Sunday, March 20, 2011

Turrets' Syndrome

It wasn't the fact that I was firing a mounted machine gun from the back of a driverless wagon in the rural Italy of 1503 that swore me off turret sequences. But it didn't help.

I like Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. Ubisoft can keep cranking out Ezio chapters indefinitely, for all I care. I'd never say no to another beautifully-rendered Renaissance stab-fest. But I'm maybe halfway through this game, and it boggles the mind that I've already had to endure not one, but two turret sequences.

I understand the desire to spice up gameplay that can become formulaic—travel here, trail this guy, stab him in the back, jump into a hay pile—with something a little different. You know the old saying about variety and spice. But throwing a turret sequence into an Assassin's Creed game is like spiking your martini with mayonnaise.

To some extent it's an no-win proposition for developers: Make sure your game is chock-full of variety, but don't stray from your core mechanics. Don't bore us with the same thing over and over, but don't do anything too far afield from what we're used to. It's one of many Kobayashi Marus in the design world. You're inevitably going to piss off someone.

I'm all for developers taking risks and throwing curveballs at the player by way of jarring, even unexplained changes in the core mechanic. It's a mark of respect, in a way: It's telling the player you think she can handle a new challenge, a different mode of interaction. If a game is really smart, it'll use that shift to advance or reinforce a theme. (Ahem.)

But I think it's safe to say turret sequences haven't done that for a long-ass time, if ever. I'm talking about scripted sequences, of course, not games like Halo or Left 4 Dead where you can choose to man a turret at certain points if you want to. (L4D in particular has some pretty brilliant turret placement—particularly in the second level of the No Mercy campaign, where there's a hole in the floor behind the turret and you have to have a teammate watch your back while you fire.) No, I'm talking on-rails, shoot X number of cowboys/spaceships/Borgia guards to complete the mission, then back to your regularly-scheduled military shooter/open-world sandbox/survival horror game sequences.

Look, I like shooting galleries. In an arcade, at a giant cabinet? Sure. In a console game? Kinda played out.

Weird thing is, I actually used to dig turret sequences. There was something interesting about the tension between the enormous power of a minigun at your fingertips and the danger of having to stay immobile while you were being shot at. But after suffering through interminable gatling gun sequence after interminable gatling gun sequence in Red Dead Redemption, and very nearly rage-quitting Dead Space during that goddamn meteor-shooting minigame, I'm just done with them. The turret sequence has become a trope to be endured rather than an exciting change of pace. So you can imagine the intensity of the eye-rolling that occurred when Ezio jumped on the back of the Leo-Mobile.

Maybe because it's become such an expectation, it's become a lot more difficult to pull off an enjoyable turret sequence. This is probably blasphemy, but I found the helicopter turret sequence in 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand way more enjoyable than the few in Battlefield: Bad Company 2. In the latter game, wonky checkpointing and unclear damage indication hampered the experience. The former game makes it clear it wants you to treat it like an arcade game, which maybe accounts for the better implementation.

It's gotten to the point where turret sequences, no matter how well done, will leave a bad taste in my mouth. Mowing down dozens or hundreds of faceless enemies doesn't make me feel powerful anymore. It just makes me feel like a mass murderer. Even in games like Assassin's Creed, which are very pointedly about being a murderer.

So I wonder: is that the irony of the videogame trope? Or is it the irony of the weapon itself?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Pre-PAX Update

This Friday, PAX East 2011 kicks into gear. I'm stoked to be covering the event for my pals at Gamer Melodico. I'll be sure to link to that coverage here once it's up. Hijinks: guaranteed to ensue.

Friends unfamiliar with the greater Boston area convention center scene, and who are you because we may have to not be friends anymore until you correct that, rest assured the new venue is much larger than the Hynes. Last year's event was pretty cramped, and now that the organizers have a better idea exactly how many folks will flock to our fair city for the weekend, I'm confident the environs will be more accommodating.

I mean, I'm still gonna bring my DS, though.

Regular Infinite Lag readers—all three of you—will notice I haven't kept up my typically torrid posting pace lately. I've obviously been putting all my energy into punchy alliteration and poor attempts at sarcasm.

I did manage to conserve at least a little energy, though, for a piece I'm quite proud of: "Data, Commander." It was my first contribution to Gamers With Jobs, the site that, single tear, really got me started writing seriously about games. Shawn, Sean, Julian, Rob, Lara, Cory, Allen, Erik and the rest of the motley crew over there have built an amazing community and consistently produce terrific writing and a top-quality podcast. I'm honored to be welcomed into the fold.

I'm also continuing to write for Kill Screen as long as they'll have me. In addition to the two reviews I've done recently—one on free browser game ...But That Was [Yesterday] and another on Xbox Live Indie Game Cthulhu Saves the World—I've got a piece in the upcoming print issue. Speaking of which, you really ought to do yourself a favor and subscribe. You won't regret it.

There are a number of games I do want to jabber about here on the blog, including recent acquisitions like Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and Dawn of War II: Retribution, but I'm afraid they'll have to wait until after PAX. Sorry, games, and sorry, visitors. I love you both, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and terribly cliché thieveries on which to end blog posts.