Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Gettysburg: Armored Warfare - 20/20 hours

For the last few hours, I didn't really play the game as intended. In the game's Steam forum, the dev gave me a console command (need_a_ride) that would spawn a couple of cars. For some reason, the cars had 3000 hp (as much as a tank), and belonged to a third "neutral" factions. This made them virtually invincible to infantry, and because they are neither Union and Confederate, they will kill any unit on contact. So, what I wound up doing is creating my own game mode - "The psychotic SUV that changed the course of history."

The rules of PSCCH mode are fairly simple - I set the ticket count to 5000, so that there are a maximum of 100 troop deaths possible before the game ends (each time an infantry unit dies in Deathmatch mode, it deducts 100 points from its team's ticket count), then I would set the available units to "1860s" only (for "historical accuracy"), and my goal was to run over as many troops as possible before the time ran out. This was fairly hilarious, as when you hit an enemy going full speed in a vehicle, they simply . . . explode. There's no other way to describe it. You run into an enemy, and then BAM, viscera's flying everywhere. My high score in PSCCH is 55.

I did that for about four hours. If you want to quibble about it, I did not, in my last hour, technically "play" the game. I was a little curious about some of the game's underlying mechanics, so what I did was start up Deathmatch mode, and then decline to jump into a character. I wanted to see what the troops would do without a human intervening. I ran 10 consecutive 5000 point games on the Gettysburg map and watched how they played out (and while I didn't touch the controls, I was in front of my computer the whole time, my only distraction the same podcast I was listening to while playing PSCCH). I can't make any definite conclusions about how the game works, but I think that the winner is mostly random, perhaps with a bias towards the union. While I was watching, the Union won 7/10 games, but that is not suspiciously more than what might occur through random chance.

Of course, it's possible that it was merely the Gettysburg map that favored the union. If I wanted to be entirely sure, I would run the same experiment on the other four maps, yet I'm certain that nobody cares.

Looking back on this experience, I can't help but reflect on the nature of gaming as a hobby. Gettysburg: Armored Warfare was a somewhat frustrating 20-hour journey, primarily because I had no over-arching goals, and no way to track or measure my progress. Each battle was self-contained, and after it was over, the experience existed only as a memory. I couldn't even grind for Achievements.

But the weird thing is, that is how all gaming used to be. When I grew up, I had an Atari 2600 (I'm not that old, but they were once ubiquitous in yard sales), and every single game for that system was the definition of ephemera. It wasn't until I was a teenager that I even got to play a game with a save function. In fact, playing Gettysburg, I often thought of a particular Atari game called Warlords. Warlords was not a particularly good game, even for its era. You could barely even call it 2-D (It was played with the paddle controller, which only had left/right movement, so it was more of a 1-D game). And yet, I loved that game.

Gettysburg: Armored Warfare is not especially similar to Warlords, except in the sense that both are driven by their own specific sort of competition, and don't really have all that much to offer outside of their main activity. In fact, one could make the argument that, aside from Warlords' admirable clarity of purpose (a necessity for anything on the Atari 2600), Gettysburg is in every way the superior game. So, why did I struggle with it so much?

When I chose the url for this blog, "decadentgamer," I was mostly being flippant, but underlying the joke is a serious anxiety - I sometimes feel like I'm surrounded by this amazing technology that I am simultaneously losing the ability to appreciate. I have this amazing Steam library, and yet half of them I've barely touched. I sometimes wonder if I am, in fact, becoming blind to all the wonders this amazing hobby has to offer.

When I was 12, every video game was precious. If someone had told me that I would one day have so many games (including some that are considered timeless classics) that I'd lose interest in playing them, well, at best, I wouldn't have believed them, and at worst, it would have made me very angry. If that same person then allowed me to play Gettysburg: Armored Warfare, I'd have just about died. I would have gasped in wonder at how incredible everything looked, and marveled at the scope and ambition of the game (an action game where you can direct the tactics of your allies! a strategy game that lets you take control of your grunts! tanks! airships! boats!).

This is not a "darned kids these days" speech. My 12-year-old self was not the most sophisticated consumer, and, frankly when you compare Gettysburg to Skyrim, or Starcraft, or Mass Effect 3, it really does fall short, but failing to reach such exalted company is no great failing. I'm just reminded of a different way of relating to games. I chose my 20-hour deadline, because that is around the time that most of my favorite single-player campaigns started wrapping up, but that's not how games have always been played. I think that if I'd played Gettysburg in one-hour bursts, over the course of a year, I'd have gotten to 20 hours with scarcely any trouble at all.

Gettysburg will never be considered a classic, but it's more than just a "bad" game to be dismissed. Playing it put me in touch with an older way. It forced me to once again think of "a video game" as something precious, and of my time playing as something to be jealously exploited. In made me think about what my 12-year-old self would have considered wondrous and exciting. And while I will probably never revisit it, I am nonetheless grateful for this experience.

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