cutscene is triggered and the devourer is flattened with a satisfying crunch and a spray of purple blood.

That opens the gate behind the Devourer as well and I run through it as dozens of Charr follow. There's a gate lock up ahead and I press it to make sure they can't follow.

Now, I find myself in some kind of catacombs along with some ghostly ex-heroes. Blah blah blah, they say stuff but as it does not directly lead to me laying waste to the huge army of Charr behind me, I'm not interested. There's also a book on a pedastal that gives me my fifth skill and it's....Illusion of Haste. Oh, just perfect.

Yeah, that's right, I have two run buffs now. Except the one has a long enough duration to cover the recharge. And also happens to cripple me whenever it runs out so I'm forced to cast it over and over just so I don't limp around the place. There's no point in using Flee now, is there?

Conning around I can see some other tomes tantalizingly out of reach. I guess I'm supposed to run around and touch them to unlock my hidden Mesmer powers. Or something. I'm not really feeling the whole "Gwen gets the strength and power she needs to defeat the Charr from a trip to the library." It' outside solution, a deus ex machina, and that's inherently unsatisfactory. Especially when it just comes out of the blue without any build-up. Yeah, sucky-poo.

Also on the floor is an unlit torch and nearby, a flaming brazier and another one. Oh, I know what that means. Once I go through some mist, the ghosts reappear along with some ghostly Charr down the Hall. They don't attack me but they've apparently left a bunch of traps on the floor that cause crippling. Almost makes me thankful I have Illusion of Haste. If it didn't take nearly as long to cast it as it does to struggle forward like a gimp.

Lighting the Brazier takes care of that and there's another book nearby with Distortion in it. That's....decent enough. I guess. If this was January 2006, maybe.

The door next to it is locked, though, and I have no way in. The ghosts have disappeared and I'm forced to run around to find them. Backtracking I find another book with...Shared Burden. Okay, this is getting ridiculous. I couldn't at least get Crippling Anguish? That one at least causes some degen.

But, it turns out to be useful, here. This is the one time in the history of people playing this game has there ever been a use for this clunker because the next step in finding my way through this increasingly wretched mission involves helping the ghosts flee from a pack of spectral pursuers. They're nicely clumped up so I can snare them all and, then, recasting all the while, I lead my ghosts to freedom.

Freedom defined here as "unlocking the next door." Outside of it is a rock. Inside another cracked pillar. And a bunch of dart throwing flame traps. This is apparently where the mission "lets" me make good use of Distortion as it blocks enough of the shots for me to run up and peg the pillar with my stone. Which does...something.

Honsetly, I don't even remember because I suffered a psychotic break when I opened up the next book and got SUm of All Fears.

Sum of All Fears. Because I needed another snare, I guess. Instead of...anything. Anything else that I could have used to do something instead of running scared. Honestly, it's a good thing there's no 9th skill because I have a feeling I'd be uninstalling after I found it.

Right, so, anyway, after all that the ghosts are freed or happy or reunitied with their loved ones or just saved a bunch of money switching to Geicho. I don't really care because they're characters I never met and have no emotional investment in whatsoever. Could have been a lot more effective if they're resurrected some old NPCs from Pre-Searing - so to speak. And if the whole thing is an exercise in heavy-handed design forcing me to do things rather than allowing me to succeed. Feh on it, says I.

And now I'm standing (Well, okay, I'm seething. Stupid language hasn't caught up with virtual avatars and the bifurcation of identity in an online world just yet. My character is standing...) in the middle of a valley with free roaming Charr standing between me and my destination. There's a little icon on my mini-map. One I've never seen before, actually, but whatever, I know that means I need to make a mad dash for it, I'm just trying to pick out the best route here.

I decide, as I usually do in these things, that it's best to go left? Why left? Well, most people are right-handed and given a choice between turning left and turning right, will tend towards the right. Designers are also aware of this and if there's something nasty waiting for me, it's more than like as not on the right side while the left might not have seen as much attention because it's not where most players would go. Yes, I do overthink these things. Have we met before? Because, you should know, I overthink everything.

There's a Seige Devourer along the way. He's a bit tougher than the Charr patrols that I've snared and Distorted my way away from. But there's a cliff lip right next to him that I use to obstruct his shots long enough to fly past him.

After that, it's a straight run into the snowy foothills where I encounter... a cutscene.

Fuck me. Seriously? Seriously, that's it? The end of the mission is me running like a little punk throgh a bunch of enemies so I can stumble half-dead into a bunch of Vanguard who are inexplicably camped nearby?

I couldn't, say, run into them while they were desperately fighting off a bunch of Charr and use my awesome (Yet inexplicably) found new skills in order to help them survive? I couldn't actually do something besides solve a ghost mystery that would make Scooby-Doo groan?

Gah, I have to go pound rusty nails through my dick to calm down. Because that's going to be a less excruciating pain than the headache I have now.

If I had to rank the bonus missions this one would be well far down on the list. It just does not, to me, work well. Other people might disagree. And, perhaps, my expectations were too high heading in since I'll cop to no small amount of fondness for Gwen and the Guild Wars of yesteryear. I expected... I don't know what. But something awesome, something good, something better than what I wound up getting, anyway.

Okay? Everything I said about stealth missions with Saul? Goes double for cases like this where you don't even have any offensive skills, just defensive stuff and the crap to keep you alive. But, Saus, I hear you ask? Wasn't your complaint that it felt wrong to have a bunch of awesome killing tools at your disposal only to be told you can't use them? Wasn't your concern about the loss of flexibility and being strapped to the railroads of plot contrivance when there are other options available, just not made valid? Don't, by removing any skills outside of what the developers want you to be doing, the designers also remove that sense of a false choice? Which is, granted, a good point.

But my fundamental issue with stealth elements goes deeper than that, so it bugs me even more here. And that's because I play games like this to feel empowered. To feel like I'm in control of something, that I'm powerful and can take matters into my own hands and accomplish things because that's just how wonderful and amazing I am. Running around, sulking away from detection, and being scared I'm going to get killed at any moment with little way of defending myself does the exact opposite. If I wanted to feel disempowered, I'd go talk to my boss or try and get a date or think about all those songs I haven't sung and those mountains I haven't climbed and the inevitable rush of time that means I'm closer to death now than I ever was before and there's nothing I can do to change that. I can already feel weak and small, in other words, just fine on my own, in the real world, and I play games to escape that. Not reinforce it.

This mission is all about feeling afraid and feeling hopeless (And, granted, it's also about fighting back and regaining some small measure of control in a world gone wrong. About learning to seize destiny rather than be tossed about by it which is, you know, nice and all but that's the storyline. The gameplay itself doesn't bear that out.) so it's already got a strike against it, in my, of course, all-important book (Because, it's all about me, after all. No one else's enjoyment matters. This is, in case I'm not being clear enough, being typed with heavy sarcasm. I am sneering at my keyboard even now.). It's not helped by the fact that it's really, really, really easy. Once you figure out how to beat the Siege Devourer - which you should be able to do if you've just been lobotomized what with all the clues the game throws in your face - then all you have to do is run. Just run to the exit. I got wrapped up trying to help the ghosts and collect awesome new skills but I didn't need to. The exit was right there, in front of me, I just missed it. And I could have made it to the finish line with the skills I had on my bar at the beginning. Or even just by watching the radar map. That's a good thing as far as speed runs and setting records are concerned but not so much for the difficulty level.

And the worst thing is that, after the mission was done, I wasn't left feeling satisfied or content, instead I was left wondering, "That's it?" I got through it all without feeling like I'd accomplished much of anything. I threw a rock at a pillar, ran to a switch, ran through a mausoleum, and ran across a field and....that's it. There was no grand, climactic event. No boss fight or final puzzle to solve that wrapped up the experience. No climax before the denouement to release all that pent up tension and emotion created by, and I'll give full credit here, the excellent atmosphere and bleak sense of desperation created by the skillful designers. The details, the environment were note perfect, it was just in service of mission goals that weren't much of anything.

No comments: