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?


  1. I couldn't say this any better. In fact, I rather hated Bulletstorm for its early on-rails sequences. Kind of fails to put the "fun back in the gun".

    I fail to recall a single scripted turret level that I enjoyed, or at least one from a recent game.

  2. Man, that stupid meteor-shooting sequence.

    If there's going to be a turret, at least give me the option not to use it. I actually thought L4D did it right, because if you stand at the turret without cover for more than a couple of seconds, you're going to be zombie food, there's just no two ways about it. It's when I'm anchored to the thing that I start to get ANGRY

  3. Just played through the meteors in dead space on pc. I use an xbox controller, but for that part I had to switch to my mouse and crank up the sensitivity to maximum, and still couldnt get all the meteors!

    Most fun I had with an on rails was when I was the driver! The boat chase at the end of Modern Warefare 2.

    I think the best turret sequences are created when your character's health is not in significant danger-or if you are still capable of defending yourself with the lack of cover/mobility, when success depends more on what you choose to shoot rather than being able to destroy everything fast enough, and a good dramatic tension has been created which invokes the idea that the turret is the perfect weapon AND your only/best chance for survival in the current situation.