Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Assassin Screed

Lately I've been playing a lot of video games, (which, along with the wedding thing, accounts for the two month drought of blog posts), and today I'm going to rant about the Assassin's Creed series.

File:Assassin's Creed cover.png
A simpler time, when you had to cut off a finger to use a hidden blade,
and assassinating people was the object of the game.

At the risk of sounding like a hipster douche, I liked Assassin's Creed from the series' first installment, when the fashionable thing to do was generally hate on it and bemoan how repetitive it was. The combat was fairly simplistic. You did do variations on the same 5 or so mission types for the entire game. But the past-life conceit of the sci-fi narrative was engaging enough for me to keep playing. That and the movement.

The first game boasted absolutely intoxicating freedom of movement that fostered beautifully organic chases. And the game world was also liberally sprinkled with some truly vertical level design that required thoughtful climbing to scale the highest towers. I know that Mirror's Edge has become a cult favorite where free-running is concerned, but I absolutely despise that game. For all it's promises of freedom of movement, the levels were more or less linear, and they routinely required players to execute a specific parkour move (using needlessly finicky, fighting-game-like controls) to progress. Furthermore, when the game decided it was time for you to fight, it was time to pick up a gun, or suffer a thousand deaths resisting predetermined combat. And trying to fight when the game wanted you to run was usually out of the question entirely. Even though it wasn't as heinously scripted as Call of Duty, the game forced the player to play it on the designer's terms. By contrast, Assassin's Creed allowed players to tackle it's sandbox world any way they liked. After you pulled off a successful assassination, you could run for holy hell and hide until your wanted level dropped down, or slaughter every damn guard in the city. At least, that's what I got out of it when I played it. Freedom.

File:Assassins Creed 2 Box Art.JPG
The creative and mechanical high point of the series, in my opinion.

Most people agree that the AC series really hit it's stride with the second installment, where mission variety blossomed and it introduced the series' most charismatic leading man: Ezio Auditore. The story was more engaging, the Italian Renaissance was a bold new video game destination. I never got bored with the core campaign, which ranged between hang gliding on Leonardo's flying machine, to frantic chariot races in the foothills of Italia, to good old fashioned stabbing people to death.  The tricky assassin's crypt challenges puzzles, and the civic-management minigame that allowed you to spruce up your villa had just enough depth to be completely engrossing, without getting lost in minutae. I italicized that last bit because it will be important later.

Anyhow, Ubisoft struck gold and they knew it. Sarcastic, womanizing Ezio was so bad ass, that they decided to milk three games out of him: AC2, AC: Brotherhood and AC: Revelations. Fond as I was of assassinating people, and the fresh setting, I passed on the two unnumbered psuedo-sequels because:

A) I had only so much time to devote to video games
B) I had only so much money to devote to video games
C) I was already routinely ignoring caveats A and B

I vowed that I would pick up Assassin's Creed the next time a number rolled around. When they announced that the next installment of the series would be set in Revolutionary America, I squealed with glee. It was another criminally under-represented period in video gaming, what with fledgling firearms and the tantalizing mix of wilderness and budding colonial cities. And a mixed British and Native American protagonist sounded  like it had the potential to tell an intensely interesting story.

File:Assassin's Creed III Game Cover.jpg
A rare shot of the master assassin, Connor Kenway, actually killing
 somebody when he isn't busy micromanaging his lucrative trade routes.

Well, the game is out, expectation has met reality and disappointment has ensued. Before I continue, I will concede that I can't stop playing the damn thing every night. But it frustrates and disappoints as much as it delights and entertains.

For starters, the prologue, where you control the protagonist's father, is too long and the twist at the end comes at you a long way off. This would have been very forgivable if the entree, Ratonhnhak√©:ton, also known as Connor Kenway, wasn't so bland. He broods and whines. He objects to obviously loathsome things like slavery, but conveniently cooperates with his revolutionary compatriots anyway. He's a fucking bore. Honestly, I would have found a satirical caricature of the stoic Native American chieftain preferable because a stereotype at least has a personality.

The beautiful climbing has been stultified by the inescapably bland architecture of the period. The organic mission design that encouraged you to solve problems however you saw fit has been crippled by a second-order achievement system that gives you extra points for meeting the game's meddling criteria. The intriguing tour of history, subtly adjusted to portray an invisible war between two warring secret societies, has been replaced by an idiotic parade of historical moments and under-characterized people of supposed interest. Worse yet, the game routinely half-asses it's own rich research. For example, the Boston Tea Party entries in the game's codex (there are inexplicably two of them), clearly states that the rioters dressed themselves to look like Native Americans. But during the actual damn mission, no one, including the game's Mohawk protagonist, is dressed in Native American Garb.

Finally, the core game has become so polluted with sprawling not-so-mini-games, like naval combat and the manufacture and shipment of trade goods, that it scarcely seems like an Assassin's Creed title anymore. Yes, it is impressive that you shoe-horned all these disparate style of gameplay into a single package, but it also betrays a lack of confidence in the core theme of murdering historical figures. That's compelling enough! I really don't need a furniture crafting simulator to go with it.

So what keeps me playing, this pompous, overblown game night after night, mission after mission?

I really want to get the belt that can hold two pistols at once.

I'm dead serious. The greater prevalence of firearms are one of the few changes to the game I like, and the idea of being able to crack off two shots, (or four if you're using double barreled pistols!) before reloading sounds incredibly appealing. Unlike most modern shooters, a single bullet in Assassin's Creed is typically quite lethal, and  the constraints of having to reload after each shot (or two) makes guns fairly balanced and interesting again.

Unfortunately, this new gear isn't an automatic unlock. You have to play a sufficient portion of the main campaign, and then play several other mini-game missions to unlock the right craftsman and resources to build the damn belt.

Throughout my ludic and academic career, I've learned that people play games for a number of reasons and many of them are quite strange. For me, the big draws are abilities. Not raw power. Not numbers or stats that must be increased ad infinitum, but new capabilities within the game world. New skills, or super powers or spells or equipment that let you do things you couldn't do before. These things give players new types of freedom. New paradigms to explore virtual existence.

The Assassin's Creed series started off by giving you the freedom to run or fight, and it got better when it introduced even more freedom through greater mission variety. And now that the series has reached the historical installment which trumpets "Freedom" as the chief historical virtue, it falters and starts telling you what to do, or that you should be doing something other than running around assassinating people altogether.  

2 comments:

Mike Donohue said...

Agree with you on a lot of these points, although I genuinely liked that first twist. I would have preferred playing as Haytham the entire game, simply to hear and see a character with color.

One of the games biggest sins was its crafting system, on the same order as the Mass Effect I inventory screen debacle. Designers who allow poorly designed menu systems into the game should be kicked out of the profession. This is something that should be a solved problem. Hell, the crafting menu in the AC Facebook game was better than this convoluted POS.

But on balance I found the game fun and the combat is moving in the right direction. I love having to remember the appropriate way to take out different guards, and the firing line events break up the combat quite well.

Sarcasmancer said...

Mike,

I didn't get to mention that I actually do really enjoy the combat despite the ridiculous turn-taking that typifies each fight. It's very fluid and you can really tear through crowds in this game with chain kills. Probably also helps explain why I give a damn about the gun belt.