The First Few Hours: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

Syndicate has its shit together in all the ways that Unity did not.

It’s autumn in 2015 which means that, for the seventh year in a row, I’m attempting to play a new Assassin’s Creed game.  Part of the annual ritual is deciding, with my friend Greg, what that game’s nickname should be.  Numbered sequels kinda take care of themselves, but so far we’ve come up with:

  1. Ass1
  2. Ass2
  3. AssBro
  4. AssRev
  5. Ass3
  6. AssFlag (or, alternately, BlackAss)
  7. AssUnit

Which brings us to this year’s installment, Syndicate, of which I had no choice but to bestow the sobriquet AssCat.  (As a long-time fan of the UCB, I felt it was only appropriate.)

Anyway, so:  I’m currently around 2-3 hours into AssCat; I’ve finished the tutorial and the Whitechapel sections, and both Jacob and Evie are at level 4.  Don’t let the even-level number misguide you, though; when given the opportunity, I’m spending every minute possible playing as Evie, because Jacob is a douche.  But we’ll get to that in a bit.

Here are some bullet-pointed immediate first impressions to note before I get into some details:

  • First and foremost – AssCat has its shit together in all the ways that AssUnit did not.  Even if I’m only 3 hours in, the game feels much more solid and conceptually unified, and exudes a self-confidence not seen since AssFlag.
  • The music is terrific – all sorts of very cool dissonant string quartet stuff going on, which I’m not sure I’ve ever heard in a videogame before.
  • There’s been a lot of talk about the new line-launcher as being AssCat’s great new innovation (even if it’s shamelessly cribbed from the Batman Arkham games), but for my money the best new thing about this year’s edition is the “Free Run Down” option, which makes getting down from the rooftops 1000x less annoying.
  • The map isn’t upsetting in the way that Unity’s was; there’s side-stuff, sure, but you’re not beaten over the head with it.  (And to be fair, the map had been getting out of control for a while now.  Even AssBro, my personal high point in the franchise, had a map that caused serious OCD panic.)

It is strange to be playing this game after having both Metal Gear Solid V and the Uncharted remasters still fresh in my hands.

As reluctant as I am to heap praise upon anything made by Kojima, I’ll give credit where credit is due – the stealth mechanics in MGS V are, without question, the best I’ve ever seen; and they’re the best because the controls are unambiguous and very responsive, and most importantly – and I can’t believe I’m saying this about a Kojima game – they make sense.  Enemies in MGS V react believably in response to your actions, and if they act absurdly in the face of absurdity, well, that’s an appropriate reaction.  Stealth in AC games, on the other hand, is a bit of a dicey proposition; the controls in AC games have always had a certain amount of jank, and so there is inevitably some grey area between what you intend to do and what your character actually does (like accidentally jumping off a rooftop instead of unsheathing your blade).  Furthermore, my 30+ hours in MGS V* have trained me to play non-lethally except where necessary – which I know doesn’t make any intuitive sense given that the word “Assassin” is part of the game’s title.

And as for the aforementioned Uncharted comparison: well, among other things, the opening of AssCat has you running through and on top of a train that eventually falls off a cliff, and train combat is a thing that happens quite a lot.  Which might sound familiar.

But let’s get to the actual game itself, shall we?

First thing’s first – I’m obviously still very early in the game and while I’m out of the tutorial and into the open world, I’m not 100% sure that I have the full gist of the game’s intentions.  That being said, if the opening Whitechapel area is any indication of how you progress in the game, then I’m pleased to report that it kinda reminds me of the very first AC game, of all things.  London is divvied up into certain sections, each with a recommended level.  You have 4 main tasks to perform in a section before you can take down the section’s boss, and I presume that you have to get rid of all the bosses before you get to the finale.  There are hidden chests and helix glitches and other collectibles to deal with, of course, but there’s a lot less overall clutter and tedium in your path.  I must confess that I like this streamlined approach.  The reason why it grew tedious for me in the first game was that none of these things ever changed, and so eventually I stopped playing “in character” and would start to bull-rush my way through each section, which would make everything that much more difficult.  Here, though, there are clear tasks to perform, and while the nature of each task might change from section to section, the game’s path of progression feels purposeful in a way that AssUnit lacked.

(Comparing this game to AssFlag is pointless; Flag is so profoundly and fundamentally different from everything that preceded it that it might as well belong to a completely different franchise.)

On a technical level, the game is gorgeous.  Again, I haven’t seen that much of London just yet, but what I have seen really quite spectacular; the texture detail on each building is quite stunning, and the frame rate is pleasantly smooth.  The streets are perhaps not as ridiculously crowded as in previous installments, but that’s fine.  (More on NPC behavior in a sec.)  This being said, London – as with each of these games’ open-world cities before it – lacks that certain thing that Rockstar does so well; it feels less like a living, breathing city and more like a really well-made 3-block radius that’s been copied and pasted all over the place.

I should also note that the NPC AI is so weird that I don’t even know how to react to it.  One of the things that is brought to your attention very quickly is that, in this particular era of London, factories were often populated by child laborers; one of the things that you’ll have to do as part of your section-clearing tasks is to free these children.  And as you might expect, there are guards patrolling each section of the factory.  And since you’re an assassin, you’re going to murder these guards.  In front of the children.  Who don’t react.  Nobody reacts, really.  In the opening tutorial, you run through a factory, sabotaging equipment and killing dudes in full view of everyone, and nobody bats an eye.  I guess people being stabbed to death in the street was just a thing that happened, and in the same way that modern New Yorkers deal with rats eating pizza in the subway, you just learn to deal with it.

Some other random, unconnected thoughts:

I have no idea what’s happening in the larger meta-story anymore.  Unlike some people, I liked the intersection of the modern-day and the digital past, and I had paid a lot of attention to it right up until AssRev, which I couldn’t finish; and Ass3 was a mess; and Black Flag had already moved on to something else; and I haven’t played Rogue; and I gave Unity far more time than it deserved, but still didn’t come close to finishing it.  Whatever the original intention was in terms of the present-day battle between the Assassins and the Templars has totally passed me by, and I’ve decided that I no longer care.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: I wish these games could feel special again.  They should feel special; they’re setting games in places and eras that nobody else does, and at the game’s peak (which I put at AssBro), it was uniquely absorbing.  But the only way that’s going to happen is if Ubisoft stops annualizing it, which will probably never happen.  That being said, I don’t want to imply that AssCat is in any way phoned in; it’s just that the novelty has long worn off.

I love playing as Evie Frye; she’s a really cool character (where her brother is kind of a douche-bro), and I prefer the sneak/stealth approach rather than the brute-force tactic.  But as I mentioned above, it seems damn-near impossible to be non-lethal in missions, which means it’s more necessary to play as Jacob.  Again – I know this game is called Assassin’s Creed – you’re supposed to be killing people.  But it’s odd that they’ve given each character different strengths.  Jacob is a combat brute, Evie is sneaky.  (Still quite deadly, of course, but she also takes far more damage in combat.)  Everything you do in the game – from missions to side-stuff to just finding collectibles – earns XP, which unlocks skill points, which flow into a central pool; but if you unlock, say, lockpicking for Evie, you also have to unlock it for Jacob.  Switching between characters is easy in-game, but switching between their skillsets requires far more button presses than necessary, which is annoying.  This also means that leveling up can feel redundant, as well as unnecessarily difficult in terms of choice.  I want to make each character strong, but I’d rather make their dominant aspects stronger rather than having to catch up on their weak sides – like putting more points into health and stamina for Evie and putting more points into sneaking for Jacob.

I’m not gonna lie – I miss Prince of Persia.  But as long as Ubi is dedicated to churning out a new AC every year, a new PoP would be redundant (in terms of the action/platformer genre).  It should be noted, however, that its main competition – Lara Croft and Uncharted – are not annualized, and their respective releases feel special in all the ways that AC doesn’t.  I used to get really excited about AC games, and now I play them only out of obligation.  I wasn’t even necessarily planning on playing this one, and I’m not sure what it says about me that I was convinced because the general review consensus was that it doesn’t suck the way that Unity did.  I have a soft spot / blind spot where AC is concerned; that’s on me, and I hate feeling like a sucker.

This is damn near 2000 words already and I’m still only at the very beginning of the game.  I guess that means it’s worth talking about?

* I should probably just admit right now that I haven’t touched MGS V since I handed in that ~4000 word essay a month or so ago.  I still feel like I got my money’s worth, for whatever that’s worth.

Remastered Memories – on Uncharted

I’m having a lot of trouble concentrating on writing this post today, to be honest with you.  This morning was my son’s first day at a new pre-school, and… it didn’t go so well.  Now, this is a common thing among toddlers, and it’s a process that he’s already been through a few times, and I should’ve been better prepared for it.  But… man.  I can’t get his face out of my head.  I’ve seen him cry before, but I’m not sure I’ve ever had my heart broken by it the way it broke this morning.  He held on to us as tightly as he ever had; he wasn’t full-out bawling, but rather clenching his jaw and trying to not full-out bawl; I have to stop describing it.  It took all we could to not run back in and take him home and give him hugs and never let him out of our sight for the rest of our lives.  I’m sure he’ll be OK.  Hell, last night he had a tantrum in the bathtub because of some stupid thing and yet within 30 seconds he was happily making towers out of Team UmiZoomi shapes; I know he’ll be OK when my wife picks him up later this afternoon.

But still.  It’s awfully hard to focus on anything when the last image of your child’s face is of a desperate pout, sniffling and sobbing, as you close the door behind you because you have to.

*  *  *

I suspect that one of the many reasons why I’ve never been able to land any games writing gigs is that 99% of my writing samples probably include some sort of personal preamble.  I know that I can write about games and music and books and stuff without adding those sorts of details, but I like it when the writer adds a bit of extraneous context.  It helps me better understand where the person’s coming from; it helps me understand what informs their opinions.  Almost nobody in a professional capacity does it this way, and I totally get that, but it’s become a stylistic tic for me that I can’t shake.  And in any event, I’ve long since resigned myself to the knowledge that I will never have a full-time job writing about games or music or books, so: fuck it.  I’m going to be talking about the Uncharted: Nathan Drake Collection today, because I’ve played quite a lot of it over the last week, even if that wasn’t my original intention.

The original plan for the last week was to spend my free time working on new music (and fixing old music while I was at it).  Alas, I ran into some technical problems that, among other things, made doing any sort of music work impossible.*  So I resigned myself to play Uncharted instead.

Which isn’t a bad thing; I like those games a lot.  And the remasters are about as well-executed as one could hope for, which is saying quite a bit considering that both Uncharted 2 and 3 are among the best-looking games of the previous generation.  I’m not sure that you’d mistake them for current-gen games, especially during the cut-scenes – the faces look a bit plastic and not-quite-but-almost-uncanny-valley-ish – but by and large everything looks fantastic, and the PS4 controller makes the actual playing of these games 1000x less frustrating than they were with the Dualshock 3.

I’ve been bouncing around between all three games, with a primary emphasis on 1 and 3 (since I know 2 the best), and I’ll switch up either during a story break or when I run into a frustrating enemy gauntlet.

Speaking of which – one can’t help but notice how Naughty Dog’s approach changed between each game, even if I feel that they still ultimately paid too much attention to the wrong things – specifically, the combat.  I’m certainly not the first to make the observation (nor is this even my first time making it) that the disconnect between Nathan Drake’s scruffy charm and his murdering of hundreds of enemy soldiers becomes awfully distracting with each successive chapter break, and it’s only because Nolan North’s performance is so disarmingly charming that they can even begin to get away with it.  Still, it feels very much like Naughty Dog threw in as much combat as they could because they weren’t fully confident that the platforming and the exploration would be enough to sustain the kind of massive audience that Sony was hoping for.  Uncharted is primarily a combat game with some platforming thrown in every now and then, and even with some fun set pieces (like the cliff-side machine gun car chase) it gets tedious.

U2 changed this up considerably by putting much more emphasis on the characters and the narrative and integrating the platforming and puzzle-solving a bit more, and even if the game is still over-reliant on combat as the main meat of the experience, it at least makes the combat more spectacular, specifically through some still-extraordinary set pieces.  I mean, the train sequence remains as jaw-dropping as ever; I’m still not 100% sure how they managed to pull off that sequence’s pacing.  (Like: if you start that sequence and simply don’t move for 20 minutes, will you still end up facing off against the helicopter at the end?)

U3, if anything, suffers from a bit of over-confidence, making everything a spectacular set piece at the expense of a coherent narrative.  The character work is still charming, yet it feels obligatory rather than necessary – yes, it’s kinda neat to see how young Nathan Drake met his mentor, Sully, though the relic linking the past and the present is a bit of a stretch in terms of narrative justification.

*  *  *

I just re-read those paragraphs and they make it sound like I’m not enjoying myself; I am picking nits, I guess.  These are extraordinarily well-made games, and they do what they do exceedingly well, and if you haven’t played those games, this is the best way to play them.

Are they as good as I remember them being?  Well… what’s interesting is that they are still very much what I remember them being.  (Also, I keep dying in the same spots, which is either a sign that my blind spots haven’t changed, or that the games have difficulty spikes that can sometimes be overwhelming.)  Uncharted 1 is a promising debut that’s marred by an over-reliance on gunplay, Uncharted 3 is an astonishing technological experience without any real heart or soul, and Uncharted 2 is still one of my favorite games of the last generation.

But if I’m being honest with myself, I think I’m going to enjoy the upcoming Rise of the Tomb Raider a bit more.  I like what that reboot is doing with this genre, specifically how it approaches combat and why combat is necessary.  The first of these reboots handled it quite well; Lara only killed because she had to kill, and it wasn’t something she ever enjoyed doing even as she got better at it.  But the literal very first thing you do in Uncharted 1 is kill a bunch of pirates that are attempting to board your illegally parked boat; you already have your gun, you’re kinda already expecting it, and killing dudes ain’t no thang.  Drake wisecracks his way through hundreds of headshots per game, and I suppose you’d sorta have to in order to not completely lose your humanity.  Even so, the body count becomes absurd, and there’s really no way around that fact.  It is what it is, I guess, and I can only hope that next year’s finale finds a better balance between all its elements.

*  *  *

Earlier this afternoon I managed to snag a Pip-Boy edition of Fallout 4 for the PS4, which ended up answering two questions in one go – (1) which system I was going to get it for, and (2) that I wasn’t nearly as done with pre-ordering as I keep saying I am.  Considering that the XBone is still getting the short end of the technological stick as far as multi-console games go, I couldn’t help but err on the side of the PS4 being a better way to go.  And, I mean, look; the Pip-Boy is maybe the only tangible pre-order bonus I’ve cared about in at least a dozen years.  So, there you go.

* “Impossible” is not necessarily an overstatement, even if it really looks like one.  While it’s true that I’ve written lots of music without having a computer, it’s not really how I work any more, and a lot of the editing work I needed to do required being able to re-record parts, which I simply couldn’t do.  There’s a longer post I could write about my music-writing process – and someday I’ll write it, because frankly I’d like to figure it out – but this is not the time or place for that.

Today’s Jam: Way Yes, “Colerain”

Now that is no more, I must submit my jams to the universe manually, which is bullshit.

Nevertheless, Way Yes’ song “Colerain” is my jam, and I must share it with you.  Those guitar lines are pure distilled melancholic longing, and they feel true and ache accordingly.

Some quick Battlefront Beta impressions

I am lucky enough to have both a PS4 and an Xbox One, which means I got to try out the Star Wars Battlefront Beta twice last night.  I didn’t have a ton of time last night to devote to it, so I just did the single-player mission on Tattooine.  My intention had always been to get this game for the Xbox One, since I know more people on that system who might potentially play it, but I figured I might as well compare the two systems just to see what’s what.

And, um.  The PS4 version kicks the shit out of the Xbox One version.  It’s a direct hit from a laser blaster to the nuts.  Digital Foundry will give you a more thorough examination of this if you’d like the hard data, but even my untrained eye could see drastic differences in image quality; the XB1 is jaggy all over the place, has an inconsistent frame rate, and makes far-off enemies much harder to spot since everything that’s far-off is somewhat jumbled together.  The PS4, on the other hand, is buttery smooth and looks absolutely gorgeous.  And I think I actually prefer the PS4’s controller over the XB1, which is not something I’m used to saying out loud.  So, there it is.  I’ll be playing Battlefront on the PS4.

I also got the new Xbox One dashboard last night, and, well… I kinda hate it?  It took me several minutes to figure out where my actual games are located, which is the whole point of the device – and when I finally found their location (which is below the main homepage stuff), I felt a bit stupid.  The rest of the redesign just seems unnecessary.  I’ve never really minded previous Xbox dashboard updates, because they at least made some sense.  This one seems to be there for the sake of being there, and it doesn’t have any coherent purpose as far as I can tell.  It’s also a bit sluggish, especially if you click the left menu from the main homepage; hopefully that will get fixed soon.

In other news, I’ve completed my 2015 Goodreads challenge, which was to read 30 books.  And it’s only the beginning of October!  Hell, at this rate, I might very well get past 40, unless I decide to only read gigantic stuff (like the forthcoming City on Fire and any further volumes of Karl Ove Knausgard’s My Struggle memoirs).  I finished Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman, which I liked very much; he’s a hell of a writer, and his dialogue is so good it makes me want to start acting again just so that I can adapt his books into screenplays and then say this stuff out loud.  I’m now about halfway through Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook, which I can’t recall buying, but which is pretty good – sort of a supernatural James Bond sort of thing.  Apparently it’s book one of a larger series; the second one comes out in January, I think.

This weekend is primarily about recuperating from this relentless headcold/stomach thing I’ve had all week.  There may be some Uncharted, and there really ought to be some serious music stuff happening; I’ve got 5 songs that are, like, this close to being finished, and my buddy and I really want to get this stuff out before too long.  So that’s the plan.  Lay low, get healthy, get busy.

Weekend Recap: a head cold, MGS V with fresh eyes, Uncharted perspective, and Beginner’s Guide.

1. It’s funny; now that I’ve handed in my MGS V piece, I’m no longer feeling pressured to play it all the time.  And when I do play it, I’m much more relaxed and far less over-analytical.  So I try to steal a truck and suddenly stone-golem-soldiers appear out of nowhere and teleport out of the way of my bullets?  Hot damn, Kojima, well done.  I’m enjoying the side-op stuff a bit more if only because it’s more tactical and less ridiculous and the rewards are tangible.  (Not sure why some of them still appear lit up in the menu selection, even though they’re finished, but, well, Kojima!)

1a.  I’ve been using Quiet as my mission buddy, and she’s been more or less totally useless.  In fact, I finally realized that she’s the source of this bizarre humming sound that I hear whenever I prepare for an infiltration; I thought it was some sort of animal cry, or a sung prayer, but it was just her mumbling what appears to be the first few bars of “My Way”, or possibly “Danke Schoen“.  In any event it’s super creepy and distracting but at least now I know where the hell it’s coming from.

2.  I had to take a sick day yesterday – these autumn colds are the worst – and because I was feeling a bit loopy, I had an urge to compare the outpost infiltration of MGS V with the outpost infiltration of Far Cry 4.  They’re more similar than I realized, even if the controls are completely different; you scope out and mark enemies, figure out their patrol routes, look for things in the environment that might help you – oh, and pick up a few plants along the way.  The only real difference is that Far Cry doesn’t care whether you use lethal force or not – indeed, you’re supposed to kill everyone, it’s just better if you do it in such a way where nobody raises the alarm, wheras MGS V gives you added value of going non-lethal by getting added information via hostile interrogation, and being able to kidnap certain soldiers for your own purposes (which sounds way creepier written down like that than it actually is, I suppose).

2a.  Again, I was out sick yesterday and so I’m only peripherally aware of the new Far Cry Ice Age game or whatever it is.  Far Cry isn’t necessarily one of my favorite shooter franchises; it’s just that there’s been a bunch of them lately and they haven’t been bad.  My impression is that this is more of a Blood Dragon side story than a full-blown numbered-entry sequel; beyond that, I know nothing and will continue to know nothing until there’s something substantial to know, like a release date and price.

3.  I’ve violated my “no pre-ordering” rule a couple times this year; I can’t remember what the earlier ones were, but I’ve already pre-ordered a digital copy of Rise of the Tomb Raider, and I also pre-ordered the digital version of the Uncharted remasters, which come out on Friday.  I played a bit of the demo that came with it, and while it looks good, I’d forgotten just how much I hate the combat stuff.  At least the PS4 controller is better-suited for it.  Anyway, yesterday I played a little bit of U2 and U3 on my PS3, just to remember what it was that I was getting into (and also so that I could do a little compare/contrast of my own once the PS4 version lands).  The PS3 games still look terrific, actually – and U2’s train sequence feels like a special bit of magic, and I’m looking forward to playing them all again.

3a.  I’ve not yet pre-ordered Fallout 4, if you can believe it.  Part of it is that I expect to spend a lot of time with it, and so I’d like to know which version performs better; console parity has gotten a lot better in recent months and so I don’t think there’ll be that much of a difference, but you never know.  I am a bit curious, though, to know if the PS4 version will be getting the same sort of mod support that the Xbox One will be getting; even if I’ve never really goofed around with mods all that much, I’d like the option if it’s available.

4.  My rental copy of Tony Hawk 5 arrived yesterday – a few days later than it was supposed to, though that hardly matters.  I must confess that even after all the horrendous YouTube glitch videos and impressions had surfaced, there was a small part of me that kinda wanted to play it anyway.  But then I remembered that there was a mandatory 7 GB patch I had to download before I could play, and that was enough for me to send it back ASAP.

5.  Oh yeah – I almost forgot.  I played Davey Wreden’s The Beginner’s Guide last week, and it’s one of those experiences that forces me to stumble upon the limits of my own writing ability; I’m not good enough of a writer to talk about it.  (Believe me, I tried writing about it last week and failed miserably.)  I found it moving and beautiful and wonderfully meta, and it does as good a job about describing the creative process and the emotional peaks and valleys that accompany that process about as well as anything else I’ve ever come across.  It’s hard not to compare it to his previous game, The Stanley Parable, in that in both games you walk through a series of rooms accompanied by specific narration, but that’s about all they have in common.  Beginner’s Guide feels much more personal and sincere and refreshingly avoids the emotional shield of detached irony that might ordinarily accompany this sort of experience.  To say more would spoil it – it’s a 90 minute experience, give or take, and it’s one you should ideally experience without any other prior knowledge.  Just know that the ending took my breath away.

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