This was going to be a bumper period for gaming; a first quarter offering the latest in three of gaming's biggest and best franchises. In Resident Evil 4, Knights of The Old Republic II: The Sith Lords and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, I was all set for the best new year since... well, since January 1st didn't mean a hangover, exhaustion and sleep deprivation... whenever that last was.
On paper, rarely has a new twelve-month cycle started so prosperously for gamers. In fact, rarely does three months ever throw up so many prestigious titles outside the obligatory Christmas rush. The daddy of Survival Horror, the 2003 RPG of the year and the PlayStation's best ever game were all set to receive sequels. My anticipation was high, my bank card was poised and the catflap was nailed shut. The animal could feed itself for a change; the pigeon population in this area needed thinning out anyway, so I was doing us all a favour, really.
Yet, over two months later, having pondered the merits of gaming as an eco-friendly hobby whilst ploughing my way through villages, castles, labs, research facilities and miles and miles of jungle terrain, I've noticed a certain trend developing. Nothing to do with pigeons or cats (though curiously I've seen none of either, recently), but very much impacting on the contemporary state of this alternative, digital life I have carved through a recent sum total of twelve weeks' gaming.
That trend is anonymity, or rather, a distinct lack of personality. Perhaps not in story or screenplay, but in setting scenes for these stories devoid of identity. It's a trend overlooked amongst the marketing, washed away by hype and by fanboys looking to give their favourite franchise the big love-in they think it deserves: "OMG!! Th15 R0xoRz!!11", and countless other uneducated proclamations failing (or refusing) to note the design shift sweeping through a console generation's defining batch of adventures.
The time is August 1998. The place: my bedroom in deepest rural Staffordshire. Except it's not; it's still 1998, but the place is Raccoon City Police Department. I'm taking my fledgling footsteps in Capcom's terrifying Romero-alike horror fiction sequel, Resident Evil 2, and I'm feeling genuinely chilled for the first time in front of a screen, be that while holding a joypad or not. I've just encountered the Licker. I run away, like a coward. But hey, I'm alive. And yet, having found a keycard, I know that at some point I'll have to retrace my steps, traversing that very same corridor and taking on not only that hideous freak of nature again, but also my own capacity to feel a purely primal fear. And so I backtrack. I open the door and stand there, ready to make a dash, ears pricked for the sound of shuffling claws, eyes darting side to side and with my thumb firmly planted on the run button. Live or die (though obviously I'd prefer to live) in retrospect it really didn't matter. I loved every second.
Fast forward to 2004. I'm somewhere in Europe, or rather, Leon S Kennedy is. I'm safely sat on my bed, now in London, playing Resident Evil 4. I've just escaped a bludgeoning in a nearby hut, and tried my best to ignore the off-putting weapons salesman and his out-of-place West Country twang. "what're ya buyin'?"... err, as little as possible from you, thanks. I don't know where you've been.
I now find myself in a walkway-based village, somewhere high up next to a range of cliffs. Howling villagers swarm at me, pick-axes in hand. Music grates and screeches. My shotgun clunks and booms. The action is relentless, the sounds unsettling, but the fear-factor is very different. No longer hinted at, anticipation has been quashed by a more in-your-face approach that owes more to DOOM than traditional Survival Horror. Moreover, after a short spell of semi-explorative fleeing, I reach the area exit and never look back. Having yielded little of mystery or use, other than the key to the exit, I realize the chances of my entering the area again are slim. I continue onwards, ploughing through each area in much the same vein, rarely seeing a place more than once and never able to choose my own route to a goal. An area map is handily provided by the gaming gods and I simply make my way towards the next objective point. The freeform sensation is lost, as is the feel that areas offer much in the way of exploration - or, indeed, ever had a real purpose in the game-world before the protagonist arrived. Less a village, and more a linear designed-for-game maze: Raccoon PD this is not.
Back to '98, this time November. It's a Thursday. I'm sitting down to do my homework when I receive a phone call from a friend; he's got me an import copy of Metal Gear Solid. The picture may be grey from having a non-NTSC television, but my initial assault on Shadow Moses Island is no less great for it. I weave in between patrols, ducking behind crates and into open trucks. And I feel like a super-spy, a bonafide and true one man army - a ninja for the 21st century. Metal Gear always was ahead of its time.
But the kick - the absolute crux - of the MGS experience is brought home to me in the instance that I'm faced with my first infiltration of the Tank Hangar. Having been awestruck by the scope of my task in the building exterior - scoping in on guards, memorizing patrol patterns and waiting patiently for an opening from my safe vantage point at the elevator - I now must guide Solid Snake through the unknown territory of an entire structure from a bottom floor ventilation shaft. And it is here that the depth and sophistication of new console technology is hammered home to me. The simple change of perspective from first to third person is something that wouldn't have been possible on 16 Bit machines. Games had changed and Metal Gear summed it all up in one gripping, scintillating and heart-stopping scene.
It's a feeling that the opening of 2005's Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater fails to reproduce. Amidst copious cutscenes and the almost endless exposition of that infamous codec screen, something else entirely different irritates. The problem here is not the series' typically stubborn way of doing things - heck, if you don't like codec dialogue, don't play a Metal Gear title - instead, it's an irksome design quality not present in the previous two games in the series.
The jungle, if you'll excuse the pun, bugs me. In an instant it sees the series go from hi-tech thriller to low-tech and plodding: options for attack are few, tension at stalking enemies is outweighed by frustration of repeated alerts, and the jungle canopy offers few hiding places for such an event. Hiding in long grass, far from the vent of the original Metal Gear, only disorientates and tries my patience; moreover, the areas are linear and lack defining landmarks. Even more punishing, however, is the flatness of the ground and dearth of set-pieces. The level design of Sons of Liberty is absent here, and this third Metal Gear game is proving more survival simulator than the fun sandbox game of its forebears.
Progression in these opening sections seems a chore, and the game only comes to life when reaching the area of Rassvet: a broken and crumbling research facility with shades of the Helipad of MGS1. For the most part the game's jungle areas are throwaway thoroughfares: once you've seen them, you're done. And as with the environments in Resident Evil 4, they lack the character that comes from spending significant time within their confines. Identification is a big factor here, and in both games it is the one quality toned down from previous series instalments.
Present day, and I'm bored. Bored of dull, grey corridors and (literally) lifeless enemies. Fed up of tiresome drip-fed back-story and obscurely referenced plot points. I'm disappointed that the opening of Knights of The Old Republic II: The Sith Lords falls some way short of my expectations.
The Peragus mining facility is no Taris. Drawn out as Taris was ("When do I get a lightsaber, dammit!"), it had character. And that was mainly because it had characters. Fear, sadness, loss, elation; none of these can be expressed by an army of mining droids, but all and more were communicated to me in September 2003 by the inhabitants of KoTOR 1's first planet.
So why did Obsidian do it? If reviews are to be believed, this is a widely recognized low-point of an otherwise absorbing adventure, but the design decision to place the player in a colourless clandestine facility at ANY point of the game - let alone the beginning, where new converts are won and lost - has to go down as a serious and senseless deviation from the norm.
It's likely that they wanted to distance Sith Lords from Bioware's original epic by foregoing the hub structure that Taris (and every other planet in the game) utilized, but as with Metal Gear 3 and Resi 4, the resulting linearity makes me long for warmer, more likeable and familiar climbs. Apparently Dantooine is one of the planets revisited in KoTOR II, and I play now as much to see how it fares in this new timeline as I do to discover the mysteries of the plot itself. I await the return to hub-based progression as I did with Resi and Metal Gear, and I hope that it will deliver an experience as enjoyable as the ending chapter of Snake Eater in Groznyi Grad, or Resi 4's Research Facility finale. On reflection, however, even with these boundary-pushing endings, the lack of cohesion between start and finish in both games, as well as the beginning of Sith Lords, still seems a shame.
Perhaps it's me. Perhaps in all my experiences of games galore I'm going cynical. Or perhaps it's that, in the rush to get out a sequel that differs significantly from its forebears and genre peers, developers are sacrificing series integrity on a level we've not seen before. The industry's rapid growth and crowded nature makes things even more competitive, and this is the result.
It's certainly not something film fans would stand for. Imagine if Return of The King had eschewed the panning shots and focus on beauty of the New Zealand landscape that Fellowship and Two Towers had delivered so artistically. In Lord of The Rings, Middle Earth itself is a character; it draws people in and makes them care, and the films are never afraid to revisit areas later in the story to stress their importance. Indeed, that Sauron would raze it all to ash is a tragedy even above that of the nine central characters and their ultimate plight. In gaming, however - and especially the games mentioned above -, the player character is the be-all and end-all, with the game world itself merely his action bubble.
Ultimately, videogames are interactive, and the fact that we spend most of them playing, rather than watching, means aesthetic values can often be looked at as fairly superficial. Yet, if the comparison between the media is ever to hold weight and lend credibility to the hobby, developers need to start considering their own back catalogue - aesthetics and all - with the same respect as 'Rings director Peter Jackson did Tolkien. Today's formulaic area design issues need to be the first concern addressed, before yesterday's design ideals become little more than fondly remembered retro ideology. Without this consideration, new "improved" next-gen sequels could feasibly desensitize en-masse a generation of cultured gamers appreciative of that superficiality as the very thing they identify with. In short: a series' structural soul.
Shenmue 3, anyone?