Counter Attack is a weekly feature here on Goomba Stomp in which John Cal McCormick casts a bemused eye over the gaming news, the niggling issues plaguing the industry, important moments from gaming’s past, or whatever it is that’s annoying him this week. Today we’ll be talking about Vampyr and how middle tier games still have a place in the industry.
Vampyr is not an amazing game. It’s a flawed action role playing game, in which the action is a constant source of irritation thanks to weird hit detection, erratic difficulty spikes, a checkpoint system that frequently lets you down, damage sponge bosses, and absolutely outrageous loading times. But it’s also a game with interesting social systems and one rich with lore and world building, so much so that you can fully understand why one might persevere with the more frustrating aspects of the package in order to enjoy the rewards it offers in return. It’s an imperfect, inelegant, and at times, infuriating game, but also one that invites the player to pore over every letter, every conversation between supporting characters, and to consider the fate of each citizen in the game seriously. In other words, it’s a mixed bag, and the Metacritic score of 72 on console seems entirely fair to me.
Video games, more than any other form of media, seem to attract a weird sort of reaction to review scores from their chief demographic. One only needs to take a quick glance at the Metacritic user reviews of video games to see how absurd the entire thing is. What could be a useful tool – reviews written by gamers just like you – has been transformed into a type of sabotage, for what end nobody can truly ever know. Sony exclusives are given 0/10 by Xbox fanboys and vice versa, sometimes before the games have even released, as though dragging the average user score down somehow represents a kind of absurd victory. It makes the user score for a video game on Metacritic so utterly meaningless that it would be more useful if they removed the feature entirely. Critic reviews are similarly routinely savaged by fanboys, and accusations of bribery or other such shenanigans are frequently directed at the reviewers of a game that has either been perceived to have been reviewed too harshly or too favourably by fans who have pledged allegiance to a console manufacturer like they would a sports team.
Vampyr’s 72 on Metacritic falls well short of the 90 that games need to achieve in order for a video game to not be the worst thing ever made in the eyes of many of the kinds of people that think bringing Jim Sterling’s website down because he gave Breath of the Wild a 7/10 is a sensible course of action, but to the rational, it’s an altogether more reasonable critique. Vampyr isn’t as polished as the biggest budget games, and as I said at the beginning, the combat leaves a lot to be desired. But it also has some advantages over AAA games because of its status as a middle tier game – neither tiny indie release, nor AAA blockbuster, Vampyr has the look and feel of something closer to the latter than the former, but since it’s a smaller budget title, the developer hasn’t been forced into making concessions to prevailing trends in order to get the project greenlit.
I absolutely loved God of War earlier in the year, but one only has to look at the difference between this year’s soft reboot and Kratos’ last adventure on PlayStation 3 to see how the AAA machine works. The new God of War, replete with The Last of Us style escort quest and storytelling, combined with the semi-open world structure of the later Tomb Raider games and a more hard hitting, methodical combat system reminiscent of the Souls series, is very much the model of a 2018 AAA action game. It ticks all of the boxes, and it ticks them emphatically with an axe to the face, but no matter how well it accomplishes most of what it sets out to do, it would ring hollow if I were to champion it as a bastion of originality or in any way a risky concept. There’s nothing wrong with that, just like there’s nothing wrong with a wonderfully made yet formulaic action movie. I love Marvel movies because they entertain me, and I loved God of War for the same reason, but just because I love them it doesn’t mean I can’t look at them realistically.
By contrast, Vampyr is the sort of game that you’d imagine would be vastly different were it crafted by a studio on a AAA budget. While the combat system would undoubtedly be more refined had it been handled by a Santa Monica Studio or whoever, how would the injection of a big budget and thus, a bigger financial risk, have effected other aspects of the title? There’s huge stretches of Vampyr in which you don’t do anything particularly gamey. You wander around confusing London streets talking to the citizens, learning of their troubles, and making choices that will impact them and those around them.
It’s a kind of half-way house between a third person action game like Bloodborne or God of War, and a modern adventure title like The Walking Dead or Dontnod’s previous game, Life Is Strange. Vampyr’s approach to storytelling and conversation isn’t something that you’d expect to see in a big budget blockbuster, and had the team had a collection of suits standing over them pointing at the abacus, it could have perhaps wound up a more well polished but ultimately less intriguing game.
The middle tier of gaming is interesting for reasons like this. Not every game needs to be Destiny 2 or The Last of Us, just like not every movie needs to be Infinity War or Bond. Games that have been Ubisofted into oblivion with their ticky boxes and region per centages and tower climbing, all interchangeable from one game to another, have their place and they certainly have their audience. I like a lot of them, and if they weren’t making money they wouldn’t be getting made. But it’s nice to have other ideas out there, even ones that aren’t realised quite as well as perhaps they could be, and that’s why the middle tier in gaming is so important, despite how diminished the number of titles that fall under that banner might seem in recent years.
Vampyr is a game that is undoubtedly not for everyone. If you’re the type of gamer that thinks that gameplay is key and that storytelling and atmosphere are just window dressing, then you’re going to have a bad time playing Dontnod’s gothy bite ’em up. The combat system is simply not strong enough to be utilized as often as it is, and honestly, if they got rid of it entirely and just had the occasional, necessary conflicts resolved via the dreaded quick time events, it might not necessarily be a terrible thing. But if you’re the sort of person who is willing to put up with crummy fisticuffs in a game order to get to the narrative delights buried within, then Vampyr might be more up your street. Review scores only paint a portion of the picture, and while there are undoubtedly people that will play Vampyr and hate it for many of the reasons I’ve listed previously, there’ll be some who’ll love their time in early 1900s London, warts and all.
There’s a concern that the middle tier of gaming is on the endangered species list, and we’ve certainly seen a lot of studio closures in recent years as a result of rising production costs and less profit generated by these “lesser” titles. A studio like THQ was famous for a diverse portfolio of video games, running the gamut from sports to first person shooter to hack and slash and everything in between, few if any of which would fall under the umbrella of what we consider to be a AAA game. They were the kings of mid-tier gaming for many years, but they were plunged into financial ruin and ultimately declared bankrupt in 2013. Perhaps part of the issue was the proliferation of downloadable indie games eating into the market for lower budget titles, which are often priced at a lower and more attractive price-point than a not-quite-AAA title like Metro: Last Light.
Maybe, going forward, middle tier video games like Vampyr need to be priced more aggressively than their AAA counterparts in order to solidify their position as an in-between option; neither cheap downloadable title, nor $60 AAA blockbuster, perhaps releasing these games that sit between the two at a more attractive $40 would be a favourable option. There’s nothing wrong with knowing in advance that your game isn’t God of War, and pricing it accordingly.
Playing Vampyr, and finding myself oscillating between the sort of captivation in the lore that I would normally associate with a title like Mass Effect, and sheer, unbridled rage after another death at the hands of a badly designed boss and the ensuing load time long enough to pop the kettle on and chain smoke a couple of cigarettes, I was left pondering the middle tier of video games. The gaming industry is better off for games like Vampyr, titles where if you’re willing to take a punt on them then you’ll have to take the rough with the smooth, but ones that have impressive ideas or systems buried in a perhaps unwieldy or unappealing shell.
It’s no different to any other media – the up-and-coming-band’s album with a couple of clangers on it, but some blinding tunes, too, or the low-budget movie with shite CGI but a compelling central yarn – and there’s nothing wrong with that. Not every game has to be the best game ever in order to be worth playing, and the middle tier of video games shouldn’t be allowed to disappear. Fresh ideas, however poorly implemented, make the industry a more interesting place.
As someone who regularly writes reviews of video games, I’ve long since learned to distinguish the objective from the subjective, what I know to be badly designed from what simply isn’t for me. Vampyr is the sort of game that reviews quite well but it won’t be finding itself on many critic’s game of the year lists. But there will be a subset of gamers that find themselves enamoured with the game because of what it does well, and like titles of yesteryear like Deadly Premonition, Murdered Soul Suspect, and Vampire The Masquerade, it will likely engender a dedicated cult following online that a more objectively well made game designed by committee might not ever be able to muster. And that’s a powerful thing.
Feel free to leave a comment about this week’s Counter Attack in the comments section below. If you want more from Counter Attack then perhaps check out Sony’s Ongoing Crossplay Drama, Remembering The Xbox One Reveal, or E3’s Most Embarrassing Moments.