Last Chance to Play: Lair

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For gamers who find themselves invested in what makes up good gameplay, Lair is an interesting case study. Despite the hype the game received prior to launch, it failed to become the PlayStation 3’s killer app. It’s very hard to find a positive review of the game, and that’s for good reason—there are a number of serious problems that plague the game.

Unlike most titles in the Last Chance to Play series, I’ve had Lair for quite sometime, and have played through the game around two or three times. As a result, I’ve thought about this game for quite a while already.

There is, I will argue, some enjoyment to be had out of the game. There are far worse games out there, and when you discard any previously held judgements about motion-control gaming, Lair becomes a different experience.

Lair, also, is somewhat of a victim of a strange trend that mostly started in the 7th generation (though some of its origins can be found during the 6th as well.) In something I call “Control Normalization,” gamers have come to expect controls of different games to fit a certain norm. This is very true when one looks at shooters. Everyone expects X/A to be the jump button, Square/X to reload, Triangle/Y to switch weapons, and Circle/B for melee attacks (or occasionally grenades/crouching). We have Halo to thank for that.

Lair also made use of one of the more hated aspects of the PlayStation 3: Sixaxis. Well let me rephrase that, it didn’t just “make use” of the feature, the entire game centered around it. Few games have used this feature to any decent effect. I would wager that Killzone 2 is perhaps the most effective use—with the ability to aim the sniper rifle scope just with slight tilts of the controller. And even though the game was largely hated, SOCOM Confrontation, in my opinion, also had a very natural use of Sixaxis by using it to control crouching and standing up. You could very naturally tilt the controller to peak out of cover.

But even games that use Sixaxis to decent effect often provide the player the option to shut it off. Lair, on day one, failed to do this. It wasn’t until significant backlash from gamers that Factor 5 offered a patch that not only allowed players to control their dragons with analog sticks, but also added a crosshair—I personally feel that the latter wasn’t really necessary.

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Lair requires gamers to adapt to a new way of playing a game. It requires practice. After a little while, you get used to it, and you begin to perfect the technique of flying dragons. The special moves such as 180 degree turns and dashes, something which frustrated many players, are achievable after just a little bit of practice. When you do it right, it works. This I will not fault Factor 5 on.

Once you remove the prejudice of Sixaxis, which many gamers view as a cheap way for Sony to jump on the motion control bandwagon—or provide an excuse for why they couldn’t settle the law suit over haptic feedback from Immersion—and simply try to have fun learning how to play the game, flying around is kind of cool. (Note, I said kind of cool. It does wear itself out over time.)

When you shut off the motion control, however, the real problem surfaces. The game, largely, feels empty. There’s simply very little substance—which is a shame when a game is about riding dragons, engaging in dogfights with other dragons and pouring down fire on armies. Remove Sixaxis, and the vacancy of good game design, mission objectives and engaging combat becomes unbelievably apparent.

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But this is what makes Lair such an interesting game to look at. It’s a sign that developers shouldn’t hinge games on a single hardware or gameplay feature. Removing motion control shows this—it’s like taking away time control from TimeShift or “terrain deformation” from Fracture. Games that do this are functionally hollow and that is why they fail as games.

Fighting with dragons in mid-air feels very rigid and under utilized. Landing on the ground to dispatch of foot soldiers is no different—and the frame rate issues don’t help either. Any mechanic other than flying feels like it was phoned in. Had Factor 5 taken more time to develop a game, instead of finding a way to dress up a hardware function in pretty graphics, there would have been substance to it that, honestly, would have saved it from doom.

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In response to Lair, gamers should have been able to say “shut off the motion control, and it’s a blast to play.” But they couldn’t—one, because it took awhile for a patch to arrive that would enable gamers to do this, and two, because there’s no substance outside of the motion control.

This is a shame, because there are other aspects of Lair that are simply wonderful. The soundtrack is one of the finest in all of gaming, and the art direction—especially on the title screen—is nothing short of inspiring. Even the packaging of the game is pretty to look at, with the inside cover, disc art and everything.

Also, Lair suffered from the burden of trying to save the PlayStation 3 during its troublesome youth. This was a time when PS3 owners desperately needed a reason to justify a $600 console—and as great as Resistance: Fall of Man is, it wasn’t enough. Similarly to what happened recently with The Order: 1886, when you put too much hope on one game proving or saving an entire hardware platform, you’re bound for disappointment.

Lair can be purchased for super cheap, and for gamers that care about the history of gaming, understanding various trends and truly understanding what constitutes good game design, it’s worth taking a look at for the education alone. There’s also the chance that some fun may be had with it as well.

– Eric

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