Extra PunctuationThe Annoying Tendency To Mix Styles of Play In A Single GameExtra Punctuation - RSS 2.0
The triple-A games market is nothing if not broad these days. Common denominators are hanging pretty lowly at present. But you can hardly blame the creators for that. Since the cost of developing on the cutting edge is so high, getting as many people to buy the game as possible is almost essential for making the investment back. Would be nice if we could have a mainstream industry where creative expression doesn't have to be so dependent on monetization, but then I'd also like a cloaking device and that's not happening either.
In the interests of attracting the broadest audience there's been this increasingly alarming practice of trying to sustain multiple styles of gameplay in a single game, in theory so that the player can choose which kind of game they want to play on this occasion. Battlefield: Hardline is the most recent example. Every single time you run into a combat arena full of baddies they have some character or other say something along the lines of "Shoot them all or do it the quiet way, it's your call." Essentially leaving it up to the player whether they're going to turn the game into a stealth game or an exciting cover shooter.
The Thief reboot did something similar, rather overtly, by scoring the player after each mission based on how much they adhered to the 'ghost', 'predator' or 'opportunist' gameplay style, each with attached challenges. Although you don't know which one you'll be rated for until the end, so if you were going for ghost challenges and end up knocking out a few too many lads, then too bad, we say you were being a predator and we don't give a shit what you think. There's something doubly obnoxious about something that tries to be clever and fails, it's like a kid taking his hands off the handlebars to show off and quickly faceplanting into the gravel.
But let's go back to the Battlefield example, and the increasingly popular model wherein the player can either shoot the place up or stealth through taking everyone down from behind. The point I want to make is that, if the intention is to have two games in one so that the player can choose what sort of game they're in the mood for, then it doesn't work. Not for me, anyway.
I love shooters and I love stealth games, but every time I play a game that offers this sort of dual gameplay, I always attempt to stealth it. And there are several reasons for that. Firstly, there's very frequently a sense that stealthing is the morally superior option. In a lot of these games a stealth takedown merely involves knocking the enemy unconscious, not killing them. I know that functionally, in gameplay terms, it's exactly the same as killing them, it replaces the hostile NPC with an unresponsive ragdoll that other NPCs tend to get into a flap about, but it makes a difference to me, in my head. And besides, I've played plenty of games (Dishonored springs to mind) where taking the murder route results in a bad ending, and the bad ending is never as satisfying as the good ending.
But even if the game doesn't make that kind of overbearing moral judgment, and beats me over the head with the knowledge that it's entirely up to what I feel like doing and there'll be no consequences either way, it's impossible to make a dual stealth/shooter game where the shooting doesn't feel like the fallback for after you fuck up the stealth. Since stealthing generally takes more skill, there's almost always a greater reward for it (arresting people in Hardline awards you more experience points than killing them, for example) or some kind of punishment for not doing it (like when killing someone automatically alerts all the other guards who now all know exactly where you are because they are the Borg and share a brain).
Even with all gameplay factors aside, the mere notion that I could have gotten through the room without causing a fuss is enough to make the shooty option feel like a fuck-up. Part of that comes from the fact that, it most cases, there's no way to go back and try the stealthing from the top once the shooting starts, you're locked into shooty mode until the room is cleared; so much for choosing what kind of game we want to play.
And I wouldn't play something like Hardline's single-player campaign as a shooter because it ends up being a pretty crappy shooter. That's what ultimately condemns this dual-gameplay concept; the kind of environment conducive for stealthing is not going to be ideal for shootering as well. Not the kind of shootering I like, anyway. I like the raw, straightforward style of the Doom / Painkiller / Serious Sam variety, where it's just you, a ridiculously large horde of baddies, and a running speed equivalent to a greyhound on a slippery floor. I also like the Half-Life style that's more about flowing from location to location meeting challenges as they come. Neither is evident when the game also wants to have a stealth challenge in the same space; you just have to shoot five or six dudes spread out over an open area, after which the gate opens and you can trudge along to the next encounter.
I noticed some little hoppy bunnies in the comments to last week's ZP expressing surprise that I'd given Hardline's multiplayer a chance, what with my long-stated aversion to it. My dislike of multiplayer, as I've discussed, comes from feeling stressed out from the thought that other people are depending on me for entertainment, when I'd much rather play at my own pace. In the case of Battlefield, though, the servers are so crowded (up to 64 players) that I felt much more relaxed about it; any contribution I could make would be negligible, and encounters are so brief and fast that no-one cares about or remembers anyone else.
But it was there that I found a shooter experience much closer to my tastes, simply because the intention was much more straightforward: shoot the baddies. An experience I've sorely missed in triple-A for quite some time, where the ambition is more often to simply be a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none, than to commit to creating the best, rawest possible experience that can be had with a specific gameplay style. The path of triple-A at present seems like it could sacrifice the very concept of 'genre' in its pursuit of profit, but for the moment there's still at least one place where you can just shoot the baddies without feeling judged for it.