(This entry began as a reply to an article on a different web site *GASP*)
I have a problem with this generation's survival-horror games, and that problem is that they are no more about "survival" or "horror" than Gears of War.
Resident Evil 5, and Dead Space... I'm looking at you.
That's not to say they are bad games. RE:5 and Dead Space are both incredibly well made. I enjoyed beating them both immensely. Beautiful visuals, excellent sound design (Dead Space has probably the best sound design of any game since System Shock 2), and memorable set pieces all combine to create a thrilling experience.
But neither of them are particularly frightening.
Dead Space did a better job of terrifying me than RE:5, with it's moody lighting and cramped sets (and particularly, the vaccuum areas where sound cues were reduced to muted thumps) but the scares were outweighed significantly by the carnage.
I tend to play modern Survival Horror at the hardest difficulty (or the hardest difficulty available from the first playthrough*). That can reintroduce the "Survival" aspect, and at least in the case of Dead Space, bring back some of the horror through the constant threat of sudden and violent death.
But the popularisation of video games, and the new design methodology that difficult games = bad game design, is so antithetical to the Survival Horror genre that ironically, most of what defined the genre didn't survive the transition to mainstream.
That's not meant to be some kind of hardcore "I AM TEH GREATEST" elitest gamer attitude. But as a rabid fan of survival horror games, the 'casualisation' of video games can be hugely disappointing when it impacts so heavily on emotional engagement; I'm just not that frightened when there is nothing to be frightened of.
Bioshock is a good example: System Shock 2 being my favorite game of all time, was an absolutely terrifying experience on the harder settings (I completed it on Impossible). Bioshock on the other hand was so stupidly easy, even on the most difficult setting, that it seemed pointless to have a difficulty switch in the first place.
And again, that easiness was so antithetical to the horror aspect of the game that the only 'scares' I got from it were the few cheap thrill jump-out-from-behind-a-box scripted events.
Bioshock might be easy to excuse because its presentation is more First Person Shooter than Survival Horror. But anyone who was experienced with the legacy of System Shock remembers Bioshock being branded as "The spiritual successor to System Shock 2". And unfortunately, it lacked an aweful lot of that spirit.
However, even when the harder game modes are actually difficult (as can be said of Resident Evil 5), the experience as a whole is so often balanced for easier settings that minor flaws in the gameplay or the controls become enormous frustrations at harder settings.
Shiva's AI in RE:5 is guilty of this. On numerous occasions, Shiva would get us killed. And when she wasn't killing us, she was being brainlessly wreckless and leaving me to juggle rescuing her while saving my own ass. On one occasion, Shiva died after I'd boosted her up to a ledge, and she'd moved off screen. This is not okay.
Uncharted 2 (yes I know it's not survival horror, but it's a good example) suffers some similar problems at more difficult settings, mostly with cover mechanics. Sometimes I became snagged on a piece of geometry, or would fruitlessly bounce into and out of cover while being pounded from behind whilst trying to move AROUND something. At easier settings, it's not even noticeable, and even at more difficult settings it is rarely a problem. But when it is, it's insanely frustrating because it feels as though the game's programmers are killing me, versus my own screw ups.
I guess my point with all of this is: Survival Horror RELIES on well constructed difficulty, even if only sporadically, to create a sense of pending danger and constant threat of failure. If I can easily dispatch everything by randomly mashing AXYXABBA in the general direction of tentacles/proboscises/pointybits then I'm not going to be particularly worried about what the next corner may hide.
* And another thing: Why in the hell do most games force me to play through on easier settings BEFORE I can select the hardest difficulty? In the case of Survival Horror, this is completely antithetical to the entire experience. To the point of me wanting to use phrases like "fucking idiotic".
By all means, force me to play through the entire game in easy mode, so that I can be well prepared for anything which MIGHT have scared me at more difficult levels if I could have been experiencing it for the first time.
This culture of replayability confuses me. In my mind, it's no different than expecting someone to watch Lord of the Rings three times at varying brightness levels.
EDIT: Warning - I make frequent use of potentially offensive language, including terms such as "f**k", "s**t" and "Russel Crowe". I also don't take the time to introduce myself. If you're offended by a lack of social niceties, I suggest you avoid reading my blog, watching HBO, and/or meeting Russel Crowe. The guy really is a fuck hole.
I suppose it sets a bad precedent to make your first blog entry a bit of a Negative Nancy cheese and whine festival, but nothing has motivated me towards a profound desire to bitch on the internet like Mass Effect 2. Well, the third Matrix movie excluded. And Russel Crowe. And the Transformers films (the second one especially: May I please go and poke hot pins in my eyes instead?)... Okay, so few things have motivated me to bitch on the internet like Massive Disappointment 2. And that was a bad pun because the first one wasn't a massive disappointment, so it should be Massive Disappointment 1: AKA Mass Effect 2. Only that would be confusing.
This was not a good introduction. This is perhaps more helpful: WILL OBVIOUSLY CONTAIN SPOILERS. It will also, probably, be an epic wall of text. Apologies.
With that cleared up, it will probably be much easier to persist with my inane prose if I just cut to the chase and list the reasons I'm all motivated to hate, so I'll just do that:
NOTE: For any who care, this will be a multi-parter, partially to make it easier to digest, and partially to make it easier to write.
1. The story. LOL. Where did it go? I have 40 hours of side missions, describing such thrilling escapades as bringing an Asari back to her poet Krogan lover, and BUYING FUCKING FOOD, and then 2 hours of half assed "Saron has attacked Eden Prime and wiped out everyblahblah". I mean, "The Harvesters have attacked some other human colony I don't care about and done some stuff and yawn." The quality of the side quests in ME:2 certainly shits all over the generic template missions from ME:1, but ME:2 totally lacks the 'call to arms' - strangers united in the urgent persuit of a common enemy. ME:1's story will not go down as the most profound written word in human history, but it was at least present, and often driven. ME:2 feels like a lazy and half-assed rehash, which makes it extremely difficult to care about the characters who are participating with me. Bringing me to the next point....
2. The characters. GTFO. In ME:1, every character, with the exception of Wrex, joins your crew with a direct connection to the main story arc. The 'common enemy' aspect of the story makes it easy to form bonds with your shipmates. You're all working together to achieve the same result, and you all have some invested interest in success. In ME:2, you meet a few guys and they... "like... sure, we'll come along ~shrug~ whatever, I had nothing better to do, we'd love to help you feed fish to Krogan". To be fair, following the dialogue trees with these new crew members can offer funny, frightening, or poignant insight into their character, and as I said in the previous point, their side missions are orders of magnitude better than any of the ME:1 optional content. But it all still feels... superfluous. I wanted an option to ask every character "WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU HERE?". I felt that Jacob, though being a bit of a douche, was an easy character to connect with. Miranda took a little longer, but her relationship with my dude Shephard was one of the more interesting ones in the game. Other than these two, the only connection I made with any other character was with Tali - shared history, and her insightful side mission really improving that relationship. Martin Sheen's giant prick-tease, telling you where all of your old crew members are just so you can slowly realise you won't be picking most of them up, was frustrating as hell. I wanted characters with whom I felt a bond, not just a nicely designed, nicely voiced, motley crew of weirdos that added nothing to the story by being present other than an opportunity to say "fuck" and officially stamp ME:2 as the "darker" game in the trilogy. YAWN.
3. The combat. Okay, so the combat is better, right? Well... kind of. It certainly feels better. Except for the repetetive level design (left path, right path, blocked in the middle, waves of enemies, rinse and repeat). And the fact that everything is on a grid, like we're in 2001 - crates? REALLY? And the complete lack of any RPG elements, so no immediate reward of loot and experience for kills. And the predictable-as-clockwork pattern to the enemies. And the ammo... Actually, let's stop on that one for a second. Firstly, the exposition: We now use thermal clips because it stops our weapons overheating, and this is the big scientific advance in eleventy-billionth-century weaponry? AMMO?! /clap. Of course, it's far better to have finite ammunition reserves and be forced to run for your life because you can't shoot back, than to sit tight for 15 seconds while your weapon cools down. Also, how the FUCK did a colony from a crash landing, isolated for a decade, also get hold of this 'cutting edge' technology? WHAT IS THE FUCKING POINT OF AMMO? Bioware: Did you want to force me to use all of my guns against my play-style and preferences? Did you roll a die and decide that's the big advance in gameplay you were making for this game? Whatever, you're ALL DUMB. Now, let's talk guns. No loot, just randomly click shit to get a message telling you that you have a new weapon available - a weapon that has no stats. How do you tell if this weapon is better than the last? You equip it, that's what you do. And then you're stuck with it through waves and waves and waves of the same enemy until you can get to another magic locker which teleports all of your weapons to your current location and is somehow better for selling the gameplay than just carrying them all with you. The only good addition to gun mechanics was giving us a BFG-equivalent, even if it does do the same amount of damage as slapping someone with a wet pancake.
[That's all for now, I'm late for work. For those of you who are riveted to my bloggingness-of-awesome, Part 2 will be along soon]