Saturday, 26 October 2019

Maybe it's better left to the imagination...

Elite (C64) Doesn't look so hot these days, but I really got into it.
Games have fantastic graphics and sound these days, but I find it a lot harder to put myself into the world of a game I'm playing than I used to.

Take Elite for example. I played Elite a long time ago on the C64, and Frontier Elite 2 on the Amiga, and I thought it was amazing. I was an interstellar space trader with a Cobra Mk III and a desire to make it rich. It didn't matter that the graphics were wireframe on the C64 or that it ran at around 4 frames per second when anywhere but deep space on the Amiga. I was in space!

Elite Dangerous (PC) looks great but can feel a bit dull and empty.
These days I play Elite Dangerous. In principal it's pretty much the same game as the other two, but with greatly improved graphics. You start out with a pretty rubbish little ship, travelling from station to station to buy and sell things or complete missions. When you've got enough money, you can spend it on upgrading your existing ship or buying a new one. I loved the older games, so you'd think I'd love this one, right? Well... No, not really.

You see, as I said above, back when I played Elite and Frontier it was a lot easier for me to play make believe and put myself in the game, but I have a really hard time maintaining that illusion these days. Back in my younger days, even though I knew I was just someone sitting in front of a screen, it was a lot easier to use my imagination. When I was playing Elite, I was in space running the gauntlet of space pirates. When I played B-17 Flying Fortress, I was on a bombing run over WWII Europe with the Luftwaffe on my tail. When I played Grand Prix, I was driving for Williams and fighting for the world championship in a heated battle with Ayrton Senna. These days, though, I'm just a bloke holding a controller sitting in front of a screen.

It's not even like I don't try to imagine myself in the game world. When playing Elite Dangerous, I can usually roleplay and maintain the illusion for about ten to fifteen minutes before I start getting bored. I suppose if the game was a bit more engaging the world might grab me a bit better, but I don't think Elite Dangerous is quite as good as the previous versions. That being said, maybe I'd find the older games to be just as dull now. I've not played either of them for around 25 years.

Compared to the earlier games, Elite Dangerous seems to have a very hands off approach to space combat. In the older Elite, you only had to get a sniff of an anarchy or low security system and you'd have a horde of space pirates on your tail baying for blood. In Elite Dangerous, however, you can pretty much go from system to system for weeks without any pirate encounters. This has the effect of turning the game into a dock > fly to station > dock > repeat loop, with not very much else happening. Sort of like European Truck Simulator 2, but you only ever drive down straight roads with no scenery and all the other traffic is tiny dots in the distance.

You can find combat in Elite Dangerous if you really go looking for it, for example if you take assassination missions or if you hang around in resource extraction sites or near navigation beacons. It is, however, very rare that the AI space pirates will come to find you. Even anarchy or low security systems, which in the previous games were something you entered at your peril, often just end up being a milk run.

I think it's too late now for the developers of Elite Dangerous to change the gameplay to be a bit more like the original, where enemy attacks were more prevalent and you'd often get a sense of trepidation every time you became mass locked by another object, having a moment of tension where you really weren't sure if that thing was going to be a pirate, a trader or just another space rock. I think, though, if they did do something to make the AI pirates more of a threat, the game would certainly be less dull - and maybe people would stop coming on the games forums complaining about how shallow the game is at times.

Now, I don't want you to think I'm just picking on Elite Dangerous here, because it's quite possible that my problems with the game are caused by my own lack of imagination when gaming. If I could stay in character maybe I'd enjoy it more. I was playing Batman Arkham Asylum recently, and it's a really good game, but at no point did I ever play the game as Batman. Instead, through the whole thing I was just Pete the gamer sitting in front of his PC holding his controller and moving his thumbs, but when I played Batman The Movie on my Commodore 64, it was a lot easier for me to imagine that I was really in the game.

Maybe it's the price we have to pay for getting older as gamers. Back when we're younger it's a lot easier for us to plug in to the atmosphere of a game and imagine that we're really in space, or chasing after The Joker dressed as a bat. Maybe we just become too cynical about things once we get older, and maybe this is why we see so many videos of 40-something, bearded nerds on YouTube crying about how the changes to things like Doctor Who, Star Wars and Star Trek are "ruining their childhood." 

I mean, I actually quite like Star Trek Discovery and the newer Star Wars movies, because I just take them for what they are, and enjoy the ride. Like the Marvel movies, I just approach them as if I was watching a 2 hour Saturday morning cartoon, and don't expect much more. I know that 8-year-old me would have found them amazing, and maybe this is the approach I need to adopt with games. Instead of sitting there nitpicking the whole thing comparing it to other stuff, just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

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