Thursday, July 10, 2014

Ride to Hell: Retribution - 6/20 hours

I probably shouldn't admit this, but I am kind of getting into this game. I mean, it's tedious and offensive, and I'd rather be playing just about anything else, but I have a high tolerance for tedium,  its ineptness blunts its neolithic political attitudes, and I really can't play anything else right now. I think it's because the game gives me a goal, and is easy enough that I'm making steady progress towards that goal - it's enough to get me into that weird "I can defeat this" trance that, in a better-made game might kindle an obsession.

It makes me think - what is the measure of a bad game? People call Ride to Hell: Retribution the worst game of all time, but what does that mean? I've played games that just simply didn't work. You'd start the game and be flying a spaceship or something, and then you'd almost immediately die, and nothing in the game would explain what you were doing wrong or how you could prevent it. Then there's games with no detectable connection between effort and reward, where things seem more or less random. And, of course, there are games with no plot or story at all, just a not-especially compelling activity, presented without context. Is Ride to Hell really worse than a sloppily programmed shovelware game?

I don't want to give the impression that I'm defending it, mind you. It's just, it reminds me a little of Battlefield Earth. It's a terrible movie, one many would call the worst of all time, but if we're being brutally honest, it's not even close. It's unmistakably bad, but the only reason it can be so memorably awful is because it possesses a basic core of technical competence. Take the acting, for instance. Every bad movie is accused of having bad acting, but the main leads of Battlefield Earth are among the best at their craft and it shows. After all, what are John Travolta, Forest Whittaker, and Barry Pepper able to do that I cannot that ensures they are cast in Hollywood movies and I write a gaming blog while working the night shift at a hotel?

For one, they can say their lines with conviction, and without stumbling or stuttering. For another, they know how to move in a natural-seeming way while facing the camera and staying in frame. Those are the very basics of film acting, and while neither myself nor Mr Travolta can say the phrase "man-animal" without sounding like a huge dork, at least he can make it sound more or less like human speech. Similarly, say what you will about the directing, but at least the camera was pointed at things the audience might actually want to see (compare - Manos: Hands of Fate). And the script is, of course, justifiably notorious, but you could never have had the experience of shouting, "what the hell are you doing, plugging your enemy into a high-tech learning machine, you are so stupid!" or "how the hell are those cave-men flying those planes" if it hadn't been able to convey that that was what was going on (compare - the script of Ride to Hell: Retribution).

Which is really just my long-winded way of saying that there is a certain set of skills which separate a professional from an amateur, and, if you're trying to find the worst example of any sort of art (be it movies, books, or video games), no professional product is going to make the bottom of the list, so long as amateurs are in contention.

That's why I think Ride to Hell draws so much heat - it is clearly the product of professionals, and as such, screws up in ways that amateurs could only dream. Take the driving physics. One thing I learned from the Portal commentaries is that programming a working physics model is really hard, so the fact that you can ride the bike and not pass through other vehicles or terrain (or, for that matter, bounce off them and get launched hundreds of feet in the air) means that someone, somewhere had an impressive set of programming skills. And it is only because they were capable of making a physics engine that doesn't implode in the first five seconds that we are able to experience a motorcycle that drifts like a shallow-drafted boat (and the mission where you steal a gas tanker is like piloting a gondola over slippery ice).

Or the shooting. The bizarre and sometimes frustrating contrast between virtually ineffectual body shots and instantly deadly headshots would not be quite so noticeable if your gun did not typically shoot where you were aiming it.

Or the level design. I have to wonder if the levels would seem quite so repetitive and overly long if the designers had not been able to make backgrounds and set dressing that actually looks like what it's meant to be.

Or the sexism. Honestly, if it weren't for the relatively realistic and detailed animations, there would be no way to even tell that Jake was the sole male participant in a gratuitous mostly-lesbian orgy.

I was going to do a full recap, but it would take too long and would not be very interesting. So, I'll just hit the "highlights"

Dr Blotter is a terrible hippy stereotype. You torture him with the exhaust from your bike.

Naomi is Colt's girlfriend, and as far as I can tell, the only named black character. Naturally, you "pump her for information." The mission is called (and I'm not making this up) "Damsel in Undress."

While storming a drug farm (and later, while fighting through a grimy back alley), Jake finds the time for random and inexplicable sex scenes.

Near the end of the drug farm, you find a film projector that projects, onto a nearby wall, a still photo of a naked female ass. My theory that they were simply too cheap to do nudity in the sex scenes is looking good.

"I'm here to wipe my ass with the Devil's Hand." I may not have mentioned it, but the Devil's Hand is the name of the rival gang, and that was a real line of dialogue.

At the beginning of the Meathook missions, you rescue a guy named Farley from getting beat up by a gang of thugs. He immediately challenges you to a race for reasons that are never explained.

After the race, Farley and Jake are chased by the Devil's Hand for no apparent reason (that's a bit of a running theme in the game), and Farley rides on the back of Jake's bike. And, maybe it's due to the way the game has primed me to expect a sex scene whenever you rescue someone, but I feel like Farley x Jake is the best romance in the game.

In the series of arena fights leading up to Meathook, you fight a guy named "Mother Trucker," who is described as "liking to pound flesh" and who's "packing a load" for Jake. I'm sure the innuendo was intentional, but I can't quite figure out what it was trying to accomplish. The fact that MT calls Jake "pretty boy," only serves to confuse matters.

The rank 2 illegal boxing champion is "Selvan the Destroyer." Make of that what you will.

Meathook talks in a very muddled way about honor. I think he tries to taunt Jake about the fact that when he and his gang killed Mikey and left Jake for dead, Jake . . . didn't die? (honestly, I have no idea what point he was trying to make).

After the fight, Meathook is assassinated by Greasy Steve before he can say anything - leading to a cutscene between Steve and a hitherto unseen higher up that is inexplicably filtered through the soft-focus of a cheesy boudoir photo. Also, we learn that the big boss is "Pretty Boy."

So, over the course of this project, I've discovered a new pet peeve - cut scenes that follow a successful mission by telling you that you failed in the mission's apparent objective. So it was, that after catching up to Greasy Steve, I found that he got away, and that I would have to get further information from his girlfriend, "Blonde Girl" (that's actually what she's called for at least the next ten minutes).

I couldn't even tell you what happens next. You have to fight your way through a mansion (where they've been hiding a mansion in this shit-hole town is not explained) and, Claudine (Blonde Girl) is there because of a concert or something. And after the fight, you meet up with Claudine, and 3 women, "Pro 1," "Pro 2" (who actually looks exactly like Naomi) and some unnamed 3rd character (although, whatever she's called, it couldn't possibly be any more degrading than "Pro#"), and have a big-ol' plot-irrelevant, fully clothed orgy. And, because this game can never be non-exploitative, it makes sure to tell you that Claudine and the others continue the orgy after you've gone (if I were being flippant, I'd say this means Ride to Hell passes the Bedchel test, but I feel guilty even for thinking it).

I'll wrap this post up by saying something positive - some of the art direction in this game is genuinely pretty good. The town of Dead End looks a lot like one of those shitty half-abandoned desert towns you can often see driving through the southwest. Greasy Steve's motorcycle is customized to look like a WWII fighter plane, and it actually looks pretty cool. The shop menus look like those fly-by-night mail-order advertisements you sometimes see in old magazines. With the exception of duplicate Naomi, all the named characters are visually distinct (although, I may be wrong about some of the other female characters too - Naomi just stands out because she's the only black character I've seen).

It's not enough to salvage the game, or even elevate it to "notionally playable," but it is something.

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