Back when it was being previewed to the press, many thought Sony’s PlayStation 3 exclusive “Lair” could be one of those system-selling videogames that helped turn the PS3 into a success. Now it’s out, and actually playing the game reveals the yawning gap between its soaring potential and devastatingly bad delivery. With its sweeping vistas and beautifully detailed dragons, “Lair” is a breathtaking videogame to behold, but the nearly monochromatic color scheme, confusing objectives and absurdly bad camera controls can make playing it torturous.
“Lair” is set in a volcano-scarred world that’s divided along religious lines. The gamer plays as part of the dragon-riding Sky Guard who must defend their walled city against an invading force. It’s the sort of simple story that could hardly drive a movie for two hours but gives gamers just enough reason to know who they’re fighting and why.
The entire game takes place atop a dragon, typically in the air, though the beast does occasionally land to tear into ground troops and siege weapons.
Visually, “Lair” is one of the best games to hit any console to date. The water and fire effects are particularly spectacular, while the dragons slip through the air effortlessly and seem appropriately sluggish when grounded.
“Lair” is the first PS3 game to rely very heavily on the console’s motion-sensing controls, through which the regular button-filled controller can also, as on the Nintendo Wii, sense and respond to movement. Tilting the controller forward and back makes the dragon swoop up and down, while tilting the control to the sides causes the dragon to bank. It takes some getting used to, but this tricky control scheme is one of the best things about “Lair.” Removing the thumbsticks from the formula gives the gamer a real sense of control over the dragon onscreen.
Unfortunately, the dragons in the game all look similar and blend into the mostly gray-and-brown backgrounds, making it hard to differentiate allies from enemies. The developers at Factor 5 tried to make up for that deficiency with optional “rage vision,” which turns the world into black and white, with enemies highlighted in a red glow. But players have to keep a button pushed down to turn on “rage vision,” making it an impractical option in the long run.
The game’s missions don’t make this issue any easier. They often include overly general goals, like “take out the attacking dragons” or “defend the barges,” with no real way of knowing how close the player is to success or failure. Adding some sort of contextual counter would have helped. To make matters worse, the only indicator for finding the missions is a large arrow at the top of the screen whose design makes it very hard to determine if it is pointing forward or backward.
The camera angles can be rotated and tilted around the dragon to some degree, but the default position of the camera is directly behind it. This works fine until the dragon drops into a dogfight. Zipping around in the air, exchanging blows and fire can cause the camera to go wonky, making it tough for players to tell who they’re fighting or, in an all-too-common worst scenario, who just killed them.