Deeper In The Pile: Shadow Warrior

We spent the better part of 2013 discussing videogames as art, and that discussion almost always involved the addition to the conversation of both Mr Roger Ebert, and Bioshock Infinite. Mr Ebert’s actual argument against games as an art form was, to my mind, a flawed one – and we didn’t, mostly, address both his core argument and the core problem with his argument. Nonetheless, we wound up talking about Bioshock Infinite an enormous amount last year. What we didn’t talk about nearly as much, however, was Shadow Warrior (2013), which is a strange thing when you consider the two games are basically identical.

Don’t believe me?

Spoilers, of course, for the two games below the fold.

Legacy

Once upon a time, there was a game called System Shock 2 and that’s where all critical commentary sort of ends. You may have heard of System Shock 2, and I may have foamed at the mouth talking about System Shock 2, and you can go and play System Shock 2 if you particularly want to.

Then, after System Shock 2, there was this game called Bioshock, which was a game that examined the fundamentally obedient nature of the videogame protagonist in first-person shooters, about the proclivity of supposedly normal people to engage in violence simply because they were directed to do it by a reassuring, authoritative voice.

These games have the damning weight of being considered two of the greatest games in their genre ever made, and stand head and shoulders above their peers in terms of critical affection and impact on design sensibilities. Even if gamers did not love these games, game critics and game designers love the hell out of these games.

Bioshock Infinite was born into a world where its name and legacy were going to be huge strikes against it. It was going to be damned for not being perfect, and there was a real fear that the game would not be able to overcome that reputation. Then it came out, and people praised it for being excellent, despite it being a markedly worse game than either of its forebears. Strange, that.

Once, Zero Punctuation declared that Bioshock was a fine game, just ‘shallower than advertised,’ and I would take it a step further. Bioshock Infinite is a game that’s a shallower than it thinks it is – and it shows in contrast to the terrifying depth underneath System Shock 2.

There are three games of note in Shadow Warrior (2013)’s heritage. First and most recently is Hard Reset, a game with an awful plot and framing device, but a fun old-school approach to run-and-gun gameplay. Second is the game that earned the developers the cred and therefore the borrowed money to make Hard Reset in the first place, Painkiller. Painkiller is something of an icon in the brainless, violent, excessive videogame arena shooter genre, a game that predates the rise of the Modern Military Shooter. Personally, my play experience of Painkiller is quite brief – but what I can remember is this feels like a really good version of Doom.

Then there’s Shadow Warrior. The old one. The one by 3D realms. The one that makes me feel uncomfortable because I’m pretty sure it’s racist as hell and I can’t put my finger on just why it’s so damn racist. The one that makes me feel creepy when women get involved, as all Build engines do, the Bros of Nukem.

Thing is, if you line these three games up, you can look back in time and see a really obnoxious game, a less obnoxious game, a much less obnoxious game, and then Shadow Warrior (2013). Or a mechanically unremarkable game, a fantastic game, an attempt to recapture that game, and a polished, modern, excellent game.

It’s funny that Shadow Warrior (2013) has a slightly better reflected present because its historical heritage includes only one game that regularly is called a best game ever, rather than two.

Companion Character

I said in the past that any criticism I have for Bioshock Infinite is not directed at Elizabeth, who I set apart in her own little safety bubble. Elizabeth is not a perfect character by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s volumes handled well there. You can complain about the fact she is a non-combat wingman, but as a non-combat wingman she’s excellent. You can complain that she is a young woman rescued by a father figure as part of a greater trend of young women rescued by father figures, but, as that young woman rescued by a father figure, she nonetheless introduces herself to you by hitting you with books. Elizabeth is a symptom of many bad trends in videogames, but the ways she subverts those trends are, to me, meaningful. I like Elizabeth. I like her Disney Princess aesthetic, I like her scientific language, I like that she clubs Booker in the face with a wrench hard enough to knock him out. I don’t actually find her mechanical input all that meaningful, but it’s nice.

I’m fairly sure that I don’t like Hoji more. Hoji is a character whose invisible presence throughout the game is justified by him being basically a ghost. Hoji is a smart-mouthed, wise-cracking asshole to begin with, which fits well with Lo Wang’s petulant delayed adolescence. The crucial thing with their dynamic is that when Hoji tells a joke, I laugh.

Still, Hoji provides input, comments on story events, helps expand and drive the plot, introduces you to major characters in the story arc, and generally does all that wing-man stuff I like when Elizabeth does it. He’s less interesting – because there are plenty of mouthy, bitchy and bratty male sidekicks in the videogame world – but he’s not bad.

Also, Hoji provides one interesting moment where Lo Wang solves a problem not by fighting it, but by talking it out. I like that. It could be done without Hoji, with some other character, but because Hoji and Lo Wang have a long relationship that the player has seen grow, it feels more like he’s convincing a friend. The language used is very… I want to say Bro-y because I don’t have a good term for it? It ends with a gay joke and is swelled with macho pride – but it’s still something that felt like it mattered because Hoji and Lo Wang care about each other.

Path Of Fightboxes

I talked about Fightboxes, particularly when talking about Hard Reset, Bioshock Infinite, and yes, Shadow Warrior (2013). In all cases, the design is like taking a level and breaking it into smaller levels – parts of the game are transitioning between, or finding, the next combat arena, then you fight in that arena. In some cases, the game even makes you fight through an arena on the way to some place, then refills it with enemies as you fight your way back out. This is known on internet forums as ‘laziness’ and to game developers as ‘economy.’

Bioshock Infinite was an extravagant game, with enormous effort paid to ensure its graphics were as pretty as possible, and its world was as expansive-seeming as they could make it without violating their fightbox design. This made for some weird moments, where hunting down one last opponent was the vital component that would undistract Elizabeth enough that she could pick a lock, or places with vast, open rolling fields of clouds beneath them that felt small and claustrophobic. Worst of all, though, these fightboxes were designed to be places you fought – and in Bioshock Infinite, fighting just isn’t very fun. Enemies tend to be spongey, where individual hits don’t seem to have any impact, even from the most outrageous of weapons. Handymen are the worst for it, of course, being near-boss-level threats that eat up ammunition and never seem to care about what you do to them. It would be a shame, really, to waste ammunition for weapons you liked on targets that didn’t notice it, but the game has you covered there by making the guns themselves unutterably boring.

Shadow Warrior (2013), on the other hand, has gun combat that’s fun. You have about the same number of opponent types, but in Shadow Warrior (2013), every enemy type behaves in very distinctly different ways, and there’s a universal mechanic that encourages the player to diversify what abilities they use to fight.

Magic and swordplay are very effective against enemies – particularly the melee enemies – but using those effects around demons releases energy that they consume. You can kill quite a lot of demons quickly by using these high-risk attacks, but you run the risk of enraging demons – making them more powerful and even more risky to fight. Enraged demons are best engaged with guns (or if you’re a showoff, killed quickly while they’re enraging). The first time this happens you’ll probably decide you can handle the risk – not realising that in the more dense fightboxes, you might find yourself fighting four or five enraged demons at the same time – while trying to find a clean place to stand.

Powers

In Bioshock Infinite, the vigors are there to – well, okay, they’re there to make it feel more like Bioshock, but let’s pretend that they’re there for some greater purpose. They’re there to make the combat feel varied; vigors can be used in combination with one another to do things to opponents that strongly resemble shooting them in the face. This is a way to keep a second ammo system parallel to the first, and a way to reward battlefield awareness. That’s how these tools could be used, but they’re really not. People pick a vigor they like and use it. Sometimes they’ll swap to another vigor when an enemy explicitly calls for it (like Possession on the robots), but otherwise, your vigor is just a secondary gun, a short-term stun.

With Shadow Warrior (2013) the magic system is a different beast indeed. First, it’s activated by keypresses no matter what your current weapon is. I like this system better because it makes them both more readily accessible, but also actually skill-based to execute. It’s funny how by making things more difficult, they’ve also made them more fun. The powers also have more tangible impact – some enemies will be immune to them (at first), because of their rage status. This also rewards a battlefield awareness.

Also is how the tools are introduced; Bioshock Infinite uses its vigor as a key that has to be used to open a door (and precisely one door), while in Shadow Warrior (2013), the introduction to the magic system is your utilitarian self-heal. You will use this self-heal quite a bit, and it serves a useful purpose for all encounters – you will have around a minimum of two thirds of your health going into every fight. Thanks to that, all encounters can be designed with a certain amount of incoming damage without risking obliterating a player who came out of an encounter in a nasty state.

Bioshock Infinite lacks this particular perk, and uses its shield instead. The trick you learn early – Possession overcomes locked doorways – is never again used. A shame, a wasted opportunity.

Gunplay

Almost all guns in Bioshock Infinite are similar. The rocket launcher stands significantly apart, but otherwise the weapons are very samey, and the two-weapon system asks you to keep moving between guns you enjoy in the name of using guns for which you have ammunition. I wish I had a more meaningful assessment here – but it’s just an accepted point from all quarters. The guns in Bioshock Infinite were a bit crap.

On the other hand, the guns in Shadow Warrior (2013) feel and look very distinct to one another. I shouldn’t be surprised that the people behind Painkiller were capable of constructing good guns. You have a six-shooter pistol that can pour out bullets in a precise narrow spread but takes so long to reload you’ll spend the entire time running backwards, a shotgun that bellows like Brian Blessed stubbed his toe, a not-really-an-Uzi that you can dual wield in a reference to the previous game, reloads fast, but every individual shot does about as much damage as a spitball, a rocket launcher, a flamethrower, torn out hearts, and the decapitated heads of your enemies.

The oddest thing about the guns in Shadow Warrior (2013) is the upgrade system. It costs money to upgrade a gun, as does ammunition, but you don’t have to go anywhere to spend it. Literally, anywhere you are, you can immediately turn some cash into an upgrade, or cash into ammunition. While this flouts suspension of disbelief, I can’t deny it’s useful. In one boss fight I sat for several minutes looking at the purchase screen, measuring in my mind whether it was worth delaying a future upgrade in the name of more rockets right now. I never had that kind of choice moment in Bioshock Infinite.

Plot Twist

In case you weren’t aware, Bioshock Infinite’s story has a plot twist. I know, right? Bioshock had a twist, Bioshock 2 tried to have a twist, System Shock 2 had a twist, and here we are, Bioshock Infinite, twistin’ it all up.

When Bioshock Infinite was being distributed, one of the points of concern from Mr Levine was that the game’s marketing push was refined towards appealing to younger males, who marketers have famously decried as having ‘read one book, seen one movie.’ The idea is that videogame consumers, as an audience, are not familiar with a wide variety of culture and art. They do not necessarily know who Keyser Soze is, or what Rosebud is, or what, exactly, Margarita is and why it has a master. This is useful information when you pay attention to the plot of Bioshock Infinite.

The twist is that Comstock and Booker are alternate-dimension versions of one another. This is not at all remarkable to fans of science fiction, or comics, or – you know what, just go check the TVtropes page, seriously. It’s a perfectly serviceable idea that lets you explore story elements like the duality of a self, or contrast two different ways a person’s life can run. What it isn’t, however, is unique. The story of Bioshock Infinite is actually a bit pedestrian. I mean, it’s not bad, but I think the first time I saw a plot twist like it I was seven?

The big plot twist is acceptable, but the attitude the plot has about its plot twist isn’t. It’s not even amazingly executed. What Bioshock Infinite does with its plot twist is where it irritates me, though.

After introducing the idea that Booker is responsible for some dreadful things and grappling with guilt, after showing him rejecting the idea that any simple gesture could save him, after showing the falseness of religious expression for his forgiveness, what does the story do?

Booker’s story concludes with him accepting a death – being sacrificed in a religious gesture that earns him forgiveness.

Prior to this point, remember, Bioshock Infinite has been a story focused more on Elizabeth than it is on Booker. How does it end for Elizabeth?

We don’t know. We’re not told the ending of Elizabeth’s story, because Elizabeth’s story isn’t as important as the end of Booker’s story. I felt this was the real let-down of Bioshock Infinite, which had prior to this point been showing me two stories, side by side.

Now, personally, I hate this kind of plot resolution. When you kill off the central character as the end of the story, it almost always makes me imagine the storyteller has run out of options to explain other things, and wants to put down a definitive end. You can see many stories where a complicated, intricate puzzle is thrown out the window and the conclusion of the story is one major character dying after some revelation about love. Yes, I’m talking about Lost.

Now, knowing that, Shadow Warrior (2013) ends with the secondary protagonist sacrificing himself while in the throes of guilt for recovering his memory and realising what he’d done to a beloved female relative.

Hrm.

Thing is, in Shadow Warrior (2013), Hoji’s death and sacrifice are snap decisions made in a short moment. It’s not something he constructs and chooses, nor something that Hoji previously rejected – it’s a desperate bid to die free, by his own choice, and to save his homeland. This also represents the end of a real development arc for Hoji – an arc that has featured him being manipulative, adversarial and even pitiful. Hoji’s end does not snap the story closed – it ends his arc, but allows the protagonist, Lo Wang, to continue the story, and resolve it. Also, importantly, it doesn’t force one of the most major choices a character can make, the choice to live or die, upon the player’s perspective.

Setting

The praise Bioshock Infinite receives for its setting, which is, no lies, pretty interesting and weird, amuses me. It amuses me because Bioshock Infinite and Bioshock were both praised for a setting that took advantage of the strangeness of videogames to go someplace truly new – and Bioshock 2 was criticised for not being a different location. Yes, different, we’re told, different is what Videogames provide us.

You know what we clearly don’t have enough of in the global culture, the greater shared world created by videogames? America. Thank goodness Ken Levine’s videogames stepped up to take us to this fascinating land of America, a culture far too often overlooked in our exploration of fantastic realms. Why, we’ll get interesting insights into what Americans are like, how they treated one another, in their growing up and in their marrying and in their living and in their dying, and particularly in how they regarded the uprising of oppressed minorities.

I don’t have much to say about the setting of Shadow Warrior (2013), I just wanted to make that previous joke. Shadow Warrior (2013) is set somewhere in an Asian community. I don’t know where, because I don’t recognise the precise differences. It refers to Yakuza, which I think indicates Japan, but on the other hand, Lo Wang’s ancestry is probably Chinese. Zilla is almost certainly not a native name, and while there’s kanji all over the place on the walls, that doesn’t mean it’s actually set anywhere in particular. On the other hand, it doesn’t feel like Yet Another America, which is nice.

Conclusion

What I’m left with at the end of this exploration is accepting the strange reality that Bioshock Infinite and Shadow Warrior (2013) are rather close cousins, in terms of videogames. They’re the same basic type of game, with the same basic plot arc and character archetypes. The strangest part of it, then, is why Shadow Warrior (2013) was mentioned in passing towards the end of the year, while Bioshock Infinite was and still is considered one of the greatest games of 2013. The answer seems to be a fairly predictable one, though; Games Journalists believed a game telling them what it was.

Bioshock Infinite was remarkable over Shadow Warrior (2013) only the degree to which it’s impressed with itself. Shadow Warrior (2013) did not release to a hyped up campaign espousing things that should not be impressive (we have a girl in this game!), it simply came out with tight controls, a varied-but-not-overwhelming combat system, and well designed levels that enabled the exploration of a decent plot.

If you haven’t tried Shadow Warrior (2013), it’s definitely worth your time – I was stunned by how much I enjoyed it. Certainly, if you think Bioshock Infinite was one of the best games ever made, you really should play Shadow Warrior (2013). It’ll broaden your horizons a little, certainly.

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