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So much more than war...
Posted on Friday, April 18 2014 @ 16:56:36 PST

This member blog post was promoted to the GameRevolution homepage.

The recent blog, Peace in the Era of Call of Duty really made me think about war games that dig deeper than simply a kill streak reward. The first game that came to mind was Spec-Ops: The Line and although I haven’t played it, I began to wonder if it did the war genre as much justice as one of my favorite games (I have yet to actually finish…) Valkyria Chronicles. In many war games the focus seems to be on the conflict vs the interpersonal development and collateral impact on participants not directly involved in the conflict.

One of the things that I believe made The Last of Us so successful was the way in which Naughty Dog handled the relationship development between Joel and Ellie. They had players putting down the controller if only to pay attention to the dialog between the two characters as they progressed through the game. One minute you are figuring out how to get around a room full of infected with palms sweating and the next you are simply listening to Joel and Ellie discuss a painting they are walking past. It was a game focused on both avoiding and dispatching infected and hunters and also a drama about loss, trust, maturing, etc… framed as a standard third-person shooter. Can Call of Duty ever capture this type of dynamic in a modern warfare game? Is that even Activision's desire?

Valkyria Chronicles came out in 2008 yet it framed war in such a novel way to me. You started the game by returning home only to find your town invaded. Then you have to assist the militia in defending it. You lack experience as a leader and Welkin (the lead character) is portrayed as an average kid. The story was good but what made this a “great” war game was the squad mechanics. Much like X-Com: Enemy Unknown, if your squad member fell and you failed to revive them they were gone for good. As you used squad members more and more, their skills improved but “potentials” were also unlocked. These potentials were what made the game so impactful for me. Traditionally, when I think of skill progression in a war game I think of better armor, accuracy, weaponry, gadgets, etc… yet in VC you could have a squad member unlock hidden potentials like the following:

Coward - Having enemies nearby terrifies them, hindering accuracy when firing.

Darcsen Hater - Even just being around Darcsens makes them nauseous, leading to a decrease in defense.

Humanitarian - Unable to forgive themselves for harming another person, they cannot take any further action after attacking.

Misogynist - Having women nearby triggers constitutional loathing so powerful it lowers accuracy.

It was the first time I had seen skill progressions like this in a war game. It dealt with racism and sexism in its skill trees. This was pretty damn cool. Think about spending hours leveling up a squad mate to discover their final unlock is an ability like “Misogynist” and then having to restructure your team to address the newly arisen personality conflict with two other female squad mates. This was so damn different than anything I had previously experienced game wise and just made the game even better in my opinion.

As different potentials for the squad mates became unlocked I became more empathetic and attached to the characters because they seemed more “real”. This wasn’t a matter of building a squad with a tank, a support, a scout etc… it was more like, “Shit! I have two scouts I need for the mission but they don’t work well together do I send them out together anyway or keep them separate? Do I train a new scout hoping that they get along? Or do I simply figure out a different configuration without two scouts?” This relationship mechanic had me totally engrossed.

I entered the gaming experience thinking it would be similar to Command and Conquer and was pleasantly surprised at the depth of character development and the focus on the relationships. When you lost a squad member, unlike X-com, you lost someone that meant more because of their character traits. I mean I didn’t just lose a sniper; I lost a sniper that may have been allergic to pollen, was a pessimist, had a frail body, but would also never say die and these were all actual traits associated with just a single unit. Sure, I could train another sniper but the odds of getting that build and even the surprise of unlocking the potentials for the first time to determine what type of character you are dealing with just took the whole war game experience to a new level.

As I currently play through Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Crysis 3, marking and executing unsuspecting enemies, I am reminded of how much more the experience could mean if I was given reason to care more about the people I assisted or slew. Valkyria Chronicles had a good story but the personalities that defined the characters were what made it so memorable. I would love to see a war RPG that can get this right again. We have become accustomed to shallow single-player campaign experiences from some of our most cherished war franchises with the rationale that the focus is on multiplayer. We thought the same thing about fighting games and then Mortal Kombat was released with an awesome single player campaign, so it can be done. We just have to want it.  

In a market saturated with war games it’s nice to have something that provides a bit more than kill “x”, unlock silencer, etc, but I do wonder if creating a game like VC in a modern setting would be extremely uncomfortable for some. Kill streaks are fun in their own right, but spending hours developing a squad with unique personalities only to have one of them killed and not be able to create a duplicate may hit a bit too close to home in the “art imitating life” scheme of things. Still, we strive for realism and the reality of war is that it is far more complicated than attaining a kill streak.

The opinions expressed here does not necessarily reflect the views of GameRevolution, but it is a blog written by one of our community. This article, posted originally on April 15th, 2014, has been lightly edited for grammar and image inclusion. You can find more Vox Pop articles here. Write a blog by clicking "Add New Entry" on your GR profile page for a chance to be featured on GameRevolution's home page.
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