Four Hours Into The Future

Bill Bailey goes apeshit on his latest heckler

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.

"Get over here..." Nah, doesn't work without the yellow cossie.

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.

One game of British Bulldog that you just know will end badly

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.

Last five articles by Richie



  1. Stu Stu says:

    I tend to agree with you for the most part on this, Richie. I love my RPGs and the like but even then when trekking from A to B, knowing it’ll send me back to A the slow route it still feels like filler – having killed everything on the way there what possible joy can I get from wandering back along a trail of corpses other than feeling like its wasting my life and detracting from the fun of the story/game? Thank god for fast travel in Elder Scrolls, Fallout et al.

    I think 4-5 hours is a fair enough time for me to play through an FPS campaign without getting ridiculously bored. Even the, by comparison to its FPS brethren, engaging banter and chat in Battlfield Bad Company 2 wasn’t enough to take my mind away from the obvious generic FPS setup: A traditional battlefield level, a jungle level, a snow level, a desert level, an indoors level, etc. Ugh. God. Just by making the backgound scenery a different colour doesn’t alter the fact I’m still just running between walls and shooting whatever pops up in the distance…and don’t get me started on the obligatory ‘on rails’ sections they always insist on putting into the games. Grr.

    Like your good self, I see the experience and fun I get out of a game as the true value for money, not “oh ok, I spent £40 on this and it lasted 8 hours so that’s £5 an hour…I was wallet raped!”. I’d take a game that had me on the edge of my seat grinning like a demented person for 3 hours over a game that despite being great was still a rinse and repeat fest that outstayed its welcome.

  2. Ste says:

    Interesting viewpoint however I dont mind the odd bit of filler sometimes. As long as I have fun doing stuff in a game then I suppose I can live with doing the same thing over and over again. It only becomes a ball ache for me if the other non filler bits aren’t engaging me enough. I’ll then feel like I’ve got no real incentive to do the repetative bits and just pack the game in and move onto something else.

  3. Samuel Samuel says:

    “Epic prog rock still exists as well, but no-one bothers with it apart from people who wear tweed or teachers. Or both (tweedophiles).”

    How very dare you. I wouldn’t teach if you told me to at gun point, not again anyway. Last time was a fucking nightmare. And I’ve never come into contact with tweed. That shit never gets off your skin, I’m told. Prog rock however, is half my music collection.

    Outrage at your anti-progressive bias to one side, you make an interesting point. I love RPGs and I’ll happily forego complaining when they tend to get distracted with pointless side quests (I’m replaying Dragon Age Origins at the moment and have done nothing else except such pointless side quests all fucking afternoon). But I like my shooters and other purely action based games to be short and to the point, and to blow my mind a little. Not unlike the way I like my action films. Dragging it out for 12 hours instead of 4 or 6 results in my getting bored and taking the disk out of the tray. There are only so many people you can shoot in the head before you start to crave something more involved.

    Halo Reach was something like 9 hours long, the solo campaign, and that is the limit of my endurance for that kind of game. I have fond memories of the old Soldier of Fortunes, and Wolfenstein… stuff I could finish in a single afternoon when I needed a break from the more epic RPG and strategy titles in my collection.

    Not unlike how I occasionally stick an ELO or Supertramp album on between the Genesis or King Crimson ones, heh.

  4. Rook says:

    It all depends on how much enjoyment I am getting out of a game, those that I get engrossed in I want to last a long time but those I feel bored with but still want to complete I want to be over quickly. Spiderman Shattered Dimensions has lasted a long time for me but that’s more because I got bored and haven’t went back to ut yet. Although I would hate for 4 hours of game time to become the norm because then it’ll get fuilled with multiplayer nonsense and that’s worse than filler.

  5. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    I reckon four hours for a game would be okay if it was maybe a tenner, or twenty quid at a push, but when you go out and spend forty bucks on launch and then you’re sitting staring at the end credits four hours later… they can piss off if they think they’re getting any money from me. Whether it was a fun romp or not, for £10 an hour I could get sloppy seconds round at Anderston Bus Station.

    SOME games though, admittedly, need trimmed just the same as some movies do. I don’t want to start thumping Peter Jackson with a comatose dwarf but those Lord Of The Rings movies each had at least a dozen perfectly acceptable ending points and yet they were drawn out beyond belief… and I swear it was just so he could have “epic” movies. Could be wrong. Doubt it.

    Oddly enough though, the 80 something hours that I put in to Fallout: New Vegas was too short for me… but only because the ending was far too abrupt and pretty much came out of nowhere. I’d rather that they’d trimmed twenty hours out that I spent going to the locations using my “Explorer” perk when there was really nothing at ANY of them and used maybe two of those twenty hours to turn the ending into a two hour ending rather than a ten minute one. Overall, in terms of length, it was worth the £40… but in terms of enjoyment it was a waste of money for me because everything that I’d done in the 80 hours prior was ruined when someone decided “Can’t be arsed writing any more of this, just have some guy burst through the gates and end it there”. I’d have preferred a kick ass ending and a game that was shorter by half.

    Also… I love prog, but you know that anyway ;)

  6. Ben Ben says:

    I think length is one of the reasons I dislike modern FPS games as their single player campaign seemingly gets shorter and shorter. I’m a big fan of narrative within games and even more so in the epic scale of RPG’s such as Dragon Age etc.

    I don’t mind games that only keep me going for six hours, but full priced games with only so much gameplay time to offer will find themselves competing with indie titles along with PSN / XBL games for my wallets inhabitants.

  7. Kat says:

    I think I’m with you Rich. If the story doesn’t hold my interest and it’s pretty much the same thing over and over then I’m unlikely to finish it. I have no problem with a four hour game (which would equal six hours for a slowcoach like me) so long as I’ve enjoyed it.

  8. Lorna Lorna says:

    Not sure I agree, to be honest. While there are some games which could be shorter, and which do drag on, four hours is pushing it at best. Six is the happy lower limit for me I think, and then only if it feels right, otherwise I feel let down, especially if it feels like it was suddenly cut off or not explored to its potential.

    As someone who is a big fan of story and narrative, I would hate to have that rushed, cramped, or discarded because of concerns about time. I actually like games to go on, but only if there is enough good stuff to warrant it. I agree that filler can be frustrating, but if I am enjoying a game and loving the story and chracters, then I usually don’t mind too much and tend to get annoyed if it ends too soon. Mirror’s Edge was a hair too short, Alan Wake was just right, and Oblivion, I was perfectly happy with. Good stuff.

  9. Richie rich says:

    Cheers for the comments, loves. In terms of value, four hours is definitely all wrong, and if a game comes along with 10 hours of varied, excellent content then that is definitely awesome. But most games don’t unfortunately and with dev costs spiralling, it’s unlikely to change.

    I’ve got a 100+ hours max ahead of me with Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce. I saw everything the game had to offer within a couple of hours.

  10. Edward Edward says:

    I think it depends, I tend to prefer the experience to be extended to get more bang for my buck as I tend to forego multiplayer, and I normally take a break from the game for a while in the middle of it to go back another time unless I’m reviewing it.

    However, some games really outstay their welcome if they’re a bit naff. Like as much as I liked Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard, it’s undeniable that it ran out of ideas at some point and then decided to recycle half the content and make those few good ideas massively outstay their welcome when it made no sense to.

    However, for me this sort of thing is fixed by Telltale’s Episodic gaming. For something like £20-5 I get 5 3-4 hour long episodes that make up a season, each of the episodes last just short enough to stop dragging and then I feel like I get value for money because adding all five episodes together I end up getting up to 20 hours gameplay.
    I didn’t think I could go a week without trumping Telltale, but I did it!

  11. Lee says:

    I’m guessing you’re not a fallout or mass effect fan then? :D I’m with you on assassins creed – I loved the games to bits but I reached a point where I was like “ahh fuck why won’t this game end”. If a games got a good story I’ll play it for as long as it lasts unless it’s fetch quests – fucking hate fetch quests.

  12. Directing Chaos says:

    Surly the play time of any game is relative to how you play and what your wanting to get out of it. After all you can spend £40 on a new game, absolutely hate it and not play more than 20 minutes of a 12 hour game or love a 4 hour game so much you keep replaying it (personally I imagine Bulletstorm will become like that for me).

    When I play assassin’s creed I want the free-running, blood spurting, tower diving action in all its glory. Even though I’ve achieved every kill, climbed every possible building I still love each moment as much as the first time I did it. With squeals you know what your getting, you want to play as that particular character with his/her unique skills/abilities. So it shows if done well repetitive game play works as long as the other elements of the game are just as strong like backgrounds, enemy AI, music etc. The risk is when a series completely changes as you’ll see gamers on both sides of the fence, some like the new style where others miss the game they love (Burnout Paradise being the prime example).

    The way I see it, it comes done to quality, the more compelling the story/gameplay the more likely you are to forgive repetitive sections because the experience on the whole is so fulfilling.

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