On Putting Your Best Foot Forward

In Video Games on May 10, 2012 at 9:38 pm

I struggle to imagine a scenario where it does not benefit you to make the strongest first impression possible. Betas struggle with this, because for all their effort to proclaim that their work in progress is a work in progress, most gamers readily associate betas with finished products, likening them to demos or even free, yet temporary, access to the full game.

Some developers scoot around this in interesting ways. Arenanet has been very tight and controlling about it’s betas for Guild Wars 2 — control that has fallen apart somewhat after offering beta access as a pre-buy feature. Battlefield 3 devs were fairly adamant in explaining that even the build of the beta received by the public was outdated by a month or so, necessary to release a stable build and to focus testing in a specific area.

Demos, on the other hand, have no excuse for when they fail to be indicative of the real game, as we now see in the recent demo for Spec Ops: The Line.

Readers and friends alike should know that I have a healthy degree of disdain for the realistic military shooter. I am not enthralled by the traditional testosterone poisoned adulation or glorification of what has to be one of the lousier jobs out there. I care little for the paper-thin motivations for why Russia, the middle east, some dissident Asian nation or whoever somehow decides to invade America, nor do I find the repeated stories of black ops special forces delta soldiers sneaking behind enemy lines and winning the war or whatever.

It would be only slightly less inaccurate to say I’m more interested in the story. What I actually am is interested in being challenged, in exploring something that I haven’t seen or from an angle I hadn’t considered.

So when I stumbled across The Line‘s unique perspective on being a soldier, a tale of overexposure to tragedy and constant diminishing of humanity through the hard choices that help you live but certainly not sleep at night — I was intrigued.

In “back of the box” terms, Spec Ops: The Line is billing itself on the following two features: first, that the game will offer a brutal, unapologetic look at war unique among its bravado-laden contemporaries, featuring a number of decision points with no obvious right answer take take a real toll on the protagonist and his squad; and second, that the environment would constantly be shifting due to the dynamically generated sandstorms, creating an uncertain experience in the post-catastrophe Dubai.

You would figure that the demo would feature at least one of these things, a big moment that sells the concept and puts the proof in the pudding.

Instead, the demo features no decision points or moral ambiguity, no toll being taken on the humanity of our “heroes,” and no dynamically shifting environment through random sandstorms. Rather, what we get is some fairly solid shooting and an introduction to the game’s sense of scale in the ruins of the once proud city.

Now, the shooting feels nice. Gameplay-wise they’ve made a few good decisions: vaulting over cover is handled by a separate button from running, a saving grace for spazzes such as myself. Running at cover will have your character automatically slide, slam or dive as appropriate, rather than having to wrestle with multiple button presses. Both you and your enemies feel very mortal, with everyone going down very easily to gunfire with some of the most beautiful blood spurts I’ve yet seen.

But again, what elevates this game above every other military shooter literally isn’t present in the demo. The thing that will make you want to care about this game, isn’t in the demo. There are hints at the game’s grander narrative, but the demo tops out at ten minutes and mercifully doesn’t get into that too much, so again it’s not really in the demo.

They actually made this demo to excite people, right? Why leave that out?

There have been other big stinkers were demos are concerned. I know I’m dating myself by saying this, but the post-Wizardry creation of Dungeon Lords had a demo that they admitted was virtually pre-beta in its quality. That, among other issues, helped tank that game. Painkiller: Resurrection accidentally pushed out a demo based on a much older build.

Then there are games that the demo is actually indicative of the final product, but the final product is also a mess. Dungeon Lords again fits into this, just as Hellgate: London showed the world how little that novel idea had to offer in implementation.

But still, with this demo, my mindset towards Spec Ops went from “pre-0rder” to “wait it out.”

  1. “Back of the box” features for software and games is commonly used parlance to describe reasons someone will buy your product. It’s also used to describe features that will delight users and differentiate your product from others on the marketplace.

    When a beta is released – for games, for software, doesn’t matter – a good deal of thought should go into what’s being exposed to the public.

    What we’re seeing lately is the hype-machine out pacing the product development-machine. Software NEEDS to have a beta right? It’s free advertising, generates hype, gets journalists to write articles about your product… the whole 9 yards. Hype sometimes wins hearts and minds – this is why you’ll see people ardently defend a product (“It’s a BETA! It’s not supposed to be perfect”), but what the rest of us find lacking is a quality representation of the product we’re interested in buying.

    Take care, software developers… if you release a beta someone just might download it!

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