Whoops, looks like I have temporarily failed at blogging. It’s not that I’ve been insanely busy, just that I’ve been a little low on energy recently. I have had time to play games as always, of course: Mainly Titan Quest, but also Perfect Dark Zero which I played in co-op with my friend Torsten. I’ve played it a bit in solo and as with most other games, it is far better with two players. It’s a decent enough action game, but it has at least one major weakness.
As far as I can tell, Rare tried to make a stealth action game. In my opinion they failed, and as a bit of a stealth game connoisseur, I’ve been trying to figure out why.
Apart from the fact that the original Perfect Dark had strong stealth gameplay, there are clear indicators in the game that it wants you to be stealthy: The intro to the tutorial shows protagonist Joanna Dark sneaking past some guards, your operator reprimands you in the very first level if you kill a guard or get spotted by him, and the post-mission statistics has a special score for stealth. The game has a couple of different systems to support stealth play: It has patrolling guards who don’t react until they see you, it has a weapon with a built-in cloaking device, and it has a melee attack that gains a massive damage multiplier if your target is unaware of your presence (a sneak attack, if you will).
The overall problem is that PDZ doesn’t really reward stealth. Sure, there’s a stat breakdown at the end of each mission that lets you know how many stealth kills you carried out, and similar achievements, but firefights aren’t dangerous at all – it’s nothing like Thief where swordfights are lethal and the only solution if you’re spotted is to run and hide. If you fail at sneaking in PDZ, half the enemies in the mission will seemingly hear the ruckus and come running, and it’s pretty easy to find good cover and kill them off so you may proceed unhindered. Even in Deus Ex, which was originally conceived out of frustration with Thief’s punishing combat, stealth has clear advantages over assault, probably partially because the combat is so clunky (and of course it does get pretty lethal on higher difficulty levels).
The level design doesn’t really encourage stealth either. Some admirable attempts have been made to open the missions up a little, allowing different paths through them. Especially the first mission stands out as having a very good open layout, but many of the later missions are completely linear. Without spoiling the game too much, some of the later missions even have you fighting alongside allies, which somewhat invalidates a stealth approach.
Even with these weaknesses (I stress that I find the combat pretty enjoyable, with a slightly finicky and unflexible but nonetheless very enjoyable cover system), the stealth gameplay of PDZ could’ve probably been massively improved if the AI had been designed for it. The biggest problem in this department is that it’s pretty damn hard – if not outright impossible – to lose the guards once they’ve spotted you. Combine this with the game’s use of checkpoints (ah yes: Checkpoints, eternal bane of stealth gameplay – no, give a me quicksave, or give me death), and the fact that the only way to avoid guards are to stay out of their field of view, which you have to sort of estimate because it’s – reasonably enough I guess – not made visible to you, and combat starts to look like a really attractive option.
Are you still with me after that sentence? Excellent, onwards then!
Stealth games are usually difficult enough. I have no empirical data with which to back this up, but I’m willing to bet that the average number of quicksaves/loads per level is much higher for a stealth game such as Thief or Splinter Cell than it is for action games like Half-Life or Crysis or even Max Payne, which has a pretty brutal damage model. At least the way I play stealth games, I pretty much quicksave every time I’ve found a safe spot and I often have to make several attempts at passing a single enemy encounter until I find the best way around it. Stealth is tough if you have to hide in the shadows and watch the guards’ patrol paths, it’s damn near impossible if the shadows don’t even help you!
The only time I really felt that the stealth in PDZ worked like it was supposed to was actually in the first level, once I’d accepted that there was no way I could progress without shooting the first guard with a silenced pistol. After running amock on the map following a previous failed stealth attempt, I knew there was a shortcut to a raised helipad that offered a good view of the central, heavily patrolled plaza. From this vantage point, I was able to observe the guards’ patrols from safety and sneak down to achieve my objective before the guards caught me. It was difficult, but it worked pretty well thanks to the safe vantage point they’d provided – such lookout areas are a staple of the stealth genre, but unfortunately this is the only one I remember finding in the entire game.
I can’t help but speculate if PDZ was made by a completely different team than did the original Perfect Dark. It’s like the stealth was included out of a sense of loyalty to the original game rather than because Rare really wanted it to be a valid option. Even the soundtrack supports action gameplay: It’s typically hectic, fast-paced hard rock that pushes you forward. PDZ is a decent action game: I enjoy the cover system, the levels are suitably varied and well constructed, the combat AI is adequate, the co-op is great, and the secondary fire modes of many of the weapons are simply inspired. I was expecting a stealth game with combat options, but I got an action game with half-assed stealth tacked on.
I did only pay about $16 though, and the co-op was quite enjoyable, so I’d say I got my money’s worth. Next up on my to-play list is Overlord, which should be waiting for me when I get home. I’ll strive to let you know how it is when I’ve tried it out.