The bottom of the ocean is a lot like space–both are dark and mysterious, both require special equipment in order for us to survive, and both appear as a peaceful shade of blue from our viewpoint. There are, however, some sharp differences between them. No one really goes to space (at least not outside of Earth’s orbit), whereas many people spend lots of their time living underwater. One reason for this is the fact that there isn’t much of anything in space. Every single book, movie, or videogame set in space is forced to make up a bunch of stuff to fill its multi-light-year spanning void. Unless you want to use the Moon as a setting (such as in Moonbase Alpha or the film Moon) then making up a bunch of fantasy stuff is really your only option. Compare this to the ocean, which is full of unearthly landscapes, mysterious wreckages, and more life than we’ve even be able to document. In the ocean there’s no need to make up bizarre monsters covered in claws and tentacles because they already exist, although I suppose researching those isn’t as fun as using your imagination.
If it wasn’t obvious, I’m a big fan of the ocean. When I was little one of my favorite toys was this little Aquanaut LEGO set which I used to explore my undersea bedroom. It never made sense to me why the idea behind the Aquanauts received so little attention in the sci-fi world. Was I the only person who thought the ocean’s depths were cool? Eventually my interest was starved away and I forgot about the ocean as a sci-fi setting.
Then I opened GOG one day and saw something called “AquaNox.” It looked like a space sim reminiscent of Freespace, but instead of space it was underwater! It almost seemed like the game I always wanted to play as a child. Just look at its checklist of features:
- Unique underwater environments
- Upgradable submarines with a variety of parts and weapons
- A complex and intriguing post-apocalyptic story
After playing for several hours this game finally forced me to accept my disappointment. I tried really hard to like it but my affection was never returned. AquaNox 2’s biggest flaw is innocent; it simply doesn’t share my vision of what a sci-fi underwater world should be.
For example in AquaNox ships will warp in and out of the map. Now warping makes little enough sense in space, but I don’t get it at all underwater. Maybe they just needed a convenient device to spawn an enemy in the middle of the level. Another example: in AquaNox 2 there are bits of debris floating around in the water, which at a glance doesn’t seem particularly strange, except that they’re literally just floating in place. I’m pretty certain that gravity exists underwater, and that chunks of rock and metal should fall down. It’s almost like the developers forgot that the game takes place in the ocean and not in space–an understandable mistake given that aside from the occasional bubbles and plankton textures floating past the field of view there’s not a lot to convey the fact that it’s underwater at all. There are no sea creatures, coral, hardly even any seaweed.
The reason why games like Freespace have remained so memorable is that they captured exactly what we all wanted space battles to be like–gigantic expanses of stars filled with literally hundreds of ships. Among these fleets were motherships big enough that they could pass for levels themselves. The feeling you get as you see this army in the distance slowly get closer and closer until it’s completely engulfed you and your small squad is awe-inspiring. I obviously don’t expect AquaNox to fit this description, but my point is that a game like Freespace is great because it represents space wars so well. AquaNox would have been great if it represented undersea battles/exploration to any competent degree, but it didn’t.
This was a major letdown, but at the same time small in comparison to the gigantic heap of small problems strewn across the game. I can forgive the developers for not sharing my undersea fetish, but even when observing it as a game rather than an underwater simulator it consistently falls apart.
What is probably the heart of all of AquaNox 2’s woes is its writing. It’s bad, really bad. How bad is it? Bad enough that I don’t even know where to begin describing it. Just take my word on this. Keep in mind that I’m the kind of guy who thinks cheesy writings is amusing. I’ve immersed myself in so many awful videogames that I look to games like Left 4 Dead as being high water marks of storytelling. It takes a special kind of rotten dialog to make me even notice.
Not only is the writing of particularly low quality, but there’s also a lot of it. It impressed me, actually, in how it manages to contain so much text with so little quality. I tried to seriously follow the plot at first, but any relevant action is bogged down by a dozen useless dramas between each of the characters, if they can even be called characters. These people are so unlike any actual real person that it wouldn’t surprise me if you told me the entire script was generated by an experimental computer program, in which case I would be moderately impressed.
But, you might think, can’t you just skip the cut scenes without missing anything? You can, but cut scenes are only one way a game can inflict its story upon you. Consider the first mission of the game: you steer your submarine from one side of the map to the other and back while listening to a bunch of disembodied voices narrate the story. It was a tutorial level, granted, but that’s the kind of design that appears repeatedly throughout the game. Even missions where you do something more interesting than avoid walls are filled with objectives that have no meaning outside of the game’s plot, which the characters will repeatedly remind you of.
Almost every mission caused me to ask “why am I doing this?” One escort mission (yes, there are lots of escort missions!) involved finding a ship and returning with it. After you’ve completed the first half of the two parts you begin heading back to base. Suddenly your captain tells you he picked something up on his radar and you should check it out. You do and find nothing, so he tells you to return to escorting. Suddenly someone suggests taking a shortcut back. This is kind of odd considering that at this point you are almost where you started the level, which is where I assumed we were going. But shortcut it is, which for some reason is in a completely different direction than the way we were going before and is also full of ships that want to kill us. When you inevitably die then guess what, you get to do the whole thing over again, inspecting false radar signals and all. Was there no communication at all between the level designers and the writers? Keep in mind that this is simply one example, every mission in the game seems to be full of arbitrary mini-goals that fail to make an ounce of sense.
I suppose my search for a great undersea game must continue. I just remembered that I picked up Endless Ocean 2 from a bargain bin a while ago but my Wii died the same day so I never got a chance to play it. Maybe I should check that out again.
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