Moving on from last time, where I talked about the disengagement that results from bad storytelling, today I’ll be writing about bad gameplay, the second broad factor that leads to me giving up on a game. This may be the shortest of the entries in this series, since there’s not that much to say. The Last Remnant, Grand Theft Auto 4, and Wolfenstein all have obvious and varied shortcomings in their gameplay.
First off, Wolfenstein is not so much bad as it is bland. It’s a pretty standard World War 2 FPS. But details matter. The basic act of aiming and shooting didn’t feel right. Specifically, there’s an interruption in shooting that happens if you go from firing from the hip to firing down the sights. The enemies range from boring (Nazis with guns who crouch down behind the nearest cover) to annoying (melee-only monsters who ran right at me). There are a few interesting, supernatural weapons but I never get much ammo for them, so I ended up just using a submachine gun almost exclusively. There are also special powers, but they are both uncreative and annoying, as toggling into and out of bullet time or a special vision mode with the d-pad throughout an engagement is tiresome. And finally, the game undermined its otherwise fairly pleasant upgrade system. As nice as it was to be able to customize the guns I used, it was coupled with the annoyance of having to hunt through dozens of lockers and chests in each level in the hope of finding the small handful that actually contained the collectibles that powered the system.
GTA 4’s gameplay issues are so well documented that I don’t think I have anything to add. The gunplay was an improvement on what was in the PS2-era games, but it was still pretty mediocre. The use of health and armor pickups in lieu of regenerating health, and the dearth of mid-mission checkpoints encouraged overly conservative play. I actually didn’t mind the car-handling per se, but I did find chase-missions extremely frustrating. And there didn’t seem to be a lot of opportunity to go off-script in any sort of clever way. It felt like every mission had a straight-line critical path and that I got punished, or at best ignored, for trying to subvert it, by, say, parking a car out back to preemptively block off and escape route (the car would disappear after a cutscene) or sniping the target from an unexpected location (the target would be scripted to flee and only be wounded, and then I’d fail because I was too far away to chase them down).
The Last Remnant has an interesting party-building and leveling system – an elaborate “learn-by-doing” sort of thing. But it makes the classic mistake in these sorts of systems: it keeps a persistent, ever-increasing experience level to which it scales enemies. This meant that, first of all, I was discouraged from experimenting, since anything but a laser-focus on following through on my initial choices would lead to a watering down of my characters’ skills. Secondly, this lead to the perverse result that the only good way to level was to repeatedly fight easy battles, since that gave me the opportunity to develop characters by using their skills without driving up the overall party-level. I was actually punished for winning challenging battles, since all that did was raise the party-level for the next fights beyond what my characters could handle. The battle system, too, is an interesting mess, one that it felt that I was constantly fighting against. Having to remember to only use skills I wanted the characters to develop. Remembering to not have all three wizards in a unit cast spells in the same round against a boss, since that would cause the spell to combine into one comparatively weak AoE spell.
The annoyances of the battle system are epitomized in the “cursed” status ailment. When an enemy attempts to inflict “cursed” status on a squad (which happens fairly regularly, especially in boss battles) it’s animated to appear as if each member of the squad gets an individual saving throw. That is, it goes through four separate animation sequences of the attack either hitting or missing each squad member. But, oddly, if the attack hits any one member of the squad, the whole squad is inflicted with status ailment. The attack seems to hit a given individual around one in three times, so it’s tremendously likely (over 80%) that the attack will hit the squad. Once afflicted, each squad member has, each round, a random chance of dying (again, let’s say it’s around 1 in 3 – it’s certainly no less than this). Whether it kills the squad member or not, the game displays an additional animation of the member saving against this death-chance each time they act. So having the cursed status effectively doubles the already fairly lengthy time it takes for a squad’s attack to play out. What’s more, other than waiting for it to wear off (in half a dozen or so turns) there’s no method of curing “cursed” status, outside of waiting for the entire squad to die, and then reviving them. If you resurrect and heal deceased members of an inflicted squad before the squad is entirely dead (which the game will try to do automatically) the revived members are still inflicted with the cursed status. And even worse, once the leader of the squad is dead, you completely lose control of the squad. So what could have been a relatively unique status ailment ends up being a massive annoyance and, worse, a huge time waster in an already slow-paced game.
The failings of the three games I’ve been focusing on here have ranged from moderate to egregious. But I actually kept playing all three for quite some time – well past the half-way point in all three cases. So I guess the point is that once I get settled in to a game, I’m usually willing to commit to it despite its flaws. (There have been a small handful of games that I’ve found so off-putting that I put them down minutes after picking them up – Final Fantasy Tactics A2 being the prime example – these are a different story all together.) But if a game fails to engage me either its narrative or gameplay, then there’s the very real risk that I will put it aside permanently if I’m given an excuse to do so.