"We constantly have to revisit 'Why would Donkey Kong do this?' or 'Why would this environment be like this?' And then we start thinking: 'We're making a game about a gorilla wearing a tie.'"
-Michael Kelbaugh of Retro Studios on Donkey Kong Country Returns
"I have to say it's kinda scary how much you know about this game."
-Nicolau Chaud creator of Marvel Brothel
When people start talking about the year that was bad, they usually don't talk about games that were all but guaranteed to suck. Deadliest Catch: Sea of Chaos isn't what brought the year down for a lot of you. Saying 2010 sucked means that there was a game that you spent your paper route money on that did not live up to your expectations.
That's simple enough, but there are things that truly could have caused many a game to stand a full head over their brethren this year. These are a few of the things that I've noticed in a couple of the duds that came out.
Like all my writings, I'm not going to hold your hand. Spoilers are in this post for the games below. They are isolated to their own sections so you can skip the section if you think you might play the game later.
What happened? Final Fantasy XIII failed spectacularly this year while still being a decent, yet boring game. There are many reasons for this. The biggest is that this is a game that started development on the Playstation 2 a whopping 5 years ago. To wrap your head around how long that is, God of War (the first one) released in 2005. Wow, I'm getting old.
These five years are rife with changes ranging from recreating the engine for the PS3 to porting that engine to the Xbox 360. This deals with hirings and firings that eventually explains why the developers were forced to stick with the linearity. Pair this with the pressure from producers and fans about recreating the graphic fidelity of a trailer, and you have a studio with a lot of money dumped in to a project with too many ideas for what would eventually turn out to be such a simple product.
That project was to recreate a feeling of Final Fantasy VII with some of the successful ideas of Final Fantasy X. They failed that goal because they squandered the resources on creating the world instead of ensuring that world worked within the system they had created.
Final Fantasy XIII is boring. The battles are played out with 3-4 enemies separating you and treasure chests. The only customization to be had in the game lies in the weapon system and its just never fully realized. This is because the battle system doesn't work in the way that they had intended it to.
Ideally, it is set up for you to act as a manager of your troops. You can schedule commands and swap jobs and abilities on the fly, but you are never really the fighter. This is set up to maximize the story telling methods set up in the game, but that assumes you are interested in this story. The only way I can describe this Final Fantasy is as a book. You have battles and monsters that interrupt the reading on occasion, but the idea is to constantly press forward to reach the end so that it all fits together. Many games do this, but they mask it behind the game's distractions. Final Fantasy XIII couldn't set up these distractions with their shaky development.
So we are left with a book that took 5 years of rocky development to try and tell it's story. It fails with a cast of idiots. Pick any member of the cast and there is a moment where they are sure to annoy you. My most hated is Snow because he leads a rag tag group of freedom fighters to get a large number of people killed on a bridge only to skip off with a smug grin on his face. He's my scapegoat for XIII's issues, but each and every character in the game has a unique attitude that tries and fails to win me over.
Final Fantasy XIII is a tree that has no branches. You want to climb to the top, but it has nothing for you to grab on to to help you up the tree. To fix this game, we'll need some branches.
As I said before, the entire gameplay method revolves around how they wanted to present the story. The story is set up so that you have no idea what is going on around you, but the setting and characters are supposed to propel you through to unraveling what is going on in Cocoon. Players aren't getting that. Easily the best fix is to just drop the Fal'cie and L'cie. They are two different things so they should have names that sound different. Especially in a game where everybody has simple names like Snow and Hope.
From there, present the story in a direct fashion. Use plot twists and angles to keep things fresh. This is what keeps all RPGs moving. We need an idea of what we are chasing. You can pull an Ultimecia out later, but we need to know that there is some thing that we are fighting against. This works well with the movement system as it is set up to feel like we are chasing something.
Tweak the battle system, tweak the world we walk through, create some new characters with personality instead of just problems and give us a feeling that we can interact with things in the world. Fix these issues and you can give me a Final Fantasy XIII I can care about.
I say all this because Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a thing that will happen. I personally welcome it as there is a lot that the game and the engine offered that shouldn't just be ignored because the project director failed to live up to his end of the bargain.
Unlike Final Fantasy XIII's long problem filled development, Fable III was released just 2 years after it's predecessor. It is more than apparent that the game was rushed. Molyneux who started his PR attack earlier on with images and other bold claims on the game, was noticeably less vocal about this project towards the end than the past 2.
E3 2010 was the highlight as Molyneux's game was given little stage time in what seemed to be a way of reeling him in from creating some more of his fabled promises. After playing through the game, I can tell that he either hadn't met his deadlines or Microsoft rushed the production schedule (similar to Crackdown 2 earlier in the year) to ensure a strong holiday coinciding with Kinect.
Whichever seems likelier to you, the fact is that in 2 years Molyneux rushed production on the third game in a series that defines "failure to live up to its potential."
The first thing anybody will tell you about Fable III is that it has glitches. When Fable II had these, Lionhead issued this statement: "some things slip through the net during development, especially when a game is the size and scope of Fable II. Again, we can only apologize for this issue, but we are doing our best." To allow more glitches in a final product running on the same engine is inexcusable. The beautiful thing is that the glitches I experienced are completely different from the glitches my wife had to put up with. Clearly the sex of the player has some effect on the glitch you will receive.
Fortunately, these were never game breaking. Even though every friend quest I took had me holding the hands of somebody dragging their feet, I was only left annoyed. The biggest issue in the game is the fact that every action has to be commanded by pressing and holding (A). It's an annoyance that doesn't go away. Why in the world would I need to confirm that I wanted a key? There isn't any inventory limits. Even if I didn't want it, there isn't any option not to take it. Why in the world does this feature even exist?
That's just mechanics, and mechanics are easy to fix in sequels. Story issues are not. Fable III's cast and characters are shamefully wasted on the game. The depth of a revolution is never fully realized because the evil deeds your brother commits against the ones you love don't really have an emotional connection. Siring a child doesn't feel the same, doing physical labor is tedious and lame, and most grievous is the fact that the ending of the game has no punch to it in difficulty or effect.
Molyneux games just define wasted potential. The depth of acting is phenomenal, but his characters are never set up to be anything more than cogs in a machine. Had Molyneux put the time in to create specific events that flesh out each and every ally instead of just making useless promises on the wall, we'd have an entirely different game. Especially when it pertains to some of the older cities. As you advance further into the story, those towns that you started with become useless. Creating a system that forces you to keep the ties with the previous areas creates bonds that are more valuable than paper.
As the story progressed, we saw the hero gather a group of companions that would lead a revolution against his tyrant brother Logan. This caused you to lose a few friends and make promises that were moderately difficult to keep. In the aftermath of your first true mission however you are separated from those you have allied yourself with in a situation very similar to Odysseus's adventure.
Marooned in a country unfamiliar, you are then set to face a darkness that attacks you both physically and mentally. Of course, I'm making this into something grander than it is. The issue is that Aurora is completely underdeveloped. Aurora feels as casual as any small town in Albion and that's a true shame. This is easily rectified by creating a situation in the same manner as the Spire in Fable II or increasing the amount of goals needed to be accomplished before you left Aurora. Make Aurora a place where the player could call a second home and you could greatly expand upon it. He is essentially a stranger in a strange land.
Once you return and take over Albion, the only reason your brother had for turning Albion into a crap hole is that he had experienced what you had with the darkness and did his best to save the country. He does this in the most half assed way as you have to raise 6.5 million (Albion's people only cost $1 per person) to save the world's population. There are many easy ways to do this too. Crafty players will play the real estate market and donate the money. Lazy players will turn Albion into a hell hole to get the money. Overall however it never really feels like a big deal. Logan was a fool instead of a tyrant. The darkness isn't that big of a boss as to leave you in terror.
Losing Walter is the only real crime and hell, he almost died halfway through the game anyway. Losing any number of people really has no consequential effect other than being judged. It really lacks any of the punch that the second game had.
The only solution is to create bigger villains. Logan as tyrant king killed a guy you hardly knew and the first person you stumbled across. Not a big deal. How about when Logan hears of your escape, fearing reprisal he burns the mountain village you escape to. When he hears of your marriage, the place you set up for your family gets attacked. That would make the marooned in an unknown land thing more precious because you don't know what actions Logan will take against your loved ones.
The Darkness however needs to be bigger. Not in literal size, but imagine if he took over the souls of all your allies and their home cities. Because you touched the darkness, he assumes the roles of those closest allies and you in turn must fight against them while you make your way through the ruins of your city. Each defeat flashes to the townspeople standing up against these beasts. If I have to build 6.5 million, let me actively know if it's actually saving peoples lives. If you aren't going to give me some crazy twist ending, make me an ending that matters.
These steps could have changed Fable III to be a bigger game than it turned out to be. I could have put up with the glitches if the game had enough power to carry me through.
Nintendo as a company is terrified of piracy. They have every right to be. Through this fear, we have received many of the greatest innovations in gaming. Post N64, we saw the Gamecube produce a group of DVD's that were too costly to simply burn. Through the Nintendo DS we received a portable touch screen device. It was also too difficult to realistically emulate two screens successfully on a computer. The Nintendo Wii created a revolutionary control system that made it so emulation would be impossible for the average pirate without the hardware to do it.
To ensure that their games aren't simply pirated, they make sure that first party titles all have a feature that uses the system's unique gimmick. This is what happened to New Super Mario Bros. Wii and it happens again with Donkey Kong Country Returns.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is not a bad game. Retro Studios does many things differently than Rare, but it could be considered near equal to any one of it's brethren in design. The problem lies with the roll mechanics. Instead of simply pressing (B) to roll, the player has to shake the remote control. This system alone creates two problems.
Simply, the shaking doesn't always register. This means that the amount of violence put towards the controller is insufficient to read at a 1 to 1 rating when performed. This delay causes imprecise attacks and rolls making the feature a complete novelty.
The biggest problem obviously is that the unnatural action of shaking the remote also causes the player to loosen his hands from the controller. That loosening makes button pressing, or more accurately precision timing, a difficult task. This pertains to using the roll as a boosting mechanism mostly. As you shake the remote, the action you are next expected to place is delayed. The result is that your jumps will become delayed or hastened leading to imprecise platforming.
Donkey Kong Country Returns unfortunately just needs one thing fixed to become the perfect Donkey Kong Country Returns. Secondary control schemes. I don't even care if the button on the rear of the controller was used to facilitate the roll. You know, the suicide button from New Super Mario Bros? That button. Maybe some Classic Controller and Gamecube Controller support as well, but that would be greedy.
That would make the game as good as its predecessors. Adding more barrels and smarter enemies would raise it above. The use of more barrels paired with secondary screens would get people to explore the world more and acts as a better approach than simply hiding random objects in shadows.
The one thing Rare knew how to do was get you wanting to play a collect-a-thon and a platformer.
Hopefully Retro's postmortem at GDC will be able to explain some of the select decisions in design.
These are three of the biggest games from the three big consoles. They all had something wonderful to offer us, but squandered it for some reason. There is pure gold in these games, just something held them back from becoming classics.
That's really the only thing I can say about why 2010 sucked. Games that should have been great simply wasted their potential.