It’s a safe bet that developers are never going to take my advice and spend their money on making better games instead of blowing it all at the industry-wide wank known as E3. For this I am grateful. As a semi-pro videogame doomsayer, under-funded and over-hyped titles are there to play Costello to my Abbot. Without a steady stream of ill-conceived disappointments filling the shelves at Gamestop and begging for a verbal flogging, I’m not sure I could find the strength to get out of bed in the morning. With that in mind, let me engage in a little preemptive whinge and tell you how and why the darlings of E3 are going to let you down.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
Yes, everyone wants to be a Jedi. Because Jedi are special. Except, in an MMO, you can simply choose to be a Jedi. Which means being a Jedi is about as exotic as being right-handed.
Anyone making an MMO of Star Wars has to make the choice between making the game follow the Star Wars rules or making it balanced, because a Jedi is deliberately not balanced when compared to anything that doesn’t have force powers, a lightsaber, super reflexes, the ability to see the future, the power to shoot lightning from their fingers, and the voice of James Earl Jones. You’ll either play in a world where the Jedi class is so powerful that nobody wants to play anything else, or one where a Jedi is a sad mockery of the characters we see in the movies. In either case, it will be a world where half the people you meet have force powers, most of them are more powerful than you, and they all talk like retards.
Sure, the idea of playing a noble and mysterious Jedi might be appealing, but ten minutes after logging in you’ll find your self in the Goldshire, but with lightsabers. You’re not going to be hanging out with Mace Windu, Yoda, and Luke Skywalker. You’re going to be in some sewer under Coruscant, killing gonga-rats for 10XP each with fellow party members “Ninjaguydan”, “Abcdef”, and “Manparts”.
Developer Quantic Dream is making a story-driven game with unconventional mechanics that allows you to explore a given story from multiple points of view. That sounds great and exciting, unless you remember that they already did that, and it was a disaster. Indigo Prophecy (aka Fahrenheit, aka Mr. Stabby and Incan Wizard Go Bananas in the Big Apple) has the distinction of having the most ridiculous plot I’ve seen in a videogame, ever. And that includes Burgertime and Halo.
All of the original elements are here. An unconventional control scheme that uses a fancy system of gestures to perform mundane tasks like turning doorknobs and standing up. A mystery surrounding a serial killer. Investigation-based gameplay. Quasi-quicktime event driven action. Changing viewpoints. An ongoing weather theme. (Fahrenheit took place during an endless snowstorm. Using my Jedi powers of precognition, I predict that Heavy Rain will likewise have some sort of dense precipitation thing going on.)
Unless Quantic Dream gathered together enough condensed stellar mass to have it all collapse into a singularity, and then flung their entire staff of writers into the resulting black hole, making sure to not begin work on Heavy Rain until after the writers had crossed the event horizon and it was impossible for them to influence the development of the game in any way, then this game will likely be more of the same: An hour of brilliance and mystery followed by six hours of weapons-grade balderdash.
A numeral four is the usual replacement for “A”, not “E”. If you’re replacing an “E”, you use the numeral three. So I guess the name of this game is “Thiaf”. ‘l33tspeak’ is tiresome enough, but it takes a special sort of marketing imbecile to adopt a pretend internet language invented by illiterate rugrats and then manage to misspell the name of your game anyway. Especially when the name is only five letters long to begin with.
The first two Thief games were huge and daring. They defined a new genre of gameplay and allowed the player to explore massive levels and a captivating story in a morally ambiguous world of magic and steamworks. They were wonderful and if you disagree then I forbid you from reading any further because I can no longer be your friend. I’m sorry, but I have standards.
By contrast, the third Thief game was an adventure where you explored a series of levels the size of a $40 hotel room. It wasn’t a bad game, it was just undermined by its obsession with bump-mapped pizazz that prevented it from having the expansive, free-roaming environments the gameplay demanded. Sure, Thiaf doesn’t have to make that mistake again. It’s possible they’ll dial back the bling-mapping to give us the big playgrounds, but industry trends are pointed in the opposite direction. As an unreasonable and perpetually biased fanboy, I am eager for them to prove me wrong on this point.
Milo and Kate
Let me tell you something about Peter Molyneux. Decades ago, the Devil appeared to Peter in a churning vortex of bone and flame, and made Peter an offer in a deep, resonant voice and honeyed words: Peter would be given the ability to come up with the most innovative and visionary games in history, in exchange for his mortal soul. A bargain was thus struck. What the Devil didn’t tell Peter is that all of his games would be cursed, so that their brilliance and novelty would be lost under a morass of bad storytelling and clunky gameplay.
Populous was a daring and unorthodox idea undermined by dull and repetitive mechanics. Black & White was a brilliant creature development game and AI toy built atop a plodding and unbalanced real time strategy game. The Movies was a clever movie-making tool made irrelevant by its own economic strategy underpinnings. And the Fable series was an amusing and convention-breaking RPG/sim that sank under the weight of its senseless and infantile storytelling. (Dungeon Keeper, being an obvious homage to the Evil One himself, was exempt from the curse.)
I predict Milo and Kate – the crazy AI demo that has everyone so excited – will be an experience of discovery and experimentation which will cease to be interesting the moment you hit the limits of what it can do.
I give it forty-five minutes.
Tales of Monkey Island
As much as it pains me to say nice things, I have no doubt this game will be good. That’s because it was already good, twenty years ago when the thing was new. I’d like to use this game as exhibit A in my ongoing thesis that videogames suck and have lost the playful spark that made them great in the first place, and now they’re just grasping for the glory days through remakes. But the truth is that Telltale games has a spectacular track record. They have been turning out innovative, witty, low-priced adventure games at an amazing pace over the last few years, and I have no doubt they could make a new and original Monkey Island game if they wanted to. This remake isn’t so much an attempt to cash in on the glory days but an earnest effort to bring those days to a new generation.
I also suspect this remake could be the launch of a new series of games from Telltale. If Monkey Island does well, I wouldn’t be surprised to see new episodes rolling out alongside Sam & Max, Strong Bad, Wallace & Gromit, and Bone.
Don’t be jealous. Jedi powers won’t be nearly as impressive once everyone has them.
Shamus Young is the author of Twenty Sided and the vandal behind Stolen Pixels. He thinks Brütal Legend and Dragon Age will be good too, but he didn’t say so because he doesn’t want you to think he’s going soft.