further thoughts on Assassin’s Creed

I get why people hate on Assassin’s Creed Unity, I do.  I listened to the last two Bombin’ the A.M. with Scoops and the Wolf episodes yesterday and both Messrs. Klepek and Navarro sounded fully exasperated with it, and given that I hold those two gentlemen’s opinions in rather high esteem, it even made me re-evaluate my own experience with it.

I mean, I spent a good 4 hours with Unity last night without even meaning to; I immediately found myself in a good rhythm and cranked through Sequence 7 while also fully upgrading the Cafe Theatre, solving a few murder mysteries (which are a neat idea, if a bit half-baked) and Nostradamus Enigmas (which I can only do with the help of a walkthrough, because I don’t give a shit), upgrading some armor and weaponry, finally figuring out how the different currencies are earned, etc.  The hours flew by, and I only turned it off because I looked at the clock and realized holy shit, I have to wake up in a few hours.

Even though I’m having a good time with it, I can (and will) acknowledge that Unity is deeply, deeply flawed.  Again – technical glitches aside (though that’s not to say they’re excused), it’s ultimately the same exact game we’ve all been playing for the last 7 years, with a ridiculous narrative thread that’s been at the breaking point for at least the last 4.

More to the point:  Ubisoft seems awfully insecure about its ability to keep you entertained.   It’s not just that the map is bursting with stuff to do, it’s that it continually interrupts what you’re doing with other stuff that has nothing to do with what you’re doing.  If you have one (1) unused skill point, you will be reminded every 5 minutes to spend it (even if there are no skills that can be earned with 1 point); if you are tailing someone, random crowd events (thieves, bullies, etc.) will still occur right next to you which are damn near impossible to avoid.  It steadfastly refuses to let you enjoy it on your own terms, which flies against the whole point of an “open world”.  (Indeed, you can apply this paragraph to Watch Dogs and Far Cry and the same issues will still apply.)

This all stems back from the insane amount of overcompensating Ubisoft felt obligated to perform in the wake of the original Assassin’s Creed, which had only 3 or 4 different things to do.  It’s true that those 3-4 tasks grew repetitive, but they also made contextual sense; you eavesdropped, you tailed, you observed, and thus you were properly set up for your ultimate task.  The world was technically a sandbox, but that’s not what the actual game was designed for; they could just as easily have constructed individual levels for each assassination and it would’ve worked just as well.  But because the game became a massive hit, and the larger audience was misled by what the sandbox structure was meant to convey, they built AC2 (and every ensuing title) with the express purpose of making sure that every goddamned square inch of virtual real estate had something for you to do.

And there are moments when this works.  Of all the AC games, Brotherhood remains my personal favorite because the side missions were legitimately interesting (especially those secret platforming puzzles and those weird digital glyph puzzles), the economy was legitimately fun to engage with, the villa’s upgrades were worthwhile (and it was fun to watch it get built up), the idea of building up your own gang of followers was interesting and really well executed, and so on and so forth.

But it’s also my favorite because it surpassed all my expectations for it.  I had absolutely no faith that a sequel to AC2 – especially one that was arriving one year later – would be worth playing, and it ended up improving all the things that were great about AC2.  Consequently, Ubi established an impossible precedent, that these massive and densely-packed adventures could somehow get better with every passing year, and that’s probably why Revelations fell apart for me; the tower defense stuff felt shoehorned in, an obligatory back-of-the-box bullet point, like they were merely capitalizing on the tower defense fad that was swarming everybody’s smartphones at the time, rather than making sure it was (a) contextually relevant and (b) fun to play.

And the less said about AC3, the better.

Last year’s Black Flag felt like a genuine breath of fresh air; it was most certainly not the same game we’d been playing, even as it immediately felt familiar.  Sure, some of the individual missions were tedious and tiresome, but the overall feel of the game was so radically different from what we’d seen before.  Finally, Ubisoft gave us an open world and let us do whatever the hell we wanted; we were free to explore on our own terms, at our own pace, and with our own goals to pursue.

This is why Unity feels like a step backward.  Sure, it looks good (when you’re not moving), but there’s nothing in the game that feels new.  Whatever lessons that Ubisoft may have learned from Black Flag were most certainly not implemented here (which seems especially ridiculous, given that after nearly every goddamned thing you did in Flag, you were asked to rate it out of 5 stars).  I suspect we’ll see those lessons in next year’s game, but even that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the next game will be technically competent.  It’s hard to be a fan of this franchise without being increasingly cynical, which is why it’s often safer to have no expectations at all.

And yet, and yet, and yet.  I spent 4 hours last night with it without even meaning to.  I managed to ignore the game’s incessant insecurities and pursued my own tasks at my own pace, and was able to rediscover those old familiar rhythms that I love so much.  It’s just a shame that it’s buried under so much nonsense.

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Today is the biggest blockbuster day of the release calendar, and I still haven’t yet decided what game comes next.  I had a bit of insomnia last night so I tried out the first 10 minutes of the new-and-improved GTA V; not nearly enough to get a good sense of the game’s visual improvements, or even how the first-person stuff works.  I will mess around with it a bit more, but it’s not necessarily at the top of my to-do list; I’m thinking of it more as a palate cleanser.

I kinda want to play a little bit of Far Cry 4, because I liked FC3 on the PC and I’m curious to see it on the PS4.  I am intimidated by Dragon Age Inquisition, even though I suppose that’s the one I want to spend the most time with.  That’s really what it boils down to, I think; I can bounce between Far Cry and Unity (and also Forza Horizon 2 and Sunset Overdrive) with relative ease, but once I start Dragon Age, that’s pretty much it as far as my attention span is concerned.

Yeah, I’ll probably be flipping a coin.

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