Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My horror story

Edit: I should probably mention this earlier in this post lest anyone get the wrong impression. I don't dislike consoles or the games that are best designed for them. There are, in fact, many games that I think excel on console and should only ever be played on console. Fighting, driving, sports, shmups and platform games are all examples of these. My issue lies when games and more importantly, game design suffers when games that shouldn't be built for consoles are. It is of my strong opinion that both RTS and FPS games fall into this domain, and why I have such a seething resentment for FPS games that are built exclusively for the console market. It should never have happened to FPS games and they are worse off today because of it...

Recently I attended a social event organised by my university colleagues and I to play some games that involved catchup options in modern games. To provide an example of what a catchup option is, think of the Ultra bar that charges slowly when you take damage in Street Fighter IV. It is something that allows a losing player to equalise the playing field, should they know how to effectively employ it. A lot of fighting, racing and even FPS games have them. I do not have a problem with catchup options as I am all for allowing players who are losing considerably, slight advantages for them to still remain competitive. As long as they don't tip the balance in an overpowered manner or effectively rubberband the winning players from their deserved position. I am, however, totally against options that allow a winning player to continue winning ... but that is a heated topic for a later date.

So ... this event. We played a number of games and people generally had fun. There isn't really much to say about the specifics of what happened as it would probably seem pretty boring to an observer/outsider. There was, however, one thing that stood out dramatically for me which is why I am making this post. I consider it a brainfuck of epic proportions now that I think about it, mainly because it both proves and hammers home everything that I despise about console FPS games. Yes, it's one of these posts again. Sif not.

While I was busy fighting some people in SSFIV (a game I still consider to be terrible at), I couldn't help but notice that Halo Reach was being started up on the TV adjacent to the one a group of us were playing on. I wasn't aware of there being catchup options in a game like Halo Reach. In fact, I was quite certain (and still am) that there are not, as it is in fact the opposite of catchup with the whole regenerating shields/HP bullshit that it spawned in the last generation of shooters. Nevertheless, for some bizarre reason, I was curious as to why everyone was so keen to try it out. What was I missing?

As the afternoon continued, I noticed some people were giving up and handing controllers over to others. It seemed like some of the people, namely the ones who wanted to play the game in the first place, were feeding off the less competent in a rather egoic fashion to the point where the less fluent were not willing to contribute anymore. Some of the non-fluent players openly admitted to finding both the genre (FPS) and the method of control (360 controller) to be cumbersome, which I remember thinking was a fair statement at the time. I did not inquire as to what their preferred genre or method of control was as I was too busy pullling off an Akuma Ultra, but it did irk me somewhat. Eventually my sparring partner and I had enough of fighting each other and surrendered the game to another two people, so I made my way to the other television, only to squint at it in utter disbelief. Now, we were playing on rather large 50" TV's at a reasonably close distance. Admittedly my eyesight is not perfect, but it wasn't so much a resolution issue as it was a framerate and visual clarity related one. I suppose the 360 shouldn't be expected to run four instances of the game (at least from a UI point of view) in four separate windows for four players with any respectable visual magnificence, but it seriously looked like something from the early 2000's. But then I noticed that one of the screens wasn't moving. There was also a controller on a seat where someone had given up and just left it there. I don't know why I did it, and I regret doing it even now, but something akin to the competitive berserker I knew in my early years of UT99 fired at that point, so I grabbed the controller and sat down.

I remember being quite enthusiastic. "Why not?" I thought. Surely they can't be as bad as I have been preaching all these years. Maybe I have just been a misinformed, biased lunatic and simply havn't gotten over the hump that is the torture of using a controller for playing FPS games. If I could get past that, maybe I could look past all the other bullshit that evolved as a result of it.

Below is a graph of my enthusiasm over time:
Note: The game played was actually Halo Reach, but it is essentially the same

Roughly linear, it took me less than a minute to go from a highly enthused, keen-for-frags young man to a blank faced, eye-twitching Hannibal Lecter, observing the silly man who could not play his instrument properly in the orchestra. To an extent, that pun is two-fold. I was watching a tiny screen of a player not doing things correctly ... but I was watching it from a player who knew how to DO them correctly. You see, in that less than a minute of play I had performed the following sequence of events:
  1. Turned around, taking a good second or two
  2. Moved to the end of a corridor, in what seemed like a year of gameplay
  3. Realised it was a non-obvious dead end with nothing in it and and frowned at the point of the corridor
  4. Walked back down the corridor, looking back at the SSFIV screen longingly while doing so
  5. Exploded around a corner from a grenade not thrown at me
  6. Respawned back in the corridor
  7. Ogled worriedly at the responsiveness, speed and sensitivity of the controls
  8. Started a gunfight with someone who got the jump on me
  9. Noticed the significant amount of auto-aim granted
  10. Still managed to shoot walls and windows more than I shot the dude
  11. After a year, killed him (I think I had more shield regenned due to floating around jumping)
  12. Got one shotted in melee
  13. Respawned back in the corridor
If I wasn't holding a controller I think I would have face-palmed around about that point. I continued playing for a few more minutes, longer than what that graph suggests (you get the point though). At some point I found a sprint button and laughed out loud at the meager increase in speed it offered, sacrificing aim. Everything. Everything I had been saying and ranting about for the last few years was still true. Worse in fact, if that was possible. I remember thinking how had we come from the glorious days of Quake, UT and Half-life to this shamble of game play and mechanics? The precision of keyboard and mouse, the multi-task capability of the PC, the flexibility of graphical and control settings, the variable and ever increasing speed of the internet, LANs where everyone would bring their own terminal and comfortably do what they wanted, when they wanted, how they wanted ...

... to sitting in a stinky, cramped room around a TV, squinting at 1/4 of a screen, trying to make out the environment from the UI/weapon, taking forever to do anything using a horrible control peripheral with a horrible control scheme, fighting the game more than I am playing the game, a game that is apparently a FPS and supposedly a good one at that. HOW!!!?? Why is this considered normal, good and fun? This has to be the shittest FPS experience I can think of!

Halo Reach - your average frag video (recent)

The thing is, it is considered normal. Not just by the developers, the publishers and the general media. By the consumers. This is apparently what the average consumer wants and what the average consumer considers to be an enjoyable FPS experience. At some point during my play I actually glanced at my opponents/colleagues in bewilderment, eyebrows raised, to see their reactions. They were having a ball! Laughing, joking, merry as can be. I felt sick. Have I really been missing something important all these years? Hours of fun playing console FPS games with friends, squinting my eyes into blindness at 1/4 of screens every weekend? My god, surely the problem wasn't me ...

But then I looked at their screens. At what they were doing. The simplest of movements. No vertical aiming. No circle-strafing. Chasing someone for ages with a powersword, to kill them instantly only when they stopped moving. No jumping. Camping on weapon/player spawns. No defensive retreats, no running backwards pot-shotting around corners. No strafing, checking corners, looking behind for an instant to check for chasers. No sense of awareness, no sense of self-preservation, no strategy and no plan.

Nothing that I was doing and everything that I wasn't doing.

It was then that I realised ... that they were all just a bunch of scrubs. To them, seeing enemy and running forwards while pressing fire was the limit of their FPS capability. Even with auto-aim, wrestling to keep the crosshair on a target using the horror that is console controls WAS the challenge. Everything and anything that goes beyond that exceeds their ability to perform in a multi-task manner ... and I couldn't blame them. I was struggling to perform 1/2 the shit I was doing in a timely manner and more often than not, it was getting me killed. So used to circle-strafing a target while engaging, quickly checking a door way while bunny-hopping, checking for respawns and equalising distance based on enemy location/firepower that it was actually inhibiting my ability to play the game. Simply put ... you CAN'T! At least in any acceptable amount of time. The sluggish controls of the console controller and the responsiveness translated into the game are not worth the effort of doing. So you are quite literally forced to just move forward and shoot if you want to have the advantage over someone you come across. You meet them, you shoot before they shoot, you wrestle to keep the crosshair on them and whoever did that better wins. Gee-fucking-gee!

Quake 3: Arena - your average frag video (old)

I remember back in the day I would have struggled with this even on keyboard and mouse. Aiming, moving and shooting were the limits of my skill. Over time however, it became muscle memory, a reflex that is instinctively ingrained in the way I play these games. I don't think about it, and I think for a lot of people who grew up playing FPS games on PC it would be the same. So you consider other things, get better at other techniques, learn weapon mechanics and so on and so forth. Not for every game, but at least for those that offer them. When you go 'back' to a game where all you really have to think about is aiming, moving and shooting because that's all you really can do ... it's hard to break out of habits. I want to do certain things and I just cant do them. This is, in my opinion, a problem.

I didn't voice my opinion of the game at the time, mainly because I knew it would have gone on deaf ears and because it wasn't what other people wanted to hear. As much of an elitist prick I can be on this blog at times, I know when my views are not welcome in a social situation. So, I swallowed my pride, took my helping of fail and smiled politely when the owner of the game boasted of their score at the end, repeatedly. Remaining humble and collected was more of a challenge to me than expressing my opinion, something I think more people should do more often concerning other topics in life. I did quietly kick his ass at SSFIV later though :)

So, to cut a long story short, this event can be summed up as a realisation of two things:
  1. Console FPS games (like Halo Reach) are not designed to allow players to employ many of the techniques, skills and logic that origintated from their PC ancestors
  2. People enjoy playing the aim-move-shoot mini-game that essentially is these sorts of games nowadays because its all you can do and because it is in itself a challenge due to the impracticality of the controller
Subconsciously I have always known this, but to see it laid out in front of me from a first-hand, social experience is horrifying.

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