I am sometimes often accused of being too critical when I judge gameplay mechanics. For example, while I understand that an invisible wall is sometimes the best way to limit a player’s movement, generally I find them to be a product of lazy game design. I also think it is cheap to temporarily take away a player’s abilities during an encounter just to make it more difficult (like removing Ezio’s ability to use “acrobatics” in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations or decreasing the player’s health in Bioshock).
I feel the same accusation mounting as I write this, but I cannot help it. For a while now I have felt that games lack a certain amount of creativity in their plots. It was difficult for me to put my finger on it exactly, but I felt like I encountered the same story in every game I played, even though they were very different at first glance. After I thought about it, though, I realized that there are two plot devices that are far too common: zombies and super weapons.
Try and think for a moment of a game you have recently played that has used zombies or super weapons. I bet it is not difficult to do. It feels like they are everywhere these days. Need a new “twist” for the player to fight? Just add zombies! How about some ultimate evil the player needs to stop? A super weapon will do the trick!
I decided to compile a list of games I have played recently that used either (or both) of these elements, intentionally leaving out games where the main focus is zombies (like Dead Island or Left 4 Dead).
The Flood – Halo
Steelport Zombies – Saints Row
Husks – Mass Effect
Crazed Workers – Deus Ex
Freaks – Crackdown
Lambent – Gears of War
Infested Marine – Starcraft
Zombies – Borderlands: Zombie Island of Dr. Ned
Hollow Men – Fable
Undead – Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare
I am sure the list goes on and on. The reason I dislike zombies so much is not because they were poorly thought out or poorly implemented in these games. For example, I am a big fan of the Halo series and the level which introduced the Flood, 343 Guilty Spark, scared the crap out of me the first time I played it. The Flood were easily my most hated enemy in Halo: Combat Evolved. No, the reason I dislike them so much is (if you will excuse the pun) because they have been done to death. A game designer can take any enemy and turn it into a zombie relatively easily.
Zombie-type enemies are simply not engaging enough. Applicable to all of the above examples, zombies are twisted versions of an enemy already seen in the game and their only strength comes from their numbers. A better way to make enemies more interesting is increasing their AI or giving them a weakness which is difficult to exploit. I have recently played Borderlands and I focused on playing as a Sniper. Each enemy has a weak spot. Humans have head shots which are relatively easy to hit, but dog-like creatures called Skags only expose their weakness when opening their mouths to growl at you. Spiderants are heavily armored from the front but their abdomen, which is completely obscured if the spiderant is facing you, provides a weak spot. Hitting a spiderant in the head will cause it to become dazed and spin slightly, exposing the abdomen. Simply spawning a lot of enemies is a cheap and easy way to increase the difficulty but it really ends up reflecting poorly from a gameplay standpoint.
Halo – Halo
Deathwing’s Cataclysm Spell – World of Warcraft
Crucible – Mass Effect
Reorigination Device – World of Warcraft
Xel’naga device – Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty
I dislike super weapons for a similar reason. It just feels so cheap. It is as though the game designers wrote themselves into a corner story-wise and needed to come up with an escape. “Crap, the player is up against truly big odds. We need something so powerful that the entire game hinges on its control.”
Again, using Halo as an example, while I really liked the game, the entire Halo array seems too much of a stretch even for a science fiction game. It is essentially a system of ring-worlds spread across the galaxy that wipe out most life when activated. Not all life mind you, just the life with sufficient biomass and cognitive capabilities to serve as potential hosts for the parasitic life form known as the Flood. How does it work? Who knows? It sure is convenient though.
The Crucible from Mass Effect 3 is even less believable. It has the power to re-write the DNA of all organic and synthetic life in the galaxy? Huh? What does that even mean? At the end of the day, whenever I see super weapons like this used I get a little sad. Their control is a handy objective to rally to, I get it, but it would be nice if a little more thought was put into the story.
Come on game developers! Stop using these simple and convenient plot devices and come up with something that has more depth instead. Gamers would appreciate it more than you may think.