lotr3rd.JPG['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly updated column by Tom Cross focusing on innovations that a game makes on an old, tired aspect of game design. This week, Tom compares Jedi Knight II and LOTR: The Third Age to appreciate those relatively staid, formulaic games that "provide a safe place from which to slowly, carefully refine video gaming tools and traditions."]

Some great games aren’t innovative in the slightest. These games don’t try to do anything new because they don’t want to. Instead, they take (some might say, steal) the ideas of trendsetting games that were rough around the edges, refining and tweaking them into a smoothness they lacked the first time around.

These games are often delivered to us behind the façade of established franchises or IPs, settings and fictions that we as gamers are often highly loyal to. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Final Fantasy, Mario—all of these franchises have included such entries, games that would be labeled as “competent” or “uninventive” in another setting. And indeed, it somehow seems wrong to love a game that’s really just super-competent plagiarism. Or it might just seem wrong to admit it.

Yet these games are often a place where I find solace hard to come by in other games. I can enjoy smoothly executed mechanics and gameplay tropes that I would otherwise shun for their “tiredness” or unoriginality. Simply put, these games provide a safe place from which to slowly, carefully refine video gaming tools and traditions.

There are some studios that specialize in this kind of work. Raven Software is often used by various larger companies (Lucasarts, Id) to make sometimes good, often formulaic games, includingJedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, Elite Force, and Quake IV. And Electronic Arts' Redwood Shores studio worked on The Lord Of The Rings: The Third Age, an RPG with a similar well-worn feel.

Jedi Knight II in particular is a favorite of mine, mixing a great story with a very enjoyable Force-powered game. However, when you examine the two alongside each other, The Third Age makes lots of smart decisions and produces a great set of experiences. Outcast makes enough slipups to stop it from attaining the same level of carefully constructed fun.

Inside The Third Age

The Third Age is an obvious example of a polished, almost soulless game. Based on the Lord of the Rings movie franchise, the game follows the plot of the movies, replacing all of the main characters with peculiar doppelgangers. Instead of Aragorn, you have a Ranger with a Middle Earth name. The same is true for all members of the Fellowship, Arwen, and others.

Starting as an uninteresting Gondorian warrior, you’ll travel from area to area, killing enemies in random encounters, like in many RPGs. You’ll pick up increasingly better weapons, upgrade skills and spells, and create new items of your own. It’s extremely bland, completely uninventive, and devoid of drama or emotion. The actors read their bad dialogue as if asleep,.

What makes The Third Age so enjoyable is how it presents these elements: without all of the noise and unnecessary to-do of many big JRPGs and their ilk. When I start this game up after a slight break, I don’t have to worry about what bizarre plot twists, character secrets and reveals, and hour-long cutscenes I might have forgotten. I know what I’m doing, why, and what difference it makes in the cookie-cutter world I find myself in.

The plot is just serviceable enough to convince you to fight another wave of Uruk-Hai. Your magic and combat skills, while uninspired in their design, are epic and flashy to look at and use. New party members always offer new skills and options, and many have high-level skills that will take hours to unlock. Gameplay consists of random encounters and linear exploration.

What I’m trying to say is that this game is Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Lost Odyssey, but without the fluff. Playing The Third Age is like watching a good, bad action movie. Like knowing that the remake of Death Race is bad, you know that many parts of The Third Age will be bad, but it’s also exactly what you expect and want. It doesn’t try to do anything beyond its capabilities, and it never lies to you about what to expect.

The same kind of competence seen in The Third Age can be found in Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. This game had absolutely nothing to do with its illustrious CRPG predecessors, and everything to do with Gauntlet. It was because of its strong and unabashed immersion in action and arcade traditions that I loved this game. It gave me the combat and mild RPG elements I wanted, along with a completely unconvincing story to carry me between fights.

Being A Jedi Outcast

Where The Third Age succeeds, Jedi Outcast fails, unfortunately. Jedi Outcast was tasked with delivering a long-awaited experience: that of wielding a lightsaber as a Jedi, in a fluid, convincing manner, not that jerky, arcade-like action from the original Jedi Knight.

j2outc.jpg In that area, it mostly succeeds. It gives you three different saber styles, directional and movement sensitive swings and combos. You engage in cinematic duels with a few bosses, and a host of force-enabled henchmen. Despite the generic nature of these encounters, they are always fun, and your encounters with Stormtroopers and Mechs are always a riot, mostly due to Force Push and Force Lightning.

The problem is, Raven not only decided to put you through four or so hours of non-saber, non-Force based gameplay, they also chose to make the first-person parts of their game persist into the later levels. When I’m running around Nar Shadaa slicing enemies with my saber, the last thing I want to do is take some time and snipe a distant Rodian with my badly implemented rifle.

Throughout the game, one feels the divided nature of Outcast’s design. It’s as if Raven had been told to make a shooter and a Jedi game, or maybe that these two could be easily melded. Maybe they can be, but as a shooter, Outcast is almost offensively boring and routine. Raven went and made a competent sword and sorcery third-person action game (with some Star Wars dressing), and then they added a decidedly not-competent shooter.

When I went back and played the original Jedi Knight, I realized what the problem was. Jedi Knight was never really about third-person “balletic” saber play. It was more like a shooter of the old school, with magic thrown in (like Hexen or Heretic maybe).

Jedi Knight is also of course the sequel to Dark Forces, and a good Doom clone. Dark Forces was exactly what Outcast is not: a well-constructed, completely formulaic game that makes few advances over its predecessors. Still, it leveraged its setting and a few good design decisions to become very popular.

With Outcast, the limitations of extremely competent games become apparent: no matter their genre clout or fictional backing, well-built average games can’t afford to spread their focus too widely. Because they’ve limited themselves to what they can borrow from other games, they have to stick with that. Too many attempted innovations (or worse, mistakes) in a borrowed, stable system mess the whole thing up. Complicated lightsaber work doesn’t fly in an otherwise straight-up copy of a range-weapon-based original.

Conclusion: On The Less Ambitious, More Accessible

There are many games that attempt to meld more than one style of gameplay, and many fail. When they succeed, its often because they are clear about what they are trying to achieve, and they deliver on those promises. That’s why Fable failed, and Fable II won’t: one made many promise, and failed, while the other is actually good for many of those same promises. What Outcast doesn’t do is perform competently (at the very least) in all of the game styles it dips its toes into.

When I think of games that I want to go back and play again, The Third Age makes the list, whereas Outcast does not. That’s because the price I’d pay for re-entering the world of Outcast is too high in comparison to the reward: to experience the entire narrative (which I happen to like), I’d have to put myself through too many unpleasant moments.

The same can’t be said of The Third Age, Fable and its sequel, or Dark Alliance. Those games provide gratification without requiring an overwhelming or annoying amount of effort on the part of the gamer: they’re fun, accessible, and they have worlds or settings that provide enjoyment on a simple level.

I may be more familiar with the world of The Third Age, and it may produce a bit of nostalgia, but I’m equally amused, enchanted, and engrossed by Fable II’s stereotype-ridden Albion. Maybe I’m making the case for less intelligent, less original games, but I think there’s a place for such games, especially when “epic” and “deep” are often code words for ponderous, overproduced, and underwritten.

So here’s to less ambitious, more accessible games, made with care and passion. To be sure, this is a dangerous path to go down. It’s the kind of thinking that might lead us to more Deus Ex: Invisible Wars, or another Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel.

Still, if this is the kind of thinking that can deliver Fable II to us (the crystallization of the “take a very complicated game and make it simple” tactic), or On the Rain-slick Precipice of Darkness, then we should encourage it as much as possible.

[Tom Cross writes for Gamers' Temple and blogs about video games at shouldntbegaming.wordpress.com. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]