Monday, August 31, 2015

Heavy Gear: a franchise in need of love (and maybe a genre)

Heavy Gear's box art, courtesy of Activision
Everyone has that one special game nobody has played except him/her. Heavy Gear is not one of those games for me, but I do wish I knew of people who have played it. In all my life, I have not met one person who played it and did not borrow my copy. I haven't even been able to buy (or pirate) a copy of the sequel. I did, however, see a crappy 3D animated episode of a series years after I finished this game, which was kind of an odd experience.

Heavy Gear is a first-person, open-field war game and in that sentence is where its first problem arises. Probably only one of those genre depictions has made sense to you and it was about the camera angle. Here's the thing: even though Heavy Gear does not do anything ground breaking, it is still hard to point out in which genre it is supposed to go. Sure, you can describe what you can do in the game, but that does not solve the problem. You can build your own robot, but is it a robot builder? The prefabs work just as well. You are a soldier, but is it a military shooter? As long as you don't shoot humans in the face, people get confused. You pilot a giant robot, is it like MechWarrior? Thank you for drawing attention to the competitor! Let me expand on what I mean.

Mech building
As said, you can build your own robot from the ground up. The original game I got came with a single language manual of 100+ pages explaining every part and pre-configured robot (or 'Gear', as they call it. From legs and engines to guns and rockets, everything was documented on what it did and what its stats were. I spent hours comparing torso's and then adding parts to the INSIDE of that torso, to get the optimal result. Let that sink in: you can not only choose parts, but every leg, arm, torso and head has individual sub-parts you can add and remove. It is vast! It is awesome!

The kodiak model. Every prefab bot has
a picture of this quality in the manual
And then you find the pre-configured bots. They work just as well. An entire building system rendered useless. The thing is, the differences between all parts is marginal at best. Also, you only need one gun: the medium assault rifle, the one in the title picture, but more on that later. In any case: Heavy Gear is not depicted as a mecha builder.

Combat and gameplay
The gameplay is awesome. The Gear really feels as gear. You run around over a field in a very fluid motion and you have fast control over turns. It does not feel as vehicular as MechWarrior, even when you are in vehicle mode. That mode feels like you are on roller-skates, which they are and they are soooo handy! You have a vast environment to zip through which even for its time (1997) was very big. This is war, it feels like it and you are the soldier that is going to bring a lot of damage.

And then the sensors come in... Don't get me wrong, there is a lot of choice and all but one of them do pretty awesome things. All but one... That one, when activated turns off all graphics and only shows a blue wire frame for every object. Textures: Gone! Skybox: Gone! Explosions: Gone! Immersion: RIP. The worst part: it is by far the best way to find and destroy the enemy, because it has camouflage colors. Strafe and shoot 3 shots to the chest with the medium assault rifle on any enemy and its gear flings away in separate pieces. There might be an explosion in there, but it isn't rendered when the sensor is on.

OK, graphics aren't that great, but imagine
a sensor rendering even less
But we were talking about genre depiction and not about its gameplay quality, which makes it all the sadder. It does not play like MechWarrior and not like a military shooter, which were not as prominent at the time, but already a presence. Heavy Gear had a very unique gameplay ruined by 1 little thing. It did not fit into an existing genre and its own gameplay had a fatal flaw, so it did not make it earn its own genre.

Also, the AI is stupid, there was nobody in multiplayer and therefore the not-part-of-story-campaign missions were boring. I did not know where to put this, it just adds on a detriment to the gameplay, but speaking of story...

YOU GUYS! THE STORY IS AWESOME! This game meshes story and gameplay perfectly using everything that can be used in a videogame. There are live action movies (which you can skip, but I didn't), extensive texts building the world (which you don't have to read, but I did for this game) and scripted events that do NOT INTERRUPT GAMEPLAY. I wish more developers played this game to take note on how you tell a story. Mind you, the actual story and the acting could be better, but its presentation was so good, my suspension of disbelief was through the roof and I didn't even notice.

As for the Story: On a distant planet, there is a war between the North and the South. You are a Northern soldier on a giant desert-crawling frigate and it gets marooned in the badlands between North and South. In itself this is not such a big problem, but there is also a Southern frigate somewhere and so both frigates are in a kind of Mexican stand-off, but with whole platoons instead of guns. Both sides are too far away from home for support and there is a chance neither will go home alive.

Either an actor that doesn't know Heavy Gear or
a Heavy Gear fan that doesn't know how to act.
The whole campaign has this brooding dread spread through it. Where is the other frigate? Will we survive? Through the campaign you get captured and characters die and defect. Every death and defection gave me a little sting, because this was not a war between North and South, this was up close and personal.

Then there is the moment when both frigates finally meet and mayhem ensues. Even though it was a difficult mission, I turned off the lame sensor to watch both frigates blast away on eachother. Yes, even for its time the graphics did not make it look as majestic as this description, but I did not care. I was zipping around on my roller-skates, trying to spot foes between my friends and generally not get killed.

And all the reviewers ever did was comparing it to Command and Conquer, an RTS no less. C&C had campaigns for both factions, Heavy Gear had only the Northern campaign, thus the reviewers claimed it fell short. And that is all they ever wrote about it! How can you compare a military shooter story (of which there is usually 1 in a military shooter) to two RTS stories? Personally, I prefer 1 great story to 2 mediocre ones, but I guess quantity outweighs quality. Again a point where its lack of genre profile cut the game short in reviews.

In the end
Assault: more Graphics, more color, more love?
Despite its shortcomings, Heavy Gear is a lot of fun and it is such a shame reviewers did not really know what to make from it. Sure, on average it got around 80% in reviews, but remember that only games above 90% can make a difference. With customers not knowing what it was, nobody bought it, nobody played it, except me.

Before I got to writing this post, I went on to do a little research and little did I know it was actually based on a universe for a tabletop game and a role-playing game! (That explained the late, 40 episode, crappy TV series I came across) They even kickstarted a new videogame (Heavy Gear Assault) and it did not reach its target, moving on to early access (which I never heard about) to be released in 2016. I haven't tried it yet, but I think I will when I get the opportunity. Hopefully this franchise will get the love in videogames it deserves.