As any Gamecube owner knows, Factor 5 is a team comprised of technical wizards. Their previous Rogue Squadron games pulled off graphical techniques on Nintendo's last generation machine that most Wii games still don't take advantage of. Factor 5 managed to rip out the most celebrated moments of the Star Wars films and make a captivating series that delivered action faithful to its inspiration. So, why does Lair feel like a retread from Factor 5's previous games?
Visually, Lair is a sight to behold. Fully rendered cities are set ablaze by hundreds, maybe thousands, of fully detailed dragons and foot soldiers. Add a few levels of visual sheen, such as impeccable lighting and realistic interactive water, and you have a visual feast to dine on. More than any other game currently on the market, this looks "next gen."
But after the initial wow, the game's flaws quickly reveal themselves. Maybe the game needed more optimization, but it appears that the PS3 chugs while trying to run Lair. Even in the final retail version, frame rate drops are obvious and frequent. There's a claustrophobic feel to many of the levels, with enemies and allies in such abundant supply that it becomes dizzying. If only Factor 5 chose to make each level smaller, or made it less crowded, the framerate might become a bit more bearable.
In spite of its new fantasy setting, Lair's gameplay is incredibly derivative of Factor 5's Rogue Squadron series. The mission structure, your dragon's abilities, and even the level select menu, are all based on their previous titles. You will find yourself flying around, dogfighting, protecting vessels, and blowing up key enemy strongholds. Because of its familiarity, the feeling of controlling a dragon is completely lost. Really, you might as well be in a TIE Fighter. Simple things, like the dragon's lock-on fireball, make the creatures feel less organic and more robotic. In the second level, players will see a giant whale-like creature literally explode in flames when shot at. Are these beasts related to the Hindenburg, by any chance?
The missions use the same progressive objectives structure that the Rogue Squadron series utilized. Not only is the structure familiar, but many of the objectives themselves are clearly copied from previous Factor 5 titles. For example, one level has you flying in the dark, avoiding spotlights in order to destroy a power generator -- not an homage, but a clear recycling of their previous games. Unfortunately, these objectives are too many and all the levels suffer from a somewhat intolerable length. While the battles themselves can be engaging, it becomes tiresome to have to constantly protect a vessel, or target a catapult. The game does little offer a genuine feeling of variety. In addition, the lack of checkpoints becomes truly devastating. Imaging playing for fifteen, twenty minutes, only to have to redo a level in its entirety after dying. It generates the kind of frustration that has you throwing your controller at something.
The checkpoint system isn't the only source of uncontrollable frustration. In fact, the entire experience of playing Lair is like one giant test of anger management. The SIXAXIS controls do add a level of immersion to the experience that's appreciable, but it still doesn't offer the precision we expect from an action game. For example, a common complaint is that the game fails to differentiate boosting forward and making a U-turn successfully. Players learn to avoid using these once-critical moves, just because having the game do the wrong move will do more harm than good. Because of the tilt controls, you have less freedom of movement than you would in a typical flight game: you won't be able to make tight turns, nor will you be able to U-turn or boost effectively, killing any hope for some genuinely interesting dogfighting. [Editor's note: We tested the controls after firmware 1.92, and the SIXAXIS still frequently fails to differentiate between a boost and a U-turn.]
While in the air, players can engage in various melee battles with other dragons. Unfortunately, none of them really work. The first method involves flying to the side of an opponent, and thrusting the SIXAXIS to take down an enemy. Cute, but its novelty wears thin. The other method is a brawl mode, where players must input button commands, a la traditional fighting games. This mode is never elaborated upon, and it ultimately feels like a meaningless button masher.
The game's finest moments, strangely, come when you're on the ground. When landed, players have the ability to rampage, taking down countless numbers of enemy troops. While it certainly lacks depth, the added slow-mo effects emphasize the true brutality of your beast. A smile is guaranteed to form on your face as you set hundreds of soldiers on fire, and eat any that may somehow survive. Delicious!
It's easy to get dazed by Lair's breathtaking vistas and sweeping soundtrack. However, players shouldn't have to feel like they're fighting a game's basic controls in order to have a good time. Lair will undeniably offer a few good moments. However, it simply doesn't have the depth to warrant a purchase. At the end of a one night stand with Lair, you'll wish that it could've played as well as it looked.
PS3 Fanboy score: 5.5