When Good Games Go Bad

Once I was playing this RPG on my computer. The studio behind it had made a few other games about which I had extremely mixed opinions, but I loaded the game’s four CDs up and played.

The game certainly was interesting. You played a corpse in a world that looked like every architectural style from 2500 B.C. to 4140 A.D. had been forcefully combined into one cramped, sprawling city by a team of architects commissioned by Satan himself. Things were going really well.

And then I came across a cave full of rats. And died. And died. And died. Meanwhile, these rats kept getting more and more powerful until I was getting in one swipe, dying, and then winding my way back to this cave to repeat the process.

Fortunately, I tired of this process and uninstalled the game. Unfortunately, I never played Planescape: Torment again. Through the years, I’ve been reminded time and time again of just how great this game is supposed to be. It wasn’t until I read yet another article hailing Torment just this weekend that I realized I need to finish this game, especially since I discovered Torment is not by quite the same people behind Baldur’s “YOUR LIFE IS IN GRAVE PERIL!!! Now go out into the woods and kill bears for an hour” Gate.

But it started me thinking about all of the times I’ve come pretty close to not finishing an otherwise good game because of really inane, stupid segments. Exploding restaurants, forced single-player portions of multiplayer games, that kind of thing. Those are the moments that, when you recommend a game, you have to include a disclaimer for. “Just keep playing - I promise it gets better.” So with no further ado, I present my list of the Top 5 Worst Moments of Good Games:

Sokoban on Speed, God of War (PlayStation 2, SCE Studios. 2005)

I hope that every other development shop in the world was taking notes during the opening level of God of War. You start out pleasuring multiple people aboard an Athenian ship caught in a vicious sea storm and it keeps getting crazier from there. It’s only moments from that unforgettable introduction until you’re in the middle of a rainstorm reducing your foes to bloody heaps strewn about the deck. It’s so instantly stylized and fun that it’s easy to miss that you’re actually in a tutorial.

Wait, but now there’s this crate. All of this great action and pure joy is put on hold to protect a crate from archers. All my awesomeness from before disappeared, replaced by an innumerable attempts to push the damn thing far enough before it’s shattered by one stray arrow. More infuriating is that it is a sequence won not by skill but by luck. You can pull off every move without a single mistake in your timing, but you’ll still need to hope that one particular arrow towards the end probably misses.

This one totally bogus scene stands out vividly as the only bum note in an otherwise beautify symphony of destruction.

Don’t Bring a Gun to a Knife Fight, Bushido Blade (PlayStation, Lightweight. 1997)

Bushido Blade was famous for being a rather punishing fighter. Whereas you can be hit by a broadsword the size of a house in Soul Caliber and keep on fighting, it took just one well-timed swipe of a slim katana to finish a fight in Bushido Blade.

When you actually made it to the bosses, you felt downright godlike. You knew the timing of your death pole of choice well enough to wait for just the right opening to strike. If you followed the way of the Bushido to a fault, then you had an unrivaled level of self-discipline to make it this far. You were ready for anything, ANYTHING!

And then you get shot in the face. Seriously. Shot in the face. All because you square off against “Katze,” who wields a handgun and doesn’t hesitate to use it.

So what about everything you just spent seven fights and lord knows how many retries mastering? Well, unlearn it pretty damn fast because it takes every cheap trick you can muster (or a suitably fast character) to close in on Katze before he caps you.

Should bosses be difficult? Sure. But they should be difficult by cranking up the difficulty of what you’ve learned to 11, not by arbitrarily changing the rules of the game. Even then it’s be one thing for a frustrating change-all-the-rules character to appear in a game, but doing so when the game is nearly over is beyond frustrating.

Did Lightweight learn from this one? The fact that a revolver, an M-16, and bombs are all on the weapons list of Bushido Blade 2 answers that question. I wonder if they would even have bothered with swords if there had been a third game…

Don’t Fear The Reavers, System Shock 2 (PC, Irrational. 1999)

I feel bad commenting on this masterpiece. Anyone who hasn’t played System Shock 2 is wasting time doing whatever you’re doing with your life. It’s legendary in many ways that it’s spiritual successor Bioshock simply isn’t.

So much of this game is casually brilliant, from the gameplay to the backstory to even the minigames you could play on your “GamePig” device. I’ve beaten this game twice now and I still feel that I haven’t experienced all it has to offer. I still wouldn’t say I completely know the enigmatic character that becomes the greatest gaming villain of all time.

What keeps me from playing this game more often, especially in the outstanding multiplayer mode, is that I know I have to enter the Rickenbacker. Without giving away too much, the game up until this point has entirely been made so that you can tackle it however you like. Like machines? Hack the machines to do your bidding? Tend to sit in the shadows brooding instead? Use you psi powers to manipulate the environment around you.

Then, just like with our previous examples, the rules change. Enter the Rickenbacker’s last level and it abruptly becomes a game of delivering as much pure firepower as you can. Specialized in something else, have you? Too damn bad, because you’re going to have to deal with giant rooms chock full of enemies you can’t avoid, can’t hack, and can’t dissuade.

It just breaks my heart to think of that sequence. It stands out not because it is bad (as long as you’re prepared, it’s a decent if typical FPS level), but because everything else in the game is so pitch perfect, so brilliant in every decision.

Well, every other decision.

History Repeats Itself, Half-Life & Half-Life 2 (PC, Valve. 1998 / 2004)

Once upon a time, first-person games without “Ultima” or “Shock” in the title weren’t very interesting or innovative. Then in 1998 came Half-Life from Valve Software. It offered a bevy of elements like innovative combat, superb level design, and creative gameplay that was different than nearly everything else on the market. Gone were artificial, annoying levels that led up to arbitrary boss fights. Instead the challenges were of a more organic, free-flowing nature. You never felt like you were wandering down “just another corridor” like in so many other games.

Finally you make it to the last level, a throwback to innovative shooters circa 1995. My only guess is that Valve ran out of time and subcontracted the alien planet “Xen” to the same developers that made Blood 2. Gone was the great level design and the innovative gameplay. Instead we had stationary, brainless AI that killed you the moment you made it past the arbitrarily difficult platforming section.

The community cried out in agony. Many people didn’t even bother completing the game and instead filled up many an internet forum with their complaints. Valve listened, they said. Things would be different in the next go-round, they said.

They said.

True, the last level of Half-Life 2 wasn’t crazy platforming and instant death. Instead, it was the complete opposite - endless repetitions of drab, identical corridors and a pointlessly overpowered weapon. Hooray, the ending just went from frustrating to dull. The end result though is the same as yet another masterpiece ends on an incredibly bad note. Well done, Valve.

Don’t even get me started on the entirely lame final cut-scene in HL2 that makes the last moments of Halo 2 look like Hamlet by comparison.

And the worst is…

Truth in Advertising, Fallout 2 (PC, Black Isle. 1998)

Fallout 2 was everything a sequel should be. The game world was larger, the number of things you could do were greatly increased. Want to get married? Go for it! Want to then pimp out that loved one? Why not? Gamble away your savings, run drugs, and of course, get involved in the illicit “iguana” trade.

The shame of Fallout 2 is that many people will never know that it’s a great, brilliant sequel. Because the game starts off with the worst level I’ve ever played in any otherwise great game, the aptly-named “Temple of Trials.”

For a game that is based upon the freedom to do basically whatever you want, starting you off in a loooong tunnel poking scorpions with a stick is a peculiar choice. There’s some backstory justification for it, but does anyone honestly remember any of it once the Temple of Trials has sucked the will to live from you? Even without the absurd level of difficulty, this sequence is just so uninspired, so tedious.

However, everything so far falls within the realm of the merely annoying. To grasp why this is one of the worst design decisions ever made in a good game, you have to understand the character creation system of Fallout. Between your skills, perks, and traits you could make all kinds of crazy characters and specializations. The gameplay even encouraged this with most quests involving multiple solutions. However, you had to pick a few skills to specialize in at the onset of the game.

Since the Temple of Trials was literally the first thing you did after starting the game, you were forced to make one of your specializations either Unarmed or Melee Combat to stand a chance of living through the encounter. By forcing that decision, you take away a massive chunk of the customization options available to the player.

In other words, this one level changes the entire game. It’s like being forced to pick RSTLNE in Wheel of Fortune; it makes life easier but not interesting. If I want a pathetic fighter who can patch up his wounds without difficulty, spin lies with the best, and pick locks like a fiend, I should have that choice. I certainly did in the first Fallout.

Not in Fallout 2 however. A sequel that expanded upon the original in every other way actually took a step back, which is a real shame. It’s why the original Fallout will always be the better game without contest.

Lessons Learned

All of these examples have one common thread - create a level or moment which clearly violates the established “rules” of the game world. Yes, there are ways to tweak the rules and play with the formula, but have a damn good reason for doing so, please.

Making sure it’s still fun wouldn’t hurt either. It’s hard to playtest “fun” though.