Thursday, October 28, 2010

Vanquish, pt.3: Crunch

Today, some thoughts about the controls and systems of Vanquish.

The Handful
When I played the Vanquish demo, I described the controls as almost too responsive -- that they shifted you through the arena so swiftly, and with enough button combinations (try tracking dodging, aiming, firing (LAS+RAS+LB+LT+RT) while monitoring energy drain, at once) that it all felt a bit overwhelming. But I also remember wondering if all of it would feel like a learning curve that you can get better at over the course of the game, bringing some satisfaction to the confusion. I think it does.

Wiggle Room
Not only was the level design a bit more spacious in the final product, giving me a bit more room to breathe, but I found myself getting better and better with my buttons as the game progressed. However, it's really easy to imagine someone else having less patience with such a packed control scheme. If I sense that a solution to my gameplay problems is in the controls, I'll constantly push until I can master what's in my hands, but the game seemed to go out of its way to blame the designers instead of myself, with overheating and nasty death penalties being the worst offenders.

Power Tease
It's exhilarating to slide speedily along the ground and shift into bullet-time to thrash enemies, and the effects surrounding these two ability are where the game really sings. You constantly want to enjoy the thrill of these abilities, but they're limited by a meter that drains way too quickly, and often triggers when you don't want it to (taking too much damage triggers it, and it drains completely). The net result of tasting something so fun and having it so limited is feeling sluggish and vulnerable through large portions of the game. When your overheating siren blares -- especially triggered outside of your control -- you often can't help but feel that the designers are picking on you, and taking away some of the fun.

(As an aside, much of the feeling of combat mastery comes from becoming used to monitoring your energy more closely. It's a challenge because (1) it goes against every instinct you have wanting to be a badass, and (2) it can get hard to focus on energy while moving and aiming.)

Kung Fooled
And the cool mix of shooting and melee you saw in the promo videos? There's nothing to see here. A single punch or kick completely drains your meter, leaving you in the thick of things with no way to get out. Honestly, this was a real disappointment.

Kicking Me While I'm Down
But the worst scenario where design gets on your nerves involves advancement. The game has a uses a simple but fun system where picking up weapons you already have equipped increases your powers with them. At least until I found out that dying strips away some of your advancement. Surprise, surprise, it really sucks to have maxed out weapons drop in rank, and breaks a golden rule of game design: never take anything away from the player. The game might have benefited in tension from my increased desire to avoid death -- it certainly motivated me to get better -- but death occasionally felt difficult to avoid, and I'm not sure it was worth the anger I felt at the game when it landed, and yanked me out of the experience.

But these are critiques. I actually liked the core gameplay, I just wish my enjoyment didn't come with so many restrictions. Last up, some takeaway ideas.

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