Herding cats through a battlefield

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Heads Up! Due to the adult nature of this topic, this article contains profanity.

One of the most hated concepts ever in gaming has to be the escort mission. No, I’m not talking about the kind that involves certain lady’s of the night, I’m talking about the one where we have to babysit an NPC through a tour of an active warzone.

We all know the feeling we get when we first recognize how this is going to go down. We’re playing our game with guns and explosions and lots of mindless enemies to plow down when the game suddenly decides to try and be “challenging” and by “challenging” I mean “annoying”. We’re suddenly given a random character to keep safe. I personally cringe when I see that my “ally” has an actual gun. These tend be the worst kind of cannon fodder since they will actively participate in their own demise. I would rather try and escort a mindless sheep than a sassy supporting female character with a handgun. Don’t get me wrong I like sassy supporting female characters. They give me something to look at. This doesn’t mean I want them actively participating in my little shooty-explosion Rambo boneriffic extravaganza. I would prefer they maybe hang out back at my base and give me tactical support like the sexy sounding Australian lady in my Garmin GPS.

Now you may be asking yourself, “that sounded misogynistic and I know you are not one of those misogynist gamers because of other articles you’ve written about that kind of behavior”. I know, but for some strange reason most games that have male supporting characters are either disposable or immortal and if they are true escorts then they are completely capable of handling themselves. Games with annoying, sassy supporting female characters as escorts tends to happen too frequently and hearing the phrase “escort mission” makes me think of one person, Natalya Simonova.

I hate that sexy Russian bitch. Once again, don’t get me wrong, Goldeneye is my favorite James Bond movie and I loved the character of Natalya, but they must not have jungles in Russia and Natalya is a hacker, not a commando. In Goldeneye 007 on the Nintendo 64, she became the bane of my existence. Trying to escort her through the jungle while waging a guerrilla campaign against roving death squads drove me to insanity and then trying to fight your way through the base and defend her while she stands out in the open and hacks a computer while I fight waves of goons made me want to cry. Goldeneye 007 is one of my favorite games of all time. It was what kindled my love of James Bond movies, but Natalya will always be burned into my mind as as one of the most hated sacks of pixels I’ve run across.

The flip side of Natalya is one of my favorite gaming characters, Alyx Vance. The real difference is that Alyx Vance was capable of handling herself, while also capable of knowing when to run the fuck away. She would wade into the thick of it right beside Gordon and when the bullets stopped, I knew that if she was dead then I was being negligible. There is a great deal of Half Life 2 and its episodes that are escort missions, but you would rarely notice since it never felt like I was her babysitter.

I know it’s a strange concept to hate an escort mission just because you don’t like the sound your escort makes, but that’s what I will always remember about Baby Mario. Every gamer remembers the first time they played Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island and heard the noise Baby Mario made when they left him unattended. My initial reaction was, “Goddamn! Am I going to be hearing this through the entire game?” The crying that a normal baby makes doesn’t compare to the digital Baby Mario. It’s almost as if Nintendo distilled the shrill screams of an infant into its purest form to create the little brat. I’ve never personally been able to get past the screams and complete the game despite several attempts. I would play for awhile and get my fill of the shrieking before quitting. I remember gleefully throwing Baby Mario into a pit once just for entertainment purposes.

There are so many things about Portal that make it such an excellent game, but have you ever thought that it had a great escort mission? That’s right, the Weighted Companion Cube was an excellent escort. It never got in the way. It didn’t get itself killed. It stayed right where you left it and it didn’t scream at you if you put it down. If only Yoshi had been forced to carry the awesomeness that is the Companion Cube around then I would have loved Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. Bravo, Valve for making one of the greatest escorts ever and you didn’t even have to hire a voice actor.

I really want to talk about Grand Theft Auto, which is infamous for escort missions. The series has so many escort missions that they range from fucking stupid to spectacular. GTA IV has one of the worst examples I can imagine and unfortunately it involves one of my favorite characters. I always thought it was funny that a criminal organization wouldn’t promote Phil Bell just because he’s of mostly Irish ancestry. I never really thought of mobsters as being racist. I also thought Phil was one of the smartest characters in GTA IV. He follows orders, he knows his office is bugged but leaves the bugs there and he complements Niko for driving like a reasonable person because “The Feds’ll be looking for a fast car. Good work. That’s why you gotta drive slow.” Unfortunately, in the mission Catch the Wave, he will quickly alternate from Scarface-esque murderous/suicidal aggression and laughable bad boat driving skills. On top of that, this mission takes about ten minutes and has four-parts that spends the majority of the time crossing the map in a moving truck, so if Phil suddenly pulls a Magoo and rams his boat into the one damn rock in the river, then you get to tool around Liberty City all over again.

You need to remember though that like 90 percent of the missions in any GTA game have some escort time and one of the reasons for this is that in GTA3 they managed to make one of the most memorable escort missions in any game and have since been obligated to force you to chauffeur other characters around. In the classic mission Bomb da Base your escortee, 8-Ball is going onto a ship to plant bombs and blow it up. You take a position nearby and give him sniper cover. The mission takes about half as long as Catch the Wave and ends as soon as 8-Ball blows up the boat. It’s fun and you genuinely feel like you are defending 8-Ball as you malevolently pop gangsters heads off with rifle rounds. While I think the setup may be simplistic, there is very little drive time and there are a lot of enemies to go through in such a short span. 8-Ball is even a really cool character that I wished had gotten more missions.

I would like to say that developers are getting better at escort missions or that they are simply going away, but it seems we are always going to be stuck with this cliche. We can only hope that developers recognize when they create ally AI that is as smart as a bag of gerbils. Even the best escorts still have their critics. I’ve heard plenty of people bitch about Alyx Vance despite her rightfully earned status as one of the best heroines in the business. I know I’ve felt like I was babysitting some really capable followers in a few RPGs just because they tended to disappear — Fawkes in Fallout 3 — and these moments of constantly having to look over my shoulder destroyed the gameplay. They turn great characters into scorned villains and annoy us when we should be exploding speedboats and laughing at the sinking hodgepodge of flaming debris and body parts.

 

Dan Hoyt has been an avid gamer his entire life. When he’s not playing games, he’s working out by walking his dog, hiking and doing martial arts. He likes to try new kinds of alcohol and discuss politics. He’s a graduate of The University of Kansas and has spent years as a journalist.

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