ron, Jul-27 2008

Shake, rattle and roll

What a recipe: large-scale battles with thousands of soldiers, war beasts, cannons, catapults and ships raining fire, and swirling above all swarms of dragons. Lair certainly promises a lot. It takes the Dynasty Warriors idea, where your protagonist is an influence on a larger ongoing battle, and extends it by the dimension of flight. Just like in Dynasty Warriors, it's not really the individual encounter that matters, but where you direct your attention at any given time, and how quickly you can move between objectives. Flight though allows the player to quickly switch scales, to zoom in and out so to speak, to transition easily between chewing up individual enemy soldiers and sinking entire ships.
Lair also has profound problems.

Speaking of problems, the graphics are in the clear. Lair looks quite amazing most of the time.

Firstly, Lair's ambitious scale makes it very difficult to locate targets. There's no radar in the game – which may or may not be motivated by realism, which may or may not be a valid reason to omit such a crucial feature – and far-away, fast targets, such as enemy dragons, just blend into the background all too easily, for the split second they are even in front of you to begin with. Your dragon also has a constant forward momentum, making it easy to fly right past targets, which requires you to turn around again to hopefully find it again.
There's a partial remedy in the form of lock-on and limited auto-aiming for your fireballs, but this really only helps when dragons fly head-on toward you. Once engaged in a proper dogfight, it devolves into pure chaos. Sure, you can keep locked on and fire blind, which points your camera and fireballs at your target while your dragon keeps on flying off wherever, but at that point you aren't really seeing nor doing anything anymore. It's not a convenient little helper. It's a crutch that turns off all gameplay temporarily, because the gameplay just doesn't pan out.

The whole malady is compounded by frequent intermittent cut-scenes that rip you right out of the gameplay, place the camera somewhere else and leave you sailing off uncontrollably. I'm quite sure that for some of them the game actually keeps running while you simply lose control for a few moments. It's quite aggravating if you had just lined yourself up properly to approach a smallish ground target, only to be thrown off by a friendly reminder for some other sub-objective. When you regain control, your setup work is wasted and you have to start yet another approach.

Hnnnnggggg. GNNNGHHH!

Pictured above is possibly the greatest annoyance of Lair: the "ripping stuff apart" QTE. There are a few variants of the stringently instructed button sequence in the game, for taking down enemy dragons, or for bringing enemy AT-AT animals down with a tow cable, but none of them is nearly as irritating. The game requires you to shake the controller up and down as hard as you possibly can for somewhere between ten and twenty seconds straight. This is no optional nugget of joy either, but a mandatory process to finish mission objectives. That's right, you'll be doing this multiple times per mission.
All the while you're busy trying to keep your flapping fingers off the start button (which would pause the game) while rattling the hell out of your reigns, you remain vulnerable to enemy intervention. Unlike the takedown QTEs, or generally just QTEs in good games, Lair does not allow you to focus on the QTE alone once you enter it. You have to clear the vicinity of irritants first, which isn't even possible in many missions because of infinite respawns.

There is plenty wrong with Lair, some of it is just disrespect of the player, a violation of game design 101, and some of it are entirely self-inflicted problems of premise. It's too big, has too much variability in scale, too many parts with too little thought put into connecting them all. Maybe that's true to the vision, but what good is a vision when it makes the game so hard to enjoy.
When I look at the best specimens of the greater flight genre, I always think of X-Wing and Tie Fighter (and X-Wing Versus Tie Fighter), and they really just cheat their way around the hardest issue: terrain. You should be busy tracking down targets and evading fire. Given enough targets, and enough fire, that can be quite awesome. Having to also care about upwards, downwards and your distance from the ground is not where the fun comes from. Lair proves as much.

I'd be interested in a Factor 5 game based around helicopters. In space if need be. With radars and the ability to fully stop in mid-air, to go reverse, and to turn on a spot, most of the things that make Lair so unnecessarily frustrating could be repaired. If extra care is taken to avoid stupid QTEs and unsolicited interruptions, it might actually be fun.

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