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The First Unforgivable Design Mistake (Deadly Premonition is the Game of the Year, Part 3)

Daniel Weissenberger's picture

Black and White means you're learning to play!

Is that Deadly Premonition features combat.

Any combat at all.

Everything bad that has been said about this game's combat is most likely true—even the farthest-flung flights of exaggerated embellishment. Yes, killing enemies in this game is as unbelievably frustrating and painful as trying to extract your genitals from a saw-toothed vise made out of acid.

And things seemed so promising, too—check out the first introduction that enemies get, after York has crashed his car and started to wander down a forested path:

You know, a little less eyeshadow, and not half bad!

These are the shadows. They lumber around like zombies when you're close to them, and use a flickering teleport technique when you're not. They can be shot in the head for double damage, but they jerk around so unpredictably that headshots can be extremely difficult to pull off.

It's not so much the controls that let the player down, which, apart from a major glitch that I'll get into later, are fundamentally similar to Resident Evil 4 and 5. Sure, aiming is weirdly sluggish, but a lock-on feature makes manual shooting largely unnecessary. The melee combat has actually been improved from the Resident Evil series, bringing it closer to Silent Hill level, in that the player is able to walk around while holding a weapon at the ready.

No, the biggest problem with the combat is the bizarre decision the developers made to turn every single fight into an endless chore by throwing dozens of enemies at the player, each of whom is far stronger than they have any right to be. Here's a sequence of me—on normal difficulty, I can't stress that enough—shooting one of the first zombies in the game:

"But Dan!" You may say, "That's the starting gun! Don't you get better weapons as the game progresses?" If asked that question, I would only be able to answer that yes, you do, but it doesn't matter, because the enemies' health scales upward rather sharply throughout the game. Here's a video of me attempting to kill a zombie with a shotgun on, and once again, I want to make this absolutely clear, "normal" difficulty.

Yeah, five direct hits from a shotgun wouldn't put him down. It took a glancing sixth blast to do it.

I want to stress that I'm not trying to complain about the level of difficulty here—I don't mind killing huge numbers of creatures in a game, nor do I mind sweating a little to do it. What bothers me about the fighting in Deadly Premonition is how pointless and repetitive it all is. Shooting an enemy to death requires standing still for ten seconds and tapping the A button over and over again. That's it. There's no strategy to it, no artistry to it—no fun can possibly be gleaned from the combat.

Which is why my central complaint about the game's combat is why it exists at all. There's no reason to be killing zombies in this game. This is a title about solving a mystery and getting to know the inhabitants of a small town. What does shooting zombies have to do with that? This is the worst kind of videogame combat, no connection to the story, and no reason for its inclusion. It was bad enough when Silent Hill decided it needed to add a combo system and a ton more enemies to fight—this is a step beyond that kind of bad decision making. Deadly Premonition is profoundly not a game about zombies crawling out of the dirt and coming after the main character—yet there they are, shuffling about for no reason at all, other than some kind of a cynical marketing decision based on the premise that audiences won't accept a horror game in which you don't get to shoot zombies.

The strangest part is that the entire combat system could be pulled from the game without anyone really ever knowing that it was missing. There are a few bosses later in the game, but all of them are extremely combat-light as it is—no boss in the game is allowed to score a hit unless the player screws up a QTE, so would it have really hurt things to transform the entire boss fight sequences into elaborate QTEs?

What would have been left without all of the fighting? Simple exploration and puzzles, I'd imagine. That's the point of the "other world" sequences anyhow; the zombies are there to delay York from finding the pieces of evidence he needs to "profile" what happened in a variety of situations.

You know, a baseball bat is more traditional.

Would the game really have been damaged so much had the player simply been able to explore mysterious, Silent Hill-esque "dark world" locations looking for clues without being hounded by utterly generic and completely forgettable enemies? I can't imagine it would. If there was one thing I'd change about Deadly Premonition, it would be the complete removal of every bit of combat from the game—since it only ever serves as a distraction from the storyline that provides the game's heart and soul.

Oh, and about the profiling. It's these sequences, where York finds a certain number of items and the player is shown a video of what occurred, that has led many people to refer to Morgan as a "psychic detective," but I'm not really sure that's the game's intent. York never really refers to specific details that we're shown in the videos, nor are the videos themselves entirely accurate in depicting what literally happened at the scenes that York is investigating. It's far more likely that his "visions" are meant to serve  not as psychic knowledge of events that York wasn't present for, but rather audiovisual depictions of his guesswork, so as to give the player a window into how the game's version of "profiling" works.

There's one exception to this rule, however, and because it's the first sequence of profiling that appears in the game, it sets something of a misleading tone for the rest of them, as well as doing its level best to spoil a good portion of the surprises that the plot has to offer. This is the point at which I'd normally show the video, and discuss what's wrong with it, but that's too dangerous—the "profile" shows multi-frame glimpses of scenes ranging from the next chapter to the last hour of the game. The idea is that they'll go by so quickly that you won't get anything but the barest sense of what you've seen, but like the opening credits of Battlestar Galactica before it, they just serve to ruin the surprise of coming events by offering hints as to where the plot is going to go. In Battlestar Galactica there's at least some frame of reference for the things that get spoiled ("Oh, so this week Starbuck's going to punch a guy, and then a ship's going to blow up… haven't seen that before").

Here there's no such familiarity. York hasn't met a single other character yet (we've had glimpses in the opening movie), and here's a video showing much of the cast, not to mention some scenes that are so incredibly spoilery that I can't even hint at them for fear of ruining the effect.

Maybe that video was just included to be the "Deadly Premonition" of the title, but even so, it serves no purpose other than to deaden shock later in the game. Especially when you consider that York doesn't seem to have shared that particular vision with the player, and he'll never offer any suggestion that he had a "premonition" of events that were to later occur.

Far more important is the reference to the fortune he read in his coffee, but we'll get to that next time, when we take a look at York Morgan's daily grind.

I can't stress enough how important it is, for maximum enjoyment of Deadly Premonition, you know, when you've gotten around to buying a copy from Amazon, to skip this movie when you come to it—it's right at the end of the first combat scene, simply tapping the start button a few times will allow you to skip right through it, thereby permitting you to enjoy the game's surprises as they come.

And filmmakers, TV people, game designers, whoever—please stop putting clips from the end of your fiction at the beginning of your fiction. We don't need an assurance that something cool is eventually going to happen. Just trust your audience enough to let things build a little, huh?

Next time: The Daily Grind (Deadly Premonition is the Game of the Year, Part 4).


Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3  
Developer(s): Access Games  
Key Creator(s): SWERY 65  
Series: Deadly Premonition  
Genre(s): Horror  
Articles: Editorials  
Topic(s): Humor  

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Oh man, the combat

I actually thought the deadly premonition was the one York got from his coffee ("My coffee warned me about it"). I like your take on the meaning of the "psychic" profiling, but I'm not sure I believe it. I may be misremembering something, but doesn't his (spoilery information) come from one of his visions, not any actual evidence? I also think the dreams make an argument towards York (or perhaps Zach) being psychic, seeing as he encounters the twins there before he ever meets them in person. Some psychic or spiritual aspect to Zach in particular makes sense in light of some of the things we learn later on about FK.

I agree that the combat was a misstep, and probably the most toxic aspect of the game design, since including it made the rest of the game less interesting. Think how much better this game might have been if the long, repetitive otherworld levels had been replaced by tighter, more investigative adventure segments. It's a shame that so many games rely on the principle that combat makes things better.

It's also clear that the designer didn't understand how this kind of combat works. Resident Evil 4 was a successful example of survival-horror combat because it turned open ground between you and the enemy into the game's precious resource. Read this post (at Versus CluClu Land) right now if you don't understand what I'm talking about.

In Deadly Premonition this critical aspect goes right out the window for two reasons. First, the zombies teleport, making your efforts to preserve open ground a waste of time. RE4 was about finding a good spot to shoot from, figuring out when it wasn't a good spot anymore, and running away to find a new good spot. Deadly Premonition has none of that feeling; the spot you're at is basically irrelevant because the zombies either move incredibly slowly or just teleport almost into your face. Second, the effectiveness of melee combat means that open ground isn't even all that important. If the zombies get too close, you can just beat them to death with a golf club. RE4's piddly knife, by contrast, was only an effective weapon in QTEs. The failure to recognize and use the strengths of this control motif resulted in combat that wasn't tense, or even interesting.

Then, of course, there is the bullet sponging that you so eloquently demonstrated. To the above I can only add that towards the end of the game (playing on normal) I encountered a normal zombie who absorbed an entire clip from the infinite SMG (body shots, admittedly) without dying. Also, there are pools from which these monsters continuously respawn, including one segment on an extremely narrow path, which is why you need weapons with infinite ammo.

Aiming was also super-finicky. The reticule moved too much when I was trying to make a fine aim adjustment, and not enough when I was trying to make a large one. I think the reason for this is that the aiming didn't make any use of the analog tilt feature. Tilting the stick just a little caused the reticule to move just as much as pushing it all the way over. As a result it moved more than expected for fine adjustments and less than expected for major corrections.

Video links are wrong

Hey, I'm really enjoying the blog entries on this game (you're not convincing me of your premise at all, but it's very interesting nonetheless) but the video links are all wrong in this one. You posted "Introducing the Shadows" twice, which delayed your "killing a zombie with a pistol" video, which deleted the spot for the "killing a zombie with a shotgun" video, and then the "killing a zombie with a pistol" video is reposted towards the end for no apparent reason.

Also, this sentence: "It's these sequences, where York finds a certain number of items and the player has is shown a video of what occurred, that has led many people to refer to Morgan as a "psychic detective," but I'm not really sure that's the game's intent." is messed up. The player "has is"?

Anyway, I'm interested in seeing the missing videos and excited for part 4 whenever it comes out.

I have to agree with you on

I have to agree with you on this one; the combat aspect is very weak, and towards the end of the game, there's no denying I was sick of it. And the wall crawling women/monster hybrids are stupidly annoying. In fact, I stumbled upon an interview with Swery, the game director, who made a comment on the subject.

-----------------------------------------------------------------

GAMASUTRA: Everyone I've talked to feels that the "real" game takes place during the exploration/mystery sequences, and that the shooting areas are bits you have to simply get through to get back to the fun part of the game (though the profiling aspect is enjoyable). How do you feel about that statement?

SWERY: Actually, I feel exactly the same.

It's a little bit embarrassing, but the shooting areas were the last things that we started to work on and I have to reckon that I should have paid more attention to this part.

Actually, this part wasn't even in the original concept and after checking with my staff and many people, I eventually realized that it was necessary.

http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/5870/thank_you_and_guys_i_love_you__.php

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Reading this, it's obvious the combat aspect was tacked on to appeal to a wider audience, so it validates your point.

I would also like to bring up something; these combat segments seem to be taking place in an alternate reality (it is not York's imagination playing tricks on him or a metaphor/symbol of his delusions/personal issues; the fact that you have to purchase guns in the real world, that your ammo depletes after combat and also "that" part with Emily seem to prove that). For once, there's the fact that, this one time, York is shooting zombies in an occupied hospital, while his fellow cops and a doctor are only one room away. They do not react to the obvious gunshots and red vines, so it's as though he left them and entered another dimension. What is this other dimension? What role does it play in the storyline? York, Zach and the lead villain (I won't spoil (their) name) in particular seem to know about this, but I don't know what it is supposed to be or represent. I wonder if you'll get to explaining this.

I'm eager to read your take on the infamous FK in the coffee.

Combat, deliberate limitations

The 'otherworld' segments were necessary because of the ending Lunar Coyote alludes to. I agree it's interesting to imagine how the combat segments rebuilt as adventure segments in the same sort of spaces may have worked out. As it stands, I'm very fond of interpreting the segments using a completely psychological approach, despite having to buy guns and ammo in the real world, and I use the hospital segment to rest my case.

Unfortunately I can't think of a good way to present my case without numerous spoilers. The simple version: I felt a completely psychological reading of the entire game enhanced everything about it in light of the ending revelations about York.

As far as I can tell, I may have gotten even more out of the game than Daniel, because there were moments when I have to say I enjoyed the combat portions. They would have been better without all the shooting, yes, but seeing the twisted versions of the environments--either understanding them as hallucinations or legitimate 'split dimension' metaphysics--as well as the basic experience of having to more or less "earn" the next cutscene left me with fond memories of my entire playthrough.

What convinces me that Deadly Premonition isn't 'so bad it's good' or camp or even a severely flawed game with a great story is how its flaws can consistently be explained as artistic choices. I have a feeling Daniel is going to go into some of this, so I'll just briefly suggest the map as my example (SWERY already explained it): the usefulness of the map was limited because Greenvale is supposed to be a small, rural town.

If all videogames (or any media, for that matter) are supposed to do is entertain, then Deadly Premonition might best be seen as good only in a campy way. But I think it's the best recent title to assert how a game's design choices can work well by favoring the art above simple entertainment value to provide an experience that's intellectually satisfying.

Thanks for the tip-

I've (hopefully) fixed the video files, and the correct ones should be viewable by everyone now.

Oh, and speaking of parentheticals, if you notice that I've changed something in one of your comment slightly, it's just because I'm trying to keep spoilers to a minimum, so I've replaced things that might act as big hints with more generic terms.

Sparky - I don't doubt that York has some psychic abilities - he's clearly tapped into a supernatural force, which will come up later on in the game more definitively, I was merely pointing out that he doesn't actually use powers of his own to solve crimes, just careful observation and a willingness to look for clues in supernatural places. And, from an incredibly nitpicking standpoint, FK in the coffee isn't a premonition, it's divination, which I'll get into at length soon.

Lunar - One of the interesting things about the 'psychological' interpretation is the fact that none of this seems particularly surprising to York. An early cutscene suggests that the 'Other World' location is familiar to him, and is likely a place he goes because clues have more significance there. It's only the zombies that give him pause - I'm going to get into the meaning of them a little later on, but for now I'll just say that just as the need to buy guns suggests a literal other dimension he's going to, the fact that there are weapons with infinite ammo suggests that all the shooting sequences are entirely metaphorical in nature.

Speaking of guns, what are the odds that Wesley's even real?

Rohsiph - The funny thing is, I'm so inured to bad combat that it didn't really bother me on my first playthrough. It's really, really bad, but nowhere near the worst horror-game combat I've ever encountered. Anyone else tried Rule of Rose? During subsequent playthroughs I really began to feel that the combat was pointlessly tacked-on, and felt that there must have been a better way to make players work for their profile than mediocre zombie headshots.

As for deliberate design choices, well, when we get into the driving, I'm sure that will come up.

re: Rohsiph

Well, as one of the guys who thought that No More Heroes' sterile open world was brilliant, I can't fault you for arguing that the lousy combat here had some artistic point to it, at least not in principle. I'm pretty skeptical that there's much justification for the way these segments play out. I hope you stick around into the later posts so you can share your argument.

connecting the shadows to the plot

I always assumed that killing zombies was the price York had to pay for his psychic profiling powers. I thought that unless he gathered clues while in "other world", which was populated by shadows and "wall witches", then he wouldn't be able to see visions of the past.

You might not believe the Psychic Morgan theory, but it's the only way I can explain why the shadows exist in the game other than for the sake of having combat.

It's either that, or the Zombies are figments of York's imagination that he believes exist because he's insane. But that only works if we assume that Emily also becomes temporarily insane.

Yes yes yes!

I'm pleasantly surprised to find people still actively writing about this game. I only picked it up about a week ago, so I missed the main bulk of the hullaballoo, but I am very excited for the next wave of players that will come after the PAL release and when DP starts popping up on people's GOTY 2010 lists.

I got my roommate to play for most of the combat sections and pretty much all the "spoilers" in the first profiling went completely over my head. I completely agree with your interpretation of the profiling as a sort of shorthand for actual intuitive detective work, rather than a pseudo-psychic ability that kicks in whenever York picks up an object relevant to the case. He always explains his reasons for interpreting clues the way he does; he never just runs off to the lumber mill because he saw a picture of a lumber mill in his head. I think that's crucial.

As for the zombies, I think SWERY has an explanation for them, but I can't say too much about what I think. They're a hallucinatory byproduct of... something. Makes sense, given what you find out by the end.

I hope in your next article you will confirm what I believe in my heart: The driving is awesome.

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