Variety is the Spice of Life

I’ve been playing a lot of Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor lately.  Good game.  One of my favorites of the very slim amount of PS4 games I’ve played thus far.  I’m enjoying this game quite a bit.  Of course, that’s to be expected.  I love Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham games, and Shadow of Mordor is exactly that with a new coat of paint.

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People have called Shadows of Mordor ‘similar’ to the Arkham games.  That is being very, very generous.  Shadows of Mordor is an Arkham game, in the same way Bloodborne is still considered a Souls game.  The combat is very much the same, down to the individual moves and the controls.  The open world nature and drastically different setting have changed the way the stealth works, but the engine operating it is still carried over.  This game may have a new property, a new setting, and some new systems to work through, but the core of it all comes right from the Arkham series.  Not ‘inspired by’, not ‘with elements of the previous game’, Shadow of Mordor is basically a sequel to the Arkham games with the license plates swapped out.  Shadow of Mordor is the child Arkham never knew about, its seed from a one-night stand and the mother lost Arkham’s number.

I’m not bothered by this.  I don’t consider it a rip-off or anything like that.  Even going beyond the rumors that Shadow of Mordor started out as an Nolanverse Batman game, the developers of both the Arkham Series and Shadow of Mordor are owned by the same company, working on properties owned and published by that company, and I really don’t have a problem with sister businesses sharing resources when they’re working out.  It doesn’t hurt that the Arkham games are some of the best of last generation, and Shadow of Mordor is one of the few games to carry that engine and really ‘get’ what made it so great.

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It does pose some difficulty for me, however.  See, there’s another PS4 game I’ve been interested in that I just haven’t picked up on yet.  Batman: Arkham Knight.  One of the games I had my eye on when I was picking up the system.  Now that I’ve already scratched that itch with Shadow of Mordor, however, I’m finding it hard to look at that game the same way, at least in the short term.  It’ll be just as good as it always was, but it just doesn’t feel as fresh to me, and the thought of moving from Shadow of Mordor directly to that game already has me worried about burning out on the engine. I still want the game, but I feel like I need a break.

With videogames, we see something similar, where games just jump on whatever genre is du jour at the time, flooding it with whatever titles they can tie to it like an angry god to a sinful earth.  Back when I was growing up, that was platformers.  Then, briefly, a wave of JRPGs hit.  After that, the industry seems to have settled in on shooters.  Doesn’t matter the specifics of it.  Other industries do that as well, one company taking a risk and finding something that works only for everyone to pile on and squeeze it for what it’s worth.  Leads to a lot of repetition.  Leads to a lot of experiences that are largely the same.

And, you know, it probably affects tastes the same way.  Just like my immediate interest in Batman: Arkham Knight has waned because Shadows of Mordor tastes the same, I imagine the endless sea of shooters, superhero movies, quirky fantasy cartoons, or what have you would start to feel a bit less enticing, too.  Once you get one filling your needs, the next, unless it does at least something to mix things up, will start to feel just a little blander.  The one after that even moreso.  The stories are still just as good as if they were taken in a vacunm, but the experience itself doesn’t have the same impact.  Starts to get like eating when you’re already full.

Milking a genre is not good business, for exactly this reason.  That’s why we start to complain when a genre gets too tropey, even if objectively the titles are better than what they used to be.  It’s dangerous for businesses in the long term, as consumers will start to look for the new flavors themselves.  Things are most fun when they’re fresh, when they’re new, when the experience feels bright.  And that’s something that a style we’ve just been seing too much of is going to have a hard time with right out of the gate.

Variety is the spice of life, after all.

The Only Thing Worse than Redoing a Bad Job is Redoing a Good One

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I’ve heard it said that the DLC is the best parts of Borderlands.  And I can see why.  The dev team really seemed to pick up their game when it came time for the Add-on content.  More humor and character shines through, you get a lot more variety in your enemies, the battles are more intense, and the game just seems more creative in general, like they’re trying out all the concepts they were too scared, inexperienced, or schedule-crunched to add into the vanilla game.  Really, taking all factors into account, I should be having more fun with the DLC than I was with the regular game.  But I’m not.  And that irritates me.  I was having a big, unlucky bandit-shaped blast with the regular game!  The DLC, on the other hand, is just something I’m kind of slogging through.  What I should be enjoying the most is making me stare at my screen in anguish.  And it’s all because of one simple reason.  It’s because the DLC keeps making me do the exact same thing every time I start it up.

See, in Borderlands, both base game and DLC, missions will send you all over the place.  You may have to collect 100 Bear Asses in one area, then go make some Soylent Green Brand Chunky Salsa in another area three loading screens away, then have to return to a third map in a completely different location in order to turn them all in.  In the base game, that works out just fine, thanks to the magic of Fast Travel!  You don’t have to worry about transit in between them, if that area’s already explored, you can be right there!  Not so with the DLC.  For whatever reason, there’s only one fast travel point per add-on, right at the beginning.  You’ve got to take the long way around to do anything.  Which, thanks to the amount of back and forth you go through, that enemies respawn every time you go through a loading screen, and that the simple act of loading a save takes you right back to the first area, means you spend a lot of time covering ground that’s already been tread.  With bullets.

Repetition is not engaging.  It’s not fun.  I know I can’t speak for every player, but personally, there’s few faster ways of causing me to lose interest in a game than making me do the exact same things I just freakin’ did.  In the Borderlands DLC’s case, the problem is that I every time I start a play session, I have to spend fifteen minutes to a half hour just making my way back to where I was at the end of the last session, walking in my own footprints, re-icing the guys I already killed, spending the same time I already paid last time around.  By the time I get to the content I want, I’m already bored, frustrated, and pissed off with the game.  Not exactly the feelings any game should want to instill.

Back when I was a cub, this kind of repetition was just a fact of life of gaming.  It was how almost any game punished you for losing, by making you play the whole blasted game again.  And it’s a really piss-poor way to handle it.    Video games deliver in a variety of ways.  Usually they’re fun and entertaining.  Sometimes, they may be touching and enlightening.  At other times, they may instill a feeling of triumph.  But however video games find their value, it never benefits from making the player do the same thing, over, and over, and over again.  There is nothing to gain from redoing a good job.  The task loses some of the fun factor, becoming more and more dull every time the player has to repeat it.  The story will absolutely lose its pacing and impact when the player has to go through it again.  And it’s hard to feel triumph by overcoming an enemy you’ve already beaten.  You will never be able to add to the experience by making the player re-cover the same ground.

Game designers have recognized this for a long, long time.  It’s why Super Mario Bros. had that simple  “re-start from the world you’re on” cheat I could never work out.  It’s why Mega Man gave you a password every time you ended a level, whether victorious or not.  It’s why the Legend of Zelda had the capacity to save.  And fast forwarding through the history of gaming, it’s why check/save points, fast travel, and so many other convenience features exist in games today.  As I mentioned in a recent comment over at Red Metal’s house, I think that’s one of the biggest advances the medium has made, in that games have cut down on how much it requires the player to cover the same ground.  Game designers still have plenty of hiccups in implementing the philosophy, however.  And it almost always hurts these games when it comes up.  I’ve had an excellent time with Borderlands.  The DLC should be even better.  Yet I can’t load it up without having to grind my way to the content I actually want, and it’s killing the game for me.