Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The 10 Least Inspiring Locations of This Gen

In the property business they say it’s all about location, location, location. In the gaming business we’re inclined to say that it’s all about big guns, physics engines and credibility defying breasts. But then we stopped to think about it, and realised that location plays a huge role in the quality of a game. Moving from one convincing environment to the next gives you a sense of progress. Being able to interact with or alter your surroundings helps draw you into the game world, and sometimes it’s just nice to run your eyes over the game and utter a heartfelt ‘cool’.

On the other side of the coin, there are those unimaginative game worlds that merely repeat what has gone before, or which feel more like an excuse to provide some corridors and cover rather than a place that might have a real existence when armoured meatheads aren’t shooting the place up.

With that in mind, we’ve compiled our list of the ten most and ten least engaging gaming locations. We’re starting with the ten least-keep an eye out for the ten best in the next few days.

New Mombasa / Halo 2 & ODST
For a pivotal location in the battle for Earth and the final resting place of a vital piece of Forerunner Technology that could doom the galaxy, New Mombasa doesn’t half look like the shopping precinct of a 1970s housing estate. The empty stairwells, corridors to nowhere and echoing, poured concrete plazas full of seats and no reason to sit. It’s a place with no life of its own, no purpose. It’s a good job the rest of the Halo series has so many other high points like the Cartographer’s Island and High Charity, because if this was the best thing on offer then the biggest threat from the Covenant would be some obscene graffiti and giggling Elite’s throwing Cheesy Wotsits at local pensioners.

The Citadel /Mass Effect
The other great sci-fi gaming epic of this generation fares little better. Mass Effect’s centre of government, the Citadel, is probably supposed to impress us with its antiseptic enormity but alas it fails. Gentle piped in music, miles and miles of shiny, ergonomically curved white plastic and wandering officials who spout hundreds of words, of which maybe one in ten is useful. Is that the centre of a galactic government or a Sunday afternoon at Comet trying to buy a washing machine from a teenaged salesman?

Stilwater / Saints Row 2
Poor old Saints Row, always dismissed as nothing more than a gangsta tinged rip off of Grand Theft Auto. But where GTA has become progressively bleaker, Saints Row has revelled in lunacy, offering poo-spraying missions, crazy wardrobes and demolition derbies. For all that it has kept the fun, however, Saints Row’s Stilwater simply doesn’t have the lifelike feel of Liberty City. There are too many identical blocks, empty lots and lengthy flyovers that give Stilwater a city’s size without a city’s density, a problem compounded by weaker graphics and dodgy physics that lend the game a cartoony feel that only increases the lack of authenticity. It’s still more fun than watching Niko Bellic’s loved ones getting puree’d on a set of realistic church steps though.

The Capital Wasteland / Fallout 3
I’m going on the record here, Fallout 3 is one of my favourite games of all time, and has sucked more hours of my life than just about any game with the possible exception of Age of Empires II. I love Fallout 3. But in all the 100 plus hours I’ve spent trudging round the wasteland you know what I’ve noticed? Geological formations that can’t be explained by nuclear explosions, buildings that sit where no one would put them, and a certain depressing uniformity to the rooms, sewers and caves that make up the game. Despite standout locales like Megaton or Rivet City, you’ll spend many more hours opening the same doors at the end of the same corridors, in buildings bizarrely placed miles from the nearest settlement but strangely close to a hill too unfeasibly steep to be traversed. Sorry, just not buying it.

Felucia /Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
Felucia, like Paris Hilton’s knickers, is a world of angry yeast. The similarities don’t end there-the Felucia experience is shallow and tiresome and is heir to a hotel, we’ve stretched this as far as we can. While the gameplay and room system in SW:TFU was repetitive almost from the start, it managed to avoid becoming tedious simply by being so much fun, at least until you got to Felucia. Once there you’ll kill a few mushroom men, QTE a couple of Rancor monsters, dodge a few spitting flowers, rinse and repeat, and repeat, and repeat.

While other levels in the game recycled the run of the mill slaughter, they at least kept the boss fights to a minimum. Felucia, on the other hand, drops Rancor after Rancor on you, setting you up for a series of tiresome QTE kills that rob the game of the fluidity offered by the standard combat. By the time you’re finished with Felucia, SW:TFU has changed from a fun romp into a tedious grind.

Manhattan / Prototype
Prototype is both a mystery story and a mystery game. Full of great ideas and gameplay mechanics, it somehow fails to add up to the sum of its parts. At least one of the factors in Prototype’s ability to underwhelm is its portrayal of Manhattan. The idea that it starts out as a convincing, scaled down copy of the world’s largest metropolis and gradually decays as the games central bio-crisis takes hold is brilliant, yet Prototype’s Manhattan is a strangely lifeless city. Perhaps it’s the strange mistiness of the graphics, the endless expanses of red brick walls, or the cut-and-paste generic buildings that break up the recognisable landmarks. This is a game that gives you the free running abilities of Ezio or Altair, combined with the powers of Resident Evil’s Tyrant, then sets you loose in a foreshortened, desaturated playpen that’s so dull that you won’t bother to use them.

Metro City / Condemned 2
Perhaps we’re being uncharitable about Condemned 2 due to the oily nausea it provoked. We’re not talking about the violence, although that was pretty grubby even by videogame standards, we’re referring to the head-bob effect that slowly bounces your view up and down, up and down until there’s gas in your throat and what feels like a gallon of castor oil in your belly. It’s bad enough that the simple act of walking around the game makes you reach for the Kwells, but what’s far worse is the texture of the city you walk around in. You remember the way the backgrounds in PSOne games would resolve only a certain amount of detail as you walked towards them before giving up and simply magnifying what was already there, resulting in outsized, out of place textures? Well here we are 17 years and two console generations later, and Condemned 2 is still doing that.

Enemy Territories / Quake Wars: Enemy Territory
The Battlefield series has proven that team combat with differing objectives that must be met by a variety of character classes is an incredibly popular basis for an online multiplayer game, but you wouldn’t know it to look at Quake Wars: Enemy Territory. The game combines those basic conceits with the trappings of the perennially popular Quake series to almost universal public apathy. If wind could whistle through empty servers, then that would be the soundtrack to Quake Wars. Which is a shame, as there’s fun to be had, as long as you don’t pay too much attention to the generic sandy brown landscapes, interchangeable gunmetal buildings, mechanically laid out corridors and irrelevant Kirbytech that dot the numerous maps. All too often the game boils down to escorting a comedically overwrought vehicle to a preposterousy overdesigned macguffin through a shamefully uninspired landscape. Still, at least the gameplay is fun.

E.D.N.III / Lost Planet
Snow. More Snow. Greyish snow covered building. More snow. At first the arctic conditions of E.D.N. III are powerful-they bring to mind nuclear winter or, to a certain type of geek, Hoth. There’s no denying that they are beautifully presented, but the more you slog through Lost Planet, endlessly circle strafing to hit the Akrid weak spots on the rear of the villains, the more you bored you become of the endless environmental variations on a theme. It’s always grey indoors, snowy outdoors. After hours of play you’ll reach the end of the game feeling as if the final mission takes place just around the corner from the first. We’re all for visualising a world and sticking to it, but Lost Planet should have discarded the design document more often.

Balmoria / Conan
Conan holds the slightly backwards honour of being the crappiest game we can’t wait to play again. It’s derivative, buggy and occasionally less than true to the character, but while you curse those deficiencies throughout your play time, you can’t help but enjoy the exuberant hack-and-slash action that’s never less than perfectly paced.

For the most part, the game’s environments keep you immersed as well-Stygia looks suitably pre-Egyptian, the caves of the Man-Apes and the Barachan Isles could have come straight out of Robert E Howard’s deliciously purple prose, but it all goes wrong on the final level, Balmoria. You started the game here, and now you’ll end it here as well, except that Balmoria, already aged, has become inexplicably ancient during the intervening spell of game time. Everywhere you step cracks are forming, stones are falling and bridges are crumbling. Suddenly the joyous hack-em-up has become a tedious platform game with dozens upon dozens of jumps and traps, made all the more frustrating by dodgy camera angles, ropey collision detection and the occasional glitch that steals all of your momentum in mid-air.