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Ripped to pieces on release across North America earlier in the year, Factor 5's dragon adventure arrives in Europe...
- 180 turns have been tightened up.
- Atmospheric soundtrack.
- It has dragons...
- Fruitless combat system.
- Bland gameplay.
- Poorest PS3 title to date.
Factor 5 hasn't exactly had the most successful debut on PlayStation 3, following their work on GameCube with the lauded Star Wars: Rebel Squadron series. Available in North America since the end August, their first title for the platform, Lair, received an almost universally negative critical response thanks mainly to cumbersome SIXAXIS controls. European gamers have had to wait however, and whilst it hasn't been announced (unsurprisingly), we can only hope that there's been some additional tinkering and polishing at Factor 5 in the last few weeks to improve Lair in time.
Set in another Middle-Earth wannabe fantasy realm best pronounced by pretending to sneeze, Lair sees the world of dragon-riding humans split in two factions following the emergence of super-volcanoes spewing out life threatening amounts of magma, ash, and likely the occasional pyroclastic flow. The Mokai, the more unfortunate of the two sides, find themselves occupying the more arid and inhospitable lands, whilst the Asylians dwell in the last bastions of relative comfort - so it's understandable that there's some degree of tension between the two, setting up the sides' respective marching armies and dragon divisions in a war for survival.
Built with SIXAXIS motion control at its very core, the bulk of Lair's gameplay sees Rohn - the Asylian dragon-rider players control - battle against the Mokai and renegade elements from within his own faction whilst on the back of his fire-breathing mount. In a similar vein to Warhawk, tipping the SIXAXIS in a direction will move the dragon respectively, with added firepower (pun intended) and additional controls such as breathing fire, mapped to the face buttons. So far, so good, at least it would be if having the SIXAXIS controls didn't remove the...what's the word... fun, from the experience.
The simple fact is that air-brakes aside, Lair is fully playable with a single hand, which may be advantageous in some games, but merely increases the player's susceptibility to abject boredom here. Even though it's slightly ropey at times, the auto-aim further compounds this further, removing player skill from the equation and allowing the Rohn's dragon fly across towards lesser enemies and dispatch them with a single tap of the button. Some of the bigger dragons that appear later in the game require a bit (emphasis on that 'bit') more effort, but more on the compendium of ill-fitting combat later on.
Flying gracefully on the back of a fire-breathing lizard is all well and good, but when the gameplay practically defines 'rinse and repeat' then you know that the words 'instantly forgettable' aren't too far behind. Sadly, that's exactly what Lair is, mission after mission of moving the SIXAXIS, shaking it from time to time, and occasionally swat a few hundred enemy soldiers on the ground with the face buttons...
What should have been a SIXAXIS-controlled Panzer Dragoon, something that would have made Lair much more palatable, is instead a messy, non-directional, and bland experience that goes beyond just the mediocre control set up. It almost feels like one of those really bad titles that usually gets launched with a console, rather than one that's made an appearance months after PS3 arrived in North America and Europe, and it'll be a monumental surprise to hear that a sequel is in the works. Hopefully Factor 5 will go back and reignite its reputation on Wii, which would have no doubt proved a more fruitful excerise.
Enter the Dragon
Beyond the SIXAXIS control system, which has already been under more scrutiny than a competition on Blue Peter, Lair's other major failure rests on the shoulders of combat. A muddy mess of three different systems that come into play depending on the size of dragon and whether a lock-on with an enemy is achieved, combat should be at the heart of Lair and offer players a compelling fight to the death. Instead, they feel far from epic air-quaking battle royales, and more like a family disagreement between the flying cousins of the Godzilla family. The 'Fight' combat scheme sees the two dragons go head-to-head in a beat-em-up style encounter as the ground rushes (or supposedly rushes) up to meet them. Claw, bite, or flame your opponent with a couple of not so well timed button mashes however, and you'll soon find out who the most powerful fire-breathing lizard is...and largely rinse and repeat until the sky has cleared. Other dragon to dragon battles include a more Sumo-like approach, with players forcefully pushing the SIXAXIS side-on to deliver blows to the opposing reptile. Once again however, the result is far from a satisfying experience, summing up the combat in Lair as a whole. Other battles see Rohn and his dragon land on the ground, taking the fight to hordes of enemy troops or catapults, where the reptile really does slap them about - or pick them up in his claw, enabling players to drop them from a great height quite literally. A respite to the wonders of flight, the ground-based combat feels even more cheap and unimpressive.
Despite the 'wondrous' trailers shown off with great aplomb at E3 2005 - back in the day when PS3 was still pencilled in for a Spring 2006 launch - Lair rarely lights up the HD stage with dazzling visuals. In fact for a lot of the time it would be difficult to really identify it as a next-gen title on looks alone, such is the mediocre presentation. As with other flight-based titles, Lair looks its best at altitude where the distances hide a multitude of otherwise all too obvious sins, though there are some subtle touches that at times make you question whether people are just being too harsh on the game - the ocean swells in particular stand out and will attract the interest of random Oceanographers. Then again, perhaps not. The mass of armies that congregate on the battlefields during some of the missions move more uniformly than a crack platoon, making them stand out like the past-gen instalments of BlueSide's Kingdom Under Fire, whilst the animation - dragons aside - comes across as clunky.
But for all the negativity, there is one resounding and bright light in the repertoire of Lair - the soundtrack. Remove the dodgy voice acting, and the aural experience created by composer John Debney (Sin City, Passion of the Christ) is likely to become one of the most atmosphere-energising music in gaming this year. Rich and powerful like a feudal warlord, or perhaps we're just blinded by Lair's sheer weakness, the music tries it's best to offer some semblance of excitement to proceedings but is inevitably crushed by the dirge that makes up the rest of the game. Difficult to play for any real length of time before players experience dangerous levels of hysterics, Lair is by far one of the most disappointing first-party titles on any platform for years.
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