Friday, December 03, 2004

Unclear on the Concept 

Gabe and Tycho at Penny Arcade are talking about Prince of Persia 2: Warrior Within, and it sounds like it's suffering from the most heart-breaking sort of sequel problem. Here's Gabe:

I guess people complained about the combat in the first game not being deep enough. They even said the final boss was too easy. These people didn't understand the game. Your enemy in the first game was the environment. You were battling against puzzles not monsters. The actual combat was there as a breather to give you a rest between puzzles. The final boss wasn't even the vizier it was navigating the last level without your sword. The level was the boss, not the guy at the end. So now they've beefed up the combat and they make you fight all the time. So they listened to the people who didn't like their game and totally fucked those of us who loved it. Thanks Ubi, you know a lot of people really hate all the sneaking around in Splinter Cell. Why don't you give Sam a dual Uzis and a rocket launcher?

I always hate it when this happens, in games or in movies. One of my favorite games ever, Marathon, suffered a horrible sequel. Instead of the empty, echoing rusted walls and cathedral-like chambers of the Marathon, Bungie set the sequel on some bright, gaudy, pastel alien planet. Someone I knew who met Jason Jones at a trade show told me that he was boasting that "now that they had better art, they didn't have to set the game in the dark to prevent you from seeing the awful textures anymore." I've always told myself that Jason Jones, if he really said that, was just being a good salesman for Marathon 2 at the time.

Also gone from Marathon 2 were all of the puzzles. Like a rat in a maze, sometimes a level's main difficulty was figuring out how the level was supposed to work while you were still stuck in it. Levels that required a little more thought than people were used to in a first-person shooter, like Smells Like Napalm, Tastes Like Chicken, Cool Fusion, G4 Sunbathing, Colony Ship for Sale, Cheap!, and Habe Quiddam, were missing (most of those maps, by the way, were designed by Jason Jones himself). The game added a shotgun and became what Marathoners used to hate: Doom. I'm complaining, but this was practically Bungie's sales pitch at the time.

Fortunately, the third Marathon, Marathon: Infinity was a bit better. Marathon 2's plotline was so horribly muddled, that they really didn't have anywhere to go. Marathon: Infinity's plot is really impossible to comprehend (which doesn't stop the alarming but harmless fans from trying to insert meaning into it). The game jumps around in time and space, and even makes liberal use of "dream sequence" levels. Still, by outsourcing the production of the game entirely to Double Aught software (which had some former Bungie employees and other Marathon fans on staff), the feel of the game was restored. The levels that take place on the alien planet had their textures toned down quite a bit; in a marvelous feat of artistry, Randy Reddig repainted all of the textures in the game at the last second in a way that left them completely compatible with the previous textures (ie, all of the switches and patterns on the textures remained perfectly aligned). The game also moved itself back into a cavernous, abandoned spaceship, and some of those levels were truly superb.

This isn't the only time this has happened in Bungie's past either. They followed up on the somber, majestic Myth by redesigning all of the sprites so that they looked more like some bargain bin generic medieval strategy game in Myth 2. The game lost its look and its mood entirely, as they added gimmickry like indoor levels, zombies, wolves, and a level with a pirate ship. A freaking pirate ship. They went ahead and lowered the resolution on all sprites as well, "so that they could put more frames of animation in," making Myth 2 one of the few sequels to look worse than its predecessor. Myth 2 was a complete disaster, and I'm probably going easy on it, since I couldn't even stand to finish the first level (I did play a few other levels as a beta tester, but I dropped out of the test because I just couldn't stand it).

Apparently Halo 2 is something of a disappointment as well, being way too short and ending abruptly with a cliffhanger ending, though I have not played it yet myself. I'm one of Bungie's biggest and oldest fans, and I think the reason is that they will tackle a tired game setup and bring some creativity to it, or they'll do something completely new. They show that any type of game can be fun if you have a good grasp of what fun is. I hated real-time strategy games until I saw Myth, the first game to be presented in 3D, and with an emphasis on battle tactics instead of resource harvesting. Hell, I even though Oni was fun, the first attempt at combining a fighting game with an adventure game, and using professional architects to design the settings. It was fatally flawed, yes, but it was still a very creative product that someone should revisit or rip off. As far as I can tell, the game was limited by its poorly designed engine.

Unfortunately, their sequels frequently drop the ball entirely, by failing to understand why their original game was so amazing in the first place. It also happens, as I have pointed out in the past, that there is a very high correlation between the amount of work Jason Jones does on a game and that game's quality (Jason Jones was deeply involved in Marathon, Myth, and Halo, but not Marathon 2 or Marathon: Infinity, Myth 2 or Myth 3, or Oni; I'm not sure how much of a role he had in Halo 2).

So, I'm very sorry to see this happen to Prince of Persia, since that game was truly fantastic. Ubisoft has probably been the best thing to happen to the Xbox, as they have faithfully provided their own version of any game that made me want a PS2, only they've made it better than the PS2 version. That is, I wanted ICO for PS2, but Prince of Persia was better; I wanted Metal Gear Solid 2, but Splinter Cell took the same idea and did it way better. It makes me wonder if Splinter Cell 2 was as messed up as Prince of Persia 2.

In any case, one game where that has not happened at all is Half-Life 2. It's hard to write a review of Half-Life 2, because by talking about the good stuff in it you're depriving the reader of the experience. Unbelievable things happen around you, and you truly feel like an action hero sorting it out.

Unfortunately, I've been very disappointed by Half-Life 2's deathmatch mode. It's not far from being fun, but it's definitely not as good as in the original Half-Life. Deathmatch mode was obviously done at the last second and as an afterthought. There are no deathmatch maps, just adapted singleplayer maps, and only two of those at that. Throwing things around in a deathmatch game isn't as fun as you might think it is. Often, something really fun does happen with the zero-point energy gun. A guy threw a barrel at me once at close range, and I caught it in mid-air and threw it back at him. It was immensely satisfying. More often, though, it's a frenzied free-for-all, with lethal objects flying about. There is very little strategy available in this setup, it just encourages you to fling stuff everywhere because you will hit someone easily. But you can't aim or move very well, since the large objects you are holding will block your view. The bookshelves and desks and barrels also tend to accumulate in doorways where someone couldn't get through with them, and it makes movement about the levels very annoying as you struggle to push things out of the way. The zero-point energy gun should unquestionably be a component of Half-Life 2 deathmatch, but the levels don't have to be so filled to the brim with debris to throw around.

Seeing how good recent games are looking, and the incredible growth of the game industry, I wonder if maybe this will eventually lead to an increase in the demand for architects. Certainly, architects have way more freedom in a purely virtual environment, and a good-looking game tends to sell better than a sloppy one. It might even be appealing to an artistic architect, as many architectural designs I've seen in an architecture school were simply not realistic structures to build. Plus, it might "bring architecture to the people," instead of requiring the people to go to the architecture. Surely letting people experience more art in their daily lives is a good thing. Unfortunately, I think that this would be seen as "cheap" compared to architects who build actual buildings, though I cannot understand why. In either case, the architect designs a computer model as his main task; it's in the hands of contractors or programmers after that.

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