Down in Flames
After growing up on a steady diet of Anne McCaffrey, I think I have a pretty good idea of what dragon riding is like. Some people might compare it to the flight of an eagle, but I prefer to think of it like soaring through the air on the back of your very own living, fire-breathing WMD. Nations of the world, tremble before me!
[image1]The guys at Factor 5 probably thought they had a pretty solid handle on what dragon riding was like too. After all, the geniuses that brought us a slew of great Rogue Squadron games had the flight shtick down pat. What more did they need? Amazing graphics or an interesting control scheme, perhaps? Well that’s exactly the part they got right, only the rest of the game managed to go down in a blazing inferno - A fiery hot mess of ‘oh god it burns!’ to be exact.
In Lair, you play as Rohn, a dragon riding member of the Sky Guard of Asylia. The war with the neighboring “savages” of Mokai is about to explode due to some political shenanigans and naturally, it’s up to you to use fire and brimstone to stop your enemies. The game’s story, though predictable, isn’t half bad. At least it looks better than what we have to look forward at the box office with Dragon Wars.
Helping to carry out this tale of intrigue are some pretty graphics and solid voice acting. The best part of the game by far is the detail of the dragons and watching the aerial battles that take place across the varied landscapes. You’ll fly over deserts, through canyons and over cities on your quest to save your people. Amazing looking cut scenes move the story along and an epic score by Hollywood composer John Debney (Passion of the Christ, Sin City), complete the package for an amazing experience for both the eyes and ears. This is why you spent all that cash on HDTV and surround sound setup, my friends.
But while Factor 5 was successful in their production values, the rest of the game falls completely apart. Controls are based on the sixaxis tilt feature allowing (or should I say forcing?) players away from the standard joystick control. At first, these controls make perfect sense. Tilt the control left and the dragon soars to the left, pulling back will cause it to climb- and so on and so forth. This might not be so bad if all you needed to do was fly around, but dragon combat requires much more than this. Two additional moves include the dash and the 180 turn- the former done by shaking the control downward and the latter upward. For some reason these critical moves are easily confused and it is all too common to propel yourself forward rather than performing a critical turn or vice versa. It’s a pretty frustrating scenario for even the most patient of dragon riders.
[image2]Combat moves require you to lock on to a target, but it’s a lot tougher than it sounds. Unless your target is all by its lonesome, you’ll have to be super-precise with your flying to pick out the right one. Not an easy task when you’re flying with the sensitive sixaxis. When you finally do acquire a target, a few choices come up. You breathe fire at your target, attempt to knock it out of the sky or perhaps go for a takedown. Takedowns involve context sensitive moves that could have been one of the high points in the game, however simplistic demands such as swing the controller left or shake up and down leave much to be desired. Not to mention, seeing the same actions repeated over and over severely reduce the cool factor. Even the melee battles in the sky with other dragons- another missed opportunity – are reduced to a near button mashing mess.
The camera is controlled with both the left and right stick and is just as sensitive as the sixaxis. Since it always snaps back to the forward position, it ends up being much easier to keep your eyes forward than it is to attempt to track enemies with the stick. Even if you could, some of the in air moves will bounce the cam around, discombobulating you something fierce.
Not all combat is limited to the air, as you can and indeed must land your beastie to do battle groundside. The control gets even worse here as you flip from sixaxis control to stick control. This might not have been so bad, but the camera stays constant as you barrel through enemies with claws and fire, making it tough to see where you’re going. Additionally, you’ll have to put up with an annoying slo-mo that seems to happen almost randomly.
Another annoyance is the arrow that is supposed to point toward your objective. First off, there’s no way to distinguish if a target is above or below you. It is very easy to loose track of objects due to the flaky lock on system and high level of difficulty involved with performing precision flying, so a reliable arrow would have been key to keeping objectives straight. When multiple objectives arise, you not-so-magic compass also can’t seem to make up its mind - often pointing you in one direction one minute and the opposite the next.
[image3]These epic battles also occasionally cause frame rate problems with thousands of soldiers, battle beasts, ships and dragons roaming about. With so much going on it’s almost expected, but you would think that they would have been able to optimize the game a little better when presentation is such a big focus.
As you make your way through the world of Lair, you’ll unlock collections of concept art, ‘making of’ videos and even other dragons to ride. These things come too little too late and generally aren’t worth the drudgery of fighting through the game’s controls level by level.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that Lair could have been a blockbuster title. It has an awesome score, a decent story and is one sexy beast. Unfortunately for us, Factor 5 seems to have fallen into the old trap of making outward appearances so appealing, they forgot to make a solid game on the inside. Even during one of the “making of” videos the devs mention that most of the folks didn’t dig the control scheme. C’mon guys, hasn’t anyone ever told you that when you play with fire, you might get burned?