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Sunday, 7 December 2014

Finally Joining the Ranks of PS3 Gamers

One of my first acts when I moved back to the US a year ago was to buy a TV and Playstation 3. I'd been kind of wanting one for years after it came out, but they were ridiculously expensive (especially in the UK), and because I already had a PS2, it just didn't seem worthwhile. And then, of course, I got to a point where I was expecting to move back soon, so accumulating more stuff that I couldn't bring over didn't seem like a good idea either.

I did briefly toy with the idea of getting a PS4 (or even an Xbox One), but they were too new and the range of games wasn't as good. And while it seemed like it would be nice to be able to play Halo, I decided on the PS3 simply because I've had the Sony consoles for ages and preferred the Playstation-exclusive games, like Gran Turismo.

So over the course of the year I accumulated a few games that have gotten a lot of good critical reviews, or that friends recommended. However, because I try not to play videogames longer than an hour a day on weekends, it's meant I've built up a pretty sizable backlog. Two factors don't help here: I've bought a couple of trilogy sets (Mass Effect and the Assassin's Creed: Ezio Trilogy), and I've also bought some games that take absolute ages to finish (Skyrim).

There's another problem, though: these games are only about 50% fun, and 50% grind. And I'm wondering if that's something wrong with trends in game design, or with reviewers.

To clarify, I'm thinking specifically of Mass Effect 1, Assassin's Creed 2 and Skyrim, which are the games I've played most. AC2 is held up as the high water mark of the series, and visually it's undeniably a masterpiece. As I ran along the rooftops my dad would pass through and recognize landmarks from Florence, where much of the game takes place. The assassinations are also pretty enjoyable, at least at first - locating the target, tailing him, and then dropping onto him from a great height.

The problem is that this is pretty much all there is to the game. As you control Ezio, he maintains a pretty limited set of actions that he can accomplish, so there's little progression in terms of what you can do at the start compared to the end (apart from how confidently you do all that stuff). The final boss fight, where you beard Pope Cesare Borgia in his den, has the exact same mechanics as the very first fight you conduct at the start of the game. And don't get me started on the collection of treasure and feathers.

I've got Brotherhood and Revelations still to go, and because it was cheap and had good reviews I picked up Assassin's Creed 4, but I'm a little concerned based on the above.

Mass Effect 1, on the other hand, came with a warning from the guy at GameStop who sold it to me that I should hold my breath and get through it quickly, so I could reach ME2 quicker. Having now played through ME1, and started a few hours of ME2, I can see what he meant - while the game world you navigate is amazingly detailed (or gives the appearance), the play is actually pretty limited. It might have been because of the difficulty level I was playing, but leveling up didn't seem to have any effect on how well I got through sections of the game. And there was also the annoying BioWare thing, encountered in Dragon Age 2, of standardized cave and base layouts.

Mass Effect 2 seems to have dispensed with a few of these problems, but the RPG elements seem to have become more of a formality, or vestigial tail, if you like. Hunting for resources has also gotten to be an enormous bore, where you have to make multiple trips to supply depots just to deplete even a world with "moderate" resources.

If Mass Effect 1 was limited, I sometimes feel like Skyrim suffers from the opposite problem, of being too expansive. I got to a point soon after I first started it where I had a million quests and miscellaneous tasks, but no idea which one to start with, and I seemed to be too underpowered to accomplish any of them. Eventually I had to go find walkthroughs online, to impose some sort of order on the game, and that's helped me progress (that and crafting a really badass longsword).

Speaking of crafting, I'm wondering what possessed RPG developers in the last decade and a half or so, to add skills like leather-working and metallurgy and cooking (for fuck's sake) into their games. It seems to have plagued MMOs most of all, as I used to watch my old flatmate spend entire Saturdays on World of Warcraft or Aion doing nothing but grinding cooking or leather-working. Skyrim doesn't force you to those kinds of extremes, but what's wrong with how Final Fantasy used to do it, of just running around finding stuff?

That said, Skyrim is entertaining enough that I find it really hard to stick to my one-hour rule, as there's always just that one more door to go through, or that set of equipment to sell or craft, or whatever.

What I'd say is missing from this current generation, though, is something like Resident Evil 4. I feel like, for the most part, that game had the perfect balance. For one thing, playing on higher difficulty levels unlocked more areas of the game, which made it instantly replayable (I probably beat it 3 times). Every boss fight was also different, justifying all the weapons you were carrying around. But the best part, for me, was how it started off terrifying, but as soon as you got comfortable with the controls and difficulty levels, it would throw something else at you that would require a completely new strategy to defeat.

Case in point: by the end, my flatmate at the time was calling me "Jack Bauer", because I could kick down the door to a room toss in a couple of grenades and then mow down the survivors with the uzi, all in a couple of seconds. And then just a moment later they introduced a new bad guy, that you could only kill with a sniper rifle armed with a special scope. The bad guy was super slow, but so was the rifle, so that if you missed (or even if you didn't) you'd quickly find the monster gnawing on your head.

I guess the answer is to get Resident Evil 5, which was based on a similar game engine. But it's annoying that there aren't enough games like Resident Evil 4, at least in the batch I've seen, and what's coming up for PS4 doesn't seem much better either.