Great Games! (That Didn’t Get Good Until Halfway Through)

When I think back to some of gaming’s greatest beginnings, I think of “Uncharted 2“, “Batman: Arkham City“, and “Bioshock“. They’re great games that let you know from the very start that you are in for an experience like no other.

But not all games have that luxury. In fact, the only way to appreciate games with truly great beginnings, is to play games that struggled to get started. If you’re looking for some suggestions, here are some of the greatest games of all time, that took a while to really get good.

Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast

One of the top 5 Star Wars games, and one of the most underrated games period, “Jedi Outcast” was an absolutely brilliant tale that saw retired Jedi Kyle Katarn (who went through some absolute hell in the earlier game to want to give up being a friggin Jedi), wrapped up in the newest plot to take over the galaxy, and forced to go back into the Jedi life to solve it, while taking a little vengeance along the way. Sound pretty bad ass? Oh yeah, it is.

However, before you even get to use the force young padawan, you must slog through the game’s first few missions using nothing but guns, as the early moments are nothing but a first person shooter set in the Star Wars universe. This is actually a trademark of the series, since the second game, but you see the thing is that at its design worst, “Jedi Outcast” features horrible flip switching puzzles, bad jumping sections, and aimless wandering. The first half of the game exemplifies all of these flaws, and doesn’t even give you a lightsaber or force powers to help ease the pain. It’s not like it’s the worst first person shooter ever, but it’s fairly far from the best and takes some time, and patience, to get through.

But here’s the thing. Without the dullness of that first half, that moment you meet Luke Skywalker, grab your lightsaber, use the force, and hear that beautiful “Star Wars” music swell wouldn’t be near as sweet. Earning the right to that moment is what makes it, and the game in general, so incredible. Even on subsequent playthroughs though, when you know the reward, it is still difficult to force yourself through that first half.

Deus Ex

I hate to admit this, but embarrassingly I never found the words to adequately describe “Deus Ex.” Instead, I’d refer you to the mounds of accolades and awards it accumulated, and confirm with you that it was indeed a revolutionary breath of fresh air that’s influences wouldn’t be properly noticed for years to come, as even leading developers seemingly couldn’t appreciate exactly what it was.

The average gamer may have never gotten the chance to experience that though. “Deus Ex” was a first person game, but it wasn’t really a first person shooter, and trying to play the game like that, as many at the time surely did, only led to a swift demise. That’s because while you can play the game guns blazing, in that first mission you’re forced to take a more stealthy, very careful approach as you worked though what was essentially a tutorial of the game. What hurt is that it lacked many of the character enhancement options and various tactics that made “Deus Ex” so much of what it would be. Your methodical approach towards liberating the terrorist controlled statue of liberty is the game’s lowpoint, and doesn’t lend much encouragement to seeing the rest of the game through.

Even after that lengthy intro, it takes a mission or two for the game, and plot, to find its groove and for the series RPG and strategy elements to kick in properly. Once it all comes together though (which occurs around the time of a major plot twist), its inescapable brilliance is a constant onslaught to your senses. You can retrospectively laugh at gamers that didn’t stick through the beginning of “Deus Ex”, but really the game did itself no favors in immediately making itself welcome.

Assassin’s Creed II

There’s a reason the first “Assassin’s Creed” didn’t set the world on fire. Well…actually there are several good reasons, and to find them out, please just refer to the first half of “Assassin’s Creed II” where you’re required to re-learn the games basics via fetch quests, and other meaningless tasks before you are even allowed to don the Assassin’s gear.

Even then the game’s tutorial isn’t done, as there are still one or two tricks for you to learn, and the developers aren’t afraid to show them via large on-screen prompts and exposition dialogue. I never even played the first game and I found it to be an unbearable exercise in tedium, so I can’t imagine how someone who gave the first a shot must have felt having to re-learn several lessons. It takes even the most dedicated gamer several start and stop attempts to get to the point where you are allowed to go out on your own and truly enjoy everything the title has to offer.

It’s not a cardinal sin to put a tutorial level in a game, but “Assassin’s Creed 2’s” problem is that it shows you all the ways to play the game, without giving you much incentive to do so due to a segment that takes up such an inexcusable amount of the beginning.

Shenmue Series

The “Shenmue” series is the ‘love it or hate it’ poster child for video games. The first game came in with unprecedented hype when it premiered on the Dreamcast, and alienated gamers with its tedious missions, bad dialogue (and equally atrocious voice acting), and endless backtracking. It was marketed as a game about freedom, but didn’t give gamers the type of wall to wall thrills they thought would come with that.

It’s an odd addition to this list, as honestly both games never really break from their formula of wandering, waiting, working monotonous jobs, and investigating in the vain hopes for clues to finding your father’s murderer. Yet in both games, it’s around the halfway point that something incredible happens that compels you to keep going. Maybe it’s a break in the story, a newfound friend, a mind-blowing sequence, or something that suddenly makes you disregard every bit of tedium that led up to that point, where you realize you are in the hands of a storytelling mastermind, who knows exactly when to reel you in.

Actually, to tell you the truth, I’m still unable to tell if Yu Suziki’s designing the games to not really get going until mid-way through was a conscience one, or rather a fortunate by-product of otherwise bad decisions. In any case, to this day I recommend playing both games if you can find a way, as they still represent highlights in moment based storytelling creating a strong overall narrative. Just be sure to stick with them until that first great moment occurs.

Mafia

Mafia” is the greatest prohibition gangster video game ever made, and was unfairly dismissed as a GTA clone when it was released. Instead, it is a character driven drama, with a creative sense of mission design and timing, and some truly outstanding writing and pacing. But to anyone who’s played it, let me say the three words that will make you shiver.

The racing mission.

About halfway through the game you are tasked with winning a race in substitution for a driver who was a lock for the mob’s bets. The problem is that the racecars of this era weren’t entirely capable of performance racing, and you are driving a rigged one that is the most dangerous of them all. For any gamer that was too stubborn to use the glitch cheat (me), and actually tried to win this race legitimately, they found a mission that is impossibly difficult, frustratingly long, and can take an absurd amount of  attempts to complete (I believe I got it around the 50th try my first time…no joke).

The real gag is that all of the missions leading up to that race are ok at best, but consists mostly of driving a cab around. After that race though, the game enters a new level of creativity where each level is better than the one before, and from there “Mafia” becomes that all time great game that it is generally remembered as. To this day I don’t know why the developers chose to put a mission seemingly designed to make the player give up on the game at the point they did, but like the other titles on this list…I’m almost glad that’s how it happened. Because on the other end of the struggle, is a reward that is its equal.

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