Posted By: wraggster
This month I have mainly been shooting vast quantities of men in the face. That would make it a perfectly ordinary month were it not for the fact that Iíve been doing so on two portable electronic devices that a decade ago would have seemed like futuristic sci-fi mockups for a high-budget movie. The contrast between the two games is instructive Ė the one that is a really good face-shooter, Killzone: Mercenary on Vita, is a summing-up of the past, while the one thatís less satisfying, Call Of Duty: Strike Team on iPad, has more to say about the future.Killzone is the kind of gorgeously polished extrusion of the military-entertainment complex that might well have been the system-selling grail if it had been available for Vitaís launch. But itís a standard twin-stick FPS with a few uses of the touchscreen, mainly to make up for not having enough shoulder buttons. And most observers would be surprised if Ė Nvidia Shield aside Ė this werenít the last generation of mainstream dedicated handheld videogame consoles. (That is, unless Nintendo pursues its current fascinating strategy to its logical conclusion, following the 2DS with a 1DS; its games would be exclusively one-dimensional, taking place along lines of zero width.)The future of handheld videogames is surely on phones and tablets, which is why Call Of Duty: Strike Team seems more relevant to the formís continuing evolution. It fails to solve the well-known problems of a stick- and mouseless FPS, but it is still intriguing for what it implies about the nascent digital grammar of touchscreen murdering.An early cutscene in Strike Team sees one of your soldiers casually stabbing a rogue physicist through the hand, pinning it to the desk with his combat knife in order to get the grumpy scientist to talk. Itís the kind of blithely casual torture beat that has long been a COD staple. But this is only in a cutscene. The stealth stabbings in the game proper are accomplished as in any console game: by pressing an action button. Yet here we are on a touchscreen tablet, where creators are constantly looking for innovative applications of gestures. Thereís an obvious option they are eschewing.Why not let the player swipe a knife across an enemyís exposed throat, guiding the blade all the way through its fatal motion, perhaps with some tasteful blood spatter on the lens of the virtual camera? It seems like a perfectly iPad-ish way to accomplish virtual wetwork. Yet Strike Team comes over all coy in this respect. Nor did the makers of Killzone: Mercenary offer such a gruesome control option, though they came closer before turning back: melee kills are accomplished by touchscreen swiping, but only in a QTE way (swipe-follow the big arrow that overlays your enemy).Iím quite sure creators have thought about this and decided that such an option would be too disgusting. The valuable intimacy of touchscreen control (so well exploited in The Room) would become a horrifying intimacy if we were slicing into enemy flesh. Swiping across glass to open a fictional jugular would still be an example of the potent amplification of input, but there would also be a powerful emotional dissonance between the playerís physical action of stroking (a sensuous, exploratory touch) and the violent result. So developers fall back to virtual buttons or shape-matching. Personally, I donít blame them. But it shows that we are in an interesting ethical-aesthetic moment. The touch-control paradigm evidently could enable a new golden age of interactive torture porn, yet everyone seems to have tacitly agreed that to pursue such a route would be wrong.But the USP of Strike Team is that the enemy doesnít even have to be in your face in the first place. Switch to drone view and you get a top-down RTS perspective. Not only is the game more fun and tactically interesting to play this way, but the vantage point is enjoyably aestheticising: suddenly my finger strokes are causing delightful blue or red pathmarkers to shine forth from my toy soldiers. I am a drone-riding deity, and my fingertip emits a spark of electricity that causes human beings far below to become animated and conform absolutely to my will.This is a far more serene application of touch controls, even though the result is still brutal death. Just as a modern UAV would have seemed like a thunderbolt-dealing Thor if transplanted to premodern times, the drone view of Strike Team turns the player into a god whose invisible touch is law. Thatís a less intense expression of superiority than slashing a soldierís throat, but a more satisfying vista of absolute power.What Strike Team teaches us by implication, then, is this: an increased level of mimetic parallelism between touchscreen controls and close-quarters gore-splattering seems unacceptable. So, surprisingly, the future of portable warmongering might end up being more like its 2D past and about the cerebral general directing operations from afar. If that means another Advance Wars some day, I wonít complain.