Thursday, January 22, 2009
Get the point?
When you look at all the things Microsoft has done right this console generation, achievements have to rank pretty high up there. This wasn't always a given. It seemed like a silly and useless feature to me, and in many respects it is silly and useless. You can't trade your achievement points for anything tangible. You can't use them to download new themes or Live Arcade games, or trade them for Xbox-branded products. I don't even think there's an easy way to compare your gamerscore to that of your friends, although admittedly I haven't looked very hard. It's like playing an RPG with no level cap -- and no discernible benefit from leveling up.
Yet there's something about earning achievement points that's irresistible. Partly, I think they nailed the tactile sensation of getting one right. The little "ding" of unlocking a new achievement has always sounded to my ears a little like a water droplet exploding, which may be helped by the way the graphic blows up like a balloon. It feels organic and germane. When the PS3 implemented their similar "trophy" system, they didn't get the feedback quite right. Earning a new trophy is marked by a muffled chime, and a little rectangular graphic that pops instantly onto the screen.
I like to earn achievement points, but not so much that I'll always go out of my way for them. In fact, my gamerscore is embarrassingly low, considering the sheer number of Xbox 360 games that have spun through my disc drive over the past three years. Partly, that's due to expediency: a lot of achievements don't reward powering through the main game, which is the way I usually play. They're for those who take the time to explore every aspect of the game. They reward dedication and sometimes even creativity. And many skew toward online play.
Even then, sometimes I can't imagine who out is earning these things. I sank something like 25 hours into Burnout Revenge, the first Xbox 360 game I ever got, and topped out at 110 achievement points. Among the many achievements I missed were "True Elite," worth 65 points for getting a perfect rating on every single event, and "Celeb Status," 70 points for uploading a clip that made it onto the top-20 downloads. I would love to know how many people actually did earn the "Celeb Status" achievement.
Mostly, I'm fine with picking up whatever achievements I earn along the course of a campaign. Part of the reason why my BioShock score was so high -- 730 points -- was that nearly all of its achievements were easily accomplished over the course of a single playthrough. Researching splicers was rewarded both in-game, by making them easier to kill, and outside the game, by tallying 10 achievement points each. Fallout 3 was like this, too, doling out 20 points for each mission, although most of those missions weren't mandatory to reach the end credits.
This is when achievements are at their best: when they encourage you to play the game the right way, and to experience things you might otherwise have missed. Left 4 Dead uses achievements as an incentive to be generous with health packs and pain pills. Crackdown's achievements reminded the player to make full use out of all of his powers. Sometimes they seem contradictory to a game's goals: Guitar Hero II included an achievement for failing a song on easy mode. Hey, it was good for a laugh, and one of the easiest achivements I've ever earned.
A few games maintain a hold on me. I'm still chasing the "Free Runner" achievement in Crackdown, which is worth 50 points for finding all 500 Agility Orbs. I'm up to 498 out of 500, and I've had the game for almost two years now. Some turn me off. Every time Gears of War 2 updates me on how far I am from the "Seriously 2.0" achievement (kill 100,000 opponents), it makes me want to curl up under my desk.
No matter what Xbox 360 game you're playing, the achievements game has become its own addictive enterprise. It's single-player game and multiplayer. It's all about the score, and all about maximizing your exposure to the breadth of a game world. It binds together a library of hundreds of games. Achievements are the Force.