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Design Reboot: DIE HARD

(Note: I’m stealing the Design Reboot format from the inestimable Jack Monahan, whose blog you should definitely check out.)

(double note: I named this site before I ever found that blog. I know, I know.)

It’s Christmas, so why not revitalize one of the standout Christmas movies of the last twenty years?

Die Hard was the film that arguably launched Bruce Willis’ career as an actor. Superbly directed by John McTiernan and with a fresh-faced Alan Rickman as the antagonist, Die Hard remains one of the standout action films of the eighties. It’s still extremely watchable today.

In 2002, Die Hard: Nakatomi Plaza was released for the PC to mixed reviews. Although the graphics were mediocre at best the game earned praise for the at-the-time unique leaning mechanic and take on inventory management.

Nakatomi Plaza

It does some interesting things: for example, McClane can use his badge to convince hostages that he’s not a terrorist, and the three different health indicators – physical, stamina, and morale – function to pace the gameplay in an interesting way. But overall, Nakatomi Plaza was a bland, samey FPS whose departures from the script of the movie were usually not good. One notable puzzle had waves after waves of enemies spawn – remember, there were only 12 terrorists in the movie – whose only purpose was to put pressure on you to solve the damn thing.

Upon rewatching the movie, it made me wonder what a good Die Hard game would be like. Clearly, the early 2000s run-and-gun approach doesn’t work that well. What makes the movie work?

John McClane is, from the start, a character first. We meet him on the airplane, sick to death of flying, wearing a gun, struggling to carry a gigantic teddy bear out past an attractive attendant. From that first scene, we get hints of his troubled marriage, the central role his job plays in his life, and his acerbic nature. Unlike the dudes from Bad Boys, this is a man who lives his life by his principles and moral code, and that approach hasn’t worked out so great for him.

Hans Gruber is an intelligent, witty, and ruthless criminal. As he’s quick to remind McClane’s wife, he’s not a common thief, he’s an exceptional one. He’s at the center of the plot, manipulating the local PD, members of Nakatomi Corporation, and the FBI to get to the corporation’s vault and disappear with the money inside. Where McClane is physical, Gruber is intellectual – as when the two meet and Gruber takes on the persona of Bill Clay in order to even the tables when McClane catches him pistol-less. The ending conflict between the two works because it’s a reversal. McClane’s got only two bullets left, and Gruber has his wife hostage and a helper in the room with him. When it comes down to it, McClane beats Gruber at his own game, and that’s what makes it so satisfying for the viewer.

McClane is vulnerable. He’s alone, with no shoes, in a strange building with no allies and men who outgun him actively searching for him. He’s well-trained and good at his job, but it’s his determination and quick thinking that enables him to win out over the better educated and supplied Gruber.

“Now I have a machinegun. Ho, ho, ho.”

He’s mobile, and he has time to plan and study the environment he’s in for ambush opportunities. Nearly every fight McClane wins in the movie is through surprise, subterfuge, or fighting dirty. He’s as likely to tell you to fuck yourself as he is to shoot you.

The game opens as McClane is dropped off at the Nakatomi Building and says goodbye to his chauffeur. As soon as we guide McClane through the door (from a third-person perspective,) we’re faced with the first challenge of the game: finding Holly’s extension number. Instead of the 80s touchscreen which Bruce Willis uses in the movie, McClane looks around the lobby and pieces together clues in a tutorial sequence – the receptionist doesn’t recognize the name McClane, but after a trip to the directory board across the lobby McClane spots the name H. Gennaro. In practice it’s as simple as walking over to the board and pressing A, but this kind of environmental investigation sets the scene for more elaborate setpieces later.

The rest of the opening walks the player through the other essential gameplay mechanics. While waiting for Holly in her office, throwing darts introduces the ranged combat interface, and McClane can’t help but play with the stuff on her desk. He notices that her letter opener is broken, so he digs out the super glue and attaches the handle to the blade, absentmindedly pocketing the glue. This introduces the improvised weaponry mechanic – as this is an office building and McClane will only have whatever ammo he can fit into his pants pockets, the player will need to be able to combine objects to create booby traps and melee weapons. (Note that while Dead Rising makes this kind of cartoonish, in Die Hard it would be more on the viscerally lethal side – stabbing terrorists with a pencil prison-style rather than beating them with a picnic umbrella.)

Holly walks back in, and as McClane puts the opener down sheepishly we are introduced to the limited conversation menu. McClane’s tongue is far from silver, so rather than a Dragon Age-style interface, we get something more like Alpha Protocol, where McClane can choose to be confrontational, sarcastic or friendly. The conversational options the player chooses affects that character’s impression of McClane, which changes how they interact with other parties like Hans Gruber (in the case of Holly or that asshole that I can’t remember his name) or the police and FBI (in the case of Sgt. Powell.) There are no massive shifts in story as a result of conversations, but a well-timed insult can give you an advantage later on, whether it’s support from police snipers or a better armed party of terrorists hunting for you – which would be bad at first, but once defeated you’d be able to scavenge their guns.

After a fight, Holly’s called away to the party, and Hans makes his entrance with a blaze of gunfire. You have to get to the stairwell without being seen, which you do through the simple medium of running like hell. McClane’s shoelessness is actually an advantage as far as stealth is concerned. Because guns are deadly and ammo is short, stealth is needed to get around the terrorists – but you’re not wearing shoes, so you can run pretty much silently. Stealth is based around speed, not crawling from area to area while switching camo patterns. It keeps gameplay dynamic and minimizes frustrating ‘you were seen, game over!’ situations.

The rest of the game uses these basic mechanics; levels are basically puzzles where McClane must use stealth, improvised weaponry, and sarcastic chatter to tilt events in his favour. Working his way through the tower, he kills some of the terrorists but uses non-lethal means on others. There are a few opponents who refuse to be stopped by any means short of killing, but the game tracks how many others McClane kills and displays an appropriate follow-up news article at the game’s ending.

Released after an extensive delay due to the game’s complexity, DIE HARD scores a 79/100 on Metacritic; while many critics applaud the game’s fresh approach to office guerilla warfare, the level designs are often confusing and gamers used to more straightforward FPS gameplay are frustrated by the de-emphasized gunplay and social mechanics.

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