Thursday 19 May 2011

To the last, I grapple with thee

Just Cause 2 features a grappling hook. This doesn’t sound terribly exciting, more something that would be tucked away in a lengthy check list in a press release between “Incorporates the latest version of the e-Foliate engine for improved serration in sweet chestnut leaf rendering” and “Includes BISCUIT-O-TRON(tm) technology (patent pending) to dynamically alter the lead character’s favourite biscuit based on crumb analysis from a BISCUIT-O-TRON(tm) compatible keyboard!”. It’s one of the defining feature of the game, though, that elevates it from being a pretty good island-hopping sandbox into a pretty good island-hopping sandbox with a brilliant grappling hook.

The obvious use for the grappling hook is climbing, where it offers a hint of its deeper magic with the ability to unfailingly stick to any surface and rapidly haul the protagonist up. It’s also handy for snagging a passing vehicle for a bit of car-surfing (or helicopter-dangling, depending on the vehicle in question). If confronted by a sniper or sentry in a guard tower then the climbing capability allows you to quickly get up there for a full and frank exchange of views at close quarters, but instead of grappling the tower and climbing up it’s far more fun to grapple the sniper and yank him off (matron) to his certain doom.

The piece de resistance, though, is the fact that after grappling something you can tether it to just about anything else. Nasty soldier chasing you on a motorbike? Attach his bike to a car going the other way and hilarity ensues! Want to destroy a statue of an evil dictator but don’t have spare explosives? Tether the head to a helicopter, take off, and wrench it away from the base! As an added bonus, a heavy stone statue head suspended beneath a helicopter makes an excellent improvised demolition ball for wreaking further havoc.

After playing Just Cause 2 for a while you can really miss the grappling hook in other games, especially MMOGs…

Climbing: has your Mighty Warrior, Fearsome Conqueror of Dungeons, Slayer of Ogres, Nemesis of the Undead (unless they’re undead themselves, in which case Nemesis of the Living (And Probably Some Undead Too)) ever been defeated by a slightly inclined plane? A grappling hook to help with a bit of climbing would be terribly handy in some games. Chief offender here are those like Guild Wars where you can’t jump at all, and are thus stymied by not only mighty fortifications and rugged mountains but also shin-high walls, ornamental shrubberies and scatter cushions that have been placed on the floor as a makeshift hamster corral. Champions Online gets a special mention for having the travel power of The One We Did For Spiderman When The Game Was Based On The Marvel License And Then Changed A Bit To Not Be Quite So Webby, or “Swinging” for short, which uses a grappling hook-esque action to shoot a line of tensile material (that definitely isn’t a web) towards the closest stabilising object for rapid movement; granted it’s a little odd that it still works effectively in a wide open expanse like the desert zone, but nothing that can’t be explained by a convenient pair of invisible helicopters with highly skilled pilots positioning them exactly where they’re needed.

Pulling: Quite literally. I mean sure, shooting a monster with a projectile weapon is one way of getting its attention, but how much more fun would it be for a tank to physically grab a target mob from halfway across the map and catapult it into melee range? The answer is “quite a lot”, as the Grappler in Hellgate: London demonstrated, let’s hope it’s still in the reanimated version. Warhammer Online had something along the same lines if I recall correctly, late-game abilities for White Lions and Marauders that could single out a hapless squishy cloth-wearer and twang! them from the relative safety of the back line into the midst of a mosh pit of spiky melee death. More games could definitely benefit from crazy grappling action, though.

Escort Quests: Everyone loves an escort quest, don’t they? Poor lost children, injured soldiers, bizarre chicken-robots, little old ladies who just need a hand across the road (well, they say “road” when offering the quest, it usually turns out to be The Highway of Death and Blood, a three mile expanse of pits and mantraps infested with hordes of Twisted Lollipop Fiends who desire only to stop people crossing roads, and the little old lady doesn’t go “across” so much as aimlessly zig-zag, alternating between a zimmer-frame dragging hobble when you’re at full health and there’s no immediate danger and a turbo-boosted sprint (while shouting “hey, over here!” and flicking V signs at anything slightly hostile looking) as soon as you’re exhausted and really need to recover before another fight…)

Popping back into City of Heroes when they reactivated old accounts last week, Melmoth and I were tasked with rescuing some hostages and had dutifully despatched all the villainous kidnappers so just needed to escort the hostages back to the mission entrance (while bracing for an inevitable ambush that never turned up… guess it was evitable after all). Reaching the entrance, there was a distinct lack of triumphant fanfare to herald our successful rescue, and turning around there was no sign of the hostages… I’d forgotten that although Melmoth is faster than a speeding bullet and I can leap tall buildings in a single bound (and in the game, ah), the distinctly un-super hostages had trouble with anything more than a brisk walk, and once you get too far from them they get all sulky and just hang around complaining about the poor standard of rescue. Returning to the lower levels of the lair, we collected the hostages again, ran off, realised they’d stopped following us again, turned around, and slowly trudged back to the start of the level, all the while desperately wishing I could’ve just pointed a grappling hook at the laggards to twang! them along at considerably greater speed.

Explaining this theory to Tim and Jon they seemed quite keen; in fact Jon rather developed things, pointing out that with the ability to connect two items, in a game like LotRO you could tether the NPC to your mount and then ride off at high speed, giving them precious little opportunity to “accidentally” bump into every patrolling orc on the way to safety. Course dragging someone along isn’t terribly good for their health (attaching an enemy solider to a car in Just Cause 2 and driving off kills them in a pretty unpleasant fashion, though I had to do it five times for the achievement…), hence Jon’s suggestion of a second person on the horse facing backwards, a Minstrel or other healer, constantly spamming healing spells to keep the NPC alive. I’m pretty sure such a “rescue” would be a blatant violation of at least 317 articles of International Humanitarian Law, but it sounds good to me, might make the daft git think twice about wandering off to need rescuing again at least…

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