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23 October 2015

The 7 most glorious failures in videogame history

The games that tried to do something great, but didn't quite succeed.

By Phil Hartup

Videogames have always required pioneers to improve. These pioneers, more often than not, come from the legions of indie developers, who, like their predecessors way back in the early days of the medium, have to overcome fiscal and technical limitations with sheer creativity in order to create good games. Outside the indie sector, however, experimentation is just as important, though it is perhaps rarer. Every so often developers and publishers have to be willing not only to try something new, but to back up that experimentation with big wads of cash that they may never see again.

Sometimes these experiments are best forgotten, like that multiplayer thing with the giant monsters that was teeming with expensive DLC from day one, or that one that was like GTA except you played as a brooding douchecanoe with a smartphone that caused explosions. Such games probably deserve a place in history as cautionary tales, but that history is for another day. Here we’re honouring a magnificent seven experimental games that tried to do something great, but for whatever reason didn’t quite succeed.

1. Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines

The first of these is something of a classic, but also something of a disaster. Bloodlines combined great characters and mature storytelling with a limited open world setting and a brilliant array of replay options thanks to the different types of vampire you could play as. The writing that underpins the story and characterisation is still some of the best you’ll ever find in any game and while it looks a little square and blurry by modern standards it is still perfectly playable.

The problem for Bloodlines was that it wasn’t playable at launch, not even close. At launch it was a mess of bugs that struggled to run on the best available hardware of the time. Indeed it didn’t work properly for years and perhaps never would have done at all without the frankly heroic work of a modding community who have preserved and improved the game to a level far beyond that which its developers ever managed.

Bloodlines was such a costly failure that it doomed its developers to closure, leaving it without further official patches or any hope of a legitimate follow up. It seems oddly appropriate that it has achieved much greater influence only after it was pronounced dead.

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2. LA Noire

This odd duck of a game attempted to create something of a new genre, an open world detective game with the emphasis on interviewing suspects. Traditionally detective games have tended to basically be puzzle games, but LA Noire set its stall out to be more than this, a game where you could read the faces of the suspects to identify liars and where you could get your hands dirty both investigating crime scenes and bringing down armed suspects.

In theory LA Noire was shooting for the moon, in practice, it didn’t make it to orbit before it crashed and burned, taking its developer with it.

The first problem was that LA Noire never seemed sure how it was going to be a game. You would search for evidence, you’d interview suspects, but the progression in the game was so dependent on your succeeding in these tasks that it refused to let you fail. This made the experience painfully linear given what it was meant to be trying to do. Secondly the combat felt arbitrary and an uncomfortable fit, the car chases and shootouts at complete odds with the tone of the rest of the game and not helped either by their somewhat poor implementation. These flaws tend to be the kind that can be smoothed out over a series, but such seems unlikely for LA Noire.

LA Noire represented an attempt to create something legitimately new and exciting. While it lamentably failed to clear the bar it set for itself that bar remains. We can, thanks to LA Noire, imagine what a good action detective game might look like, in simple terms, ‘Like LA Noire, only better’.

3. Planetside 2 

This represents a huge personal disappointment for me because it was a game I’d wanted to see for years. Planetside 2 was a game that fans of the original Planetside had been dreaming about since the first one climbed into a super-powered mech suit and jumped over a shark with its Core Combat expansion, but when said sequel finally emerged in 2012 the disappointment was palpable.

Planetside as a series has always tried to create huge scale first person shooter battles, the stuff of a Call of Duty cutscene writ large by hundreds of players at once. The first game never quite made it to huge scale, limited as it was to around five hundred players per server, but the sequel did a much better job, upping the numbers to nearly two thousand on any given map. It could have been revolutionary, perhaps it should have been, but alas it was not to be.

The problems that largely sank Planetside 2 came down to misjudging its audience. The original game was relatively slow paced, encouraging strategic thinking and teamwork. Planetside 2 however was a colossal Battlefield game that traded grand scale over the moment to moment polished experience of the established shooter franchises. The change in focus was a disaster. The fans who had loved the original game since way back when found themselves cut adrift with little connection to the new game, while the fans of traditional shooters didn’t stay too long. For all the efforts to streamline the game Planetside 2 was still complicated and opaque to many of its players.

All that said, seeing several hundred players shooting lumps out of each other, rolling in great columns of tanks, or swarming the skies with aircraft, was spectacular. On a good day, in the right fight, Planetside 2 was something unique.

Sooner or later somebody is bound to try once again to create a massed battle multiplayer game, and if they do we can only hope that the lessons from Planetside 2 will be learned, because now we’ve seen that such a game can be made, all we’re waiting for is somebody to make it right.

4. APB

Another online game that tried to break new ground but instead slammed into it like a hundred weight of green jelly was the critically panned multiplayer GTA-a-like APB. APB got a lot of things right, from its incredibly detailed character, clothing and vehicle customisation options, to the ruthlessly competitive nature of the missions that players partake in. The game cast you as criminals or sanctioned vigilantes on an open world map, criminals would start in on a mission and sooner or later, depending who was available, the Enforcers as they were called, would be dispatched to stop them. The missions would break down into a series of short phases, with the final one usually taking the form of a direct confrontation of some kind.

The pacing of the game was spectacularly well done and the missions were intensely competitive all the way through. The game also didn’t pull punches; if your team was good then it wouldn’t hesitate to throw larger groups at you.

Alas APB went wrong in more than enough ways to torpedo any game. The competitive nature of the game was brilliant if you were winning, but if you were losing it was painful. The multiple decisive moments in every mission, if they went against you, made the whole thing feel a lot more punishing than just getting beaten once. The untrammelled pain of defeat served to drive a lot of players out of the game, sufficient for the player population to enter a death spiral. As fun as the game could be it never came to terms with just how brutal it was.

Couple this ruthlessness to a really strange business model and a horde of other minor problems and the game was doomed. It wasn’t helped either by the fact that, while it looked and played like a very well presented indie game, APB was, and still is, one of the most expensive games ever produced. After launch it went under faster than a set of brick water wings, but the game now lives on as APB: Reloaded.

While it might have been a costly catastrophe for many of those directly involved with it the educational value from a game like APB cannot be overstated. In some ways it serves as the opposite of a proof of concept, a stern warning that, while people might think they want a competitive GTA style game, in practice they probably don’t.

5. Sleeping Dogs

This is another game with distinct overtones of GTA that somehow managed to mess things up. Sleeping Dogs took the GTA formula to Hong Kong, replacing over the top firepower with martial arts and GTAs misanthropic comedy plots for a classic undercover cop with divided loyalties thriller straight out of the Big Book of Classic Hong Kong Action Movie Storylines.

Sleeping Dogs when viewed piecemeal should be a great game. From the driving to the fighting to the characters everything is original, creative and well-engineered. Yet somehow it just doesn’t come together. The problem lies in the fact that when everything is assembled the tone of the game simply doesn’t fit with the action; the seriousness of the character drama at the heart of the story cannot withstand an action set piece where you batter people with a fish. I love a good character drama and I love being able to club dangerous underworld figures into unconsciousness with assorted species of sea life, but I’m not sure I want both on the same plate.

What this leaves us with is an unfortunate lesson in how storytelling in a videogame has to be handled. You can make an ambitious, original and innovative open world game, you can tell a tried and tested story within it, but you’ve still got to make them mesh.

6. Mirror’s Edge 

The last two heroic failures aren’t necessarily failures by the usual run of things, but they certainly didn’t find their feet right away.

Mirror’s Edge was a profoundly experimental title when it came out. The perspective was recognisably first person and some elements like the story, structure and combat systems were familiar but the actual game itself was unique. The visual style and the movement mechanics were such that that the game could perhaps only really be accurately described as a racing game on foot. The visual styling, using red objects amid a largely white world to symbolise the route to the finish line gave the game a distinctive look that also provided the player with information while not forcing them to break the flow of the game by looking away from the action.

What Mirror’s Edge represented was one of those unicorns of game design, a game that knocks its design objectives out of the park first go, without needing a series, a sequel, or even a giant patch to get it right. It could have been better and certainly a lot of people were hungry for more, but it was pretty close to perfect from the off.

The problem however is that Mirror’s Edge was so radical a departure from both the platform games and the first person shooters that it resembled that it didn’t find a particularly large audience, nor did it find universal acclaim. Making a brilliant game is all well and good, but if it is not the brilliant game that a person buying that game expects or wants, they might not like it. Such was ever the problem with Mirror’s Edge, a fantastic game about something that people didn’t necessarily want to do.

7. Crysis

Crysis deserves a mention, just for its sheer single minded determination to have the best visuals in any game ever made. Crysis was a game so dedicated to looking pretty that it had no respect whatsoever for the hardware that it would be expected to run on. It wasn’t that Crysis was poorly optimised either, it was just trying to do so much that when it was released in 2007 the PC that could run it with all the settings cranked up simply didn’t exist.

Crysis didn’t just have detailed models and textures; it created a sense that its world was a tangible place. Objects could be picked up and thrown around, even the enemies. Walls could be knocked down, roofs could collapse and vegetation could be shredded by gunfire or flattened by vehicles. To this day no game has matched that quality in the environment that Crysis created. Coupled to a really slick interface and some nifty special abilities for your character like super-strength and invisibility the game was a huge amount of fun.

It wasn’t just the ludicrously optimistic system demands of Crysis that hurt the game at launch, though they certainly helped. The game possessed an absolute stinker of a story about North Koreans and a crap alien invasion while being populated with utterly pointless characters in ridiculous situations. For everything that the game did right in its beautiful, expansive maps and its great main character skillset it only rarely brought these toys out to play. The first casualty of the crap alien invasion was fun.

For all the millions of pounds sprayed into the abyss in the making of these games the contribution they and many others like them have made to the development of the medium is priceless. While the plaudits and profits always seem heaped atop the latest Next Big Thing or the Regular Safe Franchise, it is the games will to take risks that make the biggest impact in the long term.

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