Plenty of games suck. At times, even the good ones do. What these five games share in common, however, is more than a mere misstep, and taken out of context any one of these levels could proudly stand alongside the worst of their kind. From bad controls – lots of bad controls, in fact, as it seems to be a recurring theme that great games are marred by bad controls – to uncharacteristically poor level design, all the way to just plain suckage, there’s a myriad of ways these games beat the odds to provide an experience that reaches both the greatest heights and the most pathetic lows.
Half Life 2 – Water Hazard
The game some regard as the finest of its generation (if not of any generation) was what first led me to put together this list. Perhaps, more so than the level I am about to single out, the biggest problem with an otherwise stellar game is simply any moment Gordon Freeman enters a vehicle and, in doing so, apparently drops a copious amount of acid.
Though not exactly a strong suit of the shooter genre to begin with, the vehicle sections in Half Life 2 deserve some sort of reward in recognition of crapitude, and possibly a formal investigation into how anyone could make something that controls so badly. Specifically, I’m interested in knowing whether or not said individual was drunk on the job.
For the purposes of this article, though, I’ll point my finger directly at the game’s fourth level, Water Hazard. This segment of the game is so bad that it’s only thanks to a brilliant setup and the reward of Ravenholm that the level doesn’t derail the narrative entirely.
In Valve’s defense, the idea of having the player actually traverse a long stretch of distance and not just magically teleport there (wink wink, nod nod) is a good idea in theory, but between the crash-happy hovercraft and the helicopter with more bombs than the Nazi war machine, it feels less like a novel approach to gameplay so much as Valve punishing us for being vocally impatient about the game in the first place.
Ironically enough, the level just before it is named Route Kanal, making it a tragedy to think of how close we came to a wonderful moment of unintentional hilarity.
GTA San Andreas – Flight School
If it wasn’t for the lure of playing in a digitized version of America’s premier city of sin, I would never have played San Andreas past the nightmare inducing flight school. It took me longer to complete just those handful of teaching missions than it did the rest of the game, an especially infuriating fact considering how largely avoidable aircraft otherwise are to the main plot.
That’s not to mention that flying is never so difficult a task that game need to go so far out of its way to hammer home proper instruction. In a way, it’s the equivalent of requiring the player to take a laboriously lengthy driving test or a class on how to murder prostitutes before letting you out onto the streets proper.
To make matters worse, flight school is positioned in such a way that it’s the only thing you had to do early in the final third of the game if you wanted to advance the plot. Evidently the insistence of one government agent that CJ get his pilots license was enough to get him to drop everything else he had going then and dedicate untapped wells of willpower.
If it had merely been narrative lip service and an attempt to flesh out the world a little more, then that would have been one thing – pointless and pace killing to be sure, but largely harmless. But flying in San Andreas feels like you’re whizzing around inside a tea cup, and thanks to narrow and inflexible goals the slightest mistake will cause you to fail over and over, and over again.
Halo – The Library
There are plenty of moments of poor design in even the best of games, but what I like about using Halo as an example is that highlights the difference between something that’s bad and something that can almost ruin the game. The Flood alone were bad, and fighting them was nothing like it had been with the games considerably more intelligent (and entertaining) Covenant AI. But they were a small evil in the larger scheme of things, and it isn’t until we get to the notorious Library level that we cross over from the simply bad to the simply awful.
The entire level feels grossly out of place when compared to rest of the game. The repetitive level design comes across as a copy and paste filler job whose narrative purpose could have just as well been served in a cut scene or, better yet, as a smaller part of a much better level. The Library is nothing much more than a shooting gallery featuring the games most annoying enemies in the least interesting environments. It’s nothing like the rest of Halo, and in a lesser game it would have been an instant turn off.
I can’t even think of anything especially witty to say about the level. It’s so drab and repetitive you pretty much just forget it ever even happened.
Goldeneye – The Last Few Levels
While Goldeneye has admittedly aged quite badly in an age of dual stick console shooters, I’m not about to mark the game down for that. That would be like complaining a Charles Dickens novel is out of touch because it isn’t a television. My umbrage is that while three-quarters of Goldeneye’s running time are still about the closest approximation that we have to a playable James Bond movie, the final four levels are a sharp and sudden turn into shitsville.
Jungle was a hideously ugly mess that you had to squint at just to see where the enemies were, and then pray you make it across a narrow bridge in time lest Xenia and her infinite ammo dual assault rifles come rushing at you the other way. Control was a nightmare, confusing to begin with, only to become controller-shatteringly frustrating while protecting pudding pop Natalya from a stream of gun toting baddies who come at you from more directions than your Twinkie-bar-wide field of vision can handle.
Caverns was, comparatively speaking, a lone bright spot. Actually, it might be better to say that it was the only dim bulb not already broken, largely thanks to the addition of the PC-90, which made everything a whole lot simpler and more bloody.
The game’s last story level, Cradle, was the icing on the the cake of it all that though, for it neither suffered from bad visuals nor frustrating gameplay. Instead, it was just plain bad. All you did was run along a few narrow paths, shoot the bare minimum of baddies, and then deal with the evil super villain like he was nothing more than a run of the mill grunt. The only hard part about Goldeneye’s action packed finale was making sure you didn’t accidentally fall to your death when making the needle point drop to end the game.
Oblivion – Allies For Bruma
I feel conflicted about putting Oblivion on this list. While on the one hand the required slog through seven dull-as-dishwater Oblivion Gates is enough to turn anyone off from the game, the Elder Scrolls is one title where it doesn’t really matter all that much if you ignore the main quest line. Still, if you do at least progress that far in the narrative, the game world is physically changed as a constant reminder of your new duties and so at the very least, it’s enough of an issue to say sod it to the game and just start all over again.
My problem with this mission is quite simple really: Cyrodill is big, and the quests vary a fair bit and offer a sackful of interesting scenarios to capture the imagination. By contrast, the Planes of Oblivion are linear, with the same enemies and same features, and it’s all very, very red. Having to go through seven in a row feels partly like the dreaded hours-long grinding sessions that Western RPGs are meant to avoid. That’s too kind, really, because at least with grinding there’s a sense of achievement as opposed to dread that there’s still more of those damn Oblivion gates to go.