Version tested: PlayStation 3
Upon its American release, back in August, Sony's anticipated flappy dragon epic Lair received the sort of critical reception best described as a "drubbing". Much was said about the decision to use the Sixaxis motion sensor for control, with no option for traditional analogue stick control, and most of what was said was very bad indeed. Sony retaliated by sending out a "reviewers guide" to unimpressed journalists, explaining how to review the game, while Factor 5's Julian Eggebrecht rather patronisingly implored them to "open your mind and hands for something very different!"
Know this much: the slightly wonky control scheme is actually the least of Lair's problems.
It is, sadly, the sort of game that encapsulates all that is wrong with console transition periods, that development limbo where Next Gen and Last Gen overlap. It's a game full of ugly gameplay lurking behind pretty cutscenes, where visual showboating fails to mask gruesome design decisions. It's all mouth and no trousers, a clumsy and shallow experience that desperately tries to position itself at the start of a console's life as the Future Of Gaming. It is, ironically, much like Dragon's Lair - another slender gaming experience that relied on visual impact to distract from its hollow centre.
For all of Eggebrecht's evangelism, Lair is emphatically not "something very different". It's just another uninspired aerial combat game, in which the only innovation comes in the form of motion sensing control. If you've played Ace Combat, Panzer Dragoon or Crimson Skies then there's little here that you haven't seen before. Heck, it's almost identical in concept and intent to Thanatos, the sorely underrated ZX Spectrum game from Durell that did the giant flying dragon thing far better over twenty years ago: chewed-up enemies, sea serpents and all.
Lair's storyline follows Rohn, a dragon riding knight, the fighter pilot equivalent of his painfully generic fantasy world. There's a kingdom torn asunder by civil war, scheming politicians and reams of leaden purple prose that make the Star Wars prequels look like havens of naturalistic dialogue. The design and soundtrack, meanwhile, shamelessly strive for the sweeping majesty of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy without ever achieving the same level of emotional honesty or cultural verisimilitude. Unless you're the sort of person who eagerly buys pewter statues of trolls and dutifully reads books called The Moonsword of Gragarth: Volume XI of the Blood Riders of Ferax Saga, there's not a single element of the game's universe that will feel fresh or enticing. As your involvement in this lurid yarn is simply to fly around in between great gobs of exposition it's a real act of will to remain engaged with the lumbering plot.
Once you're in the air, and contrary to popular opinion, the basic controls are actually fairly intuitive. Banking left and right feels fluid and, while it admittedly takes a while to be able to navigate with accuracy, the spread of tutorials gives you plenty of opportunity to practice. Less successful are the 180 turn and forward thrust moves. To immediately reverse direction, an upwards jolt on the controller is required. Shoving the joypad forwards produces a burst of speed. At least, that's the theory. These moves actually highlight the shortcomings of the Sixaxis as a motion sensing device, often requiring several attempts before the game reads your movement and responds in kind. That it sometimes misreads one for the other can be hugely irritating, sending you barrelling onwards when you needed to go the other way.
Even so, it's not unworkable by any means, just a little fudgy and counter-intuitive. What it utterly fails to do, though, is justify the change in control. The game doesn't benefit in any appreciable way from the motion sensing, nor does it make the game more immersive. If anything, the opposite is true. The lightweight plastic of the Sixaxis doesn't sell the feeling of a monstrous beast at your command and jolting the controller up and down to perform simple functions simply serves to remind you that you're waggling a joypad to move a dragon on your telly. You're more focussed on what your hands are doing than what's on screen.
Still, the feeling you get as you swoop your leathery mount around the epic HD scenery is undeniably impressive first time out. Unfortunately, you're not in the game to go sightseeing and combat is where the game's real weakness lies. Battling airborne foes requires you to lock on to them, as a white halo appears around enemies in your sights (you have no on-screen reticule or any control over which enemy the game highlights) and R1 then fixes them in your baleful glare. A jab of the Square button sends a fireball their way (a homing fireball, apparently) while Circle sends your dragon hurtling towards them for some close-up scrapping. For weaker foes, this alone is enough to kill them and as they fall you can move the camera around to lock on to other nearby targets to rack up combo kills, pinballing through a flock of dragons.
Often, however, you'll end up stuck with what are essentially mini-games to beat your foe depending on what direction you attacked from. Sometimes it's a rudimentary beat-em-up, as both dragons lunge at each other with their talons or shoot point blank jets of flame. There's an awkward delay between pressing a button and the attack animation, while graphically it's not even clear if the blows are landing. Regardless, health bars go down and eventually your enemy drops from the sky.
Worse are the times when you find yourself flying alongside an enemy, and must use the joypad to stay level with them while violent lurches to the left or right are used to ram them into submission. As with the 180 turn, it's a move that the controller struggles to consistently recognise and the combat feels random and intangible as a result. Finally, you may end up leaping from your dragon to clobber the enemy pilot yourself. In these instances, it's really just a glorified Quick Time Event, as you follow the on-screen cues to trigger the attack sequence. Fail to "move the left stick" in time and you magically reappear on your dragon and keep flying.
So, essentially, the dragon combat in a game that hinges on the core concept of dragon combat is an unappealing mixture of button mashing, button matching and imprecise joypad shaking. It's both tediously simplistic and needlessly fiddly at the same time. It is, as Kristan would surely say, an enormous faff. Fighting on the ground is even less edifying, a simplified version of melee games like Samurai Warriors in which you steer your dragon around like a tank (using the analogue stick for control, all of a sudden) in an attempt to destroy the required number of stiffly animated soldiers. Just landing is a chore, as sometimes your dragon simply hovers without touching down, and the camera flails like a fish once tethered to the ground.
Worse, the game funnels you into situations that seem to actively highlight the shortcomings of the game engine. An early mission requires you to assault a fortress by shooting out the spotlights, before flying inside to extinguish four signal fires. Not only is the camera horribly incapable of coping with the enclosed environment - often giving you glimpses inside solid objects or even the hollowed-out polygons of your dragon - but the objective itself reeks of lazy game design. The four signal fires have canopies hanging over them, which you must dislodge to snuff them out. You breathe fire on the ropes. Nothing. You swipe them with your claws. They don't even move and even pass through your body as you fly at them. Finally, you realise you can lock-on to these static objects and zoom in for the attack. Only then do they become tangible, and only then do your strikes have any effect. Once the canopy is dropped you're crudely blasted back outside and have to face down another wave of enemies, and blast another spotlight, before you can get back inside and tackle the next fire. It's fussy, nonsensical and old-fashioned "repeat the pattern" game design and this out-dated approach recurs again and again throughout the game during both regular combat and boss battles.
But at least Lair has its looks, right? It's a game you can use to show off your overdraft-busting flatscreen? Well, not quite. For a game that has been heralded as the poster child for the glory of the 1080p PS3 experience, Lair is pretty grisly once you look past the glittery exterior. The frame rate bounces up and down like Oprah's calorie intake, while the immediate wow factor of the graphics is shortlived. The sensation of flying above an epic battle is somewhat undermined when you notice that the soldiers are all standing in neat lines, all repeating the same frames of animation and using the same character models. The undulating water effects are beautiful up close, but from high in the sky the ocean becomes a patchwork of squares, all looping the same waves. Dry land has the opposite problem. Soaring near the clouds, the terrain below looks rich and detailed but when the game asks you to swoop down to earth, textures begin clumsily popping in as you stutter over them. Urk.
If the game were inspiring and absorbing in either narrative or gameplay then such technical hiccups would be unfortunate - Oblivion, for example, features plenty of egregious visual blemishes yet still sucks you in for the long haul - but Lair has precious little to offer beyond its initial short-lived "Ooh!" factor. There are just fourteen missions, and repetition soon becomes a problem. Protect these things! Destroy those! More enemy dragons are approaching! Everything comes in pre-determined waves, like Space Invaders without the lo-fi charm, while the gameplay is constantly interrupted for more cutscenes showing the arrival of new enemies or the destruction of scenery. Rather than being seamlessly woven into the action, these scenes are awkward intrusions full of juddering recycled animation. For all its free-roaming appearances, you're still hemmed into an invisible sphere, unable to travel too far from the battle in any direction. The whole experience, from bottom to top, is clunky and deeply disappointing.
Lair, sadly, is a classic example of the apocryphal polished turd. Strip away the HD bluster and the game beneath is little more than a basic PS2 shooter with a makeover. The derided motion sensing controls can be grasped with just a little patience but the game simply doesn't offer anything to justify even that small investment. Even with the controls mastered, even with the numerous technical flaws ignored, the game remains shallow and repetitive, devoid of drama and reliant on sound and fury to disguise the fact that at its heart is a rather shoddily constructed collection of hoary old clichés.
4 / 10