Let me talk to you about Double Action Boogaloo.
It is a ridiculous, wonderful thing – imagine Max Payne 2, but multiplayer. You might be well aware of how much I love MP2 (that is to say, utterly, as one might love a spouse, as one might love the sort of dog that rescues you from wells, as one might love Jesus, as one might love a Jesus that rescues you from wells) but you might also arrive at the entirely understandable conclusion that the game doesn’t translate that well to a multiplayer experience.
This is because Max uses different rules from everyone else in his world. He alone can slow down time; he alone can dive sideways, twin guns spitting death; he alone can jack his health up with bottle after bottle of painkillers until he is rattling, surely, from the hundreds of pills in his stomach that are keeping him alive. It is a wonderful example of how to write one set of rules for the player character and another for everyone else in the world can give a sense of power and agency.
(See also Dungeons and Dragons 4e, which abandoned the idea established in 3.X that everything had to function in the same way as a player character – a full stat-block, a full list of feats, progression along understood lines of class-led abilities – and instead understood monsters for what they are. Namely, angry piñatas full of XP (or XPiñatas, to use the proper term) that players meet and immediately murder. Their rules are cut down, their options limited, and the game runs better for it. See 13th Age for an even better example of this.*)
Double Action Boogaloo (hereafter referred to as DAB) gives you a playground full of Max Paynes and lets them duke it out for supremacy. The result is refreshing and not a little daft, because it runs like the out-take reel of an early 90’s action flick.
SCORED ON STYLE
To give you a brief run-down of play – DAB uses a variety of multi-level arenas and plonks up to 16 heroes in them. Heroes have the ability to dive through the air, slide along the ground, and kick off walls to open up additional options of murdering each other. (It’s also entirely free, so you should probably download it and play.)
You aren’t scored on number of kills – rather, you’re scored on style, so you can sit perfectly still and plug away at people all day with an assault rifle and come in last, while the guy leaping off balconies and shooting people in mid-air with his twin pistols is going to clean up.
(It takes some getting used to, but it does mean that – for example – it is tactically viable to leap off the side of a building to shoot at someone who’s already fallen off, because that’s cool as all hell.)
Slow-motion is doled out in one-second bursts, and killing enemies gives you extra seconds to use; when you set it off, you slow down the entire map, but only your aiming remains at a normal, twitch-perfect speed – everyone else is slowed down to a crawl. I can understand this. It’s hard to resolve something as powerful as slow-mo in a multiplayer game, and giving it in second-long bursts keeps it special.
However. HOWEVER. I want you to try something for me, now. Firstly, throw a balled-up piece of paper into the bin. Pretty easy, right? Now – throw a balled up piece of paper into the bin while you’re jumping sideways onto the sofa. Trickier, right? Now, attach your bin to a robot chassis** and have it speed around the room while you jump and throw. EVEN HARDER, right?
The issue, here, is that it’s hard to maintain accuracy while you’re tied to a fixed vector, moving at top speed, and your target is also moving. That’s why Max Payne had slow-motion – it slowed the world down to such a degree that our brains could handle it, and so we could pop off headshots and feel like total badasses.
DAB’s slow-motion is not so prevalent, so naturally gunshots are, on average, less accurate. However, you’re still marked on how stylish you are, not how efficient you are, so it’s better to be always sliding, or diving. Max Payne would look pretty silly if he spent almost the entire game leaping, missing his shots, and scooting back across the room in the opposite direction to have another go. Now times that by twelve.
Ladies and Gentlemen: I give you Double Action Boogaloo.
A FIXED PROGRESSION ALONG A PRE-DETERMINED VECTOR
Combat, then, is a sort of mangled ballet of continual leaps and slides and dives in an effort to stay stylish. Ironic, really, that it ends up looking anything but stylish from the outside – when you’re in a gunfight, it can feel pretty cool as you leap over someone’s head, kick off your slow-mo, and shoot them a few times in the chest. But when you’re on your way into the fight, it’s ridiculous. It looks like a bunch of 7-year olds have suddenly been given superpowers and are immediately using them all the time as hard as they can.
To have ceaseless action without respite dulls its essential sharpness; there’s no light and shade, no slow and fast. There is sliding and diving. Those are your two extremes, and they are both extreme in the same way that Mountain Dew is extreme, which is to say, EXTREEEME.
The trope works when incorporated in a gauntlet – a corridor, a path of challenges that our hero must overcome. It highlights their struggle, their ability, acts as a personal spotlight. (Indeed, the idea that powers like shootdodging are tied to fixed progression along a pre-determined vector thematically underlines the progression of a typical action movie storyline and ethos, and that’s the wankiest sentence I’ve written in about five years, please excuse me.)
Once you take out the concept of overcoming a challenge that involves progression through one space into another and apply the mechanics of shootdodging to freeform violence, you lose something from it. It becomes directionless and strange. It highlights its own unreality.
(The game shines in the brief “capture the briefcase” sections, where murdering each other takes second fiddle to transporting a briefcase full of money from one section to another – and suddenly your dives all make sense, you can evade and return fire but you’re moving with a purpose other than solely lining up the next shot, and it gives those central mechanics a much-needed grounding.)
But it’s new, is DAB, and after three years of development, there’s definitely something to be proud of here. There’s a new system for multiplayer combat, and I feel confident that, with more time and testing and feedback, it can develop into something beautiful.
Also – also. There is a level called Rooftops, and it is built solely around the idea that it is fun to leap off the roof of a skyscraper and crash through the window of a different skyscraper, shooting twin berettas as you go, and you get more points for doing that. That’s perfect. I’ve wanted that for so long.
DAB is the game I wanted when I was eighteen. I wish that I was eighteen now so that I could play it and truly appreciate it without ten years of maturity getting in the way; that I could gloss over everything I just complained about. I realise when I play that the problems here are with me, not with the game. This is me feeling awkward about thinking something is wonderful.
Look – play it, if you can. DAB is doing something different and charming and inherently tongue-in-cheek, and I really appreciate the creator for not only taking the time to let me dive through plate-glass windows and shoot people in the face, but to encourage me to do so.
* “But Grant, D&D always used different rules for monsters and PCs before 3.X came along!” I can hear you saying, super-ready to let me know how poorly-read a games design pundit I am in the comments. I know about AD&D; I reckon that 4e’s system is better, and at least uses the same core mechanics stripped down rather than something almost entirely different, as though one half of the game were written in a different building from the other
** What, you don’t have a bin-sized robot chassis? Christ, I dunno, tie it to the dog or something