Friday, February 29, 2008

Manufacturing Badassery

Devil May Cry 4 and the Asskicking Arms Race

In the hack-and-slash action genre, market success depends on establishing a game’s protagonist as a grade-A badass… and there's an arms race going on. Run-of-the-mill Navy SEALS, ex-Green Berets, veteran Marines and hardboiled cops might as well be tree surgeons. Even the go-to Asiatic badasses, samurai, ninja and kung-fu masters need much more than bushido, ninjustsu and the Mantis Fist to turn heads. Gimmick after grim gimmick piles up, and last year’s over-the-top asskicker looks this season like a 19th-century gentleman pugilist.

Ninja Gaiden’s “super ninja”, Ryu Hyabusa, can absorb enemy essences and unleash Ultimate Techniques? Well, maybe he can get a job hassling skateboarders down at the mall now that God of War’s hate-driven, deicidal maniac Kratos has made the scene with his pair of demonic, whirling chain-daggers. And who’s going to relegate Kratos himself to appearances on game shows and faded-celebrity reality series?

Devil May Cry 4 developer Capcom would dearly love their new series lead, Nero, to be that Kratos-killer. The former star of the Devil May Cry games, Dante, once the Crown Prince of all stylish slaughter-artists, was getting a bit long in the tooth; sure, he’s a half-demon, but who isn’t these days? His ridiculously outsized sword, legendary though it may be, is still a sword, and even juiced with magic power his twin .45s are still recognizable as something akin to real-world guns. Old, and, for the purposes of vicarious videogame violence in a novelty-driven market, busted.

The new hotness: Nero, an update on the Dante model. The series-trademark overcoat is still there (no badass is complete without swirly outerwear, unless they wear sci-fi armor or go shirtless) but as a younger dude Nero’s hip-hopped it up a bit: now he wears it with a hoodie vest. On the gun side of things, at first glance it seems the kid’s gone old-school with a Dirty Harry-style revolver, but even the “most powerful handgun in the world” isn’t badass enough for the 21st Century; look closer, and you’ll see Nero’s massive handcannon is actually double-barreled, one above the other. Badasssss!

Nothing says “totally awesome” like having one of your arms replaced by something other than your own flesh and blood -- Capcom’s own Bionic Commando was a pioneer in this area, with his extending cyber-arm. A part-demon like his predecessor, Nero has opted for his requisite arm-replacement to take the form of a spooky, glowing, Geigeresque demon limb called the “Devil Bringer” which, as the name suggests, serves to bring devils closer, via telekinesis, so Nero can smash them into the floor, throw them around or, preferably, chop them up with his sword.

The sword, now, that’s the piece de resistance. I can just imagine the brainstorming session that came up with Nero’s blade. Nero needs a sword, and it needs to be outlandishly big – that’s a given. But Dante already brought a seven-foot blade into the series; where do we go from there? A demon sword? Nah; we blew our demonic quotient on that totally rad arm, and demon swords are a little played out besides. A fire sword, maybe? Pfft; yeah, my grandmother loves flaming swords…she read about them in the Bible.

Well, what, then? Our boy will get slaughtered in the marketplace with some manky off-the-shelf hunk of steel, no matter how baroque we dress it up. What do we do with the sword? With what do we gimmick it? What’s the most badass thing?

How about… how about motorcycles? Motorcycles are still pretty badass, right?

Oh, my darling readers; in that moment, badass history was made. In the asskickin’ arms race, Nero’s sword is the hydrogen bomb. Of course it’s enormous; without demon blood or whatever you’d need a forklift to move it. Adding to its mass is, I guess, some kind of internal engine; the sword’s hilt is a replica of a motorcycle handlebar – complete with brake lever forming the handguard – and before he gets into tough fights, Nero actually revs it up like you would a bike -- RUNNN-nunnunnunn-RUNNNN-nunnunnunn-RUNNNNNNNUNNNUNNNNUNNNRRRRR! – and it starts flaming and smoking and vibrating and does a ton of extra motorbike-based damage to whatever hapless hellspawn happens to get in the way. “Kawasaki Ninja” has a whole new meaning.

Where will this mad rush to ever badder badassery lead us? Thanks to the bloody-minded quest for total awesomeness, the world’s videogame characters between them have the capability to kick the asses of every human being on the planet ten times over. And there’s no end in sight – the fact Nero is Japanese will only motivate North American developers to redouble their efforts, and it’s anyone’s guess what abominations lie beyond the sword-that’s-also-a-motorbike barrier.

For the sake of the children, I urge restraint. In Montreal, in Vancouver, in Boston and Seattle and Dublin and Paris, I beg all game developers: walk away from the zero-sum game of badass one-upmanship. Disarm. Return our gameworlds to the core values they were based on, where a simple ex-Special Forces commando who witnesses his family mercilessly slaughtered by the mob could wreak honest vengeance with a good, solid M-16. Where a young ninja, armed only with the volcano-forged, blood-quenched blade that belonged to his betrayed father, could hope to one day earn himself an international marketing deal. Where just ripping a dude’s head off was a treat, and we were happy to have it.

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