Among my many vices, you will find that one of them is an addiction to PC video games. I'm over at GamersHell twice a week, checking out the latest demos, and checking up on what's coming out. I know- I know- that time could be better spent, but ya can't do politics, all day, every day.
A few months back, the liberal blogosphere caught onto an emerging gaming project that I had been aware of, for the better part of a year- namely: the release of "Eternal Forces", a video game based upon the best selling christian science fiction series "Left Behind."
Now, before I proceed, I feel the need to exposit upon the whole "Left Behind" phenomenon.
LB is a series of books by two evangelical christian writers (Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins) which is a novelization of the "end times", set against a modern backdrop. The books rely on the more sensational aspects of the biblical Book of Revelation, and have been remarkably successful, having sold millions of copies in dozens of languages, worldwide.
Quick summation of the plot:
One day, all the good Christians are raptured to heaven- poof- one minute, there's a human being there, and the next, there's just a pile of clothes, jewelry, and Stryper CDs. Families find themselves missing beloved members, and nations find themselves without leaders- riots break out, governments are weak, and the world seems to be teetering on the brink. Amidst this chaos, the president of Romania- Nicolae Carpathia, is elected secretary-general of the United Nations, promising to bring peace and stability to a world gone mad- and wouldn't ya know it- he delivers...
Unfortunately, he is in reality the antichrist, whose rise to power was foretold as the opening act of the end times. He unites the nations of the world under one banner- the Global Community. He abolishes all currencies, in favor of one global coin, and moves the seat of world power to Baghdad. Christianity is outlawed, everyone is forced to receive Nicolae's mark on their right hand or forehead- you know the drill.
As the novels progress through 15 volumes (to date,) the reader follows the machinations of Nicolae, and the "tribulation force"- a resistance army of post-rapture christian converts.
I will admit to not having read the books, but I did listen to a radio dramatization of the series over at Oneplace.com. Overall, it's not a bad dramatic series, to tell the truth, although the voice acting is grotesquely stereotypical (the asian characters speak like Charlie Chan right offa the rice boat, and I keep expecting Rabbi Ben Judah to say "Eternal Salvation- you could do worse! This is a better deal than Schmoikle's pastrami sub over in the garment district! ") The one character that was hyped throughout the series as "sympathetic" and "innocently fragile", Chloe Steele, was so damned obnoxious and whiny, that I couldn't WAIT for her to be killed off. When she finally kicked the bucket in "Armageddon", I danced happily around my chair, while listening to her ten-minute long execution, over and over.
Does that make me a bad person?
But I digress...
The novels have been the subject of a ton of criticism from both the secular and the religious. More column inches about the series has been written, than are contained in the novels, themselves, and quite frankly, I don't have the time to summarize it all- you'll have to research that yourselves.
My own gripe about the series is that (with all due apologies to my devout christian friends out there,) is that the books treat the "prophecies" of the book of revelation to be literal descriptions of concrete events, that are certain to happen. I'm sorry, but the book of revelation was written by an embittered exile on a crappy island off the coast of Greece, who had a barrel full of axes to grind with the powers that put him there- particularly those in rival churches of the early christian era. Note how he spends the first portion rambling about how this church or that is damned, or condemned, or are "a bunch of meanies." The chronology of end-time events given in Revelation is a strange mix of greek, persian, and egyptian myths, altered a bit, and thrown together into a mishmash that reads like Stewie Griffin's fantasies of matricide, writ large.
Needless to say, the idea of a real-time strategy game based upon such a concept was certain to raise hackles. Myself, I was kind looking forward to the game, simply out of morbid curiosity.
Despite my railings against the extreme "rapture right", I am a civil libertarian, and believe that they have every right to believe what they want to believe- and have the right to exercise their right to free speech, in whatever medium they choose. Seeing them produce a true modern Best-Seller series was interesting. Watching their movies "Meggido" and "The Bible Code" (available for free viewing here), scored a good two stars out of five (only because Michael York is right up there with Bill Shatner, in my book, and his performance as the antichrist is so bad, it's too cool for words.) Seeing how this franchise would expand into the digital gaming world would be a measure of how savvy these folks have become.
For a few days, the game was a hot topic- everyone got what they wanted- LB games got tons of free publicity, the liberal blogs got something to write about- a win/win situation, all around. However, the game still had yet to be seen or played by dedicated losers like myself, until just recently, when LB Games released a demo version.
After downloading/installing the demo- you launch the application- and BOO! A window pops up, requiring you to "register" the game. They ask for your e-mail address (so's they can send you lotsa testimonials and ads.) Just type in a fake name and e-mail addy- it'll work fine.
Then, the game launches- and hell- I'll start off this review with something positive...
The "Left Behind Games" video teaser at the beginning of the game is really, really cool, visually. The earth swings into view, glowing like the beautiful pearl of life that it is- as the camera swings over to the night side, we see hundreds of glowing wisps rising from the planet's surface, converging into a mass exodus of souls departing to their just reward...
But here's what gets me- the souls are departing, true- but to where?
SPACE! Every soul from every part of the planet converges into a stream heading into the cosmos- I can only assume that they're heading to some other planet or nebula. I might have to re-evaluate my position on Scientology, after viewing this.
After this gorgeous and puzzling spectacle, we're treated to a loading screen where Drew Carrey is pointing at some glowing object in the sky (many apologies, but I couldn't seem to get a screengrab of it- you'll just have to trust me.) After which, you're thrown into the console screen, where you're treated to a slideshow of images of destruction, kids praying, and some rather weird CGI versions of Michelangelo's paintings.
I figure in the full version of the game, this slideshow will be a full-motion video- my advice to the folks at LB Games: in that last image, God looks a tad too portly, and Adam looks like a gay hooker caught in the act of teabagging Cain- do a tad of poser tweaking, willya?
Being a first-time player, I decided to opt for the three-part tutorial, so I could get a handle on the game- and this is a point at which I feel I need to exposit, at tad more...
When the liberal and gaming web communities glommed on to this story, the game was condemned roundly, because you, as the commander of "tribulation force", were called upon to combat sinners- sometimes, you are left with only the option of combating sin with guns. This, of course, means that the player is put in the position of expedient executioner- how did this jibe with a christian ethics?
The developers responded thusly: "Our game isn't about combat, it's about winning through strategy- besides, whenever a player does kill through the force of arms, they'll be penalized."
Okay- so we have a real-time strategy game, wherein combat isn't encouraged- all well and good. I, for one, would like to see the RTS genre expand beyond the purely martial, and expand into other possibilities- however- these other possibilities have to be INTERESTING.
It's obvious that the folks over at LB games were so cowed and frightened by this criticism, that they were determined to release a demo that downplayed any hint of violence- so here's where you find yourself:
The first tutorial is all about learning the interface, and again- credit to whom credit is due- it does a good job. However, the essential camera controls (middle mouse button) are kinda clunky. All of the scenarios of the game apparently take place in an urban environment, and sometimes, buildings obstruct your view (I believe this is called "clipping".) Perhaps this issue will be resolved, when the full game is released, but for now, it's annoying.
One thing that struck me, immediately, is that advertisements (REAL advertisements from the US Army, the Red Cross, and the Ad Council) are everywhere.
I also saw an ad for Ted Turner's TCM cable channel- I'm somewhat confused... Were these ads purchased by the Ad council, or tossed into the game in yet another effort to try and convince critics that this game has nothing but everyone's best interest at heart?
In the second part, You learn how to convert "neutrals" intro "friends." This is how you will raise your army. Basically, you just walk up to someone with a gray bar over their heads, engage them in conversation, and in a few seconds- Voila- you've found your first crusader for christ.
and here's where it gets creepy..
Note- they've not only changed their opinion- they've changed their outfit. All well and good- In an RTS, you need to be able to identify your troops, in order to act quickly- but here's where I have a problem:
After a while, you're surrounded by a crowd of followers that look like they just stepped out of Marshall Applewhite's "heaven's gate" community, complete with pedophile dress. If that wasn't enough to turn you off, select your cadre, and tell them to move to a certain location- they will all respond with a hearty cry of "The Tribulation Force is strong!" in a chorus that sounds eerily like the Borg reminding Picard that resistance is futile. I found myself hating my own army...
Further- I might as well get this over with, right now- In this game, male "friends" can be builders, musicians, acolytes, soldiers, and fill a few other roles. What can women "friends" do? Not much- they can become nurses (a profession that can also be filled by men) but otherwise, they're useless, as converts.
Pointing out the inherent sexism of this is painfully redundant- but such attitudes are lamentably par for the course, when it comes to the "left behind" mentality.
However- one nice addition to the game is that every person has a full "life story", than can be accessed, at the press of a button.
In common RTS games, the player treats human resources as frivolously as George W Bush does in Iraq. You create a unit, and send it off to battle, and if it dies, so what? In this game, you can know the intimate details of the people you're putting on the line, which, I must admit, draws you into the story, somewhat. I'd hope that each character's life story affects how the character behaves and advances throughout the game- but such wizardry is beyond the abilities of the guys at LB games (see below.)
Anyhow- you're instructed to send out your male "friend" to your HQ, to be educated as a "builder." You're then instructed to send him out to build a food court in a local building.
At this point, I'll just cut to the chase, and summarize gameplay strategy:
In every traditional RTS game, you have to build up a "base", which traditionally turns into a tightly-packed cluster of facilities, defenses, and tightly-guarded parameters. In Eternal Forces, the gamer is introduced to a situation that, at the very least, is novel to me. Rather than building on virgin ground, in EF, you're set loose in an urban environment, with property that must be vied for, and used as a cohesive network, rather than just a factory for cannon fodder. I can see tons of possibilities for this approach to RTS- but unfortunately..
In the last quarter of the last tutorial, you finally learn how to conduct "spiritual warfare." FINALLY! I have my soldiers, my med units, and a few new disciples over at the church I just bought. I'm ready to ROCK!!!!
Uhh- did I just hear right? The game just instructed me to send one of my boy toys into the church, and train him as a musician.
Pause- blink- sip- blink..
A musician- okay.
So- after the musician emerges from the church- I notice he looks a tad like Beck, and I sigh, very deeply, with much sadness. Simultaneously, I'm instructed to guide him over to a pulsing red dot, where he will engage in "spiritual warfare."
Pause- blink- sip- blink..
Beck saunters over to the red spot by the most circuitous route possible, and we see him facing a Red Meanie. We're then instructed to use the musician's "Sing" power, to win him over- and it's WAR, baby..
A glowing ball appears over my head, and a weird synth-mix issues forth from my speakers. I'm sorta unimpressed, but the red meanie was so moved by the display, that he's abandoned his allegiance to Nicolae Carpathia, Antichrist esq. Take THAT, forces of evil!
Believe it or not, that's pretty much the end of spiritual warfare training within this game- but I would be remiss, were I not to address the following issue:
Every spiritual power, apparently, is visually summed up by a glowing ball over the practitioner's head...
Sometimes, a unit has the power to make glowing balls appear over everyone...
Now- I would expect the empowerment of God to be more awesome than a glowing ball over one's head- in fact, I'm considering incorporating the whole "ball" and "head" relationship into another lame "teabagging" joke, right now- but damnit- I've already done that, tonight, and I like to keep things fresh.
I just find these effects to be redundant, and unremarkable in their uniformity. When I tell my player to "sing", I don't wanna see a glowing ball- I wanna see him bust a move, while ripping Janet Jackson's bodice off. The tech is there to make this sorta thing happen, but LB Games just didn't wanna go there.
So- the tutorials are over, and I know how to make Beck perform amazing glow-ball effects that are off the hook- let's get into the scenarios provided with the demo.
You have four choices, and I go with "News Travels Fast "- where I am left to command the defense of a church against the forces of the Global Community- finally, a chance for ACTION...
The scenario starts, and I'm told that the church is in great danger- GC troops are closing in, and it's up to me to thwart their evil- but then, I'm assured that I have enough musicians to counter the inevitable onslaught...
Pause- blink- sip- blink...
Okay- here's the sight that greets me, as the game begins:
I have three Becks, in the face of overwhelming force- what am I to do? I wonder, click around, and after about five minutes of nothing happening, here's what I see:
Okay- now, it's raining, and I'm falling asleep. Wait another few minutes, and finally, the infidel as at your door- A bunch of black-clad, heavily armed GC troops materialize, and it's up to the Beck triplets to save the day.
I shove one Beck into the firing line of the GC troops, and, even though he's right in the line of fire of three blazing automatic weapons, not much occurs. I remember what I've learned in the tutorial, and figure it's time to win these guys over with a rousing torch song.
Hmn- nothing happens- I move Beck over to a point where the rifle is firing directly into his right ear, and make him sing again- okay- I won two of the bad guys over to neutrality. Repeat the process two times over, and the threat is gone- or so you think... A minute later, a new squad of GC arrives, and you get to repeat the process all over again.
Here's where another sticky wicket arises- there is no artificial intelligence, guiding character reactions. I mean- look at this mess- you have heavily-armed storm troopers attacking your church, and what do your followers do? They stand around, looking at their watches, and shifting their stance occasionally. I know this game is supposed to downplay violence, but you'd think that these guys would at least show some pious outrage. If these are the kinda folks that are going to be fighting the antichrist in the valley of Meggido, I'll be putting my money on Nick.
Anyway, after about two minutes of this, the game informs me that one of my heroes is dead, and I'll have to start all over again. You'll forgive me, when I admit that I didn't hit the "replay" button. I decide that maybe I had chosen a bad mission to start off with, and give mission 1 a try.
Here I am, a fresh-faced convert, on the mean streets of post-rapture New York. I'm instructed to find my friend, and a helpful red blip appears on my radar- so I'm off!
Luckily, helpful New Yorkers are standing around in the middle of the streets, to guide you on your way. Now- first off, the "helpful New Yorker" is a well-known mythical creature, and seeing them appear in this game requires a suspension of disbelief that's beyond me. If the guys at LB wanted to shoot for realism, these denizens of New York would be relieving themselves in the middle of the sidewalk, while tossing empty Starbucks' cups at your head.
At this point in the game, one is struck by how few people are left in New York. You see a pedestrian every two blocks or so, and only occasionally, do you see a car. I guess the LB folks would explain this away by saying that everyone's gone, because of the rapture. I'm sorry- but if you removed everyone in Manhattan that conforms to the "Left Behind" criteria of "righteous", you'd hardly notice the difference. I suspect that this lack of population is because the 3d engine used for the game couldn't handle dozens of figures onscreen at any one time.
So- here we are, running through the streets of an apocalyptic, yet strangely clean Manhattan- one old coot warns us that we should watch out, because there are roving bands of evil- you guessed it- MUSICIANS about. I don't remember John warning of a coming battle of the bands, so the whole "inspired by biblical events" thing goes right out the window.
After skirting around Antibecks for a while, I arrive at my destination, and am told that I am now to proceed to a nearby church, with a new friend in tow. After another ten minutes of walking around, and finding my path blocked by lines of yellow paint at every turn, I realized that this was just a virtual rat maze. Wandering aimlessly isn't my idea of exciting, but I hold fast- finally, the guy who's been following me around wanders a tad too close to an evil musician, and wouldn't you know- I'm informed that I've lost one of my heroes, and I'll have to start over again.
Well, I can only guess that I've had too much excitement for one day- because, almost involuntarily, I exit out of the game, uninstall, and delete it from my hard drive.
The gaming world and the liberal blogging community have nothing to worry about. I can't see a game like this appealing to casual or hardcore gamers, for so many reasons:
1: The graphics are WAY too primitive- the textures on the buildings and characters look like 20X20 jpgs saved at lowest quality. A game like this might have turned heads about ten years back, but now, it just looks drab.
2: The game's creators were obviously so intent on getting an "Everybody" rating from the ESRB, that they've created a game with very little excitement or action. Most of the time, you're sending builders around to upgrade real estate, and playing touchy-feely with your enemies, using pop musicians as your ground forces.
3: The christian message in this game is presented to the player with all of the subtlety of a school bus of holy rollers crashing into the side of your house. Even if you're into the strategy, the constant christian jingoism gets tiresome, about thirty seconds into the game.
4: The audio blows- I tried to come up with a more polite way to say it- but there you have it. The music is repetitive and dreary. The sound effects seem to have been pulled out of Flashkit.com, and are rarely appropriate to the event to which they are mated. The voice acting is abominable- far worse than the aforementioned radio series- every line of dialogue is recited without the faintest glimmer of professionalism.
5: The price tag for this game is fifty bucks! That was more than I paid for Grand Theft Auto/San Andreas and Oblivion, put together- and those were GOOD games!
I could go on and on, but you get the idea... I have no doubt that enough evangelicals will buy this game to ensure that it makes a healthy profit- maybe next time, they'll produce something actually worth playing- I actually hope they do.
The game introduces a few concepts that are, indeed, novel, and the LB franchise does offer material that would make a bang-up piece of interactive entertainment. The problem is that the folks who produced Eternal Forces had apparently never played a video game in their lives- this is the gaming equivalent of putting the "Lawrence Welk" show up against "Family guy" in primetime.
However- millions of christian fundamentalists will go out and buy this game for their kids- these young, impressionable folks will eventually finish the single-player campaign, and move on to the multi player game. Online, they will encounter pissed-off Korean professional video gamers who, playing as the armies of the antichrist, will utterly destroy them in an endless series of soul-crushing defeats.
When I consider this future- I smile.