Fucking Verticality

Dead Space 2 is out, and it’s brilliant. It’s got some of the most impressive set pieces I’ve seen in a game, and the whole atmosphere, world and attention to detail is astounding. That’s the singleplayer. It also, as with every game released that costs more than a million dollars to make, has a multiplayer contingent. And it’s… well, there’s issues, shall we say.

The set up of the multiplayer is that there are two teams, one of security personnel, the other made up of assorted necromorphs, boosted by other, more run-of the mill necros. The humans have to complete objectives that mostly consist of staying still in one space, unable to defend themselves, for maybe fifteen seconds, while the necromorphs stop them. So far so Left 4 Dead. But it’s fun, and frantic, and refreshingly different from L4D, if only because it tends to be much more prone to forced defenses, rather than the bogging down that takes place in L4D. Not to mention you’re dismembering, and that’s always a new twist.

No, the problems with the multiplayer rest not in the game itself, but in the fact that it’s got to have a progression system in there. Unlocks. Fucking unlocks. Because you’re game is never compelling enough on its own, you have to force players into building up their character through experience points and other RPG-elements that really have no place in a multiplayer shooter. But Modern Warfare did it, and that’s the watermark for multiplayer now, so god forbid we do something different. And, in practice, I don’t really mind a progression system. Bad Company 2, minus some minor hiccups (such as having the medic have to unlock defibrillators, and the M60), managed to make sure you weren’t getting an out-and-out better gun when you unlocked something new; it was just different. Some fired faster, but had lower damage outputs. Some were more accurate. Some hard larger magazines. So on and so forth.

No, the problem here is one of the vertical nature of the progression. You start out level 1, of course, and then your first unlock hits at level 3. And it increases the damage of one of the necromorph’s ranged attacks. Just out and out increases it. It doesn’t decrease health to compensate, it just gives you more damage. At level 5, you get an extra stasis charge, of which you only start with one. So… someone playing at level five is out and out more useful than a level one, purely because they’ve got unlocks the level one doesn’t. Who cares if the level one has more skill? They can’t hit as hard, because they don’t have the unlocks.

It’s maddening. It means you never know whether you’re dead because you were outclassed, or merely outlevelled. There’s a reason that MMOs prevent high level players ganking lower level ones (to an extent), and that’s because getting killed by some guy who has more health, more damage, and more abilities isn’t fun. Obviously this is to a lesser extent, but the principle is the same.

And I know why it’s in there, too. It’s because it’s easy. Increasing damage output is an unlock that a player is going to strive towards, but it’s relatively low-effort for the developer to implement. They just increase a value, and suddenly you’re doing more damage. It’s also not particularly hard to think up. You know what’s hard to think up? More options that are all just as useful. Like TF2 tries to do. Sure, give people unlocks and new weapons, but as soon as you make one better than another, what’s the point of the old thing?

Not to mention the fact that coming into the game tomorrow, or the day after, or the day after that, is going to be a nightmare. Suddenly everyone is level ten and they’re doing more damage, taking more hits, and you’re just flailing around wondering why you’re doing so badly. And because you’re not familiar with the game, and you don’t know what you’re going to unlock and what level, you just figure that you must be terrible, and you stop playing. It’s only rewarding to those who have the stuff, and they’re the ones who’ve already put the hours in. It’s a quick way to kill a community, and that’s exactly what it’s going to do.

The shame of it all is that the MP is actually quite fun. It’s subsidary to the SP, of course, but it’s got its own merits, and it’s definitely worth a go. But not when you’re going to be fighting against people who have inherent advantages, beyond the fact that they’ve played more than you. The gap between new players and old gets so very yawning. If you’re going to do unlocks and levels, at least put the effort in to do them right, because vertical progression is fucking bullshit, and it needs to get gone from games.

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About Phill Cameron

I've graduated, had a look at the world, and spat. Now I'm devoting my time to moving from 3/4 of a games journalist to 9/10ths. I figure I can get away with 9/10ths.
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