Monday, December 17, 2007

Mediocre FPS Retro Review #1: Kingpin

Gaming travels in phases. Company A releases riotously popular game, Company B develops similar game with redeeming characteristics, Teeming Throng of minor Companies scramble to fill the remaining brick-and-mortar shelf space with poorly concieved knock-offs. It's always refreshing to see a company buck the trend, though, and Xatrix decided to do so well into the Space Marine period, releasing a portentous piece entitled "Kingpin."

Portentious? Kingpin was one of the first mainstream games to tap into the Thug Zeitgeist, long before Grand Theft Auto 3 had every pasty-white game designer trying to emulate the gangsta rap 'lifestyle' in interactive form. What could be more exciting than a Quake 2-powered game with RPG elements casting you as a down-and-out hood clawing his way to the top in a grim crime dystopia?

Counterstrike, said the vast majority of gamers. However, due to its release in the Pre-Gangsta Period, it was relatively untouched by the zeitgeist and instead forged its own path. The result is worthy of inspection, both for its miserable failings and its at times extrordinary achivements.

The game's opening sell has to be on art. With no game to play, all hype is by necessity visual (or audio, but this is rarely released except attached to video), combined with hyperbolic pronouncements extolling the myriad ways in which the pastime in question will make you, the reader, its 'bitch.' Kingpin scores big right off the mark, teaching the by-then 24-month-old Quake 2 codebase some very tasty tricks. Enhanced particle effects, 16 separate hit-zones per character with individual pain skins, dismemberment, volumetric lighting, lens flares, and all the other happy fun tasty buzzwords of the late nineties (you lived through them, most likely, so you remember) made their way into Kingpin. Fortunately, the good folks at Xatrix were not simply content to tack thugs onto sci-fi boilerplate, or even modern-day boilerplate for that matter, and varnish the whole thing with Voodoo-II-SLI-killing sparkly-bits.

Nay, Xatrix kept The Crow, Brazil, and The City of Lost Children on continous loop in every cubicle in the art department. The result is what is to this day one of the most unique and compelling urban landscapes committed to digtal media. Though some trappings are strictly modern-day (the three Cypress Hill songs that quickly wear out their license, the shamelessly stolen Resovoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction lines, etc), the rest of the game drips with decayed Art Deco splendor. Clever use of false perspective allowed the Quake 2 engine to render cascading cityscapes that stretched deep into the horizon. Every bit of signage, in-game menu, and HUD graphic was lovingly crafted to look like lettering ripped from a 1950's automobile or The Ministry of Information's typing pool. With so involving a background, the typical disconnectedness of First-Person Shooters (It's a maze vaguely resembling an office!) became instead an evocative story-telling piece; this is a city lost in time, an effect that Kingpin accomplished almost as well as the Alex Proyas magnum opus Dark City. The anachronistic elements (steampunk machinery and the aforementioned licensed "soundtrack") simply serve to build this effect, until the player can truly experience a suspension of disbelief. This is a city, and when the sun goes down (does it ever come up?) the psychopaths, the marginalized, and the graveyard-shifting steelworkers come out to play.

Alright, so we have a cool world. Now what can we do in it? Xatrix originally seems to develop Quake 2's hub system, which resulted mostly in a metric fuck-ton of tedious backtracking, into an RPG-esque questing system. This notion is reinforced by the inclusion of money and a notebook of observations and objectives. The game usually does a decent job of telegraphing the objectives, so the notebook serves to fill-in side bits (get the bum some booze so he'll give you a hint; get the dude his watch back; there's cool shit at location X) that add so-called flavor.

The first hub seems good enough at keeping up this system - there's a limited supply of money and a preponderance of potentially cool shit to spend it on; there's a series of objectives that don't necessarily have to be carried out (or at all, in some cases); the game gates in a fluid manner, with progressively more nasty enemies in the place of locked doors. People stand around on street corners, hustling you crowbars or backup muscle. There's a street gang blocking your path one way, and there are logical choices on how to get past them. Same with the dudes covering a warehouse entrance the other way.

After a while, it becomes apparent that there are three ways to interact with anything: If it doesn't attack on sight, walk up to it and interact with it, hire it (if applicable), or kill it. Xatrix has thoughtfully provided three attitudes with which to interact - friendly, neutral, or hostile. However, all three result simply in dialogue loops - "fuck" (friendly tone); "fuck" (neutral tone); and of course "fuck" (hostile tone). Occasionally, people respond poorly to "Fuck you, motherfucker" and ask you post-mortem what you'd like on your fucking tombstone, but mostly it seems that "motherfucker" is in fact a honorific (the Kingpin-speak form of "Blanco-san") and that "fuck you" is actually a catch-all for "hello," "goodbye," and "It was a pleasure to make your aquaintance." Needless to say, the dialogue wears out its welcome quickly, and actively inviting it (especially when not for personal gain) is not a desirable state of affairs. This leaves hiring and killing.

Hiring is, much to the surprise of my jaded gamer-view of squadmate AI, essential for surviving any gunfight, and is a good way to spend your hard-mugged cash. Xatrix saw fit to hire Ryan Feltrin, the mad scientist behind the phenomenal EraserBot for Quake 2, and it shows. Your buddies are extremely aggressive in combat, either charging forward and taking a bevy of enemies with them in crowbar-swinging glory, or standing and delivering a withering hail of Tommygun fire. Even more surprising is their uncanny ability to follow you just about anywhere in the map with a minimum of navigational assistance. Remember the befuddling inability for labcoats with multiple PhDs to follow you in a straight line in Half-Life, much less around corners? You can try your damndest to lose your teammates in twisty alleys, by jumping through windows, or through air ducts; your retainers will often burst in the back door, flanking your opponents at a most opportune moment. Rarely, even in today's games, are your essentially autonomous buddies nearly as smart (or at least devoid of keyboard-tossing idiosyncracies) as these.

Of course, this is an FPS, and the vast majority of the game will involve killing. Lots and lots of killing. Killing is the primary advancement mechanism, income source, and gating tool rolled into one. And boy is it inconsistent.

For starters, the game shows its Space Marine-era roots in its weapon advancement tree. First you have a nearly useless melee weapon. Then you get a handgun (yaay!) but it turns out to be far less damaging than the crowbar and in fact a liability in combat, especially since enemies consistenly dual-wield handguns for 1.75 times the rate of fire and equal damage per shot, and you are not permitted to do likewise. Fortunately, salvation comes in the form of a short-barreled pump-action shotgun, which actually lets you kill shit in an efficient manner, but is saddled by a slow rate of fire and short range (killing range is, well, crowbar-length). After soldiering along for a unit with these three, you finally get Zee Tommy Gun, which spits low-damage bullets at a respectable clip and moderate dispersion. Other than the inclusion of reloading, everything looks a lot like Doom. Things don't look much different with the inclusion of a rocket launcher, grenade launcher, and extremely finicky flamethrower; in fact, it's gang warfare with Quake2 weapons. Then, like manna from heaven, comes forth the Heavy Machine Gun. Lo, the lord hath requested a Railgun with three-round burst, and His most benificient forgemasters hath crafted Him a weapon that shalt smoke all other weapons in thine arsenal. No, really, it'd render the rest of your arsenal utterly obsolete if you didn't occasionally run out of ammunition. It kills every enemy in the game in a single three-round-burst, regardless of range.

And then there's the player vs. enemy damage curve. The player takes damage at pretty much the same rate as enemies. This is all well and good, except there are more enemies than you and they all fire faster. On "realistic" (admittedly the hardest option available) your health drops from 100/100(100/100/100 - it uses locational armor, which serves primarily to triple the price of armoring yourself) to stone dead quicker than it takes you to quickload. This does not reward clever tactics, this rewards "kill-quicksave-repeat" ad-nauseam. By unit two, this starts feeling an awful lot like work. The fact that unit two has you fighting in (drumroll) rooms full of crates and a hallway-tastic chemical plant level doesn't help the churning noises your stomach starts generating after roomfuls of shit-brown sameyness.

Fortunately, the last three episodes are sufficiently worth visiting to warrant either continued grinding or blatant cheating. Part of Xatrix' genius is the ability to wrap what are ordinarily very expansive environments (city streets, docklands, train tracks) into convincing simulacra that fit into level sizes more fitting with the limitations of the Quake 2 engines. This is not to say that the levels are small, by any means; but the places feel more expansive than they actually are. Part of this is the fact that later sections (especially the Docklands) layer the playpaths; the same roughly cubical space gives double or triple duty with the same polycounts; the shared landmarks give a sense of place, but are viewed from multiple angles (the differing paths) and get the most possible mileage out of the asset-load. The relatively open, non-linear nature of these sections means the same path gets beaten repeatedly, but the designers have included at least a handful of secrets/alternate paths/cool stuff to discover. Poisonville, despite having horrifically crate-a-licious primary path levels, has a delightfully convoluted jungle gym of a hub level; with the player changing altitude via staircase almost every time they change room, there is ample opportunity to approach the main avenues from a different height, which usually means a windowsill full of loot or a rooftop path into a warehouse with a locked front door.

Should you play Kingpin? Well, it's available on Amazon for $.99, which is less than shipping. It's less if you're not squeamish about stealing data. If you appreciate great art direction, it's worth experiencing at the very least, even if the gameplay feels half-baked and ass-backwards from our modern FPS conventions. It did a lot of things first, and for that it's worthy of note. And if you've ever appreciated an Alex Proyas or Terry Gilliam movie, you may find a kindred spirit.

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