Not too long ago, I was convinced that the modern day gaming world was a rather empty and shallow one. If you grew up with games like The 7th Guest, the Keen series, Metroid, adventure games like Monkey Island or Full Throttle, and so on, more modern games seemed to have little to offer, besides yet another nameless hero in a grey space suit killing aliens in a grey world with the same set of twelve weapons. However, a little speck of hope was flickering on the horizon, a game seemingly made by people who could read my mind; a game about a post-apocalyptic wasteland, filled with quests and epic stories, where you were free to do whatever you wanted. Yes, I looked forward to Fallout 3, and since my computer was too old to run any game more recent than Wolfenstein, I decided to buy a game console. Read on to see how my venture into the world of modern gaming turned out.
I decided to settle on the XBox 360, mainly because it’s so much cheaper than the PlayStation 3. The Wii was obviously not an option because Fallout 3 won’t be ported to it, but apart from that, I think the Wii is an overhyped useless gimmick – and yes, I’ve played with it a lot. A few of my friends have one, and they all seem to agree that while the Wii was kind of fresh and cool when it was released, it lost its shine pretty quickly. The Wii-mote motion sensor thing is fun when you first use it, but when you realise that every game that uses it basically amounts to frantically waving a plastic rod in front of your face, it quickly loses its novelty factor. One of my best friends – die-hard Nintendo fan – sold his Wii in favour of an XBox 360. And it snowed in hell that day.
The XBox 360 itself is a nice device, convenient with its wireless controllers, albeit ridiculously loud fan-wise (luckily my audio/video cabinet covers everything with black glass). Connecting the XBox 360 to my HD TV via HDMI, and to my scary Pioneer VSX-709RDS digital receiver via optical cable enables games to really suck you in via the high definition graphics and the digital surround sound. Considering that the last console that I actually used extensively was the NES, you can imagine the leap forward that I made.
I played Fallout 3 rather meticulously. The gameplay, the setting, the storyline, the fantastic graphics, the impressive scenery, and the funny and well-written dialogues with the NPCs really sucked me in, sucked me in so deep it started to scare me. I remember a Sunday evening, after a whole day of frollicking about in the DC Wasteland, when I left my house to visit my parents, and the first thing that popped into my mind as I shut the front door behind me was “duck, and where’s my Chinese assault rifle?”. That’s how immersive Fallout 3 is. Still, it left my with a feeling of incompleteness.
After being done with Fallout 3, I bought several other games for my XBox, and as I finished each one of them, I slowly started to realise that gaming today is seriously crippled because of a number of different factors. I bought some of the major XBox 360 titles, and all of them – including Fallout 3 – left me with a serious sense of not being done, of leaving obvious things out. Let me explain what I’m missing in modern games in more detail.
Reviewers more or less unanimously agree that Fallout 3 is one of the best games in a long time. They went on and on about the immense sandbox you can play in, and all the various choices you can make that will affect the way you play the game. They went into great detail to explain all the things you can do in the game, and how it will keep you playing and exploring forever and ever. Bollocks. I think all those reviewers are either 14, or paid by Bethesda. Let me explain.
Fallout 3 takes place in a large square playable area known as the DC Wasteland, an area so large you’d need to pack some extra crisps and coffee if you want to venture from one side to the other without using the fast travel option. There are tons of sights to discover, tons of buildings to explore, and lots of beautiful scenery to drool over. Yet, there’s absolutely bugger-all to do.
As I was marching up and down the Wasteland, I could literally think of hundreds of possible quests and NPC storylines, but yet, Bethesda chose to only include like 3 quests, and then hoped that we players would never grow tired of killing the same 4 enemies over and over and over and over and over again. The problem with that is that as a gamer looking for depth and story, you will quickly start to feel bored. Maybe I’m too old (I’m just 24!) for this stuff, but killing the same party of raiders or super mutants 25 times in a row gets real old, real fast. VATS saves the day somewhat, but there are only so many ways you’ll enjoy blasting someone’s head off with a shotgun in slow motion. Maybe 14 year olds never get tired of this, but I do.
Fallout 3 lacks content. It actually only has 17 side quests, which is simply too little for such a huge playing field. The main quest is well-written, but also isn’t particularly long or difficult. This means that most of the time exploring the wasteland you’re just wasting your time, because there’s no story to be found anywhere. Some might say that writing good quests is hard, but I disagree. All quests in RPGs basically come down to “you are at location A, now go to location B, and grab object C. Oh, and there’s a whole boatload of baddies between A and B”. It’s really not that difficult to come up with vast numbers of stories to drape over this basic skeletal structure.
The end result is that in Fallout 3, there a lot of locations that seemingly only exist for the sole purpose of housing the same types of enemies over and over. Fallout 3 really lacks in the different types of enemies, and this only reinforces the repetitive nature of the story-less wasteland.
This is what I mean by modern games lacking content. Games have great visual and audio presentation, but lack in the story and depth. This works great for arcade-style games like Ninja Gaiden 2, but for games that call themselves RPG, I expect an in-depth story, with so many sidequests you’re almost drowning in them. In something like the DC Wasteland, every character should have a story, something to tell me, some errand that I can run for them. Sadly, most NPCs in modern RPGs are absolutely pointless and only seem to exist to mindlessly walk in between the barrel of your laser rifle and the face of the nearest baddie.
A very good example of a game with astonishing visual presentation, but a total lack of content is Bioshock. Praised as the second coming of Christ, I finished this game in 10 hours (try that with the Bible), without being in a hurry. Remember, I’m new at this whole thing, I barely know how to hold a controller – yet, Bioshock was so easy and so short, it left me totally unsatisfied. They give you this great underwater city, this interesting concept of Adam and gene splicing, yet they fail to capitalise on it by actually giving you anything to play with.
And I just have to mention Assassin’s Creed as the epitome of form over function. Best graphics ever, but there’s no gameplay at all.
Sure, you say, but isn’t the character customisation and good/bad karma thing of many modern games in-depth enough? No, it isn’t, and this brings me to my second point.
Fable II was high on my list of games to buy. The idea of being able to influence yourself and the people around you by the decisions you make in a game seemed right up my alley. Again, this game has an awesome Burton-esque presentation, yet failed to deliver anything in the sense of wanting to play it over and over again. The main quest is easy (the final “boss” is literally killed by two (2) gunshots!), and the whole good/evil aspect is utterly pointless because it affects zero-nada-squelch. No matter if you’re good or evil, the game remains essentially the same.
Fallout 3 has the exact same problem, and the same goes for Bioshock. Sure, you can choose to be either good or evil, but in the end, nothing of value actually changes because of it. In Fallout 3, no matter if you’re good or evil, you’ll play the same main quest, find the same side quests, the same NPCs, the same weapons, the same environments, and you’ll have the same possibilities. The only thing that seems to change is the karma indicator on your Pip-Boy. So, after my slightly evil character Fiona (don’t ask) finishes the main quest, and I sit through the 5-picture slideshow that apparantly was the ending sequence that is supposed to be my reward for countless hours of gameplay, why would I want to play it again? Just to do the exact same 3 quests all over again, but this time without the surprise and comedic effect of the dialogues? Just to get 5 different pictures in my ending
Fable 2 is no different, except for the fact that the world around you actually changes based on your moral decisions. Still, this doesn’t actually change the game and the storyline, so while everything may look a little darker when you’re a bad girl, you are still playing the same game as when you were a good girl (in case you’re wondering, yes, when given the choice, my character is always female). And don’t even get me started on Bioshock’s moral decisions, which affect even less aspects of the game than Fallout’s.
So, reviewers and game makers may claim that you have a choice in modern games, that you have a sandbox filled with sand out of which you can shape and build the game, but it’s all merketing fluff and nonsense. Games today are still as linear as they were 15 years ago, they just look better. Your choices ultimately do not affect the outcome of the game.
If a game’s good/evil thing were to really have any effect, it would mean that being good unlocked different quests and items than being evil. It would mean that after having finished the game as a good girl, you’d be all excited to play the game again, but this time as a bad girl, because you’d know you’d unlock all sorts of new quests and items, and that the main storyline would be completely different. Yet, this doesn’t happen, and as such, the good/evil thing is a useless marketing gimmick that offers little in the sense of additional gameplay.
This brings my to another point on my list, which is gratification.
When I devote countless hours, and not to mention Euros, to a game, I expect it to reward me when I finally finish it. I played Fallout 3 for round and about 140 hours (mainly because I was out looking for quests that weren’t really there), and when I finally deciced to embark on the final quest, I expected a battle against-all-odds, frustrations, do-overs, and flying controllers. What I got was something completely different.
I more or less inferred I’d be fighting the Enclave during the final stages of the game, and this made me a little excited, because those bastards are pretty tough to fight when in groups. I expected a load of new enemies as well, so I made sure I was stocked up on stim paks and ammo before I started the final quest. And then everything went tits up.
The final quests consists of following a massive MechWarrior-esque robot who basically does all the killing and fighting for you. All you have to do is stay behind him and collect the loot of the dead Enclave soldiers – loot you’re not going to need anyway, but hey, in an RPG, grabbing loot is a reflex. You then shoot a few Enclave baddies in a building, flick a switch, and the game ends. It was so easy I kept on telling myself this was just an intro to a massive battle.
When I realised I had actually finished the game, I was all ready to grab some chips, and make me a nice pot of tea, but before I even got up off the couch, the ending sequence was already over. Five pictures slid by, with the voice over telling a three-sentence story, and that was it. The end. That’s your reward for 140 hours of gaming and 64 Euros. A sepia slideshow.
Bioshock wasn’t much better, with that game’s ending sequence lasting like five seconds. Fable 2 was a little bit better, but it was still short and wholly unfulfilling. Oblivion at least had a fight between two huge monsters, but it was again rather short, and you could only look at the battle – not play with it. All in all, quite meager. Since games are so expensive, I believe I’m well within my rights to demand a final quest/stage that is actually difficult, and one that triggers an ending sequence that effortlessly blends in with the actual game, and that lasts longer than a friggin’ sneeze.
The world of gaming today is flooded by unimaginative, boring, thirteen-a-dozen games like Halo and Gears Of War, which sell by the millions but offer little in the sense of originality or new gaming concepts. The few games that try to be a little bit different, that at least try to offer something new either don’t sell more than three copies, or have glaring faults that make the games very disappointing (Fable II and Bioshock, mostly). Why is that so?
I believe that there are two causes. You’re not going to like at least one of them.
The first reason has to do with competition. Gaming studios – like any other type of company – need to compete with one another in order to stay alive. This means that publishers will put pressure on developers to get their products out on the market as soon as possible, because you don’t want your competition to steal your thunder – especially not during the holiday season. If the pressure is high enough, gaming studios have only one option: rush the development of the game. I don’t need to explain what this can lead to; it usually means narrowing the scope of the game in question in order to meet the deadline. This generally means less story, and therefore, less depth.
However, competition isn’t nearly as big a problem as you.
Wait, what? Me? Yes, you. You, gamers, are, in the end, the people that decide which games get made, and which games don’t. Mindless shooters like Halo and Gears Of War sell by the millions because of you, and because of you buying these games, game studios will only make more of them. Sure, you can make an astonishingly great and jaw-dropping game like Grim Fandango, but if people don’t buy it, nobody is going to make something like that again.
Basically, if a game doesn’t present its players with either violence, tits, or both within the first 5 minutes of playing the game, gamers aren’t going to buy it. And even though I personally don’t have a problem with either tits or [animated!] violence, the amount of attention and detail going into these two elements is just mind blowing. I remember a time when games had nor tits nor violence – yes! – but they were still good. Keen didn’t have tits or violence (or a 3rd dimension for that matter), but it still runs circles around just about any game made today.
There’s a lot of hipocrysy in the minds of many gamers today. Almost every gamer I talk to tells me they want games with depth, carefully written storylines, and maginificent scenery – yet they camp out in front of game shops whenever the next game featuring a nameless space marine killing aliens/Russians/Chinese/terrorists comes out. I’m trying very hard to stick to my guns (you have to admit, that’s a good one) when I say that I like games which at least promise me depth and decent storytelling – and I try to buy only those.
Let me assure you that despite my epic rant above, I still enjoyed the games mentioned. It’s just that I can’t shake the feeling that the people behind those games had intended for their projects to be so much more, only to be thwarted by their publishers and even more so by the realisation that their audiences care only about how detailed the exploding bodies are, or about how bouncy the tits are.