Moosa’s Musings: Appraisal of absence not absolute 
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Tauriq Moosa
May 28, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Moosa

One of the most reiterated problems with the pirate-RPG Risen 2: Dark Waters, was its lack of playable pirate sailing and battles. I found this interesting, since not many have voiced that same opinion about benign transport for, say, Mass Effect.

True: You did manage to control forms of transport in all three games, from the awful Mako to the Normandy itself. But the big space battles only occurred during cutscenes: there was no Joker versus Collectors or Shepard versus space-pirates. I am glad those didn’t occur, since I was more interested in the actual brilliant RPG than the method of transportation of my characters.

Not everything missing is therefore a bad thing, since to imply it’s “missing” is to know how the game ought to be. But that’s merely our projections of what we want from the game, not the game itself. This gets complicated by the fact that so much criticism from gamers is precisely based on this idea of knowing how the game should be. The problem is trying to decide what is the limit of expectation.

To put it in context: why is it a legitimate criticism of Risen 2 to claim a lack of pirate sailing battles but not, say, space battles? Well, that’s easy: You don’t expect space battles in pirate-themed franchises (it’s not in space, for one thing!). This doesn’t mean there’ve never been a mixture of pirates and aliens. It just means our expectation should be as realistic as possible within the context of the particular theme. While it is unreasonable to expect space battles in pirate-themed games, it is not unreasonable to expect sailing battles in them.

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But here’s the problem: how would that have helped? Given the reviews of Risen 2, it seems to me that sailing battles would not have actually done much to make it a “must-have” title.

There are possibly two options for sailing battles if they had included them: one would be to make it a generic, ship-shooting affair, where you are basically the ship. Different keys would have had you use different methods of attack, with your character shouting orders that are proceeded by something exploding. You would probably see your men on deck running around like ants discovering the effects of magnifying glasses and sun. This might’ve had several ships attack you at the same time, perhaps including arbitrary invasion animations of your men jumping onto other ships. Perhaps through playing the game you might acquire minor upgrades, such as a stronger hulls and sexier sails.

That seems to me uninspired. It would be fun for maybe two or three play-throughs. But given the nature of traveling in Risen 2, would you have wanted this boring, ship-shooting nonsense to occur every time? I certainly would not.

The second attempt might be complicated, strategic and beautiful. Your ship could represent your progress: the better you’ve become as a character, the better your ship. You upgrading yourself means you have a chance to upgrade your ship: stronger wood, better sails, better control, and so on. You’re becoming a better captain, you’re making wiser choices. Your ship starts to reflect this. You employ the best first mate and cooks, which changes the way the crew as a whole interacts with you, which makes for better battles. They won’t mutiny if you gain their respect: which can be acquired through winning battles, a loyal first mate (who becomes loyal in a similar fashion to the loyalty system of Dragon Age 2), and so on. When traveling, you don’t only control the ship as a whole, but the character. You can switch views, look at maps of the area, strategize and so on.

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But presumably you can all see the problem with this system: it would require a better game as a whole to implement. It would be simply impossible, given the nature of Risen 2, for such a smooth, elegant system to be implemented (I’m not saying my system is obviously smooth or elegant, but some of the properties mentioned certainly are). It would require a game that handles all sorts of dynamics, from crew relations to ship properties, from different camera angles and crew abilities, to maps and weather and so on. Asking for this from Risen 2 is the equivalent of asking for in-depth dialogue choices and voice-acting in Skyrim. It might’ve “worked”, it might’ve benefited the game, but it’s kind of impossible.

It seems to me that I can’t make it a criticism of Risen 2. The main reason is that a criticism ought to be something that the developers could’ve realistically improved upon: there were plenty already for the game. And this doesn’t mean gamers aren’t disappointed by the lack of sailing battles – it just means it is not as big a criticism. Considering the two extreme options about sailing battles – one that is unappetising and the other impossible – there’s nothing that the developer can really do with this criticism. As I say, we might as well be asking for fully-voiced dialogue choices in Skyrim.

If we want to make criticisms of games, we must make them within the realistic confines of the game and the developers. This doesn’t mean we can’t utterly destroy the game in other reasonable ways: we can and already have. But we’d be kicking a dying, limping horse, with claims of no sailing battles, since by its very nature it’s a lacking game in even essential areas.

Further viewing: Over at Zero Punctuation, you can hear Yahtzee make this criticism of no sailing in his usual, um, ‘eloquent’, way.