Onwards and upwards (usually)
But not always. Because while games are an ever-evolving medium, constantly improving as new technology facilitates new creative possibilities, those progressive additions and upgrades which improve video games as a whole sometimes throw a big old spanner in the works too.
Sometimes ideas which were only intended to improve one element of one type of game get used across the board, resulting in savage inappropriateness and wretched homogenisation. Sometimes a new presentation tricks brings great results, but has unforeseen consequences for gameplay. Sometimes some much-needed acts of user-friendly design smoothing get out of control, and sometimes... Well, click on and you'll see. Go on. Do it now. That's why you're here.
1. Getting drunk on overly elaborate animation routines
So youve leapt balletically from rafter to rafter, atop the flame-licked ballroom of a burning French chateaux. Youve sprinted, mantled, punched, blind-fired, sprint-punched, and sprint-blind-fired through countless battlefields, your fluidity of movement matched only by your bountless athleticism, matched only by your insatiable, efficient, and inconvenient-for-a-good-guy bloodlust.
But now you face your greatest challenge. One from which, should you even rally the superhuman strength to complete it, you will surely never recover. You have to walk through a doorway. And Nathan Drake has long-since lost the ability to do that in any sort of sensible or clean fashion. Instead, his over-cooked, procedural, environmentally aware, obsessive-compulsive animation routines will see him grab the doorframe for no good reason. Hell then get stuck, and probably slide along the wall trying to get out. And then pointlessly trip over a crack in a floor tile and writhe around on the floor for a bit. Staircases? Forget it. You might as well lie down and die now, because theyre almost certainly going to bury you here.
2. Aim-down-sights shooting putting a wheelclamp on FPS
Back in the early days, FPS guns didnt really exist in the game-world. They were just screen garnish for your cross-hair, drawn over the bottom-right of the display so that it didnt feel like you were spewing bullets out of your gut. With ADS though, we gained a real sense of physicality to our weapons, the presence of a tangible, solid object we could manipulate as an adaptable tool of destruction. It was great.
But then it went too far. Rather than just adding tactile heft and strategic, precision aiming where appropriate, ADS became the de-facto way of firing a gun. Slowly, we began to lose the whirling, aerobatic, free-flowing combat that made games like Doom and Quake such a joy, as standing still and focusing on a single point became a more standard practice. Theres a reason that Call of Duty multiplayer feels like a militarised game of hide-and-seek rather than a series of real, tactical firefights. ADS provides the most reliable kills, while effectively removing free movement and peripheral vision from the equation. Its gone too far. When the goddamn shotgun in a Duke goddamn Nukem game has a precision-aim mode, it really has gone too far.
3. Aim-assist being a little too helpful
Staying on the subject of FPS, it was a good while before we managed to balance satisfying gunplay on consoles. Compared to the smooth, flowing, instinctive skull-busting of a keyboard and mouse, analogue sticks were a little stiff and imprecise. Through a few years of iteration with control-smoothing and differing approaches to aim-assist though, we got there. But sometimes it still goes too far. Youd have thought that by now we would have had it perfected. All the devs would have sent around all the memos to all the other devs--or at least had long enough to study each others games and rip them off--and wed be living in some kind of blissful, easy-killing utopia. But no.
While a lot of FPS do have it nailed, adding invisible, imperceptible assistance that feels entirely non-existent until you switch it off, others are heavy-handed. Still, I aim at an enemy, only to find my seemingly haunted gun swing around to follow him, uncannily tracking nothing but the length of a wall as he leaves the room and runs down an adjoining corridor. Still, I am dicked out of a perfect quadruple-kill, as I get the jump on four tightly-packed multiplayer opponents, only to have my interfering bullet-phantom decide to follow the one guy who runs away from the pack. You are an ass, gun-ghost. I know youre trying to help, but you are a thundering great ass.
4. Death-defying leaps, made entirely safe
3D platforming used to be hard for all the wrong reasons. Mario 64 nailed it out of the gate, but it took third-parties a fair bit longer to get to grips with free-roaming jump fun and that pesky analogue stick. Hell, Sega is still working it out. Going from the precise, easy-to-judge traversal of 2D games to the more vague, perspective-plagued world of polygonal platforming was a learning curve for us all. But eventually, game design caught up. New mechanics and handling tricks came in to remove the newfound brutality. The practice of automatically grabbing just-missed platforms became a widespread safety net. Some games even started rubber-banding jump ranges in order to boost us over particularly tricky, marginally failed challenges, particularly when there was cinematic spectacle to be had.
But somewhere along the way, the cinematic side started to take over. A few too many platformers now seem more concerned with making jumping look cool than making it a meaningful, masterable gameplay mechanic. Try falling off a ledge in Assassins Creed. Or Uncharted 3. Or Prince of Persia 2008. Or jumping in the wrong direction in Enslaved. You cant. You can take a sprinting leap six feet over a precipice into certain death, and still auto-turn and grab the edge on the way down. Damnit, games, let me die if I want to. Much more of this, and I'm going to start doing my gaming exclusively within the borders of Switzerland.
5. Auto-save auto-rage
Auto-saving! Great! No longer do I need to balance the demands of my prescribed Hell-beast slaughter duties with the search for a death-reversal toilet or space-time typewriter. The game will simply save for me, at the correct times, and with the minimum of fuss. Except that they dont, always. Sometimes they make you scream for the blanket implementation of the traditional PC saving method. Hit F5 any damn time you like, build an endless monolith of stacking, nigh-identikit, impossible to identify save-files in your very own, personalised load-queue.
Yes, getting started used to take half an hour of minute browsing, checking and comparing each and every one for its exact, to-the-second timestamp in order to pick the right launching point. But those trusty old manual saves didnt restrict me to a singular file, and then slap me in the face by over-writing it straight after a game-killing glitch. Or during an impossible to win fight-gone-wrong (*cough*Battlefield 3), or after locking me out of a final confrontation because I didnt make it through the impossibly-scripted door-opening sequence quickly enough (*cough*Battlefield 3 again). And I like it when save systems don't do that.
6. Ragdoll deaths, wobbly results
What could be better than anatomically, biologically accurate, excruciatingly realistic, real-time death animations? Theyre way better than those mechanical, canned death-slumps of old. You know what actually could be better? If these startlingly believable, dynamically generated, physical theatre tributes to having-just-been-murdered didnt result in a corpse randomly slumping off a cliff, taking all the ammo it was holding with it.
Or if carefully-executed bodies, after being felled in exactly the right spot for maximum stealth, didnt elastically twang across the room and alert every footsoldier in the area, their Commandant sounding the alarm as he receives a buttload of his subordinate butt in the face. Or if they didnt lose all physical weight upon death, littering the battlefield with a load of goofy, lolloping balloon-corpses, to be booted across the floor as you leave. Actually, scratch that last one. Booting around balloon-corpses is awesome.
7. Too much value
Remember when games provided a really long play-time by simply being rock-balls impossible, because they could only fit three bleeps and one graphic into their memory allocation? Why, this game is clearly only three seconds long, we would say. Thank God the devs made it impossible to complete. I shall justify this purchase by trying anyway. And thus we would spend the next few months engaged in what amounted to a self-initiated headbutting contest with a brick wall, to rationalise the spending of 3.99.
Now, however, games dont have to beat the crap out of us in order to convince us were having a good time. They can use content instead. Oh, so much content. But again, sometimes--everybody sing it--this goes too far. Where a game could have concentrated on building a compelling driving model and enough tracks to last you until God dies of old age, it instead provides 900,297,843,201 cars, 900,297,843,198 of which you will never drive. And where an FPS campaign could have been a long, ever-evolving, endlessly twisting journey of multi-faced combat creativity, it instead gives you 10,000 variants of each of its guns to unlock by grinding the multiplayer--the only meaningful differences between them being pistol, machine gun, shotgun and sniper rifle. But lo, you spend the next few months engaged in what amounts to a self-initiated headbutting contest with a brick wall, trying to unlock it all anyway.
Better or worse?
So there's my current run-down of great game evolutions that aren't 100% great when you really think about it. But how about you? Any other modern improvements you refuse to accept are as good as things were in the old days? Let me know in the comments.
And while you're here, check out some of our related feature things. Games called 'ultimate' that are nothing of the sort (opens in new tab) would be a good bet for the cynically-minded. And for those of you looking for the positive flip-side of all that, there's The Top 7 Fantastic sequels to forgettable games (opens in new tab)