My own feelings about EA are somewhat skewed. It does anger me that year on year they can release a slightly tweaked version of software released only 12 months ago and yet still pocket millions whilst innovative titles like Beyond Good and Evil languish in bargain bins. A part of me hates their near total domination of the gaming scene and the way they have been known to champion flash presentation and licenses above original gameplay and innovation. Another part of me though respects them greatly since when they’re not concerning themselves with licenses and flashy intro sequences they can in fact be incredibly innovative and create some excellent games. The real question is whether their Jekyll and Hyde persona is deliberate, unavoidable or resultant of circumstances beyond even their control.
Some of EA’s recent releases illustrate perfectly their split personality. Take James Bond: Everything or Nothing. Many critics celebrated its superb embodiment of the license. Indeed, it is probably far more “Bond” than any preceding Bond title. The switch to third person may have created gameplay problems that perhaps were not inherent in the previous first person titles but seeing Bond on the screen in front of you does indeed make the game far more movie-like, undoubtedly a project goal for EA.
The flip side of all this change is that the game is possibly the worst Bond title to date, in my opinion. This may come as a shock to you. Reviews on the whole have bizarrely been quite favourable and the title’s continued presence in the charts demonstrates that you, the game playing public, are obviously pleased with it. Does this make me a grumpy elitist snob? Perhaps. But before you deride me consider first these factors. Everything or Nothing was backed with a huge big-budget advertising campaign. You think advertising doesn’t work? Next time you’re in your living room or bedroom take a moment to look around at all the stuff you insist on surrounding yourself with (Buddhist monks aside). You think you actually need all of that, in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word? Another thing to consider is that many people who bought EON probably aren’t ardent gamers. They maybe own a handful of titles and in reality have simply not played anything better. If you’ve never played an action game before then Enter The Matrix might even be of some fun – how are you to know that there are dozens of superior titles?
Need for Speed Underground is another EA blockbuster that was painfully undeserving. Yes, it looked great and the customisation options were quite fun, but the racing itself was distinctly limited. Whilst the drag tracks showed a certain amount of innovation the normal circuit races left me most unsatisfied. Not only could one mistake cost you an entire race but also the challenge and course layout was far less evolved than even its predecessor – Hot Pursuit 2.
Yet despite continually pumping out rather lacklustre titles every now and then EA manages to not only produce a killer title but also redefine a genre altogether. The Tiger Woods series overnight rendered every golf game before it redundant by introducing the sublime analogue swing control system. The system of hitting the correct button at the right time in order to succeed is now positively archaic. Although realism only stretches so far when using a joypad to recreate the intricacies of real life, EA took a bold step forward with their new control method. Swinging the stick smoothly from front to back is not only a far better reflection of the actual sport but also infinitely more satisfying for the player. It takes a lot more skill for sure but is also far more rewarding when executed well. I used to love PGA Tour Golf but I’ll probably never play it again. This is the sort of innovation we expect from Nintendo.
More recently however I’ve been spellbound by the fantastic title that is Fight Night 2004. Not content with merely releasing the best boxing game since Super Punch Out on the SNES, again EA have succeeded in fundamentally invigorating the genre and redefining the boundaries. By utilising the analogue stick in a similar vein to Tiger Woods a new level of control and reward is possible that far exceeds the button-mashing frenzy of the likes of Knockout Kings.
So how is it that one company can both frustrate and elate, rehash and innovate? The truth is that it is we, the consumer, who are responsible. EA are a profit making company, after all, and they know damn well that they can get away with lazy licences and annual remakes. If we ceased to purchase such titles then EA would no doubt stop releasing them. It’s an obvious yet rather saddening situation, but there is a silver lining. EA is a rich company, super rich in gaming terms. Our willingness to buy into annual updates finances the ventures that are more risky. A smaller company would perhaps be less able to take the chances that EA did with Tiger Woods and Fight Night, but for EA even if the seemingly impossible happened – they produced an absolute flop – it would have virtually no impact on the company. Not that this is likely to happen; last week EA boasted 13 titles in the UK All Format Top 40, a quite remarkable statistic.
This financial clout and license to be bold reaps huge rewards from time to time and for that I certainly respect EA. Although in a way it saddens me to hear they’ve bought their way into some of the largest licences of recent times (both Burnout 3 and Time Splitters 3 will now be published by EA) the fact that the company is financially untouchable ensures that both titles will be boosted in a way they perhaps they would not have been, with extra resources and yet more expert knowledge poured into them. The only thing I do wonder is how many more brilliant innovations EA could produce if they focused less on what sells well and more on great gaming. But as we all know, great gaming isn’t always where the money is.