There’s been a big trend towards including freerunning and climbing gameplay into a lot of games in the last few years, particularly action-adventure games, and this has generally been an enjoyable step forward for the genre. Graphics have advanced enough that having smooth contextual animations for all sorts of running, jumping, climbing and rolling moves is completely doable. Almost all the recent big-budget titles with free roaming elements have managed to make them look pretty good. Many of them have failed to make them feel good, however.
I recently finished Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, and playing around with its climbing and freerunning aspects gave me an interesting idea. Thinking back through some other recent action-adventure games I’ve played, a theory began to emerge: The level of autopilot present in a game’s free-roaming mechanics form a bell curve of enjoyability. This may not immediately make much sense, but let me give you a couple examples.
A couple years ago, there was an action-adventure game called Prototype. This game had all the usual freerunning mechanics, with the added feature of giving the player character superpowers. He could run up buildings and leap over cars in a single bound. This wasn’t an altogether terrible concept, but any fun that was to be had with this idea was ruined by the game’s controls. Prototype‘s freerunning was almost completely autopilot controlled; the player simply held down the “run over stuff” button and pressed the stick in the direction he wished to go, and the game did the rest. This is an example of a game on the extreme left side of the interactivity bell curve, and it was subsequently not much fun to run around in the world of Prototype.
There hasn’t been any mainstream games that have leaned to the extreme right side of this curve, but imagine an Assassin’s Creed-esque game with a movement system similar to that of QWOP. Individual limbs and muscles must be controlled, each with their own buttons, leading to a nightmare or muscle micromanagement. In the case of QWOP itself, this makes the game a ridiculously hard novelty for the more masochistic of gamers. In a full-length action-adventure game, it would make for the most frustrating and bewildering experience imaginable.
For me, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations falls just to the left of the middle of the bell curve. While having enough timing-specific inputs and responsiveness of controls to be pretty enjoyable, it still has many situations in which simply holding down the Run and Jump buttons will navigate you over a pretty diverse array of obstacles. Batman: Arkham City falls even closer towards the middle, with the use of Batman’s arsenal of gadgets providing a satisfying level of interactivity and critical thinking.
I’m still waiting to see a game that really plants itself at the very top of this curve, but it feels like some of 2011’s offerings have come closer than anything that has come before. Hopefully the next couple years will deliver something that really hits this particular nail on the head. I’m looking at you, Assassin’s Creed III.