Four Hours Into The Future
When IO Interactive inexplicably decided to ignore their Hitman franchise to produce a follow-up to Kane and Lynch, nobody had high expectations for it. And rightly so. They may have made the fantastic Freedom Fighters (a nifty anti-Ruskie squad shooter with a plot straight out of ’80s Hollywood) but that was a long time ago, and right now IO couldn’t sell me a game if I was in the market for one, loaded and everyone I loved was going to die if I didn’t bring one home. However, it wasn’t the generic third-person gameplay, risible plot, confusing visuals or thoughtless level design that drew the most criticism from the wider gaming world. Nope, it was the game’s length – easily dispatched in four hours at lower difficulties – that got everyone’s goat. Everyone but me that is. Indeed, it was that comment that made me add it to my rental queue (I didn’t buy it, I’m not a complete fucking idiot). You see, four hours for me is the perfect game length for action games.
“But why?” you ask. Remember the ’70s? Many of you weren’t even born then, but something interesting happened in to music in the ’70s and we’re still feeling the effects of it: a lot of rock bands took a lot of acid and invented the concept album. Rock music was now littered with ten minute long, meandering, masturbatory epic songs. Five minute guitar solos or worse, drum solos, lyrics about being a goblin living in a sheep or something and enough pyrotechnics to hold an American’s attention for at least half a verse. It was bollocks. And then along came punk, a direct reaction to the excesses of what had come before. It brought in songs that were shorter than three minutes. Sure, the musicianship wasn’t quite as good but there was no filler. Just punk attitude. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, ending. Eventually that became refined and led to all the alternative music we enjoy/hate today, but the point was that it stripped out the filler and left you with something short, direct and efficient to be getting into. Epic prog rock still exists as well, but no-one bothers with it apart from people who wear tweed or teachers. Or both (tweedophiles).
Games are the same. Except in game terms four hours is the new three minutes. Anything over that means the developer is standing in front of a wall of Marshall amps, wearing a white lycra suit and is playing his guitar with a violin bow while the backdrop of lasers fries the drummer. More importantly, anything more than that is detrimental to the game as a whole. Value for money is important but not in quality terms. I mean you don’t come out of a cinema saying ‘that cost me eight quid, I want another hour!’ do you? Of course not. You want a fast-paced movie that keeps the pace up. Throwing in some pointless dialogue (a la Quentin Tarantino) is just going to act as filler. The same as repeating sections of gameplay.
Take the game Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions. On first inspection it’s a charming little game. Great graphics, good humour, time-tested Spidey gameplay (punch, kick, swing, repeat). The problem though is there are thirteen levels that all take between 20 and 45 minutes to complete (longer on higher difficulties). Now that’s not such a problem, except that in each level, and across all the levels, you’re basically just mashing X and Y against the same enemy archetypes. You could reduce these brawls right down to a single five minute fight and not miss any gameplay experiences. Instead, the bulk of the gameplay is just filler to stop the many boss battles from being a rush.
Likewise I’ve (inexplicably) just finished the five quid bargain shooter Jericho, a cheap and cheerful spooky FPS that I certainly didn’t hate that much. The occasional boss battle aside, it’s just ten hours of shooting the same enemy types over and over again. Now that’s fine but you could easily trim half of the game and not miss anything. In fact, look at any recently released action game, they’re all at it. At least in the old days they’d be forced, by law seemingly, to break things up with different level types or, if you were Ocean in the ’80s, a driving section here, a puzzle section there.
Even the ‘completely proven by science to be the best’ greatest game of all time, Resident Evil 4, sagged a little once you got to the castle. It’s the nature of things, and with games now costing forty of your Earth pounds to purchase, developers seem to have little choice but to copy and paste sections over and over and hope we don’t notice. Another classic example can be found in the Assassin’s Creed games. Everything after the first hour is repetition. I liked both AssCreed games (I’ve not bothered with Brotherhood yet) but I’m not going to say I wasn’t bored after the first half of both of them. Both games take at least ten hours to play through but at least 80% of both games is repetition. AssCreed 2, whilst being quite lovely, certainly can fuck off after you’ve killed your tenth Italian politician/priest because they are apparently corrupt or something (I may have drifted off a little during the game).
These are just random examples. But seriously, every game out there that gives you a linear structure to play through is going to be artificially longer than it needs to be. That’s without even taking into account achievements for beating levels on harder difficulties and the like. There really aren’t many games out there that need to be more than four hours long. Clearly, I’m not talking about your RPGs here. They need to be long and soul-crushing, it’s in the DNA and, obviously, sandbox games, being devoid of any real structure, thrive on horrible repetition with Just Cause 2, Dead Rising 2 and Crackdown 2 all being strong examples of how to extend ten minutes of gameplay into a twenty hour blend of nothing.
So is four hours really too short? We’ve already established that anything over that is just padding anyway. Kane and Lynch 2 certainly wouldn’t have benefitted from more of the same for example. Being an eight hour game wouldn’t have made people go ‘well it’s fucking abysmal but it does represent decent value for money for the average consumer!’ Likewise, being just a few hours long, the XBLA platformer Braid certainly didn’t struggle to win admirers, yet I’m sure a lot of players would have complained if he’d taken those exact same game mechanics and stretched it over another fifty levels. Short games are more focused and less likely to bore you. That’s a fact.
Admittedly, it’s not great value for money, but with rental games and, until Bobby Kotdeath decides otherwise, we can still trade in games when we finish them. Also it helps to get a partner with a job and no desire to have kids. Disposable income makes frivolously flinging money at the unwashed bastards behind the counter at GAME a hell of a lot easier on your Catholic guilt.
So, with dozens of games vying for attention at any given time, I don’t want some Kingdom Under Fire nightmare sucking up 100+ hours of my time. Nor do I want to have to wait fifteen hours to find out the ending to some poxy sub-B movie plot that some fuck at Activision penned in between snorting coke through $1000 bills. Four hours of story and gameplay is enough. Sure, if you’re really brilliant, you’ll come up with enough things to see and do to make it worthwhile going on a bit longer – and I don’t just mean throwing in mandatory turret and driving sections. Give me ten hours of ideas and I’ll play the whole thing. Give me four hours of ideas wrapped up in a ten hour game and you can go fuck yourself.
Unless it has easy achievements, at which point maybe we’ll talk.
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