Less is More

Standing atop the bone-white skyscrapers of 2008’s Mirror’s Edge, staring out across the futuristic metropolis, it’s easy to convince yourself that the game should be an open-world, free-roaming platformer. Faith has the ability to climb, jump and run like the wind, why constrain that energy into the tight corridors that make up the game’s story levels? Playing the 2015 sequel Catalyst answers this question. Mirror’s Edge is a racing game, and races need courses. Without focused channels, Faith’s kinetic energy dissipates, you end up aimlessly wandering empty city blocks, often circling back and stopping to check a map. The best moments in Catalyst are found in the story missions, where Faith is placed back in tight channels and given a specific goal, that allows the game’s creators to structure and pace the challenges you face, to guide the player through their work.

ME6This is a common trap gamers fall into, thinking a game would be improved if only a certain feature or mode, usually cribbed from a popular game in a different genre, were added to the original model. It’s in our nature, we’re idealistic, attracted to shiny features and pretty graphics, and unaware of the cost and effort required to develop the features our imaginations create. Spiderman 2 would be awesome if you could drive the cars like in GTA. Thief would be great if you had a crossbow and a better sword. Assassins Creed would be better if you could fly. SWAT needs a Versus mode. Sometimes the developers themselves are at fault. Grand Theft Auto would be better with RTS gameplay. Tomb Raider would be better with an Onslaught mini-game. Arkham City would be better if you could drive the batmobile.

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Ubisoft’s Far Cry 4 tasks the player with dismantling an oppressive military regime with guerilla tactics and enough small arms to to overthrow an oppressive military regime, across the mountains and valleys of a pseudo-Nepal (Tibet? I confess ignorance). Combat is tense and crunchy, frenetic and bombastic as you dive for cover, take potshots around corners, and toss molotov cocktails to cover a hasty retreat and catch your breath for another assault. Far Cry 4 also has an awkwardly bolted-on co-op mode that completely unbalances this combat. Playing with a partner allows for unlimited respawns, and the open design of the outposts mean it’s almost impossible for the AI to mount an adequate defence to two attackers. Even playing on the hardest difficulty, it’s easy to steamroll through the game’s most challenging single-player encounters, and much of the tension and fun in the game is lost. The levels, AI, and mechanics of the game simply weren’t built and tuned with co-op in mind. Far Cry 4’s co-op is fun, but a minor diversion in an otherwise solid game.

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Harvey Smith, creative director of Dishonored, pushed back against calls to add co-op to the sequel to 2012’s Dishonored. The original was story-based stealth action game, with levels designed as intricate playgrounds and enemies tuned to act as foils for the player’s cunning. Smith knew that adding in co-op would either be lackluster and broken, or require developers be pulled from developing the single-player portion to more fully develop and balance the addition. After years of overseeing various projects, he knew what Dishonored’s strengths were, and knew that adding in co-op would be ultimately unsatisfying and weaken the sequel.

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Roger Ebert once argued that games can never be art because the vision of the creator is always second to other factor. To the (very limited extent) that the intent of the creative director of a game is subject to the demands of players or marketing teams to awkwardly insert gimmicks, I have to reluctantly agree. We expect movie directors to filter the multiple demands of the studio, their producers, actors, audience, and editors, and produce a work that fufills their intentions for the film. We need to accept similar restraint in our demands of game makers. As games become more about experiences, gamers have to similarly trust the vision of those making the game to shape and constrain that experience.

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Far Cry 4

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There’s a moment in Far Cry 4 where the player must progress through a Kryatic ritual of self enlightenment. You burn incense, spin a prayer wheel, and make an offering of flower petals at a small, dignified shrine. This being an Ubisoft game though, each canned animation of your character carrying out these tasks is accompanied by a karma meter filling slowly at the top of your screen. No joke, the last step takes you from 75% karma to a full 100% karma, and the mission can then proceed to the fun bit, holding off a military invasion with machine guns and molotov cocktails.

It amuses me greatly to picture a design team standing around a white board discussing whether lighting a candle in solemn reflection should earn the player 25 karma points or 30. What colour bar best represents the player’s progression towards inner peace?

Far Cry 4 is immensely fun. Its sprawling steppes are full of encampments to assault, animals to hunt, and towers to climb. This far into the Far Cry series Ubisoft knows what they are doing when it comes to first person combat, vehicles, and hiding collectibles across all of creation. They know that camp assaults were the best part of their previous game, and so they’ve made them easy repayable in 4. They know how to make guns feel meaty and satisfying, and how to make encounters with wild animals terrifying and tense. They just don’t know how to handle more subtle concepts well.

Far Cry 2, the first of this mold, took place in the humid jungles and arid deserts of Africa. Far Cry 3 travelled to the south pacific, to allow for a brighter colour palate and more water-based exploration. Far Cry 4 backpacks to a faux Tibetan landscape, because the wing suit is amazing and combat is more fun when there’s a vertical component, with enemies spread up and down a mountainside.

With each migration, a fresh coat of location-specific veneer is applied over the basic game mechanics. Far Cry 2 had malaria pills to prevent the player from growing listless and bored, and conflict diamonds as currency. Far Cry 3’s skill system was tracked through the main character’s culturally-relevant tattoos. Far Cry 4 groups player skills into 2 libraries represented by a tiger and an elephant, and tracks XP in the form of karma points, earned by murdering hundreds and hundreds of people. With each iteration, the pretence grows thinner and thinner.

Make no mistake, Far Cry 4’s combat is glorious and boisterous, its world is detailed and beautiful, and Ubisoft have spared no expense in making Kryat a theme park of excitement and heroism. They are experts at open-world first-person shooting. It’s when they sometimes try to apply these talents to more esoteric concepts like religious observance that they fall flat on their face. Like a ’72 station wagon, a thin veneer is always quick to crack. Gamers know what XP and skill points are, there’s no need to play game-mechanic dress-up with every new franchise instalment.