Thursday, September 06, 2007


Earlier this week, I wrote that Lair was, by general consensus, a "turd." I received the game from Gamefly yesterday, and after even a single hour of play, I need to man up and make a full apology.

To turds.

Lair is a beautiful game. It's jaw-dropping. I think Factor 5 completely missed its true potential as the greatest flying dragon screensaver of all-time.

As a game, though, Lair has some of the worst game design I've ever seen. Ever.

Let me do a little walkthrough of the very, very early portion of the game. It begins with some staggeringly beautiful cinematics.

Then, much to my misfortune, the game actually begins.

The first thing you do is go through a cursory dragon-flying tutorial, and your assignment is to fly through rotating stone cogs. How, um, organic.

It would have made perfect sense to fly a courier mission over the beautiful landscape, soaring through narrow mountain passes, learning the controls in a natural way.

Nope. Fly through the cogs and shut up already.

Importantly, though, you learn that "X" flaps your dragon's wings. It's the secret knowledge of the ancient dragon masters, passed directly to you.

After you've flown through eight of them, you're thrust into battle, flying over the ocean to burn up some catapault boats.

Now you might think that flying a dragon was, well, a semi-exclusive experience. I mean, it's a dragon, right? So when you finish off the boats and see a squadron of dragons, it suddenly doesn't seem very exclusive anymore. Everyone's got a dragon in this world, apparently--Billy the ten-year-old paper boy uses one to fly his route in the morning. Your wife uses one to go to the grocery store.

You'll need to attack this squadron, one at a time, and here's what you do: you fly around until you see a white circle on a dragon, then you hit the "O" button. That initiates some kind of corkscrew attack where your dragon hits the other dragon and drops him.

Bad Game Design 1, Drama 0.

It looks absolutely idiotic for your dragon to corkscrew fifty yards or more in the game world. How would she do that, exactly? Wouldn't she drop like a rock? And how exactly am I not falling off? Or puking?

Oh, and selecting your target? Forget it. They're selected for you, based on where you're flying. There's nothing for you to control here, except for turning your dragon and occasionally flapping her wings. Flying a dragon would, seemingly, be an exhilarating experience. Sorry--not here.

Once you dispatch of the dragon squadron, there's a boss dragon to face. When you get close to him, you're told how to lock on (L1/R1), and when you're locked on, the dragon will turn red, and you press "O" to attack with the Fabulous Corkscrew Vomitron.

And here is where we get an absolute clinic in shitty game design.

Attacking the dragon engages you into some kind of battle mode which goes totally unexplained. I quickly find out that I can't lock on, even though that's just what I was shown. The "O" attack doesn't work, either. This boss dragon is also about 5X more agile than my dragon, and I can't really get away from it--I can move slightly left and right, but we're basically locked into this very narrow bounding box beyond which I can't go. I try flapping my wings, but there's some kind of auto-pilot flight in effect, and that doesn't work, either.

So almost EVERYTHING I've been told about flying the dragon, besides tilting the controller, doesn't work in this battle. I can breathe fire, and sometimes I can get lucky and set the boss on fire, but it doesn't seem to do much damage.

In other words, I have NO IDEA what I'm supposed to do here, and I wind up in an elaborate Saint Vitus Dance with the controller because I am getting the shit kicked out of me by the SUPER AGILE BOSS DRAGON, while my dragon apparently downed a full draught of Agility Sucks Elixir.

I fail this incomprehensible battle at least three times, and even though they give you a few mulligans, I wind up finally dying and it's game over. Whereupon I restart and die two more times, then--and with no knowledge of how I've done it--I wind up surviving and advancing to the next mission.

Which are more tutorials, although there are quite a few more available now. I choose "Basic Combat," which lets me set dragons on fire with my breath. That's cool, but again, these dragons seem far more agile than mine, and since they're all the same size, I don't understand why.

After clearing that tutorial, I'm taken to the boss fight tutorial--and they STILL don't explain what the hell is going on. They say use the controller to "line up" the boss dragon, but line him up for WHAT? Well, they don't tell you, and meanwhile, his backward-tail-bonk attack (I haven no idea WTF to call it) is just as unstoppable as ever.

I get killed several times, start over once, and decide to move on with my life. As they say, game over.

What's amusing are some of the comments coming out of Factor 5 and Sony. Here's one from Lair's lead director Julian Eggebrecht (thanks 1UP):
The Sixaxis motion control itself feels a lot more organic and free-form than the rigid controls of other flight games and does much better for casual players, as we saw in focus tests. It does seem to alienate some reviewers who are at the top of the hardcore crowd and seem to have a passionate hate for all things motion...

Dude, we don't have a hate for "all things motion." I'm playing Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, and its motion controls are superb. What we have a hate for is shitty game design, and I've got some sad news for you: 99% of the "casual" gamers who play this will never even get past that first boss battle--they paid $60 for a five-minute cut scene and three minutes of a game, because that's all they'll see.

Here's another, from exiting SCEA PR head Dave Karraker:
I've spoken to any number of people who really like it, and there's other people that find it a challenge. What really matters is whether or not the consumers are having a good experience, because they'll tell us on the [PlayStation] blog.

A few questions, Dave:
1. Do these "number of people" live with you?
2. How exactly can people post comments about Lair on the Playstation blog when the last story you put up about the game was August 15?

What's really a shame here is that the game truly does look fantastic. And making the connection between flying dragons and WWI-era dogfighting wouldn't seem to be so elusive--that would have been a natural for this game. Aerial fights against legendary, massive dragons, your own dragon's appearance changing over time as it ages, with scars as reminders of epic battles--that sounds like fun.

Which would distinguish it from this game.

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