Feb 052010

My review of The Saboteur has gone live at GameCritics.com (spoiler alert: I really liked it!) after a modestly torturous rewrite. It’s a vastly larger game than any I’ve reviewed before at that site, which led to an enormous imbalance between my notes and the size of the review. I spent almost 48 hours in the world of The Saboteur, which means I have many pages of notes that had to be boiled down significantly before I could get anywhere near a readable size. Games like this are so large that reviews could easily become a ponderous, ten-page affair, and there are a number of sites that don’t put any reins on that kind of approach. Those bloated, feature-counting reviews are, in my opinion, part of the reason that game criticism has been slow to grow beyond software criticism. Yet, games are software, and they often have bugs or shortcomings that become increasingly obvious as more time is spent with them. A game like The Saboteur has tons of little things wrong with it, and some of the other games I’ve reviewed had a few little things wrong with them. When I write the review, I discard most of those criticisms, but I can imagine somebody reading those reviews and wondering why I didn’t talk about problem X.

Let’s stick with The Saboteur for some examples. Now, the situation with this game is complicated by the fact that it was released after EA dissolved the developer, Pandemic Studios, citing a need to reorganize. It’s tough to say how much the game suffered as a result—at the very least, some locations in Lorraine hint at planned DLC that will never materialize. There are some problems, though, that reflect long-standing design choices and engine deficiencies. For one thing, The Saboteur has those damn shiny rocks that seem to haunt modern games, especially ones made with the Unreal engine. A twitter conversation resulted in a consensus that abuse of specular mapping was to blame. The Saboteur also has a rather short draw distance and tends to “spawn from the sky”, so that sometimes the limited physics engine causes a freshly-spawned tank to bounce like it’s equipped with hydraulics. These are all intermittently annoying, but they never get in the way of the game.

Why don’t I care about these sorts of things in The Saboteur when I went on and on about immersion-breaking problems when it came to Assassin’s Creed II? One reason is that immersion isn’t really what The Saboteur is about. Its depiction of history is cartoonish at best, and the story it tells has much more to do with pop-culture depictions of Nazis than with the actual article. The way the game depicts Paris and its environs, such that basically all of Le Havre could fit in the Champ de Mars, emphasizes the artificiality of the gameworld, and the transitions from black-and-white to color are conspicuously ludic. So, it doesn’t matter so much that the seams show here and there, or that some of the voice actors seem to have taken accent coaching from the French knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This is a game about blowing up Nazis, and the bugs or design deficiencies that matter are the ones that make blowing up Nazis less fun or impossible.

Yet I also didn’t talk about some issues that did get in the way of enjoying the world. Despite being a game about blowing up Nazis, The Saboteur involves a lot of climbing up on top of buildings. As you’re climbing you can always read the environment because climbable ledges show up white on the screen as you’re pointing towards them. It’s slower going but more precise than Assassin’s Creed‘s climbing. The problem is that you often can’t read whether these spots will be climbable until you get to them, which can sometimes leave you stranded at a fatal height. For instance, some windows let you grab a point in the middle while others do not, yet there is no visible distinction until the moment you realize there’s no climbable white spot in the middle of the window you’re dangling from. Certain building tops were also impossible to grab for no clear reason. This doesn’t sound major, but because many of the buildings you really need to climb up have pretty restrictive routes, it can get pretty frustrating. The Saboteur also had some pretty lousy checkpointing. One mission had a meaningless checkpoint about two minutes in that didn’t save me any time, and another had a checkpoint that left me standing in the doorway of a room full of Nazis, resulting in a series of incredibly irritating deaths.

Why not talk about these problems? Well, the problems with the climbing system never got badly in my way, and by comparison with the sometimes inexplicable behavior in Assassin’s Creed II, it didn’t seem that bad. At least I never jumped off into space when I meant to grab a ledge (although I missed telegraph wires pretty frequently). As far as the checkpoints went, the simple fact was that each time a bad checkpoint bit me in the ass it was because I had done something incredibly stupid to put myself into that checkpoint in the first place. The Saboteur could be tough, but it never pulled any ridiculous bullshit like GTA IV‘s “Snow Storm”, and the forgiving health regeneration and modest enemy intelligence meant that I almost never had anyone but myself to blame for triggering an alarm or dying.

I also take the policy that there’s no need for a double indictment. My first playthrough of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, for instance, featured a couple of annoying bugs. One of them was an echo that never materialized—the flickering light and static vanished without giving me a message or showing me anything. The other was in the only nightmare that I liked, where I skipped through a seam and fell out of the world, which would normally make me launch into a paragraph-long diatribe about how this crap isn’t acceptable anymore. But these problems didn’t recur on a subsequent playthrough, and the review was so negative already that it felt like piling on to say more. Besides which, I died so many times in the nightmares that restarting one for a different reason didn’t feel like a huge penalty. In a game like Dead Space: Extraction where crashes come at a much greater penalty and the rest of the experience is of higher quality, bugs like this are intolerable, but if I’ve already said the experience is lousy there’s no need to point out rare errors as a contributor.

Taking notes on a game can result in a herky-jerky experience, as you notice this or that issue and pause the game so you can write it down. I certainly feel a desire to justify the disruption by delivering all that knowledge into a review. But giving in to that impulse just results in the software review, the bane of all thoughtful gaming criticism. Reining in the desire to list every flaw in a game, or even just the ones that are notable, just generates a review that sidesteps the essentials of the experience for the minutiae of the programming. Bugs and bad design only matter if they completely cripple the game or get in the way of what it’s about.

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