Tuesday, January 12, 2010

This Game is an Awkward Game

You guys have no idea how long I'd been waiting for this game to come out. Psychonauts was one of the best damn games to come out last gen... fuck, I get a nerd boner just thinking about it. Every person I've seen who's ever owned, borrowed, or looked at a game controller, I've told them to play that fucking game. It's unbelievably good.

Brutal Legend... not so much.

Now I won't let the fact that my game data will no longer load because of a glitch associated with the DLC... preventing me from achieving 100% completion (I'm stuck at 99)... negatively skew my opinion. As frustrating as it is. To be honest, by the time it happened I was done with the game. Emotionally, I mean... hands up in the air, head back, surrender. Done.

First and foremost, the writing: the game's premise is fucking awesome, it's actual script, however, doesn't do it the justice it deserves. Now Psychonauts was written by both Tim Schafer and Eric Wolpaw. Wolpaw was also one of the three writers who worked on Portal. One of the three who worked on Portal. Schafer is Legend's only writing credit. Portal was a three or four hour game (I don't remember exactly, but I have beaten it), yet its writing staff was triple that of Brutal Legend, a game with significantly more dialogue.

That's not to say more writers make a better product, if any of you have you seen the film Crash (the Academy Award winning PC propaganda piece, not the car crash fetish one (which was awesome (James Spader!))), you'd know that often times more writers means more idiots smearing shit everywhere. But looking at what is consistent between Psychonauts and Brutal Legend, it seems to me that Schafer's an idea man. An amazing idea man. But not a detail man--compared to Wolpaw, whose job, along with most of the other Portal writers, was to litter the game with details.

Before you ask, Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle, and the Secret of Monkey Island each had four writers. Full Throttle is the only other game that Schafer has solo writing credit for; I haven't played it, so I can't comment on its quality relative to the others, but the point is that the man generally does not work alone. And it shows.

The pacing is not good. The dialogue doesn't overflow with humor like Psychonauts' dialogue did. There isn't a ton of random funny shit scattered across the game world like in Psychonauts. The overall plot is pretty alright; like a strong skeleton for an emaciated body. It's disappointing.

The graphics aren't that great either. And I mean... noticeably. Draw distances are awful, polygon counts seem pretty low on most environmental models. When you look at the concept art, which is just fucking awesome, you can't escape the realization of how bland the in-game world looks by comparison. The character models are great; they're obviously not going to be Metal Gear caliber, but they're cartoony and stylized and get the job done. They're what they need to be. The environments are not.

And speaking of the environments, the organization of the world map feels somewhat arbitrary. Like the team got together, thought of some cool shit they'd like to render, scattered it around with some thematic consistency, and then just laid down dirt in between.

I really need to stop comparing this to Psychonauts, it's too frustrating.

Gameplay is divided into three general modes: action-adventure, driving around, and RTS. The single player experience, particularly the mode-specific missions, highlight each mode's particular problems.

The action-adventure segments, by which I mean the portions of the game where Eddie (our protag) is running around on two feet, killing shit, are really too few to count. There are maybe three. This was disappointing because this is what I thought the game was going to be, but that's fine, I won't hold this against the game. Anyway, there's no jump button. Which is alright... in theory. Jump buttons have become such an intuitive element of adventure games that if you can't jump... something feels wrong. Even Nathan Drake's little limp dick hop in Uncharted makes you feel like you've got better control of the character, for no functional reason whatsoever. But lately games have been getting away with it. Only our pal Eddie often gets stuck on environmental obstacles... like stairs that are a quarter inch too tall. There's so much shit going on on the ground, that not having a jump button cripples on-foot exploration.

To the game's credit, though, combat is pretty damn fun. It's simple enough: you have a physical attack button, a magic button, and a dodging/blocking button. It's nowhere near as elegant as the system in Arkham Asylum, but it works and I enjoy it.

The car is what makes exploration possible. Summoning it often gets you unstuck in whatever little crevice you've weaseled yourself into. It's your main mode of getting from anywhere to anywhere else... though a teleportation system between garages would've been intuitive* (like the tree stumps in Psychonauts, where you go to a central underground location to get upgrades... same fucking thing, only in that game you could use it to travel between stumps, whereas here you leave through the hole you entered). Its physics are sometimes a little wonky, which was really frustrating in the racing missions. The opponent would tap my car and it would go spinning out, I'd straight up ram his but I guess he was on invisible iron rails or something. Car combat is pretty decent, I didn't feel the secondary weapons were worth much though.

The RTS element is fucking weird. I know the different troops have different functions and whatnot... but at the end of the day you're just going to be amassing a large, and somewhat diverse, army and sledgehammering your way to victory. There just isn't a system in play where you can be surgical with how you divide your team and the missions you give them. You can give class-specific order, you can fuck with distances and spawn points, but all of this is just the player compensating for the game should have provided you with. I didn't play Starcraft for more than a couple of hours, but that fucking box system, where you draw one and all the troops inside are selected for an action, that shit makes sense! Aside from the troops I spawn, and the actions I do myself (like melting a ton of the enemy's faces), I don't really feel like I have all that much control on what goes down.

"Everybody... go here. OK, now, everybody... there."

This problem is the same general problem between all of the modes, and really reflects a greater philosophy behind game design: the creator's promise to his audience.

Every game, with few exceptions, gives you a few basic premises:
Your mission (save the princess, save the world, make your dog happy, etc.)
Your toolset (jumping and fireballs, guns, a frisbee)
Your opposition (mushroom men, pirates, the desperate agony that is so fundamentally a part of being alive)

The best designed games are the ones where these elements are purest, or least interrupted. For example, Mario can run, jump, and shoot fireballs. He kills turtles and mushrooms with these skills, and proceeds to save the princess. It's straightforward, its simple, its organic. But you can fuck it up.

When your toolset isn't sufficient to overcome your opposition, for instance. Like if jumping or shooting fireballs didn't kill anything, because of some glitch (not because they weren't meant to, we're assuming they're still parts of your toolset). It'd frustrating as all hell, there'd be entire parts you couldn't finish.

Or what if you can't utilize your toolset in an organic manner? Whenever we jump, we can jump up, forward, backward, left, or right. Mario is 2D, so ignore that last dimension. What if Mario could only jump up and not forward or back? And what if that were intentional and the game facilitated it? It'd still feel weird because it undermines our idea of what it is to jump.

The point is, you make a promise to your audience, like you can organize an army to defeat an opponent, your audience expects to be able to control that army in a manner that has become intuitive to them. Like if I'm staring at the screen, thinking of basic instructions I'd like to yell (foot soldiers, flank left), but there's no way to translate that through the controls, that's a problem.

At the end of the day, it's an 'alright' game elevated to 'decent' because of the originality of its concept and gameplay style. It's novel, ambitious, yet broken, which still makes it a worthwhile experience, in my opinion. Just don't compare it to Psychonauts.

Oh, and on the plus side, the soundtrack is fucking awesome. They probably used the money they saved on not hiring another writer to license all this damn music.

*I starred the word intuitive because I think that's the major flaw in this game. A lot of things simply aren't. Like it wasn't properly play-tested, or no one had the balls to speak up, I'm really hoping Schafer doesn't descend the George Lucas path in going from an auteur to a... fucking bad auteur, isolated from the sheer badness of his bad ideas by an army of yes-men and nodding heads. Tim Schafer is an amazing artist, but he needs an amazing team to make his vision something we can all experience.

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