Sunday, February 22, 2009

Just tell me why can't this be love? (by love, I mean a great demo)

After watching a really terrible movie on the 360, I decided to cruise some of the recent demos that I have downloaded. Some of them were trial versions of XBLA titles and others were demos of upcoming console releases.

I spent a few minutes in each and will have to return to some of them for deeper analysis. But the overwhelming sense I got from the demos was "meh". None of them sucked me in from moment one. None of them filtered me into an experience that left me wanting more. And certainly none of them made me want to purchase full retail versions.

The demos I tried were:
  • On the Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness (ep. 2)
  • Resident Evil 5
  • Tom Clancy's HAWX
  • Three on Three NHL Arcade
So, 2 sequels and 2 new IP (well, reasonably new IP). 2 XBLA trial versions and 2 retail demos. A variety of different genres.

Were there any unifying flaws of these try-before-you-buy experiences? Not really.

In some ways, it was unlikely that I would really get into the first 2 titles. I've played previous versions of the games and just can't get into the core mechanics. 
  • RE5 is great in terms of mood and suspense, but like Condemned, I just can't get into the claustrophobic game play. In some ways, I'm still not sure how I managed to enjoy Dead Space so much (given it's another plodding/claustrophic action horror game), but I never did finish it so maybe the setting and zero-grav game play could only carry it so far.
  • Precipice is just too UI and word-driven. I love the use of comic strips to tell story (which has been used to great effect in other games like Max Payne) but I feel like I'm constantly waiting for another UI element to load or to quit out of a dialog tree that goes on forever. I never even got to explore the core combat systems. Given that I didn't get very far in the original Steam download, maybe the game is mostly about dialog trees and reading -- which isn't really my kind of game. I also found the world hard to navigate, the UI difficult to parse, and the penalty for clicking the wrong item is severe (you play the waiting game for the next screen to load).
HAWX started out with a bold (but not obvious) premise: To get players flying around in co-op mode with other folks. I'm always skeptical of this kind of experience (I hate playing with strangers for all the usual reasons) and generally skip demos that are MP only. But, ever since I had a blast playing through the Army of Two demo with a stranger, I've been more open to this kind of experience.

The basic flaw with the HAWX demo was that it had no real quick start mode that dumped you into a sandbox "fly around" mode. Instead you needed to worry about decisions like "Starting" a game vs. "Joining" a game (and all sorts of other options). Once the game started you were presented with boring tutorials that were easy to fail or skip by accident which left you stuck, having to guess what the designers meant for you to do to trigger the next sequence.

Unfortunately the co-op experience wasn't a great teaching experience, either. Unlike in a "walking around" game where you are in constant contact with other players and can observe and mimic their behavior in order to figure out what's going on, in a flight combat game usually other players are merely blips on the radar screen. 

There were other critical failings as well: Knowing that 50% of users will probably want to invert their camera/yaw, there should be an easy way to adjust this. The feature is buried under an options submenu that has jargonistic working with no useful help text. Moreover, there is no UI feedback to let you know whether your change registered or not, so I exited out twice without actually changing the option as intended.

But, when it comes right down to it, there is one main reason why I probably won't play HAWX again. Flying the plane is not fun. It feels slow, sluggish, and weightless -- all at the same time. Yeah, there's some rumble when I launch a missile, but I don't really feel like I'm flying a top of the line jet fighter. I realize that it's hard to simulate the kind of speed that these jets are capable of in a way that makes for fun game play. But, still, there are things that could be done to make the plane feel more powerful and deadly. At the very least, using the afterburners should rock my world and make me feel like I've got several g's of force pushing back against me.

Three on Three never really had a chance, unfortunately. I'm too big a fan of NHL Hitz (with 2002 being my favorite version). For a simple arcade game, they managed to make the default controls pretty darn awkward. I think that they violated the basic conventions of most other hockey games which made it hard for me to tell what was going on for the first few minutes (I'd switch players instead of speed burst, for instance).

The awkward controls made the game feel random, the weak team AI made the game feel like an episode of "chase the puck around", and the fact that somehow I managed to "win" even though the score was 0-0 at the end of the game still confuses me.

Sometimes I do wonder about the state of the traditional and console game industry. I know that there will always be awesome games out there (and I've been playing a bunch recently), but when I want to have a guaranteed relaxing and fun time, more and more I'm just firing up Facebook and playing some Scramble, Bejeweled Blitz, or my newest interest: Backgammon (by Turnplay). 

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