Without further ado, let’s wrap up this three-part diatribe on the problems I found with the three biggest action games of the year this far. Those games, again, are The Last Of Us, Bioshock Infinite, and Tomb Raider. I’m picking on them because, despite occasional voiced grievances, they are pretty much the gold children of the year so far in action adventure games.
Part the first pertained to levels, artificial intelligence, and the irreconcilable problems which arise in their interaction. Each of these three games have some fundamental problems, be it AI awareness being blocked by invisible walls or AI having blunt and basic movements despite complex and intricate levels.
Part the second referred to something which I think fundamentally almost breaks Tomb Raider and Bioshock Infinite: pacing. Infinite’s messed up pacing does an awful naught-to-sixty pacing jump half an hour in, where Tomb Raider does the opposite, its first minutes are a woefully directed narrative rush, which slows down as the game goes on.
But the final issue? Its something which potentially spoils tension that any of the games have. And I don’t refer to tension of story. I refer to tension of gameplay.
3. Showing You All Its Game Design Cards From The First Second
Worst Offender: Bioshock Infinite
This isn’t just a pet peeve of mine. I think this is something which can undermine a game, and the player’s enjoyment of it, from the instant they start playing.
As I noted in Part 2, I was loving the first half hour of Bioshock Infinite. I had a great time taking in Columbia, the flying city, slowly looking around and learning the game mechanics.
When the combat kicked off, I was definitely disappointed.
But what disappointed me more was when I pressed select (playing PS3 version), and looked at the game’s inventory. Gear was handled fine: you can see the three gear slots and what you have equipped. Vigors are handled fine: you can see what few vigors you have on the selection wheel.
And then… You look at the weapons screen. Its supposed to show what weapons you have upgrades for and how upgraded they are. But it also shows you every single weapon in the game, from the very beginning of the game.
Since early FPS titles like Doom or Half-Life, finding weapons which allow you to interact with the game world in new ways has always been an important source of mystery. You never knew how many you could have ultimately. There always seemed to be another weapon to find, which would give a massive new set of opportunities. From Half Life’s tau-cannon, all the way to the original Bioshock’s liquid-firing cannon.
Then Bioshock Infinite, and the other titles on the list, show you everything from day one. On the first level, I looked at the list and looked at the pistol, the shotgun, the machinegun, the carbine, the hand cannon, the RPG, the volley gun (or whatever), the repeater, the hail fire, the heater, the burstgun… And that was it. I looked at the whole list – and saw the items noted in red. I could see how they would divide the weapon types. I knew what was to come.
Instantly, all substance that came from the shooting mechanic was gone. I couldn’t be bothered trying out all of the guns or even finding a favourite because I knew exactly what was on offer. They all seemed boring once I just saw all their names on a blunt list, with a little picture.
Bioshock Infinite just shows you everything immediately. It shows all of its cards. The game has such a regimented design ethic, again in contrast with its beautiful, flexible world, that the player’s actions and gameplay choices are obviously prescribed, obviously made already. It’s exactly the opposite of what a game’s design should do.
Bad Offender: Tomb Raider
Almost equally bad is Tomb Raider, though this is slightly more forgivable.
From Tomb Raider’s introductory section, the instant Skills are introduced, the player can see every tier of ability available to Lara Croft.
They can see the abilities which she should be initially getting. The ability to get more loot from animals corpses. The ability to be more accurate with weapons. These are Tier I abilities – unlock five of them, and you gain access to Tier II abilities, which will give you more specialised customization and freedom within Lara’s toolset. But, just like in Bioshock Infinite, the player can see all of the abilities from the get go.
This isn’t like old RPG skill trees, where you could see stat-buffing abilities and moves from the get-go. Those systems were complex and the differing abilities were designed to be combined and toyed with, to see what the best combinations on offer were. But in Tomb Raider, there’s only one set of abilities, none of which interact. In Older Metroidvania or action adventure games like Metroid, or Zelda, or even new ones like Batman: Arkham Asylum, progression steps were unlocked until you gained new abilities, and you didn’t even know what those abilities were.
In Tomb Raider, I can see the best ability in the game from day one. There’s no suspense. Again, the freedom and usefulness and mystery which the game could provide is undermined by menu and upgrade design choices which ruin all suspense as early as the game’s introduction.
Slight Offender: The Last Of Us
As per Pacing, The Last Of Us is the least offensive on the list for this specific problem.
However, it is still present. Throughout the game are littered Crafting Workbenches, the ones where you upgrade your guns. The player uses up Parts, scavenged bits of metal, to work on guns and improve them. This makes them carry more shots, reload quicker, be more precise.
You start with a 9mm pistol. Look at the Workbench and what do you see? At the top of the screen, a tab for the 9mm pistol. A tab for Holsters which will let you have two long or short weapons on the quick-access inventory instead of just one. And what else? Six other tabs. For six other weapons. Which you haven’t found yet.
This isn’t even the worst bit. Sure, you know how many guns there are in the game, so you roughly know where you are in the game’s progression (for example, when there’s only one gun left, you’ll know you’re near the game’s last part). But what’s worse is that to upgrade the guns fully you need Tool levels. You find toolboxes which let you upgrade weapons more.
There are only five toolboxes in the game. Again, you are essentially given, within the first hour, a 5-part guide as to how far through the game you are.
The Last Of Us is nearly flawless in design, in my opinion. The control design, the upgrade design, the scavenging design, the stealth design, it’s all sublime. And the fact that players have genuinely very little idea of where they are in the story is one of the game’s strengths; it just keeps giving and giving. The Winter section comes out of nowhere, and is a long, brilliantly pitched segment.
But the fact that you can tell throughout the game how far you are into it by counting Toolboxes, completely undermines Naughty Dog’s design.
What Does It Matter?
Frankly, I think Pacing is the bigger actual issue for these games.
But in terms of gaming overall, and the future of game design? Showing all of its cards immediately is one of the worst things a game can do. It’s detrimental to what a game is trying to do as a piece of entertainment with a linear progression.
It’s like reading a novel which has a paragraph from its ultimate chapter spliced into its first. If you read a book’s last paragraph in its opening pages, a chunk of the suspension would be ruined, right? In fact, you could say the whole point of reading the bloody book has basically been ruined. If roughly linear games like this are a progression of gaining abilities and doing stuff, developers have to stop showing us what’s in store from the first word.
Another huge series did the same thing in its first flawed entry. Remember Assassin’s Creed? The first one. Remember the original Animus? Lying down on the table with a screen over your face. And the memory interface on the hologram? It showed you all the game’s levels. Right there, from the opening. There was Sequence 1, Sequence 2, Sequence 3, all the way to sequence 9. You could see all of the game’s levels immediately, which ruined the suspense.
In the buildup to Assassin’s Creed II, the developers over at Ubisoft acknowledged that this ruined the game’s suspense for many players, and that in the second outing they would fix it.
This year’s biggest action games all show this problem. And it’s something which needs to be fixed in action game design. Obviously, developers want to give players choice and give them the information they need to choose. But showing all the gameplay cards on a game’s first hand is a huge mistake.
Don’t show your players how much content is left, and especially don’t show them what that content is.
In the action games of this year, there are very linear sets of progression. And every one of them makes this big, big mistake from the standpoint of gameplay design.
So that wraps up this three-part piece on things that are fundamentally flawed on the big action games Bioshock Infinite, The Last Of Us, and Tomb Raider. If you read it to the end, thank you kindly. Hope you enjoyed it.