Sept 4, 2007
We've been looking forward to Lair for more than a year. Originally slated to be one of the crown jewels of the PS3's launch lineup, it was delayed repeatedly so that Factor 5 - the developer behind the legendary Star Wars: Rogue Squadron series - could finish it properly. Even now, this dragon-combat sim is one of the prettiest games on the PS3, sporting vast battlefields filled with dozens of airborne monsters and hundreds of armored ground troops at once. But after playing it from start to finish, we're left with one burning question: how the hell did Lair go so wrong?
It's not just the developer's decision to force players to use the Sixaxis pad's motion-sensitive controls that hamstrings Lair, although that doesn't help. It's awkward, but given time and a little practice, guiding your dragon around by tilting the controller is almost as natural as using analog sticks (although never quite as comfortable or precise). No, the real problem with Lair is that, underneath its slick visuals and novel controls, the game is shallow, dull and frustrating for all the wrong reasons.
Lair's gameplay isn't particularly challenging, especially not at first. As a dragon-riding knight flying a fire-breathing lizard into a war between two medieval nations, you'll find that your enemies - whether they're other dragons, war machines, hulking land-beasts or entire battalions of infantry - tend to go down with just one or two heat-seeking fireballs from your dragon's maw. Most levels are very linear and clear-cut, nearly all of your objectives are of the "destroy that thing" or "protect that other thing" varieties, and you'll rarely be faced with more than one task at a time. In fact, for the first few levels, the game is just you following orders as they're barked out by your commander - kill those dragons, swoop down and stomp a few platoons of enemy infantry, blow up their warships, yada yada yada.
To be fair, there's some variety here; sometimes you'll have to destroy things by grabbing on and vigorously shaking the Sixaxis until they explode/die (which can be murder on your forearms) instead of shooting them with fireballs. Other times, you'll get to pull up alongside other dragons and bash them out of the sky, or perform a "Takedown" move that forces you to jerk the controller around on cue for a dramatic, leaping-from-dragon-to-dragon fatality. You can even lock an enemy dragon into a face-to-face duel, which turns the game into a button-mashing fighter for a few seconds as you claw, bite and breathe fire at each other. But that's about the extent of what you'll do.
It's not until later in the game that things start to get complicated, and when they do, the controls can't handle it. The levels get smaller, tighter and more crowded, and your dragon's long, slow turns mean it takes a little while to focus back on a target you've overshot - bad news if you're on a time limit, or if that target is faster than you. You can, in theory, pull a quick 180-degree turn by jerking the controller straight up, but this move is just as likely to do nothing or to send you rocketing straight ahead, getting you even further from where you want to go.
Making matters worse, bumping into walls or other objects sends you bouncing off in some other random direction. Nowhere is this a bigger hassle than when you're fighting "battle beasts," giant four-legged creatures that need to be brought down by flying low, attaching a grappling hook to their legs and flying away to trip them up. (And if that sounds suspiciously like dragging down AT-ATs on Hoth, then you're on the right track. Lord knows we really needed to do that again.) Pulling this off is difficult enough with the motion controls, but if you bump into the creature's legs or sides, you'll carom off in the opposite direction and have to re-orient yourself for another run.
If you're actually locked on to an enemy, meanwhile, bumping into an object will send the camera into a berserk spin around your target, which is disorienting to the point that you can actually lose sight of your own dragon. This can be quickly remedied by letting go of the lock-on button, but then you'll have to turn around and find your target all over again.
In early levels, though, the lock-on targeting is pretty reliable - if something's in front of you in those first stages, after all, odds are you'll want to kill it. Later missions, however, force you to be more choosy. In one, for example, you need to blow up flying boulders before they smash into a prison where a bunch of your allies are being held. But when you try to lock onto those boulders, the game gets confused. Did you mean to lock onto a distant and inconsequential dragon, instead of that nearby hunk of mission-ending death-rock? The game thinks you did. And then it doesn't matter, because before you can do anything else, the level's boss will tackle you in midair, locking you into a one-on-one, tooth-and-nail duel that you can't escape from. And while you're distracted with that, the boulder crashes into the prison, killing your buddies and forcing you to start the battle over.
It's that kind of stuff that makes Lair frustrating - not difficult enemies, not devious challenges, but disorienting, unfair moments that make you shout, "that's bullshit!" at the screen. And that's not fun. It's not even challenging. It's just irritating. Add in that failure means you'll need to re-watch sizable chunks of the cinemas every time you restart a level (they only become skippable once the level finishes loading in the background), and you may have to muster some serious willpower to keep playing.
Lair would have made a fantastic launch title for the PS3. The beautiful visuals, while marred with weird pop-in details and occasionally herky-jerky animation, are a nice showcase for what the console can do, and the crummy controls would have been more excusable back when we were too excited about the Sixaxis' potential to care. But now, there's just no good reason to spend money on this, unless you're really into dragons, and also frustration. Warhawk offers a much more enjoyable flight-combat experience (not to mention multiplayer action, which Lair doesn't have), and better games - like Ratchet & Clank Future and Uncharted - are just around the corner.
It's a pity, though - Lair does feature some awesome set-pieces with dazzling visuals. The seaside battle against a fortress covered by giant stone heads is awesome while it lasts, and the game's single stealth level - where you'll have to dodge searchlights at night as you try to find and disable the enemy's defenses - has a haunting beauty to it, thanks largely to the choral music that plays as you swoop through. In the end, though, awesome graphics and pretty music just aren't enough to rescue Lair from its deeply flawed design.