Disappointing vs. Terrible…

Don’t get mad. Get indifferent.

What was the last truly terrible game you played?

Think about your decision carefully. Because it’s an important choice to make; one that will often reflect your gaming priorities in a way that exposes your deepest flaws and faults. What is ‘terrible’ to you? Is it a paper-thin plot that rips at every twist and turn, exposing the shallow narrative in a way that cannot be ignored? Is it a game that handles poorly, leaving you cursing the badly designed levels and the extremely sloppy controls every time the game deigns to punish you for its own shortcomings? Or is it a game that is poorly QA-Tested, to the point that the release candidate is riddled with enough bugs to quantify it as the beginning of a biblical plague, with all the pseudo-religious connotations that comes with such an accusation?

The reason I’ve been thinking about this is because in the last few weeks, I’ve got two games which you’d think I’d be livid at, and frothing at the mouth at how awful and terrible they are. When in actual fact, I am largely indifferent to both of them; I see their merits as well as their faults in a way that I perhaps wasn’t aware I was capable of doing.

The first is Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. And you might remember I wrote a piece ages ago about how I hated the first one. And I did. And still do, to a large extent, but the reason I hate it was not that it was a rubbish game – but a safe one. It took no chances or risks, delivered no surprises. The one thing that bugs me more than a terrible game is a bloody average, middle-of-the-road, boring one. One where it feels people held back, and didn’t try very hard. A by-numbers facsimile of something else, hoping that you’ll hit the market at such a point that the lack of said genre titles will convince people that your game is better than it really is. That was Lords of Shadow – not cynical, but safe to the point of shutting the door, locking it behind itself and bloody-mindedly ignoring the advances of the gaming world.

Lords of Shadow 2, on the other hand, doesn’t feel ‘safe’ at all; there’s a tingle of excitement running underneath it all, which is pretty obvious to those who did suffer through Lords of Shadow to get to a CGI ending scene which screamed at us that it was probably the first thing they made – and was sort of the game they WANTED to make. There are some delightfully interesting segments, and many improvements on the first title – the combat is much improved and far more tactile and fluid, for a start. And Patrick Stewart seems to have rediscovered some of his mojo – no doubt helped by the fact someone must’ve told him Sobek is sort of a bad person.

But Lords of Shadow 2 isn’t very good either; there is a lot of evidence that design decisions came down from on high, and developers didn’t quite understand why they were doing it – or why they weren’t being given much time to do it. Stealth sections as rats don’t really feel very well implemented, and some of the dreary world design is a million miles from the amazing vistas drawn up in the original game. It also has some questionable ethical issues too; but it’s not because it feels unethical, but rather that they didn’t really understand the gravity of the choices being made. Never attribute to malice that which can be amply explained by stupidity, after all.

Lots of critics and gamers are calling Lords of Shadow 2 ‘terrible’. But – I’m not sure it is. It’s playable. It’s not brilliantly designed, but there are thankfully very few bugs in it. The voice acting is once again a multi-million dollar letdown, but that’s not terrible. Movie 43 is terrible. This just feels like they didn’t care; so why should we? I feel indifference, not rage.

I understand however that with Dark Souls 2 coming, and that original ending, there was obviously some expectation for Lords of Shadow 2, expectations which were not met. And that’s not good at all; but get past the crushing disappointment of the game you THOUGHT you might end up getting, and the actual game you did get is at least a functional product with an undercurrent of imaginative frustration. I feel bad for MercuryStream; the fallout from this game has been hard to bear for many of its employees. The tales of acrimonious walk-outs and bad business decisions amply explain away the confusing, frankensteinian feeling throughout the title. But they shouldn’t be made to feel bad for this product; we’ve had plenty of games like this before; far from acceptable design-wise, but functional and okay. That they got it to this point is… well… surprising. And I applaud everyone who managed to stop this project from going south, when it so easily could have been much, MUCH worse.

The other is the new Thief.

Look, again, the new Thief is hardly an appropriate instalment to carry on the legacy; and it does smack of a business decision to take on the far-better Dishonored (and fail, miserably), but on its own merits, the new Thief isn’t awful either. In a similar vein to Lords of Shadow 2, there’s a great game crying to get out in there sometimes; and there’s a similar sensation of excitement that runs underneath it all, just finding it too hard to break the surface crust of rubbish decisions and tease more to try and save it by breaking through to that light. There’s evidence very often of wit, warmth and life in the dark, dim world. That it consistently fumbles its most basic functions is sad; AI that doesn’t seem to know if it is coming or going, sometimes as intelligent as a plank of 2×4, sometimes psychic to the point of convincing Derren Brown of supernatural forces. And there are sound bugs; rather like the PS3 port of Deadly Premonition, voice files and snippets playing out of turn, either breaking the atmosphere or simply spoiling things for you a little earlier than you might have planned.

Both games are hardly the most terrible things I have played.

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After all, I pre-ordered this bad boy, so don’t talk to me about disappointment…

Perhaps I’ve just got a better memory than most; but my benchmarks for terrible in the modern era are things like Aliens: Colonial Marines for how it just felt like a rush-job by people phoning it in for a paycheck, and Ride to Hell: Retribution for being just horrible in tone, horrible in execution and just plain horrible. Then you have the likes of Ashes 2013, which was so broken the game was removed from sale! As for business decisions ruining games; you need look no further than titles like Final Fantasy: All The Bravest, and more recently (and already a shoe-in for worst ‘game’ of 2014), Dungeon Keeper Mobile. I’ve seen the darkness; looked straight into the void and seen the seething hate that some of these companies have for their consumers, for their employees, for the industry they profess to be a part of.

Once you’ve experienced any of these games, the reality hits you sometimes that ‘terrible’ is as far removed from ‘disappointing’ as Kelly Brook is from Anne Widdecombe. They’re both women; but that’s pretty much the only similarity that you could level…

And we’ll have far more average games in the next few years; as well as many disappointments. But it’s good to have some kind of baseline measure; if the likes of Aliens: Colonial Marines and Ride to Hell: Retribution only ever exist as an extremely low yardstick to quantify what gets a 1 or a 2 in review terms, then so be it, their existence can be justified – perhaps one day, we’ll put some of these truly awful video games in a vault in France, next to the Kilogram.

And I don’t want to be hard on the studios involved in Thief, or Lords of Shadow 2. Both sound like they had a lot of executive interference; people forcing changes based on whims of market research and focus testing on children way below the age rating of the game proper, rather than allowing those intimately involved in the creation the kind of creative freedom and expressive commitment to go where the design documents were leading them. Both Thief and Lords of Shadow 2 have elements that suggest something far better was planned; where it all went wrong is an argument for another day.

But the idea that Lords of Shadow 2 is as bad as A:CM makes me balk. Just… no. The amount of hyperbole used to dismiss both games does a massive disservice to the industry, and to the games themselves as well as those who made it, all of whom must already be feeling somewhat delicate right now. They KNOW that these games should have been better; but for whatever reasons, they aren’t. But let’s not try to paint them out as villains, when we have ready examples of truly villainous behaviour in the last year or two that make these admittedly pretty average games pale into sheer insignificance. The best Thief and Lords of Shadow 2 can hope for is to be forgotten by the end of the year; we’ll move on. As we always do, because someone will demonstrate quite straight-faced how truly terrible business decisions and game design ethos’ can mar things. Usually by EA. Because… well… that’s what EA does.

Both games in the next few years will disappear; they’re not good enough to be remembered fondly. But they’re not terrible enough to be held up as a quantitative measure of awfulness. Like so much of the last few years, middle-of-the-road disappointment comes and goes. You have to be at the extreme ends of the scale either way to really make an impact on the market. ‘Disappointing’ and ‘Terrible’ are words that are not interchangeable; they do not mean the same thing and we shouldn’t be so reckless as to do so. Sometimes, the two can indeed match up on the same title, but such instances are exceptions, not rules. And they still define two sides of a frankly awful thing.

Getting mad at average is hardly worth the effort. We’ve got bigger fish to fry; so let’s turn that heat where it’s needed, than needlessly squandering it on cheap cuts like these…

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