Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Immersion

One of the things I need to be able to properly enjoy a good game is to spend a whole lot of time playing it all at once, at least at first. After that, I think about it all the time... in the shower, on the way to or from work, and whenever I've got a free moment. I obsess about it: the gameplay, the visuals, the sound... everything. This intensifies the experience for me significantly, and I'm not really sure why. I do this without even planning on it; it just happens. In the rare situation where it doesn't happen, I don't enjoy the game as much, and I can tell a mediocre game from a great one by how much it dominates my thoughts for the first week after my first play.

Though I do spend a pretty notable amount of time each week playing games, it's not much as I would in a perfect world, so I tend to focus on games I know I'll like—sequels to games I've liked in the past, and new games from developers I respect. I tend to get into a rut that way, but it's a happy rut.

For the most part, the games I've been playing recently have been overwhelmingly good. But a few haven't done it for me.

The first that comes to mind is Space Rangers 2. It's a fun game, but it really doesn't hold my attention for very long. I intially thought that it would be a perfect tablet PC game, and perhaps it is, but I never use my tablet. After your first few hours, it's only fun for 30-60 minutes at a time, and that's not enough to keep me amused.

But probably the best example of this is Guild Wars. I don't quite know why this game just doesn't quite grab me. I think that there's a lot of good game in there, but it's hidden by quite a few problems that keep me from enjoying it. It's an absolutely beautiful game (and Guild Wars Factions is even prettier), perhaps second only to Oblivion out of games I've played. Each class has a different feel like a good RPG should, the environments are varied and interesting, and the game has a bunch of innovations that make it fairly unique. The combat is fast-paced and not your standard RPG fare, and there's little downtime required between fights to rest up and heal. But it just can't keep me interested for more than a few days. I think I've identified at least a few of the reasons. The first is that, while there's a lot of questing to be done and the game feels as "finished" as it should be, the player-versus-environment (PVE) content feels like it's just an excuse to make a player-versus-player (PVP) game. Also, the gameplay elements exclusive to the PVE game (excepting things like quests and storyline) are kind of weak. You never, ever find any interesting treasure, for once. The best you come across is some rare item that unlocks new items on your account for PVP characters you create, and just about everything else is components that you turn in in town for new armor. At first glance this seemed great because it avoids randomness, and it's what World of Warcraft is trying to move toward in certain areas, but it removes one of the awesome little parts of a good RPG: a steady stream of cool new treasure. I hate to say it, but there's something to that frustrating randomness that you get from hoping that each monster you kill has some rare shiny thing that you'd look great in. Finally, Guild Wars isn't very forgiving. Death is about as bad as it is in Diablo II—your punishment is walking to where you were before, with a strong penalty to all of your stats. If you die again, the penalty keeps getting worse, to the point where you're far too weak to do anything and have to start your mission over. It's real-time online, so there are no savegames to help keep you focused on what you're doing and reduce the stress of a difficult quest. Guild Wars focuses everything it's got on the combat and beautiful environments, and it does those things well, but seemingly at the expense of the core things that I'm looking for in an RPG.

Another game that failed to grab me that I really hoped would is the most recent Monkey Island game, which wasn't even written by the original author. A Monkey Island adventure game needs three things: an interesting story, interesting puzzles, and great jokes. This game had none of those things. As much as I tried to pretend I liked it and force myself to play it and immerse myself in the game, I couldn't. It's just not good.

Luckily, though, those are the exceptions. I've played so many captivating games recently: Oblivion, Dawn of War, World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, Heroes of Might and Magic V, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory... It's just about the greatest feeling in the world to me. Here's hoping that Command and Conquer 3 is as excellent as it looks.

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