Lair Reader Review
When I buy a game and start playing it I can usually assess the control system and many of the qualities of the game just moving around in the world that the game designers put me in. I enjoy seeing different takes on control systems to see what new ideas the Game Designers have. However I belong to the school of Designers/Programmers who agree with classical Usability Design. These Game Designers know that you cannot fight against other games (input mechanics and user interface) of the same type and that to make a game intuitive to the gamer you should strive to use the same control system as the other games of the same type.
In games where a new control method is part of the high concept design of the game this is something the designers have already considered and dismissed wanting to immerse the player better with a control system that better fits their game.
Lair suffered in first hand impressions because Game Reviewers (and Gamers) who took it up to play were faced with a different control system that they wouldn't have time to learn the nuances of in a quick 15-30 minutes session.
This was a problem and the game suffered in reviews because of it and somehow the reviewers never managed to get it through to the readers that really wasn't actually the biggest issue with the game.
The problems in Lair were more substantial and also not something that should be new to Game Reviewers.
Movies usually have a short synopsis explaining the greater theme of the plot without giving anything away. They do this to attract the audience who know how to read.
Lair does this as well. The game presents it's storyline in brief cutscenes (or voice overs) for each chapter that merely function as a synopsis for the chapter. Then they never fill the story with any meat to build character and setting.
The story becomes a fleeting glimpse into a world that might be detailed but you never really get to know it.
Lair plays as the old Rogue Squadron games from Factor 5 but because it is set in a fantasy world it is forced to invent some 'new' mechanics and also it has to use a new visual style that is not as strong as the classical Star Wars design.
The basic design behind the controls of the dragon is that you are the rider of a dragon and not directly controlling the dragon. You as the rider try to force the wild beast to follow your orders.
And that works, the game designers have managed to give a similar feel to the dragon riding as the horse riding of Shadow of the Colossus. You feel like you are steering the beast and you feel powerful. Especially when landing on the ground to play catch with the puny human soldiers.
What doesn't quite work is the cumbersome QTE minigames that are integrated with the flying for the dragon duels and dragon takedowns. The context switches between aerial ranged combat and aerial duels confuse you but even you learn to get used to it even though you may choose to never use the systems because they are so cumbersome.
Now this is where the game designers first failed, they failed to design and implement a good system for teaching the controls to the system and they also failed to introduce the controls to the player gently by giving him a few easy to understand introduction missions.
Instead the designers made the baffling design decision to throw the player into the action directly and then hide the tutorials for the player to play only if he really wanted and then not making them detailed or interesting in any way. This is especially baffling considering they took such a brave approach to the control system.
The next failure is in the basic visual design of the game with enemies having the same silhouette as the friendlies. This is something that Factor 5 had for free with the Star Wars games as the units already had been designed with this in mind.
To combat the problem with being unable to locate your enemies the designers decided to add a system they called targeting vision as they couldn't use the radar system from their Star Wars games. Here they sadly made the mechanic for using this system again cumbersome and they should have combated the difficulty with visual recognition of targets in a more direct and useful manner.
So far it doesn't sound too bad, some mistakes that the player could easily forgive you might think.
But then the real problems come to make their appearance and it is in the way the mission and overall game is structured. This is a much harder thing to forgive as this is the very core of the game you are playing.
Each mission is introduced with you thrown into the action and given an immediate goal to take care of. You are not introduced to your surrounding before the game starts throwing action in your face.
That again may not sound too bad but then the designers throw more goals in your face as you are dealing with the first one and they do this by interrupting your flight. Only serving to confuse the player even more.
The goals are also not made clear as to which are the more important and they are also sometimes not clearly marked. Making the game a trial and error mess that really shouldn't be too hard.
To add to the negativity the designers also decided to add a stealth mission. Stealth missions are almost always failures in games when the game isn't focused on that mechanic and there's a very good reason for that as stealth mechanics are very tricky to get right and the AI and user interface needs to be designed with this in mind.
But in all this negativity there are some good things and that is the missions when there is just one clear goal like the big boss levels, taking care of a huge tower of lights or the large water worms. The objectives here are completely clear to the player and there is no problem locating and understanding what to do.
Lair is a game that shows how User Testing or Peer Review could really help make a game better.
Sometimes the developers can get too close to the game to see the problems for what they really are. However for a game such as Lair User Testing would also have to target the right areas of the game and with the usual quick small sessions that User Tests are of gamers being put in front of the game for an hour the tests would mostly focus on control issues and not the deeper issues of the game.
This is where I think a Peer Review process would have helped greatly. Take in some Designers from other games or Quality Assurance testers and put them in front of the game. They will be able to understand the controls for what they are trying to do and then see beyond those for the real meat.
With some perspective Lair could have become a much better game and it's a shame that we didn't get to see that game as the technology behind the game is quite impressive to watch.
5 / 10