a Play By Mail item by J Nash (Wednesday November 11th, 2009)
Every now and then I buy a game several years late on Ebay and play it all the way through while e-mailing my top showbiz chums S Campbell, K Gillen and Z Nicholson every impression of the title as it occurs to me, live, for days or weeks at a time. Not so much reviews as fingery monologues of sequential mind-changing in microscopic detail at punishing length courageously tolerated by a mystified audience of disappointed professionals, this is Play By Mail.
TODAY’S EPISODE. Despite Dredd vs Death’s rubbishness, spectacularly establishing Mega-City One and then jettisoning it within half a level in favour of shooting vamps and zombs in corridors and, on the X-Box (and I still can’t get over this) unalterably setting the control sticks backwards, I also purchase Rogue Trooper. What will happen next? All e-mails are unedited except where noted. You should see how I write birthday cards. I draw tiny comic strips on small pieces of card. That is how I write birthday cards.
(Incidentally, there’s no Play By Mail for Dredd vs Death. I think I was too busy forcing my pretty hands to work wrongly so I could play it all the way through, then again on Hard, just to be completely sure it was rubbish. CURSE YOU 2000AD FOR MAKING ME THIS WAY. ALSO AMIGA POWER.)
It’s surprisingly great. The end.
Slight edit: some textbook sitcom confusion over what I’m on about.
Not the top Des Des isometricker, but the Rebellion one which came out in about 2005 and appears to have sprung from the design principle of gathering in a room everyone responsible for Dredd vs Death then gassing them.
Slight edit: eventually we establish it’s the X-Box version of the Rebellion one, which K Gillen liked a lot but thought a bit too easy and S Campbell judged an adequate potboiler not interesting enough to keep playing after a few initial hours.
Potboiler’s a fair description, but it’s an impressively coherent one, lovingly polished. It’s transparently aping a hundred other games — battlefields, squads, stealth, flak cannon vs strafe-y flivvers, etc etc — but I enjoyed it thoroughly, plugging it in apprehensively then playing it straight through to the end without a break for 12 hours.
For one thing they obviously like the chars — as you recall, in the comic Helm was his hat and Bagman was a bag, but here Helm is a super-hacker (leading to the excellent device of lobbing your hat on a console to crack a door while you fight off unamused guards, a bit like a tiny shellacked Natalya) and the salvage idea is roughly perfect as you scamper around robbing corpses for Bagsy to convert into equipment and new “underslungs” (the secondary weap gimmick that properly retains Gunnar; as you recall 2, one of the prime idiocies of Dredd was that they gave you a Lawgiver but you almost immediately ran out of ammo so were ridiculously forced to use other people’s feeble pistols, etc, as in every other FPS ever). Supporting chars and enemies are also straight out of the strip* or infused with the strip flavour — there’s a terrifying bit where the unlockable encyclopaedia mentions mutated Nu Earth rats and spiders but they appear ages in for approximately a quarter of a level (and even then you can avoid the rats altogether, they’re guarding a bonus); as you recall 3, the Dredd analogue would be you fight Norts for ten minutes then it’s rats and spiders for the entire rest of the game.
The shoot-from-cover device changes the game significantly from a dash and pepper. After a bit of practice I was diving between clumps of quartz just ahead of whistling machine-gun bullets then waiting patiently for the Nort squads to advance, spotting them by the suit exhausts and using the ingenious targeting to pop up and shoot their air tanks to make them blow up (you inevitably get the occasional bloke grenading himself, but the NPCs are pretty canny and can keep you occupied for ages. Also, everyone goes “Stak!” and “Nain!” all the time) then charging forwards to overwhelm the stragglers, winning a sniper duel*** and bombing the gun nest. Controlling Rogue feels natural and flexible and satisfying. Ironically, the hindrance early on to seeing if you can sneak around for the fun of it (there are dedicated stealthy bits later which happily you can still beat if you bumblingly set off the alarms) are your chum GIs, who insist on belting ahead as you’re setting up an ambush in their frolicky haste to meet their area-scripted deaths.
A couple of bits don’t work. Most seriously, the way they’ve handled Rogue blocking the camera doesn’t quite come off; you temporarily become translucent through invisible depending on the severity, but the view can sometimes snap to and jam on invisible for longer than you’d expect, especially in buildings, which concusses your eyes in a firefight. Idiotically, though you can invert the Y this is ignored by the advanced bomb lob where you aim with a visible trajectory line so your fingers always go wrong in a crisis. (The worst example is a bit in the tutorial where you have to spray Bagsy’s micro-mines from behind a wall, so the traj line is barely visible and you probably won’t realise you were crossly flicking the stick the opposite way until your first grenade mishap minutes later. Fortunately, you can jump over the wall instead and micro-mines are optional for the rest of the game; I only used them when hitting the wrong button by accident.) An on-rails flying bit has rubbish checkpoints — it shows up the tight pacing of the rest of the game because suddenly you’re thrown backwards for miles when you die. (A second on-rails bit also has rubbish checkpoints but is my favourite section, a loony Galaxian 3 intermission on a train.) And there are two or three lazooka bits which are purely visual: you have to blow up a blackmare which ambushes your side but it’s scripted not to hit anybody and all you have to do is hold down a button until a targeting bar fills up; these feel like they were left in because nobody had the heart to tell Blackmare Bob he’d been wasting his drawing wrist. (And to be fair, there are other bits where you’re attacked with lazookas, which are horribly hairy because you have a sec or two to fling in a sniper shot before the sinister tubes puff out their sun-sized globes of speckly doom.)
Also: when you finally meet the Southers, they’re all cut-glass Brits. I’d always seen them as Former Colonials in the strip and all the early bits have gravelly mid-Atlantic GIs and Milli-Com radio bulletins, so it was jarringly like having Comedy Pilot Bertie from Timesplitters 3 turn up.
It is a bit disappointing that I’m immediately playing through again on Massacre and there aren’t any new objectives or anything, it’s just that hits knock off a bit more energy than before. (And, curiously, not that much more. Apart from being slaughtered in a crossfire or two, I’m jogging through at more or less the same rate as on Normal.) On the other hand: I’m immediately playing through again.
No doubt people who play games can list exactly where R Trooper pinched each of its ideas — clearly the battlefields are influenced by those Call of Honour things, for instance — but they mesh together splendidly in a way I didn’t at all expect, particularly after Reb’s promise-wasting, cumbersomely pedestrian J Dredd (sum of good bits: the first half of level one and the Smokatorium). The levels are huge and stocked with incident and it’s telling there’s no deathmatch; instead you and chums have to crash through heavy Nort lines to secure an authentically pointless patch of rubbish, or crash through heavy Nort lines the other way to escape from a drop that went badly wrong again. Encouragingly for me, if you switch off the timer on these bits you can play through on your own. (A third multi-player type, where you have to defend a wounded GI for minutes, is impossible with one person because the idiot bloke is immediately traced and shot to bits by the Norts while you’re waiting to respawn.) In conclusion, R Trooper is at least as good as Des Des’s isometricky Speccy one. The end 2.
*Weird bit: the story itself is straightforward tosh, a plain remix of the Traitor General assembled by G Rennie without any of G Finley-Day’s trademark fabulous insanity — you go to Nu Paree, for example, but it’s a generic war city rather than the home of Space Toulouse Lautrec or something** — but to jam in an uninteresting final level they’ve transformed the T Gen from a spindly featureless plot device perfunctorily killed off when the original The Fugitive storyline ran out of legs into a ray gun superhume who inexplicably becomes king of the Norts and survives an exploding building falling on him to foreshadow the sequel. (Spoiler! Oh.) It’s a minor shame because the rest of the game correctly emphasises the impersonal planetary war machine you’re versus.
**And women guaranteed after two eps to betray you, obv. Good old GF Day. I hope he’s interviewed in the new 2000AD Mega-History. He’s one of the unsung backbones never flashy enough to court the attention, a bit like best ever Dredd artist Ron Smith.
***Which with a single wrinkle embarrass Halo 2 by giving the Nort snipers a laser sight. Instead of yomping around and suddenly you’re insta-killed from a mile away, you’re yomping around and suddenly there’s a bright green hairline to your bonce and you have a brief lurching moment to dive away then tensely poke your head out to pin down the sniper cubby.
Quick update. The difficulty is all over the shop in Massacre. I was thoroughly killed in (by coincidence) Nu Paree, but apart from that and the Galaxian 3 train (which I clicked by using the old G3 tactic of ignoring the scripted flyby attacks and shooting only the loco-puckering missiles) I’ve had little trouble. The firefights are fiercer, but I can outscrap the Norts comfortably, have the hang of cover and recovery and have been killed perhaps four times in the whole thing.
I’m currently stuck on a sniper duel with the Nort number one — in another slap on the back for Rebellion, they’ve faithfully cast the part by disinterring throwaway char Morgen from his half-an-ep run in 1983 or thereabouts — and this has shown up one of the few indefensible idiocies of the game. Morgen’s the Petrified Forest boss, so he’s right at the end of an hour or so of fossil-jungle fighting, plus beyond a couple of security gates, plus inside a locked building, plus behind a locked back door. When he kills you with his eight-foot-long rifle from his perch up a hill because you’re juggling guns trying to rocket the circling hoppa which is spraying flying blow-uppy decapitators, the checkpoint is before you enter the building. Steeeeeupid.
(Fall for them once and you can easily shimmy past the three or four ambushes on the way to the back door key without permanent damage, so Reb can’t even claim they’re softening you up. Which reminds me: R Trooper riffs cleverly on Halo’s shield recharge; you rapidly regain your manly GI puff, but a fierce blast or direct volley can impair your health bar until you scrabble for your injecto-meds, meaning you recharge only to x% strength. Pleasingly, the hard damage is variable rather than formalising the wounds at 75%, 50%, etc, so there’s plenty of scope to charge the Nort lines rashly or ignore a grenade stuck to your head because diving out of cover would be the worse option.)
A minor error is the salvage bonuses. As you recall with your powerful head-minds, I mentioned that pecking through corpse clothes not only gives Bagsy the raw materials to fling out ammo, new bits of gun, etc, but the game keeps track of your overall looting score and runs a Nu-Earth Encyclopaedia where you pay to unlock advanced entries. By finishing the game on Normal and reaching about a third of the way through Massacre, I’ve amassed enough bits of broken cog and official Nort teeth to hit the 100,000 point max and open everything. But that was just in the normal course of playing: I’m still finding hidden salv stashes (for example, there’s a twisty secret path up the inside of a Pet Forest tree) but there’s no point to it. Strange oversight. You’d think they’d have totted up the max possible — salv hoards give you thousands of points where rifling a corpse’s wallet gives hundreds, obv — then added some super-secret strip scans or something.
QA-annoying fans will be pleased to know I’ve crashed out of the world by trying to dive across a Pet Forest fissure to reach some apparently unlootable sniper bodies, landing awkwardly on a big root and climbing from there through a wall texture. Particularly odd as the climb trigger (along with taking cover, etc) has to be placed specifically by the lev designer, so there must have been one there for me to plunge through, but! more interesting than some ol’ polygon glitch is that I completely outmanoeuvred the Gunnar safeguards. In The Style Of… P Dark, you can set up your psychotic rifle (weirdly portrayed in the game as an aw-shucks youngster) as a sentry gun, though you have to put him down carefully with a penalisingly slow animation instead of lobbing him into place which makes him a weapon of foresight rather than opportunity.* Instantly you wonder what happens if you then neglect to pick him up again. The designers are ahead of you though: if a level is split into airlock areas, you can’t open the door without going back for Gunnar, in a similar way to Helm whiffling a hacked door only when you retrieve him. Except: in the level where you’re point for a squad of trapped Southers trying to reach the Galax 3 escape train,** the final section is down a vent hole. If you plant Gunnar in the bunker above then leap through, Helm complains (“We can’t leave Gunnar behind”) but the game lets you get away with it — in fact, the flythrough anim for the next chamber clearly shows you with Gunsy in your fist. Obviously you’re then immediately killed because your backup pistol*** is so rubbish it has infy ammo. Still. Take that, paid testers with your jobs and prospects. That’s you told.
*You can also stuff a silencer on Gunnar. There’s no disadvantage to this — you don’t move more slowly and (as far as I can tell from firing 6000000000 bullets) it doesn’t weaken your attack or anything — and with the silencer on you can obv blast groups of Norts without necessarily alerting others. I’ve had the thing attached since finding it in level one. It looks as if Reb were counting on you listening to Gunnar (“A silencer? But I like it loud”) and GI-ly defying the extra danger of an untrammelled muzzle, but if that’s the case they don’t make enough of it. Naturally there’s a bunch of bits I’ve never bothered to use except for the tutorial — a holodecoy, the micromines, etc — but the silencer feels unfinished, almost as if there was supposed to have been a related stat, the opposite of Killmoves Achieved, where you creep up behind someone. Hmmm.
**Applaudably, nowhere in the game do you lose if the feisty but typically charge-happy Southers manage to get themselves killed.
***Curious omission for Reb’s attention to detail: it’s not the Major Magnum model.
Incidentally, to polish this one off, I finished R Trooper on Massacre ages ago. It is indeed still too easy, except the final level where you’re fighting the strip supervillain brigade the Kashans (ie, the blokes who ambushed you in the Quartz Massacre in Prog 238)228! Gah. in a city and it’s super-intense and tricky because they’re cunning and have riot shields. This makes the by-the-numbers boss endgame even more boringly undistinguished, but overall the game’s a splendid thing.
Also, I beat the second, harder sniper duel bit where you’re meant to dodge around a small arena stormed by Norts while trying to spot the scopebloke and trusting the ground troops to Venus Bluegenes’ cover fire by staying outside instead and firing at an Oswaldian angle through a doorway. This is course entirely acceptable as it accurately references the bit in All Hell on the Dix-I Front where Gerry Finley-Day achieves new heights of logic-conquering by having R Trooper defeat a hostage-holding saboteur with the caption, “Rogue’s lightning brain calculated angles and velocities and…” and a speech bubble where he shouts a precise number in degrees to computer rifle Gunnar who’s on a table. One unexplained self-propelled spin to that angle and a “clik — BANG — spanggg” off two walls later and the hostage, a transparent-chem-suited dancer in a bar, is saved. Naturally, as she’s a woman, it later transpires she was a double agent and has paralysed Rogue with a toxin when briefly clutching his manly blue shoulder in thanks. I think GF-Day should take over Dr Who, or the Nine o’Clock News.