Saturday, 7 November 2009

Dragon Age: Beginning

Yes, it has been a while. I have had something of a break from games recently, although I did go over to Cambridge to meet the nice folks at Jagex, Team Runescape. In the last months I have had a play with Batman: Arkham Asylum (excellent), Fallout 3 (painful), Braid (odd but cool) and Tales of Monkey Island (pretty good). I'll no doubt write about some, all or none of these soon but for the moment I have a Dragon Age tip for Steam users.

If, like me, you have been very excited awaiting this game and decided to pre-order the Deluxe edition you'll have some bonus content awaiting you. Be aware, however, that this content is not automatically installed - you need to jump through some hoops to get it.

So, to get the content:

1. Load Dragon Age from Steam
2. Go to Downloadable Content and follow the instructions for creating yourself an account on the Bioware site
3. Exit the game
4. Go to the Bioware site and find the redeem code page making sure you're logged in as you
5. Enter the "Pre Order" key code
6. Start the game
7. Go to the DLC page and note there are some things downloading
8. Exit the game
9. Go back to the redeem code page
10. Enter the "Deluxe Edition" code
11. Start the game
12. Go back to the DLC page and note the new things downloading

This is incredibly round-the-houses but it worked for me. Things which I think tripped me up:

1. The Bioware site will not accept your product key if your game is running
2. The Pre Order key could be entered WITH the dashes in it
3. The Deluxe Edition code was NOT accepted until the dashes were REMOVED

I haven't extensively tested these three, but they might help you out if you are having issues.

Also, if you ramp up your resolution in-game and get an "out of range" error from your monitor, you need to come back to windows and drop your monitor refresh rate. This will probably only bother you if you have an ancient CRT monitor. Like me.

Hope something here helps.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

War - the second morning

It has been a couple of months since my last post and as usual when there is a lengthy gap it is because I am stuck in a boring game. This time it is Fallout 3 - latest in the list of games everybody seems to like but leaves me cold. Since I do not like writing about a game before I have completed, I though I'd go back to something I played through a while ago - Dawn of War 2.

You may remember my comments on Dragonshard, the first D&D RTS. In it I criticised the way real time strategy games forced you to control the low level tactics of the battlefield along with the higher level resource management and then gave you totally inadequate camera options to do that effectively. Well, it seems I am not the only one who thinks this - Relic have been hard at work trying to do something different. How did they do? Well, let us take each aspect in turn.

Resource Management

There isn't any. Nor is there any tedious base construction relying on you knowing your tech tree inside out nor any need to make sure you save your spice / gold / tiberium / random other thing you have harvested so you can build a vehicle depot instead of churning out more troops. Instead, you have a team of four space marine squads - chosen and equipped pre-mission - who are chucked into the action in a drop pod. They surge forth guns firing from moment one and don't stop shooting until every last enemy (or rather, Xeno) is riddled with bolt gun rounds.

In order to get any reinforcements, the squad leader needs to make his way back to a resource point. At that point new space marines are teleported in free of charge to make up the numbers. This may cheapen the game for those who like to run out of resources and have no way of defeating the enemy but on the upside it does change the emphasis of the game. Rather than stepping out, capturing resources, then retreating and turtling down in your base until you have enough troops to be worth sending out to fight your missions are all about pushing forwards and engaging the enemy. Kill them, capture their turf and get some reinforcements. Job done. How do you do that? Well, now we are on to...

Battle Control

When you engage the enemy in most RTS games the usual routine is:

1. select units
2. click on enemy
3. sit back and watch your troops swarm over the enemy troops until one side is dead

If they game designers want to mix it up a bit, they give the units special powers you have to manually activate which increases the frustrating micro-management tenfold as you struggle to get the best out of your troops. In DoW2 you have four units. This means that the special abilities are much easier to find and use. And because you never have more than thirteen troops on the battlefield the fights rarely turn into the kind of horrendous cluster fuck that makes it impossible to target enemies effectively. Overall it gives you a much greater sense of control over what is going on which makes the carnage far more satisfying.

And carnage it is, too. This is the Warhammer 40000 setting after all - troops on both sides of the battlefield die in droves as machine guns chatter away, flamers burn enemies from cover and rocket launchers blow huge holes in enemy formations. In keeping with the Dawn of War series, everything is beautifully detailed and - more importantly - the sound is superb. Once again battlefields reverberate to the sound of gravelly-voice space marines shouting "PURGE THE XENOS" and the thundering of the heavy bolters as they chew the onrushing xenos to pieces. The sense of immersion it lends to the atmosphere is incredible and makes the extreme violence of the missions all the more enjoyable.

New for DoW2 are buildings you can enter and garrison (although be warned that getting your space-blokes back out again can be a challenge) and buildings you can blast to pieces when they are full of enemies. Sure, there are other ways of clearing them out but there is nothing like some serious property destruction to spice up clearing out a town of the invading alien.

The AI

Although battlefield control is much improved it is not perfect. The AI of the enemies is sometimes lacking - they often display the stupidity of badguys from yesteryear - very obviously standing around waiting for your HardBlokes to show up then rushing you in waves, very kindly making themselves fodder for your rapid-firing heavy weapons. Your own troops don't always do much better. Aside from sometimes displaying extreme reluctance to leave a building, there are problems with the route-finding algorithms which seem choose the best route from one place to another based on the entire map rather than the discovered area. On occasion the result is the squad you have withdrawn from combat to get reinforcements attempting to catch up your main force by walking through a previously-undiscovered enemy base and consequently getting slaughtered. Also it is all too easy to target an enemy strongpoint with grenades then, whilst those troops move (slowly) into a position to throw them, have a melee unit auto-target the same unit and charge into the blast zone before getting blown to pieces. The clots.

None of these problems seriously threaten the game though and if you find yourself overwhelmed with the task of babysitting your triggerhappy psychos you can find escape in what is the best (and arguably the worst) part of the game:

The Multiplayer

Competitive multiplayer is one of the two biggest criticisms of DoW2 and you can see why. It is back to basics - choose your force, build your base, rush the enemy - but because the main game is based around small unit combat with no bases it all feels very tacked on the side. I can't really comment on the quality of the maps having not spent much time playing this game mode, but they all seemed very symmetrical and not very interesting. Since I dislike the build / rush gameplay of multiplayer RTS games I mostly avoided this mode but be warned that if you are into lots of head to head violence you are probably better off with the original DoW.

To counter the bad multiplayer there is the sublime co-operative mode. Now I have to admit I have a soft spot for co-op games but even so I think DoW2 is something special. Slaughtering your way through hundreds of Xenos is enough fun when you are by yourself but when you have a friend to chat to whilst you are doing it the fun increases dramatically. It also opens up a whole host of tactical options - making pincer attacks something that can actually be co-ordinated properly. Or, if your troops are hard enough, you simply take one side of the battlefield each and go for a time bonus.

The Missions

The other big criticism of DoW2 is in the variety of the missions. This totally unfair as, whilst most missions boil down to "advance through territory X and kill BigBeast Y along with all his mates" you sometimes are given a "advance through territory X and kill BigBeast Y along with all his mates AND blow up some buildings". Ok, so the missions (with the exception of the odd plot-important mission) are all exactly the same but the sound and visuals are so good you can get lost in the experience and it is always fun trying out the new toys of your units.

The Units

Your assault force consists of your commander and three other squads chosen from a pool of five. These troops all gain XP through wanton slaughter and consequently pick up new and interesting abilities. You can also give them different weapon / armour / special combinations to vary how they play. It doesn't sound like much but the different loadouts really do change how the troops perform in battle and the small number of squads mean each one can be led by a named character, each with their own distinct personalities. This in turn means you can get attached to them and they become more than cannon fodder being thrown forward at the enemy for your amusement.

A special mention has to go to the Commander who, with a certain combination of advances and equipment, becomes a close combat monster who is actually impossible to hurt. By himself he can chop his way through entire armies which means you can experiment with the other troops and leave the serious killing to him.

Other notable units include the dreadnaught who, armed with an assault cannon and with his ranged combat score pushed nice and high, could cut down entire waves of attacking enemies with a single use of his Hellfire stand-and-hose special ability and the cyclone missile launcher you can stick on your terminators which never once failed to cause more damage to my own team than to the enemy. Good times.

It has to be said that as your troops hit maximum level it all gets a bit silly and you rarely lose any troops despite facing waves a hundred strong at times. But still, with the splendid visuals and the deep thundering bass it never stops being tremendously exciting.

Campaign Structure

I haven't mentioned the story which, whilst basic, is a lovely introduction to the 40k universe and explains rather nicely why there are only ever a handful of troops charging from one side of the sector to the other doing every last little task to defend the place. The small number of main character space marines are suitably overly dramatic and all come across well as characters. A couple even develop somewhat as the story progresses. It is a nice distraction from the killing and strings everything together rather nicely.

The narrative gives some structure to the campaign and allows it to progress from a "do these missions in some order" to a section where you have many missions to do and have to think very carefully which ones you undertake to hold off the invasion for as long as possible. The campaign planning element is simplistic but is a fun addition and the interface for doing it is lovely - it captures the essence of being a future-general sitting in front of your control panels very well.

I assume the story ends well - one of the reasons I have taken so long to write about DoW2 is that I haven't finished it. I am just before the final mission with my team of HardBlokes all ready to go but my partner in co-op is finding himself without an internet connection to play to the end. Which is quite annoying.

Summing Up

Dawn of War 2 is excellent. Enormous fun in the campaign mode and even better in (co-op) multiplayer. More than that though, it represents a significant change in formula to the RTS genre. Whilst it remains to be seen whether this different approach will catch on, it is a very important game none the less. Relic took steps forward in the original DoW by basing resource collection on capturing areas of the map instead of harvesting something from the ground, and doing without resources entirely seems to be a sensible (if very bold) next step. Congratulations to them for trying something new and congratulations on making it work so brilliantly.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Where's the Forest?

I'm constantly amazed at how much the Half Life 2 series has come on in the three games. The Half Life 2 was a lengthy game chronicling Gordon Freeman on his travels through and around City 17. It was hailed as ground breaking and was much loved by everyone. And, despite many elements of genius, I didn't like it. Episode 1 was the next installment which took the genius parts and squeezed them together to produce a superb game. And I liked it. And now we have Episode 2, which is another one of Episode 1.

HL2E2 continues the trends set in HL2E1. The level design is superb - tight and winding corridor sections explode into wide open forests / toxic bogs / warehouse rooms and all are filled with details and interesting people to meet. And crawling with monsters too, naturally. The progression through the levels, whilst still as linear as the other games, now loops around. You frequently spend some time enjoying some plot exposition in one area, then are sent off down a tunnel to do your violence-thing before being brought back to the open area for some more discussion. This may have present in previous HL games, but it seems far more pronounced this time around and has the effect of making the surroundings feel a more integral part of the game, rather than just somewhere to talk to people and shoot things.

Aside from the clever level design, the set pieces continue to be excellent. Way back in the mists of time, when he reviewed HL2E2, Yahtzee commented that the set pieces in the HL2 saga are repeating themselves. Whilst this is true, they are also very obviously evolving - both in content and in how they are woven into the narrative. In HL2E1 moments like the zombie shoot whilst waiting for the lift were exciting and frantic, but also contrived as it became clear that the developers wanted to put that set piece in at that time and so forced the world to accept it. In HL2E2, events of the game flow seamlessly into the set pieces so you end up in your vast shoot-out situations without realising it and the game is all the better for that. The pieces are cleverer too - usually there is a violent, ammo-expensive way through them but if you think about what is going on around you and pay attention to the terrain you can usually find something to interact with which makes your life much more easy.

The vastly improved storytelling in HL2E1 returns, with the characters continuing to gain emotional depth. One of the major plot hooks early on is Alyx getting injured, forcing you to go into the depths of an antlion hive to find the egg extract you need to make a cure for her and it was at that point I realised how much I have come to care about the characters in this story, as I found myself getting genuinely angry with circumstances and determined to blast my way through to the end and rescue the girl as quickly as possible. So out of the window went exploring, replaced with naked rage and a massive stack of shotgun ammo as I ran the hive leaving a trail of destruction in my wake. This emotional involvement with the game continues all the way through, right up to the emotionally charged ending and is the best part of the entire game - quite a feat when you consider how much else is excellent. I regularly found myself shouting at characters on screen, or talking to Alyx whilst we explored a ruined building which I choose to take as a good sign, rather than the more likely explanation that I am going mad.

With the emotional involvement in the characters, it seemed strange for Valve to introduce a new bloke, Dr Magnusson, who takes centre stage in Team Crazy Scientist. It is suggested that he and Freeman know each other from back in Black Mesa, but that is never really confirmed. It's a little jarring to have a new face in the familiar crowd, but he's added reasonably well and is characterised quickly - although his character is irritating and shouty. Like all the HL2 NPCs, you can't shoot him which is a shame in this case. After getting an itchy trigger finger for much of the initial scenes with him, I went off and was partaking in an interesting and deep moment with Eli and Alyx when he barged in and demanded we went and did something useful. At that point I actually spun round and shot him in the face with my shotgun - another sign of being emotionally invested in the game I suppose. I do wonder why they made the chap a scientist though - he acts like the petty tyrants Hollywood habitually use for military officers, and I can't help feeling his role would have been more convincing if he was a General fighting against the Combine.

Oh, and for the first time the plot started to reveal a bit of what was going on behind the scenes and hinted that one day all the strange events might actually be explained. Which was encouraging.

So what else has changed? Well, certain annoyances from earlier in the series have been fixed - the driving section is short and not too horrible for instance - and some small variations to the FPS formula have been made. Traditionally in these games you start with the crappy little pistol and gradually find ammo for the bigger and better guns. In HL2E2 you pretty much start out with the shotgun and that is your main weapon for two thirds of the game. It's not a big thing, but it's nice to be using a weapon with some punch and finding plenty of ammo for it - aside from the "you have no ammo" forced sections where you have to be ultra-careful and use the gravity gun a lot.

The final thing to mention about the game is the sense of humour. I found HL2 mostly lacking in any humour, then HL2E1 added a lot in as the characters became interesting. HL2E2 pushes the humour again - a wonderfully dry sense of humour which sees the various NPCs quipping realistically and some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. The Vortigaunt who wanders round with you for a while is particularly hilarious, taking everything you do very seriously but obviously being unimpressed. "The Freeman leaves no path untrod. What did you expect to find down there?" he asks deadpan after you climb out of a pit you fell in. But there are also moments of minor slapstick, such as when Alyx climbs up into a loft to fix a machine, which you, unseen, plug in and she thinks she's done something unusual to make it work. This sense of humour can be seen in the Achievements too - something which has probably been in all the HL2 series, but is particularly funny this time round. Basically it's a scorecard for performing certain tasks in the game - and this card is public on your Steam profile. The harder tasks include saving all the buildings in the strider battle (undertake it if you hate yourself) but the more interesting and bizarre tasks include carrying a garden gnome from the beginning of the game to the end - you can see more about that one on Tom Francis's blog (he from PC Gamer UK).

Half Life 2 Episode 2 is excellent. A thoroughly enjoyable experience, and I can't wait for the next episode.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Posable Phil!

Last post I mentioned that Wired picked up one of my photos. Seeing how exploiting Phil Wilson's face could be fun, Liam McMurray (chief web designer at the University of Bath) sprang into action and created Posable Phil - the new must-have toy this March.

Need to launch something in image form? Why not have Phil do it!

Need to make light of a difficult scene? Why not have Phil do it!

Face immobile? Incapable of expressing surprise for yourself? Why not have Phil do it!

With just a few quick clicks you (yes, you!) can create a whole series of pictures expressing surprise! Like this!

And how much is this wonderful toy? £1000? £100000000? £100000000000000000000? No! Thanks to the wonders of the Creative Commons license, it will cost you absolutely nothing (terms and conditions apply, original license states non-commercial use only)!

You can download this amazing gift here.

The original photo, with attached license, can be found here.

Friday, 27 February 2009

My Name In Lights

A while ago I expressed surprise that someone used one of my flickr pictures in their blog post. Well, it seems to be catching - a rare google search for my stuff online has shown that my pictures are popping up all over the place. The most interesting one for me: I'm on Wired!

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised - this is, after all, what Flickr is for. The social and searchable aspects make my (and, indeed, anyone's) photographs available for anyone who is interested and the work done by the Creative Commons license people mean others can use my material. On top of the theory, there are the stories about people whose lives have been changed or saved by various social networking sites. The difference in this case is that, in its own small way, it has happened to me. And that is nice.

For anyone interested, my flickr stream is here.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

The First D&D Realtime Strategy Experience!

The wonderful gave me the opportunity to have a look at a game that mildly intrigued me when it was released a few years ago (back in 2005). That game was (and is) Dragonshard, which proudly boasts that it is the first D&D RTS. It is so proud of this fact that it is part of the box art, and also splashed across the screen as it loads up. Clearly it is going to be something special then.

As we first delve into the magic that is going to be The First D&D RTS(tm) the first thing we find is the menu screen. You remember back when DVDs were new and studios felt compelled to make their menus different and interesting? You remember the beauty of the interface to something like Crouching Tiger, where it played exciting clips of the film each time you clicked a button? You remember that that particular feature got old about 18 seconds after you first thought "wow"? Welcome back to that happy time.

The menus are a pain. They have cogs turning in the background in some bizarre homage to steampunk (which is absolutely nothing to do with Eberron, the world where this is all set) and instead of pleasing music or just silence we are treated to the sounds of heavy machinery. Very clever and different, but also deeply annoying - and this is the noise playing throughout the seemingly eternal installation sequence. Even ignoring these audio trials, clicking around is a pest resulting in much scrolling and things moving about and not much actual navigating around the options.

There is one exception, which is the voice over bloke. He is from the "IN A LAND, FAR AWAY..." school of voice acting and when you click on a race on the campaign screen he growls the name of that species in a deeply sinister voice. That alone is worth his fee as far as I'm concerned.

The Game?

Anyway. After clicking around for what seems to be a week and rattling through the lengthy and tedious tutorial missions you're thrown into the game proper and - there is no getting away from it - it is like playing a poor man's Warcraft 3. The point, click, drag interface is exactly the same, as are the rpg elements where you "interact" with npcs around the map. I use that term loosely as without exception they all say "go kill that" or "fetch me this thing after you've killed the guardian" so it's hardly a work of genius. Even the animation is in the same style - the distinctively comical way Warcraft characters run around by punching forwards with their firsts rather than powering onwards with their legs is copied flawlessly, which is particularly amusing when the main chaps are standing around having a deep plot moment and some npc goon struts up to say his piece.

There isn't really much else to say about the gameplay. Although I say it's like the three years older Warcraft 3, it actually hasn't evolved a great deal from Command & Conquer back in 1995. There are two resource types, which is mildly interesting (and annoying when you realise you can't swap one for the other and you find yourself unable to find any gold) and the troops all have special abilities but otherwise gameplay is the same: control the resources, control the choke points on the map, wear down the enemy, force your way into its base. Repeat.

Good Stuff

Actually, I'm being a bit unfair. There is a 14 mission campaign (seven for each of two of the three races - oddly, nothing for the third) and there are some interesting maps along the way with some attempts to do something a bit different. The inclusion of Kyber (the underworld - a cave system that runs under the maps you're playing on) is something I haven't seen before, adding a bit of pseudo-dungeoncrawling to the proceedings where you can earn experience points (XP) and gold to boost and build your army.

Army management has gone through an overhaul too. You get the usual Champions (hardbloke special characters) and rank and file troops, but also special units called Juggernauts of which you can build one and send it off to devastate the enemy. Sadly these Juggernauts are not worth the resources they cost to build so I typically ignored them, but still - the option is there.

As you kill enemies you generate XP which you use to upgrade your troop captains, allowing them access to more powerful abilities and also having them drag around soldiers (less powerful versions of themselves) to help and take the hits for them. This initially seemed like an odd decision - you're upgrading disposable rank and file troops rather than the champions who drive the story - and after playing through the game I'm still not sure how well it works. Mechanically, it's great. It means there is some strategy in deciding how to spend the XP and choosing your troops, deciding which extra abilities you want but it is all oddly soulless. Supposedly the magic items are for upgrading your champions, but it still feels weird that the main characters don't substantially change from the beginning of the game to the end.

Crumbling with Age

One thing that struck me repeatedly whilst playing Dragonshard was how dated it all looks. I accept the game is nearly four years old (as an aside, I am going to start writing about more modern games - honest) but that is two years younger than Freelancer and I still go back and play that regularly. Perhaps it is because it takes all the things I hate about RTS games and builds upon them like the tower built on the sandy beach. And the tower is made of sand.

The camera doesn't zoom out far enough, so battlefield control is limited to watching individual skirmishes. Except you can't control the skirmishes very well because switching between units is a pain and the control system isn't precise enough to move troops exactly where you want them (not that they stay there anyway) so skirmishes consist of pouring troops into an area and hoping for the best. This means the micro-strategy involved in any given skirmish is precisely nil, but also the close in camera coupled with the limited resource and population caps stops you coordinating macro-level strategy where you attack an enemy base from two different directions to draw off the defenders or capture high ground to control an area whilst your infiltrators scout out the terrain ahead. I think this is a particular complaint of mine, since pretty much every RTS game irritates me in much the same way but it seems to me that in a real battle the commander is either managing the troops locally in the skirmish or he's delegated that to his subordinates and is coordinating strategy. He's not trying to do both at the same time.

If you want to find some strategy in Dragonshard, you need to look at army composition. You need to find a good selection of troops to put with your hero in your strike force before you either hit your population cap or are buried in an unmanageable mess and just have to click and hope. This means getting a couple of healing units (tip - put your XP into these guys first), a couple of melee units to hold up the enemy and a handful of archers to shoot them to pieces whilst the soldiers are getting chopped up. Of course, once you've cracked that you can win the game without thought, but there are enough unit types to try other combinations. Each unit comes with its own unique special abilities - another one of my personal hates because they all need triggering manually. This means that rather than accepting you cannot affect the coming battle and sitting back to enjoy the visuals, you have to sit there tabbing between the various units trying to remember what all the various abilities do and firing them off properly so you spend your entire life watching your mana metres and looking for targets and ignoring the graphics.

Oh, and the AI cheats - attacking you with horrendously powerful forces before you've had a chance to build anything. Except for the times when it doesn't bother and you can wander all over the map without problems building a DoomArmy to blast through its base - and these differences can occur between different loads of the same levels. Weird.

It goes on, but you've probably had enough by now. Before moving on though, I have to mention the spectacularly poor writing which strings the game together in campaign mode. Each army has a series of cutscenes starring the champions (each side has the same architypes - the leader, the sage, the violent thugish one and the instantly forgettable one) and every scene consists of the leader and the sage taking things seriously, the thugs wanting to smash everything in sight and the useless one quipping in an entirely unfunny way. I have to wonder about D&D games and films - considering the heart of tabletop D&D is roleplaying and storytelling, you'd think these big money productions would have a storyline superior to the sort of thing your halfway decent DM writes in his sleep.

Also, do watch out for the bugs. Even four years on, and after a pile of patches, there are moments when quest items mysteriously vanish. Or it eats your save games. Thanks.

Summing up

Despite all this I did find Dragonshard quite entertaining (I have finished it, which at the time of writing makes it better than Storm of Zehir - do NOT buy that game). Whilst it is in no way ground breaking, it is inoffensive and not too irritating. You can cruise through it without having to engage too many braincells which makes it quite fun evening play and if you can find someone daft enough to want to play it with you, I'd imagine the multiplayer can be a laugh. Why you'd want to when there are so many other games out there is another matter - I picked it up for £3 because I was interested and was expecting something a bit different. It isn't different.

There hasn't been a second D&D RTS.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Running The Rooftops

Crikey - nearly two months since my last update. As is usually the case when there is a long gap between posts, I was wrestling with a game I am not enjoying very much. This time it was the fundamentally awful Neverwinter Nights 2 expansion pack Storm of Zehir - something I will no doubt write about when I have completed it. In the meantime I have been amusing myself murdering the residents of the Holy Lands in Assassin's Creed.

Where to start with this one? Well, you play a bloke in a lab set somewhere in the future but you're put in a machine which lets you relive your genetic memories of an assassin who lived back in the times of the third Crusade which is the main body of the game. Back in the past you are disgraced assassin Altair, working to regain his standing by killing targets of note in the area. What this translates to is hours of fun running over the rooftops of three different ancient cities, leaping like a fool from giant towers and getting into fights with irate guards who don't approve of your antics.

Initial impressions are good. Assassin's Creed looks beautiful - there is no other way to put it. From the detail on your bloke's clothing and weapons to the gorgeous panoramic views of the cities as you first approach it never fails to impress. It isn't just the individual pieces either - the way the character models fit together when they are interacting is very precise which gets rid of that strange weightless feeling you sometimes get with graphical games when someone seems to be sliding over a landscape rather than walking, or someone picks something up and you get the impression the object is following their hand around rather than actually being grasped by it. None of that in Assassin's Creed - everything feels satisfyingly weighty. When Altair plummets from a rooftop and hits the ground, you feel the impact. When he is stabbed by a guard (and he will be - a lot) you feel the impact. It is great for the atmosphere and really draws you in from the first.

After a short while of enjoying the visuals and playing through the initial tutorial phases of the game you'll be thrown into the plot proper and told to go kill someone in nearby Damascus. There is a quick hike through some more lovely terrain and your first breathtaking view of a city before you find yourself standing in a full ancient city wondering what to do next. Fortunately your assassin is an accomplished free runner so it's time to indulge in the next distraction from the main game. Point your chap at a wall, press the appropriate buttons and - look! - up he goes! You can spend hours running through the streets and over the rooftops before you even remember there is a game involved and you should really get on with your mission.

As an aside, if you don't know what free running is go and look for some videos on YouTube. It is quite possibly the coolest thing you'll ever see. Go now. We'll wait.

Anyway, in your time running around like a loon you've probably stumbled across one of the submissions. There are six for each assassination, each revealing a bit more information about your target and allowing you to plan your approach but if you fancy winging it you only have to do two to be allowed to get on with the stabbing. Then you are off on the heels of your chosen ne'er-do-well, wandering up to him and filling his face with your blade. Then you get to do it again - eight more times.

So - does any of this actually hold together? Well, yes. The movement controls are excellent, allowing you to stride purposefully through a crowded street one moment before hitting the free run button and climbing straight up a wall and jumping from rooftop to rooftop. They are possibly a little simple - almost everything can be accomplished by pointing in the direction you want to go and holding down the free run button - but it all looks so stunning that you can get lost in the cinematics and just marvel that you are making your man do all these cool things. Then there is the combat, which is a bit harder to get to grips with. It is also a very simple one-button affair, but relies on precise timing to pull off some of the flashy moves. Whilst that is fine as a concept, either I couldn't do it right or something about the sequence recognition wasn't quite right as I couldn't consistently pull off some of the block / counter combinations and when surrounded by a horde of enemies (something that happens a lot later on) my bloke didn't appear to react in quite the same way as when facing fewer opponents. So the combat isn't great, but with a bit of practice you can become quite a proficient swordsman and again it is helped enormously by the sound and visuals. Both have significant and satisfying weight behind them, meaning you really feel it every time you ram your sword through a hapless guard.

Obviously there are problems with Assassin's Creed. The assassinations - something you'd expect to be a main part of the game - are actually a very small part of the playing time and planning your route to the target, whilst fun, is hampered by both the interface and the cinematics. You are constantly told that clearing the rooftops of guards is a good idea before you go in and eliminate your target. Sadly, to get into the assassination sequence you have to go and stand on a predetermined point and allow the cutscene to play. You can move in these cutscenes but not actually act so I ruined my first kill by moving into position and being unable to stab the target whilst he spewed his piece. Sadly when the cutscene ended he turned round and bumped into me, recognising me instantly and setting every guard in the city on me. The game expects you to stand back and watch the cutscene from its chosen position (one in which on some occasions you really don't want to stand) and then think about your plan and how to execute it. It takes a little getting used to and can be really quite irritating.

That's the cinematics - but the interface is worse. You have a map (accessed by TAB) which is great for getting around, but doesn't zoom in enough to show your target area. It also doesn't remember your zoom level so if you check your map frequently get ready for a lot of scrolling. There is also another screen, accessed through the escape key, which shows the results of your investigations - including any maps you've picked up and the routes suggested by it. But no overlay between the pieces of information or any way to collate them into one place so if you've found a couple of maps you're going to have to flick between them (slowly) to absorb it all. It's a real pain, and hidden in a bizarrely obscure place - I had performed 4 assassinations before I even found these screens, which is nearly half the game.

There are other niggles. One of the last pair of assassinations takes place in Acres's port and for some reason your super-fit free running champion assassin cannot swim so every step is dicing with instant death - and many of the denizens of the docks are drunken sailors who love to try and shove you in. Killing them is frowned upon so you have to be careful. There are also moments when the climbing breaks down a little - for some unexplained reason you have to manoeuvre yourself to precisely the correct position before it will let you proceed which is remarkable mostly because it is so unusual.

These faults do not spoil the game though. I have seen Assassin's Creed get a rough ride in a number of reviews and I'm really not sure why. It is like being in a highly interactive film - the two-levelled plot I mentioned at the beginning may seem pointless but it does evolve in an interesting way, and the story is worth following - and the fact is that you can spend hours just running around enjoying the scenery before even worrying about anything else. Overall though, I think it's the pacing I love the most about Assassin's Creed. When you want it to be slow, it is. You can stride around the city like you own it or entirely disappear into the crowd. But if you want to up the pace you can step on the throttle and zoom to the rooftops and if you want it even more interesting just stab a guard and wait for his mates to descend on you like a pack of wolves.

I loved playing Assassin's Creed. If it wasn't for Mass Effect and Portal I think it would be my favourite game of the last twelve months. Even so, that puts it in the top three and that's hardly a shameful place to be.