For Better Or For Worse?
© 2010 Alex Baldwin
Game sequels should always be better than their predecessors. It’s a rule and usually a certainty.
Films must rely on narrative and characterisation for success; two elements that can often be subjective in their effectiveness. If a film has already spent the time introducing the characters and filling in their backstories, a successful sequel can be a daunting task to provide the same intrigue and compelling plotlines.
Games have it a bit easier. Gameplay and usability are the major drawcards, and can be improved much more readily by seeking feedback from the prior game and simply taking out the bad and adding more of the good with some new features sprinkled on top. With each successive title we expect, nay demand, a better experience.
But does this really happen in execution? It’s time to find out as we look at some of the notable games and sequels that have both existed in this generation, and choose our pick of which did it best.
#1: Crackdown vs Crackdown 2
The first game was one of the biggest surprise hits on its release. Initially gaining sales purely for the included Halo 3 beta code, many buyers were shocked to find one of the best games of the year accompanying their purchase.
It wasn’t long before Crackdown became a cult hit for its superhero powers and sandbox gameplay that did away with unnecessary realism or complex narratives in favour of providing pure explosive mayhem. And it worked.
Most of the fun found in the game came from setting your own goals and challenging yourself to perform seemingly impossible tasks, not to mention finding all the orbs and achievements.
The slow drip-feed of ability upgrades ensured you never got bored, as that rooftop just out of reach or truck that’s a bit too heavy to lift is only an upgrade away.
The addition of complete freedom in 4-player co-op provided some of the most memorable moments of multiplayer gaming I’ve experienced, and the unique spin on highly-textured cell-shaded graphics gave Crackdown its own style.
While the first was developed by Realtime Worlds, the sequel was handed off to Ruffian Games. Our first glimpse of Crackdown 2 showed a willingness to follow the current fad of mass mutants / zombies / infected people in sandbox environments, and combined with the over the top action of Crackdown it looked to be a winner. Unfortunately, for me at least, it did not turn out this way.
Crackdown 2 felt like a quite serious backwards step due mainly to a variety of poor design and usability issues. Melee combat was a lot messier and haphazard, the accidental deaths of Agency police or civilians from the explosive carnage resulted in you being punished and the mutants simply weren’t fun to fight.
On top of this, the lack of guidance worked against the game as your ever-present voice-in-the-headset boss would berate you for things you weren’t aware you’d done. It all felt like the game was in need of 6 more months of polish and testing, and the less-detailed and more difficult to traverse environments added to this feeling.
MY PICK: Crackdown
#2: Assassin’s Creed vs Assassin’s Creed II
There was no stopping the Assassin’s Creed hype machine. Originally announced as ‘Multiplatform title‘ through a early leaked Official Ubisoft Release List showing it’s appearence on several platforms, then skewed towards being a PS3 exclusive before landing on 360 as well (and actually having a more stable framerate, surprisingly enough), the concept was a winner.
Taking the role of a modern everyday guy named Desmond Miles who is kidnapped by a mysterious organisation called Abstergo, you must relive the memories of your medieval assassin ancestor Altaïr ibn La-Ahad hidden in your DNA to uncover lost secrets.
What this meant was several moments of wandering around your cell followed by the smoothest movement mechanics yet seen in a game. Running across rooftops and alleyways of Jerusalem or Acre was a rush that made me wonder why no game had tried it before.
Sadly, the generic mission structure (sit on bench to complete mission, or perhaps hold the B button while walking behind someone) let the whole experience down while the key assassinations ended up being limited and repetitious.
It was a game that initially thrilled but quickly bored and as such was met with some very mixed review scores.
Luckily for us Ubisoft Montreal were listening and what we got last year was perhaps one of the most improved sequels in recent memory.
More open, varied environments with interesting characters and mission narratives pushed it well beyond the reach of the original, but what helped even more was the basic customisation of your character and town that gave it a much more personalised ‘RPG’ feel.
In the end Assassin’s Creed II was awarded our Game of the Year award for 2009 and rightfully so.
MY PICK: Assassin’s Creed II
#3: Halo 3 vs Halo 3 ODST
Halo 3 was the first foray of the mega-series into the current generation and final game in the Master Chief story arc. For many including myself, the campaign was a step up from the slight disappointment of Halo 2 by bringing back some of the larger battles and more freedom in vehicles. Not to mention having a proper ending.
Achieving almost universal critical acclaim upon release, new features such as Saved Films and Forge inevitably made their way into other games while the multiplayer continued its winning streak of being the most played game on Xbox Live, even years after its release.
But what about ODST? Can it be called a true sequel? Not really, but it still serves as a continuation of Halo 3 and therefore had the chance to build on the experience and address any complaints.
To some extent it was successful in its sidestep of Halo 3’s all-out action into a more atmospheric, isolated experience in the open city and nightscapes. In other ways it was a step backwards.
One of the Halo series’ strong points is the replayability from playing any level multiple times and still finding fun. ODST‘s more confined actual levels (the ‘flashback’ sequences) were not able to provide this to the same degree, making it a game to play through only once or twice.
The newly introduced Firefight mode was fantastic, but paired with Halo 3’s exact multiplayer on a second disc the whole package gave the impression of being happy to stay in Halo 3’s shadow until the next major release (Reach).
MY PICK: Halo 3
#4: Need for Speed: Most Wanted vs Carbon vs Undercover
The modern Need for Speeds would have to be the most blatant (non-sports) cash cow series of the current generation. Excluding the identity-crisis releases of ProStreet, Shift and World, the street racing NFS games of this generation have undoubtably sold by the bucketloads but also received their fair share of criticism.
Initially starting with Need For Speed: Underground 1 and 2 1st-gen Xbox, Most Wanted was the first to bring the racing out into the extremely bright daylight while maintaining the open world format the series had become known for.
Cars could be visually customised to be unrecognisable from their stock appearance while the world was rich in detail (and cops). Need For Speed: Most Wanted simply became the street racing game to beat in both the eyes of both critics and gamers.
Then came Carbon, which took the unusual step of returning the series back to night but otherwise did little to shake up the formula.
The only additions of note were the traps for pursuing police and the canyon races, but it was enough to make it a worthy purchase for any NFS fan. After all, it was nearly identical to Most Wanted and therefore maintained the high standard of quality.
After a strange misstep with Need For Speed: ProStreet, Undercover took the series back to the open city. That wasn’t the only backstep however, as it seemed as if all the environment artists must have been out of practise with city design and we got one of the most bland, lifeless open environments yet seen in a game.
It was mostly empty, lacked detail and failed to provide the memorable layouts and landmarks of the previous game. Worse yet, the car handling had taken an extreme step in the karting direction with almost no sense of weight or power.
Undercover was a shell of the Need for Speed legacy, and the only thing it was speedy enough to beat its opponents at was its trip to the bargain bin.
It also didn’t help that Rockstar had chosen that season to revive its Midnight Club series to much more success.
A bad show, and perhaps the reason the next iteration in the series was the much more series track-based Shift, while Criterion Games takes the Need For Speed reins for the extremely promising Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit we saw at E3 this year (and is looking fantastic).
MY PICK: Most Wanted if you like sunshine, Carbon if you like neon lights.
#5: Mass Effect vs Mass Effect 2
Bioware are masters of their craft, pure and simple. Jumping into the console spotlight with Knights of the Old Republic on the Xbox and proving they could weave a better Star Wars tale than old George, Bioware can be attributed with the popularity of morality meters in modern games. Combined with flawless writing, characterisation and a hybrid combat system it stomped all over the RPG genre that had begun to feel a little stale.
But what if they could be free from the (admittedly very comfortable) Star Wars license shackles? What if they could create their own sci-fi universe? It wasn’t long before we got just that, with Mass Effect becoming one of the most anticipated Xbox 360 games by promising third-person ranged combat, driving sequences and a whole universe to explore.
Upon its release it was mostly successful with the morality and narrative as gripping as ever, as well as one of the most detailed and memorable game universes in recent memory. Unfortunately some technical issues hampered the combat, and the ambition to create a huge number of environments resulted in an extreme level of repetition for any non-plot-critical locations such as the unknown planets and side mission interiors.
Having already been informed of Bioware’s intentions to continue Mass Effect as a trilogy with the ability to carry over your saved character between games it was only a matter of time until we would know if Bioware would be able to up the ante even more. Luckily we weren’t disappointed.
In Mass Effects 2, the environments were far better designed, combat flowed much more fluidly (and I mean that in both design and framerate) while the story had even more of an impact. It’s not every day you start a game with your character dying.
While the vehicle sections were gone and the surface mining replacement for unexplored planets being very debatable as an improvement, the game was much more solid and polished while creating the Empire Strikes Back / The Two Towers atmosphere for change, hopelessness and determination.
MY PICK: Mass Effect 2
But you should definitely play the first game before it for story and character purposes