Slow Starters: Deadly Premonition, Assassin’s Creed II, Alpha Protocol

My thinking on slow starters began with Deadly Premonition. A student had recommended the game to me because he thought that I would be interested in its metafictive qualities — more specifically the oddly schizophrenic qualities of its protagonist (”But Who Am I?: Schizophrenia as a Metaphor for the Player-Character Relationship”, PopMatters, 12 May 2010).

What I didn’t realize is how awful the experience that I was about to have would initially be. The opening hour of Deadly Premonition is absolutely awful, introducing the player to the worst zombie killing simulation ever. Indeed, the game in general has lousy graphics, terrible combat, and some really poor design choices in terms of game mechanics. However, it is now probably my favorite gaming experience so far this year.

Despite the persistence of these problems (the combat in the game is really the worst, seriously) and despite an overwhelming urge in the first hour to turn the damn thing off and return it to the rental store, I persisted (out of curiosity to see what the hell my student could see in this) and was rewarded with an absolutely fascinatingly quirky, weird game world that absolutely ran roughshod over my first impressions of it. Ignition Entertainment might need some work on their game design, but they can build a hell of a compelling world with strangely engaging characters.

Less engaging was my first few hours of introduction to Ezio, the protagonist of the second game in the Assassin’s Creed series. Not only did I really not care for Ezio and found him superficial and stereotypical, but transforming this introduction to what I viewed as a pretty charmless character into a four or five hour tutorial seemed like a horrid mistake. All I wanted to do was strap on the blades and see some blood flow, and I was busy delivering letters and hauling around Leonardo da Vinci’s crap. Again though, bearing through the ponderous first chapter of Assassin’s Creed II pays off big time. The remaining game’s intricate mysteries and engaging movement system and combat was well worth the effort. One of last year’s highlights for me.

Which brings me to my current assignment: reviewing Alpha Protocol. (We will have a full review up on Friday). I really hated this game to begin with. It seemed full of sterile environments and gameplay that seemed like a poor man’s version of Metal Gear Solid. Its premise, that conversation is a game and making choices as you “game” the folks that you interact with as an espionage agent, seemed so very promising, but I seemed to just be seeing the same old conversation trees from a hundred other games. Ho hum.

Interestingly, the press kit sent alongside the game had requested reviewers to start the game over several times and try out different conversation options to see how much these choices effected decisions. I ignored the request, thinking that I should play the game the way that a normal player would likely do so. Besides, I was on deadline and needed to make sure I had played this game fully, so I could declare it as a piece of crap. As I played through the first chapter or two, I thought how I couldn’t see how many of the conversations were any more relevant to effecting gameplay than any other game that I have played recently. My first impressions seemed very likely to be prophetic.

It took more than a few hours for it to dawn on me how much my choices had effected my play. It took until about midway through the game. As I realized the ramifications of some of the things that I had said and done way back in the first post-tutorial chapter set in Moscow, I also realized how very much I was enjoying the game and growing more and more fascinated with it. When I reached the Taipei chapter, I realized that a good decision that I had made hours and hours ago had been benefiting me through almost four-fifths of the game. I also realized that a poor decision was still haunting me. Both realizations were very cool.

I began looking forward to finishing the game, just to start it over to see what effect new choices could have. The game gives one a sense that one is sculpting the world and the narrative, but it took me over half the game to realize its depth and to realize that it is far from a bad game. It might just be a great game.

Some of these games are slow starters for different reasons. Some because they have some poor design in them, some because they need time to introduce their characters in a thorough way (and, yes, I will admit that Assassin’s Creed II probably does need its prologue to some degree just to establish character — it doesn’t mean I have to like it though), and some because they are richly textured enough that you don’t see their depth until you get a longer view of what they are attempting to do. Unfortunately, first impressions can be damning and sometimes a bad game is just exactly what it appears to be. However, writing off a few of these more recent slow starters based solely on initial experiences with them would be a mistake.

I came of age in gaming in a decade in which, after you hit start, this little fellow in a hat and overalls was all set to break bricks with his head and stomp mushrooms. I expect to get right into the action. However, some games are now sophisticated enough and have enough texture that a little slow brewing is necessary. Some games have some nits and flaws that need overlooking because of what they do so very right. Both situations require a little (and sometimes a lot) of patience.