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Transitional Period: Adapting PC Genres to Consoles

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Friday, Dec 18, 2009
The first-person shooter has made compromises for consoles and is now flourishing, but the same can’t be said for the real-time strategy genre.

Whenever one compares PC and console games inevitably the subject of controls comes up, paricularly the fact that controllers simply can’t offer the same speed and precision as a mouse. This means certain PC-centric genres, like first person shooters or real time strategy games, must make compromises and concessions in order to compensate when they’re brought to consoles. The first-person shooter has made the necessary compromises, and as a result, the genre is flourishing on consoles, but unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the real-time strategy genre.


Both speed and precision are necessary for any first-person shooter to work. If headshots are instant kills, then the controls must be precise enough to actually allow the player to hit the head, and if our virtual life is on the line, we must be able to hit the target quickly before we’re killed instead. The solution for this issue of speed is rather simple: slow down the game. Halo did this quite well; Master Chief can’t run, and he even walks at a fairly slow pace. Combat is slowed as a result, giving the player extra time to consider his options. Compare an online game of Halo with the still popular PC game Counter-Strike and this difference in speed becomes obvious.


There’s also a heavy focus on cover in many console FPS games: Killzone 2, the Rainbow 6: Vegas games, any Call of Duty, and Gears of War to name a few. Not all of these games have specific cover mechanics, but they all have regenerating health, which encourages the use of cover. The use of cover itself slows down the pace of a game considerably and has the added advantage of making the player more precise as well. Enemies will also get behind cover, which means that they’re usually sitting still and all that the player has to do is train our sights on their cover and wait for them to pop out. Hitting a moving enemy in a console FPS is still far more difficult than it is on a PC, so most console FPS games are structured in a way that makes moving targets less of an issue.


But cover itself doesn’t solve the problem of precision, “auto aim” is needed as well. Auto aim helps make the player more precise by automatically moving the camera towards an enemy, giving players an easier shot. Early console FPS games had a very judicious use of auto aim. Take the classic GoldenEye for example, the use of auto aim was so blatant that your gun would actually turn to shoot at enemies even if the player was standing still. Compare that to the more advanced and elegant implementation in Modern Warfare 2, which uses what is essentially an “auto aim button”. Players hit a button to look down the sights of their gun, a button not in many PC shooters, and if they’re looking at an enemy when they hit this button, the camera snaps to that enemy giving the player a clear shot. Releasing and hitting the button again makes the camera snap to another nearby enemy, giving the player another clear shot. These compromises for speed and precision have made the first-person shooter a viable and massively popular genre for consoles, but the same can’t be said for the other PC-centric genre, the real-time strategy game.


Most RTS games on consoles try to mirror their PC counterparts exactly, and whenever they do, they inevitably fail to effectively translate the experience. Halo Wars, and Command and Conquer 3 try to replicate the genre like this. They both try to keep all the little intricacies of the genre intact, and while both are certainly playable, they’re also still plagued with problems of speed and precision. The control sticks cannot scroll across the battlefield as fast as a mouse can, and if the speed is increased to compensate, then selecting individual units becomes impossible. Command and Conquer 3 made no concessions for the console, but as a result, the controls are overly complicated, requiring players to flick though menus while fighting. Halo Wars makes resource management automatic and confines base building to pre-selected zones, but selecting small groups of units is difficult, especially if they’re off screen. In order to effectively translate the RTS experience on a console, these kinds of minor concessions aren’t enough; the genre must be radically changed. 


In that regard, Brutal Legend is a step in the right direction. The RTS portions of the game are played from a third-person perspective with our avatar being the commander who was once invisible. There is no base building at all. The strategy lies entirely in the units that you train, knowing when to build what kind of soldier and how to best use it. But this new approach brings with it new problems. Because of the third-person view, it’s hard to see what units are selected. The maps are small and your avatar can fly, so speed is not a problem as players can quickly survey the entire battlefield, but a lack of precision is the game’s biggest hindrance. You must be standing next to a single unit in order to select it, which means jumping into the middle of a battle if the unit is in combat, and if the desired unit is in a group, singling out the one that you want is painfully frustrating. There is a surprising depth to the strategy in Brutal Legend, but the lack of precision makes it difficult to take advantage of that depth. To date, there is only one RTS game on consoles that offers players a control interface with the same speed and precision of a mouse: EndWar.


Like Brutal Legend there’s no base building, but there’s also no resource management at least not in the traditional sense. You begin each battle with only three units, and as you take over certain building, you’re allowed to bring in more units. What sets EndWar apart is its use of voice recognition software in place of a mouse or a controller. We’re only allowed a limited number of units out a time, and to select one, we only have to say “Unit X.” We control our army though short phrases that can be issued no matter where the camera is on the map, there’s no need to scroll back and fourth from one unit to another giving orders. Selecting an individual unit is quick and easy, and we can jump around the map by saying “Camera unit X.” The voice recognition is precise and fast, solving both major issues that plague console RTS games. Removing the base and resources altogether complements this new interface as there are fewer menus to worry about, and therefore, fewer phrases to learn. The biggest complaint about EndWar is that the strategy boils down to a game of rock, paper, scissors: helicopter beats tank, tank beats APC, APC beats helicopter with a few other units thrown in for good measure. But as far as interface goes, this kind of radical approach is what the genre needs to succeed on consoles.

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