Why smaller is better.
Terminator: Resistance is a known quantity by now; released last year, it has received general praise and was generally considered a pleasant surprise, due to it being a movie tie-in game, but also due to the developers track record – primarily, the fact that they developed the famously terrible, on-rail shooter Rambo: The video game. In general, people liked how faithful it was to the franchise (not so much the story, but the iconography and sound design in particular) and how well the franchise was made to fit the western RPG formula, most akin to Bethesda’s open-world RPGs. It has solid shooting mechanics, multiple ways to get through levels, great variety for the most part of the campaign, and the lackluster visuals actually fit in well with the post-apocalyptic setting of the franchise. After spending 16 hours with the game, I really love what it does, not because it is an extraordinary game that succeeds in meeting its high ambitions, but because it is representative of a style of game I sorely miss; that being a game that is focused and well-directed, not massive and filled with filler content.
Obviously, my point is not that I miss unambitious and small games – far from it. I just miss games that try to creatively deal with the restrictions inherent to video games. Most games of this scope (open-world RPGs with shooter and stealth elements) have tried to deal with player engagement in seemingly similar ways; create a huge open world and fill it to the brim with side quests and activities that are procedurally generated or uninspired filler content to grind and engage with the core loop in the less time-consuming way for developers. From Ubisoft to Bethesda, Rockstar, CD Project Red and most major studios, there seems to be a chase as to who can create the biggest, most detailed map, with the most quests and the longest playtime; that’s not to say that these developers make bad games (I adore most of their offerings), but it is to say that I’m getting tired of huge open-worlds. I firmly believe there is no wrong way to play a game, so the argument of “it’s optional” rings hollow; I know it’s optional, but its still there and I want to do it. The problem is that (for example in AC: Odyssey) by doing most of what is available to you, you break the experience; you reach the midpoint of the game 60 hours in, 20 levels higher than the recommended level and every thing is trivial and, by this point, done to death. I’m sure AC: Odyssey has a great story, but I played a lot of that game and have so much more to get through, that just the notion of firing it back up fills me with a sense of dread and boredom.
But, when you have a game that you can complete in its entirety in 16 hours, the developers have so much more control over the experience they are trying to provide. In Terminator, you seamlessly go through various ‘stages’ that most games fail at representing adequately; you go from regular guns to plasma guns; you go from taking on small spider bots to Terminators and huge tanks; you go from sneaking because these enemies will melt you to sneaking because you are a stealthy hacker who will turn technology against itself. Just look at how Fallout 4 handles Super Mutants and how Terminator: Resistance handles Terminators; in Fallout, Super Mutants are not really scary, they are just another type of enemy that if they are similarly levelled to my character, I engage with. In Resistance, Terminators start as these over-powered killing machines that are virtually impossible to kill with starter weapons; however, even after you find the means to deal with them, they still dish out massive damage and in groups are just as menacing as they were in the beginning. That’s not to say that one game is bad and the other is good – Resistance isn’t really a better alternative, because having more Terminators to deal with the fact that they are now killable is just about the most boring solution to this problem – but it is a way to keep the experience intense.
This effect can be felt in almost every part of Resistance’s core design decisions. There are fewer side quests that yield more resources (even though, par 1, they are forgettable), the game is divided into several, “open” levels that allow for more interesting enemy placement and strategizing, there are fewer characters and stories to find, which makes them more easy to follow and invest in. Again, it’s not that this is better, it’s more that it is something we don’t often see and it feels fresh.
From my standpoint though, what truly made Terminator: Resistance representative of something that I miss, is the strong sense of direction and curation it has; it probably is that way because of budget restrictions, but the way they dealt with that is pretty neat. Most open world games trade in that sense of direction, curation, and pacing, for that filler content and more immediate dopamine rewards; for example Fallout 4 has you, a father who witnessed his son abducted and then frozen for dozens of years, only to wake up to a dead wife and barren wasteland, explore to your heart’s content?! Again, not to suggest that Terminator does it better, but at least it tries. Some missions are just set-pieces and are great, some are a lot bigger than the usual levels and are nudging players towards a stealthier approach, that also have a heavy focus on surviving rather than action. The story is not stretched thin (although it does drag a bit towards the end), combat and leveling systems don’t allow you to become overpowered (or at least it ends before you realize that you are overpowered), exploration is always methodical and rewarding, at the risk of dying to the smartly placed enemies. Again, these are not the “definitive” traits that every game needs to have, it’s just something that I found Terminator to do really well, and the game is symbolic of an ethos that I miss, rather than individual elements.
I say symbolic, because the game itself has many problems. Aside from the fact that it looks like a game from 10 years ago, Resistance is a very unbalanced game. My most common way of dying was throwing a grenade that bounces of the borders of a texture and landing on my feet, and this was on the hardest difficulty; lockpicking and hacking are just too OP, and the skill tree doesn’t really offer anything better, so I was naturally drawn to those. Besides that, some of the cost cutting can be felt, such as the game featuring some of the worst voice acting I have ever heard, but the most disappointing one for me is the quality of the writing; as I’ve just explained, I don’t care that there isn’t a ton of content, but the quality of the characters, the story, and the few side quests are on par with procedurally generated quests in bigger games, which is not great.
Despite these issues, I would easily recommend Terminator: Resistance, and I hope it does really well for the developers and gets them enough incentive to take on a sequel that deals with these issues. However, this article is also to express my desire that studios with big budgets and a plethora of talented developers will start to see the value in having a tightly-packed game that takes directing and pacing as seriously as they take map size and offering hundreds of hours of gameplay.
Editor’s Note: Just some general wording and rephrasing changes for the first and last paragraph. Wasn’t big enough changes to take down and re-post, and don’t change anything from the meaning of the text.