This is the first of a new addition to this blog, and until I can find a shorter name, it’s called “What We Can Learn from Games that Flew Under the Radar.” It’s going to be exactly what it says on the tin. We’re going to look at games that either didn’t sell well or people just ignored for some reason, and why I think they have something to offer. It’s a double whammy of seriously discussing how games can be improved, and giving free publicity to great games that really need it. Today I want to talk about a game that came out last Fall that for whatever reason, people just kind of ignored; Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.

Looked good AND had substance.

There were a lot of things I liked about this game. Visually it was a rebellion against a lot of games that had come out recently. It presented a post-apocalyptic setting that instead of being brown and gray was awash with color. Green vegetation covered ruined buildings which opened up to bright blue skies. The colorful beauty of the natural world clashed nicely against the crumbling concrete and steel architecture and the rusting machines you routinely pounded into oblivion. The death of civilization had never looked better. It brought aesthetics and a carefully picked color palette to the Unreal Engine, creating what is in my opinion as an artist, the best looking game of 2010. But it’s not the visuals I want to talk about, that goes with out saying. Brown and gray are going out of style, color is the grime. No what I want to talk about is how Enslaved perfected cover based mechanics, and no one noticed.

Ever since Gears of War came out, we’ve experience a trend of context-sensitive cover based shooters. And by trend I mean deluge. The problem is that there’s a fundamental flaw to cover based games that no one seems to be able to fix, or even address for that matter. Namely in order to jump over a chest high wall the character first has to run up to it and press the button in order to get into cover. Once in cover the player can now jump over it. There’s no way to fix this, since these controls are context sensitive and the run command is usually the same as the cover and jump over cover command. I mean you can just have it so a character who runs up to cover will automatically jump over it. That would be suicide. You’d either have to amble over the cover and get shot to death, or run and risk jumping over the cover and get shot to death. I didn’t really have a problem with this setup, until a point in Mass Effect 2 that really drove home to me how silly this whole business is. It was the part when I had to climb up a bunch of steps made out of containers. The steps where too big to just walk over, so I had to get into cover, then jump over the cover, then into the next cover, and so on until I had ascended the little step pyramid they had going on. Clearly there has to be a better way.

Now there is.

In Enslaved getting into cover isn’t based on context sensitive controls, but context sensitive positioning in the environment.  There’s no button to make the player character Monkey get into to cover. If you’re near cover and you’re being shot at, you automatically crouch as long as you stay behind it. So if you want to jump over cover and have no intention of staying behind it for a second, just keep on running and them jump over it. It’s that simple. This system also has to added benefit of removing the problem of having the unnatural feeling that the character isn’t so much behind cover, as that they’re Velcro’d  to it.

I think that this is a brilliant way to innovate, what is already a great system. I like cover based shooting, so long as there’s more to it. I loved how in Gears of War I felt like a real solider, and not some iron-wrought vault man who could take a million machine gun rounds to the face. But it’s ruined somewhat by the context-sensitive controls and the sensation that you’ve become glued to the walls. Enslaved is a significantly better way of doing it, and it’s such a shame that not enough people paied attention to it. To any developer working on a cover based shooter (which is probably all of you), try out Enslaved. It’s worth it.