I see there has been some back and forth around the Xbox community over the quicktime events in Ryse: Son of Rome, the new Crytek action exclusive coming to Xbox One.
The game takes a somewhat different approach to the old QTE formula (like not needing you to complete them) so we thought it would make for a good investigation regarding the future of action titles in the next generation.
I’d like to begin with a minor clarification: obviously nobody has played the final project yet so I can only analyze the information we have thus far and raise discussion points about that. I am in no way trying to pass judgment on a product that is not in my hands, but I think Ryse is a great place to start looking at action trends moving forward.
The long and short of it is that the playable demo of Ryse at E3 was put together to show off the focus on cinematic and brutal executions. While only about seven animations were available, Crytek assures us there will be around 100 of them on release. Now, to show people just how cool that was they cut down the life bars of the enemies so that they took fewer normal attack to wear down. That resulted in a whole lot of very quick transitions to quicktime kill prompts. At that point press members who got to try the demo were a little flabbergasted that one need not actually complete the button prompts properly, or at all, to achieve the epic kill. Queue the confusion.
Of course there are two sides to every story, behind the complaints and beneath the appearance of automatic gameplay Ryse looks to be applying a certain amount of player driven layering to this next-gen action experience. Some folks are saying that the executions auto-completing take control away from the player and result in a game that plays itself. That’s a fair point, but a quick look at what we know about the gameplay should shed some light on what Crytek is trying to achieve.
An interview with Siliconera paints an original picture. It’s worth the read but I’ll boil it down for the purposes of analysis. The gameplay is set up in such a way as to be rewarding for attentive players but not frustrating for those who are less on the ball or otherwise casually engaged. They don’t want a failed QTE to frustrate you but they instead want to reward you for accuracy. The better your timing, the more XP you gain. You won’t have simple prompts that tell you everything you need to do as we saw in the demo, but as you use your XP to unlock more executions you will have to learn via visual and audio queues from your enemy which moves to make in order to activate the cinematic kills. Those kills won’t be happening as quickly as they did in the demo either – you’ll have to beat down your opponents properly since the demo was just a build to show off one focus of the game. Apparently as you raise the difficulty you will also need to be more precise with your reflexes and will get less assistance from the game for more complex execution maneuvers. When all is said and done you will then be able to compare point totals to friends online. I’ve never looked at a single leaderboard in my life but I suppose this stuff is important to social gamers.
Let me tell you what I see. Instinct and experience wants me to have a big problem with the ability to sail through a QTE now that I’ve been reassured that the game won’t be replete with them as the demo suggested. Things change though, and action is the first genre to try to fit with the gaming habits of the masses. We’ve seen a lot of formerly difficult game franchises become watered down and made “accessible” this generation, and one could argue that Ryse is continuing that trend. At least that’s not the end of the story though. If you’ll afford me an action comparison I’d like to look at Devil May Cry briefly. You weren’t going to get anywhere in the original release of DMC3 unless you really learned the intricacies of the combat system, and I mean not even past the first level. For DMC4 the difficulty was scaled back and button mashers were allowed to survive, but those who still took the time to learn the combos could get the same hardcore experience.
The DmC reboot expanded the gameplay further, being even more accessible, but no less hardcore when it came to learning and executing combo chains. Sure the reboot wasn’t as successful but that was not because of the battle system (which was praised by all sensible reviewers). You basically got out what you put in, and if you wanted to sail through the game slapping your controller you could. Purists tend to hate this form of accessibility and I sympathize with them, I really do, but it won’t help anyone to seize on that and ignore the rest. The more I think about it the more I see an attempt to make the steepness of the learning curve depend on you instead of the developer.
What I see in Ryse is another attempt to expand the base and reward those who choose to be more dedicated to the battle system. So if you learn the timing, memorize the executions that fit the proper combat opportunities and perfect your block then you will be able to unlock more visual delights and such. Instead of being punished with death for “not doing it right” gamers who play lazily simply won’t have as intense of an experience. The end result is an elastic experience. Let’s face it – this is in keeping with the way things have been going anyway. Most games have already added features that make gaming less punishing: you can’t fall off cliffs, your health regenerates, a stealth fail erupts into an action encounter, or you simply lack the ability to die. Whether or not this is the right direction for games is something I hope gamers will continue to talk about, as well as whether or not Ryse can strike the right balance.
Another point I think is best made by beginning with a quote from that same interview where producer Michael Read addresses how you will keep up your fight through waves of bad guys:
“Let’s say you’re fighting in the game, you’re hacking a guy down. You’re getting beat from two guys behind. Your health is low. You’re like, damn, what am I going to do. I need health. Health doesn’t regenerate by itself, so I have to perform the execution mode to do that. So I flick on the health, I beat one guy down, and then I try to get those execution states, and I try to get those execution presses in time with that so that I’ll get a larger bonus to get some health back and beat these other two guys.”
By “flick on the health” he is referring to a D-pad press that changes the nature of your attacks. There’s something about this that I like very much, and it is actually a slick way to return to more old school gameplay. In fact it reminds me of an attempt made most recently in the Capcom title Remember Me. While the combat in that game was ultimately a failure it at least incorporated some good ideas. Instead of having the staple of regenerating health that has made so many games so easy lately the developers made gaining health back an ability that was part of the gameplay. I think that move is a step forward for action.
Instead of the too-easy regeneration of health or the too-old pickup of health kits Ryse seems to be planning to add health gains into the proper execution of combat. When I run the simulation of that in my head I can easily see how that aspect is going to add numerous, tense moments to the battles. I think we’ve gotten too used to in-game tension amounting to redness on the border of our screens followed by a hasty retreat behind a box. At least this way your survival depends on your skills at more than running away.
The E3 demo was also light on combat basics and the producer assures us it will be more involved than what they were able to squeeze into a brief demo. Plus there is still focus mode (another D-pad option) which we know nothing about. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more action games follow this model. The big money seems to be in making games accessible and with the rising cost of game development it’s harder to advocate for the hardest of the hardcore gameplay. The good news is that with clever developers at work, “accessible” doesn’t always have to mean shallow.
The real test will be whether or not a game like Ryse that is deliberately easy on one end can properly motivate gamers to invest more than the minimum amount of effort it takes to survive. I’m not so sure that’s possible if there isn’t much accountability, but trends change as fast as I can shake my fist at them.