Ah boss battles: the classic checkpoint marker and definitive end to many games. But this generation their importance has started to dwindle as has the effort put into creating them by many developers, so where are boss battles now and what significance do they play in modern gaming?
We have recently seen the introduction of Quick-Time Event boss battles, arguably the worst use of this lazy mixing of a cutscene with minimal player control. After building up it's rather weak story to what felt like the climax of the game in its penultimate mission, Battlefield 3 ended it all with a poor QTE boss fight in the middle of the street which seemed to last an eternity. Forward ahead to the end of 2012 and Ubisoft's two biggest releases - Assassin's Creed 3 and Far Cry 3 - also both decided to utilise this horrible form of "gameplay" (if you can really call it that) in certain boss encounters, which does nothing more than test a player's reaction time in order to allow what is effectively a normal cutscene with the added illusion of player control.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution didn't go as far as having multiple QTE bosses, but Eidos Montreal's decision to outsource all of the game's boss battles had a negative effect on the game and left a bad of a sour taste in many gamer's mouths despite how good the rest of the game was. For a game which you can choose to play through with stealth or action, you only had one choice in every boss battle and that was pure action and gunpower. Imagine my reaction to this as I dropped any heavy weapons I had picked in order to keep my Stun Gun full of ammo and encountered the first boss, a big dude with a big gun who cornered you in the tiny, squared fight perimeter. I had to backtrack a little eventually to pick up some grenades and pistols as stealth in all of Human Revolution's boss battles were non-existent, thus forcing you to pick up and use weapons which you don't need anywhere else in the game if you're a bigger fan of playing it stealthy. But what about Eidos' decision to outsource the boss battles itself? That decision alone - and the decision to outsource them to a company headed by a man that didn't know much about Deus Ex and said he was more of a shooter fan - surely is a symbol of how unimportant (and uncared for) boss battles are becoming in modern gaming.
Even series famed for some of their well thought-out and dynamic boss battles seemed to fail in this respect this generation. Metal Gear Solid 4's Beauty and the Beast Unit - which were more of an additional part of the game rather than an integral one - added little to the mix of the game. The first boss, Laughing Octopus, was actually a decent fight with a rather quirky twist (one which still fooled me at times after five playthroughs), but after that everything was a number of steps down - a straight shootout with Raging Raven, a fairly routine sniper battle with Crying Wolf (which could be easily ended thanks to the bazillion types of launchers among other weapon types in the game) and a gimmicky encounter with Screaming Mantis which at first was a nice nod back to the first game of the "Solid" series but on any replay lost all of its touch. Mediocrity in boss fights has even been an issue with some fighting games. Tekken 6's Arcade Mode's climax against the rather bizarre Egyptian God Azazel seems to come out of nowhere, as does some of its rather cheap and long-reaching attacks. Mortal Kombat's Shao Kahn surely takes the trophy for cheapest boss however, being able to effectively pummel you from anywhere on the screen with the majority of his attacks breaking through your blocks, after denying your your right to combo attack him (mind you Mortal Kombat has a bit of a history with cheap Shao Kahn fights so perhaps they simply wanted to continue the trend?). One of the other disappointing types of boss battles were those bullet-sponge bosses whose health you simply have to routinely drain and which adds enemies around him/her/it in order to create some additional difficulty (such as in Bioshock, Borderlands, and the Mass Effect series).
Now I'm not just going to bang on about bad boss fights this gen, there were a few games with good ones which the developers clearly spent good time on. Demon's and Dark Souls were games which almost completely focused on dynamic, diverse and grandiose bosses to fight and this (along with the general fun and difficulty of combat, among other things) is why the series has been such a hit with those that enjoyed the titles. The Ratchet & Clank series (while starting to drag on a bit) still manages to create fresh and different boss battles allowing the player to utilise the majority of their gadgets and weaponry as they like - but the lack of consistent platforming games (titles with traditionally good and innovative boss battles at the heart of the genre) since the sixth generation of consoles probably has attributed to the lack in quality of boss fights now, either that or the other way around.
But arguably many of those games that have had more enjoyable and deep boss battles from this generation are titles that still hearken back to older gaming times, and in my opinion this is one of the reasons why JRPGs are still near the top of the boss battle chain. While the majority of better games in the genre differentiate themselves with evolving combat systems (most from the old, simplistic turn-based system), almost all of them still tie in closely to the early time of the establishment of the JRPG and still relate closely to the turn-based, organisational and tactical style of play. Despite how much it was looked down on by a large part of the gaming community, one of the things that I found Final Fantasy XIII did very well was boss fights which took you deep into the new combat system (and perhaps for some of you this wasn't the case and you blasted through them, but as I was quite new to this genre at the time I found the importance of timing and organisation a very interesting feature), as did arguably the best JRPG of this generation Lost Odyssey, which - with its fairly simplified turn-based system and quite challenging boss fights- would have felt very close to games of past generations.
The other genre that would arguably be near (or probably at) the top of the boss battle chain would be the hack n' slash genre, although with my little expertise in the genre I can't make a completely honest review of it (mind you I did just complete the Metal Gear Rising Revengeance demo which had a pretty fun encounter to round it off, although it was one of those that used additional enemies to buff it up). But titles that I haven't even played but have seen come to mind - Asura's Wrath, Bayonetta and the God of War Series, among many others have varied and deep combat systems which comfortably transfer through to boss clashes which (the majority of the time) require good dexterity and timing in order to achieve victory. But why do these two genres still continue to succeed at their execution of boss battles, and why is the majority of the rest of the gaming world falling behind and forgetting about them? Many gamers nowadays prefer to have cinematic interactive experiences rather than games with more raw and pure focus on gameplay and the variety that comes from that - titles like Uncharted, Assassin's Creed, Heavy Rain, and Mass Effect have a large focus on set-pieces instead of a more free terrain for gamers to find and develop their own ways of progressing and playing in. Developers seem to be looking for ways to put into effect their own ideas for situations and events in the game as opposed to creating difficulty in boss battles through conventional means and conventional gameplay- even if they don't have the means to actually allow the player to execute and complete these events themselves (cue QTEs). Arguably even though developers have better tools at their disposal, they're being less creative than before. They have ideas and plans for a scene and instead of being innovative and trying to make things work in the boundaries of the rest of the game and the natural gameplay that the rest of the game is - or should be - based on, they decide to make that scene or event work no matter how poor the outcome is. (These are "games" after all, if I wanted an interactive movie I'd buy one.)
While cinematic games have their place in the industry this stultifying desire to create the illusion of player control in gaming when everything is already determined is taking away the dynamism of games. Sure we may have a little more freedom in other places in games, but the way boss battles are being treated as secondary to other gameplay nowadays is beginning to affect other areas of games. Titles and genres that are still in touch with older generations and older games seem to still hit the nail on the head when it comes to these encounters, and perhaps the desire to try and make almost everything different (or at least seem different) to predecessors is why the new style of cinematic gaming (which appears to be more dynamic but in reality is more predetermined than before) is where the spotlight is landing on now. Do you think we still need boss battles and the related significance of them, or should we allow them to wither away and in place have more longer and prescribed gaming sections? Is this focus on cinematic gaming better or worse for the industry?