Thursday, May 27, 2010

Vehicle sections...what's the point?

Lately I've been racking my brain trying to come up with reasons as to why the videogame industry is in the state its in. You've heard it all before haven't you? Casuals are killing gaming, gamers are killing gaming, Activision, Ubisoft, EA, motion-controls, so on and so forth and blah blah bleh. I can tell you one thing that isn't killing gaming and it's the vehicle-sections. Yeah that's great and all but if they're not killing game just what are they there for? They certainly aren't making games better. I'm starting to believe that the reason vehicle-sections exist is because it allows game reviewers an easy out. Rather than having reviewers force themselves to become more critical so that they come to expect more from the games they talk about, they can stumble over a vehicle-section and say: "Wow this game could have been a bonafide classic, but they made me drive a tank through an explosive poisonous swamp, so it gets a 9.5 out of 10." It's certainly convenient, but in the long-run it's doing a disservice to both reviewers and gamers.

To start off we must determine what a vehicle-section actually is. Let's say you're Corporal Jordan Prince and you're running around shooting terrorist nazi aliens. Everything is all fine and dandy until suddenly Captain Ahab gets shot out of a jeep and you have to take over. This drive might take an hour or even less than five minutes but it is guaranteed that the game has suddenly become not as good as it was before as well as after the time spent in this vehicle. A vehicle can be anything that doesn't require the player's feet to touch the ground and the section comes from the fact that these parts take up a minimal percentage of the actual game. So again the question must be asked...why are they there?

To further clarify what isn't a vehicle-section let's go over a few things. Racing games are obviously exempt unless of course there's a racing game where the player is forced out of the vehicle to do push-ups or chat up the ladies. Grand Theft Whatever-styled games don't count either since most of the time you're going to need a vehicle anyways. A handful of games tend to use vehicles in most of their scenarios. The most classic example that comes to my mind at the moment is Halo. That's the type of game where vehicles are good, because they are usable in both the campaign and multiplayer, and they're pretty seamless in how they're handled. Granted there are a few instances where vehicles are needed but by that time the player has grasped how to use them properly. However, there are other genres like puzzle games, RPGs, and they definitely shouldn't have vehicle sections, but some "clever" guy will manage to shove one in there somehow or another.

At one time or another, vehicle-sections actually sounded like a great idea. When we think of action movies what's one aspect of them we typically enjoy? The car chases. There could be guns shooting, explosions, cars flying off the road and doing wild stunts. For that matter, who doesn't love it when the good guy grabs an Apache or something and goes nuts on the bad guy's hideout while they send in F-15s or whatever to take him down? It all sounds like great material to put into a game and yet all too often the implementation is off. Sure they can throw gamers a bone in the form of a basic tutorial, and ease them into this section any way they can, but at the end of the day gamers usually have nothing but bad things to say about them. Like many other things in movies that games try to emulate, it all ends in failure.

The common answer seems to be that it's for the sake of variety. I'm not one to talk because I think variety is a bit of a dirty word. In fact I think of it as an excuse a developer uses because they aren't confident about the quality of their game. They're worried that gamers will tire of shooting or stabbing for so many hours and maybe they want to do some driving or flying for a little while. It's nonsensical most of the time, because so many of these games feature multiplayer where surprisingly enough, there are no vehicles to use. Maybe the developers are fine with this because nobody plays the campaign anyway so why even bother?

The biggest problem with the vehicle section is that it imposes limits. You're a Guerilla Commando stalking the forest and taking out enemy implacements through clever traps and/or just blowing them the hell up. Next thing you know you get shoved into a boat to deliver medical supplies to orphans. Can you even shoot a gun while driving the boat? Most likely that's not happening. You will do this for a short amount of time, yet more often than not you will have died more times in this section than in the entire rest of the game. Even if the numbers are reversed the ratios don't add up. Let's say you die 3 times in a 5 minute vehicle section and 10 times in the rest of the ten-hour campaign. This is not good game-design. Rarely do these sections turn out to be remotely in the realm of good, and if for whatever reason they turn out to be better than the rest of the game... Well, hopefully those developers aren't working anymore.

As much as it pains me to say it, this design-philosophy isn't something that can be blamed on this current generation of games. Take the Genesis classic Shinobi 3 for example. Sure enough there are two stages of the game that take place on vehicles. They are there because Sega felt that gamers would get tired of being a Ninja for less than an hour and maybe they'd be interested in being a Surfing and Horse-riding Ninja. Again it isn't surprising that these two sections are the worst parts of the game. Shinobi 3 is still a great game, but one can only imagine how much better it could actually be, if those two sections of the game were replaced with stages that suited the rest of the game. Shinobi for the PS2 didn't have any vehicle-sections and it turned out great, so it's even more of a shame Nightshade (its sequel) had to include a few.

Granted our friend Hibana doesn't hop on a ninja-skateboard at any moment in Nightshade, but she does hop on the backs of moving vehicles. This can be considered a vehicle-section since again limits are imposed in terms of real-estate and potential for gimmick-hazards. These are a bit trickier to point out because we see them fairly often. I'm reminded of the Taito arcade game Crime City which had a mind-blowing (at the time) stage where the player progressed by jumping from car to car. It's important to keep in mind that aside from the visual difference the mechanics and stage layout were quite the same. Nightshade offers no less than three vehicle-sections and while one serves as a fairly standard tutorial the other two involve lots of jumping between vehicles in order to survive. They're also the worst parts of the game, something I find to be hardly a coincidence.

Another great example is Gears of War. What do people usually consider the worst part of the campaign? Ah yes, the vehicle-section... What a shock. Nothing says gutsy team-based up-close-and-personal shooting like frying crows with a giant spotlight. Obviously the best approach for the sequel was to have more vehicle sections. Now we get such genius sections as the "drive a tank over thin ice" or "sit in a raft and try not get swallowed up by a giant...thing" and everyone's favorite "cut through the insides of a giant worm". Yes if you want to get technical that isn't a vehicle section but hey if it managed to transport Marcus and company a few dozen feet it may as well be a vehicle. The less said about the finale the better. Really I can not understand the thought-process here. Most people agree on the worst aspect of the first game yet rather than dumping it entirely for the sequel it is instead built upon. A five minute vehicle section has ballooned into possibly two hours of vehicle sections. It's a painful sight as far as I'm concerned.

At this point I'm starting to wonder which developers are actually immune to this filth. Earlier this year Bayonetta was marred with them. I guess they're there to appeal to the .01% of Sega fans that actually cared for that sort of thing but they're horribly implemented at best and do little more than bring down a great game. Mario Galaxy 2 has pretty much the same deal going on. Granted at the moment they only represent a tiny fraction of the game but that's not a good excuse to have blemishes (the Fluzzard or whatever it's called really had to go).

I think from now on if these developers want to save any face maybe they could pull a stunt like the guy who directed No More Heroes and say something to the effect of "We put bad vehicle-sections in this game purely as a joke." I see no reason to take them as anything otherwise and from now I'll be more than glad to point out every game I review that has a vehicle-section and as a bonus I'll even be a little extra critical 'cause hey... Why not? I'm sick of this nonsense and I really don't care what anyone else thinks. The way I see it there has never been a good vehicle-section and the best they could ever hope to be is superfluous as well as an excuse for a reviewer to not give the next big thing a ten out of ten(then again that part isn't guaranteed either). If nothing else the next time you're making a game and you have the choice between a better conclusion, a couple extra months of testing, or a vehicle-section I hope that you make the right choice.

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