Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Arrows in Smallville and a Trip into Video Game Future

Hole made by Arrow (aka: an impression)

[for my prescient review of the Arrow Video Game, scroll down]

Smallville was... strange. What started out as a teen-dream TV-version of Superboy and spent its first few years trying to tell the same "green-meteorite-affects-Smallville-person-in-evil-ways-and-makes-Clark's-heroics-a-little-more-difficult", matured (if you can call it that) to at least a semi-respectable comic adaptation, holding a steady prime-time slot for no less than 10 seasons. Granted, it never outgrew the feeling that even after 10 years it was still being made for a 10-year old, and its pathos, plot twists, "dark secrets" and tedious relationships rivaled at times the most bubbly of soaps.

So when fans of Smallville tuned in to Arrow, CW's re-imagining of DC's Star City vigilante Green Arrow, a show made by some of the same people as "the Struggling and Overly Complicated Relationships of Clark Kent - and Some Heroics in Cheap-Looking Costumes", they may have been surprised. Arrow is dark. Mysterious. Morally ambiguous.
Arrow kills people. With arrows. It was impressively refreshing. Superheroes don't kill people. Yes, sometimes they may choose not to save someone really evil and be forgiven, but generally it's a big "no-no". Additionally, Arrow chose to limit the spoon-feeding of plot-points to a bare minimum - which is a nice way of saying that the first few episodes left people a bit confused. Where did that list of villains for the Arrow to punish come from? Why would he choose such a strangely colored vigilante outfit in an Urban environment? Whose kid belonged that cheap rubber Deathstroke mask to that was staked out on the beach? And why would he wear so much eye-liner all alone on an isolated island? Some of these questions have by now been answered, and the way those answers came supports Arrow's claim of a more sophisticated (and darker) look at "The Superhero".

However, once Ollie had returned to civilization and met up with his former love after five years of legal death, Smallville veterans were back on solid ground. Dialog that was probably meant (or hoped) to be profound and touching, sadly most often played out as that same 10-year old's take on Batman Begins.
Still, Arrow is not bad. It's actually quite good. It's just a bit schizophrenic. Stephen Amell is charming enough and holds his own despite the green make up, the action is actually impressive for weekly TV, but surprisingly (or maybe un-surprisingly) Arrow's best moments consistently happen without the Arrow-persona actually being involved. At the very least, Oliver Queen and the characters surrounding him are definitely not as bland and boring as Clark Kent's Smallville was.

http://images3.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20120603090948/arrow/images/b/b0/Portal-LaurelLance.pngExcept for his counterpart Laurel Lance - at least until now. And can I just say that a re-imagining actually gives you the right to break with certain ridiculous traditions, like the "Double-L" love interest? Lana Lang, Lois Lane, Laurel Lance... There's a thin line between tribute and tedium, and when it comes to the Double-L's, these producers have tedium down pat. I didn't like Laurel Lance the first time I heard her name. It was an instinctual reaction, as those two Ls instantly dragged up all the things I hated about Lana and Lois. I disliked her even more when she started to talk - it all felt like things I had heard a million times before, and much better phrased at that. If the killing was refreshing, how much more refreshing the absence of a moralist love-interest, possibly with a dark side waiting to break out would have been, I could not even begin to tell you. On the other hand, she is quite beautiful, so allowances can be made... Seriously though, I will withhold final judgement until the end of the first season. Katie Cassidy is a good (fine, and hot) actress, that should be allowed to show a much deeper... uhm depth of character as Laurel Lance seems to have. But maybe that will change as the season progresses. I should not (prematurely) rage on a character simply because the writers and producers failed to try something they haven't done before ad nauseam. Maybe it's one of those things you "just have to do" I never seem to understand. I will however reserve the right to tell you "I told you so."

Still, Arrow will probably be quite successful, and should the writers eventually to decide to add the same wit, brains and finesse to the "heroic" dialog as Oliver's conversations with his little sister so often contain - and tune down on the soap opera moments and the painfully obvious "this line will lead straight into a flashback"-lines - it might even become thoroughly enjoyable. Right now though, despite the mostly strong performances of Arrow's leading characters, it still feels a bit like the small and slightly annoying teenaged brother of Chris Nolan's Batman, jumping around in his home-made Robin costume.

It could be really good. All those two guys need are some better scripts.

Oops. Right. I meant those two guys:

Well, arguably, I could've meant both. I mean, all four. And no, they're not the same people. Just look at the hairlines...
(See what I did there? Robin, Chris O'Donnel and the Hooded archer Green Arrow?)
Anyways... with my freeze ray I will stop... uhm. You know. Stuff.

Arrow, the Video Game

One potentially very good thing we might get out of Arrow's success though, could be a possible Arrow Video Game. Now, until a few years ago, most license games were admittedly terrible, Riddick's Escape from Butcher Bay being probably the most notable exception. Then there was Arkham Asylum. And then there was Arkham City. And suddenly the faithful conversion of fan-favorite content into an interactive experience did not seem so impossible anymore.

If you think about it, Green Arrow is basically Batman with a Bow. And Arrows that kill.
Now imagine what homicidal vigilante-fun you could have in an Arkham City environment, with a Bow and Arrows - some tricky, some lethal - and no restrictions when it comes to how much damage you can actually do to your adversaries. Think of a modern-day Assassin's Creed III with Batman's Utility Belt, parcour-style movement with zip-line arrows and grappling-hook arrows, coupled with Batman's stealth and combat mechanics, all built around the central pillar of the Bow. Indoors and outdoors missions, stealth missions, detective missions, the options are many and various, especially with Starling City not being bound to any authentic architectural or historic entity.

Or you could go the obvious way, and make a game about the five years Oliver Queen spends on a remote island fighting mercenaries, the five years of "Learn or Die" Training that made a playboy billionaire into a Deadshot with a Bow.
The overgrown and heavily forested island would offer the open world-setting, the forest itself Queen`s main avenue of movement, and the mercenaries led by Deathstroke the evil to be vanquished.

Akin to Just Cause, the island will have to be liberated by sabotaging the enemy's evil machinations. Outposts will have to be cleared and defended, convoy's ambushed, disguises used to infiltrate bases and "pacify" and high-ranking mercenaries. Raids on Supply Depots would provide the tools to improve weaponry and create new custom arrows out of different combinable components, experimentation with plants provides poisons and "potions", while hunting in the woods provides nourishment and resources. You could even secure your hideouts by using camouflage or placing cunningly concealed traps.

And this is the way I would like to review it:

http://img9.imageshack.us/img9/1552/arrowislandarrival.pngYou begin the game washed ashore in a small lagoon on a remote tropical island. You have nothing but the clothes on your back and whatever can be scavenged from the remains of the life raft that brought you here.
As you explore the environment, you find that you are trapped in a small area, limited by steep cliffs too sheer to climb. Still, there are animals in that area, and some are not too friendly, but for now your only course of action is to run from these encounters. Until one day, you find next to the little hut you built a primitive bow and a few arrows. You spend some time training with the bow, and notice that the more you practice, the better you get, the stronger you get. In a simplified version of Skyrim's "Leveling by Doing" system, every shot with the retrievable arrows increases your aim, range and power - quite fast at first, but becoming a Master of the Bow will of course take a considerable amount of time.

After using your new-found skills to bring down some hopefully edible critters and regain your strength, your next task will be to escape the lagoon. Somebody must be up there, hopefully the mysterious benefactor that provided bow and arrow.
The idea is to use a rope or vine attached to an arrow shot at a tree on top of the cliff, a shot the untrained Queen could not have made. Getting up high enough into the forest to find a sufficiently long vine introduces the climbing mechanics, that in a way similar to Assassin's Creed III has you tentatively scaling the lofty heights to reach the jungle canopy. Your movements will be awkward at first, and you will fall, but it's part of the learning experience. Eventually having vanquished the vines of your immediate world, you will find that a small rodent sized monkey has made off with your bow. Chasing him down will introduce you to a way of speedy locomotion by swinging and jumping from tree branch to tree branch, but as with everything else, you start out helpless and only practice will make you better.

When you've finally managed to reach the top of the cliff, you encounter the mysterious man in the hood, who subsequently goes on to kick your a$$. The a$$-kicking is witnessed by the little monkey that had stolen your bow, apparently the man's pet and obviously part of a sinister conspiracy to make your life miserable.
http://img.gawkerassets.com/img/184ngpu1si758jpg/original.jpgThe intent of this demonstration was, of course, to drive home the point of your utter helplessness. The second part of the game begins with your advanced training in combat, archery, stealthy stalking and speedy movement, conducted by both the Hooded Man and his monkey. Once again, you will only be able to exit this training area if your skills have sufficiently increased to actually do so - and even then you have to figure out the way.

With your training progressing, you soon gain access to a bigger part of the island, and the Hooded Man will take you on a few hunting outings, providing you with the knowledge necessary plant deadly traps, skin and butcher caught animals, use plants to make poisons and potions, and in general forage the woods for raw materials to make weapons, arrows, clothing and other things of use. He will also teach you a few nifty tricks, like shooting multiple arrows, as well as introduce your first trick arrow, the Snare Arrow, that lets you trip and bind animals (of all kinds) from afar. The most important part of your hunting training however is your newly gained ability to focus, to slow down the time around you for precision and special skill shots.

http://img.gawkerassets.com/img/184neuqzz6br9jpg/original.jpgIt is also around that time that you first realize - and quite painfully so - that the two of you are not the only inhabitants of the island. A group of vicious mercenaries has made it their base of operation, and control most of the territory through a multitude of outposts and guard stations. You find out that your hooded friend has led a private, solitary war against those mercenaries, who, despite diligent attempts, have not yet managed to kill or even find him. But in you they have found a possible chink in the Hooded Man's armor, a weakness they will try to exploit. Especially after the Hooded Man rescues you right out of their evil clutches.

During your daring escape from the Base, the Hooded Man will show you another very useful tool, this one aimed at speedy transportation across long distances: the Paraglide-Arrow. Basically this arrow, attached to a rope and fired high into the sky, will deploy a para-chute to catch the strong winds prevailing above the island and quickly whisk you out of harm's way. The Para-Arrow is your primary means of traversing long distances, but to actually reach your destination you will first travel to an area below the wind stream going where you want to go. It sounds complicated at first, but you soon find yourself traveling across the island with ease. Of course you will be able to hijack and drive enemy vehicles, from motorbikes to Armored Personnel Carriers, but it's just not as satisfying (or impressive) as floating high above the islands.

Now that you are part of the war effort, your attacks on mercenary camps and supply depots will gain you access to technology and resources you can use to enhance your equipment and create custom trick arrows with different effects. From Stun-Arrows, Binding-Arrows, Gag-Arrows or Explosive-Arrows, the right ingredients allow you to make an arrow for every occasion, and grants a certain degree of individuality, catering to your own play-style.

The most important development however comes when you are deprived of your hooded teacher quite early in the game, and long before you have learned all there is to know. You have the basic skills to survive and fight, but are nowhere near good enough to take on Deathstroke himself.
http://www.accesshollywood.com/content/images/175/400x400bd/175838_stephen-amell-as-oliver-queen-in-arrow-episode-1-season-1.jpgAs you are now using your mentor's old hideout, you can use your old training equipment (or build new equipment) to improve your skills. During the game, you will gain access to more hideouts, all of which you can improve with the right resources. You can also spend some time camouflaging your hide-outs from spying eyes and, in a nod to the popular Tower-Defense games a few years back, can plant traps in the area around it, granting you additional time to defend or flee a hideout in case of an attack.

There are also quite a lot of different skill and trick shots you can still learn, their availability depending on your Bow Proficiency Level. Those are not just handed to you, though; they have to be earned. Opportunities to learn shots available at your current level will present themselves in semi-random events you encounter while playing.

http://www.blogcdn.com/www.comicsalliance.com/media/2012/10/arrow13.pngThese events basically present you with a challenge, a chance to figure out a new shot by doing it, but contrary to common quick-time-events, there are no button prompts - the things you have to do just all make sense once you figure the out. As an example, stirring up a trio of birds will give you the opportunity to learn the Triple-Arrow Trick Shot, by first marking two birds like a usual double-shot and shooting the third bird manually, after quickly pulling out another arrow. It's a really satisfying experience, and since the opportunities will return until you've mastered the shot, failing an event is not the end of the world. In fact, it will have you thinking about ways to pull it off. Similarly, hitting a target at extreme ranges will increase your accuracy and permanently steady your aim. It's a challenge-reward system that actually encourages exploration and experimentation in a way most tangible, since the game offers almost no hints as to how you are supposed to achieve those rewards. Granted, you could enable hints for the game to hold your hand, but the most gratifying reward is often knowing you figured things out yourself. If you think you should be able to do that, if you think it makes sense, more often than not you will find that the game will reward you for figuring it out.

The island of course offers its own secrets, from ship wrecks and tunnels to ancient ruins, and it's quite satisfying to simply explore its vast and diverse areas without sticking pointy things into bad people. But eventually the game will force you to continue the war your mentor started.

As the conflict escalates, and you liberate the island one arrow at a time, the mercenaries will bring ever bigger guns to the bow-fight, make more concerted efforts to find your hide-outs and attack you while you rest from your injuries, and every so often, a highly-skilled operative will be dispatched to deal with you. These boss-fights easily are some of the high-points of the game, as they are both diverse, yet still manage to present options of dealing with your enemy according to your preferred play-style and arrow loadout. A boss fight equipped with Net- and Stun-Arrows will play differently than the same fight with Explosive-Arrows.

And so you slowly fight your way through the mercenary hordes, hoping to get a shot at the top dog, while at the same time figuring out the secret of the island and why Deathstroke and his employers are even here. Admittedly, since the game stays pretty well within the established confines of the TV series, we do know how it will eventually play out, but how you get there is one of the most engaging, imaginative, gripping and beautiful gaming experiences I've ever had the pleasure of playing.

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