Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog


Operation: Matriarchy (PC, 2005, Russia): Somebody Was Smoking Something
August 30, 2012, 12:53 am
Filed under: Operation: Matriarchy (PC, 2005, Russia)

I make no claims to fame, but considering this blog as testament, I can confidently say I’ve played a tremendous number of bad games in my life. On purpose, that is.

Alas, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am here to tell you that MADia Entertainment’s 2005 hectic corridor-crawler “Operation Matriarchy” (OM for short) is not one of them. No, I cannot with good conscience induct this title into the Really Bad Games Hall o’ Shame…because it fails one major criterion. Despite its third-tier status, its clichéd and clearly sexist premise, its clunky controls, its ultra-linear gameplay, its derivative and not-in-anyway-groundbreaking approach, “Operation Matriarchy” is actually a good, crazy mutha of a game (bucketloads of justification forthcoming). It’s all relative of course, and countless others will undoubtedly argue until the cows come home that “compared-to-whatever-game-that-was-released-last-Tuesday,” OM is a POS.

So, I’m tempted to end this post prematurely with a “go find and play this piece of shit” recommendation. In the meantime, to cleanse my palette (in other words, to roll around in some actual excrement), I’ll replay “Evil Resistance: Morning of the Dead”…or maybe “Steam Slug” if that doesn’t do the trick.

My point is this: People who say “Operation Matriarchy” is a bad game have no frigging clue what a bad game really is, plain and simple. How’s that for a backhanded compliment?

Honestly, I knew this would be the case. I knew I’d rev this baby up and have a blast. It’s just one of those things you can tell somehow. This is precisely why I’ve left it lingering on my shelf for the past three years before digging in. I had a vague feeling this may be one of the last “so bizarre it’s difficult to describe” guilty pleasures I would encounter in my lifetime. (I just don’t think “they” make games like this anymore.) And of course, after playing and writing about it, the blog would be done…I’d have nothing else to really say, no more great bad games to find, no more crap-gems in the lineup. But these moments can’t wait forever. Like death. So consider this the official end of everything. Maybe. Probably not.

The development of this nutty-as-hell-but-straightfaced FPS (known in Russia as “Velian” [“Велиан”] after the name of the invading alien race in the game) is actually way less interesting than the mod-happy story surrounding its post-development, which began several years after Buka published the title in 2005. MADia Entertainment fashioned the game’s universe (including the Velians) upon its previous series of futuristic flight-sim games titled “Echelon” (also known as “Storm”), which received “Best Flight Sim of 2001” award from GameSpot, and was published in the west by Bethesda Softworks. Not being a flight-sim guy, I’ve not played “Echelon,” and so I cannot speak to its quality, but it overall seems to be rather well-liked.

After having developed an entire universe where humans are in the midst of a lingering war with the Velians (a typically complex narrative I’ll get to in a moment), it makes sense that MADia would give a first-person shooter a try (their first and only such experiment that I can find) to further expand that universe—and sell more product. Here’s what doesn’t add up though: After such careful development and early success with their flight sims, why would the team allow “Operation Matriarchy” to be placed on store shelves in what most of us would call a semi-finished state? Here in the year 2012, seven years have passed since its release, making that question virtually unanswerable.  But this is exactly what happened. When OM was released (both here and in eastern Europe–and it is, by the way, still widely available in both disc form and at for-pay download sites), it was a kind of mess—clearly unrefined…some might even say incomplete. The music tracks throughout the game did not work. The environmental audio was inconsistently under- and overmodulated. Important sound effects (like guns firing) were missing. There were also clipping problems, regular crash-to-desktop events, and ragdoll physics were out of control.  Translation problems abounded. In short, lotsa problems. The upshot: In addition to the folks inhabiting hypercritical western gaming circles, audiences in eastern Europe (who you’d assume would be a bit more sympathetic) panned the game as antiquated (the relatively recent release of id Software’s “Doom III” made OM look like your grandma’s creaky FPS). Many called the game misogynistic (the aliens are cyborg like chicks with big boobs—more on that in a moment), silted (the typical English voice acting from non-native English speaking dudes), ugly (one French reviewer complained that animations looked like bad puppetry, and another reviewer bemoaned how the developers slathered all textures in a high gloss sheen, making it an eyesore). And to top it all off, the whole package was just a little broken, especially in the sound department. One Russian review suggests that none of the sounds were recorded originally for the game and that the developers lazily relied on prerecorded sound effects from CD collections they had lying around. I can’t verify that—but it sounds reasonable.

Frankly, none of that is especially unique or interesting, especially when we are talking about games originating from you-know-where. But that’s not the end of this development story. For more than two years, “Operation Matriarchy” fell off the map, shunned (and rightly so). But then in 2007, inexplicably, some unapologetic individuals decided to exhume this corpse of a game simply because they liked something about it. Maybe it was the goofiness of it; maybe the sheer obscurity of it; maybe its simple, frenetic run-and-gun tactics—or maybe it was the heady mix of cyborg boobs and LSD-inspired alien environments. You’d have to ask them. But instead of spamming their emails, you can simply enjoy the fruits of their labor—all 600 megabytes of it—by downloading and utilizing their “Operation Matriarchy Unoffical  Music, Sound, and Relocalization Patch” located at http://www.devisraad.com/op-m/. This labor of love, in essence, restores the game to a playable state. Maybe even more important, it makes the game comprehensible by rewriting many of the in-game objectives and text screens, so that the skeletal story behind all the boob-shooting can shine through. (There was also a followup patch in 2009 by another individual which tweaked some of the lighting and textures in the game, as well as providing a proper German translation. Links to both patches can be found on the Wikipedia entry for the game.) And as if that weren’t enough, there is a third patch for the game made in 2012 (by yours truly), but I’ll get to that in the postscript.

Since there is an actual story here, let’s move onto the narrative lurking behind this quirky title. As I’ve found in numerous eastern European sci-fi shooters, there is an incredibly detailed historical context within which the game occurs. I could list a dozen games from Russia, Ukraine, or Germany right off the top of my head whose manuals included thousands of words describing the game’s universe, detailing the various factions at play, their struggles and alliances, the development of their technology, the locations of their worlds, and the outcomes of wars and exploration. These histories usually span centuries, covering such minutia as the names and reigning years of political figures; names, dates, and locations of skirmishes; the development, modification, and adoption or banning of weaponry, numbers and names of settled planets. “Operation Matriarchy” is no different.  I am always intrigued by these printed, carefully crafted histories (which is one reason I am saddened to see game manuals disappearing completely in this all-digital age, but oh well). However, what fascinates me more is how all this detail often seems irrelevant to the game itself. (Again, we’re talking about these eastern European crap-gems specifically.) Rarely, if ever, do I see these complex contexts materialize in any meaningful way once I crank up the game. In other words, the texts upon which these games are built seem to fall away rather quickly once the mindless shooting starts. But there you have it.

So in the spirit of these “long form” histories, here’s some of the context surrounding the OM universe created by MADia. As is common with many of these stories, our journey begins with the slow decay of the generically named “Galactic Empire” in the year 2117, leading to civil war amongst the settled planets, and also leading to increasing cruelty by the empire and eventual nuclear attacks to try to get colonists under control. This results in levels of destruction and radiation on said planets so high that everyone has to pack up and move in a hurry. As the war machine tears planets apart, the rebelling colonists flee and, out of necessity, explore new worlds to inhabit. By 2200, new planets have been discovered and colonized, new technologies and weapons are developed, the old government keels over dead, and a new government called the Galactic Federation of Free Planets has emerged. Life becomes more stable, and a studied exploration of the galaxy can commence.

In 2320, in Sector 1022 (I always said that Sector was bad news), a patrol ship encounters an unknown cruiser that appears from an artificially created and unstable zone of space, called the Zero-T channel. The cruiser had descendants of one of the colonies called Velian on it. The planet Velian had been colonized by us in 2142 originally, and seven years later the colonists discovered a disabused alien outpost on the planet, the first of its kind. For unknown reasons the outpost had been abandoned, but there was superfancy (a technical term) extraterrestrial technology left behind that helped the Velian colonists take major steps forward in the fields of bioengineering (the genetic construction, cloning, and creation of cyborgs), as well as Zero-Transportation (which you and I would call wormholes). Using this tech, the Velian colonists themselves starting colonizing nearby worlds with ease, but they eventually met with resistance when encountering another alien species, details of which (back on the homeworld) were vague. But everybody conveniently forgot about all that, and within a year after these discoveries, the Velian colonists signed an agreement with the Galactic Federation of Free Planets to share the wealth, and Zero-T channels were placed everywhere (you know, like upgrading the city bus system), and trade, communication, and exploration improved dramatically due to the instantaneous travel provided by these wormholes. Years of prosperity followed. At the same time though, genetic technologies were legislatively forbidden throughout the empire. Hmmmm.

Of course, someone was asleep at the wheel (or else there would be no conflict). Unbeknowst to the rest of us, those unfortunate Velian colonists had been compromised/hijacked/possessed by the unknown aliens they encountered a few years earlier, and not surprisingly all the Zero-T portals that had proliferated throughout the Galactic Federation of Free Planets were actually Trojan Horses full of technology able to cripple entire armada of ships within moments.  And that’s exactly what happened. In the year 2351, the alien-possessed-Velians simultaneously took control of every single Zero-T portal. Say it’s not so! Technologies hidden within the portals and disguised as commonplace circuitry allowed the compromised Velians to screw with the gravitational engines of our ships, hack our computers (I hate reformatting!), and disable weapons both big and small. Then, the aliens sent their own battalions through the Zero-T channels to occupy many worlds within an instant. “Operation Matriarchy” begins amidst this occupation.

But what’s with all this “Matriarchy” stuff? Ah, yes, the cyborg boobs mentioned earlier. Interestingly, the aliens who secretly overwhelmed the Velian colonists (who then implemented their crafty Trojan Horse scheme) used a virus that changed all the women in the Velian colony. As briefly mentioned in the game’s materials, “Their bodies transformed to become parts of collective intelligence. The Velian men proved to be resistant to the virus, but they lost their status of free intelligent beings and only existed as suppliers of biomaterial for further gene experimentation and as parts of complex biomechanical system. The human society on Velian became now a kind of matriarchal hive.” As for outward appearances, all the women ended up with big cyborg boobs and skin that looked more like metallic armor plating than anything else. Oh yeah, with rocket launchers growing out of their arms where hands would be. You know the stuff.

You play as uber-generic space marine John Armstrong (ugh) sent as a trooper to attack the Velian homeworld and rescue any colonists who have not yet been compromised. The game begins as you awake from cryosleep, and all of your comrades (including your CO) have died in their sleep among the smoking and sparking cryobeds. Ah! You are solo on your own ship which has already been invaded while you slumbered! The game eventually moves onto a Velian satellite, much greater planetary vistas, and eventually into immense (and increasingly bizarre) Velian-controlled  research stations, bio-farms, and living spaces. As the battles get bigger, and your surroundings get stranger, you do your best to reclaim your home, shooting one armored boob at a time. Or maybe two at a time.

The gameplay is as simple as you might imagine. Besides a single service-robot type enemy that has a weak arc-welding attack, most of the Velian foes are composed of transformed humans—some of which have been so genetically re-engineered, little that is human actually remains (except maybe an eyeball here or a toenail there). There are approximately 8 types, maybe a few more. Some ninja-type and front-assault-type enemies with melee attacks and killer guns will run at you kamikaze style (and oh my can they run fast!). Other tank-like and blob-like enemies will lumber left to right at a distance flaying you alive with missiles, rockets, and grenades. Considering the release year of the game and its place of origin, the AI is unsurprisingly dumb; none of them seek cover, ever. I’d say about a third of the time, they manage to get stuck on geometry and stand motionless as you fill them full of holes—even very large boss-type enemies will fall victim to their faulty coding. To counter that, the lovely thing is that the game will throw multiple enemies at you, up to 10 on screen at a time by my count, all of them frantically running forward, backwards, left, and right. It’s like some bizarre Cirque du Soleil and can be quite entertaining.

This leads me to a few nagging issues, however. First, regardless of how ultra-forgiving I am, there are some serious balancing issues in this game. Even if there are close to a dozen enemies on screen simultaneously, all of whom have you in their reticles, you only need to be wielding the chaingun to mow them all down with little effort and even less dodging. And ammo for this gun—actually all of the guns—is super-plentiful on “normal” setting. In fact, just about all of the weapons—some of them standard-issue rifles, shotguns, and pistols and others are strange Velian variants—are too powerful and hold too much ammunition. Likewise, health packs and armor are scattered round every corner. To further throw balancing out of whack, ready-to-use powered spacesuits litter the corridors—which can generally be considered “mechsuits”—and these have incredibly powerful guns and armor and can plow through almost anything. (One level in the game begins with no less than about 8 of these suits just sitting there for your enjoyment—burn one of them out, and simply turn around and grab another.) The overall effect, for me, was a complete draining of the tension in the game. Once I got the hang of the weird, fast-motion footwork of the Velians and how to best target them, I rarely felt in jeopardy and rarely died. In fact, I can count my deaths on one hand throughout the entire campaign. Of course the way to solve this issue is by choosing a higher difficulty level (from what I understand the “hard” setting is actually too difficult) or using some self-restraint and opting to not pick up the chaingun or not enter a mech suit. But that’s not something you would necessarily know going into the game cold.

My next gripe is more about a kind of lost opportunity than anything else. As I mentioned, these games typically have well-rendered backstories which hardly ever become manifest in the games themselves. This is especially true in “Operation Matriarchy,” and it just gets me thinking of “what could have been.” While the rich context is spelled out in the game’s universe, your character on screen is a nobody, the voices on your communicator are nobodies, and the human corpses you stumble across are nobodies. This is an emotionless affair. The objectives in the game are of the push-that-button-step-and-fetch variety, which seem disconnected from the overall story arc. Honestly, I suspect I’m being a little unfair here for one simple reason: I just finished playing the last installment in the “Mass Effect” trilogy, and regardless of the strangely emasculated ending in ME3 that droves of interweb whiners have decried, the game is one of the richest storytelling experiences I’ve ever had—a few tears may have been shed. Turning my attention to this little crap-gem was harder than I thought it would be, and the surfacey nature of “Operation Matriarchy” feels disappointing. But the reality is that I need to reorient myself to examine it properly: This is a goofy, crazy-ass, shoot-em-up that aspires to nothing else than being a fast-paced, bizarre little experience. And it unquestionably succeeds on that level. OK, I’m back.

One of the strengths of the game is the art design, which follows through on that bizarre promise. While the beginning levels on your compromised spaceship are rather uninspired (although varied), eventually the game’s environments become increasingly unreal, especially as you climb deeper and deeper into alien Velian territory. The Velian landscape is biomechanical, generally speaking, looking like a discount version of H.R. Gieger’s artwork that might be sold at Kmart or a flea market. The landscape is twisted to the point where you’re not sure if a button is a button or a door is a door…but you marvel your way through. To add to the general weirdness, the playspaces continue to grow and grow in size as well, and eventually you find yourself standing in surprisingly immense, nonsensical (sometimes-vaginal-shaped, sometimes-penile-shaped, sometimes melted-looking, all of it extremely organic) structures—some of which are so twisted (in M.C. Escher fashion) that it can be difficult to orient yourself up, down, left, right. A word to the wise: If you commit to playing this oddity, be prepared to spend some time wandering about trying to figure out where to go next. Yes, there’s a radar on the HUD to direct you, and yes the gameplay is as linear as it gets. Nevertheless, the strange, sometimes disorienting surroundings can make it easy to get turned around. And just as the environments begin to warp, so does the weaponry (and the enemies). My earlier complaints about balancing issues notwithstanding, by the time you are deep into the bizarro Velian territory, you are using guns that eject bugs and eat through enemies who look to be half-moster-toad and half-Playboy-bunny, guns that lob balls of acid into the faces of flesh-colored-blobs-of-what-have-you, and guns whose energy projectiles bounce crazily off of walls and floors, nailing every female freak in the room. This craziness is where OM gets its fun factor for sure. Is it bordering on misogyny? Well, as one of the developers said in an interview (and I’m misquoting out of laziness): We don’t hate women. We like women. But we can’t help what happened to the Velian women. That’s how the story goes. It was just their misfortune.

Hearty laughter—with a little bit of head shaking–is probably the best response to this crazy-ass game that, for all intents and purposes, considers itself a serious slice of science fiction (a characteristic that makes it endearing, of course). Have no doubt about it: The situation is grim, dire. No one is purposefully lobbing cheesy jokes through this narrative, generally speaking. This is a classic “YOU’VE GOT TO SAVE THE UNIVERSE” first-person shooter. It’s just that you are shooting an insect gun at the semi-metallic, oversized boobs of a cyborg chick in a massive biomechanical room standing next to what has got to be a floor-to-ceiling circumcised penis that serves some function I could not even begin to imagine. Yeah, I said it.

POSTSCRIPT: Up there in my blathering somewhere, I said I labored over a patch for this little oddity myself. And I wasn’t lying. As a music-making guy, I decided to record an original score to the game. It’s nothing, really, but it does provide original electronic music for all chapters of the game. It took me about a week during my slow summer, and I did it for sheer fun. Why new music? The [essential, really] Devisraad mod linked above actually uses some incredibly well-mastered and appropriate music for the game. The music used for the Devisraad mod was borrowed, with proper credit, from the (also obscure) game “Shadowgrounds” (2005). The original score for “Shadowgrounds” was written by Ari Pulkkinen. It is a fast, hard, loud, aggressive electro-rock score very well suited to the goofy, arcade-heavy action in “Operation Matriarchy.” Even though the borrowed “Shadowgrounds” soundtrack used in the Devisraad mod works extremely well for OM, to date the poor game has not had a soundtrack to call its own. So I decided to make one. My other impetus for creating a new soundtrack is because the in-yer-face Pulkkinen tracks from “Shadowgrounds” just aren’t my style; as someone who has been making music for about 20 years, I personally find them a little too demanding on my aging ears (though again, very appropriate for OM). My replacement pieces are low-key, polyrhythmic, minimalist electronic pieces, just to provide some atmosphere. They are also considerably lower in volume as to not dominate over the in-game sound effects. If you are looking for the high-powered, in-your-face OM experience, my alternate soundtrack is not for you–stick with the music in the Devisraad mod instead. However, if you are looking for a less aggressive, less demanding musical score that vaguely suggests the alien world of Velian in a mid-2000, synthy, retro-kinda-way, then this may fit the bill. That is, if you are willing to wade into this mess at all. You can pick up the alternate soundtrack here; directions for using it are included: http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/w/k/wkd2/OM_MUSIC.rar