Shoot the backlight!

February 14, 2010

I’m aware that I might be revealing myself to be a bit of a lazy wimp with this post.  I’ve complained about the pummelling difficulty of Dragon Age: Origins—a subject which seems to have divided the gaming community—and now I want to talk about how I don’t like overly challenging games in general.

Please bear with me.  I certainly don’t want to argue that being stumped, getting stuck or otherwise suffering a defeat in a game is always a bad thing.  That would be an extreme and obviously idiotic position to adopt.  There is some room for genuine criticism here, but primarily this is just me rambling about how I’m not the kind of gamer who enjoys the ultra hardcore puzzles of the Myst games, the sheer insanity of Modern Warfare 2 on the highest difficulty setting, or the soul crumbling sense of defeat and inadequacy that comes from losing 1st place in a race in GRID because I didn’t take that corner just right.

It is in fact a recent purchase over Steam: The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, which has inspired me to formally ramble.  I hopped into this noir stealth/action hybrid with above average expectations.  After all, it scored consistently highly in reviews when it was released, and I enjoyed the Riddick film Pitch Black when I saw it several years ago.  It ticks plenty of my favourite boxes on paper: dark and gritty setting, brutal and gory melee mechanics, and a solid story serving as a foundation.  Strange then that it has quickly disappointed me.

Several elements immediately irked me on startup: most obviously the graphics, which may have been regarded as half decent at the time of release (back in 2004), but have aged terribly.  The environs of Butcher Bay (the eponymous setting for Dark Athena’s prequel, Escape from Butcher Bay) are as boring to look at as the characters (prisoner and jailor alike) inhabiting it, but more than that it’s the odd way that everything in the world has been stretched in the horizontal (no doubt a result of poor widescreen support) that most puts me off.

On top of those graphical woes, the game’s control system is at once irritating and disturbing to use.  A simple action like turning a corner results in a bizarre swaying of the camera, as Riddick’s body swings sideways—presumably introduced to convey to the player a greater sense of being an object in a physical environment (done much better in the Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter series).

Negotiating obstacles in the environment feels similarly clumsy: climbing over boxes, shimmying along edges and other assorted acrobatics are achieved in third person; but then you’re switched back to first person for everything else.  Clearly developers Starbreeze Studios made a concerted effort to do something new here, but it doesn’t work for me at all.

What’s stopped me playing for the moment though isn’t any of the above, but a boss battle—the first boss battle of the game, and an old fashioned one at that.  It takes place in a medium sized room full of crates, and this is how it played out:

1. I entered the room and marvelled at the crates.
2. A squad of prison guards with rifles and shotguns started firing at me and throwing grenades.
3. One of the crates (a large greyish brown one) saved my life by standing between me and the incoming bullets.
4. I murdered the guards one at a time using my guns.
5. I felt good.
6. A big son of a bitch in a heavy mech suit entered the room.
7. I used my stealth to not get shot at by the big son of a bitch.
8. I stealthed my way over to the lift which the mech bastard had used and tried to sneak away without a fight.
9. The button on the lift didn’t work much.
10. The mech saw me and I died.

Not a ten step guide to gaming bliss as you can imagine.

My first reaction was to try the same strategy again, on the hunch that maybe I hadn’t pressed the button on the lift from the correct angle (as you do), but that concluded in more or less the same way.  Shooting him with everything I had—the universal standard Plan B—didn’t work either, and there were no visual cues indicating that he was taking any damage.  The same tactic, but tried from behind, failed in the same dismal fashion.

And then of course I resorted to Google searches to find a walkthrough, which is, in my book, the point at which a game has crashed and burned on an epic scale.  Let’s be clear: I exited mid-game to read an article which described, in painful detail, how poorly designed the game was.  And what was the ingenious solution which had escaped me?  Concentrate your fire on a particular (minute) spot on his back—the mechanical equivalent of an Achilles heel—or he’s invulnerable… obviously!  At what point did this become the way people want to spend their spare time?

Don’t even bother coming at me with “It’s not the game’s fault.”  Master developers like Valve learned a long time ago that if players aren’t enjoying your games from start to finish, it’s your problem, not theirs.  Distinct from the promise of a reward, the process of solving a puzzle has to make logical sense, but also it has to be fun, or intellectually engaging, or both.

The flesh and blood, not to mention the sinews, of the Myst series are its puzzles.  A while back I had a go at Myst IV: Revelation, and I didn’t get very far before I lost interest, but there’s no way I’m going to criticise it in the same way as Escape from Butcher Bay.

The overwhelming majority of the puzzles in Revelation had me completely stumped, but once I had moved past them—either (in rare cases) by working them out, or referring to a walkthrough—I could admire their logical integrity.  It’s a game for the black belt puzzle muncher: the kind of person who can sit for hours in front of a control console, reverse engineering every lever, knob and slider, taking notes and working out how it relates to another (equally complex) console a level above, which in turn controls an airship kept afloat by a delicately balanced magnetic field.

And I’m not even a white belt puzzle muncher.  The longest I’m prepared to spend on a puzzle is ten minutes; any longer and I start thinking I’m mentally handicapped and enter a sinking depression.  The puzzles in Valve’s mini masterpiece Portal were perfect for me because they were engaging on multiple levels, connecting with my established FPS faculties and challenging them a step further by building in a sense of real physicality in a 3D space.  They were down at my level, and most importantly, they made sense, they were fun and they were clever.

This is where I’m in danger of sounding a bit whiney though.  It’s one thing to not be a puzzle person, but I’ve got to be honest and admit that I just don’t like losing, plain and simple.  Hardly a controversial position I know; more a fact of human biology, but I can be put off a game quite quickly if I enter a prolonged losing streak.

Civilization IV, undeniably a masterpiece of turn based strategy, is the most recent game to land me in a truly foul mood.  From the outside looking in, a game of Civ seems to be moving forward at a snail’s pace, but for the player it can rapidly (in the space of a few turns) ascend into a glorious triumph, or transform into a nightmare from the depths of Hades itself.  I may be repeating an earlier post of mine in saying this, but the fact is that the stakes in a game on such an epic scale as Civ are far, far higher than in games of other genres.

What had me groaning and growling was my last game, playing as the Romans under Julius Caesar, in which I handled the running of my empire with an ambition far exceeding its means.  So confident was I in the unstoppable might of the Roman unique unit, the legendary Praetorian, that I declared war on the nearest foreign power (Khmer) within the first 20 turns, at which point my army consisted of no more than two starting warriors.

My thinking, based on reliable intel (at least, reliable for 2000 BC – long before the invention of briefcases), was that the AI had left its capital city completely undefended, and that with a swift and determined strike, I could nip an entire civilization in the bud before anyone else even knew how to construct a sandwich.

Sadly that intel was not even slightly reliable – my merry band arrived at the gates of a fully defended Yasodharapura.  And because actions taken in the opening game leave an earth shaking impression on the ensuing course of history, I felt the backlash of my hasty invasion—and subsequent retreat—for thousands of years to come.  My foolhardiness meant that the enemy was able to churn out a formidable defensive force long before the invention of siege weaponry, and because they were unwilling to accept terms of peace, I ended up locked into a long, drawn out war, having to deal with a continual drain on my economy and population growth.

Other civilizations closed in all around, sealing me into a small pocket of territory containing a meagre two cities.  After what must have been two hundred years of steady military build-up, I finally ventured back into Khmer territory, and after another hundred miserable years of pillaging and skirmishes, succeeded in occupying Yasodharapura.  But by this time, my empire was broken, limping forward in the technological arms race.  Just as I was about to push north and crush the remaining sections of his kingdom, the Japanese seized upon my weakness and invaded from the south.

They achieved total surprise.  I immediately lost my second city, Antium (a major cultural and production centre), and had to abandon the northern campaign.  An emergency peace with the Khmer helped, and I quickly snatched back Antium with my veteran troops, but I was now back on a war footing at the worst time imaginable.  This time it was my empire that was being raped, and it was horrible.

But a mixture of classic Roman tenacity and well honed fighting strength proved instrumental, and the next 20 turns or so saw a series of Japanese attacks firmly blunted.  Ultimately, all the invaders perished, and in retaliation I conquered and sacked two of Tokugawa’s cities.  At one point, I dared to hope for a prosperous future.  But this was the apex of my glory, and a few turns later I lost everything: the two cities I had conquered rebelled, returning to the dominion of their respective motherlands, and what I thought would be a triumphant offensive on a Japanese city to the south faltered.

The carrot of hope had been dangling in front of my lips for too long.  Every time I moved to snatch the end of the carrot with my teeth, it shifted position.  In the end it, the carrot, hope, was my tormentor.  My failures were its petty amusements.  And with that deranged thought, seething with anger, my only option was to abandon the carrot, and quit.

Now I understand with greater clarity than ever that I only enjoy a game if it lets me win, and in fairly short order.  I can stomach a few losses, but only if I can make a comeback.  I can handle being overwhelmed in a firefight if I know I did something wrong; something I can address next time around.  If all I experience are infuriating losses, over and over for half an hour straight, I’m not having a good time.

And that that won’t do at all.

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