holiday weekend recap: the game of life (and also AC4)

There was not a lot of gaming this holiday weekend; it was my first Thanksgiving with the baby, though, which made it very special.

When you’re preparing to have a kid, the #1 thing everybody warns you about is that you’re never going to get any more sleep for the rest of your life.  This has turned out to be not entirely true in my case; our kid has slept through the night in his own crib pretty much every night since the day we took him home from the hospital.  It is true that we haven’t slept in in 8 months (with the notable exception of this past Saturday, when the wife and I headed up to her 20 Year High School Reunion without the baby, and we slept in the following morning until 9:00, and oh my gawd it was glorious), and it’s also true that I don’t sleep particularly well these days anyway, but that’s not the baby’s fault.

The thing they don’t tell you about having a baby, though, is how much you’re going to be sick.  Colds left and right, up and down, mucus and phlegm everywhere.  The three of us have been trading the same cold since the little guy’s first day of day care, which was 5 months ago.

So:  yes, I was home sick yesterday – as was the wife – but the kid was healthy and happy, and so we had to send him off to day care so that we could rest and not sneeze on him.  It was the first time the two of us had been alone in the house without the boy since before he was born, which was profoundly weird.  (Not nearly as weird as when I picked the boy up at the end of the day, though, because that marked the first time I’ve ever said the words “Hi, I’m Henry’s dad” to someone.)

Here is the point that I am slow in arriving towards:  being home sick all day without a baby to take care of means that I binged hard on Assassin’s Creed 4, which is now making a serious run at the top of my Best of 2013 list.

Before I get to AC4, though, let me cover everything else very quickly:  (1) I’m inching along in the 3DS Zelda game, and it’s good.  (2) I have not bought anything during this new Steam Sale, and I’m very proud of myself for doing so.  (I suppose I was holding out for a big, big discount on the new Batman game – something bigger than 25%.  Apparently Amazon had the digital download available for 50% on Black Friday, but I was away from a computer and couldn’t seal the deal.)

OK, back to AC4.  I’m around 45% complete, somewhere in Sequence 8 – the game says I need to upgrade my ship before starting the next mission, which is a roundabout way of suggesting that I go explore the rest of the world, engage in some of those naval battles I’d been avoiding, unlock more waypoints and do more side missions.  Which I’m very happy to do, as a matter of fact.

Let me get my demerits out of the way first:

(1)  I know I’ve mentioned that I’ve got an older graphics card and that I’ve had to turn the settings down low in order to get a decent frame rate, but even then there are still certain moments (specifically, scenes at night and the scenes at Abstergo) where even turning the resolution down to its lowest setting can’t quite stop the game from sputtering to a standstill.  There was one particular mission (at night) where I had to tail a gunboat on foot, and the game kept hitching up about every other second; the missions was virtually unplayable.  And as cheesy as the modern-day stuff can be, I still like it, but my PC can barely run it without dying – and there doesn’t seem to be any particularly good reason why.  I ran the new Burial at Sea DLC for Bioshock Infinite on high settings and the game ran smooth as silk and looked absolutely jaw-dropping; AC4′s Abstergo sequences are just you in a modern office building, and so there’s no obvious culprit as to what’s causing the problem.  I’m too far into the game at this point to consider stopping and replaying it on a PS4, but I might just have to suck it up and get a better graphics card.

(2) The hand-to-hand combat is chaotic and it can be hard to tell where Kenway is on screen.  When it’s one-on-one, it’s OK, but when he’s surrounded by 6 or 7 enemies it’s a mess.  (Of course, if he’s surrounded by 6 or 7 enemies then it’s safe to say I’ve done something wrong, but still – they give you the option of fighting your way out, but it’s hard to see what’s happening.)  The larger issue, and this is hardly AC’s fault, is that the melee system is not quite as great as the Batman: Arkham system, even as AC is clearly now modelling itself after it (which is ironic, given that AC was around first).  The emphasis remains heavy on countering attacks, but the controls aren’t as responsive as they need to be – if I had to guess, I think that’s because there’s such a high priority on Kenway finishing his current animation, and all of his fighting animations tend to be long and fluid.

That’s it, as far as obvious flaws go, and both of those could be improved without the game needing to do anything – in the first case, I just need to upgrade my playing system and that graphical problem should go away (though it would be nice if they’d patch in some better optimization fixes), and in the second case, I need to stop being impatient and get myself into trouble.  It is always easier to sneak around and pick off dudes one by one – and those animations are very quick and precise, now that I think about it.

Well, there is one more thing I could nitpick:  some of those sea shanties are horrendously ear-wormy (specifically the one with the “and we say so, and we know so” refrain) and I can’t tell whether the solution is to find all the pages so that they don’t keep singing the same ones, or if I simply turn it off altogether.  A pirate ship without sea shanties is a weird, silent place, but maybe it’s better than wanting to punch that one singer in the throat.

The rest of the game is pretty goddamned magnificent, though.  Like: I love how deep the side missions go.  As an example, the “Kill the Templar” side missions (of which I’ve done 3) aren’t simply about tailing a dude and killing him (like in previous AC games); they’re often 4 or 5 scenes deep, with the story twisting and turning after each one, and the activities are varied enough that you stay on your toes.

But even the non-story stuff, like breaking into a cargo warehouse, takes some careful strategy and planning.  I do love running from cover to cover, saying visible just long enough to get one soldier to follow me so that I can pick him off silently, then hitting a sniper with a berzerk dart and watching him pick off his comrades before falling to his own death.  Getting to the door without being detected or setting off alarms is awesome, and I just wish the warehouses would fill up a bit faster so that I could do it more often (although the warehouses are also quite bountiful, as far as ship-stuff is concerned).

I’ll talk about this more in my 360/PS3 post, but one of my favorite new things this past generation gave us is the idea of your own customizable home base.  Saints Row did this pretty well with your “crib”, Mass Effect gave you the Normandy (which isn’t necessarily fully customizable, though you can make certain cosmetic changes), and AC4 gives you an island, a private manor, and (last but not least) the Jackdaw.  The path to upgrading is pretty expensive, to be sure, but it also means that each upgrade that you do make feels all the more satisfying.

Those naval battles that I’d been putting off?  Those are fun, too, although they’re not really the thing I look forward to the most when I fire the game up.  That being said, it is nice that the game lets you keep what you’ve salvaged even if you get sunk before you get a chance to sell.  Some might feel put off by how forgiving and easy this is, but for me, it makes the battles a bit less stressful (though still quite enjoyable); I don’t feel horribly punished if I get overrun.  And since ships are by far the best source of metal, I suppose I’m going to have to keep at it for a bit longer, and maybe I’ll start actually looking forward to it before long.

The story is serviceable, if a bit convoluted – but what would a AC game be if not convoluted?.  Kenway himself is not all that great a hero – he’s certainly not as charismatic as Ezio, although I must admit I got tired of Ezio by the time Revelations came around – but he gets the job done.  There is a “revelation” about Kenway’s compatriot James Kidd that could not have been more obvious even before Kidd’s first spoken words, but maybe for younger players they wouldn’t see it coming?  No matter.  The game has fun telling its story, which is more than I can say for the last two games, and it constantly feels like it’s moving forward instead of spinning its wheels.

The most impressive thing, though, is the true open world that the game has to offer.  Each island feels meticulously designed and detailed, no matter how small, and this makes for quite an incentive in terms of opening up the map and visiting every place you can find.  This is how AC was meant to be experienced – with a gigantic world filled with lots of different, enjoyable things to do.  It doesn’t necessarily feel “next-gen”, and yet it does feel absolutely massive, where there might be something interesting around every corner.

 

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