Game On: Stop giving classic series a free ride
Metal Gear Solid

With many gamers and critics continuing to indulge and defend the shortcomings of new entries in famous series, Mark Butler argues that our affection for old favourites is now being used against us.

Metal Gear Solid

Have we become too indulgent of our most beloved game series? Are we now far too swift to dismiss, or even outright deny, the faults, downsides and drawbacks of fresh instalments?

In some cases, it appears we most certainly are.

Take Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes, for example. I’m not going to bore you by banging on about it at length – as the subject has been widely discussed and dissected already – but suffice it to say that the game’s lack of content and short running time has been a source of great controversy.

What has most surprised me, however, is the considerably hefty number of gamers rallying to defend the Metal Gear V prologue, even though it offers just a few hours of gameplay for a £25 pricetag. For me, it helped illustrate an important point: classic series, such as Metal Gear, often get away with nonsense that no new indie project or fledgling franchise would.

As Angry Joe recently pointed out, many of the same people defending Ground Zeroes were probably baying for blood when Dead Rising 2: Case Zero hit the marketplace a few years back. And yet that downloadable prologue offered considerably better value for money.

Hell, I’ve already seen some individuals and organisations that lavished praise on Ground Zeroes slating the wonderfully dumb and anarchic Goat Simulator for its lack of content this week – and it’s available for a very reasonable $9.99.

We’ve seen this kind of thing before. Despite understandable controversy over server issues at launch, people queued up to defend the always-online approach to Diablo III  claiming the title was effectively an MMO anyway – with the weird result that many PC users who would normally rage against DRM were out in force actively supporting it, simply because they loved Blizzard and the brand.

And how about that auction house, huh? Both critics and consumers consistently played down its influence at launch, with various significant issues related to its impact only becoming widely acknowledged a considerable time later.

Other iconic series have had similar ‘free passes’. Halo 4 was by no means a great game – and the general consensus now is that it fell slightly short of the mark – yet anybody voicing dissent at launch was roundly castigated by fans, and even developers.

The tedious, soul-destroying corridor simulator known as Final Fantasy XIII was praised and indulged upon release by countless critics and gamers, in what seemingly amounted to a bizarre case of Emperor’s New Clothes or Stockholm Syndrome.

That game stripped away virtually everything that had made the series great. But being splurged forth from such hallowed loins, many refused to acknowledge its flaws.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone behaves in this way by any means. But it seems to me that a substantial element of the gaming audience – and, it has to be said, the gaming press – give far too much rope to long-running, iconic series than they do fledgling ones.

I can understand it to a point. After all, many of these series have built up considerable groundbreaking ideas, warm memories, and widespread goodwill over the years. But I find it hard to swallow the idea that this gives them some kind of special protection or diplomatic immunity, when unfamiliar names are cut far less slack.

Gaming sequels tend to be far more impressive than movie sequels, admittedly, so I can appreciate that long-running game franchises don’t quite inspire the same kind of dread and contempt that their cinematic counterparts do.

But there’s a tendency for us to be far too forgiving with new installments in a classic series – even when they fail woefully to live up to the standards set by their forebears.

There are a number of problems that result from this. The first is the simple fact that games which are genuinely flawed in some way will receive more adulation than they deserve, which is misleading for consumers and provides undue credit to the companies that made them.

The second is more insidious: publishers understand that they can get away with shadier business tactics when it comes to iconic series, hence we have seen always-online DRM, day-one DLC and repugnant pay-to-win mechanics creeping into a great deal more sequels, spin-offs and reboots of late.

It has become far too easy for corporate executives to use gamers’ own affection for a franchise against them, with many bowing to the cash-milking rather than miss-out on the latest action in their favourite IP.

The third issue is that mainstream companies will continue to rely on the same-old familiar faces and names, even if they’ve long out-stayed their welcome and fallen from grace (I’m looking at you, Silent Hill).

In gaming, familiarity does not breed contempt. It breeds devotion. And it’s far too tempting for publishers to keep shoveling more and more sequels onto us – whether they live up to their forebears or not – rather than try and branch out into new, daring territory.

I love indie games and new IPs because they thrive on originality and creativity, rather than relying on their reputation to succeed. And yet the mainstream landscape does not always offer a fair playing field for their efforts, as they tend to be judged with a great deal more scrutiny than household names.

A promising but flawed new series may often be condemned to wither and die, while an established but flawed favourite will continue to flourish. It hardly seems reasonable.

There’s nothing like a new console generation to concentrate the mind on the potential excitement and innovation of new IPs, which live or die purely on their quality or lack-thereof – rather than coasting on the loyalty built up by past glories. And with plenty of great-looking indies and original blockbusters currently in store, I’m hopeful that many of these will find their feet, and be welcomed with open arms should they entertain and enthrall enough.

But first, I think we need to accept that we sometimes give the biggest, most hallowed franchises, too much of a free ride. And continuing to indulge their failings will only end badly for us.

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