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Archive for November, 2011

Skyrim: Character Building

So far I’ve logged 48 hours into Skyrim. That’s actually less than most people I know. This game is practically overflowing with content, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. It’s a very pleasant surprise, since I wasn’t expecting much out of it to begin with. Skyrim is a vast improvement upon Oblivion in many ways, and I’ll probably be talking about those in the next few weeks.

One thing that intrigued me right away is how you build your character; or rather, how you don’t, at first. Oblivion and Morrowind both use a fairly standard method of character creation; you can level up any skills you want throughout the game, but at the beginning you have to choose which abilities are going to be most prominent in your character. Very similar to the Fallout formula.

This was at its absolute worst in Morrowind and Fallout 1, where you didn’t even get a taste for the gameplay before you had to choose your primaries. This would be like forcing a child to choose his future career before he’s had any schooling. We don’t know what we want to do yet. Sure, I canĀ  make blanket assumptions like “I like stealth, so I’ll probably end up leveling Sneak” or “I’m going to travel a lot, so I guess I’ll go with Outdoorsman” but those depend heavily on the game mechanics.

The only way to figure it out ultimately is to create a character, play enough of the game to figure out what you want to do, and then create another character and make the right choices. That test run ends up being a whole lot of wasted time.

Skyrim takes a different approach. You don’t pick a class, or primary skills, or really anything that affects your character at the start. The only stat-affecting choice you make is in your race, and that really doesn’t affect things as much as you might expect. You do end up specializing, but that happens organically; as you use each skill, that skill levels up.

This system allows players to experiment and see what play style suits them before they start to focus themselves and specialize. I got to try out pretty much every method of combat before I concluded that dual-wielding daggers fit me best. I was planning on specializing in Destruction magic before I started playing, but once I realized that it doesn’t really fit my sneaky ninja playstyle, I pretty much stopped using it. Conversely, I never would have guessed that Restoration would have been my favorite field of magic, but it’s hugely helpful when I’m low on health in dragon fights, so it’s one of my highest skills now.

It’s also important to note that they’ve completely removed ability stats from the equation. There’s no more Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence or any of that jargon. Instead, when you level up, you simply choose whether to increase Magicka, Health or Stamina. That’s a very straightforward and obvious choice, but it still makes you feel like your character is growing and developing.

Ultimately this all forms an experience where you’re never forced to make a decision that might punish you if you pick the “wrong” choice. I’m sure this will upset the old-school CRPG fans who want number-crunching, min-maxing and build planning. So if you’re craving a good spreadsheet, you won’t get much out of Skyrim. But for those of you who don’t want that needless complexity mucking up your immersive experience (i.e. for people like me), Skyrim passes with flying colors.

And that’s the bottom line. Bethesda has identified their target audience and made a game fit just for them. They’re not pussying around and trying to appeal to everyone here. Skyrim’s sales suggest that there’s quite a substantial demographic that wants to explore, kill, loot, level-up, and conquer. Bethesda has observed what contributes to that and what distracts from it, and they’ve cut out the fluff and delivered the goods.

And I applaud them.


Bejeweled 3: Zen

It probably seems very strange that I’m talking about Bejeweled 3 when Skyrim is sitting neatly in my digital library with about a year’s worth of content collecting dust. I think the Steam sale is primarily to blame for this. Bejeweled 3 was just recently on sale for $10, and while I’ve played Bejeweled games once or twice on a phone here and there in the past, I’d never owned Bejeweled before.

I wasn’t a big fan of it when I played it; I figured it was too repetitive and simplistic. But this is PopCap, who made what I still consider to be one of the greatest games ever made, so I figured there must be something to it. I mean, this isn’t just Bejeweled. It’s Bejeweled 3! It’s all shiny and graphicsified!

Well it turns out there is something to it. Multiple things, actually. The classic mode is the repetitive and yet strangely addictive slog we all know and/or love. There’s a time attack mode, which I didn’t like too much. There’s a puzzle challenge mode, with a multitude of varying challenges that require you to think carefully or quickly. I liked those a lot. And then there’s Zen Mode.

Let me tell you about Zen.

Some people say that “casual” games like Bejeweled and Angry Birds aren’t actual games, and that they’re just “time-wasters.” I’d disagree for the most part, but I do think Zen mode probably doesn’t count as a game, because I always figured that for something to be a game, it must pass the following two requirements:

  1. It must have a pre-determined goal of some sort.
  2. It must have the possibility to either pass or fail.

Bejeweled Classic passes this test. Zen mode is like Bejeweled Classic, but it doesn’t have an end, and it’s designed so that you never fail. You can keep going on and on and you’ll never lose or win. It sounds boring, but Zen is a game mode meant entirely to help you unwind. To achieve this they added several features commonly associated with meditation; there’s breath modulation, there’s a list of soft aural tones you can choose from, and you can have positive affirmations appear periodically at the bottom of the screen.

Speaking as someone who has been struggling with depression and self-confidence issues for years now, I find it wonderfully therapeutic to relax and arrange gems while taking deep breaths, listening to the sound of rain falling on leaves and seeing lines such as, “I am strong.” “I can achieve great things.” “People admire me.”

In Bejeweled the game will point an arrow at a gem you can move if you’re stuck for awhile. Normally at that point I’d be frantically searching for the next gem because I’ve looked across the entire board and still can’t find it, but in Zen mode it tends to happen a lot because my brain has slowed down to the point where I’m barely paying attention to the game anymore.

It’s essentially meditation, but with Bejeweled. And I think that’s a really great combination. I can’t see it feasibly working with any other PopCap game, at least the ones I’ve played. Plants vs. Zombies often requires quick thinking and I don’t see how it could be designed to never lose. Peggle involves a lot of sitting around and watching the ball bounce, and it can easily cause frustration when you miss. But Bejeweled is perfect for the role. It keeps you active enough to prevent boredom while not putting any pressure on you whatsoever.

And I think the best part about it is how you can edit everything to your liking. You can control the speed of the breath modulation, the sound of each individual aspect, the type of aural sound and the category of affirmations. Personally I chose to turn down all the regular sounds of the game (the gem explosions and the voice actor yelling “EXCELLENT!” were quite distracting), listen to the soft rain sound and see the “Self Confidence” affirmations. This made the experience work really well for me personally. I’m sure others would choose differently, and they can.

Like I said before, this isn’t really a “game,” or at least not the kind of thing we gamers refer to as games. This isn’t the kind of thing you can (or should) play for hours and hours, but it’s a great way to unwind and relax, and I can see it becoming my nightly routine to play this for a little while before I go to bed.


Skyrim: Immersion

Oblivion was a complete and total mess. It was extremely buggy, to the point where some quests practically couldn’t be completed without consulting a walkthrough. The level-scaling system completely destroyed game balance and eliminated the entire purpose of leveling by making you feel like you were running in place rather than progressing (and in fact causing you to fall backward if you were busy leveling non-combat skills). They didn’t have enough voice actors or unique locales to match the massive size and scope of the game world. There was still some fun to be had if you could look underneath all the glaring issues, but doing so wasn’t easy.

But aside from all that, my biggest problem with Oblivion was a general lack of immersion. This is a problem every Bethesda game has had since Morrowind. NPCs talk and animate in utterly artificial ways, talking to an NPC caused the rest of the world to pause, they would often say things that directly contradicted their previous sentences, and of course the bugs and horrible voice acting didn’t help at all. I’ve heard people say that Morrowind is infinitely superior to Oblivion, but I’ve also heard that my biggest issues with Oblivion were even worse in Morrowind, so I have yet to give it a shot.

So as I said before, I was not looking forward to Skyrim before its release. I bought it a few days ago due to the overwhelming amount of praise I’ve heard from critics and gamers across the Web, some of which are my friends.

Let me tell you about a few features from Skyrim that have really stood out to me.

I walked into a room that felt strongly reminiscent of Fight Club, in that two people were fistfighting and a crowd was standing in a circle around them. I talked to an NPC on the sidelines and as he talked I could still hear the two brawling to my right. The game even let me pan the camera over to see the two punching each other.

Holy snickerdoodles! I exclaimed. The world doesn’t wait for me to stop talking anymore!

This probably sounds like a minor tweak, but so far it’s my favorite change they’ve made between Oblivion and Skyrim. When you talk to an NPC the game doesn’t enter “dialogue mode” and pause everything else around you. That was the most immersion-breaking aspect of Oblivion for me, which is saying a lot.

I walked out of a shop one day and was immediately attacked by thugs. I killed one of them and looted his body, finding a “contract” before I fled because the other thugs were too powerful. After they ran me out of town I read the contract and found that one lady in the town had hired them to beat up “that thief Daikatana.” (Oh yeah, by the way, I named my character Daikatana.) I thought for a moment and realized that she was one of the several people whose houses I’d burglarized a day or two ago.

Holy fudgemonkeys! There are consequences for my actions!

I’m still not sure whether that was a scripted sequence or whether she somehow figured out it was me that stole from her. It would make perfect sense; after all, if some mysterious dark elf woman happened upon my town one day and then that night all my valuables vanished, I’d be a bit suspicious too. But then again, she seemed suspicious of me from the start, so it’s possible that she would have hired bad guys to attack me out of paranoia no matter what. Or perhaps she’s the only NPC paranoid enough to assume it’s me when her stuff gets robbed.

But the fact that this happened at all and is making me question my own actions is a great sign.

I looted a barrel sitting out in the street because it didn’t count as stealing. Once I was done I overheard a woman nearby say something along the lines of “Look at her, she’s digging through refuse. Is she really that desperate?”

Holy asparagus! NPCs observe and respond to my in-game behavior! When was the last time we’ve seen that?

A big, expensive item was sitting on display in a shop. I knew I couldn’t snatch it right in front of the shopkeeper, so I lifted the item to take it into a corner and steal it there. The NPC immediately looked at me and threateningly said, “Put that down.”

Holy cheeseburgers! The NPCs aren’t complete morons now!

This is by no means a complete list, but the bottom line is that Skyrim is basically what I wanted Oblivion to be: an epic, immersive, cohesive experience that draws you in and refuses to let you out. It’s huge, but it also works, even when looked at in close detail.

I haven’t even talked about the gameplay mechanics yet, but rest assured I probably will in the near future. (Despite the fact that saying I’ll do it in the near future virtually guarantees that I won’t do it.) In short, it’s really damn good.


Battlefield 3: Single Player is Worth Criticizing

So Yahtzee recently lambasted Battlefield 3 without commenting on the multiplayer for more than one sentence. This was followed by a flood of comments accusing him of being a imbecile or a troll for not giving the multiplayer more time. Many people understood that Yahtzee “has the right” to complain about the single player campaign, but they said it was pointless because people only buy Battlefield games for their multiplayer.

This was about as surprising to me as the sun rising in the morning, but it still makes me frown. I also remember someone on Twitter responding to my outrage toward the campaign by saying I was essentially “stating the obvious.” This implies that everybody already knew the campaign was going to be shit, and/or that nobody really cares.

This simply isn’t true. There are plenty of perfectly valid and justified reasons to criticize Battlefield 3’s single player campaign.

Time and Money Spent On It

I’ve played campaigns that were thrown in as afterthoughts, and I can assure you that the Battlefield 3 campaign is not one of them. It has thoroughly constructed set pieces and levels, NPCs with dialogue and vague personalities, cutscenes that desperately try to tell an in-depth story, and game mechanics built specifically for single player. When I played the campaign, it didn’t seem to me like a tacked-on addition to a multiplayer game. It just seemed like a very shoddy single player game.

This shows that a large amount of effort was put into the single player mode, and if we go by the logic that “nobody buys Battlefield games for their single player,” then all that time and money was completely wasted.

New Customers

Yes, most of the preexisting Battlefield fans know that Battlefield is and has been a predominantly multiplayer-based game, but I’m willing to bet there are plenty of Call of Duty fans who haven’t played a Battlefield game before and are curious about Battlefield 3. And there’s a good chance they’d want to check out the single player right away, since so much of EA’s advertising for BF3 was focused on its story.

Oh, that’s another thing…

Advertising

As Yahtzee pointed out, EA recently stated that they consider their single player to be just as important as their multiplayer. On top of that, most of the advertising for Battlefield 3 was focused on its story and single player features. Yes, this was probably EA’s attempt to make Battlefield more like Call of Duty, but it doesn’t change the fact that many people buying Battlefield 3 could easily be more curious about the single player than the multiplayer.

But even if we ignore all of these facts and assume that multiplayer is ultimately all that matters, there are still reasons to criticize the campaign.

It Doesn’t Prepare You For Multiplayer

There’s a reason many multiplayer games have tutorial levels or little single player campaigns: they’re supposed to prepare you for the multiplayer. Jumping into an online deathmatch game without being properly taught the game mechanics first can be very dismaying and even frightening, to the point where you might never want to play again after your first time. Remember what I said about Left 4 Dead 2 in my previous post about Battlefield? If that game didn’t have a single player mode I may not have ever embraced the game for what it was.

The problem, though, is that the Battlefield 3 campaign does not prepare you for the multiplayer, not in the slightest. There are a number of game mechanics that you only ever get to experience in multiplayer. Just as an example, you can pilot jets in online deathmatches, but in the single player campaign all you get to do is fly in the gunner seat and fire missiles using an auto-targeting system.

Moreover, there are plenty of single player features that aren’t in the multiplayer. If you wander off in multiplayer, you won’t get a big flashing warning sign telling you to get back to your squad. You also won’t get prompts telling you what to do. In the campaign you’re constantly being pulled by the hand without any idea of why you’re doing what you’re doing. Once you go to the multiplayer mode you’ll be just as lost as you were beforehand, and you’ll still get sniped by some dick you couldn’t see.

Online Activation Bullshit

Thanks to the magic of EA’s online activation system, people who purchase the game used won’t get to play the multiplayer at all. That means all they’ll have is the single player campaign, and if the campaign is nothing but a tacked-on afterthought like so many Battlefield fanboys say it is, that means used copies of Battlefield 3 are effectively worthless. So it makes sense that Battlefield 3’s single player campaign should be worth a damn, because otherwise EA can go fuck themselves.


Alice: Madness Returns

I recently sunk my teeth into Alice: Madness Returns, thanks to the magic of Steam sales. One of the game’s biggest draws is its visuals; specifically, its art style. The scenery is gorgeous, and the game often feels like a sightseeing tour leading you through a twisted museum of weirdness.

So, like any good tourist I packed my trusty F12 key in my suitcase and took screenshots of every fascinating shot along the way. I haven’t quite finished the game, and I’m not even sure how far I am through it, but I’ve already amassed over 50 pictures.

This post was originally going to just be a collection of pictures from the game, but the captions ended up being so long that I eventually realized I have a lot to say about it. Also, I really don’t feel like uploading, resizing and cropping all of those pictures.

But I’ve still got some pictures to show that don’t have a whole lot of text to go along with them, either because I think they’re funny or interesting on their own or because I have something to say about them. So consider it a half-photojournal, half-discussion-review-thing.

Alice: Madness Returns is a 3D platformer. Hey, remember those? We had a lot of them in the N64 and PSX era, what with Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, Banjo Kazooie, and 3D revivals of countless older platformers like Mario, Sonic and Donkey Kong. But with each passing generation the number of new 3D platformers dwindled and now it’s practically an endangered species. The only 3D platforming franchises I can think of that are still kicking would be Mario and Ratchet & Clank. Well I suppose there’s also Sonic, but just acknowledging the fact that that insidious creature still makes money kind of makes me want to puke.

I suppose many would argue that games like Tomb Raider and Assassin’s Creed are platformers. They’re great games, but calling them platformers sort of feels like a stretch to me. I’ve always thought of platformers as adventures in running and jumping from one platform to the next, while Altair and Lara are more interested in climbing, running on walls and other sorts of acrobatic stunts. I feel like those sorts of games should be classified under a different label, like parkour or freerunning games.

But anyway, I really miss 3D platforming. Some people say the 3D makes it hard to judge jumps, and I suppose it does take some getting used to, but I still think it’s a worthwhile genre. Maybe it’s some deep-seated nostalgia on my part, or maybe jumping long distances gives me that same intense thrill that once had me jumping between pieces of furniture in the living room and insisting that the floor was made of lava. But whatever the case may be, I’m willing to accept Madness Returns with open arms, as long as it doesn’t suck.

This game gets several points right off the bat by featuring a non-sexualized female protagonist. I know this probably sounds like a minor point, but it’s so frighteningly rare in the games industry these days that I really do feel the need to give it a thumbs-up for it. The main character is a girl, but we’re never expected to look at her in that way. She’s a girl, but she’s also a person.

I also have to say that I like Alice a lot. She seems about as disinterested in the various characters’ quirks and fetch quests as I am. She makes the snarky comments I always want to, and her desire to simply continue onward neatly mirrors my own.

The art style in this game is interesting, if strange. The original American McGee’s Alice may or may not look similar. I wouldn’t know; I haven’t played it.

There is a plethora of collectibles to find and snatch in this game. Most of them seem to just give the usual concept art and brief dialogue lines from Alice’s life before she went bananas. Sometimes you’ll find teeth, though, which are used as currency in a completely token weapon upgrading system. I never notice differences between a weapon before or after I upgrade it. I suppose it just deals marginally higher damage.

This is what some of the cutscenes in Madness Returns look like. Imagine a bunch of assorted paper cutouts shaking about like they’re hopped up on caffeine and you’ve got a pretty good visualization. To the game’s credit, these cutscenes don’t show up very often, and most of the cutscenes are rendered in the in-game engine, but whenever these concept art scenes show up they blend about as well with the rest of the game as a vegetarian at a steakhouse.

Here’s me attempting to navigate past an invisible wall. I failed. Invisible walls are all over the place in this game, and sometimes it feels unfair and unnecessary. It makes the game feel more old-school, in a bad way.

Funny story: When the crab walked out and made a clicking noise I thought to myself, “Wait, why does that crab sound like a Predator?” Then I remembered that, oh yeah, crabs did it first.

On the whole, Madness Returns is a pretty fun and interesting game, but it just isn’t very captivating. I stopped playing it because of other games, and I’m not sure when and if I’ll ever go back. That’s not because it’s a 3D platformer; it’s because it just doesn’t have a whole lot of substance to it. It does have a decent variety of enemies, weapons and environments, but it feels padded. It might just be too long.


Sequelitis – Mega Man X

Hey, remember Egoraptor? The guy who made Metal Gear Awesome? Well, it turns out he has a lot of valuable insight about game design.

In this case he’s talking about Mega Man X, and why it evidently makes him scream in ecstasy.

It probably seems odd that I approve so much of a video where he complains about tutorial prompts, since I’ve railed against the idea that teaching the player is a bad thing. But he makes a very strong point: if a game is good enough, and straightforward enough, it doesn’t need to tell you anything for you to learn.

Here’s my ranking system for conveyance of a game’s mechanics, from worst to best.

Worst: Don’t convey your mechanics at all, so that the player is forced to read a manual or look up a guide. This used to happen a lot. Ultima IV is probably the worst offender I’ve ever seen. A close second might be Minecraft, since that game doesn’t even ship with a manual.

Let me make my stance clear on this one, in case I haven’t already: This should never, ever, ever, ever, ever be done, ever. It was understandable back in the archaic days of the 80s and 90s, but in this day and age, there is absolutely no excuse for making the player read a manual.

Better, but still not good: Frontload your game with flow-breaking text prompts and/or tutorial sections. We’ve seen controlled tutorials in a lot of action games, like Assassin’s Creed or Magicka. We’ve also been hit with a lot of text walls in recent RPGs and strategy games, like Fallout: New Vegas and Frozen Synapse.

This is definitely better than relying on a manual, but getting hit in the head with bricks of text or having to spend several minutes proving your competence before you can get to the fun can get tedious. I suppose I’m willing to accept it if it’s in a very complex game; I can’t imagine how one would ever figure out how to play Civilization 4 without the game explaining itself thoroughly.

Even better: Point the player in the right direction with indicators and prompts that don’t break game flow. This is probably the most common method used these days. Whether it’s a tiny little window in the corner that says “Press X to crouch!” or a glowing arrow on the top of the screen that shows you where to go for your objective, little touches like that can prevent the player from getting lost without getting in his way.

This method works well, but it’s still not the best answer.

Ideal: Use the level design to convey the game mechanics without telling the player one word. If you’re clever and careful enough, you can insure that the player will learn how to play your game all on his own. And if you’re not sure what I’m talking about, scroll up and watch that video.

This is extremely hard to pull off properly. The only games I can think of that have succeeded are Mega Man X, Portal and LIMBO. Hell, even Portal told you that you press E to pick up objects.

The reason this probably can’t work in most games is because games often have complex control schemes. Mega Man X wasn’t hard to learn on your own because it only had five buttons of input (left, right, jump, attack, dash). And as Egoraptor pointed out, most of the game is spent simply jumping, shooting and dashing.

For the sake of contrast, let’s look at Assassin’s Creed. You have two control sticks; one for moving and one for rotating the camera. You have four buttons of input, and when you hold the right trigger all four of them change. You also press separate D-pad buttons to switch weapons.

On top of that, the game is absolutely loaded with subtle game mechanics that will completely screw you over if you’re not aware of them beforehand. The beggars, the guards, the ladies that carry pots and who will drop their pots if you push them, the muggers, the haystacks, the benches, the climbing, the blending, etc. I can’t imagine how the game could teach you about all of this without at least resorting to little side text prompts. The player would likely spend hours failing, desynchronizing and re-attempting sequences over and over because he can’t quite get to grips with all the different elements at play.

Egoraptor says that games are more tutorialized because developers think we’re all morons, but I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think it has a lot more to do with games evolving and becoming more complicated and intricate.

Still though, he made a lot of really great points, and I can’t help but look at Mega Man X in a very different light now that I notice the subtleties of it. This is apparently the second episode of a new show of his, and if you’re reading this, Egoraptor, then you’ve got my attention.


Some Notes About Stuff

I wanted to address a few things.

The Aliens vs. Predator business

I just knew that if I said I was going to do something, it would be that much harder to actually do it. Many people operate more efficiently when under pressure, but it seems that whenever I’m under pressure, even if I put that pressure on myself, I will consistently say “Fuck it!” and go play whatever flash game is hot on Kongregate.

For the record, procrastination isn’t the only reason why I haven’t done the reviews yet. I recently watched the movie Alien via Netflix rental, what with everybody recommending it. (As for whether or not I enjoyed it: I did, sure. It was an uncomplicated horror movie, but it was very well made.) Watching it changed my perspective on the games; for example, neither of the games ever really established the fact that some people are actually androids. You’re just forced to figure it out when you kill a human and find you can’t bite his head, and then notice he’s bleeding some sort of strange white blood. Now I see the reason for this is because the game expects us to have watched the movies, and in Alien it’s a very gradual reveal.

Anyway, now I feel that I should wait until after I’ve watched Aliens, the sequel that’s next up on my Netflix queue, and then play through each of the campaigns again with my new perspective on the lore. Things will probably make far more sense, and I’ll be able to make more relevant, informed criticisms.

So the point I’m getting at is that those reviews aren’t coming for awhile. If they’re ever coming at all. Let me know if you’re looking forward to reading my thoughts on the games, by the way. If nobody actually cares, I just won’t bother. But if people do genuinely want to hear what I have to say on the subject, then I’ll definitely stick with it.

For now I already have other post ideas and other games to talk about. I have a lot of free time these days, though now most of it may get eaten up by…

NaNoWriMo!

Thinking of participating this year. I’ve never done so before, and I haven’t written original fiction in a long damn time, but this might be a good way to get back into the groove. I might even upload my story to this site at the end of November, though since I haven’t written in forever and will only have 30 days, it might be crap.

I definitely won’t meet the ludicrous goal of 50k words, since I don’t even know what I’m going to write about yet (though it’ll most likely involve ninjas). But hey, I might end up with something entertaining, even if it’s in a hilariously bad B-movie sort of way.


Battlefield 3: First Impressions

I played Battlefield 3 at a friend’s house. But before I talk about that, first I want to tell you a story about a different game. There’s a reason for this. I swear.

The first time I played Left 4 Dead 2 it was with some friends who were very fluent in playing Left 4 Dead 1. I’d never been exposed to the franchise before, though. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, Left 4 Dead is a co-op survival shooter where four players progress through several linear levels while mowing down legions of zombies. Enemies spawn in regularly whether you’re moving forward or not, so lingering at one location is inadvisable and on high difficulties it can be very dangerous.

As such, when I played with my friends for the first time the experience was very frustrating. My friends were moving forward and constantly asking where I was and why I wasn’t keeping up. I felt like I was being constantly pulled along, like I was a ball on a chain, and I know it wasn’t much fun for them either, because one of them actually yelled at me for not moving quickly enough.

Once we made it through the first campaign I quit out and was ready to smash the game disc, but another friend of mine told me I should play through the game in single player on Easy mode first.

Since Left 4 Dead is a coop game where the coop is actually necessary, playing single player means playing with three AI partners. And while the bots can be rather stupid at times, they follow you around and don’t push you to move forward or curse in your direction when you admire the scenery or try to decide which weapon to use. This allowed me to play at my own pace, and I suddenly enjoyed it. It got repetitive without having friends to play with, but once I’d played through each of the campaigns on my own I was sufficiently familiar with the game so that I could actually play with my friends and have a good time.

Left 4 Dead 2 is one of my favorite multiplayer games now, and if it weren’t for the option to play at my own pace, I might not have ever fully experienced it.

Anyway, onto Battlefield 3. I didn’t play the multiplayer at all, but I played the first few missions in the campaign. I’ve heard a great deal of praise for the game’s visuals, about how the graphics look so real and the animations look so smooth. The game does look pretty good, I have to admit, but it’s hard to appreciate that when you’re not really immersed in the game, and here’s why I could not immerse myself in Battlefield 3.

As with many shooters these days, you are one member of a squad of troops. The narrative is driven by the squad’s actions, not your actions. This is par for the course, but whenever I decided to wander off and look at the scenery or play with the physics, a big flashing warning appeared on the screen and let me know that if I didn’t go back to my squad I was going to lose. It said something about me “leaving the combat zone” or whatever.

We’ve seen this sort of thing in games before, but typically that only appears when you’re leaving the map, because the level designers didn’t create more space beyond that border you’re crossing, which I suppose is fair enough. In this case, though, I know that I can walk down that road. That road is part of the map. And when your squad moves forward after you kill the immediate baddies, then you can walk down that road too.

For me this felt like the Left 4 Dead 2 nightmare all over again. I couldn’t enjoy the game on my own terms; I had to do exactly what my teammates wanted and when they wanted it. I had to step in line. The crucial difference, though, is that this was the single player mode. I should be enjoying the game on my terms, shouldn’t I?

As if the linearity of the level design wasn’t enough, the designers had to completely hogtie the player, destroying any sense of exploration or freedom the game might have otherwise preserved. It changes the game from an immersive, continuous experience to a series of gunfights and nothing more. Having a squad is not inherently bad in a single player shooter; both Left 4 Dead and Half-Life 2 did it quite well, but in both of those games the squad follows you rather than you following them.

I normally roll my eyes whenever I hear people complain about “handholding” in modern games, because this usually boils down to some absurd anger over the game openly teaching its mechanics rather than forcing you to read a brick of a manual. But in this case I can definitely agree that this is the bad kind of handholding; it restricts you rather than merely guiding you.

Mind you, the whole restrictive railroading thing isn’t the only horrible flaw with the Battlefield 3 campaign. Even in the short time I played I noticed a plethora of issues. There’s a pretend-stealth section where you crawl under a ledge where guards are looking out from above. Out of curiosity I moved away from the ledge and right into the guard’s flashlight, and nobody noticed me. The guard was literally staring right at me and he didn’t budge. That isn’t stealth. That’s crawling through an empty corridor.

The game is littered with quick-time-event sequences, some of which are laughably arbitrary and stupid. Grey Carter already pointed out the QTE rat-stab, which caused me to reload my game after succeeding at it just so I could see what happens when you fail (the rat bites you, and then you get shot and die).

I know I shouldn’t expect much from the single player campaign of what is clearly a predominantly multiplayer shooter. But this, this is a new low. This is garbage. If you want an immersive, engaging single player experience, do not buy this game. There is far better out there.