As is so often the case with consoles, the early months on the market are paved with failed experiments and broken promises. The Playstation3 was no different.
As the public struggled with the high entry price of the machine, Sony funded and pushed various undisputedly shaky games that promised the world but came out half-baked. LAIR was one of those games. Desperate to claw a good foothold in the market they were hoping for “killer apps” that would help define the console and gain the respect Sony once took for granted. We’d see television campaigns and ads for a surprisingly large number of not-that-great games. They seemed to want LAIR to be a big system seller, and the media hyped it to hell and back.
When I first read about LAIR I was awe-struck. The idea behind the gameplay was sound, it was to be by one of my all time favourite studios, Factor 5 – creators of the Rogue Squadron series and the Turrican games (more on those later!). It should have been a no-brainer. The gameplay surely wouldn’t be that different to the Star Wars titles, just now with HD graphics and badass dragons. Seeing a video weeks before release of the orchestra and choir performing John Debney’s soundtrack had me ready for a day one purchase. This looked like being an truly epic moment for gaming.
Imagining the game being brainstormed. “What’s awesome? Dragons! Knights? Knights Riding Dragons! Fighting entire armies of thousands of enemy soldiers! Grabbing giant beasts with your talons and throwing them from bridges!” Drawing on the experience of a team who’ve developed at least three super-successful games in the 3rd person 3D aerial shooter genre. What could POSSIBLY go wrong?*
So.. What did go wrong?
Firstly, living in the UK it’s routine to have to wait weeks, months, sometimes even years before games come out. This is usually a very bad thing. In the case of games like LAIR it’s a bonus. As the review scores trickle in from the US you get a great enthusiasm dampener. You have time to cancel pre-orders. You can re-invest your hopes somewhere else. (This time in Uncharted, a game that more than lived up to it’s hype.)
You need only look on any review site to see the failings of LAIR, I won’t detail them all here but can give a quick summary. Wonky controls. Terrible targeting system. God-awful level design – often leaving you confused as to what to do and how to do it. Unhelpful, often awful repetitive in game voice acting. Surprisingly off graphics – they looked incredible sometimes, but the textures, the screen tearing, the way the armies and enemies turned into tiny cardboard cutouts at distances. Irregular frame-rate issues. The fact that (at launch) you were forced into using motion control wasn’t the main issue for me. Even with the later addition of stick controls it was loose and unrewarding. The melee combat was unimpressive. The water effects were simultaneously amazing and lame. (Can’t explain that one! Look for videos)
So, it was a total mess?
You may be thinking. The public spoke, the critics spoke. LAIR was a total failure. Well. No, actually. There was a lot to like in LAIR. As one of the early PS3 games, when Sony were pushing the Six-Axis motion controls. I see it as a respectable attempt at using them for something worthwhile. That really sums up the game as a whole. LAIR was a grand failed experiment. But not one that should be forgotten or brushed under the carpet. There is a lot that can be learnt from ambitious failures like this.
What did it get right then?
The core idea. The character, armour, creature designs were all great. The story, though occasionally panned, would have been fine in a game that played well enough to prop it up amply. Set pieces and atmosphere were often quite spectacular. The soundtrack was incredible. You can see how much love went into this game, it’s just frustrating that it resulted in such a mess.
Is there a future for dragon combat games?
So, now in 2011 we’re still waiting for the truly great modern 3D dragon-riding/flight experience. The Panzer Dragoon series was fun and Drakhen wasn’t too bad either, but a free-flying arcade shooter deserves a chance. With technology like PS:Move you could have much better controls too, possibly even first person camera with head tracking for perspective. Games like this aren’t by any means new, but they have sometimes been great. I hope that the commercial and critical failure of LAIR doesn’t stop people from trying a similar game again.
Here we have DragonStrike, a D&D / Dragonlance game by Westwood. It came out in 1990 and was much better than Lair. At the time a pretty impressive technical feat. Flying islands and polygon/fractal based terrain. Flight simulators of the time mostly had a flat plain with occasional buildings and rivers. Mountains looked more like pyramids. Dragonstrike was the first game I played where the scenery itself was at least slightly convincing.
Imagine a game with that perspective, but toggle-able to third person. With God Of War 3 level rendering and Elder Scrolls terrain detail. Optional voice commands for your dragon (hell, why not. Might as well do something to appease the “but where’s the innovation!” types and have something to show off publicly) Wave your lance/sword around with the move, and whip your dragon to make her speed up. gestures to activate spells even. Maybe. But obviously – use the analogue stick to steer.
So what exactly are you getting at?
Someone has to have another stab at this sub-genre. I’d even be interested in Factor 5 doing a sequel to LAIR as long as they learnt from the mistakes of the first game. Maybe Skyrim will make dragons cool again (well, as cool as they can be despite their inherent dorkiness) and we’ll see more dragon-based experimentation.
Here’s a quick mood sketch I cobbled together for a dragon-riding game. I would buy this. Especially if it had online multiplayer. How fun would that be?!
I hope someone out there is listening.
* Sorry for referencing metacritic, it helped get the point across though.