Hard Project: Pacific Rim
The main reason that I can’t say Pacific Rim was my absolute favorite movie of 2013 is simply because Frozen also came out last year. It was an absolute treat just the same, a summer action film that understood that it didn’t have to be dumb and didn’t have to assume you were stupid. There were giant robots, there were giant monsters, there were references to Mighty Morphin Power Rangers in the midst of it. Great stuff. I have seen it at least half a dozen times now.
Of course, the fact that we’re supposedly getting an animated series gives rise to the hope that we’ll get more toys and licensed products, but even from the film alone it seems incomprehensible that we didn’t get a great game. And we didn’t, of course – it was a weak game saved only by its connection to a film in which you punch the hell out of kaiju in a giant robot. But why is that? What makes the game so hard to develop in the first place? Is it possible that even with a sequel and a cartoon it’s still not going to lend itself nicely to a game?
No double events
The film very clearly establishes rules for kaiju attacks, one of which is that the beasts don’t just randomly appear. There’s a rhyme and reason to it, one that almost always limits combats to being against a single kaiju. Double events are rare, and the film features a solitary triple event as part of its climax. At best, you might be fielding multiple jaegers against a single kaiju.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the appeal of giant robots is partly due to the promise of blowing up lots of things. I’m not saying that the film’s brawls between robot and monster were anything less than awesome, but there’s a feeling like you have to smash some lesser stuff first. There’s a reason why every single Macross series features a huge array of enemy battle machines that erupt in a plume of fire and smoke when the protagonists so much as glance in their direction – because giant robots are fun when they’re smashing stuff.
Giving you a solitary opponent each time kind of cuts down on that. You can smash the landscape, sure, but it’s not quite as edifying as flinging around lesser monsters or robots with a satisfying sense of destruction. Giant robot shows and games are at their best when you get to play the tyrant in the sandbox, just kicking over everything because you can.
Of course, one-on-one fights can work. But that produces its own problems.
On drives and alchemy
If you need to see a game akin to what a good Pacific Rim game might look like, the solution is a PlayStation 2 title that I’m pretty sure no one actually heard of or played, Robot Alchemic Drive. In it, you pilot a solitary giant robot against a solitary monster in a city-smashing duel, and it is seriously one of the greatest games if you’re a die-hard fan of giant robot stuff, especially shows from the late 70s to early 80s. I absolutely love it.
Needless to say, the game didn’t sell very well. Partly because, well, the game has some problems in terms of design. It does the best it can to create a control scheme in which you feel like you’re really moving a giant robot around, especially a giant robot which chiefly engages in fisticuffs rather than just blowing everything to hell with orbiting laser bits. The downside is that the controls wind up feeling clunky, as you control your legs and arms separately, with leg controls mapped to the shoulder buttons. While the control scheme makes sense for a jaeger, it’s something you have to spend a bunch of time learning before you can really start enjoying it.
More to the point, the game spends a lot of time reminding you how important it is not to let bad things happen to the landscape and so on. You don’t want to be smashing buildings left and right, that’s going to play hell with your rating. While it’s fun, there’s a loss there. You can’t just pick up a monster and fling him through a row of buildings. You need to take it slow and have controlled battles. Remember, in Pacific Rim, battles that took place in cities were actually considered net losses – the good ones were where the kaiju was stopped off the coast.
I love Robot Alchemic Drive, but all of the problems it had are problems that a solid Pacific Rim game would need to address. And we still haven’t stopped talking about robots!
There’s a lot more than robots
Part of what made me like Pacific Rim is that while Raleigh was perhaps the most generic white guy possible to play the lead, the scenes in which giant robots were not punching stuff did not bore me to tears. I remember sitting in the theater for Transformers and sighing as the film continued into another long robot-free digression with human characters whom I hated, a far cry from the dynamics of Mako, Raleigh, Stacker, Herc, and so forth. Hell, Charlie Day managed to completely steal the show running around with Ron Perlman, turning what could have easily been an irritating role into one of my favorite parts of the film.
The experience of the Drift, the politics surrounding the jaegers, the pop culture phenomenon created by smashing giant beasts. All of this stuff is gold. All of it needs to fit into the game.
One of the points I made back during the Star Trek column is that when you add a lot of extra options to a game, you also wind up bogging it down. It’s easy to make a game that’s tightly focused, but when you start tacking on extra modes things get muddied. Either the extra modes are underdeveloped – which is bad – or they’re so developed that people would rather play that than the actual core game. Assuming, of course, that there’s a parity between the modes. Or you can run into stretches like when Persona 3 completely stops putting you into dungeons for a while in favor of a whole boring month of social links…
Oh, and it’s also a licensed game, so that doesn’t help matters. Long story short, it’s not easy.