From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about bringing random obscure games back into the light. This week, misogyny meets misandry in a battle of the sexes with only one redeeming feature... nobody's going to turn it into a first-person shooter any time soon.
Syndicate was brilliant. You, a ruthless corporate executive, commanding four brainwashed cyborgs on a mission of pure greed and avarice. Cyberpunk cities, filled with a terrified populace to brainwash and turn into your own personal army. A victim somewhere below, a poor soul you can almost imagine getting up in the morning and ambling to his bathroom for a quick pee, only to look out of the window and see the entire city outside, every glazed-eyed citizen clutching mini-guns and Uzis and Gauss guns, up to and including his own protectors. And as the warm trickle runs down his leg and onto the floor, you sit in your evil, all-seeing blimp, steeple your fingers, and whisper the single word: "Excellent."
Gender Wars is Syndicate, only mixed with a Boys vs. Girls soccer match. Two tastes that go together like caviar and stupid.
There's a basic rule in comedy that the more offensive you want to be, the funnier you have to be to get away with it. If someone laughs, they effectively forfeit their right to complain. It's the Law. Unfortunately for Gender Wars, there's little chance of anyone laughing. At all. At anything. It's the comedy equivalent of a prolonged mother-in-law joke, playing off tired old stereotypes.
There are jokes about women drivers. There are jokes about men not being able to pee without getting it on the floor. There are jokes about women liking to shop. There are jokes about men not being any good with directions. They are all jokes so old, we should only recognise them because John Hammond found them in amber and cloned them to make the world's dumbest theme park.
Mostly though, there aren't any jokes at all. The overwhelming majority of the game is a pure arcade shooter where half the combatants have a couple of extra lumps on their armour, and civilians are either fat slobs or mini-skirt wearing teenagers depending on whose city you're wandering around. Still, perhaps that's a good thing. This is what happens when the game tries to be funny, even calling in the cast of Blake's 7 to record what has to be the world's dullest intro. Why? I have no idea. I do however recommend putting a pillow on your desk before trying to watch this video. A very, very soft pillow. PC Gamer cannot be held responsible for you falling asleep and breaking your nose.
Honestly? I'm disappointed. A game like this should, at the very least, lend itself to lots of shouting and mockery, being castigated for its sexism and generally set on fire for crimes against gaming. But it's not really worth it, in either sense. It's not a great game, but there are far worse. The biggest practical problems? The lifts are awful, and the maps are too big. Neither is helped by the fact that your soldiers could frankly do with a bit of Syndicate-style brainwashing to stop them running around whenever they feel like it, almost guaranteeing that you'll leave a few wo/men behind as you try to work out where the hell you're meant to be going, and not having a clue how to reunite the team.
If you're lucky, the mission briefing will tell you to go to Building B or something. Usually though, you'll just have been told to go to "the reactor", and it's up to you to work out where the hell that is from an unhelpful briefing map and no in-game assistance. You have to stomp round identical map after identical map in the vague hope of finding both that, and the specific rooms you need, all the while under constant siege from your colour-coded counterparts, and almost guaranteed to die as soon as you find the damn place. Quicksaves? Any in-game saves at all? Please. Not in the mid-90s.
(Yes, there's a cheat code, but you're not allowed to type it. Why? Because it's "BUY A PLAYSTATION", you traitor. Which still pales in comparison to Syndicate Wars' unforgettable 'pooslice'.)
Here's a YouTuber just trying to get down to the bottom of the game's first building.
That's Gender Wars in a nutshell really. It's a shooter with briefings promising your enemies will be 'armed to the tits' or that your own squad has 'synchronised our natural cycles to ensure that we are all at maximum hostility', or making plans based on 'if men go without beer their testicles will fall off', but what stands out? The bloody lift mechanics being rubbish. Can a game fail any harder?
Yes. For instance, it could claim to have 'massive playability'.
You'd think that if you were making a game like this, you'd want to embrace the controversy you're chasing. It'd result in utter crap, obviously, but at least it would be understandable crap. Instead, Gender Wars goes out of its way to avoid all but the most childish elements, from its futuristic setting to incredibly sterile armour whose only major sexual coding is that all the women apparently have long flowing blonde hair sticking out of the back of their helmets, to hiding most of its crudeness in optional briefing screens that are displayed a single letter at a time.
There are no real characters except for the Patriarch (possibly the laziest gay stereotype in the history of gaming), and only a few minor details in the two genders' cities to differentiate them. The men for instance have bathrooms with urinals (and no toilets, eew), a few girly posters on the walls (which seems a little treacherous, really), and the occasional pair of discarded underpants. The women have cleaner rooms, fewer bars and an obsession with splashing the Venus symbol on things.
Hmm. Thinking back, I don't actually remember much else from their city at all. In fact, for the most part, even their briefings are far less unpleasantly charged. The men talk about their 'Coach', beer, not acting like 'girlies', lots of stuff about 'bitches', beer, and the other stuff you'd expect from a game that wouldn't know subtlety if slammed into its own nutsack. During the female briefings, the equivalent misandry only seems to come up when the narrator remembers, with the majority of the chatter far more to the point and focused on the business at hand. Pointed social commentary, or an unsurprising consequence of an almost entirely male production team? I wonder.
But honestly, not very much.
Only in the cutscenes does Gender Wars reach for humour, in much the same way a man trapped in a deep oubliette in some far-flung banana republic may desperately reach for the moon. Here then is every single joke in the game... all three minutes of them... for your entertainment and enlightenment. Don't worry about the painful sucking coming from the screen, it's just the comedy vacuum.
As often happens, the real sexism of these jokes isn't quite what it seems. Yes, Gender Wars does gags so tired Rip van Winkle looks at them snoozing and calls them a bunch of lazy arseholes. It's the non-intentional stuff that really jars though, like the fact that whichever side you play for the final mission, the camera follows the men and shows their reaction to events—or for that matter, the way the cut-scenes consistently depict them in a more battle-ready state (even if it is mitigated by them being a bunch of idiots).
When the men are on the defensive, we see them rushing to protect their base, while the women's equivalent shows them running away. Stepping down a level, it's also notable that the men are shown as being incompetent due to the influence of alcohol. The women on the other hand are invariably seen being naturally ditzy. For all that Gender Wars tries to be even-handed, it doesn't do a great job of hiding its prejudices, right down to the manual, where both sides spin the history of the war. The female version is called "A Tale of Two Genders". The male version? "Get Back In That Kitchen!"
Hmmmm. And in the interests of equality: Hrrrr as well.
If there's one good thing to say about Gender Wars' take on the great divide, it's that at least it handles it better than Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender—though with a name like that, are you really surprised? That was a dismal attempt at mixing Space Quest with Leisure Suit Larry. Most of the story involved moving between two cities, one run by women, another that used to be populated by men. The men's city, Machopolis, had software stores and strip clubs. The women's city had... well... psychotic doctors and lesbian bars and lots and lots of corridors, because it's one of the most uninspired adventure games this side of Gord@k.
It's been on the great Crapshoot list for a while, but never enthusiastically because, basically, it's an incredibly boring game apart from a couple of individually funny-but-stupid rooms. The weirdest thing in the game is the Gender Bender itself, not because it gives every player a chance to experience life on the other team in one direction or the other, but because for some reason it turns you into King's Quest designer Roberta Williams. No, really. This actually happens. Look! See?
Where was I? Oh, yes. Playing a rubbish Syndicate wannabe that nobody cares about.
There are 14 missions per side in Gender Wars, both telling the same basic non-story—whichever side you're on committing assorted acts of sabotage, before capturing an enemy agent, torturing the location of the Patriarch or Matriarch out of them, and then heading over to say hello. And then the world is yours and it's time to celebrate your glorious victory! Yes! Or, to be more accurate, no! Because while you'd think these two sides would have very different plans for the world in the wake of their sexual conquests, in practice the only thing that changes depending on who wins is... well... this.
Yep. I think the robot sums it up at the end there. Thump. Thump indeed .
I'll give it one thing though. It's still better than the ending of Syndicate.