Developers spend a lot of time trying to make things as pretty as possible in videogames and sometimes that effort kind of misses the point. While fantastic visuals are easy to talk about in a preview or review — and translate well to short promotional videos and screenshots — they aren’t nearly as important as how a game actually feels. So subjective, but so important, the minute details of play contribute much more to how enjoyable a title is than any breathtaking vista or lovingly animated character.
Describing how this works is difficult (unless, I suppose, you create your own critical vocabulary), but is well worth the effort. It’s also essential that critics of any stripe point out good examples of videogames that just plain feel good to play.
This, I think, is the best way to start talking about Renegade Ops.
Renegade Ops is big, loud and stupid. It is also fantastic for all of those reasons. This is mainly because Ops — a hamfisted tale of a ragtag military group fighting back against a Saturday morning cartoon villain/terrorist — knows how to take full advantage of this setting to create one of the best videogame iterations of a bombastic action move yet accomplished.
I’m playing as Roxy, the Tank Girl style character who comes complete with combat boots, bandage on cheek and an implied scent of motor oil hanging about her. She seems like the right choice for a first playthrough (I’m fully intending to revisit Ops again and again . . . and possibly again) because her “special attack” — the one that becomes available after inflicting enough damage on enemy vehicles and/or structures — launches an artillery barrage.
If holding down the right stick to fire a vehicle’s main guns and tapping another button to simultaneously launch rockets isn’t enough then triggering the Roxy’s landscape exploding special attack while doing both of these actions surely is. All of this is encouraged, because, Renegade Ops wants you to feel like you’re changing the world around you with every interaction. There is almost no down time. Your vehicle flies across the landscape (speed is further emphasized with non-exhaustible turbo boosting) for seconds of the time before you approach more enemies to fire on. Armed checkpoints are placed everywhere to ensure that no more than 20 seconds will ever go by without an explosion.
This design — this incredible emphasis on maintaining a nearly continuous, cocaine-frenzied level of violence — also manages to avoid causing distate by obscuring the results of the carnage.
Remember how the gun fights played out in James Bond films before Daniel Craig took over the role? Sean Connery (or one of the actors who wasn’t Sean Connery) would fight his way through a missile silo, actually murdering large groups of soldiers. These fights would never be tonally jarring or frightening because the intensity of the situation was communicated through audio cues (ke-pang! blam! agh!) and visuals where bullets and explosions killed people but the audience never had to see the burned or bloody flesh that would actually result from the action. Renegade Ops uses the same kind of abstracted combat to hit that same part of our lizard brain that responds to the cartoonish violence of these kinds of movies+.
The violence is not meant to be, in any way, horrifying. The comic book aesthetic, the vehicle-on-vehicle combat (note that the little infantry troops are uniformly without detail so as to let us not think too much about their death by railgun) is meant to let us stay within the game’s high-score chasing mentality without distraction.
We are, instead, supposed to lose ourselves in the sheer spectacle of the game. From the little focal point of vehicle we control on the screen, we effect the ruin of every landscape with tiny flicks of our thumbs and fingertips. Renegade Ops allows the player to feel as if each one of their actions is transforming the landscape in a profound way. The carefully crafted explosions, the shmup-style gun power-ups and the implied earthquake of air strikes ensure that no instance of interaction goes unrewarded.
All of this works to make Renegade Ops into something that is, ultimately, a bit like a mental punching bag. The id is massaged like a cramped muscle by the sanitized violence of a Bond film, Ops feeds that part of our mind to bursting — and, then, temporary obliteration — by coupling unthinking action with the sense of involvement that only a videogame provides.
+ This isn’t to permit this type of thing as a morally appropriate aesthetic choice. I’d argue that, if you’re going to show an audience violence then you should also show them the real-world consequences of such violence to reinforce the gravity of, say, shooting someone. Renegade Ops, in this sense, gets to have its action cake and eat it too. I find series like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare sort of stomach churning in their decision to more accurately render violence while never slowing the pace enough to encourage reflection. This all belongs in a seperate article, though, so I’ll stop there.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He maintains literature and music blog, Sasquatch Radio, and, more importantly, founded, writes and is editor-in-extremis for game site Digital Love Child. His Tweet-fu is strong @reidmccarter.