In another article, I discuss awesome moments or levels in otherwise mediocre (or merely good) games. Here, I’ll consider the other side of the coin: good or great games dragged down by terrible moments or terrible design decisions.
Like in the previous article, sometimes this is an isolated moment: it sucks while it’s happening, but before and afterwards, you pretty much never have to think about it again. A good example of this is To the Moon, a good story-based game with relatively light gameplay elements. Except for that one scene. Maybe 80% of the way into the game, there’s suddenly this ridiculous scene where the player-character must fight off or otherwise avoid a bunch of zombie-like things to get to the end of a hallway. It’s a dumb scene that has uninspired gameplay and little to do with the style or substance of the rest of the game. It shouldn’t be there. But it is. Happily it’s brief, but it’s jarring and upsets the tone of a game that’s mainly about tone. We can only hope that developer Kan Gao learned his lesson.
Sometimes it’s a dumb control that ruins an otherwise enjoyable gaming experience. Enter Assassin’s Creed 2 on PC, where the quick time events (QTE) prompts tell you what command to use…but not which button it’s currently mapped to on your control scheme. Few gamers are used to thinking about controls in terms of their name rather than their button, so it makes for QTE that almost doom you to failure. In a game that otherwise improved on nearly every aspect of its predecessor, it’s a baffling misstep. Runners up in this category include all games that have like 6 QTEs in cutscenes total, so you never know if they’re coming and just spend cutscenes tensely waiting to be punished instead of either enjoying the action or having a reasonable sense of what’s about to be expected of you. Resident Evil 4 is a great game that sometimes pulls that dumb trick. There’s also Ikari Warriors, a fun NES title that baffling lets you board and fly helicopters that you can never land (so getting in essentially counts as sacrificing a life). This weird oversight (why not let us land? Why???) reminds me of a particularly terrible mechanic that stands out even in a game that is terrible all around—the Japanese-only Takeshi’s Challenge. In this anti-game that can’t be beat without spending a full hour not touching your controller, there’s a shooter mini-game that lets you move left, right, and down…but not up!
Then there are games that are great in almost all regards but have a core mechanic that just sucks. Mako vehicle in Mass Effect (1), I’m looking at you. BioWare axed the vehicle in ME2 and 3, to the disappointment of no one, though apparently they’re bringing back a (hopefully less idiotic) version of it in the upcoming Mass Effect 4.
Sometimes the disconnect between what’s good and what’s bad in a game reaches make-it-or-break-it levels. Deadly Premonition comes to mind. Nearly every review of the game was some variation on “It looks terrible and it plays poorly, but the story is original and bizarre and captivating. It’s up to you whether the good is worth the bad.” You can probably think of a lot of games like this, where you have to decide how much tedium you’re willing to sit through for the stuff you love, whether it’s broken gameplay, unskippable cutscenes, or a slow first act. For me, Deadly Premonition was too much, and I abandoned it after a few hours because the bright spots were simply too few and too far between the numbingly dull stretches of gameplay. It was like having to run on a treadmill for thirty minutes to earn the next scene in a bad-looking but interesting movie. No thank you.
On the other hand, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West features passable-enough brawler/action-adventure platforming gameplay to make it worth sticking it out for the interesting story and excellent acting. It’s not a game that rewards digging deep into combat combos like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta games, but it’s not not fun to play, so I don’t feel bored or annoyed whenever I’m not watching a cutscene.
Most of these examples have focused on broken gameplay. Story bits tend to be skippable, but gameplay is the core of games, so it’s more likely to break an experience than a mediocre story or bad scene. But bad storytelling can certainly pull you out of an experience. I enjoy the DmC reboot, but it’s exhausting how the game has a constant undertone of junior-high-like misogyny by referring to pretty much every female character as a b**** or a wh*** every second cutscene. And the Metal Gear Solid series is renowned for its gameplay, but the over-the-top and sometimes ridiculously lazy storytelling tends to be more divisive. For many, it’s part of the charm having a protagonist whose dialogue consists mainly of repeating whatever was just said to him in a shocked tone, but come on Hideo Kojima, why on earth would you have Snake (in the original Metal Gear Solid) be shocked to see a surveillance camera in a nuclear weapons disposal facility? What, he thought there’d be like one old guard at the entrance reading a magazine and that’s it? They put it on its own island for a reason, Snake. It’s guarded. Even if it was just a disposal facility, a single surveillance camera should surprise no one, let alone an elite stealth ops commando. All you can do is disregard this silliness, because it is completely unbelievable.
These examples of bad moments in great games range from individual levels or controls to core mechanics and poor storytelling. There are certainly many more examples than I’ve been able to address here. What are some of your favorite (or least favorite) examples of bad moments in good games? Are there any categories of game-ruining moments (like glitches and bugs) that I haven’t addressed here? What’s the best game you’ve ever had turned into a maddening experience by one stupid thing dragging it down?