Monday, July 6, 2009

Nitpicking Overlord II

(Nitpicking is not meant to be a comprehensive review or synopsis of a game. It instead serves to discuss the design aspects that most contributed to my emotional response, or lack thereof, to a game. A general knowledge of the game is assumed and spoilers may be present.)

The original Overlord was an intriguing game. It provided unique gameplay, combining action role-playing and real-time strategy elements not seen outside of perhaps Nintendo’s Pikmin series. Overlord separated itself with its lighthearted humor and the opportunity to play as an “evil” character, creating havoc as opposed to order.

Despite providing a distinct experience, the original Overlord lacked depth, which was compounded by that lighthearted humor. The sum of all its parts afforded me with a game that left me completely indifferent.

The recently released sequel to Triumph Studios’ third-person action-adventure game provides more of the same, and unfortunately, garners the same reaction.

Overlord II does a number of things well, such as providing satisfying customization options for both the Overlord and his dark tower, and presenting the player with enjoyable albeit shallow puzzles. One of my favorite sequences in the game occurred when I was forced to transform the Overlord into a green minion, an underling that has the ability to become invisible and backstab enemies. As a green minion I led others of the same ilk in a covert mission to recover the green hive, an object which would allow the Overlord to generate green minions at will. Instead of directly engaging enemies, an action that would surely have resulted in my demise, I was given the opportunity to distract those enemies by releasing gnomes. While distracted, I could sneak past or use the green minion’s backstab ability.

Unfortunately those game design aspects that Overlord II performs well are too few and brief to provide a memorable experience. In fact, there exist two main aspects of the game that stand out in establishing Overlord II as mediocre, the humor and the lack of depth.

Ironically, the satirical, slapstick, and overall lighthearted humor in Overlord II serves not to increase my emotional response to the game, but in fact distances me from the experience.

One question that has been repeatedly asked throughout the videogame industry has been, “can a videogame make you cry?” Perhaps a more pertinent and difficult question would be “can a videogame make you laugh?”

I believe good comedy is much more subjective than good drama, action, or tragedy. The view on what is humorous can vary depending on one’s upbringing, culture, social status, and age, among many other things. Drama and action, on the other hand seem to be much more universal concepts. A look at the 2008 worldwide box office supports this. An action/drama film, The Dark Knight, tops the chart with a worldwide gross of over one billion USD. The most popular domestic comedies of the year are ranked at twenty-six and twenty-seven, with Get Smart and Yes Man grossing slightly over 230 million and 220 million worldwide, respectively.

In asking members of the American population “what movie made you cry?” a ubiquitous and well accepted answer seems to be Brian’s Song. No such ubiquitous answer seems to exist for “what movie made you laugh?”

Of course the video game industry is not the film industry, despite numerous similarities. Analogous to storytelling, various methods exist for presenting humor in a videogame. The more traditional and film-like method is apparent, one in which the game developers simply present a joke or punch-line to the player through aural and/or visual presentation. Multiple examples of this can be seen in the Monkey Island adventure game series. A second and more emergent method is one in which the game developer provides players with tools and environments that allow for the player to create humor. Garry’s Mod is a prime example of an experience that provides such emergent comedy, though whether or not anything funny has been produced from the game is questionable.

The attempted humor in Overlord II is a result of the more traditional method. Flamboyant environmentally-active elves provide obstacles for the Overlord as they attempt to protect all that is cute and fluffy. Minions watch and dance as the Overlord partakes in “recreational activities” with his mistresses. Even more slapstick humor is attempted with a janitor minion’s attempt at killing a rat.

Perhaps it is my particular sense of humor, or lack thereof, but Overlord II’s attempts at being comical simply resulted in a desire to skip cut-scenes. Instead of drawing me into the game and making me laugh, the attempted humor proved to be off-putting, removing any immersion that had developed.

I wish I could elaborate on why this occurred, but to do so I would have to understand my own sense of humor more than I do. As stated, comedy can be very subjective, but beyond that it can also be polarizing. What one may think of as funny can be repellent to another, or simply provide a third with a feeling of indifference.

Despite my very subjective opinion on Overlord II’s humor, I believe its lack of depth is very objective. For a videogame to provide a player with a sense of satisfaction, it must be challenging. If a game isn’t challenging, the player will not feel as if he or she has accomplished anything. Overlord II’s unchallenging and therefore unsatisfying nature is a direct result of its failure to fulfill its potential.

The player is presented with four types of minions, each with varying strengths and weaknesses, and the ability to pass minion-specific barriers. While playing the game I could envision various puzzles and boss battles that would require heavy thought and very specific use of all four minion types. Instead, the game’s puzzles and boss battles are rudimentary and obvious at best.

No more than two types of minions are required at a time to progress through the missions. For example, acquiring an item during one of the missions required me to use blue minions to nullify a magic environment, and then use red minions to move past fire to retrieve the object. With more thought on the developer’s part, simple puzzles like these could have been strengthened and expanded.

Solutions to some puzzles are even blatantly presented to the player. Hoping for an engaging battle with the final boss of the game, I was greatly disappointed when the game presented me with the solution. At each stage of the boss battle I was informed of exactly which minions I needed to use, what weak-points I needed to target, and which spell to utilize. What started as a potentially thought-provoking battle was reduced to a basic task.

Overlord II conceptually is a remarkable game. It traverses multiple genres in its design and provides a fresh perspective thematically. Unfortunately it fails to be engaging or satisfying with its inclusion of slapstick and satirical humor, and its lack of challenging and stimulating gameplay. Because of the polarization Overlord II evokes when comparing its concept with its execution, I can only hope that Triumph Studios continues to develop and improve upon games in the Overlord series.

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