Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Review: Lair (PS3)

Lair was released back in 2007 and planed to be one of the Playstations 3's exclusive flagship titles, but turned out to be the game that bankrupted Factor 5 in the end. The game follows straight into the footsteps of the earlier Factor 5 games such as Rogue Leader, just instead of having a Star Wars setting, the game takes place in a fantasy world filled with dragons and other mystical creatures. This by todays standards seems a little odd, as most games today have moved away from the arcade-like linear level structure and moved to a more open world structure and even games that are strictly linear generally avoid the "Mission Successful" screens and instead at least try to give the impression of one huge world. Lair on the other side is basically build around that arcade concept and provides medals, scoreboards and unlockables thus providing plenty of incentive to replay a level. Inside a given level you are also limited to three lives and when you lose them all, you have to restart that level, just as you had to back in the day. Later levels however provide mid-level continues, so I never found that to be much of an issue as far as difficulty is concerned.

The story of Lair feels a lot tighter and well thought out then that of Rogue Leader, which was more or less a collection of your favorite Star Wars moments. What Lair provides is more akin to what you see in other story driven video games these days and is overall quite well done and told through a mix of in-game graphics and pre-rendered cut scenes. The story isn't ground braking, but for an arcade title it does its job very well.

On the technical side Lair is somewhat special, as it makes full use of Playstation 3 features. It is one of the very few games that allows you to use Playstation Portables remote play feature, that allows you to play a Playstation 3 game on your PSP via video streaming, however I found that to be to laggy to be of much use. And it is also, as far as I know, the only big Playstation 3 title that is completly build around Sixaxis motion controls. The basic flight controls of your dragon work by tilting the controller while some quick time events require you to jam the controller to the left/right or up/down. The motion controls where one of the most criticized parts of the game on its release, but I had no problems with them at all. The flight controls work just fine, they are responsive and do exactly what you want. The by far biggest problem I had with them was simply that it takes a bit to relearning, especially in tricky situations your thumb will reach out for the analogstick by instinct (which now controls the camera) and it will take a while till that stops, but thats not a fault of the game. The game is also in large part build around lock-on and auto-aiming, so you don't need to aim pixel-perfect at another dragon, instead you can lock-on and circle around it while you shoot at it. The game is also very forgiving in its collisions, so you won't die once you touch a building or mountain. The one place where the motion controls could be criticized are the dash and 180 turns, which require you to pull the controller up or down, those always felt a little unresponsive, as the game took a moment to figure out if you wanted to do a normal move or one of those special maneuvers, but thanks to the patch/DLC you don't have to use them, they are directly mapped to the dpad and can now be triggered by the press of a button.

The game also comes with an option to use normal analog stick controls instead, an option that wasn't present in the release version but only came later with a patch, but so far I haven't really used it, as I never had any issues with the Sixaxis controls. There is also a rumor floating around that the game was build with a firmware upgrade in mind that then didn't ship in time before the game was released, thus leaving gamers with broken motion control, which might explain the bad reviews, but today everything works quite fine.

The missions in Lair are pretty varied, you will fight a giant sea worm, protect ships, fight armies or bomb cities or even a volcano. The game doesn't waste any of your time and will always put you pretty much right into the battle and quite frequently it will have you battle at multiple fronts at once, which gives the game an intensity that you don't see often these days. The game itself isn't very long, featuring 15 missions that will take you around 5-20mins each, but due to its intensity it never felt short and there wasn't a second of it that wasn't exciting. On top of that the game provides quite a bit of replay value as you have full audio commentary for each level and there is plenty of bonus material. On top of that you also can hunt for high scores.

On the graphics side Lair can't quite keep up with current day Playstation 3 titles and some of the explosions and particle effects look a little cheap, but in terms of scale Lair is still easily one of the most impressive titles around. The cities and monsters you will fight look gigantic and while you can fly high up in the air, you can also go down and up close, land and eat enemy soldiers with your dragon. It is a sense of scale that one simply doesn't see often in games and the only comparable game that comes to mind would be Shadow of the Colossus, but that one of course doesn't allow you to take your dragon and fly high up in the air.

Overall I had a hell of a lot more fun with this game then expected. The controls work, the story is good and the missions provide a ton of variety. The art direction and atmosphere are also fantastic, providing the best dragons I have seen in gaming so far and an universe filled with interesting locations and creatures. The one big fault the game has is that it is basically the exact same type of game that Factor 5 has developed for the last 10 years and I have never been that big of a fan of the arcade-like structure of that type of Factor 5 flying games in the first place, but here however it didn't bother me that much. Thanks to the dynamics of the battles that keep you busy on multiple fronts the game feels often more like an X-Wing or Crimson Skies, then a Rogue Leader. But just like in Rogue Leader the game is a bit to heavy on the action, leaving you little time to actually appreciate the world around you, which is sad, as the level of detail in the world can be pretty mind boggling if you actually slow down and look around.

PS: The DLC for this game, which is completly free, got me a little trouble. There are basically three downloadable things: the official patch which will install automatically, an DLC pack that adds analog controls that you have to download from the Playstation Shop (this seems to be the same thing as the patch) and a DLC pack that adds two extra dragons that you have to download from the Playstation Shop. The DLC seems to be picky about the region, so you have to download it from the same region as your game. Not sure what exactly happened for me, but I think I downloaded the controller DLC assuming that it contained the two dragons, which then didn't show up, so while looking again for more DLC I used the US shop, which downloaded and installed fine, but again lead to no new dragons. I finally downloaded the DLC from the UK shop and the dragons now show up. Looks like console gaming is getting more and more like PC gaming when it comes to patches and downloads and stuff :(

Anyway, after four weeks I am still playing the game and having fun, I am now at 13 gold and 1 platinum medals. About the difficulty, the bronze ones can be often obtained on a first playthrough, the silver ones are also easy and can be obtained by just replaying a level for a second or third time, the gold ones are a little more tricky and require some practice, but after having already collected all silver medals before, the gold ones didn't gave me all that much trouble. The platinum medals on the other side are a little crazy and require near perfect execution and according to the leaderboards there are only a handful of people that got them all. Overall Lair isn't a hard game, it is simply a game that requires some learning, but once you get the hang of it, it won't give you much problems.

About the unlockables, you can unlock artwork, trailers, music and new combo moves. Having regularly finishing the game a lot of stuff will be unlocked, after getting all the silver medals almost everything will be unlocked except "Miscellaneaus", which requires three gold medals or a gold medal in Blood River (not sure which of those two). Incineration Strike was the last one locked for me and got unlocked at some other point when collecting gold medals.

PS2: I now played the game a without the patch, the only instantly noticeable difference is that dash and 180 turns can only be triggered with up/down controller movements, not with the dpad and while the 180 turns weren't much of a problem with the patch, without it things get a little messy, as the game often confuses the 180 turns with the dash move or visa verse (i.e. to jam the controller down you naturally move it up first, which can be misinterpreted as an 180 turn). With the patch the game no longer allows dashing via a gesture, thus reducing any possible confusion. The normal flight controls on the other side work with and without the patch exactly the same.

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