Nothing disappoints me more than having my expectations met. I managed to see The Matrix without knowing what to expect, and as a result it was a fine moviegoing experience. Lair, one of the first in a series of high profile PlayStation 3 games due out this year, met every expectation I had when I picked up the controller. If you haven't been paying attention to games sites of late ... that's bad. Pushed for time and under pressure from higher ups at Sony, Factor 5 has poorly rehashed the same formula that made for a couple of very playable GameCube games. The difference? Lair is, in some places, literally unplayable. It's disappointing, and a frustrating way to begin my relationship with the PS3. Read on for my thoughts on Lair, and what might have been.
- Title: Lair
- Developer/Publisher: Factor 5 / Sony
- System: PlayStation 3
- Genre: Flight Shooter
- Score: 1/5 - This game is unfinished/unplayable. It is not worth the trouble of purchasing, or renting.
As the game progresses, we get hints of deeper elements to the story. The two groups are not mono-cultures; there are factions on both sides manipulating events to their own ends. Some of the voice acting isn't bad and while the plot itself isn't the most original tale ever told, it's competently woven. Julian Eggebrecht was the writer for the game, and the same hand that guided storytelling successfully in the Rogue Squadron games does a fine job here.
The game's attempt to evoke a place is greatly helped by the fact that it's visually stunning. It's an old saw now that this generation is no longer 'next-', but screenshots really don't do the game justice. Seeing the dragons in motion is a treat, and the digital actors are better than average. The landscapes really stand out as well, with everything from craggy seascapes to verdant pastures beautifully rendered by the PlayStation's raw horsepower. One early level has you facing down opponents while flying around a massive rock tower, which itself features pieces that are turning in place. It's a complicated environment, but thanks to the detailed graphics it's an easy one to understand. Whatever else should be said about the game, it's important to note just how beautiful Lair is.
The Problems: Everything Else
The reason, of course, that it's important to note that ... is that is just about the only nice thing I can say about the game. I moved past the controls introduction stage, and played through the first level, with no problems. I fought some dragons, killed 'em, landed and slaughtered some troops, and everything was good. There were little things that bugged me, but I assumed it was just because I was new to the controls. So I pressed on.
The way you control your steed has drawn the most frustration from critics. Indeed, the PlayStation 3's motion control system is incredibly unsatisfying here. I regularly found myself tilting the controller hard left, only to see my dragon happily smash into a wall. A few times when I tilted left or right the thing would actually go in the opposite direction, which would seem to defeat the point of having the player provide input in the first place. In short: it only sometimes works. Given that this is the very first thing you do in the game (turn left, or right, or fly up), and that the gimmick hinges on one of the back-of-the-box PS3 features, I would have figured this to be a mandatory 'get it right' situation.
Instead, the control experience feels nothing short of 'mushy'. Above and beyond turning, any attempt to complete a 'special move' has a very low chance of success. In order to do a 180 the player is instructed to pull back sharply with the controller in an upwards movement. I think that motion resulted in my dragon executing such a turn only twice in the time I spent playing the game. Other ways that my dragon interpreted that command include: ignoring it, turning slowly in one direction or another, diving, rising, and then diving again. My personal favorite reaction to that controller input was 'speed way up', which invariably ended up with my dragon and I slamming into a wall or enemy.
The title's showpiece stage, the conflict between two armies on a bridge, has been used at numerous events to highlight the game's features. Instead, for me, it was where the game turned from a title I was struggling to enjoy to a game I was actually angry that I had to keep playing. You're constantly bombarded by new objectives, and your only means of ascertaining the location of these targets is a big blunt arrow. It's just as unhelpful as it sounds, and can easily result in blameless failure as you go on a futile hunt for 'those guys you just saw' in the thousandth cutscene this level. Not only does the game remove your ability to choose what you're doing by making you rush back and forth across the map, but once you're there you are forced into solving the problem a specific way. "Dark Dragons" have to be killed via the horrible wave the controller back and forth minigame. Giant bulls must be slain by waving the controller up and down vertically in another (equally unfun) minigame.
I really wanted to like this game. I set my expectations (mentioned above) very, very, very low for this title. I figured that if I assumed the game would be utter crap going into it, there was almost no way I could be disappointed. Instead, Lair precisely met my dialed in crap setting. Beyond the first few levels the opponents (who are not hampered by the game's poor interface) become oppressively hard while the story takes a back seat to 'yet another excuse for a dragon-to-dragon dogfight'. Even the graphics stop looking that great when you've been staring at a stage's backdrop constantly for the last hour or two, literally fighting with the controller to get it to do what you want.
That right there is what makes this so sad. If they had allowed you the opportunity to use the controller's thumbsticks, this would be a completely different game. The lock-on system and lack of a proper radar would still be frustrating, but at least the game would be playable. That said, I can't wait for the rest of this year's PlayStation 3 offerings. I'm really looking forward to Ratchet and Clank, and even more to Drake's Fortune. This game, though, is a devastating blow for a title-starved console whose owners (including me) are ever trying to justify the high price we paid for entrance into Sony's version of the 'HD era'.