Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Batman Vs. Everyone: My Outline For A Multiplayer Arkham City

Friends and regular readers of this blog know that I'm a very big fan of Batman: Arkham City, much as I was the original Arkham Asylum. I really just can't get enough of the incredibly engaging and dynamic combat and predator system Rocksteady Studios has created (I told some friends last night that I was "still sucking the marrow out of the game's bones"). The company now officially has a genuine franchise on their hands, and as I'm wrapping up the last morsels of content in their second game, I'm wondering what they could possibly do next. My solution? More Riddler Trophies! Haha, no, just kidding. That would be awful. My real answer is: Multiplayer. More specifically: Batman Versus Everyone Else.

Now I know what you're saying:"Nobody wants to be anybody but Batman in a Batman game!" and yes, this will be the most difficult obstacle to overcome (this problem was sidestepped, and from what I hear, competently done in the recent Gotham City Impostors, where players are neither the overpowered Batman or the lowly goon, but a member or a pro-Batman or pro-Joker gang). But imagine a game where as Batman, you were taking down thugs not controlled by an A.I. routine, but by actual people who are desperate to take you down. Or, conversely, to be playing a game where you hunted down the most bad-ass superhero of all time - the greatest video game "boss" there could ever be. Wouldn't it be the ultimate thrill?  You don't even need to answer. I can confirm that yes, it would be - because a game like this existed once before, and it was one of, if not the best multiplayer game I've ever played. This game was called Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow (and later improved upon in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory)*.

The Splinter Cell series redefined the stealth action genre first introduced by Metal Gear in the early 2000's. The second game in the series, Pandora Tomorrow, introduced a revolutionary multiplayer component when it was released in 2004. This new kind of competitive/cooperative multiplayer featured stealthy spies going toe to toe against heavily armed mercenaries in a large map usually mostly covered in darkness with lots of vents, nooks and hidden passages that a creative spy to travel through. The spies controlled much like Sam Fisher, the series protagonist, in that they were designed to covertly traverse any environment, and make quick escapes if discovered. They also came equipped with tons of fun gadgets - night vision, camouflage, smoke grenades and little spy cams that could shoot knock out gas. The one thing they didn't have were guns. Instead, they had a shock gun which could temporarily stun opponents or (de)activate electrical devices.

The mercenaries on the other hand were right out of a first person shooter, down to the field of vision (the spies saw through a moveable camera in third person view, while the mercs saw the world through their own eyes in a more limiting first person view). They came equipped with an assault rifle, grenade launcher, proximity mines, a motion-tracking visor and various other traps. They operated with brute force, and a spy that came face to face with them would not be able to stand his ground for long. They were often tasked with either killing the spies or preventing them from accomplishing their mission, which typically involved hacking a number of computers or retrieving a data disc and bringing it back out of the complex.

A typical match would find the mercenaries strategizing to best cover the large area as efficiently as possible with traps and proper patrol routes, and the spies doing their best to get to their destination either unseen or by neutralizing any nearby threats in the process. The characters, maps, and challenges were all extremely well balanced (especially by the time Chaos Theory, the third Splinter Cell, and second draft of the multiplayer system) and a match with four proficient players were always incredibly tense and required a high level of diligence by either side to ensure victory. A spy popping his head out at the wrong time was just asking for a bullet to his brain, and a careless mercenary could easily find a spy sneaking up behind him and snapping his neck.

The experiences I've had playing this game were exhilarating. I've never gripped my controller so tight as I did while watching my spy try to hack a computer for ten incredibly long seconds, knowing the mercenaries has just been alerted and were heading my way. And tricking a mercenary into tripping his own proximity mine or catching him at just the right moment with a blast of knock out gas from my spy camera felt oh so good. Conversely, catching a spy who thought he was hidden with a headshot or a grenade sent flying through a vent was also incredibly satisfying. You felt like such a badass because you didn't just do any of those things to some programmed enemy who - as all enemies have in the history of all video games - will inevitably forget that you exist if you just wait around long enough. And given the cat and mouse dynamic of the Splinter Cell series, there's an added level of satisfaction that, at least for me personally, was missing from a lot of other multiplayer games.

So now let's get back to Batman. In the 'Predator Challenges' prevalent throughout the game (and featured in their own separate mode once you finish the main game), Batman is tasked with clearing a room full of armed thugs without being seen. Like the Splinter Cell spies, he does not carry a gun, but he is armed with ninja-like abilities and a ton of awesome gadgets. The armed thugs have the guns that elevated their status above their pathetic regular "thug" compatriots, along with their own sets of gadgets (radar jammers, mines, and such). They also happen to outnumber Batman many-to-one. They are effectively the mercenaries from Splinter Cell. So the basic dynamic already exists - its just a matter of making the necessary (and there are certainly major tweaks to be made) to make the gameplay between Batman and his assailants balanced, and more importantly, fun for both sides.

The current game features an engaging but not entirely realistic enemy A.I. routine. Batman's most common hiding spaces are above conveniently placed stone gargoyles and under see through ventilation grates in the ground. The gamer engages in a little suspension of Bat-belief assuming his enemies are, unless provoked, never going to check those locations while patrolling. This setup would need to be altered to give the Batman player maneuverability around human players by altering the level of darkness in areas where Batman is meant to be hidden, and by giving the Batman player better (and lots more) hiding spots. To ensure that Batman's enemies don't cluster around one area, the maps would need to be spacious and objectives - as well as ammo and gear - would need to be placed in separate areas all over the map to ensure the 'goon' players all spread out.

The new mercenaries would similarly need to be made more powerful/interesting to play without making it impossible for the person playing as Batman to take them down. To compensate for the darkness, goons should be given thermal goggles (as some of the better equipped A.I. goons have in the game now), but likewise not be able to keep them on full time. One alternative could be that they could either plug in their radar jammer (keeping the Batman player from using his own night vision) or their thermal goggles, but never both, both limiting the thug's abilities and encouraging teamwork, which is the their main advantage. Players would communicate via headset while playing, and also presumably be able to quickly mark an area where Batman has been located (or an area that needs to be protected).

The final question is how to decide who gets to play as Batman and who (more likely) doesn't? At first, everyone is going to want to play as the titular hero, and only reluctantly ever play as a goon/merc. One solution is to have every game start where no one is Batman - perhaps the game can factor in a (hopefully well programmed) A.I. Batman that needs to be taken down. And whoever does so gets to be the Dark Knight first in the next round of gameplay. Every round following that, the player who that kills or does the most damage to Batman gets to play as him next. All other players will receive 'partial (bat)credit,' increasing their chances of playing him again the following round, to the point where even if they've done nothing, they still get their chance to play as Batman. This could also be a way to incentivise players who are knocked out by the Batman player earlier in the round to keep them from quickly quitting. Thus players who put in their due time are rewarded, and players who constantly quit games will be punished accordingly. A high quality A.I. for any missing mercenaries would also be welcome to fill in any gaps when need be.

If done right, I really do think this could be one of the greatest video game experiences of all time. I haven't even touched on things like the idea of adding a second hero like Robin or Nightwing, along with supervillains like Mr. Freeze and the Joker on the other side, which I think could also add a ton of flavor to this mode. Rocksteady actually admits they tried adding it to the last game (though its unclear if it was anything like what I've described here), but eventually backed out, saying they didn't want to have to water down the single player experience for the sake of a mediocre multiplayer that no one was going to play. Fair enough. But now that they have a pretty rock solid single player experience in place, I think the time has come to think of ways to expand the franchise, and about the possibilities for multiplayer going forward.

There are still plenty of details to flesh out from the single player game, like: should Batman's semi-ridiculous cape stun ability still work against human players? Should he still be able to just throw a batarang to knock them out (including the already kind of game-breaking remote-controlled batarang)? And if not, what else could it do, instead? I honestly don't know the answer to everything. Rocksteady (or whatever company decided to roll with my awesome idea) will have to figure that part out. But I really do think there's the foundation for a pretty amazing multiplayer game here, inspired the core concepts from the groundbreaking Splinter Cell series and the mechanics already set in play in the single player Arkham games.

What do you guys think?


*Ultimately gimped and watered down in Splinter Cell: Double Agent. Then removed from the series entirely afterward. It would seem the spy vs. merc multiplayer never gained the traction it needed online, likely due to the level of difficulty/finesse required to play both sides, but especially the weaker spies. A multiplayer Batman game would need to address this issue as well.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Poker With Jokers Indeed [Post-Game Update!]

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I kept my word. I beat Ira Glass and David Cross. More specifically, I outlasted them in the charity poker tournament I played in with them this past weekend. And while I was never at the same table as the two of them, I did get to meet, chat, and quickly snap photos with both of them, which was awesome. Here's the full recap:

First of all, I had no idea the event was taking place in the back room of a very cool looking superhero store - behind a literal secret entrance - which already got me pumped.

I started the event with $250 in chips ($90 of which I pitched in myself. Not because I was afraid of being short stacked. No, no, it was all for the kids), and sadly I was seated nowhere near David or Ira, who I was really hoping to meet that day. Everyone was super friendly at the event, and we all knew the event was for charity and we were playing with fake money, but that didn't mean anyone pulled any punches at the table. In the first hour I found myself in my first pot-committed hand. I went all in with an unsuited King and a Jack and went up against two others, both with Aces and Kings and/or Queens. My Jack hit on the flop, I got my first of many surges of adrenaline. Suddenly I was the chip leader at my table.

Time passed, and the bet minimum made quickly limping in an unlikely choice. Something about playing with "fake money" that wasn't really fake money put me in this perfect mindset where I was willing to take bigger risks and be more aggressive, and sometime after the second hour I found myself with over $2500 in chips, ten times what I started with. I was tempted to try to cash out, just to see what kind of reaction I'd get, but the non-stop poker high kept me glued to my table, with only an occasional glance at David and Ira to see how they were doing, and to see what kind of witty repartee I was missing out on.

During the first break I got to chat with Ira Glass, who had just been eliminated. I told him I loved his speech about creativity and he confessed that the speech has become bigger than him, reaching people who had no idea who he even was, which I thought was interesting. I mentioned doing NaNoWriMo at one point, and was astonished to find he'd actually never heard of it before. So there I was explaining what National Novel Writing Month was, and seemingly impressing a creative hero/icon of mine, which was sort of surreal. And thankfully he didn't ask me to read any of what I wrote that month (which still needs quite a bit of work).

I managed to win a few more big hands and stay out of a few others and just before I got to the final table David Cross was eliminated. There was one last break before the final table was formed, and I took the opportunity to walk up to David with a joke that had been percolating in my mind for a while. I'm a bald guy, see, and I though it'd be funny to go up to him and say: "Hey David, I'm Matt. It's always nice to meet a fellow..." and at right here I'd point at both of our bald heads and finish with "...celebrity." So I did it, exactly as planned. And I was met with an awkward silence. My joke bombed, but despite his lack of appreciation my world class sense of humor, he was still very friendly and even took a silly little picture with me. My time in the final round was quick. Just as I was starting to think: "hey, I could actually win this," I was dealt an Ace and a 10, and I decided this was as good as I could hope for, and I decided to go all in again. Two others quickly jumped in and called me out, and none of my cards made it onto the table, leaving me dead in the water with Ace high. The last female player, an pretty young brunette who clearly knew her stuff, lost at the same time as me, so I left the table shouting "well the last attractive people have left the game, so good luck uglies!" which got a laugh and made me feel better about whiffing with David Cross.

It was a great time, and I'd happily do it again if they put the event up next year and get, say, Donald Glover and Felicia Day.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Poker With Jokers Indeed









Now, I know what you're asking - what can I do to help ensure the scrappy (but incredibly talented and handsome) underdog defeats the hilarious, insightful, generous, ELITIST, SUPER WEALTHY JAGOFFS I'm going up against in order to bring balance back to the Poker Proletariat where it belong?

Well friends, there is on thing you can do - DONATE!!! Every dollar you send is one more dollar I'll have in the fight for POKER SKILL SUPREMACY. What are you waiting for? Send everything you have here right now!

Oh, and I mention this all for charity and your donation is entirely tax deductible? OF COURSE I DID BECAUSE THE FREAK AIN'T GOIN' DOWN LIKE NO CHUMP!!!

Wish me luck!


PS: So, in case my blog screaming wasn't clear, this organization is actually really great and the whole event is a for a fantastic cause. 826NYC supports kids ages 6-18 with their writing skills. Find out more about them at www.826nyc.org.

*Multitudes of people have registered for this event

Friday, February 3, 2012

I Don't Know Quite Enough About The Crying Game

Lately I've been kind of fascinated by what makes people cry. It's obviously a personal subject, as everyone has different triggers for what taps into those deep watery wells (as is my understanding of the human anatomy). I used to think my girlfriend cried a lot, until I polled all the women I knew and discovered that weekly crying sessions are apparently fairly ordinary, even for celebrities like Kristen Bell, who can't even hear about a sloth without bursting into tears.

For God's sake woman, you were Veronica Mars!

While I don't tear up regularly - I am a man after all - there are certain things that make my face transform into a weepy, soggy, mess. Thankfully, outside of my cat passing away 2 years ago, my tears have been mostly limited to emotional scenes from movies and television shows. There's even a running theme to them too, I've discovered. Let's check out the list, shall well?

Matt Shafeek's Major Tearjerkers
(FYI: Major spoiler alerts for some pretty old movies/shows, in case you care)

Forrest Gump Asking If His Son Is Retarded Like Him

I feel like Forrest Gump gets a lot of guff from people for being either a crappy movie or one that's just constantly 'tugging on your heartstrings,' but I genuinely loved it. The story of a simple-minded man's journey through life can be done very very wrong (and it has, many many times), but I think this is a rare case of a person with below-normal intelligence's (like how I'm avoiding the word "retarded" when I just put it in the title?) experiences being portrayed with just the right mix of heart and levity.

There are plenty of sad moments throughout the film, but nothing gets the onions in my eyes quite as much as the moment when Forrest finds out he's a father. After having a one time tryst with his lifelong love Jen-ny, and a brief clarification from Jen-ny that the "Forrest" her son is named after is actually him, Forrest takes a step back, and the first question he asks is:

"Is he like me...or is he..."

And that's it, I'm just done. Throughout the whole movie, Gump happily admits he's "not a smart ma-an," but this one moment shows that despite the man's cloudy-dumb-dumb brain, he does still feel shame for his limitations, and the fear of him passing those limitations onto another human being is palpable.

Charlie Pace Describing His Life To Date As Pathetic

When my cat Milhouse first got sick a few years ago, I wrote in a post that watching this scene several years ago was the last time I cried before I'd turned the waterworks on full time. And I honestly can't remember weeping quite so openly while watching something since. The scene, from the end of the third season of Lost, features a once-famous musician named Charlie Pace, who  has been told for the past few weeks that death has it out for him by a clairvoyant island dweller named Desmond Hume. Desmond has been stepping in the way every time to save Charlie, but every time he does so, the rest of the "future" he sees in his vision is changed. During his most recent vision, on top of seeing Charlie drown, he also sees a rescue helicopter come and save everyone else, including the love of Charlie's life, Claire.

Still with me? So Charlie decides it's finally time to accept his fate, hoping that it will be for the greater good. He spends the episode reflecting on his life, and makes a note of his "greatest hits" (because he's a musician, see?) and he hands the note off to Desmond just before whacking his self-sacrificing friend in the head with an oar, taking a bold leap into a secret underwater station, accomplishing his mission, and ultimately drowning as Desmond's vision has predicted. Wah wahh.

Here's the thing though - his death isn't actually when I cried. I went for the tissues right at the moment when he hands over the note to Desmond on the boat, telling him it was a list of his five favorite moments from his "sorry excuse for a life," and Jesus Christ I can't even type these words without clamming up. Charlie's life was troubled, you see - he came to the island with a drug addiction, his music career had stalled, and remember that girl, Claire? She spent the better part of Season 2 hating him. There's just so much pathos in seeing a man sum up all his regrets in one moment that just kills me.

The Iron Giant Insisting He Is Not A Weapon, Goddammit

I can barely start typing this one without getting a little teary-eyed. For those of who haven't seen the movie, the Iron Giant is a story about giant robot from out space who crash lands and wakes up with no memory in a small town in Maine. There, it befriends Hogarth, a young boy who has trouble fitting in with everyone around him, most likely due to his really, really terrible name. The two become fast friends and the boy basically has the best life ever for like a day before shit hits the fan. See, it's the 1950's, and the government is just a wee-bit paranoid about giant metal space robots walking around on U.S. soil. Because you know, this playful, innocent robot could secretly be some kind of mass-killing genocide-bot sent to kill everyone.

So they investigate, and Hogarth and his artist friend who lives in a dump help hide the robot from the asshole government agent that's been hounding them all day, and for a minute, everything is hunky-dory. Then the movie takes a very interesting turn: as it turns out, the robot actually is a genocidal deathbot sent to destroy everyone in it's path. Or, at least, it has a very strong inclination to do so, as we see when it unconsciously opens fire on poor Hogarth after seeing a toy gun in his hand. After Hogarth escapes the friend he can no longer trust, and is thought to have been killed, the Iron Giant loses its shit and starts raining hellfire down on the entire U.S. Military.

It's only when Hogarth, very much still alive, stands in the face of the hulking metal creature, currently armed to the teeth, with its guns all pointed at him, and tells it: "you are not a weapon, you choose what you are!" that the machine reverts back to its former innocent, pacifist self, making the conscious decision not to wipe the town right off the map. And that's when the waterworks start. The killer robot has a choice! We all have choices! Wahhhhhh.

(I can't embed this one, but this links you to most of the final 8 minutes of the movie, including the scene I've described at 3:30)


All three of these movies have a running theme about standing in the face of what we dislike or are ashamed of about ourselves - our mistakes, our weaknesses and our flaws. And judging by the way I get choked up just thinking about it, obviously it taps into something that's on my mind a lot, both consciously and unconsciously.

You know this blog post was quite cathartic, like a good cry. Now that I've shared, I feel like hearing from the rest of you. Tell me dear readers, what gets you nice and teary-eyed?