The Ryan Lambie Column: games with terrible controls

Ryan's been fighting Internet problems this week, playing Stormrise, and fighting a terrible control system. Why do they do this to us?

Mr Ryan Lambie's amazing joypad.

A bit of advice: don’t live in a village if you like using the internet. Or don’t move to my village, at least. As a town or city dweller, you may imagine village life to be peaceful and idyllic – a leafy utopia of freshly churned butter, gambolling lambs and farmers leaning over wooden gates to have a chat. While all this is, of course, true, village life isn’t without its technological dark side.

There’s the pitiful broadband speed for starters – a positively medieval 512MB at most – and frequent outages and mysterious disconnections. The latest fault occurred yesterday, midway through sending an email. It turns out that some irritating miscreants broke into the local exchange and stole all the copper out of it, which means that our village and a few others have no telephones or Facebook access.

To make matters worse, a helpful man from BT informed my neighbour that the purloined copper wouldn’t be replaced until next Monday – that’s five whole days without emails, instant messages, eBay (how will I bid on all those Japanese Megadrive games?), Google News, and, of course, Den of Geek. I feel nude. Like a tortoise without a shell, or U2’s Edge without his bobble hat.

This is why this week’s column comes to you live from my mother’s spare room – because she lives in a town with street lighting, hot and cold running water and (best of all) hot and cold running wireless broadband. Bliss.

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And on the subject of things that don’t work properly, I’ve been spending much of this week playing Creative Assembly’s latest RTS, Stormrise. Now if you’re into your strategy games, you’ll know that Creative Assembly are the minds behind the excellent Total War series. Their most recent instalment, Empire, has been roundly praised as one of the best games of its type in years. By stark contrast, Stormrise is one of the worst.

If you haven’t played the game for yourself yet, following up Empire with Stormrise is like a restaurant serving up a foie gras entree with a main course of Findus Crispy Pancakes. It’s like Oasis following up (What’s The Story) Morning Glory with a seventy-five minute recording of both Gallaghers breaking wind into a microphone (some would argue they did).

I won’t go into details here – I’ll just mention one detail: the control system.

Creative Assembly clearly looked at other console RTS offerings like Halo Wars or Tom Clancy’s EndWar and wanted to come up with a totally new, unique control system – one that would solve the archaic question: how do you make a strategy game, a genre crying out to be played with a keyboard and mouse, work on a lumpy, clumsy game pad? After a bit of collective beard stroking, Creative Assembly came up with ‘whip select’, which doesn’t work.

As a digital whip, it’s fantastic – in a long history of whips in games, it’s up there with the best. It’s the select bit I’ve got a problem with. Twiddling the 360 controller’s right stick is supposed to allow you to rapidly select units using a ‘whip’ of glowing light – a neat idea in theory, but like most theoretically good ideas, fails to work in practice. It’s too easy to select the wrong unit, and selecting one that’s far away sends the camera hurtling across the map to an area you didn’t expect to see, leading to swearing, frustration, a weird sensation in the eyes as though you’ve tried to read the label on a spinning record, and finally a broken television.

This has got me thinking about play testing in general. In a multi-million dollar industry where games cost as much to produce as Waterworld, surely a focus group somewhere must have quietly put down their controllers and said, ‘Look, I’m sorry people of Assembly, but this here Stormrise just doesn’t cut it. I can see what you were trying to do here, making a strategy game work on a console and all that, but it really, sincerely doesn’t work. Now please, can we go home? I’m tired and my eyes have gone weird.’

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In fairness, Stormrise is just one of many games released with unworkable controls – witness the frankly hideous set-up evident in Call Of Duty 3 on the Wii; while pointing the remote at the screen to score headshots was logical enough, the rest of the controls were clearly dreamed up by a psychopath. Throwing grenades accurately became nigh-on impossible, steering a vehicle was like trying to ride a unicycle in an earthquake, and whose idea was it to have a ‘remote and nunchuck upwards flick’ gesture to make you stand up from a prone position? Another potentially television-breaking exercise in frustration. Incredibly, somebody in marketing actually had the gall to come up with the slogan ‘a revolution in control’ to describe CoD Wii.

The inexplicably popular Sun newspaper may go on about ‘Broken Britain’, but what about all these broken video games the industry insists on foisting upon us? They’re just as damaging as a ganja-fuelled teenager with a potato peeler – they may get all the bad press, but at least they don’t make me feel like throwing my controller at my television.

Ryan writes his gaming column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.