Saturday, April 08, 2006

Some Things That Need To Disappear From Video Games

"Realistic" Gunnery
Counter Strike, Rainbow Six and their ilk have made it fashionable to have action game weapons behave like their real-life counterparts would. Or rather, behave like game developers’ faulty idea of how they would. That is, unnecessarily difficult to hit anything with and subject to completely over-the-top recoil physics. Take the Master Chief’s submachine-guns from Halo 2. In Halo the first he was capable of emptying a full-sized assault rifle into an alien’s nads without flinching, and all was well with the world. I mean, Chief is a seven foot tall genetically modified space soldier in powered armour from future, you can just imagine he has some sort of computer thingy that compensates for him. But by the time Halo 2 came out, faux-realistic gun behaviour had come into vogue, and it was no longer acceptable for Chiefypoo to get away with such physics-bending. So now, when you fire his machine pistols, your view immediately begins to drift upwards as the recoil from these tiny little weapons apparently pitches Chief’s entire torso backwards - keep firing for long enough and you’re putting holes in the ceiling. Call me a nitpicker but I think it sort of takes something away from his badass image. And the trend is spreading. Half-Life 2’s guns recoil terribly too, throwing off your aim even on the first shot. I don’t hold a doctorate in physics, but even I know that bullets fired rapidly from a gun are affected by the recoil from the previous shot - therefore it’s not at all realistic to have the first bullet fired from a gun affected by its own recoil, seeing as it travels at the speed of sound and is well on its way to your target’s noggin before the gun has a chance to jerk backwards. If you really want to do realism, try and make it, y’know, realistic. And before you consider going down that path at all, reflect on what kind of game you’re making. If it’s about a futuristic cyborg who fights space aliens, you don’t need to be concerning yourself with real-world physics.
I don’t think most people really care if guns behave unrealistically in computer games, if it means they can shoot something without having to worry about, say, a prevailing wind blowing their bullets away from the target and into a nearby branch of Lidl. Anyone who does care is likely to have a basement full of real guns and a list of all the people who have ever wronged them. And a trenchcoat.

PS: Quake 2 had recoil effects long before any other game, and they felt just right.

Escort Missions
Nobody but NOBODY enjoys escort missions. They invariably consist of shepherding a defenceless, stupid, totally exposed and slow-moving target through an enemy-rich environment, spending more time trying to save your ward from his or her own suicidal artificial intelligence than you do tackling their assailants. Which part of the above is meant to be fun? Games are entertainment, not work. By all means challenge us, but for God’s sake try not to be so lazy about it. I’m the guy’s escort, not his carer while he’s on release from the local day centre. And if we don’t do away with escort missions entirely, at least let me tell the bastard to stand still and hide for five bloody seconds so I can clear out the area ahead, instead of watching him inexorably walk straight into an obvious ambush and belly-flop down the barrel of a bad guy’s machine gun.

War Games Where You Have To Do All The Work
As you may have gathered from all the emotionally manipulative Army recruitment adverts that have been showing lately during the break in any TV programme that’s even remotely "yoof-oriented", soldiers work as a team to accomplish their objectives and try to prevent eachother from getting disgustingly shredded into horrible splattery giblets. Going it alone gets you dead very quickly, unless you’re John Rambo. And trust me, you’re not. I wish game developers would realise this because I have played too many games that bill themselves as ‘soldier simulations’ with realistic squad interaction and that, only to lump every dangerous task onto me when I actually play the game. You know the routine - "Hey, [Player]! Clear out that bunker complex! We’ll cover you!", or "[Player], you’re on point!", or "would you mind terribly if we ask you to defeat Hitler on your own? Only the entire army has thrown its back out putting up some shelves and it hurts like Billy-O".

I’m tired of my allies milling around in the distance, trying their damndest to look like they’re taking part in the fight by firing in the general direction of the enemy and only hitting their targets with one or two out of every thousand bullets they fire from their seemingly bottomless reservoir of ammunition. I’m glad that games like Full Spectrum Warrior and the Brothers In Arms series seem to be putting paid to all this lone-wolfery and offering more realistic squad-based hijinks for those who really want it. You can appreciate that developers want to give the player as much to do as possible, but there are better ways to give them that, a prime example being the original Call of Duty games, which put you in the shoes of a different person with a different area of expertise in every campaign, thus retaining variety whilst seeming more believable. However, they’ve slipped a bit with Call of Duty - The Big Red One, in which you play the same bog-standard infantry goon throughout, and yet manage to end up moonlighting as a gunner in a Flying Fortress at one point. Maybe you get two paycheques that way.

Artificial Moronity
As I mentioned in the escort mission bit, it’s no fun having to wrestle with dim allies. The quality of artificial intelligence in games has been subject to a curious reverse-development: It’s actually got more stupid as time has gone by. Characters in games released recently are way more idiotic than I remember them being just a few years ago. While programmers continue to build ever more convincing, immersive worlds, they hardly ever bother to populate them with characters who behave in an even remotely logical fashion.
Now, I hate to pick on Half-Life 2 again. It’s one of my favourite games, next to... well, the first Half-Life. But mentioning the first Half-Life, I’m reminded of the gasmasked government death squad soldiers who dogged you at every turn. They worked as a team. One would throw a grenade to flush you out, then his mate would machine gun your spectacles off when you broke cover. They’d take cover if injured, leg it if the odds were against them and cover eachother’s retreat. In short, they fought like real soldiers would, and they kicked my arse routinely. Then, of course, you had the black-clad ninja assassin ladies, who were far more lethal and cunning than any of the alien monsters.

When you beat them in combat, you felt that you’d actually outwitted them rather than simply shot them enough that they wouldn’t get back up again. Compare this with the AI in Half-Life 2 and it becomes clear something’s a bit wrong. The Combine soldiers are as thick as custard, but oh so much worse are the rebel citizens who fight alongside you. During the assault on the museum towards the end of the game, they pissed me off so much that I herded them into a small room, then used the gravity gun to stick some objects in front of the only exit, thereby barricading them inside and out of my way. Later I was munching up some Combine with my pulse rifle and the bastards reappeared and wandered straight into the firefight and got minced. Yes, they’d managed to figure out how to knock my obstacles out of the way and find me again, but they just couldn’t resist rushing into a hail of bullets. A little consistency is all I’m asking for, guys.

Unnecessary/Pretentious Storylines
I appreciate that there's a "convergence" thing going on between games and movies these days, with storylines becoming an integral part of many games, and I'm sure that they'll only get better as time goes on, but there are some games that DON'T NEED COMPLICATED PLOTS. For instance, if your game's called something like Super Violence Fistfight Extravaganza Ex Part 72, you don't need to hire a Hollywood screenwriter to pen an elaborate backstory to explain why two guys are beating the shit out of eachother. Big ol' muscular guys ain't need no artsy-fartsy narrative pretext to start some shit. Then you've got the games with huge weighty plots that try to DEAL with ISSUES, chief offender being the Metal Gear series - games that play like a very, very long and preachy film where occasionally the main character dies and you again have to sit through the preceeding forty-five fucking minutes of turgid dialogue so clunky the Pope could have written it. The dead Pope.

Bad Guys Who Hang Around Explosive Barrels

Int. - German Bunker Complex - Day

NAZI #1:
Scheisse! The Amerikaner is unstoppable!

NAZI #2:
He is coming this way! We’re doomed! What do we do?

NAZI #3:
Vell, ve could stop taking cover behind der barrels of flammable liquid, ja?

NAZI #1:

NAZI #2:

NAZI #3:
Never mind.