Monday, August 2, 2010

I hate modern gaming, and here's why

There are a lot of reasons I'm growing increasingly frustrated with gaming. Some are to do with the developers, both commercial and mod, and some are to do with the community. This won't be a comprehensive guide to my pet hates, but a list of things that do irritate me and why. Feel free to chip in - the comment section is there for a reason.

Let's start with the sudden, almost unanimous swing from 'quality' to 'quantity'. While this is at least understandable on some level for some of the larger commercial developers and their publishers, what really gets me is how infectious it seems to be. The mentality of modders almost reflects this to a tee: pack in more shiny features, and focus on blinding players with a plethora of new toys before worrying about 'small' problems like game-breaking bugs or substandard gameplay. It's astounding just how rapidly this has spread; I've been hard-pressed to find a game or mod in development which isn't more concerned about adding in more filler than delivering what's needed most: consistent, enjoyable gameplay. It's another example of how devs are trying to be average at everything, but good at nothing, and it's not something that works well.

Back in the old days of gaming (read: last decade), the focus was almost solely on improving gameplay. Indeed, devs would cut enough content to create an entire new game just to streamline the experience. Some games were cut and restarted altogether, like Half-Life 2. There was no DLC, patches were entirely devoted to bugfixes and gameplay improvements, and people seemed happy with this arrangement. I certainly was. If we wanted more, we could add it ourselves; it wasn't the devs' job to pack the game full of whatever whimsical wants each and every player possessed. No longer! Devs will now go out of their way to accomodate for as many people as possible, broadening their target audience from a well-chosen niche to literally anyone. We high-and-mighty PC gamers usually attribute the overwhelming dumbing-down of games (particularly when favourites are ruined in this manner) to console gamers, but that's not entirely true. We, too, are the ones causing this downfall. More on this later, as now I'll explore some of the effects.

There's no two ways around it: modern games are becoming increasingly easy. I don't mean that we're all getting so good at them it seems easy, I mean that developers are deliberately dumbing these games down so they're more accessible. In a lot of cases, this is absolutely not a good thing. A game with a steep learning curve will usually have a strong, dedicated fanbase (no matter their size), and more often than not, this fanbase have become very good at the game through a lot of hard-learned lessons. Opening up that game to the 'drooling masses' usually results in a much bigger and more mainstream fanbase, but very likely will drive the old hands away. We'll look at two examples: Red Orchestra: Ostfront and its mods, and Il-2 Sturmovik.

From its earliest days as an Unreal Tournament mod, Red Orchestra has been aimed squarely at those looking for a more immersive and realistic WWII shooter. It's hard to pick up and even for veteran players, it remains unforgiving. There's very little room for error, and what room there is tends not to exist for very long. It says a lot about Tripwire's dedication to staying true to their roots that upon making the retail game, Ostfront, they did very little in the way of making the game more accessible to new players. While this means RO has a comparatively tiny community for its age, those players tend to be fairly close-knit and have stayed the course, despite newer shooters coming out in the years since. I recall watching a G4 review of the game shortly after I got into it, and sitting there in disbelief as it was labelled pretty much the worst game ever just because the presenters - who presumably don't care about any game that isn't Quake - thought it took "forever" to reload the bolt-action rifles. The video accompanying this review showed quite plainly why they had such a horrible experience: they were trying to play the game as if it was a typical fast-paced FPS. They were running around in the open with a 91/30, trying to hipshoot enemies from across the map. At the time I was pretty mad that such a good game was reviewed by such idiots and thus given a bad image, but now I'm rather glad that was the case. It's kept the CS:S kiddies away and kept bullshit to a minimum.

The mods Mare Nostrum and Carpathian Crosses follow the same path as the game itself, providing quality content and not dumbing the gameplay down at all. Both mods are, for all intents and purposes, dead. Mare Nostrum is under continuing development, but I've yet to see a populated server; the last time I recall anyone playing it was after its release on Steam. This is an almighty shame, as it's one of the better mods I've played for any game.

On the other hand, we have Darkest Hour. The mod takes place in Western Europe - chiefly France, Belgium, and the Netherlands - but I suppose someone had to do it. Unfortunately, this immediately ropes in a whole lot of gamers with little or no interest in RO or any of its other mods; all they want to do is relive scenes from Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers. A whole Day of Defeat clan, numbering somewhere beyond two hundred members at last count, immediately came into the mod, bought up a whole lot of servers, and set about trying to turn it into their previous platform by making replicas of maps like Donner. Any other RO vets should know how this turned out - for the rest of you, 'badly' doesn't even begin to cover it. The map was dominated by SMG classes and an exercise in misery for everyone else. By the time they finally got over their hard-on for bringing DoD:S into the mod, they decided to play realism with the long-standing units. At time of writing, they own the only frequently-populated mixed-map server outside of Europe, and take a generally hostile stance to anyone and everyone. In short, a single external influence has a monopoly on the game servers. You work it out.

Even if there were some less strictly-run (and equally populated) servers to play on, the community has been so saturated with imports from other games that each passing update makes it that little bit less fun for the old hands. Rather than adapt to the RO way of gaming, the overwhelming impression I get from the Darkest Hour community is "this is too boring, it's too realistic, it's not fun, change the game to make it perfectly balanced". Balance is not something that works out so well in a game like RO or its mods; you end up with the Tiger situation (i.e. the Tiger was nerfed to the point of uselessness in the retail game) or the SMG situation (they suffer worse muzzle climb than rifle-calibre semiautomatics). Both of these were measures to try and prevent complaints from the less attentive players, and both (in the opinion of this writer and also many others) is the game's biggest downfall. Mare Nostrum did away with both issues and is far better for it; Darkest Hour got rid of both issues and replaced them with ten more. Grenades, as of the last patch, are utterly useless; they have to land within three feet of your target, and even then it's not a sure thing. The reason? To prevent "grenade spam". Never mind that oftentimes during not just WWII but before and since, whole sections would throw a grenade or two each into a building to clear it out. There is currently a lot of debate about putting Pershings or even Super Pershings into some maps, because apparently no Allied tanker has the sense to just flank their German counterparts and kill them from behind. The 'Super Stuart' is so incredibly buffed that it's preferred over most Sherman variants.

Unlike the other two mods, DH also suffers from an acute case of 'Shiny Kit Sindrome' - every update, scores of new features (usually of questionable value) are added, while the basic art assets remain less consistent than my shooting scores. Some of the art is beautiful and a handful of the maps are on par with the best commercial offerings, while a good deal of the weapons look horrible and most of the other maps are a few boxy buildings on some flat ground. Calling for these issues to be addressed will earn you a lot of abuse from the community, whose only concern is how many more updates they need to wait for X super tank which saw little to no combat in the war, or Y useless fantasy feature I wouldn't expect from ArmA II let alone a mod running on the UE2.5. I'm not kidding; some of these people unironically beg over and over for a single, massive open-world map, field repairs for vehicles, and logistics chains. Of course, they also ask for the team they don't play as to be nerfed into oblivion as well.

Like RO, the Il-2 Sturmovik series is extremely hard for new players to get into; going online is like attending the Hartmann family reunion, even for someone who's been playing flight sims since CFS 1 (like myself). While the original developer works on the next game, Storm of War: Battle of Britain (which looks to be continuing the tradition of realism over all else), a third party released Il-2 Birds of Prey on consoles, and later Wings of Prey on PC. Playing the latter was a serious eye-opener; even with the settings on full realism, I felt more like I was watching the aerial combat sequences from Pearl Harbour than playing a game in the Il-2 series. While the graphics were gorgeous, they were stylised to hell and back; everything was either desaturated or over-saturated with no middle ground; the aircraft models, while detailed, lacked the accuracy of the former games; the aircraft paint schemes weren't even vaguely close to what they should have been (even the average Hollywood flick does a better job of replicating RAF markings than was done in WoP) and overall, the flight models just felt... wrong. I still can't pin the exact problem, but I do know that I didn't feel like I was playing an Il-2 game at all. It felt more like Battlefield flying.

In previous posts (if memory serves correctly, as it's been a long time since my last update), I have spoken about how Fallout 3 suffers horribly from this dumbing-down. It's not so much a hardcore post-apocalyptic survival game (like the true Fallout games) as it is babby's first venture into post-apocalyptic games. Apparently New Vegas remedies this, but I am going to have to wait and see; it doesn't unlock here until tomorrow. Why we still have to deal with staggered release dates and regional pricing in these days of Steam is anyone's guess - mine is publishers are concerned only about profits and not about actual gamers. Prove me wrong.

Jesus, I go on a bit when I'm irritated, don't I?