Squeezing the last juices out of ‘next-gen’ – Part 2: crazy little thing called immersion.

Welcome one and all to the second part of my ‘are-there-any-creative-juices-in-the-industry-left’ (say that out loud fast 7 times for instant Nirvana) roundup. Last time I focused on the evolution and state of free flow combat as a means to bump up an action game’s presentation and gameplay values. But for titles where getting ‘right to the point’ fist & knee style is not the key element, are we doomed to experience that oppressing déjà vu feeling in each consecutive game we buy?

‘Course not. The only thing that’s doomed these days is Lost’s ability to make any sense of itself. For games as a medium there’s still that one lifeline even when all else fails and development ends up biting its fingernails to the bone… You got it – immersion. After all, nothing says ‘you’re playing Silent Hill’ like a fright so intense the poor soul at the helm jumps up, throws her controller into the air so forcefully it hits the ceiling and bounces back of her head (this is not a dramatization but a true life story, seen it happen. Yes, I know you wish you’d seen it too). Horror games aside, there’s still much to be done for any genre, as a clear direction and discussions about ‘what story/gameplay element of our game can hook the player in’ and ‘how to incorporate that element into every day of implementation’ nearly always get the short end of the production stick. If it didn’t, less games would end up repeating the same ‘rinse and repeat’ schemas from their last installment because the devs would suddenly realize there’s not that many hook points to go around.

By ‘hook point’ I don’t mean ‘feature’ because for me or any mature consumer games are not a set of features just as books are not a set of chapters with some words in them. Like their paper entertainment counterparts, a game is worthwhile if it manages to captivate your senses to a degree you feel ‘being inside it’, absolutely engrossed by the story, world or seamless driving mechanics. I’m talking about  consistency of audio/video glory with an enthralling presentation, that ‘body and soul’ Anita Baker sung about (golden advice of the day: play it for your sweetheart today and watch the firecrackers ‘shwing’ as Jay would say). All in all, pretty hefty words, don’t you think? That’s probably because you haven’t experienced many titles that managed to get a hold of you like that recently, have you? As previously, I’ll  check some of the more recent raw meat and boil it out to see if really had any substance… or just water and fat, and then focus on an impending title of 2009 that may very well nail the experience (or die trying… damn I’m a cynic).

First stop is Mirror’s Edge. One unpopular sentence, that being me regarding it as GOTY ’08, and I’m up to my neck in IM messages. Without straying too far away from the article’s topic, let me explain why it got my high praise. In first person games there’s always that factor of ‘being in the hero’s shoes’ and not a third person spectator (even if in control) which to my awe escapes many developers. They tend to think that, for example, having an enormous machine gun in your hands and laying waste to everything alive and dead alike in a ten meter radius is more important than establishing the protagonist as a living, breathing person, someone the gamer could relate to, and not a camera with arms. This is what ME does almost perfectly, as the subtle and sometimes violent twists and turns of the camera help you get right in the action. The game’s protagonist, Faith (rather  predictable name twist regarding to the totalitarian regime by newly established game writer Rhianna Pratchett, but it still works) is a roughly 50 kg parkour expert and you can feel it right down to the bone every step, jump or shimmy of the way. Her weight is balanced so well in fact, you get a distinct impression of it while gaining speed or jumping and rolling to extinguish the kinetic energy (or more even – fail at such an attempt). The first person perspective hangs in there to visualize all the associated sensations for the player – speed, air drag, breath and adrenaline imbued heart beat, even bruises and pain when the girl misses her target. Those feelings change depending on the circumstance – as riding a clothes line and jumping down on a soft surface Iron Man style differ greatly from riding a subway car full speed and jumping  from one car’s roof to the other. Moreover, since the game needs superb level design for the player to truly feel like a lightning reflexes female courier vixen, you’ll travel diverse locations ranging from the mentioned subway tunnels to sky scraper rooftops and scaffoldings, to tight modern building interiors while being perused by the government’s strong arm. Remember those action flicks where the hero runs from armed oppressors when suddenly two cross his way guns ready to fire? Just in the nick of time, our hero catches sight of a possible alternate route and still at full running speed takes a sharp turn for it, slides beneath a maintenance pipe, then jumps another one, his heart racing like mad hearing the cops realized their mistake and shout out his location. Knowing full well that stopping now would mean certain death, he emerges from the maintenance corridor and rushes for the opened elevator, jumps in and hits the up switch just when the nemesis reaches out for the door. Well… this scenario and many more heart thumping ones like it await in the single player story. So as far as immersion goes, DICE managed to carefully craft a product that would realize all your mega-sporty ‘one hero against the regime’ action fantasies. It boldly took some unpopular steps, but to really shine like a diamond it still would need a solid fighting component… where it unfortunately failed. Because majority of the game’s production steam was put in the parkour segment and the underperformance anime-like (with the heavy weight on the ‘like’) cutscenes, even if they knew what they’d be going for in terms of fighting, they just let it slip in the later implementation stage. For an individual with commando-level expertise in weapon disarms, Faith didn’t have all that many options to utilize her repertoire. In the tutorial stage, you’re taught to disarm unsuspecting foes with one clean move. Too bad that later on in the game, you’d have ONE opportunity to use that mechanic. I’ve reached the depths of my memory and couldn’t remember any other opportunity for a back takedown in the entire game. 99,99% of the time, the guards are well aware of your presence and won’t make the mistake of loosing you from their gun’s sights. While I do realize that being an unarmed girl on the run from overwhelming police forces generally cuts down on offensive strategies, Faith could at least be given the opportunity of using the old Newt’s F = m x a (force equals mass times acceleration) sneaky trick – one would think the greatest weapon of a parkour expert. But contrary to the running and jumping part, the levels and enemy scripted sequences/AI just didn’t support any variation in approaching a conflict of free running space. In the segments where you weren’t required to get the hell out of somewhere, you could either try to avoid (which later proved all but doable) a foe or try to take him down with a surgically precise button hit (the time window was like 0,001s). And if there were many… well – either pick up a gun and start blasting, kissing that beloved achievement goodbye, or go to frustration mode by attempting at the same fragment over and over again to get the disarms on all guards right. No surprise element, no use of higher ground and speed, no nothing. Sorry Faith, seems like you’re just a maneuvering shooting range for the whole police force. For many, this proved too aggravating to finish an overall well written game. So next time DICE, you may want to better think about your game’s components before implementation stage, but generally this was a very successful (even if not financially) attempt at breathing new life to the stale first person genre. And for ATTEMPTING to bring something new and exciting to the table, not necessarily nailing it 100% the first time around, this gets my vote as game of the year. It certainly adhered to its theme song being ‘Still Alive’ despite its flaws. Come to think of it, there was a similar attempt at such level of detail regarding FPP, a 2004 Namco product named ‘Breakdown’ for the first Xbox. The lod was so great in fact, one of the first scenes showed you vomiting a poisoned hamburger to the toilet… All in full shaky FPP beauty of course. Well, for those of us who got a chance to experience that a few times at a party in their high school days (if it still happens I recommend taking your fiancé everywhere with you, like a live ‘blood and fists’ respectability meter), paying for a game about the very same late night drama seemed all too bourgeois… Besides, it had an out of this world crappy collision detection system, as I remember running 80% of the time after failing to hit even once two attacking cyborgs. Pity too, because it had a rather interesting story at that. Ok. GOTY thing wrapped up then. Hopefully.

Next stop is Mass Effect, the critically acclaimed BioWare interactive cutscene game. We all know it for its dialog system, so there’s not much point on dwelling on it. Sometime this autumn we’ll be seeing it again in Alpha Protocol, as Obsidian stol… I mean inspired their own system on it. So, despite the nice movie-like chit chats that really stood out as far as character and their motives presentation in games go, what did it do wrong to fully immerse? Well, almost everything else. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the title despite being utterly disappointed and tired of ‘exploring’ the same dead beat reused landscapes just to find out that yet another ancient civilization used crates surprisingly similar to those on every other human outpost (or maybe we inherited the crate technology? Hmm…). And getting a dialog box every time I saved the universe from extinction genuinely broke my heart (that’s why I’m so cynical now. Blame Canada :) ). Again, this is a classic ‘we have one strong feature, let’s focus on it and hope they don’t notice the rest’ affair. Even the dialogs felt all the less ‘lively’ when you realized your interlocutor was not going anywhere after you’ve finished talking to him – a precaution to avoid a landslide of bugs and corrupt camera angles if the scenes were more or less ‘dynamic’ location-wise and not fully scripted. I understand. And yet I hope for far less static, repeatable environments and characters, also with a dash of true RPG side-quest love come Q1 2010, or they’re unlikely to get my money again. So dear doctors… Please stop giving uninspiring, general interviews and get your asses to work already!

Where ME failed, BioShock triumphed, for some time at least. Even though the standard sunken laboratory/bar/hotel suite locations were your every hour exploration companions, they varied somewhat in design – an greatly in feeling. Almost every place had a history behind it, one that you could uncover by listening to the scattered audio tapes – or simply looking around and noticing all the little nuances like furniture, appliances and graffiti scribbled on the walls by deranged splicers. Sometimes the player would get a sensation of pain and misery, but usually – fear of what’s lurking in a dark steamed up corridor. I’m sure most of us who played have the infamous dentist and morgue scenes firmly placed in our minds. To recap:

This title was one of the main reasons I got my HD projector, 120” screen and 5.1 audio setup – and the game is more than capable of utilizing them, giving you a chilly, if not downright startling invite to Rapture. So what went wrong? To put a long story short, the game was too long (pun intended, casualties accounted for). While the first few hours indisputably succeeded at arranging a fully engrossing eerie shooter / scare festival, the plot was superficially prolonged just to avoid that Call of Duty ‘two evening campaign’ pitfall. While I generally like my games not to end before I actually get into them, the designers’ job is to properly (and truthfully like in a confessional) assess how much content do they have and for how long will it last. Again, let’s get our vocabularies straight – by ‘content’ I don’t mean game objects or level meshes, but rather – how much story have you got to lay on the canvas of gameplay which in turn should be properly laid out on the level structure. Think of it as a layer cake. To that end, Irrational’s (now 2K Boston or ‘We, who will not do multiplayer until we’re certain we can conquer all known galaxy with it’) design department is guilty of staging their product to be exactly X hours long no matter the story script. What transpired was a fairly tiresome tale at the latter stages, where the player was constantly shoved around Rapture by the game’s various NPCs for almost no apparent (or logical) reason. Of course slow pacing is never a bad think by its own merit, but it has to be threaded by fresh gameplay scenarios or better yet new game features to keep the gamer satisfied. Even if exploring a ruined underwater American prohibition era themed utopia, fighting its sad inhabitants and tinkering with valve security systems was entrancing through the first eight hours or so, the game failed to offer any diversity later on. And while most run through the final stages just to FINALY get it over with (this is based on talks with quite a number of people who played the game), the title desperately tried to hook them in with the same tired ‘shh, there’s a monster coming’ fashion which buried all the immersion in a thick metal plated coffin ten feet under. When the solution was simple – a fairly quick conclusion following the [SPOILER, DUCK!] Fountaine assassination featuring all the finer moments from the rest of the story (Big Daddy suit, plasmid malfunction, Tannenbaum’s lair) [OK, SAFE] compacted to be ‘times two’ in terms of length with less backtracking and you have a finale worthy of the Carnegie Hall. 2K Marin, the developers of the sequel have something to learn from their colleagues in Boston – having a clear set of objectives regarding your title is a commendable thing, but pushing every step of the way and inflating the story just to fit a predefined set of hours is not the way you want to go about it. That is if you respect the work someone put in the story and its consistency. The most keen plot can be easily washed away by the growing pains of having to constantly retrace your steps and ‘bring three flowers to open the magic chest’ quests. Just ask J.J. Abrams.

The last subject of my analysis before I hit with the coup de grace is Resident Evil 5, which should have the subtitle Runnin’ and Gunnin’. How much immersion does this title amass? None. Even if taking place in the RE universe, the game has nothing to do with its survival horror predecessors. It’s a Gears of War style shooter where the only touch of horror you get is when your fanatic GoW co-op buddy grinds his teeth when unable to target AND move at the same time (well, if the Japanese say it ain’t possible – it ain’t possible. After all they’re smart, build microwaves, mechs and can predict the future). This attempt to slow down gameplay and oftentimes put your back against the wall, in theory to offer ‘survival horror’ tension is laughable at best and the only fun you’re going to get with this is if you enjoy shooting undead/infected/NATO (all three apply as they refer to the same) things and have a good co-op partner. This way you can blast through the campaign in no time and have a curious contradictory experience as you chuckle at the absurdity and pathos poured into the cutscenes, while marveling at their visual quality at the same time. At the end, all you’ll remember from the story is that ‘it was something about a virus, which keeps changing its name to better fit the installment surroundings, and a ravaging blond-haired neo-nazi trying to destroy the world’. It’s a good thing that when you’re supposed to care about your partner in the story, the developers make you push a QTE sequence to wake you up. All in all, it was fun to decimate the African population faster than famine and AIDS put together (just remember – they have plants in their heads so it’s politically correct) and the gameplay certainly doesn’t bore if you’re a diehard shooter fan and don’t have to micromanage the AI controlled partner all of the time (i.e. – you’re playing co-op), but in terms of atmosphere and immersion, ‘the thrill is gone’ as B.B. King sang. Shinji Mikami, the man responsible for the survival horror sensations in all previous RE installments said prior to the game’s release ‘I certainly won’t play it, it’ll just get me angry’. Told you the Japanese could predict the future.

All right, so to recap our little Main Sins compilation, we have

  • The sin of favor – thou shall not favor any component of your game from another and shall put equal implementation time to all of them to ensure a steady, rich gameplay experience;
  • The sin of boasting – thou shall not be so pig headed about one cool feature in your game that you ship it knowing full well other systems are mediocre at best;
  • The sin of Kevin Levine – thou shall not be Kevin Levine and brag about how rich and innovative your game world and enemy AI are just to make gamers travel the same location 101 times because the game needs to be exactly X hours long to be considered ‘vintage and offer the client a mouthful for their money’;
  • The sin of being more ‘hip’ than Chris Cornell – thou shall not be a sellout bitch like Chris Cornell by making your product painfully in line with modern day market standards and forgetting about your roots, as thy roots govern the essence of thy product attractiveness.

… or thou shall be smacked in thy face a thousand times, yay. So say we all.

Logic or trekkie manners dictate I now present a 24 carat jewel that will wash away all of the aforementioned sins like they never happened and make us gamers whole again. Sorry, salvation is a little further down the road (early June in Europe to be exact). What I want to show you is a game that should (based on a 5 min gameplay reel) offer some genuine user engagement with nothing all that spectacular – careful scripting matching the game’s pace and adaptive animations, some 20 for any given occasion.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (courtesy of Gamersyde)

Now let’s examine the finer points of what you just saw:

  • Carefully scripted scenes, linear of course, but delivered with true Hollywood flair, that break up the exploration;
  • Animations for almost any given occasion that for the first time are utilized for such things as portraying the hero’s exhaustion after a sprint getaway from a jeep or getting up from an explosion blast – also with harmonious audio – something that’s usually seen as ‘unnecessary’ or ‘too costly’ but as you can see does a tremendous job of establishing the hero. During the 5 minute presentation, I actually already grew to like Nathan seeing as he’s just an ordinary guy that got evolved in a dangerous situation. I actually care and want to find Cloe. All done with a few animations and three lines of dialog! Still think it’s costly? Compare it to a rough estimation of the cost of MGS4 cutscenes, which for many didn’t do the trick in as much as 1,5 hours play time;
  • Cutscenes that aren’t exactly CUT-scenes because they mingle seamlessly into the gameplay presentation – a step forward from RE5 (ten in terms of realism);
  • Events that not necessary happen ‘to’ the hero or require his involvement/input – make for a fairly believable living environment and not ‘levels’;
  • Combat system fully integrated into exploration. The game doesn’t ‘enter’ combat mode, switch its perspective or offer any kind of hiccup. Plus, the counter animations are fluent and very well done. Also logically put together – it’s rather a no brainer that you’d ram an unsuspecting merc into a wall rather than try a sleeper hold for example (any ‘default’ silent takedown animation – which is the point) or jump someone to take advantage of your speed. To appreciate them more, take the time to compare to this melee sequence from High Moon’s Bourne Conspiracy and the famous hotel fight scene:

Yes, I know that in many respects, the game is a MGS4 rip-off. For the designers’ creativity’s sake you’ve got to appreciate there are no anal homo rape ‘disarms’ or peeing dinomechs like in Solid.

As we approach the game’s release date, it remains to be seen if all of Uncharted 2’s gameplay holds the same high standards as this presentation. So I’ll wait with any firm statements, also the one where I gleam this is the game that’s gonna make me finally buy a PS3 (because even if, it’s gonna be Little Big Planet and THEN Uncharted 2).

For now, let’s enjoy the thought that Naughty Dog is expanding on its core ideas and not just amping up the poly count. This one could very well prove a tasty meal.

For the time being, that’s the end of Squeezing the last juices out of ‘next-gen’. Will there be more – time will tell, but here’s hoping it will contain only praise for new exciting ideas within the industry and not listing its shortcomings that I’m sure the dev teams saw a mile away and still failed to rectify.

Cheers.

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~ by Pawel Wyslowski on May 21, 2009.

2 Responses to “Squeezing the last juices out of ‘next-gen’ – Part 2: crazy little thing called immersion.”

  1. Just finished Mirrors Edge. Again. Here’s my take on it.
    It’s a very uneven game, with truly awesome gameplay (after all – I finished it again), some unused mechanics (why?) and one of the worst-plotlines-ever. I mean – come on – could they have put more cliches in. Actually – I dont think so. As for unused mechanics. I just discovered that there is MORE than one point, where you can use the back-disarm-move. If you kick an enemy while wallrunning, he will be turned around 180 degrees and THEN you can disarm him from the back. Also, there is a possibility of takin down bad guys by simply falling on them, but situations where you can do so are very rare. You can lure your victim to some stairs, and jump on him from there, but then again Mirrors Edge isn’t about luring and stalking, and it would be WAY cooler, if you could just fall on unexpecting enemy.

    When it comes to GOTY 2008, for me it’s the game that puts co-op in co-op multiplayer. And since co-op is the best kind of multi, you can’t go wrong with that one. Left 4 Dead. Depending on difculty level its everything from enthusiastic zombie slaughter to desperate fight for survival. Since there are no scripted encounters (ok – little scripted encounters) the replayability is pretty high. But don’t take my word for it – ask over 40,000 zombies that I shot dead! Oh, don’t forget It’s a Valve game, so there’s lots of extra, FREE, content to be expected, and that’s not counting the community-created stuff!
    Not only it’s a GOTY 2008, propably the best zombie game ever.

    • The whole ‘bouncing from the wall ninja style’ thing is a horrid mistake. First of, I believe there’s any word whatsoever that enemies can be disarmed after a spin kick from the wall – and tutorials must contain all, even the most sparse information about a feature if the game’s creators hope the 96% of those who buy the game actually use it. Second – its tough enough to actually hit someone off the wall, as they constantly side step, but then you have a split second to get your bearings, target the guard and use the disarm. A harder element for more experienced players? No problem. Problem is – the unexperienced ones in practice don’t have a disarm ability in the game.
      By not offering any aid to more casual players (who are more likely to pick up a parkour game than let’s say – a new FPS), DICE lost a lot of audience – and money.

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