Monday, March 01, 2010

One goal short

I underestimated the US Hockey team. I didn't think they were good enough to win a medal, but they took Canada to overtime in the final game. These Olympics were an incredible stage for hockey, as teams of All-Stars competed against each with a passion consistently absent from All-Star games. I've never seen better hockey than the two US-Canada matches, and the idea that the NHL might not approve an Olympics break again in four years is beyond farcical. You couldn't have a better advertisement for a struggling sport than what was on display in Vancouver.

In between hockey matches, I've been playing Dante's Inferno. Sadly, I'm not impressed. It looks fantastic as you journey through Hell, accompanied by Virgil and his recitation of lines from the immortal poem. You battle legendary creatures on a quest to save your love (Beatrice) from Lucifer's eternal embrace. But with all this going for it, the game still falls well short of what it should be.

Imagine a battle against Death himself, with his Scythe as the prize. Sounds epic, doesn't it? But what if I told you this battle occurs two minutes into the game, while you're still mashing buttons trying to figure out what's going on? That there is no suspense, no buildup to this epic moment, but instead you are whisked into it before you've learned anything about the character, invested in a single skill, or discovered your first combo move? Suddenly, it's a lot less than epic.

The form holds throughout the game. You're whisked from boss fight to boss fight, and while you're battling Charon, Cerberus, the Judge of the Damned, and Cleopatra, your world is reduced to a tiny sliver of Hell and a series of repeated moves. There's no mystery, no suspense, and thus no climax. It's just a series of 'epic' battles with some puzzles and routine slaying in between.

The interface is annoying, as well. It breaks the basic contract of "left-stick move, right-stick rotate camera" that almost all platform games conform to. In Dante's Inferno, the RS instead causes the player to dodge...and while I appreciate how integral that function is to the game, and how important it is to be able to dodge quickly, I get really annoyed when I can't turn my fucking head. I want to look around and experience the environment, especially one as well-crafted as this, but instead I only get to see the viewpoint that the developers thought I should see (which in certain corners, is nothing at all.) This half-assed camera treatment, along with the word Exalted! appearing on my screen when I perform several combos in a row, reminds me far too much of the worst video game I've ever played. Additionally, the interface is extremely contextual, and you're reminded constantly of these contextual changes by little buttons that appear above your target...reminding you that now is the time to mash 'B'.

Finally, several memories of Dante are not built with the game engine, but instead remembered through cartoonish animation - it must have been a stylistic choice, but it doesn't work at all. If you want me to become immersed in your gaming world, you need to avoid 1) cartoon memories, 2) floating button reminders, and 3) the inability to move my fucking neck. When you lovingly craft the nine planes of Hell, with walls of screaming souls, raining fire, and monstrous bosses...player immersion seems like a logical goal, right?

This game would have worked so much better if it was slightly should drop into Hell with no idea how to find Beatrice, and you need to make discoveries and alliances in addition to slaughtering your way through. (Surely, Hell must be political.) When you're linearly dragged from tiny area to tiny area, you never get a sense of scope, discovery, or accomplishment. And contextual clues about the interface should work into the game believably - instead of knowing it's time for a finishing move by seeing a flashing tombstone reading RT hovering above an enemy's head, how about bleeding wounds, staggering, or even something artificial but less obtrusive - like a status bar? I don't want to be constantly reminded that I'm sitting on my couch with a controller; I'd like to believe for a few minutes that I'm actually a scythe-wielding hero beating back the legions of Hell. Sadly, Dante's Inferno rarely affords me that opportunity.

Still, it's mildly entertaining, and I can't help but smile as I re-live one of the first pieces of classic literature that I actually enjoyed. And there's been some hints that the entire adventure has been set up by Lucifer himself, as part of a nebulous plan to break the seals which imprison him in Hell. So there's a chance yet for some suspense and an epic confrontation, but so far the game has been a huge disappointment.


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