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The trend in video games appears to be toward experiences that can appeal to every skill level and gaming style. It threatens to make labels like casual or hardcore, arcade or sim, increasingly irrelevant. However, in its attempt to please everyone all the time does it risk pleasing no one?
F1 2010 and Medal of Honor are the most recent examples of developers attempting to appeal across the casual/hardcore or arcade/sim divide. The former includes driving assists, pre-race loadouts and flashbacks that help customize the racing experience dependent on one's skill level. While customization in MoH is limited to how you upgrade each class, it combines squad-based tactical gameplay with an arcade style run and gun approach to offer something for everyone.
While both attempts are admirable, they regrettably fail to achieve their lofty goals. For instance, Codemaster's (F1) driving assists prove flawed. With all assists enabled, it was challenging if not impossible to keep up with the field. Interestingly, all it took was disabling the braking assist in order to keep up with and sometimes pass opponents. Still, passing can sometimes be a chore when seeming rubber band behavior can leave you 24th a minute after having been in the pole position and through no fault of your own.
Likewise, racetrack and collision penalties are pretty merciless, even blaming you when rear-ended (and otherwise driving well). In my default car I couldn't see any side or rear view mirror, though changing to a behind-the-helmet perspective revealed them. Nevermind that these views are laggy and otherwise unhelpful. Thankfully, pre-race loadouts also help refine your experience. Too bad that Grand Prix mode offers the best arcade experience despite it's apparent lack of upgradeable vehicles or tracked stats.
The most egregious fault is with the game's main Career mode, where races are a minimum 10-lap commitment not including practice runs and qualifying races. While race parameters are adjustable, they begin at 10 laps, which makes them virtually unplayable for me. Despite being touted as an accessible game with depth for hardcore Formula 1 enthusiasts, not only did I find it mostly inaccessible but many F1 gamers were upset it wasn't more of a simulation!
Medal of Honor appears to tread similar ground. Its heavily promoted hybrid gameplay does not seem to resonate with many gamers. Battlefield Bad Company supporters find its arcade elements incongruous while Call of Duty devotees think the same of its more tactical gameplay. Reportedly Dice fixed some issues since the beta, such as the ease of score chains (i.e. killstreaks) and hit detection problems. However, others technical problems and misguided design choices remain.
The choice to take an objective-based mode like Battlefield Bad Company's Rush and then decrease map size, reduce vehicular options, speed spawn times and introduce score chains/killstreaks in creating MoH's Combat Mission mode undermines both its tactical and arcade elements. The result, at least in the beta but reportedly in the final build as well, is a game that's decidedly mediocre with little to recommend it to either camp, especially over more solid games that are made exclusively for tactical or arcade gaming.
The success of series like Operation Flashpoint, SOCOM or Battlefield is that they focused on their core tactical gameplay requiring careful squad coordination, just as Call of Duty's popularity resides in it having perfected arcade style, lone-wolf run and gun attacks. That said, there's certainly room for a franchise that can find a happy middle ground but the formula that Dice follows, while serviceable, hardly establishes a new standard in online gameplay that can compete with either franchise it milks.
In fact, one can argue that series like Battlefield and SOCOM mine the middle ground for shooters. More hardcore military sims like America's Army, Armed Assault and Operation Flashpoint on the PC have little equivalent on consoles, though I really enjoyed the relative realism of Operation Flashpoint Elite on Xbox. But even SOCOM, with it's new Move enabled motion-control gameplay, might be headed toward more arcade style action. In any event, Battlefield and SOCOM likely best lay the groundwork for solid hybrid experiences that nevertheless are fraught with pitfalls.
Another title that I thought successfully wed seemingly disparate gameplay styles was last gen's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. Ubisoft Montreal's achievement was in taking a previously hardcore stealth series into a more accessible stealth-action universe with pre-mission loadouts that ranged from purely stealth to assault. Purists might bristle at such a sea change but by providing options it opened the gameplay. Traditional fans could still sneak around, whereas those like myself could do so but rely on muscle if our brains failed us.
Also from last gen was the superlative and grossly underappreciated Sniper Elite. This creation of Rebellion Developments not only featured a stealth mechanic similar to Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell whereby you could gauge your visibility but also included an arsenal that allowed for multiple gameplay options. But the real star was adjustable elements such as bullet drop, wind strength, heart rate and breathing that customized the challenge presented by sniping opportunities.
In my opinion, Need for Speed: Shift likewise represents a great example of a game that successfully crosses the divide between arcade and sim. Interestingly, this is another title, like F1, that manages to annoy some in the sim camp, though their complaint is that the game was marketed as a sim but falls short (mirroring my complaint that F1 was not accessible enough despite its hype). Nevertheless, it's driver assists, upgrades and custom options allow for subtle changes in gameplay that should suit virtually any racing style.
Interestingly, my disappointment with F1 compelled me to take Gran Turismo 5 Prologue for a spin again, and I found the degree of its customization allowed for a level of gameplay depth missing from F1. The fact that a game widely acknowledged as a pre-eminent console sim could succeed where Codemaster's reputedly accessible effort fails is testament to the ability of developers like Polyphony Digital to find that middle ground sweet spot. In fact, Slightly Mad Studios' achievement in moving Need for Speed beyond its arcade origins means both camps are finding a common middle ground.
One thing that makes NFS Shift so appealing is its presentation. The quality audio/visual elements produce a realistic racing world, and the effects involved with any collision, including grunts and momentarily blurred vision, up the ante. Namco’s Ace Combat series, too, has been known for its photorealistic elements and overall presentation. For that reason, I’ve always considered it a kind of sim, though it likely bears little resemblance to classic flight sims like Microsoft Flight Simulator. While gameplay dictates whether a game is arcade or sim, presentation can’t be ignored completely.
Where customization is concerned, RPGs set the standard with their deep class selection, character development and loot grinding. That said, a more arcade experience can be had with your typical hack-and-slash action adventure game. To the extent traditional RPGs have incorporated arcade elements, the options to automatically upgrade your character or squad and scale opponent AI to your skill level likely qualify as more accessible features for a casual action adventure crowd.
For instance, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion scales enemy AI to your level and BioWare's Dragon Age Origins and Mass Effect series both offer an option for automatic upgrades. Perhaps a more clear distinction is between the genre's more casual real-time or hardcore turn-based battle systems. But even here, more games are offering the option to stop real time combat to better plan your attack and your teammates' actions. Mass Effect is a prime example. However one approaches RPG game design, choice seems to be the optimal feature, one it increasingly shares with other genres of games.
And of course the most basic means by which developers appeal to all comers is in how they address a game's difficulty. This is most often accomplished in one of two ways, either with multiple difficulties or more frequent soft or hard saves. But not even this accommodation is without controversy, as difficulty varies widely across games and even within the same title, and saves can impact how challenging a game is. Look no further than the imbroglio surrounding BioShock's ever present Vita-Chambers, which arguably diminished the threat posed by Big Daddies.
So the trend very well might be toward making gaming experiences more inclusive of all skill levels, but as history demonstrates the result can be a mixed bag of some quality titles and other mediocre fare that misses the mark. The question is whether this trend is pushed by publishers anxious to make money off the masses, or by gamers voting with their pocketbooks. For my money, the more gameplay options available the better. I'd rather have the option of customizing my experience than having it dictated to me. And while that might result in inferior attempts, there are shining examples of it done right.