Saturday, 9 October 2010

Venetian Base Jumping

A long while ago I played through Assassins Creed and thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, I have been heard to say that it ranks in my favourite three games of all time. High praise indeed, so you will understand the sense of excitement I felt when Ubisoft announced their sequel. After swallowing the horribly aggressive DRM* I had it installed and ready to go.

Round 1 - fight!

The game kicks off with you, as Ezio, starting a fight in the street. Actually, that's not strictly true - the game starts off with you are Desmond in the meta-plot that carries on from Creed 1. Since that exists mostly as a vehicle to get you your past self, I'll ignore it for the moment. Back in the past, Ezio goes through some street violence then runs around town with his brother as you learn the controls. So far, so dull but I guess you need a tutorial section. After some faffing around you get to meet Leonardo De Vinci and ... carry his washing? Something like that - mother isn't forthcoming. Suddenly the developers remember you're supposed to be playing a game and your idyllic life collapses around your ears and you swear vengeance on the conspirators. Some more violence ensues and you stab the lead badguy - and accidentally discover a much bigger problem that will require your new-found stabby skills.

Round 2 - fight! Again!

Next up you're chasing off on some more errands (which usually result in you fighting more folk) before an extended fight sequence. Then some more fighting. It was about this time I started to wonder where the actual assassinations were going to come into this game. Several hours later I was still wondering.


One of my favourite things about the original Creed was the way the narrative was structured. There were several lengthy sections, each focusing on Altair eliminating a well-characterised individual. You were continually reminded that collateral damage was the mark of an amateur and forced to go and forage for clues to avoid bloodily hacking your way to the target then beating him to death with a blunt object. This structure was criticised for being too samey and getting in the way of the murder but did do a great job of changing the pace so that the game didn't deteriorate into one long fight scene and the information gained was used to plan a way to eliminate the target cleanly.

Creed 2 takes a different approach. Rather than forcing you actually plan the assassinations there is usually an the NPCs on hand to put some helpful way-points on your map. You no longer need a particularly stealthy approach either - a typical "infiltration" will have you stumble in the direction of the target, trigger a patrol of guards, butcher them then rock to the next group. In the original game you could use this heavy-handed approach to killing but you better be a really good swordsman because the guards would rip you to pieces whilst the target fled. In Creed 2 the only time the subtle approach is of any real use is when (for no obvious reason) the game decides you fail your mission if someone spots you.

Oops, I'm sorry

The biggest disappointment with Creed 2 is how easy it is. Creed 1 was pretty hard in places - more importantly, it punished you for stepping outside of your role. When you violated a law the guards would chase you down and beat you into a bloody pulp and trying to escape inevitably attracted the attention of more guards until you were overwhelmed. This meant that you had to weigh the consequences of doing something wrong - even running over the rooftops was risky in some places because the guards would immediately start chasing you. In Creed 2 it is trivially easy to escape pursuit. You do not have to find hiding places most of the time - simply running around a corner is enough to shake the guards because, apparently, they have better things to do than chase down heavily armed psychopaths. In a nod to realism, not all guards can keep up with you over the rooftops which should be a good thing, but it does mean that in the first half of the game you can escape by legging it to the rooftops. All of this means that the guards are no longer frightening - which in turn means there is no reason for you to try and stay below the radar.


A combination of the change in narrative structure and the difficulty problem results in the pacing basically being ruined. You can complete most of the game on full throttle and hacking your way through every scenario does get very tedious after a while. It changes the focus from stealthy assassinations to extended dramatic fight scenes which, of course, draws attention to the weakest part of the game - the melee fighting. This actually seems worse than the first game - previously you had to time your counter attacks and think of a suitable move to chop down some of the harder enemies. While it was by no means a great experience you did feel you were out-fencing your opponents. The different enemies in Creed 2 all fight differently, which is a good thing, but many of them are basically immune to your attacks until you use a particular attack pattern - at which point you win. You remember collecting floppy disks for points in old games? You remember that it acted as a big flag saying "THIS IS A COMPUTER GAME"? It feels just like that.

I'm being a little unfair. The set-piece melee combat is reasonably exciting and surprisingly controllable. You have plenty of moves and weapons available, even if most of the latter are completely worthless - especially since you can use your Concealed Blade as a (very) effective melee weapon now. There is just so much of it and, as is becoming a reoccurring theme, it is so unbelievably easy (especially with the pile of health potions you can carry) that it ends up being nothing more than a series of speed bumps to slow your progress. I stated before that there is no reason to fear the guards. In actual fact you end up avoiding them not out of a fear of being killed or a desire to not kill more than you need to but because you can't be bothered to kill yet another group of them.

Erm. Who?

While we are going through the problems it is probably time to mention the targets. In Creed 1 they were all distinctive and interesting individuals. In Creed 2 there was a point where the cutscene revealed the next target and left me thinking "I've already killed him once". Turns out there was two guys wearing pretty much the same thing - both of whom were so forgettable that they blurred into one in previous scenes. One of them was referred to as "Maestro" early in the game - to be honest I'm still not sure which.

I realise that the first game was set in a time when everyone was wearing plate armour - presumably that made it easier to give the targets a distinctive look - but there really is no excuse for the totally forgettable set of enemies.

That Desmond guy

A quick word about the meta-plot. In the first game it was used to string together the sections of the game. In the second game you rock straight into the next section without stepping back to reality, which is hugely confusing since you jump up to five years between sections. The meta-plot used to be an interesting aside from the main game, but this time around it seems far more important and yet gets far less screen time. It is a very strange experience but the biggest concern is that the narrative just feels so much more ... smug. Unlike last time it seems to be trying to make a point, although I have no idea what that point might be.

Also, if the inevitable Creed 3 is anything like Creed 2, you would do well to take notes on the occasions you jump out of the animus to be fed a bit more plot because no recap is will be forthcoming.

Oh, and the end is hugely unsatisfying

Yes, it is.

So, no good then?

Well, that's not true. Although I have focused on the negatives of Creed 2, they are all in comparison with Creed 1 - a game which I loved. I did have a lot of fun playing Creed 2 and in many ways it is a much better game than its predecessor. You get a lot more weapons, the missions are a lot more varied and there are many side-quests and mini-collections to keep you going for ages. Upgrading your home is fun, if a bit Fable-esque-pointless and you get to play with vehicles other than a horse. The graphics are still excellent and the animation and sound still lend a good sense of weight to the proceedings, ensuring you wince every time Ezio falls from the top of a building to smash onto the cobbles below. The game is still something I would recommend playing - it is still one of the better games I have played this year - but it does seem to have lost its way. Certainly, I will be playing Creed 1 instead of Creed 2 if I need another fix of assassination and maiming. Worryingly, my biggest gripes with the game are to do with the evolution of the series and the resultant changes in the format. I hope they think long and hard about the directions they are taking before Creed 3 gets too far into development because if it continues in the current direction I may totally lose interest in the series.

And feather hunting is just as annoying as flag hunting in the first game.

*As an aside, I detest DRM as much as the next man however man other people have written well thought out pieces about the problems with the various types so rather than me writing much the same thing all over again if you’re interested, go read those posts. I suggest starting with Shamus Young.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Rushing to catch up

The thick sea mists roll by, propelled by the gentle breeze. Everywhere is calm - the only sound is the gentle lapping of the waves against the hull, the rustling of the empty sails and the creaking of the ship's timbers. The captain steps out on deck and looks up into the murk. "Do you see anything?" he calls. Far above the deck, atop the mast, sits the lookout. He stares into the mists until his eyes burn, looking for something - anything - that might suggest where they are, what is going on. Anything that might suggest there is life out there. Finally, he replies. "I'm sorry sir. It's all quiet on the blog front."

I've got out of the habit of posting about games and writing on here in general. Other projects have taken my time and this blog has been quiet. Time to do something about that by running through the games that have kept me at various levels of interest recently - omitting Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2 both of which deserve a longer post.

Fallout 3

I am a big fan of roleplaying games so when I found out I could spend time wandering around post-apocalyptic, alternative-history America in a game described as the best thing EVAA in far too many places, I jumped at the chance. To begin with I enjoyed myself, wandering around and drinking in the atmosphere generated by the lovely setting. I met a few monsters, shot them with a gun, and found my way to a town where I got to decide whether to nuke all the local inhabitants or rescue them with my previously-unknown bomb diffusal skills. I wasn't confident of success, but the sheriff seemed quite keen for me to give it a try (despite the horrific consequences of failure) so I told him I'd give it a go. Looking back, this is where my Fallout 3 experiences started going wrong. I should have stopped and left the gameworld with my expectations untarnished. Instead, I made the mistake of ambling around the town talking to the NPCs.

I should explain that I don't like playing arseholes in games. Whilst my characters take no crap from the NPCs, I do not enjoy playing through games like Mass Effect or Knights of the Old Republic on "evil" mode being a dick to everyone I meet. Because of this the decision to save the town rather than detonate the nuke should have been a no-brainer but after half an hour of talking to the slack-jawed locals I needed no encouragement to wipe the snivelling lot of them from the face of the planet. Instead, I set myself a different challenge - if I could find ONE person worth saving I would spare them all fiery immolation. That town was saved by one person - and only one - who I didn't want to kill.

This sums up much of my experience with Fallout 3. I walked from one side of the (huge) map to the other, poking my nose into all manner of horrible holes and really trying to find something - anything - to care about. The scenary was lovely, but there are only so many empty shopping malls (or subway stations) I can stomach before losing the will to live. If you want me to engage with the world I need NPCs to care about. They need to say interesting and engaging things - preferably in a voice that doesn't feel like someone running nails over a blackboard (Moira, I'm looking at you) - and they need to give me sufficient dialogue options to be convincing. They don't need to, for example, thank me for saving their brother from a lifetime of drug addiction and say they will do anything to help me, then in the same breath call me a tool for because I asked stopped them and asked for directions to the shop (especially when THEY STOPPED ME in the street).

The thin dialogue is a result of the open world approach. It's great that I can go anywhere and shoot anyone, but it means that the game has to keep track of hundreds of different statuses all over the map and each NPC has to have sufficient dialogue to respond convincingly. To do anything else strips the experience of any immersion - in the case of Fallout 3 it leaves a lovely gameworld, but hollow with oh so little to care about inside of it. It doesn't help that the map is so big. In the end, I found myself wandering around the map with a laptop open on the desk beside me so I could look up places of interest and go sightseeing - something I'm sure the game designers didn't want me to be doing. Then my computer crashed before I could finish the campaign, I lost my save game and I couldn't face restoring it and trying again.


Steam is a wonderful thing. You can be sitting around, wondering what you're going to do to escape the mind-numbing tedium of treking through the Fallout landscape and all of a sudden you get a pop up telling you Braid is £3. So long Fallout, hello weird platform game!

Braid is a platform puzzle game which asks you to find a pile of jigsaw pieces and make pictures on the wall of your house as you attempt to find your lost princess or ... something. The game is incrediably arty - and I don't mean it has an interesting art style (although it does), I mean it wears a scarf even when it is warm and thinks that not explaining something is a great way of getting over a message. The story unfolds through a series of books that contain half thoughts and make little sense until you read them all together and analyse them and then maybe - maybe - you'll reach the same page as the author. Whatever, the story is largely irrelevant and only becomes intriguing during the excellent end sequence when everything changes.

The game itself is tremendous fun. The basic platforming is spiced up by a series of different time maipulation mechanics giving you the ability to rewind your mistakes, change the state of the level and a whole load of other things too complicated to describe. The puzzles are mostly well thought out and pleasingly mind-bending. Not that it is without problems - various levels have keys break if you put them in the wrong lock which renders you unable to finish the scene (thanks for that) and there is a super-secret star collection game that relies on you doing things at the correct time throughout the whole game and can easily be irrevocably messed up requiring you to start the whole game again. There are a couple of places where you have to perform pixel perfect jumps to get the jigsaw piece, rather than the challenge being working out the solution in the first place and after a while the music starts to do strange things to your brain. Despite this, Braid is well worth playing if for no reason than it is unusual. The presentation is beautiful and like all good puzzle games there is a real sense of accomplishment when you get that little bit further.

Plants vs Zombies

Another Steam impulse-buy - this time to give me a break from Dragon Age - this time for the bargain price of £1. Plants vs Zombies is like electronic crack - unbelievably addictive and impossible to put down.

PvZ is a simple strategy game. You plant plants in your garden which act as resource generators, defenders or attackers and use them to hold off wave after wave of zombies assaulting your house. As time flows past unnoticed, the zombie numbers and types increase and everything becomes far more frantic as your lines buckle and threaten to collapse under the onslaught before finally the blessed end of level sign appears and you get a new type of flower to make your life easier. Then you do it again, and again, and again. Then the birds start singing outside and you realise the world beyond your PC is getting up again and you're about to pass out.

Fortunately, there is an end to PvZ and that releases you from the madness. I urge you to play it - it's a charming, characterful defend-the-base style game that will keep you utterly addicted for hours and hours.