As per usual in discussing these games; get ready for some serious spoilers. You have been warned. Don’t read if you haven’t finished all three.
On the back of so many articles discussing the excellence of the year we’ve had in terms of gaming, and it’s hard to dispute such claims. It almost feels like we’ve already had a whole year of incredible games, and that the “big” holiday-season rush has come and gone.
But no matter the list or comparison in the media this year, three games have been consistently present in, or in many cases, dominated, criticism thus far .
Those games are Naughty Dog’s new IP The Last Of Us, Irrational Games’ sequel Bioshock Infinite, and Crystal Dynamics’ reboot Tomb Raider. Which is hardly surprising. If we look at this year’s highest ranking games over at Metacritic, all three of them show up in the top 25; indeed, The Last Of Us and Bioshock Infinite take the #1 and #2 spots respectively.
Personally, I wouldn’t dispute this at all. The Last Of Us is a new entry as one of my favourite games of all time, and I believe the first true narrative masterpiece of the AAA-budget blockbuster gaming cycle. Bioshock Infinite is also brilliant, one of the most stunningly creative works in many years, which isn’t necessarily surprising considering creator Ken Levine’s pedigree. Then there’s Tomb Raider: it may not stand up to the mastery of the other two titles, but it’s still an important work in the high-budget modern action game vein, blending many smaller styles and genres into its traditional third person platforming rompery. Perhaps of greater significance is that it is one of the few successful reinventions of a mid-nineties gaming franchise; in true Chris Nolan style, Lara Croft receives a gritty and emotional narrative reinvention.
Yet while all three games are deservedly receiving widespread acclaim, I couldn’t help but notice some problems which nagged me while playing them. I don’t mean problems specific to each game. I mean issues which all three have in common, almost like flawed tropes which have come about at the end of this generation of videogames, with the fruition of the high-budget blockbuster. Indeed, two issues in particular were nearly inexcusable to me; and they just kept cropping up.
Remember that I’m not saying these problems are detrimental to the titles; more that they are issues which are clearly broad, nitty-gritty points which have to be addressed in the future of adventure gaming.
Number 1: Level Design And In-Game Opponents: Mortal Enemies
In my opinion, level design is the most important aspect of a game with any sort of three-dimensional adventuring. And luckily, all three of the titles in question have excellent level design. They all achieve sublimity at some point. From The Last Of Us’ perfectly sized desolated buildings, branching out over an area a couple of hundred yards in size; to Tomb Raiders vertically challenging open mountainous regions; to Bioshock Infinite’s unbelievable and innovative quick-fire skyrail transport.
But there’s one thing which doesn’t always fit with level design to this standard of excellence.
This first issue topic is a bit odd; the problem each game has is unique to each game. Unlike #2 and #3, to be published later, which are the same problem for every single game.
Worst Offender: The Last Of Us
The Last Of Us is a game which achieves a powerful level of immersion. The graphics are incredible, the camera angle and FOV is incredible, the mechanics and world interaction are incredible. And for the most part, in my opinion, the AI is pretty incredible. There are AI concessions made by Naughty Dog which some players find inexcusable: the main issue being player-friendly characters rush about in front of enemies who behave as if they’re oblivious to the sidekick’s existence.
Blu-ray reading glitches aside, it’s these AI quirks which break the immersion for most. But I forgive Naughty Dog for the design, because it saves actual gameplay from being messed up repeatedly for the player. It’s a design choice; not a mistake. (Having said that, I feel like an added mode ala Infinite’s 1999 Mode might not go amiss as DLC or an update; where AI being spotted would result in failure.)
What does break the immersion for me is something which happens largely with the game’s cordyceps Infected. Something intrinsic to the design of the levels, in their partitioned areas, and the cordycep Clickers, who must be stealthed past.
The first time I really noticed it was in the Suburbs section.
You start in a graveyard. There are a ton of Clickers around; perhaps seven or eight in the next hundred yards. It’s a game of silence: you’re sneaking past them, throwing the occasional bottle to distract one while you creep past. It’s a well designed segment. Clicker movement is hard to predict, large headstones and crypt entrances litter the high-walled cemetery, providing a perfect ratio of cover and exposure.
You maneuver your way safely past them, make it through a locked gate into the next area, and are confronted by a few hunching Runners. They are easy enough to choke to death with stealthy movements. But then you make a noise. A runner comes at you, grunting and retching, and you shoot him in the face with your shotgun. The shot roars out over the area, the other two runners hear it, a short scrambling battle ensues. At the end there have been six booming gunshots from you and your partners, before you finally stand panting over dead and mutilated bloody bodies.
The Clickers, currently no more than fifteen feet away through the open cemetery gate, just beyond where you came from moments before, hear nothing.
The game has partitioned its areas, not with physical space, but with sound. In real life, the cemetery and this alleyway you’re in are still part of one continuous path, so that if you fire a gunshot, or make a noise, some Clickers should hear it through the gate and follow you through the gate. Which is what I expected; and I felt terror the second our battle ensued. Surely, the clickers would come flooding through, zombie crowd movement style, and nail me the instant I made a noise. But no: right there, through an open cemetery door, is a sound/ area barrier. The Clickers cant hear you through it. Even though you’re standing there watching them. Fire a shot within ten feet, go ahead- they don’t care. There’s an arbitrary sound barrier in the way.
This seems like a nit-picky thing to mention, but it’s probably one of the only moments where the game’s level design actually gets broken down and ruined because of a design choice. And it happens quite a lot throughout The Last Of Us: no matter how much noise you make in an area, the area immediately behind you won’t hear a thing, even though you can see the enemies you just made it past. The wide open subway section immediately before the Saint Mary Hospital near the end of the game has a sound barrier over it’s two huge open halves, too.
The fact that Clickers don’t follow your noise into other areas may have been made as another gameplay concession, but to me, it ruined the immersion as the AI obeyed arbitrary rules of level design, rather than the reality of the situation like the rest of the game.
Middling Offender: Tomb Raider
Tomb Raider is a weird one. The game is half Batman: Arkham City, with open areas featuring clever layers of puzzle and platforming, and half Uncharted, with linear, cinematic areas in which you’re stuck to a defined route. I find the linear areas badly paced (see #2 incoming), but the open areas very compelling. Sure, the puzzles aren’t that hard, but they’re satisfying and well designed.
Enter enemies. And their totally arbitrary way of behaving in the gameworld.
In Uncharted, enemies can do almost anything you can do. They can take cover, attack, retreat, flank, climb, drop. Same as in Assassin’s Creed, although they’re less subtle in Ubisoft’s series. In Tomb Raider, they can only do the first three. They aren’t very mobile. And they tend to drop in to an area, then awkwardly move about while you dodge them and shoot them with relative ease.
The worst case in point is the games opening sections where wolves are your main opponent. Good God. Infinitely respawning wolves, in a tiny forest, which would suggest there’s a very finite number of wolves indeed, and the wolves do not behave realistically. They come out of nowhere, and attack one at a time, very conscientiously. They slowly circle. They’re easy to dodge. In a gritty, realistic disaster situation, which looks goddamn excellent and realistic, this destroys any seriousness the game tries to set up, with these repetitive and badly done AI encounters.
Things improve for the game, but remain flawed. Crystal Dynamics never manage to capture that effortless natural feeling of where enemies should and shouldn’t be in a level, unlike in Batman or Uncharted, where a couple of guys standing having a conversation doesn’t seem forced or just “gameifying.” In Tomb Raider, the enemies feel like infinite skinned automatons who are placed conveniently to try and get you. There isn’t much depth or subtlety to the enemy encounters. There are times where it works; but for the most part, Tomb Raider‘s enemy design is at odds with the level design, which is excellent and detailed and realistic. This often turns well-developed level areas into rudimentary shooting galleries.
Least Offensive: Bioshock Infinite
Bioshock Infinite is another weird one. While I love the level design overall; Columbia’s floating buildings and interconnected platforms are stunning; I couldn’t deny that the combat was a little stale. Many articles have pointed this stuff out clearly and effectively. Indeed, Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton even argues that Bioshock Infinite needn’t even be a shooter at all, but I’ll get back to all this in #2 mostly.
The issue is that while the levels are designed with sublime aesthetics and engaging exploration in mind, the enemies… Are not.
They run around maniacally. There are a ton of them. They all shout and scream and shoot at you a lot. Even the better enemies, like the Handyman or the Teleporting Crow Dude, are all often surrounded by mad and hectic goons.
Infinite is a game where, if they had reduced the number of enemies in levels, but made the few enemies better, it would be a drastically stronger game. Which is essentially what Naughty Dog did in The Last Of Us. Sure, Infinite‘s enemies can maneuver the levels effectively and it’s great looking around at them. But it detracts from the level design so much, when, especially on Hard, you spend most of your time being confused about where enemies are, or running away from them on the same couple of skylines over and over again. Even worse is one of the game’s final segments: the part where you must defend Comstock’s ship. It’s a clusterf**k of bad guys, good guys, an odd new mechanic where you use Songbird, enemies everywhere. The overly fast pace and scrappy enemy engagement detracts from what could be a nice level and a majestic finishing setpiece to the game.
It’s a pity, because while I thought Infinite‘s levels were brilliant, the combat was a genuine step back from the original Bioshock, which had pure cunning and tiny, intense encounters. See #1 for more arguments on how flawed Bioshock Infinite‘s game design is.
Why Does It Matter?
It’s a big ask, really. To demand of these master game developers that they fix probably the most intricate part of a modern game: the complex connection between how mobile computed intelligent objects operate, and the physical rules of the world the player navigates.
Yet in a case like The Last Of Us, it feels like there really could be a solution. Give the players a mode, or an option in a menu, or make a harder difficulty which will maintain the immersion by making NPC’s obey more realistic rules. Or Naughty Dog could develop levels to have more of a continuity. Tomb Raider and Bioshock Infinite have more of a problem on the AI side: enemies are light, insubstantial room fillers who are there to be shot, in contrast to games like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which tackled open-area enemy movement with tact and beauty. This is something Naughty Dog clearly have a penchant for; it’s just a pity that The Last Of Us had a couple of extra quibbles.
In the future, especially with the incoming next-gen consoles, hopefully AI tactics and world-interaction will improve tenfold. Not to mention the increased space for game storage might expand the size of levels and give AI opponents more space for movement and more rule-flexibility.
But anyway; later today, we’ll provide an analysis of what the next issue which plagues three of these biggest games is: pacing.