Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Classic collectibles in modern gaming

As games are pushing towards more realism and gritty edginess, do levitating, sometimes glowing and possibly rotating bits of bric-a-brac that the player has often been encouraged to collect still have a place in gaming?

Collectibles were always the main goal and aid in most games. Collect this to win, grab that to heal, touch this to spit fire, and so forth. They always stood out as what was needed to be picked up and were the visual representation of an objective for the player. It has been this way for quite some time with a few exceptions, but now it seems to be getting phased out.

The Grand Theft Auto series for example has seen quite a shocking jump in the availability, variety and uses of pickups. The first few games in the series were littered with the usually helpful pickups that often spelled madness and destruction for all of those indecent enough to go about their daily lives. I still remember getting kill frenzies in the first game and chasing down innocent people with a flamethrower, like a demented dragon wearing a yellow t-shirt. All the games right through to San Andreas had some form of floating item that was designed to draw the player’s eye and be hoarded.

This changed in Grand Theft Auto 4 very dramatically. When people were killed, their guns no longer spun in mid air, begging to be collected, but instead fell to the ground next to the crumpled sack of flesh and blood that was just wielding it. Secret packages were now replaced by pigeons that littered the city requiring a bullet lobotomy to officially be collected. The whole system was changed and it seemed to take away from the arcade like feeling that the rest of the series retained.

Resident Evil has always been a moody cow when it came to collectibles. Whenever playing through the series, it is almost instinctive to move along a wall rapidly tapping the action button in the hope that the dim witted zombie magnet you control might find a critical object to open a door/safe/window of interest. Occasionally something might twinkle at you in the distance implying that it should be in your grubby hands but it was still quite subtle. The challenge came in the way that where most games before it liked to flaunt neon red card keys as a reward for fighting through a bajillion baddies, Resi instead would hide it in a drawer in an abandoned mansion.

Off the top of my head, the only genres that still have the traditional style of collectibles are platformers and cartoon racers. Even these are taking a bit of a hit with the likes of Lara Croft and Nathan Drake starting to tread on Mario’s turf when it comes to precision jumping.

As games start pushing the graphical boundaries, collectibles seem to be getting rarer and rarer, at least in their traditional forms. Picking up something that responds to the in game physics engine or that looks casually non-descript in a pile of un-interactive scenery just does not bring with it the same sense of treasure hunt victory that a glowing, whirling star does.

Is it an argument that games are being dumbed down a bit? Is what used to require a major think about how to get the red key out from behind the glass, beyond the river of lava now being replaced with a series of intense gun fights, killing your way to victory? I will admit that the answer to most in game scenarios in our current gaming climate seems to be ‘bring more guns’.

Will this change in the foreseeable future, or are collectibles that bare little logical presence in the context of their reality doomed to the retro archives (seriously, why is there a giant pair of cherries in a maze filled with multicoloured ghosts?) I certainly hope not, but if games continue their current trend, the relevance of classic style pickups will tragically continue to fade even further.

Monday, 7 September 2009

RPG Pet Peeve: Wear and Tear

How frustrating is it when you are having fun eating a meal with your favourite knife when all of a sudden it snaps and becomes unusable because you have cut meat with it too much. The answer is very, but due to it being the real world, it does not tend to happen that much unless you favour eating whole armadillos whilst still following polite eating conventions.

What really frustrates me is when this wear and tear mechanic makes it in to games and quite bluntly decides that anything that is used 50 times must break and require repair. Nobody likes it when what they are having fun with breaks through being physically used too much, and so why such an un-pleasurable misfortune would seep its way into virtual reality is beyond me.

Let’s face it, bad things that happen in real life are generally not that good in games. Okay, some kind of hell portal opening up in the middle of London might be fun in a game and not in real life, but something as mundane as useful equipment wearing out should be kept back in the grim place called reality.

In real life, I accept that a perfectly good sword would have to wear out eventually. Such frustrating things help to keep black smiths and sword salesmen in business. In the game world however, I really could not care if all sword repair workers have to go back to their starving families with no bread for the third day in a row, because it would mean that my never perishing weapon was still keeping me happy.

Fallout 3 really managed to crawl up my nose and kick the frustration centre of my brain when things would wear out. It means that whenever I play through now I always make sure that my repair skills have the lion’s share of the precious attribute points just so I can keep playing with my favourite guns. After a kick in my special place, not much could grind my gears more than for my gun to fall apart as I try to use it.

I will admit now that I am not a World of Warcraft fan, but I still gave it a bit of a play through. I could not work out why as I levelled up, I was taking more damage and dishing out a lot less pain. Then I suddenly noticed that every useful item also had a durability statistic amongst the lists of numbers bolted in to them. They were all at 0 durability and I did not have the money to repair them. I really can not see the point other than to cheese me off even more than is necessary. I could literally hear blizzard laughing at me (or it might have been the giggles of children outside, but for the purpose of my anger, I will assume it was corporate mockery).

Perhaps if equipment durability mechanics were a bit different the system could be made more fun. Maybe that if your item wears out you could find stuff laying about to give your worn out weapon a quirky botch job look to it. Sword no longer sharp enough? Ah look, a pile of rusty nails I can glue on to the blade, that’ll fix it. Axe handle snapped in half? Why don’t I use this spinal column that my fallen enemy no longer needs to make my flail blade a reality.

Maybe I would be happier with the system if it was more fun, but as it seems to stand in most instances durability in gaming seems to be a harsh punishment for using stuff as it is intended to be. I find it irritating enough when my pencil breaks, let alone when my power armour fails mid battle.