How much should a sequel change?

Nowadays, it can be quite rare to see a game franchise with only a single entry.

Trilogies, compilations and sagas are the norm; when people buy a game, more often than not they want that game to receive a follow-up, for its story to continue and grow. Even games that I felt stood perfectly well on their own – looking at you, The Last of Us and Red Dead Redemption – eventually received announcements of incoming second instalments.

When it comes to sequels (and prequels, spin-offs and everything else, I suppose) I feel that our expectations and a developer’s intentions can be wildly out of sync. A good sequel, to me, is one that provides a sensible continuity with previous titles whilst improving upon their gameplay and functionality. Take the Metal Gear Solid series as an example: with the exception of MGS5, whose story I wasn’t fond of, each new game built upon the excellence of its predecessor without jumping the shark with absurd additions.

I also feel compelled to give a nod to Capcom for their Devil May Cry games. The heart of the experience is always the same: fast-paced, nuanced combat, ludicrous stories (in a good way) and a cast of eclectic characters fighting demons. When you buy a DMC game, you know what you’re going to get; you don’t have to worry about a sudden, massive shift in tone to something wholly unrecognisable. Even DMC2, which felt scaled-back and a little mirthless compared to the others, at least stays within the boundaries of what we expect from DMC.

“At their core, the games should remain much the same, with changes focused on remedying past flaws and providing new incentives for fun …”

That is how I feel successive entries in a franchise should be handled. At their core, the games should remain much the same, with changes focused on remedying past flaws and providing new incentives for fun. As much as I love the Assassin’s Creed series, its history is an erratic one. The first few games were fine, following that trusted path of steady refinements and changes. For all the fun I had with AC4: Black Flag, however, it took its predecessor’s naval combat and ran with the concept, and the end result was a pirate simulator with only basic connections to the rest of the series.

The worst offender that comes to mind is Naughty Dog’s Jak & Daxter series. The first game is an old favourite of mine, combining solid platforming gameplay with a charming and quirky story. You and your cheeky companion explore various locales, snap up the collectables and eventually take on the final boss to save the day – simple. I’m not sure what transpired in the planning sessions for Jak 2, but the end result felt like a hybrid between Jak & Daxter and Grand Theft Auto. The story was suddenly dark and brooding, there were guns everywhere, and let’s not forget the angst-ridden characters and abhorrent racing missions.

Sometimes, advancing technology and demands for something new are bound to influence development. As much as I prefer the older Resident Evil games to some of the new entries, I can understand why Capcom departed from the rigid gameplay of the early titles. Resident Evil 4, as corny and ridiculous as it sometimes is, felt like a natural evolution of the series. Inexplicable lurches into a new genre altogether, such as Jak 2, are a different matter.

It’s all part of the business, I suppose. Innovation doesn’t always work. Ideas that might seem fresh and rejuvenating at first don’t always work the way they were intended. To an extent, I feel that we as players and customers can influence this. Assassin’s Creed, for example, is often derided as being the same thing, year after year, with only a new setting to switch things up. But how much does it really need to change? Not the point that it becomes Pirate’s Creed, at least.

I’m not saying that there’s no place for games like Black Flag or Jak 2. The issue is placing them sensibly within the continuity of their series. Like Assassin’s Creed: Rogue, Black Flag should have been a numberless spin-off. A main-series entry shouldn’t diverge so drastically from established themes. I would have been fine with the melancholic Jak 2 and 3 if they hadn’t been positioned as direct follow-ups to such a cheerful adventure.

We don’t make the games, of course. It’s up to developers to ensure the quality of the products; at the end of the day, it’s their vision and their choice. I just wish the development of certain games had gone a little differently.

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