Extra Life – Bonus Modes and User Made/Optional Content

Is there a point when a game is redefined by its extra content, and not the main campaign?

Though I was highly critical a year ago of Resident Evil: Revelations HD, in the last couple of months something quite odd happened. I found something in it that I quite enjoyed – something I’d almost dismissed because of the complexity and poorly thought out nature of it at the time.

Don’t misunderstand; I’m hardly going to sit here and sing the praises of a game which is both a little too technically shoddy to be considered a true HD update, nor am I able to defend the hideous controls which frankly on the Wii U version at least have no genuine excuse to exist. And I still can’t defend or come to love Lady Hunk. But the Raid Mode – the bonus content, linked to RE.Net, with a series of monthly challenges – has surprisingly resurfaced for me as a worthwhile reason to go back to the game and indulge in something that genuinely helps offset what was, in all honesty, a wasted opportunity in real terms. In Raid Mode, you get monthly objectives – do 3 billion damage, for example, or kill as many Hunters as possible in the allotted period – and for this, and for ranking, you get new weapons and weapon parts which make things like the Ghost Ship more tolerable, more interesting and ultimately, more enjoyable than just trying to Trinity Bonus previous stages.

Thing is, I’m of the mind that the Resident Evil bonus-stages have for a while been the biggest selling point of the series. Resident Evil 5’s Mercenaries, alongside some actually well-constructed DLC content, helped just about negate the reality that the main campaign was dull as dishwater with about as much surprise as learning that water is wet. Resident Evil 6 – a complete hodge-podge of often very poorly thought out concepts, positively THRIVES in it’s bonus modes; to the point that I must side with defenders of the game in that for the extra content alone, getting the game cheap may be no terrible thing. Resident Evil 4 made full use of the mode, although the main campaign was well worth the effort, and even as far back as Resident Evil 3: Nemesis – when The Mercenaries was the new thing – the whole idea was a challenge mode to add to what was an already often quite challenging title, and even then it was hard to escape the overall genius of a time-trial sprint from one place to another in a survival horror title.

Yet, when Capcom did invariably spin off the bonus mode – in the ill-fated The Mercenaries 3D on the Nintendo 3DS – things didn’t quite add up at the time. When they were asking £30 for the game brand-new, it was incredibly hard to forgive them for limiting themselves so poignantly to what had only recently been done. I criticised it at the time for not being “Fan Service”; the idea of a spin-off of The Mercenaries was to broaden the scope of the mode, to add more – more stages, more characters, more weapons, more variety. Tied down to a main game, the content can be forgiven in some part for being restricted to a particular set of maps and characters, but set free to stand alone in the market, there was more expectation, more desire for a reinvention of the concept.

All that said though; for £5, it’s a more tolerable and interesting investment.

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And it’s not like Mercenaries really needs a plot, is it?

It got me wondering though if extra content is actually sometimes the main reason for playing a game. And when it is, does that reflect poorly on the game itself, or the ingenuity of a select portion of developers who make the best of what can only be fairly limited time and space constraints?

It’s not just developers though. I’m reminded somewhat of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, a game which in its raw form didn’t really do much for me. The voice acting was terrible, the landscape was rather empty, the characters a little too undercooked and the story a little too basic. Had that been the absolute limit for what the game could deliver, no doubt I’d have deleted it from my old hard drives and forgotten about it, left it to the darkest recesses of my memory. But of course, I didn’t because Oblivion turned out to be a huge, overwhelming addiction for me that I struggled for years to wrestle free from. It dominated my hard drive in a way few other games have ever managed before. What happened, then, between the raw game being a bit woollen and uninspired and my overwhelming and all-consuming passion for it?

User content happened. Mods happened. What began as a means to improve some base functionality of the game ended up with a 500GB dedicated to mods, tweaks and content additions that made Tamriel so enormous, so rich in content, so packed with things to do and enemies to kill that there was no way on this planet or any other that I could justifiably “complete” the game. From new towns to new dungeons, new armour sets and weapons to new bases to explore, new companions and new quests – left to the community, the possibilities of Oblivion were without limit, and what felt so much like a bare-bones experience that would have been a nice but generic fantasy two-week break became a game I moved into, and spent years cultivating and populating. I still wouldn’t forgive the game as it stood originally – I wouldn’t even afford that to Skyrim, the much-lauded sequel, but Skyrim was to me more of the same. The game is impressive from a technical standpoint, but often desolate and empty and lacking intrigue. Almost as soon as the game went live, modders got to work fleshing out the land of Skyrim with more content; and many of the PC community came in with the express intention of modding the nuts off the game as well. The game itself was secondary in a sense; it wasn’t the main attraction, rather the scope of fan-created content to create and consume had become the primary motivator.

I’m sure console users did enjoy the game they got, but as one person said to me a while back; “They’re missing the point.” For all protestations to the contrary, we weren’t buying Skyrim because it was a good game; we were buying because we could MAKE it a good game.

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Although in fairness, sometimes it can go too far…

This was exposed somewhat in the recent The Elder Scrolls Online, however. Zenimax – Bethesda’s parent company – must have mistakenly forgotten this somewhat large detail and created an admittedly nice landscape for people to run about in. But it came replete with bugs that weren’t being fixed fast enough – you could bet a lot of money had this been a single-player game, fans would have dedicated themselves to fixing them in a fraction of the time. The quests were generally without consequence; again, something fans would have certainly loved toying with. From minor niggles like NPC’s repeating the same dialogue over and over and over again every thirty seconds, to more major quibbles like the terrible dual-wield bug that was such a pain in the backside for so long, my experience in ESO was somehow tainted and corrupted by the knowledge that… well, modded content was severely lacking. Everything became a grind to distract from the reality the game, in spite of its size, was a bit… empty, in a sense. A bit hollow. Crying out for something more.

It’s complicated, because there are so many examples out there of games which exist in this state. However, there’s a question I have wondered; what happens if the extra content takes over?

For Resident Evil, it would mean losing the single-player campaign; losing the story which whilst complicated, convoluted and often cap-in-hand idiotic is still in so many ways the driving force behind changes in how the series approaches not just locations and enemies, but characters themselves. Yes, it would be immense fun to have a mash-up of Mercenaries and Raid Mode, canvassing the whole of the Resident Evil series for locations and characters and enemies and weapons – imagine, say, running through the Raccoon City Police Department, as grown-up Sherry Birkin, on a time trial from front entrance to back entrance with zombies, lickers and Mr. X all in the way. Or the jungles of Africa as Barry Burton. Or the streets of China as Rebecca Chambers. Even the cast and locations of the Outbreak games, and Operation: Raccoon City, could be utilised. With so much on offer, the prospect for not just a base game but additional content and features is gargantuan.

On the other hand; if you’re stuck just reliving your past glories, what happens then? In some ways, the prospect of Resident Evil 7 isn’t as bitter on the tongue as I thought – no doubt Capcom have learned a thing or two from how Resident Evil 6 and Resident Evil: Revelations HD were accepted, and look to change something deeper down. Even if they don’t, the prospect of new places and new characters to run around in Mercenaries or Raid Mode is far too tempting to resist. The quality of the main campaign is becoming less of an issue the more Capcom deliver on the extra features. Although some will rightly argue that is in itself a terrible indictment on Resident Evil as a series now.

The same goes with The Elder Scrolls; I mean yes, Bethesda could just drop a sandbox environment and let us populate it in a sense. But there’s at least a modicum of effort in Oblivion, and Skyrim; the raw games may not be the genuine star of the show in my eyes, but they lay foundations to build upon. Without those foundations, there’s little reason to keep adding content; you need even at the most basic level a game by which to improve upon, to nurture into something more than it is. A sandbox, an empty place devoid of rules, just seems like… why would you buy it? It would seem odd, off-putting, almost lazy. Even when the base game is buried under dozens of hours of user-made content, the base mechanics and systems all work and it’s still nice to know that there is something underpinning it all. As much as it may not be the star of the show, the fact that these games are such a solid basis for user-expansion is probably a testament to how secure the underlying framework is – even if it’s sometimes technically pretty shoddy.

And it’s also interesting we call some of these things extras, when in reality they often consume more hours than the main games. Where is the line? At what point does the single-player mode in Resident Evil: Revelations become the secondary concern? Likewise, what would happen if Bethesda dropped a content-rich Elder Scrolls VI, full of wonderment and inventive features?

Sometimes, I admit, it’s easy to deride things for not being good, or well-made, or even interesting. And we should – it’s our money, and our time, and we shouldn’t settle for mediocrity. However, in some cases, I’m beginning to think that a rethink is in order. If a bonus mode in a game is so brilliant that it can offset a pretty lame-duck single player mode, do we judge on the single player or do we judge on the bonus mode? If a game has the foundations for rapid user expansion, how do we judge it? Knowing that in some cases, time will only improve what is on offer?

I wonder if the industry knows what its doing sometimes as well. Capcom must know challenges in Raid Mode, with rare weapon rewards, are an incredibly tempting proposition. Revelations: HD was nothing to write home about on a base level, but if it can keep you coming back to prove your mettle and creep up the scoreboards, one can only assume Capcom probably aren’t sweating too much about the hopeless textures or the wonky controls. In a sense, it’s great to see that. But in other ways, there’s a serious case to be asked of Mercenaries, and Raid Mode, and Capcom in general; what exactly IS the main attraction of the game you’re asking us to buy? I’m glad to finally see some more use from a game I purchased and didn’t wholly love from the outset, but still… had this been convincingly laid out months ago, no doubt I’d have arguably enjoyed it more before this point.

Basically, it’s getting harder to work out what the selling point for some games is. They attempt so much and add so much that it’s frankly getting harder to see the wood for the trees; WatchDogs, I’m told, is incredibly short and rather bland in a single-player sense. Add the optional missions and multiplayer, however, and suddenly the game makes sense. But WatchDogs was sort of sold AS a single-player title, in my eyes. At some point, making the optional stuff better and more engaging than the main meat of the title is… well, it concerns me.

But then, is optional content that isn’t optional to enjoyment still optional content?

Wow. Okay, ending there. That even hurt MY brain…

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