By Brendan Caldwell on November 11th, 2011 at 11:26 am.
Brendan’s going to tell you all about Renegade Ops, and he doesn’t care. No, he really doesn’t care. Here’s Wot He Thinks:
Boisterous. I guess that’s the word for it. Renegade Ops is boisterous, in the same way as kicking a football around inside the house is boisterous, or building a fortress out of sofas and lampshades is boisterous. Renegade Ops is a game that’s decidedly shallow and not very inventive but there’s something about it that makes me not care about all that. This dual-schtick-em-up never truly makes me feel like a kid again but it does a great job of reminding me that I was one. A tiny, one-person wrecking ball. Absolutely no regard for my environment or actions, driven solely by a deep hunger for fun.
Here that fun – a word I‘m often told by language fascists not to use – is administered in a very familiar way. It’s a twin-stick shooter with a penchant for power-ups, massive dust-raising explosions, speedy Micro-machines inspired driving and lush, destructible environments. You play as a group of mercenaries who have vowed to blah blah something blah.
Actually, I immediately retract that snark. It’s well out of order and I’m sorry. Because the storyline and graphic novel narrative that unfolds is such a meticulous pastiche of 1960s boys war comics that it’s impossible to really roll your eyes at it without secretly feeling a little bit giddy about the fact that someone’s face just went on fire.
While each character is denied their own voice or development (who cares?) they all have a special weapon and particular skill tree. You can go for a punk in a truck, or a hunk in a Humvee, or even Gordon Freeman in his dune buggy straight off Highway 17 (whose special weapon is summoning a brood of Antlions). Why is Gordon Freeman in the character select menu? Because. Just because. Don’t think about why Gordon is there. This is your first lesson in Renegade Ops’ celebration of brashness.
Don’t think, because thinking is stupid.
We’ve all played a lot of shmups. Over time my own taste for them has ebbed. Much of the enthusiasm I have had for the genre has dampened but I know that if I could go back and hand a copy of Renegade Ops to my ten-year-old self he would adore it. Not only because it uses naughty words like “bullshit” but because of its joyful simple-mindedness and its unrepentantly destructive attitude.
Playing Renegade Ops, I am faintly reminded of a pair of games, called Desert Strike and Jungle Strike. I am reminded of the joy I felt when I blew up an enemy base and of the controller-flinging frustration I felt at losing a life – because Renegade Ops is not without its intense frustrations. But most of all I’m reminded of the blissful thoughtlessness of it all.
I don’t get feelings that strong when I blow things up here. But I get the impression that if my brain would just SHUT UP for ten minutes, instead of thinking about what it was going to write about the game in this review, then I would almost certainly be lost to a clueless smiling rampage, through countless harmless villages. And it really does a good job at this – of presenting you as an idiot of Team America proportions. You’re constantly told to save towns from destruction and rescue helpless farmers. But by the time you’re done driving all over the map, cleaning up the enemy cars, tanks and choppers, you’ve often levelled more of the country’s infrastructure than the villain has. And the game doesn’t even care.
I want to say the game is revelling in the crumpled schools and houses. That it is laughing its ass off at all these virtual people made virtually homeless. But that’s not it at all. This game simply doesn’t stop to think about things that long. It’s heedless. It just doesn’t care. And it kind of makes you want to not care too.
The problems come – aha – the problems come from the same thing that would make it instantly accessible to ikkle Brendy of ten years of age. Tradition. Avalanche studios – despite making an utterly gorgeous wee game with some lovely, lovely dust trails – have very strictly adhered to tradition. It’ll certainly please a lot of people in this regard. But grown-up(ish) Brendan gets fed up with a lot of these strictures.
While I can get on board having a set number of lives along with the much respected Game Over screen, the attitude to power-ups is a touch archaic. You see, you will occasionally collect weapons power-ups as you go along, which increase the power of your main machine gun or grant you a secondary weapon like a rail gun or missile launcher. Getting these powers grants you some great forward momentum, and because the enemies thrown at you get bigger and tougher it seems to balance well. That is until your buggy tips over at an inopportune moment and all manner of death rains down on you at once.
Boom. Yer dead. But upon respawning your vehicle is stripped of every power-up you previously collected, leaving you to face off against gargantuan tanks, missile-mounted trucks and flame-throwing genocidemobiles with a puny single-stream of machine gun fire. All this results in what many great thinkers have dubbed “the drinking game conundrum”. That is: once you begin losing, you will keep losing.
Which makes the first life one hundred times more crucial than the next four or five, all of which are short-lived and irksome beyond measure thanks to the fact that all this usually happens when you can see the end of the level in sight. There is such little chance of scraping back from a defeat. I lose all respect for the conventional Game Over screen at this point. At this point, I want the Game Over screen to choke on its own code and die and have a really depressing under-attended funeral.
This problem could be slightly relieved if you were given the option to upgrade your ride mid-game or re-jig the load-out of your vehicle to match challenges in a particular way. This would have the double effect of adding some on-the-hoof strategy to the game. But once again the shackles of tradition seem to keep this process a strictly between-levels event. So quite some time is spent locked in a grind loop as you float from Game Over to Game Over mustering up enough points to unlock something more helpful, hoping to eventually break through. In education they call this a ‘plateau.’ The point at which you keep going and going but you never seem to get anywhere.
Renegade Ops has a few plateaus.
You could pop it down to casual mode for infinite lives but this is (pretty cleverly) designed to be utterly disempowering. Casual mode has no upgrade system, no skill tree and a monstrously neutered scoring system. The rewards are stripped away, leaving normal mode hovering next to it on the menu, smirking at you with a mixture of contempt and amusement. Jesus. This must be how conscientious objectors felt.
But the central irritation has less to do with tradition. The more I think of it this next point doesn’t even feel like a valid criticism. It’s more an unavoidable pitfall that affects any game that relies on Micro Machines-like car movement and bouncy Havokian physics. It’s a lament. It’s an audible cry of resentment. It’s something every reader who was once a boy or girl obsessed with RC cars will recognise. Hell, it’s something every reader who is a turtle will recognise.
“FLIP. The FUCK. OVER.”
It’s not that the steering results in your car being consistently on its back. Your vehicle’s handling itself isn’t erratic but the environment around it definitely is. This chagrin of being upturned and bounded around uncontrollably because of difficult to spot rocks or annoyingly narrow ramps really begins to make itself known during a particular chase sequence wherein a snarling pack of rocket-launching helicopters hound you through an obstacle course of bridges, slopes and slim passageways. The controls aren’t the big problem. Although you’re definitely going to want to take the game’s advice and use a controller (I hooked up my PS3 controller using this bad boy[http://www.motioninjoy.com/download]) because the keyboard and mouse is a travesty to use. It’s just that one mis-steer can lead to two seconds of immobilisation, which in turn means you’re instantly cooked. Combined with the “drinking game conundrum” this single sequence, among others, becomes unexpectedly punishing.
Persevere and you’ll witness a marvellously dramatic escape. I didn’t ‘persevere’, so to speak. I conscientiously objected and switched to casual mode. Because I’m a wimp like that, okay? Whatever. I was rewarded with the dramatic escape and the bonus of an abject and unshakable self-loathing. (Who cares?)
Nonetheless, the lesson is still learned. Renegade Ops may have a bizarre attitude when it comes to ‘challenge’ – it doesn’t have an steep difficulty curve so much as it has an eccentric difficulty curve. But that fits perfectly with its roots. It’s definitely a game that needs to be replayed level upon level in order for you to feel like the care-free, proudly unrefined badass it so clearly wants you to feel like.
I only got a brief chance to muck about in co-op mode but in that short time it almost felt like that’s how this game was meant to be played and I can only apologise for not covering that side of things more extensively. But, like many things in this game, I’m not bothered about what I have and haven’t done or seen or what the game does and doesn’t pull off, because it’s so cheap and consciously throwaway in the right ways. I don’t really care that it took me half a dozen attempts to defeat a few tanks. I don’t really care that I got repeatedly wedged between a ramp and a wall while the bad guys lined up and launched rockets at me in what I’m convinced is a grotesque future-vision of public execution. I don’t really care because Renegade Ops costs, like, a tenner and it reminded me of Jungle Strike.
I don’t care. Because it tried its very best to get me to stop thinking. Because it reminded me of being boisterous.